The Plastic Brain


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Discovering Positive Eduction, Part Four

Today was the final day. Sessions covered:

  • Positive Purpose
  • From Discovering to Living

 

As with most of the course, the Positive Purpose session could equally be used to consider our own search for meaning, as well as providing strategies for exploring purpose with students. One of the key nuggets of gold I will take away was from the introductory session, looking at the value of purpose and meaning. To paraphrase:

Those who have found meaning and purpose are fortunate.

Those who are searching for meaning and purpose are fortunate.

It is certainly true. Both the pursuit and the finding of purpose are valuable experiences. The state to guard against is purposelessness. Unfortunately, this is often where I see students, especially towards the end of year 10. At this point my thinking links back to earlier discussions of fixed and growth mindsets. Students with a growth mindset see the search for purpose as a valuable and challenging experience, those with a fixed mindset can give up, and slip into purposelessness.

In From Discovering to Living we explored the GGS model for the introduction of Positive Education and the related change management. It is based on advice from Martin Seligman:

Learn it, Live it, Teach it, Embed it

In the four-day residential course, we had the chance to learn it and live it. Key to this is the idea of teachers truly living it before teaching it. Positive Education is not something that can simply be dropped into a school. It must be embraced by staff (and maybe even by parents and the school community) before it can be taught to students successfully. However, the model does not stop there. Embedding is about taking Pos Ed beyond the pastoral care program. It needs to infused into the school culture at all levels. It should be:

  • Applied in the academic curriculum
  • Expressed in assessment and reporting
  • Embedded in behaviour management policies and practices
  • Central to staff evaluation, feedback and professional development
  • Promoted and explained in parent communications and newsletters

Bringing together all of these aspects will support culture change, and allow the full, deep and authentic practice of Positive Education.

So there it is, we have come to the end of the course. Probably the most intensive, but also the most meaningful and worthwhile training I have ever attended. I can’t wait to get home, share with my family and colleagues and start my new way of thinking and teaching.

 

I thank my family for their love and support, without which none of this would be possible.

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Discovering Positive Education, Part Two

Today’s sessions were on:

  • Positive Engagement and Flow
  • Positive Relationships
  • Positive Emotions and Gratitude

Once again, each of the sessions involved an introduction to the whole group, break-out sessions and a plenary.

The guru of flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalli, defines flow as:

…the state of intense absorption and optimal experience that results from taking part in intrinsically motivating challenges.”

Through today’s session, I feel I have gained a much deeper understanding of flow, and more importantly, have practical tools to establish conditions in which it can occur.

Firstly, flow relies on three dimensions of engagement. These are cognitivebehavioural and emotional.Therefore, to enhance flow you must provide conditions which support these dimensions of engagement.

Secondly, flow occurs during activities in which high challenge meets high skill. Without the requisite skill, we feel anxious and frustrated by the task. Without sufficient challenge, we may become too relaxed or even bored. This is tricky in the classroom. How is it possible to supply the optimal challenge to students who are at different levels? One approach may be to use adaptive learning environment (such as Khan Academy), where the complexity of learner challenges is based on previous performance. Probably a better way is to allow students to pick appropriate levels of challenge for themselves. One of the delegates in my break-out group reported that she offered students the option of a “mild, medium or spicy” assessment tasks.

For Positive Relationships, we explored the practice of Active Constructive Responding (ACR), a technique which is well explained by Dr Martin Seligman here. Although I have done this before, it was good to have a chance to practice it again. It felt good to both give and receive ACR.

The final session focussed on Gratitude. Much of this looked at Kerry Howells’ view that gratitude actually has two stages. Firstly there is appreciation. Here is where many people stop. But she argues that to fully realise gratitude one must then act upon that feeling. We then explore numerous ways in which we can practice gratitude, some private, some shared. These included: Gratitude journals, acts of kindness, gratitude letters, gifts and so on.


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Discovering Positive Education, Part One

As promised last time, I now have a proper definition of Positive Education, after completing the first day of the Discovering Positive Education course:

Positive Education brings together the science of positive psychology with best practice teaching and learning to encourage and support schools and individuals within their communities to flourish

Geelong Grammar School, 2011

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The course is structured around a cycle of sessions.

