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.