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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.