Boundless: Serious not fluffy playful curiosity.

My foundational purpose as an educator has been ensuring that emotional intelligence( EQ) and emotional literacy is embedded at the heart of everything and leading learning, so that effective cognition is facilitated, thus deep and connected  learning develops,  and that the whole ethos of a school , or classroom, is focused on balancing secure sense of self to commit to learning and development and ensure that everyone has the best chance to thrive and succeed. This applies to everyone, children and adults alike.

My MA research began when I met my NPQ class, way way back many decades ago! At that point, some people viewed emotional consideration as fluffy,  but I was fortunate to liaise with Peter Salovey and Marc Brackett, the gurus of EQ and consideration of this in education. I knew this was essential to supporting the development of my class. We now know so much more about the fact that if children are not emotionally balanced and remain emotionally charged, it is much more difficult, or impossible for them to use their pre-frontal cortex to key into learning, so whilst core and fundamental learning is important, emotional intelligence and literacy is actually the core priority.

I learnt that approaching curriculum from a holistic and restorative perspective, founded in relational practice enabled children to relax, connect and engage . In essence, playful curiosity , an environment where they could enjoy themselves and feel like they belonged calmed their nervous systems. They wanted to learn, they were curious. With increased realistic self-awareness  and self-concept, they were able to self-regulate more and develop empathy for others. I’m not saying it was all plain sailing and I also had to consider adaptation of strategies to support some clear pathways for the diverse needs of learners, however now I understand that I was using Polyvagal theory, finding strategies to enable learners to experience more joyful and less stressful situations to move them into a ventral vagal state. In doing so, I calmed down their sympathetic nervous systems from fight/flight and freeze modes. This may be mindfulness techniques, but equally active strategies where everyone participates in low threat situations, playing , singing, whatever works for your learners. We built trust and experienced more flow. This created even more, and impacted on positive mindsets and facilitated the ability to rationalise and connect with learning. As more breeds more, children developed a thirst for learning and intellectual discussion.

I use this theory regularly with coaching clients, and I now know this is what I used in schools, before I  learnt about it.  It’s also crucial to recognize the importance of this for adults as well as children. Where are you creating the conditions for being present, joyful with calm connection, and curiosity, as well as compassionate grounding? With a bit of tweaking the check in at the start of a staff meeting, or Inset session could be a reflective and joyful moment.

Once I had created a clear focus in the climate and ethos in the classroom, and built relationships, with clear expectations and a shared understanding of this, focusing in on the children’s needs so I could create strategies to engage, motivate and develop learning was key. With all learners and staff, understanding the why , and then the how, and noticing the small steps along the way has always been crucial. This can be tricky in the melee of busy schools, and more now than ever with competing priorities. It’s crucial to make space for everyone, including the Headteacher to have space to balance and think clearly and really refine what matters into manageable chunks. Where we consider well-being priorities, we’re really not partitioning work and time, but synthesising the whole culture and approach to incorporate into the whole to relax the whole system.

My MA research centred around embedding metacognition. This was totally dependent on social constructivist approaches, building from where they are, using concrete examples and modelling -with children and staff alike, and developing rich assessment for learning pedagogical approaches, where everything was subject to small tweaks when we had the main learning in mind. With the increasing focus on cognitive science, this is key  in terms of focused practice, and scaffolding learning, but also in terms of developing the behaviours and, crucially, mindsets for learning. If we want to develop these, we have to scaffold awareness and understanding. More recently, this seems to be collated into instructional coaching, or I do, we do, you do…. but essentially, it was always about creating curiosity, based on what we already knew or could do, knowing what we wanted to find out/be able to do and then using some key tools and modelling skills to scaffold that, and ensuring learners knew how to, and then  facilitating strategies to self -review, scaffolded by my feedback, questions and modelling along the way. This is also the foundational principles of ongoing staff professional development and holistic coaching development. It also offers a more fluid approach to whole school development, in terms of refining all actions to the main priority and ensuring ongoing evaluative process tweaks and refines consistently and coherently. When everyone has an understanding of the unifying purpose and evaluates in terms of that, suddenly we start aligning and refining practice. The work I do with Boundless Inspiration works on these principles. It’s assessment for learning in terms of school vision, values and strategy.

Back to the how. My class loved being  active engaged by focused interactive strategies and approaches where there investment and ownership was invested in, using rehearsal room strategies, or physical models, Lego,  drawing and using photographs of themselves. Lived and imagined experiences, such as  building in Heathcote’s Mantle of the Expert approaches created agency and opportunities for meaningful collaboration and ensured all children had a reason to learn and participate . They wanted to learn because it mattered to them and it was their learning, not being disseminated by me to them. In essence, learning was co-operative and relational. Making connections to support long term memory and retrieval was intrinsic, and retrieval practice was ultimately threaded through everything because I had planned the learning so they would need to use what they already knew to scaffold their next steps. This is something I now consider in terms of working with staff and teams, interactive reflection and development of their own understanding and agency is crucial for long term sustainable action.

