As a teacher I am always looking to take on the Sisyphean task of changing the habits of my students to make them better learners. What I have also realised as a subject leader, and as a reflective teacher, is that I am also looking to improve and change my own habits, my practice, and to support my colleagues to improve their practice still further too. Better teaching requires sustained changes in our habits – a very difficult process! Now, I am a great believer in deliberate practice as a path to mastery. I also whole-heartedly prescribe to Carole Dweck’s ‘growth mindset’ approach – and the view that grit and effort, and not some divine talent or inspiration, is where most creativity and innovation is to be found. All that being said, I also think that our core habits are rooted deeply within our egos and our motivations are predominantly emotional rather than logical. I was therefore struck by the outstanding book which articulated many of these issues, ‘Switch: How To Change Things When Change Is Hard’, about how to make changes to habitual patterns, for individuals, or groups and organisations through connecting with our emotions and tweaking the environment. Although not a book about school organisations as such, the book speaks directly to schools, and leaders at all levels of schools and education; and teachers, looking to make those habitual positive changes with their classes.
What the book does so successfully is to give a simple pattern to initiating change and sustaining change – particularly changing the habits of individuals and organisations (with lots of excellent examples). I have always thought that teachers are a particularly habitual bunch! Dismiss it as cod psychology, but we have returned to settings which replicate much of our childhood, so there must be a psychological pleasure we get from the school environment, something that runs deep within us emotionally (I won’t even mention the emotion invested in coffee cups or seats in the staff room, or our class room spaces!). Perhaps this is why we can be so resistant to change? Or maybe we just like to be in ultimate control – we are commanders of our classroom ship so often that perhaps we just fail to allow anyone else to steer and guide our ship to fresh waters!
The pattern for change derived from Chip and Dan Heath (yes, they are American, how did you guess?) is described below. Obviously, I am most interesting in the applicability of this pattern to educational contexts. Forgive some of the jargon, I can’t explain it all; however, a simple explanation of the ‘Rider‘ and ‘Elephant‘ analogy is required. They actually borrowed the analogy from Jonathan Haidt’s book, ‘The Happiness Hypothesis‘. Put simply, the ‘Rider‘ is our logical, organised and rational self – steering us appropriately; whereas the ‘Elephant‘ is our powerful emotional self, ready to unleash terrific power at any moment! The tensions between the two are obvious. As the Heath brothers describe, the two both need to be influenced for sustained, habitual change to occur.
1. ‘Direct the Rider’:
- Find the Bright Spots: investigate what is working and clone it;
- Script the Critical Moves: think in terms of specific goals, not a big picture (too vague);
- Point to the Destination: change is easier when you know where you are going.
2. ‘Motivate the Elephant’:
- Find the Feeling: knowing/thinking something isn’t enough to change it, make people feel something;
- Shrink the Change: break down the change so it isn’t too daunting;
- Grow Your People: cultivate a strong sense of identity and instil a growth mindset.
3. ‘Shape the Path’:
- Tweak the Environment: when the situation & the environment changes, so does the behaviour;
- Build Habits: when behaviour is habitual it doesn’t tax the ‘rider’ as much – encourage new habits;
- Rally the Herd: behaviour is contagious – help spread it.
For me, starting with ‘finding the bright spots‘ is key. Too often we aim to get people to change by focusing on what is ‘broken’, or bringing in the ‘expert’, having a whirlwind training session and then expecting long-held habits to simply fall away. It just doesn’t work. Change needs to emerge from the ground up, otherwise we just don’t have the emotional investment required to really change our habits. As a subject leader, I have realised that when people have tried something themselves and seen it work it has many more times the impact than watching some ‘outstanding’ lesson by another teacher in another part of the school, no matter how good and illuminating that lesson may be. Such is the power of the ‘elephant‘ our emotional selves simply switch off to such external stimuli is presented to us – no matter how valid or persuasive. I see so many teachers readily dismiss success from another school with a cynical jibe at the catchment area or the selective nature of another school, rightly or wrongly. People need to feel the change and see it working around them to believe it (sometimes people need to know and feel the problems with not changing). Colleagues in a department observing one another and coaching one another, with close specific focus on a manageable area of pedagogy, can be so powerful because the ‘elephant‘ essentially feels safer and more receptive to new information and advice; more so than being given expert advice by any external party, be it the subject leader, or leaders from the SLT. A learning walk is looked on with cynicism by many, we must provide the conditions for genuine sharing of new habits, such as new pedagogy. There is definitely a place for external experts too – I am a firm believer that we should all undertake educational research, as we would expect of our best students, but we must put them into practice in our context, with our colleagues, in a habitual, supportive fashion. Put simply, imported solutions most typically fail – change is organic and must be cultivated from the soil up.
‘Scripting the Critical Moves‘ is a key early step to initiating change. Leaders need to lead and people will follow when the goals are explicit and ambiguity is removed. Given a great deal of choice we simply become paralysed! When we have an excess of choice that paralysis leads us to simply fall back into our own habits. It is why students in class love explicit parameters of timings, behaviour and methodology. It gives us comfort too and we safely fall in line and ‘follow the herd’. Given common sense advice, like asking teachers to ‘work towards outstanding teaching and learning’, simply fails because it is simply too ambiguous and frightening (and hard work!) – our ‘elephants’ have too much wiggle room, so we never make the difficult move towards forming a new habit – we avoid the challenge in an act of self-preservation. Too often people fail to change, not out of resistance, but out of sheer miscomprehension. If we want teachers to become outstanding practitioners, and sustain it, we must provide marginal gains on the path towards that mastery – these need to be scripted with utter clarity – right down the the steps of core pedagogy. Then the marginal pedagogy needs to be practised and honed. The critical moves must also involve a clear destination. If you are wanting yourself or your department to move towards becoming outstanding, define the goal with absolute clarity. Make the outcome something like: ‘by the Summer of 2014, 70% of all lessons will be observed as outstanding and 30% as good’. Put like that, the idea doesn’t seem so outlandish! If you begin to ‘shrink the change‘ down to coaching targets for the department and a focus upon ‘marginal gains’ regarding key pedagogy, like questioning and oral feedback, then the change becomes emotionally accessible and even less frightening for the ‘elephant‘ – even to teachers with the most pronounced ‘elephant syndrome’! Once the pathway is established strip away everything that is extraneous to the desired outcome, make the time, hone in on the ‘marginal gains’ with utter clarity. Celebrate each step of the way – every success and even every failure – if we learn from failure we can get further down our desired path.
Emotional motivation is perhaps the most essential aspect of making and sustaining change. I have written before about habits and about confidence. The more I lead my brilliant team of teachers the more I realise that the key part of my job is emotional support (forgive me if I am stating the obvious!). ‘Finding the feeling‘ is the key to all change. Now, you could put the fear of god into teachers to motivate them to change – OFSTED inspections are often the stick with which to beat – however, to really sustain change, positive emotion must be instigated and this positive emotion sustains and helps build persistence in the face of challenges (take note Mr Gove!). Perhaps, instead, you insulate your team and support them with every confidence, encourage their risks and guide them with as much capacity building as you can muster to attempt to achieve your collective goal. What people like Gove ignore is that real change, that makes for real greatness, is powered by positive emotions: by confidence, trust, respect and self-belief. It may sound mawkish but it is true. Change founded on fear and coercion is brittle and short-lived.
