Frontal lobes, Fight or flight, and more. In this episode, Andy, Robin and Adam discuss the attitude towards not knowing things. How can we help children understand that it's okay to not know things? What teaching techniques aid deeper thinking and help to promote stronger resilience? Plus, Adam speaks on the importance of knowing your success criteria.
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Hi, I'm Andy Psarianos.
Hi, I'm Robin Potter.
Hi. I'm Adam Gifford.
This is The School of School podcast.
Welcome to the School of School podcast.
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Welcome back to another episode of the School of School podcast. I've got with me Robin and Andy. How are you guys today?
I was about to say this morning, then I had a time zone meltdown. With listeners, if you don't know, we are on opposite... Well, not quite opposite sides of the world, but there's a decent chunk of land between us.
Is it two-thirds? Yeah. We'll go for that. Nice.
Two-thirds both ways. Figure that one out.
Long enough. Far enough way, days and nights don't quite sink.
That's a good math question actually. What is... How far are we?
I'm jotting it down furiously.
Well, there's only one... You can only say half. That's the only one that would be true both ways, right?
See, we can't even get through the introduction and we've already thrown in a maths problem for everybody. It's good.
It's just too much fun. All right. Go on, Adam. I'm sorry. I'm sorry to interrupt with that silliness.
Well, we've had a really small discussion about it, but we were talking about not knowing, right? Not knowing things. When's that a problem? When does that cause massive problems? When does it not? And what's the general attitude towards not knowing?
Yeah. Okay. Well, listen, I think this is a fundamental question about what it takes to be successful or not, in whatever you're trying to do. And it doesn't even really just apply to mathematics. It applies to everything.
That's a big call. That's a big call, Andy.
Yeah. Not knowing, a lot of the time results in people... It draws up anxiety and emotions that make them feel small or, not insignificant, but kind of insufficient, right? Like, "I'm not good enough." It conjures that up and there's shame involved and there's all kinds of things. Sometimes. Other times not knowing is the catalyst for the greatest things that a person might ever do. It's like, "I don't know this. I got to find out." It's a mindset thing. If not knowing crushes you, if you allow it to crush you, it will destroy you eventually. It'll lead you down bad paths. But if you allow it to invigorate you, it can lead to amazing things.
Okay. Let me ask you a question. Trying to organise my thoughts. Something in a learning context, right? Because I think just in life in general and then schools there is going to be times, I'm sure, where some children, the not knowing part will generate a feeling of anxiety. How much do we need to engineer a situation where we feel anxious to know what to do with that anxiety? Do you know what I mean? So we can feel that way and then go, "Hang on, this feeling's natural. Now, go Andy."
Yeah, but, sorry, I'm just like, "Just simplify it." Really go down to release. Not knowing, okay, just let's draw up a scenario. There's a classroom and the teacher says, "What's seven times eight?" What are you going to do if you don't know?
Well, you're not going to put your hand up and you're not going to yell it out.
Well, some kids will hide. "Don't look at me." Hide behind the... They don't want the teacher to say, "Okay, Robin, what's seven times eight?" That's the last thing that they want, right?
So in the classroom, you don't want to encourage that scenario because you're encouraging that response. Does that make sense? You're encouraging that response, that negative response of singling somebody out and embarrassing them in front of all their peers and all that. You're creating a tremendous amount of anxiety for that child, right?
Right. And that happens, though. It happens all the time.
Yeah. So in that scenario, are you helping the kids that don't know it? Absolutely not. You're terrifying them. And are you helping the kids who know it? Not at all because they already know it. So, why are you even doing it? Yeah? So that's what I mean. But if you say, "Let's figure out what seven times eight is," that's a whole other thing. It's like, "I don't know what seven times eight is, but how can I figure out with the things that I know?" Then you're encouraging a whole other mindset. It's like, "Oh, well, yeah, I don't know. I can't remember what seven times eight is, but I remember what five times eight is, and I remember what two times eight is, and I can use that to work out what seven times eight is."
You see, that's the thing. What you're really trying to do is build a mindset that, yeah, you can't know everything, especially not in maths. So what you want is, you want to equip kids with that essence, that feeling that if I don't know something, it's an opportunity for me to learn something and to become better. It's not an opportunity for me to be shamed and embarrassed. That's such a fundamental thing, right?
