Half asleep and still travelling. That usually describes me at the end of a day with a leadership team or a client group. And it is in those moments when I know I should force myself to think harder about some creative challenges or development I am doing. It is often when my brain is tired that it begins to make interesting and unexpected connections.
This is something I know about myself and I consciously choose to think harder and act during those tired times. They are typically moments we feel an aversion to more work. For me, it tends to suit developmental work or creating stuff. As a result, when I decide to pick up my notebook and scan through some half sketched ideas, a rough workshop flow or explore the way a new resource is looking, something typically falls into a different place.
Work when your brain is tired and see what new connections you might make.
It would seem that the concept of passion based learning (the other type of PBL) has found a place amongst the burgeoning lexicon we use to describe what happens in school these days. The emergence of the phrase has always left me feeling a little uncomfortable.
I get that we should be passionate as teachers. But basing our learning on the presence or pursuit of passion, feels somewhat vexing.
This post from Ainissa Ramirez is filled with provocations and worth a wander through to get some cogs whirring. But you might soon strike trouble, as I have done with what is shared
There are two ways to get a child passionate about something:
1) Find out what each child is innately passionate about.
2) Be an instructor that exudes passion for the topic, and infect your students with that excitement.
Only a few of us have benefited from the first option, but all of us can benefit from the second one. That is the power of passion.
Like I said, I also believe that exuding passion for learning as a teacher sets you apart. It is the difference between those who are just there, and those who are memorable. I am passionate about stories, I hope my students remember the tales we explored and those we crafted together. I am passionate about how technology can immerse us in new worlds, I hope my students remember those places we visited and those we built.
Can you remember those memorable teachers? We saw in them their spark, a glow that we bathed in and gravitated towards. A light that seemed to offer a surefooted certainty and steadfast platform for us to build on. Their unswerving passion draped over every word and action.
This is from an article I wrote about the purpose of education:
To work in education it helps to be passionate. I want my son to see the drive and determination in another person at some point in the next few years. I want him to feel that human to human inspiration that is so powerful. Education should be about giving young people inspiration and belief — these can come from the environment that surrounds them. But it will probably resonate more strongly from one passionate person.
But I didn’t become passionate just because someone else was, it wasn’t that easy. And that is my first concern with the beguiling two step process shared by Ramirez. Excitement is one thing, passion is quite different. Like the difference between empathy and engagement. The other issue is that we can simply find out what students are passionate about, like it is that simple. I think the opposite is true.
When we ask primary age students what they are passionate about, we are not asking something appropriate to their age.
Passion is not something you follow. It’s something that will follow you as you put in the hard work to become valuable to the world.
Cal Newport wrote this back in 2012 in a piece about changing our view on the career advice of “follow your passion.” Assuming that every child will have something innately representative of a passion is a bit of a stretch. Especially when they are 8.
I am grateful to Kate Montgomery for sharing some of her own thinking on this and helping me discover the Cal Newport article. Kate explains her own point of view:
And what if you don’t know what your passion is? The idea that you should pursue your passions like you just know what they are is also not quite right, to me. I’ve never known what my passions were, in a professional or even personal sense, because I was regarding passion as synonymous with ease and lack-of-fear.
The emphasis and pressure to “have a passion” for kids is counter intuitive. Every child needs the space and time to discover who they are. If we are genuine then this timeline might not fit neatly into the planning cycle for a school term. In fact it is just as likely to reach further into their lives, far beyond the bells of school.
We should take the pressure off kids and offer them a breadth of experiences whilst they are with us in school. Seek out new ideas and perspectives to share with them. Encourage and support their interests. Surround children with passionate people, so they can bathe in those lights and they can be inspired by others. Perhaps then, they will have the best possible conditions to maybe figure it out for themselves.
Have you ever felt like you might not be able to face it? Sometimes you just don’t have all the energy that you need to get through. It is OK not to have all the answers. There are times when we fall short of the line or just lack that spark we need. That’s OK. It was during 2010 and early 2011 that I realised I was suffering just such a deficit.
My career seemed to be happening to me and I felt helpless to some of the issues I was facing. I tumbled from one urgent/important item to another. I was out of balance. During my time in schools I had never had to deal with compromise. And here it was. With such an energy deficit I had to ration where I put my efforts. I wanted to be the best classroom teacher I could be and at the same time develop as a school leader. But compromise stretched its tendrils around both endeavours. This toxic time eroded my mental health and I suffered.
There were days when I had to stop the car on the way to work and take a few deep breaths.
