Essentialism, by Greg McKeown

Why I read it

I follow many people on Twitter who have enjoyed similar books to my favourites: Think Again by Adam Grant, or Atomic Habits by James Clear, for example. What they seem to share unanimously is raving positivity about Essentialism, by Greg McKeown. I’ve read some excellent reviews and summaries of the book over the last year or so, but hadn’t quite found time to read it – you’ll appreciate the irony of that as you read on.

Opportunities come thick and fast in our lives – both within and outside our professional roles. We often feel like we do lots of things but never have much to show for them, or that we could do things better if we focused more on the few and not the many. I was intrigued to see how a busy educator could become an ‘Essentialist’.

In summary

Indeed, McKeown sets out to help us do just that: ‘only once you give yourself permission to stop trying to do it all, can you make your highest contribution to the things that really matter’. The book is split into four parts: understanding the essence of what the essentialist mind-set is; discerning which are our most important opportunities or tasks; eliminating the trivial; and finally, how to make the tasks / opportunities that we pursue as effortless as possible.

The prose is clean, the chapters are divided clearly with subheadings, tables are used to distinguish essentialist and non-essentialist traits, and there is a wealth of practical advice. McKeown also refers to research, studies, and many real-life anecdotes, as you’d expect from this type of book. However, he manages to inform and entertain in equal measure – all the while convincing you – no, empowering you, that you can take better control of your time, choices, opportunities, so that your quality of life and output increase.

Key takeaways

As with the other books that I consider to be the best I’ve read, it really isn’t fair of me to share 3-4 key takeaways alone. My aim is to outline what I found the most insightful, and then urge you to go and read the rest of this excellent book.

1. Do less: we need to move away from ‘I have to’, ‘It’s all important’, or ‘I can do both’ and become more disciplined about how we use our time. Part of this is merely taking control of what we say yes to: being resolute and saying no to requests, or pinpointing which tasks to pursue and which to pull away from. A good question is: ‘Will this activity make the highest contribution towards my goal?’

2.  Discern the important: ‘Scan your environment for the vital few good opportunities, and eagerly eliminate the trivial many’, says McKeown, as he advises us that essentialists view almost everything as non-essential, and therefore do not allow these to consume their time. This is easier said than done. Accepting speaking engagements, contributing to someone else’s work, taking on side projects, or even running many tasks simultaneously, are all possible examples of non-essential activities that may distract you from what really matters. The reader is pushed to eliminate distractions and the unnecessary; it certainly is challenging.

3. Time to reflect: McKeown recognises that many people quantify their productivity by how busy they are, filling their diary with meetings and projects. However, an essentialist puts quality time aside to read, reflect, explore their thoughts. When was the last time you put time aside to reflect? Coaching has taught me a lot about the power of reflection and pushing your brain to think harder; but the real challenge is building in regular reflection time. Here’s my new challenge: to sit with a pen and pad for 10 minutes a day and reflect on if I moved towards my goals, or if I accidentally veered off into the trivial!

4. Living as an essentialist: The final section of the book is aimed at you, once you have got into your essentialist mindset. You’ve focused on what really matters, you’ve turned down trivial opportunities or tasks, and you’re clear about what you need to pursue. McKeown rounds up Essentialism by advising us to build in strong routines, put in a buffer time of 50% extra so that overrunning activities have already been protected, and to keep aiming at gradual, incremental success so that we can continue to feel motivated in small, achievable steps.  He genuinely seems committed to us fulfilling the mission of becoming essentialists, and not just so that we can be more ‘productive’. He regularly talks about the benefits of this way of living: more time to spend on hobbies, or seeing our family more often; the book isn’t a business hack, but a way to improve our wellbeing, motivation, happiness, and success.

Favourite quote

‘Less but better’ – this quote comes from designer Dieter Rams, whose own design principles were based on the phrase – it is a fantastic encapsulation of essentialism.

Favourite moment

I enjoyed the mindset shift that McKeown challenges us with. If the answer isn’t a definite yes, it should be a no. He dubs this the 90% rule: evaluate every opportunity or decision by scoring its relevance or importance between 0 and 100. If an option gets below 90, don’t pursue it.

He encourages us to be ruthless with this approach, and to operate with narrow, precise criteria, so that it will become clear to us whether a task or opportunity is one to pursue or not.

Of course, the effects of this will not always feel positive. Sometimes we will need to turn down colleagues’ requests, or withdraw from being part of something that ‘feels’ exciting. But McKeown argues that the benefits of being an essentialist mean that we must dare to say no, relinquish short-term feelings of popularity, and show courage in the convictions that we’ve reflected on.

Read this if…

It’s easy to read Essentialism and think: ‘well I’m a teacher, I can’t change my timetable or say no to things during the day’. But we can make changes to our mindset to help us become more focused on what really matters.

Read this book if you want insights, and some motivation, into how to reclaim your time and focus.

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Decoding Greatness, by Dr Ron Friedman

Why I read it

I listened to a podcast with Dr Ron Friedman and loved how he spoke about his upcoming book, Decoding Greatness. As a teacher, I often try to decode an exemplar answer, or crunch numbers when analysing literature; without sticking to rigid formulas, it spoke to me that you could strip back the component parts of success. I immediately pre-ordered the book!

Summary

Daniel Pink and Adam Grant are among the top thinkers and writers who recommend this book; it is dedicated to how we can pick apart systems, products, creations and other case studies to improve our own success. Friedman uses countless examples (as well as rooting his ideas in research and science) to show how we can use strategies such as reverse engineering, imitation, and pattern recognition to create our own blueprints to success.

What I enjoy about Decoding Greatness is that, after introducing each idea, Friedman then usually provides a worked example, and then continues by helping you generalise that to other areas or industries. The book is practical and transferable.

Key takeaways:

This book supplied me with at least 10 techniques, case studies, or strategies that I will reflect upon for my own career and other goals. There is a lot to learn from, and yet in this post I’ll try to keep it concise!

  1. Become a collector: collect the most effective, inspirational, or renowned examples of the thing that you are trying to master yourself; this could be headlines for a writer, adverts for an ad creative, or football plays for an NFL coach. The bigger bank you have to refer to, the more you can consume, be inspired by, and think big with! Friedman likens it to creating your museum of expertise, and encourages us all to tour our museum frequently.
  2. Reverse engineering: pull apart great examples to learn from them. Follow the car industry by disassembling cars to see how they were made; deconstruct a TED talk to see its component parts; create a blueprint of what success looks like in your industry. Friedman then advocates thinking critically about what makes them unique. How are they separated from others? Understanding things in detail helps us place what’s unique about them, which in turn helps us create our own USPs or ideas.
  3. Imitation: imitation gets a bad name, and in some industries, copying is more normalised than others. Friedman proposes that by imitating model examples, we can begin to understand how those things were made or fulfilled. The difference between this and reverse engineering is that, imitation might be about copying the way something was done in order to better empathise with the process, whereas reverse engineering is analsying and pulling apart a finished product. The imitation example that caught my eye was a novelist who had copied out chapters from their favourite novels; literally copied them out by hand or on the computer. By doing so, they felt the rhythm of the writing, the decisions that had to be made along the way regarding vocabulary choices, sentence structures, etc. Friedman argues that it’s only by understanding and copying the best examples in your industry, do you then have enough knowledge and experience to be creative and put your own stamp on your work.
  4. Self reflection: one study that Friedman shares, asks participants to try a maths puzzle. After a few minutes, they stop. Group A is given a 3-minute break before they try at another puzzle; Group B are asked to reflect on how it went, and what tips they’d give others for next time. Group B’s results on the second puzzle exceeded Group A’s, and this was reflected in other studies. As a coach, it seems obvious to say that self reflection is a good tool to improve performance; but how often do we reflect on something we’ve done, and think of ways we could improve for next time?

Favourite moment:

Friedman uses the late Sir Ken Robinson’s famous and highest-viewed TED talk to explore how we can quantify features to better understand something. In this example, Friedman counts the total word count, the word count for each section (and marks their overall percentage of the speech), how many times humour is used, when Sir Ken uses positives or negatives, and all other aspects of the talk. In essence, he breaks down the speech into a series of numbers, patterns, and explores its structure. In theory, one could then replicate this (with caveats!) to create their own speech that possesses a proven structure and formula that works.

Friedman acknowledges that everyone has their own delivery style and every talk will have a different purpose or formality, and yet this method of quantifying features can be invaluable.

Read this if…

  • You are interested in improving your success at something that you’re working on
  • You want a range of techniques to improve your mastery in a certain area
  • You teach or coach others about how to build their own confidence and expertise

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The Extended Mind, by Annie Murphy Paul

Why I read it 

My education hero, and fellow Crystal Palace fan, Doug Lemov, tweeted that the excellent Annie Murphy Paul was looking for people to read her book in its run up to publication. A combination of Doug’s recommendation, plus the fascinating subject matter of the book, made this an easy decision, and Annie kindly accepted my request to read The Extended Mind. Due to lots of work commitments, I got behind on my review, but I’m delighted to share my thoughts now and hope you’ll take the time to read the book, too.

