Monthly Archives: October 2021

Well-being in a Single Word

Photo by Sebastian Pichler on Unsplash

I would be a whole lot more effective in my job without Ofsted looming.” – anonymous (obviously) words from a wonderful headteacher I work alongside. Sometimes the observer negatively affects the quality of the very system they hope to improve, simply by observing it. Or threatening to, at 24 hrs notice.

However, this post is not an Ofsted critique. Plenty of time for that later, believe me, it’s coming. No, this is about a single word for managing the stress and anxiety which, for many of the professionals I know, is embodied in the anticipation of inspection; is compounded by impotence in the face of external judgement; and is amplified by 18 months of pandemic disruption.

But things are what they are. Let’s not use our precious energy pushing back against systems that won’t budge and histories that will never change. Let’s put the uncontrollables aside and choose to focus on our valuable selves.

Compassion starts in the mirror.

One-Word Well-Being

Well-being only needs a glance. A Glance. G-L-A-N-C-E = a memorable summary of six actions to protect mental health and well-being (NEF, 2008). You’ve most likely heard this before; maybe tried it, forgotten, tried again, moved on to something else. But it’s the one I return to; a different aspect helping each time; a gift that keeps on giving.

A simple theme connects the six ideas. I’ll share that later and tell you about a good friend of mine who combined them all, to save herself, to pull herself out of a dark pit she’d been pushed into.

G. Give

Give authentically and the gift you receive back is relief from your own struggles. When attention rests on another’s needs, yours pause. You face outwards rather than in; absorbed in someone else, not yourself.

I learnt this as a heart-broken, navel-gazing under grad. A week-5 break up and my following mega-sulk was transformed by a friend, J, who invited me to volunteer with her. Riding for the Disabled (RDA) taught me humility and generosity, and prompted regular work with MENCAP and Gateway for the rest of my university days.

Give a smile when someone needs it; a word of praise or support or kindness; an unexpected visit; give time, a minute of full attention, ten, fifteen, whatever, it’s not the quantity but the intent.

L. Learn

We know how learning works. It’s our business. But do we recall the joy of discovery, of finding out, of mastery? When did you last feel good about learning?

When I first went freelance – leaving safe and secure employment behind – I had a bit of time on my hands. A lot of time on my hands. I taught myself to juggle. It took 14 days. But the feeling, the feeling when the third ball stayed up with the first two, and stayed up over and over and over again, round and round. I still remember that 20 years later. Excitement, empowerment, joy; I could think of nothing else but that achievement. That’s what learning feels like and, surely, it’s what we wish for our pupils.

And for you? What will you learn? Where will you find that joy?

A. Be Active

If you laid out, end to end, all the research papers citing the health benefits of being outdoors, then walked their length, it would be a good thing.

Trees release phytoncides which boost immune systems; walking protects joints; exercise reduces the risk of major illness; and simply being in nature protects our mental health.

I’m so grateful to live near trees, near nature, near ancient tracks and woodland and paths that lead for miles across chalk downs. And when I’m working in cities, I choose to walk. Even in the crowds, fizzing and surging with power and noise, there is peace in the rhythm of walking.

Advice abounds for exercise. How active are you? What might you gain by being more active?

N. Notice the moment

The past is gone and usually mis-remembered; the future is not here yet, and often skewed by expectation and bias. There is absolutely nothing to worry about in this moment now. Hold up your hand. Notice nothing else. Look at the detail, the skin, the finger prints, the nails, scars, marks, jewelry. Notice only your hands in only this moment. Give the same kind of attention to cooking, walking, eating. Be mindful of only your moment.

Anxiety is fear of a future that has not happened; regret is pain for a past long gone. I’ve been saddened to work with people who desperately want their past to be different, struggle to let it go. It’s a privilege to work with them as they begin to release their hurt, and start ‘living in the moment’. Catch yourself noticing a moment, maybe just before the lesson starts, or when it ends, as the room falls silent and your valuable work is done.

C: Connect

In my last post, traits of the introvert and extrovert were noted. Both need other people but in different ways. Relationships offer connection, esteem and networks to keep loneliness at bay. ‘Aloneness’ can be frightening and debilitating and we have varying tolerances to it.

We’ve missed other people. As we begin to re-connect, feel the power they give to you and know that you are giving back just as much. The mental and cognitive boosts we get from others are fuel to an engine, wind to a sail, sun to a flower.

