That space

Aren’t we lucky to have the opportunities that many of us do as modern educators. The choice of colleges to study education, the specialism that we select, the kind of school, the location – perhaps country – in which we choose to teach, the career path – all of these are such rich opportunities. Wonderful.

And yet, whilst we can freely choose which opportunity to pursue, each is very expensive. Economists call this: opportunity cost. For example, as we rise in seniority in our school, we sacrifice opportunities to directly and deeply nurture the learning of individual students. As we become Faculty Heads and Deputy Principles and Heads of School, we no longer get to inhabit the exquisite hubbub of the classroom – a place that was once our ‘home’. Our interaction with students and, therefore with education, becomes quantitatively and qualitatively different.

As we become decision-makers and budget-holders and managers, we have the capacity to scale our influence. But, we give up the privilege of having 20 or 30 young minds to mould – each lesson – at the ‘chalkface’.

We, at once, grow and shrink in our impact.

School leaders create and enable policy and culture and expectations in their communities. School teachers ignite and enable learning, passion, curiosity, empathy, love, hope, and wellbeing in their students. Both of these roles matter. And both of them come with sacrifice.

Ultimately, whilst school leaders undoubtedly have the power to impact the lives of both students and educators, there is nothing more powerful than that beautiful space between a teacher and a student. And when a school leader propagates that space with culture and professional relationships based on forgiveness, integrity, trust, compassion and hope – that space between a teacher and a student is lit up.

That space is where great education truly lives.

 

[P.S. This is my 201st daily post. And my last daily post…for now. I will continue to post here sometimes – but not every day. I need to turn my attention to another writing project. Thank you to everyone who has read my posts, shared my ideas, and kept me going. Lots more to come…]

Quiet is easier

Schools are rife with professional conversations, committees, and meetings. Each one of them is an invitation to contribute. Sometimes we’re compelled to contribute, sometimes obliged, and sometimes we can choose to contribute or not.

Some meetings, of course, are mundane, some are informative, and others are confronting and provocative. It’s in the latter kind that we matter most. If we don’t, we shouldn’t be there.

And it’s in those demanding engagements – at times when we feel elevated emotions and moved to comment – that we are forced to make a choice. Share our view and risk being shouted down, embarrassed, or challenged? Or keep our thoughts to ourselves?

After all, remaining quiet is easier – it helps keep the meeting moving along nicely ­– it helps maintain the status quo – it’s less complicated, trouble-free and painless.

And so we should keep quiet – if uncomplicated, trouble-free and painless is our aspiration.

Not so fragile

Do you know what happens when you apply strain to healthy human muscles? They grow stronger.

Do you know what happens when you put stress on healthy human bones? They grow stronger.

Do you know what happens when you put stress on a healthy human immune system? It gets stronger.

Do you know what happens when you put stress on a wine glass? It breaks.

That’s because a wine glass is fragile. Humans are antifragile.

Antifragile is a term coined by Nassim Nicholas Taleb to describe the properties of an object, system or being that gets stronger ­– more resilient, when exposed to moderate stressors.

And because resilience is such a foundational element of wellbeing, it would be negligent of educators and parents to deprive students of the chance to fail, or to shield them from healthy doses of guilt, fear, frustration, disappointment, sadness, and loss.

Because we are antifragile, these experiences tend to make us stronger – in the long run.

Of course, it’s natural to want our children and students to be safe and happy – all the time. But ironically, the more we try to protect them, the more we may risk doing them harm in the long run.

Hitting the nail near the head

Last summer, my friend and I built a wooden play house for my kids. Somewhat surprisingly, seven months later, it’s still standing and getting lots of use.

I noticed today that a couple of the nails fixing the weatherboards (clapboards) to the frame are bent over 90 degrees near the head – they weren’t hammered in straight. They look a little bit shabby compared to the other nails and I was tempted to pull them out and replace them with straight nails.

But I checked, and they’re holding firm. In fact, they’re just as effective as the straight nails. They’re not perfect, but they’re doing their job perfectly well.

When we hold ourselves to high standards in our work or home life, sometimes it can be difficult to remain focussed on the bigger picture – on what really matters. Our lives can easily become full of little tasks and errands and seemingly-important repairs while the most important things become neglected. We can end up fixing nails that don’t need fixing, and miss out on playing a game with our kids.

It certainly feels good to hit the nail on the head doesn’t it! Bang. Straight in. We can stand back and admire the beauty and bask in the sense of achievement. But sometimes, it’s enough to hit the nail near the head. Whoops. A little bit wonky. But fine. Effective. Enough. Go play.

Kindness cascade

How many people will you engage with today or tomorrow? 5, 10, 100, more? How many of them are close friends or family members, and how many of them are merely acquaintances?

One study conducted at the University of British Columbia in Canada, found that adults over 25 years of age directly interacted with an average of 6.7 close ties and 11.4 acquaintances daily.

Interestingly, not only did the number of interactions with close ties predict wellbeing and belongingness, but even the number of interactions with weaker ties predicted a person’s sense of belonging

The simple act of engaging meaningfully with another human helps us feel connected to our larger community.

So, imagine this.

What would happen if you and each person in your community was just a little bit kinder tomorrow? What would happen if everyone just conducted one additional, simple act of kindness with each of the 18.1 people they interact with tomorrow? What if you just complimented them on the cool shoes they’re wearing or picked up a dropped pen or asked about their recent vacation?

This is what would happen…

In a school or organisation with 100 colleagues, there would be nearly 2,000 additional acts of kindness tomorrow. And if that was maintained over the week – just one simple act of kindness per interaction – we’d have 10,000 additional acts of kindness. And in a school year, we’d have close to half a million extra acts of kindness. Imagine what that could do for the wellbeing of a community…at zero cost.

And here’s the thing. Kindness is highly contagious. When you smile at a friend, colleague or acquaintance tomorrow, when you choose kindness, you might just make their day. Or you might trigger an unstoppable cascade of kindness. Who knows?!

Who’s around you?

We are hardwired social beings. As such, our lives are enmeshed with the lives of the people around us. Our fate is only partly in our own hands. Our inner social circle affects not just the trajectory of our lives but the way with live it and who we are in it.

One of the great 19th century American education reformers, Elizabeth Peabody, once wrote in a letter that:

“No being of a social nature can be entirely beyond the tendency to fall to the level of his associates.”

And so, perhaps we do become the average of the people with whom we most associate.

Look around you. In spaces and lounges in which educators gather in our schools, we see the temptation to cling to people who see the world the same way that we do, or who applaud the same things, or who reflect and amplify a shared sense of injustice. And that’s fine. Or maybe it’s not. It all depends on how you are intending to ‘turn up’ every day and who you hope to become.

Mine, mine, mine

There’s a well understood convention in baseball whereby the fielder who is in the best position to catch a ball that is high in the air yells: “Mine, mine, mine!”. It is a signal to the other fielders to relax because their team mate has taken responsibility for the catch. Mine, mine, mine is an acknowledgement that something important needs to be done and that a single person is taking responsibility.

This protocol also helps mitigate one of the risks of team sport – diffusion of responsibility. There’s nothing worse than the ball landing on the ground between us because I thought you were going to catch it and you thought that I was.

And there’s nothing worse than a student in need slipping between the gap because I thought you were going to catch her and you thought that I was. Unfortunately, it happens in schools – often when we’re so busy trying to do our part for the team that we lose touch with the bigger picture or we lose touch with each other.

We can’t be expected to catch every ball. And it’s certainly not about solely ‘owning’ a problem. That’s what a team is for. But we need to keep our eyes up. And when we are in the best position to do something to support a student in need – to coordinate a response, to provide resources, to refer to an expert, or even just to check in – be loud and clear: mine, mine, mine.

Stand there shining

“Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.”
― Anne Lamott

Students learn so much from the way a respected teacher goes about their life as an educator. Of course, we need to keep our eyes open for any signs that a student might need overt support. But in living well, in role-modelling wellbeing, we help define and create a culture that illuminates a pathway forward for our students.

Their wellbeing is directly affected by our wellbeing. There will be cloudy and foggy days when we’re not quite as bright, but it is our obligation to shine.

Words also matter

The children we teach are young ­– new to the world. But they have brains that are running two-million-year-old software.

Long before we had written or even spoken language, our ancestors relied on emotional interaction, eye contact, posture, facial expression, and body language to communicate and to catalyse and sustain our connection to our tribe.

These days, we have written and spoken language to help shape our students’ learning and their educational environment. But our students’ sense of safety, connection, and their emotional, physical and neurological state remain heavily affected by our ancient programming that instinctively scans more primeval forms of communication.

We should be careful, planned and deliberate with our words. They matter.

And so do all the many other forms of communication at our disposal.

To change or not to change?