In summary

Annie Murphy Paul argues that countless studies have been conducted on how thinking happens ‘only inside the brain’, and that much less attention has been paid to the way people use the world to think. The Extended Mind is the term used to describe how we interact with things beyond our brain in order to aid its thinking and growth.  Examples include how physical places can have an effect on how we think or feel, in addition to movements and gestures, working in groups, and using imitation.

Each idea is explored in turn, with the author using studies and anecdotes to demonstrate the benefits of understanding the extended mind, or in other words to ‘take better advantage of the world outside our brains’.

Key takeaways

  1. Gestures can support understanding and learning: Paul refers to studies, and a fascinating anecdote about a maths teacher, to demonstrate how gestures can be matched with words or terms to help understand or memorise them. When the teacher in question, Brendan Jefferys, noticed that students were struggling with complex terms, he assigned each one a certain gesture. The theory is that the gestures are essentially ‘load lightening’, taking away cognitive strain to focus on the learning at hand, which makes it more accessible.
  2. Room with a view: studies found that working in a room with a natural view allowed call-centre workers to handle calls 6-12% faster, while they scored 10-25% higher in mental function and memory recall tests. This is not good news for my office without any windows!
  3. The power of nature on our brains: it’s not just having a view that helps: we are wired to thrive outdoors, and we don’t just enjoy being in nature more, it actually helps us to think better! Paul states that being in natural, outdoor environments helps to relieve stress and balances our equilibrium, which in turn makes our thinking more effective. There are countless examples in this section of the book about studies which prove how these natural spaces help us to thrive, for example a study showing that people who spent 90 minutes outdoors became less preoccupied with the negative aspects of their lives, compared to those who didn’t. I could name 5 other insights about the power of nature on our brains in this chapter, and it felt validating to explore the different ways that nature actually helps us to think, beyond the ‘feeling’ that it’s nice to be outside.
  4. Belonging in a space: when sports teams play at home, their testosterone rises with the ownership of their home turf. But in workplaces, too, we feel a sense of belonging, safety, and ownership in our usual patch; workers experience themselves as more capable and confident, and they are more efficient. One fascinating example is that those who negotiate deals in their own space claim 60-160% more than the visiting party. Paul quotes Professor Benjamin Meagher and his theory that our brains associate our usual, preferred spaces with the memories of what we’ve learnt and achieved there before; in Paul’s words, our brains get an ‘assist from the structure embedded in its environment’. In Meagher’s, ‘our cognition is distributed across the entire setting’.
  5. The Imitation Game: Studies show that imitation is an effective method to succeed, in a variety of ways. Paul looks at the benefits of imitation, from how looking at examples from others helps us to filter out a variety of options, to avoiding common pitfalls, to saving time, effort, and resources that are required to innovate. Again, there are some wonderful examples, here.

Favourite quote

Sorry, I’m going to carry on banging the nature drum as it was the section of the book that resonated the most.

‘The respite from insistent cognitive demands that nature provides, gives our supply of mental resources an opportunity to renew and regenerate. These resources are finite and are soon exhausted – not only be the clamor of urban living, but also by the stringent requirements of academic and professional work.’

Question and reflect

  • How often do we think about the world around us: how spaces and places can affect not only how much we enjoy thinking, but also improve our thinking drastically? Equipped with this knowledge, how can we create spaces in our lives that help our brains to thrive?
  • Dual coding is popular in teaching at the moment – reflecting on Paul’s chapter on our bodies and physical gestures helping us to think, how could we apply this to something we are teaching or learning?

Read this if…

You are interested in how we think or learn but want a slightly different approach to the other books you’ve read!

Find the book here

Noise, by Daniel Kahneman, Olivier Sibony, and Cass Sunstein

Why I read it 

I really enjoyed Thinking, Fast and Slow, and having listened to Kahneman talk about his more recent work on a string of podcasts, I was excited to pre-order Noise. I knew that Kahneman and his team would be considered, detailed, and base their work on a large volume of research, and I wasn’t disappointed.

In summary

Noise is defined as the inconsistencies and flaws in our judgments; the reason why one courtroom judge can pass an extreme sentence, and the other a lenient one. Or why 10 members of the same team might all give different answers to the same question, even when they think they are holding a consistent approach with the others. The authors propose that much work has been done over the years on the effects of bias, but not nearly enough on noise.

The book examines different types of noise, such as singular versus pattern noise, as well as ways that we often miss this ‘invisible’ problem, and lastly looks at ways that we can reduce noise in our organisations.

Hugely technical and with lengthy explanations, often linked to specific industries, this isn’t a light read. But, when you persevere with the subject matter and think it through, there is much to learn from this genius group of thinkers.

Key takeaways

  1. Noise affects us much more than we think – the authors use an example from an insurance firm – two underwriters were asked to come up with an estimate for an insurance premium. Executives from the company were then asked to estimate what the difference in their answers would be: they went for 10%, on average. In fact, the difference was 55% between the two estimates. This exemplifies two things for us all: one, that there is likely to be a big difference in the way we judge things versus our colleagues; and two, that we underestimate this variability and the effects of noise. The authors suggest that we often work with the ‘illusion of agreement’.
  2. Noise doesn’t average out – an organisation may audit their noise and find that, ultimately, the average of noise and inconsistency is a relatively low number, for example 10-15%. However, it would be a mistake to think this low number means it all cancels out over time – some noise will be high, some low. But each one tells a story, each one may have lead to a costly mistake.
  3. Mood influences us – unsurprisingly, as proven with judges in court, our mood, the weather, and other circumstances, can influence the consistency and validity of our judgements
  4. Recognising and reducing noise – for me, one of the major gains I made while reading this book was to understand how easily noise, inconsistency and bias creep into our judgements and decisions. The authors do discuss a ‘decision hygiene’ process and ‘noise audit’ to help identify and reduce noise in your organisation, but I will leave that to the book itself to detail for you. The noise audit is particularly useful, and I will be using something similar with the Heads of Year team soon, to understand how and why we make the decisions that we do.

Favourite moment

I was shocked (for a moment) when I read the section on excessive coherence. Let’s say you are given some words to describe a candidate or student. Intelligent and persistent are the first two words. You are then given the next words: cunning, unprincipled. Studies show that your opinion of them changes, but not enough to seriously consider the final words, as you were influenced by your initial opinion of them. If we had received the latter words first, our opinion of them would be completely altered.

We form coherent impressions quickly and are slow to change them. We then assign less importance to the later information because of our confirmation bias that this was an intelligent and persistent person.

The key question we can apply to any situation is: would I have formed this judgement if I’d received this information in a different order? This reminds of me Maria Konnikova’s The Biggest Bluff, and becoming over confident with your poker hand at the early stages; once the latter cards are dealt, you still anchor your judgement on how you felt initially, disregarding the statistical, logical information you have latterly been given. I think we can all apply this valuable lesson to our work – we should disregard our feelings about early information, and logically consider the whole picture, before we make a judgement or decision.

Read this if…

You want to understand more about the flaws and idiosyncrasies in our judgements and decisions

You want to consider the inconsistencies and ‘noise’ in your own organisation

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An Introduction to Coaching Skills, by Christian van Nieuwerburgh

Why I read it 

I am halfway through a fantastic Coaching Accreditation Program from the good people at Growth Coaching International. One of the course leaders, Christian van Nieuwerburgh, wrote this book and has used it as part of the course materials. It is a coaching bible, not merely ‘an introduction’ as the title suggests. I usually read books within a week, but using this text over 10 weeks of the course (so far) has provided the added benefit of chewing over the ideas, revisiting them, and applying them to my practice.

In summary

A friend of mine, who is a qualified coach, joked that coaching is asking questions that don’t start with ‘why’. While amusing, this book cuts through that notion with layer upon layer of skills and values required to be an effective coach. An Introduction to Coaching Skills provides theory and practical ideas for an array of skills, such as listening, questioning, paraphrasing and summarising, giving and receiving feedback, and how to use a coaching framework such as the GROW model.

In addition to Christian’s own views and experiences, the book is packed with research, activities, key questions, anecdotal examples, and even links to a website to watch some of these skills modelled. This book has taught me so much about both the fundamentals of coaching, and the intricate skills that aren’t immediately obvious. The word I use again is: layers.

Key takeaways

  1.  Listening – this section is called ‘Listening to encourage thinking’, and firstly discourages us from completing sentences for our coachee, guessing at difficult words, or interjecting with an ‘it happened to me’-style comparison. Instead, Christian provides lots of techniques to both demonstrate our listening, but also to help us actively listen so that we are in tune with the coachee and their needs.
  2. Summarising and paraphrasing – I have to admit that when I became a coach I thought it was all about the questioning skills. But this book teaches you the power behind summarising someone’s thoughts, perhaps to clarify your understanding, to help your coachee refocus their attention, or to simply show you are listening. The chapter provides lots of ways of using summary and paraphrasing techniques.
  3.  Coaching way of being – adopting a phrase from Dr Carl Rogers, Christian suggests a variety of ways to fulfil a ‘way of being’ as a coach, from authenticity and positivity in a coaching relationship, to the need for the coachee desiring to make a change. The chapter goes on to explore how our self-reflection, awareness, and skills help us to achieve an effective and authentic ‘way of being’ as a coach.
  4. Ethics of coaching – another aspect of coaching that I had overlooked up to this point was the importance of following an agreed code of ethics as a coach, in order to ensure core principles such as confidentiality and integrity in the relationship. There is a global code of ethics that the major coaching associations adhere to.

