We are the system

It seems that at every education conference, there is an educator wanting to complain loudly about some perceived unfairness in ‘the system’. Inherent in this complaint is a sense of powerlessness or subjugation in the face of ‘the system’.

This is understandable. When faced with significant challenges or obstacles, it’s easy to feel that there is some organised, impenetrable machinery that is working against us.

But the fact is, we are the system.  It’s us and our colleagues and other people working in and on education. There is no ‘system’ outside of this group of people. And so changing ‘the system’ is all about changing people’s ideas and thoughts.

It’s not easy, but it does happen all the time.

What about talent?

Australian rules football is a pretty strange sport – particularly if you haven’t grown up playing or watching it. It requires a range of hand and foot skills that are not very ‘natural’ for humans. Similarly unusual skills are required to play the guitar at a high level or to solve complex theoretical mathematics problems. No one, not a single person, is born with the ability to accurately kick at ‘drop punt’ with a football or play a blues riff on a Stratocaster. Clearly, these skills require practice.

But is it all just about practice? Can anyone do 10,000 hours of practice and then go and play professional football? And what about genetics? What about talent?

Aren’t some people just born better at sport / music / maths than others? Aren’t they more talented than you?

The answer, according to experts in skill development such as Angela Duckworth, Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, is: no and yes.

Duckworth defines talent as: the rate at which we improve with practice. It is talent times practice that creates a level of skill.

So, no. No one has ever been born better at football than you. And Jimi Hendrix was no better at playing guitar than you when he was born. But each time he practiced, his talent had a multiplier effect.

Therefore, yes. Hendrix had more guitar talent than you. Buthe still had to do thousands of hours of practice to develop his skill – a level of skill that it may have taken you two or three lifetimes to develop!

Talent is real and it matters. But it is only realised and only really matters when we practice. So really, it’s practice that really matters. Clear?!

And, anyway, we have zero control over our talent but almost total control over our effort and practice. Let’s focus on what we can control. Go practice!


School A or School B?

If you had to choose between sending your own young child to primary School A or School B, which would you choose?

School A and School B are identical in every way – apart from one significant difference.

Primary (Elementary) School A has a traditional setup with the main ‘Homeroom Teacher’ being responsible for teaching most of the learning content. Students have the same teacher for a whole year.

School B, is different because teachers are specialized in their fields and students rotate through highly trained, content-experts. For example, Maths is taught by specialists maths teachers and reading and writing skills are taught by teachers with a Masters or PhD in English.

If you were a parent whose primary concern was the wellbeing and social-emotional development of your child, which school should you choose? What about if you were a parent whose primary concern was the academic development of your child, which school then?

The answer to both questions, according to a 2018 study from Harvard University, is School A. In a very interesting and telling experiment, students who, for two years, were taught by a variety of expert teachers rather than a single homeroom teacher performed worse academically and showed more serious behavioural problems.

This is yet another piece of empirical evidence highlighting what we all know, but sometimes forget: we teach children…not content. Nothing matters more than our relationship with each student.

Bravery, creativity

There is a lot of energy being devoted to creativity in education at the moment. Creativity is a highly sought after and teachable competency that, rightfully, sits near the top of any list of so-called 21st century skills. And so, it’s exciting to see schools around the world embracing creativity and attempting to better understand how to harness it to enhance pedagogy and how to teach it.

There’s much less energy being devoted to bravery. Yet, the type of creativity we desire is fuelled by bravery. Meaningful creativity that contributes to a better world somehow, requires students to be willing to stand out, to think differently, to challenge the status quo, to make mistakes. Unfortunately, our current, mainstream school system was designed, really, to reward the opposite; compliance, ‘right answers’, and uniformity. Evidence of this inherent contradiction is heard in conversations secondary schools are having right now about assessment. If you listen in closely, this is what you’ll hear:

‘We love creativity, creativity is vital for future success, be creative…except in most classrooms where we’d prefer that you sit quietly and get on with your work…and certainly don’t think about being creative in the part of school we really value and measure; exams and tests. Do those in silence, no collaboration – don’t talk or use any form of communication (that’s called “cheating”) and try to answer the questions the way the examiner expects.’

That said, many progressive schools are beginning to model bravery more and more by creating new, powerful forms of assessment and by rewarding students who are willing to break the mould. There are for example, Year 10 Health & PE exams being sat by students with full internet access and social entrepreneurship prizes being awarded.

But this is just a start. If we really want meaningful creativity, we must nurture, teach and expect bravery. And in order to foster bravery, we have to be willing to let go of a little more compliance and obedience.

