Tenby Educators – Academic Year End

Dear Tenby Educators
Following on from my end of term letter to you all, I promised you some more information here!
As educators who espouse the virtues of ‘lifelong learning’, it is vitally important that we too make lifelong learning a natural part of our day to day life. As educators, we are in a unique position to model the values of the school for our children.
I also happen to believe that this value of ‘lifelong learning’ is a win-win for all of us – growing feels positive, learning is enriching. I also believe that educators share knowledge, so for me that’s the biggest reason why this blog exists.
Vacation time is important for us to recharge our batteries, to reflect on our professional practice and to set goals for ourselves that motivate, inspire and excite. I believe humans are a bit like bicycles – we’re at our best when moving forward and standing still really does us no good at all.
I take this opportunity to share with you my personal selection of great reading, perfect for vacation.

1. Mindset, Carol Dweck
This is a book I’ve been very fond of recommending to both colleagues and parents, ever since I read it for the first time. I believe it deserves to be right up at the top of the reading list. Carol Dweck is a professor at Stanford University. Her book explores, through research findings the impact of the Fixed Mindset vs Growth Mindset. The starting premise is a simple one, but as the book highlights the implications are massive. Educators and parents who are not aware of the findings in this book can be inadvertently reinforcing fixed mindset that can blight the lives of children as it infects their beliefs about academic abilities, propensity and skill in learning, creativity, sports and physical skills and abilities.
If you choose to read only one of the books on this list, this is the one I recommend.

2. Happier, Tal Ben-Shahar
A small slim book, but one of of my favourite books. The book is a bi-product of Tal’s course that he used to teach at Harvard – the most popular and most attended course there. Yes, indeed, the young under and post-grads of Harvard are smart enough to realise that they can have all the skills, intelligence and ability to get in to one of the world’s great academic institutes, they might be destined for great professional success – but, none of that guarantees them happiness in life. Tal is a part of the ‘Positive Psychology’ movement that is applying the rigour of academic research and thinking to what might previously have been strictly the domain of the self-help movement.
Very thought provoking and well worth exploring.

3. Flow or Finding Flow, both by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
I’ve read both of these books twice, and took something new away each time. Both are fascinating and well written books about how to ‘get in the groove’ so that tasks don’t feel like tasks and we get more done of what we need to do to achieve our goals and aspirations.
These have occasionally provoked some really interesting conversations with students about how to create meaning and purpose in mundane tasks. I talked about how when I had menial manual jobs as a youngster I would set myself targets related to how quickly I might complete a task, how accurately, estimating various aspects and then seeing how close I could get to those estimates. As I did this I found time on task flew by, I avoided boredom, got the job done and felt satisfaction afterwards.

4. Linchpin by Seth Godin
In a changing world, everyone needs to pay careful attention to how they ‘make meaning’ in the world, carve out a niche for themselves and do work that is engaging to them.
On my first reading of this book I found so much that was significant both for us as adults and for children in school, being prepared for life.
In short – it’s about how people make themselves indispensable (and that includes reading and learning!)

5. Disrupting Class by Clayton Christensen
A Harvard Business School professor who has built his reputation on work about how technology does so much more than just lead to incremental changes in any industry, turned his attention to how technology can radically disrupt the field of education.

6. Schools That Learn by Peter Senge
This certainly wins the prize on this list for the biggest and heaviest of the books – maybe a bit too heavy for your hand luggage if travelling. Peter Senge is one of the world’s leading authorities on Systems Thinking. In this book he turned his attention to schools, education and parents. There is an accompanying website that provides more information:
http://www.schoolsthatlearn.com

7. Good to Great by Jim Collins
One of a series of books that looks at companies and organisations from various fields, exploring how they get beyond just merely being good companies or organisations, but become outstanding – and, maybe more important, sustain it.

8. The Leader Within by Stephen Covey
Most people know Covey for the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (and subsequently, the Eighth Habit). In this book he translates the habits in to a set of principles that can be used to create a school culture, following through in some detail some of the first schools in the USA that did so.

9. The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything by Sir Ken Robinson
The man best known for his groundbreaking TED talk that challenged some of what he perceived as wrong in education today. It’s the most watched TED talk ever and has been the inspiration for many educators to bring meaningful change to schools and their teaching.

10. Punished by Rewards by Alfie Kohn, or
Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn
A somewhat controversial and provocative, New York based educator who has published many books setting out well-reasoned arguments that challenge some fashionable and accepted orthodoxies when it comes to teaching, schools and parenting. Reading Alfie Kohn’s work leads us to start to question things we may have taken for granted in many ways about children.

Bonuses:

11. Drive, Daniel Pink
As a long time reader of Pink’s books and his blog this book had been on my ‘to be read’ list for quite some time. It’s a fascinating exploration of human motivation. It’s relevant for us to understand our motivation as adults, but also to understand children’s motivation to learn.

12. Giving Voice to Values, Mary C Gentile
I originally received this book as a gift from a professional colleague. Ms Gentile is a professor of Babson College, USA and the book explores the issues of finding courage to lead through values and inspire others. It explores how values can be the driving force for an organisation and for leadership.