At the recent SSAT conference I listened to the brilliant Emily Cummins – a young woman appealing for more real world challenges and projects in our school curriculum to really motivate students. Seeing her impassioned story of working with her grandfather as a child, to becoming an inventor of global repute, often despite her schooling, struck a chord. Working with my Y11 students writing a real letter for local and national newspapers (which was drafted over and over), I saw a new spark in some students, provoked by the potential of the real audience. Seeing the pride some students had in their work reminded me of Emily Cummins. I began to feel the need for curriculum change to something that had more real world applications, to a project based learning approach that involved choice and creativity, that involved technology and a global audience. I encountered a feeling with more purpose than I had felt before. It is something I have kept burning and it will inform the changes I lead as a subject leader and in any future educational pursuits. Too easily we can simply fall back into our habits in education – genuine creativity, really open briefs, co-construction with students – are all laudable pursuits we agree, but we pay them lip service and then return to our default position of our safe habits. Often teaching as we were taught in our turn – an emotional withdrawal to our past. Ultimately, we must experience a real emotional shift if we are to undertake a habitual shift. People need help and sustained emotional, and sometimes physical, support to change. For my mother to quit smoking she aimed to wean herself off the habit by using nicotine patches, although ultimately, it was her love for my father, and making sure he quit too, which is what made the habit stick – she certainly ‘found the feeling‘.
We can help by ‘shrinking the change‘, making those crucial ‘marginal gains’ which are much easier to tackle than hulking great challenges; supported by ‘tweaking the environment‘. Since I have been subject leader we have made little but significant tweaks to our classroom environment with pedagogical intent. A couple of years ago, we moved from an array of seating arrangements, most typically rows, to a common arrangement of group tables in every room. That one small shift initiated a sequence of changes to our pedagogy that made us all ensure that our group work and peer interaction was more thought through. Our seating plans became more nuanced to suit the group dynamics. In short, we shared ideas to deal with the tweak and we subsequently planned better lessons. Buoyed by that change to the environment, we added further tweaks, such as multiple whiteboards on the walls, to create more flexibility in the room and more opportunities for ‘visible learning‘. We initiated an iPad pilot for more enriched, multi-modal group collaborative work. Such technological innovation was quite frankly alien to some of our department, but the tweak to the environment meant people were trying new innovations in their pedagogy, and they were being forced to shift to new patterns of pedagogy the quickly became a new normal. The ‘herd mentality‘ was also a powerful force. We shared training time to build confidence and becalmed the ‘elephant’. Some colleagues unexpectedly attempted the changes with gusto and the positive response carried people along for the ride – habits were changing, not by force, but incrementally and by choice, from the soil up. Tweaking the environment works!
By following these steps and planning with precision, we can make positive changes to teaching groups, to our practice, to leading departments and indeed schools – making our job as teachers in the heady future of 2013 a little less Sisyphean a task!
“A teacher who is attempting to teach without inspiring the pupil with a desire to learn is hammering on a cold iron.” Horace Mann
Recently I came across a beautifully written ode to creativity written by @RealDavidCameron – see here. Please read it in all of its resplendent glory. The article, appropriate for our austere times, and rather bankrupt political leadership, is not all sweetness and light. Birth weight and poverty are recognized as near intractable factors that inhibit learning, but the driving force of the article resides in the transformative power of education. This was connected to another article by an inspiring school leader, Tom Sherrington – the @headguruteacher – with this article on creativity here: Teaching for Creativity and Innovation. Now, let me admit, when I sometimes hear the term ‘creativity’ used regarding education I wince slightly. ‘Passion’ and ‘creativity’ have become easy labels used across public and private sectors, becoming appropriated by advertisers, regardless of whether those qualities are exhibited or not, like some empty corporate mantra. When people laud Sir Ken Robinson I cannot but agree with his inspired speeches, but without action those words ring hollow. What leaders like Tom Sherrington and people like David Cameron do is put meat onto the bones of the creativity mantra in a real and valuable. They shine a light on creativity in practice and thereby encourage us to bask in the glow and feed the flame.
What is being proposed in the Ebacc is a reactionary and regressive response to the dynamic needs of our students, our communities and our wider economy. A ‘traditional’ curriculum, with a finishing post solely marked by a terminal three hour exam, is being lauded at a time when we must shape our society into a dynamo of creativity. I am not proposing we shun Modern Foreign Languages, Mathematics, Science and English for a playful curriculum of Dance, Drama and computer play (valuable though each can be in their own right); but if we are to once again devalue the Arts and the vocational aspects of our curriculum we are immediately performing a creativity and innovation lobotomy! As identified by the aforementioned David Cameron, much innovation and creativity derives from the dynamic conflation of different disciplines – such as a fruitful combination of science and literature for example – see here. To deliberately laud one discipline over another simply shows a lack of understanding about how creativity comes to life. We are not all a budding Leonardo da Vinci, but our curriculum should provide a breeding ground for such genius to exist and flourish – why aim for less? Gove lauds the supposed ‘freedoms’ of his systematic shift of our state school system from LEAs to Academies and Free Schools; yet, at the same time, by retaining reductive league tables with narrow measures of success, he distorts those freedoms of curriculum and school structures by narrowing the goal posts for what is deemed acceptable success. The current league table measures of success are widely deemed as insufficient, even by Gove himself (sagely expressed in this article by Chris Husbands) so we must make a thorough job of changing accountability systems for the better. What we have at present is a centralized system that serves the needs of absolutely no-one, perhaps except those Academy chains who stand to benefit from the ‘saving’ of schools being stuffed below floor standards. Creativity becomes dulled by expediency, central diktats and a repressive inspection regime. Innovative curriculum models will be circumscribed, particularly for the students in our society most in need of skills that will help them rise from their limited social circumstances. Many schools under pressure will regress into a conservative safe zone of exam driven teaching that is demotivating for students and teachers alike.
Where courageous leadership starts is a turning away from the threatening drum pounding of the DfE and turning towards our own students. We need a shining of a light upon what many of our schools are doing brilliantly and we need to spread that light. For me, our curriculum is the kindle for that flame. The very best teachers will be dulled and stunted by a limiting curriculum, no matter who we attract into our profession. We must scale up our creative endeavors if we are to inspire our students with a desire to learn. Our creativity will be found when we shine a light existing in our own schools (we will find the feeling needed for change all around us if we look properly), but we should also seek inspiration from elsewhere. Therefore I have compiled the following list of inspiring websites and blog posts that shine a light on the great creativity existing in schools all around us (in no particular order):
A movement to stimulate enquiry based learning over our content driven exam fuelled culture. Examples include schools schools taking leave of six hours per week of English, Humanities, Science and Technology lessons at KS3 to undertake enquiry based learning. A clear manifesto for the approach can be found in this document: Learning Futures
A national campaign by SSAT to coral leading thinkers and practitioners to define the core purpose of education and to synthesise the needs of our learners, now and in the future, with a curriculum which is fit for purpose. Hopefully this programme can synthesise and define many of the projects and thinking I go on to identify.
