Tuesday 25 November 2014

6 Months to Go; 6 Things to Do

Public exam candidates go into the Christmas break with 6 months to go to their exams. It’s not long. For some it’s the same length of time as the interval since their last set of exams; others will have other ways of calibrating the time. Here are six activities which are worth undertaking this far from the exams:
  1. Organise files, and catalogue them. Not only should all notes on a particular topic be in the same section of the file, a contents list of each file section is helpful. Summarising the content of a subject topic on one side of one piece of paper at the start of each section is an excellent revision tool to be done now (this is one that should never be left to the pure-revision last phase of learning). In addition, a cover page for the file as a whole, detailing the contents of the file is a good thing - in many subjects a thorough knowledge of the way that the specification is organised can help to contextualise questions.
  2. Collate feedback on written work by subject. It can be helpful to try to group all feedback on written work (and on reports if they are available at this stage of the year), to spot patterns. Identify what skills are strong, and which are lacking. Most broadly, the skills might be classified as knowledge, expression of that knowledge, choice of which knowledge to deploy well, ability to analyse (or compute), ability to evaluate/express clear answers and conclusions. These five areas could be scored: sound, needs improvement, could be improved, crucial weakness and so on.
  3. Review previous experience of taking exams: what has gone well, what went badly? What natural biases were learned in the experience? Are there tendencies to over-estimate ability and understanding, or under-estimate them? What does this mean for the next few phases of the work?
  4. Turn short term memory of the Michaelmas Term’s work in to long term memory. Now is the time to write those revision notes, for two reasons: first, the material should be familiar enough still that the notes will be informed not only by what you have written down, but also some memory of the sights, sounds, amusements, and incidental goings-on which surrounded the learning. Recalling these things (and even referring to them in your revision notes) uses deep memory for academic understanding, and will make them stick.
  5. Collaborate: take the time now to form your revision relationships. These could be study-buddies for each subject, or they could be a sibling who will share responsibility for testing, chatting practice answers, bouncing ideas off, or helping with the most difficult technical aspects. Anyone who can help here is a good choice: some students benefit from practising their language oral presentations with their own teddy-bear, but you are unlikely to get much help from this source for your Maths A level.
  6. Have a rest: make sure that the return to school in January sees you at your peak. Don’t waste week 1 re-acclimatising to the routine of getting up at a certain time to get to school. You’d never approach being an athlete, or an interview, like that. Make sure that you are in the best place you could possibly be to take advantage of lesson 1 in 2015.

Tuesday 11 November 2014

Remembrance Sunday Sermon - edited highlights

This was the sermon on Remembrance Sunday 2014 in the Chapel of an English boarding school. It is verbatim, with the exception of local references which would be meaningless or puzzling to the reader from further afield.

The first conversation I can remember with someone who had actually fought in a war was in Tiberias, in Israel, during my gap year where my boss, who had grown up in North London and was, poor fellow, a fanatical Spurs supporter, told me about his experience fighting in the 1984 war between Lebanon and Israel. Tony had been in the first group of Israeli soldiers dropped at Beirut airport who had captured it and then held it for three days until the ground forces had caught up with them. Although I haven’t seen him since then, he would now be in his mid 60s. His experience was that war was a sequence of encounters in which one either died, or was killed. He preferred to kill others than to die himself. But he had no political commitment to his cause: he never spoke about whether the war was right, merely about surviving, and that made a profound impression on me. He was keen, when we talked about it, to impress on me that war was really very unpleasant indeed, and should be avoided at all costs. Avoided, at all costs. Hold onto that.

Those who have fought in wars tend to have very vivid, deeply held memories of them. Very few people  simply forget the conflicts they have been involved with. The events and memories are seared into them. Our remembrance should always start with the understanding that conflicts hurt people, and they go on hurting people for a long time. Conflicts start easily, but take years, sometimes generations, to overcome. Because long after a conflict is over, enmity remains. Making war is only the first part, making peace is much harder.

There’s been a great deal of focus on Remembrance this year - because, as I am sure you are all aware, it is 100 years since the Great War, WW1, started. This was the war which, it was commonly agreed at the time, was ‘the war to end all wars’. A war so brutal, so savage, so appalling in every way that every participant hoped that it would be a sufficiently terrible reminder that no one would go back to war.

