Engaging learners & leading changes

Simon Sinek unpicks the importance of why we do what we do in his talk about leading change here. In using the brain as a model, he provides a powerful insight into how leaders should construct their message or sell their product. In doing so, he highlights the way in which we are physiologically wired to respond to the world we encounter.

We first experience the world through our emotions. The part of our brain that is activated when we find ourselves in a new situation is our most primitive, reptilian brain, the amygdala. Very soon after this, our rational, language-functioning part of the brain starts to make sense of what we are feeling and sensing. Finally, we formulate a considered response and can make an informed decision about what we are going to do or say. All of this happens in a matter of milli-seconds (probably less, I’m sure somebody can tell me).

On watching this, I wondered whether we could design and then communicate learning in a similar way. If we did, it would look something like this:

(1) WHY are we learning this today? This appeals to the emotional brain of our learners. Particularly if it is reinforced with a smile, a greeting and energy that betrays our own excitement and passion for what the lesson is about to cover.

(2) HOW are we going to learn today? At this point, we are appealing to the rational brain of our learners. We all like to know if we are going to be asked to actually DO or SAY publicily when we are in a new situation. Just think about any workshops you’ve attended. You get that sinking feeling when the presenter, having led the session from the front for 20 minutes, without warning, asks you to interact with the people sitting near us. And this after you had understood you could get away with being an entirely passive recipient throughout the whole session. The thing is, we all like to know from the outset what will be asked of us. We need to be emotionally prepared to be sociable, whatever our age or experience.

(3) WHAT are we going to learn today? Finally, we communicate the context and the content of what we are going to learn. The WHY has put us at ease by the expert emotional stage-setting led by the person at the front. We know HOW we are going to learn; with whom and with what and where. Now, we are emotionally prepared and engaged so we can get into the ‘stuff’ of the learning.

I’ve started to use this as a framework for lesson design and it really seems to work. Admittedly, I do still find it uncomfortable as it contradicts what I was always told, particularly when using group work, “Don’t mention group work until the last minute otherwise you’ll lose ten minutes of the lesson to your students arguing over this when you’re trying to convey the lesson aims.” But I now find that if I have organised the groups effectively, and established a culture where group work is a regular feature of learning, any discussion of the groups by the students is simply a vital component of their emotional readiness to learn. If the WHY is explained well enough, you cut down on much of any consternation expressed by the students.

Independent Learning: Autonomy, Mastery & Purpose

Daniel Pink shares his research on autonomy here. With this, he provides us with a valuable insight into the ways in which business can get the most of out their employees by (a) engaging them (b) offering them freedom and (c) enabling them to get really good at stuff. On watching this talk, I wondered if it was possible to consider giving students the 20% time that Pink talks about.

I have since discovered, thanks to the power of Twitter, that many teachers are already testing out the 20% rule in their classrooms.

Rather than offering total freedom and choice in all things, which terrifies every single control freak amongst us (and let’s face, it, that’s most teachers!), perhaps we can divide our learning ‘pie’ up into: 

(a) Task

(b) Time

(c) Group

(d) Process

And offer choices to our students in one or two of these areas within a project or a lesson.

Alternatively, we could simply ask them to plan what they would do if they were given 20% of curriculum time within a subject or topic. Once they’ve planned what they are going to do, then it’s up to them to (a) deliver and (b) reflect on how well it went so they can make more of it next time.

It also makes me wonder what we would choose to do if we were given 20% of our working week to learn and develop something of our own choosing, regardless of its connection to the curriculum. Maybe we’d reveal a new cohort of talented musicians in the maths department or water-colour painters in the PE faculty? When we ask about the learning capacities of our students, do we get the time to reflect upon and ask the same questions of ourselves? Would this help us model learning to our students, I wonder?  

Now that would surely be the mark of a genuinely learning school.

And here’s the 10 minute RSA Animate version of Daniel Pink’s message…I use these to show what I mean by ‘now draw your learning’…not intimidating at all!