Lockdown Learning 2.0: The Redoubling

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.

Photo by Artem Beliaikin on Pexels.com

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.

Photo by Kaique Rocha on Pexels.com

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.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

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…

Lockdown Reading: Figuring by Maria Popova

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.

The Business is Learning, not Teaching

What business are you in?

My answer was always teaching, or puberty management when fishing for a laugh.

This answer is true because it focusses on daily activity, which makes sense if you equate your business to your work.

Yet, there is a growing sense of dissonance with this answer. Lately I’ve worked hard to rethink, reimagine and reframe it to declare that the business I’m in is learning.

The original response is based in the reasonable view that teaching is what the work actually looks like. It springs from my thinking, knowledge and expertise, framed by my values, beliefs and principles gathered over twenty years or so.

In essence, it is my job – where I trade my labour for money.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

In the teaching business, I am in charge. Everything filters through me and the choices I make, albeit guided by school culture and curriculum. The knowledge I hold is curated and passed over by me.

Yet success for students in this model hinges on the extent to which we turn up, and how much we have to give when we do. Physically, emotionally, this is a tough ask and places a lot of pressure on the ‘heroic’ teacher.

If we shift focus to say we are in the learning business, the board opens right up. All of a sudden, our position as keystone or capstone to the learning process is challenged. We enter the field of play, we take part, rather than coach from the sidelines.

This opens a Pandora’s box for everyone involved in education, often seen in the tension between views of teaching as job, career, or calling.

This is a place of great vulnerability. It requires an admission that you don’t hold all the answers and much touted excellence and perfection is elusive. As many educators and schools embody Guy Claxton’s ‘low risk, high shame’ culture, this tension is even more problematic and wicked.

Then we throw in the context of a return to remote learning as, in Melbourne, we change direction and go back for at least six weeks. To bastardise Shakespeare, we left remote learning like schoolboys from their books. But we return to remote learning reluctantly, with dirty looks.

There is a sudden urgency to reflect on what we took away from the experience. Perhaps what hurts most is the fact we’d fallen for the belief that it was over and we might return to some normality.

This time, there won’t be the shiny tinge of novelty to help the medicine go down.

If we stick with the principle of concentrating on the essential, perhaps the bias should be towards learning, not teaching.

We cannot simply focus on getting through again, setting a course for the other side of this situation and sunnier climes.

Photo by Matheus Guimarães on Pexels.com

The path requires keeping simplicity in mind when it comes to effective and successful learning. What makes learning work in any context? What makes for sustainable momentum?

In my humble view, it lies in doing less, but better. It is creating routines and structures that provide a framework for deep thinking well beyond simple consumption driven, task based education.

We must control the controllable, assuming that students are doing their best. When they don’t, we should point and call that and encourage and cajole. We must make it desirable to attend class for as many students as possible.

Experience tells me that students working in a blended environment, where analogue and digital activities coexist, fuelled by time and space to connect and get feedback leads to some strong learning, even from the couch, kitchen table or bedroom.

It also tells me that we will have little joy in providing endless Sisyphean consumption of worksheets and learning tasks, and engagement will plummet.

It tells me that all the innovation and shiny apps and programs won’t make for impactful learning either, as whatever is going on behind the scenes on other devices is no doubt more engaging than what we can provide.

Of course, I’m more than willing to be proven wrong. You can’t learn anything if you think you know everything.

Which is why going back for a second helping of remote education must be about the learning, not the teaching.

Lockdown Takeaway: Look Back to Move Forward

Over the last few weeks, this quotation from author Michael Lewis has been on my mind.

“As I’ve gotten older—I would say starting in my mid-to-late 20s—I could not help but notice the effect on people of the stories they told about themselves. If you listen to people, if you just sit and listen, you’ll find that there are patterns in the way they talk about themselves.

There’s the kind of person who is always the victim in any story that they tell. Always on the receiving end of some injustice. There’s the person who’s always kind of the hero of every story they tell. There’s the smart person; they delivered the clever put down there.

There are lots of versions of this, and you’ve got to be very careful about how you tell these stories because it starts to become you. You are—in the way you craft your narrative—kind of crafting your character. And so I did at some point decide, “I am going to adopt self-consciously as my narrative, that I’m the happiest person anybody knows.” And it is amazing how happy-inducing it is.”

In Melbourne over the last week, several suburbs went into lockdown again to tackle a spike in COVID-19 cases. As of last midnight, my neighbourhood joined them.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

For a minute our thoughts may have turned to the sense it was somehow unfair. There was a strange resignation as news spread along the streets and we were sent back inside.

It was also certain that the second time we locked down, many people would reveal their true natures, especially if measures were not evenly distributed.

This expected phenomenon revealed itself in social and mainstream media. Views ranged from the childish exclamation of ‘it’s not fair!’ to the downright crazy notion that nasal swabs are really secret government programs to microchip the population like cats and dogs.

