Teaching online

Sharing – not sharing. Hiding in plain sight in the digital classroom.

Sharing -not sharing. The problem and power of being an imperfektionizt…
This week’s topic is inspired by your reflections in response to my request for key challenges you feel are important right now. This edition leads with some thinking from a reader who is Head of Art, whose students’ work often features in my newsletters and presentations. 
Teacher observation and question:
“I have realised that the benefit of being creative as part of a group is even more important than I thought. The students learn so much from seeing each other’s responses to themes. It gives them confidence and fuels their ideas. They are reluctant to show us or each other their work until it is perfect when working on line– when we are together I get to see all the stages in the process and am able to discuss this with them. I would be interested in getting ideas about how to quell those perfectionist traits in lockdown.”
This view from a highly talented Head of Art resonates strongly. As lockdown continues, what is the impact of students working in more highly individualistic ways?  What is the psychological impact of having less ready access – and in some cases no access- to collaborative sharing of ideas with peers? What is the psychological impact of not having more direct, seamless contact with the teacher? And while students have more control over their interactions across the digital divide / connection…what habits of mind might be being reinforced – and are they opening up and facilitating growth, or are they retreating, playing safe, more risk and more growth averse? 

We can’t know for sure right now – we’re all part of this strange, prolonged, and unfolding social experiment! And so are the children we are raising, and the children we teach. But we can tune in to the differences, the discomforts, the missing pieces and be thoughtful and intentional about what we’re happy to let ride, and what we want to dig into and work on against the grain of where our groups or some individuals are going…

This comes down to our key values as educators and parents. Sharing involves some really core pro-social values. It’s one of the most important early lessons we have to crack on with when children are young. Sharing requires openness, generosity, altruism, good faith that there will be give-and-take. You have to be quite well-regulated in order to share – you are operating from a secure-base ‘yes brain’ mindset. It comes from a fundamentally optimistic and hopeful standpoint. It also is connected with survival and self-interest. It is definitely beneficial to be able to share – especially if there is reciprocity. 
There are more resources in the collective, more creativity in diversity. Whether it’s sharing your toys, or sharing your ideas. And there is no doubt that the sharing of your thinking and progress along your learning journey is something that provides an extra dynamic fuel – metacognition, being able to think about how you’re thinking, unpack and stress-test your logic…and fine-tune your thinking processes by bounding your ideas off others – your teacher, your peers. 
So when this element shuts down in our child or in our pupils, we need to be thoughtful, creative, and resourceful. Some curiosity about psychological safety is going to pay dividends. How can we develop that sense of belonging, safety, connection, reciprocity, sharing, in these uncertain, anxious times of change?
I want to also state at this point – that when I am talking about the sharing of ideas in this way, I am not denigrating introversion. Every classroom has its extroverts who feel comfortable holding the floor and sustaining discussion. Every classroom has its introverts whose working preference is to go to their points of learning and challenge in a solitary and thoughtful way. 
And as Susan Cain has written about most eloquently in ‘Quiet: The Power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking’, society benefits hugely from both personality types. And our society has long been set up for noisy collaboration, with out open plan work spaces and group break-outs…and so there is certainly a powerful undervaluing of introversion.

Many introverts right now are finding and exercising their powers in this socially distanced era. Anders Eriksson’s research on the value of sustained, deliberate practice underlines the value of individual work:  “Only when you’re alone, can you go directly to the part that’s challenging to you. If you want to improve what you’re doing, you have to be the one who generates the move. Imagine a group class- you’re the one generating the move only a small percentage of the time.”
The trouble is one-dimensionality – and the propensity we can have to be so thrilled at our child’s work ethic, that as parents we tolerate and may even reward and celebrate perfectionism. Let’s face it, right now, most working parents would give their eye teeth to have a child who simply worked hard in their room for hours on end without needing constant cajoling and monitoring. 
The issue at stake here are the habits of mind that keep people at the extremes. Those students who can only work collaboratively, think aloud, and for whom actually facing the task alone is a threat…study leave, and facing the exam paper alone and in silence is a terror…And those who spend their time in class flooded by anxiety that they will be spotlighted next, fearful of asking questions, fearful of being unveiled in their ‘not-knowing’.
The concern is where children and teens operating at these extremes have a hallmark of inflexibility and avoidance. They risk becoming less and less teachable without that ability to ‘share’ and be open about the vulnerability that is an inherent part of being a learner- and being in the position of not knowing, pre-mastery. 
When we live in times of threat, our social bandwidth, and our ability to take in and integrate new thinking is diminished. Our thinking tends to stay within in the well-oiled tramlines of the familiar and safe. And we become defensive, less open to connecting with others – even though that more meaningful and vulnerable connection is what will fuel our wellbeing and decrease our stress…So it is not surprising that disengagement with the give-and-take of this extended period of online schooling is taking hold, especially with teens who are wired to be risk averse when it comes to protecting their social currency.

