Assembly: Kindness

This assembly connects three things

This assembly connects three things: a portrait, Marcus Aurelius, and a domino cascade

A lovely thing happened at the weekend. I came down to breakfast to find a brown envelope with the word “Daddy” on the front. Opening it up, I found a fantastic drawing, which, on further investigation, turned out to be a portrait of me drawn by hand.

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I asked what I had done to deserve this wonderful gift, but there was no reason. My children had just decided to do something kind – and it made my day. It got me thinking about kindness, and what motivates us to do something nice for somebody else.

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Of course, there might be selfish motivations. People might do nice things because they think there’s something in it for them. It might help their reputation and social standing, or there might be a financial reward in it for them. Or there might be a sudden emergency and instinct could kick in to help someone in danger…

All of these are completely understandable motives for doing something kind and nice for other people. But what we saw in the video clip was that, as one person came to help, so did more and more, until everyone on the train and platform was united in trying to help the single passenger in distress. This domino effect is powerful, and it can happen more slowly and subtly than in the emergency situation we saw on the station platform in Australia.

The Domino Effect (source)

The Domino Effect (source)

There are global movements like Random Acts of Kindness and Pay It Forward which are founded on the idea that if each of us acts kindly towards another person for no other reason than that it’s a nice thing – the right thing – to do, it has the cumulative effect of making the world better for all of us. And this is not a new idea!

Marcus Aurelius (source)

Marcus Aurelius (source)

Marcus Aurelius was Roman Emperor from 161 to 180 AD, and a renowned philosopher in the Stoic school. In his book Meditations, he lays out his guide to self-improvement, including in the twelfth book this simple advice:

If it’s not right, don’t do it

If it’s not true, don’t say it.

This is a great maxim to live by; indeed, if we all stuck to that rule, our world would certainly be a better one. The only thing I take issue with in Marcus Aurelius’ advice is the note of prohibition, of telling us what not to do. I would revise it to:

If it’s right, do it.

If it’s true, say it.

But of course, truth always needs to be tempered with kindness. And, before we act of speak, we need to think carefully about our actions and words.

Think before your speak (source)

Think before your speak (source)

I want to finish today with a story which I think shows how unselfish acts of kindness really do lead to a domino effect which can change not just one person’s life, but the world.

Jonny Benjamin (source)

Jonny Benjamin (source)

This is Jonny Benjamin. In 2007, aged just 20, he was diagnosed with a mental illness, schizophrenia, and hospitalised. Desperate, and unable to understand his condition or see any way out, on January 14th 2008 he walked out of hospital in London and on to Waterloo Bridge, intending to throw himself off into the icy waters below. Hundreds of Londoners were walking across the bridge on their way to work. How many of them saw what was happening? How many walked on? We don’t know. But we do know that one man stopped and spoke to Jonny. He offered to buy him a cup of coffee, and he said words which changed Jonny’s life. He said: “you can get through this. You can get better.”  Up until that moment, nobody had told Jonny that getting better was a possibility. And, in that moment, Jonny himself stepped back from the brink. After twenty five minutes of talking, he came down. The police took him away. And the stranger went on his way to work.

Jonny went on to control his condition with medication and treatment, and became a campaigner for mental health, raising awareness of the condition so that other sufferers have people to tell them “you can get through this; you can get better.” Last year, he ran a campaign to find the stranger on the bridge who stopped and helped him six years earlier, using social media to track him down. He found him. He is a man called Neil Laybourn, who said this:

“In truth, it could have been anyone who stopped that day. It could have been the person behind me, but this time it was me.”

Neil’s kindness saved Jonny’s life, and Jonny’s life has gone on to save countless others through his campaigning work. He couldn’t have known that at the moment he chose to stop and help; in that moment, he was just doing the right thing because it was the right thing to do.

Altruism: being nice for no reason (source)

Altruism: being nice for no reason (source)

When we do something nice for no reason, everybody benefits. We feel better; we make somebody else’s life better too. At school this week – and from now on – make sure that you choose kindness. Do something nice for somebody else. Help one another. Not because there’s anything in it for you, but because when you do something kind, you’ve made school a nicer place for someone else to be. And if it’s a nicer place for someone else, it’ll be nicer for you too. So when you choose kindness, everybody benefits.

View the Prezi for this assembly here.

Read more about Jonny Benjamin and Neil Laybourn here or watch the documentary.