Pass the tin foil hats…

So Lewis’ belief about personal narratives and their tendency to be manifest destiny for a lot of folks got into my head.

Perspective suggests that, in the vast history of what human beings have been asked to sacrifice in the interests of the greater good, staying home is pretty low impact.

Of course, the caveat is always on the specific context – fortune delivers me a pretty comfortable place to bunker down.

To be honest, even if it feels unprecedented, which it may be in terms of scale, there have been countless occasions when human beings were forced into isolation by all manner of external events.

The fact we are here to write and ruminate on it is testament to how they got through it, like we will.

Beyond circumstances that people really can’t control, many are completely within our grasp to influence and change.

We know this because generations of people came to this understanding via their experience of ‘unprecedented’ life events.

One such man is Viktor Frankl, who survived the holocaust and spent the rest of his life trying to understand why. He said:

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

Viktor Frankl – Man’s Search for Meaning

As a man who lived through the unimaginable horror of genocide, the wisdom he discovered relates to our ability to choose the attitude we hold towards any event. When linked to Michael Lewis’ idea, it is possible to argue that our attitudes and responses are embedded in the stories we tell about who we are.

Which is a longwinded and indulgent way of saying that when this situation arose, I decided to make the best of it and emerge better somehow.

Heading back into lockdown, the dominant feeling is gratitude for another opportunity to reflect and challenge and learn about the narrative that shapes my character and situation.

For what its worth, for most of my life it would have been negative. I was a complainer, a whiner, a navel gazer. I was very much the man in Stephen Crane’s poem, addressing the universe:

A man said to the universe:
“Sir, I exist!”
“However,” replied the universe,
“The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation.”

Right now there are many people wrestling with this truth, locked away in their homes or perhaps experiencing some freedom after a long confinement.

And while conceding that the journey is incomplete and perfection continues to elude, without opening up to the opportunity and choice, the entry into shutdown in the second week of a well earned holiday would be very different.

Three ideas central to this openness can be found in Ryan Holiday’s series of books based on ancient Stoic philosophy.

Holiday is an overachiever who now devotes his time and influence to spreading the word of stoic thought and practice, revisiting the writings of Marcus Aurelius, Seneca and Epictetus.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Each book deals with a central concept that is more applicable than ever in the current climate. What is more, the mix of philosophy and historical case study makes them easy to digest, just in case you encounter flashbacks to turgid lectures about philosophy from houndstooth jacketed, monotone academics.

The Obstacle is the Way borrows from Aurelius, Roman Emperor, who determined that ‘the impediment to action advances action, what stands in the way becomes the way’.

In essence, the only way through challenge is through. Indeed, it is valuable to think differently about events like, I dunno, the lockdown associated with a global pandemic, seeing it as an opportunity rather than a burden.

His second book, Ego is the Enemy, challenges the notion that Stephen Crane wrote poetry about. It explores the heavy, destructive weight that ego has on people throughout history. It challenges us to reconsider or explore the widely held belief that we are special and entitled to recognition and success. It poses the question of the impact of living within our own little ego bubbles and how that impacts our personal narratives.

The third in the series, Stillness is the Key, relates to the ability to be comfortable and find peace in just being rather than always doing. This is where the world of mindfulness and meditation comes to the fore. Most clearly, it challenges the belief that getting away from it all was the answer to an unquiet or depleted mind, or you always had to be doing something to live a meaningful life.

This might be the most relevant idea to explore just now. In a hyperconnected world, where there are endless ways to keep one’s mind busy and distracted, how can we learn to sit still and enjoy what we have and be more mindful of the moment? In this way, we may reduce the chances of becoming overwhelmed by the amount of time we have to focus on what we cannot do, both now and in the future.

What is in the way becomes the way. How true.

Sport is a Want, Not a Need

There was a time, not so long ago, when proud sports fans around the globe felt it so knitted into their DNA that life without it was unimaginable.

Sport, writing as an avowed fan of many, was a perpetual certainty like death and taxes. Periods of sporting cut and thrust mimicked the seasons of life. Every fallow off-season offered time for reflection and for absence to make the heart grow fond.

Spare time, energy and cash was spent on the varied narratives provided by teams and players engaged in sporting endeavour.

This is hard to explain to those who don’t get sport – watching and playing can feel, on some level, like the same thing.

In his book Shoe Dog, Nike Corporation founder Phil Knight described the experience and emotion of watching legendary US runner Steve Prefontaine win a big race.

I’d never witnessed anything quite like that race. And yet I didn’t just witness it, I took part in it. Days later I felt sore in my hams and quads. This, I decided, this is what sports are, what they can do. Like books, sports give people a sense of having lived other lives, of taking part in other people’s victories. And defeats. When sports are at their best, the spirit of the fan merges with the spirit of the athlete, and in that convergence, in that transference, is the oneness that the mystics talk about.”

