Professional non-development?

It’s always felt a bit strange to me that schools would designate a particular timeslot and location for a Professional Development (PD) ‘session‘.

So, when we are not in this ‘session’, what is it that we are doing – if not developing professionally?

I wonder what would happen if we could transition from a concept of traditional PD ‘sessions‘ to ‘ongoing‘ or ‘permanent‘ PD? Would this help us shift to seeing ourselves as constantly growing, learning and developing?

Maybe.

But perhaps we’re too busy for this? Easier, probably, to just keep professional development contained in its little ‘session‘.

Not so fragile

Do you know what happens when you apply strain to healthy human muscles? They grow stronger.

Do you know what happens when you put stress on healthy human bones? They grow stronger.

Do you know what happens when you put stress on a healthy human immune system? It gets stronger.

Do you know what happens when you put stress on a wine glass? It breaks.

That’s because a wine glass is fragile. Humans are antifragile.

Antifragile is a term coined by Nassim Nicholas Taleb to describe the properties of an object, system or being that gets stronger ­– more resilient, when exposed to moderate stressors.

And because resilience is such a foundational element of wellbeing, it would be negligent of educators and parents to deprive students of the chance to fail, or to shield them from healthy doses of guilt, fear, frustration, disappointment, sadness, and loss.

Because we are antifragile, these experiences tend to make us stronger – in the long run.

Of course, it’s natural to want our children and students to be safe and happy – all the time. But ironically, the more we try to protect them, the more we may risk doing them harm in the long run.

Licking the spoon

One of the best things about being a kid is having the right to lick the spoon that has been used to stir the cake mixture. OMG. Do you remember how amazing that was? Licking the spoon was, somehow, way more exciting than actually eating a slice of cake.

And the best part is that you don’t have to do any work.

Someone else has learned how to bake, chosen (or written) the recipe, carefully measured the quantities, sifted the flour, cracked the eggs, and stirred it all together. All you have to do is enjoy the resulting deliciousness with a smile!

As a result though, and as good as it tastes, it’s a pretty passive experience. You don’t learn much. Sure, you might come to discern which types of mixture you prefer, and you may even develop the ability to critique the different textural and flavour elements – that’s ‘a little too sweet’ or ‘a little bit lumpy’.

But the thing is, you can’t learn to bake by licking the spoon.

Learning to bake is hard. There will definitely be burnt cake along the way. But bit by bit you get to trade consumption for creation – opening up a new world of exploration and possibility. Best of all, you can still lick the spoon if you want to, but you can also gift the spoon and its joy to others – whenever you like.

The power of not knowing

In the ‘age of information’ in which we live, it is easy to be seduced by our limitless access to data and knowledge. Through the wonder of communications technology, we hold in our hands, a gateway to the collective wisdom of all of humanity. We have the answer to almost any question, literally at our fingertips.

What’s more, our students, our children are native to this experience.

And yet, learning, science, development, progress rely not so much on answers as on uncertainty.

What if there was no poverty on earth? What if men and women were treated equally, everywhere, all the time?

The same is true of education. Some of the best teaching and most powerful learning occurs when there is no answer, where there are no facts, just the tension of ambiguity and possibility. Where we have students, purposefully engaged in thought but revelling in mystery and uncertainty, we often find brilliant teachers. The great English poet, John Keats, described this state as ‘Negative Capability’; the embracing of not knowing the answer and not yearning for the answer.

Ultimately, it is not facts or correct answers that propel humanity; it is curiosity, not knowing, and the asking of ‘wonder-full’ and courageous questions.

Of course, knowledge, facts, and answers matter – but only as a starting point – a catalyst for what really matters. When students are taught that knowledge and ‘answers’ are just kindling for curiosity, not knowing, and ‘wonder-full’ and courageous questions, we move beyond the traditional schooling paradigm. And it’s here, in this realm, the realm of ‘What if…’ that we find education at its best – education that genuinely empowers students to make the world a better place.

You can’t teach a wall

Sometimes, it can be helpful to talk about ‘teaching’ and ‘learning’ as if they are two discrete concepts. Each has its own set of practicable skills, for example.