Carrie Hope Fletcher on being Nice for No Reason:

Leave a hopeful note?

Why not choose kindness? asks Tessa Violet:

Assembly: If not us, then who?

If Not Us Then Who - Quote from Freedom Rider John Lewis - Central High School Visitors Center - Little Rock - Arkansas - USA

Quote from Freedom Rider John Lewis, painted on the wall of the Central High School Visitors Centre in Little Rock, Arkansas

I have always been inspired by this quotation, and in this assembly I’m going to talk to you about its source and what it can teach us. The words were spoken by John Lewis – not the famous British retailer, but John Robert Lewis, born February 21st 1940 in Troy, Alabama. Lewis grew up in a black neighbourhood in the southern United States – he had only seen two white people by the time he reached the age of six. He described what it was like growing up:

A police sign for a 'white only' waiting room at the bus station in Jackson, Mississippi, 1961 (source)

A police sign for a ‘white only’ waiting room at the bus station in Jackson, Mississippi, 1961 (source)

“I saw racial discrimination as a young child. I saw those signs that said ‘White Men, Colored Men, White Women, Colored Women’. … I remember as a young child with some of my brothers and sisters and first cousins going down to the public library trying to get library cards, trying to check some books out, and we were told by the librarian that the library was for whites only and not for ‘coloreds’.”

Lewis was 20 in 1960 when the Supreme Court in the United States ruled the case of Boynton vs Virginia that the law which forced blacks and whites to sit separately on public transport was unconstitutional. The law was changed, and public transport became legally integrated. However, although it was now legal for blacks and whites to sit together on buses, and illegal for there to be segregated waiting rooms, in large parts of the southern United States the law was not enforced. John Lewis was one of thirteen original Freedom Riders who set out to challenge the Federal government to enforce the law.

Map 02 08/11

The planned route of the Freedom Ride

The plan was simple. A group of white and black men and women boarded a bus together in Washington DC and set off on a journey through the deep south to New Orleans. They intended to travel on the bus together, to challenge the racist attitudes of southerners who thought that blacks and whites should remain segregated, and to force the police to uphold the law.

Freedom Riders on the bus

Freedom Riders on the bus

The journey started well. Spirits were high, and together the Freedom Riders agreed on their key principles of non-violence. Theirs was to be a peaceful process. However, some of the white people in the south were angry at this display of integration – very angry indeed. And they had not taken a pledge of non-violence.

John Lewis and Jim Zwerg after being assaulted

John Lewis and Jim Zwerg after being assaulted in Montgomery, Alabama, 1961

Lewis was the first to be assaulted, as he left a waiting room in Montgomery, Alabama in the company of his white friend Jim Zwerg. And worse was to come. The police commissioner in Birmingham, Alabama was a supporter of the white supremacist group the Ku Klux Klan, and assured the Klan leader that the police would allow them to attack the Freedom Riders without fear of arrest. The initial attack happened in Anniston, Alabama, as the bus was hit with stones and had its tyres slashed. The driver tried to get away, but the crippled bus came to a stop, and the Klan threw firebombs inside. Then they held the doors shut, intending to burn the occupants alive. The police stood by and watched.

The Freedom Riders' Greyhound bus on fire

The Freedom Riders’ Greyhound bus on fire

Either an exploding fuel tank, or a shot from a highway patrolman, forced the Klansmen to retreat, and the Riders escaped from the bus. After hospital treatment, the Freedom Riders continued their journey, being assaulted, attacked and injured again and again. And they did not retaliate, sticking to their principles of non-violence to make their point.  As Lewis said, “if not us, then who? if not now, then when?”

Lewis went on campaigning for civil rights. In 1963 he was elected chairman of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and was the youngest speaker at the meeting in Washington where Martin Luther King gave his famous “I have a dream” speech. He is the only remaining speaker from that meeting still alive today. He was elected to the House of Representatives as Congressman for Georgia’s 5th District in 1986 and has been re-elected fourteen times, only dropping below 70% of the vote once in all that time. If not me, then who? If not now, then when?

