For Better Learning, Teach Children How Their Brains Work

I’ve long advocated that if we want children to ‘own their learning’ and develop the inclinations and habits to become lifelong learners, then its important that the learning process be as rewarding, satisfying and effective as possible. I’ve gone as far as to say that it’s my belief that in our schools there are no bad learners, only learners with bad  or weak learning styles and approaches.

This is not at all surprising when we consider that generally children have been taught little or nothing about their brains, how they work and how that impacts learning. It’s like all the attention has gone on outcomes, with zero effort to address issues of the process. The result is that vast numbers of learners finish up with weak or inadequate outcomes simply because their methods weren’t the best.  All ‘what’ and no ‘how’.

This short video from Stanford University shares insights from a collaboration project with an innovative school to address some of these issues and to explore the results.




Few figures in history have got a harsher rap than Mr Niccolo Machiavelli. In today’s language we use his name as a pejorative label for all the worst characteristics we see in leaders.

However, I believe he’s been harshly judged, especially when one considers the historical context of the time when he was writing. This was a man who understood that when you are in a position of power, or aspire to power (even if with the best of intentions), you’re going to catch dirt and cannot naively sit back and believe that the rest of the world will benignly orient itself around your goals.

The following is one of my favourite quotes from Machiavelli. Reading it I’m reminded so frequently of the benchmarks I always sought to apply when there were failures or mistakes in a team i was leading. What type of mistake was it? Was it a first, or was there a pattern? The last line is also a valuable reminder to me that I had better not ever be tempted to settle for self-pity or acceptance of status quo. It’s my life and my duty to do bold things with it. A ship is safe in harbour, but that’s not what ships are built for.

I also believe that as educators we have to ensure that students spend time immersed in thoughtful contemplation on such writings, exploring their applicability in their own lives.  Only through the exploration of such ideas can they develop the inner compass that will equip them to thrive in a world that changes ever more rapidly.

“All courses of action are risky, so prudence is not in avoiding danger
(it’s impossible), but calculating risk and acting decisively.
Make mistakes of ambition and not mistakes of sloth. Develop the strength
to do bold things, not the strength to suffer.”

Niccolo Machiavelli
16th Century Philosopher


New Year Habit Changes

New Year’s resolutions are essentially commitments to change a habit that we realise consciously is not serving us well. It’s true that the evidence on such habit change isn’t good. We can find lots of surveys that show that the vast majority of people have broken their commitments to themselves before the end of January.

In my experience, this is incredibly important. We all live with regrets about aspects of our pasts, decisions made or not made, things achieved or not achieved. For many years in my life, starting way too young – I was a smoker. When i look back now I marvel at the mental kidology I was capable of in my 20s and 30s to convince myself that this wasn’t a problem in my life. I played rugby, went running and was very physically active. So, I used to tell myself that this meant the smoking wasn’t harming me as much as it might harm a sedentary person. Looking back now, I wonder how much better I might have been at those sports if I hadn’t been lighting up before and after training or matches.

Slowly, the health effects were creeping up on me so that by my mid thirties I knew ‘something needs to be done’ I started giving up! And I was successful – every time, sometimes for as little as a couple of hours. Maybe one of the biggest low points was when I agreed with a doctor that I needed to do something after a string of repeated chest infections. I was still in England at the time. The doctor put my name down for a hypnosis session. One session was meant to be all you needed to give up. It cost me 50 pounds. I had a nice rest – I think i actually went to sleep. 5 hours after walking out of the clinic i lit up again!

When I moved to India, I was still in the process of regularly giving up. I did bring about a fairly significant reduction in my smoking, but I still wasn’t giving up. The longer this went on, I now realise, the more my self esteem and belief in myself was wearing down.Every day I was doing something to myself that I hated, that in my conscious mind I was so clear I wanted to stop and that desire should have been enough. It ate away at me to think that I was someone who apparently had so little self-control. I felt condemned by own lack of effective willpower.