An excellent idea for project based learning from an English curricular perspective that draws in the Arts and the Humanities, transforming the whole school to energise interest and bring the war to life for students.
An outstanding use of Web 2.0 resources. Edutronic is brilliant platform to share communication and resources between teachers and students; for students to blog themselves and to record learning with a global audience. This open source approach is clearly going to supplant VLEs as the future method for communicating and learning online.
More project based learning, this time originating in Science, inspiring learners with a range of real word problems and projects and including blogged learning to help ongoing progress and reflection.
A project based learning approach with an Art focus – with a great example of a public critique involving the local community.
An inspired approach to expeditionary learning and a student centred approach to learning. Tait’s ‘Punk Learning Manifesto’ is a brilliant synthesis of ideas to convey an original and exciting approach to Science teaching and learning.
A brilliant national collective of expert teachers sharing pedagogy to keep getting better. A brilliantly simple alternative to national initiatives like the long-since defunct National Strategies approach in England. Now reading beyond its Scottish origins, I can see this collective and cooperative approach being the future for innovation in pedagogy, alongside Teachmeets and other such ground-swell approach.
A brilliant school that embraces project based learning at the core of its entire curriculum. Using the principals of Ron Berger’s inspired vision of excellence in education, this school is a gold one of highly skilled and engaging pedagogy.
This brilliant Physical Education project based learning approach brings together inspiration from British cycling together with sessions with local journalists to make literacy and the project real. The prospective public critique looks like another fantastic opportunity for students to share their brilliant learning with a real audience.
Surely these engaging and innovative approaches to pedagogy can be combined with a traditional focus upon core literacy and numeracy, and Gove’s beloved rigour, that would be more fitting for our complex and inter-connected futures. The selections I have made combine project based learning; a turning away from an obsession with terminal assessments; a skilled use of technology to leverage pedagogy; real audiences and so much more. We would do well to synthesise these principals of great learning. We must stick to our task – as the ‘real‘ David Cameron stated in his article:
“That reminded me that our task is to give our young people 1000 futures regardless of their past or their present.” David Cameron
Just over half a year ago I decided to begin a blog, in unison with a new Twitter account, with both very much representing my professional self. I have been surprised and delighted by the breadth and scale of the audience for some of my posts and the blog has provided me with a place to reflect upon my practice and record my reading and ideas – put simply, it has made me a better teacher. Many of them are my attempt to record my teaching strategies, and the many I have sourced from others, so that I remember them…and remember to use them! I am very grateful for all the other teachers, bloggers and authors whose great ideas are effectively responsible for my blog (I am intent on creating a list of the inspirational blogs of others others in 2012 very soon too). Here is my list based on the number number of views:
Perhaps my personal favourite. I love literature and I love teaching and seeing students learn and develop – this post articulates what I see as the most important aspect of my job as an English teacher: communicating the greatest of what has been written and spoken and helping students develop emotionally. It is not something measured, but something valued beyond measure: how tragedy and literature can provide strength and resilience in the face of tragedy and loss.
In the last year we have been undertaking an iPad project, with real success. I have have seen so many motivated students working collaboratively with iPads, whilst seeing my colleagues pushing the boundaries of their practice and knowledge in a powerfully positive way. This article articulates some of my research into why the iPad was the right tool to leverage better pedagogy in our faculty.
The article is about the simple tweaking of core pedagogy and practice to make that all important shift to better teaching. The best part of the blog is the end set of links – a clear indication of how my blogs are most often simply a synthesis of other great blogs and the ideas of superb practitioners. Standing on the shoulders of giants indeed!
This post, once more, is reliant upon the great ideas of others. The marginal gains wheel, devised by @liplash_mason, was incredibly popular. I used it with my Y10 GCSE class with pleasing success twice in preparation for controlled assessments. Student feedback was vey positive. This post led to a more general introduction in the Guardian Teacher Network, which was a real pleasure to write, giving me a chance to celebrate the genesis of the idea with @fullonlearning and @macn_1.
Does what it says on the tin really. At some point in 2013 I will produce a ‘Top Ten Reads’ to encompass some great books I have read since collating this list. This list would easily stand the test of time, as I would still have these five featuring in any future list. Gems one and all.
This post was my attempt to combine some of my key thoughts and ideas about being a great teacher – particularly having had the pleasure to watch quite a few in action. In my biased view, there is still no more important vocation, so this post is my humble attempt at contributing to a long standing discourse.
My first top ten post and an attempt to collate many ideas and strategies that I believe to have had the greatest positive impact upon my teaching. I happen to believe that clear explanations, great questioning and effective formative feedback is the holy trinity of outstanding teaching, so this post is very important to me in that regard.
This letter was a real trigger for my blog developing and extending to a wider audience. It was also the first time I had a post reach four figures in one day. I think my frustration and anger at the shape of Gove’s educational proposals and the feckless opposition to his deconstruction of state education touched a nerve with many. I didn’t receive any reply to my many emails and communication, but I felt my response served some purpose, however insignificant. Secretly, I hope Twigg read this letter, but I doubt it very much. I hope he is reading much about education, from those with more experience and wisdom than I, because he needs to get a hold of his brief and make a positive alternative to Gove’s corrosive marketisation of education. I remain sceptical.
One of my most recent posts and very popular (particularly in America it seems!). I have become a huge cheerleader for post it notes in the last year. It chimes with my belief in ‘making the learning visible’ and they provide the most simple and cost effective tool for teaching and learning. I think you sense my enthusiasm running thought the post! And no, I don’t possess shares in post it note companies!
My most popular post by a country mile and happily so. I am not quite sure why this post was so popular above all others, but perhaps it is because the strategies are so universal and cross curricular in nature. I think all teachers know that questioning is at the fulcrum of good teaching and learning and it was ever thus. In my decade of experience I think I am just becoming an much better in asking great questioning and I think I am getting better with creating a culture of enquiry. I’m definitely still learning and asking questions!
Much more work to do next year, with many more attendant posts I am sure. I would heartily recommend any teacher to start a blog in 2013. It would be a resolution to fire new resolution into your teaching!
Very few videos on the web can engage me enough to make me persevere in watching them for nearly twenty minutes, even less so inspire me to write about the video and encourage others to watch it! This video by Alfie Kohn does just that and I heartily commend it for your holiday viewing:
Christmas is a time for wishful thinking. My wish would be that Michael Gove would view this video. As I am being wishful, I would imagine he would reflect and revise his obsession with ‘rigour’ and ‘standards’ after the same bankrupt language and ideology is so brilliantly skewered here by Alfie Kohn. I would imagine and wish he would question the continued regime of league tables and his own proposals for a system that is obsessed with terminal assessments. I would wish and imagine that he would question whether his method of the pursuit of ‘intellectual rigour’ is so fundamentally flawed as to have the exact opposite effect!