Favourite quote

‘If I were king for a day’.

Christian heard this quote from a US conference, and decided to turn it into a coaching question: ‘If you were a king for a day, what………’

He observes that putting the coachee in control of everything allowed them to think through the effect of implementing their idea. Suddenly, their view on something was enactable, and now they would have to think through how it would actually work in practice. They realised that the situation was more complex than first appreciated, and, therefore, had to think through more possible options before deciding on the next steps.

So, try this one out with your coachees!

Favourite moment

During the preface (yes, you should read these!), Christian recalls a story that made me smile. In short, he lent a man £20 near Heathrow Airport, after the man asked for help because he’d spent his own money helping his brother. Christian gave the man his number, with the latter insisting that he would call soon to organise a return of the money. Christian felt that he had done the right thing, and wondered if he would have done the same thing before having become a coach. The man never did call Christian or find a way to return the money, but Christian would like to think that he would help a stranger in need if called upon again; ‘becoming a coach has helped me to be less judgmental and more trusting’.

Read this if…

You are thinking of becoming a coach

You are a coach reflecting on your own practice

Find the book here

The Advantage, by Patrick Lencioni

Why I read it:

As you may know, I’m on a quest to understand how staff can thrive within organisations, and have reviewed many books that study this area of working life. The Advantage is written by Patrick Lencioni, an American author who is well known for his charisma, know-how and enthusiasm – having read a lot of research-focused books, I wanted to experience something a bit different in my latest take on ‘organisational health’, and this seemed to fit the bill.

In summary:

Lencioni sets out to write a practical guide to increase organisational health; that is, that everyone in the organisation is pulling in the same direction with purpose, clarity, strong communication, and effective leadership. He splits the process for this into four steps: Build a Cohesive Leadership Team; Create Clarity; Overcommunicate Clarity; Reinforce Clarity.

Each section of the book is very practical, combining theory behind the ideas, along with step-by-step guidance to implement certain initiatives, and then case studies from organisations who have enjoyed success with the methods. What I liked about this book is that it encourages leaders to dedicate time and thought to reviewing organisational health; meetings, away days, and thinking that moves beyond the immediate to-do list that is in front of you, and to the big picture. I found this approach particularly useful given that it’s not always easy to do in education; it took me out of my comfort zone, and helped me to plan more effective meetings for the summer term, as I reflect on how to improve for next year.

Key takeaways:

  1. Open feedback is tough but has major gains: one task that is suggested for a team to have a go at, is to put some time aside, say a few hours. One activity that may foster more open feedback, trust, and reflection is for each member of the team to write down a strength about each other member, and then share them, one by one. Following this, each member writes down a target or weakness for every other member, and shares again. The combination of positive and constructive feedback can be powerful – every member is boosted but also perhaps humbled. It might feel tough at first, but experiencing this as a group normalises giving feedback, and trust between the members to be honest. Do we have healthy, constructive means of giving each other feedback in our workplace?
  2. Six critical questions: these exist to provide clarity; everyone should be able to give the same answer. Why do we exist? How do we behave? What do we do? How will we succeed? What is most important right now? Who must do what?
  3. Overcommunicating your ethos: the leadership team and organisation should keep communicating their ethos, and those six critical questions. Employees should be able to articulate the organisation’s reason for existence, values, strategic anchors, and goals.

Favourite quote:

‘Smart organisations are good at those classic fundamentals of business – subjects like strategy, marketing, finance and technology – which I consider to be decision sciences. But being smart is only half the equation. Yet somehow it occupies almost all the time, energy and attention of most executives. The other half of the equation, the one that is largely neglected, is about being healthy.

Lencioni lists healthy attributes as: minimal politics, minimal confusion, high morale, high productivity, low turnover.

Favourite moment:

‘Better Light’ sketch from the show I Love Lucy.

Ricky, Lucy’s husband, comes home from work one day to find his wife crawling around the living room on her hands and knees. He asks what she is doing. ‘I’m looking for my earrings’, she responds. Rick asks: ‘you lost your earrings in the living room?’. She shakes her head. ‘No, I lost them in the bedroom, but the light out here is much better.’

Lencioni uses the analogy to suggest that leaders look for answers where the light is better, where they are more comfortable. The light is perhaps those measurable activities, e.g. sales, revenue, exam results, data. But organisational health, the way that staff are thriving (or surviving!) is less tangible, will provide ambiguous answers, and takes time and self-reflection to improve. That is our challenge.

Question and reflect

The Advantage discusses how away days and meetings to reflect on our work can be so important to review culture and organisational health. In schools, we are generally time poor – the timetable isn’t going anywhere! My new school has annual away days for various teams – an idea that raised my eyebrows at first. But the more I reflect about taking time to think about who we are, what we are doing and why, away from the fray or the immediacy of work which may influence our long-term plans, the more I’m coming round to the idea.

In that sense, reading a book that is mostly about organisations outside of education is a mixed blessing. Sure, there are ideas that just couldn’t work in school settings, but those are few compared with the others that you wouldn’t ordinarily consider, but could be adapted to your school setting. There is a richness in exploring other contexts.

Read this if…

You lead a team

You want to reflect on your team / organisation for the coming year. Perhaps you are considering your six critical questions, your general culture of behaviour, or want to set new goals.

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Wednesday’s Wisdom #7: Two Ears, One Mouth – the Art of Listening

‘No, that’s not really what I meant’. The fatal knell of a speaker’s response, once you’ve neglected your duties as a listener with a blundered question or comment. You can probably salvage the visage of the conversation itself, but it sounds like the speaker doubts your understanding. The trust you built may have been undermined. Perhaps you didn’t listen attentively enough. Perhaps you missed opportunities to clarify along the way. Or perhaps you worded your question clumsily. On the surface, this isn’t a catastrophic error in your day; you have hundreds of conversations, it’s difficult to be perfect in each of them, and I’ve obviously catastrophised this example.

But, heck, we’re all good listeners, right? We teach, we lead, we collaborate, and all of those roles require a sensitive ear and at least a smattering of emotional intelligence. As I’ve learnt on my coaching journey, though, it’s not enough to just think you’re a good listener. It’s not enough to be curious, or engaged. We can be engaged and yet make all sorts of incorrect assumptions about what we’re being told, or interject needlessly with our golden advice that turns out to be at best disempowering and at worst incorrect. Listening is a skill that takes practice. It is deliberate. Nuanced. And worthy of study and reflection.

I find that our aim or motive going into a conversation can play a big role in how effectively we listen within them. Consider some of your interactions today, and your motive for listening. Were you simply waiting to hear the information you needed? Were you allowing the speaker time to feel listened to? Were you genuinely engaged in what you were hearing? Did you want to help the speaker? If so, how? Through direction or coaching? On how many of those occasions, today, were you the best version of your listening self? How many of those people you spoke to felt empowered and heard?

Burt (P3, 2019) suggests that, especially in a coaching context, listening can be the ways a listener becomes aware of what a speaker is experiencing and expressing in a given moment. When we feel as though we are being listened to, it can have a profound effect on us; as David Augsberger said: ‘being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person they are almost indistinguishable’. The positive feelings allow our brain to work in a safe environment; we don’t have to expend energy and thoughts holding back or guarding ourselves, which allows the liberation to pursue an idea. When you couple this with the listener’s inquiry questions to help deepen their understanding of the issue, or to prompt further thinking in the speaker, we have a pretty potent force (in essence, this is coaching!).

But, this is difficult to perfect every time, and often something goes awry:

  • Lack of focus or distractions – in a busy environment, not giving someone our undivided attention can often occur
  • Perceived lack of time to listen properly
  • Perceived weakness that listening means we aren’t leading with ‘strength’
  • Good intentions, poor interventions – often, we are keen to help those we are listening to. We’ll interject with advice, assumptions about the situation or the person. It might validate our sense of worth or competence to do so, but is that helping the speaker feel heard, valued, or trusted to talk through their own ideas?

An article from the Harvard Business Review carried out research to find out the habits of effective listeners, with some findings indicating that they created safe environments, asked questions, and offered feedback and suggestions as they went along. The key in their studies was that those who were rated as poor listeners stayed mostly silent during the conversation, and then gave feedback or advice at the end; those rated good listeners were involved in the conversation throughout, and therefore their advice was welcomed.

Burt (2019) outlines 4 modes of listening to bear in mind; things that we perhaps do automatically, but could be more consciously aware of while we are listening:

  1. Attention: concentration and focus on the speaker and conversation
  2. Inquiry: the skill to respond and explore the speaker’s account, helping both parties deepen their awareness / understanding
  3. Observation: noticing and understanding non-verbal cues
  4. Resonance: the sensitivity and awareness that allows someone to notice how they are being impacted by the speaker, and how to show that response to the speaker.

