Education Engagement & Motivation

Only the “bright” allowed to shine…

In the latest Sun-Herald in Sydney, there is an eight page spread about how parents should choose an independent school. obviously it has had significant input from various independent schools as well as including a 39-point checklist for things to look for when choosing the right school for your child. It spoke of looking at the individual needs of the child, the extra curricular opportunities,as well as the policies in regard to religion, homework and bullying. Countless articles and advertisements spoke of how schools value the students’ individuality in their quest to achieve their potential.

Nothing much to write home about here you might think, let alone enough ammunition for a blog piece!

Then I read the piece regarding accelerated learning, and in thirteen words it shone a light on what I believe is a glaring flaw in the education of our children as it stands in the majority of schools today.

In bold type The Sun Herald proclaimed, “Research shows that if bright children aren’t challenged… then they will underperform”

Indeed they will, and not only underperform in the particular field that they are strong, but elsewhere in their studies/school/ and possibly life.

The problem I have is not with the statement itself, rather I take issue with the way in which we interpret and act on the statement. In schools we run accelerated learning programs for our “brightest” students.

Accelerated learning is when schools react to the ability of the child, and teaches them with regard to their aptitude rather than their age. So a Year 7 student could well be studying at a Year 9 level, if they are considered “bright” enough.

Accelerated learning takes place predominantly in maths and the languages – that is to say schools identify “brightness” with aptitude in these fields.

And because schools do… generally speaking, so do parents.

By identifying “brightness” in the narrow band offered by academics, they dismiss intelligence in other fields as insignificant. How many of us have been told (or told someone) “Don’t waste your time on that, you won’t get a job doing it…” As if intelligence can only be quantified by earning potential.

Now I’m not saying that accelerated learning is a bad thing. On the contrary, I think it is a great idea. It just needs to be applied across the board.

Now more than ever, parents and schools need to identify exactly how are their children intelligent, and they need to be given the flexibility in the curriculum to push these students in the same way we do the gifted mathematician.

I wonder how many talented artists, musicians, poets, writers, sculptors, carpenters, mechanics, acrobats, dancers, comedians or actors are underperforming right now because their talents have not been recognised or validated by their school or parents? Moreover, how many of these potentially brilliant individuals are lost to their field in their early years through lack of recognition or validation? Imagine if accelerated learning in these particular fields was the norm rather than the exception. Imagine the levels of engagement in their learning across the student population.

The Moral Imperative

Too many people end up doing things they hate. They endure what they do rather than enjoy it. (Thanks Sir Ken!) 

I firmly believe that this plays a significant role (along with other factors) in the rising levels of depression. Furthermore I believe they have ended up in this situation because of their education. (See my last blog entry)

If I’m right, then the moral imperative for education and parents in the 21st century is to help students identify, nurture and validate their strengths and passions regardless of their academic or non-academic nature.

The World Health Organisation tells us we are set on a course for a depression epidemic… this could just head it off.


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Change Education Engagement & Motivation

Sometimes “successful students” fail themselves…

Last month the Sydney Morning Herald carried an article that suggested that perhaps students chose university courses based on the prestige associated with such courses, rather than what was most appropriate for the individual.

Personally I don’t think this is so surprising… do you?

After all, since Year 1 they have been categorised as either good, average or below average learners, although in Kindergarten, it was probably, butterflies, caterpillars or bumblebees. In the upper echelons of primary school we have the much sought after “Opportunity Classes”. Is this to say the rest have no opportunity?

Get into high school and the distinction is a little less ambiguous. Streamed classes are portrayed as the answer to engaging students… by pushing the smartest, and giving extra assistance to those who need it. And at the peak of the  schools academic mountain we have the 2 Unit, 3 Unit or 4 Unit courses, each with added power to secure that top ATAR, with which to access the hallowed halls of university.

But here is the flip side… by streaming kids, we give them a status. Anyone who has any understanding of adolescent behaviour will tell you that status is the defining currency in the teenage years. In fact it’s not just teenagers. There is a wealth of evidence that says that a lot of adults would prefer an upgrade in their job title (no change in duties) over a pay rise! It seems the need to retain or improve our status is hardwired into us.

But at this particular time in life, to give a child a status that must be protected at all costs (no-one wants to be moved down into the middle set!) is inherently dangerous. In her book “Mindset”, Carol Dweck suggests that some students who are identified as being smart early on in their school careers develop a fixed mindset and do all they can to avoid failure, and maintain their status in the smart group.

Whilst this may appear harmless, what they are doing is working to avoid failure, rather than working to achieve brilliance – and there is a subtle but important difference. No-one achieved anything great by being right all the time.

The PFR Model of Education

Teachers may see such students as being engaged but in reality many are being subjected to an all to common educational model: what I call the “Pressure – Fear – Relief model.”

Pressure from parents, teacher, peers and themselves to perform (maintain their status)

Fear of failure and losing their spot in the smart group.

