Reflection: our most powerful tool and how it can stop us from being idiots (hose, in different area codes.)

During the summer holidays I was fortunate enough to stay in a friend of a friends villa in the south of France. What was lovely about it was that I was in a genuine environment and not the cold veneer of comfort which hotels often smack of.

I would get out of bed, set up the cafetière and then walk for a pastry. It was simple and idyllic. In the afternoon there were some jobs around the house- which I completed with varying degrees of success. One of these jobs was to water the plants using a hose, seems simple enough. Except some days it was not. Some days the hose would splutter. Fortunately, I found the solution; you simply needed to turn the connector at the bottom and bang back to full power. Except it didn’t always work. Some days it simply carried on spluttering. This inconsistency in outcomes was infuriating.

A few days into this problem I noticed a latch of sorts attached near the handle. It was lodged hard against the lever, I popped it back into position and the spluttering stopped.

The point here is, what I thought was the solution was actually not. Sometimes unscrewing the connector released the latch, sometimes it didn’t. Yet, I was so convinced that the first method worked simply because it had worked once. This led me to thinking about teaching, what else could I be still doing repeatedly because it had worked once? Have I ever blamed the ‘equipment’ while using the wrong method? Have I stepped back often enough and really thought about the process I’m applying?

So as I stood staring at a hose in Provence- I found myself questioning my practice. But most importantly I found myself questioning my mentality. How often as professionals do we submit to the possibility that we might have it all wrong? Obviously we don’t have it all wrong, but it is a useful question to ask yourself all the same. In a role which can be incredibly challenging we could be forgiven for not asking ourselves such debilitating questions. But what if your teaching could be made simpler, easier and more (consistently) successful by once in a while annoying yourself with a series of difficult questions about your habits and biases.

Questions to probe:

  • What if the method I use in situation X is wrong?
  • How would I explain my process to a naïve observer?
  • How would I justify my process to my harshest critic?
  • Why did I think that process would work?
  • What if I made this too simple?
  • How would I plan tomorrow’s lesson if it had to be a cover lesson?
  • What do my students think the process is?
  • Which three pieces of knowledge would transform these students performance/learning?
  • What if the student failed because of me?
  • What biases do I carry about learning/teaching my subject?
  • How is my own experience of learning this subject biasing my approach?
  • What if I did the opposite for 24 hours?
  • Who else is being successful? Are any of these people outliers in their approach?

Final thought.

I think it is important that we question everything we do, we owe that much to our students. However, I also think its about time we stop beating ourselves up for our errors. So many teachers take to twitter after having had a bad day at work, they chastise themselves and I think it’s idiotic. Achieving excellence is never about avoiding failure. It is about looking at the ‘black box’ and seeing why you crashed, then doing something about it. We need to get out of our heads (not in that way) as a profession, we need to be kinder to ourselves and we need to reflect with a level of self-care and detachment.

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Vocabulary: My new approach.

A few years ago I played football with a very handsome young man, he was an actor and a model. On the surface his life was very simple, it basically involved being paid for being himself. He rarely got acting jobs where he was asked to do anything other than be himself, and his modelling relied on his looks and his natural athleticism. One day he was asked to attend an audition for a national soap opera; he couldn’t believe his luck. They’d head hunted him and they’d created a role for him. He couldn’t lose, or so he thought. Dressed in an expensive brand of clothing comping he’d recently modeled for he strode into the audition. It started out simple enough, “Dave (not his real name), we need to run you through a couple of bits to see how you take direction” -this, I’m reassured is fairly standard audition process. O.K he thinks, I’ve been doing this for the last ten years: light work! Then the dreaded words, “OK Dave, could you just be bashful.” He was stumped, expletives ran through his brain, but no definition and at that he froze. His reaction was nothing short of comical. He marched up and down singing ‘Heigh ho! Heigh ho’ …. “No, no,” says the director charitably, “not be Bashful, be bashful.” Next he tries, ‘bashing’ things. “Thanks Dave, that’s great” Needless to say, you’ve not heard of this friend of mine and you never will, well not through soap operas anyway. My point is simple, vocabulary is very important!

I’m going to start this blog with the assumption that you’ve picked 20 or so words that you want to teach your students this half term, and instead I’m going to focus on how best to explain these new words to your students.

It’s fair to say that memory and, how we access our students long term memory is a pretty complex process. The landscape seems to be constantly shifting and the more we learn the less simplistic it all appears to be. On a fundamental level there are some basic principles which we can focus on. Namely, timing (when  we repeat information-retrieval practice) and explanation (how we present the information.) Timing is to big an issue to cover at the same time, so let me narrow down to the ‘how.’

For many years I assumed that the best way to explain a new piece of vocabulary was to present it using an unusual example. If the word was ruthless for instance, I would first give the students a definition – “Ruthless boys and girls means ‘having or showing no pity or compassion for others’ and an example of this would be….” I would then give a frankly bonkers example of being ruthless. They usually involved sharks, old ladies and mafia bosses riding elephants. “Oh! How creative and wacky I am” I would say to myself.  I’m such a great teacher, they love the stories about ruthless Grandma’s attacking mafia bosses for treating the elephant cruelly.