There’s a reason why we tend to be resistant to change. Change requires time, energy, and often, struggle. We have to be prepared to leave behind an old, comfortable version of ourselves – and to travel to a different place.

We have to acknowledge that there might be a better way. And we have to be prepared to try something new – and to accept the risks that come with that choice. What if the change doesn’t make things better? What if we invest in change and it’s not worth it? What if we waste our time and energy? What if we can’t go back to the old way?

All fair questions. Change isn’t always good. There are risks and costs. But there are also risks and costs of standing still.

So, to embrace a change or not? Is there a right choice?

Yeah, there is. It’s the choice informed by our values and fuelled by courage.

Turning towards

It doesn’t particularly matter which piece of psychological research you read, in regards to relationships, there are two very consistent themes emerging. First, the quality of our relationships has a huge impact on our wellbeing. Second, positive relationships are the result of many accumulated micro-moments of positive interaction that occur over time.

These micro-moments contribute to what University of Washington relationship researcher, John Gottman, calls an emotional bank account. It is a foundational resource when things are going well and a protective investment to draw upon in more difficult times. When a stockpile of positive experience exists in a relationship, we are much more willing to make allowances in disagreements or when we feel wronged.

And that’s why, whenever there is an opportunity to acknowledge even the smallest positive interaction, it is so important, as Gottman writes, that we ‘turn towards’ it – not just to savour the experience but to bank it for later.

“Drop by drop is the water pot filled.”  Buddha.

Giving and receiving

Teaching is absolutely a profession of giving. We give our time, we give our energy, we give attention, we give advice and guidance, we give compassion, we give support.

All of this giving is why teaching is so tiring. Teachers, at the end of a long week or a semester or a year often feel, literally, exhausted. It feels like there is nothing left to give.

But, to our students, even when we feel exhausted, we continue to give hope, we give purpose, and we give love. And in the giving of hope, purpose, and love, we receive in return, a deep, profound sense of meaning in our lives.

That’s why we keep bouncing back up and doing it all again.

Shadows fall behind

There’s a slightly quaint quote that appeared on a banner at the World Anti-Bullying Forum in Dublin last week:

“Keep your face always toward the sunshine and shadows will fall behind you.”

The quote is often attributed to the poet Walt Whitman, sometimes to the social activist Helen Keller, and occasionally to English poet Charles Swain. No one is really sure who first said it or wrote it.

But it has endured because it’s profound. It’s a reminder that in amongst the buzz of our lives, we continue to make fundamental choices that shape our experience.

Even when we are at our best and going well, we can’t escape the shadows. But when we immerse ourselves in what really matters to us, our lives feel brighter, and the shadows fade.

Passion, suffering

For many educators, teaching is much more than a job – it’s a vocation. So often, we hear committed educators referencing the ‘passion’ they have for working with kids and guiding young lives.

Of course, passion should be embraced. It is a powerful intrinsic motivator that is connected into our brain’s doperminergic reward system. It feels wonderful when we are able to successfully pursue our passion. And when our passion is coupled, not to money or other extrinsic goal, but to our ‘why’ – our sense of purpose – then it is doubly rewarding.

…And because of this, we need to be very careful with our passions. The 12th century latin origin of the word ‘passion’ is “passio” – which literally means “suffering”. Passions, like any dopamine-inducing substance or activity, can become obsessive and can easily cause harm to ourselves, to others, or to our relationships – if we don’t keep them in check.

So if you are passionate about education, perhaps think of that as both a delightful blessing and a potential curse.

At least, connect

We talk a lot, in schools, about the impact of the teacher-student relationship on learning. And for good reason. Whether you look at highly energised and engaged classrooms or read the empirical research, strong and positive relationships clearly power-up the learning environment. And when relationships mature over time, and are given the right conditions, we end up with teacher-student interactions that are enriched by forgiveness, integrity, trust, compassion, and hope. This is the foundation for education in its ideal form.

But there are times when this is not possible, when a genuine relationship with a child or a group of students is unable to be established. It may be that you have not had time to build trust yet. Or it may be that the students you are working with are in a difficult mental or social space that precludes them building a genuine relationship with another adult. Or maybe, for some reason, you just don’t ‘click’ with a certain student or group.

In situations like this, there is no rush. Relationships can wait. Maybe a relationship will never develop. And that’s okay. In fact, your students don’t actually need a strong relationship with you to learn effectively.

But they do need to feel connected and they do need to feel safe. Connection and safety are hardwired evolutionary necessities for complex learning.

As hard as we try, we can’t control relationships. But as educators, those two factors – connection and safety – are within our control. They require us to turn up for our students authentically, to listen to them, to see them, to value them.

Sometimes that is all we can do – and sometimes this is everything a child needs.

The cost of human experience

Is attention.

We can make time, buy time, and find time. But not attention.

That’s because attention is the currency of human experience. Our lives are a series of experiences – and for each experience we have to pay attention. Once spent, we cannot get any more.

And just like money, the way we spend our attention determines the value we receive from it. When we divide it, we dilute it. When we focus it, we magnify its impact signficantly.

Some research has found that productivity can be enhanced by up to 500% in times of peak attentional focus, or flow. And other studies have shown that the simple presence of a moble phone on a desk– even when it’s turned off – siphons away a small amount of attention; significantly reducing cogntive performance.

When we refect on our day or year or life, we are doing nothing more than looking back on what we paid attention to. Attention is a finite, non-renewable resource. It is the most valuable resource we will ever possess. That’s why so many companies and people want it. And that’s why we must not waste it.

Space for peace

Forgiving is hard. Especially when we’ve been really wronged, hurt, or betrayed. And even more so when the hurt is inflicted by someone close to us.

But the only alternative to forgiveness is holding a grudge. And that’s a choice we can make. But holding a grudge consumes a lot of emotional energy. Anger and resentment are negative emotions that require constant fuelling. And 30 years of forgiveness science has identified a range of harmful long-term physiological and psychological effects that all of this negative emotional exertion can have.

When we forgive, we do not forget.

But when we are able to forgive, we unstick ourselves from the past; we release ourselves from anger and create room inside for peace.

What’s the most valuable thing you own?

Your story.

“When an old person dies, a library burns to the ground.”

Old African proverb

By the time your children or your students are in high school, they will have clocked up nearly 100,000 waking hours of experience. And by the time we’re 40, we have about a quarter of a million waking hours under our belt.

Somehow our incredible brain has the capability to synthesise thousands and thousands of hours of experience containing millions of unique events and piece it all together into a coherent narrative.

We don’t think about ‘our life’ as a list of sequential events. But rather, we synonymise our life with our story.

So what a shame it is, that in the rush of our modern, campfireless life, we give ourselves such limited opportunity to make sense of and to share our stories.

And I wonder how many of our students feel like they are a secondary character in someone else’s story?

As filmmaker Rick Stevenson, a man who has interviewed over 5,500 kids, says: “There is no higher calling than to help our kids fully understand their stories and to learn how to use them…There is an empowerment that comes when kids realise that they are writing their own biography – in real time.”

With this realisation comes a shift in perspective. When we realise that life is about writing our own story, we are compelled to ask: “What story do I want to write?”

It’s hard to think of two more profound, powerful questions to explore with a child than: “What is your story?” and “What story do you want to write?

Literacy literacy

You know that the world is changing when new forms of ‘literacy’ are being described and taught in schools.

‘Literacy’ used to involve students developing the knowledge and skills to read, write and interpret language confidently. But that was back in the days before fake news, credit cards, and Twitter.

Of course, reading and writing are still foundational skills. But there are other ‘literacies’ emerging that may well be equally critical in the future lives of our students. Here are a few of the most important:

  • Digital literacy — skills associated with harnessing computer-based devices and services;
  • Data & Media literacy — being able to access, filter, digest and make meaning of the masses of available data and to leverage different platforms of data consumption and delivery;
  • News literacy — learning to discern between, efficiently evaluate, and effectively respond to different news sources and stories;
  • Financial literacy — being empowered to understand and harness the increasingly complex and personalised financial systems available to us;
  • Wellbeing literacy — having the skills and knowledge to nurture our own wellbeing and the wellbeing of people we care about.

Schools are pretty good, on the whole, at carefully scaffolding the learning of traditional ‘literacy’. They’ve been doing it for a while! And, now, it’s exciting to see that many progressive and responsive schools are turning their attention to tackling the challenge of teaching a new generation of literacies too – to really prepare their students for a changing world.

 

Obligation or opportunity

Is a one-hour commute to work an obligation or an opportunity? What about coaching a school sport team? What about supervising students in the playground? What about a visit to the dentist? What about writing student reports or marking papers? What about parent meetings or annual performance reviews? Obligation or opportunity?

