Skills for Success

In my last position as head of skill-based learning for Key Stage 3 pupils, I spent a lot of time thinking about the kind of qualities that I wanted all students to aspire towards having; qualities that would help them fulfill their academic potential, find good jobs, build solid relationships and lead happy lives.

Today, having been fortunate enough to teach children from Key Stage 1 through to Key Stage 5, I have developed a clear idea of exactly what skill-based learning should look like. I chose to name ‘Fishing Net’ skills as such, based on the old proverb:  “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” No doubt this resonates with teachers across the board – so often in the classroom it can feel like we’re constantly handing out fish to mob of hungry children. The idea of the ‘Fishing Net’ skills therefore, is that students have their own net, and they’re taught how to use it. They gain the confidence, independence and ability to think and act for themselves.

So what are they?

Freedom – Students must be able to ask questions, make mistakes and adopt creative learning approaches to suit their individual needs.

Independence – As independent learners, students will be able to follow instructions, organise themselves, meet task deadlines, find their way out of ‘stuck’ and take responsibility for their actions.

Self-belief – Our students need confidence in themselves in order to take risks, try new things, face challenges and grow.

Honesty – As reflective learners, students should be able to truthfully acknowledge their own strengths, weaknesses, wins and losses.

Investigate – Students should be able conduct research while considering the reliability and trustworthiness of their findings.

Notice – Through Mindfulness practices, students can increase their awareness of what’s happening around them, and inside of their minds, in the present moment. They’ll build up concentration and memory muscles, along with a greater ability to handle their moods and emotions.

Go for Goals – For some students, we need to inspire ambition. As reflective, independent learners, our students need to be able to set their own realistic but aspiration targets, and start working towards them.

 

Nurture – Students need to be taught to look after their minds and bodies, as well as the people and world around them. We need to ensure that they leave school with the skills and knowledge by which they can create a happy life.

Elasticity – Resilience is everything. We need our students to develop that bounce-back ability so that when things go wrong, they spring right back into action.

Team work – As collaborative learners, we need our students to practise kindness, empathy and understanding, putting this into action through team projects where they demonstrate sharing, listening, contributing and compromise.

Over time, Wellbeing and Mindfulness have organically become a central part of everything that the business offers; the frills to our skills.

If you’re interested in seeing what these skills look like ‘in the flesh,’ take a look at current learning experiences on offer. Click here if you’re interested in booking but unsure how it works or contact us to discuss options.

 

A simple and effective way to learn from our mistakes

For many of the children I teach, particularly the lower ability/special needs pupils, mistakes are something to be feared; something that seems to prove your stupidity and confirm to everyone that you’ll never amount to anything. It’s Learned Helplessness 101.

I did it wrong. I must be thick.

I’ve lost count of the number of children over the years (mostly boys I’ll note) whose immediate response to a tiny mistake is to rip their work into shreds and ‘down tools.’

And I know I’m not alone. This is a problem throughout primary and secondary schools, and there’s a lot of fantastic work going on in both sectors to combat this ‘destructive perfectionism’, linked to ‘Growth Mindset’ approaches. Educators are talking about failure, and mistakes, considering how we frame this in the classroom so that children see it as a necessary and beneficial part of the learning progress, rather than something negative.

For many children though, we need more than words to really ‘hit home’ with the message. I’ve tried something this week with my special needs Maths group – something that I’d done years ago with bottom set year 6 Maths and forgotten about. Basically, I set them a test but I’ve already filled in all of the answers incorrectly.

test1

test-scales

At this stage, I know my students and I’m aware of the kind of mistakes that they’re likely to make…so I purposely make the same mistakes, so that they’re immediately forced to think about why this is wrong and find an alternative solution. test-3

 

 

As they work, we talk about how great it is that we’re learning from mistakes and gaining high-level thinking skills in being able to explain why certain questions are wrong.

This kind of activity is easy to put together and highly valuable for all groups of learners, in any subject, at any age. And it’s another reminder for our students that we learn so much more from failure than from success.