In other words, to listen effectively, we need to focus, engage, ask pertinent questions, observe our speaker’s non-verbal cues, and to reflect on how the speaker feels, but also to evaluate how we are making them feel.

Again, it is easy to think of a conversation as questions and answers. You ask questions, they give answers, repeat. But there are other techniques we can use to not simply mine information, but to help the speaker feel heard, and come to greater awareness of their own thoughts. Here are some other key listening skills I have picked up recently from coaching courses, books, and research, which are often referred to as active listening skills:

  • Replaying: playing back certain words or phrases to the person you are listening to, in order to see what hearing back their own wording provokes. Sometimes it affirms their views, and other times hearing the words aloud allows them to clarify or alter that idea. ‘Oh, now that I hear that, actually what I meant was…’
  • Paraphrasing and summarising: it can be useful to sum up or paraphrase elements of what we’ve just heard; this has the twofold benefit of demonstrating our listening and understanding, while also helping the speaker hear what their key points may have been. I find a useful way in to this, adopted from Christian van Nieuwerburgh, is ‘So, it sounds like you….’
  • Clarifying: asking questions to check if your understanding is correct. This helps convey your engagement and determination to understand, as well as helping you make sure you are fully abreast of the situation.
  • Asking how they feel about something: it’s easy to go through a conversation and ask about details, facts, events, options, plans, etc. But how often do you ask about how someone feels? ‘How does that option make you feel? ‘If you achieved that, how would you feel?’.

As I said earlier, I do consider (like most) myself to be a good listener. And yet, practising these techniques during both coaching and other professional conversations is pushing my brain to the limit. I am not yet unconsciously competent, as it were, which means I’m almost mechanically churning through the gears to listen actively and competently. I’m optimistic that, with practice, and making this my daily method to listen and converse, I’ll improve.

While these are all excellent principles of coaching, I don’t see them as being confined to coaching conversations. If you’re interested in reflecting about not only how to ‘listen better’, but to help develop and empower the person you are listening to, try out some of these ideas in your daily chats. I’m a big believer in the ‘coaching approach’ being utilised informally in corridors, offices, classrooms in a spontaneous fashion; good listening doesn’t need to be exclusive to a purposely scheduled meeting.

Enjoy your listening this week.

Sam

Sources and inspiration:

Buck, A (2020) The BASIC Coaching Method. Cadogan Press

Burt (2019) The art of listening in coaching and mentoring. Routledge, London

Van Nieuwerbrugh, C (2017) An Introduction to Coaching Skills. Sage, London.

Whitmore, J (2014) Coaching for Performance. NB Publishing, London.

What Great Listeners Actually Do (hbr.org)

Research Paper: Active Listening: An Essential Skill for Coaching (coachcampus.com)

The Power of Listening in Helping People Change (hbr.org)

A School Built on Ethos, by James Handscombe

Why I read it 

When I was Head of Sixth Form, I took assembly most weeks, either for Year 12, Year 13, or both together. I viewed the assembly preparation and delivery as an art form – a chance to consider an important message, and then to work hard to encase it in authenticity, sincerity, exposure to knowledge and the world, and the values we wanted to promote. For the delivery, I set myself the silly target of imagining that each assembly would be filmed and put on the TED website – it had to be good enough for that standard. Whether I ever achieved my goals, I’m not sure, but my conviction was and is, that assemblies are one of the most vital tools we have to build culture and values within our schools. When I saw that James Handscombe had written this book, I couldn’t believe my luck!

In summary

James is the Principal of Harris Westminster Sixth Form, and this book details the journey he and the school took from their inception, to how they created and sustained their desired culture and values. When I bought the book, I expected a practical guide to assemblies. What I got was far greater. James discusses how assemblies were used with thought and purpose to convey messages, from their values as a ‘community of scholars’, to dealing with culturally sensitive issues on a societal level. He is honest about how the school ethos developed, which includes successes and failures, exploring how changes in student numbers and personnel means that culture doesn’t stand still – one has to keep honing.

But what I didn’t expect was the bank of assembly transcripts (yes, transcripts!) from the last few years. They are beautifully crafted, full of wisdom, knowledge, culture, and authenticity. Rather than bolting these on at the end, the assemblies are included chronologically, as the story of the school unfolds over time.

Key takeaways

  1. Learning is amazing – James notes that some early feedback about his assemblies was that he uses the phrase ‘learning is amazing’ often. There are hundreds of ideas and examples in the book, but it essentially boils down to that phrase; show the students your love of, and commitment to, learning, and you will foster the same in them.
  2. Different benefits and uses of assemblies – explain the behaviours we desire, broaden cultural understanding, make references to things that students can look up later, set challenges, teach things, embrace learning, have fun, build culture and ethos. The book is dedicated to discussing why these are all important, and the transcripts are a brilliant model for the reader.
  3. Books – Harris Westminster are big believers in mentioning, and recommending books and poets throughout their assemblies. Handscombe says ‘we are recommending, opening doors, navigating library shelves, and show that there is always more – more to read about, more to think about’.
  4. Culture isn’t permanent and communities don’t happen automatically – there is much reflection about how assemblies are a fantastic building block for culture and ethos – but the job is never ‘done’. As things move on, the school must continually re-evaluate its communication and ethos. James is particularly honest about how, as the school grew, they had to adapt their message, and that they didn’t always anticipate cultural shifts that occurred. Useful lessons for all.
  5. Societal issues and stories – a couple of chapters are dedicated to how schools could, and should, discuss what’s going on beyond the walls of the building. Handscombe deals with these issues, from FGM to protests, in a sensitive manner, acknowledging the difficulties and benefits of addressing subjects that aren’t always comfortable to us. If you’re ever tussling with how to tackle current events, like Black Lives Matter, for example, you’ll learn a lot from Harris Westminster’s experiences.

Favourite quote

‘Writing an assembly is an art in which ideas are woven together. Typically, I start with a message that I want the students to hear which might be the importance of using time wisely or even an exhortation not to block the toilets with paper towels; quite often, I have more than one such message. I then start to look for a story to tell, one whose moral could conceivably be the message. Sometimes the story will be a personal one, sometimes it will be a piece of news or literature, but often I will look for a personal hook – a place for me to stand as I talk to the school, a way to make an assembly human rather than functional. Finally, I will go in search of some cultural illustrations: some poetry or pop music, film, art, history, or mathematics that I can drop in along the way. These will always be things I think it is worth the students following up, sometimes for the cultural depth and heft it will give them, and sometimes because I want to share the joy I have found.

Favourite moment

As I mentioned earlier, the assembly transcripts are a rare and unexpected treat, as is their index which groups the assemblies by theme.

I have read many of the assemblies in full, which have provoked ideas and themes for my own future assemblies, but also provided me with many cultural references, quotes, news stories, etc.

These transcripts would be worth the price of the book alone.

Question and reflect

  • Do we make the most of assemblies? Does your school have a purposeful plan for the values and messages conveyed in assemblies?
  • Which cultural references or topical stories should we be addressing in school? How will we tackle these important issues?

Read this if…

You want to explore the journey of a school that put culture at the heart of what it does, especially in its assemblies

You want to improve your assemblies, or better understand different ways of maximising their potential

Find the book here

Alive At Work, by Daniel Cable

Why I read it:

If you’ve read a few of my posts, you’ll know that I have a keen interest in how we thrive at work – how we find purpose, safety, enthusiasm and wellbeing in our jobs. I’ve particularly enjoyed books such as The Culture Code, Think Again, and The Human Workplace, which examine research and real-life examples; in this instance, I can’t remember who recommend Alive At Work to me, but this fits the bill of those other great works. Thank you, unknown tipster.

In summary:

Alive At Work is divided into four sections: The Seeking System, Self Expression, Experimentation, and Purpose. Cable argues that many workplaces are deactivating our ‘seeking system’, the part of the brain that gives us the impulse to explore, learn, and experiment, and therefore we lose out on the hit of dopamine this gives us, as well as diminishing our motivation and sense of purpose. The book aims to explore how workplaces weaken the seeking system in their employees, and, more importantly, what we can do to reclaim this fundamental part of ourselves in our professional lives.

Cable uses a range of studies and anecdotal examples to create a thoroughly engaging and well-informed book. Reading it gave me the beautiful triumvirate of learning, enjoyment, and excitement, similarly to how I felt when I read the books mentioned in the first paragraph of this reflection. The author is solution focused and explores each aspect of being ‘alive’ at work through to a conclusion and recommendation for us as workers and leaders.

