Why are you (not) picking on me?

The special ones

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 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.

Pareto’s Principle

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) if do not 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.    

Some Questions

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 night 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?

“These aren’t the metrics you are looking for”

Obi-wan Kenobi, Jedi legend, was known for using mind tricks on the weak-minded

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.

Factory education

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)
  • ….Factory education

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.

Move along…

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

Assuming positive intent

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?

Which came first: the chicken or the egg?

“Which came first: the chicken or the egg?”

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!!

Hello stranger!

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).

Don’t forget the little (big) things

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

“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.

Barbecue sauce.

Hey, teacher, leave them kids alone!

I recently read No Rules Rules, which was by far the best book I have read this year. The book is co-written by the CEO of Netflix, Reed Hastings, and Erin Meyer. It is a book about how the ‘no rules’ culture of Netflix has helped to provide and sustain their competitive edge. Rules and top-down controls, it seems, just get in the way. Holiday policy? Travel and Expenses policy? Not needed apparently. Why? Because they are created to prevent people from doing the wrong thing, require paying people to police them, and create a bureaucracy that gets in the way of a culture of freedom and responsibility.

There are three steps to building a culture that can benefit from ‘no rules’:

Firstly, you need to have a high “talent density” in the staff.  Typically, high talent does not like to focus on controls, but they are also expensive compared to the market.  This is all very well for a high-tech firm that can invest profits into salaries, but surely impossible for schools that operate with fixed budgets.  However, let’s not fixate on that for now… 

Secondly, you need to encourage a culture of “candour” in order to provide an effective feedback loop about performance. This is not to say that colleagues can say what they want – there is a considerable explanation in the book on the need for feedback to be provided with positive intent, and the need for training and coaching to support staff to do this well. Some food for thought here about how schools might ramp up feedback on a regular basis – what might the impact be of training and then encouraging students how to feedback to their teachers. Win-win?

Finally, the big one.  Once you have the first 2 things in place, you can then “eliminate most controls by leading with context, not control”.  What does this mean?  Just that.  Rather than spending time trying to control everything through rules and regulations, lead by explaining the context and intent of what you want to happen.  

This last one is a difficult one, isn’t it!  Do schools need extensive discipline policies?  Do schools really need to ban mobile phones?  Do they really need a special policy for uniforms? These are all designed to control student behaviour.  But don’t they just create friction?  I can only imagine how many school and teaching hours are wasted chasing around students about the need for the right colours, styles, or lengths?

More controls = more policing = more frictions = more time not spent on teaching and learning. That’s not to say that I am arguing against any rules, but I do wonder what the impact too much focus on rules in schools that also aspire to champion voice, choice and agency in their young people.

The point is that if you are forever telling young people what they can not do, you are not spending enough time telling them what they can do. And that’s the whole point of school is it not?

Something to ponder.

If you ain’t hurting, you ain’t working

Academic rigour

It is that time in the year when schools are ramping up their efforts to attract new families to their schools.  I know this because hidden algorithms on my social media have started spamming me with school admissions adverts for the next academic year.  Whilst this intrusion always irritates me for many different reasons, it also allowed me to notice the extraordinary number of references to ‘academic rigour’ this year. 

I can partially understand why parents would be attracted to shiny new buildings and schools with proven track records in producing outstanding results.  I also understand why parents might be attracted to schools with a track record of sending students to the most prestigious universities.  But what I can’t understand is why anyone would be particularly attracted to a school that champions ‘academic rigour’…

In my day (I hope this is the only time I catch myself saying this), rigour at school meant we copied a lot from the blackboard, took turns reading books out loud in class, traipsing around with heavy textbooks, and being forced to take humiliating cold showers after PE lessons.  Some of this was considered good teaching (and still is) and some were accepted as essential character-building (and still is).  

Rigour-as-suffering

I do not have an issue with rigour per se – if something is worth doing, it is worth doing properly and not in a half-hearted way.  So I like to see rigour in the classroom, as much as I like to see it in every other aspect of school life.  So why make such a big deal of academic rigour?  Well, it depends very much on how it is defined and what it looks like.

Olaf Jorgenson and Percy L. Abram recently shared their thoughts on The Dark Side of Rigor, and it is one of the best articles that I have read this year.  Rigour, they argue, can refer to situations where “teachers demand students to think deeply and stretch their intellectual grasp to push their assumptions and apprehensions and tackle academic challenges they might not have otherwise tried”.  They refer to this as “rigour-as challenge”.  I’m super comfortable with that interpretation.  

However, academic rigour more often characterized by teachers assigns an inordinate amount of homework or course reading, give tests that are beyond many student’s capabilities, and otherwise places heavy demands on students’ time, energy, and resources that they must subject themselves to sleep deprivation, isolation, emotional fatigue, and anxiety to earn high marks”.  They refer to this as “rigour-as-suffering”.  I’m incredibly uncomfortable with that interpretation, and it goes well beyond a cold shower.

Indeed, under the umbrella of academic rigour, Jorgenson and Abram suggest that many schools and parents have somehow “normalised adolescent stress and its debilitating effects on students”.  Here, stress and anxiety is accepted (and not always intentionally) as an acceptable and necessary by-product to win in life, particularly where success is defined in terms of being admitted to a prestigious university or college.  

