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.

The rock in a VUCA world

In the late 1980s, at the height of the Cold War, the US Army War College began using the acronym VUCA to describe the volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity of the world’s geopolitical climate. With the emergence if the 4th Industrial Revolution, there is an even greater sense of personal VUCA as we begin to navigate a world in which biological and digital realms are being blurred.

This sense of VUCA is being felt particularly strongly by many of our students.  To some extent, the period of our lives that we call ‘adolescence’ has always been characterised by VUCA. The emotional volatility, biological uncertainty, social complexity and all-round ambiguity of this life stage create challenges for all of us. This is, in part, why 20% of Australian adolescents are currently living with significant mental health issues.

In the midst of all of this chaos, the impact of a trusted teacher is amplified significantly. This is why the best teachers not only know how to educate and inspire but they appreciate the infinite value of simply ‘being there’ – of turning up time and time again for their students.

Learning should be an adventure, classrooms should be exciting. And when we really get it right, great teaching also provides a foundation of calmness, certainty, simplicity and clarity at the core of a child’s educational experience.

We are the system

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

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

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

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

Otherwise, schools will die

At the 2019 World Government Summit in Dubai last week, Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize winning psychologist and economist, delivered an enlightening and sobering prediction about the future impact of Artificial Intelligence.

“I really do not see any specific human skill that, given enough data, machines will be unable to learn…We have a brain, it’s a very, very good brain and it operates beautifully. But whatever that brain does there is going to be machinery that is going to match it and exceed it.”

This impending future is only decades away. And so it is critical that schools, leaders and educators act now to reconsider core educational priorities. Schools will only remain relevant if they can evolve to provide a platform focussed on the development of complex, creative, adaptable, and deeply human skills.

Data as art

In a recent conversation discussing some of the limitations of wellbeing data, a trusted colleague mentioned to me that he views empirical data as a form of art. It might feel odd to think of scientific data as art but it is also a beautiful concept.

The Collins Dictionary defines ‘art’ as consisting of “paintings, sculpture, and other pictures or objects which are created for people to look at and admire or think deeply about.” Data, particularly from the human sciences, is absolutely intended to create a ‘picture’ for us to think deeply about. Like art, data is not an actual snapshot of reality but rather a creative representation of reality. In fact, often the most effective data – data that moves us and affects us, is data that is represented graphically, typically crafted with much thought given to the colour, contrast, form, and dimension.

This is not true of all data. Some data is highly objective and clean – we could call this realism. Some data is quite crude and bold – impressionist. Other data attempts to quantify the inherently subjective human experience – expressionist. And, of course, like Rothko’s painting, some data is distinctively abstract.

All data, however, share the same purpose – to tell a story. These stories help put language to experience, to challenge our view of the world, to help create a sense of coherence and meaning.

When we view data from the human sciences as art, we are able to see it for what it really is; not fact or truth, but a way of harnessing human creativity and ingenuity to transcend our own small, individual lives. Like art, data allows us to view the world differently, with greater integrity. It has the power to open our eyes and capture our hearts.

This is why data matters.

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.

Think like a kid

Do you really remember what it was like to be a 6 year old, a 10 year old, a 15 year old at school. Can you remember what that felt like? Do you remember what mattered to you? Can you remember the emotion, the feeling of trying to fit in, to find your place, to grow up? Do you remember what it felt like when you succeeded and when you disappointed yourself, your teacher, your parents? Can you picture where you used to sit in the classroom, and who your friends were? Do you remember the teachers that you never really liked and the ones that you loved and trusted.

Hold on to these thoughts dearly.

These memories, these experiences that you have are the guiding light of a great teacher. One of the real and growing risks as we become a teacher and earn qualifications and start clocking years of service is that we start to think too much like a teacher.

Theories of pedagogy and years of practice and Masters and PhDs and teaching toolkits only really matter if we remember how to think like a kid.

Our work is to shape and inspire the minds of a children. The more we can be with them, in their world, as we plan and execute our craft, the more effective we can be.

Inventing jobs

Fact: many of the jobs that students entering primary school today will be doing in 2030 don’t exist yet. The accelerating impact of technology and automation is both eliminating and creating new types of work. Depending on which study you read, the estimates of 2030 jobs that haven’t been invented yet range from 20% all the way up to 85%. And on current trends, our children of today will likely have multiple careers and continue up-skilling and re-skilling throughout their lives.

