When we invest our time in experiencing a story, presentation, or lesson we have the right to expect some return on that investment. Sometimes, it can be satisfying enough to savour the ride and to be immersed in a wave of emotional or cogntive experience.
But really good lessons are those that change us. They take us on a journey that has us arrive at the destination a slightly different person – affected – perhaps with new insight, enhanced empathy, or a shifted perspective.
And the best lessons end with a unique gift – a tangible shift in behaviour. Not only do we think differently, but we are nudged along a newly-illuminated path.
I attended two brilliant conference presentations on the weekend. One made me eat differently today. The other caused me to make three phone calls – two to family members and one to an old friend.
This is the thing we call impact. It is the mark of great teaching and the broadest goal of education.
There’s a great idiom in French that says: “Les carottes sont cuites!” – The carrots are cooked! – There is nothing that can be done to change the situation.
There are times when this is true. And there are times when it just feels true.
Sometimes, the carrots are in the water but haven’t actually started to cook. Sometimes, the carrots are half-cooked but still crunchy. And sometimes, the carrots are cooked, but they’re still carrots – different but okay.
When unexpected change happens, there is often a kind of concussion – we feel stunned and stilled. But eventually, we have to make a choice. We can lean back, longingly, into the past, hoping to ‘unchange’ the situation. Or we can step forward, hopefully, into future possibilities.
It might not change much, but even one step causes a slightly shifted perspective, a slightly changed situation.
[PS In 2015 an Australian scientist won a Nobel prize for his discovery of how to uncook an egg. I imagine it’s much harder to uncook a carrot.)
There’s a reason why we tend to be resistant to change. Change requires time, energy, and often, struggle. We have to be prepared to leave behind an old, comfortable version of ourselves – and to travel to a different place.
We have to acknowledge that there might be a better way. And we have to be prepared to try something new – and to accept the risks that come with that choice. What if the change doesn’t make things better? What if we invest in change and it’s not worth it? What if we waste our time and energy? What if we can’t go back to the old way?
All fair questions. Change isn’t always good. There are risks and costs. But there are also risks and costs of standing still.
So, to embrace a change or not? Is there a right choice?
Yeah, there is. It’s the choice informed by our values and fuelled by courage.
Putting a pre-made frozen lasagne in the oven on a really low heat so that that it takes five hours to warm up doesn’t make it ‘slow food’. Slow food isn’t as much about the time it takes to cook as it is about the traditional, structured methods involved. Unlike fast food, slow food requires patience and commitment, over an extended period, to a proven strategy that produces a qualitatively better product.
Similarly, implementing an evidence-based, self-sustaining, whole-school approach to wellbeing requires a slow, systematic approach. The slow part – expending a bit less energy today – is easy. The hard part is the long-term commitment to a carefully designed sequence and strategy.
You can’t make a delicious, rich, creamy risotto by letting it sit on the back-burner – it requires constant stirring. And you can’t transform a school’s culture and behavioural norms without a lot of carefully planning and methodical execution over time.
As new parents, my wife and I often ask ourselves: “What did we used to do with our time before we had kids?!”
Educators might ask the same thing about email: “What did we used to with our time before we had email?!”
I wonder if that’s when intellectual conversations and debates were had between colleagues. I wonder if this is when books were read and letters were penned? I wonder if that’s when teachers worked on their subject knowledge, and designed and wrote their own curriculum? I wonder if this was when teachers were able to occasionally go for a stroll, to relax and refresh?
I grew up with a Mum who was a teacher in the 70s, 80s and 90s. So I know that those times TBE (Teaching Before Email) had their own challenges. And email isn’t all bad – there are so many advantages in us being able to stay connected with each other.
But TBE, there must have been something nice about being able, at the end of the day, to literally, switch off.
When you get the chance to experience true innovation in schools or organisations, it feels exciting. It’s not just the novelty, it’s the sense that this new way of doing something is qualitatively better.
This kind of development stems from an intimate knowledge of the system in which the innovation is occurring. When we have this level of understanding, we know how far the constraints and conventions of the system can be pushed or bent before they break.
But when we fail to respect the system, or we push too hard or too fast against its foundations, it doesn’t give people time to adjust or adapt. When people feel too challenged or destabilised, we can end up simply causing frustration and/or being dismissed as someone who “doesn’t get it”.
Innovation will, at times, be disruptive and stressful for some people within a system. But when done well, carefully, professionally, and respectfully, innovation can nudge behaviours, reshape constraints, and energise the system without upsetting the apple cart.
If you hadn’t noticed, the purpose of school – from a student’s perspective – has changed radically in the last twenty years. Kids used to have to go to school to find out stuff. However, somewhere between 2002 and 2004, Google became the most widely used search engine on the planet, creating a free, effective and efficient alternative to schools as a place to go to discover information.
By 2010, there were already more than 3 million articles on Wikipedia offering a free, effective and efficient alternative to schools as a place to go to learn information.
In November 2005, the first YouTube video to reach 1 million views was online and by July 2006, more than 65,000 new videos were being uploaded every day, creating a free, effective and efficient alternative to schools as a place to go to learn skills and share information.
And by the middle of 2009, Facebook had 300 million users, creating a free, effective and efficient alternative to schools as a place to go to meet, hang out, and communicate.
Remember when every town had a video-rental store, photo-finishing shop, newspaper stand, record store, a couple of public phones, and a few schools? At least the schools are still there, for now.
The first use of the term ‘resilience’ to describe humans appeared in the 1830s. Around that same time in history, ‘resilient’ was being used as a technical term in the watchmaking industry, referring to flexible qualities of internal components.
But it wasn’t until the mid 20th century that Norman Garmezy, first began studying human resilience experimentally at the University of Minnesota. Since then, resilience has been a rich, important, and complex field of study in psychology and, more recently, in education.
Although it has been researched extensively, there is still both a lack of consensus as to how to define ‘resilience’ and some general misunderstandings in the wider community.
The most widely accepted current definition of ‘resilience’ comes from the The American Psychological Association (2014): “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or even significant sources of stress”.
This definition is important because it helps us clarify some of the following:
- resilience is not about ‘bouncing back’;
- resilience is not binary (ie. present or absent);
- resilience exists on a continuum;
- resilience is not just a trait (it can be a process and / or outcome);
- resilience is context-dependent (eg. we might be resilient playing sport but less so at work).
We also know that, through experience, we can learn to become more resilient. Not only are there specific, empirically validated skills that can be taught to children and adults, but mistake and adversity are wonderful teachers. That’s why we need to expose students to them regularly.
As our world becomes increasingly volatile and unpredictable, there are no guarantees anymore – apart from one: our students will need to be resilient. The world is changing fast, and those who have the capacity to adapt well, to survive and to move forward in spite of change will thrive.
Systemic changes, fundamental shifts, philosophical pivots – these are all big journeys to go on. And so a comment we often hear from school leaders and educators who are attempting to adopt a whole-school approach to wellbeing is: ‘I don’t know where to start’.
Although we now have a pretty well-honed roadmap that provides support and direction for schools, each journey is different because each school is unique. But each of these journeys always begins the same way: with a first step. This is often the hardest and most important step of all because it leads to the next step.
The poet Rumi perhaps said this best when he wrote:
“As you start to walk out on the way, the way appears.”
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.