Finding Joy

Life is full of challenges and adversity. Obstacles and tragedy can seem overwhelmingly unfair. We lose loved ones; we deal with unexpectedness and become grim acquaintances with grief. Often this requires a self-explanation like “everything happens for a reason.” I have used this platitude myself recently as a way of explaining away the mysteries of life.

The impact of losing people close to you creates a deep sadness. The raw emotions of despair and compassion filter through acknowledgement of the pain. Introspection at times like this can leave you wondering about life’s purpose. During these moments, I have come to realize that life in and of itself has no inherent purpose. You have to find your own purpose. This acknowledgment empowers resilience. You realize that nothing lasts forever and that often the greatest moments come after the dark. Kahlil Gibran captures this in saying that “the deeper sorrow carves into our being the more joy we can contain.”

Sheryl Sandberg’s new book, Option B, explores adversity and the concept of post-traumatic growth. Post-traumatic growth is a change of perspective in finding greater meaning in life and a stronger sense of purpose rooted in something of significance. After tragedy, some find this in work or family, some in religion, and others through athletic endeavours. Finding this purpose creates joy. Paying attention to moments of joy takes effort however, because we focus on the negatives more than the positives. This is our built-in negativity bias. Yet negativity bias is not real. Your thoughts are only what you decide to believe in and continually reinforce in your mind.

Last Friday we received news that Lainey Carr had lost her battle with cancer. Lainey was our first administration assistant at our Centre for Learning, Research and Innovation.

Lainey brought joy and positivity to everything that she did. Lainey didn’t dwell on the negative, even towards the end. Thinking of Lainey today I am imagining her saying something along the lines of “Today is a wonderful day – find joy in what you do and live life in the present.”

Building Capital

The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu identifies cultural capital as the assets an individual possesses in terms of financial and social resources, in conjunction with an individual’s knowledge, status and formal qualifications.

Professional capital is defined by Hargreaves and Fullan as a function of human capital (the talent of individuals); social capital (the collaborative power of the group); and decisional capital (the wisdom and expertise to make sound judgments about learners).

Professional capital is essentially about the growth and development of the people within a school. In The Principal: Three Keys to Maximizing Impact, Fullan suggests we need to “reposition the role of the principal as overall instructional leader.” I argue that it cannot just be the principal; it needs to be all leaders across a school – a united team focused on leading learning for teachers and students.

The question “how do you ensure accountability?” then becomes “how do we create the right conditions for all staff to grow and develop?” This necessitates a shift away from measuring, supervising and evaluating teachers to a more trusting and collaborative approach focused on growth and development.

Call it naïve optimism but I firmly believe that if you invest in capacity building or in the growing of capital, people will automatically become more accountable. Firstly to themselves and their own learning, but also to their peers, their students and their workplace.

School Culture Recharged

There are not too many books that I read that I don’t like. I’m not sure if it is because I have a genuine love of reading or whether it is just a case of choosing judiciously.

In saying that School Culture Recharged: Strategies to Energize your Staff and Culture really missed the mark for me. The authors engage in circular reasoning with statements like “culture shapes people, people shape culture” without actually providing many concrete suggestions as to how this might take place. Many of the few examples given are simplistic and obvious ranging from “praise people for their work” to “smile because it’s contagious.” Other suggestions include, “if you have teachers struggling with classroom management, you might suggest they try dressing more professionally” and “add donuts to meetings to help make attendees feel appreciated.” At least I got a laugh or two…

Culture is a nebulous concept to be certain. But a quick glance at the literature should enable us to go a little deeper than what was presented in this book. Kroeber and Kluckhohn (1952) in a critical review of culture list one hundred and sixty definitions, whilst more recent studies attempt to explore the nature of culture as being either an external or internal entity, fixed, variable or existing only in the mind of an individual. My simple definition of culture would be that it is a set of shared and enacted values, beliefs and ideologies.

Whilst I did enjoy the small section that explored how leaders can strategize by positioning influential people at different points in the organization, the book adds little to those looking for actual strategies to enhance school culture.

False Dichotomies

Constructivism is a fad according to Steve Dinham in his new book Leading Learning and Teaching.

He cites Hattie’s meta-analysis that gives constructivism an effect size of 0.15 against an effect size of 0.59 for direct instruction. Later in the book however, he suggests that the most powerful form of professional learning for teachers is via participation in an active learning community, which is very much a social constructivist endeavor.

Without getting into the critique of Hattie’s use of meta-analysis and effect sizes or examining how and if children and adults learn differently, I had the opportunity to discuss this and other topics with Steve on a keynote discussion panel at the recent Australian Council of Educational Research (ACER) Excellence in Professional Practice Conference.

Steve’s main point is that constructivism is a valid theory of learning but is not an effective approach to teaching. My argument is that theories of learning should inform our pedagogy and that a constructivist perspective develops a disposition of active inquiry through both a learning and teaching lens.

False dichotomies abound in education and the direct instruction/constructivist debate is a classic example. Those who self-identify as constructivists do not believe that children must discover all knowledge for themselves. That does not make sense. They do know that it is important to invite a learner to grapple with ideas and complexity through inquiry, but they also know when they need to step in and provide guidance.

The question is never just, “what works?” but rather “what works, for whom and under what conditions?”

From my limited experience the best pedagogy is very much constructivist in nature, learner centred and learner driven, project-based and experiential, but interspersed with purposeful periods of direct instruction. It is never just one or the other.

Harbouring Dreams

I have always identified as an athlete. Not a professional, not even close, but someone who worked hard, put in the required amount of time in the gym, and had some decent success at a local or amateur level. Like most young people I harboured dreams of pursuing sporting greatness and whilst these were never anything more than dreams, they instilled in me a work ethic that enabled a belief that I was someone who could do whatever it was that I put my mind to. This mindset has transcended sport and enabled me to achieve things in my life that I never thought would be possible.

As you get older however you can no longer physically do what you once did. Sure, you can still train, keep fit, play sport and use exercise as a release from everyday stress, but the physical toll of pushing your body starts to present itself through injury. When you can physically no longer do what you once did there becomes moments in time when your identity is questioned. What you thought you knew about yourself is challenged. Grounding yourself in a more fluid notion of identity based on more enduring qualities takes some serious work.

I am sure at some point I will be able to look back more objectively, but setting yourself personal goals and falling short due to your body not having the same strength as your mind is deflating. The challenge is to overcome your self-definition of what you once did. There is freedom in this. Letting go of who you thought you were enables a more flexible understanding of who you were, are and might be in the future.

Thankfully I am making peace with this new reality. However, I still harbour dreams…