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.

Plan vs Design

If one person asked you to ‘plan’ a party and another asked you to ‘design’ a party, would you consider these two tasks to be identical?

What about the ‘plan’ of your living room versus its ‘design’?

Planning starts with well-understood components and organises them in an efficient and logical way. (We’ll do the party games first and then have the cake at the end.)

Design is different. Design is linked to desire. Design starts with a well-understood intention and harnesses imagination to create something that works to serve the intention. (We want our living room to make people feel calm and relaxed.)

Trainee teachers are taught very early about the value of lesson planning and curriculum planning. It’s important, of course, for lessons to be well-structured and efficient.

But lessons really come to life when they are well planned and well designed. Design works when it optimises human experience.

Here are some lesson design questions:

  • What is the intention of the opening three minutes of the lesson? Is it to energise students, to calm them, to focus them, to nurture a sense of safety? How can I create an experience that achieves this intention?
  • What is the desired emotional state for the main lesson activity? Do I want my students to feel stretched, or grateful, or inspired, or…? How can I create an experience that achieves this desire?
  • How can I create an environment in this lesson in which students feel competent, connected, and autonomous?

Great teaching isn’t based on planning perfect lessons. Rather, it is based on an iterative design process driven by a clear intention that creates powerful learning experiences.

Twice as good

The best educators are so because they are students of their craft. No one is born a great teacher. Like all complex crafts, it takes thousands of hours of practice and years of experience to hone world-class teaching practice.

Great teachers are constantly seeking to sharpen their skills. They know they can continue to improve and so they work hard to become 5 or 10% better each year.

And when you ask one of these top teachers: “Is it possible for you to, one day, be twice as good as you are now?”, they invariably say ‘Yes’. And even more interestingly, they can describe what this would look like.

They have already envisaged this reality.

This future reality is the source-code of innovation in education.

Best version

There’s a quote in Adam Grant’s excellent book, Originals, that stands out – particularly when read through the eyes of an educator:

“In the deepest sense of the word, a friend is someone who sees more potential in you than you see in yourself, someone who helps you become the best version of yourself.”

This is not just true of friends.

In the deepest sense of the term, a great teacher is someone who sees more potential in their students than their students see in themselves, someone who helps their students become the best version of themselves.

That is our goal.

But there are wrong ways

Is there a ‘right’ way to teach or to parent children? Is there a ‘right’ way to lead a school or organisation? Is there a ‘right’ way to be a friend or colleague?

No. (Life would be so easy if there was.)

But there are wrong ways. It is wrong to parent with abuse. It is wrong to lead with corruption. It is wrong to manipulate friends and colleagues with fear.

And there are wrong ways to teach. Whilst good and great teachers often have very different styles and commonly embrace their varied idiosyncrasies, there are three things that should never, ever occur in any classroom:

  • Intentional humiliation or shaming of a student. This causes so much harm, including to the embarrassed student, to class cohesion, and to the students’ and parents’ respect of the teacher. This is a lose-lose-lose scenario. It is never justifiable.
  • Giving up on a student. Teachers are trained professionals whose job it is to unconditionally nurture and seek the best in every child. It is particularly at the most difficult times, with the most challenging students, that we must model hope.
  • Speaking badly about one student or one group of students to another. This is a form of disloyalty that is not only entirely unprofessional but will inevitably get back to the original student or group and erode trust and relationships further.

Teaching is a highly demanding profession. We will make mistakes. Mistakes are inevitable, understandable, and forgivable. But the above are not.

TBE

As new parents, my wife and I often ask ourselves: “What did we used to do with our time before we had kids?!”

Educators might ask the same thing about email: “What did we used to with our time before we had email?!”

I wonder if that’s when intellectual conversations and debates were had between colleagues. I wonder if this is when books were read and letters were penned? I wonder if that’s when teachers worked on their subject knowledge, and designed and wrote their own curriculum? I wonder if this was when teachers were able to occasionally go for a stroll, to relax and refresh?

