There are a lot of things to like about surfing. There is the laid back lifestyle, all year tan, girls in bikinis and endless summers. Other benefits include physical fitness, a strong connection with nature and the ability to use words like ‘worked’ and ‘stoked’ without sounding like a total flog.
Sun, sand and perfect waves beneath a clear sky are a hell of a lure for the modern human.
This ideal is true if you live in Hawaii or the Maldives or even Queensland. It is fine if you grew up with sand in your jocks and zinc cream in your hair. This myth is all good if you grew up near the coast or spent youthful summers at a holiday house or camping out in the annexe of a family caravan. You can probably surf like some ride bikes.
Perhaps you want to learn to surf, or claim you can because of that backpacker tour or lesson your girlfriend bought for your birthday. You know, the one where the instructors in green vests pushed you on a foam board through whitewash, and you stood up like a drunk with vertigo and straight lined it to the beach, hooing and haaing with arms aloft like a champ.
Okay, maybe that describes me too.
One truth about surfing is that what I just described isn’t surfing. Compared to surfing, it would be like riding on a velodrome with training wheels or ten pin bowling with a ramp and those bumper things in the gutter.
One truth about surfing is it is the hardest thing I have ever tried to learn, including long division. It is the albatross around my sporting neck, the Newman to my Seinfeld. Surfing is the pigeon to my statue and the fly in my sporting ointment and or soup. It is the dragon I spend too much time chasing.
It is a chase that has lasted more than ten years, and though the tone might sound complaining, it is more a lament. I too was drawn in by the image of surfing and the way people spoke about it. Tim Winton, in his novel Breath, wrote eloquently about the thrill of learning to surf and the spirituality of the lifestyle. To be honest, reading Winton only makes the frustration worse because it describes a soulful experience that has so far eluded me despite grinding effort.
I started learning to surf in my mid twenties, lured in by quick success of a first lesson and a mild case of quarter life rut. There were certain challenges to overcome – I grew up a long way from the coast and didn’t really like the beach. Normally that would be only a mild obstacle, assuaged with the application of effort and practice, for surfing is a great deal more than taking a few strokes and standing up on a wave. Without the knowledge of currents and tide times and weather conditions, learning to surf can quickly reduce itself to paddling around a lot, drinking seawater and worrying about sharks.
When the wind is up and the current is running, you can spend everything you have just getting out beyond where the waves break. On a learner board, which in my case was roughly the size of the HMAS Melbourne, it is impossible to duck under the waves, even in small conditions. My abiding memory of those early sessions was the effort of balancing myself with the quick realisation I often looked like a person in trouble in a flood, grasping at driftwood. Sometimes in choppy conditions it felt like there were gangster slaps coming from all directions.
Surfing back then was all sore arms and salty burps, with the odd short ride in the white water to keep me coming back. It was about learning not to panic when you were caught on the bottom, that seaweed was natural and every shadow did not make a shark. It was about getting shouted at by other surfers and learning line-up etiquette and university level meteorology. The urge to give up was a constant companion.
I also learnt that there was a difference between surfers and people who surf. People who surf are aggressive and drop in on you. They are always in a hurry and resent you being there. Surfing is an activity to be conquered and measured and mastered. Surfers are all like the Dude from the Big Lebowski. They whoop you onto waves and smile as you paddle by them. They speak slow, like Queenslanders, and have a quiet confidence that indicates they know something awesome about life.
The thing that changes them, steals ambition and sends you on a search is the very thing that keeps me turning up for punishment time and again. It is the thing that makes me squeeze my once athletic frame into a neoprene suit slash nappy, pick up 8 feet of fibreglass and paddle out into a winter sea for a free salt water enema and blue lips.
The truth about surfing is told in the peace you find out the back between sets, where time is a construct and nothing matters but the next lump on the horizon. Well, either that or the sharp rush of the last strokes before liftoff, when you ascend by the power of water and snap to your feet, or go over the falls to practice holding your breath, the usual outcome for this scribe.
Despite all the rejections and lost hours, all the days when swell disappears and there is nothing but close-outs, the truth about surfing is the very thing that keeps me coming back for more. It goes against all rhyme and reason, and defies the constant sense of dread I feel when I pull into the car park and lay eyes on the breakers.
But I’m not really a surfer, just a person who surfs not very well. Maybe Tim Winton is the man to ask about the truth.
Each new year arrives accompanied by fireworks, resolutions and sore heads. For many of us, the turning of a year inspires a turning inward. We embrace the opportunity to renew, take stock and course correct amidst the promise of a blank slate and fresh start.
This usually doesn’t last long, as the existence of ‘Quitters Day’ attests (The first Friday in January, in case you were wondering). Now, I am not a fan of resolutions and promise never to be one, though this year, for the second time, I set a personal challenge to help me wind down and renew.
This challenge was a digital detox – foregoing the digital realm in all forms for 24 hours. No phone, no TV, no laptop or Ipad. No headphones. Nada. Zip. Nothing.
The end of 2021, just days into the summer break, found me struggling to switch off despite the abundance of time and opportunity. The usual ‘I should be doing something’ agitation lingered longer than ever once the academic year ended and the days emptied.
I felt exhausted, restless and cagey. Time was short and I could not get around and do everything I wanted, or thought I wanted, to do. Which is ridiculous, considering the good fortune of long breaks we teachers enjoy.
In response, principles of self care led me to a natural accounting for and reflection on habits and routines. This included exploring my digital life (not wishing to point fingers…ah, thank you…)
The pandemic has forced many of us into a huge shift in habits and routines.
The science of habit is fascinating. How we humans acquire, adapt and lose them, and how this shapes our lives is an area of great interest to many.
Not all habits were created equal. In particular, the speed of our adoption and reliance on phones and tablets is an important topic for me not just an educator, but also as a functioning, sentient human being.
The cognitive pressure that phones and social media place on us is also an increasing area of human concern.
Smartphones, true weapons of mass distraction, are central and ubiquitous for many in our hyper-connected modern life.
Worryingly, films like ‘The Social Dilemma’ have revealed the extent to which this distracting, addictive quality is intentionally built in by creators and designers.
Even if you do not subscribe to a cynical, black hat view that ‘we’re all being manipulated’ by technology, it is not a huge stretch to argue that the development of smartphone technology and the rise of social media draws obvious parallels with that story where Pandora opens a certain box…
There is genuine concern and deep inquiry into the cognitive pressure that smartphones, social media and what Cal Newport calls ‘network tools’ (email, instant messenger, online gaming, video calls etc.) brings to bear on individuals and society as a whole.
Scientists and psychologists are taking a keen interest in this phenomenon and its impact and consequences.
Beyond this, anyone who has or works with children and teenagers can attest to the growing suspicion that technology and social media, not to mention gaming, may not be beneficial or benign for their physical, emotional and mental wellbeing.
Speculating further, the apparent crisis in mental health in society, manifested in increased rates of anxiety, social fear and depression, may have a strong correlation with this rapid and pervasive shift to habitual technology use and dependence.
There is no doubt that life is fundamentally different from not so long ago.
‘Okay, Boomer!’ I hear you say.
Well, it is worth reflecting on how despite the lengthy existence of technologies like television and telephones (all demonised and criticised at times for the damage they cause) with modern hyper-connectivity is not really a comparison of apples and apples.
Granted, in days of yore there was a lot of staring into the ‘idiot box’ or listening to ‘rowdy music’. Yet is hard to argue that we were then so consistently connected from the time we woke to the time we went to sleep, or so readily able to access perennial sources of stimulation outside our own minds and bodies.
Going further, if we apply principles of neuroplasticity and lessons from research in the fields of cognitive and neuroscience, it is reasonable to assert that our interaction with and usage of these devices is changing our brains.
Granted, the extent and impact of this might be overstated, but we can say that our habits and routines have fundamentally changed through the constant availability of electronic devices and tools over the last twenty years or so.
So what is the problem, then?
To my way of thinking, for thousands of years, human beings have understood that there is a lot to be said for the benefits of stillness, reflection and downtime in a life.
We know it, too, judging by the ever expanding mindfulness and meditation industry.
The numbers don’t lie. In the US alone it is believed to be worth 1 billion dollars a year. By 2023 it is projected to be worth 3.9 billion and a whopping 9 billion by 2027.
No doubt, the pandemic has pushed this along, but even considering this, the exponential jump in people searching for solace and calm in meditation and mindfulness is extraordinary.
Yet, the reality is that you never need to have downtime if you don’t want it. There is always a magic tool close to hand for finding out or engaging in anything.
Connected screens, whatever your preference, are a magic portal; a black hole of endless rabbit warrens to disappear into at will, as long as your phone is charged and you have Internet access.