There are some people who are brilliant at acknowledging an obligation and immediately seeing the latent opportunities. ‘A one-hour commute is a great chance to listen to my favourite podcasts or to call a friend.’ ‘Supervising students in the playground gives me a chance to develop my relationships with them in a situation where they are more open and relaxed.’

And there are others who practise seeing only the obligation.

Every obligation has opportunity hidden inside. Sometimes we need to go looking a little harder to find it. But when we do, the opportunity starts to make the obligation feel less obligatory.

No class

Sometimes educators fall into the trap of viewing their ‘class’ as a unified being. It’s not. There are no ‘good’ classes and ‘bad’ classes. A class actually consists of many entirely unique individuals who tend to be roughly the same age, at the same place, with a similar purpose in mind.

But behind the face of each of these young individuals is a lifetime of stories that we, as educators, can never fully appreciate.

If we use some major Australian and international research studies to help us think about the composition of a ‘class’ statistically, we might recognise that, in the course of the year, a typical ‘class’ of 25 Year 8 students looks something like this:

  • 4 students are experiencing a diagnosable mental health condition (only 1 of these will seek professional help);
  • 2 students are self-harming;
  • 2 students will seriously consider a suicide attempt;
  • 2 students will be experiencing some form of family breakdown at home;
  • 5 students are unsure of their sexuality and 3 will end up being LGBTI;
  • 5 students don’t make friends easily at school;
  • 7 students feel that they “don’t belong at school”.

…and many of our students are happy and engaged.

But it is these kinds of statistics that help remind us that our job is not to teach science or geography or Grade 5, and it’s not to teach our ‘class’. Our job is to compassionately guide, nurture and teach each unique child.

 

[Sources: PISA 2015, Australian Human Rights Commission, Beyond Blue]

Home is perspective

There’s a line that Shaun White, professional skateboarder, snowboarder and Olympian recites to himself before a major run at an event:

“I’m here, I’m going to try my best, and I’m going to go home, and my family’s there.”

Most of us aren’t Olympic athletes but we know that feeling of ‘being at the top of a run’. We know what it feels like just before we ‘drop into’ something at work or at home that matters. Winning feels great, applause is nice, being overlooked hurts and failing sucks.

But humans always see outcomes through a lens, a perspective. And when we change lenses or shift perspective, the world looks different, the world is different.

When we remember that, at the end of the day, despite everything, we go home to our family and our ‘tribe’; our wins are tempered by humility and gratitude. And our failures are cushioned by hope and love.

Learning from what you hate

There is so much talk, in the field of wellbeing, about values: in our deepest heart, what kind of person, teacher, colleague, friend, parent do we want to be?

And we now have so much evidence linking long-term happiness and success in the workplace to a life lived in-line with our values.

I’ve done a lot of thinking about values. And so I know that my four core values are connection, caring, contribution and adventure.

But if you struggle to articulate your deepest values, try this little exercise…

Part A — What is it, about other people’s behaviour, that really ticks you off, or really annoys you? (eg  arrogance, or dishonesty, or entitlement, or prejudice, or…)

Part B — Take your answer from Part A and identify its opposite trait. (eg arrogance : humility, dishonesty : honesty, entitlement : gratitude, prejudice : fairness

Did you discover, in Part B, values that are very dear to you? You may even have stumbled on your core values.

When we get annoyed or angry or frustrated at other people, it’s almost always because they have violated one of our core values.

So the better we understand what we value most, the more effectively, mindfully, and healthily we can respond to situations or people that might compromise our values.

Stuff happens

Life is spelt H.A.S.S.L.E. —Albert Ellis​, psychologist

Life is difficult. — M. Scott Peck, psychiatrist & author

Life is suffering. — Buddha

Shit happens. — Anonymous

In seeking to live a rich, full, and meaningful life, here’s what’s guaranteed: you will regularly experience fear, anger, guilt, frustration, disappointment, and sadness.

A ‘life well-lived’, a ‘flourishing’ life will always be one that comes as a package of positive and negative emotional experience. And that’s because it’s a life full of ‘stuff’ that matters.

(It is, therefore, possible to avoid negative emotional experience all together. Just don’t do anything that matters. Have no meaningful relationships, don’t seek to grow or develop at all, set no goals for yourself, never fall in love, and don’t contribute to your community. Instead, just sit on the sofa and watch reruns of Star Trek for the rest of your life.)

Wellbeing science is not attempting to make us ‘happy’ all the time or to help us avoid negative emotional experience. But it is seeking to provide evidence-based skills, knowledge, and strategies that help us handle the inevitable ups and downs of life more effectively.

A ‘good life’ still sucks at times. But we can learn, from wellbeing and human sciences, to better equip ourselves, family, friends, colleagues, and students for the journey.

First, connect

Students learn best when they feel connected to their teacher. And connection involves feeling seen, heard, and valued.

There is nothing more important to do in the first moments of a lesson than seeing each student, hearing each student and directly acknowledging their worth.

It doesn’t take much time or effort to look each student in the eye, greet them warmly by name, and check in with them.

Whatever else is planned for the lesson comes second.

You had your nature-pill today?

The way we are living our high-tech, hyper-connected, stimulus-rich lives can be very exciting, meaningful, rewarding… and stressful.

Ongoing exposure to highly stimulating environments can take a significant toll on our nervous system, endocrine (hormonal) system, and immune system.

But we do have a very powerful antidote. Nature.

Research over the last 30 years has demonstrated that connectedness and exposure to nature is linked to a range of mental and physical health benefits including:

  • increased positive emotion, vitality, and life satisfaction;
  • reduced pain and faster hospital recovery;
  • stronger feelings of connectedness with others, greater sense of community, lower levels of violence and aggression, and a better capacity to cope with life’s demands.

But how much nature do we need?

A new study from researchers at the University of Michigan has helped to answer this question. They found that taking a “nature-pill” involving spending 20 minutes in a “place that brings a sense of contact with nature” was enough to significantly reduce stress hormones in saliva samples.

There are many things we can do to enhance our wellbeing and help protect us against stress and illbeing. But ultimately, there may be nothing more more broadly effective, efficient, and powerful than a short daily stroll through the park.

 

A hand on my shoulder

At one of the most pivotal points in my schooling, when I was a 14 year old boy struggling through a low point in my life, there was a teacher who knew me and knew the challenges I was facing. At one point, about half way through a lesson, when the whole class was working busily, he must have sensed that I wasn’t at my best. He walked over, put his hand on my shoulder and quietly said to me: “It’s going to be okay.”

It was a tiny gesture of support, empathy, compassion, understanding, and connection. It was layered with wisdom, kindness and hope. It renewed my confidence, made me smile, and became etched in my memory.

This was not an ‘intervention’. It wasn’t a tool or a strategy or a ‘coaching’ technique. It’s just part of what great teachers do day in and day out as they lift up their students.

Musical chairs and beating the game

Do you remember being a young child at a birthday party and playing ‘musical chairs’? The aim is to be the one winner of the game, not one of the nine losers. And you win by beating all the other kids by being the last one in the game – the other kids are the obstacle for you to overcome, (or over-step or over-climb, or whatever it takes). It seemed like fun at the time, didn’t it, if you weren’t one of the losers?

Guess what happens if, instead, the game is modified a little so that other kids become partners to enable you to win rather than obstacles that are trying to prevent you from winning? What do you think happens if, as the chairs disappear one by one, the final goal is for all 10 children to work together to squeeze onto the final chair?

Not only do children enjoy the game more, but these types of modifications have been found to increase general cooperativeness and decrease aggression in young children. We still get all the benefits of competition, including high levels of engagement and learning, but we’re harnessing cooperative competition (beating the game) rather than adversarial competition (beating each other).

It’s not surprising that working together to ‘beat the game’, feels so enjoyable and rewarding; it is deeply encoded in our genes.

Whilst having virtually no particular physical prowess, and despite evolving in a range of hostile environments, the human ability to communicate, plan for the future, and cooperate has enabled our survival and our thriving. Despite being faced with immensely challenging problems, humans have evolved to harness cooperation to beat the game, to beat the odds, rather than to beat each other.

Maybe schools can too.

Creativity is not a good thing

My colleague was driving, and I was in the passenger seat travelling in the outside lane on a freeway last week when another driver in a large SUV overtook us. That would have been fine, except there was no lane next to us. This very impatient driver squeezed between our car and the roadside barrier at high speed. It was very dangerous but also, by most defintions, very creative.

I had never seen anyone do this before – it was a new method of traffic avoidance. And it was useful. The driver, assuming they survived, got where they wanted to go faster than any other method of driving and certainly faster than us. But it was completely inappropriate and potentially quite harmful.

Like all character strengths, creativity is not inherently good.

Whilst it has the wonderful, unique capacity to unlock and even extend human potential, it has a shadow side. There is even some research linking high levels of creativity to poorer mental health outcomes and elevated disagreeableness, hostility and arrogance.

