I picked up my son’s (Grade 6) school bag this morning and nearly pulled my arm out of its socket.
I said something along these lines: “Flipping ‘ek. That’s a heavy bag. What on earth is in there?”
He said something along these lines: “Yeah, it’s heavy, but I’ve been training since Grade 1 and I’m used to it now. You are out of shape”
I thought about what he had said. Each year we have been putting more and more in his school bag: more books, bigger books, more PE kit, an iPad, a laptop, more packed lunch (he’s a growing lad, after all), and then all the extras like phones, keys, and wallets (just in case). We keep adding a little bit more, which he then gets used to, and then we add some more. It all adds up. So whatever else we think school might prepare our kids for, we can be reassured that our kids will at least be highly trained bag carriers. Nice one.
However, what actually came to my head after dropping the bag back on the floor was 1. how out of shape I am and 2. The old story of Milo of Croton…
Milo of Croton
Milo of Croton was one of the most famous (perhaps the most) wrestlers in antiquity. He won at the Ancient Olympic games six times in a row as well as countless other wrestling titles, had an illustrious military career, was mentored by none other than Pythagoras, and was reportedly so strong he could carry a fully-grown bull. How did he grow so strong?
The story goes that Milo intentionally set out to grow his strength. His plan did not start by picking up the bull. He started by picking up a baby calf. Milo then woke up each morning and started each new day by picking up that same calf and then carrying it around all day. Each day the calf grew progressively bigger, and so did Milo’s strength. People came to watch Milo and they laughed and mocked him, but he persevered and stuck to his task. Finally, after four long years, Milo was able to lift the fully-grown bull. The rest is, quite literally, history.
I’ve pulled out 4 basic life principles which resonate with the work I do:
Have a clear aim. Milo wanted to be the strongest athlete in the world. When we have clear aims in our work, it is so much easier to sustain our focus and motivation.
Start small. Milo did not achieve success because he went big early. He started small and made improvements over time. Committing to such a method is challenging as it is difficult to see what the end result will be. We have to trust that we will improve if we keep at it.
Keep it simple. Milo’s method was so simple. Pick up a growing cow each day. How often do we over-complicate what needs to be done?
Believe. When people saw what Milo was doing, they laughed and mocked him. It would have been easy to give up, but he believed in himself and stayed the course.
Do it like Milo?
Firstly, regardless of whether kids will get used to the weight of their school bags, I remain very uncomfortable with the fact that we subject young people’s physiology to such stress, particularly when we are not in the business of producing weight-bearing athletes. I guess the situation endures because we remember that we went through the same thing at school (cultural reproduction) or because everyone does it (bandwagon effect)…
So what might we do about reducing the weight of school bags? As with all things, it’s not that simple I guess. Let me try…
Have a clear aim: Reduce the weight of school bags so that they do not cause physiological stress to children still developing?
Start small: Can we take steps to substitute an exercise book for each lesson, towards the use of a single exercise book, or to the use of a computer? To ditching textbooks? To shift the way that we approach learning and teaching?
Keep it simple: Is there stuff we can leave at school or home? Can we do more with digital technology?
Believe: Do we truly believe that the steps we might take to reduce the stress justify the means?
I am sure that I can apply these principles to so much of my work at school. I need to give it some more thought. Right now though, I need to start getting down to the gym. My son is right, I am way out of shape!
When I graduated from school, there was no graduation ceremony, no wise words to never remember, and no fanfare. We finished our exams and that was that. We parted ways, got merry (some more than others), and then we got on with the summer holidays and waited forlornly for our exam results to come in.
I wonder how much different things would have been had there been a Graduation ceremony for me to mark the end of school, to leave well, and perhaps to hear some last words of wisdom? I was told to “find a job” when I finished my exams, but these days, I hear graduates being told to “find your purpose”. Wow, that’s a big ask isn’t it?
The idea of sending our kids off to find their purpose is something that I wanted to explore when given the privilege of giving the closing address to our graduating class this year. I have met a few people on my travels where their purpose is so clear I haven’t needed to ask…but really…it’s the exception and not the rule.
For many of us, purpose is unicorn we are left to find.
Extracted from my Graduation speech to the UWCSEA East Class of 2022:
So, what thoughts to leave you with? I have one story and then some gratuitous advice to offer…
A story is told of a man who visits a building site.
He sees three builders busily working away. Curious as to what they are working on, he approaches the first builder and asks, “What are you doing?”
The first builder looks up and answers, “I am building a wall”.
The visitor nods and moves on. He finds the second builder; a woman toiling at the corner of what looks like a large wall. He asks her the same question. She responds, “I am building a school”.
Finally, he spots the last builder working on a similar-looking section on the same building site and once again asks, “What are you doing?” They respond, “I am building our future”.
Three people, same site, working on the exact same building. Fundamentally though, they have three very different comprehensions of the work they are doing.
The first only sees a literal meaning in his work. He is not contributing to something bigger than himself. He doesn’t see his colleagues working side by side him building something monumental. Where his work stops is where his interest and vision for the project ceases.