It wasn’t my own courage that pushed me on. It was the second hand courage of people close to me. Their unwavering support help steady my nerves, their energy topped me up. Also through some teary discussions I managed to get some distance and realised that it wasn’t me. It was OK. The situation I was in could change and I could change it.
If you are in that struggle consider these things I learned. Surround yourself with people who can share their energy and courage with you — their courage is still something that can carry you. Find perspective by discussing things with someone who will understand your experience. Plot your way out, find a course that puts you back making decisions about what is next.
Thanks for squashing my idea. You cut me off as I was sharing it and threw it on the ground. You trampled on my idea. You made me watch as that precious little spark was extinguished and yeah, you squashed it.
We obviously approached the chat from different places. You see, I thought we were there to share some ideas. You know, like new things we hadn’t considered yet. It seemed you had just brought your pre-loaded high calibre idea sniper rifle. Those ideas didn’t stand a chance, I mean they barely had a moment to breathe.
But did you hear that other sound? No? Well, you were busy dropping and squashing ideas, so how could you. That was the sound of a crack in my creative confidence. It’ll be a while before that gets fixed. I hope it gets fixed.
When you look around the room and notice others, yeah, those other quieter voices. Or even the silent ones. You know why they are silent, right? The cracks in their confidence haven’t been fixed. Creative cracks just grew. They still have ideas, I know that. They just keep quiet, choosing not to participate in the fortnightly Idea Duck Hunt.
I just wanted to let you know that there are thousands of idea headstones carved because of people like you. We mourn those precious little sparks, those little glimpses of something new, different and unexpected. We still think about those ideas and the fleeting moments we had with them.
Despite the fact that our gradual creative grief makes us not want to share, our ideas keep coming. They brim up when we least expect it. Entrusted to our notebooks, napkins and daydreams. We know they will have their time in the sun. Probably when you and your shadow have moved on.
For quite some time now I have had this post brewing on one of my writing ideas lists. Percolating away. It seemed important because I have witnessed first (and second) hand the power of children connecting deeply with a topic and empathising for someone at the heart of it. That level of investment creates a tension with simply being an active participant. And when I pull on my learning designer hat the apparent distinction remains significant, yet intriguing.
They are both phrases I have come across in my working life in education, however at very different times. This is a post to unpack the distinction and see what influence that understanding might have on instructional and learning design.
Stay On Target
Engagement and more precisely student engagement was something I grew into the profession of teaching with. I recall it being something that proved an indicator of my practice, a yardstick of my emerging craft. Keeping students “on task” was the order of the day as I learned the ropes. Fellow student teachers would compare notes about how to do this, keeping students engaged for longer and longer periods of time seemed to be the goal as our practical experience extended.
The observations from college tutors visiting me in schools, or from my school mentor, would speak of how engaged the children were, “All the children were on task…” that sort of thing — or the opposite of course. I think I have gone through a few stages in appreciating the influences on student engagement over the years of my teaching, stretching all the way back to during my four years of training in university.
First of all I thought it was just about managing behaviour, there is an overlap here with students being engaged. This is unsurprising in some ways as most people’s early experience of teaching can be dominated by a focus on classroom or behaviour management. I thought it was just about managing the impulses and choices of every student, all at the same time, all thirty of them. Engagement was about them.
I soon began to consider the importance of task or learning design as I got better at it. During my placements I would spend hours planning lessons and sequences of learning, testing ideas and seeing the influence on students of different ages and developmental stages. The emphasis seemed to shift back to me — maybe it was me, maybe I held the keys to getting student engagement right in the classroom?
As my placements extended and the responsibilities increased, I had longer periods of time with students. I was teaching a whole range of subjects with the same group of children, not simply taking the reins for one or two lessons. I was opening the door to them in the morning and chatting to their parents at the end of the day. I was dusting them off when they had fallen and trying to make them laugh with my bad jokes. I was truly finding my own identity as a teacher. It was during these times when things started to make more sense and I realised it was not just simply about the students whims nor my own learning design skills. Engaging learners was, is, based on the quality of relationships you form together.
What does an engaged learner look like, what are the indicators?
[Students] show sustained behavioral involvement in learning activities accompanied by a positive emotional tone. They select tasks at the border of their competencies, initiate action when given the opportunity, and exert intense effort and concentration in the implementation of learning tasks; they show generally positive emotions during ongoing action, including enthusiasm, optimism, curiosity, and interest.
This was taken from one of my lesson observations at university. No, not really, just joking. It is a pretty broad definition from Skinner, E.A., & Belmont, M.J. (1993) of an engaged learner and encompasses some of the emotional signals too. But engagement is not enough as some people say.