That said, creativity is a pivotal skill for students and educators to embrace…with care. As schools around the world clamber to understand how to best teach and nurture creativity, we need also to be teaching students when creativity is the wrong tool to use – such as when you’re in a hurry to get somewhere on a freeway!

The children we mean to raise

How important is it to you that your children and / or students develop into ethical, caring adults? In one study from the University of Virginia, 96% of parents said that the development of a caring orientation and moral character in their children was pivotal; more important even than high achievement.

Yet, in a 2014 Harvard study involving 10,000 middle and high school students, 80% of the youths reported that their parents and teachers “are more concerned about achievement or happiness (feeling good) than caring for others.”

The researchers suggested this data might reflect a “rhetoric/reality gap”. Perhaps what we, as influential adults, say we value isn’t reflected in our behaviour.

Closing that rhetoric/reality gap isn’t easy, especially for high schools who are, for the most part, subject to a system that rewards test scores more than character or caring. But it’s not impossible. You only have to walk into a school that is genuinely committed to wellbeing and character to see that their reality and rhetoric are more closely aligned. These schools celebrate and highlight behaviour and images and displays and artwork and physical spaces that reflect a prioritisation of character and caring.

Some other schools, however, choose to highlight their trophy cabinet. That reflects a different priority.

Don’t chase the score

In general, the growing emphasis on ‘measurement’ of different educational outcomes is a good thing. This is especially the case with wellbeing in schools. As the data-collection tools for wellbeing have become more sophisticated and prioritised, first by schools and now governments, it has attracted more attention, energy, and resources. As a result, we have higher quality data, better materials, and refined practices.

Because wellbeing researchers and schools are trying to harness the scientific method, they rely heavily on the process of quantification. Quantification allows us to take inherently ‘uncountable’ and intangible human experience and turn it into numerical data. For example, the feeling of trust that a student has for their teacher can be quantified into a number using a rating scale. This is helpful because it allows for statistical analysis and more meaningful discussions that are less hindered by subjective language.

But quantification is not the same as measurement.

Measurement is counting the quantity of a unit of material via an agreed standard.

Quantification is turning something that cannot be counted or measured directly into a number via subjective opinion.

So when I use a scale to measure my weight and I’ve gone up from 76kg last month to 78kg this month, that’s because I am heavier. We can measure weight directly.

But when a student’s self-reported ‘trust score’ goes up from ‘3’ last month to ‘4’ this month that does not mean that they trust me more. It might mean that. But it might instead be because it’s the student’s birthday today or because their football team won on the weekend or because they now trust their other teachers less and so, relatively, they feel more trusting of me. Or maybe it’s because scoring something as complex and nuanced as trust on a numerical scale of 1 to 5 is a very crude method. We don’t actually know. And that’s because we cannot measure trust directly.

And all of this is fine. As long as we don’t try to chase the score or place too much value on the score or data.

Ultimately, we must be focussed on optimising the wellbeing of our students, not the wellbeing data. Those two things are not the same.

Behind every face

If you had to distill and identify just two, simple guiding principles that underpin the most successful school corporate cultures, it may well be these:

  1. Continuously expect the highest standards of integrity, authenticity and professionalism from yourself and your colleagues.
  2. Be compassionate. Behind the face of every one of your colleagues, is a personal struggle that you will never fully understand. The struggles of some are bigger than others’, but we all have them. Whilst we aim to be at our best at all times, because we are human, we cannot be.

Successful cultures don’t rely on us being at our best – all the time. They rely on us turning up and doing our best – all the time – despite our struggles.

Read the fine print

If you work in education and haven’t been living under a rock for the past ten years, chances are you’re familiar with Dr Carol Dweck’s work on mindset. For decades, Dweck has been studying the effects that our beliefs about ability have on learning behaviours and our future success.

If you believe that ability is mostly the result of practice and hard work, you tend to work harder, practice more, accept more feedback and tackle more challenging problems. And guess what happens…you get better at whatever you are working on. Dweck calls this a growth mindset.

If you believe that ability is mostly the result of predetermined genetic factors or inherent ‘talent’, you don’t practice as diligently, are resistant to feedback and tackle less challenging problems. (After all, there’s no point practicing if ability is genetic.) And guess what happens…you don’t get better at whatever ability it is you think is ‘talent’ based. She calls this a fixed mindset.

Despite some vocal critics of Dweck’s work, there are significant benefits associated with nurturing a growth mindset in children. But like all psychological theories, we need to be careful not to skim the headlines of research and, consequently, develop blunt, broad-spectrum, low-resolution approaches.

Here are just a few of the situations in which Dweck herself, a staunch proponent of growth mindset, has explained that a fixed mindset is healthier and beneficial:

  • When faced with certain acute mental or physical health conditions, those who believe they will be able to work their own way through it or ‘get over it’ may be less likely to seek professional or medical help and therefore increase the risk of harm.
  • When faced with issues associated with sexual orientation, those who accept that this is who they are and this is who they’re meant to be seem to respond more effectively and adjust more healthily than people who think they should be resisting or trying to change something about themselves.
  • When faced with the realisation of aging, graceful acceptance of the inevitability of physical change is often associated with more healthy adaptation of behaviour. In Dweck’s words, we are less likely to “run around nipping and tucking”.

As educators, we should be consuming high-quality research findings. But when we do, it’s important to read the headlines and the ‘fine print’.

Emotion vs Emotion

You know when you’re angry and someone or something makes you laugh – and you no longer feel angry anymore? This is the psychological phenomenon known as reciprocal inhibition.

In essence, it is impossible for a human to feel two opposing emotions at the same time. For example, we can’t feel admiration and disgust at the same time; or compassion and hostility; or interest and boredom. In each of these cases, one emotion dominates and, in doing so, represses the other.

This is, in part, why Dr Kerry Howells‘ work on gratitude in education is so important. When we cultivate a deep sense of gratitude, it forces us out of our own heads. When we feel gratitude, we experience a world that is not ‘about me’ but rather, about the gifts we receive from others. And so – instead of being affected by our own fear or guilt or grudges or worries – gratitude opens our hearts and minds – it allows us to transcend ourselves.

Gratitude isn’t just a nice emotion we feel on a ‘good’ day – it’s a strategy that causes us to educate differently. And because we all have so much to be thankful for, gratitude is a choice…even on a ‘bad’ day.

…especially on a ‘bad’ day.

What actually is ‘resilience’?

The first use of the term ‘resilience’ to describe humans appeared in the 1830s. Around that same time in history, ‘resilient’ was being used as a technical term in the watchmaking industry, referring to flexible qualities of internal components.

But it wasn’t until the mid 20th century that Norman Garmezy, first began studying human resilience experimentally at the University of Minnesota. Since then, resilience has been a rich, important, and complex field of study in psychology and, more recently, in education.

Although it has been researched extensively, there is still both a lack of consensus as to how to define ‘resilience’ and some general misunderstandings in the wider community.

The most widely accepted current definition of ‘resilience’ comes from the The American Psychological Association (2014): “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or even significant sources of stress”.

This definition is important because it helps us clarify some of the following:

  • resilience is not about ‘bouncing back’;
  • resilience is not binary (ie. present or absent);
  • resilience exists on a continuum;
  • resilience is not just a trait (it can be a process and / or outcome);
  • resilience is context-dependent (eg. we might be resilient playing sport but less so at work).

We also know that, through experience, we can learn to become more resilient. Not only are there specific, empirically validated skills that can be taught to children and adults, but mistake and adversity are wonderful teachers. That’s why we need to expose students to them regularly.

As our world becomes increasingly volatile and unpredictable, there are no guarantees anymore – apart from one: our students will need to be resilient. The world is changing fast, and those who have the capacity to adapt well, to survive and to move forward in spite of change will thrive.

Six keys to student happiness

The 2019 World Happiness Report has just been released. This is the 7th annual edition of the report – based on data from the Gallup World Poll.

This year, the top 10 happiest countries are, in order: Finland, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, Netherlands, Switzerland, Sweden, New Zealand, Canada and Austria. Australia ranks 11th, the UK 15th, USA 19th, the UAE 21st, and China 93rd.

Interestingly, the six key variables used in the report to explain differences in average life evaluations are:

  1. GDP per capita;
  2. social support;
  3. healthy life expectancy;
  4. freedom;
  5. generosity;
  6. absence of corruption.

These variables have been found in the overall research literature to be important in contributing to general differences in evaluations of happiness. All of this makes sense at a population level, but I wonder what the equivalent six key variables would be for student happiness in schools?