In reality, of course, they are not distinct. By definition, teaching requires someone to be learning. The only reason you can’t teach a wall is because it cannot learn.

And that’s why the most effective professional development for educators embraces the inherent entwinement of teaching and learning. When we view teaching and learning as two sides of the same coin – when we view education simultaneously through the lens of a teacher and a learner – then we can really begin to finess our classroom craft.

Words also matter

The children we teach are young ­– new to the world. But they have brains that are running two-million-year-old software.

Long before we had written or even spoken language, our ancestors relied on emotional interaction, eye contact, posture, facial expression, and body language to communicate and to catalyse and sustain our connection to our tribe.

These days, we have written and spoken language to help shape our students’ learning and their educational environment. But our students’ sense of safety, connection, and their emotional, physical and neurological state remain heavily affected by our ancient programming that instinctively scans more primeval forms of communication.

We should be careful, planned and deliberate with our words. They matter.

And so do all the many other forms of communication at our disposal.

A brain to challenge

I am currently visiting a school in Philadelphia and I was reminded of an old quote I first discovered years ago. It was published as part of a collection of quotations and adages in 1938 by Mary Pettibone Poole, in Philadelphia.

“To repeat what others have said, requires education;

to challenge it, requires brains.”

Schools have changed a lot in the 89 years since Poole made her remark but much remains the same. Educators must still teach key, foundational knowledge to students – this is the bedrock of wisdom. But the best educators are even more interested in using knowledge as a catalyst to inspire their students to ask interesting and important questions and to solve interesting, meaningful, challenging problems.

This is where really powerful learning begins.

Compliance prize

When a kid ‘gets an A’ on a test, it’s usually because they have complied with expectations. They wrote the answer we wanted them to write. We give them a compliance prize – an ‘A’ – and everyone is happy.

Compliance is easy to measure and easy to produce.

However, what an ‘A’ on a test doesn’t usually indicate is:

  • how much a student has actually learned;
  • how much they have contributed to the learning of others;
  • how able they are to innovate with their new learning; to apply their learning to novel, unexpected situations in adaptive ways.

We still spend a lot of time and energy in schools measuring and rewarding compliance. It seems the ‘real world’ though is increasingly valuing agility of learning, positive impact on others, and disruptive, innovative thinking. These are much harder to measure on a test.

Which story – achievement or failure?

Of course, as educators, we want our students to achieve. And we want them to push themselves, to strive beyond their current ability, to take risks and to embrace failure as an essential part of learning and of doing anything worthwhile.

But which message is the loudest? Which story are your students hearing? Which do they perceive as more important? Achievement or failure?

Because achievement is easy. You just choose the easy task. When we don’t have to try very hard, we rarely fail.

Effort counts twice

How much, if anything, does innate genetically-endowed talent contribute to a child’s musical or mathematical or sports achievement? Or is it all just down to hard work and effort?

The talent versus effort debate has been raging in academic circles for at least 300 years. And it is still a very-much alive discussion in schools around the world.

But perhaps it should end now.

University of Pennsylvania professor, Angela Duckworth, summarises hundreds of reseach studies into human performance and ability in these simple equations:

Talent x Effort = Skill

Skill Effort = Achievement

So, talent counts but effort counts twice.

(And given that we have 0% control over talent and 100% control over effort, it doesn’t seem like ‘talent’ should get much, if any, airtime in schools, does it?!)

Iteration is a choice

A typical classroom educator will deliver between 800 and 1,000 hours of teaching in a year. That might equate to around 1,000 lessons. Whilst each of these 1,000 lessons is unique, it is also relatively similar in many ways, to all the others. The structurally repetitive nature of teaching  provides a wonderful opportunity – more than in many professions – for iteration.

The English word ‘iteration’ derives from the latin ‘itemum’ – meaning ‘again’. Doing something again and again is the foundation of skill development.

However, I type on my computer keyboard for a couple of hours everyday and I’m not getting any better. I still make the same number of mistakes. This is because repetition doesn’t guarantee iteration.