QUICK READ: Top 5 tips to build resilience in the classroom

  1. Teach it! So many of us mope into the Staff room and complain about how easily our students give up/quit/don’t even try (my past-self included) without stopping to ask if anyone has ever spoken to them about what resilience is and why we need it, especially when it concerns children who lack positive role models at home. Many Primary Schools and some Secondary School leaders are beginning see the value of a ‘Growth Mind-set’ approach and with this, the need to explicitly teach resilience through models such as ‘the learning pit.’ Whatever age you teach and however you discuss this, it’s important to remind students that fear, difficultly and struggle go hand-in-hand with challenge and growth, and that ‘the only way out is through.’
  2. Give kids an ‘out’ so that they can make a mistake. If, for example, you are drawing posters and you’re faced with a child who repeatedly rips up their work because they ‘don’t think it’s good enough’, I tell them that they can do this only once and then they must use the mistake and make it part of their work.
  3. Instil an ethos of Independent Learning. I like to have the 5 Bs posters on the wall which represent a series of things that students need to do before shouting, “Miss!” These are: Brain, Book, Board, Buddy, and Boss. “Ask three before me,” is something that we say a lot too and the children at KS2/3-age respond really well to this. Often, students will tell me that they ‘don’t get it’ before they’ve even read the task sheet, or because they didn’t listen to the instructions. Instead, direct them to their classmates – this saves you from repeating yourself and it benefits the child who is explaining as they have to break this down into simple terms.
  4. Sometimes you need to refuse help. Harsh as this sounds, some children (especially SEN or low-ability pupils) have been allowed to become totally dependent on adults – they’ve come to understand that if they ask for it, someone else will tell them what to do and even do it for them. This approach only ensures that they’ll never learn to think for themselves or believe that they are capable of anything on their own; that’s simply not good enough. If I think it’s a moment of ‘learned helplessness,’ I might say, “I’m afraid I can’t help you with this one because I know you can do this…” Depending on the student/day/topic/your relationship, you may use a firm tone to reinforce this, ensuring that the student knows what the exact consequences of non-compliance will be; or you might adopt a more humorous, playful tone. Sadly, this is often something that you might only learn after the student has flipped a table over. This is where your resilience comes into play!
  5. Reward resilience. Whether it is stamps in planners, an email to their form tutor or even a quick call or postcard home, praise students who persevere through problems and don’t give in. It doesn’t matter whether the actual work/team project/presentation looks like a dog’s dinner; you’re specifically praising their effort and resilience, rather than their ability, reinforcing their self-image as someone who doesn’t give in when things are tough and achieves good results through hard work.

 

Olympic inspiration

The 2016 Rio Olympics will begin today: a time when the elite athletes of the world come together to compete, showcasing years of hard work and proudly representing their countries. The focus – certainly from the press – is all about who has a realistic chance of winning: who might just bring home the gold for Britain. And it’s so easy to get swept up in this.

But why? Is it just the entertainment of watching competitive sports? Is it patriotism?  

Although there is plenty that I enjoy about living in Britain, I don’t really consider myself to be patriotic…just fortunate. I’m not really a fan of watching sports either – at least not many shown in the Olympics. Yet, somehow I do find myself on the couch every four years, my breath held, waiting to either groan or cheer.

So what is it? Why do I care? Why do we care?

When we watch athletic superstars like Usain Bolt speed towards gold in the 100m race, it’s with an atmosphere of excited curiosity. Will Bolt do it again? Could he best his last time? Might something go wrong? Will he entertain us with his signature move at the finish? We watch with a sense of awe and wonderment because we know we’re often about to see the impossible achieved.

Alongside this, the press allow us to peek into the lives and stories of British hopefuls, which are so often a tale of effort and commitment, sacrifice and determination. Sometimes there’s a secondary storyline involving talent, good luck and opportunity, but the central narrative is centered around hard work and resilience: a battle against the odds. That’s what we enjoy.   

This morning, I happened across a classic clip from the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, when Olympic Gold Medallist Derek Redmond tore his hamstring in the 400 metres semi-final. Sobbing in pain, his dreams crushed, Derek limped towards the finish line alone at first then quickly joined by his father, who jogged at his side. It was a truly beautiful and moving moment that has become one of the most memorable events in Olympics history, more so than whoever won that race. Because as much as we love to see people achieve and win, we equally love to see someone who keeps going, who battles in front of our eyes, win or lose.

The Rio Olympics are sure to bring more incredible wins and gut-wrenching losses: we will continue to see the impossible made possible. Though the timing tends of fall over summer, there are still opportunities for Olympic-themed lessons and discussion, either to send students on their summer holiday or start the year afresh in September. I always discuss stories of the year’s hopefuls with my students. Regardless of whether they finish first, last, or limp along with their dad at their side, all are fantastic examples of what the human spirit can achieve.

QUICK READ: Top 5 reasons to own a Memory Box

Yes, it’s cheesy. Yes, it’s a bit ‘girly.’ And yes, I probably got the idea out of a magazine years back when… but owning a ‘memory box’ is still a fantastic idea for anyone, and especially teachers. Once every few years, I’ll spend an hour carefully going over the items in the box, leading to lots of warm, fuzzy feelings.

