What’s on the menu today? Thoughts on how we present learning to our young people…

Tim Sully

Tim Sully

Recently I began a day’s training with a ‘problem to solve’. I asked the staff to think about ‘closing the gap’ and then to reverse the paradigm and think about how they would open the gap – yes, make the inequalities wider. What philosophy would you need to adhere to and what strategies would you need to employ? I would recommend the exercise but there is a caveat attached to it which I will explain later.

What people discussed were systems that brought hierarchies to the fore, that made comparison of pupils the central tenant, that gave all the children the same work to do, and various other strategies that diminished risk taking (humiliation), resilience and effort. It was painful but illuminating by the same degree, because a lot of the strategies are still part of school, not the school I was working in but ‘school’ in general.

The caveat to this exercise is that it can create, amongst the participants, a negative mindset which then undermines the thinking that comes after it. So by focussing on the negative at the start of the day it can leave a ‘taste in the mouth’ which spoils the palette for the menu of learning for the rest of the day.

By comparison, the following day I worked with a group of teachers and the first thing I asked them to share on their table was an activity which they engaged in over the summer which gave them a sense of accomplishment. I gave an example of digging out my mum’s bamboo bush which was ruining her lawn. Boy did I feel good when it was all in the green bin!

People readily shared their experiences and there was lots of laughter and puffed out chests and relaxed shoulders. In fact the collective body language of the whole group changed. The rest of the morning was a breeze. People were open, actively sharing their thinking and being collaborative. So the opening activity, focusing on a ‘sense of achievement’ brought with it a mindset which left a good taste in the mouth which enabled the rest of the morning’s menu to be enjoyed.

This left me thinking again about the way we present learning to our young people. How do we offer up the day to them? Is it with a feeling of accomplishment and what we have achieved – or is it with a focus on error and what we don’t yet know? In my experience the former will herald a much more successful day.


By Tim Sully

See Tim Sully’s books for teaching that are available to purchase from the Learning Exchange here

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