Second serve

With Wimbledon under way again we’re reminded what a graceful, exciting and, at times, quirky sport tennis is.

One of the quirkiest aspects is the serve. You get two serves – two attempts – every time. If you miss the first one, no worries, you get another go. Is there any other mainstream sport in the world where you are allowed to completely mess up, without any form of penalty, and have another try? Golf would be a very different game if you could have another go at hitting that putt you just missed. And soccer would be so much less stressful if you were allowed to freely retake a missed penalty shot.

One of the benefits of a second serve in tennis is that it allows players to push the threshold of possibility with their first serve. Risk is all but eliminated. Players hit the first serve with a physical freedom rarely seen in other sports because there is incentive to: the chance of an ‘ace’. And because there is almost no incentive to hold back. There is no fear of failure.

When we are incentivised to push ourselves to the limit of our abilities and we are freed of any fear of failure, we end up with a recipe for excitement and peak human performance.

I wonder how different our classrooms would feel if students were always allowed a second serve?

This is safety

There’s a scene in pretty much every horror and thriller film when one of the characters walks slowly towards the darkness, their heart thumping, not knowing what lies around the corner…

This is fear.

I remember a boy that I went to school with who was bullied relentlessly – he didn’t know what was going to happen to him each lunchtime.

This is fear.

I remember a teacher I occasionally had in primary school who was very unpredictable – we never knew what to expect or who he was going to interrogate.

This is fear.

And in the best classrooms, students feel at home and connected. There are no unseen dangers around corners. There are social norms and a group dynamic that nurture certainty. Whatever happens – especially if I show vulnerability, take a risk, or fail – everying is going to be alright.

In these classrooms, students feel a sense of belonging. They know it’s okay to be less than perfect. They feel listened to and cared for. And their performance is optimised.

This is safety.

The cost of human experience

Is attention.

We can make time, buy time, and find time. But not attention.

That’s because attention is the currency of human experience. Our lives are a series of experiences – and for each experience we have to pay attention. Once spent, we cannot get any more.

And just like money, the way we spend our attention determines the value we receive from it. When we divide it, we dilute it. When we focus it, we magnify its impact signficantly.

Some research has found that productivity can be enhanced by up to 500% in times of peak attentional focus, or flow. And other studies have shown that the simple presence of a moble phone on a desk– even when it’s turned off – siphons away a small amount of attention; significantly reducing cogntive performance.

When we refect on our day or year or life, we are doing nothing more than looking back on what we paid attention to. Attention is a finite, non-renewable resource. It is the most valuable resource we will ever possess. That’s why so many companies and people want it. And that’s why we must not waste it.

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?!)

Blueberries for homework

I wonder how often Grade 4 or Year 10 teachers set, for homework, the following: ‘Eat blueberries’. It’s probably pretty uncommon.

It shouldn’t be.

One of the most exciting, emerging areas of educational research, one with potential to significantly impact student learning across the board, is: food.

Research from institutions all over the world is beginning to help us understand, for the first time, the direct impact of different nutrients on cognitive performance. Some of the most interesting findings include:

Folic acid (leafy green vegetables) increased memory and information processing speed Wageningen University, Netherlands
Omega-3 fatty acids (fish) increased brain plasticity, neural efficiency University of California, USA
Anthocyanins (blueberries) increased long-term memory performance Tufts University, USA

But it’s not all good news. It seems that, despite tasting good, processed sugary foods  have a harmful impact on cognitive processing (University of Otago, NZ). And a range of studies have indicated a very concerning link between artificially sweetened foods and early damage to to brain cells and impaired cognitive function.

It’s easy to forget that learning is not a psychological process – it’s a physical one. When we help students learn, we are not just helping them understand ideas, we are literally changing their brains. And the building blocks and scaffolding for all of this brain construction come directly from the food we eat.

This research is still in its infancy, but ultimately, we may well discover that the quality of food students eat long-term, has as much impact on their learning, memory and performance as the quality of teaching they are exposed to.

As wellbeing becomes increasingly prioritised by schools around the world, we need to integrate knowledge, not just from human and psychological sciences, but also from nutritional science. Feeling good and doing good depends on eating well.