Perhaps short of that wish, I would want teachers, and school leaders, to watch this video and reflect upon the language you use in the classroom with your students; your habits of feedback and your focus on ‘learning’ and ‘achievement’. Are we guilty of perpetuating the flaws in our current system? What can we do to mitigate our situation and that of our students? Do we have solutions we can pose within our sphere of influence and power? In light of upcoming English exams, I am certainly guilty of using highly competitive language that promotes the commodification of learning at the expense of learning for its intrinsic value. Is there a better way than our obsession with a succession of terminal assessments? Can we pursue a curriculum that does not quash curiosity, challenge and an intrinsic love of learning, whilst still functioning as a respected, skilled and creative system? There are no easy answers, but Kohn certainly poses questions that strike at the heart of the flawed thinking and leadership currently residing in the Department for Education.
If you watch one educational video before Christmas then make it this one!
Many people hear the term ‘flipped learning’ and their hackles rise, expecting some evangelical heralding of technology unceremoniously replacing the humble teacher. I have written before about the concept of ‘flipped learning’ before in this blog post and I am still fascinated by its potential and a firm believer in its importance, both here and now, but crucially in our future and for the future of our students and our schools. Now, once you get past the glossy veneer and the potential technological wizardry, ‘flipped learning’ starts to sound suspiciously like mainstays in education – homework, or revision, or even reading for pleasure outside of school! Perhaps the original flipped learning experiment didn’t begin with ‘Project Gutenberg‘ but with Johannes Gutenberg, whose printing presses revolution changed the western world and brought reading to the masses. I am an English teacher and we are currently guiding our students through their crucial final steps of revision for their January English exam. What is crucial is that those students in my school, and around the country, who will be flipping their learning over the course of Christmas and the New Year have a much better chance of excelling in January the those who do not. Revision…flipped learning – same difference!
On many days as a teacher I have faith that my daily dose of teaching can make the ultimate difference for my students, that the time and effort has a transformative purpose. That may be true – I certainly need that belief to nourish me through difficult times; however, my rational self tells me that all the other factors impacting upon our students are just as important, if not more so. As an English teacher, I have a good deal of knowledge about the impact of early years literacy and the impact of reading and oracy in the first years of the growth of a child. I know the powerful impact of parents and the impact simply having a bookshelf in the home can have. Then the importance of reading for pleasure rears up in sight (this Literacy Trust report, although slightly dated now, is illuminating: report). Other factors, like social deprivation, genetic and emotional predispositions expand the list further. Suddenly, making the key difference with our students feels a bit like King Cnut holding back tempestuous waves! Still, of course, we must try. We must try to help them learn better, for us to learn better, inside the classroom and out.
I am deeply interested in the motivation to learn (teachers as well as students!). I think that intrinsic motivation should be the ultimate aim for all learning and an end goal for educators, but I also have the realistic understanding that this is not our natural state for thinking and learning. That boredom and a deep rooted neurological desire to save mental energy, as well as a plain dislike of certain subjects, can put pay to idylls of intrinsically motivated students! What is clear is that to really enhance student motivation in a transformative way we must simply communicate as effectively as we can – despite any factors that we challenge us. This often requires good old-fashioned direct instruction, but what increasingly strikes me is that in our changing world we must harness technology to communicate with our students and with their parents. We must communicate with students using the tools where their expertise resides. I am not advocating the gamification of education, but a digital literacy that harnesses good old fashioned literacy and builds learning power.
Students only spend a relatively small amount of their time in the classroom, so the learning that is undertaken outside of the classroom obviously has a crucial importance. John Hattie’s research about homework has questioned the validity of its impact, but the data is different for older students – the older the student, the greater the impact. The link between spending time on homework, learning beyond the classroom and enjoyment is being researched with interest – see here. What is common sense is that if students enjoy learning and school, and they have developed a capacity to learn with resilience and a strong sense of motivation, then they will undertake more productive homework and revision – or simply read more for pleasure for its own sake. What we can do is harness their love for technology, gaming, social media and the web, to enhance this enjoyment, to spark more reading for pleasure. What I see as key is that technology can smooth the pathway for students, it can provide key support mechanisms outside the classroom and it promotes interdependence we simply haven’t had in the past.
Independence is rightly celebrated as a valid goal for learners at all levels. Perhaps though we are making an error, perhaps simply a semantic error. For me, interdependence is the true condition of effective learning in our modern world, not independent learning. We almost never learn in splendid isolation and for our students, and their generation and for future generations, this is particularly so because of technology. How many careers will see our students work individually and not in teams? Of those jobs, how many jobs will be essentially connected through technology? How many careers will require a flexible digital literacy to source answers and support learning? Therefore, perhaps the answer to revision is fostering that interdependence – connecting students, teachers and the knowledge we seek to impart.
In the past week we have begun shaping revision support over the crucial Christmas holiday to be shared on our faculty blog: http://huntemf.wordpress.com/. It is only in its infancy, and our ‘advent‘ of revision resources, tips and ideas, will really kick off at the start of the holiday, but the principal of ‘flipping the learning’ for revision is clearly key. We are able to share knowledge, direct students through the minefield of the web, answer questions and connect peers to one another through technology. Should they simply switch off their computer and hit the books? Perhaps? Would it work better than the ‘flipped technological model’? Perhaps. Will it promote digital literacy? No. It is a realistic state of affairs over the Christmas holiday? No.
What am I trying to argue? Well, ‘flipped learning’, or what ever you want to label it, or relabel it, is here to stay. We should harness technology and harness the expertise of our students, not switch it off and hope it will go away (Perhaps if we embraced the mobile phone as a tool for learning, putting it on the desk and not under it, then students wouldn’t feel the need to seemingly stare at their crotch so much. Even better, perhaps we could replace the mobile with a better, flexible learning tool, like a tablet, that we can mediate for great multi-modal learning?…I digress!). We should promote interdependence and connectedness for homework and revision…sorry, flipped learning!
