I gave a talk yesterday at a cool little one day education/innovation event in Brighton called Spark Festival. I banged on (at length) about societal failings, my own failings… typical cheering stuff for a hump day morning. I haven’t been on a soapbox for a while, and it felt good to remind myself why I do this stuff (especially as it so happened that my shame-and-screw-up blog post was published on the Guardian’s site the same day).
During my prep for the talk I came across a quote by Aristotle. I’m not normally a fan of quotes—they often come pretty damn high on my wankerometer. Especially if they’re Ancient Greek ones, translated into jaunty English. But sod it, I liked it. So here it is.
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then is not an act, but a habit.”
There are lots of habits I like to instil in others (developing character strengths, soft skills, left-leaning, open-minded-thinking, beard-stroking tendencies, yada yada). But there’s currently one I’d like to instil in myself: being a better dog owner. Specifically dog walker. And swimmer. Not dog swimmer. Just swimmer. I mean, I just would like to develop the habit of swimming. And writing clearer sentences from the get go.
I had the honour of speaking at A Good Week launch on Monday. The last time I gave a big talk on flourishing when I was teaching in Elephant and Caste—that Year 9 assembly was not quite such a captive audience as the one I faced this Monday.
Here’s what I said at A Good Week’s launch event:
Out of all the statements I made in my Manifesto, Nat and the Good Week crew decided to emphasise one in really big letters: TALK LOTS OF NONSENSE. I guess I’m grateful, as it has set the bar fairly low for my talk. And it’s actually pretty useful, because although I’m going to be talking about the link between education and flourishing, right now I am just going to ask you to think about a horse.
Got a horse in your head? Good.
An ancient Greek philosopher, Plato, also thought a lot about horses. He had a theory of Ideal Forms, and he used a horse as an example. According to him, reality consists of two realms. First, there is the physical world, the world that we can observe with our five senses. And second, there is a world made of eternal “forms” or “ideas”: perfect templates of things we actually observe. All the horses we see in the world or imagine in our heads are imperfect representations of the Ideal Horse, but they all have elements of ‘horseness’ that allow us to recognise them as horses.
I don’t entirely agree with Plato and where he takes his argument. But I do like thinking about the ‘horseness’ of horses, or the ‘chairness’ of chairs, the ‘houseness’ of houses—the attributes that make us recognise and categorise things around us. So makes the ‘humanness’ of humans? Or the ‘Eugenieness’ of me?
I think that we are each able to hold in our heads and hearts an ideal version of ourselves. I think that flourishing is all about discovering and then bringing to life these ideal versions. And I think that we can all do that for ourselves, and for other people—and to me, that is what education is all about.
Spark+Mettle is an aspirations agency that likes to help people flourish. I founded it a year ago, hoping it would be one small way of enabling the marginalised young to follow their passion, fulfil their potential, find a job they love and feel good about what they do. It’s still small, but it’s the melting pot of things I think are vital in life. Today I’m going to talk about the ‘sparkandmettleness’ of Spark+Mettle: flourishing and education. What’s the link between the two? And what can we do to enable ourselves and others to flourish?
1. But first, what is flourishing?
There are hundreds of definitions. And here I’ve selected just three. I wonder which strikes you most forcibly? The first is by a contemporary psychologist called Fredrickson. The second is Aristotle’s working definition. For me, the third is the most compelling—written by a historian, called Coco Corr, who is 19 years old and one of the co-creators on Spark+Mettle’s Star Track programme. And yes, I am slightly biased.
It’s all very well to have a general idea of flourishing, but it’s useless and inapplicable if you don’t know what it might actually entail.
Thankfully Cambridge researchers have discovered nine features needed to flourish – three core (the must-haves), and then six additional—the more of which you have, the better. What depresses me even more than the fact that only 11% of the UK population have all nine, is that the wealthiest are twice as likely to flourish in this country as the poorest.
One thing I feel strongly is that flourishing is as personal as we are different, and it’s okay to adapt ideas to what fits your ‘youness’. And that’s what we’ve done over the past year at Spark+Mettle. We’ve morphed Cambridge’s nine flourishing features into our own nine flourishing creatures.
We’ve kept purpose in as one of the ‘must-haves’, and we’ve renamed engagement ‘spark’. We’ve pulled out positive emotions and relegated them to the additional pool. And we’ve thrown mettle or resilience in there instead. We bundled optimism into positive emotions, and made space for creativity—something we’ve found is vital to flourishing.