On some level I should have been nervous about this approach. I enjoyed creating these examples and the patterns became a bit of an in joke, a form of rapport building. However, there is clearly far too much interference. The words are memorable because they are useful, everything else is white noise. The use of the same series of odd images made this even worse, there was nothing for the students to distinguish between the example for ruthless and exploit. The mafia boss had exploited the elephant…blah,blah, blah.

In their work on memory aids Einstein, MacDonald & Lackey (1989) discuss how different approaches may be more useful for different information. For example, a mnemonic which uses an exciting (and original) image may be useful (Bower, 1980) ; however, for vocabulary this images, become clustered. What is required, they suggest, is multiple exposure in the context the language is required and so I’ve adjusted my approach.

Recently, and somewhat unsuccessfully, I shared a document which I believe if we all pushed forward could revolutionise our teaching of vocabulary. My strategy now is simple, and four pronged. First I explain what the words mean, always with different examples, usually relating to their lives or texts I know they’ve previously studied, this builds on solid foundation. Next the students match the definition to the new word, I make a point of them over-learning these definitions. I’ve decided that the sweet spot is when they are bored of the task (more on that some other time.)

Next I give them cloze sentences, these are associated with the text we are studying. For example, “In his cruel and brutal beating of his native butler, Dr Roylott shows his _______________ nature.” One issue I’ve found in creating these examples is that words like ‘cruel’ and ‘brutal’ must also be understood and I always over estimate what the students can do. Once a student is comfortable with these examples I move away from the context and come up with more unique examples. It is worth mentioning that an example like, “Jose Mourinho’s treatment of Luke Shaw could be seen as ___________ ” is not a good example. Yes, the students understand this and it is relevant to many of their lives, but Donald Trump, Jose Mourinho or whoever else you care to mention will not be relevant in two decades time. In fact, Mourinho seems to be treating Shaw a little nicer these days and so the example is already dated. Your examples must be universal and so archetypal characters may be much more useful – “The stingy boss was __________ when he sacked all his staff so that he could keep his bonus.”ruthless.jpg

Your next step is to get the students to match synonyms/antonyms to the words. I would suggest doing these as a multiple choice question, for the simple reason that this gives you the chance to tease out what is different about the word ruthless compared to, say, ‘cruel’ or ‘unsympathetic.’ A great question to ask students at this point is, which word is most similar to ‘ruthless’ and why. This will clearly show you any misunderstandings the students have. Creating multiple choice questions is arduous to say the least, but you will definitely be able to use these next year and the year after, so stick with it.

Finally, and unfortunately this is the one which requires the most marking, you will need to get the students to come up with their own example of the word in a sentence. These will need to show clear understanding of the word. My personal rule is that I should not be able to ask “How was the person ‘ruthless’?” and that the word should obviously be used correctly. If you’ve given the students good enough examples they shouldn’t find this too challenging. This is the most important step, a student remembering that their teacher believes Roylott to be ruthless is not learning. It is a temporary state. It will not get them through a job interview (should the interviewer ask a question requiring the vocabulary you picked) or even enable them to analyse a spikey Portuguese football manager down the pub with their mates.

The task of making all these resources for each unit is not easy, but it is worth now “heigh ho! heigh ho! it’s off to work on our vocabulary resources we go.”

Links to my resources for this can be found here and the spreadsheet you can help add to is here.

After thought.

A fantastic way of revisiting these words is to give them an image of a ‘ruthless’ looking figure and ask them to describe the figure. I’ve only just started playing with this, but the responses so far have been great. Students throw all the words they’ve learnt at the image, and then have to justify for example how the individual is ‘malevolent’ et cetera.

80/20 Principle for GCSE Literature exams.

In November of last year I sat down with Chris Runeckles to discuss some success I had with my Year Eleven students. During the discussion we found that one of the key things I had done was to select the perfect elements for students to learn, and then repeat those elements again and again. I thought the students would hate it, but they’d appreciate it was necessary.

The basic principle I’d applied was that 20% of a thing often provides  80% of the results, therefore identifying  this 20% and focusing your energies there is obviously the most important use of everyone’s time. The difficulty comes in identifying the 20% and it is in fact a risky business. Get it wrong and students are armed with less than they require. However, get it right and your charges are armed with the most vital knowledge and plenty of time to elaborate on it.

The idea sprung from one student, who knew only a little of the core materials but was able to get top marks consistently. She’d distilled everything from the course and only accepted knowledge that had worked for her in mocks. Now, keep in mind that a lot of what she was able to do was because I had detail marked every paragraph. As a result, she was able to see exactly what worked and what didn’t, perhaps more importantly why it worked. This was not the most time effective way of leading to her success, and I didn’t even know it was happening.

The way I came to realise all of this was pure happenstance, I’d seated this student next to a boy who had the opposite problem. This boy knew 100% of the course, and yet he consistently fell below what he could achieve. You may think I’m exaggerating, but by way of illustration I will confess that I began to use him as a check for any declarative knowledge I was unsure of. Some things I’d taught and forgotten, this young chap, seemingly had forgotten nothing. I’ll blog about him some other time. I’ve learnt a lot from my failures with him.