Researchers looking into the effect of anonymous peer scrutiny in teens, found that whilst answering simple, factual recall questions, the areas of the brain which lit up – apart from the hippocampus – were the same areas responsible for anticipating physical pain, and – of course, the amygdala (panic button, fight, flight, freeze). So fear of loss of face among peers can be a potent driver at the best of times…

Concern about students retreating to anonymity in online lessons has very much been a theme in observations with Safeguarding Leads (DSLs) with whom I have been working over the past week, reviewing current concerns about wellbeing and psychological safety. And being avoidant or withdrawing from normal patterns of engagement, (too different, too intense, for too long) is a key sign teachers often tune into in the frontline of safeguarding work. I have had the privilege of being able to facilitate group meetings of both Secondary and Junior School DSLs from London and the South East, and the following themes predominate: 
   – the impact of isolation 
• worry about work, 
• with older students (especially teens), a retreat from active visual and vocal engagement in the live online lessons or pastoral sessions with their teachers. 
Over the past two weeks I have been delivering A Level English taster sessions to Year 11 students – introducing modernism and feminist criticism. These were my first experiences of teaching since lockdown -as the majority of my school work is providing coaching. And the first session was one of the strangest teaching experiences of my career.
Given I have spent a lot of time in my consultancy work delivering parent, teacher and pupil webinars for large numbers at a time since the start of lockdown, working with a smaller group and having the scope for discussion was something I had really looked forward to. I had prepared lots of attractive and interesting visual & literary stimuli for exploration and discussion. 
Despite my excitement, and all my careful preparations to invite, entice and enchant in this first lesson, it was immediately obvious, that no one was going to show themselves by camera – despite encouragement. As I hadn’t taught any of these students before as individuals or a group – there was no prior connection to draw on…
Getting them to unmute and speak was like pulling teeth. When they did speak, I was immediately hit by the amount of hedging comments ‘I’ve probably got this wrong but…’ So if they did say anything, what they said was obscured by caveats. We managed some momentum, but later, as the content developed in challenge, the interactions lost energy and pace. As their energy went down, mine dialled up…
Remembering my coaching training, I resolutely tried not to fill the gaps and ‘let the silence do the work’ – even if it meant sitting in what I hoped was thoughtful discomfort – but being deprived of any sight of my pupils, it felt like staring into a void – a digital cave where my questions and invitations simply echoed back…
Of course, I used various strategies to try to make communication across the digital wall more accessible…thinking space before contribution, giving the heads up on who I’d be asking next so no surprises, alternating to use the chat function as a different route…It was exhausting, and not very rewarding. It made me feel helpless in myself, as a teacher who – especially at A Level – has always prided myself on generating dialogue, and being able to encourage and celebrate the growth and development of more disciplined, rigorous, and creative scholarly thinking as it unfurls in the classroom…

So going back to the start point. What is the impact of lockdown on creativity, creative thinking, risk-taking, participation, collaborative approaches…? It is pretty clear that where the retreat from sharing takes place, these students are working – if they are working – in their own separate little silos. The behaviour is fearful, defensive, protective. To share anything that isn’t perfect or finished is to be vulnerable. But how do you know it is any good, or good enough when you have nothing to compare to? This is where the more elastic boundaries of lockdown can have a corrosive effect. How do you know when to stop? When good is good enough…when very good or superb is also a possibility…
So let’s take a little look at what perfectionism is and why it matters to take a stand.