For Kohn the imperative is personal learning, “that entails working with each child to create projects of intellectual discovery that reflect his or her unique needs and interests. It requires the presence of a caring teacher who knows each child well.”
As you see it underlines my reference to the importance and potency of relationships in terms of influencing engagement but also learning co-design. Mike goes on to share a new course at his school about making a difference in the world, saying:
When we care deeply about something in a personal way we are more likely to act upon that thing.
What surprised me about Mike’s piece was the lack of reference to empathy. Not mentioned once. Technically I suppose he says everything but the word itself, but it is such an integral element of impacting the world around us. Not on some sort of detached “get behind the cause” sort of way, but on a human level. If I was to rephrase Mike’s words quoted above:
When we care deeply about other people, we are more likely to act with purpose, sustain those actions and develop ideas that matter.
Your Shoes, My Steps
As I have shared before, establishing complete empathy for another human being is perhaps perpetually out of our reach. I might walk in your shoes, they may help me learn about your perspective but I can never truly, completely understand it. Walking in someone else’s shoes is as elusive as someone walking in our own.
I think developing empathy for others comes in small aggregated pieces, rarely do we have exactly the same experience to draw from, the complexity of our bias (and life) prohibits this in many ways.It is more a mosaic of experience we build that helps us connect with others, find common ground and shared values.
Empathy is distinguished by two separate flavours. First up we have Affective Empathy or what many people refer to as emotional empathy. This is about our ability to respond with an appropriate emotion to someone else’s state of mind. For example we are sad when someone else expresses their frustration about something. Or perhaps we respond happily when others share a successful achievement.
The second distinct component of empathy is what is commonly known as Cognitive Empathy. This is the capacity to understand another’s perspective or mental state. When we can identify that perspective ourselves, recognise it and perhaps validate it through our own experiences we are exhibiting a level of cognitive empathy.
The physiological evidence of these two distinct components empathy is also clear.
A meta-analysis of recent fMRI studies of empathy confirmed that different brain areas are activated during affective–perceptual empathy and cognitive–evaluative empathy. Also, a study with patients with different types of brain damage confirmed the distinction between emotional and cognitive empathy. Specifically, the inferior frontal gyrus appears to be responsible for emotional empathy, and the ventromedial prefrontal gyrus seems to mediate cognitive empathy. [Wikipedia]
Another great articulation of what empathy is, and especially the difference with sympathy, comes from Dr Brené Brown. (Beautifully animated too.)
We have to connect with an emotional truth of our own to feel with someone. As Brown says we have to look within ourselves, to draw upon our own experiences and emotions to connect with others. As I have said it is an aggregate of our personal truths. In order for us to appreciate someone else’s perspective (cognitive empathy) and offer an appropriate emotional response (affective empathy) we have to connect deeply to our own emotions and perspectives.
For me there is also an exchange on some sort of deeper level I think. When you are exposing yourself in a similar way there is a degree of emotional vulnerability. This takes energy and you have to be open to that happening.
“I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person.” ~Walt Whitman
I first came across the concept of empathy when I was studying A Level Psychology. The Developmental Psych component of the course allowed us to go into some local schools and work alongside some primary age students. It was actually during these times that I first began to understand that teaching was something I was set to pursue as a career.
More recently my understanding of empathy has extended to its relevance to ethnographic and human centred problem solving and design. I try and help people move closer to an understanding of stakeholders so they can solve the right problems, on issues that matter and that address un-met needs. This has been mainly within the context of school and education. All too often we start with the problem and quickly move to our ideas. The centricity of empathy has helped slow things down, and keep people, other human beings, at the heart of these creative efforts.
An example of a tool would be interviewing with a sharper focus on empathy. Take a look at the quote and resource below from the Stanford d.school.
You want to understand a person’s thoughts, emotions, and motivations, so that you can determine how to innovate for him or her. By understanding the choices that person makes and the behaviours that person engages in, you can identify their needs, and design to meet those needs.
Or even this example of creating Personas from the DIY Toolkit by Nesta. I would highly recommend finding some additional time to explore the toolkit in more detail, some real gems in there.
Personas help ensure that your work stays focused on people, rather than an abstract description of the group they are said to represent.
Another area of my understanding that has matured over the years has been how we design learning that is rich in the opportunity for developing empathy. This has come in various guises as I have sat alongside teachers and in some respect comes back to narrative and storytelling. When a deeper connection with people at the heart of curriculum topics is designed into sequences of learning, it fosters a deeper level of engagement. Maybe this is what Mike Crowley was saying when he was thinking about “beyond engagement”.