I remember  my children working on a Vikings Who wants to be a Millionaire unit. Research around their own learning, and creating right and plausible wrong answers, pulling together and connecting ideas, developing analysis and generating options was actually founded in Solo Taxonomy, although I didn’t know this at the time, and this was all possible with a class of less confident and certainly less than focused Year 3 class. They eventually quizzed a partner class in the culmination of all of their work. It was all structured, with clear focus in each session, with clear frameworks  and in bite size chunks, with retrieval practice, regular spaced practice built in every step of the way, wrapped up in meaningful and enjoyable activity. In addition to this, quality Reading and Writing opportunities were  integrated each step of the way to enable children to apply their learning in context.

 

This is also something I considered through leadership. When staff were learning new concepts, where did we explore them in reality, reflect and develop. Using a version of lesson study and action research supported collaborative techniques with built in sense of agency linked to pupil progress data and wider qualitative evidence. In doing so, subject leaders and our Senior Leadership team could plan professional development and evaluative feedback sessions to build skills and understanding. This was a done with model, and we refined all development and monitoring structures as a result.

I’m exploring how we create the structures around the key priorities here. We want balanced and resilient learners, so we start with the key values and principles, then we build clear structures around them, the learning, the curriculum, and then consider the appropriate strategies. This is curriculum content and pedagogy. It’s the same on a whole school level. What enables us to develop and learn? Scaffolded approaches with clear strategic purpose and increased independence and ownership, and transformational purpose with clear prioritised action. All with learning and emotional connection at the heart.

The Barrett Values model has lately taught me a lot about why creating transformation and agency is key. In my practice, I know dialogic approaches, and empowering learners and staff has been  important to creating the culture and climate for ownership of learning and developing leadership at all levels. However, seeing this model demonstrates why .

 

 

Look at the excessive focus outcomes if we get locked in the cycle of  the lower pyramid. There is something to be learned here in terms of survival mode, or when we have to pull in the control and boundaries. This may have been a product of Covid, or in times of change. How are you balancing the core principles  with engagement and purpose and transformational leadership? Equally relevant to a class, and in leadership of a team or organization. This may be worthy of thinking about when considering key policies and processes. It’s also essential to consider the upper pyramid  relies on the lower, so when teachers and  leaders consider there is no time to support their own survival, self esteem and relationships, remember transformation and strategic development is dependent on it. Taking time to be well, build your own self -esteem, and reflect is essential not desirable.  This is something I look at with my coaching and supervision clients regularly. If we want our children and environment to be well-regulated, then we are the fuel for this.

I’d also  certainly suggest a great curriculum model, or whole school development plan framework could emerge from this model-in fact I have one. At every level we have values-driven and emotional connection that fuels agency, vision and legacy, and ensures success.

This takes me back to a class that I researched who lacked the confidence to speak and self efficacy-a biddable class. I used Heathcote’s  Mantle of the expert approach to set up and lead a teacher for a day class cross- curricular project, right from creating job adverts for class teachers to teach subjects, with a consideration of the key competencies and behaviours they needed, to the children collaborating to consider key skills and knowledge they would need to teach the designated subjects, the lessons they needed to be taught and then applicants preparing planning and researching through observing lessons. We even set up interviews and selection.  Then pairs team taught their planned lesson and reviewed it with the class.

This yielded phenomenal results in terms of building safety,  social and emotional skills, self-confidence, metacognition and achievement and aspirations. By integrating emotional awareness and connection, building authentic presence and purpose, harnessing intentions and establishing clear strategy, I created a balanced approach to challenge, and built resilience, not to mention the learning we all gained. Children began to lead their own learning and support each other in theirs. I now realise this is probably the foundation of my work in Pupil leadership.

The framework behind Resilient Leaders Elements, which I’m now using in development for transitions projects to support students and staff reflects much of the processes I considered. It’s also at the heart of my coaching programmes, and leadership development. I’ve recently used it to create a framework for Headteacher appraisal and development. Aligning who you are and what you do is the basis of all I have aimed to achieve throughout my career, whether in an individual or organisational sense.

