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.

Computer says no

20 years ago, Little Britain’s Carol Beer (aka David Williams) was a particularly unhelpful receptionist who answered customer queries by tapping data into her computer before abruptly announcing to them that the “computer says no”. Customers would politely ask for her to check again as the computer must be mistaken, but when Carol’s “computer says no” it meant “computer says no”. Part of the relatable and awkward fun of watching Carol at work is that we have all, probably more than once, received ridiculous responses from a computer that just don’t make sense.  

In schools, the timetable can often be the graveyard of great ideas.  

How many times have you come up with a great idea that you think will transform your school?  Maybe it was something you thought would help bring the school closer to its stated mission, vision, or values?  Perhaps you have been inspired by what another school is doing?  Or possibly a good idea has come from something you have read or come up in conversation?

Some deep thinking students at school this week put together a proposal for the school to start later in the day.  The idea, based on a growing body of research that will not surprise anyone who lives with young people, is that early starts just don’t jive.  Wouldn’t it make sense to move the whole school day an hour later?  Perhaps.  And perhaps not.  Evaluating ideas such as this one are incredibly difficult as potential benefits can often be overshadowed by potential detriments.  And as these students are learning, and I have learned myself on numerous occasions, taking on the timetable is thirsty work.

Of course, it is not just teachers and students who come up with new ideas.  Parents carry their own educational experiences with them; influential research and industry are telling us that schools are not aligned to the future of work, and we are living through a disruption that has shown that some of the things we thought were important in schools are not that important anymore.  Maybe they never were.

And whilst there appears to be a general consensus for change in education, what this might actually look like in schools is highly contested.  This includes questions around the way that universities select students through the academic credentialing system, how schools assess student learning, and the value of interdisciplinary learning and skills.  

To be honest, I might be more interested in exploring another idea that I heard this week from a couple of other students who introduced me to their idea of BYOT (Build Your Own Timetable) where once a week students can build their own timetable and attend the classes that they want, with the teachers that they want, and perhaps at the time that they want to as well.  Of course, some readers will be thinking that this idea is barking mad, and others will be thinking why only one day in the week? That’s how it goes these days.

But who gets to decide which ideas are taken forward?

Forrest Gump once said:

“My mama always said you can tell a lot about a person by their shoes, where they going, where they been”.   

Likewise, I think you can tell a lot about a school by their timetable.  Look closely and you can see where they are going and where they have been. 

Is student mentoring important?  Are academics more important than activities?  Are the sciences more important than the arts?  The length of lessons might signal a particular approach to teaching and learning; the number of subjects available might signal whether breadth or depth of learning is more valued; the name of lessons might signal whether the school wishes to be ‘progressive’ or ‘traditional’ or perhaps something else altogether.  What gets included on the timetable, well…it just matters.

So I have come to view the timetable as the spectacular culmination of compromises between the school’s educational philosophy and priorities, parental expectations, and the need to achieve efficiency.  

There are many aspects of a school timetable that can signpost a school’s educational philosophy – and the school priorities that reflect it.  Many schools espouse a holistic educational mission but are then unable to show how this translates into their timetable.  Vicariously is the most likely answer.  

But up against a school’s philosophy will often be the hard edge of reality. 

The perfect timetable needs to be perfectly resourced, and by definition would offer very little efficiency.  Even the most affluent schools in the world are accountable to their stakeholders for their cost efficiency, particularly if it means that money can be reinvested in additional resources, new facilities, or other improvements in teaching and learning.  So if there was a choice between adding an additional student to a class, or employing another teacher to avoid that, most schools would make the same decision.  In the same way, a school may feel that food technology lessons are valuable, yet be unable to prioritise this when set against the significant investment in the specialist teachers and facilities when that money could be invested elsewhere.  And I have also worked in a school which removed physical education from the timetable to make room for ‘citizenship’ studies, a decision I can still not get my head around.  

Parents too play a significant part in timetable considerations, particularly after it has been established.   Firstly, they (we) build our lives around the timings of the school day.   Pick-ups, drop-offs, meal preparations, shopping, work…everything….revolves around the times.  They are inter-connected.  Secondly, parents have certain expectations from schools, particularly when parents are able to make a choice in where they send their children.  These choices were often made on what was on offer at the time.  So if a school changes from offering A levels to offering the IB Diploma, for example, or suddenly changes what is being offered in the curriculum, then they will likely (and should) have something to say about it. 