And that was as simple as rewording the question. That you've maybe completely changed that attitude of the students. You've gone from putting them on the spot, "What's seven times eight?" To, "How do we find out what seven times eight equals?" Suddenly the pressure's off. It's not like, "Oh, we're not already supposed to know the answer. We're supposed to figure out how to come up with the answer." And that's different. It's as simple as that, which is something to keep in mind, especially as a teacher. It's how you're presenting these ideas in the classroom so that people aren't anxious and stressed and you're not getting any response from them. You're trying to have everyone involved and not afraid to answer-
... that big question.
Yeah, but also understanding that not knowing could be the catalyst that sets you on the journey of your life, right? That kind of, "I don't know this, so now I'm going to learn about this," is the attitude you want to have, because that might be like, "Hey, I don't know anything about corporate law as the CEO of a company. Maybe I should learn about this." And now it doesn't mean that I have to go to university and study it, but now I've been doing this job for more than two decades.
I know an awful lot about corporate law now because I have that curiosity. But if I didn't, I might have just crumbled and said, "Ooh, I don't know anything about this. I don't want to know anything about this." That wouldn't have let me down the right path. I might have made some critical errors in my life. So it's just a mindset thing. All those things are opportunities to be better.
I think the other part of it, without getting too sciencey, because I can't, but if children don't know and the reaction is one of heightened anxiety, then it's just fight or flight. So a different part of the brain's being used, and that means that anything to do with problem-solve... It's no surprise to me when children are faced with something and it's like, "Robin, what's seven times eight?" And you go, "Uh..." And then more pressure goes on. "Come on, Robin. Look. Do you remember? We did this yesterday and the day before. Do you remember? And your mum was telling about how you've practised. Do you remember?" And you're just like, at this point, you are going, "I'm either going to start swinging or I'm going to start running. Those are the only two options I've got."
But then I might do something, and this is the part that I think needs to be understood. I say, "All right, Robin's feeling a little bit... at the moment. I've just put her in this state. I'll give her something really simple. I'll tell you what, Robin. You can do two times two." You still can't do it. And this is just neuroscience. At that point our brain is not functioning in the way that it should be. We're not thinking in that way, and I think that that's where it's really important. As educators we know this because it almost needs to reset. We need to become rebalanced and be back into a place that we can function. Function without it being just simply, "Right, I've got to do something because this is dangerous now. I've got to get out of here. I've got to do something."
And I think that that's really important that we understand that because if we don't, it just creates a situation that gets worse. The next time you get asked a question you think, "I don't want to feel like that anymore. That sucked, and I just felt stupid in front of my mates. That really was awful." I think that that's something else that we know enough now about the physiology of the brain and how the brain works to know those things, and you don't have to be too highbrow with it just to have that make sense, because we've all probably felt like that at some point where it's just like, "Ugh, don't know what to do here. I've stopped functioning, but I'm not thinking straight." And we need to be mindful of that.
Well, it gets in the way, right?
It gets in the way. And you can do that in professional development easily. If you give everybody a problem that's too challenging for them, a really difficult problem, everyone's going to shut down in the class, right? If they have that mindset that like, "Oh, no, I don't want to be caught not knowing something. Hm, he's asking me this question. That means that I should know the answer, but I don't. Now I feel like a fool. Now I'm going to hide, or now's a good time to go to the loo," or whatever it is. That's going to be like, it's your fight or flight response-
... kicking in. But that's not the mindset you want people to have. You want have, "I don't know, but let's have a go. Let's see if we can work this out." And that's what you got to do. So you got to present them with things that they don't know and then say, "That's okay, because what we're going to do now is we're going to work together and see if we can figure this one out. And sometimes we might not even succeed, and that's okay because we can try again tomorrow. We might come back to it in a month's time when we know more about this and give it another go." And that mindset becomes one of growth and one of development as opposed of one of a downward spiral. So not knowing is maybe the most important catalyst to deal with in education. How do you respond when you don't know?
One of the most lovely things I ever heard, I was really fortunate. I don't know if I've said this before, but it not just tickled me, but I found it really important. I was fortunate enough to listen to a neurosurgeon from Alder Hay Children's Hospital. For a full day we spoke with him.