In 2008, Lewis endorsed Barack Obama’s campaign for the Presidency of the United States. In the run-up to the election, he said this:

When we were organizing voter-registration drives, going on the Freedom Rides, sitting in, coming here to Washington for the first time, getting arrested, going to jail, being beaten, I never thought — I never dreamed — of the possibility that an African American would one day be elected President of the United States. My mother lived to see me elected to the Congress, but I wish my mother and father both were around. They would be so happy and so proud, and they would be so gratified. And they would be saying that the struggle, and what we did and tried to do, was worth it.

At Obama’s inauguration, John Lewis was sat right there on the stage. And afterwards, President Obama presented him with a commemorative photograph, signed, with a simple message: “Because of you, John.”

Obama presented Lewis with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2010

Obama presented Lewis with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2010

In 2013, John Lewis returned to Montgomery, Alabama where he had been beaten 52 years earlier for using a legally integrated waiting room with his friend. Kevin Murphy, the current chief of police, met him at a church, and handed over his badge out of respect, apologising for the way in which his police force had failed to protect him from violence in 1961.

What John Lewis said has always inspired me, but when I found out the story behind his words, I was overwhelmed. “If not us, then who?” led directly to “Because of you, John.” Lewis saw something that needed to change, and he did something about it. The world we live in today is different, better, because of him and people like him who did not stand by, but who stood up and were counted. Events like last week’s shooting in Charleston, South Carolina show why his kind of non-violent action is still needed today to change attitudes that would seek to divide, rather than unite.

What do you want to change? And what can you do about it?

At Chew Valley School in 2012, a group of students decided that they wanted to change the way in which homophobic language was used thoughtlessly and irresponsibly in our community. Rather than moan about it, or be frustrated by it, they did something about it. They formed the Equalities Team and conducted a campaign to educate, inform, and change attitudes.

Stonewall poster used by the Equalities Team (source)

Stonewall poster used by the Equalities Team (source)

It’s due to their work that we share a more tolerant, thoughtful and welcoming school. They saw something that they wanted to change and thought “If not us, then who? If not now, then when?” Ofsted recognised this – in their recent report they said:

“The school’s Equality Team, led and run by student leaders, provides opportunities for students to mix in socially diverse groups.Consequently, students demonstrate high levels of respect for each other and are extremely welcoming of difference. Discrimination of any kind and the use of derogatory language are not tolerated.”

What will you change?

View the Prezi for this assembly here.

Read more:

Assembly: Concentration

This assembly owes much to a presentation on the brain given by Bradley from Inner Drive (@Inner_Drive) at #GrowEx last year, and this excellent TED talk by Peter Doolittle (@pdoopdoo) on working memory shared by Huntington Learning Hub (@HuntingtonLHub). It’s well worth a watch:

The PowerPoint slides are shared at the bottom of this post.

We start with a test of working memory (see the video for this test). I am going to ask you to remember five words just by holding them in your mind. Here are the five words:

  1. Tree
  2. Motorway
  3. Mirror
  4. Saturn
  5. Electrode

Whilst you are remembering those five words, I am going to set you three challenges.

  1. What is 23 x 8?
  2. On your left hand, use your thumb to count your fingers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, then back again 6, 7, 8, 9, 10.
  3. Now in your head recite the last five letters of the English alphabet backwards.

How many of the five words that I asked you to remember do you still have in your memory? Does anyone still have all five?

The reason why many of you will have forgotten some of the words that I told you only a minute or so ago, is that the capacity of our working memory is limited. It can only hold so much information at any one time. Daniel Willingham provides a simplified model of the brain here:

A simple diagram of the mind (source)

A simple diagram of the mind (source)

In our test, the Environment (me) provided some information which was fed into your working memory. You didn’t do much with that information, and immediately afterwards I distracted you with three more activities which demanded space in your working memory. Little wonder, then, that when I asked you to return to the original information (the five words I asked you to remember), some or all of it had been pushed out of your mind without ever having made it into your long-term memory.


There are some more demonstrations that will help us understand why sustained concentration on the task in hand is important. The first is to do with focus, and multitasking. You might think that you are really good at multitasking, and that you can easily do two, three or more things at once. Where some of those things are automatic – walking and talking, for example – that is probably true. However, your working memory can only focus on one cognitively demanding task at a time. In that way, it’s like focusing a lens – you can only focus on one thing at a time.

You can only focus on one thing at a time

You can only focus on one thing at a time (when in doubt, reach for the cat gifs)

Let’s take this optical illusion as an example. In the picture, the man’s face can be seen looking to the right, or looking straight ahead. See if you can see both!

