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.

Noise-cancelling schoolphones

If you haven’t tried active, noise-cancelling headphones before, you’re missing out on quite an amazing experience. These headphones have the ability to create a peaceful quiet – even amidst the din of a bustling city, a busy office, or an aeroplane cabin. Consequently, they eradicate much of the distracting environmental stimuli that steals the currency of our consciousness – our attention. And when used effectively, these headphones can facilitate a much deeper, more focused, and more sustained attention.

If only there was a version of this technology that could assist with cancelling some of the noise of schools. It’s not just the sound they would need to subdue, but also the plethora of other distractions that make schools feel always-busy, sometimes-chaotic, and rarely peaceful.

When you ask educators, anywhere in the world, what they most want for their students, you get the same answers: wellbeing, happiness, meaningful engagement with life and learning. But it’s so easy to lose focus on these absolute foundational elements when surrounded by cacophony of distractions that are ever-present in schools.

All of the genuinely world-class educators that we see around the world, share a number of similar skills; one of which, is the ability to cut through the noise – to constantly focus their energy on what really matters.

Put those headphones on.

99.9% hidden

I was a classroom teacher in mainstream secondary schools for about 15 years. Each year, I taught for about 40 weeks; 200 days. For the sake of round numbers, let’s say I taught five lessons per day. That works out to be 15 years x 200 days x 5 lessons = 15,000 lessons.

It’s hard to be precise, but I reckon I had another adult in my teaching room on about 45 occasions. That works out at 0.3%. of the time. And to be honest, a majority of those adults were trainees observing my teaching. So the proportion of time in which I had a mentor or senior teacher or qualified person witnessing my practice was minuscule – probably less than 0.1%.

Can you think of another regulated, established profession, other than child psychology, in which 99.9% of a person’s work is unseen by another adult human?

Because teaching has tended to occur, literally, behind closed doors, the amount of substandard practice that has been allowed is matched only by the amount of brilliant teaching that has never been seen, shared, or learned from. Things must change.

One of the most exciting initiatives we have seen is compulsory, systematised pedagogical experimentation. All teachers are required to think deeply about their practice, experiment with innovations and in-class variables, and then record their findings in a shared database.

This kind of development, led and owned by teachers, is helping us inch closer to another level of transparency, dynamism, collegiality and shared practice. And to the the next level of teacher professionalism.

School A or School B?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bravery, creativity

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

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

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

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

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

…bravery in itself!

Give the pupils something to do

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

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

Negativity burns happiness

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

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

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