Key takeaways:

  1. Seeking system: exploring, experimenting, learning – a lot of the book is dedicated to our innate desires to explore, experiment and learn. The problem is that many workplaces have policies, job roles, and accountability measures that discourage employees from following their natural inclinations; fear from both managers and employees means that we are often discouraged from pursuing ideas. Cable suggests ‘freedom and the frame’ as a tool to help all parties involved; the right balance between an organizational frame, and the freedom for employees to solve problems and pursue their own ideas. This, in turn, links to a creativity fallacy. Cable states that by activating the seeking system: ‘when you increase enthusiasm and excitement, you improve problem solving and creativity’. In polls, CEOs tend to value being creative highly amongst employee skills, but studies show that they often put little trust in creativity and freedom. The challenge for us is to create environments where employees find their motivation and purpose from being able to activate their seeking system.
  2. Purpose needs to be felt – injecting a sense of purpose into an organization, and maintaining that sense of purpose among staff, is undeniably one of the most important aspects of a workplace. We all wake up and go to work to feel as though we are serving a purpose. So, how can we best utilize that? Cable cites a study by Adam Grant in which he attempted to understand how to motivate and inspire those who worked as fundraisers. Various ideas were tried, but the one that had the most impact, was the fundraising team hearing directly from someone who had benefited from funding before. Vitally, it was less effective when their managers told them second hand: the direct contact really drove the purpose home. Cable surmises that we need to connect emotionally to truly gain a sense of purpose: that the seeking system needs to feel – it is not rational or logical, or something that you process in a cognitive way. And therefore we cannot be disingenuous when trying to create purpose; it needs to be authentic and felt by the recipients.
  3. The power of ‘your best self’ – Cable talks at length about an experiment his team conducted at Wipro, a large telecom and ICT company, to get the most from employees in roles such as call centre reps. During the studies, they found that the employees who, on their induction day, were asked to write about their best qualities, and then share with the group, were more productive for months afterwards, and felt more motivated in their work. The studies seemed to reflect that by asking us to consider our ‘best self’, and share with others, we influence our own future behaviours, and also become more empowered and loyal to the group and the organization. Another conclusion is that ‘the more our colleagues know who we are when we are at our best, the more likely we can feel like ourselves at work’.

Favourite quote:

Lots of potentials for this prize, but here is an excellent conclusion from the section on humble leadership:

‘Here’s what we know: humble leaders help people move toward their full potential, growing and trying new ideas of the job. This works partly because humble leaders model how to grow to their followers. Rather than just talking about the importance of learning and experimenting, humble leaders model how to develop – by acknowledging mistakes and limitations and being open to listening, observing, and learning-by-doing. Humility allows both leaders and followers to be more receptive to new ideas, criticism, or changes in the external environment.

Favourite movement:

In 2014, perhaps before many companies had fully understand their social media presence, Dutch airline KLM made a blunder when they mocked Mexico during a defeat to their native Netherlands, with the words ‘Adios Amigos’ and an image of a sombrero-wearing man. Up to this point, the social media team had enjoyed relatively few protocols on how they conducted the feeds – but HQ had to step in with a public apology. At many workplaces, the work of those involved might have been seriously curtailed henceforth. However, rather than reprimanding the social media team, KLM encouraged them to continue to experiment. One example was offering a $10,000 dollar budget for employees to come up with an original social media campaign; one group decided to use social media to work out where some of their customers were flying, and then intercepted them at the airport to give them a gift for their travels, based on their destination or specific interests expressed on their social media page. Cable discusses how KLM provided freedom within a frame, and how, to this day, KLM is regularly awarded for its use of online presence and social media usage. This anecdote embodies a lot of what ‘Alive At Work’ is about – how organisations can be successful and organized, whilst still providing psychological safety, and a sense of autonomy to their employees, so that they can thrive in their sense of purpose and belonging.

Question and reflect:

  • Cable establishes the importance of our seeking system – does our organization give us the room to explore and learn? How could this be improved? Are we rewarded for being curious and creative?
  • How can we create a sense of purpose and mission in our organisations, without it seeming forced and disingenuous? Think of an emotive yet authentic method to help connect employees with your intended purpose.
  • Try out the ‘best self’ exercise. When are you your best self? Which are your best traits? Try sharing this with a team you work within.

Read this if:

You are interested in how we can thrive in workplaces

You are a leader interested in understanding how we can improve the sense or purpose and expression in our workplaces

Find the book here

Stop Talking About Wellbeing, by Kat Howard

Why I read it:

As I’ve mentioned before, I carried out a research project on staff wellbeing in 2019-2020, which was a fantastic opportunity to look at wellbeing with a research-informed eye. During that project, I saw that Kat Howard was writing, and then publishing this book – and knew it would be a vital piece of work to help school leaders and teachers to gain a footing with wellbeing. I read it once when it was published, once when I was appointed as a Deputy Head, and have revisited in in the last few weeks in anticipation of writing this blog post. And there’s more to discover each time.

In summary:

Stop Talking About Wellbeing has a wide scope; it covers much more than the traditional, perhaps tertiary views of wellbeing, such as perks or mindfulness. Kat is incredibly ambitious in her approach, exploring teaching and learning, curriculum, behaviour – virtually all aspects of school life are covered. And, that’s the point! Kat’s message is simple: we should stop talking about wellbeing as a separate, bolt-on entity, and understand it as a process that involves all aspects of our work.

Each chapter focuses on a different area of school life, such as curriculum, planning, communication, imposter syndrome, and many others. Kat includes her own startling level of expertise, in addition to the views and input of others, through sharing tweets, twitter polls, and cameo reflections from big hitters such as Jonny Uttley.

The title of this book is catchy and clearly makes the point that wellbeing is about all aspects of our work, but I can’t help but feel that there is so much more to this than people realise. Everyone should read it! Kat even includes a ‘reading route’ at the start, advising an order to read the book depending on your role, from trainee, to senior leader, to ‘I want to quit’.

Key takeaways:

Stop Talking About Wellbeing is comprehensive and thoughtful. While some pages are broken up by bullet points and boxes, most of the text is written in fluent, comprehensive prose. There isn’t a short cut to wellbeing, and Kat’s discussion of the subject is detailed and considered; as such, there are far too many takeaways to list – so I’d really suggest buying this book if you have any interest in wellbeing, valuing staff, or school improvement.

  1. Health and wellness – Kat gives some practical advice about the physicality of our jobs, such as how to watch out for back pain (we’ve all been there!) and how to make sure we get enough sleep to stay healthy. She also explores some of the community-based ways to promote wellness, such as the teacher5aday hashtag. The book is more about treating causes rather than some of these symptoms, but nevertheless the guidance here is useful and well informed.
  2. Marking vs feedback – this is an expertly considered and resourced chapter, discussing how marking has turned into an administrative, onerous task, and has lost its way from what it intended to do: provide useful feedback. Kat reflects upon how to turn marking policies into purposeful feedback, and also features some insightful guidance regarding initiatives such as whole-class feedback and comparative judgment. Implementing these could be a game changer for you and your school!
  3. Communication – how many hours have we lost due to poor communication? How much stress does a late email cause us when we are trying to unwind? Kat calls email ‘the kiss of death for conversation’, and lists some tragic (and I found, slightly amusing) cardinal sins of email. Kat then moves into a discussion about organisations and leaders who prioritise human connection at all levels; this, in turn, leads to an exploration of behaviour within a school. Put simply, everything connects in the pursuit of the wellbeing of all in the organisation.
  4. Fewer things in depth a lot of our workload problems come from onerous tasks that don’t add to the core purpose of education and learning. Kat discusses how if it doesn’t serve a purpose, we should stop doing it. Not only will this reduce our workload, but it means we should be left with tasks that are fulfilling and serve the purpose that we are so motivated to achieved as educators.

As I said, there are so many takeaways from this book, but they are nuanced and detailed – you need to read the book through with a pen, your values, and experiences to get the most out of it.

Favourite moments:

‘My why’ – the main opening chapter is one of personal reflection, vulnerability, and purpose. Kat opens up about some of the challenges in her personal and professional life. It’s clear from reading this chapter that the author has had many typical experiences of a struggling teacher, and has clear passion for the subject. It is also the perfect time for the reader to reflect on how they feel as a teacher, and if the sense of purpose they felt when entering the profession is still being fed by their current workplace.

Reflection questions – the chapters end with a set of reflection questions; these are cleverly worded, taking on what I’d call a ‘coaching approach’, which aids the reader to actually reflect!

Favourite quote:

‘Wellbeing is hard to attain because it is not an outcome, but part of the process’

This is a vital quote for those who are pursuing happier, healthier careers or workplaces. Wellbeing isn’t solved with a checklist or a certificate – it doesn’t end. Every aspect of our work should consider wellbeing, so that our day-to-day processes are ones that help us to thrive.

Question and Reflect:

  • How much time have you spent considering wellbeing as part of the curriculum, teaching and learning, or pastoral areas of the school? Have we spent as much time as a profession discussing how wellbeing links to each of those areas? If you have a wellbeing lead at your school – are they connected to all areas of school life?
  • If you could review your organisation in order to put staff wellbeing at the centre, where would you start? Which tasks are entrenched but unnecessary? Which add value? Which serve your core purpose?
  • Does your school or workplace have specific guidance about workload, or policies regarding emails and communication?

Read this if..

You are interested in wellbeing or school improvement

You are a teacher or leader

Support book shops and find it here

Seven and a Half Lessons About The Brain, by Lisa Feldman Barrett

Why I read it:

If you’re here, you may have read books about memory science, metacognition, and how we learn things. Research and books on those areas have informed my teaching for the last five years, so I thought it was time to try one that looks at the brain beyond learning and teaching.