The fact is that the longer a timetable has been fixed in place, the more difficult it is to change it.  It gets locked into place by systems, structures, and processes that become more and more complex and efficient as times go on.  I have mentioned the impact on parents, but school buses (local transport) catering, employment contracts, budgets, and a hundred other considerations also come to mind.  Each year, if a school is being well run, it will be creating more and more efficient ways of delivering the same outcomes.  So when it comes to making a decision to change things, it will either carry an above-the-line cost or require so many other people to agree to the change that the idea may just not be worth the pain after all.  Sometimes, we might not even bother waiting to hear what the computer will say.

Don’t ask Carol

So we need to think around the timetable.  How do we do that?  Here are 4 ideas:

  1. Timing.  Some ideas will gain more traction if presented at the right time.  Presenting a new hybrid model for blended learning might land better now than before COVID.
  2. Plan ahead.  The planning that goes into the timetable is significant, even with the latest software to help make it both elegant and efficient.  If you want to propose a change it might take more than a year to model what it might look like.  Dropping a great new idea in the final few weeks of the school year and expecting a positive response is a bit naive.  This happens a lot by the way.
  3. Impact.  If the change proposed to the timetable will only affect a small number of students, and not much, then it will be unlikely to be supported.  A better idea would be to cluster proposals together so that there might be a cumulative impact. 
  4. Consultation.  Your idea will be better if it is not presented as your idea.  If it is a good idea, share it and see who will champion it.  Effective consultation will also mean that you have a stronger research base on which to make a more compelling case for change.

Much of this blog might sound a bit defeatist.  However, education reformers need to know what they are up against if they are to be successful.  In a previous blog, I shared that I think that education reform has a Wizard of Oz problem – it needs more brain, more heart, and more courage.  This blog is an attempt to apply more of that brain.

Our glorious purpose?

“I am Loki of Asgard and I am burdened with glorious purpose”

First uttered by Loki in the first Avengers film, these words are the culmination of his ambition to rise to what he believes is his pre-ordained right to power.  At the risk of being a spoiler, it doesn’t end well for Loki.

The use of the word ‘burdened’ is used (I think) because Loki really does feel like he’s obligated to become a king – to claim victory over as many people as possible, so he can feel worthy of glory and fulfillment.  In part, it is also an acknowledgement that achieving his purpose will come at a cost.

Glorious results

As is the way these days, many schools have been publishing their annual summer exam results on social media over the past few weeks.  Most have lots to celebrate this year – it’s been a bumper season after all – so why not share the fact that your results are the “best ever”?  In fact, some of the posts have been so fervent that one can’t help but wonder if their exam results were, after all, the achievement of that school’s ‘glorious purpose’?  You would certainly think so.  Schools have always been competitive, but we are living in an exponential age where schools seem to be leaning into their results averages more than ever.  For many schools, like it or not, exam results are both how they define themselves, and it is how they are in turn defined by others – it has become both their glorious purpose and their burden. 

I wonder how schools will celebrate next summer?  More best ever results?  I don’t think so, but I am sure schools will somehow find some way to spin out an impressive success story.  

5 levers

Attaining high averages, and doing this year on year, continues to be a considerable burden for students, parents, teachers, and schools; the expectation to maintain or improve results is stressful for everyone involved.  Indeed, so great is the pressure for some schools that they need to pull hard on a number of levers to keep their success juggernaut going.  Here are the top 5 levers (off the top of my head) that some schools use to keep the results flowing:

  • Lever 1.   You can increase your average by only selecting students who will be able to achieve the highest grades.  You can do this through short entry assessments, or through ‘interviews’, or by profiling student applications.  You can even make this appear transparent, fair, and equitable.
  • Lever 2.   You can increase your average by becoming so exclusive that only the most affluent parents can afford to attend your school.  This will also help make sure that your parents will have the resources to invest in additional tutors.  More tuition +  more exam preparation = greater advantage and success.  
  • Lever 3.  You can increase your average by reducing the choice that your students have to select their study options.  Students can be directed to take the subjects where they have the highest probability of success.  
  • Lever 4.  You can increase your average by removing or reducing superfluous activity that sits outside the academic programme.  There are so many distractions in schools these days, time that could be spent on additional study or test preparation.
  • Lever 5.  You can increase your average by building a stronger competition culture within the school community.  Remind parents, students, and teachers what ‘“success” looks like.  Reward high attainment through scholarships, public accolades, and awards.  Consider ranking students too – it helps to focus the mind.  