  1. Perfectionism is linked with the drive to attain reward – positive emotional and social affirmation that you are indeed a ‘good’ student, a ‘good’ worker. Good marks = belonging in a ‘good school’ or a ‘good group’. We get a dopamine hit which strengthens our memory, and provides an incentive to repeat those behaviours. So far, so good. But our biochemistry doesn’t differentiate between being incentivised out of love, or out of fear. But there’s a difference between self-driven hard work and learning out of a love of learning, and a drive to work out of fear of being de-throned and exposed as ‘not-good’, ‘inadequate’. The latter pattern is self-sabotaging and leads to burnout. Are our kids digging into their work out of sheer joy and curiosity, or is there an avoidance? An avoidance of family life, meaningful connection, engagement with life outside of work? An avoidance with being vulnerable oneself?
  2. Perfectionism is avoidant of threat – therefore there is a narrowing to familiar methods, and we can tend to get a ‘more is more’ approach – overly laborious, taking more and more time to prepare, and longer and longer to walk away from the task, often adding in more detail than is required, sometimes detracting from the impact. Highly diligent, but perhaps lacking creativity. It can lead to impostor syndrome – something especially prevalent at competitive universities. When I did my training at Yale’s Emotional Intelligence Centre, Professor Marc Bracket spoke of disconnection, burnout and impostor syndrome being the terrible compound legacy of societal success mythology…working hard to achieve the top grades, working even harder to stay at the top, knowing that those grades were coming at great expense. Tired, driven by fear and trapped in a cycle, questioning that they were actually worthy of being seen as intelligent because they had to work so hard…but unable to stop. That’s a heavy load for a young person to be carrying in their emotional back pack…In fact there is no golden correlation between hard work, high grades and happiness and wellbeing. The stats show that in fact there is a negative correlation between the highest grades and student wellbeing, satisfaction, self esteem, optimism levels… Prof Laurie Santos, Yale, The Happiness Lab, The Monkey Economy. There’s far far more to working wisely and working well in moderation and nurturing intrinsic motivation. 
  3. Excessive need for control of the work, feeling mastery, feeling ‘finished’, gets in the way of real relationships, overshadows all activities that aren’t fitting with the narrative of success, snapping too quickly at minor things because that sense of control is under threat. Shutting down or shutting off challenge to the status quo with a defensive rigidity. What is broadening and building is the work, not the outlook, and the levels of stress and anxiety surrounding the work continue to build because there is only limited contact with other ways of being which would work to slow down, take a cognitive break from preoccupations with work, and return refreshed. One of the most resonant and inspiring answers I have seen given to that perennial networking question ‘What do you do?’  given by Alex Verlek, a master coach at the top of his profession… ‘As little as possible.’ Yes – he’s right. Redefining success in four words. 

What can we do as teachers? And how might parents be able to replicate and apply these ideas in family life?

