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

Wednesday’s Wisdom #4: Words create worlds, and the joy of coaching

‘Without autonomy, you leave your brain at home’, Dr Kulvarn Atwal told me at his school in 2019, when explaining how all staff have a coach and use the process to improve their sense of autonomy, and to be solution-focused in the way they approach challenges at work. That sounded powerful. But coaching… isn’t that just being a mentor? I am ashamed to say that the conflation of these terms does indeed exist, and contributes to my late discovery of what feels like a turning point in the way I work and lead.

We lead busy lives at work and at home, when in lockdown or normal times. Barriers to success occur, or many opportunities present themselves at once, and inevitably, we have to do some thinking. And yet, making time to reflect can be the easiest thing to strike from our to-do list. Other tasks become more urgent, perhaps because they have a deadline or we are accountable to someone else, leaving our mind restless while we attend to other things.

But what happens when we do reflect on our thoughts? It can be empowering and refreshing to cast technology or tasks aside and consider what’s ahead. But is doing this by ourselves the most efficient way of moving towards our goals?

In his book Chatter, Psychologist and Neuroscientist Ethan Kross (2021) discusses how introspection can actually be counterproductive, as our inner voice often ruminates and dwells on problems and creates a harmful, negative cycle; likewise, using others to vent can be problematic as it pushes them away, or invites them to collude in our negativity rather than helping us through the issue. The book is much more nuanced than those examples alone, but I’m certainly more aware of the possible pitfalls of my inner ‘chatter’.

Enter coaching. If, like I was for years, you are unaware of what coaching is defined as, Sir John Whitmore (2017) says skilled coaching involves ‘unlocking people’s potential to maximize their own performance’. Coaches listen, ask deliberate and purposeful questions, and usually lead the conversation with a coaching model, such as the GROW method (goals, reality, opportunities, what will you do). Coaching sessions prompt the coachee to think through their ideas, challenges or views, with the questions from their coach helping them to find a new perspective, always focused on solutions.

Sometimes, our best thinking happens out loud, when we articulate beyond our internal machinations. Once spoken, the thought becomes more real, more tangible. More actionable, perhaps. We can then reshape it with other words. And then think it through again. Everyone is different, but I have seen in myself, and others, how the process of coaching, and verbally articulating your thought process, begins to unlock doors in your mind. When you combine that with a skilled, disciplined coach who asks open questions without attempting to influence, you have the potential to do great things.

Christian van Nieuwerburgh (2016), coaching expert and author, cites several studies that identify benefits of coaching: increased self-awareness and emotional intelligence, improved interpersonal skills leading to better relationships, increased self-confidence, improved leadership skills, increased loyalty to the organisation, renewed passion to support the development of others, and better work-life balance. In short, there is a large body of research that advocates coaching as a process to develop and empower both coach and coachee.

I will write future blog posts about the practicalities of setting up coaching in schools, both the form of coaching I have outlined so far, and instructional coaching, and some of the research base behind the approaches. In fact, as I planned this post, I spent a few evenings re-reading books, academic papers and web articles to look at a wide-range of evidence about the pros and cons of coaching, and the references are awaiting my attention in a word document.

But, what I realised is that coaching, thus far, brings me learning, enjoyment and empowerment, and that’s what I want to impart in today’s takeaways… The joy of coaching, and how words create worlds:

‘Oh, you know what…’

I love this phrase, or variations of it. This is the moment where your coachee thought they might be at a dead end, before discovering another avenue to explore. Or perhaps their thinking or perspective shifted during the conversation. The analogy I am drawn to, here, is being in a dark room and only being able to see one door. The door isn’t the ideal option for the intended outcome. The coaching conversation, though, can shine a light on other doors that were always there, always possible, but not illuminated before – allowing your coachee the time and space to think this through can create those wonderful ‘oh, you know what…’ moments.

‘I came to talk about this, but actually…’

As Andy Buck (2020) says in his book BASIC Coaching, it’s possible to get hung up on something, and in our minds it becomes the main thing. But what if it isn’t? Coaching conversations often establish how we really feel about an issue; after some deliberation and discussion, it can become apparent that the background to a challenge might not have been the root cause, and the intended course of the conversation needs to change. It’s vital that, before setting goals, the coachee has really considered what is going on, and what the main thing actually is.

‘And what else?’

It’s important as a coach not to lead your coachee to certain realisations or judgements that you want them to make. You don’t know as much as you think! Questions such as ‘and what else?’ are a fantastic tool. They prompt further thinking, without judgment, bias or agenda. Sure, you might have to endure a bit of silence, but the space allows independent thought and the cogs really start to turn. It’s wonderful to observe and be part of.