I grew up with a Mum who was a teacher in the 70s, 80s and 90s. So I know that those times TBE (Teaching Before Email) had their own challenges. And email isn’t all bad – there are so many advantages in us being able to stay connected with each other.

But TBE, there must have been something nice about being able, at the end of the day, to literally, switch off.

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.

RPM

The rate of spin on a ball that a golfer hits off a tee affects the distance the ball travels. Lower spin rates mean greater distance. Professional golfers hit a ball off a tee with about 2680 RPM (revolutions per minute). I hit the ball off a tee with about 3300 RPM. But I’m getting better.

I enjoy going to the golf simulator which allows me to hit a real ball into a screen – surrounded by sensors that measure the direction and spin of the ball. The incredible level of accuracy and instantaneous nature of the feedback allow me to continuously tweak and improve my swing. I’m getting measurably better, hour by hour.

Imagine if we could apply similar technology to teaching. Imagine if we could harness cutting-edge human-awareness and biometric technology to measure student engagement and to parse classroom language in real time. Imagine if a teacher could slightly tweak their methodology and get instant feedback on the effect on student engagement and learning. Imagine if, for example, as teachers experiment with different ways to ask questions, they could get accurate, live data on average student RPM (responses per minute).

Imagine if even experienced teachers were getting measurably better, lesson by lesson.

Whilst there are ethical issues still to resolve, this future is coming.

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”.

Emotion vs Emotion

You know when you’re angry and someone or something makes you laugh – and you no longer feel angry anymore? This is the psychological phenomenon known as reciprocal inhibition.

In essence, it is impossible for a human to feel two opposing emotions at the same time. For example, we can’t feel admiration and disgust at the same time; or compassion and hostility; or interest and boredom. In each of these cases, one emotion dominates and, in doing so, represses the other.

This is, in part, why Dr Kerry Howells‘ work on gratitude in education is so important. When we cultivate a deep sense of gratitude, it forces us out of our own heads. When we feel gratitude, we experience a world that is not ‘about me’ but rather, about the gifts we receive from others. And so – instead of being affected by our own fear or guilt or grudges or worries – gratitude opens our hearts and minds – it allows us to transcend ourselves.

Gratitude isn’t just a nice emotion we feel on a ‘good’ day – it’s a strategy that causes us to educate differently. And because we all have so much to be thankful for, gratitude is a choice…even on a ‘bad’ day.

…especially on a ‘bad’ day.

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 art of living well

In 335 BCE, Arisitotle set up his own school, the Lyceum, in a gymnasium on the outskirts of Athens. It was around this time, in his role as a teacher, that he is famously quoted as saying:

“Those who educate children well are more to be honored than they who produce them; for these only gave them life, those the art of living well.”

It’s a pretty big statement! And as a father and an educator, personally I’m not entirely sure that my parental role excludes helping my son and daughter to learn to ‘live well’. I hope it is not true of my son and daughter that I “only gave them life”.

That said, it’s a powerful sentiment. In many ways, parents are, often, the foundation of a child’s wellbeing. But teachers play a huge role in shaping, guiding and inspiring the future lives of their students.

That shouldn’t be surprising though. Surely, the most succinct way to describe the fundamental purpose of education is: enabling students to ‘live well’. Isn’t that what schools are for?

Professional isn’t enough

‘Teaching’ is, really, a word we use to describe a vast collection of tasks and actions which can range from emotional counselling of students through to marketing the school at conferences. Obviously, planning and delivering lessons is part of ‘teaching’ along with: assessment; professional mentorship; student behaviour, wellbeing, performance and mistake management; and much more. It is a complex job with many ‘moving parts’. Some of the tasks are discreet, some are interrelated, some are short-term, others are infinite, some require collaboration, others require deep contemplation.

Unfortunately, in the busyness of an educator’s day, these seperate tasks and actions tend to blur into an overall ‘job’ that we call ‘teaching’. And when we fail to seperate tasks, it is impossible to ask ourselves the question: what would I have to do to perform this task at a world-class level? What would ‘truly remarkable’ look like as I perform this task?