Here are the reasons why every teacher needs one:

  1. Admit it – you feel guilty as hell when you bin that drawing that little Jimmy did for you… but if you kept everything you received (I’m mainly talking to Primary staff here – there’s a serious ‘gift drought’ in Secondary) you’d need to rent out a storage facility. Having a memory box allows you 9 guilt-free throw-aways for every 1 save.
  2. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: teaching can be a ‘thank-less’ profession. When you do get a thank you… hold on to it for dear life! When you’ve had a bad day with lower-set year 9 or a lengthy staff meeting analysing ‘Raise Online,’ come home and sift through your happy memories to remind yourself of all the good you do and why you do it. Then you can shove your head into a tub of Ben & Jerrys.
  3. You can store all kinds of stuff: thank you cards, emails from grateful parents, photos from school trips, birthday badges, ‘so bad it’s hilarious’ kiddy artwork… along with lots of ‘normal people’ stuff like theatre tickets, postcards, stolen hotel pens and assorted holiday souvenirs. If you’re having a trip-less school holiday, remind yourself of all the adventures you’ve been on both inside and outside of the classroom.
  4. Bad memories can be good too! I have a Christmas card from a student I taught in year 5 that says, “I am sorry I misbehaved. I promise I will never do it again.” This boy wasn’t very good at admitting to his mistakes, and the fact that he wrote this makes me grin every time I open the card. Of course he broke his promise, and went on to cause me further frustration in the classroom, but we got through it and had some lovely moments together. It’s a good reminder that storms pass and make way for blue skies.
  5. Probably the most important reason of all, it allows you to buy or ‘craft’ a beautiful display box that your partner cannot possibly complain about – you can tell them it’s full of couple photos and past year’s valentines tokens, even if it’s not! Feeling really blue? Leave it in the living room (with the lid slightly ajar) and wait for your guests to enquire as to its contents. Then you can fake an embarrassed brag about all of the gifts/thanks/love you’ve received over the years due to the fact that you’re just an amazing teacher/person who changes lives…every single day.

 

Role model: Nick Vujicic

If you’re looking to inspire students with a positive role model – someone who showcases a can-do attitude and resilience through times of hardship; someone that makes other people’s lives better just by being there; someone who inspires others to be the best possible version of themselves – you’d be hard pressed to find better than Nick Vujicic.

I’ve come across Nick’s story a few times and it never loses its impact. Born with a rare condition called Phocomelia syndrome, he is a man without arms or legs, earning a living as a motivational speaker.

He is the human equivalent to Ghandi’s quote, “My life is my message.”

He travels the globe, selling his message of hope and faith in times of hopelessness, ‘changing obstacles into opportunities’ and using words to build rather than break others down. What I really like about Nick is that he often speaks in schools, reminding angst-ridden adolescents that they ought to be kinder to each other and themselves; that they’re not worthless and nor do they need completing or improving in some way; and that any negative situation, no matter how dire it seems, can be turned around with the right attitude.

I’ve shown the clip above to various classes across year groups. I follow this up with a few key questions: ‘Why do you think I’ve chosen to show you Nick’s story? Is there anything that you found interesting about this? If you were in that situation, do you think you would feel the same way? Would things work out differently for you…why? What can we learn from this man?’  

When I have students in detention – specifically those who make endless excuses for their poor work/effort/behaviour – I like to set them off on the ipad or PC, researching Nick’s story and answering questions, under the guise of completing a comprehension task.

Many kids who struggle to behave in school have home lives that are the opposite of what a supportive, steady and nurturing home life should be, and it’s easy to understand why they make excuses for themselves. They feel ‘hard done by’ – and many truly are.

But in order for their negative home environment not to become ‘their story’ for life, we need to expose them to inspirational people like Nick Vujicic, who remind us all that anything is possible.

From their perspective, they see someone who is ‘worse off’ than them, but somehow still perseveres, achieves, inspires and conquers.    

You can follow Nick on Twitter @nickvujicic or visit https://www.attitudeisaltitude.com/ for more information. I’ve included a link at the top of the page to a 4 minute highlight clip from YouTube – this is just the right length to throw into lessons and prompt discussion – but there are a range of lengthier clips to choose from if you feel like delving deeper.

 

 

Teaching kids to ‘opt in’ and just try!

People often say that children are fearless.

They climb high trees; they rugby tackle each other with zero concern for body parts; they stand up for themselves and their friends in the face of authority; and often, to the distress of their parents, they say exactly what’s on their mind (or their parents minds!) with devastating honesty.

This is what people say.