Relief when the pass the test and gain the accolades that come with maintaining their status.

I touched on this in a post last year (inspired by the work of Tal Ben Shahar) and will continue to explore this further in 2011.

So is it any wonder that after “succeeding” in this system, students will choose university courses based on the highest entry requirements? Isn’t it just a further reinforcement of their status? Add to that the prospect of a high paying job, and all the trappings that come with that… the house, the car, the latest technological gizmos…

But as Sir Ken Robinson often says, “Being good at something, is not a good enough reason to do it.”

I believe that one of the reasons that the incidence of depression continues to rise is that too many people are doing jobs they do not enjoy… sure they are good at them (and they may well pay extraordinarily well), but fundamentally they do not like what they do. And you spend a hell of a long time at work! They simply got on the conveyor belt in Kindergarten and couldn’t get off…

How much time at school is devoted to students learning about themselves, their passions and strengths? Other than academic strengths of course. If schools are genuine in their claims that they “Prepare our students for life”, then there is a moral imperative to start framing our education system (again paraphrasing Sir Ken) not around the question of “How intelligent are our students?” but “How are our students intelligent?” and work with them to discover ways to truly engage in their passions and strengths without fear or favour of labels such as; academic, vocational, non-academic, arts etc…

I argue that if we got this part of education “right” we would see a decrease in the rates of depression in the next decade, and not the actualisation of the World Health Organisation‘s prediction that our current crop of students will face as greater risk from depression as from any other disease by the time they are in their thirties.


I’ll finish with a thought about engagement. It is a word bandied around in education, often without much thought. Teachers will comment on whether students appear engaged, and will often base their evaluation of a lesson based on the students’ level of engagement. Think about what an engaged student looks like… what are they doing?

And then think why do they look like that, and why are they doing what they are doing? Is it because they are under the influence of the PFR model of education? Or are they doing it because they want to do it? Would they want to do the work, even if they didn’t have to?

Now I’m not naive enough to think that every piece of work a class is set would inspire them as such, but it would be nice if more often than not, it did… wouldn’t it?

Think about your own habits at work… are there things you do even though you don’t have to?   I would hazard a guess that it is these activities you truly engage with, and that engagement carries though into other areas of your work, making you a better employee… or employer!

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Education Wellbeing

Study Tour | Week 3 Wrap

“Would you mind if I included some of your work in my new book?”
“I beg your pardon?” I replied.
Again came the question… “Would you mind if I included some of your work in my new book? We’re taking it on a forty city tour of the States in March next year…”

Dr John Yeager and I had been discussing the work that Ray Francis and I have been doing at Emanuel School and he wondered if we’d allow him to include it in a new book he is co-authoring with Dave Shearon and Sherri Fisher. Together the three of them are Positive Psychology Pioneers having studied under Martin Seligman in the inaugural 2006 Masters of Applied Positive Psychology course at University of Pennsylvania. They are also the founders of Flourishing Schools.

Needless to say, Ray and I are very happy to contribute to this book. 🙂

John Yeager hosted my visit to Culver Academy in Indiana. In my preparation for my study tour everyone  I spoke to, particularly in the States, said I had to visit Culver and meet with John. The work Culver does is nationally and internationally renowned. I had the privilege of spending two days with John, and during that time we discussed many aspects of the work he has spent his entire career pioneering, as well as the work I am embarking on. I met with numerous staff who John has trained and saw first hand the positive effect it has on the faculty and the students. Culver host many visitors from all over the world, and my visit was incredibly well facilitated. From the 7.15 breakfast meeting with the Dean of Academics, meeting with the staff  who drive strengths and positive psychology at Culver, as well as the students who benefit from it; my day culminated with a 5.30 meeting with the Mental Health Councillor in which he introduced me to Sand Tray Therapy. The psychologists amongst you will have more of idea about what this is about, but it certainly looked interesting. I saw every facet of Culver’s “strengths-based” approach to education and it has already spawned new ideas in my thinking. It was an inspiring (but cold) time in Indiana, and I’d like to think it won’t be my last visit to Culver, although I may go in Summer next time!

At the time of writing this I’m into my second day in New Orleans.

My time here is proving to be the most profound and moving experience of my professional career. As such, I will be making a separate post devoted to my time in New Orleans in a couple of days… to those who sign up for email updates I apologise for the “double-hit” you’ll get from me this week 🙂

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Change Education Leadership

When Will We See the Education Revolution?

Recently I posted an entry relating to the Labour Government’s Education Revolution and the responsibility that falls on the shoulders of those writing the new National Curriculum.

Today’s decision by the Independents to side with Labour means that the Revolution will continue for another 3 years at least…

The Macquarie Australian Encyclopaedic Dictionary defines a Revolution as;  “(n) 1. a complete overthrow of an established government or political system. 2. a complete or marked change in something.

So far under the banner of an Educational Revolution; Labour has built new School Halls, Libraries and Covered Outdoor Learning Areas. Nothing about revolutionising education there… same old stuff going on, just in nicer surrounds.