Phil Knight. Shoe Dog

Hyperbolic as it sounds, sometimes watching sport does feel like that – not so much that you are watching as you are part of , critical even, to the spectacle.

Many elements build the sporting experience. There is the tribal aspect of choosing a side and standing together as one. There is the sense of the national spirit made flesh in watching our boys and girls compete on the world stage, bringing a feeling of agency and significance.

Sport becomes the place where rivalries are settled, where competition lives, gentle or otherwise.

Compelling sporting narratives keep the fire burning. Underdogs strive in David and Goliath battles and the heroic struggle for ultimate glory and success over adversity. We know the longitudinal joy in spotting a bright young thing and following their trajectory to greatness like a glowing comet. There are Shakespearian falls from grace, gossip, trivia and endless opportunities for analysis, debate, discussion and nostalgia.

There is also the connections, real and imagined, between players, coaches and fans. There are the social links – forensic water cooler post-mortems; after work seminars over quiet beers before, during and after events.

There are the offseason activities, the falling of leaves in autumn as players depart, the fallow winter where other sports emerge and take their position in the consciousness.

There is the hope of spring, renewal of team and timeline through new faces promising innovation and success.

Sport is theatre, delivering drama and joy in a way that life does not always. It is predictable and seasonal and kind in a cognitive sense. That is, of course, until it isn’t.

Photo by Martí Pardo on Pexels.com

The Covid-19 pandemic is a wicked problem. It provides an incredibly unkind cognitive environment, where an uncertain opaqueness colours the lives we once took for granted. 

Sport has been something to be missed like one might miss their favourite coffee shop over the festive break. It is the regret of your favourite restaurant closing down

Sure, the first few games felt like a cold drink after a long desert walk, but as more occur there is something not quite right, a little bit off. 

This pandemic has changed perspectives and offered time and space to reflect without distraction.

In that time before, where endless sports crippled the senses with choice, the cups of the average fan filled to overflowing. Where once there was scarcity, a time before perpetual streaming and beaming, the coming of the internet created something like an all you can eat buffet.

The sporting media, belligerent and invasive, expanded their reach to every weekday and hour, spewing a circular and repetitive narrative that placed itself at the very peak of human endeavour and the utmost level of importance.

Spoiled for choice, permanently connected and crippled with options, the schedule became fragmented and sport became somehow less social. There was once a collective joy in taking something in at the same time, live and in the moment. There was something joyous about sharing these experiences with family and mates.

There was something about the Monday post mortem before you put the sport to bed for a few days and paid attention to other things. Family. Friends. Connections.

When the teams dropped on Thursday night, Friday dawned with the promise of a weekend of sport among the leisure.

After a hiatus, sport in the pandemic doesn’t seem so critical, just a nice thing to have. It certainly adds to a richer sense of living, but it is not essential for a full life.

In time, as we pared life back to the essentials, sport diminished in the primacy and it became something that is just a nice thing to have, not a need to be fed.

.In the grand scheme of things, among all the confected soap opera clashes of sports journalists with nothing to do, one thing has become obvious. Without the games, life goes on.

With the games, played before empty stands and lacking many of the elements that make the experience a great emotional phenomenon for so many, life still goes on, and the sport just isn’t that great.

In time, we will return to it and it will be glorious and engaging. But…well… there is just too much sports to go around. That is a sentence that hurt me to write, but it is true.

Sport is not essential to a rich life, just a nice thing to have. The world turns without it, and that is now the real lived experience as a sports fan, not an imagined phenomenon.

Where once we believed the world might end of they took all the sport away, we now know that this is simply not true.

Ghosts in the Learning Machine

Some things persist , ghosts in the machine. A lot of psychology, popular and obscure, explores and names the old scripts and thought patterns that act as operating system for many people, perpetuating good and bad habits.

As we emerge from the experience of remote teaching and learning, the opportunity to look back and reflect has been challenging and worthwhile.

Using this opportunity to reflect on my own experience, I began thinking about the concept of these ghosts in light of my past teaching practice and behaviour.

Beginning in the logical place, as a graduate, I remembered travelling and finding my first teaching job in the UK. The life of a supply teacher in London at the dawn of the new millennium proved a gruelling and intense learning curve.

We were an invariably young cohort, landing there on working or ancestry visas from the four colonial corners of the commonwealth. The allure, outside of school, was travel and drinking in, often too literally, the vast and diverse experience London offered.

Photo by Negative Space on Pexels.com

We were there to prop up a system groaning under the weight of numbers and made worse by an aggressive and often punitive inspection regime, OFSTED, which left the profession struggling all over, but particularly in the less privileged areas of London.

This created opportunities for adventurous and willing young teachers.