Here’s my list:

  1. safety (Do I feel safe at school?)
  2. belongingness (Do I feel like I belong?)
  3. hope (Do I see a bright future and have the ‘will’ and know the ‘way’ to get there?)
  4. autonomy (Do I feel a sense of volition and control over my schooling?)
  5. purposefulness (Do I feel that my learning make sense and that it matters?)
  6. trust (Do I feel that I can trust my peers and teachers, and do I feel trusted?)

There is no World Student Happiness Report. (The PISA Students’ Wellbeing Report is the closest research we have.) But if there was, the above six factors would contribute significantly. These factors are the foundation of a child’s school experience. Nothing matters more.

The art of living well

In 335 BCE, Arisitotle set up his own school, the Lyceum, in a gymnasium on the outskirts of Athens. It was around this time, in his role as a teacher, that he is famously quoted as saying:

“Those who educate children well are more to be honored than they who produce them; for these only gave them life, those the art of living well.”

It’s a pretty big statement! And as a father and an educator, personally I’m not entirely sure that my parental role excludes helping my son and daughter to learn to ‘live well’. I hope it is not true of my son and daughter that I “only gave them life”.

That said, it’s a powerful sentiment. In many ways, parents are, often, the foundation of a child’s wellbeing. But teachers play a huge role in shaping, guiding and inspiring the future lives of their students.

That shouldn’t be surprising though. Surely, the most succinct way to describe the fundamental purpose of education is: enabling students to ‘live well’. Isn’t that what schools are for?

Three components of trust

“To be trusted is a greater compliment than being loved.” 
― George MacDonald, Scottish author and poet

Every educator knows the importance of trust. Trust is the foundation upon which relationships are built – and relationships are the foundation of teaching and learning.

All good teachers have an intuitive sense of how to develop trust in the classroom, which is great. But the problem is, when we rely only on intuition, there’s a chance that we’re missing opportunities to develop and leverage trust more effectively.

Referencing decades of psychological research,  The Trust Project at Northwestern University, in Illinois has identified three dimensions of trust: competence, honesty, and benevolence.

Competence relates to the perception of a person being able to do a job – to teach the Year 8 Science curriculum, for example. Honesty relates to the perception that the teacher keeps their promises and is authentic. Benevolence relates to the belief that the teacher genuinely has the students’ best interests at heart.

When any one of these components is overemphasised at the expense of another, trust is  harmed. I’m sure we can all think of educators who are so desperate to prove their level of competence that they fail to be fully open and honest about their limitations.

There’s no shortcut to building real trust – it takes time. But it is a simple recipe:

  1. Be competent. Prepare, plan, work harder than your students.
  2. Be honest. Make promises and keep them. Be consistent. Be professional.
  3. Be benevolent. Care. And let students know you care. Keep an open heart.

And listen to your intuition. Not always, but often – it will guide you towards a constructive balance of the three components of trust.

Happy genes

How much is our happiness affected by our genes? Are some people just born happier than others?

One of the largest ever studies aiming to help answer this question was published in 2015. It analysed genetic data from over 300,000 people and identified three specific genes associated with subjective levels of happiness. Two genes were also identified that seem to be directly linked to depressive symptoms.

Why does this matter? Well, it does confirm other empirical findings suggesting that there is not a level playing field with regards to happiness. Our genetics undoubtedly play a role in both mental wellness and mental illness. And it is a good reminder that our wellbeing is not entirely within our control.

But whilst we may not be able to choose our genes, researchers like University of California Professor Sonja Lyubomirsky point out that at least 40% of our happiness is due to the choices we make: “happiness, more than anything, is a state of mind, a way of perceiving and approaching ourselves and the world in which we reside.”

There are some factors affecting our happiness that we cannot control. And there are certainly many that we can.

Is busyness lazyness?

The Tebetan term lelo loosely translates into English as ‘laziness’. But lelo is a specific form of laziness which relates to doing idle activities with no concern for virtue. Whilst lelo can refer to lazing around, procrastinating or watching too many YouTube videos instead of pursuing a virtuous life, there is a modern form of lelo that those of us who love our work are more at risk of.

As we become immersed in the working week the number of ‘things to do’ can easily push us beyond our limits. Instead of mindfully choosing how we spend our time, we instead switch to ‘triage-mode’ – frantically trying to manage our inbox and dedicating time to ‘urgent’ and ‘overdue’ tasks. Although this doesn’t really sound like ‘laziness’  it is, in a sense.

In the same way that mindless YouTube videos can take us away from spending our time on rich, meaningful engagement, so too ‘busyness’ at work can disconnect us from that which brings meaning to our lives. We take false comfort in the feeling of ‘getting things done’. Clearing our email can feel like we’re moving life forward –  when in fact it is often just another revolution in an endless cycle. Sometimes it is easier – lazier – just to keep the wheel spinning rather than to step away and reorientate.

Interestingly, the Tebetan word vīrya, meaning ‘diligence’ is seen as the opposite to lelo. When we’re being diligent, we’re working hard in pursuit of our values. When we’re busy, we’re just working hard. That does seem a little lazy.

So if you haven’t already, try to refrain from using the term ‘busy’. Busyness is something to avoid if we can. Let’s keep working hard but let’s aim for diligence instead.

 

 

The Overview Effect

On the 24th December, 1968, Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders took one of the most iconic photographs of all time.  The photo, known as Earthrise, depicts our planet rising above the lunar horizon as the first crewed spacecraft circumnavigated the Moon.

Even today, 50 years later, this beautiful photograph is still very moving. In part this is due to the stark composition and contrast. But more than this, Earthrise forces a potent, altered perspective for the viewer. We see our planet for what it really is; a tiny, fragile, lonely blue rock engulfed by the blackness of the cosmos. Former International Space Station astronaut, Nicole Stott, called this perspective “a beautiful reality check of who and where we all are, together in the universe.”

This ‘reality check’ has had a profound effect on many of the astronauts who have witnessed the view of earth from outer space. In fact, space historian, Frank White, coined the term ‘overview effect’ to describe the permanent cognitive shift that many astronauts have reported. The overview effect is characterised by an increased sense of empathy for and connectedness to all other life on earth, and a greater sense of the ‘big picture’.

Back at home, Earthrise contributed to catalysing the modern environmental movement and gave rise to a growing global sense of responsibility to protect our planet.

In all of our lives, from time to time, we experience our own version of the overview effect. Sometimes it’s a major personal event that shakes our lives and other times, perhaps, it’s a conversation with a trusted friend or a random moment of insight. When that happens, we need to be as mindful and grateful as possible in the experience. The gift of perspective is one of the greatest gifts of all.

 

Work-life integration

The concept of ‘work-life balance’ didn’t last very long. It was first used in the 1970s but is starting to die out. In part, this is because mobile communications technology has meant that many of us carry work with us in our pocket – and so geographical detachment from work no longer occurs. But in part, ‘work-life balance’ never really made sense in the first place.

The idea that there is some kind of binary competition between ‘work’ and ‘life’ naively overlooks that fact that, for many of us, our work is a pillar pivotal to our sense of wellbeing and fulfilment in life. Sure, there are other pillars such as family and community that contribute too, but ‘work’, when chosen and aligned with our values adds huge meaning to our lives.

So, perhaps a better term, as promoted by the University of California’s Haas School of Business, is ‘work-life integration‘. As different domains of our lives become more blended, our wellbeing does not depend on a proportional trade-off between domains but rather a synergistic and harmonised integration. We benefit from work-life integration, for example, when our experience and accomplishments in the office make us a more empathic friend. Or when a teacher’s challenges of raising their own young family provide a perspective that amplifies the impact of work with their students.

Work-life integration is not a utopia. There will always be too many things to do and different priorities to juggle. But the more comfortable and cognisant we are of our core values – what really matters to us – the more we can align our work life, family life, community life, and personal life in an integrated way.

Superman’s top character strength

What would you say Superman’s top character strength might be? Bravery? Fairness? Perseverance? I suspect the answer might be a little different actually.

I imagine that when you have the capabilities that Superman has – including the ability to fly, to tilt a planet off its axis, or to outrun a speeding bullet – there may be one particular character strength that you need to draw upon more than all the others. Prudence.

Prudence refers to the ability to make wise, cautious, far-sighted, goal-directed decisions.  Prudence is closely linked to practical wisdom.

Clearly, Superman’s strength and abilities make him Super. But it is much to do with his prudence that makes him a Hero. Superman does not flagrantly or gratuitously deploy his powers. Rather, he is circumspect and judicious and, wherever possible, avoids collateral damage as he fights evil and saves the world.

As we develop reach, impact, and power in our own lives, our strength of prudence becomes increasingly important. It is our prudence that keeps us focussed on meaningful goals and allows us to make decisions aligned with what really matters to us in the long run.

 

[ps ‘Prudence‘ is unrelated in origin from the word ‘Prude‘ – a person who is excessively proper. ‘Prude‘ is, instead, derived from the latin ‘prud’ meaning good, brave or proud.]