Looking to the right, or looking straight ahead? Both - but not at the same time.

Looking to the right, or looking straight ahead? Both – but not at the same time.

Now try to see both at the same time. Your brain switches from one to the other – it will only let you hold one interpretation of the picture in your head at one time. This is what happens when you try to multi-task. Your working memory actually switches from one task to the other. This is called context switching, and you may be able to do this quickly (there is some evidence that women are better at it than men), but you are not multitasking. You can’t.

Finally, here’s a demonstration of context switching in action. I need a volunteer from the audience to take this box of multicoloured balls, and arrange them in rows of four in the order of the colours of the rainbow. At the same time, they will be solving some Mental Maths Questions from the KS2 Maths SAT Buster book.

I know this challenge well, because Bradley used me as his volunteer at #GrowEx when conducting the same experiment. Essentially, your brain can either focus on arranging the balls, or on doing the maths – but not both. As I was trying to arrange the balls, I got simple questions wrong. When I thought about the maths, my hands stopped moving. My working memory would not allow me to do both things at the same time. I felt embarrassed, but I shouldn’t have; I was simply demonstrating a human characteristic. Our brains cannot do two cognitively demanding things simultaneously.

Let’s think about how we can apply what we’ve seen today to the classroom. The first thing is that it only takes is a small distraction for information that you have just learned to evaporate. If you are getting to grips with a new concept in your lessons and you then think about the piece of gossip you meant to tell your neighbour, your chances of transferring the new concept to your long term memory are dramatically reduced. Distractions are compelling – it’s very easy to be like Dug from Up: 

Distractions can take your mind off the task at hand

Distractions can take your mind off the task at hand

And don’t kid yourself that you can do two things at once; you can’t. Once you’re distracted, the damage is done.

Put simply:

  1. Concentrate on the task at hand
  2. Focus on the learning
  3. Apply and use what you have learned straight away if you want to stand any chance of remembering it.

And, by the way, 23 x 8 = 184.

Good luck!

Here is the PowerPoint, though the gifs don’t work in this slideshare version. Click on this link for the full version: Concentration Assembly.

Concentration phoster

Assembly: Procrastination

I am indebted to Scott Hayden (@bcotmedia) for much of the content of this assembly, which was inspired by his lecture on procrastination and motivation which you can view here.

Procrastination is defined as “putting off, delaying or deferring an action until a later time.” It’s usually preceded by the magic words…

I’ll just…

We all do it.When faced with a pile of marking and planning to do, I will procrastinate as much as anyone. My main enemy is my phone. “I’ll just check twitter…and pinterest…and YouTube…and see if anything’s happened on twitter while I was on pinterest and YouTube…” It’s getting later, the work still needs to be done, and we know this, so why do we do it?


If we don’t try hard, we can blame our failure on that. Classic fixed mindset thinking.

Some people put off the effort in self-defence. Like Homer Simpson, if they don’t try too hard then they have something to blame when they don’t do well. If we’re honest with ourselves, we know that this is self-defeating. But even if we want to work hard and do well, we can still find ourselves avoiding work… so why?

The limbic system and the pre-frontal cortex (source)

The limbic system and the pre-frontal cortex (source)

It’s an internal battle between two parts of our brain. Our pre-frontal cortex is sensible, and in charge of our long terms aims – “I want a good set of GCSE grades so I can get a well-paid job and live a happy and fulfilled life.” Buried deep within our brain is the limbic system, a primitive, primal part of our brain that is in charge of our desires and craves immediate satisfaction right now – “I want to shoot stuff on the XBox.” When faced with a big chocolate bar, our pre-frontal cortex might be warning us that it’s unhealthy, full of sugar, very fattening, and will ruin that diet we’ve been on, whilst our limbic system is saying “chocolate! Yummy chocolate! Get in my mouth now!” Which will win?

In order to control our impulse to procrastinate, we need to understand it. One of the issues is that our limbic system is only concerned with the here-and-now, and it cannot conceive of a future version of ourselves that might regret the consequences of our present actions. This is called “temporal discounting” or “present bias,” and is illustrated by this simple experiment.

Which would you rather have - £100 now, or £110 later?

Which would you rather have – £100 now, or £110 later?

