Slow food approach to change

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.

Careful, not too far

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.

Why did the human cross the road?

If you’ve ever visited Vietnam you’ll be familiar with the ‘experience’ of crossing the road on foot. If you haven’t, you might struggle to imagine what it feels like to walk out into a swarm of oncoming motor scooters that seem to be oblivious to the laws requiring vehicles to stop at pedestrian crossings.

Against your instincts, locals will tell you to step confidently out into the scooter-stream, look straight ahead and walk at a steady pace across the road. Somehow, scooters rapidly zip behind and in front of you – as if perfectly choreographed. It sounds and seems crazy, but it works.

It works because everyone knows the intention and direction of each other. The scooter-riders know that you are trying to get from one side to the other. And they know that you are going to walk straight and steady. You know that they are going to steer around you – as long as you walk straight and steady.

In amongst the apparent chaos, these predictable behaviours create an effective and efficient system. Everyone gets where they need to go safely and reliably.

There are times in our lives when it makes sense to embrace experimentation, growth, challenge, and innovation. And there are other times when it makes sense to keep our head down and walk straight and steady…just to get to the other side.

17.9 billion reasons

Mind if we do a few sums? Let’s start with some statistics.

  • In Australia, there are approximately 180 school days in a year.
  • The average salary for a school teacher is approximately AUD$65,000 ($68,000 for high school and $63,000 for primary).
  • There are approximately 276,000 teachers (full-time-equivalent) in about 9,480 schools (primary and secondary).

So here we go with the maths…

On average:

  • Each school has 29 teachers (276,000 teachers ÷ 9,480 schools = 29)
  • A teacher’s daily salary is $361 ($65,000 ÷ 180 working days)
  • Each school pays $10,469 per day in salaries (29 teachers x $361 daily rate)

interesting…but wait for this…

Overall, Australian schools spend a tick under 100 million dollars per day on salaries alone! Check the sums: 276,000 x 361 = $99,636,000. Then you multiply that number by 180 teaching days and we get the annual figure of $17,934,480,000. Yep, that’s 17.9 billion dollars on teacher salaries. And that includes neither the money spent by schools on normal operations, such as maintenance, construction, supplies, energy; nor related peripheral costs such as money spent on fuel driving kids to school.

The total number is hard to calculate but the annual amount spent on the Australian school system may well come close to the country’s total yearly military expenditure of around $35 billion (which is the 13th highest in the world).

So what? Why does this matter?

Well, if, as a country, we’re going to spend somewhere in the vicinity of $20-30 billion a year on a system, it better be good. If we’re going to all this effort of bringing together five million people (teachers, students, support staff) across 9,480 schools every day, it better be a damn good system.

And this is the reason why we have to continue to ask hard questions. This is the reason why it’s not okay to simply accept the status quo. This is the reason why we must be courageous in challenging broken parts of the system. This is the reason why we cannot tolerate any teaching that is not highly professional, prepared, engaged, focussed, and enthusiastic.

This is reason why we have to remain curious and always open to the possibility that there is a better way.

The power of externalities

The primary outcome of beekeeping is the production of delicious honey. One side effect of beekeeping is that surrounding crops get pollinated which increases the yield for crop farmers. The beekeeper receives no direct income from the healthier, higher value crops but the whole community is better off because of the bees.

In economic terms, this phenomenon is referred to as a positive externality.

We see externalities occur in almost all interconnected systems. In schools, a student’s experience in Lesson 1 with Teacher A can have a huge impact on that student’s approach to Lesson 2 with Teacher B. When Lesson 1 is full of positive emotion, engagement, meaningful connection, achievement and purpose, students walk into Lesson 2 with an optimised psychology and a neurology primed for learning.

There are also negative externalities – such as when pollution emitted by a factory spoils the surrounding environment or when Teacher A allows negativity, disengagement, or disempowerment to fester in Lesson 1. In this case, Lesson 2 feels very, very different for Teacher B and the students.

This is a big part of the reason why wellbeing needs to be placed at the heart of a school or organisation for it to really transform a culture. The more of the community that embrace and ‘live’ wellbeing, the more likely we are to experience the dynamic upward spiral of wellbeing that positive externalities can power.

We are the system

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.