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.