The saddest thing about the sacrifice of those who died in WW1 is that, just 21 years later, the world entered another war. And after that Suez, Vietnam, Falklands, Iraq1, Iraq2, Afghanistan, and others. All those conflicts took place before the last of the UK’s trench infantrymen from the Great War died.

I don’t think this country has always done remembrance well. 100 years on gives us the chance to reconsider how we do remembrance - what it is for. I think that Remembrance is about honouring those who fought by asking afresh what we can learn from conflict; how we can honour the dead and the wounded by changing the way that we live. And I think that remembrance can actually be the enemy of reconciliation if it is done less than well, but it can be the agent of reconciliation if it is done right.

Why is the biggest grudge match of a tournament for the England football team the game against Germany? Why is this more impassioned than a game against France, or Italy, or Spain, or the USA? In the context of local derbies, the game against Wales or Scotland ought surely to be more impassioned. But the tabloid newspapers in this country prepare for a game against Germany in a completely different way, and often an inappropriate one in my view.

Remembrance ought to be about how awful conflict, enmity and aggression are. How little is gained from war, and how much is lost. How we tend to underestimate the suffering it produces and overestimate the gains.

The passage that was read to us earlier included these words:
And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled ...

What does remembrance teach us most of all? Within a Christian ethical paradigm, in a Christian country, the most important thing about our remembrance is reconciliation. I want to go further than this: if we do not learn about the importance of reconciliation, of peace, of the desperate, urgent need for humans to learn to live at peace with each other… if we do not learn these things, we do not value, learn from, or remember with honour those who have fought for us. Their sacrifices were made not so we could live in war, but in peace! How do we honour the sacrifice of our former pupils in these wars? We do so by celebrating, protecting, cherishing the peace that they died to obtain for us. By being people who live in peace with each other.

And, in our school there are those who can trace their ancestry back to the countries which the UK fought against in the 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. We are incredibly fortunate to have people in our school community with strong allegiances to Spain, France, Argentina, Germany, Italy, Japan, and other countries. Our role is to relate to each other in a way that builds a future of peace and human flourishing, together. This school is a community of people from lands and peoples that have been at war, but now choose to live in peace.

I haven’t explained why I think the sacrifice of those who fight in wars is best honoured by by reconciliation. And I cut short the reading earlier. It actually goes like this: 

We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.

I am sure that you are all familiar with the Christian theology of the cross. Jesus endured conflict in the form of a beating, a whipping, the exhausting hard labour of carrying his cross, and being crucified,.  All this was in order to bring reconciliation between people and God, and to bring reconciliation between people and people. When humans endure conflict to bring peace, to bring reconciliation, Christians see those people as treading in Jesus’ footprints. Submitting oneself to suffering which leads to reconciliation is deeply Christian. It is what Jesus Christ did. It follows his example closely.

So, I challenged our school community: will we be people who suffer, who toil, who labour for reconciliation, of people to God, or people with other people? Will we imitate Jesus Christ by being willing to suffer for this noble goal? Will we show the same sort of willingness to put ourselves in  a difficult or disadvantageous position to bring reconciliation like all those among our school's former pupils who died in the 20th Century's wars, including one awarded the Victoria Cross for bravery? Will we be God’s ambassadors with a message of reconciliation as St Paul asks in today's reading. I hope so. Because even just a few of today's pupils, who have such good opportunities to be leaders of tomorrow's world, could make such a difference.

So whether you are from Bath or Bristol, Somerset or Gloucestershire, England or Wales, the UK or the rest of Europe, Europe or the rest of the world.. however local you are, or however distant, however like each other, or however unlike, our permanent, enduring, important remembrance of those who died is to live peacably, and be agents for peace in our world. By doing so we honour those former pupils who died in Iraq, and in the World Wars, and we honour Jesus himself.

There is no higher calling. I urge you be reconciled - to God, to each other. And be people who reconcile others, and work for reconciliation, and for peace.