Pull on these levers and your school averages go up.  It really is that simple. 

Holistic success

Whilst there is nothing wrong with celebrating student’s exam results; many schools are equally committed (in words at least) to being more diverse, more equitable and more inclusive (DEI) – none of which are really championed by schools who use these levers to perpetuate their success.  Furthermore, the impact on students within schools configured to achieve exam results is more visible than it has ever been and there is an emerging narrative that suggests that such environments can significantly affect children’s mental health and well-being.  And with so much focus on exam success, there is also a growing consensus that not enough time is being directed towards what David Perkins calls “life-worthy” learning – learning that matters.  

Worthy Purpose

With this in mind, we might expect to see more schools pulling on these counter-levers:

  • Counter lever 1 – intentionally select students for diversity
  • Counter lever 2 – reduce access barriers (particularly to achieve the above)
  • Counter lever 3 – cultivate student choice and agency (particularly where young people want to follow their passion)
  • Counter lever 4 – hold true to your holistic education philosophy – focus on learning
  • Counter lever 5 – create a ‘best self’ culture

There are more ways to define success than school averages – we just have to get better at telling that story.  What we can not afford to continue doing is to allow exam success to hold DEI; mental health, well-being, voice, choice and agency to ransom.  Can we do better?

If I were to channel my inner-Loki, the God of Mischief, I do wonder if some schools out there would have the courage to celebrate their exam results going down – in the worthy pursuit of being more accessible, more inclusive and more diverse? Or might that a burden too far?

The thief of joy

“What grade did you get?”

I hear this too often in schools.  And it pains me.

The grade delusion

Etched into several of my childhood core memories is the experience of being given back assignments by my teacher.  There was a familiar pattern that I recognise now.  The teacher, slowly walking around the classroom, hands back our workbooks so we can face our judgment.  I can still feel the anxiety, the fear…the silence of the room.  We would be given time to read the teacher’s written feedback, but there was no point – the grade mark said it all.  And then the silence would give way to a storm in the form of a ruthless student inquisition.  I can never remember exactly who led the inquisition, but I do remember the question everyone was asked:  “What did you get?”.  There was nowhere to hide.

Meanwhile, I’m guessing the teacher was probably delighted.  All the hours of marking and writing comments for the students to absorb, reflect upon and determine their next steps of learning.  #Worthwhile.  And wasn’t it great to see all of the students peer-reviewing their work?  #Outstanding.  

In the time it takes for a class of students to line themselves up in order of birthdates, shoe size, name or height (yes, we’ve all done it… about 2 minutes), or for two teams to be picked by students for a football game (yes, done that too.. about 2 minutes)…that’s about the same amount of time it needs for each child to work out where they stand in relation to their peers.  Those up at the front feel glorious, validated, and perhaps relieved.  Those in the middle are often just grateful that they are not at the bottom.  And those at the bottom have just been told, again (no words needed), that they are not very good at the game they are playing (school) – and they are not going to be hoodwinked by the words of encouragement that sat under the grade they were served.  Maybe they will try harder next time?  

What a delusional state of play!

Comparison

Comparing ourselves against others seems to be a very human thing to do.  There are lots of good reasons why we do it and I am not making the case against the utility. What I am suggesting is that we need to be aware, particularly when working with young people, of the consequences of comparison.  We need to own them.

In society, when people compare themselves with others around them, they often identify inequalities.  Take nurses’ pay in the UK at the moment.  Many nurses feel that they are underpaid (I agree) compared to other professionals such as teachers or police officers.  At the same time, teachers feel that they are underpaid compared to other professionals such as doctors.  And NHS doctors feel that they are underpaid compared to their private-sector counterparts.  We live with comparison; we find our worth in comparison, and we often find our self-esteem in comparison.  Relativity is the key here. In my anecdote above, the ‘bottom’ student in one school could well be the ‘top’ student in another school – so the effect on students is the same regardless of their relative ‘ability’.  

Gratitude

Like many, I have been reading around the subject of well-being, happiness, and belonging over the last few months.  A consistent theme that comes up is around gratitude: how it provides a foundation for happiness; how it turns what we have into enough; and how it helps keep things in perspective even when things are not going so well.  It has led me to contemplate and explore the notion of absolute v relative gratitude.  One of which I like: the other, not so much.