Already we’re seeing evidence of shifting work patterns. The 2018 Deloitte Millennial Survey shows that 43% of millennials expect to leave their jobs within two years.

So what does all of this mean for today’s educators? Perhaps the most important realisation is that we need to have a much greater emphasis on transferable skill development that enables resilience, flexibility and interconnection. Four key future-oriented skill areas are:

  • Self-efficacy – belief in one’s ability to succeed in specific situations or accomplish a task through hard work, creativity and adaptation;
  • Interpersonal skills – the ability to influence, negotiate, forgive, co-create, and empathise;
  • Ethical decision making – being able to consistently behave in line with one’s core values, even when it’s inconvenient or hard;
  • Critical thinking – actively conceptualising, applying, analysing, synthesising, and/or evaluating information.

This is not a complete list, but all of these will be absolutely critical factors contributing to the future success of our students.

These are skills that need lots of development, scaffolding and practice. But that’s okay – because quality teachers have recognised this and are already deeply embedding these skills into most, if not all, lessons.

Grades, ranking, obedience

There are multiple negative learning outcomes associated with the use of grades as a motivational tool. Perhaps the most problematic of all is that it encourages students to focus on how well they are doing rather than on what they are doing or why what they are learning matters. When this is combined with some form of ranking system, not only are students focussed on their performance instead of learning, but they are also distracted by trying to beat other students.  Consequently, we get divided attention, increased pressure and erosion of class teamwork, trust, and cohesion.

Sure, grades are an easy and effective way to generate student obedience, but is it really worth all of that downside?

The rider and the elephant

New York University Professor Jonathan Haidt uses the analogy of a rider on an elephant to describe the two basic motivational systems in the human brain. The rider represents the rational system – the part that plans, thinks through problems, and weighs potential benefit against cost. The elephant represents the emotional system – the part that enables us to feel, to instinctively respond to the world, and that provides the power for the journey.

When the rider and the elephant are working together, synchronised on their journey, they make great progress. But the elephant is nearly 100 times heavier than the rider, so if there is disagreement or distraction – when push comes to shove…guess who wins?

So often, we spend a disproportionate amount of time finessing the rational element of our lessons, or meetings, or plans and we fail to intelligently and deliberately invest in motivating the elephant.

Teaching and learning is a highly human, highly emotional experience. In our classrooms, in our learning journeys, the rider matters a lot but the elephant matters more.

Stand out…or not

The education ‘system’ is engrained and rigid. When, as an educator, you choose an unconventional strategy or challenge the status quo or disrupt the system in some way, there is only one guarantee – you will be judged.

When Paul Richards,  Superintendent of the American School of Dubai, decided to (successfully!) abandon email as a form of internal communication, he was judged. It’s brilliant, and it worked, but there were (mis)judgements made. When Salman Khan launched and popularised Khan Academy, he created a new paradigm of mass education – and he was criticised and judged.

In every school, there are leaders and teachers who are willing to ask brave, challenging questions, to think differently, to push boundaries. It is these educators who are gradually edging us towards an exciting new horizon. And in each case, there is someone eager to criticise them.

Whether you’re a Year 8 kid or an experienced teacher, it takes courage to stand up, to stand out. But there’s always an easy alternative. Sit down, fit in and say nothing.

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.

Hard to get and hard to lose

For the most-part, applying for and being offered a job at a good school is a very challenging process to go through. It’s really hard to get these jobs. But in most schools it’s also really hard to lose your job. You really have to be significantly underperforming and/or behave very unprofessionally.

Teaching jobs are hard to get and easy to keep.

The problem with this setup, particularly in education, is that it’s very difficult – even for highly experienced interviewees – to really predict the future success of an applicant from an interview process. Even if the process involves a lesson observation, the situation is so contrived that the evidence provided can range from truly insightful to completely misleading. So, we don’t always make the best decision and it’s often a decision we’re stuck with.

But what would happen if we reversed the system. What would happen if it was easy to get a job but hard to keep? What if the system was set up to reward real-world performance rather than interview technique?

Of course, this would require a radical rethinking of the educator recruitment process. But it can be done. Many innovative organisations such as Automattic (the people behind WordPress.com) already use ‘job auditioning’ in which all final-stage candidates actually work for the company for 3-8 weeks.