Unspontaneous Spontaneity

Throughout the open plan workspace you could hear a pin drop. Every head was bowed studiously over their desks, the only sounds the clacking of keyboards, phone calls or the shuffling of papers. As the clock clicked on to the hour a bell sounded. At that moment, all the workers simultaneously stood up from their desks and rushed to move around.

Some crowded in to the pantry, all trying to get themselves a beverage in a big rush. Others stood around in clusters, sharing a joke, chatting in hurried voices. A few went outside and ran around a bit. All too soon, the electronic buzz of the bell sounded again. Every conversation stopped, the pantry emptied with many left disappointed that they never got the drink they had been looking for. Those outside quickly rushed back in and sat down at their desks, a bit hot, sweaty and out of breath. All the heads bow down and immediately get back to work under the domineering scrutiny of the supervisor.

Sounds like a scene from 1984, or Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World? Or, just another day of unnatural experiences for children in schools? We’ve become so habituated to the ritualised habits of our schools that sometimes it’s considered radical when someone changes even the smallest factor. This was my first thought when I read the following article:

KQED News – Mindshift – More Playtime

The radical idea here is schools moving from one daily recess/ playtime period of 20 minutes to four 15 minute periods and the positive benefits for the children in terms of better concentration, focus and academic progress.

Well, the first thing is I’m completely unsurprised by the positive benefits. here has been so much work and research that has shown positive benefits of physical movement for concentration in schools with positive benefits on behaviour and all sorts of other issues. I recall reading some time ago of Japanese schools that basically took a short recess after every class!

However, my stronger thought is whether this is still a change that stays too rigidly within dogmatic adherence to practices that are a poor reflection of the real world that our children will grow into. As adults, we break off from our work when we need to, when it helps our concentration, fits with the natural flow of the work and is consistent with deadlines and the volume of work we need to get done. So far, during the writing of this article, I’ve got up from my seat and gone off to do other things twice – once to get a cup of coffee. There was also one other stop when i didn’t leave the chair, but checked a mail that came through that I had been waiting for.

Yet, I believe if we had learned these habits constructively as children in school, we could be evn better at them. There are times when we ought to take breaks but don’t. We feel that becaue there’s a deadline on our work and we need to get through a certain volume we will be guilty of slacking if we get up and walk away. however, all too often, that brief trip away from the work would lead to more (not less) work and of a better, ore creative and mentally effective quality.

What if we taught children in school to take breaks in their work in more natural and effective ways? What if we changed the whole relationship with time by breaking down the ‘batch processing, factory model’? Courageous educators need to be ready to re-explore our relationship with time and control in schools.

Right, time to end this piece of work. I’m off to do something physical, responding to the messages of my body.

If I Could Just …………..

‘Time Management’ has been around a long time. For almost as long, there have been people quite ready to point out that you can’t manage time – it just is. Instead, what we’re really about is the somewhat harder challenge of managing ourselves and our minds. The holy grail is ‘productivity.’

The abiding thought is always, “If I could just, ….. ” then I could achieve more, be more, succeed more, contribute more etc. The second thought that soon follows is a conviction that others are doing more, achieving more, succeeding more and I really ought to be doing so as well. And so, the rat race is perpetuated.

In the end, my view is that indeed we can’t manage time, but can get better at managing ourselves if we keep some focus on it, practice honest reflection about what we do with our time and whether we could be more effective and keep our big goals at the forefront to determine how wee should be spending our time. The latter point is vital if we are to spend enough time on things which are important, but perhaps not urgent.

The tougher part is that if we’re to make real progress, part of the solution lies in better management of other people. The richer/ higher title/ higher status of an individual enables the person to have much more power over how they use and allocate their time. The more others are determining what is important for us to do and the more others have the right to impose upon us what they perceive to be ‘urgent’, then the less we can really impact the effectiveness of how we allocate our time. It’s not altogether fair when writers and commentators hold up people like Richard Branson, Bill Gates or Elon Musk as examples of people who are able to achieve so much out of the same 24 hours a day available to us all.

Many organisations have instigated practices over the last 10-20 years that may have been right from a communication and collaboration perspective, but were really quite undesirable from a personal efficiency/ productivity perspective. Open offices, open doors etc. may mean that people have more access to each other, but it plays havoc with productivity. Worse, in my experience in different types of organisations, when some are imposing their time agenda on others, it’s not even particularly about work, meaningful quality communication or collaboration, but just some employees seeking company/ companionship. However, all the data on the impact of interruptions is pretty damning. Haven’t we all had those occasions when we were really in flow on some complex and involved task, got interrupted and spent the rest of the day anxiously aware that some of our best ideas we were holding in our heads whilst doing that task have been lost for good – they’re not coming back!

Here’s a Fast Company article to spark a few more ideas. it looks at seven myths that are commonly bandied around on the subject of time management, with suggestions for better ways of thinking;

Fast Company – 7 Popular Productivity Beliefs You Should Ignore

Mindfulness – For or Against?

“What did people get before stress was invented?”

