Getting Physical

Mind and body are one indivisible system and both parts fundamentally impact upon the other.

This is a belief that I have fully bought in to over many years, convinced that there is more than adequate evidence to believe. having bought in to this, it has a profound effect on how i try to live my own life, but perhaps even more so on what I see as priorities when it comes to how we educate children in schools.

And there, the long and the short is – I am convinced that we are not providing the time, the support or the scope for children to be anything like as physically active as they should be. Further, i believe that this is done out of some foolish notion that children come to school to exercise their brain and that whether they do or don’t exercise physically away from school is a matter of choice and has no great impact on their academic achievements.

I believe these are wrong notions and that we need to build in the scope for our children to be far more physically active. This becomes even more the case in a place like UAE where for large chunks of the year most people find it way too hot outside to be physically active. Next, we know that an increasing proportion of our children are from families where both parents are working, meaning that during the working week the time and chances for getting out and physically active are somewhat limited.

So, I believe that the school needs to take a bigger responsibility to build physically active sessions in to the school week. This doesn’t necessarily have to be in the form of full PE periods. Most children are lucky if they can get two of those in a school week. We are exploring the scope for short activity breaks between class periods, where they can be physically active without leaving the classroom (or hurting themselves or each other). I’ve read reports that these have been tried in other countries and really boosted learning, concentration and ‘on task’ behaviour amongst pupils (especially boys).

One of our ‘big goals’ needs to be to develop habits in our children for physical activity to be a natural part of every day. We need to avoid some of the cliched ideas that it involves putting a different set of clothing on and doing something to excess. Sometimes, short burst activities can be far more effective – I’ve even been exploring some of the documented evidence for adults who (after a certain age!) are faced with the reality that long periods of cardio exercise don’t fit very well in to the busy professional day, but can also be harmful. It’s not much good starting an exercise regime if a pulled muscle means you can’t take any exercise for days.

Here are a couple of very interesting articles. The first was one i read a couple of months ago that advocates for the same thing – more frequent, high quality bursts of physical exercise every day, emphasising quality as much as quantity;

NPR Ed – Learning to Move and Moving to Learn

We have to acknowledge that, even in Primary School there are some children for whom physical exercise and PE have already become a source of unhappiness, discomfort and dislike. This can come about for all sorts of reasons, not least the association with sport and the child’s innate inclination to make comparisons and to be competitive. The child who believes others are better at it than them get switched off pretty early. However, I believe we’ve got to stop confusing PE and healthy lifestyle with sport. The latter may not be an area of strength for all, but the former should be an essential part of life for every person.

Quite recently, the Guardian newspaper in the UK hosted an online live chat/ discussion on the subject of how to make sport/ games/ PE more inclusive in schools. There are some interesting ideas discussed. Here’s a link to the article (which also contains a link to the full discussion for those interested):

Guardian – Making PE more inclusive

I’m really keen to hear from educators who may have experiemented with little bursts of physical exercise and activity in the school day about the pros and cons, what did and didn’t work.

Elon Musk – Innovator

A very interesting video – an interview that Elon Musk gave to Chinese TV, In it he talks about many things; handling risk, increasing the odds of a successful new business and his plans for SpaceX and Tesla.

For me, the most interesting parts come towards the end of the interview – firstly, his concerns that standard school wasn’t giving his five children what they needed as preparation for life (so he launched a school) and his core philosophy behind all that he does – “Am I being useful?”

There’s also a very valuable and important lesson for today’s young in there – cooking the meal may be the part that you really enjoy, the part that you want to do and that gives you pleasure. However, the kitchen still has to be cleaned up and there’s no getting away from those tasks. You can’t have one without the other.

When You’re at the Top, Reform !!

Over the last 5-6 years we’ve been hearing lots about the education system of Finland, because it’s been the standout country, as the only one outside the Far East to consistently rank in the top 5 of country performances for students taking the PISA examinations worldwide.

Educators from many countries, both from private and public sectors have flooded to Finland to see what they do different and what others might learn from them to improve their own education systems. Books have been written on the subject and miles of newsprint.