And it was fascinating, absolutely fascinating. And he was talking about the frontal lobe and problem-solving. I think Ban Har talks about it saying that metacognitive functioning happens there. And he was saying that one of our instincts that happens when we get, not quite fight or flight stage, but where it's overloaded is, have you ever seen people when you put your head in your hands like this? If you can't see me, what I'm doing is that classic forehead to hand and... And he said, "That's just like a really primal instinct when we're trying to think and we're working really hard on a problem or something like that, and it's like giving you frontal lobe a little caress." And I think that's really lovely because it's like that visual cue of, "I don't know. I'm just about there. I'm just going to give my frontal lobe a little moment and then I'll be right back with you."
A little massage.
It's like, "Come on, frontal lobe. You can do it."
Yeah. It's like, "Oh, man. It's just a bit much at the moment."
We're with you. Come on.
Yeah. I don't know why it resonated so much with me, but I thought that's really powerful in teaching and learning because it's just something that says, "I've reached that point." And it's not just about knowing or not knowing. Physiologically things happen and emotionally things happen. And we've got to be allowed to, like you said, Andy, right at the very beginning, experience something in a safe way. So caressing the frontal lobe is fine. Fight or flight is not. We shouldn't feel like, "I need to run away from a teacher or punch a teacher." We should never be in that position where that's how we feel because that's not conducive to learning. That's just way primary.
Yeah, that's right.
That goes way back. Getting into a position where the frontal load needs a caress, that's okay. That's all right.
Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Absolutely.
Okay, class, everybody massage your frontal lobe.
Rub your head, just a little. Yeah. But, so, you got to create those environments, and you can fix those things. And the thing is that the younger you get the children into this habit, the more long-lasting and the better it will be. And naturally people are like this anyway. You don't see kids crying because they don't know what something is when they're four years old, but you see them maybe in secondary school having a meltdown because they don't know something. That's something that we... What gets fired, gets wired, right? If it's a repetitive pattern, every time you don't know something, you fall, you're thrown into this downward spiral. Then, the more times you experience that, the more hardwired that becomes as a response. But if you, as a teacher, and you work on the other response, which is, "I don't know. That's great. We discovered something we don't know. Let's go figure it out."
If that's a response, that might sound a little bit corny to some people, but it's like, "No, you can build that environment in your classroom." "Hey, we don't know how to do this. Okay, come on, class, let's put our heads together. Let's figure it out." If it's at, "Okay, each table, you guys try to work it out. Now let's see if we can figure this out. Why does this work? Why does this not work?" Hey, that's something that's going to stick with you. If you fire that enough times in your classroom, those kids, they're going to benefit from that, I think.
One of the things that I think is quite powerful is, think about what your success criteria is in your classrooms because most people want other people to think that they're okay. So children will do that. The opportunities that children have to do that, for their teacher to think that they're pretty good, is based on your reaction to stuff. So if you jump around the classroom because you're the fastest at getting the right answer, that's the success criteria in the classroom and all anyone will care about is, I just want to be the fastest to the right answer because then Robin or Andy smiles and thinks that I'm the best thing since sliced bread.
So be very mindful about the children wanting to please, they want to do right. If we set the right success criteria, like you said, Andy, I mean, I'm just rewording the same thing, but I think that that is really important, is what do you place success on or give the children an obvious vehicle for success. Make it a little bit more sophisticated than just right and wrong and the speed at which we answer, because that counts a lot of people out straight away. And, like you said, will chip away at resilience, which you only need to go onto a reception classroom to look at the resilience. The same child making the same tower that falls down 15 times. Not a tear shed. Just looking at it and going, "Oh, yeah, well, start again. Here we go."
Not crumpling because someone said to them, "You've got one shot to get this right, and if it tips over, you're a failure." All of a sudden that's a drastic change. But I mean, that's saying it really bluntly. But if I, in that same classroom, turn around and go, "Oh, well done, Robin, you managed to make that tower without it falling over once. You are so good, Robin," you've effectively done the same thing. So you have to be very careful, I think, with the power that we have, particularly with children, that they want their teachers to think that they're pretty special. And so they'll pick up on those success criteria real quick. And so it's upon us to be sophisticated, empathetic, human enough to make that kind of work to our advantage I think.
Well said. Thanks, everyone.
Thank you for joining us on The School of School podcast.