The strategies, once I’d identified the core content, were easy enough. But identifying that content is the first and most important step on this journey.

First you’ll need to identify the key themes of the text. Don’t just google it, the key is what you think are the key themes – google after you’ve decided this will set you off debating and further your knowledge of the actual text. Next pick 40 or so quotes you feel are really important. Don’t be put off by this, you are considering too many options so that you can narrow them down effectively. I suggest the following methods: which ones have a technique attached to them, which ones cover the most themes and finally which ones make the most interesting analysis. The ones you can analyse in multiple ways are most helpful to your students, if there are several words they can narrow down to then you’re probably looking at a good quote to keep.

Another way to approach this is to look up quotations on apps like memrise, or in books such as the excellent ‘quotation bank’ series which evaluate and analyse quotes. Identify which ones frequently come up and check them against the criteria above. This may be quicker, but possibly less effective than the method I use.

Next which pieces of context fit best with these quotes. This may take some time but one easy approach is to scour the web for knowledge organisers on this particular text. Which theorists, thinker, idea or historical knowledge fits with the largest number of quotes? This is the quote you should teach and the knowledge you should put alongside of it. Make sure there is enough variety, imagine a student arrived today in your class knowing nothing; if they learnt all of the 20% could they go in and flow with any exam.

You’ll notice at this stage you’re scrapping myriad ideas, remember these are just the ones you will be drilling. You don’t have to abandon all your work. I spent two weeks debating which 20% I would teach prior to the exam. It wasn’t easy and I certainly made mistakes. But designing the curriculum is half the battle, teaching the content is simply being the artist you already are.

Finally, test the key content against exam boards questions. Could you really use it for every question? You will find some questions throw you, adapt your 20%. Use exam boards your students aren’t studying, use questions that have never been asked but test the endurance and durability of your 20%. I even tested mine against an ‘A Christmas Carol’ question that I knew wouldn’t come up: ‘How does Dickens present time in this extract?’ I knew no examiner would be so cruel, but once my 20% passed this test I knew it was the right content.

 

Don’t worry about students only knowing 20%, you’ve taught them for two years. Someone else taught them for three years before that and so on and so forth. They will arrive with far more than 20%, but be reassured that with 2/3 months to go you gave them the bits that really matter.

Example to fine tune your selection.

I often find examples more illuminating than explanation, so here goes nothing. This is how I made decisions around ‘An Inspector Calls.’ Let’s imagine that you have to pick between two excellent quotes,  “If men will not learn that lesson, they will be taught it in fire, blood and anguish,” and  “she impertinently made us of our name.” In my opinion the former is a far better one to teach using the 80-20 principle. First of all, it could be described as a tripartite/rule of three, whereas the second could be labelled as a declarative, I say could because there are many other ways of labeling them. This prejudices me against the second example for a number of reasons, foremost the label ‘declarative’ does not help us to analyse; it is pure labeling but it is obvious that the tripartite is having an effect. Arguably both quotes fit with two themes, at least and so this leaves both of them as pretty viable quotes. However, the fact that ‘fire, blood and anguish’ alludes to both the wars and hell makes it better for discussing the playwright’s purpose and delving into impact on the (largely Christian audience.) Equally, the language is significantly better for narrowing down to details in the first example and you don’t need me to explain that one to you. None of this is to say you can’t teach both, I for one do; I have picked these examples because they are both excellent quotes and therefore as useful for explain the minute details of the decision making.

How to use the 20%:

  • Model paragraphs based on key quotes.
  • Mark paragraphs based on key quotes.
  • ASk ‘Only Conntext questions’ things they wont ever best asked that link the text, who is the cruellest Scrooge or Birling? etc.
  • Start every lesson with 10-20 key questions, do not rotate these until everyone can answer them. BUT…elaborate on the factual recall. Ask those who got it wrong yesterday for factual recall, but request an elaborative question from those who got it right a week ago.
  • Ask them to re-write their paragraphs together.
  • Ask them to re-write their paragraphs for homework.
  • Get them to plan essays based on a whole variety of questions, even the ones you know won’t come up.

Try this link for ‘An Inspector Calls’ quotes – https://t.co/qlLAWsVddQ?amp=1

 

Guest Blog: Final instalment from Rob Howe

  1. Why a guest blog? Because my friend has a totally different take on what our core purpose as beings, educators and elders is and I don’t want my brain to callus. I have my biases and interacting with those deep in thought punctures these.

    2. I don’t see why not!

    3. Here it is.

 

Across the globe we are undergoing a period of great transition. We are moving from one reality into another. From an ecological perspective we can see that we are moving into a paradigm of sustainability. To be successful in our transition it’s important we relate and behave towards the world, ourselves and each other differently to what we are presently accustomed to.

 

Our sustainable future depends on a collective shift in consciousness that sees us switch from external to internal yardsticks in our decision making. We become less concerned by materialism and are guided by a sense of inner rightness: “does this seem right? Am I being true to myself? Is this in line with who I sense I’m called to become? Am I being of service to the world?