A lot of people are like this.
If I asked you a few months ago, whilst you were preparing for a science test, what your purpose was, what do you think you might have said?
Nailing the exam? Gaining your IB Diploma? Winning your university placement? Preparing for a life of meaning and purpose…?
All of the above? None of the above?
What if I asked you again today?
The ‘building a wall mentality’ is such a limited mentality. 9 to 5. Clock in, clock out. Go home. Whatever role you are doing, your work can matter but it’s up to you see that for yourself.
The first builder failed to see the impact of what his work was doing.
The second builder sees the functional reason for her work; she is building a school. Nice. She understands the bigger picture of things even though she’s only working on a wall. She will be building a place where children learn. Now, will she be building this school alone? No. She has colleagues, other specialists who will be enlisted for the roof, the plumping, the electrics etc. But she recognises the end goal and the crucial part she plays in it.
This is a good mentality to have; to understand the end goal and know what you’re contributing to. It’s understanding the impact of your work and the “why” behind it. It’s knowing what you do, why you started and why it matters.
But the third builder? They blow me out of the water. Their work mindset is incredibly rare but is the kind that is revolutionary. This builder, although they are just working on a wall, see their work as transcending humanity itself. Now that’s big picture thinking.
Perhaps the aim for our work is just that then — to find work that goes on to influence bigger things, transcends generations and has lasting impact. That kind of work matters.
But don’t just take my word for it. For many, COVID has triggered billions of people around the planet to ask some existential questions of themselves. What’s important to me? Am I spending time on the things that matter? What’s my purpose?
I’ve been reading about the Great Resignation too. More people are leaving jobs than ever before; perhaps struggling to find meaning or fulfilment in their current work. And without meaning, they can not find satisfaction or sustain their interest in doing what they are doing. So they are moving to jobs where there is more flexibility, more work-life balance and where they feel that their work matters.
And so the first piece of advice I want to share with you today, is that whatever paths you may take from this wonderful arena, make sure that you do work that is meaningful to you – and to do that, you need to find your purpose. Not mine. Not your parents. Not your friends. Yours.
OK. So how do you find your purpose? What does it look like?
The short answer is I don’t know.
However, John Coleman, writing in the Harvard Business Review, might be able to help us out here. Coleman suggests that we suffer from a series fundamental misconceptions about purpose and that challenging these misconceptions can help us develop a more well rounded vision of purpose.
He shares 3 misconceptions, which I would like to share with you:
Misconception 1 – Purpose is only a thing you find. We hear so many inspiring stories of how people can meander through life waiting until fate delivers a higher calling to us.
But I think…and speaking to many of you here…it is more rare than you think. For the average 18 year old (being told to find your purpose) or a 40/50 year old in an unfulfilling job (sorry folks), searching for the silver bullet to give life meaning is more likely to end in frustration than fulfilment.
In achieving professional purpose, most of use have to focus as much on MAKING our work meaningful as in TAKING meaning from it. Put differently, purpose is a thing you BUILD, not a thing you FIND. Almost any work can posses remarkable purpose. Sure, some jobs more naturally lend themselves to senses of meaning, but many require at least some deliberate effort to invest them with the purpose we seek.
Misconception 2 : Purpose is a single thing
The second misconception I often hear is that purpose can be articulated as a single thing. Some people genuinely do seem to have an overwhelming purpose in their lives.
Most of us will have multiple sources of purpose in our lives. For me, I find purpose in my children, my marriage, my work, and my community. For almost everyone, there’s no one thing we can find.
I would argue that It’s not purpose but purposes we are looking for — the multiple sources of meaning that help us find value in our work and lives. Acknowledging these multiple sources of purpose takes the pressure off of finding a single thing to give our lives meaning.
Misconception 3: Purpose is stable over time
It’s common now for people to have a number of careers in their lifetimes. I myself started as a teacher, founded two start-up businesses, been an army officer, and then found myself back in school as a headteacher.
This evolution in our sources of purpose isn’t flaky or demonstrative of a lack of commitment, but natural and good. Just as we all find meaning in multiple places, the sources of that meaning can and do change over time. My focus and sense of purpose at 18 was dramatically different in many ways than it is now, and the same could be said of almost anyone you meet.
How do you find your purpose? That’s the wrong question to ask. We should be looking to endow everything we do with purpose, to allow for the multiple sources of meaning that will naturally develop in our lives, and to be comfortable with those changing over time. Unpacking what we mean by “purpose” can allow us to better understand its presence and role in our lives.
So my final piece of advice is this – It’s possible you will be lucky enough to FIND your purpose. But it’s much more likely that you will have to BUILD it.
But if you are looking for something a little bit more straightforward today…Eleanor Roosevelt offers this:
“The purpose of life is live it, to taste experience to the upmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience”. That’s good enough for me.