So, when the world is beating a path to your door to learn whatever they can from you, what do you do next?

Well, if your’re the leading thinkers shaping the education system of the country – you change it, driven by dissatisfaction about whether your current education system and approach is effectively preparing young people for the Twenty First Century.

The changes they’re introducing are quite radical and very interesting – a big shift away from teaching ‘subjects’ towards thematic learning with a cross-curricular approach. The expectations are that teachers will develop skills across subject boundaries and will collaborate with their colleagues.

There’s going to be lots of curiosity about whether they can make these changes and retain their strong showing in the international comparative assessments.

Independent UK Article – Finland Schools

Sir Ken’s New Book

The educator’s educator has a new book out – another to go on to my ‘To Read’ list.

This is an informative interview with Sir Ken where, amongst other things he talks extensively about ‘standardisation’, favouring personalization and a move away from trying to treat pupils as data points and to get the rampant ‘testing’ machine under control.

Edweek – Q & A with Sir Ken Robinson

He also has some very interesting things to say about dismantling the hierarchy of subjects within education, particularly giving due importance to vocational learning. This was an ironic one for me to hear as it mirrored a conversation with a parent just yesterday.

In the interview, he also touches upon issues such as teacher selection and training.

Well worth a listen – and I’m sure will inspire some like me to look out for the new book.

The Future of College

There’s a saying that’s sometimes used by self-help gurus and management/ leadership experts that says that there’s not much point in climbing to the top of the ladder, only to find that the ladder’s leaning against the wrong wall!

Well, the same could well be applied to the process of education. To many students (and parents) today, their focus as far as outcomes from school education is simple – the best possible scores/ results that enables the best college or university admission. In India this leads to bizarre circumstances where the cut-offs for admissions in some colleges can exceed 100% (Ok, yes, work that one out). When parents see this happening to today’s school pass-outs, they tend to figure that they must double up on their efforts to drive and extract maximum score performance from their child with increased pressure on academic performance (never mind whether we’re really giving thought to the ‘how’ of great academic achievement – that’s an article for another day).

However, what if, by the time your child leaves school the college or university as we know it today no longer exists? If that is a serious possibility then might it cause parents to re-evaluate what their child really needs from their school education.

Here’s a fascinating article from Fast Company that explores changes that are already happening in further Education right now and there’s no question if these continue, then college will look very different for the children studying in schools today.

Fast Company – This is the Future of College

As I read this I had a few thoughts. Firstly, I suspect strongly that there’s still a lot of scope for more innovation that we haven’t started to see yet. Secondly, the pressure for these innovations and changes is already coming, especially from industry and employers who have started making very clear how they are not prepared to accept a further education system that turns out too few candidates with the skills and competencies that employers need and require.

Finally, if college is going to change so drastically, what kind of ‘different ladder’ are students going to need from school? How will their schooling need to be different? I’d love to get views of parents, fellow educators and even students. Whatever, the answers, it’s clear to me it won’t be about chasing another 0.1% on board results.

Disruptive Innovation

I’ve really enjoyed reading Clayton Christensen’s books on disruptive innovation, especially “Disrupting Class” in which he explored the forces that may well bring big changes in the field of education;

Clayton Christensen – Disrupting Class

What is key to understand is that disruption doesn’t happen to bad companies or systems particularly. Rather, it’s a product of the fact that there are built in reasons why success breeds a mindset and a tendency to look only at incrementalism and ‘safe’ innovation. Major changes/ innovations aren’t seen as a big threat – until it’s too late.

I’ve recently come across this great short animated video that explains the concept really well:

12 Manage – Video – Disruptive Innovation
(Click on the link to open the page and view the video)

Getting the Right People ‘On The Bus’

There is no doubt that schools are a ‘people business’. Management and leaders can have the most amazing ideas and vision for what they want their school to be, but if they don’t get the right ‘people on the bus’, then that’s a forlorn hope. Of course, once those people are on the bus, there are vital factors related to how they are inducted, trained, lead, motivated and incentivized – I can save those aspects for another day. Here, I want to focus on how people are selected to join a school’s team.