Quiet, reflective moments at a bus stop or on the train are rare and perhaps, sadly, extinct. There are no more thoughtful or pensive pauses during long conversations, or quiet contemplation on first waking or when a dinner buddy heads off to the loo. Hell – there is no more quiet contemplation on the loo if you don’t wish it.
This year, after another year of building and reinforcing different habits during lockdown and isolation, I’d added more scrolling, refreshing and clickbait news to my mental diet.
These ‘digital snacks’ became even more disruptive and time consuming events in my day.
Part challenge, part experiment, part just something to do, after another annus interruptus, I was interested to see if my taking a break might settle an unquiet mind.
Another motivation was curiosity. I wanted to see how it felt to go back in time to visit an old self – one who reads a physical paper for news or goes outside for the weather report.
The concept of a digital detox is not new, but there is a growing global movement towards countering the negative aspects of technology use by taking regular breaks.
In Newport’s excellent book ‘Deep Work’, he recounts the story of journalist and early influencer, Baratunde Thurston, who wrote about his experience in giving up technology for an entire month back in 2013. It is a great read.
There are various methods and movements which involve taking regular breaks – from one day a week to one week a month to one month a year for the independently wealthy – from tech. Some are variously known as an Internet Sabbath, Technical Sabbath or Tech Shabat.
Like many diets and challenges, there are endless options, parameters and dosages to suit you. This continuum extends from minor to the extreme, escaping to an off-grid cabin in the woods model.
Regardless of the details, the common thread is the intentional disconnection or avoidance of technology and social media to benefit one’s mental and physical health or to improve productivity.
Not considering myself a phone or social media addict, last year I thought the challenge would be easy; just power down the phone and put it in a drawer for 24 hours. No worries. A day later I’d be back, ready to see what I’d missed.
While the experience was not traumatic or onerous, I was surprised by how many times I caught myself thinking ‘I just need to…’, before realising I needed my phone to do it.
There were periods of withdrawal, but I made do with analogue conversations, books and games.
The discomfort was akin to a nasty vice, like smoking, requiring determined effort to avoid slipping and stay the course.
In the end I did not miss anything vital and in fact, the experience brought a sense of being more ‘there’ and less hurried.
One some levels, the 2022 challenge was fairly low impact and interesting in the same way.
I sometimes caught myself wanting to get my phone and check a little thing, or make a note, set a reminder, check WhatsApp just to see what was going on.
When I realised I could not due to self-imposed limitations, or that I’d have to wait, I experienced everything on a continuum from ‘Oh, that’s right!’ to ‘of course’, to ‘dang’ to ‘FFS’.
There was mild discomfort, maybe moving in the direction of anxiety or longing.
The challenge began easily enough. I powered down my phone and left it on a shelf upstairs. I rang my Mum to tell her I would be off the air and to contact my partner if there was anything urgent. That was the easy part.
There was a sense of missing something as I walked the dog instead of trawl news apps and social media feeds to see what had happened while I was sleeping.
Which is the thing, isn’t it? The world is always on duty and always turning, offering endless trails of trivia to consume and explore.
In the quiet, deep down, I recalled the old script about a good citizen being an informed citizen. Growing up, there was an avowed value, expectation, obligation to being a person who ‘kept up with things’.
What to do! What to do! If I wanted to know what kind of food a rutabaga was, I couldn’t check the google machine and simply wait, just like the old days… (in fact, later that day I asked my partner to look it up for me. Some things simply cannot wait. They are turnips, or swedes, by the way).
As the dog led me around the park, amid shimmering sunlight from the lake and the sound of birdsong, I wondered about how these old scripts still served us.
One other minor issue I found was, in an age when you need to check in everywhere for contact tracing, being sans phone left me somewhat restricted in terms of where I could go and what I could do.
Yet the day passed easily. Between bouts of analogue journaling and reading, a sense of less hurry and burden emerged.
Time did a funny thing. It embraced a slower cadence rather than leaching away into a raging stream of steady, inattentive activity.
There was enough time.
There was too much time.
In the later morning, I went to the garden and got to long-avoided weeding and watering.
I was suddenly awash with time; an unhurried master of my day once more.
There was time to chat, take reading snacks and at one stage I found myself in the study, sprawled on the floor, sorting through things left for years on the shelves and dusty to-do lists.
That said, there were times when I crashed up against the absence of my phone and felt pangs of longing.
Around midday, I worried that I would forget all the things I could suddenly think about. Free from regular checking in and scrolling, a quiet stillness emerged. Ideas shot across my mind like meteors.
So I got a pen and some paper.
There was room for losing oneself in thought, contemplation and discussion.
Those brief pauses and transitions in a day, when we habitually lift the phone to our faces and peer in, blank eyed, were now free for something like the natural renewal I remembered.
As afternoon turned to evening, I found myself hungry to complete tasks delayed and avoided – all the life administration left to rot in the too hard or onerous pile. In doing them, their reign on the shelves or mental to-do lists ended. They mocked and guilted me no longer.
This whole time, the phone sat inert upstairs on the mantle, powered down and out of mind.
I got a little antsy in the evening, where television is an easy companion. So I read a bit, chatted some more, then conceded to fatigue and called it a day.
This was something of a return to natural rhythm. The absence of electronic options meant the evening shutdown was not artificially delayed by the ‘just one more episode’ trap or the ‘I wonder what…’ forays down a compelling rabbit hole, or the lure of constant ‘shocking’ news, commentary and clickbait.
Without these self-sustaining attention wormholes, the rhythms and signals of the body and brain were not muffled and drowned.
Which is hugely beneficial, if only for a day.
The absence of these distractions swiftly – more swiftly than expected, echoed a time not so distant when we knew less connection and hurry and more restful sleep and leisure time.
It was brilliant.
That night, after climbing into bed a couple of hours earlier than usual and reading a few analogue chapters of an analogue book, I went to sleep suitably fatigued from a most productive and enjoyable day.
The next morning, when it was time to power up and see what I had missed, a strange sense of reluctance appeared. Nevertheless, curiosity aroused, I turned the phone on.
Touring through WhatsApp, messages, voicemails, emails, Twitter and Apple News revealed I had missed, well, not much. There was some minor banter and episodic planning and discussion about an upcoming lunch.
Twitter was at its snarling, snarky and smarmy best. The trivia and ego had flowed steadily through the previous day and night and my world was not changed at all by not being there to witness it.
Yet by lunchtime, normal service was restored, albeit with moments of mindful attention just before I held my thumb to the screen to swipe and refresh.
The lessons of this challenge were clear. There are obvious benefits to disconnecting, even for a day.
To me, this experience underlines that social media and technology are just tools and not the necessities we’ve made them. They are just things to help enhance a life and help make our best contribution, whatever that may be, rather than devote ourselves to.
One cannot renew, refresh or find stillness if the use of these ‘weapons of mass distraction’ are so habitual to be rendered unconscious.
The collateral damage of our addiction and reliance on these things, when we account for lost moments, minutes and hours, aggregates into a vast portion of our lives.
If you are searching for the source of that minor discomfort or agitation, or feeling that low sense of rut, or worried about time, then perhaps a digital detox is something to consider.
Like any possession or tool, it is worth taking time out to check in with where the control lies.
Reading is a human superpower, cheesy as that sounds. It allows us to travel across time and speak with the dead. It allows us to travel far and wide, building empathy via the written word, sparking and fuelling the fire of interest in the great human conversation.
Last year I wrote down some favourite reads of the year as a way of paying it forward. Many titles come to me via the recommendations of others and are a boon. Maybe you will find something great to read too.
In no particular order, I give you five fiction and five non-fiction titles that I enjoyed the most in 2021. There is also an educational book of the year for those of us at the chalkface.
Topical, no? This book grabbed hold of me from from first to last. Partly, it is the fascinating story of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century shift in American medicine from gentlemanly pursuit to the more rigorous science and evidence-based approach we know and recognise. Following the paths of several men and women who pioneered this shift, it also reveals what happened when this expertise intersected with the Spanish Flu epidemic at the end of the First World War and beyond. The parallels to our experience over the last two years is haunting and humbling, especially if we subscribe to the flawed view that this is unprecedented in human history. It is also a frightening testimony to the ease at which history repeats. Published in 2005 and updated in 2012, it could not accurately foresee and the times that we know well, but it provides a hopeful tone for the way out.
The premise of this book is the assertion that veneer theory, the widespread assumption or belief that humanity is only ever a short ride away from descending into chaos and brutal tribalism is not true. Indeed, Bregman’s message is that most people are actually good and provides plenty of evidence to support it, skewering some long held misunderstandings and beliefs along the way. This was a timely message in a year when optimism and hope were periodically in short supply. This enjoyable, thought-provoking book had me desperately making time to read more.
