Types of students

On the one hand, pattern recognition is perhaps the greatest and most finely tuned skill of the human brain. We learn language by identifying specific patterns of sounds repeatedly occurring in similar contexts. The face of a friend or relative easily stands out to us as we scan a crowded room. And within a second of hearing that famous ‘F with a G on top‘ chord, we know we’re about to hear A Hard Day’s Night.

On the other hand, our heavy reliance on pattern recognition also causes problems. Visual illusions, implicit discrimination and racism, the allure of gambling, and conspiracy theories are all perceptual quirks that trace back to our pattern recognition system.

And we need to be particularly careful when we see familiar patterns in a child’s character or behaviour that causes us to perceive them as a certain ‘type’ of kid (sporty, musical, resilient, nerdy, naughty, etc). As tempting as it can be, the moment we begin ‘typing’ students is the moment we start blurring the beauty (and sometimes pain) of their individuality – we start devaluing their unique story.

In a speech in 1923, the famous Swiss psychiatrist, Carl Jung, noted that: every individual is an exception to the rule. 

It’s when we take time, as educators, to stand back and really look at the face of each of our students that we know that Jung was right. There are, in fact, no ‘types‘ of students.

Learning from what you hate

There is so much talk, in the field of wellbeing, about values: in our deepest heart, what kind of person, teacher, colleague, friend, parent do we want to be?

And we now have so much evidence linking long-term happiness and success in the workplace to a life lived in-line with our values.

I’ve done a lot of thinking about values. And so I know that my four core values are connection, caring, contribution and adventure.

But if you struggle to articulate your deepest values, try this little exercise…

Part A — What is it, about other people’s behaviour, that really ticks you off, or really annoys you? (eg  arrogance, or dishonesty, or entitlement, or prejudice, or…)

Part B — Take your answer from Part A and identify its opposite trait. (eg arrogance : humility, dishonesty : honesty, entitlement : gratitude, prejudice : fairness

Did you discover, in Part B, values that are very dear to you? You may even have stumbled on your core values.

When we get annoyed or angry or frustrated at other people, it’s almost always because they have violated one of our core values.

So the better we understand what we value most, the more effectively, mindfully, and healthily we can respond to situations or people that might compromise our values.

The children we mean to raise

How important is it to you that your children and / or students develop into ethical, caring adults? In one study from the University of Virginia, 96% of parents said that the development of a caring orientation and moral character in their children was pivotal; more important even than high achievement.

Yet, in a 2014 Harvard study involving 10,000 middle and high school students, 80% of the youths reported that their parents and teachers “are more concerned about achievement or happiness (feeling good) than caring for others.”

The researchers suggested this data might reflect a “rhetoric/reality gap”. Perhaps what we, as influential adults, say we value isn’t reflected in our behaviour.

Closing that rhetoric/reality gap isn’t easy, especially for high schools who are, for the most part, subject to a system that rewards test scores more than character or caring. But it’s not impossible. You only have to walk into a school that is genuinely committed to wellbeing and character to see that their reality and rhetoric are more closely aligned. These schools celebrate and highlight behaviour and images and displays and artwork and physical spaces that reflect a prioritisation of character and caring.

Some other schools, however, choose to highlight their trophy cabinet. That reflects a different priority.

Bruised apple

Some people pick up an apple, see that it has a little bruise on it and throw it away because it’s a ‘bad apple’.

Other people pick up the same apple, see the little bruise, cut it off, and enjoy a delicious, juicy snack.

We all carry little bruises. And if we go looking for bruises in others, we’ll see them. And then we miss out on all the other wonderful bits that are beautiful and whole. What a waste!

Teaching from the middle

Having had the opportunity to interview, work with and meet some of the world’s best teachers, one of the most striking similarities is just how average they are – or to be more precise, how balanced they are.

Great teaching is not about leveraging extreme talent or skill. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Great teaching is about developing access to a broad spectrum of capacities, strengths, and character and prudently choosing the right point on the spectrum to mindfully guide in-the-moment decision making and behaviour.

In the same way that the best chefs add a little sweetness to sour ingredients to create a beautifully balanced dish, the best teachers balance the following:

  • confidence and humility;
  • planning and action;
  • assertiveness and letting go;
  • excitement and serenity (calmness);
  • fostering achievement and allowing failure;
  • providing support and nurturing independence.

The ancient Greek temple of Apollo bore the inscription ‘Meden Agan’ – meaning ‘Nothing in excess’. The Greeks knew that a virtuous life, a good and happy life was one characterised by moderation and balance. Great teachers know this too.

The greatest of all

If you look back into human history and pull a list of the greatest teachers of all time, you’ll probably end up with names including:

  • Confucius
  • Socrates
  • Anne Sullivan (teacher of Helen Keller)
  • Maria Montessori (of discovery learning fame)
  • John Locke (philosophy of character first and academics later)
  • Jaime Escalante (known for his work teaching maths to troubled students in Los Angeles.)
  • Albert Einstein
  • Marva Collins
  • Madenjit Singh (educating the poor in Cambodia)

What is it that makes these educators particularly brilliant? Partly, it’s fate. In each of the above cases, there were factors that assembled to create an opportunity for great impact. But it’s much more than that.

Whilst this is a very diverse list of people from different times and cultures, they share two fundamental similarities.

First, all of them were, to some degree, controversial in their time because they saw a different way. They bent rules and harnessed disruption and innovation as a source of energy. And this energy helped light a previously unseeable pathway ahead. Escalante taught ‘unteachable’ kids to succeed. Montessori challenged entrenched norms about teaching and, in the process, revolutionised primary education. Collins opened a ‘school’ for impoverished youth on the second floor of her own Chicago home.

Second, all of these great teachers knew that education, ultimately, is not about literacy and numeracy but, rather, about sculpting the character and lives of their students. They possessed a deep sense of purpose – of wanting to contribute to making the world a better place. And, in all cases, this fuelled heightened emotional engagement and deep passion in their students.

First, innovation & hope. Second, inspiration.

Therein is a lesson for all educators.

People of determination

I had the privilege today of attending a welcoming of the Irish Special Olympic Team to Dubai in readiness for the upcoming Games. I was reflecting on why I came away from the event feeling so inspired. And I think it comes down to witnessing a very raw, unadulterated version of the human spirit.

Under the UAE’s National Policy for Empowering People with Special Needs, people with special needs or disabilities are referred to as ‘people of determination’. I love that. These fellow people face obstacles that I could never truly understand – and yet they achieve and succeed anyway. They know their goal is going to be an immense challenge and so they just dig deeper.

There is nothing more inspiring than that.

All of this made me wonder: if our primary goal as educators is to genuinely inspire our students, how often did I role-model struggle? How often did I allow my students ‘behind the curtain’ to see obstacles I was battling? How often was my determination really on show?

In a way, the Special Olympics are a window into some of the most beautiful and fundamental elements of our humanity. When we’re willing to open our hearts, we see that we share so much in common. And it reminds us that, whilst we each carry the burden of our own personal challenges and battles, we are blessed as a species with an incredible depth of spirit fuelled by determination and hope.