So to close, Alumni – adulthood will, over the next few short years, be settling on you. As you come to terms with this reality, let me summarise by suggesting that adulthood might mean asking the right questions; which are likely to be about your purpose across your lifetime. The questions may be a little scary, because there is no perfect information, no perfect rationality as you make your choices. Life demands that we take actions and make commitments even though the future is uncertain. Anyone who has given their heart in love, brought a child into the world, watched them walk across a stage like this, headed into an uncertain future, knows this to be true. And now it’s your truth too.
Our UWCSEA goal is to educate individuals to embrace challenge and to take responsibility for shaping a better world. I know I speak for the entire College when I say it has been a pleasure, and a privilege working with you. As well as the great hopes we have for you, we have even greater trust, in you; that you’ll ask the right questions; and build your own purpose.
It really is over to you now.
I’m very grateful to Nick Alchin for allowing me to borrow many of his wise words in pulling this speech together. Thank you, Nick.
This week I overheard an expression I hadn’t heard before…where one lady was talking to another about the ‘strawberry’ generation.
I was at the supermarket so I naturally assumed that something that was afoot in the fruit and vegetable aisle. Alas, no. A diatribe of derogatory comments followed about how soft, selfish, and delicate the kids of today are, compared to their own hardy and steadfast generation. I got the point; the metaphor was obvious, even to me. In fact, rather than a new expression, I had heard the same nonsense before under the guise of the so-called “snowflake” generation. Perhaps it’s something to celebrate when East and West are so united.
In fact, there’s been a long tradition of naming generations based on when people were born:
Baby boomers – 1946-64
Gen X – 1965-1980
Gen Y (Millennials) – 1981-96
Gen Z (Zoomers) – 1997-2012…
There’s a narrative that history has shaped the cultural traits of each generation and how they might see the world. I think that’s reasonable on the whole (I welcome evolving values on so many issues) but I really get irritated when people judge other generations (wholesale) based on a date of birth as the basis to confirm whatever nonsense has just crossed their minds. I just don’t buy it.
But it doesn’t really matter what I think, does it? We all love to label things, and there’s just no stopping it. Seth Godin recently published an article advocating for the latest generation to be named Gen C. He thinks it’s going to stick and I think he’s probably right.
C if for COVID, C is for Carbon, and C is for Climate.
According to Godin, the combination of years of school spend at home, in a mask, restricted by lockdowns, combined with the significant revolutions of our times (political, economic, social, and technological) means that every decision, investment, and interaction will be filtered by Gen C through the lens of carbon, remediation, and resilience.
This resonates with me. It’s both optimistic and pragmatic. It’s not a label that is trying to posthumously describe a generation; it’s one that recognizes where our kids are, the challenges that we have left them, and the work ahead to protect humanity.
Generation C didn’t ask for any of this, but this is the hand they have been dealt. Calling them strawberries or snowflakes, or any other disparaging label…it’s just not what I’m seeing in our young people…is not how we should be honouring our future.
I see young people who connect, who collaborate, and who care. Of course, there are selfish, lazy, and apathetic young people in our Gen C, but don’t let us kid ourselves that these traits are not alive and kicking across all the ages of time.
But if you really do think that kids these days are lacking, you will at least be in good company:
“The children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority, they show disrespect to their elders. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and are tyrants over their teachers”. Socrates, 2400 years ago.
Recently, I was asked to nominate a student to support a high profile event. Even at short notice she absolutely crushed it. I knew she would. She deserved the feedback and accolades she received afterwards…they said she was inspiring, articulate, responsive, and confident. Honestly, if humanity manages to save itself from itself, it will be because of young people like her.
Yet, I should have picked another.
This became more and more obvious to me as each of the platitudes came through. I have made many decisions in my life that I have regretted through wisdom and hindsight. This is one of them. So what’s the issue? It all went very well. Didn’t everyone get what they wanted?
Well, do you remember when you were at school that it was always the same kids being asked to help the teacher? Did you notice that the same kids were always given all the special jobs, the opportunities to show guests around, to speak at assemblies, to attend special conferences or events…weren’t they often the same kids who were elected as class Rep, captains, prefects, monitors and all that malarkey? Not always…but yeah…
In my own haste to provide a name to support the high profile event, my unconscious bias took over. I plucked a name from my head, someone I knew would do a good job, and I hit the send button.
I wonder what exactly that wonderful student learned from the opportunity I offered up? It’s difficult to answer that exactly, but I do wonder if it was very much at all. After all, she has done this so many times before. Sure, she’s refined and tweaked some of her craft over the years, and she has by now a bank of experiences to draw upon to ensure that she can adapt to new situations and challenges. More than anything else (above that warm feeling you get when you know you’ve done well), she’s probably become more confident and assured. I’m OK with that as I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t provide these opportunities to students (the opposite is true), but I am suggesting that we should not situate these opportunities with the few. When we do, it’s just another form of privilege and inequity that we are responsible for developing in our schools.
With a pause, I could easily have presented dozens of students who would have been equally awesome, but who would have benefitted from this opportunity.