And in many respects they’re right. Many children, especially younger children and possibly more so with boys, can be incredibly brave and courageous, free from the chains of responsibility, worries and often naïve to the risks.

From my experience though, and I’ve seen this at both primary and secondary level, the opposite is becoming increasingly true. Our young people are scared, anxious and increasingly, unwilling to even ‘try’.

When I taught year 6 students, it caused me a great deal of upset to see the negative impact of exam pressure on 9 to 11 year olds, not to mention those in the year groups below who weren’t much better off. These children have been failed. Failed by a broken system of inaccurate, inconsistent tests; farcical target grades that were completely detached from actual abilities; desperate teachers and school leaders forced to fill every part of the school day with panicky SATs booster sessions. I can’t count the number of children I saw having physical symptoms of anxiety, including issues of self-harm and panic attacks. And this only worsened at secondary when homework, hormones and social media really kick in.

I don’t think we can blame this lack of ‘willingness’ and resilience entirely on any one thing. I’m not even sure that this is a new thing really. Perhaps children have always been terrified to try new things, but discipline being much stricter from both school and home ‘way back when’, maybe children just did as they were told because the alternative was more terrifying.

Opting out just wasn’t an option whereas now, for many, it clearly is. In many schools and educational settings, we are accepting ‘I can’t’ or ‘I won’t’ far too often. I’m not advising that we throw shy children into isolation when they are too terrified to speak in a presentation, but there should be an expectation that they will try. Even with a child child who is incredibly shy/socially awkward (like I was); if you coach them and their classmates coach them; give them extra time to practise; make them aware of speaking techniques to help with nerves and confidence; promise individual rewards for trying something new; then I don’t think it’s unreasonable to demand that they at least say one sentence in their group presentation to their own form. 

I have been in the exact situation described here. After several confrontations with the pupil in question and a letter from home demanding that this boy wasn’t made to present because he really didn’t want to, it was suggested to me by a member of senior staff that I “just let it go” because “we can’t force children to speak!” I’ll also add that the pupil in question didn’t appear to be especially anxious as he often answered questions in class and had no problem in back-chatting at any given opportunity.

It wasn’t about this boy getting away without doing something that he’d been asked to; it was about not letting him let fear stop him from doing something that I absolutely knew he was capable of, despite his parents and school leaders facilitating this avoidance. I’m proud to say that I didn’t back down, and this boy presented on three occasions following this one, ending the year with more confidence than he started.

What kind of teacher would I be if I just let children ‘wimp out’ of everything that scared them?

If I let them strengthen their fears and worries, taking them into their further studies and jobs after school, eventually instilling the same fears and worries in their own children?

Moreover, why aren’t some parents more willing to suffer the short-term upset of their children at home, in order to help them find long-term confidence and happiness?

While I do find the bulk of parents are incredibly supportive, and simply want the best for their offspring; I’ve also come across a growing number who will march angrily into school to demand that their child is allowed to sit next to their friend because they don’t like the person they’re with; that their child is excluded from a presentation/class assembly because they don’t like presentations; that their child isn’t expected to take part in Sport Day because they don’t like PE; that their child isn’t expected to wear a certain part of school uniform because they don’t like the way their legs look in their trousers. Seriously?

I know that many of these parents might have a battle on their hands at home, and often just don’t want to see their child upset and unhappy, but isn’t part of life sometimes doing things that you don’t want to do? Isn’t it true that so often once we’ve faced our fears, we can’t believe we were so worried in the first place? Aren’t these the richest experiences, when we often realise that we were stronger and braver than we ever believed?

If we always allow young people to ‘opt out’, then ultimately, the result is that they miss out.

For my part, I will continue to challenge the students in my care, to take those teeny tiny steps at first outside of their comfort zones until they are ready to take great, whopping leaps into adventure, challenge and success.

There’s nothing better as a teacher than seeing a child conquer something that they’re afraid of, and seeing the pride on their face when they’ve accomplished something that they thought near-impossible. They physically glow with self-belief. They step out of the shoes of who they were and into the shoes of who they can become. No child should be robbed of that opportunity just because it’s too hard or upsetting to deal with.

When I teach, I try to instil an ethos of just showing up; seeing where that mistake takes you in your work; just starting and seeing where momentum takes you; just trying. I also tell my students about anything that I’ve tried or done that’s scary either within or outside of school. We talk about nerves and anxiety, what the physical symptoms look and feel like that; what they can do to work with these nerves rather than against. I want them to know that they are not abnormal because their heart is beating out of their chest when they have to speak in front of their peers. No one ever did this for me when I was experiencing near-panic attacks at school, and the feeling that everyone else was calm as a cucumber while I was just a nervous ‘freak’ only worsened my problem and my will to avoid it.