We were fairly well paid as long as we turned up and we got the jobs no one else wanted. This invariably meant tough schools in front of the toughest classes. The experience provided an intensive environment to experiment and trial all kinds of approaches and tactics in performing the job of a teacher.

It was a tough gig. These schools were often failing and the students at the very fringes of what anyone might think was a successful learning environment. Conflict and bad behaviour became the new normal.

It was enough at some places to keep all the students in the room for all of the lesson. In fact, for many schools, this was success criteria for a good lesson.

As a young male teacher dealing with waves of angry and disaffected young men and women, the potential for conflict was woven into each day. In this environment, establishing that you would not be pushed around was the difference between chaos and passive aggressive compliance.

In essence, the tools and strategies for meeting fire with fire were sharpened and honed.

It was effective on one level and not all that suited to creating a good learning environment on another. The script was, looking back, a sad necessity for survival – get in and take control of the room, dominate and if needed, intimidate. Throw all the tricks you could at them and hope the lesson ended without anything too serious happening.

Even when I tired of day to day supply, shifting to a long term contract where there was actual teaching involved rather than being a prison guard, every day was a hostile journey into classrooms that became containers for trauma and anger and hostility.

When returning to Australia, fortune delivered me to a very different setting in an elite private school. In terms of teaching environment and resources, it was the complete opposite end of the spectrum.

As an early career teacher, challenges came in different ways. If I learned anything, it was the array of student troubles and issues in the puberty management sector did not lessen in terms of impact.

They simply became more affluent in their nature. They had better ways to blow off steam than rob old ladies at the bus stop and carry knives to class.

Conflict continued and a lot of it was due to my disproportionate response to classroom issues. My sensitivity and response was set to London levels, and looking back now, it probably destroyed the opportunity for good learning for many students at that time.

The script that drove my identity was uncompromising hard man and there is no doubt that I was a blunt force instrument in a surgical world. To be completely honest, this was probably true for a much longer part of my career than I would like to acknowledge. It was my operating code, if you like, and default setting.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

This would follow me, as expected, through different teaching roles in the UK and Australia. Even as I developed as a teacher, gaining experience and responsibility, this tendency to see every act of defiance from students as a nail to be hit with a hammer persisted. Often, this habit acted as a huge barrier to building effective relationships to optimise learning and progress.

Over the last few years, sparked by a return to learning and ensuing self reflection, I began looking at some of the old scripts and code at the heart of my teaching philosophy and practice. Beyond interesting, it has been really revealing to point and call some of these ideas and investigate where they came from.

In computer parlance, a ghost in the machine relates to any time a device acts counter to the intentions of the operator. This can be attributed to old and redundant lines of code or operations that live deep inside the operating system, forgotten and unknown.

For a long time, despite the change in setting and educational context, despite the growth and development in understanding this profession, I still operated like that young teacher in London.

Conflict was a common event and a lot of time, energy and resources was devoted to managing these situations. The collateral damage to relationships and learning was profound.

On one scale, these interactions, often escalated and extended by my choices, impacted only those directly involved. Yet on a wider level it dragged others – parents, managers, support staff – in like a vortex.

Of course, when working in puberty management, these issues and interactions are a given while we negotiate the meandering and volatile years of exponential change and growth.

It is always easy the blame the students, too, for their poor attitude and behaviour that demand we intervene to correct their errors in understanding.

The thing is, this view seems too confining and ignores the role of the grown up professional in optimising the environment for learning and growth.

We must rise above our old scripts and work to identify and eliminate the bad habits and attitudes that contribute to ineffective practice in education.

More and more I am convinced that controlling the controllable is a maxim worth pursuing in life and work. At the very least, identifying what we control and what we do not is starting point on a worthy exploration of ourselves and the world.

Through this process, we can also identify and challenge the lines of code in our operating systems to see if they are still relevant and effective.

For there are ghosts in the educational machines driving teacher behaviour in schools all over the world. These old stories and beliefs inform values that may not only undesirable for educators, they might be destructive and downright dangerous.

The need to be cool. The need to be popular, or powerful, or respected. The need to be the smartest person in the room, the fountain of all knowledge. The need for perfection. The need to get the highest test scores. The sense you have chosen teaching for the lifestyle and the students really get in the way of that. The sense that you teach, but they won’t or can’t learn and that is not your problem. The sense that we can’t really have too much impact on them anyway. The belief that all you need to do is cover the curriculum. The sense you are just teaching until the world discovers you are a genius. The belief that teaching is meant to be easy…

If insanity is doing the same thing again and again, expecting different results, then the counter is to reflect on our reasoning and purpose for doing what we do.

Photo by Louis on Pexels.com

In this way, those ghosts in the machine may drag themselves into the light for interrogation and review.

In the interests of our students and ourselves, this must be seen as a worthy and meaningful pursuit.