Iteration is enabled when we do something repetitively and we have a specific focus on improvement towards a goal and we learn from the previous trial.

As a classroom educator, iteration is a choice. The alternative is stagnation or, worse, decay.

Good enough

As an educator, can you ever become good enough?

No.

Last week, I met a career teacher in his final year before retirement. He was one of the most engaged, interested and committed participants in a high quality professional development workshop.

I imagine that some of his colleagues do think that they’re good enough. But I can’t be sure, I didn’t get to meet them. They weren’t at the workshop. They gave up on commitment to systematic growth and development the day they decided they were good enough.

Risk, failure & flow

The psychological phenomenon known as flow‘ is characterised by complete absorption on a task. When in flow, our attentional awareness becomes entirely focussed on a single action, so much so that:

“Action and awareness merge. Time flies. Self vanishes. All aspects of performance –mental and physical – go through the roof.”

Steven Kotler, Director of Research,  Flow Genome Project

In classrooms, the neurochemical and neurophysiological changes generated by flow states can have a huge impact on creativity, learning and performance. But our students can only be in flow when they are pushed to their limits – or slightly beyond. Working at this threshold, approximately 4% outside of our current capability, is risky – failure is a real possibility.

And this is why schools need to orientate themselves as learning institutions rather than performance institutions. When the explicit goal is to learn, risk and failure are normalised, tolerated, and even celebrated. When the goal is to perform, we foster a natural aversion to risk and failure.

The best educators create classroom environments where students feel safe and embrace risk.

Failing never feels nice. But flow does – and accelerated, exciting learning definitely does.

Feedforward

Feedback, especially critical feedback, often isn’t pleasant to receive. And it’s really hard to hear it when it’s about our work. So why do we put ourselves through it? Why do we go out of our way to seek high-quality, genuinely constructive feedback from peers or mentors? Because it helps us grow. Feedback drives learning.

But when you give feedback, your intention matters.

Is your intention to deconstruct a performance from the past and give your view on what would have been better or what you would have done instead? Because that’s hard to listen to. That’s the kind of feedback that can easily demotivate someone or make them defensive.

Or is your intention to help illuminate someone’s future by highlighting inherent strengths and tools that can help them be even better? When we show that we genuinely care by walking beside someone in the process, helping them see a new path, that feels really different.

Some people call this feedforward instead.

I’m a seed, wondering why it grows

In one of the more obscure and lesser known Pearl Jam songs, titled Education, there’s a lyric, the final line in the song, that has kept popping back into my head as I have visited a number of different schools in recent months.

I’m a seed, wondering why it grows…

One of the key differences between good teachers and great teachers is this:

When taught by a good teacher, students learn well because they are taught well. But when taught by a great teacher, learning is qualitatively different. Students engage at a deeper level because they are motivated by a deeper sense of purpose, a deeper understanding of why their learning matters.

And at a larger scale, the same goes for schools. When schools and teachers work hard to nurture a genuine sense of purpose, when learning is linked, not to tests, but to solving interesting problems and to serving something greater than themselves, students feel like they are learning and growing for a reason. To borrow a metaphor from Michael Steger, the sense of purpose that great teachers foster, creates an anchor into the future that pulls students towards greater learning. When grounded in a greater purpose, learning makes sense and it matters.

Without this, it is not surprising that a student might wonder: What is all this for? Why are we doing this? 

If we, as educators, fail to invest heavily in a why of learning that resonates with our students, then they will continue to feel like “a seed, wondering why it grows”.

Read the fine print

If you work in education and haven’t been living under a rock for the past ten years, chances are you’re familiar with Dr Carol Dweck’s work on mindset. For decades, Dweck has been studying the effects that our beliefs about ability have on learning behaviours and our future success.

If you believe that ability is mostly the result of practice and hard work, you tend to work harder, practice more, accept more feedback and tackle more challenging problems. And guess what happens…you get better at whatever you are working on. Dweck calls this a growth mindset.

If you believe that ability is mostly the result of predetermined genetic factors or inherent ‘talent’, you don’t practice as diligently, are resistant to feedback and tackle less challenging problems. (After all, there’s no point practicing if ability is genetic.) And guess what happens…you don’t get better at whatever ability it is you think is ‘talent’ based. She calls this a fixed mindset.