In summary:

Each ‘Lesson’ alluded to in the title is given its own chapter, during which Feldman Barrett explains the principle and provides lots of examples. The subject matter is technical, yet she writes for the novice, and I appreciated that! One of the key elements to learning new material is how the teacher turns abstract concepts into concrete examples, ideally a few. Lisa Feldman Barrett, unsurprisingly, has this down to a tee, providing many analogies and examples along the way, such as comparing the networks in our brain with local vs international airports.

Key takeaways:

Your brain is a predictor – our brain’s most important function is to manage allostasis – to predict energy needs before they arise so that you can make worthwhile movements and survive. A great example is how when you are thirsty and drink, you feel that your thirst has been quenched immediately, despite it taking around 20 minutes for that to physiologically occur; your brain predicts the hydration and gives you the feeling of satisfaction, while your body cracks on with the process itself. Sometimes your brain budgets for the short term, like allowing you to drink coffee so that you can stay up late to work on something ahead of a deadline, or alternatively long term when it helps you learn something new over the period of years.

Brain myths – Just like many ‘learning myths’ in Education, Feldman Barrett dispels some brain myths, here, such as: our brain does not light up with activity, and does not store memories like computer files.

Your brain is a network – 128 billion neurons are grouped into clusters – some clusters serve local, specific traffic, and others are densely connected to many other clusters. Imagine airports – local airports don’t fly everywhere – you have to fly to a bigger hub to make a connection somewhere else. This chapter is fascinating, as we learn about how messages move around and connect.

Trust, safety, and their impact on your brain – we’ve probably all read about the positive effects we feel when we work somewhere which trusts and values us. But those workplaces that offer free meals to feed us and help us to socialise with our colleagues, or provide space and time for collaboration beyond our desks or offices, actually have an effect on our ‘body budget’ – our brain and body feel good about our surroundings, we don’t need to budget so much to survive or feel at ease, and our energy can be put into effective collaboration and new ideas.

Brains create reality ‘social reality means that we impose new functions on physical things, such as agreeing collectively that a chunk of Earth is a ‘country’, or that a particular person (e.g. a president), is a leader. Studies show that wine tastes better when people believe it’s expensive, and coffee labelled as being ‘eco-friendly’ tastes better. Your brain’s predictions, steeped in social reality, change the way you perceive things.’ My takeaway is that it’s worth us being more conscious about how we assign meaning or reality to things – social constructs are all around us – if we can identify and understand them, it might help us think differently, or to reconstruct their meanings.

Favourite moment:

I loved this anecdote which leads into a clear explanation about how our brain shows us things based on our memories, and its predictions:

Feldman Barrett describes a soldier who was in the Rhodesian army in Southern Africa in the 1970s to defeat guerrilla fighters. He was deep in the forest one morning, conducting a practice exercise, when he saw movement ahead: a long line of guerrilla fighters with machine guns. He raised his rifle, flicked off the safety, and was about to shoot his AK47. Suddenly a hand grabbed his shoulder – ‘don’t shoot, it’s just a boy’ whispered one of his colleagues. You see, your brain doesn’t just show images like a perfect piece of CCTV – we piece things together, a lot of which is by prediction and memory. Your brain is receiving so much data, it has to make sense of it, often plumping for what seems the most reasonable – for example, if you have been somewhere before, you have a previous memory to use as a basis for this experience, and your brain can predict what it should see. Therefore, what you see is a mixture of what’s out there, and what your brain is expecting to see. The soldier saw what he expected to see, based on his environment and other experiences.

Favourite quote:

‘Your actions today become your brain’s predictions for tomorrow, and those predictions automatically drive your future actions. Therefore, you have some freedom to hone your predictions in new directions, and have some responsibility for the results.’

Question and Reflect:

If we teach or lead, how much do we need to know about the brain? Is it important to be aware of how we behave or learn; and what about beyond that – the nuts and bolts of how the brain works?

Now that I understand more about the way we construct reality, or the way we piece things together and come up with an impression based on other experiences and memory – how can I learn from this? Well, one thing that strikes me immediately is being more empathetic towards others, and myself I suppose, about any perceptions, assumptions, mistakes that we make.

Read this if..

You are interested in learning about the brain!

You are a teacher or leader

Support bookshops and buy it here

Wednesday’s Wisdom #6: Why We Write

The 2001 series Band of Brothers made a profound impression on me as a teenager, and continues to, twenty years later, as I periodically revisit the ten beautiful, harrowing, and poignant instalments. As the show reaches its finale, the penultimate episode sees Easy Company uncover a concentration camp in Germany; after a year of gruelling conditions and senseless death, the soldiers rediscover their purpose as they liberate the long-suffering inmates. The episode is aptly named ‘Why We Fight’. I like the simplicity. Monosyllables. Alliteration. The assonance of the ‘i’ sound. The defiant and deliberate consonant at the end. Minimalistic, and yet conveys so much. And now, as I reflect on the purpose we can discover from writing, the title seems a fitting one to borrow: Why We Write.

My first forays into online writing came on a video-game forum that was attached to a chain of retail stores. In addition to the online community, the company awarded a daily prize of a video game of your choice to the best post that day; the title, like this post’s, wasn’t particularly original (Game-a-day), but it was an incentive for 13-year-old me to write a review or opinion piece. I spent hours honing my craft, desperate to win a game. I did win plenty, much to my delight, but the real prize was the gift and joy of writing. Since then I have become an English teacher, written a novel draft, and in 2021, made a resolution to start writing a blog. And every time I write, like many others I’m sure, I feel a combination of excitement, clarity, and apprehension.

My belief was that by writing a reflection of the most interesting books I’d read, my new blog would create a lasting bank of ideas and takeaways that I could apply to future self-development, staff CPD or public speaking. The perfect antidote to my sieve-like memory when it comes to reading books. But as I began to write, much more began to happen. The drafting process meant that I engaged with the books more deeply. Putting thoughts into words meant that my inferences changed, and my reading of the texts became more critical. It felt like my previous engagement had been 50% of what was really possible.

When you browse Twitter, whether that’s Teacher, Tech, or Sports Twitter, you’ll find a proliferation of blogs and articles to read. My favourites are those that pour a bit of themselves into their work, be that a personal reflection, or the prose itself being full of life and joy. Perhaps I’m biased, but I love reading the work of Kat Howard and David Didau; as fellow English teachers, I appreciate their use of language and the craft behind the ideas they present. Mary Myatt and Jill Berry are writers whose books and blog posts are crafted beautifully, too. It can be intimidating to find the confidence to write amidst such accomplished leaders, and yet we must place faith in ourselves to walk with them, and share our own experiences.

C. Robert Cargill, a brilliant scriptwriter who worked on Doctor Strange, says that if you write (anything) you are a writer, and advocates pushing on beyond hesitancy and dithering. If our writing is an extension of our thoughts, then failing to finish leaves those thoughts unfulfilled. Their potential vanishes. His pinned Tweet is usually enough to get me cracking: ‘The most important thing in writing is to finish. A finished thing can be fixed. A finished thing can be published. […] An unfinished thing is just a dream. And dreams fade if you don’t hold on tight enough. So finish the thing.’ My good friend Bryan Hitch, renowned comic artist and writer, is another example of someone who has pushed doubt aside many times over the years and grafted his way to the top of his industry, as well as encouraging me to keep going with my own writing (and now, editing!).

And there are so many reasons why our work and our perspectives are worth writing and sharing:

Clarity of mind

As I mentioned earlier, distilling your thoughts into the written word requires a clarity of mind, as you wrestle with what you want to say. I find that we rarely devote enough time to our own thoughts, let alone drafting and debating them as we convert them to the written form. Two weeks ago, I quoted the phrase ‘words create worlds’ to advocate coaching, and here it is just as fitting.

Sharing and connecting

Putting something out there invites feedback, celebration, discussion and questions. Really, if we are writing about something worthy of discussion, we should welcome all of the above. Regardless of the type of feedback, it’s just wonderful to connect. Sometimes I’ll post a blog, or even a picture of a book I’m reading, and people will get in touch to share their own experiences of that topic; suddenly, we have a common interest that can feed into future discussions. Recently, my blog posts and contribution to the From Page to Practice podcast have lead to emails exchanged, phone calls, zoom meetings and even taking on two new coachees. If I hadn’t contributed anything to the discussion, I would have missed out on these invaluable professional connections. Finally, new initiatives like Tom Sherrington’s Blog Amp, mean that we can access the work of others beyond our usual network, which is a great chance to diversify a potential echo chamber. It was via this site that I discovered Paul Cline and his excellent new blog.

The snowball effect

In recent months, there have been some brilliant blogs about staff development and instructional coaching, with my favourites coming from Jade Pearce, Josh Vallance, Josh Goodrich, and Louis Everett. It feels like a movement that is sweeping across EduTwitter, with staff improvement at the heart. I’m sure each of these practitioners, and others, benefit from each other’s writing, and spur others not only to implement their strategies, but also to write about their own experiences. Twitter conversations, blog views, conference talks (and possibly, but not necessarily, book deals) create a buzz, and what began organically can influence thousands of schools’ work for the better. And it all begins with creating, writing, and sharing.