 

The ultimate goal in life is not to be successful or loved, but to become the truest expression of ourselves. Life is seen as a collective unfolding toward our true nature. Instead of setting goals in our life, dictating what direction it should take, we learn to let go and listen to the life that wants to be lived through us.”[1]

 

This way of being is radically different to what we have grown up with and been socialised by. Education of a sustainable future has to account for this evolution in consciousness and being – aiding individuals and groups, not just to evolve, but to be supported in their process of living and unfolding as well. From this point of view we see that formal structures, which presently exist, are too limited in their scope of support. They operate from a lower form of consciousness, which we’ve begun to outgrow and transcend.

Our thriving is dependent on our reconnection with village, not of place, but a village of relationships, interests and roles. Villages are vehicles of reconnection and are intergenerational. Villages recognise the different phases of our lives and the roles we play whilst moving through a certain phase. Childhood; adolescent rites of passage; the search by young adults for personal vision and purpose; entering a period of deeper service; becoming community leaders in our 40s and teachers for the youth in our 60s and beyond, providing spiritual guidance and direction for the un-initiated – are all phases which the village recognises, holds and supports.

Rob Blog

All in the village are engaged in the process of finding, being connected to and working from our creative path. We recognise the importance of understanding our gift and we are committed and are aware of the importance of sharing our gift with the world, so we can be in service to ourselves, each other and future generations.

 

The village remedies the ill of disconnection at the heart of our unsustainable culture. Our priorities in the village become one of connecting with nature – both externally in the world and internally within ourselves. It is understood that the future belongs to the nature smart. Mentors play an integral role in supporting the unfolding of the life process of a mentee’s life journey. It is understood by all that a double challenge is encountered whilst walking one’s path – following the calls of one’s deeper purpose and nature, whilst meeting the needs placed upon us by life and modernity.

 

As a result of gaining a sense of place, of being more connected to self and nature and of knowingly being in service to our planet and a higher purpose, our sensitivity and awareness will inevitably develop. Walking the path towards a deeper life of satisfaction and meaning will bring us to feel deep pain and suffering caused by colonialism, the tragedy of homelessness, the inhumane treatment of refugees and the trauma experienced from wars. It’s important the village supports us in tending to our grief so we can rebuild trust in our relationships, finding love and compassion, which will help us all to heal.

[1] Laloux, F, (2014), Pp 45, ’Reinventing Organisations. A guide to creating organisations inspired by the next stage of human consciousness’, Nelson Parker, Brussels

Guest Blog 2, by Rob Howe

 First an explanation. Why a guest blog at all? Well, the answer is simple I feel the voices in education are increasingly bickering over minute details. In the past I would read blogs and experience dissonance, now everyone appears to be saying the same thing. Why Rob? Rob is a friend of mine who encouraged me to be a teacher, he was an English Teacher himself and by all accounts a very good one. He became disillusioned with the education system, although he still describes himself as an educator. The way in which this series of blogs came about is easy to track. We were at a pub and I could feel Rob’s deep dissatisfaction with my thinking and ideas; we’d usually broadly aligned on education and..well most things. We talked about personal growth and found common ground again, but once we returned to education a tension arouse. A few months passed and at this point I decided to E-mail him about  how he felt I had changed, why he was disappointed in some alterations in my thinking and on a larger scale why he’d become dissatisfied with education. The resulting blogs are sprawling and engaging. I really enjoyed reading them, and I hope you do too.

Read Rob’s story in his book ‘Being an Explorer’ available on Amazon: here

‘On Teaching and Education’ – Part 2 of 3.

Mainstream, formal education moulds every person within it to become a compliant, consuming worker. We are taught (passive reception of knowledge deposited into our empty minds) to think, see, imagine and relate to the world in a very particular way. Mainstream, formal education does not concern itself with aiding our personal and collective evolution. Instead it intends to preserve the status quo which we all feel the effects of.

 

It will take large scale catastrophe and shock to alter formal educations current trajectory and aims. But until then, the work of guiding meaningful education falls upon the shoulders of NGOs, grassroots community activists, as well as charitable organisations such as The Eden Project.

 

It’s easy to criticise, but another matter entirely to construct a working solution to education. I’ve expressed the belief in the first blog of this series, that disconnection is at the heart of our unsustainable culture. Therefore, the primary purpose of an education system in a sustainable world is to connect:

 

  1. A person with themselves
  2. A person to their community
  3. A person and community to nature

 

My favourite definition of sustainability is John Ehrenfelds “the possibility that humans and other life will flourish on the earth forever.” I love the idea that it is essential for all life on earth to flourish if we are to live in a world which is sustainable.

When we drill down into flourishing we see our flourishing is intimately related to our understanding. When we understand we begin to value. When we value we start to care. When we care we move towards thriving, because we pay attention and give love to the relationships which matter to us.

As a designer of education, an important question for me to consider is, how might I create an education system which addresses the three dimensions of our social reality and aids our understanding of their/our interrelation?

Briefly, when addressing the personal domain it becomes clear that what a person is assisted to learn so they flourish has to change from the current curriculum. Equally important is a consideration of pedagogy and how a person and groups of people learn.

When addressing the social dimension we ask how communities learn, form and flourish.