With coaching, mentoring and the use of meaningful and rigorous performance review, perhaps these inefficiencies might begin to work their way out of our classrooms and schools.

As we all should know by now, what is best is not always what is easy.

Lockdown Takeout: The Magic of the Reading Habit

Every obstacle provides an opportunity for growth.

This idea is not new and it is not mine. You see it threaded through tomes in airport bookshops, where charlatans and sheisters claim they discovered this essential truth, ignoring that fact that learned older and wiser minds sorted that out a long time ago.

What an opportunity for growth this lockdown has been. It has provided space and time to reflect and act on some of the ugly inefficiencies, habits and behaviours from personal to national to global.

The enormity of an event is often hard to see when you live in its midst, and there is some distance to travel yet on this journey. As we emerge, slow and timid in many cases, there will be decisions made.

There will be habits lost and gained forever. There will be new perspectives and philosophies, as diverse as humanity.

Which leads to my take away – reading books is a magical thing.

Photo by Luis Quintero on Pexels.com

Being an English teacher, it might follow to say of course I would say that.

The truth is, ironically, for a long period of my career I lost sight of the importance of books and reading. They became things to act on, measure, cover, deliver.

I was too busy to read. Schools are an easy place to tumble into the trap of a ‘busy’ life. There are always urgent and important tasks, emails to answer, meetings to attend.

As you take on more responsibility, either pastoral or curriculum focussed, the busy and urgent and important grows to the point where you make sacrifices to keep up and stay afloat.

Sadly, too often it is the teaching that suffers. Lessons become things done on the fly as you take a breath and revel in the sweet sanctuary of the classroom.

The other sad trade off is reading books. My brother, a chef, always said the last thing he felt like doing after a shift in the mad, dynamic kitchens was cook.

It felt the same for English teaching and reading.

It was easy, then, to fall into the habit of passive consumption. TV, gaming, streaming and binge watching became routine. In time, the reading of books might fall to five to ten books a year, or less.

I also fell into the trap of believing that books would somehow pass out of use in the age of technology. It was the myth that the information age would distill the important things found in books to a more digestible form. Somehow learning and developing would be easier.

Then a fictional character said something that sparked a renewed love of books and reading.

“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. A man who doesn’t read lives only one”.

Tyrion Lannister – Game of Thrones

This stuck in my mind and led me, in a roundabout way, to developing the reading habit and rediscovering the magic of books.

When I saw this quote from Carl Sagan, scientist, astronomer and author, the jumble of thoughts became clearer.

“What an astonishing thing a book is. It’s a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.”

Source: Cosmos, Part 11: The Persistence of Memory

By the time we entered lockdown, the opportunity to read more was a welcome one. Books have been one of the things that has allowed me to travel and experience the world while being a good citizen and staying at home.

It has also caused me to reflect on myself as an English teacher.

There are many in our profession who are too busy to read, as I was. This is a dangerous space to occupy because on one level, it limits growth to the context of your life and experience, which is ironically shrinking despite the hyper-connectivity of the online world.

On another, it reinforces the belief that you already know everything.

General James Mattis, a Marine Corps veteran of more than forty years, puts it even more plainly:

“If you haven’t read hundreds of books, you are functionally illiterate, and you will be incompetent, because your personal experiences alone aren’t broad enough to sustain you.”

Jim Mattis: Call Sign Chaos

In 2017 I read 17 books. In 2018 I read 28, assisted by a new habit of listening to audiobooks rather than the radio on the way to work. In 2019 I read 30 books.

As of the beginning of June, 2020, I’ve read 28 books, no doubt assisted by the opportunity provided by lockdown.

Photo by Ricardo Esquivel on Pexels.com

The benefits have been immeasurable and have seen a massive expansion in my understanding of how little I really know or knew as an educator, a writer and a human being.

Not all this reading is is fiction and not all is the same genre, either. This has not been a list of 100 books everyone must read before they die.

I’ve read about philosophy, science, business and economics. I’ve read about psychology and rebellion and mastery. I’ve travelled through time and listened to the voices of the dead.

These books are not only fuelling the bonfire of learning, they are fuelling action and reflection on many levels which in turn has a positive impact on my world.

My curiosity has been awakened and enhanced to levels not seen since childhood, probably. It started by reconnecting to the magic of books and reading.

The lockdown has provided the certainty that good learners and thinkers, whether they be teachers or students, must build and maintain a foundation based on reading books as a habit.

It does not matter where you begin. Make time to read a page each day and go from there.

What is important is to recognise that good learners are readers. Teachers need to develop the reading habit no matter what their subject areas – but English teachers in particular need to read widely and often.

Writing and Technology: The Middle Path

We should be flying our cars by now, not driving. There should be robots in every home and widespread interstellar tourism.

The future is always uncertain – wrong assumptions remind us this all the time. Often, it turns out science fiction overestimates the extent and nature of change in our world.