If I offered you £100 in cash now, or £110 one month from now, most people would take the £100 right now. A month seems an awfully long time to wait for an extra £10. However, if I offered you £100 twelve months from now, or £110 in thirteen months time, most people are prepared to wait the extra month because they are both so distant from our present selves. The sums of money and gap in time are the same, but in the second example our pre-frontal cortex is dealing with both choices as they involve our future selves. In the first example the limbic system sees the immediate benefit and overpowers the logic of long-term gain.

So, in order to beat the temptations of procrastination we need to trick our brains and, more importantly, our limbic systems, to give ourselves a fighting chance of getting our stuff done. Here are a few tips and tricks to help you!

1. Break the task down

When faced with an enormous task, procrastination is much more tempting. Breaking it into smaller chunks makes it seem more manageable and easier to do. Rather than thinking “I’ve got sixty questions to do,” tell yourself “let’s complete this first question.”

2. Make the tasks work for you

When you’ve broken the task down, make each part achievable. Set a clear goal for yourself. “In the next ten minutes, I am going to finish this page.”

3. Make your goals public

You are far more likely to get stuff done if people around you are helping. Tell your parents, brothers and sisters “I am going to complete this page in the next ten minutes” – they will help keep you on track. Update your status: “I am revising for the next hour. If you see me on here – tell me to get back to work.”

4. Reward yourself- The Pomodoro Technique

Set a timer for your work. Start off small – fifteen or twenty minutes. Even your limbic system can cope with that. Stay focused until the alarm sounds, then give yourself five or ten minutes of reward time to have a break and feed your primitive brain! Then back to the work. Over time, gradually increase the work time, keeping the reward time the same. This way you can train your brain away from procrastination. Don’t reward yourself unless you’ve stuck at it! It’ll still be tempting, but the rewards are coming – once you’ve got your stuff done…

5. Remove distractions

Give the power cable from your XBox to your parents and tell them not to give it you back until you have achieved your work goal. Put your phone in another room. Whatever is tempting you away from what you should be doing – either remove it, or remove yourself from it. The same goes for the classroom! If you know someone is going to take your mind off what you should be doing, don’t sit with them.

6. Focus on the positive

Trick your brain away from seeing the task as a horrible burden. Don’t let yourself think “only another fifteen minutes of this hell to go!” Instead, say “this is great – I’m getting this done! I’m really pleased with this. Look at what I’ve achieved.” Your limbic system is craving positive happy feelings. If you can generate those from the task itself, it’ll be satisfied and give up trying to tempt you away!

7. Just start.

Straight away. Don’t even give yourself a chance to hesitate. Pick your pen up and begin. Before you know it you’ll be done. The work is there for your benefit. Your brain will grow. You will learn. You will improve. And then you will get all the reward that you deserve.

Photo 24-01-2015 15 52 08

View the Prezi here

Assembly: how to make the most of your brain

The brain is an incredible thing. I’ve learned so much more about how our brains work over the past year through reading books like Why Don’t Students Like School? by Daniel Willingham and learning about the neuroscience behind growth mindset. I’ve blogged about this before in What I know now about how the brain worksNow that I know a bit – a very little bit! –  about neuroscience, I’ve found that I’ve been able to catch my brain when it’s playing tricks on me, and manage myself better. This is what Dweck counsels in Mindset – to catch yourself when you hear a fixed mindset voice and talk back to yourself in a growth mindset voice – and I thought it would be worth sharing this with students in my latest assembly (Prezi here).

Our brains are hardwired to expect the worst

Image credit: Smithsonian Magazine

Image credit: Smithsonian Magazine

Much of our brain’s chemistry is the same as back in caveman times. Back in those days, it made sense to be alert to danger and expect bad things to happen at every turn – it helped us to survive. We can see this with a simple test. What do you read when you see this?


If, like me, you read “opportunity is nowhere” then you are in the majority! Of course, we could read “opportunity is now here” but our brain’s predisposition is to expect the worst. Our brain is notoriously good at showing us things that aren’t really there.

Can you see the circles in between the crosses in this picture? They aren’t really there.

When we expect bad things to happen, sense danger, or feel stress, our brain is flooded with cortisol.

Cortisol molecule (public domain)

Cortisol molecule (public domain)

Cortisol is a self-preservation hormone, which enables us to respond quickly to danger. It’s a sort of caveman boy scout motto: “be prepared.” However, in preparing our fight-or-flight reflex it diverts resources from other parts of our systems by switching off functions which are non-essential in the moment of stress. Like the immune system. And growth. If we experience frequent high stress, we’re more likely to get ill and less likely to grow.