E: Edit

Give, learn, be active, notice, connect. Mix them up, edit them as you wish. Experiment with one or more as time and energy allow. You are the one in charge of your well-being. It is one thing that you can control.

My good friend NK has recently reached the end of a devastating, complex and costly divorce. For 4 years she navigated hell in courts and counselling rooms, with friends, family and later, out of necessity, online. It’s settled now. There’s resolution and stability again. By accident rather than design, NK found herself taking strolls in nature with her daughter who was struggling at work. Giving her time, coaching her, walking with silence and tears, noticing the moment, reconnecting. She learned that the relationship with her beautiful girl could completely transform. NK herself found peace once more. She stumbled on well-being.

Glances seize the moment. They place you and the people around you into a now that transcends anxiety, overlooks fear and weakens the power of painful pasts and worrying futures.

Photo by Colton Duke on Unsplash

A New Variant (of Tiredness)

Finally. Finally I am back working face to face. Training, teaching, coaching, mentoring. The school landscape has changed over 16 months. Or rather, what’s underneath the landscape has changed. People are tired; tired in ways they’ve not known and in ways they struggle to describe or understand. I do my best to help them.

Here’s a thought to make sense of it:

March 2020. Chaos. The unknown, the unexpected, the overwhelming. The wicked. I wrote about that, here. We rallied, pulled on our reserves, created, adapted, struggled and (kind of) got there.

When I realised what COVID-19 actually meant to my work and my livelihood, I did three things:

  1. Wept
  2. Contacted my mentors
  3. Went against my style

Weep

I did. We did. The loss, the stress, the uncertainty. It didn’t fix anything but it released something.

Mentors

I’m lucky to have (and, professionally, insist on having) a mentor, a supervisor and two go-to colleagues. I’m lucky. 4 people who have my professional back. They didn’t fix anything but helped me to see something different.

Style

Hello. My name’s Mike and I’m an introvert. Don’t confuse the person you see in the training room, or at Zoom School, or in the conference hall or classroom with the one who needs to be alone at the end of the day.

Extrovert or introvert is about where you get your energy, not whether you like parties. I love being with people but I recharge alone. Extroverts refuel with others. We are not limited to one style but gravitate to our preference for rest and recovery.

So COVID came and what did I do? Hide away? Disappear? Go inside myself? ‘Introvert’ myself? No. The opposite. I reached out, made new contacts, started Zoom School, rekindled old connections. I went 100% extrovert. I went ‘outside my style’.

Why did I do this? Survival. The psyche goes, ‘You’ve got introvert covered off my friend. It’s your thing. You can do that. Extrovert? Needs work. Not your speciality. And this is a threatening time. All bases need covering, so address the imbalance. Get out there and extrovert!’

And I did. I loved it. But it was exhausting. Staying too long out of style without returning in style for nourishment had a cost, to health, to wellbeing and to my ability to do what I do best.

Maybe, right now, by accident or design, you’ve been ‘out of style’ for too long? Maybe your environment demands this of you. Maybe just knowing why you might feel like you feel – a new variant of tiredness – will go some way to helping.

New things need naming. Do you have, ‘out of style tiredness’?

A Smart View of Intelligence

MI Around the World

In June 2008, I squeezed into a tiny New York conference room along with 15 other educators. Advocates of Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences (MI), and drawn from all global corners, we’d gathered to share our work and record its impact. Our host was indeed Prof. Howard Gardner, and the result of that meeting, nearly a year later, was ‘Multiple Intelligences Around the World‘.

I sat with a Chinese researcher called Happy, and Joy, a school reformer from the Philippines. Always vigilant for a chance to lighten the mood, I introduced myself as ‘Mild Discontent’, just in from the UK.

During the morning coffee break I found myself alone in an elevator with Howard who had misplaced his name badge. I spotted it on the floor by his foot, passed it to him and, joking again (how did I even get a place at that table?) said, ‘I should keep this, put it on ebay, sell it so I can afford the flight home.’ Howard laughed then made a serious point. He explained, with the authentic humility for which he’s known, that he’s not the ‘edu-rock-star’ folks make him out to be. He has his critics, and it’s been said that MI is the most debated and least implemented of all educational theories.

Gardner’s work extends far beyond MI: Project Zero, creativity, leadership, influence, good work (the ethics of vocation), and recent studies of higher education. But still, his concept of intelligence – nearly 40 years on – splits the audience.