Teamwork and trust

The bedrock of a coaching relationship is trust and rapport. The coachee must feel completely at ease during a conversation in which they put themselves in a position of vulnerability, as they evaluate options and discuss their feelings towards an array of issues. The coach must maintain discipline and rigor with their methods as the relationship flourishes, but it can become a truly special partnership.

Don’t leave your brain at home

We’ve all gained satisfaction from mentoring someone: giving them advice and offering our wisdom or experience. It’s the right model for some relationships, for example with an inexperienced staff member, but also can be used effectively in other contexts, as I outlined in a previous post. But the aim of coaching is for the coachee to find their solution. When I watch a coachee experience their epiphany moments, that flash of realisation that they have hit on something previously unconsidered, the sense of empowerment is palpable. You may have guided them, in a sense, with your questions and by replaying their thoughts back to them, but they did the heavy lifting. This was their win, their sense of pride, and their autonomy. You facilitated their innate brilliance. That’s what really brings me joy in a coaching relationship.

Learning together

It’s easy to assume that the coach is the guru and that the relationship is one-sided in terms of its outcomes and uses. I would disagree. The coachee may feel indebted to the coach, but so far I’ve found the coach to be a huge beneficiary of the relationship; watching someone find their way to solutions and new ideas gives me the confidence and inspiration to do it myself. Coachees inspire coaches! Both parties will learn something from the process.

If you are reading this and aren’t yet a coach, or haven’t been coached, I hope my moments of joy and inspiration have nudged you in its direction. I am a year into my coaching journey, and have so much to learn and more experience to gain; I’m starting an accredited course with Growth Coaching International, and also looking to take on more coachees via Zoom (free of charge, contact me if you’re interested!). I believe wholeheartedly in coaching as a form of development and empowerment for both coach and coachee, and am thrilled that it is taking root in more schools across the country. The challenge now is to ensure that the proper time and expertise is dedicated to the initial and ongoing training of coaches, in addition to the right environment for coaching to thrive on a whole-school or organisational level.

But, for those ‘oh, you know what…’ moments, creating a coaching culture could be one of the best things you do for your workplace.

Sources:

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

Kross, E (2021) Chatter: The Voice in Our Head and How to Harness It. Ebury.

Van Nieuwerburgh, C (2016) Coaching in Professional Contexts. Sage

Whitmore, J (2017) Coaching for Performance, 5th edition. Nicholas Brealey Publishing.

The Leader’s Guide to Coaching in Schools, by John Campbell and Christian van Nieuwerburgh

Why I read it:

After doing two coaching courses and taking on some coachees, I started to ponder the role of 1) leadership coaching, and 2) leading a coaching culture in an organisation. I already knew about the work of John Campbell and Christian van Nieuwerburgh, so this book was a natural and worthy choice. I enjoyed it so much that I contacted both authors and they were generous with their advice, which lead to my enrolment on the GCI Coaching Accreditation Programme.

In summary:

This book is aimed at introducing coaching in schools (although could be transferred to any organisation), reviewing the concept of leadership coaching, exploring the GROWTH coaching model, examining plenty of research regarding the benefits of coaching, and providing practical tips about how to implement coaching effectively.

The Leader’s Guide to Coaching in Schools is evidence-based, comprehensive, but also readable and formatted in a way that makes it inviting to access the demanding content.

Key takeaways:

This is one of those occasions where I cannot possibly outline all of the book’s main takeaways, but here are a select few that are concisely summarised – each one has far greater explanation in the book.

Coaching vs a coaching approach – coaching might typically exist within a formal, arranged meeting between two people. However, the authors suggest that a coaching approach, in which the transferable elements of coaching can be applied to other contexts, e.g. unplanned conversations with colleagues, can really enhance outcomes. For example, coaching-approach conversations will still focus on helping the recipient identify resources, options, strategies in order to clarify a possible outcome, but in a less formal manner, such as a chat in the corridor. This has helped me consider how I work with staff in non-coaching meetings, or in other spontaneous contexts, where I can still employ some of my skills as a coach.

8 key coaching skills building trust, being present, listening actively, clarifying, empathising, being succinct, asking the best questions, and giving feedback. The authors explore each of these in detail, linking them to the GROWTH model of coaching.

Benefits of leaders becoming coaches – these can include: leaders becoming more reflective; coaching approaches can be transferable to other leadership practices, including giving feedback, leading meetings, etc.; leaders can coach each other; leaders can set the tone for a coaching culture in the organisation. The authors also discuss how peer leadership coaching can be useful as there is no hierarchal barrier between coach and coachee.