  • Each session begins with a short slide show and theory around the topic to be discussed
  • Groups then split into break-out sessions, to discuss these ideas further and complete practical activities
  • Groups the reconvene with the larger group to summarise their discussions and share key findings or insights

So far, the sessions have covered:

  • Introduction to Positive Psychology
  • Accomplishment and Mindsets
  • Positive Emotions

There has been much of interest, and so many ideas to take back to the classroom. One of the main things I have noticed about this course, compared to other PD I have attended, is that the instructors really practice what they preach. It is an approach which is very personal, and they are not afraid to share their life stories or show vulnerability. I was talking to Steve over dinner about mindfulness. He shared that one of the key ingredients to having mindfulness work in the classroom is you have to be truly authentic – you just can’t fake it.

Other nuggets of gold from today:

  • We know that growth mindsets are preferable to fixed mindsets. But how do you foster a growth mindset? One strategy is to focus on process-oriented praise. It takes more time, and you actually have to observe student processes, but the investment means that the feedback you give will be much more powerful.
  • Oldie, but a goodie: When you hear yourself or a student say they cannot do something, but sure to add the qualifier “yet”. As in “I can’t juggle…yet.” The brain is capable of extraordinary learning, and we ourselves do not know the ceiling of our potential.
  • We spent time focussing on building positive emotions. One of mine to focus on was joy. I most often feel joy when I am with my wife and kids. Luckily I am with them often (just not now). But when I am with them, too often I let insignificant things block us from playing, laughing, ticking, pranking and sharing our joy.

Finally, our homework was to write three entries in our Gratitude journal. Mine are private, so I might just post this and do it now.

Looking forward to tomorrow.


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Discovering Positive Education, Part Zero

I am back in Geelong. It’s been a while.

I grew up in Adelaide, but lived in Melbourne for a five years, working as a neuroscience researcher. During that time we used to visit Geelong regularly. We moved back to Adelaide when I became a teacher, but now I’m back across the border.

I’m here for the Discovering Positive Education training course at Geelong Grammar School. Positive Education is big right now, huge. And rightly so. It is built on the foundation of Positive Psychology, which dared to ask: what if we used what we know about psychology to improve everyone’s lives, instead of only working to remove mental illness?

Positive Education has many elements, but rather than try to describe it now, I think I will hold off until I have completed my first day of training. Did I also mention the yoga and pilates classes? No? Well you’ll probably hear about that too…

For now, I’ll just mention my gratitude. It’s one of my so-called signature character strengths. I am very grateful to be here, and for the support of  my school. I am very grateful for my profession, and the opportunities it provides me for helping young people. Most of all, as I prepare for this week away from them, I am grateful for the love and support of my family.

A good way to start your Positive Education journey is to complete your own character strengths survey here.

 


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Notes from a day with Steve Francis.

Today’s Student Free Day was led by Steve Francis, and focused on a strategic direction of the school:

Student Engagement

I took some notes which barely scratch the surface, and may only acts a prompts for people who were actually there. Where possible, I have hyperlinked to his original sources. Here they are:

A survey of Year 10 students has found that the main characteristics for good teacher are:
  • Positive relationships with students
  • Fairness and equity
  • Passionate about their subject and teaching
5 levels of engagement (Schlechty, 2002 ) See also here (pdf).

  • Authentic engagement (flow)
  • Ritual compliance
  • Passive compliance
  • Retreatism
  • Rebellion

7 Reminders for Good Teaching
  • They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.
  • Passion sells
  • It’s not about US. It’s about THEM
  • High expectations and the self-fulfilling property
  • Maximise time in the Learning Zone
  • Make it meaningful
  • Show students how much they need to learn
Live the reputation you want to have.
You should have been doing so already, but if not, the second best time is now.
Cores of Credibility (Covey 2008)

  • Integrity
  • Intent
  • Capability
  • Results 
 
Working on the Work (Schlechty)
  • Content and substance
  • Organisation of Knowledge
  • Product focus
  • Clear and compelling standards
  • Safe environment
  • Affirmation of Performance
  • Affiliation
  • Novelty and variety
  • Choice
  • Authenticity

 

Summary

I take away many new ideas, but mostly it was the resounding reminder that teaching is all about relationships. Engagement, trust, integrity matter. Passion matters.

At the end of the day we are teaching our students, not our subjects. The human element makes it messy, but it also makes it thrilling and rewarding. Don’t be afraid to expose your flaws and admit your mistakes. At the same time strive to improve, and demand the same from your students.


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Striving for Happiness is Futile. Try Curiosity

It’s going to sound like heresy but when we make our objective of life to be happy it’s problematic… I think it’s the wrong objective in life and this is something that’s become very clear to me as someone who’s taught classes and been studying wellbeing for 15 years.