This was a joke I first heard some years ago, but always thought it certainly had a ring of truth about it. I find myself picturing a group of Neanderthal hunters who have spent a day and a half stalking a woolly mammoth. They begin to surround the animal. It’s jittery and restless as it senses danger. They have no body armour, little or no defence and only the most basic and rudimentary weapons. The hunters are starting to sweat, their heartbeats are raised. As they close in for the kill, suddenly the leader of the tribe calls all together, gets them to sit down in a circle and informs them to, “focus on your breathing, and be fully here, right now.” In the meantime, the woolly mammoth wanders away to safety.

In today’s equivalent ‘hunting’ environment, all employers would like their employees to be less stressed, to be able to focus well on their work, to not let conflicts derail their efforts and to work together in the most efficient ways as effective teams. In pursuit of these goals it’s inevitable that managers and leaders will search around for the next ‘silver bullet’. There is an all round sense that so much more could be achieved (so much more profit made), if we could just make the imperfect human beings somewhat less imperfect!

There is no doubt at all that when it comes to attempts by organisations to improve their people, the current flavour of the day is Mindfulness. You would be hard pushed to go through any magazine or leaderrship/ personal development shelf in a bookshop without seeing plenty of publications on the subject. It can sometimes seem like everyone’s talking about it. Now, you can call me an old cynic, but that alone is reason enough for me to feel the need for at least a bit of doubt and questioning. Is it all that it’s claimed to be? Is it really a panacea for workplace stress? Is it going to give us happier workers, more capable of tackling the pressures of their work to high standards? Some cynics would say, instead of advocating Mindfulness for employees to handle stress better, we should create less reasons for them to feel stressed in the first place (conflicting instructions, changes in deadlines, unfulfilled commitments and promises etc.)

At times when I read and hear about mindfulness I am reminded of the work of Mihalyi ‎Csikszentmihalyi on ‘Flow’, that I first read over 15 years ago. This is the idea that things become effortless when you’re working in the moment, engrossed in a task for which you have the requisite skills. It strikes me that flow and workplaces today are a challenge. Whilst an individual may reach flow states when working on a task alone, how many of us work alone for any length of time. Once you bring in all the ambiguities associated with interruptions, other people’s agendas and conflicting priorities it may become impossible to achieve any kind of flow state. Maybe this is really the root source of all that we call workplace stress. In which case, Mindfulness won’t make it go away, reduce it or solve the problems it contributes to inefficiency and under achievement. The best it can do is enable to stop and smell the flowers, maybe putting others’ actions, communication etc. in to a little better perspective.

I do buy some benefits, but not in some sort of cookey ‘flavour of the day’ kind of way. Maybe that’s just me. When the trendy set moved on from NLP, I’ve continued to explore it, to test and experiment with the many ideas encompassed within (that’s for another blog post on another day!). For example, I downloaded a mindfulness bell reminder to my mobile phone and tablet. It chimes at random times through the working day. When I hear it, it causes me to stop for a second, check what I am doing at the moment and ask myself the question whether I’m doing the right/ best thing at that time. If I’m not comfortable i shift to a new task. In that sense, i see it as a useful time management tool.

In the school group where I was in Delhi, a gong would sound over the tannoy system twice during the school day. It was a wonderful, soothing sound. The standard practice was that wherever you were, whatever you were doing, you stopped, focused on your breathing for a couple of seconds and then proceeded with your normal activities after it finished. We saw definite calming of the children, improvement of focus in lessons and less aggressive behaviour.

By my reckoning, those are benefits worth having.

So, I was interested to come across this article recently that shares some scientific discoveries about what is going on chemically when people practice mindfulness and conjectures about why those could be beneficial:

Harvard Business Review – Mindfulness Can Literally Change Your Brain

There’s an interesting debate that goes on in most countries when it comes to workplace training and professional development. There are many who believe that whilst the organisation/ employer can legitimately ‘enforce’ training related to the technical skills of the job a person does, they draw the line when the training is about changing or influencing them as a person. The alternative argument is that work today is so entwined with the rest of our lives that it is necessary for us to strive to be the best we can be in all the roles in our lives – not just the workplace, because we cannot isolate one role or domain from the others. If we are unfulfilled and frustrated in aspects of our health, personal relationships or some other part of life we’re not going to be able to perform at our best in our workplace.

As I suggested earlier, not everyone is ready to jump on the Mindfulness bandwagon or to welcome it as a panacea for all workplace ills.

Here are two recent articles that focus on the doubts, on the potential negatives;

Huffington Post – Is Mindfulness Harmful?

Fast Company – The Downside to Mindfulness Practices at Work

Ultimately, the personal development ‘industry’ is there to make money. Telling the world that what you taught last year is still the best thing to be doing today doesn’t pay. So, we need to be discerning about ‘flavour of the month’ solutions. When we find things that work for us, individually or collectively to be “my best me”, I believe what’s more important is to build the practice in to our habits and keep it there for the longer term – not to pick it up, do it, benefit, but then drop the habit because something new and shiny comes across the radar. In that, I believe Mindfulness practices can be a useful part of our long term habits.

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