However, I have been concerned for a long time that way too many schools treat their recruitment processes too cavalierly. I’ve seen too much evidence of those who see it as more important to ‘get a body’ to fill a vacancy quickly, rather than developing the right pipeline to bring in the talent needed to fulfil the school’s vision. Interviews that last little more than 10 minutes are commonplace. Where schools do invest significant time in the recruitment process, I’m not at all sure that time is well used. For example, if a school espouses a philosophy based upon differentiation, personalized learning and the importance of the teacher’s relationship with students (understanding their individual needs), then what purpose is really served by demo lessons where the teacher candidate is asked to prepare a lesson, come in to school and deliver it to a room full of students they’ve never met before? The key word in that sentence is probably ‘deliver’ as the demo lesson is a throwback to days when teachers did essentially ‘deliver’ lessons. The fact that they might ask students to engage, take questions and answers and engage in two way dialogue isn’t really the answer. All too often, the most self-confident and assured students will engage and the ones who can’t answer the questions will be avoided by the candidate teacher (because they may make him/ her look bad).

Many years ago, when I was graduating from college, I went through selection processes with a number of organisations. Two in particular stand out. In one case, there was a preliminary interview. Then, I was informed that I had been short-listed for inclusion in a selection weekend. I went, along with around 40 other people, to a hotel in the city where the organisation had its Head Office. We all checked in on the Friday evening. Then, for 48 hours we were basically ‘under the microscope’. We had a variety of activities to participate in, completed psychometric profiles and various interviews or discussions where we were often asked to explain the thinking behind how we had acted/ decisions we had made in the various exercises. Assessment didn’t stop in the evenings in the bar or the restaurant! To me, here was an organisation whose recruitment process was clearly part and parcel with their ‘brand’. It sent a very clear message that having the right people in their teams really mattered. Also, although it wasn’t discussed, it must have provided a wealth of information to the Company to plan the development and professional progress of individuals after they joined.

many might say that the route taken by that company was incredibly expensive. However, there’s now ample evidence that the financial costs, not to mention all the other costs, of wrong hiring decisions can be enormous. In the bigger sense, can you really proclaim that you’re a ‘people business’ and that your team are the deliverers of excellence for your organisation – and then be so arbitrary in their selection?

Sometimes, I believe we need to be ready to take lessons and ideas from wherever we can find them. So, I was interested to read this article in which ideas are shared by a senior figure in the IT field – someone who contributed a lot to the success of Hulu and is now with Flipboard. The aspect I found most interesting was the use of data to manage the recruitment ‘pipeline’. Yes, we have some different issues influencing what we do in education and when we need to onboard new teachers etc. but i still believe we can learn from others;

Fast Company – hiring Formula for Finding the Right People

I would be interested to know from others;
a) What do you believe we should be looking for when selecting new teachers in a school – our criteria?
b) How best might we test for/ explore whether the teacher candidate meets the criteria?

Learning to Love Learning

I’ve long been a fan of Dan Pink’s writing, so had already made a mental note a couple of weeks ago that he had a new book out that needed to be added to my ‘To be read’ list. So I was even happier when I came across this article that highlights that education gets its due attention in the book.

Mindshift Article – Dan Pink: How Teachers Can Sell Love of Learning

As someone who drifted through a large part of my own school education disengaged, the issue of engagement is one that has motivated me over many years. Also, I’ve long held the view that our school systems are way too driven by external motivation. At times it really seems like both teachers and parents believe that, left to their own choices, children couldn’t possibly be curious or motivated to learn ‘the right stuff’, so there’s no choice but to coerce them along the way with various combinations of sticks and carrots. To many, the only thing to differentiate progressive child-centric more nurturing education is more of the latter and less ‘stick’.