Please watch this outstanding lecture by Dr Eric Mazur, arguing more articulately about ‘flipped learning’ than I ever could. Please take the time to watch it, it will make you think about learning, it is funny, wise and perceptive, and it will make you think:
This blog is a short reply to the brilliant English teacher Tim Boulter and his excellent blog post on passion in teaching to be found here: http://thinkingonlearning.blogspot.co.uk/2012/12/the-problem-of-passion.html. Unfortunately, Blogspot websites appear to disagree vehemently with my iPad! So is my reply to Tom’s thought-provoking post:
I agree that the word ‘passion’ is typically overused and easily abused. It has become commercialised and corporatised to a degree that we become cynical by the mere mention of the word. For this reason we should reclaim it – we are English teachers so it is our mystical right to do so! As you mention Hattie, I would argue he gives the best definition, particularly for educators – one that equates to your ‘evidence-based’ passion (it is so good I typed it up and included it in one of my old posts!):
“As I noted in Visible Learning, we rarely talk about passion in education, as if doing so makes the work of teachers seem less serious, more emotional than cognitive, somewhat biased or of lesser import. When we do consider passion, we typically constrain such expressions of joy and involvement to secluded settings not in the public space of being a teacher (Neuman, 2006). The key components of passion for the teacher and for the learner appear to be the sheer thrill of being a learner or a teacher, the absorption that accompanies the process of teaching and learning, the sensations of being involved in the activity of teaching and learning, and the willingness to be involved in deliberate practice to attain understanding. Passion reflects the thrill, as well as the frustrations, of learning; it can be infectious, it can be taught, it can be modelled, and it can be learnt. It is among the most prized outcomes of schooling and, while rarely covered in any of the studies reviewed in this book, it infuses many of the influences that make the difference to the outcomes. It requires more than content knowledge, acts of skilled teaching, or engaged students to make the difference (although these help). It requires a love of the content, an ethical, caring stance deriving from the desire to instil in others a liking, or even love, of the discipline being taught, and a demonstration that the teacher is not only teaching, but also learning (typically about the students’ processes and outcomes of learning). In the current economic climate of many countries, property values have plummeted, leading to fewer resources available for the education budget. As Doug Reeves pointed out to me, passion may be the only natural renewable resource that we have.”
Some sort of emotional all-encompassing love of teaching isn’t what Hattie advocates here I don’t think. Rather, he advocates almost exactly what you express as your passion for teaching – appropriately ‘evidence based’. For me, the most important bit is ‘deliberate practice’. I think that any teacher, inexperienced or expert, needs to have this type of passion or they will not become a great teacher. You are right that in the early days simply getting a handle on the craft of teacher makes it s challenge that can be far from enjoyable at times. I also agree that your passion can grow as your expertise grows – I am living that experience. Yet, I don’t think passion is the preserve of experienced teachers alone – the early foal-like tripping and falling of our NQT year, our training, our tricky third year…our ropey last Tuesday can still inspire a different shade of passion – a desire and passion to be better, to bounce back up and fail that bit better.
We can all love a snow day (frankly, I can’t wait to chuck snowballs with my kids on the next one!) , we can all feel like we want to chuck all of our marking into the river once in a while, BUT we do need an overriding enjoyment for working with kids; in seeing the learning spark ignited; in being challenged daily in a multitude of ways (often in ways we never expected – which is the fun but frightening bit!).
Call it passion – I do. Expect it of colleagues – I do. Struggle with it at times – I do. Treasure having it – I do!
The Ultimate Low Cost, High Impact Teaching Tool?
The humble post it note – sometimes you don’t need to invest in a fleet of iPads, interactive whiteboards or Visualisers to make the learning visible and to have a positive impact upon learning. Some of the best things in life are simple…and yes, cheap! The post it note is so flexible, easy to use and multi-purpose that it most surely must qualify for the ultimate low cost, high impact teaching tool.
Not only are they cheap and flexible learning tools, the very nature and size of them (varied as they now can be) encourages, even demands, a precise and concise use of language. Rather than pages of notes, students have to be selective, synthesise and exercise higher order thinking to use post it notes successfully – it can be very much a case of less is more. The original purpose of note making still stands, and is brilliantly fit for purpose, but they can be used to develop pedagogy in a variety of ways. Progress has become the de rigueur term for OFSTED, and has spread beyond her ivory towers and has become a new byword in schools, like it never quite existed before OFSTED began browbeating us all about it! Before it became a buzz word, teachers were busy helping students progress and learn in blissful ignorance – the post it has been a perennial tool for such teachers. The post it has outlasted most technology to provide a quick but highly effective tool for instant formative feedback, for effective questioning and a whole host of other aspects the makes progress visible in student learning.
The humble post it actually began as a failed invention. Dr Spenser Silver, in 1968, was aiming to create a super-strong adhesive, but instead he created a ‘low tack’ adhesive by accident. Even the famous canary yellow colour was due to the simple fortune of the neighbouring lab having spare yellow paper! Such serendipity leading to such a gem of a product reminds me of the often instantaneous impact and the spark of creativity that the post it can engender in the classroom. The post it is now so iconic it has even been established in different digital apps on MacBooks and tablet devices. Their usefulness knows few bounds – by limiting my list to a ‘top ten’ I am acutely conscious that I am merely scratching the surface of their use in the classroom and their pedagogical potential!
Our faculty has been undertaking an approach to making the learning visible (influenced by Hattie and the Harvard ‘Visible Thinking’ approach). We are utilising a trio of core tools to help us do this: iPads, multiple whiteboards on the walls in classrooms and the simple post it. We are tweaking the environment, but aiming to shift the pedagogy – the post it is the cheapest of the lot and it has an impact that punches clearly above its weight!
The following list of teaching and learning strategies is based upon the use of the basic post it, with no requirement for a rich array of colours or sizes, although that has become one of the enhanced facets of the humble post it:
1. Secret Teacher Feedback: this a practical classroom strategy that works brilliantly and with great subtlety. Post it notes are the tool to provide subtle feedback, praise or critique, in a ‘secret’ manner when you want students to work independently. You can establish calm, purposeful parameters for the classroom atmosphere, whereat students can write/learn quietly or in silence, should the task benefit from such an atmosphere. I find it is unobtrusive but a supportive guide to better progress. I find it works best in conjunction with point 2 on the list! This idea is directly inspired by Zoe Elder’s ideas for using post it notes for feedback in her pedagogical masterpiece, ‘Full on Learning‘. Buy it, read it, cover it in post it notes to track your burgeoning ideas!
2. Question Wall: there are endless variations on a ‘question wall’ (I have explained this in more detail here: http://huntingenglish.wordpress.com/2012/11/10/questioning-top-ten-strategies/.The post it note provides a simple method for placing their questions onto the wall. It also allows you to write on answers in reply, particularly, if like in point 1, you are looking to establish an atmosphere of purposeful independence. These post it notes can be grouped by sectors on the wall, depending upon the question type, as explained on the aforementioned post. The post it is moveable and flexible, so you can even use one question from one student and have another student communicate the answer – the options are endless.
3. Post It Note Formative Feedback: formative feedback is essential for progress. The post it note provides a quick option for feedback, as in point 2, but you can also use post it notes for peer assessment, or for teacher feedback on draft work. The rationale being that the post it can encourage more independent engagement with their own work – one or two judicious targets in a post it can really shape any ongoing classwork. It also encourages concise, targeted teacher feedback. OFSTED are particularly enamoured by literacy and book marking at the moment. Why not use the post it as a method to have students assess their peers for written accuracy (this does need to be delicately handled at times)? Given a literacy support document, they could identify patterns, then make notes on the post it and they then have to make their own corrections/improvements. The teacher could easily fulfil this role. Having a succession of spellings corrected for them is little help for students, but a post it note regarding a spelling rule, with some hints for improvements could initiate some productive self-reflection and proof reading.