Recently, I came across a great TED talk and ‘social movement’ based on facing your fears. Michelle Poler’s ‘100 Days without Fear’ does exactly what it says on the tin: she challenges herself in 100 different ways, to face things that terrify her. Why not try something similar with our students? I wonder what results we would get if we get if our homework tasks were about stepping out of your comfort zone (perhaps with adult supervision to avoid a lawsuit!)

For many of our young people in and out of school, the world can seem like a very scary place. There’s no wonder that many of them retreat into a bubble of X-Box or Netflix binges and social media, rather than forcing themselves to do horrible, scary things outside. It’s our duty though as educators, to move with the times and be innovative in the ways that we teach courage and resilience. Perhaps if we can incorporate some of the photo bragging that seems prevalent on social media sites, we might even encourage children to ‘brag’ about something really worthwhile?

 

 

Are we blaming students for things they haven’t been taught?

I love teachers – we work so hard, we care so much – but most of us moan constantly. We moan about lesson planning and preparation. We moan about ‘bad lessons’ and follow-up consequences. We moan about marking and assessment data capture. We moan about parents meetings and open evenings. We moan about not doing enough trips and about having to complete risk assessments when we do. We moan about the government, and Ofsted. Admittedly, it’s hard to argue with the last one.

Sadly, one of the main causes of complaint for teachers, are the children we teach – their attitude; their behaviour; their work, or lack of it; their complete lack of enthusiasm despite our incredible planning; their interactions with classmates; their lack of common sense; their foul language; their need for attention; their disrespect for those who clearly should be respected. I’ve certainly been guilty of this myself at times – certain students drive me crazy!

I’m not saying that we don’t have valid complaints, but perhaps we need to remember – children aren’t paid to come to school – it isn’t their choice.  It’s the law. From some student’s point of view, there is little benefit in listening and learning and being all-round good people, other than us telling them that this ‘the right thing to do.’

Moreover, have they even been taught or shown the skills and qualities that we expect them to use?

We huff and puff because ‘half of the children class 8 have the attention span of a fruit-fly’; but has anyone ever spoken to them about how they can notice their own concentration levels or taught them how to build up these muscles?

Herein lies the problem: we’re assuming that children know how to do things that they don’t, then repeatedly blaming them for doing the wrong thing.

We may as well just bang our heads against a wall. And theirs.

We’re wearing ourselves out and even worse, building resentment between ourselves and our students. Imagine if no one had ever taught you to tie your shoe laces, but complained about how ridiculous it was that you were constantly tripping up? You’d soon become sick of hearing their complaints.

After a particularly challenging morning, when the staff room ranting and raving really gets going, you might start to hear ‘In my day…’ from some of the older teachers. This is usually my cue to leave. I have no doubt that thirty years ago, children arrived at school armed with manners, respect, the ability to tell the time and a heavy sense of fear; but this just isn’t the case in many schools now and constantly harping back to this is pointless and counterproductive. While children cannot choose whether to come to school or not, we did. And we’re paid to teach the children of 2017 – not the children of 1987.

Children today are much more complicated that the generations before them. They’ve grown up in a world with information at their fingertips. In many children, this facilitates curiosity, creativity, connection and ambition. At the same time, our children can be overstimulated, resulting in shortened attention spans, isolated socially and disconnected from reality. Anxiety and depression are a huge problem for today’s youth. That’s why it’s so important that we don’t just give up on them – that we teach them what really matters.

I realise here that there is a need for parental responsibility. We need parents to be reading with children at home; teaching them to tell the time; asking and answering questions; supporting children in completing homework; encouraging a sense of respect towards others and resilience through difficulty. Many parents do this, and their children reap the rewards. Sadly, these things just aren’t happening for a growing number of children. Many parents themselves are exhausted through their own work-life balance pressures resort to the iPad babysitter; some parents don’t feel confident or able to help with homework ( who can really keep up with methods you’re supposed to use in maths when many schools change them every term?); some parents just don’t have the life-skills themselves to pass these down to their children; and a small handful just don’t care. Do their children not deserve the same chances in life?

Regardless of the reasons, our students’ personalities, behaviours and needs have changed, and so we must change with them.

We need to teach life-skills like independent learning in the same way we might teach column addition – initially break down the what, why and how; show children the steps to success; practise and repeat throughout each year; judge and reflect on our progress until the skill is secure. Imagine if we taught life-skills like they were in the SATs; imagine the kind of thinking that we would create in our classrooms.

If you’re keen to find out more about exactly what these skills are, take a look at my entry on FISHING NET skills.