Finally, we ask how personally and collectively we develop our connection with nature.

These broad questions have the potential to inspire thoughts and ideas which enable the mind to imagine a form of education which exists beyond the present formal system. I can share more of my ideas around these questions in a future post, but for the time being, I’ll briefly touch upon some inspiring models.

First of all there are the Erasmus + non formal education programmes delivered by a multitude of NGOs across Europe which aim to develop the key competencies of any participant around an area of their interest. Experiential learning characterises non formal education. The EU acknowledge that these programmes are supplementary to formal education, rather than all encompassing. They do, however, acknowledge the importance of one’s participation as being voluntary.

In the 90s the Finnish implemented an initiative which saw the impenetrable boundaries of schools dissolved as the free movement of learners between multiple venues of learning was recognised as important.

Jon Young, aided by a life of experience, is pioneering a pedagogy of nature connection which lends itself to this freer form of education.

The language we use to define this new system of education has to be innovated and the relationships between educators and learners also require our attention.

Some of the shifts we shall see between the old and the new

  • From top down, to bottom up
  • From oppression, to flourishing
  • From outcomes, to process
  • From invisible pupils, to supported learners
  • From mass education, to personal mentoring
  • From exclusion, to inclusion
  • From passive learning, to participatory learning
  • From competition, to collaboration

If you allow yourself to stand in the position from which I speak and resign your objections for a few moments, so you can imagine what it is I am beginning to describe and imply, I hope you sense, what it is that Einstein was getting at when he said,

 

“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used to create them.”

 

More on the vision in my next post.

The praxis of translating idyl to form is often messy and difficult, but with a vision, belief and tenacity, anything can be achieved.

 

 

GUEST BLOG: Rob Howe (Founder of ‘On That Level’)

 First an explanation. Why a guest blog at all? Well, the answer is simple I feel the voices in education are increasingly bickering over minute details. In the past I would read blogs and experience dissonance, now everyone appears to be saying the same thing. Why Rob? Rob is a friend of mine who encouraged me to be a teacher, he was an English Teacher himself and by all accounts a very good one. He became disillusioned with the education system, although he still describes himself as an educator. The way in which this series of blogs came about is easy to track. We were at a pub and I could feel Rob’s deep dissatisfaction with my thinking and ideas; we’d usually broadly aligned on education and..well most things. We talked about personal growth and found common ground again, but once we returned to education a tension arouse. A few months passed and at this point I decided to E-mail him about  how he felt I had changed, why he was disappointed in some alterations in my thinking and on a larger scale why he’d become dissatisfied with education. The resulting blogs are sprawling and engaging. I really enjoyed reading them, and I hope you do too.

Read Rob’s story in his book ‘Being an Explorer’ available on Amazon: here

‘On Teaching and Education’ – Part 1 of 3.

I’m about to rip into the education system. If you work within education you may be asking,

“Who is he to critique the education system?”

and

“Why should I care?”

Professionally I’m a qualified English Teacher, but primarily, identify as a global citizen.

I dip in and out of teaching whenever I need an income to meet my living costs, but favour listening to the calls of my soul. Presently I am co-founding a charity, which aims to educate rather than mould those who engage with it.

I’ll share more about the moulding nature of education later on. But first, it’s important I start from the beginning.

Modernity is looking at life through an outdated lens. Collectively we are misdirected and we’re beginning to notice. Many of us have been building our lives upon a set of values which do not serve us. One could argue our misdirection is a result of social engineering, but I shall steer clear of unfounded claims and navigate by what is empirically true.

The challenge of our time and what we shall be remembered for by our children’s, children’s, children’s, children’s children is the climate crises and the 6th mass extinction of life upon earth aka the anthropocene.

The anthropocene is a geological term and can be understood as the carbon footprint made by humans upon earth. It is rooted in the fundamentally flawed Cartesian perception of the world which sees the mind and body as seperate. The anthropocene exists because central to it is the belief and view that humans are separate from the earth. We believe our planet is a resource to be capitalised upon. The value of growth inherent in Capitalism fails to recognise the finite resources of our planet.

Our future depends on telling a new story based upon connection, but again, I shall write more about the solution in future posts.

You may be asking, “What has education got to do with the anthropocene?”

My reply, “Everything.”

The purpose of education is to produce consumers and workers. The education system perpetuates the old story of disconnection which is central to the problems we face.

It’s not all bad. Education does teach us some important skills, however the leaders do not recognise what our personal, collective and planetary needs are, and so are unable to tailor a curriculum to respond to them.

The incompetent leadership of education is manifested through performance management which places its focus in the wrong places in unproductive ways.

Whilst this is the case, everybody suffers.

Formal education doesn’t concern itself with recognising every individual as a unique being with infinite potential and possibility. It fails to acknowledge every persons uniqueness and doesn’t allow its students and teachers the freedom to explore, discover and grow.

Instead education rigidly defines success criteria and expects every student, regardless of their unique blend of intelligences, to ‘do well’, meaning here to achieve their target grade. Anything beyond that is deemed a failure.