4. Key Subject Specific Vocabulary: another important literacy strategy is identifying the key subject specific vocabulary of any given subject. As crucial subject specific terms arise in the lesson they can be identified by using post it notes, which can gradually build in spit a useful lexicon of terms for a given scheme of learning. If students are working in groups, or as a whole class, one student could be allocated the responsibility of recording key words from the lesson and noting them on a post it. As a plenary, the student or the teacher could reflect upon these post it notes. The teacher could initiate enquiry about whether they form into a pattern. The post it could be a way of organising the terms into a distinct sequence or diagram, to reflect relatedness or hierarchical patterns – see point 6.
5. Petite récits: okay – they anglo-saxon description would be ‘mini-narratives’, or micro-writing – I just thought the French made me sound more cosmopolitan (the truth is my French is Bartonesque!).There are endless opportunities for students to hone their skills with compressed narratives – or the myriad of ways of creating a creative response within the limited space the post it allows. They could present generic narratives in ten words for example. I have witnessed terrific ten word mystery stories, or you could boil down the meta-narrative of World War Two into a simple ten word response. One idea I particularly liked was the ‘six word memoirs’, with the simple but creative idea to compress an entire biography into a concise gem of a few words. See these examples here. It is a great strategy across the school curriculum for any ‘character’ or historical figure – great as a swift starter, or even a summative plenary. Try it for yourself! Similar models are prevalent across the web, such as ‘Seven Word Stories’ e.g.youngwritersproject.org/node/19338. This compression of language (which students skilfully hone of their mobile phone each day!) gets them to really focus in upon the essential information, whilst providing another useful cross curricular literacy strategy.
6. ‘The Ideas Tree’: a description for any activity where you get students to brainstorm ideas for a given topic or concept. The teacher can shuffle the post it notes around creatively to organise the ideas to give form to their collective ideas (there are multiple variations in reorganising post it ideas to shape meaning, from ‘diamond nine models’, to a ‘pyramid of priorities’ that reflect a more hierarchical model to organise their ideas). These ideas can provide a semi-permanent resource in the classroom for students to utilise and support their learning, and they can provide the teacher with a ready made resource to recap prior learning or to provide a read made plenary to reflect upon progress.
7. ‘Guess Who/What?’: the simple party trick of common fame that students love. Place a key word/character/concept etc. onto a post it and place it upon the forehead of a student – they subsequently have a limited number of questions they can ask before they guess the term/topic on the post it. It can place a pedagogical focus upon good questioning, or more simply provide a fun group task to stimulate talk and recall key information.
8. The Post It Plenary : students leave a post it on a board/wall/door which reflects upon the learning of the lesson – perhaps with a simple ‘Today I learnt….’ sentence stem to scaffold their response. Some or all of the student responses can be revisited in the subsequent lesson; whilst the teacher can use the responses to inform planning. Another variation on the strategy is to have a learning arrow which indicates various degrees of progress, such as shown on the following image (kindly donated by my talented colleague Heather):
The post it note can be placed appropriately on the arrow to reflect where the students believe they have progressed towards in the course of the lesson. Is provides very visual and instantaneous feedback for the teacher that can and should shape future planning. By taking a photograph of the arrow, with post it note feedback, it can provide another useful resource for the following lesson and the future learning.
9. Opinion lines: students have to decide where their post it would reside on an opinion line to represent their viewpoint, with some concise justification for their views. Again, the post it note is perfect because of the flexibility it provides – with subsequent teacher, or student led, feedback, the post it may shift along the opinion line. The humble post it provides instantaneous correction – the opportunity to change the position on the line once each post it point or idea has been discussed.
10. ‘Pin the Post It on the Donkey’: essentially, this is a catch-all description for when you project an image onto the whiteboard and ask students to provide a written response which they then place on the relevant area. In Maths, this could be placing the answer on the relevant point of a graph, with explanation; in History, it could be quickly placing a post it upon a historical figure with a concise explanation; in English, it could be a powerful descriptive image and asking students to write a brilliant sentence or two for one aspect of that image, or a quick-fire analysis of a presentational device on a media text (multiple responses can deepen the quality of analysis).
Added Extra – Nice idea for literacy across the curriculum:
Post it Review: A lovely idea, though not strictly a teaching and learning strategy, was to encourage students, and adults, to place post it note reviews into books surreptitiously in school libraries, bookshelves in classrooms – anywhere where reading is happening! Leaving in a post it note review as this secret gift promotes reading, making the reviewer synthesise their reading, whilst the prospective reading gets a lovely surprise to stimulate their desire to read.
Any ‘top ten list’ is a cap on ideas, feel free to add more – there is certainly more to do with post it notes…
It is clear that the SSAT organisation are corralling some of the best teaching and learning academics, school leaders and teachers to lead the charge to take student learning in our education system forward into our twenty first century, not harking back to a nineteenth century ‘golden age’. The SSAT conference this week was a veritable smorgasbord of reflection, evidence based knowledge and innovation, shared by luminaries such as Dylan Wiliam, Guy Claxton and Bill Lucas etc. Like any good meeting of minds, the less well known speakers and practitioners left the most lasting impression on many. My high points were the sessions by Emily Cummins, Ewan McIntosh and Tom Sherrington (although I was inspired by those ours mentioned in this post). Now, any good review or summary would attempt to summarise the multitude of ideas in a pithy, wise thesis statement, as fallible, reductive and no doubt biased as that may be, so I will give it a go. For me – note the glaring subjectivity – the conference laid the foundations for a reinvigorated pedagogy and curriculum the puts learning and students at the heart of education – not beginning with measurable, replicable and ultimately sellable end assessments as our politicians propose.
I told you my attempt wouldn’t quite do the job – but we learn from failure and risk taking regardless! The SSAT mission statement clearly does the job equally as concisely and more successfully:
Inquire – what class-based action research and teacher-led inquiry has raised standards?
Innovate – how have schools done things differently in order to do them better?
Inspire – how have schools influenced each other’s work through our network?
Impact – what changes have been proven to make a difference to student outcomes?
How does these worthy statements translate into real action and evidence. Well, the real evidence of an education system is the learners and their success, and the two most impressive people were young people who exhibited that they had flourished as outstanding learners. Firstly, Emily Cummins (see -@emilycummins), a young woman who broke free of curriculum constraints to exhibit true independent learning – ultimately becoming a woman achieving spectacular success, from inventing the ‘Sustainable Refrigerator’ and becoming ‘Woman of the Year’. She challenged teachers and leaders to question whether their curriculum was indeed fit for purpose. Secondly, James Anderson (see @iamjsanderson), an extraordinarily talented student, who, still a teen, co-founding the app making tech company: PixelBit Apps Ltd. What was common about these brilliant leaners was that they succeeded despite the limits of a stultifying exam system – they had undertaken learning beyond the boundaries of the classroom space, they had been encouraged by key individuals, grandparents and teachers. Dr Eric Mazur, a spectacular speaker and teacher, who originated the principal of ‘flipped learning’ (see here: Full lecture or for a bitesize explanation of flipped learning here) exemplified how and why learning must reach beyond the exam, beyond the classroom and beyond the pathway being proposed currently by the DfE. If we don’t innovate the learning to reach our students and challenge the current ideology being proposed by Gove, then we will have less chance of seeing people like Emily and James flourish. The approach of SSAT in the coming year is to put forward proposals on their ‘Redesigning Schools’ project in the coming year.