Feedback and performance management – there are lengthy sections dedicated to how to use coaching as a tool to give feedback or even develop performance management processes – the advice is specific, considered and evaluative – if you are thinking about how to introduce coaching in this form, I cannot recommend this highly enough.

How to create a coaching culture – many organisations are implementing a culture in which coaching is an integral part of staff development, be that through traditional coaching, or instructional coaching regarding teaching or other practices. The authors celebrate the notion of creating a coaching culture, but are also realistic about the commitment it takes to implement successfully; their seven steps are: recruit external coaches to train initial coaches; create internal coaching capacity; ensure leadership support of coaching; enable organisation learning from coaching initiatives; include coaching within performance management process; adopt a coaching style of leadership; use a coaching approach throughout the organisation.

Favourite moment:

Throughout the book, there are QR codes to scan for a link to a video of a certain coaching approach or method being modelled. These are fantastic in quality, and I found it so useful to be able to see a conversation play out in practice.

Favourite quote:

‘Words create worlds’

Citing the work of David Cooperider, who argues: ‘people live in the worlds our questions create’, the authors state: ‘As coaches, we want our coachees to live in resourceful worlds and to be more intentional about the words used to describe the world they inhabit. It is particularly important that they imagine the positive future world they wish to move towards.’

Question and reflect:

After we train in something, in this instance, coaching, we often feel confident in our ability and knowledge. The Dunning-Kruger effect takes hold, and we overestimate our competence. This book is a brilliant reminder for a coach of any level to explore more perspectives, research and ideas. I didn’t know how much I didn’t know, until I read this book.

The Leader’s Guide to Coaching in Schools explores some of the principles upon which coaching could be effective, and explores models such as Self Determination Theory; it reminded me of the importance of trying to find out the ‘why’ and ‘how’ behind the things I train or take interest in, and to always remain curious and question what I’m learning about.

Read this if:

You want to increase your knowledge and understanding of how to be a coach

You are researching how to introduce coaching within your organisation

You are interested in how to build coaching for leaders

Find the book here

The BASIC Coaching Method, by Andy Buck

Why I read it:

During the staff wellbeing research project that I conducted in 2019-20, I read many academic papers pointing towards coaching as a tool to improve staff efficacy, autonomy, and so much more. I was intrigued. My experience of ‘coaching’ over the years had been to misunderstand its principles: when I’d spoken to people about it, they were often talking about mentoring, and therefore I (and they, it seems) had conflated the two. But then I started to read and engage with actual coaching, and it sounded wonderful. I read Coaching for Performance, and, as I was about to enrol on a course, I saw that one of my leadership heroes, Andy Buck, had devised his own coaching model. I devoured the book, completed Andy’s online course, then a subsequent GROW course, and now I coach staff and am about to embark on the GCI Coaching Accreditation Programme. What an 18 months! At this point I’d like to say: the book is brilliant, Andy is an absolute gent, and his online coaching course is a fantastic guide to the book, and for me, the first step in my coaching journey – I’m very grateful.

In summary:

Andy Buck has created the BASIC model for coaching conversations, which is structured as: Background, Aims, Strategy, Implementation, Commitment. Each letter or section of the coaching conversation has a dedicated chapter, and includes explanations about why it is used, and how we can implement it. Buck also dedicates much of the book to the qualities and traits of a good coach, so that we are informed and empowered beyond the structure of a single conversation.

This is a practical guide that takes you through the whole process of a coaching conversation, but also teaches you enough about coaching in a wider sense, that helps provide flexibility based on your style, and your coachee’s needs. It’s difficult to convey in this post how much advice, and how many examples, Buck includes in the book, but if you are looking to learn more about coaching, you will get plenty from Basic Coaching.

Key takeaways:

The overall takeaway from this book is your comprehensive knowledge of, and confidence in, an excellent new coaching model! Which I can’t do justice to in this short space. But here are some other key takeaways:

  1. Get to the root cause first – unlike some coaching models, Buck begins with ‘background’, rather than aims/goals, as a deliberate chance to see what’s going on before the goals are established. He argues that often, someone’s first thought isn’t the real issue, and that’s why the background needs to be probed before setting goals; talking things through can clarify the situation, and often adapts the goal that they came to the session with.
  2. Strategy vs tactics – quoting Alistair Campbell’s Winners (a great read), Buck outlines the OST model: objective, strategy, tactics. Campbell proposes that we should have an overall strategy to meet our aim, and under that strategy, multiple tactics to execute it. Buck links this to coaching, and how a coach should encourage a strategy, which then implements various tactics.
  3. Unconscious bias – being a coach requires self awareness, but also an understanding of the biases that we aren’t necessarily in control of – being aware of these helps us steer a coachee away from potentially unproductive thinking, but also means that the coach is less likely to inflict their own bias. Buck outlines some of these, such as the anchor effect, sunk-cost fallacy, and more.
  4. Empathy not sympathy, and not colluding in negativity I’d argue that coaches enjoy their work because ultimately they are helping others, yet it takes a lot of restraint and deliberate phrasing to make sure we aren’t sympathising with a difficult situation, which runs into the danger of making the problem seem insurmountable. Rather, we should show empathy, and always stay solution focused. Andy has some great thinking in this area.

Favourite Moment:

At the end of each chapter, Buck includes a list of questions you could ask your coachee at that point of the conversation. I wrote all of these out, and then started adapting the language slightly based on my own style and vocabulary. You don’t want to feel restricted to certain questions, but when becoming a coach, it’s important to feel armed with enough knowledge and material to select at the right moment.

Favourite Quote:

‘And what else?’

Buck references the work of Michael Bungay Stanier, who regards this as one of coaching’s most powerful questions. Prompting your coachee to deliberate further with this question, which lacks judgment or specific direction, can be a brilliant way to diversify strategy, tactics, or aims. This one might test your ability to hold silence, but it can unlock more than you might anticipate.

Read this if…

You are thinking about getting into coaching – this will encourage and inspire you to do it

You have used other coaching models and you want to diversify – I’m trained in the BASIC and GROW models and I find it really useful to adopt principles of both

Find the book here

Running the Room, by Tom Bennett

Why I read it:

I’ve been in pastoral roles for six years now, and as I said when I reviewed ‘Beyond Wiping Noses’, I felt that I’d always acted on instinct. I engage with research and many voices when it comes to curriculum and pedagogy, but hadn’t necessarily had access to an evidence base or evaluations of behaviour and pastoral matters. Tom Bennett is a well-known voice in the sector, and the government’s behaviour adviser, as well as being at the heart of ResearchEd, which is how I knew that this book would be well informed and balanced.

In summary:

The title of the book implies a practical guide for how teachers could run their classroom. Indeed, it delivers on that front. However, practical tips could be summarised in a concise 100-pager. Bennett is more ambitious, including plenty of research, theories, and the ‘why’ – not just the how. This amount of background reading and pondering helps us as teachers or leaders not to merely apply the methods blindly, but to think them through and adapt as necessary.

Care for children is at the heart of this book. Bennett explores how to nurture and include children, how to make sure they are well nourished and how we can provide the circumstances for them to thrive, covering sleep, ventilated rooms, how to make them feel safe, and rewards. A large proportion of the book is, of course, about how to create frameworks to help students make the right choices and to create focused learning environments, but it is not all sanction, sanction, sanction – there are a wide range of ideas and tools that are weighed up and discussed.

Key takeaways:

Culture: belonging and high expectations – classrooms should have a deliberate culture that is created by the teacher, but this doesn’t need to be framed in a punitive way, but as something positive that benefits everyone. To create the right culture, teachers needs to convince the class that: learning is important; everyone in the room matters; good behaviour is the best way everyone can get what they need.

Routines – Doug Lemov states that ‘perhaps the single most powerful way to bring efficiency, focus and rigor to a classroom, is by installing strong procedures and routines. You define a right way to do recurring tasks; you practice doing them with students so they roll like clockwork.’ Routines are vital. They help students feel they are walking into a safe, predictable environment – they know how to follow a routine – it’s comfortable and means they can use their brain power on what they are learning. But implementing and upholding routines isn’t as easy as reading a list about how to enter or exit the room – Bennett dedicates a comprehensive chapter to how to communicate and uphold routines and rules.

Motivation – Bennett examines a range of factors that could influence motivation, from the differences between intrinsic and extrinsic, to how a good meal at breakfast time can improve student learning.  To motivate students to behave well, Bennett explores how we can help them to feel / be successful at school, teach them how to focus and work hard, teach them that school is an important place for them to feel valued and be noticed, and help them discover ways to find satisfaction in behaving well. It’s a lengthy chapter, so if one of those areas sounds like something you want to understand more, have a read.