A new title from Viktor Frankl? How is that possible? Man’s Search for Meaning is one of my all time favourite books, making a ‘newly’ discovered title an exciting proposition. It is actually a collection of public lectures Frankl gave in Vienna during March and April of 1946. The tile, poignantly, is taken from the story of the Buchenwald camp song which prisoners were ordered to sing over and over at the end of long days of brutal work, punishment and starvation. Initially sung under sufferance, some lyrics inspired people to sing it quietly amongst themselves as an act of defiance and ray of hope. These lectures offer the broad strokes that would become the latter best selling book and inform Frankl’s guiding concern as a psychiatrist: Why did some people survive and others did not? It is a great little read and another book with a hopeful and powerful message.
I love me a good story about Russia and this one does not disappoint. Set in the wilds of far eastern Russia in the decades after the decline and collapse of the Soviet Union, this true story is essentially the tale of the hunt for a man-eating Siberian tiger by the rough and ready posse formed to track it. It is also a compelling and complex tale of geopolitical and cultural forces and decline and the fight for the conservation of these majestic and unique animals. Sometimes non-fiction is even more riveting because it is real and true, and this is one hell of a read.
A ‘quake book’, so I learned this year, is one that shakes you to the core and challenges your knowledge and perception of the world. I found this book via one of last year’s favourites ‘The Undoing Project’ by Michael Lewis, which told the story of psychologist Kahneman and his friendship with Amos Tversky. They won a Nobel prize for economics, despite never studying it, for their work on prospect theory. That work led to the exploration, study and defining of human cognition and the heuristics and biases that influence a vast amount of human thought and behaviour. This is not a fast read – but it is important if you are someone with an interest or stake in humanity or cognition. It is rigorous and highly supported with evidence, and weighty as a consequence, but completely worth the effort. Read this book.
Just as in 2020 when Amor Towles’ ‘A Gentleman in Moscow‘ was a great salve for the trials and tribulations of the pandemic, this title came along at the right time in 2021. While nowhere near as extreme in my intentions as Nora Seed, the protagonist, I opened this at a time when we were deep in the belly of the lockdown beast and feeling flat. While it begins darkly, it meanders along interesting and diverting paths including a healthy dab of quantum theory and big philosophical questions to end which results in a hopeful message about living where your feet are and always looking for the good. Funny, dry and very clever, this is a really high quality read.
Like many good reads, this came to me via a mixture of word or mouth and serendipity. Low or no expectations are often a way to a really entertaining book and this is no exception. This was recognised with shortlisting for the Booker Prize, telling the story of two assassin brothers on the trail of a bounty across the rapidly vanishing Old West as it is swallowed, inevitably, by modernity and progress. With a distinctive narrative voice and varied point of view, there is plenty of humanity among the dark humour and themes as the pursuit of Herman Kermit Warm (what a name!) unfolds. This is digestible in small chunks if you are under the cognitive pump.
Though dated, I enjoyed this one from du Maurier and her particular brand of British noir. Set in a very gothic Cornwall of the early 1800’s, it follows the travails of the orphaned Mary Yellan who goes to live at the isolated and mysterious inn with her aunt and dodgy uncle. Although the plot is a bit cliched and over the top, there is enjoyment in the strength of Mary amid the backdrop of the oppressive and menacing world she enters, where telling friend from foe is inherently difficult.
Okay, so this is an audiobook short story – what of it? Towles is easily my favourite author at the moment. His ability to craft compelling stories filled with really interesting characters and maintain an easy , positive tone is exceptional. Narrated by John Lithgow, this is the story of the long retired Percival Skinner, a former Wall Street man who is fighting to come to terms with the fact his cash reserves may not keep him in the manner to which he is accustomed and indeed, entitled. When approached about the sale of a piece of a Renaissance artwork handed down to his extended family, he sees a way to make a bit of cash on the side, if only he can persuade a distant cousin to part with it. Great entertainment for a long walk or drive.
I began this some years ago after being gifted it and was convinced myself I’d read it. Happily, I was wrong. Guiltily, not far into re-reading I determined that it was probably a reluctance to make sense of the nerd-level, microscopic detail O’Brian includes about life on a British Navy vessel in the early 1800’s. Nautical deep trivia aside, which understandably floats the boat of devoted O’Brian fans, the action and adventure is excellent, though less compelling perhaps than the establishing friendship between Captain Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, the mysterious figure he convinces to serve as ship’s surgeon on his first command. Happily, in the spirit of finishing loose ends and making the most of more lockdowns, this proved a welcome and entertaining diversion and now set sail to complete the rest of the series.
Education Title of the Year
Putting on the teacher hat, I must confess that the disruption and resulting lack of continuity left much less bandwidth for wide reading about education. I did enjoy Tom Sherrington’s books out of the UK. ‘The Learning Rainforest’ is a book with really wide scope and some interesting ideas and experiences of implementing evidence-informed practice from the micro to macro levels. It is a great overview which a lot of specific threads to explore. One of these was outlined in his book ‘Rosenshine’s Principles in Action’, which was really handy in shifting some of my instructional practices, even online. That said, the most useful and enjoyable title was ‘Thinking Reading: What every Secondary Teacher needs to know about reading‘ by James and Dianne Murphy. Like many high school teachers, the attitude for most of my career was that reading instruction was not really my job, but the responsibility of primary teachers, even as an English teacher. This view is and was shared by many colleagues in secondary education, and the time has come to admit that we were wrong. Reading instruction, or at least possessing a working knowledge about what reading is and how it works is a critical and often ignored body of knowledge. This is amazing when you think about it. As a classroom teacher, this accessible guide is exactly what I value – a strong evidence base matched with long term classroom experience in a digestible and user friendly manner. Highly recommended.
“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: Act II, Scene II
Some years ago when discovering the work of John Hattie and his meta-analysis of impactful effects on achievement in learning, two things jumped out from the list and lodged in my brain like a splinter.
Teachers not labelling students had an effect size of 0.61. Teacher expectations had an effect size of 0.43. If the hinge point, representing a year of learning, is 0.4, then both elements represent important factors that impact student learning.
What stood out was that students weren’t the influence here. We were.
This knowledge rumbled around in my thinking for some time. I thought about the labels we assign students. I thought about the labels and names I used when describing students. I listened for the words and phrases colleagues used to describe students.
Giving something a name is a completely normal aspect of human cognition. It helps us sort and organise our thinking and cope with the vast quantity of stuff and guff that comes across our mental desks.
And this naming, or labelling process is varied in impact, ranging from positive or neutral to downright ugly and wrong. These are the battlegrounds of contested value and attitude, where the ugliest part of humanity resides. This is where racism, misogyny and hatred live. There is no question of the power of names and labels in our world.
These names and labels appear when we speak about students in meetings or in the staffroom. They are shared openly and officially, but also whispered in meaty, informal teacher gossip when trawling class lists for names on the first day back or sharing war stories over instant coffee and hot, milky tea. They pop up during the moderation and benchmarking of student writing. They appear in reports and emails.
For whatever reason, many times after learning about it I found myself hearing student labels and thinking about those impacts Hattie identified.
So what kind of labels did I hear and use? In the main, they were well intended and usually euphemistic. Each mixed ability class stretched a continuum of struggler to star. They included grinders, plodders and the competent and capable. They had your flighty, sloppy and dopey ones, the lazy and shiftless; the bright, the dim and the flickering. We knew the gifted and talented, weak, limited and less able when we saw them.
Honestly, there were nastier and more nefarious descriptions done in private. Whether apocryphal or not, one story stuck with me of a former colleague who labelled students according to which university they would attend, or not. “They’re a Melbourne, they’re a Monash…oh, they would be lucky to get into Latrobe!… or they are destined for the overalls or the cash register…!”
While there may be varied intent at these extremes, it was the habit that bothered me most.
In time, this reflection led to the question of exactly what is within and outside my control. I made the choice to be rigorous in determining what I could and could not influence and how this might lead to developing habits and behaviours supporting a process for delivering the best outcome for students as consistently as possible.
The Hattie reference was a catalyst for making me conscious of the impact of the labels we give our students.
Logically, I also wondered how students could ever escape them, particularly when I noticed they tended to carry labels across years and groupings, no matter how they performed, grew, developed and changed. These labels weren’t just names, they were often brands and stamps on the permanent record.
More worryingly, official and common practices tended to enshrine these labels, having them stick like mud to a blanket. Again, while the intention was often noble, it was hard to see many opportunities for students to grow out of the labels we’d ascribed.