The well known Pareto Principle specifies that 80% of consequences come from 20% of the causes, suggesting an unequal relationship between inputs and outputs. This principle serves as a reminder that the relationship between inputs and outputs is often not balanced. However, unlike other principles, the Pareto Principle is merely an observation, not a law, so it is most useful as a starting point to explore the ways things are rather than what they should be.
Throughout my career, I have found that it has described so many of my own experiences: 80% of my time supporting 20% of students in my class; 80% of time supporting 20% of staff; 80% of time supporting 20% of parents… Sometimes, just being aware of where my time is being expended has allowed me to rebalance or look again at my priorities, and sometimes it has made me feel better knowing that the disproportionate use of my energies is…well….normal!
However, when we find ourselves in situations where Pareto accurately describes where student leadership opportunities might be situated, we should be very uncomfortable: we should not tolerate a situation 80% of student leadership opportunities sit with 20% of students. In fact, should we not be working to create a situation where 100% of leadership opportunities sit with 100% of students?
I think this should be our aim, even if we fall short.
How do we out-perform Pareto?
When my own shortcomings don’t get in the way, here are some of the ways that we are trying to out-perform Pareto at my school:
We start with diversity. When I was at school, leadership opportunities looked very similar and were few and far between. Role leadership was available through the captaining of sports teams, debate teams, or in the student council. Luckily, we have a much broader view of what student leadership might look like here: senior students leading junior students; peers leading peers; through service as leadership; armchair entrepreneurship; through outdoor education…and so on.
With such a diverse range of opportunities, it is possible for our leadership to be…
…distributed. Instead of waiting for a few leadership opportunities to be bestowed on the golden few, we work hard to make sure that our students can select from a wide range of activities that they enjoy, where there are opportunities to grow, and where there are pathways for students to lead. This means we are committed to finding students who might benefit from an opportunity, rather than fixating on how well they might perform in it.
As a school, we are therefore intentional in supporting students to learn from these diverse and distributed opportunities. However, we we are also mindful that we do not want to set up students to fail (or potentially waste ‘teachable’ moments) so we need to think about…
…development. Too often we assume that when we give young people the opportunity to lead they know what to do. Some do (for all sorts of reasons), but many more do not. Through trial and error, they eventually get there. However, when they have access to coaches and mentors…magic happens…
With so many thriving young leaders, it becomes increasingly difficult to find a way to honour all of their achievements. Do we try and distinguish everyone? Or just pick out those who we think deserve…
…distinction? Well, our choice is that the only way to honour everyone is to treat everyone as special (even if that means that no one is special). That does not mean that we do not seek to recognise our students, but it does mean that we do not choose to elevate the achievements of some students above others. One of the reasons why students do not put themselves forward for leadership opportunities is because they do not think that they are good enough when they compare themselves to others (Imposter Syndrome?) so we want to create a culture of celebrating inputs rather than outputs.
It’s not always easy and it is not a precise art…and my view is that there will always be extraordinary young people, who do extraordinary things, and we sometimes just have to stand up and applaud.
Really, this specific anecdote just serves as another opportunity for me to reflect on how much work we/I have to do regarding DEIJ in our schools. I am walking myself through these questions at the moment, and I expect I am missing many more:
How do we account for DEIJ in our leadership offer? Is it diverse enough? Is there equity? Is it inclusive? How do we know?
How do we reduce unconscious bias when we select students for opportunities? What systems do we need to help us? How should we be accountable?
Where might we be privileging some students above others?
How do we choose to develop our student leaders? How do we know we are doing that well?
According to ISC Research, ten years ago there were about 8,000 international schools. Today that number stands close to 13,000. The growth is staggering. Indeed, a recent (illuminating and challenging) Bloomberg article postulates that on average, two new international schools open each day. It has become an incredibly competitive market as more and more families want a piece of the action. In this case, the action appears to be a definition of success that culminates with admission to a top tier university. It’s a commodity, for example, that has already attracted a record-high 311,948 Ivy League applications for the Class of 2023 with a record-low acceptance rate of 6.78%. What does this mean? Well, it means that if you think the market is competitive at the moment, you ain’t seen nothing yet!
So how exactly do these schools compete? I presume that there are many who make a good living from being able to answer this question. However, my own observations over the last decade are that families often make weighted decisions based on a mixture of the following: reputation (prestige); exam results; track record with university destinations; facilities; faculty; the range of activities; inspection/accreditation reviews; cost; and my absolutely favourite…the dark promise of academic rigour (and the implicit permission to do what it takes to succeed).
But the big one, the unavoidable elephant in the room, is the school’s exam results. So often, this is the North Star Metric (NSM) by which schools (and the market) determine how they are doing. An NSM is something that meets the need to simplify and reduce many other things that an organisation does down to a single measure. Some famous NSMs we might be familiar with include:
Facebook – monthly active users (I don’t contribute here)
Spotify – time spent listening (a little bit here)
Uber – rides per week (nope)
Airbnb – booked nights (I wish)
Amazon – number of purchases per month (I’m a shareholder!)
Dark side metrics?
In The Tyranny of Metrics, Jerry Z. Muller attempts to outline why we might be wary about leaning too far into metrics. There are two particular thinkers he introduces, with two related laws for us to consider.