Related to this from an educational standpoint, the digital natives, those raised only in the internet-enabled world, have long been credited with taking to tech like fish to water.

As educators, we know schools are now filled with these cohorts, hyperconnected hordes armed with their inherent and intimidating technical skills, grafted into their souls like DNA.

They have the ability to multitask – manipulating chunks of information from many sources, writing code and solving problems like Tom Cruise in Minority Report.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

A related implication is that those of us born before the rise of the Internet are critically disadvantaged, permanently playing catch up with these modern technical wunderkinds.

Alas, research is beginning to confirm what many in the field know already – these digital natives and their capacity when working with technology is overstated.

In fact, some researchers are beginning to explore ways of addressing the fact that although they are more comfortable with consuming and manipulating technology, a huge majority lack the ability to apply critical thinking and rigour to the information they are presented with.

The consequences of this are worrying to say the least.

Which relates to the cud I’ve been chewing lately, specifically related to the skill of writing and the mode used to do so.

There are people out there, teachers, parents and students included, who believe handwriting is a skill that will dwindle and decline in the digital age. In future, they say, it will be as quaint an activity as finger knitting or flint knapping.

They say handwriting is an old technology, destined for replacement by video and voice recordings, or the typed word.

These are the same people who own shoes with laces and drive cars with wheels.

The truth is, the reason we still have these things in our lives is that sometimes, the tools for certain tasks are so completely fit for purpose there is no need, or way, to improve it.

As with shoelaces and wheels, writing by hand is one of these useful skills that will endure.

Indeed, it is a skill that complements the use of technology in such a way that we must fight hard to ensure it is not diminished in importance for a good education.

The ‘Middle Path’ I propose is to explicitly provide opportunities for students to build capacity in written communication when operating in both digital and analogue spaces.

This is not a matter of learner preference, but flexibility.

There are a number of benefits of handwriting. It is portable and low tech. You can do it with minimal equipment and power – a finger on a frosty window, a biro on the back of a hand.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

Writing by hand can be slow and fast, like thinking. It is a physical act that encourages flow and deep work – all without the necessary distraction of the bings and dings of alerts or the lure of the lit screen to disrupt thinking.

Handwriting can be a personal code or a way of teasing out deep ideas in scribbles and doodles that might make sense only to the brain working to unravel itself.

Handwriting is a wonderful tool for learning and thinking, very good at the job it does. Hence, it has endured.

On the other hand, digital writing – typing specifically, has obvious advantages.

There is the relative uniformity of layout and medium. Writing can be easily drafted, edited and published within the same device. It can be easily shared and fosters collaboration, connecting people in way that hard copy paper simply cannot.

It is easily stored and retrieved without the need for vast spaces to store notebooks and folders in hard copy.

Yet the ties to our devices and impact of screen time is an emerging issue, particularly with developing minds. We are in the midst of a hugely steep learning curve in relation to the impact on the cognitive development of children, particularly adolescents, of more screen time than any generation that has ever lived.

It is not surprising that the early signs in this domain aren’t good. The impact of technology on sleep, physical activity, motor skill development and social interaction appears profound, even in the sketchy evidence from the frontlines of schools.

It is hard to categorically link the rise in student anxiety and poor mental health in schools, other than to say there is a correlation.

Since we cannot destroy the machines or unring these bells, nor should we seek to, we must insist that students develop the ability to travel the middle path by making it an explicit focus in schools.

High performing learners are able to operate in a range of modes and arenas. They can transfer their thinking and approach and tailor it to any situation.

Therefore, sending the message that it is okay to opt out of handwriting because we will type everything in the future is severely flawed at best, unethical at worst. This is potentially more destructive than the lazy belief that the only reason students need to write by hand is because of high stakes testing and exams.

The opposite message, that we should destroy the machines before technology destroys a generation of young minds, is also a fallacy. The only way it will happen is if someone invents a time machine.

The middle path between analogue and digital is a worthy goal. Time to open up the discussion.


Becoming gradually or increasingly.

That is one dictionary definition – action, a process easily linked to learning.

As we emerge from lockdown hibernation, whatever our situation, it is hard to imagine we do so unchanged.

Growth is natural and automatic in the early part of our lives. It just happens. We get bigger. We change. We become, gradually and increasingly.

Beyond physical growth, there is the emotional and psychological realms. We accumulate experience and knowledge.

Stuff happens and we grow.

Photo by João Jesus on Pexels.com

As we ready ourselves for the return to work and face to face teaching, thinking about what that looks like and how it will work occupies much thinking time.

I wonder how students may have grown, for better or worse.

The shutdown extends long enough to lay down new habits and break old ones. As trivial as some may appear, many will affect us for the rest of our lives.

Will you shake hands with strangers upon meeting? Will we ever wash our hands like we used to? Will we want to stand cheek to jowl at sports stadiums and on crowded trains?