And when we’re not asking those questions, we’re probably not asking the more important question: how do I do this task better and better each time?

Instead, for many teachers, even many good teachers, the standard they hold themselves to is: ‘good enough’. My student reports are good enough. My lesson plan is good enough. My marking and assessment are good enough. “Good enough’ is linked closely to the concept of ‘professionalism’ – minimum expected standards of behaviour and performance.

‘Good enough’ is fine and it’s safe. But ‘good enough’ is the enemy of ‘outstanding’. When we raise the standard of accountability from ‘good enough’ to ‘outstanding’ or ‘exceptional’, we’re raising the stakes. We struggle more, we fail more, we make more noise and get criticised more. But these are the educators who are remembered, who are driving the profession forward and who are really making a difference.

Think like a kid

Do you really remember what it was like to be a 6 year old, a 10 year old, a 15 year old at school. Can you remember what that felt like? Do you remember what mattered to you? Can you remember the emotion, the feeling of trying to fit in, to find your place, to grow up? Do you remember what it felt like when you succeeded and when you disappointed yourself, your teacher, your parents? Can you picture where you used to sit in the classroom, and who your friends were? Do you remember the teachers that you never really liked and the ones that you loved and trusted.

Hold on to these thoughts dearly.

These memories, these experiences that you have are the guiding light of a great teacher. One of the real and growing risks as we become a teacher and earn qualifications and start clocking years of service is that we start to think too much like a teacher.

Theories of pedagogy and years of practice and Masters and PhDs and teaching toolkits only really matter if we remember how to think like a kid.

Our work is to shape and inspire the minds of a children. The more we can be with them, in their world, as we plan and execute our craft, the more effective we can be.

You are not perfect

As we develop experience in our profession, we are able to become more independent. Our experience serves as a reference to help guide decisions. We recognise familiar situations and know how to respond. And we draw on experience to adapt to novel situations.

This independence, however, can lead to an experienced educator going to work, surrounded by hundreds or even thousands of other humans, and enjoying close personal connections, but still feeling lonely, professionally. Once we reach a certain level of experience, a kind of self-imposed expectation can set in that causes us to feel that we should just be able to ‘get on with it’. It is surprisingly rare for experienced, skilled educators to seek help with fine-tuning their skills. Sure, there might be different teams or networks designed to encourage supportive collaboration, but day-to-day, many experienced educators feel reluctant to (or don’t know how to) ask for help.

But here’s the thing. High-quality teaching is very, very complex. There are so many different interconnected skills required – everything from advanced computer skills to relationship counselling and a thousand others in between. Despite what you might think, every educator you meet is better than you at one or more of those skills. And even if you have some super-star, legendary teacher at your school who you hope to be like some day, you are better than them at one or more of those skills.

Imagine what the profession might be like if we were all able to demonstrate just a little more vulnerability and growth orientation – to be a little more willing to ask for skill-based help, guidance, and advice from each other.

 

Closed circuit

The purpose of closed-circuit television systems (CCTV) is for cameras to record information and send it to one specific location. CCTV is a secure, private system that is the opposite of broadcasting – in which the signal is openly transmitted and anyone can tune in.


You know those rare days, where everything goes right and you are at the top of your game. I had one of those days in 2010. My mother had come to visit the school I was teaching in and, on that day, I was teaching my favourite Year 12 Psychology class. I had done extra preparation for the lesson – I wanted it to go well – and the students were absolutely engaged throughout the lesson and swept-up in the content on ‘evolutionary theories of relationships’. At the end of the lesson, my students left the classroom buzzing and, although I was glad it went well and so happy that my mum had seen me at my best, I kind of wished that I had recorded the lesson. It really was one of my best ever lessons. But no one will ever know. And no other teacher will ever be able to learn from it. (They also won’t be able to learn from all the lessons that didn’t work so well.)

That’s because traditional classroom teaching is closed-circuit.

