Like many people I was inspired by the numerous achievements of the British Olympic team at London 2012. On the dawn of the 2016 games, my mind is drawn back to some of the reading I did post-London.

One of the ‘marginal gains’ I explored after this time was managing my mind. Athletes often employ sports psychologists with the aim of find calmness in pressured situations, or simply maintaining optimal performance during competition. Disappointments can occur at all moments of the day, but if these are carried over to the main event then the athlete, or teacher in this case, suffers a significant performance drop.

It was with that in mind I picked up the dubiously titled ‘Chimp Paradox.’ Its author Steve Peters is a well respected English psychiatrist who works in elite sports people. He has worked with Olympic cyclists such as Chris Hoy and Victoria Pendleton, as well as Liverpool FC, Ronnie O’Sullivan and numerous other top level athletes. Sir Dave Brailsford, Mr Marginal Gains himself, has described Peters as “the best appointment I’ve ever made.” Needless to say, I wanted a bit of what they were having. That sparkle, that certain something; more importantly I wanted that ice-cold optimal performance. What I learnt could, I believe, improve the day-to-day running of what is a challenging role to perform – even when you’re fortunate enough to love your school.

The Chimp Model

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Above, bottom right is the model of ‘The Chimp’, ‘The Human’ and ‘The Computer.’ Peters obviously doesn’t believe this to be an anatomical representation of the human brain, but a useful metaphor for how that mind has been shown to perform. It is a useful model as well because it requires no extra knowledge, but allows you instead to focus on the function and managing those functions. In particular, I like the model of ‘The Chimp’, described as a near trickster, he is the first response system of the brain (see top-right.)  Things happen and up he pops with an emotional response. It’s how we all experience our brains, but more importantly it allows for some forgiveness- though not a dismissal of responsibility. One cannot simply say, ‘my chimp did it’ but equally you are allowed the breathing space to say- I did not allow myself enough time to dwell before I acted.

A simple explanation of the model.

The Chimp works with an agenda of procreating the species and also of survival at an individual level. It does this by acting impulsively without thought of long-term consequence, and interprets the world with feelings and impressions and uses emotional thinking to make sense of the information it has received. The Chimp brain operates by way of jungle principles.

The Human works with a society agenda and operates by considering consequences before acting. The Human brain searches for facts and truths and puts these together in a logical way in order to reach a conclusion or to form plans to implement. It works within the principles of a society.

The Computer is a fast operating system within the brain, programmed by either the Human or the Chimp and works by fulfilling either agenda depending on how it is programmed. The Computer is effectively composed of learnt beliefs and behaviours and contains values and a means of establishing reality and perspective. It filters information presented to it and selects what it wants from the information perceived before a memory is formed and then when stored, the Computer amends the memory and refines it continuously making it somewhat unreliable. The Computer also predicts what will happen and can therefore alter the original perception of what is being received.

Moving forward with the model.

It doesn’t excuse our actions rather holds them up to us, and allows us the possibility of change. It is a model that requests we think about our actions and allow ‘The Human’ to take the lead. Peters suggests that if you allow ‘The Human’ to take more control, then your actions will reflect your ‘true self’ and as a result your actions can be measured by you as desirable or not. For example, if you shout at someone in the street who has upset you – this may not be what everyone wants of you, but if it comes from your ‘Human’ brain, it may well be the way you want to represent yourself in the world. However, if it is not then you can assess this and change. The same can be applied to your emotional response to the way your classes or colleagues treat you and the expectations of your role.

Most of Peters model is about recognizing the emotions, by asking yourself things like “Do I want these thoughts, feelings or behaviors?” – when the answer is ‘no’ The Chimp is in charge.

When this happens you have to over-write the normal behaviour- Peters suggests the following steps.

  1. Allow ‘The Chimp’ to have its say in a safe environment. Let it rant or change the situation to give it long enough to think. Possibly, in the classroom this means having a routine to stop and think. 
  2. Use facts, truth and logic, to continue calming it and addressing its fears and concerns. This isn’t to say that when you feel disrespected that you aren’t being treated poorly, but responding angrily will not improve the situation.
  3. Unfortunately, sometimes you can only distract or reward your Chimp. E.G When the marking is done I will eat that chocolate, or such.

The Rewards.

If you can use this system to manage your mind better, then you could:

  • Overcome your ego and be honest about your teaching abilities, and areas for development.
  • Deescalate situations quickly and easily.
  • Find out who you really are and assess your actions clearly.
  • Spend less time stressing about work pending, or expectations and much longer actually solving the problems presented to you (this is not to suggest passivity.)
  • Maintain better relationships with students: which Hattie’s research suggests has significant impact on outcomes.
  • Feel more fulfilled with your role in school and see positives, even in moments of extreme difficulty.
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