Until we see this level of innovation in education, there are some really exciting data-driven tools beginning to emerge, such as Gallup’s teacher talent selection tool, that can help us make better decisions.

Educator recruitment is part of the education system that has to change soon, that we can change. Choosing the right people to guide the lives of our children is just far too important to leave to a couple of interviews and ‘gut feel’.

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.

Plan C

For a long time, educational research has focussed on trying to understand and distil what outstanding educators do. Whilst there is certainly some merit in this approach, ultimately it is much more important for us to learn how outstanding educators think.

That’s because each situation, each class, each lesson is different. There is no single prescribable way to do things. It’s one of the beautiful things about teaching – and one of the reasons why teaching itself is a craft and not a science.

One of the common characteristics of the best leaders in any field, and certainly in education, is the ability to adapt successfully to unique situations by integrating intuition, reason and imagination to develop a contextualised, unique solution. When faced with a challenge or choice, instead of simply being able to consider Option A and Option B and choose the better one, outstanding educators have the ability to think differently. They can innovate in real-time to create an Option C – an option that contains elements of Options A and B but is superior to both.

Roger Martin describes this skill as ‘opposable mind’. It is a skill that can be practiced and developed. When we are able to see an Option C, experience, norms, status quo, and traditions become not constraints but, rather, sources of unimaginable possibility.

Ambulance rules

In pretty much every country around the world, there is a road rule that compels drivers to pull over or move out of the way of an approaching emergency ambulance. There are, usually, very strict penalties for those who fail to comply. But these penalties are almost completely redundant. Why? Well, has this thought ever crossed your mind: ‘Ah, there’s an ambulance coming up behind me with its lights flashing. I’d better pull aside because I fear I might get a $400 fine.’ No. You have never had that thought. You’re not afraid of the penalty. You pull over and follow the road rule because it’s a good rule! You want to follow the rule, regardless of the potential fine. It’s a rule that makes sense. And so we act autonomously, of our own volition to follow the rule.

This sense of volition, of adhering to a regulation, norm, parameter, or rule voluntarily – even when we don’t control the rule itself – is one of the fundamental components of intrinsic human motivation.

Nearly 50 years of research into student motivation has identified that a sense of autonomy is a universal psychological need that has a powerful impact on learning and social outcomes. Importantly, autonomy is not about independence or freedom. In fact, the most effective classroom environments are those that are highly structured and highly autonomous. In other words, great teachers set up tight parameters, and clear values and behavioural expectations. And the students endorse these boundaries with their inherent, ‘natural’ behaviours. They follow the rules because they like them and because they make sense…just like the ambulance rule.

Is it predominantly fear or volition that motivates people in your environment to follow the rules?

You are not perfect

As we develop experience in our profession, we are able to become more independent. Our experience serves as a reference to help guide decisions. We recognise familiar situations and know how to respond. And we draw on experience to adapt to novel situations.

This independence, however, can lead to an experienced educator going to work, surrounded by hundreds or even thousands of other humans, and enjoying close personal connections, but still feeling lonely, professionally. Once we reach a certain level of experience, a kind of self-imposed expectation can set in that causes us to feel that we should just be able to ‘get on with it’. It is surprisingly rare for experienced, skilled educators to seek help with fine-tuning their skills. Sure, there might be different teams or networks designed to encourage supportive collaboration, but day-to-day, many experienced educators feel reluctant to (or don’t know how to) ask for help.

But here’s the thing. High-quality teaching is very, very complex. There are so many different interconnected skills required – everything from advanced computer skills to relationship counselling and a thousand others in between. Despite what you might think, every educator you meet is better than you at one or more of those skills. And even if you have some super-star, legendary teacher at your school who you hope to be like some day, you are better than them at one or more of those skills.

Imagine what the profession might be like if we were all able to demonstrate just a little more vulnerability and growth orientation – to be a little more willing to ask for skill-based help, guidance, and advice from each other.