…bravery in itself!

Give the pupils something to do

In 1916, John Dewey, one of the most revered scholars and educational thinkers of the 20th century suggested that we need to rethink and renew the western education system. In order to reignite excitement and interest in modern schooling, we need to “give the pupils something to do, not something to learn; and the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking, or the intentional noting of connections; learning naturally results”.

John, one hundred and three years later…we’re still working on it…

Negativity burns happiness

In a TV interview last week, Justin Langer, coach of the Australian national men’s cricket team was asked about his thoughts on recent negative media reports about his team. His unequivocal response was that he pays little attention to such criticism because “negativity burns happiness”.

That is an interesting response on many levels, not least because it is another example of elite sport overtly referencing ‘happiness’ as a valued and finite resource. But it’s the turn of phrase – the direct polarising of negativity and happiness that really stands out.

There is, clearly, a very important place in wellbeing and performance science for subtlety and nuance. But there is a risk of over-complicating basic elements of the human condition. Sometimes, three words may be enough.

What is left unsaid

“I am attracted to ellipsis, to the unsaid, to suggestion, to eloquent, deliberate silence.
– Louise Glück, American poet –

Whilst we enjoy the beautiful construction of poetry; the way words are used as tools to conjure image and emotion, it is often what the poet leaves out that matters most. In the unwritten word, there is an understanding and a trust that exists between the reader and the poet. So much can be communicated and there is so much power in the unsaid.

One of the subtle, and often overlooked traits that great teachers possess is knowing what not to say. Sometimes this involves reading the ‘glint’ in a student’s eye and choosing not to express disappointment about late homework. Sometimes it involves sensing the ‘vibe’ in the room and laughing with a momentarily disrupted class instead of trying to immediately refocus them.

‘Glints’ and ‘vibes’ and ‘unsaid words’ all sound quite ethereal, immeasurable and unscientific. That’s because they are. They are part of the invisible beauty of great teaching.


The English word “school” is derived from ancient Greek. The original Greek word  scholē was used to describe any ‘place of leisure’. Later, it was also used to describe a place where lectures were given. It’s interesting how closely linked the concepts of learning and leisure have always been.

When we get schools right, students and teachers are fully and meaningfully engaged – they have fun and they learn.

Hooray for mistakes

Today, with the help of a skilled friend, I finished building a cubby house for my kids. It looks great and it’s very cool to have it done, but we made quite a few mistakes along the way and there were plenty of challenges to overcome. (It took three days when we thought it would take one!) It was my first proper building project and I learned a lot.

The thing is, none of the ‘mistakes’ felt like we’d ‘got it wrong’. I wasn’t deflated or demotivated or embarrassed. If anything, the mistakes were kind of exciting, and were very powerful learning experiences – they were meaningful mistakes.

Where students (and teachers) sometimes go wrong, is that they confuse learning states with performance states. In a learning state, mistakes are crucial and highly valuable. If we’re not making mistakes during learning, we’re not tackling difficult enough problems. In performance states, mistakes are bad. We don’t want our dentist to make a mistake when she’s drilling into our teeth. We do though, want her to have made as many mistakes as possible and learned from them all in dentistry school!

Schools are a place to learn – they should be a safe place to make mistakes, to take risks, to try new ideas and to stuff up sometimes. It’s easy to forget that schools are not about performance, they are are about learning. We must get better at encouraging, rewarding and even celebrating meaningful mistakes.

The long summer

There is a comforting familiarity with the annual cycle of schooling. It feels like it makes sense doesn’t it? The system is particularly neat in southern hemisphere schools were the Gregorian calendar (created in 1582) starts and ends in synchrony with our ‘school year’.  School finishes in December and we wind down for our six or seven-week summer vacation. 

For the most part, we look forward to the long holiday. We feel we need it to recover from the year just gone and to rejuvenate and prepare ourselves physically and mentally for the coming year. But do we really need the long summer break? Is it the most effective and efficient use of schools’ time? And what about the educational, developmental and wellbeing impact on our students? Do teachers need a long holiday each year more than other professions? What would happen if we didn’t have such a long break?

Like too much of traditional schooling, we ‘go through the motions’ – we continue to do things the same way because that’s how they’ve always been done. 

However, there are now more than 4,000 schools in the USA that have switched to ‘Year-Round’ scheduling – with no long summer break. It’s too early to tell what impact this development is having on learning. But it is exciting that schools are asking: is there another way? Is there a better way?