Despite some vocal critics of Dweck’s work, there are significant benefits associated with nurturing a growth mindset in children. But like all psychological theories, we need to be careful not to skim the headlines of research and, consequently, develop blunt, broad-spectrum, low-resolution approaches.

Here are just a few of the situations in which Dweck herself, a staunch proponent of growth mindset, has explained that a fixed mindset is healthier and beneficial:

  • When faced with certain acute mental or physical health conditions, those who believe they will be able to work their own way through it or ‘get over it’ may be less likely to seek professional or medical help and therefore increase the risk of harm.
  • When faced with issues associated with sexual orientation, those who accept that this is who they are and this is who they’re meant to be seem to respond more effectively and adjust more healthily than people who think they should be resisting or trying to change something about themselves.
  • When faced with the realisation of aging, graceful acceptance of the inevitability of physical change is often associated with more healthy adaptation of behaviour. In Dweck’s words, we are less likely to “run around nipping and tucking”.

As educators, we should be consuming high-quality research findings. But when we do, it’s important to read the headlines and the ‘fine print’.

The horrible first draft

Neil Gaiman, highly acclaimed author, and master story teller, creator of works including Coraline, and the Sandman graphic novels, said it this way:

“Nobody is ever meant to read your first draft.”

Terry Pratchett, knighted for his services to literature, said it this way:

“The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.”

Ernest Hemingway, Nobel Prize winning author, said it this way:

“The first draft of anything is shit.”

But the thing is…our first draft is also our best draft…

…until we do a second draft. And we can’t do a second draft unless we’re brave enough to do a first draft.

The human species, more than any other, is a learning species. We are born as a blank slate with almost no inherent capabilities other than to cry, eat, sleep and learn. When you read Hemingway or watch Federer or listen to Gaga, don’t forget that they once had a ‘first draft’ too – and it was rubbish.

Tinkering is not innovation

I have a one-year old daughter who is quite playful. She likes to pick up objects and experiment with different ways of using them. She is too young to have any clear purpose underpinning her play. This is tinkering.

I also have a three-year old son who is quite playful. He likes to play with toy cars. He has a favourite purple Hotwheels car that he loves to zoom across the lounge room floor. He enjoys experimenting with different techniques with the clear purpose of trying to maximise the travel distance of the car. In a recent extended play session, he realised that using a ‘backhand’ technique allowed the car to travel straighter and therefore further than a ‘forehand’ technique. Now, he only ever uses the backhand zooming method. This is innovation.

Both tinkering and innovation are sparked by curiosity. But innovation alone, in car zooming or schools, is guided by purpose – by a bigger ‘why’.

Until you have a clear purpose, stop tinkering.

Why professional development often fails

Depending on which study you read, somewhere between 40% and 90% of our typical daily behaviours are based on the automatic routines that we call habits. The cue of getting into my car, for example, triggers a whole sequence of automatic behaviours that occur without any conscious thought at all. Literally before I know it, my seatbelt is on, the mirror and seat are adjusted, the car is started and I’m in reverse.

The huge upside of habits is that they free up our limited conscious attentional capacity to focus on other more important, complex or novel stimuli. The downside of habits is that they are very resistant to change. Just ask anyone who’s tried and failed to alter their diet or begin a new fitness regime or give up smoking.

Creating any significant, long-term behavioural change requires creating a new habit. And this is exactly the intended purpose of professional development (PD) in schools. We are trying to facilitate a shift in behavioural patterns of educators to enable, for example, more effective responses to student mistakes, or more efficient student feedback.

But here’s the thing, changing a habit requires three key elements: first – motivation to make a change, second – a sense of agency or empowerment, and third – repeated reinforcement of the new behaviour. Too often, unfortunately, PD is designed to educate rather than empower. New knowledge from a PD session is irrelevant if I don’t feel motivated or empowered to enact it. And when I don’t enact it, there is no benefit or reinforcement. So I end up learning new stuff that has zero behavioural impact. Sound familiar?