I’ve been listening to an All in the Mind podcast (MP3 and transcript), in which Lynne Malcolm interviews Todd Kashdan. He’s the Professor of Psychology at George Mason University in Virginia and author of Curious: Discover the missing ingredient to a fulfilling life. His thesis is that rather than pursuing happiness, we should embrace curiosity as a guiding principle. In the interview he discusses how being a curious explorer of the world allows you to be present in the moment, and enjoy the wonder of life. A key theme is embracing uncertainty: we cannot immerse ourselves in curiosity if we feel we cannot handle a sense of not knowing.

…we think that curiosity is all about just something new and mysterious walking into our field of vision.  But there’s another part of curiosity that people miss: it’s besides whether we think there’s something new or uncertain or mysterious. We need to believe that we can handle that novelty and that uncertainty, and if we don’t feel that we can handle it we’re not going to feel curious; we’re going to feel confused or we’re going to feel threatened.  And often the reason people don’t feel this sense of wonder is because they don’t feel like they can handle or tolerate any of the tension that comes with the unknown.not handle a sense of not knowing.

Kashdan explores the connections with positive psychology, neuroplasticity and growth mindsets. In particular, he has strong views about fostering curiosity, and how we should interact with children. He is essentially talking about our own children, but it can be easily extrapolated to our students.

…there are some studies of people in New Zealand following children at adolescence for four or five years and showing that even when you account for how intelligent children are, the more that they seek out stimulation the more that they’re curious explorers the more intelligent they become over time, the better they do at school, the more satisfied they are with school, the better relationships they have with teachers.


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Five Lessons Learned from a Week in Industry

Recently, I’ve had a lot on my mind. In the last week, I have been taken out of my usual context, and been given the opportunity to look my teaching from a new vantage point. The results have been profound.

But before I talk about this week, I’d like to look back at the last month. I’ve been reading a lot of literature, attended a conference and had discussions with colleagues on pedagogies, mindsets and positive education. It has been revolutionary, and changed the way I approach my teaching. It has coincided with a particularly busy phase in our pastoral care program: course counselling for our Year 10s as they head into their final two years of schooling (the SACE). This, in a way, sets the scene.

In separate part of my  job, I have been working in a team to develop innovating and interesting projects to increase student engagement in STEM subjects. In particular, our STEM team has just finished our second 10-week course for primary students. The STEM Initiative aims to introduce students to our high school, and provide enrichment and extension for students interested in Science, Maths and Technology. Funding to support the STEM Initiative has come through the Advanced Technology Project (sponsored by the Defence Materiel Organisation). As part of their work to link teachers with industry, they recently awarded me an Industry Placement, which brings me back to this week.

My placement is at SAGE Automation, a national company (founded in SA) which provides automation solutions for a variety of projects and industries, including the Arnotts, SA Water, Southern Expressway, Holden, Mining companies and big defence contracts like the Air Warfare Destroyer. When I started my week-long placement on Monday I expected to learn about their business, and take some ideas back to school about what industry employers are looking for and hopefully generate some authentic Maths and Science tasks. However, I had no idea how the concepts of mindsets and positive education would link to the engineering and management practices at SAGE.

Here are some of the lessons I will be taking away with me:

1. The Importance of Mindsets

One of the key goals of my placement was to find out from industry what they need in graduates, and what we can do to better prepare our students for the work force. As such, I’ve spent a lot of time this week talking to employees (“What do you think got you this job?”) and managers (“What do you look for in your employees?”). Without exception, every answer has centred on the attributes outlined by Dweck in her work on growth mindsets. The ability to grow, adapt and learn from mistakes in key.

mindset_sm

“SAGE…only hired people who shared the passion to drive exceptional outcomes for our clients….

Loyal and diligent employees live our core values and are empowered to deliver certainty for our clients. It’s an exceptional culture and one of which we are fiercely proud.”

Founder and MD, Andrew Downs.

The other area of my reading which is implicitly practiced in the workforce is Seligman’s Signature Strengths. Every person I’ve met at SAGE seems to embody the notion of working with your Strengths to generate meaning and purpose. Each member of their teams is passionate about what they do, and is given the opportunity to work with their strengths to make their contribution to the overall project. All of this works synergistically to promote that ever elusive state: flow.