It’s a cognitive-contextual theory with detractors and devotees lined up on either side of the classroom. It goes like this:

  • everyone is ‘intelligent’ (as defined by eight criteria),
  • ‘intelligence’ is multiple and diverse (at least eight kinds, in fact), and,
  • anyone can become more ‘intelligent’ (with the right resources and experiences).

However, when the battle starts, a shared definition of ‘intelligence’ is usually absent from the debate. Both sides argue well, but about different things.

How to be Smart With Intelligence

If we want a smart view of intelligence, we must first define it. Then we’ll know exactly what we’re arguing about. How does your take on ‘intelligence’ match these:

  • The ability to achieve complex goals. Max Tegmark, AI Researcher.
  • The ability to solve problems and create products that have value. Howard Gardner, Psychologist.
  • The ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills. Most dictionaries.

13 years after that meeting in New York, MI still smolders away, flaring up now and then: rediscovered by an energetic new cohort of educators or re-demonised by conservative strategists. ‘Intelligence’ is a word we should define and use with great care. Give it a scope that’s deep and wide and everyone can be part of it, everyone’s abilities can be valued. Restrict its reach and we’ll create an elitist, unhelpful and divisive world.

Everyone is intelligent; everyone is valuable; everyone succeeds.

Here’s one of my books from that time. Still relevant; more so now as the world demands diverse skills sets and flexible working. Feel free to pay £57 for it. Or 96p (plus P&P). I’m sure you’ll use your intelligence to decide.

A Balanced View of Bloom’s Taxonomy

The way it’s presented is not helpful. Nor is ‘taxonomy’, both inferring hierarchy, status; class- or even caste-defined thinking. ‘Low order thinking’ – knowledge and understanding; ‘high order thinking’ – application, analysis, synthesis, evaluation. Really? Is one kind better, worse, less or more than any other?

After decades of helping adults and children to think better, may I propose this:

All thinking is equal.

Knowledge

How on earth is this ‘low order’? Bottom of the pile?

Without it, nothing can happen. So often the battle ground of traditionalists and progressives – the former zealously guarding it as purveyor of cultural and historical legacies; a necessary handing down of national identity, threatened by ‘soft skills’ and ‘creativity’.

The latter cite the flexible-future workplace, technology and the need for innovative skill sets. Knowledge is changing and on tap – at the tap of a screen. Why fill up on facts?

Both sides cling to outdated, biased positions.

There’s a joy in knowing. There’s a joy in NOT knowing and struggling with the quest, using the skills of finding out.

Skills bring knowledge to life; knowledge gives skills purpose.

‘I know’ is so much more than ‘I know a fact, I can recall it for you here, in this exam.’

In James Cameron’s innovative CGI epic, Avatar, the ‘Na’vi’ people look each other in the eye and say, ‘I see you.’ They mean, ‘I know you. I really do know who you are and how we connect to each other.’

Understanding

In Robert Macfarlane’s magnum opus, Underland, the earth-beneath is exposed. Enchanting, horrific, illegal, deadly and magical, Macfarlane takes us into caves, sinkholes, abandoned military bases, forests, mines and the complex tunnel systems underneath cities. To really comprehend something, he argues, one must ‘stand under it’. Under-stand.

Knowing and understanding dance around each other. Try to pin them down with difference, it’s tricky. Understanding is ‘getting it’; relating it to other things; categorising, connecting, correlating. Really knowing. See? Knowing is understanding is knowing.

Think about someone you know very, very well. Say, ‘I know you.’ Say, ‘I understand you.’ What do you feel each time. There’s the difference, or the similarity.

Application

Equally important is doing something with what we ‘know’; with what we ‘understand’. We get up and act. We move, we talk, we persuade, we make, we fix. We have impact. They say knowledge is power. But application shows what that power looks like in the world.

Analysis

Let’s take it apart, look at the pieces, put them back together. What did we learn by looking deep inside? The components, the connections, the structure. Then we have…

Synthesis

…putting different parts together in new ways – making better things (or things better) – solving a problem, creating an object of value that has not existed before.

Evaluation

Finally, e-valuation – the ‘drawing out of value’. Asking how it stacks up against some agreed criteria; allocating worth accordingly.

There is no high- or low-order thinking, only different kinds, used for different purposes.

Does this idea resonate with you? All thinking is equal, if different? Let me know what you think…