Parents – it’s towards the end of the book, but one of the chapters I’ve enjoyed using with staff at school is about working with parents. Bennett uses ‘build bridges before you need to cross the river’ in regard to building positive relationships with parents from day one, rather than waiting until something has gone wrong to expect support from them. Some of the most practical tips in the book are in this section, from scripting phone calls to help with confidence, to looking at the Benjamin Franklin effect of asking for their help to increase the chances of their support. Really worth reading!

Favourite moment:

Correcting behaviour when it’s going well, or in Bennett’s words ‘fences not ambulances.’

I suppose this is a similar adage to elite sports teams, or high-performing businesses, reviewing their practice when they are at the peak of success. That is the time to tweak, refine, evaluate. Bennett discusses how, once a class is behaving well or meeting your expectations, it is a great time to praise, reinforce that behaviour, and discuss your expectations. He suggests, for example when a class have come in really well, or completed a task exactly the way you asked them to, to discuss as a group what was good about it, and how that benefited their learning. It’s a powerful idea that I haven’t articulated before.

If we wait until something has gone wrong to reflect on the behaviour of the group, teachers risk only reinforcing the cultural norms or expectations of the classroom during periods of disruption or misbehaviour, creating a potentially negative cycle.

Favourite quote:

‘After a while, you could get used to anything’

Albert Camus – The Stranger

Well, I’m a sucker for a literary quote in a teaching book. But, one of the benefits of the lockdown has been a chance to break from our routines and take stock. What had we ‘got used to’ in our former working lives? Too many meetings? Too much marking? Behaviour not being exactly as we wanted it? But in the hustle and bustle, we can put up with things, and then all of a sudden, we’ve got used to them and, then, later and even worse ‘we’ve always done it that way’.

This book encourages us to reflect on what we want from our classroom culture, and then provides the means to cultivate that into whatever we desire.

Question and reflect

  • Are we deliberate enough in the way we plan and articulate expectations and culture in our classroom? Do we spend enough time reflecting on behaviour and motivation, compared with our efforts on curriculum and content planning?
  • None of us have ever truly mastered the behaviour of children – with that in mind, which areas could you reflect on and improve in your own teaching?

Read this if:

You are a teacher and you want to delve further into how and why students behave in different ways

You want to move beyond instinct or the context of your school, and look at further studies and perspectives about behaviour management

You want to read beyond just rules and routines into something more holistic

Buy the book here

Wednesday’s Wisdom #3: Building Belonging

You never quite know where your values and traits originate, or how they evolve over time. Nature vs nurture. Life experiences. Social norms. It seems impossible to attribute our sense of self with clarity. I was adopted as a baby, and welcomed into a loving home, but I’ve always wondered about the possible effects: how has it shaped me? Well, I believe, or at least my perception is, that it has had a profound impact on the way I view social mobility, opportunity, and belonging. My wife would argue, in jest, that being adopted has left me with a whole load of other issues, but that’s for another post!

Perhaps I am attributing a cause and effect that simply doesn’t exist, but in my formative struggle with belonging, the books or films that hit me hardest were those about rejection, not fitting in, or losing one’s way. And now, making others feel as though they belong is one of my drivers: whether that’s a student in class, working with colleagues, or greeting someone in a social setting. My view is that you get the best out of people when they feel at ease, or accepted. In my professional life, I’m curious to see if a strong sense of belonging could benefit workplace culture, productivity, and learning.

Baumeister and Leary (1995) proposed that to ‘belong’, individuals need (and they state it as a need, not a desire) frequent positive interactions with at least a few other people, and secondly these interactions must have a sense of long-term care for each other’s welfare. Failure to satisfy both of these factors could lead to distress and long-term consequences given that it is an unfulfilled need, and not merely an unfulfilled desire. Many people will cross that threshold at home, but workplaces can be another story.

I imagine that most of us desire a strong sense of belonging among our colleagues; we want them to feel safe and included, just as we do ourselves. But there are tangible benefits for the organisation, too. Harvard Business Review (2019) revealed, in an article written with behavioural insight experts Better Up, that a high sense of belonging, or in their words, those who feel ‘included’, can lead to a 56% increase in job performance, 75% reduction in sick days, and also leads to more promotions for those staff.

Better Up’s experts decided to experiment with how ‘included’ or ‘excluded’ employees performed, setting up a programme where they played a virtual game of catch – unbeknown to them, they were playing with bots, with some employees being ‘excluded’ from the game, i.e. they were thrown the ball less often, and some ‘included’ and therefore given more turns. Following this, the employees were placed in an individual task where, the better they performed, the more money they could ‘earn’; however, the money would be split evenly across the team. Those who were excluded in the ball toss game worked less hard than those included, even though they were sacrificing their own earnings. Researchers replicated this across four separate studies and found that feeling excluded causes us to give less effort to the team.