This led me to the problem of labelling during assessment. The first time I noticed it was when I asked teachers to bring samples of high, medium and low students to moderation. One common habit emerged of teachers going through a pile of papers and digging out students in that band, sometimes before any papers were marked.
This phenomena also stood out in conversations, where teachers referred to their ‘70 students’ or ‘90 students’ and would worry when they did not fall into that category. Often enough teachers would say “I need you to check this paper because this student is a 90 and they have not done very well at all in this essay.”
More worryingly, some teachers branded whole classes as weak, often early in a school year, and it would then come as no surprise to find those classes achieve low standards throughout the year.
I saw it all over the place; not only in my colleague, but in me.
“Think you can, think you can’t; either way you’ll be right.” I started to think about this Henry Ford quote, and the implications of our actions on student achievement.
This was a vague uneasiness rather than a firm picture, but something felt off kilter.
Then I stumbled across Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow, which revealed the world of cognitive biases and heuristics. It explored and unveiled the completely normal human habits in cognition that leave us stuck in loops and ways of thinking that are often not rational, reasonable or based in evidence.
Confirmation bias was one that stood out. This is the tendency we have to only see the things that confirm our views about the world.
The itch about our tendency to label students and the possible impact grew itchier. As my role exposed more and more evidence of this habit in education of labelling, classifying and naming our students, I wondered more about what we could do.
And while it felt like progress, something was incomplete; I even wondered if this phenomenon might be confirmation bias itself. Several times, I almost made it an agenda item in faculty meetings, determined to complete a reflection activity with colleagues.
Unsure of the hunch, I waited.
That said, I worked hard to minimise the labelling of students in my own work. I consciously caught myself using labels and challenged their validity. I adopted the principle of ‘mark the writing, not the writer’ and experimented with ways of minimising bias.
This involved blind marking, shuffling papers and asking colleagues to cross-check samples. I looked to benchmarking more than moderation, taking the time to de-identify student writing to give the best chance of fairness. I collected excellent samples to work from, hoping to systemise the standard and reduce the chance of bias driving judgement.
But is it possible to ever eliminate bias? I don’t think so – but we can reduce the level a little. This is what Olivier Houde calls cognitive resistance; taking steps to minimise or be aware of our biases.
The study was named after a mythical Greek sculptor who became so enamoured by an ivory statue that his obsession brought the figure to life.
This study uncovered an ‘expectancy advantage’ during a year long study of a school, where teachers were told that some students had been identified as likely to be ‘growth spurters’ after completing a school wide test to identify them. This was actually misdirection on the part of researchers, as the identification test was simply an IQ test and the ‘growth spurters’ were selected at random.
In essence, the study found that students who were expected to do better actually did, but they also found that these ‘growth spurt’ students were treated differently by their teachers.
In essence, because their teachers expected students to do better, they did better, therefore, the ‘expectancy’ or ‘Pygmalion’ effect was identified.
Furthermore, the opposite of the Pygmalion effect in psychology is known as the Golem effect, where low expectations lead to lower achievement.
Both effects fall under the category of self-fulfilling prophecy, and the study by Rosenthal and Jacobson appears to confirm such a thing exists, despite strong debate over the validity of the original study.
As Bregman contends, further investigation since has suggested the size of the effect outlined in the study was questionable, but the existence of it is beyond doubt.
One comment by Rosenthal stood out. He thought it “shocking how much teaching is done by teachers who think students can’t learn.”
Which leaves us with an uncomfortable question. What do we do about it?
The first step is to acknowledge that evidence suggests the labels we assign students impacts on their achievement.
The locus of control here then is us, the teachers, not the students.
This implied responsibility says we must work to limit the negative impact of our labelling, adopting and embedding strategies and habits that build cognitive resistance to the natural biases and beliefs we hold.
We will never be perfect in our use of labels and names, nor should we strive for perfection. Instead, we should build a process to minimise the impact of these labels over time.
We should explicitly aim to reduce and maybe eliminate subjective and negative labels that endure without evidence.
How are our students meant to grow beyond these labels if we confine them? If we know that prophecies can be self-fulfilling, and these prophecies live in the names and labels we give students, then why not work to challenge their origin and validity?
We don’t have to believe everything we think. Labels and names are powerful things in the realm of education.
Zeno of Citium was the son of a wealthy trader in Ancient Greece. On a journey from Phoenicia to Piraeus, his ship and cargo were lost, stranding him in Athens.
There, he discovered the teachings of Socrates and took the first step on a pathway of learning that birthed the Stoic school of philosophy.
According to one biographer, Zeno joked “Now that I’ve suffered shipwreck, I’m on a good journey.”
In the same spirit, I decided to frame this pandemic as a shipwreck and make it the beginning of a good journey.
Here was a chance to strengthen learning habits and use time better. Here was, in some ways, what we’d begged for all these years. Here was the ‘more time’ we could never find.
Scarcity became abundance.
Once a decision is made, one can only hope the ‘mighty forces’ Basil King described come to our aid.
Almost a year later, while I can’t report divine intervention, powerful situational forces have certainly influenced the journey. Fate was very kind, as it was for many ‘knowledge’ workers fortunate enough to maintain employment with minimal interruption, aside from staying home.
The impact of intermittent lockdowns has been so varied that, while broadly affected in the same way, at the granular level experiences reflect the same diversity found in the population.
As management and containment made kingdoms of households and entire worlds of neighbourhoods, a withdrawal inward was natural.
For many of us, this proved confronting. That said, history also testifies that we are not the first to tread this ground.
Yet unlike other pandemics, from the Antonine plague to the Spanish Flu, an important difference in the COVID-19 experience is marked by the hyper-connectivity we know through technology.
We effortlessly pass time with on-demand media via endless platforms. We doomscroll news feeds and social media – always on, always hunting. We play online games, make and watch videos, all the while sliding into life as digital content super consumers.
There is literally more distraction to hand than any human being has ever known. There are more rabbit holes than rabbits.
Could Robert Frost have truly known the extent way leads to way when he wrote the famous poem?
What would he make of Google? Would he catch himself at 2am searching for celebrities who served in World War Two?
In lockdown, screens became portals to socialising and work, exponentially enhancing potential for passive dead time far in excess of the dosage we need and well beyond one that is good.
Additionally, digital life in the pandemic proved a kind of Hogwarts sorting hat, dividing idiots and kooks from the rest.
It exposed and laid bare a confronting truth. Namely, that which divides us and how readily we organise into tribes bound by social proof and norms outside the blustery, rigorous shaping of the past.
Social media has left many of us proverbial frogs in the well. The sunlight and nurture of these narrow spaces are curated by feed bubbles and algorithmic echo chambers. We agree to this somewhat Faustian pact when we tick ‘yes’ to ‘I have read and understood the terms and conditions.’
The net effect is stronger division. We are all right and correct beyond former burdens of proof. We all possess evidence to support our claims. We all know the real truth and everyone we know knows it too.
It was almost like a second, digital shipwreck from which to launch another good journey.
Which leads to a question – awash with such information, supported with alleged facts and what now passes for reason, where should we place our faith? Who or what do we believe? What is the best bet?
Recognising this, amid habitual scrolling of socials and endless dead eyed info-gorging, which often left me miserable, I withdrew into analogue books and the voyeuristic electronic realm of Twitter. This is a well understood forum of hateful debate, but also a place of learning if you do it right.
Wearing an educator’s hat, this exploration revealed how little I truly knew or understood about the process of learning as opposed to the art of teaching. It forced me to reflect on my understanding and beliefs around what made for good teaching and learning.
In turn, this led to the educational battleground between devotees of knowledge rich and skill-based curriculum models.
In educational debate, one soon learns to be both aware and wary of often conflicting ‘research’. One also learns to resist the allure of halo lit fandom of edu-celebrities.
There is also good reason for wariness of one’s own thoughts and beliefs.
It can be really hard to distinguish gold from micah, but one ‘good bet’ Bronwyn Ryrie-Jones and many others argue for is cognitive science.
In a world where scientific knowledge is so readily dismissed and overlooked, why should we lean on what science tells us? Why not believe the celebrity chefs, sports stars and comedians? Why not listen to the politicians?
Carlo Rovelli, quantum physicist, declares the answer is easy.
“Science is not reliable because it provides certainty. It is reliable because it provides us with the best answers we have at present… It is precisely its openness, the fact that it constantly calls current knowledge into question, which guarantees that the answers it offers are the best so far available.”
Carlo Rovelli (2017) Reality is not what it seems. The journey to quantum gravity.
The implication is that science provides the most certainty while allowing room for growth, hopefully avoiding inertia and stasis, or worse, the wasted time and breath involved in waging intellectual civil war.