The first is Campell’s Law:
The more a quantitative metric is visible and used to make important decisions, the more it will be gamed—which will distort and corrupt the exact processes it was meant to monitor.
The second is is Goodhart’s law:
Anything that can be measured and rewarded will be gamed.
In essence, the more visible, quantifiable, and important a metric is, the more it is vulnerable to gaming and toxicity to its initial purpose. Muller does not actually say that we should avoid metrics (far from it), or that they are harmful, but he does counsel against the worship of metrics or what he terms “metrics fixation”. There are loads of great exemplars on the internet about metrics that have produced unwanted outcomes. Here are two I found and enjoyed:
Stop taking hard cases – Surgeons are often judged by how often there are complications or deaths in their surgeries, which affects their marketability and insurance rates. Unintended consequences: Many surgeons stop taking high-risk or complicated cases, which results in people who really need help getting inferior care.
The number of venomous snakes – A leader in India said too many people were dying from venomous snakes, so he offered money to anyone who brought him a dead one. Unintended consequences: People started breeding venomous snakes in their homes, so they could kill them and bring them in for cash payment.
So when a school’s NSM is reduced to the sum of their exam results, what might we expect to happen? Well, the good news is that it will probably result in higher exam results and everyone will be well pleased. Unintended consequences: The thing is, it is not hard to achieve higher grades if that is genuinely all that is important. Indeed, here are some of the ways that schools might be affected by a results-based NSM:
Admissions becomes more selective
Students are prevented from taking examinations
Thresholds are established for taking exams
Academic rigour is dialed up
Curriculum choices are narrowed
Student course selections are directed
External tutoring is encouraged
Teachers teach to the test and students are drilled
Students who do not buy-in or keep up are excluded (formally or informally)
If high exam results are a school’s NSM then we should expect high results. However, we might also expect to see issues of diversity, access, inclusion, stress, anxiety and mental health. We might also see schools so focused on individualism that they lose sight of any broader purpose of education that they might claim to prepare students for.
Light side metrics?
There are so many ways to determine the health of a school beyond results. There’s no escaping what exam results can tell you about a school, but I do wonder if schools can do more to define themselves beyond exam results. One impact of COVID in schools has been how parents have elevated the importance of mental health and wellbeing in their children. Social isolation and well-documented failures in the exam system have made many parents question whether a laser focus on academic rigour is worth the price to be paid (on several levels).
I do wonder what would happen if a school decided to make well-being its NSM. Like…total focus. Imagine if it was possible to put together a credible league table based on student health or satisfaction? What if that table was used by the likes of Spears or WhichschoolAdvisor to promote the best schools in the world? Perhaps it could force schools to complete in different ways? More physical education, less homework, flexible timings, blended learning, more arts participation, more focus on the learning experience, less individualism and more world-centred and holistic learning…I would really welcome that.
Would this mean that students might thrive and…dare I say it…end up doing well in their exams? I think so. Conversely, cognisant of both Goodheart and Campbell, there is every chance that there would be a load of unintended consequences I haven’t even thought of. For example, an admissions system that starts to pre-screens for healthy children only, or a situation where students are discouraged from seeking support services, or as a result of trying to please everyone, ends up being even more self-serving than the exams factory. Hmmm, not sure that’s what I want either.
Given the diminishing return of more schools and students competing for the same number of prestigious university places each year, there will come a point where schools will need to find new ways to compete. I think it will be on health and welfare. If schools can find a way of doing that, of showing how well they do that, it would be transformative. Maybe the only way of achieving this is by committing to longitudinal data…but that’s something schools are not very good at tapping into because we are so focused on the front-end of education. Perhaps we need to turn that around and start focusing on the back-end of education…the bit we all say we are preparing children for in the first place?
With thanks to folk I’ve been chatting to over the last week or so about this one, particularly Sanjay Perera, Clare Batten and Bob Leung
Be honest, you assumed the boy was stealing a cookie didn’t you? You probably did it all the time when you were his age and we all know it takes a thief to catch a thief!
But what if….he’d been told he could take that cookie? Or if he was actually putting them out on the plate? Or if he was just counting them? What if…he wasn’t actually stealing that cookie at all?
Repeat after me…assume positive intent
We can all recall an occasion at work when people have assumed the worst of our intentions. It really hurts. And it’s a pain that lingers long after it turns out to be a warranted assumption, or not. It leads to an erosion of trust in colleagues and if it happens quite a lot, the rot of cynicism, insecurity, selfishness, defensiveness and suspicion can take hold. The words and deeds of others become constantly questioned.
What did she mean by that? They are avoiding me…they think I am not capable…he does not trust me…my face does not fit… he is saying that to put me down…she took the credit for my work…they are just in it for themselves…there is no point in putting myself forward for that…
Repeat after me…assume positive intent
I don’t know why I had never heard of the assume positive intent mantra until fairly recently. However, now I’ve seen it, I seemingly can’t unsee it. It’s a really sticky concept.