 

Brain birth

You’ve probably heard of neuroplastity, right? Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to change and reorganise itself throughout our life. Our brain literally changes itself to enable you and me to become better and more efficient at skills we practice. Brain circuits that we use regularly not only ‘wire together’ but, due to a process called myelination, can transmit information up to 100 times faster than standard brain circuits. If you’re not very good at knitting or sudoku or maths or telling jokes, it’s because you haven’t given your brain enough opportunity to adapt. Neuroplasticity is also the process that allows people like Jodie Miller to have half of her brain surgically removed and to recover to live a relatively normal life.

But, do you know about neurogenesis? It was only a few years ago that psychology and biology textbooks were stating that the adult human brain has approximately 100 billion brain cells and you can’t grow any more. Wrong. It turns out that mammals – like us – are constantly growing new brain cells;  particularly in the hippocampus, an area associated with memory and learning.

Ultimately, it is the mechanics of neuroplasticity and neurogenesis that allow us to learn.

It’s also why the phrase: “I’m just not good at _________” doesn’t really make sense scientifically. Instead, we should encourage the phrase: “I’m just not good at _________ yet“. Those three simple letters, y-e-t, encapsulate an understanding of the incredible ability of the human brain to help us become better at whatever we choose to practice.

 

Breathe in

You know that wonderful feeling you get when you watch someone do something amazing or when you hear an incredible story and you feel moved to act or change in some way. We use the word ‘inspired’ to describe that emotion.

The origin of this word traces back to the Latin spirare, meaning “to breathe”. To feel inspired is, literally, to breathe in.

When we inspire others, we open their minds and their hearts and allow them to breathe in new ideas, new ways of thinking, and new possibilities. There is no greater gift an educator or a parent or a friend can give than to inspire others to grow in ways they never before imagined.

This is the goal of education.

Closed circuit

The purpose of closed-circuit television systems (CCTV) is for cameras to record information and send it to one specific location. CCTV is a secure, private system that is the opposite of broadcasting – in which the signal is openly transmitted and anyone can tune in.


You know those rare days, where everything goes right and you are at the top of your game. I had one of those days in 2010. My mother had come to visit the school I was teaching in and, on that day, I was teaching my favourite Year 12 Psychology class. I had done extra preparation for the lesson – I wanted it to go well – and the students were absolutely engaged throughout the lesson and swept-up in the content on ‘evolutionary theories of relationships’. At the end of the lesson, my students left the classroom buzzing and, although I was glad it went well and so happy that my mum had seen me at my best, I kind of wished that I had recorded the lesson. It really was one of my best ever lessons. But no one will ever know. And no other teacher will ever be able to learn from it. (They also won’t be able to learn from all the lessons that didn’t work so well.)

That’s because traditional classroom teaching is closed-circuit.

We are starting to get better, as a profession, at designing more open-circuits. Regular lesson observations, peer-mentoring and ‘walk-throughs’, for example, are commonplace in good schools these days. And some of the most innovative schools are creating safe, transparent, active forums and ‘open-source’ databases; not only encouraging the sharing of best practice, but building it into the heart of the teaching infrastructure.

If we can get it right, this broadcasting of ‘what works’ is a way for us to galvanise our collective resources. It may just be the spark that we need to help ignite an evolution in pedagogy.

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.

Open book

What would happen, do you think, if we really rethought the whole testing and exam thing in schools. Let’s say we keep exams, but update them to allow us to assess, not memory recall, but the skills we really value today. What if these exams posed hard, challenging problems that, like real-world problems, don’t necessarily have a ‘right’ answer. What if these questions forced students to use critical thinking and complex analysis, to take a moral stance, or to come up with an innovative ‘solution’. (Obviously, we would delete multiple-choice style questions along the way.)

And then, what would happen if all tests, all exams were ‘open book’. Students would be allowed to access their own notes and the accumulated wisdom of others. Perhaps, in these new exams, students could take a concept from YouTube (yes, internet access!) being presented by Stephen Hawking and then evolve his thinking to create a new, applied solution to a new problem.

What if students could connect with other students, share real-time developments, prototyping of solutions and even learn from each other’s mistakes. And what if we could assess the process, the ability of students to really ‘think’ under pressure, to conceptualise a future solution, to collaborate, cooperate and enhance the work of others as they collectively strive towards solving a hard problem using ’21st century skills’ that have been honed throughout their schooling.

Much of the above is already being trialled and researched in innovative schools around the world. There are significant obstacles to overcome, including political and budgetary hurdles, but this future is possible. The University of Queensland even has a very cool Assessment Ideas Factory for educators, designed to share and promote innovative assessment.