I recall a group of Prep students in a school in Sydney who didn’t just learn about Sustainability but felt something. As a result they sustained the level of investment they had in that idea for far longer. They wanted things to change, they wanted behaviours to change and they wanted the world to know about their ideas to achieve that. This was mainly due to emphasising empathy during that period of learning. Positive participation (engagement) is one thing, but sustained commitment to change (as a result of empathy) is another. This meant the Prep students continued discussing the issues and the ideas long after the topic had passed.
A Signature Made in Aggregate
The distinction between Empathy and Engagement helps us to better design learning. I now appreciate more fully how engagement can happen as a result of empathy fueled activities. But importantly I think,
Engagement as a result of greater empathy has its own signature.
It is a more significant level of engagement, something that needs observation over time rather than just in a short frame. Engagement can also be short lived and isolated, it is often a means to an end. Whereas empathy is connected into many things over a longer period of time. Increased levels of empathy is also something we should identify as an end, an important outcome of our time with students.
Much of the connection and difference warrants further exploration and I suppose there is an inherent weakness in anecdotal evidence. However these are some of my observations if empathy is emphasised when planning sequences of learning:
We are more inclined to act and try to change stuff. When learners are closely connected to the plight of a group of people, or starkly perceive the needs of another and are in a position to do something, they want to act.
We can’t help but connect the learning experiences to real things.Whether intentional or not, the pure dynamic of empathy is very human and so is very real. The emotional response we have for others, especially, is a concrete thing. Seems strange to describe emotions with the word concrete, but it is certainly less abstract. How does this make you feel? Should be a standard question regarding learning design.
We sustain a level of investment in learning and doing. Noticeably the timeline for thinking, learning and doing seems to extend when there is an emphasis on empathy in the design. Children want to see things through, to make those changes and continue to stay connected. There is a shared appreciation of a perspective and this is sustained — often leading to further learning.
Ultimately this returns to the quality of relationships in the learning space. It is in the intentional design of opportunities for a group of learners to connect, explore and discover another person’s story that underpins empathy rich tasks. That design relies on an ever improving knowledge of the learner. Know what is in the heart of your learners, and you can create the best possible conditions for them to connect with others.
I spend most of my time working on pedagogy with educators. It normally entails conference keynotes, workshops and in school sessions with teachers. The range of projects I have had the chance to work on since leaving the classroom is something I always draw inspiration - from castles to luxury fashion, from schools to corporate foundations, from hospitals to toy brick makers!
This diversity has given me a unique perspective on pedagogy and the creative process.
I identify with the design thinking processes, ideas, techniques and mindset and enjoy articulating the link with this creative disposition and what happens in enquiry learning. I continue to do what I can to support educators using social networking as part of their professional learning as I know we learn better together.
2011 - Present
Senior Consultant / NoTosh Limited
Leadership, technology adoption and improving teacher capacity with NoTosh in schools and businesses across the world. Inspiring audiences with fresh ideas for engaging young people in learning.
Deputy Head Teacher / John Davies Primary School
Broad range of senior leadership responsibilities including: assessment; ICT; new curriculum development.
ICT Subject Leader, Assistant Headteacher, Year 5 Classteacher / Priestsic Primary and Nursery School
ICT Subject leader - coordinating technology within the curriculum from Foundation - Key Stage 2 (April 2003 - present) Assistant Headteacher (September 2006 - present) Assessment Coordinator (April 2003 - present) Year 5 Classroom teacher (September 2007 - present)
Year 6 Classroom teacher / Priestsic Primary School
Classroom teacher responsibilities
ICT Specialist Teacher / Priestsic Primary School
Delivering specialist technology integrated lessons for the staff at school. I had the opportunity to work with children from Foundation to Year 6 in regular lessons alongside the classroom teacher.
Floating classteacher / Priestsic Primary School
When I was not teaching technology lessons I was covering staff for their non-contact. I would be working across the school from Foundation to Year 6.
ICT Coordinator, Year 5 Classteacher / Daneswood Junior School
My first teaching position.
BA (HONS) QTS
English Literature / Primary Education
Peter Symond's College
Economics, Psychology, English Language
IEEE Computer Society Award: 2011 Distinguished Contributions to Public Service in a Pre-College Environment Award
“For inspired leadership and dedication in promoting the use of modern technology in education both locally and internationally”
I am interested in how technologies can have an impact on teaching and learning. I have particular interest in the use of emerging technologies and web based tools.
Conflict, controversy and debate might improve your idea generation. https://t.co/sDB8GQkqop A thought-provoking article by @tombarrett
- Becky Kane (bkaneMN) http://twitter.com/bkaneMN/status/698105002263502848