Probably not. Growth is, I remembered, not always linear and incremental.

Sometimes growth is exponential, traumatic and explosive.

Like many, upon graduating from university my feet itched. I wanted to see the world.

This desire led me to Camp Minnehaha, West Virginia as a camp counsellor. The camp was idyllically set in Pocahontas County.

As a qualified teacher, I was given the youngest cabin to look after. A bunch of eight year olds, most away from family for the first time, was well outside my wheelhouse.

We spent a week setting the camp up and preparing for campers to arrive. Once the program started, I coached basketball during the day and did odd activities throughout.

The hours were long and the work hard, but the momentum of routine meant there was not a lot of time to think about it.

After three weeks, my first day off arrived. Usually this meant being paired with other counsellors and heading out for a well earned break, but I was paired with local staff who went home for the day.

So my day was to be spent in the tiny town of Marlinton. They has a Dairy Queen, a river and an internet enabled computer in a shipping container public library. Every pickup truck had a gun rack in the back window and from time to time, fighter jets buzzed the town during low flying exercises.

The routine on a day off was you’d be dropped into town early in the morning and collected later that night, after lights out. There was plenty of time to kill.

I wasn’t so bothered by the solitude, to be honest. I figured that mooching and writing and reading in the library would suffice.

Then, at the cash machine, I learned that there was no money in my account.

The smell of an oily rag does not do my financial situation any justice. I left Australia with a round the world ticket, 500 bucks in cash and a thousand on a credit card. Which, as it happened, was now maxed out.

The week before I’d asked Mum to liquidate some of my assets and shift the money across. This was intended to see me out until the end of camp, when my 1100 USD payment would come through and get me to the next place.

I called her, anxious, only to learn that she’d placed it by cheque and it obviously had not cleared in time. How will we explain cheque waiting times to children in the future?

There I was, calling card credit running out, a whole penniless day ahead in a strange country town on the other side of the world, with no way out.

I completely and utterly broke down. Breathy sobs burst out like I was a toddler. My Mum did the best to console me, but I couldn’t talk, so I said goodbye and hung up.

As important moments for growth, it was fairly inane on reflection. No one died.

I walked up and down the main street a little more, wondering what I could do, and fortunately I saw the guy who dropped me off parked in the main street. I asked for a lift back, returning to camp unsure of what I would or could do.

When I got back, the camp director met me and offered the chance to sleep in the infirmary. It was quiet and away from everyone else. So I slept off and on for most of the day, completely exhausted.

It was a low day. I felt like I’d been hit by a truck. Such a small thing, relatively, but I was totally depleted.

My skin did was not enough to contain me. No one could do anything, the day I had envisaged would not happen, and my one day off a week was done.

The next day, I went back to work. Eventually, it was all forgotten. I grew, just a little bit, but a little of my identity was formed.

The growing was not subtle. It was harrowing and sudden. It felt like a wrenching, violent thing inside. I could not suppress or control it and I did not know it would happen.

No one else did either.

Reflecting on this memory, twenty years on, caused me to think about the growth and change this pandemic event has had on our students.

They may have grown remarkably over the last two months. They may have been depleted and broken open. They may have shed their skins.

Maybe nothing changed. Maybe they sat in their rooms and played video games of watched Youtube. Maybe I’m being all misty eyed and putting too much mayonnaise on it?

It is worth keeping in mind that learning and growing is not linear and incremental. Sometimes growing is more a rending and cleaving than a gentle progression.

The Sacred Cow Series – What Is It For?

Values change.

What would your grandparents make of reality television? What would they say about marriage equality? About non-binary gender identification? What would they say about mental health, or veganism? What would they say about middle aged men on scooters? Bottled water?

What would your great grandparents say about these things?

It is easy to forget that attitudes and values change so much over time. The White Australia policy was demolished less than fifty years ago. In 1960, there was great shame in having a child out of wedlock. Being gay was a criminal act. You did not need to wear a seatbelt.

If you share these facts with a fifteen year old now, what would they say?

You can disappear easily down this rabbit hole into speculation, but the truism persists that some things change and some things do not when it comes to values.

In the realm of education, what has changed in that time? Well, it could be argued that the answer is a lot and not much.

Certainly, the tools and reach of connectivity is different. In many schools, learning spaces and buildings have a space age quality, all glazed bricks, huge screens and funny shaped tables.

Conversely, much has not changed. If you travelled back in time and kidnapped a teacher from 1900, then deposited them in a modern school, how much would be unfamiliar?

Chances are, they would recognise a great deal in the dynamic. Sure, it would be noisier and there would be less whacking, but the process would be familiar – teacher in charge, students consuming and interacting with work in chunks of lessons broken up with summative assessment.