Wednesday 8 October 2014

How To Work Hard Without It Being Hard Work

As we get older, we usually become more aware of the way in which we are governed by our habits. The thing about a habit is that, especially when young, we don’t really notice them: I can remember first having the opportunity to see myself standing in front of an audience filmed on (as it was in those days) videotape. There were all sorts of mannerisms and nervous tics that I had no idea I was doing. It was a revelation.

We all have habits, and we hardly notice them. But here’s the thing: whatever it is, a habit takes no effort; it happens instinctively, without will, without moral choice and it does not require willpower. The person who nervously runs their hand through their hair probably uses a fair few calories a day with the effort of doing so dozens of times an hour. For others of us, on the other hand, doing so would require a very great deal of effort - effort to remember to do so, and effort to execute the action. 

Since we have habits we are not aware of and what we do habitually doesn’t take effort. Our habits are worth some attention. 

Much literature suggests that, if you do something for 3 months, ie one whole school term, it becomes a habit. In the context of our whole lives, powerful habits take a short time to be established, and once formed can be exercised without any thought or effort. (Those who have driven from one place to another on autopilot will especially know what I mean).

I am willing to bet that, at some stage, every single reader of this blog has made a resolution to work harder. I have. And I am willing to bet that every single reader of this blog who made a decision to work harder thought that working harder would be harder work. It makes sense doesn’t it. But that’s wrong.

I have suddenly, and recently, realised - and it’s taken me 46 and a half years to figure this out - that working harder is only harder work during the period of time that it takes to become a habit. That’s why you can work harder now than you did 5 years ago without really noticing - unless you stop and really think about it.

So here’s the thing? What’s stopping those students at school or university who need to work harder from doing so? Surely the idea that it will be harder work forever. But it won’t be. It will only be harder for the period of time that it takes for the harder working pattern of behaviour to become a habit. After that it will just be … normal.

If students thought it only took 3 months hard work to be able to work harder for the whole of the rest of their lives, wouldn’t that make it worth them trying? If they thought that 3 months hard work would give them a headstart over the whole of the rest of the world’s population, they’d do it. If anyone really believed that working harder for 3 months would give them a headstart over the whole of the rest of the world’s population, you’d do it.

So why are some students not that hard working: surely it’s because they don’t realise that all they have to do is turn harder working into a habit.

If any of us were to say to students-well-known-for-their-economy-with-effort that we wanted to talk to them about their habits, they’d probably have thought that we  were referring to their tendency to pick their nose, or to send texts while someone was talking to them. We all tend to think of our habits as being bad habits: but what if we were all to take our ability to form habits and turn it to positive outcomes. 

To any student readers of this blog, therefore: find a positive habit, practise for 3 months, and turn harder, or smarter, work into a habit, and you will be able to work harder, or smarter, as a habit, without extra effort for years!

And educators: all we need to do is to encourage our students (and each other) to establish a beneficial habit for three months…

Thursday 25 September 2014

Have YOU Made A Good Start To The Year?

It's a good time to have a first checkpoint of the year. For us, 24 days of the term gone. I estimate that, in our school, most exam year groups are going to have about 1000 lessons between the start of this term and the start of their exams. So far they have had about 130 of these. By the end of this week, it'll be 15% through the year. So, I challenged them this morning - "How have you done so far?"

A few years ago, a former pupil came to speak to our teachers about what he had learned from winning two Olympic Gold medals which could be applied to what we do. One of the things he referred to was this: at the end of every day of training, their coach would take the crew to one side and they would talk about their day’s training. Every day he would ask them, has today been a 'gold medal day'? For four years, they would ask that question every day. They believed that it would take gold medal commitment every day to gain a gold medal at the end of four years.

Now most pupils aren't planning towards a target four years ahead, although some may be. For the moment, it's worth looking ahead to the end of this year. Maybe a pupil has targeted a clean sweep of A and A* grades at GCSE. Has the first 24 days been A/A* in quality? Maybe the target is a distinction in Grade 8 of a musical instrument? Has the first 24 days’ music practice been grade 8 with distinction standard? Or a sporting goal: a certain time in the 200 metres - has the training thus far been consistent with that goal. Or it might be three A grades at A level - have the first 24 days been AAA standard.

