The bat and ball

A bat and ball costs $1.10 in total.

The bat costs one dollar more than the ball.

How much does the ball cost?

If you instantly produced the answer of: 10 cents, you’d be quite normal (more than 50% of Harvard, MIT and Princeton students respond this way) but completely wrong.

The ‘bat and ball’ problem is one of the ways Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman illustrates how our ‘System 1’ – our rapid, subconscious , intuitive processing mode – can lead to biased or incomplete perception and decision making. Often, System 1 is very helpful in guiding our thinking, but sometimes it leads us astray.

So, have you worked out the correct answer yet? It is, of course: 5 cents. The bat, therefore costs 5 cents plus one dollar ($1.05) which added to the $0.05 cost of the ball gives us the total cost of $1.10.

But that answer, even for highly educated, successful people, doesn’t come easily. And that’s because it requires us to switch on ‘System 2’ – our slow, deliberate, analytical mode. In this mode, we stop thinking automatically and instead use rational, conscious intelligence to really ‘think through’ a problem.

In our classrooms, it is critical that we give space and time to develop our students’ System 2 thinking. Whilst skills such as authentic responding, rapid prototyping, and creative intuition can fuel an exciting classroom dynamic, it is the development of slow, System 2 thinking that allows students to cope with complex problems. In the accelerated, information-heavy world in which our students are growing up, it is only via practice that they can become adept at recognising times when they need to slow down – to really think.

 

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?

The greatest of all

If you look back into human history and pull a list of the greatest teachers of all time, you’ll probably end up with names including:

  • Confucius
  • Socrates
  • Anne Sullivan (teacher of Helen Keller)
  • Maria Montessori (of discovery learning fame)
  • John Locke (philosophy of character first and academics later)
  • Jaime Escalante (known for his work teaching maths to troubled students in Los Angeles.)
  • Albert Einstein
  • Marva Collins
  • Madenjit Singh (educating the poor in Cambodia)

What is it that makes these educators particularly brilliant? Partly, it’s fate. In each of the above cases, there were factors that assembled to create an opportunity for great impact. But it’s much more than that.

Whilst this is a very diverse list of people from different times and cultures, they share two fundamental similarities.

First, all of them were, to some degree, controversial in their time because they saw a different way. They bent rules and harnessed disruption and innovation as a source of energy. And this energy helped light a previously unseeable pathway ahead. Escalante taught ‘unteachable’ kids to succeed. Montessori challenged entrenched norms about teaching and, in the process, revolutionised primary education. Collins opened a ‘school’ for impoverished youth on the second floor of her own Chicago home.

Second, all of these great teachers knew that education, ultimately, is not about literacy and numeracy but, rather, about sculpting the character and lives of their students. They possessed a deep sense of purpose – of wanting to contribute to making the world a better place. And, in all cases, this fuelled heightened emotional engagement and deep passion in their students.

First, innovation & hope. Second, inspiration.

Therein is a lesson for all educators.

How to destroy a culture

There is a really important place in schools and organisations for critical analysis, constructive criticism and, even more importantly, constructive conflict (a blog topic for another day). Lazy consensus and blind compliance are the enemies of progressive, dynamic education.

But whinging and complaining are entirely different. Unfortunately, whinging can be quite a social endeavour. People who, for whatever reason, feel that they don’t have a voice or can’t speak openly to their colleagues or don’t feel empowered to have difficult conversations with their managers often tend to seek out other whingers to huddle with. Most schools have one or two groups of whingers.

Here’s the thing, whinging – especially about people behind their backs – is one of the few unproductive, maladaptive, culture-harming practices that can be eradicated instantly. Because it’s a choice. If people choose not to whinge, it doesn’t happen. Or if organisations choose not to tolerate it, it doesn’t happen.

In an interview on stage at an Inc. magazine conference, media mogul Ariana Huffington explained that:

“Going behind someone’s back is the way to destroy a company…Now during interviews, there is a speech I give to everybody…I give you full permission to walk into my office and scream at me. But I want you to consider this as my last warning. If you complain about any of your colleagues behind their back…you would be let go.”

Imagine what schools would be like if whinging was replaced entirely by open, honest, fair, equitable, forgiving, growth-orientated, empathic conversations. In part, it is the responsibility of school leaders to work hard to create such a culture. And it part, it’s up to the whingers to make a different, braver choice.

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.

Get outside the jar

I was reading Steven Kotler’s book, Stealing Fire¸ recently and I loved an old bit of “southern folk wisdom” quoted that says:

“you can’t read the label while you’re sitting inside the jar.”

This is why coaching and other intentional reflection strategies are increasingly being embedded into performance development plans in some of the most innovative schools in Australia and internationally. These kind of processes enable us to gain such an important perspective and view of ourselves as professionals.

If you don’t have a deliberate, regular, meaningful ‘feedforward’ process that enables you to ‘get outside the jar’, it’s unlikely that you are growing as an educator. And if your professional skills aren’t growing, they’re either stalling or dying.

Think big, act small, learn fast

One of the major challenges we face as we attempt to innovate in education is that the impact of innovation is so hard to measure. Not only are we working with complex humans in a hugely complex system but educational, wellbeing, and developmental outcomes are sensitive to an immeasurable number of inputs and variables.

Sometimes we fall into the trap of trying to collect an excessive amount of data in order to capture a comprehensive ‘picture’. This is a flawed approach for two reasons. First, we end up drowning in huge swathes of data that tell too many stories. And second, it is impossible to capture the full picture anyway. There will always be variables that we have failed to consider or are impossible to measure, control or eliminate.

Here’s what schools that are really harnessing effective innovation are doing:

  1. Clearly identify the specific change you would like to see.
  2. Choose a simple, discrete, well-defined outcome to measure.
  3. Identify a tool that effectively measures this outcome.
  4. Conduct targeted, meaningful experiments.
  5. Measure the impact.
  6. Learn.

Innovation is the result of insight gained from action. When we’re strategic, targeted and patient, rather than instinctive, sweeping and reactive, then we really have the chance to powerfully and confidently innovate.

Think big, act small, learn fast.