The creative process

Whether you are writing a personal reflection, opinion piece, or explaining how you have implemented an initiative at your school, writing is creative, fun, and a challenge. How will you begin? What tone will you use? Are you going to plan out paragraph by paragraph? How much of *you* goes into the piece? Are you going to use imagery and descriptive language, or follow a more factual style? Each decision requires rumination and ultimately leads to creativity that you and your reader will enjoy.

Marking a snapshot in time

Every post we write is influenced by our knowledge, experience, and feelings at that particular moment. Our views and ideas may adapt soon after, as we engage with feedback, or continue to read around that topic. And that’s the beauty of our writing: it marks a moment in time, one that we can refer back to, learn from, and occasionally cringe at.

A call to action

The act of writing is often a good motivator to turn our thoughts into action. Our possibilities into certainties. It can be the difference between thinking about something we are interested in, and actually doing it. Likewise, sometimes reading the posts of others can be enough to influence us to read more, or give something a go. Reading blogs and books about coaching 18 months ago convinced me to give it a try; without those authors stepping up to write, I wouldn’t have found something so impactful on my career. We can all be the writer that motivates someone else to take a new step.

Having written a combination of book reviews and more personal posts about what I’ve learnt as a school leader, I have found a zest for life from my writing. I implore all those who are thinking about writing, to just write. The familiar worries will linger. What if it’s not very good? What if no one reads it? What if I’m just repeating what others have said? Whatever you write, you will bring your own personal spin on it – a unique window into your perspective and experiences; your own writing style. A slice of you. That’s a beautiful thing that deserves to be shared.

Every time you write, you’ll enjoy it more, feel a sense of liberation, and the experience will improve your work and your writing.

At the beginning of Why We Fight, a surviving Easy Company soldier comments on his German counterparts: ‘you never know, we might have been good friends. We might have had a lot in common. We might have liked to fish, he might have liked to hunt’. Without meaning to trivialise the war by relating it to writing, his insight struck me because we never know how much we share with others until we find out who they are. Firstly, I find that I don’t understand the extent my own perspective until I write it down; writing helps me know myself. Thereafter, sharing what you have written not only publicises your interests, knowledge or views, but brings with it a portion of vulnerability, an acknowledgement that you have bared your work to others. And then our writing can grow beyond the initial post and evolve as we discuss and collaborate.

And that’s Why We Write.

Thanks

Sam

Understanding How We Learn, by Dr Yana Weinstein, Dr Megan Sumeracki, with Oliver Caviglioli

Why I read it:

I’ve always been fascinated by how we learn and the ways in which I can apply that knowledge to my teaching practice. I’ve read several books on these ideas, but this was the first that tied a lot of the evidence together in one place; the addition of Caviglioli’s visuals made it a must read.

In summary

The book explores how we learn in various ways: from human cognitive processes (perception, attention and memory) in general, to strategies for effective learning. The latter includes spaced learning, interleaving, using concrete examples to help learn abstract concepts, and converting to long-term memory through retrieval practice and the testing effect.

Understanding How We Learn is as evidence-informed as they come, yet the explanations are accessible, and Caviglioli’s illustrations and headings make the book a joy to read and navigate. As geeks, we’d likely enjoy the content regardless; but the attention to the aesthetics make this a really pleasurable experience, and encourages the reader to dip back in when needed.

Key takeaways

There are too many insights to mention, so I’ve picked out three that taught me something. If you like these, there are plenty more to find in the book!

  1. Multitasking is a myth – evidence suggests that it is almost impossible to pay attention to more than one thing at the exact same time. The authors are sorry to disappoint us, but they reveal that our intuitions are wrong on this one, despite our protests that we can do two things at once! What we can do, is switch back and forth between two tasks very quickly, which is actually what you’re doing when you think you are ‘multitasking’. Switching comes at a cost, though: it decreases efficiency and slows down reaction speeds in both tasks (so turn the TV off while you’re reading this!).
  2. Spaced practice works with a test delay – spaced practice, that is, spacing learning of something over time, and not cramming into a short period, has shown to be an effective method of learning. However, the benefits only ring true when there is a delay between study and test. An example they give is that, if a student reads or studies twice for an immediate test, they may outperform the spaced learners; but even when the test was two days away, it was those who spaced their learning by doing it once a week who did better, and that gap widens with further test delay.
  3. Multiple concrete examples to illustrate abstract concepts – the authors use the example of teaching the concept of scarcity. Let’s say you use an example of airline tickets that quickly get booked up, as an example to go with your explanation. The students may only understand the concept of scarcity in relation to the airline ticket example; more concrete examples are needed. You could link to sports game ticket sales to offer another similar example; even better, then add the idea of water scarcity in a time of drought. Now the students have diverse concrete examples, and have more chance of looking beyond the surface details to better understand the abstract concept.

Favourite quote:

In the chapter named ‘Is intuition the enemy of teaching and learning?’ Weinstein and Sumeracki sympathise with the notion that some things feel good, like re-reading notes. But they often don’t translate to performance.

‘When college students are asked to predict how much they think they are learning from repeated reading, many are extremely overconfident. On the other hand, predictions made after engaging in more effective strategies – like answering practice questions or writing down everything you know about a topic – tend to be too low.’

This quote summarises the focus of the entire book: it’s not enough to rely on how things feel. We have access to better research than ever, and we must engage with what has been proven to be the best ways for people to learn.

Favourite moment:

 The opening chapters of Understanding How We Learn are dedicated to examining the education sector’s relationship with research, and the frequent pitfalls that the teaching profession has fallen into, such as teaching based on intuition, not evidence. They then discuss different types of research and studies we might look out for, and also warn us that ‘people are more likely to look at confirmatory than contradictory evidence when examining their beliefs.’

Rather than feed us their own narrative, the authors choose to help us become critical readers of educational research, before introducing the various concepts in the book.

Question and reflect

  • Do you have a secure understanding of the main principles of how we learn? If, like me, you have been reading about this for years, then trust me, there is still much more to learn!
  • How can we apply these principles to our curriculum design, and lesson delivery? For example, it would be a good idea to revisit our trickiest concepts and think about how we could add multiple concrete examples to help contextualise them

Read this if…

You are a teacher or student

You are interested in how we learn things

Find the book here

Wednesday’s Wisdom #5: Eye Contact

Having recently acquired a beautiful Huntaway puppy, I’ve thrown myself into the perplexing world of dog training. Unlike education, I can report that canine trainers are not, on the whole, experiencing a renaissance period of evidence-based pedagogy, and a quick search on YouTube will unearth multiple dog ‘behaviour experts’ who inevitably contradict each other’s attempts to explain the science behind how dogs act.

Nonetheless, I’ve found a few things that work for me and Indy (my dog Indiana. Yes, Jones). The most effective has, much to my surprise, been the ‘look at me’ command, as recommended by Zak George. Whether Indy has become distracted by horse dung, found solace in chewing a table leg, or if I want him to make eye contact to convey a gesture, ‘look at me’ helps him focus and regroup. We’ve built it up to the point where he will hold my gaze for a sustained period of time, eagerly awaiting my next move.

The impact of this command on my training regime has made me reconsider the power of eye contact among people. As a sign of the times, we are adorned in masks that nullify the ability to use our mouth to express emotion, in turn putting enormous strain on our (under practised) eyebrow game. And now interactions revolve around catching someone’s eye, and assessing their feelings and reactions through the lone visual stimuli of the eyes.

Our natural inclination as adults can be to make judgments on those who do not make sustained eye contact; perhaps we perceive those who avoid it as being less confident, or disinterested. Children, in particular, can find eye contact difficult. Studies have shown that eye contact can trigger feelings of shame or negative self-evaluation, and some children who find it difficult to read emotions in others can interpret negative emotions in those who are looking at them.

However, as part of fostering healthy relationships, eye contact can be a brilliant tool in building trust, warmth and honesty. Your eyes do not lie. I was once speaking to a student when I was their Head of Year, after they had made a few choice mistakes, and when I had calmly explained why it was wrong, and what consequences would need to be applied, he made an observation. ‘Sir, I can always tell when you are disappointed from your eyes’. In my head, I was projecting an expression of tranquillity – being neutral yet supportive. I was quite shocked that my eyes had betrayed my true feelings, and yet equally I could see that he had taken comfort in being able to read that expression, and could tell I was going out of my way not to project that feeling into my words. In other words, my eyes conveyed a sense of authenticity that showed, despite my disappointment in his actions, that I have feelings and that I was invested in him.

It’s important when making eye contact with someone, especially a child, that we do so as part of a process of building relationship and confidence. Studies have shown that eye contact can build rapport between people, and help us behave more altruistically, given that the knowledge that we are being watched makes us more conscious of our behaviour. I think the combination of both factors helps build authentic relationships – prolonged eye contact can be a meeting of minds and feelings and help to evoke a sense of mutual understanding.