Luckily, if we are conscious of our fight or flight reflex we can control it – force our minds to see “opportunity is now here” and take a more positive track. And, if we do so, the rewards can be great, as this beer commercial shows:

Feel-good neurochemistry part one: the selfish chemicals 

To counteract cortisol, our stress hormone, our brains have several chemicals designed to make us feel good. The first type, endorphins, are designed to mask physical pain. They’re released by exercise. So going for a run, going for a bike ride, anything that gets your heart rate up will release endorphins into your bloodstream. Endorphins mask the damage you’re doing to your body through the exercise, so your legs may well be agony afterwards but it feels brilliant at the time!

Another feel-good chemical is dopamine. We get little shots of dopamine when we get things done; I like to think of it as the “achievement” chemical. It exists in our brains to make sure we achieve our goals. I’m a big “to-do list” person, and that great feeling when you tick something off your to-do list is a little shot of dopamine in your system. The trouble with dopamine is that it doesn’t really differentiate between big jobs and little jobs, so you’ll get a little shot of dopamine if you find that pen you were looking for, even if you don’t start your homework. Dopamine can be tricky – it will reward you for completing smaller, less challenging tasks as well as the big important things, so you need to force yourself to do the hard things first to make sure you have enough brain power and energy to see the job through.

Feel-good neurochemistry part two: reciprocal chemicals

Here’s where we get on to the really good stuff. Firstly, serotonin. I think of serotonin as the “pride” chemical.

Photo 29-09-2014 20 41 46

Serotonin is released when we get recognition from other people for something we’ve done – it feels really, really good. But the great thing about serotonin is that it’s released in other people too. When you get a little dopamine shot from ticking off something important on your list, you feel good. When you achieve something that your teacher, your parents, or your friends think is great, they feel good too. Back in caveman times, serotonin helped members of tribes work and stay together by encouraging them to invest in each other. That’s what’s so great about working in a school. When students do well, I feel proud of them – I feel good. How brilliant is that? So when you’re working on something, make sure you’re proud of it, and think about who you want to feel proud of you too. Your teacher? Parents? Grandparents? Siblings?

The final feel-good chemical is the best one of all – oxytocin. Oxytocin is an amazing chemical, which produces those warm and fuzzy happy feelings that we really treasure. It’s the antidote to cortisol: it boosts our immune systems and encourages growth, which is why happy people live longer. It’s not an instant shot like dopamine, however. It takes time to build up in our systems. I think of it as the “kindness” chemical, because it’s released when we do nice things for other people. Just last week I was carrying a stack of books and folders between the Humanities block and Lower School towards a pull-only door. A student – Year 8 I think – saw the potential for catastrophe and went out of his way to open the door for me. I don’t know him, and I’ve never taught him. But as I said thank you, he smiled. I felt good. He felt good. And the sixth formers who had seen what had happened smiled too. They felt good. Because even witnessing someone do something kind for someone else releases oxytocin. How amazing is that?

Back in Neanderthal times oxytocin was around to ensure that caveman tribes looked out for each other. It’s a selfless chemical and it’s the invisible glue that binds communities together. Whenever you help someone else – give up your time, energy and effort for someone – everybody benefits. The next video demonstrates this perhaps better than any I’ve seen. Get ready for that oxytocin effect:

Tips to get the feel-good chemicals flowing



I’m not a psychologist, and I’m definitely not a neuroscientist. If I’ve got my brain chemistry wrong, please let me know! This assembly was inspired by a Simon Sinek talk suggested by Simon Scarborough (@Leading_in_PE): Why Leaders Eat Last.  It’s 45 minutes long but it’s well worth it! I’d already prepared it before I attended the Growing Excellence in Learning and Teaching conference in London last week, but Bradley Busch’s inspirational session on the teenage brain was responsible for adding some more brilliant ideas. Bradley tweets @Inner_Drive on behalf of his company ( and having seen him in action, he comes personally recommended!

If you can’t see the Prezi embed above, please click this link.