Currently education is failing because:

  1. It does not create citizens who are aware of the global context around them
  2. It fails to nurture the competencies and outlook central to thriving
  3. It continues the narrative of separation

I will continue exploring the effects of education upon us personally in the next blog. I will also begin exploring alternatives which already exist.

 

My search for optimal health and well being- Nootropics and vitamins.

Nootropicsalso called smart drugs or cognitive enhancers—are drugs, supplements, or other substances that improve cognitive function, particularly executive functions, memory, creativity, or motivation, in healthy individuals.

Context.

Around October this year I went to the doctor with what turned out to be whooping cough. In China they call it 100 day cough. It was horrible. I needed about 12-14 hours of sleep a day and by period 3, I was exhausted.

My work unquestionably suffered.  I did everything I could to avoid it damaging my work, but it did. I woke earlier in the day, because that’s when I had more energy and I left work earlier and took a nap. I woke from the nap and got on with another few hours of work. I had taken on an extra load at work and I was seeking perfection in this .Just to make it worse, I was having a difficult time at home and that took up a lot of what little energy I did have. Both my wife, and I were grieving. A topic that I wont go into here, but needless to say I wasn’t coping and I was being strong for her. I was probably being lousy at that too.

I wanted to improve in the following areas: I wanted more energy, I wanted better sleep and I wanted to stabilise my emotions, especially given how difficult a time this was.

Solution

I decided that if it was possible to sub-optimal, it was possible to be optimal. Maybe baseline was me minus whooping cough, but maybe I could get healthy and then go beyond that point.

I started delving into the ways in which I could do this. I knew that I wanted something entirely backed up my science, but I knew that I wouldn’t have time to methodically test the effect on myself. I resolved to do this later and use my own intuition initially.

The process.

I looked at a lot of possible solutions. I enacted many of them. Nootropics was a word I’d heard banded about in various podcasts. I’m a huge fan of Doctor Rhonda Patrick and I knew that it was a burgeoning field of study.

I spoke to a friend who is completing a masters in nutrition and he gave me access to a whole field of research. I looked at the papers covering the major research and which supplements had good evidence for being effective. The following supplements had strong evidence for effectiveness in peer-reviewed articles.

I took a number of supplements over the course of around 12 weeks. I used some in conjunction as this is what the research indicated. I took others individually. Generally I took each supplement, or pairing for around 4 weeks.

Detailed below are my notes on the impact.

My notes on the supplementation.

 

L- theanine

is one of the key ingredients found in green tea. It is believed to be one of the key ways in which buddhist monks enable themselves to enter deep states of meditation. I wanted to experience a sense of calm which allowed me to see my problems for what they really are. The perspective that this would allow me I hoped would allow me the liberation to deal with my difficulties.

I was also excited by research which stated that if it is used in combination with caffeine, it improves memory and cognitive performance. I started to add this to my daily coffee intake. I took one 50mg dosage with every cup of joe. I noticed a much deeper focus, and did not feel sleepy.

In truth I never felt sleepy taking L- Theanine. I found when taken in conjunction with Matcha tea, it helped me relax before bed. But that basically meant taking nearly 300mg. According to my fit bit, the nights when I took this 300mg dosage were filled with far deeper sleep. On average I was restless for only 8 minutes compared to my usual 20 plus.

The fitbit sleep tracker is notoriously useless, but any measurement is worth considering. I would say the evidence is that I moved less in my sleep. Generally speaking the general agreement amongst sleep doctors is that less movement equals better sleep. Though there are certain exceptions.

Bacopa monieri 

 The research around Bacopa stated that impact on memory was only experienced in the subjects after 4-6 weeks. My personal experience tallied with this, I took an online memory test every Sunday night and the trajectory was upward and progressive. Bizarelly enough it began to dip at around 7 weeks and has remained roughly the same since. My conclusion is that the notable impact takes roughly 4-6 weeks to have impact, but that benefits decrease to an optimised level but you cannot maintain the peak point.

Notable research also suggests Bacopa has impact on:

  • Attention- Increase.
  • Anxiety- reduction
  • Depression- minor reduction
  • Forgetting- minor reduction

I couldn’t speak about depression and anxiety because as part of the grieving process I certainly had to make a number of changes which could account for my improved moods. Was bacopa a meaningful factor…possibly. The studies that show this only conclude a minor reduction in depressed feeling, and I would question whether this could be separated from asking participants to think regularly about their mood. Reflection may well have been the cause.

Ginkgo biloba  

Perhaps the most researched product I tried during my six week trial. This was a supplement I took because of the research into long term effect. I wasn’t expecting to find any huge changes. Particularly given how unscientific I was going to be. I genuinely didn’t feel any different after taking this supplement. With the others, the effects were immediate but there is no research talking about immediate repercussions of taking this. Rather like cod liver oil it is about long term health support.

  • Limits cognitive decline
  • Memory
  • Stamina/blood flow
  • Sleep (minor)

Creatine

Second most researched. I was already taking this after gym workouts and weekend football, and have always found it amazingly effective in recovery. But I had no idea about its effectiveness in reducing fatigue.

Of all the supplements I considered this was by far the most effective. I took it with my coffee and L-theanine, I normally stop being useful about 4:30 but stay at work until 6 to avoid the traffic. Taking this supplement at 4:00 I often found myself staying until half 6 and not even noticing.