Common patterns of ideas were criss-crossing across the various speeches and sessions. What was central was learners and learning. Learning as an emotional and cognitive process kept on being reiterated – indeed, we need evidence and great skill to further process and adapt our pedagogy given our ever-growing greater knowledge of this science. Gove may wish to make teaching a trade, but it is so much more than that – we must be the skilled professionals and researchers we seek, in spite of divisive politics. I expected some more focus upon learning environments and innovative technology, and there were appropriate exemplars of technology being used to enhance the learning; however, the key focus was on the students themselves as the key ‘resource’. Co-construction was a definitive message for taking our curriculum and pedagogy forward. From Tom Sherrington’s brilliant school projects that put the student at the heart of real learning (see his great blog here), to Bill Lucas’s evaluation of how well we have formed the balance within our curriculum and pedagogy:
In my session with Ewan McIntosh (see his website), an ex-teacher, who brought that crucial viewpoint from the world outside of education that we very much need if we are to avoid naval gazing, I reflected very much about an idea/problem that Ewan proposed we look into and attempt to solve. My problem/idea was student motivation. For me, it is at the root of much of the talk from every expert speaker. Are we preparing our students for a world we cannot even imagine; in the words of Piaget, are we imbuing them with that key life skill:“Knowing what to do when you you don’t know what to do”? A few years ago I wrote passionately about a GCSE student named Craig (before I knew blogging was invented!) and how he had developed a learned helplessness and how I felt culpable as his teacher. A few years on, I feel we are far more canny with our students and we are teaching them better in my school, but the insoluble problem is still the lack of intrinsic student motivation for many – the hard reality that we are still working harder than they are in many ways! It is working for us in terms of league tables and external judgements, but I don’t think it is working for all of our students. If will not make our nation of children ready for tomorrow and the complex world in which they will live.
Student motivation is such a gargantuan problem that it may seem foolish to even broach it, but I will do so anyway! I am conscious the problems and potential solutions would encompass a book and not a couple of paragraphs, but permit me to summarise. The problems are legion: from our high stakes testing model and our punitive external school judgements; to the politicisation of education that ignores evidence, the profession and the students; to our habits as teachers in repeating the paradigms of how we were taught in a connected world which bears no relation to our youth; to a culture that promotes consumer values of instant gratification, an aversion to boredom and effort, with an attendant ideology that the end justifies the means in terms of educating students for schools and DfE statistics, and not for the intrinsic love of learning, or providing the authentic learning skills for a future we cannot quite imagine. The solutions – well, I humbly admit that I am wholly foxed by the issue! I would like to think that the people and sessions in this conference have advanced my thinking so that I may make practical advancements for developing the curriculum for my students and our faculty.
The answers of course start with the students and their learning. We must stop putting the cart before the horse, as Brian Lightman articulated. We must workWITH the students: co-constructing learning; adapting and personalising the curriculum to meet the changing needs of our students (the ‘flipped learning’ model is one of the many methods) in reaching them by building real learning, with real audiences – not some atomised task by proxy. We must use a language that encourages a growth mindset and promotes good habits of thinking. We must build resilience by encouraging risk taking and accepting failure on the pathway to ultimate success – helping students learn how to learn – not as a bolt on quick-fix, but as a way of thinking and learning. We must connect with technology in a real, flexible and frequent way. Even more importantly, we must connect the chain of people: the golden triangle of students, parents and teachers.
The devil is of course in the detail, and this blog is simply about quick reflections, so I don’t offer detailed examples or answers – but of course, schools are innovating and, quite frankly, ignoring national directives and making the learning real and are making the students better motivated – which leads to the desired outcomes even hardened, cynical politicians desire. Of course, there are no silver bullet solutions here, the answers will be rooted in the school contexts and the people in unique school scenarios; but, crucially, a commitment to searching out those answers is the
thing. In the coming year, SSAT is clearly committed to synthesising these ideas with great experts and brilliant practical teachers and leaders at the chalkface – collaborating and connecting to create what Bill Lucas described the “great pedagogical shift”. The buffering stresses of the daily jobs and the criticisms by politicians etc. cannot shift us from keeping the learning the main thing, from working hard to imbue students with the crucial intrinsic motivation and helping them ‘know what to do when they do not know what to do’.
My favourite quote of the conference was made by the sage Dylan Wiliam and it is about teachers, but fundamentally, it gets to the root of improving learning for students, thereby improving the motivation of students – which is crucial in sowing the very seeds of future success:
“Every teacher needs to improve, not because they are not good enough, but because they can be even better.” Dylan Wiliam
My favourite image of the conference was from Tom Sherrington’s brilliant talk about co-construction and being bold enough to inspire students to own their learning, provoke their own leadership and questioning and to learn with real motivation:
The problem is complex – great minds in this conference are busy tackling it, teachers and leaders are working with them too. I feel simply privileged to be there listening in! We all can and must join them, or be left at the behest of ignorant politicians without having challenged them. We must show our passion for students and for helping them learn by undertaking deliberate practice. I must stop reflecting – I need to get planning – I have students to motivate!
P.S. Thank you to all the kind people who said hello and talked to me during the conference – very much inspiring for me to share my time with you!
“All our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits,” William James
Over the summer I read the excellent book, ‘The Power of Habit‘, by Charles Duhigg – It is a great popular science read, with an interesting array of anecdotes balanced with some interesting neuroscience. As the summer is a time for a well needed wealth of reading to nourish the mind and soul again, I happily moved onto the next book and placed it to the bottom of my virtual bookshelf. Now, Year 11 mocks have just been undertaken, 6th form groups are in the midst of the winter working lull, and the powerful message of the book came rushing back to my mind. The message of the book is ultimately empowering – put very simply, our brains work by forming habits to save energy and be able to learn new things. We can master those habits, if we understand how habit forming works. Self-control, resilience, grit – whatever you want to call it – we can master it. What students need is teaching how to go about controlling their habits and developing greater self-control.