So there’s our recipe for flourishing, which may or may not resonate with youBut how do we go about teaching it? We have been running our pilot programme, Star Track, since September 2011. It’s a personal and professional development programme for aspiring young people, that blends online and offline reflection and interaction. Here’s a short video, with a very loaded question at the start:
2. What is education?
Flourishing is a concept I’ve been fascinated by for a decade since studying Aristotle’s concept of eudaimonia as an undergraduate. But education is something I’ve been fascinated by for as long as I can remember. I was given an expensive but in many ways crappy education: always working to the test, never being asked to think for myself. I’ve always been curious and eager to learn: and that is nothing unique to me, far from it—it’s a natural human tendency. It’s something I see, relish and nurture in my own 20-month old son.
I’ve come to realise that the tendency in each of us to inquire is matched by the tendency to encourage, and that if we are given the opportunity to do both: to find things out for ourselves, and also to encourage others to do the same, we are in a good, ideal-formy, humanness sort of place.
I’ve been a classroom teacher, in Elephant and Castle. I’ve stepped back from the chalkface to do a Master’s in Education out in Berkeley, and I’ve worked for educational organisations both here and in the States, including the brilliant 826 Valencia. And after all these years of looking at education from different sides, hammering out lesson plans and essays, I’ve remembered something very simple. To ‘educate’ doesn’t mean to ‘indoctrinate’, to ‘stuff full of other people’s ideas’, or to ‘prep for the test’. No. To ‘educate’ just means ‘to bring out’.
Star Track—Spark+Mettle’s flagship programme—is trying to do just that. We wrap it in fancy language. We call it an incubator programme that shapes, supports and accelerates the emerging talent in marginalised young people. That’s a nice, meaty sentence, but all we should really need to say is that it is an education programme. Because really, that’s all we are trying to do, to bring out the best in the young people with whom we work.
How do we do that? Well, our approach is a little unusual because we do a lot of our communication online. But the three core elements that, to my mind, are vital to a successful education programme are there. Firstly, we encourage our young people to reflect and think for themselves through our Socratic-like discussions that we run through Google+. Secondly, we encourage them to interact with others—both their peers and professionals. And thirdly, we encourage them to create something new: whether that’s a blog or brain balm…
3. What can you think and do to flourish?
Underpinning every conversation we have is this idea of flourishing and its nine features or creatures. By now, eight months into the programme, our co-creators have all got a strong sense of how they can change their thinking in order to flourish and fulfil their potential. These are some great examples of how to change our thought processes and link them to actions, all suggested by them.
The problem for the rest of us is that sometimes it’s hard to get our thinking and aspirations off the ground. That’s where another Spark+Mettle project comes in: the Dreamers’ Supply Company.
In this project, young people and professional volunteers are co-creating dream-realising products, such as this brain balm that will, um, ‘salve’ all your problems—albeit in a whimsical, imaginary sort of way. So far, so awesome. The process is allowing young people to develop their creative, collaborative and enterprising skills, while connecting with inspiring professionals.
And the final products will enable others to set about realising their dreams too. In fact YOU are able to decide which of our prototype products should be made and sold through the Design Museum shop this September, by voting on A Good Week’s website all this week.
We’re lucky to have friends like A Good Week and the Design Museum shop to help us out. But the essence of the project is something that’s simple to replicate. And, ultimately, pretty unoriginal. We reckon that it is easy, and fun, and ideal-form-y, to repurpose or repackage something inconsequential into something aspirational. We just happen to be doing with tiger balm what Blue Peter did with toilet rolls.
We can alter the way we think and we can alter what we do to improve our own levels of flourishing. In fact, there are an infinite number of recipes for flourishing, and these are changeable and complex, they adapt with you along the tracks of your life. So if you were hoping for me to give an infallible three-step route from who you are to your ideal form, I’m afraid I can’t.
But I can do something. I can distill the essence of flourishing into three things we can do to help us to be real-world educators, and to begin to bring out the best in others.
Encourage others to reflect, not ruminate. Ask them to tell you one good thing that’s happened. There’s always something.
Encourage others to interact—in a fair and equal way. Get them to swap what they know with you.
Encourage others to create things. Whether it’s bangers and mash or brain balm, get them to make stuff, preferably with you.
Ask good questions, trade skills and ideas, set up make days and craft nights—these are simple ways to bring out the best in others and in ourselves.
A Good Week is chocabloc with just such opportunities. So I hope we all get involved with some of what’s being celebrated, because it’s good stuff like this that can help us to step closer to our ideal form, to flourish and to enable others to do so too.
And if you’ve got this far, you’re a hero. As a prize, here’s my Good Manifesto, framed, with my prop horse, on a train.