When I see a child for whom the highlight of their day was a star written on the back of their hand, or a smiley sticker, it doesn’t fill me with joy. Rather, it makes me fearful that schools continue to produce ‘pleasers’, young people trained in the ways of blind obedience, compliance and conformity – I don’t believe this is how leaders are made, or creative thinkers. That a few of these still manage to emerge from the system is despite and not because of. We need to be developing our education systems in ways that actually develop genuine personalisation, linking learning for the individual pupil to their real world, to things that interest them and in which they will be naturally engaged and motivated to learn.

We have a long road ahead, but it’s a fascinating challenge.

Caring About Shared Spaces

I firmly believe that children who learn to appreciate, care for and truly share the spaces they occupy with others are far more likely to grow up respecting public shared spaces. There’s a strong correlation between the countries where public spaces are littered, dirtied and treated badly and the places where children grow up to believe it is somehow beneath them to clean or contribute to maintaining their environment.

Here’s the Japanese perspective.

Japanese Classrooms

Not Happy to be Right

In Western countries educators can benefit from an enormous array of high quality research published every year by the education and psychology faculty of the very top universities to shape, guide and mould their teaching practice. In both India and now UAE my experience has been that such research is not really available in the local environment.

Once upon a time that would have been a significant issue and would have severely undermined the opportunity for developing education of truly international standards. However, in today’s ‘global’ environment, the issue goes away – or it should do! However, we then have to contend in large dose with the dreaded ‘NIH’ = Not Invented Here. This plagues every industry, every country, certainly I’ve seen evidence all over. It comes along with chronic “Yes, but …….” syndrome.

This is one of the principle reasons why as an educator motivated at least partially by a sense that education today (as much as when I was a child) fails to make the grade – most particularly, fails to equip young people with the skills and competencies they need to fulfil their potential in the world in to which they will emerge as young adults, I have always endeavoured to expose myself and the educators around me to the very best of international research and thinking, regardless of where it may come from. I have always sought to encourage colleagues (and parents) to question their NIH and ‘yes, but…..’ tendencies.

Of all the aspects and areas of education that we are exposed to, maybe the one where I have taken ‘most heat’ is the issue of academics for Kindergarten classes and children. My view has always been that the evidence was more than strong enough that driving an academic agenda with the youngest children in our schools is like playing Russian roulette with their futures. For good measure, I also believe it is cruel and mind-numbing. Incidentally, this has also meant challenging primary school teachers who work with children in classes 1-3 when they bemoan how little ‘stuff’ children may have learned/ been taught before they arrived in their classes.

To all those educators who ever challenged me on these issues, to all the parents who treated me as though I was a cavalier and dangerous fool who wanted to jeopardise their child’s future, I urge you, please, to read this article:

Psychology Today – Early Academic Training Produces Long-Term Harm

In reading the article and seeing the weight of scientifically verifiable evidence stacked up I couldn’t find any joy in being proved right, no great desire to run up and down school corridors shouting “I told you so!” Rather, I found myself deeply saddened as I think of all the millions of children who are being tortured with heavy academics in their earliest formative years, who are literally being harmed in vast numbers and almost certainly denied the right to fulfil their learning potential.

The article makes very clear – vast numbers of these children gain no academic advantage over those given the freedom to play and be free of academic rigour at an early age, in fact in enormous proportions they do worse later. To me, of even more serious consequences are the findings that suggest lower emotional intelligence, social skills, self-regulation, interpersonal skills. As educators, how can we take any pride or consider ourselves worthy of respect when we deliberately and consciously do things that permanently harm and undermine children’s self esteem?

I’m sure there will be those of my fellow educators who will respond that they’re “simply giving the parents what they want.” I say here and now, this is a weak and untenable response. We wish to call ourselves professionals and to be respected in society. In my opinion, one of the things that marks out the true professional (educator, doctor, lawyer) is the courage to educate the client (in our case parents) what they need, not to simply give them what they ask for out of a layperson’s position of antiquated and false ideas and notions.

If a doctor wrote out regular prescriptions for a patient, knowing that what he was doing was killing the patient, would any of us consider that acceptable? Our ‘killing’ when we do the wrong things in education is less transparent or obvious – we may kill the soul, while the body still walks.

Not good enough. This article inspires me to stand up with even more courage for what is right for our youngest children.

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