How many people reading this blog post would say that you have a strong degree of self-control and mastery over your working habits? Once you have rated yourself, ask yourself: can you resist the ping of your phone, iPad or laptop when you receive an email or a tweet? Does that subtle daily urge sound familiar? When I spoke to my 6th form A Level Language class last week about their working habits, they universally agreed that they were always engaging with some media based communication – texting, their phone, or Facebook chat etc.; as well as listening to music, and/or television, whilst they attempted to complete their homework. The main reason they worked in their room was to be able to procrastinate in peace, rather than creative a productive cue for a good working habit! I too know that plight – I struggle with extended periods of marking – but my experience (both emotionally and neurologically) has given me a sense of mastery over my habits. My rewards are tangible and pretty much immediate – from seeing my work impact upon students, to my wage rewarding me roughly when I like (that sounds ridiculously luxurious, but it is roughly true – within reason!). Still, many aspects of our careers don’t provide immediate gratification, yet we learn to accept that as part of our maturation. Too often, our students fail to visualise the rewards needed to motivate them if their rewards are deferred to any degree. If their future career, wealth and happiness only feels tenuously linked to their daily working habits at school, they will always struggle to visualise the reward provided by good working habits at school.
One example from the book that focuses very well upon the habits and lack of self-control exhibited by our students is also well articulated in this New Yorker article: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/05/18/090518fa_fact_lehrer. Essentially, the example provided reveals explicit evidence of the force of rewards in habit forming, as well as the challenge of developing self-control. Interestingly, many KIPP schools in America have undertaken a programme entitled: “Don’t eat the marshmallow!” directly inspired by this very experiment as outlined in the article and in Duhigg’s book. These programmes explicitly teach persistence and habits related to work, including the crucial skill of mastering boredom (a hidden truth of ll up education and our working lives). These skills become integral to the processes of these schools, such is the crucial importance of self-mastery for their students. Yet, productive habit forming, resilience and self-control should be at the core of every school, rooted in what we teach and how students learn.
Whilst not offering some pat life solutions to all our ills, the book unveils some of the processes behind habits the can make habit forming something we can act upon, helping in the attempt to change bad habits where necessary. This diagram is a simple version of the key process of habit forming:
This relatively simple process is something we should explicitly teach and students, and even their parents, if we are going to maximise learning opportunities like homework. With my A Level students I discussed how they must start treating 6th form like work, like a job. I know this flies in the face of some current thinking about learning powered schools (I was once seduced by the idea that labelling homework ‘home learning’ would transform the nature of the task – engage students more…it didn’t!), but it is a practical, honest approach. Not all reception of knowledge is interesting, spell binging or emotionally significant – some of it is terribly dull…but we must help them master this need for instant gratification. Maybe the instant feedback provided by levels on a computer game, or playing a football match, is tough competition, but we must wage the good fight. Having talked to the aforementioned A Level group, it came to light many had part time jobs, from painting to working in McDonalds. Some of those very students who admitted regularly being late to 6th form in the morning, but they had never been late for work! They explained how they worked solidly in their part-time job, such as painting for an our or two, with little thought to doing otherwise, but then they couldn’t work for a fifteen minute stretch on their homework. They just couldn’t see the value in doing it – tasks that required extra effort, like the effort needed to proof read their writing gave them no reward – it bore no relation to future success for them. This perennial problem of self-mastery, particularly over the ever-changing fertile teenage neurological system, is nothing new, but we must explicitly do our best to teach habits of mind. I explained my ‘cue’ habit at home of making some coffee before I began my school work; my subsequent reward of a second cup and a biscuit after forty five minutes. I admitted I sometimes failed to leave my phone and iPad from distracting me, but that I was intent on changing that habit…we are always a work in progress!
One important point from the book was this about how to shift a habit:
“Rather, to change a habit, you must keep the old cue, and deliver the old reward, but insert a new routine.”
(Excerpt From: Duhigg, Charles. “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.” Random House Digital.)
Now, this really is crucial in persisting with changing the working habits of students. We must first work upon old cues (like a cigarettes smoker would use nicotine patches). Perhaps the old cue is to go to their room; the old reward is some time on Facebook or FIFA – but the new routine would include switching off their computer and phone, perhaps instead playing some music (they could play different genres or bands for their different subject work to add a further memory cue), before creating a new reward themselves – such as after half and hour, giving themselves a small treat and a technological interlude for five mins (risky I know!). After a further hour they then reward themselves with a ten minute break and another small reward. Repeat…repeat….repeat. Build their resilience – develop the muscle that is their brain – resist eating the symbolic marshmallow!
Another key aspect to changing habits is for students to have a strong sense of long term rewards and, crucially, to be able to visualise those rewards and make them feel almost real on a daily basis. One great anecdote from the book is how the greatest ever swimmer, Michael Phelps, went from a impulsive and compulsive teen to a driven, focused athlete. His coach taught Michael to visualise the perfect race (typical in sporting psychology), which he termed mentally ‘putting in the video’ [the video of the perfect race]. Every morning and night he would be encouraged to visualise the perfect race, imitating this process when he competed in the pool. His near-absolute focus on success made him drive towards that ultimate goal of perfection – other factors no doubt helped, but forming strong working habits were key. So many students who under-perform in school simply don’t have any career aspirations – this happens year on year. Too often, if they do not have aspirations, no school work will feel like it offers a real reward to them and they cannot get an intrinsic reward from the effort either. Some don’t have parental role models that can articulate the link between academic and career success. We must endeavour to make these long term rewards feel real by ensuring they have a vision for their own future success.
Making their future career feel real can encompass many things. It could mean creating a curriculum that embraces project based learning, with a real audience – audiences which often touch their real career aspirations. It may involve having an ‘enterprise’ programme that is driven thought the core of the school, across and through the curriculum, not as some token tick box. It may involve maintaining a brilliant Careers department (at a time when such support is being stupidly and ruthlessly cut). This aspiration must start considerably earlier than when we typically intervene – ‘careers‘ should not be something we leave until GCSE – it should be embedded deeply from Primary school. I am not proposing some utilitarian nightmare of fake form filling and imitative role-play from Year Three, but we must change the curriculum in a way that reaches out to parents to raise aspiration; that creates a school that is masterfully enterprising – that forms working habits for learning and life. Richard Gerver is rightly heralded for creating such a school, where enterprise is real and meaningful, here at Grange Primary School:
In every job there is an element of fun (so says Mary Poppins), but there is also an element of boredom. As much as we should help students engage in compelling real life learning, akin to the evidence form Richard Gerver’s school, we must also educate children that self-mastery includes living and working in a state of boredom. Successful people manage to not eat the marshmallow – they manage to maintain their efforts through the tedium and the drudgery. They must embrace the boredom on the path to future success – they must constantly be encouraged to keep their eye on their deferred rewards, however far away they might appear to be. I spoke to my A Level students about the fact that they may be being paid for their painting and decorating at the end of the month, or even cash in hand; but with success in 6th form, they are dictating how much they are likely to be paid for the rest of their lives! Yes, they gain many more intrinsic value from learning that cannot and should not be measured monetarily, but we should not divorce the two.They must start the difficult process of habit changing by being given knowledge about the process of habit forming. That is the first step on the path to self-mastery – put simply, don’t eat the marshmallow!
NOTE: if you are now off to go to the cupboard for chocolate, or even some marshmallows, you have completely failed the hidden challenge I have set questioning the power of your self-mastery!