I am also wary that the often derided and debunked ‘fads’ in education were once solid ground to build your professional development. I attended sessions on learning styles, multiple intelligences and thinking hats. I lived through the coloured paper trend and distributed overlays to dyslexic students. I conducted the ‘which learner are you? audits.
I remember thinking that content was just a contextual vehicle for important skills. Teachers should be free to choose any material they liked and curriculum statements should codify skills, thereby reducing explicit content within vast documents more suited to propping open doors or curing insomnia than providing teachers with actionable information.
A bigger mind shift was required. I’ll admit to being a skills-focussed teacher who thought content was a dirty word.
The thing is, at some point you need to take action and stop thinking and pondering.
I like the responsive , explicit, quality teaching movement because it reflects the truth of small changes repeated over time and their measurable impact. It is the recognition or reminder that almost everything we do in a classroom has an effect, good and bad.
The central and adjacent thought leaders here are people like Willingham, Lemov, Wiliam, Bennett, Sherrington and Christodoulou, to name a few.
Via Twitter, Frost’s way led on to way and the research and experience of Rosenshine, Hirsch, Sealy and the Murphys passed across my view. They became the mentors and guides of this good journey across all manner of relevant and thought provoking ideas.
Lost at times, inspired and energised at others, I always returned to first principles.
Teaching is an act of service for our students. How do we best serve them? By helping them make their way forward, by encouraging and picking them up when they get lost or fall behind, and by helping them approach life and the world with a sense of excitement and a desire to be involved.
Ultimately, they make their own choices, but while they are in our rooms, we have an amazing power to set the climate of the classroom and provide access to learning that helps them move forward.
The ‘tingly’ moments in teaching, addictive as any pleasure or vice, are not enough to live on. Nor, alone, do they provide nourishment. They can only serve as the sweet fruit for the journey, rewards for repetitive nurture and toil.
These good, repetitive and effective actions must be informed by good bets, not only intuition.
If we are being honest, skills without knowledge are just accidents or beginner’s luck.
Cognitive science and theories of learning offer solid information on how the brain works and by implication, how people learn. This is critical knowledge to inform our practice.
As custodians of the teaching profession, it is our duty to avoid the temptation of smarmy criticism and social media warfare from the secure digital bunkers. We must, to paraphrase Seneca, turn ‘words into works’.
Teaching is an act of good in the service of others. It must be that at its core, for anything else feels petty, constrained and useless.
Again – good teachers must seek to move and guide our students forward from wherever they are to a place they can access the substantive knowledge and skills to contribute and produce in our society and world.
It is a bold and worthy objective. It is a wicked problem to realise and the summit of hard fun and productive struggle.
A blend of knowledge and skills is critical. It is also critical that these knowledge and skills are grown in the blended environment of digital and analogue.
If we start with science, adopting Zeno’s mindset, then our direction is based on a good bet.
Until we have better answers, these must light the way.
It is common to keep an eye on big issues. Global pandemic. US politics. Brexit.
But sometimes, important issues arise way down at the micro level, where the geopolitics of daily interaction play out.
The following declaration is more observation than gripe, with a hint of complaint.
Waiters need to write stuff down.
Writing is humanity’s greatest invention. It allows us to travel through time, share collective wisdom, break through stubborn barriers to progress and understanding.
Without writing, there is no reading, and without reading we are stuck in a room walled by our own ignorance.
The phenomenon of writing refusal in restaurants, bars and cafes is a hidden tragedy of the modern world.
Where once it might be the domain of silver service waiters in high-end restaurants, whose skill in remembering vast orders reflected higher status, it is now the standard modus operandi of every corner cafe and burger joint hack.
In a wide ranging and deep study of, well, my friendship group, it was revealed that more commonly, too commonly, orders are cocked up by a distracted waiters with poor working memories.
Of course, in a world filled with human tragedy, riddled with a contagion, complaining about the odd missed order is the very epitome of first world entitlement.
Which is all very true.
But what is the acceptable error frequency for a transaction involving brunch?
I argue that every now and again, if they are busy or on their first day, that missing the odd hash brown or scrambling rather than poaching eggs is okay. I can live with your cold milk on the side instead of hot, or forgetting the butter…
If we can agree to operate from the first principle that a ZERO error threshold is the most optimal, then the rise of waiter memory error is very clearly sub-optimal.
I know, I know, it is hard to remember all those things. The proliferation of adjectives and bespoke beverages, pimped up with the bastardised Dr Moreau milk imposters, brings cognitive overload for the customer, let alone wait staff.
Yet we cannot escape the truth that civilisation is bound by fragile conventions like these mini social contracts.
Maybe punters are on one coffee a day, bringing the heaviest of responsibilities to bear on barista and waiter. Maybe it is their cheat day after a period of fasting and denial, or perhaps it is a special occasion like a birthday. Perhaps customers are waiting for a sign from a higher power, and the delivery of a meal out can restore their faith in the universe?
All of which is flung onto the bonfire of chance by these hospitality coolhunters with ironic hats and serious tattoos. It looks like, if you ask, that writing things down on a piece of paper is very uncool and does not reflect the standard of excellence required to work at (insert business name here).
And we know it gets busy and you have to remember a lot of things and you are covering all these tables and you are understaffed after the lockdown and it is really hard to find good help and you can usually remember all the orders, except when you don’t. And anyway, remembering is hard.
Yes, it can be, as cognitive science is more than aware.
If only humanity had invented a low-tech, simple system of bolstering our frail working memories against the curse of cognitive overload?
Just write it down. Please. For the sake of civilisation…
One gift of the pandemic was more time for reading. The reading habit, neglected for too many years, proved a shining light in a most challenging year.
Conscious of the glut of reading lists swelling blogs and social feeds like autumn leaves, yet mindful of their important role in providing fuel for the bookish bonfire, here are some recommendations based on what I read in 2020.
There are five fiction titles, five non-fiction and three honourable mentions, listed without sequential significance. Enjoy.
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
The first book of the year and my favourite. More than slightly prescient, too, considering the forced isolation that followed. Count Alexander Rostov is a terrific character for our times despite being well outside them. The story follows his life of house arrest in Moscow’s luxury Metropol hotel across thirty or so years of the Soviet era from 1922 to 1954. As everything representing his status and rich life is removed, Rostov maintains an optimistic and expansive attitude, cheerfully embracing fate without compromising his principles. This is a transportive and beautifully written novel that I recommended more than any other. Read it.
Snow Crash by Neil Stephenson
This is Ready Player One for grown ups. Published in 1992, this dystopian story is set in a world where capitalism reigns supreme and virtual living is preferred to reality by most. It is a darkly funny romp and Stephenson creates a rich and engaging vision of an imagined future. The aptly named protagonist – um – Hero Protagonist, is an early developer of this virtual universe and accidentally finds himself hot on the trail of a mysterious and deadly computer virus that somehow reaches into the real world. Clever, entertaining and relevant.
Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman
The early part of the year saw a deeper dive into the work of Neil Gaiman, including a final public outing in February for a live Q and A in Melbourne where the greatest issue was bushfires – aah, those were the days! This is The Graveyard Book for grown ups, maybe? It rests firmly within Gaiman’s noir-ish horror fantasy wheelhouse. After an act of kindness, young businessman Richard Mayhew crosses into the shadowy otherworld below the streets of London. His journey, dotted with a remarkable cast of allies and villains, is a terrific tale to escape with, from young adults onwards.
Rules of Civility by Amor Towles
Towles was a merchant banker before turning to a career in writing and this was his first novel. This kind of talent appears greedy, but this book underlined his bona fides as a writer and weaver of great historical stories. Set mostly in New York of the 1930’s, we follow the fortunes of Katey Kontent as she makes her way in publishing, straining against the confines of society and expectation. As with A Gentleman in Moscow, the characterisation and setting are a real highlight, and it is astonishingly well written.
V2 by Robert Harris
I discovered Harris more than twenty years ago via his early novel, Fatherland, and confess an unashamed enjoyment of historical fiction with a cerebral and compelling plot. Though he lost me during the ancient Rome period, recent titles have me back on board. This is a parallel narrative set in the latter years of World War Two, when Germany’s V2 rockets rained down on London and surrounds. Willi Graf and Kay Connolly are characters on two sides of the firing line whose fates are entwined more than they know. Written wholly during the first UK lockdown of 2020, it was a perfect decompression read after a long year, offering a nice blend of fact and fiction with just the right amount of historical rocket nerdiness.