As the studies continued, they attempted (and succeeded) to mitigate feelings of being excluded through three measures:

  • Gaining perspective – speaking with previous participants about exclusion and how they coped
  • Mentorship: participants imagined how they could coach or mentor someone through being excluded
  • Empowerment: participants planned how they would adapt this team process to make it more inclusive and enjoyable

In Daniel Coyle’s The Culture Code (2018), a section of the book (which I recommend highly) is dedicated to how different organisations nurture belonging. Greg Popovich, a slightly maverick NBA coach with a reputation for his volcanic temper, is cited for having sky-high expectations of his players, whilst building excellent relationships with them. He uses deliberately close physical proximity when giving them feedback, takes an interest in their lives, and fascinatingly, uses team meetings (usually for basketball strategy and tactics) to teach and discuss other topical issues, in order to educate his players and promote wider interests. Coyle then links Popovich’s feedback style to an evidence-based approach, which includes 3 powerful ideas to include when developing people: ‘you belong to this group’, ‘this group is special’, and ‘I have high standards that I believe you can reach’. Belonging in tandem with high expectations.

When it comes to students in our schools, feelings of belonging and inclusion are equally important. It sounds obvious, but studies have shown that students who ‘feel personally accepted, respected, included, and supported by others in the school social environment’ (Goodenow 1993) are likely to perform better in school and show more favourable motivational, social-emotional and behavioural outcomes. Also unsurprising, is the link found between a sense of belonging and absence and dropout rates (Hascher and Hagenauer 2010).

Romero (2015) explores studies regarding how students could improve their sense of belonging in an educational setting, with a particular focus on students from minority groups who may not feel an innate sense of belonging in their school community. She found that ‘belonging programmes’ that acknowledge how difficult it can be to feel a sense of belonging, provided improvements in their feelings and attainment. Similar to the HBR study mentioned earlier, one method used was to read survey results and comments from previous students who acknowledged their lack of belonging in a new school, and coping strategies for those feelings.

Another study was conducted to see the potential impact a teacher can have on a student’s sense of belonging through their feedback. When feedback on work was accompanied by a message that conveyed high standards and assurances that they were confident the student could meet those standards, students were over four times as likely to revise and resubmit the essay than if they received the criticism alone; this type of feedback also improved the quality of students’ revisions. I don’t advocate onerous marking policies (!), but this reminded me of the Greg Popovich model of building belonging: ‘you are special and therefore I have high expectations of you’. Interestingly, follow-up on these same students showed that those who received a personal note that built trust with a teacher in 7th grade were more likely to enrol in university immediately after graduating from high school compared to those who did not receive the note.

So, what can we learn as colleagues, friends, leaders, teachers about building belonging?

Acknowledge exclusion: as discussed, studies of children and adults found that when others spoke to them about their own initial struggle to ‘belong’, and shared coping strategies, this improved the recipients’ sense of belonging and self-efficacy. Rather than hoping for the best, perhaps we should communicate how natural it is to feel excluded, and to take the lead with helping our students and staff acknowledge this feeling and convert it into something positive. Looking back, I would have loved to speak to fellow adoptees about how they eventually found their place.

Team dynamics have a big impact on belonging and productivity: the studies I have mentioned in the blog attest to how group belonging brings the best out of people. In The Culture Code, Coyle also links to studies where ‘bad apples’, or less motivated employees, also have a profoundly negative impact on a whole team. It works both ways. Harmonious, productive teams foster a sense of belonging and togetherness – that could be a personal togetherness, or simply unity regarding the aim of their work.

It only takes one person to increase sense of belonging: one of the HBR studies found that if just one member of the team began to include a participant, it fostered a sense of inclusion, which surely advocates coaching or mentoring in the work place. We know that coaching has a huge impact on wellbeing, belonging, self-efficacy and productivity, and with a wave of schools and workplaces now using 1:1 instructional coaching as a form of long-term, personalised CPD, it’s no surprise that this links with people’s sense of belonging and relatedness.

Belonging and high expectations:  a sense of belonging doesn’t have to be a fluffy, intangible arm around the shoulder. Having high expectations of someone, and telling them that they can do brilliant things, is an excellent way to demonstrate your belief in them, and nurture their sense of inclusion. Both the Greg Popovich case study, and the research into teacher feedback, implies that belonging and belief go hand-in-hand, and that challenge and inclusion aren’t mutually exclusive.