A wellbeing birthday card

I love birthdays – especially other people’s! But I’ve never been able to get excited or seen much value in birthday cards. I’m pretty good at remembering the birthdays of my friends and family but I tend to just write a mundane card or message along the lines of:

Dear Nicky, Happy Birthday! I’m thinking of you today and hope you are having a lovely day. Best wishes for the year ahead, David.

Now, that’s a nice acknowledgement. There’s nothing wrong with that. I’m sure Nicky appreciated me taking the time and energy to write to her. But it doesn’t at all reflect the fact that Nicky’s actual birth day turned out to be a gift to me. Because she was born, my life, via her friendship, is richer, happier and more meaningful.

And so I’m trying a new character strengths-based messaging strategy. I choose one of the 24 VIA character strengths that most stand out for me when I think about the recipient and write a short message describing how I see this strength actioned by them.

This is the birthday message I actually sent to Nicky this year:

On your birthday, I wanted to say thank you for what you bring to our family as a close, dear and trusted friend. One part of your character that I truly value is your modesty / humility. You are so strong and resilient and so capable but it is very much a quiet strength. I know you have been through a lot in your life and you face every challenge with hope because you know that you will be okay. But you never boast or brag about it. You just quietly and purposefully make things happen. I really admire this in you. Thank you again for making our lives happier and richer for having you in them. Have a great year ahead Nic! 

Sure, it took a few more minutes to write – but it’s a few minutes I spent thinking about the best qualities in a friend. Not so bad! And I suspect this is a message that is a lot more meaningful to Nicky too.

Whose birthday is next in your life? Have a go at writing them a strengths card!

[Note: If you are interested in learning more about the science of character, head over to https://www.viacharacter.org/]

Why so early?

As human and wellbeing science continues to mature, it forces us to ask questions about schooling that are a little bit uncomfortable. One such question is: “Given what we now know about delayed circadian sleep rhythms in adolescents, why do secondary schools still start lessons so early in the morning?

The underlying biochemical processes that drive an altered, later sleep cycle in teenagers have been well established. Whilst different people have different chronotypes which affect our propensity to want to sleep at certain times, the average adolescent doesn’t begin to feel the effects of sleep-inducing hormones until about 10:45pm. Even, if they fall asleep by 11:00pm, many teenagers require 9-10 hours of sleep, which means they shouldn’t be waking until 8 or 9:00am. It would seem ideal then, that school should begin at 10am to facilitate sleep, health and performance.

This is exactly what a recent UK study found. A shift in start time from an 8:30am to 10:00am not only saw grades significantly improve, but rates of absence due to illness halved. It’s hard to imagine what long-term impact these two outcomes might have across a population.

Many other studies have shown similar outcomes. Whilst it is likely that changing technology and social media are contributing to the widespread sleep deprivation we see in senior schoolers, part of the problem is within our control.

So why don’t schools respond to the research and begin lessons later? Because it’s inconvenient. Think of everything that needs to be changed: bus times, sport training, meetings, lunch times, etc…not to mention the impact on parents…it’s a hassle.

Those are all real concerns. And maybe they justify a maintenance of the status quo. Or maybe we need to think more creatively about this problem.

It’s not about interventions

It goes without saying that our wellbeing, moment-to-moment and long-term, depends heavily on our habits. Repetitive, hourly, daily and weekly behavioural patterns not only have consequences for our physical and mental health but they can actually, over time, affect us at a genetic level. The field of epigenetics studies changes in gene expression caused by behavioural and environmental factors.

Our habits, undoubtedly, have a profound effect on our wellbeing.

Sometimes we seek to break or change or adapt habits by intervening. An intervention, by definition, is the process of deliberately interfering with a process in an attempt to alter an outcome. When we find out that a student is bullying other students, we intervene. If we feel we are constantly distracted at work, we can try using a mindfulness meditation as an intervention. Interventions can also have a profound effect on our wellbeing…in the short term.

The thing is, interventions are, conceptually, the opposite of a habit. Interventions interrupt habits. Interventions, by nature, are short-term disruptions. Interventions do not affect us at a genetic level. Mindfulness mediation, for example, has no long-term effect on wellbeing…unless it becomes a habit. (At which point it is no longer an intervention!)

Wellbeing researchers are continuing to identify very interesting and potentially valuable interventions. But these interventions only really matter when they stop being interventions and, instead, transition to long-term behavioural patterns.

Interventions affect our habits. Habits affect our lives.

The power of externalities

The primary outcome of beekeeping is the production of delicious honey. One side effect of beekeeping is that surrounding crops get pollinated which increases the yield for crop farmers. The beekeeper receives no direct income from the healthier, higher value crops but the whole community is better off because of the bees.

In economic terms, this phenomenon is referred to as a positive externality.

We see externalities occur in almost all interconnected systems. In schools, a student’s experience in Lesson 1 with Teacher A can have a huge impact on that student’s approach to Lesson 2 with Teacher B. When Lesson 1 is full of positive emotion, engagement, meaningful connection, achievement and purpose, students walk into Lesson 2 with an optimised psychology and a neurology primed for learning.

There are also negative externalities – such as when pollution emitted by a factory spoils the surrounding environment or when Teacher A allows negativity, disengagement, or disempowerment to fester in Lesson 1. In this case, Lesson 2 feels very, very different for Teacher B and the students.

This is a big part of the reason why wellbeing needs to be placed at the heart of a school or organisation for it to really transform a culture. The more of the community that embrace and ‘live’ wellbeing, the more likely we are to experience the dynamic upward spiral of wellbeing that positive externalities can power.

Extraordinary moments

Human memory is such an incredible tool. It is an effectively unlimited repository that not only stores procedures and instructions that enable us to walk, ride a bike and play the piano but it records a summarised version of each episode in our life. Ultimately, these collective, memorised episodes shape who we are and guide our decisions through life.

But we also regularly experience the limitations of our memory. Can you recall what you were doing this time last week, last month, last year? Do you remember all the details of the last phone conversation you had with a friend. Have you ever forgotten where you left your wallet, keys or car?

When we look back on our life, why is it that some experiences remain vivid and distinct yet others have faded completely? What is it that distinguishes those unforgettable moments?

In researching these extraordinary moments, brothers Chip and Dan Heath, from Stanford and Duke Universities respectively, noticed that, across different people, positive defining moments commonly shared four elements:

  • Elevation  – feeling intense positive emotion and a deep sense of engagement;
  • Insight  – experiences of profound realisation, and ‘aha’ moments;
  • Pride – feeling that we have contributed to something worthwhile, being acknowledged by others for our work;
  • Connection – feeling a powerful bond with others due to a common experience or shared struggle or goal.

Are these elements present in your most vivid positive memories?

These features sometimes occur incidentally or serendipitously but they can also be cultivated. Next time you really want to create an unforgettable experience for yourself, someone else, or a group of people, check to make sure there is opportunity for elevation, insight, pride and connection.

Rethinking carrots and sticks

In the 1950s, B. F. Skinner developed an approach to understanding behaviour that became known as ‘behaviourism’. Skinner theorised that human behaviour is the result of the consequence of previous behaviour. If a behaviour leads to punishment or a negative outcome, we are unlikely to repeat it. If a behaviour is rewarded, we are likely to repeat it. Thus, human and animal behaviour, can be controlled and shaped via reward and punishment.

60 years later, some schools are continuing to adopt behaviourist approaches to managing student behaviour. Programs such as PBIS attempt to selectively reward ‘positive’ actions in an attempt to extrinsically reinforce certain behaviours. And, not surprisingly, research shows that they work…if your goal is to coerce certain observable behaviours. Feeding a dog a bone when it fetches a ball will cause a dog to fetch another ball.

The main problem with approaches that focus on observable behaviour is that they force people to focus overly on observable behaviour! Behaviourism is all about what can be seen and measured and it disregards underlying motives, values and character. Unfortunately, countless studies have shown that wellbeing, happiness, community cohesion and long-term prosocial behaviour are directly linked to motives, values and character.

And to make matters worse, dozens of studies have found that intrinsic motivation is undermined and eroded by extrinsic reward. When we ‘pay’ students to be kind or forgiving or courageous, they are actually less likely to be so in the future – especially if the payment is no longer offered.

This is why Positive Education takes a different route. It’s a harder, longer route that focusses on nurturing character, engagement, relationships, meaning, and caring – not because there is some extrinsic reward waiting, but for their own sake. When these virtues become embedded in the hearts and minds of our students, you don’t need carrots and sticks so much anymore.

Who are you?

In Aristotle’s best known work, Nicomachean Ethics, he suggests that our behaviour is not directed by our character, but rather the sum of our behaviour defines our character: “these virtues are formed in man by his doing the actions”. In other words, we are what we regularly do. If you repeatedly act with kindness, you are considered by others to be a kind person. If you are regularly a little loose with the truth, you are a dishonest person.