But then again, it’s probably easier to just lock students in a room, take their phones away, sit them in silence for two hours and encourage them to try to beat each other at ‘remembering’ the answers. (And multiple-choice exams are so much easier to grade!)

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.

Less ‘potential’ please

One of the most misused, unhelpful and possibly damaging words in education is: “potential”.

Common phrases that we hear educators using include:

  1. “Jane hasn’t reached her potential.”
  2. “Jack is wasting his potential.”
  3. “You have a lot of potential Zara.”
  4. “Tomo, you have the potential to get into _______ if you work hard enough.”

Here are some of the problems with the above phrases:

  1. How could you possibly know what Jane’s potential, her maximum upper limit, is?
  2. Potential isn’t something Jack can ‘waste’. Even if the concept of a child having an immovable level of maximum skill made sense, it’s not something he can ‘waste’. He can certainly choose not to pursue his skill development but surely his ‘potential’ is the same regardless of whether he chooses to pursue it or not.
  3. Every healthy child has a lot of opportunity to grow and develop. But what Zara often hears when we talk about her potential is: “They don’t think I’m good enough.”
  4. First, see Problem #1 above. Second, encouraging growth through hard work is a good approach. But it’s misleading to suggest to a child that hard work is the only relevant variable.

And here’s the weirdest, most ironic thing about the concept of human ‘potential’…

Possibly the worst thing you could ever say to a student is: “Sam, you have reached your potential. You have no capacity to learn any more. You’ve maxed out. I’m sorry.”

Your damned if you don’t reach your ‘potential’ and damned if you do!

A bottle of water has a potential capacity of 500ml. We fill it up, put the lid on, and that’s it. No more water can go in. As hard as we try, we can never fit 600ml in. Even if we practise and practise! That’s because it has a knowable, unchangeable upper limit: a potential.

A child, a human does not.

 

What’s the best teaching style?

The world would be a a little bit less interesting if we all liked the same music. A colleague recently attended a heavy metal music festival – and loved it. That’s strange – to me. I love music and have listened to enough heavy metal to know that I just don’t get it. In fact, the more I listen to it, the less I think I like it.

Human preference is a very complex thing. Undoubtedly, our experience and personal history influence the food we like, the art we enjoy and where we like to go on holiday. But, increasingly, we’re finding that personality and even genetics also play a role in everything from our like or dislike for bitter coffee to our temperature preference.

This is why there is no one specific style of teaching that is best. When I had the opportunity to interview some of the world’s best teachers for a writing project in 2011, there were certainly some consistencies between them all such as their unwavering sense of their own values and a their deep personal investment in knowing each student. But these world-class educators were all very different in style – some radically so. In fact, it was often their comfort with their idiosyncrasies that made them stand out.

There is certainly good and bad teaching, but there is no inherently good or bad style of teaching.

If anyone ever criticises your teaching style or suggests you need to do things differently – they might be right – we need to remain open to feedback – but they might be wrong. They might just have a different preference. And if they’re the type of person who likes heavy metal – don’t listen to anything they say! 😉

What’s your hook?

One thing that almost all great plays, brilliant speeches or addictive TV series like Mad Men (a current favourite!) have in common is a captivating, attention grabbing, opening ‘hook’. It’s sometimes an image or a scene or a phrase or a line delivered by an actor. This hook inadvertently sucks us in to the content and, often, our entire attentional capacity is so zoomed in that the performance in front of us becomes our reality.

Yet, so few school lessons begin in such a way. Not every lesson needs to be mind-blowing. And a teacher is not a performer on a stage. But every great lesson has a ‘hook’. The opening few minutes of a lesson are so critical in setting up deep learning and focussed attention. In the best classrooms, students quickly become completely immersed in their learning because whatever they are doing immediately feels like it matters and it makes sense. The ability to rapidly cultivate a sense of purpose, a ‘hook’, is right at the core of great teaching.

Our classrooms can be absolutely as captivating as video games and iPhones – but only when we deliberately and skilfully ‘hook in’ our students.

What’s the ‘hook’ in your next lesson or speech?

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.

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.

What is left unsaid

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

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

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

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

“School”

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

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

Hooray for mistakes

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

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

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

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

The long summer

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

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

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

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