Wait, why am I learning this?

If I walked into a random classroom at your school and asked a random student: “This thing you’re learning right now, why are you learning it?”, would they have a good answer? And what if we disallowed the following answers: “Because it’s on the test.” and “Because my teacher told me to.”? Would the student be able to clearly articulate the underlying value and purpose of the lesson?

Learning driven by a deep sense of real-world meaning and powered by curiosity, hope and intrinsic motivation is so powerful. Yet, there are still many lessons being delivered that are void of this sense of meaning and driven, instead, by some form of external motivator (eg stickers, tokens, money, grades, fear, etc).

The best educators always ensure the ‘why‘ is strong – at the heart of their classroom – even in very young students. The ‘why‘ is the source-code of inspiration and the fuel of long-term passion and perseverance.

The ‘why‘ makes learning matter.

Stuff happens

Life is spelt H.A.S.S.L.E. —Albert Ellis​, psychologist

Life is difficult. — M. Scott Peck, psychiatrist & author

Life is suffering. — Buddha

Shit happens. — Anonymous

In seeking to live a rich, full, and meaningful life, here’s what’s guaranteed: you will regularly experience fear, anger, guilt, frustration, disappointment, and sadness.

A ‘life well-lived’, a ‘flourishing’ life will always be one that comes as a package of positive and negative emotional experience. And that’s because it’s a life full of ‘stuff’ that matters.

(It is, therefore, possible to avoid negative emotional experience all together. Just don’t do anything that matters. Have no meaningful relationships, don’t seek to grow or develop at all, set no goals for yourself, never fall in love, and don’t contribute to your community. Instead, just sit on the sofa and watch reruns of Star Trek for the rest of your life.)

Wellbeing science is not attempting to make us ‘happy’ all the time or to help us avoid negative emotional experience. But it is seeking to provide evidence-based skills, knowledge, and strategies that help us handle the inevitable ups and downs of life more effectively.

A ‘good life’ still sucks at times. But we can learn, from wellbeing and human sciences, to better equip ourselves, family, friends, colleagues, and students for the journey.

You might be wrong

Here’s a little quiz:

1. What’s your earliest memory?

2. Approximately how old were you at the time?

My guess is that your answer to both of those questions is wrong.

There is now a significant body of evidence that we are forming memories in our mother’s womb from about 30 weeks after conception. Your first memories were laid down well before you were born. And, in fact, many of your most powerful, enduring, and important memories were formed in your first two years of life.

In your first months, you memorised a hugely complex set of sensory, cognitive and muscular interactions that enabled you to walk (a feat that even the most sophisticated robots in the world struggle with), and to memorise thousands of sequences of sounds to enable you to talk. You permanently memorised the incredibly subtle adjustments in facial expressions of adults around you that helped you interpret human emotions. You created memories that would help protect your life into your future – memories associated with danger, fear, and pain.

And these memories formed without any conscious effort or awareness. Psychologists refer to these unconscious recordings as implicit memories.

Implicit memories never stop being formed. In fact, our implicit memory store is, in a sense, far bigger and more influential than our explicit memory store – memories that we can consciously recall.

Sometimes I hear people say that they hardly remember anything they were taught at school. This, again, is entirely wrong.

Sure, at school, we learn (and forget) lists of capital cities or how to work out the area of a circle. But we also form indelible memories that will shape our life.

From our peers and our teachers we learn what kindness and unkindness feels like, we learn trust and forgiveness, we learn the value of truth and when to lie, we learn compassion and the impact of selfishness, we come to know failure and hope, we learn how power can be used to control, coerce or enliven others. And, if we’re lucky, we begin to learn love, and we ‘learn ourselves’.

None of these memories will ever be forgotten.

So if you thought of school mostly as a place where kids go to learn explicit skills and knowledge…sorry, you were wrong again.

Rinse, repeat

Teaching has a very distinctive rhythm. Term 1 begins, classes commence, new relationships are formed, everyone is fresh and hopeful and primed. We work through to the middle of the school year, more comfortable now – perhaps a little tired. But our relationships warm just as winter sets in. And then the end draws close, we ramp up again to the crescendo of final projects and exams and reports and then…quiet. Summer.

And then we do it all again.

There is something deeply comforting about predictable rhythms. Nature has embedded a biological clock in our bodies that is synchronised with the sun. The language that we speak is a symphony of pitch and rhythm and it is the recognisable beat of different genres of music that draws us in.

Rhythm is reassuring and hypnotic.

For teachers, the annual rhythm is both a blessing and a curse. There is a defined start and end, we know where we stand. We know where we have been and where we are headed. We can predict the ups and downs. And we know that as we tire, the rejuvenating break is near.

And…we are busy. What worked last year, will probably be fine again this year.  My style, my way, fits the beat. Why fix what isn’t broke. We rinse, repeat. And the years can slip by.

But when, as teachers, we seek first, to embrace and serve the child, each year and each day is unique because each student’s needs are unique. The rhythm of schooling remains, but it becomes a somewhat muted backbeat in contrast to the bright, new melody of each of our students.

This perspective, this unwavering focus on the heart of their students is the reason why some of the most enthusiastic and dynamic educators in the world are in their 4th and 5th decades of teaching. They feel the rhythm but they live and teach for the melody.

 

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”.

What if we work together instead?

The International Space Station (ISS) is, arguably, the most incredible feat of human engineering ever. It is also the most expensive single item ever constructed – costing over US$150 billion to construct. It is also, potentially, the most valuable tool available to humanity. Already, medical and environmental discoveries have been made onboard – and the scientific research that the ISS enables, may one day lead to us populating other planets. Amazing.

And it has only been possible because of cooperation instead of competition. The ISS is a joint project involving four countries; Canada, Japan, Russia, USA. The ISS was realised because these four countries worked together (along with the European Space Agency) to fund, design, and construct it.

It simply would not exist in a competitive environment.

It’s interesting, therefore, to consider the widely accepted notion in schools that competition is critical because it ‘builds character’ and ‘produces excellence’.

Actually, much of the evidence relating to schools suggests that competition tends to: suppress innovation, reduce standards of excellence, harm self-esteem, reduce teamwork, limit empathy, and increase anxiety. And numerous studies have shown that, when students are cooperating and supporting each other rather than trying to beat each other, they not only perform better but enjoy the activity more.

If you delete competition and other forms of extrinsic motivation, all we have left as a motivational catalyst is meaning and purpose. When a child or adult is doing something that they feel inherently makes sense and it matters, competition becomes redundant. In fact, when we’re doing something that feels like it really matters we are instinctively compelled to work with others, not against them, because we know the force-multiplying effect that cooperation unlocks.

Ultimately, the building of character and production of excellence requires, not competition, but the fostering of cooperation, empathy, interdependence, and a sense of united purpose. When we get this right, amazing things happen in schools and International Space Stations get built.

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.