Similarly, the lens on character within Positive Psychology is focussed on lived behaviours. Character does not reside within us, it is demonstrated by us. These patterns of behaviour are habitual, and like any habit, they can be changed or reinforced.

As an educator, colleague, friend, partner, how do you repeatedly behave? What is it that you tend to do every day, every time?

Ultimately, this is who you are.

Vulnerability first

It can be a weird, sometimes unsettling, sometimes enlightening experience to read or hear something that makes you realise that you’ve been wrong your whole life.

We all know how important relationships are. And we know how dependent relationships are on trust. And we know that a willingness to be open and vulnerable with those we trust helps to build closeness.

But I had always thought that the the process worked like this:

meet someone » get to know them well » earn trust » be vulnerable (knowing that you won’t be hurt) » develop closeness

But then I read Daniel Coyle’s book The Culture Code and realised that I had been thinking about this incorrectly since I was a child. Coyle’s research into some of the world’s most successful individuals and organisations highlighted that being willing to be vulnerable and take a risk with another person is how you build trust. Deep trust forms when we take a risk, expose ourselves emotionally to someone and they don’t hurt us. So the process of developing trust really looks like this:

meet someone » be vulnerable (even though you might get hurt) » share experience » develop deep trust

It is particularly when two people go through an experience from a state of shared vulnerability, of not knowing, that real trust emerges. It is, obviously, much riskier and takes more courage to be open with people before you know them well. But the upside is the opportunity to accelerate the development of deeper, more trusting and more meaningful relationships.

Happiness or wellbeing?

Are you well? Are you happy? Can you be one without the other? And what is the difference anyway?

Kahneman and Riis explain that our sense of happiness is affected by two factors: how positive we feel right now (‘experienced’ happiness) and how positive we feel our life has been overall (‘evaluated’ happiness).

Wellbeing is more complex. It is a concept that incorporates happiness but also involves our perceived ability to function successfully in the world. How much control do you feel in life? How much meaning do you derive from life? How much do you feel that what you are doing matters?

Wellbeing is about good feeling and good function. This is why Positive Education and Positive Psychology are, ultimately, focussed on developing wellbeing.

But don’t dismiss happiness itself. Remember that happiness, in its own right, is linked to better health, greater productivity, reduced depression, stronger relationships, and even longer lifespan.

It’s no accident that the UAE’s Ohood Al Roumi is the world’s first Minister of State for Happiness and Wellbeing.

Happiness and wellbeing are distinct concepts that are tightly connected. Happiness matters. Wellbeing matters. We need to nurture both in ourselves, our families, and our communities.

Overload antidote

In 1971, the Nobel Prize winning, American Political Scientist, Herbert A. Simon wrote: “In an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients.”

The students in our schools now are exposed to at least five times the amount of data that most of their teachers were at their age. Unfortunately, humans have a very small, limited attentional capacity, so all of that additional data is being filtered and processed by the same finite resource. It’s no wonder that our students, and we alike, feel overloaded. Our attention, our conscious experience, is being consumed by a tsunami of data.

So, two of the most important skills that we should be allowing our students to learn and practise are: how to allocate attention effectively, and how to sustain attention on what really matters. This is why mindfulness-based meditation is beginning to become an essential part of many teachers’ toolkits.

Mindfulness is about choosing to pay and sustain attention with openness, curiosity, and flexibility. When practiced, mindfulness can be an antidote to overload.

What an incredible advantage we are gifting our students if we empower them with this skill – the ability to sift through the noise and to hone in on what matters. Mindfulness is much, much more than a nice thing to do in schools. It is a must.

The human hive mind – be like bees

Honeybees are a simple animal, capable of making extremely complex decisions. One of the clearest examples is the ability of a group of a few hundred scout bees to fly a recognisance mission, identify a range of possible nesting locations, and then collectively select the most appropriate one. There are many life-dependent variables to consider for their nest including height from the ground, orientation, ventilation, capacity, predator protection, and food sources. Researchers studying this behaviour have found that, working together, the scout bees choose the optimal available nesting site 80% of the time.

This incredible success rate isn’t due to the unique skill of some advanced genius bee or advice from a highly experienced bee nesting consultant. Rather, it is the result of an amplification of intelligence and critical thinking that comes from the unification of many small brains. The collective consciousness of the ‘hive brain’ enables otherwise impossible calculations and allows bees to thrive.

There are a lot of important reasons why we need to foster independence in our students.  Independent learners are are more self-motivated, take more responsibility for their development, show higher levels of grit, are more reflective, and more curious.

But it’s in classrooms that emphasise and nurture interdependence that the real power of the human mind is unlocked. When we are able to shift a student’s mindset from ‘me’ to ‘we’, the positive features of independent learners are multiplied. When a student’s focus shifts outwards, there are measurable changes in biology, neurology and behaviour that benefit the individual and those around them.

Technically, humans are not a hive species, but enabling and harnessing the human ‘hive mind’ is part of the future of education.

What’s in a name?

There is no single word in any language, more important to a child than their name. When a child hears their name, it triggers a unique sequence of activation in their brain that is deeply connected with their core sense of identity. When a child hears their name, they know that someone cares, that they are part of a community, and that they matter.

Learning the names of students is the very first thing a teacher should do. If at all possible, names should be learnt before meeting the students – before the first lesson.

And if you really want to leverage the beneficial effects on relationships and learning, make sure you arrive before your students and warmly greet them by name as they enter the classroom or space. It’s hard to think of a better way to show that you really care about them, the lesson, and their learning.

And as a nice bonus, you might, like teachers in this study, enjoy the 20% increase in engagement and 9% decrease in disruptive behaviour.

It sounds like a habit worth forming.

Authenticity, turning up

‘Authenticity’ is such a buzz word in education. But it’s a concept that is sometimes misunderstood. Being ‘authentic’ isn’t about always speaking what’s on your mind, doing whatever ‘feels right’ in the moment, or compulsively ‘going with your gut’.

Authenticity is about consistency; knowing your values, and allowing them to set an expectation for your behaviour; a kind of ‘behavioural contract’. If kindness, honesty and fairness are what you value, then let people expect that behaviour from you.

As educators, authenticity is about ‘turning up’ for our students and colleagues – even when it’s the last thing we feel like doing. Authenticity is about being absolutely present in that early-evening parent-teacher interview – even when you’d rather be at home with your own family. It’s about standing out in the rain, in the middle of winter, cold, and still giving your all as you coach your middle-school soccer team.

We are professionals. Our students and colleagues expect us to behave professionally. When you turn up, true to your values, time and time again, then you earn the right to be called authentic.

Be 1,000 hours better

Imagine if you played a computer game for 1,000 hours or practised playing the piano for 62 days straight and only took breaks to sleep. You’d improve quite a bit wouldn’t you! Your development would certainly be noticeable and measurable.

This year, if you’re a classroom educator, you will complete approximately 1,000 hours of teaching practice. How much better will you be at the end of the year? Will your development be noticeable and measurable? Are you a significantly better teacher than you were this time last year?

Here are four of the most critical variables that research has identified will determine your development:

  1. Your motivation and attention. How much do you want to improve? How much are you focussing on becoming even better as an educator?
  2. Focus on specific ‘micro-skills’. What precise, targeted skill are you specifically working on? Teaching consists of hundreds of different skills. Pick one. Start there.
  3. Your willingness to seek and respond to feedback from a mentor or coach. Do you have someone you admire, someone more skilled than you who can critically analyse your skill and guide your growth.
  4. Repetition. How many forehands do you think Roger Federer hits each day? Work out how you can practise and practise the skill you are developing until you master it. Then move on.

Those factors don’t just predict teacher development, by the way. If you’re a lawyer or a chef or a police officer, the same fundamentals apply.

Wouldn’t it be cool to look back in January, 2020 and think, “Wow, I really am 1,000 hours better!”

Choose gratitude instead

Gratitude is a beautiful concept and one of our most frequently experienced positive emotions. When felt and acknowledged, it has a powerful effect on relationships and on our behaviour. And, because humans are unable to experience two opposite emotions at the same time, it cancels out resentment.

Dr Kerry Howells, from the University of Tasmania, defines gratitude as “the act of acknowledging what we receive from others and being motivated to give back out of this acknowledgement“. In other words, we feel appreciation for a gift, and we feel compelled to act on that appreciation in some way.

It is the second part of Howells’ definition that is the key behavioural component of true gratitude. This compulsion to act fuels a virtuous upward spiral that can significantly amplify the positive impact of the initial kind act or gift. It is this amplification effect that makes gratitude immensely powerful and makes it qualitatively different from simple appreciation. And because gratitude focusses our attention on the gifts we receive from others, it reinforces our sense of interconnection with our community and energises us to connect even further.