Figuring by Maria Popova
This is a remarkable book in so many ways, if for nothing else the depth of knowledge and effort behind it. Popova has published her blog, Brainpickings, for more than a decade which is a testament to her love of poetry, science, mathematics and literature. Figuring is an opus that reveals the somewhat obscured (well, definitely to me) tale of a range of historical figures, mostly women, at the intersection of these points over four centuries. It is actually really hard to describe, so I’ll say that it really shifted my knowledge and view of science and literature, who we are encouraged to believe are incompatible. Like all good non-fiction, this book pushes the boundaries of understanding and shines a light on a topic that feels so critical, albeit embarrassingly concealed. Hard fun, but brilliant.
Principles by Ray Dalio
This book was the fly that kept returning to bash on my mental window. I read it out of curiosity and it exceeded my expectations. Ray Dalio built an extremely successful investment house over thirty years and never intended to write a book. This is a fascinating insight into the underlying principles employed and refined over his career. Initially written for employees so he did not need to explain everything, it grew into a comprehensive and rich reference. Though dry in places, the wider value comes from the ability to explore the mind and rich experience of Dalio. It is a reminder of the power of books to gain access to the wide variety of human experience.
The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis
Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky were a most unlikely duo who had a massive impact on human understanding of how our thinking minds work. They met as young psychologists in Israel before forging a partnership that produced a body of research work that fundamentally changed our understanding of human motivation and behaviour. Lewis explores the nature of their friendship more than the work and it is here the real magic of the story comes alive. This was a lot of fun to read.
A Dream About Lightning Bugs by Ben Folds
The Ben Folds Five album ‘Whatever and Ever Amen’ played on high rotation when I was at university and Folds is an intriguing character fondly remembered. Music biographies have never featured too prominently in my reading, but this one broke the mould in many ways, mostly for the honest self-appraisal at the expense of a biased recount of history. There is little whitewashing by Folds – he knows he can be a prick – and it also contains a good deal of exploration and analysis of his creative process and experience of fame. Folds is a wild and forthright host and this was a great read.
The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande
Let me confess to a deep hatred of routine and a long history of mocking those poor souls fixated on protocol and process. Sure, I write lists, but the thought of a living life by checklist seemed like prison. Gawande is a surgeon who took on the challenge of developing a surgical checklist for the World Health Organisation in the hope they might improve related mortality rates in hospitals around the world. In the process, Gawande discovered the power and simplicity of checklists and how one could borrow great ideas from seemingly unrelated fields – like airlines. This is a great example of the unexpected benefits of reading outside your familiar box.
The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain de Botton
This is a terrifically accessible philosophical exploration of what it means to live a good life via six philosophers and their work. I had long avoided de Botton due to pretentious name prejudice and happily admit my wrong headedness. If you ever find yourself feeling sad or melancholy, this is a good place to start and a great place to revisit.
The Lessons of History by Will and Ariel Durant
This little book is the condensation of a lifetime of work by this most interesting couple. Profound observations about humanity bounce out of every paragraph and one risks a sore neck with all the nodding in agreement. The writing is first class, reminding us that great literature is not the soul possession of fiction.
Running the Room by Tom Bennett
This is a book for teachers, one I wish was around when I was starting out. Released late in 2020, it is a most rare professional reading title that manages to be insightful, rigorous and funny at the same time. If you teach, this is a must read. If you know a teacher, tell them about it.
Six months ago, at the end of a long, hot summer, the act of teaching underwent seismic change as we all went home to do it from there.
While in Melbourne we did have, briefly, a return to face to face lessons, the bulk of this year has meant teaching and learning through a small, 13 inch portal.
There has been much experimentation, rumination and reflection on how best to keep the learning moving. Much of this is driven by the desire to do it better, some forced by circumstance.
In trying to formulate a summary of this experience, the following words kept returning, albeit from an unlikely source.
“Adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is specifically your own.”
While the methodology of teaching has changed, the philosophy underpinning it has not. Learning is learning, no matter how we do it, and by returning to our core purpose, the essential objective becomes obvious.
Keep the learning moving.
As a practitioner, this period has reconnected me with the thing that got me into this career in the first place. I love learning and I love teaching.
Having said that, sharing my practice and experience outside the bubble of school and faculty setting has never been a strong point. The reasons behind this are no doubt reproduced by teachers around the world – a combination of humility, introversion and fatigue.
When you put your heart and soul into your work already, who has time to jump on the web or social media and share?
Well, another thing this period has taught me is the need for connection and sharing. In this series, I plan to write about the experience of sustaining and maintaining the effort of teaching from home.
Firstly, let me contextualise the setting. I teach in a school where all students have their own devices and it is well resourced enough to make the transition to remote education a relatively smooth one. Yep, we are very fortunate. We had terrific support from leadership and IT services and lucky enough to have access to the critical elements required to make it work.
As all students and staff have devices and home internet connections, we were able to remain in the synchronous learning realm. As a school familiar with the Google Suite, the platform of Google Meet was a no brainer, and the practical elements for delivering our lessons was supported by out learning management system, Schoolbox, and also by Education Perfect, which is more subject specific.
Using these resources as a framework for delivery and interaction, like everyone else, we dived in.
Having only a couple of weeks to get our heads around how it might work, the entire staff jumped into intensive training and planning for the experience which, in March, we thought might last a few weeks or so, maybe a month.
After engaging in one particular day of training, where we conducted faculty meetings and planning sessions over Google Meet, despite being onsite, I remember thinking it might be the most impactful day of professional learning in my twenty year career.
That was because, for everyone, there was opting out. Indeed, the forced engagement and associated forced risk created an overwhelmingly positive feeling.
It is hard to recall exactly what was going through my head, but I did lean heavily on the words of Viktor Frankl, and still do.
When we are no longer able to change a situation – we are challenged to change ourselves.
And while there was some conjecture about over the decision to remain fully synchronous, the advantages were obvious. Primarily, the existing infrastructure of the school day, including pastoral elements, were a known known for the entire school community, removing any uncertainty over how the days and weeks would structure and function.
Synchronous learning offered the minimum of disruption in a deeply disrupted world.
Thus, after working to set up links and meets, with some practice sessions while still on site, our first day ever day of remote learning began in a climate of novelty and even, it must be said, excitement.
We conducted four days of teaching before the end of term, and if nothing else it taught us that trying to control the remote classroom as you would a live one, trying to keep students accountable each lesson would pose a real challenge.
On the first day, I asked students to submit class work to our LMS, meaning there were roughly 75 bits of data to process.
Then came the headaches and red eyes. Then came the creeping fatigue and achy shoulders.
The first thing I learned was, there is a lot of stuff to let go of if we hope to maintain the energy and limit the stress. This led to the first principle of remote education.
Control the controllables, let go of everything else
Letting go of control is hard. It is particularly hard for educators used to being the leaders of their domains, in particular, the classroom.
So much of the skill in teaching is creating and owning that space within a lesson. We rely on all sorts of visual and audible cues to monitor our students. We enforce accountability in real time, in person, all within a space we can manage with our eyes, our ears and our voices.
If a student is distracted, we can see. If they get off task, we can find out. If they talk outside the limits of what they are supposed to, we know. If they ask someone else for the answer, we know. If they get their phones out and take a video of us, we know.
Additionally, teaching a lesson is largely a private activity, albeit one where privacy extends only between yourself and the 25 or more students in the class. Outside of formally arranged times, or perhaps unexpected interruptions, no one really sees what we do.
All of these things take on a different dimension in the virtual space, even a synchronous classroom where in theory, you should always be able to see what a student is doing.
This became a really topical issue in the early days of remote teaching, both in anticipation and practice. How do we know the students are paying attention? How do we know they are listening? How do we know they are doing the work?
Moreover, how do we know they won’t take photos or videos of us on their phones? How do we know their parents aren’t watching or listening? How do we know they aren’t cheating?
Well, in reality, we don’t really have a way of guaranteeing this. In fact, the task of ensuring these things are happening is Herculean at best, Sysiphean at worst.
This leads to asking two simple questions – what can we control? What can we not control?
Well, what we can control are the actions we take. We can plan and organise lessons, provide materials and resources, frame the learning objectives and provide the space and environment, to a degree, for the learning to take place.
We can ensure we learn the skills to manage an online class. We can notice things – we can check in with students and say what we see. We can ask students to stay back after for a chat. We can use email and other online tools to do what we would normally do. We can collect student work and assess it and return it.
These are the things we can control. We can control expectations and the learning activities we provide,
But… there are many things we cannot control.
We cannot control much about the student’s environment at home. Who can hear or see them, what their internet connection is like, or if they are on a separate house party chat while playing Fortnite or Minecraft. We cannot control if they take video or photo of us and then distribute that to their friends or turn us into memes.
These are things beyond our control.