What I realise now and wish I had known then was that the more I fixated on the habit I wanted to stop, the less it was likely I would be successful. I needed to realise that willpower alone was not going to get me there. What I should have been doing was;

a) Seeking to understand the benefits that smoking gave me – the secondary gains, wrapped up in self-image of myself as a smoker, keeping my hands busy while anxious or preoccupied,
b) Figuring out a new, less harmful habit that I wanted to put in its place,
c) Enlisting accountability partners – people to whom I would give undertakings and who would call me out when I failed. I came across a great idea of promising to a friend to give money to a cause you vehemently disagree with every time you fail. That focuses the mind, because every failure hurts at a personal, visceral level.
I’d certainly have my mind focused if I was obliged to give money to Nigel Farage and UKIP every time I failed in changing my habit!
d) Maybe the biggest and most fundamental issue is how to deal with failures when they happen. Too many of us see habit change or resolutions as a zero sum game. The result is that as soon as we have a lapse of any sort we start putting ourselves down, condemning ourselves. Failing at a habit change has to be something we do, not something we are. It is not all-defining in terms of who we are and it’s rarely terminal. All too easily, we treat a failure as evidence that we were foolish to want to change the habit, to believe that we could.

We start to identify ourselves as a person who can’t change habits. Yet, if we stop and think for a moment and ask one simple question – can I think of a habit I had in the past that I don’t have today, we’ll all be able to think of at least a few. Once we do, we can understand how we have been successful at giving up past habits and believe that we can be successful again.

So, if like me, you’ve got some commitments you’d made to yourself to address a habit, to change something in your life – and so far your performance on the change has been less than stellar, it’s time we cut ourselves a bit of slack, stop beating up on ourselves and reevaluate to see whether we can get the change habit back on track.

When we are able to change a habit, however small, there’s enormous power to create momentum that we can channel to taking on bigger challenges and changes. My belief is that humans are rather like bicycles. We’re not stable when standing still and not very effective in that condition. We’re meant to be in movement, perpetually moving towards progress. When moving in a line, as straight as possible, towards meaningful goals that’s when we humans are at our most effective and powerful.


More Evidence on Performance Management

Continuing with a recent theme here are some further thoughts regarding Performance Management systems and processes in companies and organisations, after I read this article today;

Entrepreneur – The 3 Performance Management Mistakes You Need To Stop Making

To my mind, the frequency of such articles about ‘fixing’ performance management are a measure of the problems and challenges that exist, as I’ve highlighted in my earlier articles. When i was in Delhi, initially there was no performance management system. The HR and senior team did considerable research in to what was done by other organisations. We polled our teachers and other staff and had endless hours of meetings and discussions looking at different models that we could adopt.

Ultimately, though, we came to a point where there was a crunch question we had to answer – will introduction of this system raise engagement, employee motivation and delivery of the vision, mission and values to a higher level than being achieved with no PM system? Every time we asked the question, we failed to have an answer about which we could be really confident. And so, for over two years we went around and around the issues. We genuinely feared that we could finish up with something that was worse than nothing – and we couldn’t accept that.

One of the other questions that had us all stumped was – could we arrive at a scenario where every individual in the organisation was being told that their performance was at least satisfactory, if not better, and yet be failing to achieve the organisation’s overall objectives. To my knowledge, there is no process by which you can add up all the sum total of implications of all employees’ performance management objectives to determine whether they add up to the collective goals of the organisation.

A further issue raised by a number of teachers was – you say that you want us to work with a team focus, to function in teams and work for each other – yet you talk of a performance system that will judge and rate us individually. I have to say, I think they had a very valid point.

I have also sometimes worried that if performance management discussions are focused on the negative and weaknesses, this is potentially demoralizing, but if they focus on the positive staff will extrapolate that this justifies bigger raises etc. Ultimately, we want to be stimulating dialogue and discussion that ensures all team members understand where the organisation is going, their role in that progress and the standards/ metrics for individual performance within that collective performance.

The four mistakes highlighted by the article for correction are; Ignoring signs, Setting vague goals, Using subjective scoring and Delays/ Putting Off PM meetings.