Assuming positive intent in the workplace is, for me, rather like the classic Prisoner’s Dilemma. In this dilemma, the only way to get an optimal result for both prisoners is to trust that the other prisoner will assume positive intent and not accept the self-serving ‘deal’ on offer.
It seems to me that if everyone tries to assume positive intent in others, however hard that might be, then the net result is that everyone benefits. Firstly, it is so much healthier for you when you are not constantly dealing with negative thoughts – I personally find it exhausting. Secondly, it builds trust in those around us and encourages us to be curious (before we are judgemental) when we are working with others.
Does it mean that everyone has positive intent? Not at all. But just because 5% of people might have negative intentions, we should not treat the other 95% as if they do as well.
Does it mean that we should excuse colleagues who inadvertently hurt others with their words and deeds – even if it was not their intention to cause hurt? I don’t think so. Everyone has to own the impact of their actions whether they were intended to hurt, or not. Assuming positive intent is a powerful mindset but is not an excuse. An unintended microaggression is still a microaggression that we might need to take responsibility for. But I think that the resolution can take place differently, with better outcomes, within a culture of assumed positive intent.
Repeat after me…assume positive intent
So why do we find ourselves so prone to assume negative intent? One reason is that it takes so very little effort. It is much more convenient to shift the blame to someone else, rather than do the hard work to seek to understand or identify the real root causes of the issue. Blaming someone else’s intent also shifts the attention from us taking any personal responsibility we might have for the situation.
Have I done this? Sure. I can recall several occasions where I have attributed not getting a particular job, for example, because of x, y or z attributional factors – classism, sexism, racism, agism… anything other than the fact that I was probably underprepared for the interview, un-inspiring and unable to show how I would be able to bring my previous experiences to bear. I confess it has sometimes taken me some time to get around to the fact that the person they did appoint was simply much better than me! I rarely make that mistake anymore – nowadays I try to always look for my own flaws instead of trying to look for excuses in others.
Repeat after me…assume positive intent
Assuming positive intent is sometimes perceived as naive, weak and idealistic. As Putin was sending Russian troops to the border of Ukraine, was I really assuming positive intent? Not at all. Honestly, I was not sure what was going on and I was still hoping for some form of a diplomatic solution. However, I did intentionally try to place an assume positive intent lens over the situation. Did it change my view that Putin was well-intended? No. But it did force me to be more curious about the whole emergency. What is the history? What are the geopolitical issues? Economics? Who are the actors? Who controls the media? What has brought Putin to this point? Are the Russian people supporting Putin? What do the Russian people think about invading Ukraine? And so on and on.
How does this help? I think that my intentionality around assumed positive intent has helped me achieve a sharper perspective on the Russian invasion than I might have had. I don’t think it makes me naive or idealistic. Rather, I am hoping that it is helping me understand what is going on: to support me to be both dispassionate and compassionate in ways that I may not have done if I just assumed negative intent.
What cannot be avoided, however, is the certainty that the Russian invasion of Ukraine is an absolute tragedy. Putin has been caught with his hand in the cookie jar and he can’t be allowed to brush the crumbs away and hope no one has noticed.
Repeat after me…assume positive intent
Assuming positive intent is incredibly difficult to do. When we get hurt by others or see people like Putin in action, we can not help but see the worst in others. Perhaps that’s something we ought to fight too?
Who hasn’t explored this age-old debate with little kids? I know I have.
Ask any other person you know how the discussion went and I am sure that they will all agree that the kids loved the inquiry, the opportunity to explore theories and come up with some spectacularly weird and wonderful facts and explanations.
The chicken and egg dilemma stems from the observation that all chickens hatch from eggs and all chicken eggs are laid by chickens. “Chicken-and-egg” is a metaphoric adjective describing situations where it is not clear which of two events should be considered the cause and which should be considered the effect, to express a scenario of infinite regress, or to express the difficulty of sequencing actions where each seems to depend on others being done first.
But it’s not just the little kids who enjoy chicken and egg discussions: I sat with some grade 11s for lunch earlier today and the conversation soon drifted from Spider-Man to the subject of mobile phones. Specifically, why are people so willing to pay so much money for mobile phones? I suggested that it was probably a chicken and egg issue and postulated that if it wasn’t expensive then people might not find it as desirable: Is it desirable because it is expensive? Or is it expensive because it is desirable? Hmmm…suffice to say that lunch ended without any resolution or satisfaction.
Chickens and mobile phones were still on my mind when I say down to write this post. What do we do, if anything, about having them in schools? Mobile phones that is – everyone knows that keeping chickens in schools is awesome!
Mobile phones, however, are a bit more contested. Articles like this one (UK), this one (Singapore), this one (US), this one (China) show that this debate is still attracting significant media attention across the world. This should not be surprising as it feels like it was only yesterday when we were discussing whether laptops should be banned from schools (for many of the same reasons). The research data it seems is equally contested – perhaps indicating that it makes sense for some schools, and not others…
My own view is that blanket bans do not make sense, and if the decision for a school is to ban them then they should be working towards a time where they can be introduced safely and effectively.