Researching this blog began with a deep breath, as I wondered how my past feelings of who I am, where I come from and where I belong might push to the surface or manifest themselves. But, like my blog last week on Expertise, this post has left me with a similar feeling of awe at how much more there is to read and understand. While I am reading Think Again by Adam Grant, I can appreciate that there are potentially hundreds of studies which draw very different conclusions to those I’ve cited. But this much I know: as someone who started life with an uncertain grip on how they fit in, and who now feels a secure sense of self and purpose, I truly wish the latter for everyone else. As people, we don’t have to be perfect, or visionary, or on top of our game every single day. But we do need to help others belong, so that they can thrive for themselves, and for the groups that they are part of.

Sam

Sources:

Baumeister RF, Leary MR (1995) The need to belong: desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivationPsychol. Bull. 117, 497–529.

Coyle, D (2018) The Culture Code. Random House, London.

Goodenow, C (1993) The Psychological Sense of School Membership among Adolescents: Scale Development and Educational Correlates. Psychology in the Schools 30: 79–90.

Harvard Business Review and Better Up (2019) The Value of Belonging at Work. https://hbr.org/2019/12/the-value-of-belonging-at-work

Hascher, T. , and G.Hagenauer (2010) Alienation from School. International Journal of Educational Research 49: 220–232

Romero, C (2015) What We Know About Belonging from Scientific Research. http://studentexperiencenetwork.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/What-We-Know-About-Belonging.pdf

Education Exposed 2, by Samuel Strickland

Why I read it 

I read the first Education Exposed book by Sam Strickland, and it resonated with me for being sensible, considered, and full of wisdom and integrity. I reflected on it here. When I heard there was a sequel, I was pleased – but would it be Terminator 2 or Speed 2?

In summary    

Well, it’s more of the same first-rate stuff from Strickland. The chapters of the two books are quite similar, and at first you could be mistaken for assuming that familiar ground is being covered. However, while values and ethos were clearly conveyed in the first book, the second builds on those, with even more detail and examples, and the same forthright views without the waffle that make Sam’s style so compelling.

Regarding the greater depth, for instance, in the theory chapter, he covers pedagogical models in detail, with examples and strategies; in the curriculum tools chapter, a variety of methods are discussed, e.g. knowledge organisers, retrieval practice.

Key takeaways

1. Teacher subject knowledge – the growing movement for teacher subject knowledge, development, and curriculum being at the heart of what we do is gathering apace, and what a time to be involved in teaching! Sam discusses the importance of teachers being treated like experts, but what I most enjoyed was him referring to subject departments as ‘communities’ who should be trusted to make decisions about their curriculum, and given every opportunity to learn and collaborate.

2. Poor behaviour is kryptonite –Sam has a pragmatic approach to behaviour in schools – cultures of high expectations don’t exist to be punitive towards children, but because having the right behaviour culture is ‘critical to the overall success of your curriculum’. Every aspect of teacher development, wellbeing, student progress (and many others) are undone in an instant if the behavioural culture within the school isn’t right. Kryptonite is the correct term. This is a must-read chapter for leaders regarding how and why to create the right culture.

3. Behaviour strategies for teachers – for teachers, Sam offers advice about cultivating excellent behaviour in the classroom. He advises teachers to think carefully about what their expectations are, then to define routines and rules, and then how to calmly deal with infractions. There are plenty of strategies and tools in this chapter – very empowering.

4. Curriculum and pedagogical tools – this sequel has more Teaching and Learning strategies for teachers and leaders regarding how they can plan and deliver the curriculum. Despite being just over 90 pages in length, it’s impressive how much is packed into the book; if you’re a middle or senior leader thinking about your curriculum or whole-school teaching and learning, Sam’s chapters are a great starting point to prompt some precise reflections, before you delve further. For example, his heading on retrieval practice is engaging, and may be the trigger for you to read Kate Jones’ excellent book on the subject.

Favourite quote

‘Prior Planning Prevents Poor Performance’

In the first book, I liked ‘We permit what we promote, and we promote what we permit’, so I was hopeful for another catchy phrase to commit to my own practice in the sequel.

The quote relates to the long-term planning we need to engage in for our curriculum. We aren’t just teaching half-term to half-term, but over 5 to 7 years. Sam advocates moving away from the tired habits of short-term planning, or preparing for examinations only, and instead promotes careful thought about the way we shape and sequence the curriculum.