I would really like to test this in a more scientific way. As I’m absolutely certain it is revolutionary.

Conclusion.

The one thing I’ve kept up is the ‘hacked’ version of coffee. I’ve also used L-theanine in conjunction with Zinc, Magnesium and Valerian tablets to help with sleep.

The coffee is unbelievably effective, I was drinking around five cups of coffee a day. I now drink two and add a spoonful of creatine and take a theanine tablet. The result is a much more effective work day and I would definitely recommend book ending your school day in this way.

As for the sleep, I have always struggled with sleep and I will definitely blog about the effectiveness of my new routine sometime soon. It’s been transformative.

I would also like to come up with some sort of actual test of my own to prove it works for me. Though, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of point though to be fair…I based my purchases on peer-reviews. I felt a difference. I guess that’s good enough for me.

Other supplements I considered and my rationale.

Huperzine Was perhaps the most ‘hyped’ supplement I found, yet there is not a lot of research – seems to promote neurogenesis ( the process of birth of neurons wherein neurons are generated from neural stem cells) but given my time constraint I decided to ignore this.

Panax ginseng

 I decided that it was probably not a priority to try this. Minor impact on cognition and small impact in glucose reduction.  Neither of which

Rhodiola Rosea.

I struggled to find a reasonably priced version and so couldn’t take these. Despite them being the most heavily backed by research. Bit gutting!

Nicotine – 

 I deemed this too risky to take up. After 30 years without so much as a drag, it seemed ridiculous to take up the world’s biggest addiction study!

  • Minor increase in memory and cognition
  • Minor decrease in HGH
  • Addiction risk – patches limit this.
  • Appetite suppressant

Melissa officinalis

Some research claims it has relaxing qualities though does have cognitive benefits. I decided that this wasn’t worth time.

PRL-8-53

Sounds absolutely amazing, but doesn’t appear to be commercially available. Please correct me if I’m wrong on this!

  • Significant memory increase and cognition. Especially short term memory, and task orientated work.

Blueberries & fish oil.

Solve life essentially.  I already eat blueberries like a kid would eat haribo and take fish oil every day.

 

 

 

 

 

A teacher questionnaire on retrieval- Junking my thoughts in an (un)blog.

It was early morning when a bright eyed colleague bounced in and told me, ever so politely, that I would love to fill in her questionnaire. Fortunately for her, she was absolutely right. I am a geek and enjoyed spending the time thinking deeply about my approach to various areas related to mastery and retrieval.

It struck me that it might be worth dwelling on some of those questions, ponderings and sharing what few insights came as a result of those statements.

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I do think retaining information is difficult, in fact I know it is for the vast majority of humans. The only way around this is to develop effective strategies of learning and to repeat things continually.

I draw a definite distinction between difficult and impossible though. The great Muhammad Ali, famously said “Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it.”

My concern with my answer is not in my agreement, but rather in whether my students feel the power to overcome. Do they feel those little wins that lead to the big ones, or do I spend too long on the next challenge and the next one and …. You get the picture.

 

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I left this question blank. Structure/routine. Routine is describe at times as the enemy of progress, a sure fire way to form rigid and ineffective practices. Yet, I think where knowledge is concerned the teacher must embody Robert Collier’s famous quote, “Constant repetition carries conviction.”

With knowledge recall there must be structures, else there will be slips between the cracks. I think I left it blank because I know the answer. I do try to return to core knowledge/information at the start of every lesson, but some lesson openings are chaotic. Students enter in the wrong manner and so dealing with that becomes priority.

I need to start thinking more carefully about how I ensure nothing gets in the way of a consistent retrieval practice. A very simple solution is to add a quiz slide to every title page. I always greet students at the door, perhaps I can change my posture so that I can also monitor their start to the lesson once in the room, and their approach to the quiz/task at hand.

 

 

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If you’re not sure why my answers are in the agree boxes- google ‘Didau learning performance.’ There you will find far better explanation than I can offer.

 

I’m not sure why I ‘Strongly agree’ with the first statement, but only ‘agree’ with the second. Perhaps because the former feels reassuring, hopeful and comforting, while the latter is disorientating and frustrating.

I think the latter seems more counter-intuiting too. While true, it seems as though performance is about the best indicator we could possibly hope to have and so philosophically I see the point. But…so what. What on earth could we do about that. Ignore performance, carry on teaching long after we’ve gathered (reasonable) evidence of learning, self flagellate just in case. It all seems somewhat hopeless. How are the children benefiting from this idea.

 

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It is evident that this is true. If you don’t have reference points to form memories, you will find it more challenging. If you have a short-term to long-term transfer deficit, you will find it more challenging. This question more poses, the ‘so what now’ of retention.

It suggests to me a varied spacing option, some students will need to return to the same information, while others move on to the next lot. A colour coded question system might support this or simply an unfolding list of questions. Whatever I decide on needs to be simple and light on extra workload. Else it will simply not be sustained.

Conclusions (of sorts.)