This is a chicken-and-egg dilemma. I know that some schools ban them because they distract from learning (apparently) and we (naturally) worry about what students are accessing, the amount of screen time they might be having, and cyberbullying. But in removing mobile phones we deny students (and teachers) the opportunity to access incredibly powerful learning and teaching tool and also fail to help young people learn how to make healthy choices about the use of technology (it’s not going anywhere). We want children to access and learn how to use technology efficiently and safely.
So in terms of what came first: is it the ban or the behaviour?
I know there will be difficulties, challenges, wrong turns, inappropriate use, and safeguarding explosions where phones are involved…but surely the cat is out the bag and I would want my own children to learn how to navigate their cluttered reality, to be prepared for their future, and not be denied the opportunity to stumble their way through it. After all, when we teach children how to swim, we don’t drain the pool because they might drown. We manage the risks in a different way.
For me, this is a learning and teaching issue that we just need to take head-on if we can. Managing technology (any of it) in the classroom was not something I covered in my teacher training in ‘96. And neither was how to teach online. But I imagine that it’s a mainstream staple of initial teacher training and school PD provision nowadays (it probably should be). My humble opinion is that if we share with students and staff a suite of effective practices and help to instill healthy habits when using technology, underpinned by values, then we can significantly reduce the potential risks. Every school context is different, so there will unlikely be a one-size-fits-all approach to this.
Indeed, we seem happy enough to teach students how to safely use Bunsen burners and chemicals, to use bandsaws and drills, and play dangerous contact sports…but we feel so strongly about the potential dangers of mobile phones that we lump them in with knives and guns on the list of dangerous items that should never be seen in schools.
I mentioned the relevance of context above, and I appreciate that some schools are already dealing with behaviour so challenging to manage on a day-to-day basis that mobile phones serve only to amplify the risks to untenable levels. Where that’s the case then perhaps it does make more sense to keep the phones away and bring in those pesky chickens after all!!
In school this week we kicked off Writers’ Fortnight. Incredible speakers, including many extraordinary parents, are being invited in to speak to our students to share how particular books have inspired them, or because they are involved in literature in some way. As a result, our students have been awed by poets, journalists, diplomats, artists, scientists…they have loved it.
Others, like me, were asked to fill in the gaps in the speaker schedule. And although just a filler, I was secretly delighted this morning to have a chance to be in a classroom interacting with students again. The fact is that as a school leader through COVID, I am not finding nearly enough time in front of students: they do not really know me and I do not honestly know them. I wish it were not this way and it saddens me to say that we are, for all intents and purposes, strangers.
The book I chose to share was Three Cups of Tea, authored by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin in 2007. It remained a NYT bestseller for several years, telling the story of how the author got lost whilst climbing K2 in 1993, before stumbling into a small village called Korphe, where he was nursed back to health as a guest of the village. Before he returned home to the US he made a promise to the village that he would return back one day to build a school for the children. He eventually returned and built that school. And then, with help, he came back, again and again, to build many other schools, specifically for girls in remote regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan where few education opportunities existed. It’s an inspiring humanitarian tale that somehow makes the current plight of girls’ education in Afghanistan appear even more tragic.
I read the book for the first time whilst posted with the British Army in Afghanistan as a junior Captain in 2008. As an education officer and teacher, the book immediately resonated on a number of levels with me, not least because I was immediately curious (as well as a few other emotions) whenever we came across a dilapidated or abandoned school that had been torched by the Taliban, whether it might be one of Mortenson’s schools. But beyond that, the real learning from the book figuring out what these cups of tea were all about.
As the story goes, Mortenson was getting frustrated at the time it was taking to get that first school built in Korphe. Everyone wanted the school. But nothing seemed to be happening very fast or at all. Bringing materials into Korphe was proving impossible. One day the village leader, Haji Ali, took Mortenson aside to explain where he was going wrong:
“The first time you share a tea with a Balti, you are a stranger. the second time you take tea, you are an honored guest. The third time you share a tea, you become family…”
In Balti culture, having tea with someone symbolizes trust and respect, and the act of sharing tea is how the Balti people become familiar with strangers. Haji Ali explained to Mortenson that he must invest the time to share three cups of tea, by which he meant that Mortenson needed to build relationships with the Balti people, who saw him as a stranger (not a savior) if he wanted to get things done.
Mortenson heeded the advice, started drinking tea, and things started to get done. Not quick. But done.
So simple and so obvious. In my interactions and work for the rest of that operational tour, I tried to integrate a 3 cups of tea approach when working alongside local and international partners, and also with many other who would rather I was not there. Drink tea, stop and listen, be patient, and then drink more tea. These are life lessons that have stayed with me.
After sharing Mortenson’s story I asked the students:
“What cup of tea are you sharing with your teachers?”
“Do they make you feel like strangers, honored guests, or family?”
“How might you use this metaphor in the context of your own relationships?”