Favourite moment

While I have a keen interest in curriculum and behaviour, the leadership chapter at the end was what I really stumped up my cash for. Sam proposes leadership that is reflective, based on your specific school context, and puts staff development and support at the heart of what we do. One of his concluding thoughts is that leaders should ‘never lose sight of what it is to be a full time class teacher’. I’ve tried to keep this in my mind over the years, but once I read this I actually printed out a teacher’s timetable, blanked out the name, and now keep it in my office. The visual reminder of how teachers navigate their day with their classes, let alone with other things our leadership team might ask them to do, is humbling and powerful.

Read this if…

You are interested in the development of your school, particularly regarding curriculum, culture, behaviour, and staff development

You want a concise read that will stoke your enthusiasm and prompt you to reflect on your own values and ideas, in whichever role you hold

Buy Education Exposed 2

Positive Psychology in a Nutshell, by Ilona Boniwell

Why I read it 

My aim this year (and beyond) is to broaden my reading and to plough energy into what I can do as a person and leader to better understand what motivates people and helps them to thrive. Everything is on the table, and when I saw this book was recommended by some coaches that I follow, I thought I’d give it a go. The clincher for me was that Positive Psychology in a Nutshell was said to take an evidence-based approach, looking at the subject through the lens of studies and critical viewpoints.

In summary    

Positive psychology is a science of positive aspects of human life, such as happiness, wellbeing and flourishing, or in the words of its founder, Martin Seligman, the scientific study of ‘optimal human functioning’. Boniwell suggests that it was perhaps conceived because traditional psychology models focused on negative rather than positive. The book seeks to explore the different models and theories behind positive psychology, and discusses its benefits, how it can be applied to real life, and also reviews its potential limitations. The below reflection barely scratches the surface, I’m afraid, and I fear I cannot do it justice in this format. It is a fascinating book packed with studies, theorists and evaluation – I’ll certainly be re-reading.

Key takeaways

  1. Positive emotions lead to more – the ‘broaden and build’ model by Barbara Fredrickson suggests that positive experiences can have long-lasting effects on our growth and development. In summary, it proposes that positive emotions: lead to more, and a greater variety of them; improve our creativity; help us see opportunities; undo negative emotions; enhance resilience. The model suggests that positive emotions are not an end point, but a means of leading a better life.
  2. We shouldn’t dismiss negative emotions – negative emotions or events can be a trigger to facilitate learning and understanding of ourselves and the wider world. Additionally, experiencing and coping with negative experiences can have positive consequences, such as modesty, moral consideration, care, and empathy.
  3. Factors that can influence wellbeing – interestingly, research suggests some factors that can influence wellbeing include social connections, optimism, leisure activities, being married, religion, meaningful work, good sleep and exercise, and your subjective health; conversely, subjective wellbeing may not be influenced by age, physical attractiveness, money,education level, housing. It’s interesting that many things we deem important in society, have little bearing over our happiness.
  4. Wellbeing linked to goals: Lyubominsky suggests that wellbeing is enhanced when people choose to pursue goals that are: feasible, personally meaningful, intrinsic, valued by one’s culture, being progressed towards, and linked to community, intimacy and growth. Clearly, if we are pursuing things in our personal or professional lives, having meaningful goals is vital, and if they are absent, it can affect our wellbeing. This part of the book really spoke to me as someone who wants to make an impact on the development of staff.

Favourite quote

This is a good opportunity to include some other interesting facts about wellbeing:

  • While real income in prosperous nations has increased dramatically over last 50 years, wellbeing levels have remained flat
  • Desiring wealth leaves one less happy
  • Watching soap operas enhances wellbeing (allegedly!)
  • Spending money on others increases your happiness

Favourite moment

What I enjoyed was that, once the reader is giddy with positivity at the end of the book, Boniwell then includes a chapter that evaluates the possible shortcomings of positive psychology. These include drawing ‘big conclusions from weak findings’, the danger of it becoming an ideological movement, and also that if positivity becomes a societal expectation, it could trivialise or belittle the idea of people experiencing negative emotions. For a novice, it was really useful to be offered counter arguments against a subject that I had warmed to, helping me to become critical and balanced in the way I interpret positive psychology in the future.

Question and reflect

As leaders, is it useful to study psychology? Should we be delving into various models and theories about behaviour and emotions, or are we over thinking? Playing devil’s advocate, here.

What do you want to understand better about people? For instance, I found the chapter on goals (Takeaway 4) the most interesting, and one that I will go over again. For me, I can help people with their goals and development – it’s a factor I can help to influence, therefore it seems worth investing in as a subject. How about you?

Read this if…

You want to understand what positive psychology is, and a range of perspectives on the subject

You’d like to reflect on some of the causes of people’s emotions

Support bookshops and find it here