Well this isn’t so much a blog as a junking of thoughts. To some extent, that’s why I’ve not blogged in so long. My thoughts are swirling around at the moment. I see lots of details I know I will be tweaking, but I feel like a million dots are about to connect in one. This year spent reading and listening has left me with more questions than answers, but its left me wiser. I promised myself I’d shut up more this year, and read, listen and learn. I’m not sure I’ve always succeeded, but I’ve definitely improved. I’ve been staring at a magic eye and now a vision is emerging.

I’ve changed so much this year, but I know there are so many things I want to change further. I’m going to come back to my questioning and thinking really deeply about how I sequence. I’m five years in and I’ve formed habits, many good, but it’s time to break or reconsider some.

Timing my feedback, retrieval practice. Wording comprehension questions, and ensuring that the vocabulary is in place to make this meaningful. I’m boiling a million stews all at once.

Observing my tutor group

One of my favourite things to do is pop in on my tutor group. I like to check that they are meeting the high standards we as a school set for them, I also ask them to say “good morning” as they arrive and “thank you” as they exit. I check how they move around the corridor and once in the lesson I try to catch them getting it right. 

There is a massive advantage to doing this- it also means I get to see other teachers teach. Today I popped in on my colleague Ben Crockett. What struck me most was his speed at building relationships, he seemed to have names down almost immediately and he quickly got to grips with their personalities. It was a joy to see. He made a point of getting the pronunciation right on the more difficult names and dealt with all of the class with a great fairness. 

He started his time with them by helping them to achieve excellence. The first piece of work in their books will be a standard to beat. In helping them achieve this excellence he asked them to recall last years learning, which credit to their previous teacher was excellent, and then helped them structure a response that will most definitely build their confidence. 

The other thing that struck me was how often he praised. When subject specific language was used Ben was there to praise them, and when they remembered their previous learning Ben was there to praise them. 

Furthermore, he dropped extra terminology and knowledge; reframed incorrect answers with additional information and wasn’t afraid to repeat difficult content for those with lower Georgraphy starting points.

I was only in half the lesson, I could write more but we would t want Ben getting a big head! 

Perhaps some amongst you will see nothing remarkable here, but my tutor group were worried about having Ben. They’d only seen him running Geography detentions, and were unsure as to how the lesson would go. All anxiety dispensed in one lesson. They came to see me afterwards: pleased as punch. From this basis Ben can now challenge them to aim higher, more importantly, I feel, he can deal with behaviour from a solid foundation built on respect. 

When is low stakes testing not actually that low?

Anxiety can feel like a “heart attack” and suffers describe it as feeling like ” you’re about to die.” The NHS describes a panic attack as “a rush of intense psychological and physical symptoms” and may also include an “overwhelming sense of fear, apprehension and anxiety”. None of my students have ever had a panic attack at the thought of a quick quiz, but that doesn’t mean they don’t feel anxious or indeed that it feels low stakes to them.

We assume because the quiz doesn’t mean too much to us in terms of data that we are running a ‘low stakes quiz’, that decision is not ours. The person experiencing the test is the one who decides that. Recently, a student of mine had to be calmed down before an LRA lesson. They were having a panic attack. The student was well aware that the lesson only involved selecting a book and reading quietly. That didn’t matter, to them the exercise was fraught with things that could go wrong, and ways in which they felt threatened. It doesn’t make sense- but that’s almost the root cause of anxiety. An illogical fear that the individual cannot control.

This isn’t to say that we can’t run low stakes quizzes just in case, simply that we aren’t the ones who place value on the stakes. Therefore, the most important thing we can do when administering these quizzes is not check how they’ve done on question 8, the most important thing we can be doing is reading the room. Not helping with difficult questions, not telling them how long is left, and not checking how they did last time- just simply watching. How are they experiencing this quiz, are they in flow; equally are they struggling enough. Has Dani stopped because of fear of failure or because today is just one of those lazy days. If so, does Dani need a harder set of questions, or just a (metaphorical) kick up the proverbial!

It is vital that we check learning, and that we give students the benefit of the testing effect (Toppino & Cohen, 2009.) But, we must measure the cost. This is what many of us are already doing, but it feels worth saying given how much we speak about low stakes quizzes and their benefit. Because if we simply believe a quiz is low stakes because we say it is then we lose any value it may have had.

How do you ensure a quiz is genuinely low stakes?

Have a quiz sheet at the back of book for students to record their resutlts, instead of having them shout it out. Any practical solution to this problem is beneficial, but anything that adds too much time to your day is probably not worth the cost.

Alternatively, @ChrisRuneckles has suggested just having the class put their hands up for questions they got wrong, so that you can re-teach this section. Sometimes telling the students the answer might contribute to the testing effect but actually returning to the work and re-teaching (well) is surely the most high impact thing we could do.

Some of this comes down to our behaviour, and manner BUT most of it falls on judging how well you pitched it. Our rooms are packed with Goldilocks and if the work is too hard or too soft, they will take their minds elsewhere. Equally if we constantly aim to make the porridge/bed just right then we rob children of the chance to both embed/secure knowledge through giving them work they can definitely manage and to develop resilience when work is just out of their reach (or even massively out of their reach.)