  1. Create as much psychological safety around expectations to contribute to discussion and show work in progress. Survey a problematic group individually so that you can understand what lies beneath the tip of the iceberg that you are seeing. Passivity can easily come to feel rather persecutory. Especially when we keep increasing our efforts and energy to fill the void…Seek to understand with curiosity, compassion, and commitment to building more trust in the collective processes of learning. Every household has different challenges. Are there obstacles eg being overheard, shared work spaces…online lessons, like online meetings, can be very intense and draining. How are they finding it? What works well for them to lighten things and make involvement more enticing? As Marshall Rosenberg (the psychologist behind Non-Violent Communication) puts it – all behaviour is a communication…what is being communicated? Find this out instead of trying to fix it – because then you’ll be able to fix the group situation more collaboratively, from the inside-out. 
  2. Normalise the anxiety and pain of the early process – the messiness, the need for ‘visions and revisions’ as TS Eliot wrote. Name it and claim it. 
  3. Share your own processes, drafts and redrafts, attempts and blind-alleys, strategies for evaluation – model the mess, embrace the ‘sand-tray’ mentality. Get the students to comment on the steps of the journey, the pros and cons of the different approaches.
  4. Reframe mistakes as learning opportunities. This is something parents can really powerfully do in everyday life…How easy is it to overreact about little things and leap on little mistakes as though they are life and death! Every time we snap, judge, and blame we layer on adaptive responses in our children – perhaps hypervigilance and feelings of shame around getting things wrong…or a thick skin inured to the judgment…What we want to avoid is the sense that getting things wring is shameful…making a subtle but toxic shift from what I did was wrong / bad…and over into the ‘I am bad’ territory. 
  5. Deliberately share and celebrate epic mistake-making, drafting, re-forming and shaping work, concentrate on the road and the dialogue that might have occurred around the changes. From Edison’s hundreds of attempts at the lightbulb to Wilfred Owen’s drafts of Anthem for Doomed Youth, Picasso’s sketches of Guernica, right the way across the curriculum, there are golden stories to be found in the way people have bounced off each other’s influences and tried different approaches…
  6. Use the language of values to praise and encourage contributions from the students – their generosity, the act of sharing, the power of being vulnerable and offering up their thoughts. Show real curiosity in their thinking and how they are feeling about their work, the extent to which they are able to appreciate and take in their growth and development.
  7. Play is a hallmark of psychological safety in relationships and groups. What can you do to introduce more playful or game-like activities? Releasing laughter, bonding, serotonin, changing the rules of engagement, taking people off-guard in a low-stakes, high-impact way…
  8. Use set structures for orchestrating discussion to create predictability and safety…clear roles, turn-taking, preparation time. 
  9. Be emphatic about time limits, and transparent about the presentation demands…in creative work, ensure that it’s not just about the presentation of the finished work, that you need to see a snapshot of where they were after X, Y, Z time points on the route to the finished piece. 
  10. Technology can really help in capturing the mess of the process. Right now my daughter is spending a lot of her time on her iPad. More than I’d like, in truth, but quite a lot of it is creative, using IBIS Paint to create cartoons, she’s writing a book about Mother Nature turning Boris Johnson into a Polar Bear (if only!) so that he can experience the reality of climate change first hand…What is amazing about this is the way in which the programme captures the whole process of creation and turns it into a film where you can track through the changes…So it’s a wonderful way for getting kids to submit digital artwork and be able to really celebrate the process rather than the outcome. David Hockney has similar films of ipad art.
  11. Manage these tricky and anxious waters without surprises…Approach a sub group in advance to contribute work in progress, or to take on an element of the guidance – this can be so helpful in re-connecting that sense of belonging and contribution. Especially where lessons (eg in Primary schools) have been less actively on-line. Yesterday the Director of Music at my daughter’s school sent out a film montage of large numbers of children making their musical contributions to a song he’d written called ‘Rainbows’…I don’t think there was a dry eye in any of the houses in our neighbourhood as the kids were able to see each other leading and contributing almost as they would have in school in an assembly or concert. It’s hard to re-steer a group who have become passive in the way they show up in class. It’s like moving a massive container vessel. It’s going to take huge effort and not show much in the way of result for some time…instead get the life-boats off to show the way…Carefully recruit…don’t just choose the usual subjects who are the die-hard talkers…And make it massively worth their while with praise, encouragement, validation.
  12. Get the kids to give some appreciative peer evaluations going too. Appreciative peer to peer commentary is increasingly powerful from 9+. Dial up peer validation, and be careful and mindful about targeting your use of teacher feedback so that you are always having the last word – thereby reinforcing passivity, around you being the ultimate subject leader (so why bother listening to anyone else?).
  13. Be prepared to address the situation – to outline your observations about the lessons, the patterns of behaviour that seem to be becoming the norm. Explain what you feel about that and why it matters to you. Talk about the values at stake. From 9+ you need to concentrate on the why…and influence by values and negotiation rather than coercive authority.
  14. Concentrate on the vision of the time the tasks are meant to take, and if you suspect excellent work has exceeded the time limit, call it out and make time an accountability issue. What things aren’t they doing whilst they are working extra?…Colluding with the more is more approach is a risky business, and can lead to a law of diminishing returns as the developmental demands of the transition into A Level and degree level work chunk up. They need to be able to sleep and sleep well in order to absorb and integrate their learning properly so that they can deal with the content of their learning in agile and creative ways. 
  15. Parents can listen out for active involvement, enthusiastic speech during online lesson time. Ask about how lessons feel and when lessons have gone well, dig into why, how it felt, what was important, what they are learning about the things that they find rewarding. Is online schooling feeling like a chore, like slow work? What are they doing? What can they do to dial up their involvement and sense of belonging?
    Bottom line:
    At the root of perfectionism is anxiety, and anxiety loves territory. It spreads and grows, is a hard task master that can never be satisfied. It’s very persuasive. It feels so insidiously safe. Don’t collude with it.

I hope that this week’s edition has given some food for thought and helpful ideas – both for teachers and  parents alike. Please contact me if you’d like to share ideas that have worked for you in getting through the barriers of non-responsive group dynamics…
Any more reflections and observations you’d like to share and have aired in future newsletters?…Keep ‘em coming! 
If you have the chance, please share my newsletter, or recommend or endorse online. It really helps. As you know, signing up is free and simple, via the home page of my website, where other parenting and teaching resources linked to wellbeing and child development can be found: https://www.emmagleadhill.com/
Coming up next week – emotional perfectionism in adults.
If you’re interested in webinars, training, individual coaching or family sessions, please get in touch: 
coachingandtraining@emmagleadhill.com As always, with love and gratitude,

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