As reported in The Age in August, as part of the second wave of the Education Revolution the Labour government will look to roll our salary bonuses to the top 10% of teachers in Australia. So now we will pay bonuses to teachers who excel at delivering the same old stuff.

The roll out of the National Curriculum has been touted as revolutionising education in Australia. 

But surely it only serves to reinforce the antiquated hierarchy of subjects that were the foundation blocks of education during the Industrial Revolution of the 1800s. Maths and English first; the arts and health/physical education much later. This model of education was developed to meet the needs of Universities about 200 years ago. Does this model of education really suit the needs of the 21st Century Student?

Maybe/Maybe not…

But at the very least can we please agree to stop using the term “Revolution” until we have an education system that;

i) Serves to highlight, reinforce and develop the strengths and passions of students.

ii) Ensures an ATAR/HSC/School Cert result is not the only distillation of a student’s educational experience by which career paths or further study options are open or closed.

iii) Is built around a system that places as much value on an arts student as an academic student.

iv) Rewards creativity rather than restricts it.

Then we may actually see a complete or marked change in education.

Education Engagement & Motivation Wellbeing

Drowning, Not Learning

In his book Happier, Tal Ben-Shahar PhD describes one model of motivation that influences the approach a student may take to their learning. He calls it the “Drowning Model”.

“The drowning model shows two things; that the desire to free ourselves from pain can be a strong motivator and that, once freed, we can easily mistake our relief for happiness. A person whose head is forced under water will suffer discomfort and pain and will struggle to escape. If, at the last moment, his head is released, he will gasp for air and experience a sense of intoxicating relief. The situation may be less dramatic for students who do not enjoy school, but the nature of their motivation – the need to avoid a negative consequence – is similar. Throughout the term, drowning in work that they do not enjoy, students are motivated by their fear of failure. At the end of the term, liberated from their books and papers and exams, they feel an overwhelming sense of relief – which, in the moment, can feel a lot like happiness. This pattern of pain followed by relief is the model that is imprinted upon us from Grade School. It is easy to see how, unaware of alternative models, living as a rat racer could seem the most normal and attractive prospect.”

Shahar describes a Rat Racer as someone who subordinates the present for the future, suffering now for the purpose of some perceived gain in the future.

Our culture reinforces this model. At work an employee will  get a salary bonus for reaching an annual sales quota. At the end of a school year, a student may be awarded an A grade, receive a School Prize and be rewarded by their parents. We are rewarded for the result; the end point; the successful completion of the task.

The relief felt at the completion of a task (particular if compounded by material rewards) can be mistaken for happiness – this in turn leads the Rat Racer to accept that the sacrifices he made were worth it. However, how long does this feeling of relief last? How long before the Rat Racer feels the pressure to start the sacrificial process all over again in pursuit of his next bout of relief?

Think of the average student at school. Does your school actively encourage this approach to life?

A quality education must ensure that students enjoy and are rewarded throughout their learning, and not just the sum total of their learning. The  A grade, the School Prize and the reward from Mum and Dad can be pleasant incidentals, but should never be the driving force.

A quality education must encourage students to recognise emotional rewards as being as important as financial or material rewards. In doing this we will discourage the Rat Racer attitude that determines a student will follow a career path because “it pays better”, or “it’s what my parents want me to do”. Hopefully students will follow a path they want to go down, and as such the achievement of their goals will involve less emotional sacrifice. If students are encouraged to pursue their passions and strengths, they will find meaning in the work/study they do. If they find meaning in the work/study they are doing then they will reap great emotional rewards throughout their learning, and not only a sense of relief upon the completion of an assessment task or the HSC.


What’s The New Kid Like?

“What’s the new kid in Year 9 like?” I asked Mr Jones* the Maths teacher.

“He’s terrible at maths,  he’s definitely not too bright,” Jonesy assured me.

Whilst this is purely anecdotal and certainly not a universal approach to describing students, it is fairly common in my experience. I have asked what the child is like, and I’ve been told what the student is like, and even then, it is a huge (and most likely inaccurate) generalisation of a kid’s intellect.

I find a lot of teachers describe the children in their class by their behaviour or ability rather than their character. Clearly this is the nature of the beast. If you are a teacher on a full load timetable, with thirty-odd kids per class, getting to know them is going to take a considerable amount of time if it is left up to individual teachers to each ascertain this insight of all their students. What is needed is a concerted effort by the staff as a whole to engage with the kids identities and passions and then share this amongst the faculty. Imagine the potential for your lessons if you knew what made your students tick; if you knew what they were passionate about and you worked that into your curriculum.

Instead of classes being streamed by “ability”, why not trial streaming your classes by passions, or character strengths? Then classes being taught by teachers with the same interests/passions etc…

I reckon I might get a more satisfying answer to my original question even if we only did this for one day.

*Names have been changed to protect the innocent, the guilty and everyone in between.