The first is a fundamental of leadership and management – one needs to determine what measurables enable you to guage the health and direction of effort, track them relentlessly and be ready to take corrective action when things are not happening the way they need to. In fact, rigidly timed PM systems can get in the way of the timely intervention. If an individual needs to be redirected, that needs to happen sooner, not when their PM meeting next comes around. For the third point, the article advocates rubrics. However, I really wonder just how many different sets of these rubrics would need to exist and what this would amount to in time commitment. In addition, to be good a rubric has to be very carefully drafted and educators consider this a specialised skill. Any rubric is only as good as the common shared understanding of the words used in it. Differing understanding will lead to differing interpretations of expectations.

The article doesn’t address what I consider (see yesterday’s article) to be the biggest weakness of PM systems – that they are inherently backward looking. I feel the way forward does lie through structures of dialogue that are formative, forward focused and strongly aligned to the goals and aspirations of both the individual and the organisation.

Don’t Just Think It, Ink It

Through my involvement in Jaycees International (British Junior Chamber, BJC), I was involved in delivering goal setting workshops over 20 years ago (I know, I’m showing my age). I have personally been using written goals for over 25 years. So, I can fully understand the findings of the research outlined in this article:

NPR – Mindshift – Writing Down Goals Can Empower Struggling Students

The article highlights the benefits experienced by undergraduate students, but also suggests that the researchers have gone on to test the experiences of high school students.

In our school, through the student almanac, our students are encouraged to use goal setting for themselves in age appropriate ways. Time is made available each week for the children to review their earlier goals and to work on fresh goals. We encourage them to have goals both directly related to their learning/ studies and, as they get older, related to other aspects of themselves. So, whilst one student might write a goal that relates to their relationship with family members, another might have a goal related to managing their mood/ anger or strong emotions.

With regard to academics, the children are encouraged to have a mix of ‘outcome goals’ – end goals that they want to reach, and ‘process goals’ – those that relate to acquiring or practicing particular learning skills that will help to take them towards their end goals.

Even younger children join in, often using pictures rather than the written word to focus their minds on what they want to do.

My own belief about why this works is because it emphasises for the child, at all times, that they own their own learning, that it’s an active process in which they remain fully engaged. It prevents them falling in to the traps of leaving the effort to the teacher while they simply make themselves passive recipients of knowledge.

We never get too old to benefit from goal setting. I have a diary note for this coming weekend to review mine!

Smart Goal Setting for New Years Resolutions

That time of the year, again. As the haze of New year celebrations drifts away we realise that we made some commitments to ourself, and maybe even in front of others that we were going to do something/ stop doing something/ do more or less of something in the coming year – in short we have a resolution – a goal.

For most of us, our past experiences of new year resolutions is like a grave yard of ambitions and wishes, dreams unfulfilled. Worse, those past failures and let-downs may make the whole thing feel so uncomfortable that we’re tempted to laugh it off quickly (hoping nobody remembers the resolve we showed just last night!)

Here’s a short article from TED with four simple ideas to give ourselves a better chance of getting something good, positive and motivational going on with our goals.

TED: The Science of Setting Goals

These ideas aren’t rocket science, but i think they provide some simple guidelines that can distinctly stack the odds in our favour. Setting good goals and achieving them builds a positive momentum that leads us to want to set more bold and audacious goals, with belief and conviction.

So, the best of wishes for 2015 for all the people who find their way to my blog. I’ve passed 800 articles on here now, so there’s one old resolution that really has worked for me! May you be inspired to set great goals, make 2015 your best year yet, by being the best ‘You’ that you’ve ever been.

A School that Keeps Learning

I loved this series of videos, so thought it worth sharing all three in the set. They look at a school in the US. As is made clear this school operates in tough and challenging circumstances, with students from low economic backgrounds. However, i loved the positivity that permeates through the films.

I also loved the way teachers were using goal setting for themselves and the students and the application of the ‘growth mindset’. The school exhibits very mature, open and transparent processes about feedback and use of real data. The focus on being a ‘learning school’ reminded me a lot of Peter Senge’s work on the learning organisation and a culture that is always geared to what people can learn and change from what’s happening. There’s no evidence of defensiveness or holding on to the status quo.


A School that Keeps Learning – Part 1

A School that Keeps learning – Part 2

A School that Keeps Learning – Part 3

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