In considering these questions, what became clear was that any attempt to control these things would likely be frustrating, exhausting and ultimately, futile.
Which is not to say we should accept them. No, we should not raise the white flag and let them happen, but we should recognise they will and do happen.
In letting go some of this control, we conserve energy for finding workable solutions and processes that limit the impact of these behaviours for students.
By interrogating some of these concerns, we also have the ability to recognise flawed scripts in our own thinking.
You are worried about parents seeing or hearing you teach? Why? What is it you are doing that you don’t want them to see?
You are worried that students will get help, or that the work is not theirs and you may get a flawed impression of their understanding and achievement? How do you know they do their own homework when you set it? Is getting help still learning?
You are worried that they will make memes of you, or video your lessons and share them? That they are not paying attention? Or playing games when they should be doing something else?
Well, they might do these things, in fact, we know many students are doing other things during our lessons.
What would you do if you caught them doing this in a live environment?
By asking such questions of ourselves, we found solace in leaning on the existing infrastructure of school policies and procedures.
If they take photos or video of you and you find out, follow the normal procedures of your school. Inform their pastoral carers and inform the parents.
How can we make sure they keep their cameras on? Well, we can’t – not really. We can only ask for proof of life and make our expectations clear. If our expectations are not met, we can respond as we normally would.
The key thing is, when dealing with all these situations, let go of the feeling that you can control these things. You can’t.
I have experienced success in many of these areas by creating a clear set of expectations and most importantly, following through.
At the beginning of a class, when we mark the roll and connect, all students must have their cameras on. I also ask they have them on during periods of direct instruction or when answering questions. I also ask they switch them on when they return after a period of offline work small group work.
Students understand that if they are not responsive or their cameras aren’t on when I ask, then they are marked absent and I email year level managers and, if necessary, their parents.
Now, it is not a perfect system, but it focusses on controlling the process, not the outcome. It takes a lot of stress out of teaching classes because I am only working on that which is in my control. I’m leaning on existing school policies and infrastructure for support when needed and above all, I’m not pushing the boulder up the slope, or tilting at windmills, or being drawn into the student bad behaviour dance .
Philosophy without action is of limited use for teachers in this environment. My hope is that by sharing some practical experiences during this time, there may be value for teachers tackling the hard fun that is teaching and learning from home.
Letting go of habits formed over a long period are not easy, but fighting every day to impose impossible standards on both you and your students is a waste of energy and time.
Diving into Twitter is like visiting the social media version of the Mos Eisley cantina. You will find something useful, but all manner of weird and whacky awaits within.
The democratisation of media, manifested by cheap and easy methods of engagement and broadcasting like Twitter, proved an alluring frontier connecting like-minded people around the world.
In 140 characters, one could comment and share all manner of human activities in real time. Heck – the capture of Saddam Hussein was live tweeted by some guy on a phone in a van, beating traditional media and journalism to the punch by some measure.
There are many examples of how Twitter can be viewed as a force for good – breaking down barriers and allowing people to connect and share.
Yet, the reverse is also true. What is good can be bad. The expansion of positive shared commentary means more ugly things about people and society appear too.
Examples of ugly are many and varied, to the point where it can be more harmful and time consuming to engage than not take part at all.
This spectrum of nasty negativity sprang not from the platform, but the people wielding tweets, rich with human failings and foibles, instantly hyperconnected through cyberspace.
Twitter became a fulcrum for trolls, the virtue signallers, the egocentric, the needy. It learned the consequences of the inherent folly in quantifying the value of life via how many followers one has, constructing hierarchies and forming vigilante lynch mobs to mobilise against those who dare not agree.
Twitter is where people go to hate – and in any scroll through your feed you will see everything from passive to outright aggression and bullying that honestly, in a face to face environment, would get people fired or worse.
To be honest, there are limitless depths to discussion of the merits and limitations of Twitter, too much to explore here, but we can focus on where there be be golden treasure to find, particularly in the context of education.
George Couros, Canadian educator and writer, is a big advocate of creating professional learning networks via Twitter. In his book ‘The Innovator’s Mindset’, Couros explains and outlines the benefits of using such platforms to scale up the possibilities for teachers to access best practice in education and tap into the wisdom of the hive.
Sceptical, but open to the advice, I found myself crossing the threshold of the Cantina and dipping my toe into the river Twitter to take the temperature and see what benefit , if any, there was.
One of the great challenges as an educator is to make time to raise one’s head above the day to day and see what else is going on in the world. This is additionally challenging because so much professional learning and development is imposed on us by our context and setting. For better or worse, our exposure to modern trends and best practice is often curated by our employers or wider organisations and networks.
Another challenge has also been the delay in educational research getting from the university or the chalk face, into publication, through the myriad traffic jams and gatekeepers and into the hands of the teachers.
For good or bad, those barriers were breeched through the magic of connectivity. Now, we can directly access the experts and their work without the need to attend expensive conferences or travel the globe.
All you need to do is follow them on Twitter.
Couros suggests that Twitter is a great way for teachers to share best practice and also connect without the impediment of cultural or temporal limitations. Moreover, he argues that engaging on a professional level via Twitter is a great way to foster creativity and growth for all involved.
At the beginning of 2020 I decided to put his ideas into action and jumped on Twitter. In short, there have been plenty of golden discoveries and links to other educators and organisations that have fuelled a bonfire of professional learning and context which is fundamentally changing my views of good and effective teaching and learning.
And in a world where the day to day act of teaching and learning is being profoundly challenged, the insights and connections have proved useful in wrestling with the wicked problem of how to keep the learning going amid the mass disruption for schools and education in general.
In no particular order, here are some things I have noticed:
WATCH WITH CURIOSITY
Admitting to being a Twitter voyeur sounds creepy, but it makes the whole experience more bearable if you don’t feel the need to compete. There is sage advice in the ‘two ears, one mouth’ philosophy of listening more than you talk. In time, perhaps active sharing of ideas and views is something to get involved with, but are plenty of good voices in the mix now. At the minimum, a retweet is enough to spread the virus of good ideas.
SHARPEN YOUR CRITICAL AXE
Well, the old saying that opinions are like a***holes – everybody has one is nowhere more obvious than on social media platforms like Twitter. Meandering around Twitter is like living in a permanent episode of Q and A, where opinions fly around like pollen in springtime. As with any opinion, quality control is the issue and the remedy is to keep a ready hand on your bullshit detector. Questions that have helped me: Is this true? Is this person believable? Is it supported by research? Education is like fashion – there are fads and trends be be wary of, and there are various ‘scenes’ who define themselves by their dogma and self-sourcing ideology. That said, just because we disagree with something doesn’t mean it isn’t useful.
FOLLOW AND UNFOLLOW WITH CARE
Jim Rohn said that we are the average of the five people we spend the most time with. Whether you agree or not, the people and topics you connect with will determine your experience and shape your views. This is a real issue on social media that bleeds over into real life – and why 5G protestors feel empowered to gather in front of Parliament House armed with the ‘evidence’ of the lizard man conspiracy. The simple strategy of remembering why you are on Twitter should serve as a good guide as to who you follow and who you do not. It is a nasty paradox – we must be vigilant not to make the voices we hear too synchronous as we end up hearing only our versions of the truth reflected back. This requires being open to dissenting voices, which is sometimes maddening, but reduces the danger of developing knowledge silos and living in a feed bubble. Which leads me to the next thing:
DON’T TWITTER ANGRY (OR HAPPY, OR SAD) IF YOU CAN AVOID IT
There is a real temptation to make Twitter an extension of your life, and our egos are only too willing to broadcast, especially if we think our ‘audience’ needs to know what we think or feel at any given time. There is a fine line between offering comment and opinion and living your life out loud online. If more people remembered that Twitter is not the place to fix life problems, and that professional ‘scenes’ demand professional conduct, the better off we’d all be. Sure as the sun rises, battalions people will see it that way and there is nothing we can do about it – except choose not to add our shouts to the negative hurricane. Also, tweets live forever – as the older and wiser versions of us are sure to discover with varied consequence.
IF WE TAKE FREELY, WE SHOULD GIVE FREELY
In essence, as educators we should put pennies in as well as take them out. While the belief that ‘good artists borrow, great artists steal’ is pretty prevalent and easy to live with in the relative anonymity of cyberspace, there needs to be professional courtesy with the sharing of anything. Perhaps the best way of giving to the professional world of Twitter is to be kind and share your own stuff freely when the time comes, not for money. Education is a service industry after all.
The search for educational gold can be challenging on Twitter, as you must sort through the muck and the micah to find it. That said, maintaining connections via Twitter is a critical step for the evolution of our profession and our craft.