For those that have managed this, I encourage them to reflect with satisfaction, but also to consider that the good start will be wasted if it isn't built on, because merely to start well is not to do well at all.

For those who haven’t managed to make a start in line with their long term goals: change NOW! Don’t change tomorrow, and don’t leave it until next week. A change tomorrow is half as likely to be put into practice as a change today. If any students get to this stage of the school year and have not started in tune with the goals they have set yourself, the easiest and best time to change this is right away. The longer any of us practice not working in a distinction, or AAA or all A* and A way, or whatever the target we have set yourself, the better we will get at working in a way that will not deliver our goal. 

And, if one doesn’t know how to work in a way that is consistent with our objectives, we must ASK. 

So I encouraged our whole school community to use the question ‘Has it been a gold medal day?’ as a shorthand for the more difficult and more nuanced idea of whether today has been a day in which our attitudes and approach have been consistent with our long term objectives.

And finally, it's worth considering whether our effect on others is to make them have a gold medal day, or to prevent them from doing so - because gold medals are often won in teams, or crews, rather than individually. Even when the medal looks as if it's an individual award, there's nearly always a team behind the medallist, who made it all possible.

Have I had a gold medal day? Have you? Questions worth asking. Every day.

Monday 1 September 2014

The Power of Expectations

What are you expecting this year? This is the key question I asked our pupils this morning. I suggested to them that there is evidence to suggest that, whatever one is expecting, one is likely to be right. Those who expect good things tend to put unexpected failures down to bad luck, and see successes as reflective of their ability, and those who expect less good things tend to put their successes down to luck, and see less successful results as being reflective of their ability.

It’s tremendously important at the start of the school year that pupils have high expectations - to understand what they are being taught in Maths, to do well in English, expect to be able to play the pieces their instrumental teacher gives them, to beat the opposition at rugby or hockey, to be able to learn their lines for the school play, expect to better their opponents at the Model United Nations, and so on.

The power of expectations was clear in the last football season. For decades teams had gone to Manchester United’s ground expecting to be beaten, and hoping for a draw. With a new manager, and a new set of circumstances, at Old Trafford, teams turned up not expecting to be beaten, and playing to win. As a result, many did win, and more managed to draw. So the difference between Manchester United and the rest of their league was reduced by a reassessment of expectations.

Similarly dancers, and sportsmen and women give a lot of time to visualising themselves being successful so that it becomes their natural expectation. Because doing so makes them more likely to achieve their goals.

However, and I think it is a big however… a great deal, it seems to me, of a healthy and wholesome approach to life is to be able to hold two different, sometimes contradictory, concepts in balance. Some readers may be thinking that if all one does is expect success and good things that might make one complacent. We all know people who expected to be able to play a piece of music in a concert, or pass a vocab test, or their Driving Theory test, or beat the opposition, and failed because they were overconfident.

And so, as well as expecting to be do well this year, I encouraged our pupils constantly to reinforce a ‘growth mindset’ - that hard work will enable them to do what they want to do. I exhorted them to expect great things, and work their socks off for them. To be optimistic, but not complacent or arrogant.

'The greater danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it but that it is too low and we reach it’. So said Michelangelo. Aspiration, high expectation, huge hard work to achieve it. To any pupil readers of this: I encourage you to set lofty targets, and make this a year where you strain every sinew to achieve them, whatever they are, and where possible encourage others to achieve their ambitions too.

Thursday 8 May 2014

Learning From The Chimp

I have recently been struck by the number of books in a relatively new genre, the latest of which is is The Chimp Paradox, written by Dr Steve Peters, the psychologist behind the British Olympic Cycling Team, the Sky cycling team, and Liverpool FC.

Peters describes the human brain as having two competing systems. First, the limbic system, which Dr Peters calls it your ‘chimp’, (a primal system which serves to keep you alive and away from the bottom of the food chain), and second the frontal lobe where many thinking and decision making functions have their origin (the ‘human’ in Peters’ lexicon). The chimp and the human brain vie for supremacy in each of our skulls.