Relative gratitude, I think, is much easier to cultivate and often takes the form of:

“I have X, which is so much more than that person has, and for that I’m grateful”

or 

“My situation is bad but their situation is worse and, for that, I’m grateful”

Relative gratitude by its very nature and definition brings a comparative element into gratitude which, to me, steals the joy of gratitude.  And would we really want to determine our happiness in this way?  Is this how we should condition young people?

Absolute gratitude, on the other hand, is much harder to cultivate and it requires being in a constant state of thankfulness for whatever is in your life (the good, the bad, and the ugly) as every event, circumstance, person that you come across is presenting you an opportunity to learn, grow, evolve. 

Absolute gratitude takes the form of “all is well”, “I am blessed”, “I am whole”, “I am fortunate”, “I am so lucky” without regard to anyone else’s lot or situation.

Comparison is the thief of joy

Theodore Roosevelt once said, “comparison is the thief of joy”.  I haven’t always understood where he was coming from.  But if all we do is compare ourselves relative to others, we may be left with feelings of inferiority or superiority – and neither is entirely desirable.   

And that is why I don’t like to hear the words, “what grade did you get?”.

Plan early, plan twice?

Photo by Hugo Rocha on Unsplash

Our leadership team has had the same conversation with staff for the last 3 weekends:

Friday afternoon: “Ok, we are all set for Monday.  Thanks for the hours of planning this week to get this right…”

Saturday morning: “Ah, sorry to interrupt your weekend.  New changes just announced.  New plan needed for Monday…”

It feels at times over the last 547 days that I have been living in some sort of Edge of Tomorrow time-loop of Live, Die, Repeat*.  That feeling of having to keep going back to the beginning is emotionally exhausting (for everyone).  In fact, leading through COVID is possibly the most demanding thing I have ever been asked to do.

I used to think that the saying “plan early, plan twice” was convenient wisdom that could be rolled out when people got away with their own last-minute planning.  But the truth is that in particularly dynamic environments, where the variables are constantly changing, it makes a lot of sense to wait until the last safe moment to commit to a particular course of action.   This is possibly why I have often heard it coming from experienced military commanders.  

Last week, we somehow managed to deliver our leaving graduates a lovely celebration that has been in the planning stage for over 12 months.  In the end, close to the 11th hour, it was split into 6 separate events on campus, including a Livestream – and was possibly the 7th different version of what was a ‘finalized’ plan.  “Plan early, plan 7 times”…doesn’t quite have the same ring does it?  With hindsight, one might wonder if next year we should plan to avoid 11 months of guessing, anticipating, worrying, fretting…and just hold off planning anything until a few weeks before the event?  I am not so sure.  My suspicion is that it was only possible to navigate all the last-minute changes needed as a result of all the learning that had taken place in the previous planning months.  Dwight Eisenhower once said that “plans are useless, but planning is indispensable”.  That makes a lot of sense to me too.

But for all our exhaustive planning for the perfect graduation, which was as likely to be canceled as run, it was just one calendared event amongst many that we have successfully planned and delivered this year.  Looking back at a successful graduation event it is very difficult to contemplate whether all the effort was worth it.  Of course, it was.  But what of all the hundreds of other (dare I say less glamorous?) events that have taken this year – equally impacted by COVID?  I wonder if there are any compounding effects to so much uncertainty?  Or am I making too much to it?  

In more normal contexts, the phrase that I heard from my tailor last week (yeah…I know…that’s not normal but I needed something to wear for the graduation at the last minute!) is to “measure twice, cut once”.  In simple terms, he was telling me of the wisdom of investing extra time in the planning process in order to avoid any mistakes.  Looking back, this seems to be the default model for this school and a reason why it is so successful, I think.

We have started planning for next year – and I have already heard several times: “do you think we will be able to do this face-to-face next year, or shall we plan for virtual?”.   What should I advise my staff?  What wisdom do I share?  Don’t plan too early?  Or start planning now for both eventualities?  And if the latter, how do I take responsibility for how exhausting that will be at a time when I want to prioritize health and well-being?  

Like I said, leading through COVID is incredibly tough, but it’s also really important to get it right…I had better start planning for Monday.

___________

*Edge of Tomorrow is a film I enjoy with Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt, released in 2014 and based on the 2004 short novel “All You Need is Kill” by Hiroshi Sakurazaka.