So when considering attending a PD, conference or training, view it through the lens of habits. Is this PD likely to inspire a change in my behaviour? Will I feel empowered to make that change? And will I have the capacity to repeatedly enact the new behaviour and experience some form of reward or benefit as a consequence?

If the answer to any of these questions is ‘no’, then there are probably better ways to spend your time and money.

Will this be on the test?

Will this be on the test?

If you hear this question in your classroom, you know something has gone wrong.

Here are just some of the potential problems associated with this question:

  • It is symptomatic of extrinsic motivation;
  • (Or worse…) It is symptomatic of a teacher using a test to generate compliance;
  • Students are devaluing anything that is not ‘on the test’;
  • Students are valuing test performance over actual learning;
  • (Or worse…) Students feel their teacher or parents are valuing test performance over actual learning;
  • Students are concerned about the consequence of a test score;
  • Students are wasting cognitive and attentional capacity thinking about the test rather than their actual learning;
  • Creativity is suppressed (because most tests reward compliance and memorisation rather than creative, divergent, or innovative thinking);
  • Students are incentivised to provide the ‘right answer’ rather than thinking critically or innovatively;
  • Students are focussed on some arbitrary ‘scoring’ on a test to demonstrate their learning;
  • (Or worse…) The teacher is using a test as the primary measure of student learning;
  • (Or worse still…) The teacher is emphasising test performance because the teacher / school leadership is using student test scores as a primary measure of the teacher’s proficiency, skill, or performance.

But there is one thing even more worrying, than a student asking ‘Will this be on the test?’. And that’s a teacher saying “This will be on the test.”

That’s not at all to say that assessment is bad – quite the opposite. There are many, many effective and valuable ways of formatively and summatively assessing student learning. Some of the best involve students actively constructing or performing or transforming something. And many of these methods involve collaboration and teamwork and ‘open books‘.

But rarely is a ‘test’ the best way to really assess learning. And never is it a good way to motivate students.

Homemade

When you buy a cake from the shop and serve it to your guests, it tastes nice, they like it, and you’ve saved time and effort. But you’ve learned nothing about baking.

Many teachers lean heavily on materials and structures built and determined by others. It’s just easier that way.

But when you get the chance to see a lesson being taught by a teacher who has carefully designed, orchestrated, and crafted a student experience from the ground up – with their own stamp on every part if it – you see something different. Not only do you see a teacher who is more deeply invested in the lesson but you see a teacher who is really learning. The real-time student response provides rich and meaningful data that allows a teacher to not only refine their pedagogy, but also to become a better lesson architect.

Great teaching is as much about preparation and design as it is about delivery.

When you start baking for the first time, you make mistakes and you learn. But soon enough, you are able to bake a homemade cake that tastes better than anything you can buy in a shop.

 

 

Brain birth

You’ve probably heard of neuroplastity, right? Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to change and reorganise itself throughout our life. Our brain literally changes itself to enable you and me to become better and more efficient at skills we practice. Brain circuits that we use regularly not only ‘wire together’ but, due to a process called myelination, can transmit information up to 100 times faster than standard brain circuits. If you’re not very good at knitting or sudoku or maths or telling jokes, it’s because you haven’t given your brain enough opportunity to adapt. Neuroplasticity is also the process that allows people like Jodie Miller to have half of her brain surgically removed and to recover to live a relatively normal life.

But, do you know about neurogenesis? It was only a few years ago that psychology and biology textbooks were stating that the adult human brain has approximately 100 billion brain cells and you can’t grow any more. Wrong. It turns out that mammals – like us – are constantly growing new brain cells;  particularly in the hippocampus, an area associated with memory and learning.

Ultimately, it is the mechanics of neuroplasticity and neurogenesis that allow us to learn.

It’s also why the phrase: “I’m just not good at _________” doesn’t really make sense scientifically. Instead, we should encourage the phrase: “I’m just not good at _________ yet“. Those three simple letters, y-e-t, encapsulate an understanding of the incredible ability of the human brain to help us become better at whatever we choose to practice.