This is what nobel prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman calls ‘system 1’ and ‘system 2’ in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow. Kahneman is at the end of a remarkable career as a behavioural psychologist investigating human behaviour and the unconscious influences on it - often coming from the chimp, or ‘system 1’ brain.

Kahneman and Peters concede that both parts of our brain are useful, but Malcolm Gladwell, another of the authors in this area, points out in Blink, ‘system 1’ is what enables a firefighter to use all their experience to say ‘this fire just doesn’t feel right’ and pull all their firemen out of a building before it collapses. ‘System 1’ is what we use when we meet someone when we are trying to decide whether to trust them, and helps us to make accurate quick judgements of character.

Sometimes, of course, we use the ‘chimp’/’system 1’ when it isn’t useful: when we explode with anger about something trivial, when we react emotionally and disproportionately, when we lack perspective. This might be because someone has invaded our animal territory, and we are actually trying to defend it. Because ‘system 1’ is instinctive, we can also use it sometimes without realising it.

One of Kahneman’s experiments relates to  a workplace honesty box for donations towards the cost of coffee, tea and other refreshments. He found that a poster of a human face looking directly out of the picture were put in the room, people would put more in the honesty box. This is ‘system 1’, or our ‘chimp’, making people instinctively do something which is actually irrational.

A key part of our learning as people as we get older is which system to use for which decision. For example which is better for choosing a university: ‘system 1’ - the ‘chimp’ - which goes on feel and intuition, or ‘system 2’, which analyses all the costs and benefits of different courses and different locations. Which might be better if we are deciding whether or not to buy a pair of shoes? Which might be better in deciding whether or not to go out with a boyfriend or girlfriend?

You can use both the ‘chimp’ and the ‘human’, ‘system 1’ and ‘system 2’, to make a decision too.
Perhaps education should involve more opportunity to reflect on these issues, so that experience of decision making can be used to improve young people’s capacities in these areas.

Tuesday 22 April 2014

Book Review - Turn the Ship Around, By David Marquet.

I heard this book recommended by Simon Sinek (Start With Why) and that was enough to persuade me to read it. For those who don’t like suspense, I’ll start with the punchline: read it.

I have read other books about what Marquet calls the ‘leader-leader’ paradigm (Multipliers, for a start), but this is systematic, clear, devoid of theoretical kite flying and refreshingly practical. Marquet tells us what he did, and why he did it. He had to take over a nuclear submarine, the performance of which had been rock bottom, and he had six months to turn it into a highly effective fighting force. That he chose to do so in a way which went totally against the culture of the US Navy, and that he got backing to do so, is remarkable. For me the one issue which is not unpacked in the book is that Marquet was clearly line-managed by a commander who was willing to let him impose his own leadership (non) style. The bracketed word will make sense after you have read the book.

Two tips for those who take my advice and read this book: look out for the phrase ‘I intend to...’ and note the careful intentionality of the way in which all his reports were expected to do their jobs. The fact that giving away power, taking away control, led to both being as much in evidence is one of those marvellous paradoxes of human behaviour. This is a real must-read for those who lead organisations, of whatever size.

One word of caution - I always start books of this sort with a determination to read them for the nuggets. Most books on how to lead or manage better have a small number of superb tips. This is no exception: don’t be disappointed by all the things that don’t transfer from a nuclear submarine to your organisation.

Thursday 13 March 2014

Disappointing Children

Life, as Rick Gekoski observes in his 1998 book, Staying Up, is about winning and losing. Education is preparation for both of these outcomes – but the truth is that schools spend much more time on one than the other. In recent times, some schools have gained headlines by having weeks in which pupils were invited to experience ‘failure’ to see how they coped with it and thereby to build up resilience.

But there are two kinds of failure. There’s the kind which is half-expected, the result of an adventurous have-a-go attitude: for such people, who are constantly stretching themselves, there can be a freedom to try for more than they think they can manage. The consequence of failure? A shrug, a determination to learn from it, and a sense that life goes on.