Wounded winners

This is not to say that academic achievement, ambition or aspiration is not a worthy endeavour, but there is an argument to be made against unnecessary, unhealthy, and inhumane academic distress – and the peril and ethics of putting student academic achievement ahead of student wellness.

Michael Sandel, in his recent book, The Tyranny of Merit, also describes how it is not just the losers who suffer under academic rigour; many of the winners also progress onwards and upwards carrying wounds – he refers to these young people as wounded winners and shares a number of harrowing statistics concerning the rise and rise of mental health issues that appear to coincide with the increasing pressure to achieve the results that they need to go the universities and colleges that they want to go to.

It should be said that some students absolutely thrive under the conditions of academic rigour.  They love the high pressure, content-focused and standardized learning environments that constitute a rigorous education in many schools.  But for too many other students, academic rigour amounts to suffering.  The unending pursuit of success leaves many students under a state of constant stress and fatigue. 

So what to do?

I don’t have the answers to this one.  But here are some things that we might think about:

1.   We may need to reframe academic rigour so that it represents rigour-as-challenge.   We want students to be challenged and as a result, they will sometimes be uncomfortable and stressed or anxious.  Some stress is healthy and normal and to seek to remove stress or anxiety would be a neglectful preparation for life at or beyond school.    

2.  Perhaps we might even look to start talking about academic vigour rather than rigour.  I would much rather see the vigour in my classroom, rather than rigour (mortis).

3.  We may need more support.  If we acknowledge that we need to work with the education system we have, schools will need to increase their awareness and provision for mental health and well-being for both the losers and winners of the current system.  We need to think about what systems, structures, strategies, staff, training…is needed to do this well.  There will be some things we need more of (additional experts and staff training for sure), and some things we need to do differently.  For example, I can see that we need to assume that students need to be equipped with tools and strategies to help them better look after themselves…

4. We may need to redefine success.  If the only game in town is a high stakes programme designed for admission to the most prestigious universities and colleges (which becomes more competitive each year due to a growing number of applicants), then students will be required to endure increasingly more “rigour” to achieve success – more tutor hours, more work….more suffering.  But there are other learning programmes and other ways for students to shape and define their success.  

Cold showers

These days, cold showers are associated with their health benefits.  What I used to experience as humiliation and suffering is now something I might pay good money for at a spa.  We need the same thing to happen with rigour. 

Rigour can be good – but it has to be done the right way if there are to be any benefits.

Wide walls

Mitchel Resnick, LEGO Papert Professor of Learning Research at the MIT Media Lab, offers a useful metaphor to use when designing learning: build “high ceilings, low floors and wide walls”.

I was first introduced to this wonderful metaphor by a colleague when working at the International Baccalaureate a couple of years ago. It has been playing on my mind again this week as we have been thinking about how we want to design our new programme for high school students in Grades 9 and 10.

High ceilings

A ceiling often represents the highest point we can reach.  A low ceiling is restrictive, whilst a high ceiling can provide both room for growth and something to aim for.  

But who decides on the height of the ceiling?  What is high for one person might not be for another; this is one of the great paradoxes of the standardised mass education system.  We want students to show what they have learned by taking them through a standardised curriculum and then mass testing them to produce an order of merit that can be used to determine the winners and losers.  There remain a number of reasons why societies might wish to retain this system (efficiency), however, it is also very obvious that mass standardisation and testing is limited to that which is being measured.  

So we need to create learning that can allow students to determine their own best self, and to reach as high as they are motivated to go.

Low floors

Low floors is another way of thinking about barriers to access. This is not about removing rigour or making things easy; it is about designing and scaffolding learning so students can jump in and get going regardless of their starting points. We know that some students opt out of learning if they think that it will be too difficult for them (self-efficacy) and some will not even be allowed to even try (via school selection). We see this in situations where schools value their reputation for high grades over the actual learning experience for students.

So we need to create learning that is designed to inspire and include (rather than exclude) students.

Wide walls

As important as high ceilings and wide walls are, Resnick believes that it is even more important to have wide walls: 

It’s not enough to provide a single path from low floor to high ceiling; we need to provide wide walls so that kids can explore multiple pathways. 

Why are wide walls important? We know that kids will become most engaged, and learn the most, when they are working on projects that are personally meaningful to them. But no single project will be meaningful to all kids. So if we want to engage all kids—from many different backgrounds, with many different interests—we need to support a wide diversity of pathways and projects.

Not all students need or even want to, follow the same programme. In life, we can often choose when we want to be measured and we can go where we thrive. But in schools, we do not always get much choice. Does that make sense anymore? Did it ever? This goes way beyond vocational v academic polarities; mounting evidence shows that a large number of college graduates are underemployed (different to unemployed), meaning that they work in jobs that do not require a degree. In the US, for example, this number sits at a staggering 42.5% (here too).

This is not just a metaphor about how to make learning student centred, inclusive and accessible, it is also about making sure that what students learn is actually relevant and useful. Standardised educational systems are efficient at creating large amounts of graduates, but it seems that it is not equally efficient at producing the sorts of graduates who are needed to meet the Future of Work.

Wide walls. Check.

After-note:

I really do like this structural metaphor, but at the same time, I am conscious of the irony of using it at the same time I want to make a case against factory education. Something to think on.