Indeed, Psychologist Paul Ekman argues that you can tell the authenticity of a smile by looking at the eyes; while we wear masks, perhaps our eyes can do all of the heavy lifting. When forming real smiles, the eyes narrow and create lines, or crow’s feet, at the outer corners, which we can pick up on as a cue for what’s lurking beneath the surgical veil. Likewise, when we are interested in something or someone our pupils will dilate.

Eye contact also triggers the limbic mirror system, a set of brain areas that are active both when we move our eyes (or any body part) and when we see someone else doing the same. The limbic system helps us recognise and understand emotion, too, and can be critical in establishing empathy. Making eye contact with someone, therefore, is a natural way to build understanding and empathy, as the eyes begin to mirror each other, and we start to become conscious of ourselves and the other person as they hold our gaze.

Walking around school, I pass thousands of students and adults each day, all wearing masks. Some may be smiling underneath, others won’t be. More than ever, I’m consciously using my gaze to catch their attention, trying to will feeling and welcome into my eyes, or from a distance settling for a nod of the head or another gesture. But, amidst the frustration at the deprivation of the rest of our faces, it strikes me that there are opportunities, here:

Let’s capitalise on eye contact: being forced to use eye contact as a primary method of communication (I’m aware our voice is an option, too!) is an opportunity. Children, especially during two remote-learning lockdowns, have spent less time having to make prolonged eye contact with peers and adults. During this period of mask wearing, we can normalise eye contact as a tool to gain attention, sustain concentration, convey emotion, and to build trust.

Teach and model eye contact: we should also take the opportunity to verbalise that eye contact is positive and worth practising. Consider talking to the children about how we are currently relying on eye contact as a form of communication; explain that we will be seeking out their focus through their eye contact, and acknowledge that it will take some time getting used to. We can teach children the aforementioned benefits of making eye contact in 1:1 situations or in groups, and show them how it can be a positive tool to build relationships. They will adapt and feel more confident if we talk about it, model it, and give feedback on it.

Better understanding different needs: only being able to get a read of a student from their eyes could be a good opportunity for us to better understand which students are more or less comfortable with making eye contact. There are many reasons why some people might not be able to hold our gaze, and I believe that we can use the mask wearing to better understand our students and colleagues. It’s now much more obvious when a crowd of students walks past, or when they are facing you in a queue or classroom, which of them do not wish to catch your eye. My aim isn’t to enforce eye contact upon anyone, but to use this as a time to increase our understanding.

Brushing up on our own non-verbals: during a lesson we utilise a range of techniques to keep children focused, working hard, or quiet. Often, words are not the correct choice if we want to maintain the silence, and so we might call upon the use of a hand, silently mouth something, or just use our mouth to make an expression of affirmation or encouragement. Without the latter, we have an opportunity to consider how we use our eyes as a form of communication. For example, without being able to see our mouth, or smile, it is more important to cover all the students in the room with eye contact more regularly. We can convey sincerity, interest, and support through our eyes alone, and it’s worth improving this if you are teaching with a mask on, or communicating at any point of the day with your face covered.

I wonder how others have found the heightened demand on our eyes over the last few months; are you more conscious of it? Are you noticing those who are not as comfortable with making eye contact? How can we support and not alienate them? Can we turn this into a positive for the long term and re-establish this skill? Have you got Jedi-esque eye and eyebrow skills you could share?

Whatever we’ve learnt, it’s another example of COVID providing something to reflect upon and discuss.

Thanks for reading.

Sam

Think Again, by Adam Grant

Why I read it:

I enjoy reading books about psychology and behaviour, so that I can understand the mind better, and then try to transfer some of that learning to my professional and personal life. I’d heard Adam Grant speak at various events and on podcasts, and like his personable and articulate style, coupled with his clear expertise. Several books that I’ve read recently had touched upon knowledge, confidence, the Dunning-Kruger effect, and I wanted to find out more about how we can realise, embrace and utilise what we don’t know.

In summary

The book is split into three main parts (plus a conclusion): individual rethinking, which is about our own views; interpersonal rethinking, or the opening of other people’s minds; collective rethinking, which entails organisations or groups adapting together. Each part includes numerous studies, anecdotes, and crisp explanations from Grant, who makes the science behind each idea accessible and enjoyable for the reader.

Think Again uses compelling arguments for how we get stuck in our views and fall into traps such as biases, or not seeking out the right feedback. The premise is essentially that to make good decisions, we need to ‘think like a scientist’, in other words be objective, gather as much evidence as possible, and then be open to adapt or change based on those things. The book outlines some challenges we have as humans to following this approach, along with solutions to help us through this self sabotage!

Key takeaways

I could do this reflection again and come up with 10 more takeaways, for example Grant’s views on imposter syndrome, how we approach conflict by viewing a disagreement as a dance and not a battle, and finally how we use the principles of rethinking to benefit our future plans. My advice is to read the book!

  1. Preacher, prosecutor, politician – think like a scientist – Grant contests that we often take on three roles when promoting a view or idea: preacher, when we deliver sermons to protect or promote our ideas; prosecutor, when we find flaws in other people’s ideas and look to prove them wrong; and politician, where we seek to win over an audience. He advises us to think more objectively, to weigh up circumstances and facts, and to be more like a scientist. He uses various studies and examples to show the difference it can make when you follow sound, logical advice and evidence, over our tendencies to follow gut or emotion. For each situation we are in, it might be worth thinking about whether we have fallen into one of those three roles that might cloud our ability to make the best decision.
  2. Embrace the joy of being wrong – to think like a scientist, Grant discusses how we should embrace the joy of being wrong by learning to detach from our ideas, and detach our opinions from our beliefs. It takes humility to admit to ourselves and others that we are wrong, but scientists find that it doesn’t make others view us as less competent; in fact, their view becomes more favourable if we welcome new ideas or evidence, rather than reject them.
  3. Seek out information that goes against your views – studies of people who were asked to imagine the perspectives of their political opposites showed no greater appreciation of their views. What the research did find, was that seeking people out with different views, and talking to them directly about their perspectives, had a big impact. Grant discusses how we must use as many clues as possible when making decisions, and that it’s not enough to imagine arguments or ideas that diverge from our own, but to address them directly to find out as much as we can. Other research shows that if we talk to someone about their views, no matter how extreme, if we see their strong belief in something first-hand, it builds respect of them as a person, regardless of what we think of their view.
  4. Psychological safety – in performance cultures, the drive for results means workers often don’t question their superiors, try out new ideas, or work collaboratively. Grant discusses the need to create more of an open culture to question, with his favourite being ‘how do you know?’ as a tool for asking a non-judgmental question that mixes curiosity with a desire to know more. Grant conducted experiments in several organisations to improve psychological safety by asking managers to request feedback and criticism from their staff; that on its own didn’t have a high impact, so they tweaked it and instead asked managers to share with their teams some anecdotes about when they had received feedback and been able to act on it or improve. Having their managers admit they were fallible, and admit they benefited from the critique, fostered a culture of staff feeling safer to speak up and contribute. There is a great anecdote about introducing more psychological safety at the Gates Foundation, and the huge relief of employees when Melinda, who staff couldn’t usually get an emotional read from, announced that she goes into a lot of meetings where there are things she doesn’t know. The staff felt safer in the knowledge that their seemingly perfect leader had gaps in her knowledge, and was brave enough to admit it.

Favourite quote:

Humility and confidence:

‘Humility is often misunderstood. It’s not a matter of having low self-confidence. One of the Latin roots of humility means ‘from the earth’. It’s about being grounded – recognising that we’re flawed and fallible. Confidence is a measure of how much you believe in yourself. Evidence shows that’s distinct from how much you believe in your methods. You can be confident in your ability to achieve a goal in the future while maintaining the humility to question whether you have the right tools in the present’

Favourite moment:

Grant explores three biases that can ultimately undo our ability to think like a scientist.  

Confirmation bias – seeing what we expect to see.

Desirability bias – seeing what we want to see.

I’m not biased bias – believing you are more objective than others. Grant argues that smart, bright thinkers often fall into this trap, which makes it harder to rethink and adapt.

These biases may sound obvious and simple, but here’s what I did. I retraced my steps for a day, and tried to retrospectively apply them to my decisions and actions. When had I simply looked for confirmation of something to validate my existing view, rather than doing the digging to see if that was actually right? When had I seen bias present itself in someone else, and made a judgment without weighing up the possibility of my own bias?

Question and reflect

The book taught me a lot about seeking out evidence and perspectives to ensure that my own ideology isn’t clouding my judgment – what steps can we put into our decision-making process so that this desire for evidence becomes something we always follow?

What circumstances would need to exist for you to admit you were wrong, or change a plan that you’d invested a lot of energy into? Someone’s view? Data? The book is about rethinking and adapting, and that’s something I found challenging at first, but Grant makes a compelling case for how pride doesn’t serve us well!

Read this if…

You are interested in human behaviour

You are a leader or someone who has to make decisions and want to gain a better understanding of how we might behave, versus how we could behave!

Find the book here or here