The other kind comes when failure is unexpected. And this is the point – failure week produces the first kind of failure – expected, almost synthetic, and therefore not crushing. Resilience is really the capacity to withstand the disappointment that we didn’t see coming. It’s the unexpected ‘D’ grade, the loss to a team that was expected to be weaker than our team, the sudden freeze in the middle of a musical performance following an error so unfamiliar that it momentarily swamps us.

It’s this kind of disappointment – not getting what we want, when it makes us ache with disappointment – that is an essential part of education. If we don’t experience this kind of disappointment in our early lives, we risk becoming achievement junkies whose approach is therefore only to take on the achievable. I wonder if this is what Mrs Gove was hinting at this week when she described private school pupils as ‘cossetted’.

A lot of ink has been spent pointing out the correlation between those who were unsuccessful at school and their success at business. But what if the cause of the success at business was the lack of it at school? What if the ability to bear repeated disappointment – to score below the pass mark in a French vocab test, to concede 5 goals, or 50 points, in every week’s match – was the ideal preparation for repeated refusals on the part of investors to back an entrepreneur’s work? What if Richard Branson and Jamie Oliver were taught that continuing to try against unbearable odds (and being able to sleep at night at the same time) was the quality that would enable them to survive at school. What if the perseverance that the less able learned at school turned out to be more important than the intellectual tricks performed by the scholars?

In most schools the irresistible force that is stopping schools from being able to set up experiences that disappoint children can be supportive parents. The battle our sector hasn’t yet begun to win is to teach parents that for children to face really tough battles in their education is a key part of the education.

Might the disappointing children be the children who haven’t yet been disappointed. Schools ought to make it their business to give children the experience of being disappointed more often – as well as helping them through it, of course. This might – in our consumerist age – feel like we are setting the bar lower: shouldn’t we be trying to satisfy every customer? In some senses it is the parent whose child is successful in becoming a prefect, in scoring A* grades, passing music exams, and in the first team, who should be knocking on the Head’s door, not the parent whose child isn’t.

So, in our School Assembly this week, I challenged pupils to see disappointments as a chance to learn life’s most valuable lessons. And I challenged them to make the school a sufficiently secure place that we can all talk about failures and disappointments, and learn from each others’ as well as our own. That's interdependence for you.

Wednesday 15 January 2014

It’s Not Too Late To Make (The Right) New Year’s Resolution

I am convinced the reason that many New Year’s Resolutions fail is because they aren’t realistic or sensible. Too often they are over-ambitious, too focussed on the measurable (it’s hard to make good personal goals SMART), too new, and too goal-orientated.

So last week, in my first assembly of the New Year, I challenged our pupils to make resolutions which were helpful and which they would be able to make stick. Here are five things I recommended (and still do!) to make a new resolution work – and it’s not too late to try it:

1)      The resolution should be related to a ‘process-goal’ not an ‘outcome-goal’. It was very striking when Olympic Gold medallist Anna Watkins came to speak to our pupils last term that she felt that the key to her London 2012 success (where she won a gold medal with Katherine Grainger having been unbeaten for some years) was due in part to the fact that they set process-goals. When we make the process as good as we can, we have done all we can to achieve the goal, and can take the pressure of our own performance.

2)      Make the goal incremental: focus on something you have already started to do a little of and want to do more – this way you know already that you aren’t trying to do something which is beyond you, and the resolution will seem achievable from the start.

3)      Make the goal relevant rather than measurable: although management people are right to say goals should ideally be measurable, it’s much more important that they are relevant. Many people substitute  a much less relevant, but measurable goal, for a core-to-their-purpose but unmeasurable skill. As time passes, and realisation of the irrelevance increases, they drop the resolution entirely because it is increasingly apparent that it isn’t actually central to achieving the core goals.

4)      Be accountable: tell other people about the resolution. Get others to help you to achieve it. This hardly needs explanation. And...

5)      Don’t take up something, or give something up, merely to be able to boast about it. You’ll weary of that. If you want to give up chocolate for a year, great – but don’t do it so that you can needle chocolate-eaters. Resolutions should be valuable in and of themselves, not a form of one-upmanship. The problem with boastful resolutions is that it isn’t long before we meet someone with a better (or more noble!) goal than ours – and once that happens, our motivation for keeping it collapses.