Schools are communities that bring people together. But do they bring people together as strangers, as guests, or as a family? COVID has made it excruciatingly difficult for communities to come together to share tea or anything else for that matter. It has made strangers of us all.
So I had the first cup of tea with some students this morning, and now I am looking forward to the next. And all being well, one cup of tea at a time, I’ll eventually get to where I need to be.
Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace One School at a Time, by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin, Penguin Books, NY (2007).
Creating a sense of belonging for each student is the first and most important function of any school. Everything else (literally) is academic.
My first lesson in how to go about this (many years ago) came from my first teaching mentor who believed it was all about “nailing the welcome” at the start of each lesson. I recall the instructions I received were along the following lines:
“Stand at the door as they come in, look them in the eye, smile and say their name”
“If you are able to stand at the door at the start of your lesson it means that you have planned it properly and haven’t cuffed it. It means you aren’t late or faffing around”
“If you are at the door it means that you are well placed to greet each and every student as they come in. And that’s important as you might be the only adult that day who really notices or connects with that student”
“If you can make eye contact, they know that they have been seen and acknowledged. When you smile, then you are telling them that they are both welcome and safe. And when you say their name, they will know that they belong”.
“It’s just a little thing, but it makes a big difference. The rest will follow”
When I started teaching, my mentor was already considered ‘old school’. And whilst there were many teaching and learning ideas and practices that I knew I needed to quietly consign to the history bin (shhhhh), I instinctively knew that his door advice (and our friendship) would endure. Indeed, when I became a headteacher he gratuitously gave me almost the same advice he gave me over 20 years earlier:
“However busy you think you are, stand by the front gate. Every morning, every day. Welcome your students into school. Look them in the eyes, smile (through your mask – they know) and say hello. This is the work”.
We are going to be doing a lot of work on wellbeing and belonging again this year. Time (well spent I think) has already been set aside for consultations, surveys, data analysis, evaluations, professional development, strategic planning, reading case studies, exploring research and the like. That’s great and it’s also exactly where we wanted to be, even if it can sometimes be very difficult to determine where to start, what to prioritize and how to determine the impact of our work.
So I find it quite reassuring to remind myself that sometimes it is the little things that can make the biggest differences. And if you, like me, are starting 2022 wondering where you stand on wellbeing and belonging this year, why don’t you start by standing at the front door…or the front gate? The rest, as a wise man once said, will follow.
“Be curious, not judgmental” quotes Ted Lasso in response to being underestimated in one of the TV series’ most iconic scenes. Do watch it if you have not done so already. As well as being incredibly funny, the understated and seemingly incompetent Ted Lasso has so much to teach us all about how to lead and manage people in our age.
The quote came to my mind this week as I was putting together interview questions for potential new teachers. I felt that some of the questions I was coming up with were based on my own world views, and not providing enough freedom for the teachers to describe their own. Some of my questions, upon reflection, were actually thinly disguised judgments or criticisms. I should have been asking more curious questions.
I am curious what made you decide to read this blog? Maybe it was the picture? The title? Perhaps you have watched Ted Lasso and are wondering where this might go? You could have just skipped through. Either choice may not seem so different, but decisions based on judgements play a huge part in our lives because being curious helps us better understand the world and other people. Dare I say it, but I think we also make better decisions if we are curious to find out more about what is going on around us.
If you had decided, on scanning the title or the picture for this blog (or some other reason), that you were not interested in reading on, perhaps you might not have had the opportunity to benefit from some Ted Lasso wisdom today. This is simply how judgment works, and how it can close down opportunities for greater knowledge and understanding. This is not to say that judgments aren’t useful. Judgments are often necessary when we have to decide something. But more often than not, judgment keeps us from understanding something important, even necessary, about a situation or another person — even about ourselves.
Whether we like it or not, we humans are judgmental. We make judgements when we think we already know what we need to know. Sometimes there are strong feelings that go with these judgements, such as approval or disapproval. And it seems that the stronger that we feel about our judgments, the more fixed and immovable that we become. When our judgment includes strong disapproval or dislike, we become more dismissive and cynical. So, if we want to understand more about the world around us, while at the same time feeling less critical and cynical, it is important to turn our judgment into curiosity. One way to do this is to always assume positive intentions from those we interact with.
Authentic curiosity is not just about asking more questions (as they can be thinly veiled judgments or implied criticisms). Asking my son “Why didn’t you do your homework?” is a common kind of question that is more judgment than curiosity, invariably provoking a defensive response. Similarly, a teacher who says, “Your continued lateness to school just proves you are not interested in learning,” or a Head of Department who admonishes one of their teachers for not completing their marking on time, maybe missing an opportunity to be curious about what happened and why. If we were to assume positive intent, we would not be asking these questions.
By being curious, the other person feels our interest and, if there’s a problem, will be more likely to self-reflect and perhaps do it differently in the future.
Whether it is something minor like reading this blog, or more substantial like understanding a child or one of your colleagues, feeling curious before making a judgment allows us to understand the situation better and increases the chances that things will go more smoothly. After all, should you need to, there will always be time for judgment.