As educators, our work is immensely challenging and stressful. Things go wrong and we can always find something or someone to complain about. And, as educators, we have the most wonderful job in the world; shepherding and inspiring the lives of children. Things go right so often and we have so much to be grateful for.

It doesn’t always feel like it, but gratitude is a choice. And the choice we make affects our behaviour, our relationships and our students.

Blueberries for homework

I wonder how often Grade 4 or Year 10 teachers set, for homework, the following: ‘Eat blueberries’. It’s probably pretty uncommon.

It shouldn’t be.

One of the most exciting, emerging areas of educational research, one with potential to significantly impact student learning across the board, is: food.

Research from institutions all over the world is beginning to help us understand, for the first time, the direct impact of different nutrients on cognitive performance. Some of the most interesting findings include:

Folic acid (leafy green vegetables) increased memory and information processing speed Wageningen University, Netherlands
Omega-3 fatty acids (fish) increased brain plasticity, neural efficiency University of California, USA
Anthocyanins (blueberries) increased long-term memory performance Tufts University, USA

But it’s not all good news. It seems that, despite tasting good, processed sugary foods  have a harmful impact on cognitive processing (University of Otago, NZ). And a range of studies have indicated a very concerning link between artificially sweetened foods and early damage to to brain cells and impaired cognitive function.

It’s easy to forget that learning is not a psychological process – it’s a physical one. When we help students learn, we are not just helping them understand ideas, we are literally changing their brains. And the building blocks and scaffolding for all of this brain construction come directly from the food we eat.

This research is still in its infancy, but ultimately, we may well discover that the quality of food students eat long-term, has as much impact on their learning, memory and performance as the quality of teaching they are exposed to.

As wellbeing becomes increasingly prioritised by schools around the world, we need to integrate knowledge, not just from human and psychological sciences, but also from nutritional science. Feeling good and doing good depends on eating well.

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!

 

Hope was the only thing left

You know the story of Pandora’s Box, right?

Zeus, the Greek god of sky and thunder, gave Pandora a box that she was forbidden to open. The box contained all human blessings and all human curses. Temptation overcame restraint, and Pandora opened the box. 

But are you familiar with the way the story ends?

In a moment, all the curses were released into the world, and all the blessings escaped and were lost – except one – hope. Without hope, mortals can not endure.

Hope alone is still found among the people.

Without hope, humans can not survive. ‘Hope’ refers to the human capacity to envisage a brighter future; a future worth living for.

Hope consists of two components: will – the motivation to reach a goal; and way – knowledge of how to achieve a future goal.

Wellbeing and educational science are evolving rapidly and there is so much that we are learning. But one thing, that we have known for millennia, remains unchanged: hope is the cornerstone of our wellbeing and our humanity.

Before anything else, our role as educators, colleagues, and friends is to help foster a sense of hope in those we care about. When we have the will and the way, we have a reason to learn, a reason to love, a reason to live.

I’m one year older – level me up!

You may not have heard of the concept of ‘social promotion’. But it describes what my three-year old son is about to experience in the Australian school system.

He will enter kindergarten and then primary school at the same age as everyone else in his cohort – regardless of his abilities. And then, he will then go through 12 successive years of promotion into the next Year level – regardless of his abilities.

Of course there are rare outliers, students who leap Year levels or who are ‘kept down’ to support their development. But assuming nothing extreme happens in his learning trajectory, he can’t move up a level before he turns a year older, even if he has mastered all the intended learning outcomes of his current level. He just has to wait until he has sat in class for a year. And conversely, even if he doesn’t master all the intended learning outcomes, he will be promoted anyway.

Does it seem a little weird that skill and content mastery have relatively little to do with ‘levelling-up’ at school? Is it a little bit strange that, pretty much, the only criteria for ‘levelling-up’ at school is: another birthday.

Is this just another case of convenience dictating strategy? Or a kind of perverse-ageism? Or is there really some rationale here? There are certainly alternatives – such as ‘merit promotion’ – the philosophy that we see at tertiary-level education (and in pretty much every other context of life). Couldn’t we just wait until kids achieve the stipulated level of competency and then send them onto the next level?

We could…but according to key research in this area, there are significant risks including: increased school drop-out, little evidence of long term academic benefit, and increased rates of mental disorders, drug-use, and teenage pregnancy.

Although merit or competency based promotion seems logical in many ways, it interferes with the age-based, social stability of traditional cohorts. Moving through school with the same group of kids of the same age has inherent social-emotional benefits that are linked to healthy, natural development.

While, certainly, some of the mechanics of the classical school system need to change, we need to be very careful not to interfere with what is working.

 

Instagramming our wellbeing away

Instagram is a pretty cool concept. It’s very easy to get sucked into a kind of trance-like scrolling session for extended periods before emerging again into reality.

But there’s also something that feels a little bit ‘unhuman’ about the whole experience. And it’s the same kind of subtle, deep discomfort associated with much of our social media experience.

Although there is some variance in estimates, most anthropological or ethnographical studies suggest that ancient humans evolved in tribes of between 100 and 500 members. Within those tribes, it was very important for us to be self-critical. We needed to make sure we were fitting in. In fact, our survival depended on it. Encoded in our DNA, are powerful negative emotions such as shame and guilt designed to effectively ‘punish’ us for behaving in weird or anti-social or offensive ways in our tribe.

Now, comparing yourself to 150 other humans is probably not too daunting. But if you start comparing yourself to the 2.5 billion other active social media users on the internet, that’s a different story.

Despite the massive growth in our social media use, studies are continuing to highlight very worrying detrimental impacts on wellbeing. Another recent study of Australian women has found that frequency of Instagram use is associated with depressive symptoms, lowered self-esteem, anxiety, and body dissatisfaction.  And in particular, increased exposure to beauty and fitness Instagram images significantly decreased self-rated attractiveness.

I guess it’s hard to feel attractive when we compare ourselves to the often-Photoshopped and filtered ‘stories’ of millions of other humans.

Don’t forget that you are part of a tribe – of real people – who really matter to you – who really care about you – and who don’t care at all how you look.

Close Instagram for a little while. Go reconnect with your tribe.

Interstitial space

There are approximately 37 trillion cells that make up the human body. Between and surrounding these cells is interstitial space. This space contains a fluid-filled, life-giving microenvironment, full of proteins and ions and nutrients that allow our cells to flourish.

Humans, like the cells of which we are made, clump together and depend on each other for survival. And like cells, we exist within our own little interstitial space.

Wellbeing is only partly about the individual. If we really want to make a sustained, positive impact, we need to be acutely focussed on the physical, psychological and social environment in which our students and colleagues are living their lives.

Does the classroom furniture foster cohesion? Do your students feel psychologically safe at school? Do your actions allow colleagues to feel connected and that they matter?

When the microenvironment around a cell is healthy and rich, there is every chance for the cell to thrive. But when the interstitial space becomes toxic, even the healthiest cell will die.

Do you really know your values?

The concept of ‘values’ is one of those rare psychological constructs that is understood  by laypeople almost as well as it is by scientists. Our values represent a hierarchy of what really matters to us, the type of person we are trying to be, and they are closely related to our sense of identity.

In theory, they are our guiding principles in life, our inner compass.

But how well do you know yours?

Try this…(say the answers out loud if you can…)

Name three foods you love to eat? Name three places you like to visit? Name three close friends? Name three of your core values?

Was the last question harder for you than the others? It is for many people. Is that because it matters less? Or maybe because it matters more? Maybe it’s just something we don’t talk about much? And if, like many of us, and many of our students, you were unable to easily recall your core values, what is it that’s guiding your decisions through life?

My core values are: connection, caring, contribution, adventure.

Write down yours, put them somewhere prominent (Post It note on your mirror?!), talk about them with people you care about, ask others about their values. The better we know our values, the easier it is to make decisions that feel right, that are right for us.

Tactics vs Strategy

In the 5th century BC, Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu wrote in The Art of War:

“All men can see these tactics whereby I conquer, but what none can see is the strategy out of which victory is evolved.”

Unfortunately, many schools are still too focussed on wellbeing ‘tactics’ and actions and interventions and activities and curriculum without having a proper, long-term, coherent strategy in place. It’s certainly understandable. We see some cool mindfulness activities or hear a talk about a new student-led purpose initiative and we want to share it, straight away, with our own students or colleagues.

Strategy is less visible, and often less fun and more arduous. But without one, even the best tactic will be a firework that goes off with a bang and then fades.

Do the hard work first. Spend time and energy articulating a rigorous, comprehensive, informed, wellbeing strategy. Map it across five years. And even if it’s not really ‘seen’ much, it will be the foundation from which whole-school wellbeing can really evolve.