2. Attitude and Adaptability

Sounds like a great place to work, doesn’t it? So what advice do they have for students who want to land a job in such a hi-tech, innovative industry? Work on your attitude. Being persistent, but friendly, reliable and punctual are the keys to the steely gates of HR. Form emails just don’t cut it. Pick up the phone, meet and greet, put yourself out there and do whatever you can to make a good name for yourself. Also, don’t expect to always have the same job. Employees in industries like this need to be flexible. Projects can be short or long, come from a range of sectors, and require a range of skills. While the managers do an excellent job of tracking expertise and allocating human resources, every job involves a degree of learning and adaptability. What’s more, clients can be temperamental and change specifications mid-project. You need to be able to adapt and rework your solutions. In teacher-speak, they are looking for life-long learners. [As an aside, I was talking with one of the managers, only half-jokingly, about how changing the assessment criteria one week into a summative task would be a good life lesson for students.]

3. The Maths that Matters

SAGE employs a lot of software, electronics, mechatronics and robotics engineers. Engineers are heavily into the maths subjects at school and university – in fact engineering courses are the most prerequisite-heavy courses in the SATAC guide. We can’t hope to, or should even try to, teach middle school students the maths they would need in some of these high-end career paths. However, certain skills seemed to stand out as key foundational requirements:

  • Ratios, rates and conversions: this week I’ve seen a lot of this: Gearing ratios, scaling, flow rates, belt speeds, pay rates, converting Bars to kPa, microseconds to milliseconds and Euler angles to Quaternions (yeah, look it up, I had to).
  • Boolean logic: Despite its ubiquity in all computer science, which is fundamental to the way we live today, Boolean logic is virtually absent in the Australian Curriculum.
  • Schematics: The process of reducing complex visual information down to schematics, and the reverse operation of reading diagrams and applying understandings to complex systems is fundamental in engineering. Align with this are the skills of reductionism and integration.
  • Interpreting data: In the Maths classroom, numbers usually float freely, only occasionally being linked to context. In industry, numbers are data. They always have meaning and significance. They may be money, dimensions, hours worked, rates, flows or instrument readings. Knowing if the numbers are within an expected range matters and being able to identify trends and investigate patterns is paramount.

4. Project Management and PBL

One of the biggest things I’ve been learning has not been what they do at SAGE (which has been very interesting and informative) but how they do it. As you may have gathered from the above, SAGE’s business runs on the basis of Projects. Each has a unique number,  a Project Manager, a number of engineers and other staff assigned to it. In order to keep everything running smoothly and everyone on the same page, they use a defined set of procedures called the TEP (Technical Execution Practice). The TEP is based on the “V model” below.

V model

The V model starts by looking at your requirements, and designing a solution. On the downside of the V, you break that down to smaller and small tasks which you achieve. In the instance above, that relates to developing IT solutions. On the upside of the V you integrate those small pieces, constantly check back to your design and requirements to see that you are meeting those initial requirements. The final stage is the delivery of the finished product – in this case a finished IT platform.

I’ve been interested in Project-based (PBL) learning for a while, and I’ve completed a couple of units which may be considered PBL (although everyone seems to have a different definition of what qualifies as PBL). One of my key reflections has been how difficult it can be for the students to know what is required and where they are up to. This would lead to major issues in industry, so naturally they have developed structures to avoid this (hence the V model and the TEP). Inspired by the TEP, I have been working on generating supporting documentation and a new “project vocabulary” for managing PBL. It also ties in beautifully with the trend for using design-based thinking and the IB MYP Design Cycle. Not only should adopting these models improve the PBL process, but can be used to explicitly teach highly transferrable workforce skills.

5. Change management

SAGE is a business which is interested in growth and innovation. Change is an essential part of their operations. One of the most valuable sessions I had during the week was with the Engineering Operations Manager. He ran through the process of change management which he had learnt from his guru, and which he was enacting at SAGE. It seemed simple, but therein lies the genius:

  1. Set a clear and common vision for the organisation
  2. Have short-run (in this case 100-day) Strategic Projects (SPs) which take you closer to that vision
  3. Work in teams to achieve projects in a transparent way*
  4. Celebrate your successes.

* Everyone knows what the teams are, what they are doing, and why, and can see the progress they are making. This is achieved by literally printing the SPs on A3 sheets and pinning them up in a common staff area. Online seems good – but people just won’t check it.

Even if the aims of each SP are small, incremental progress is evident, morale grows and directed change is happening.

Lasting lessons

I will certainly come away with what I was hoping for. I have some great videos and resources, contact with potential guest speakers, and am writing new activities and assessments. However, I will also come away from my experience at SAGE with a new outlook on not only what can be achieved in the classroom, but what can be achieved within organisations. The company expertise is in making things work effectively and efficiently. Their practices provide a model for both students and teachers.

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Thank you to all of the staff at SAGE, who have been so welcoming, patient and generous.