The learning objective would be familiar also – to progress students along a pathway into, after thirteen years, either further study or work. The way meandered through high stakes summative assessment and ranking, then into narrower and narrower channels until a vocation was reached and specialisation achieved.

What was rewarded was the consumption of knowledge and recall, the accumulation of knowledge transferred from a knowing entity (the teacher, the textbook, the curriculum) to the receptacle (the student).

The values inherent to the system were the same for students as those desired for employees – diligent, reliable, consistent, steady. A good student met deadlines, wrote legibly and never, ever interrupted the teacher. For most, specialisation was the ideal rather than general range.

Information was the currency of exchange, measuring the success in learners. We would refer to a student’s ‘general knowledge’ and promote the development of this through interaction with a limited number of resources. Test scores quantified this process.

The Encyclopedia was critical for most home scholars, preceded by books and newspapers as sources of information.

These sources were carefully curated and refined through the publishing process. Newspaper editors and style guides protected the reputation and standards of reportage.

Publishers forced authors to meet extremely high standards of quality on the arduous road to being published.

One could look at nearly all resources and understand that a lot of time and effort went in to the information we consumed to build knowledge.

The crime of passing off another’s work as your own was heinous. The integrity and provenance of information was highly valued and demanded.

The reward for making this journey was a stable job for life. Society valued those who stuck fast and were loyal to their employers and their needs. They desired workers who were predictable and specialised.

Education, and the values behind it, served the function of creating workers for an industrial system.

By and large, when you reached the workforce, learning was a thing left behind. You were allowed to put your feet up if you liked. Apart from certain occupations, like medicine, the majority of people could thrive while the tools of learning atrophied.

Would you agree that this world no longer exists?

The very notion of a career or job for life seems quaint in the volatile global environment. Moreover, the idea of a steady job for life is not that appealing to many people anymore.

Employers don’t have the same need for a steady workforce who will do what they are told and deliver the same limited thing week in, week out until the gold watch is passed over.

If the outcome we desire from education has changed, have update what we value? Should we be asking what is it all for?

I have fallen for the lazy generalisations all too readily. These kids are lazy. They have it too easy. They won’t read. They don’t care about the world around them. They only want to spend time on a screen. Their writing is atrocious. They don’t proofread. They write like they text. Add in your own here…

What if we have it wrong? What if they can do these things, and more, and they are curious about the world? What if they just value different things to what we do? What if they know that most of what we do isn’t relevant to their needs?

This is where I find myself at the moment.

We value handwriting because it was drummed into us as a measure of a grown up (albeit, I never understood why one benefit of the status of doctors was appalling handwriting).

We valued information because scarcity made it so – a set of 32 hardback Encyclopedia Brittanica volumes will set you back 1400 bucks, even though it has been out of print since 2010.

We valued the ability to recall and regurgitate vast amounts of information in a high stakes environment as a measure of intelligence.

The Encyclopedia Brittanica app is now free to download on the app store, but unlimited, advertising free access costs 14.99 per year.

If there is an easier way to demonstrate the reduction in value for information, I’d like to see it.

Going a step further – the open source version, Wikipedia, is free.

The Internet changed the world forever. As Mark Manson declared – the best thing about the Internet is anyone can publish. The worse thing about the Internet is anyone can publish.

The Internet didn’t just take the gates down, it shot the gatekeepers.

In doing so, information that once needed to be retained was now on demand. Anyone on earth with a device and internet connection can access the galaxy of human thought and endeavour if they know where to look.

Therefore, the retention of information and knowledge is not as valued as it once was.

Will they know what to do with the information?

Well, that is a curly question. Plenty of dogs around the world can go and find the newspaper, but I’ve not heard of one that can read it.

Which leads me to the sacred cow of purpose. What is a school education for?

Beyond the basics of literacy – the ability to read and write is a minimum standard not up for debate – we need to consider the purpose as students head out into the post school world.

For our roadmaps are not always accurate. They do not lead where they once did, and what used to have value when they arrived no longer does.

At the risk of getting waylaid in the debate over twenty first century skills, we should focus instead on developing twenty first century values.

Which are not so far removed from the best of the old bunch when you think about it, with one major difference.

We should not prepare our students for a world where learning only belongs in schools.

We should not construct our learning on consumption ahead of creation.

We should not value the retention and regurgitation of information over the ability to interrogate and criticise where information comes from.

The impact of this shift fundamentally changes the role of teacher in the learning process. As well as curating learning materials and experiences, teachers need to be model learners. They need to demonstrate and live desirable mindsets.

Teachers need to take risks. They need to make mistakes. They need to keep learning. Curriculum and assessment should serve this purpose.

We should value range, not specialisation, perhaps. We should encourage students to be flexible and transfer their knowledge to new settings.

And in tackling the question of the purpose of education, we might identify the ghosts in the machine and allow them to finally rest in peace.

Function over form, process over outcome.

What is it for?