We are starting to get better, as a profession, at designing more open-circuits. Regular lesson observations, peer-mentoring and ‘walk-throughs’, for example, are commonplace in good schools these days. And some of the most innovative schools are creating safe, transparent, active forums and ‘open-source’ databases; not only encouraging the sharing of best practice, but building it into the heart of the teaching infrastructure.

If we can get it right, this broadcasting of ‘what works’ is a way for us to galvanise our collective resources. It may just be the spark that we need to help ignite an evolution in pedagogy.

What’s the best teaching style?

The world would be a a little bit less interesting if we all liked the same music. A colleague recently attended a heavy metal music festival – and loved it. That’s strange – to me. I love music and have listened to enough heavy metal to know that I just don’t get it. In fact, the more I listen to it, the less I think I like it.

Human preference is a very complex thing. Undoubtedly, our experience and personal history influence the food we like, the art we enjoy and where we like to go on holiday. But, increasingly, we’re finding that personality and even genetics also play a role in everything from our like or dislike for bitter coffee to our temperature preference.

This is why there is no one specific style of teaching that is best. When I had the opportunity to interview some of the world’s best teachers for a writing project in 2011, there were certainly some consistencies between them all such as their unwavering sense of their own values and a their deep personal investment in knowing each student. But these world-class educators were all very different in style – some radically so. In fact, it was often their comfort with their idiosyncrasies that made them stand out.

There is certainly good and bad teaching, but there is no inherently good or bad style of teaching.

If anyone ever criticises your teaching style or suggests you need to do things differently – they might be right – we need to remain open to feedback – but they might be wrong. They might just have a different preference. And if they’re the type of person who likes heavy metal – don’t listen to anything they say! 😉

What’s your hook?

One thing that almost all great plays, brilliant speeches or addictive TV series like Mad Men (a current favourite!) have in common is a captivating, attention grabbing, opening ‘hook’. It’s sometimes an image or a scene or a phrase or a line delivered by an actor. This hook inadvertently sucks us in to the content and, often, our entire attentional capacity is so zoomed in that the performance in front of us becomes our reality.

Yet, so few school lessons begin in such a way. Not every lesson needs to be mind-blowing. And a teacher is not a performer on a stage. But every great lesson has a ‘hook’. The opening few minutes of a lesson are so critical in setting up deep learning and focussed attention. In the best classrooms, students quickly become completely immersed in their learning because whatever they are doing immediately feels like it matters and it makes sense. The ability to rapidly cultivate a sense of purpose, a ‘hook’, is right at the core of great teaching.

Our classrooms can be absolutely as captivating as video games and iPhones – but only when we deliberately and skilfully ‘hook in’ our students.

What’s the ‘hook’ in your next lesson or speech?

99.9% hidden

I was a classroom teacher in mainstream secondary schools for about 15 years. Each year, I taught for about 40 weeks; 200 days. For the sake of round numbers, let’s say I taught five lessons per day. That works out to be 15 years x 200 days x 5 lessons = 15,000 lessons.

It’s hard to be precise, but I reckon I had another adult in my teaching room on about 45 occasions. That works out at 0.3%. of the time. And to be honest, a majority of those adults were trainees observing my teaching. So the proportion of time in which I had a mentor or senior teacher or qualified person witnessing my practice was minuscule – probably less than 0.1%.

Can you think of another regulated, established profession, other than child psychology, in which 99.9% of a person’s work is unseen by another adult human?

Because teaching has tended to occur, literally, behind closed doors, the amount of substandard practice that has been allowed is matched only by the amount of brilliant teaching that has never been seen, shared, or learned from. Things must change.

One of the most exciting initiatives we have seen is compulsory, systematised pedagogical experimentation. All teachers are required to think deeply about their practice, experiment with innovations and in-class variables, and then record their findings in a shared database.

This kind of development, led and owned by teachers, is helping us inch closer to another level of transparency, dynamism, collegiality and shared practice. And to the the next level of teacher professionalism.