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Making Mayonnaise

How whisking one small change into your daily teaching practice could transform your school’s culture into one where students feel safe and excited about the prospect of growing as a learner.

We have nearly finished the first draft of a book for school leaders on how to grow a learning culture across a school; how to create a place where it is safe and inviting for everyone not just to be a learner but to grow as a learner as well; where there is a constant buzz of small innovations going on in the classrooms, the SLT meetings and the kitchen. (Powering Up Your School due out next spring; watch this space.)

In most of the schools that we have looked at and whose stories we tell in the book, this involves a slow and subtle process of getting buy-in, getting agreement to change some of the time-work procedures and, most importantly, setting up systems that support teachers in changing their habits. And this, we have found, takes time, effort and support. And it is best done not as an all-at-once revolution – that is too much – but as a series of bite-size tweaks and shifts. All teachers create a culture in their classrooms that either invites or discourages the kinds of activities that learners do – experimenting, imagining, trying things out, drafting, reflecting, getting feedback and having another go, and so on. And dozens of teachers’ small ways of doing things add up to an undertow that pulls students in the direction of either powerful learning or of anxious performance. Changing the culture means changing these small habits one by one.

It’s a bit like making mayonnaise (not that many of us do these days). You put some stuff in a bowl, you add just one drop of oil, and you whisk vigorously until that drop is completely mixed in. And then you add another drop, and whisk again. And another – and whisk some more. After a while, if you have been patient, the mixture is stable enough so that you can add the oil a bit faster, until you finally get the consistency you want. So you make one small change – introducing a little routine like “Try 3 Before Me”, say - and whisk it into your daily practice until it becomes second nature, and the students have got used to thinking about how they might rescuing themselves when they get stuck, rather than sitting there helplessly waiting for you to come and rescue them.

You might then discuss with pupils the difference between a “smart mistake” and a “sloppy mistake”, and get them used to seeing smart mistakes as productive and positive. And so on. After a few weeks, if the mayonnaise trick has worked its magic, you notice a shift in the mood music of the classroom, with greater engagement and initiative. Your students are less afraid to have a go or venture an opinion. Nobody laughs at anyone for giving it their best shot. More kids, more of the time, are up for challenge. There is less helplessness and less hiding from failure. That’s how it seems to work. No magic recipes; just the gradually accumulation of small tweaks to your way of being in the classroom. That’s how the Learning Power Approach goes about it, anyway. Worth a try?

You can order the Learning Power Approach series here:

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