While there be dragons, trolls, sharks, leeches and pilot fish, there are also great leaders in education who are as lit up by teaching and learning as you are, and more than willing to share. What is more, most don’t live in ivory theoretical towers and most show a desire to help teachers and students grow into their highest levels of contribution and achievement.
Here are some places to start looking if you decide to jump in – the water is warm, I promise!
The notion of redoubling one’s effort has periodically proved a curious sticking point for me. If you can double your efforts, does redoubling your efforts mean you’ve already doubled your efforts and failed?
With the announcement that Melbourne is heading into deeper lockdown to deal with COVID-19, it feels appropriate to revisit this idea of redoubling our efforts in terms of life and work.
One cannot help but have empathy for those touched by the loss of loved ones, or the disruptive uncertainty of the loss of employment or income and everything else that tumbles out of this pandemic pandora’s box.
Equally, one cannot also help but be grateful for the relative safety and security we enjoy compared to others in Australia and around the globe.
As someone prone to melancholy, finding a way to process this has been a priority. In the process of searching for a way forward, one comfort was that while we might feel like the first people to experience an event like this, the vastness of human experience says this is not true.
The ancients understood how to tackle wicked situations like ours. Seneca, stoic writer and philosopher, made reference to the principle of ‘premeditatio malorum’, or ’the premeditation of evils’. In essence, it is the act of envisioning what can go wrong, or what will go wrong, allowing us to be less shocked when events do unfold.
Modern managers or psychologists might refer to this as a ‘premortem’.
Of course, this is challenging in the dynamically uncertain environment we find ourselves. Imagining every possibility could prove a pathway to madness if we are careless. That said, it might also be a pathway to beneficial action.
We can safely assume that as we enter this next phase of lockdown, things will be harder before they are easier, and it will likely prove much more difficult than what we’ve experienced to this point.
There are many facets to this situation, so many relating to individual context – where you live, what you do, what you can and cannot control.
Speculating on these questions is challenging enough. Some industries will boom. Some will bust. It is certain that the dark angel of circumstance, so to speak, will touch some homes and spare others.
We can also anticipate that the experience of the lockdown has the potential to be very divisive as our varied situations separate us.
Without the ability to move around and interact as we normally would, the temptation may be to withdraw further into the kingdoms, silos and dung heaps of our own experience.
We may be tempted not to talk about how bad, or well, we are going. We may be tempted not to share small joys and victories, to focus only on the thousand cuts or slights, or the dull cadence of routine.
This creeping disunity could represent social fracturing. It will divide society further.
Without doubt, it will continue to unearth the stupid, the selfish and the ill- informed. It will uncover the desperate, the narcissistic, the entitled. It will deepen the chasm between ’them’ and ‘us’.
In times of crisis, wisdom tell us to look for the helpers – and we are all helpers now, to an extent.
At the minimum, staying at home has now become an act of service and courage for all, but for those of us fortunate enough to be essential workers, there is even more to do.
We are laying the track as we go, to an extent, and now know that the dynamism of this situation means we lay this track blindfolded. We can’t be certain of what lies around the next bend.
Yet, as educators operating in the lengthening remote environment, we have a critical role to play. We must keep the learning moving. We need to bring the energy and magic every day, to play something of a role in winning days when every one has a ring of tiresome familiarity.
We do that by being organised, flexible and above all, listening and connecting to students and colleagues.
We can anticipate that the fatigue, cognitive overload and anxiety we’ve already seen will deepen and this may lead to a loss of hope and cynicism about the point of learning.
We can anticipate that nurturing mental health and wellbeing will be the great challenge of remote 2.0 for everyone with a stake in the learning world.
Unsurprisingly, there are plenty of people in education sharing their experiences and doing what good teachers do anyway – adapting and working for others. Teaching is a service, after all.
And what a great opportunity it is to learn new things and also build on what we have already learned in this most challenging of years, whether we are synchronous, asynchronous or semi-synchronous in our approach.
Routine and habit make a huge difference. There can be great power in small acts – asking someone how they are, admitting that you are having a hard day, modelling vulnerability, focusing on good teaching.
Consumption won’t do it in terms of engagement – action and response must be the way. Creativity must be given space to thrive and we need to focus on providing time and space to do what is essential for the learning to occur.
Teaching is a service and when at its best, a team game. Teachers and schools are perhaps even more critical in a time when the home, defined by the context our students live in, will feel a sanctuary for some and a prison for others. Sometimes, this feeling will change from day to day.
We have the power to influence that experience – lesson by lesson, day by day, week by week.
And if we can, through education, play a part in helping a string of good lessons add up to a good day, and those good days add up to good weeks, and those good weeks add up to good months, and those good months add up to good terms, then when we emerge from what must now surely be viewed as the defining event of a generation, it will be with goodwill and appreciation for learning and schools and our role in meeting the challenge of each context.
Surely that is a worthy contribution for us to make as learning professionals…
This book is, perhaps, perfectly suited to the forced isolation of a global pandemic.
Maria Popova is interesting. Her website and blog, Brain Pickings, offers top shelf intellectual nourishment in consumable bites.
Native to Bulgaria, long time resident of New York City, mathematician, poet, reader and consumer of the world, for thirteen years she has curated and shared her passions and interests via the website.
Her book, Figuring, is difficult to classify, other than to say it is a collection of stories about amazing people past and their interweaving and ageless challenges and concerns.
Part creative non-fiction, part biography, part love letter from a voracious reader to the world of books she inhabits and explores, Figuring is a reading experience to be savoured.
Popova is unapologetic in her desire for the book to be challenging and enduring. It raises the big, eternal questions of the human condition. She boldly declared her hope it ‘has the shelf life of a shelf, not a banana’.
The book takes its name, at least to my understanding of the play on words, of a number of significant historical figures ranging from Johannes Kepler, seventeenth century astronomer and polymath, to Rachel Carson, twentieth century scientist and author.
The title also relates to the verb form, as in figuring something out, as these people aimed to make sense of their worlds via science, mathematics and literature. Often, their concern was also directed at the very human challenge of solving this problem called living.
In turn, their figurings contributed a huge amount to our knowledge and understanding of the universe and life within it.
What I most enjoyed, though, was the ability for Popova’s book to bridge the conventional chasm between science and literature.
Figuring demonstrates the long association between these two fields, one that we ignore when applying a binary classification. We hear all the time that people are either artsy-fartsy literary types, or ‘just the facts m’am’ STEM types, left and right brained, either/or and not both.
Well, Popova and her historical figures say hooey to all that.
Kepler, in addition to his work as an astronomer, published ‘Somnium, or Dream’ in 1609, perhaps the first science fiction story. He also acted in defence of his mother, accused of witchcraft, all the while advancing the understanding of the cosmos to an unheralded degree.
Jumping ahead to the first half of the 19th century in New England, the tale visits the remarkable Maria Mitchell, who occupies a temporal space with a hugely influential cast of scientists and writers who cast a mighty shadow over the canon of Western culture.
Mitchell in turn inspires Harriet Hosmer, pioneering sculptor and photographer, then overlaps with Margaret Fuller, journalist and literary critic in a time when women were meant to be quiet.
Overlapping the same part of the world and time, Emily Dickinson writes her poetry from the isolation of her room and self imposed bubble. Later, in the middle part of the twentieth century, marine biologist Rachel Carson writes her long form investigations into nature that capture the attention of the public and spawns what would become the environmental movement.
Peripheral figures to these remarkable stories are actually the ones I admit to knowing better, no doubt because they are celebrated more in the canon I was raised on – Walt Whitman, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
As for the central figures, they carried their burdens and had arduous, difficult relationships often suppressed by the demands of society. Many lived tragically and wrote profoundly in stunning clarity. In turn, they inspired and influences each other, often without knowing, fuelling a process of intellectual striving that continues to this day.
They also were obsessed, tormented, blessed and cursed by the pursuit and experience of love and loving in all forms.
Perhaps we should be aggrieved or ashamed that their stories are not more widely known and celebrated, or perhaps they are and my ignorance is exposed.
Either way, these historical figures are, in many ways, perfect role models for those adrift, curious and confined by circumstance.
Most definitely, they are for those who don’t fit the mould.
As mentioned, this is a book to be read slowly and savoured, as much for the depth of Popova’s writing and the need for a break after even a few pages to ruminate and reflect.
If nothing else, in a period where the noisy chatter of mass consumption is so relentlessly dark and apparently insurmountable, there is a distinct joy in escaping into the stories and minds of people long gone who, in their own ways, lived through much, much worse.
As Popova writes, there are many kids of beautiful lives. Now is the perfect time to introduce ourselves to them, if only to provide perspective on our own lives and troubles.