 

My own research widened when I worked with the RSC Associate School network, and UCL’s Research communities. Looking at very real applications for improving Reading, and integrating meaningful and active approaches to texts and their themes while developing deep consideration of language and vocabulary taught me so much and improved inclusive approaches to learning for so many children. It brought all of my learning together and created positive climates for learning, building community. Even parents got involved in performance and learning. The active strategies with learning very much at the heart, enabling emotional literacy and deep collaborative process, while accessing key themes and rich vocabulary was transformative. Learning is an exciting and inspirational process, as such, I’ve found so many ways to apply this. It also taught me so much that connected with physical development and how this supports learning and awareness. I’m now extending my understanding of this with my own learning about Somatics, and the signs our body gives us. This is an area that supports my work with educators. Children are so tuned into their bodies in terms of communication, and we learn to inhibit these. It’s something that concerns me regarding key teaching approaches now, as aligning body and mind is crucial in terms of emotional and mental efficiency. How often do we as educators suppress our physical needs? This also connects with Polyvagal theory, and ensuring we consider our nervous system and the stories we create around responses. In terms of life since Covid, this is so important on so many levels, not least the links with Vagus nerve health, which research is showing can be damaged in instances of long Covid. Vagus nerve health is crucial in terms of emotional health, with its links to anxiety, and much wider physical health symptoms. If we consider how purposeful activity can be integrated, particularly through play, for all ages, then we have some solutions for general anxiety, some strategies to support children and adults, and meaningful learning at the same time.

I am writing a book about this, and the importance of playful learning, in the sense of focused and meaningful play being the foundation for learning, and life. All learning is of the world, and not reduced to a set of slides or exercises that are separate from it. I’m not arguing we don’t need to teach the key skills, I’m just considering there are rich opportunities  for creating connection and empowering deep learning for life. At the same time, we have the opportunity to support the development of positive mental health. Oh goodness, I may have discovered an opportunity for my thesis here…

Cue the next piece of my learning jigsaw .Seligman’s Perma model, a positive psychology theory of well-being. Here’s just one iteration of this, but this one pulls together visually much of my discussion.

If this lies at the heart of all strategy and structure, then surely well-being is integrated and purposeful. It’s not an add on.

I could talk forever about a PSHE curriculum, and I often do with my SCITT trainees, but many moons ago, I started my planning with PSHE and build the bricks of the curriculum around it, with very tight links to Literacy and key texts. As a head, this was fundamentally  how I planned strategy, with the consideration of culture ethos and relationships to support cohesive strategy. The layers of organisational structure all orbit around this. Enabling others to consider their role within this and trusting them to do this is key, which is where regular coaching and development supports individual and whole school progress. I recognize how tricky this can be in terms of time and resources, but getting the balance right can be fundamental to an integrated approach to positive mental health and well-being.

This brings me to the LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® methodology which gives everyone permission to play with their ideas, find solutions and build robust plans for meaningful action. It’s founded in Bruner’s CPA ( Concrete, Pictorial, Abstract) concepts and Positive psychology. The playful curiosity element tips everyone into a Ventral flow, even when exploring emotive issues. It’s also quick in effect and brings everyone together in with focus and clarity. The physicality, empathetic discussion and visible model facilitates deep connection with ideas, and digs into subconscious ideas with ease.

This also  allows us to balance Emotional, Rational, Physical and Spiritual ( values and belief systems) forms of information/intelligence( not in a Gardner style)   in our exploration of issues, and uses the key characteristics  of playful  experiences to bring about insights and enable us to navigate key actions that make meaningful change. The clarity of learning using these strategies has been phenomenal for so many of my clients and in facilitating workshops, SLT sessions.

Recently, I’ve been able to combine all of my learning with Positive Intelligence and working with acknowledging and gaining command of key saboteurs, thos einner critics,  to enable the Sage powers and develop even more joy, capacity and mental fitness.

I’m now developing a programme to use at transition points in school for students that combines so much of my research and learning, however with all this learning, I also have a toolkit to embed a consideration of holistic approaches to leadership and learning, with well-being and emotional resilience at the heart of all learning and development.

My coaching programmes, either one to one, or for groups and teams are very much tailored to support the needs of my clients. This is one of the reasons I struggle with outlining a niche. I’m an educator, so I can really tailor approaches for the needs of my client, whether that is to expand leadership perspective, support balance, or to build mental fitness, and overcome imposter syndrome. However, learning and leadership  is everyone’s business, and emotional, physical and intellectual resilience is definitely a key priority in today’s world, so my commitment is to anyone who needs a values-driven coach, irrespective of role. Often I work with teams who really want to align with their vision and to ensure they embody this. We know this creates more joy, more unified purpose and ultimately more success. Leading with love, not fear is an enabling principle.

I’m still learning, and this year I will be looking closer at mindset and coaching development with my own ICF journey, but I continue to remain focused on enabling with love, empowering purpose and creating more joy so everyone can achieve beyond their perceived or real boundaries.

The future is Boundless, putting playful curiosity at the heart of learning and success. I’d love to share more with you and your team.  I know I’m meant to inspire more, so please accept my blog as a gift , or opportunity.

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