Limits Assembly

A Flea - as drawn by Hooke (image via Wikimedia commons)

A Flea – as drawn by Hooke (image via Wikimedia commons)

Fleas are remarkable creatures. They are usually between 1.5 and 3mm long, but they can jump 33cm horizontally and 18cm straight up into the air. If a flea was a person, this would be the equivalent of jumping straight up to the clock face on Big Ben, or clean from one end of Wembley Stadium to the other.

Apparently the key is jumping off with your toes, rather than your knees, as this video shows. Worth noting for sports day, perhaps?

What is even more remarkable about the flea, though, is that this quite extraordinary physical ability can be limited by one really simple intervention.

If you put fleas into a jar with a lid on for three days, they will only jump half the height they are capable of. In that time, they will learn that this is how high they can jump and then – even if you take the lid off – they will only every jump the height of the jar until the day they die, even though they are physically capable of jumping at least twice as high. And what is even more remarkable is that the offspring of those fleas, even if they aren’t kept in a jar, will still only jump to the height of the jar lid.


What invisible jar are you working within?

We, as humans, are just as capable of limitation. Think about the things that you don’t think you can do because somebody has told you you can’t. As small children, we believe we’re capable of anything, but usually we begin to limit ourselves. When will my daughter, currently five years old, stop believing that it is possible to become an astronaut? I hope, never; but I expect, soon. Not because I will do anything to limit her ambition but because, in the world in which we live, there are so many influences slamming that glass lid down and telling us “that’s not possible” or “you can’t do that.”

Roger Bannister breaking the four-minute mile

Roger Bannister breaking the four-minute mile

This year marks the 60th anniversary of Roger Bannister demonstrating what can happen when we challenge the naysayers. For decades it was believed to be beyond human capacity to run a mile in less than four minutes, but on 6th May 1954 Bannister did exactly that. To achieve this great feat he had to run at a speed of 15 miles per hour, covering each of the sixteen 100m distances in 14.91 seconds, showing incredible endurance. And what happened afterwards was really interesting, because his great competitor, the Australian John Landy, beat Bannister’s time 54 days later. It was almost as if Bannister was one of the fleas in the jar who had turned to a flea next to him and said, “what lid?” Since Bannister the record time for the mile has come down to 3 minutes 43 seconds. Bannister had proved what was possible; others followed.

Changes in the record for the mile over time

Changes in the record for the mile over time

So of course, the best weapon to combat those invisible limitations is ourselves. But the truth is, we often impose our own limitations on ourselves. As we grow up, we learn to protect our fragile egos from the embarrassment and pain of failure by stopping trying. We create little invisible prisons for ourselves within which we operate without even realising. We won’t put our hands up in class because…well…that’s not something we do. I won’t volunteer for that Change & Create Team because…well…I haven’t done anything like that before. Should I take up a musical instrument? Audition for the school play? It’s just not me. Should I go for an A in History? My challenge grade is only a B…it’ll be really hard. Try telling that to Roger Bannister.

The jar has no lid

I’m here today to tell you that your jar has no lid. You might not succeed, but as the Chinese philosopher Confucius said:

Confucius with pic

Disclaimer: this may not be an exact translation of the original Chinese.

This is the attitude that got people to the moon 45 years ago this month. When announcing the intention to go to the moon seven years previously, in 1962, President Kennedy said:

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because…that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win. 

This is called moonshot thinking:

Don’t be a flea. Remember, your jar has no lid. Jump as high as you can.

If you can’t see the Prezi embed, click this link.


As a few people have pointed out, the flea-jump-limitation thing is not scientifically corroborated anywhere. The idea that the limitation could be inherited seems beyond improbable. So, if you’re using this assembly, it may be worth adding a few caveats to the delivery!

Assembly – Challenge

My assembly for this first week back after Easter is based around the concept of Challenge. I’ve used the good old Chambers dictionary to help me. The Prezi is below; if you can’t see the embed, please click this link.

Challenge: 1. verb: to summon someone to settle a matter in a contest

In the first meaning of the word, we are encouraged to pit ourselves against others. These contests can be evenly matched, as in sprint races which are sometimes decided in hundredths of a second; sometimes the odds can be stacked against us. The difficulty in measuring yourself against the success of someone else is that you can never account for their level of preparation, skill or ability; your opponent is outside your control. Instead, I would like that “someone” to be yourself. Set yourself a challenge and test your own preparation, skill or ability against the standard you set yourself. What are you capable of?

Challenge: 2. verb: to subject to stress, examination or test

Challenge: to subject to stress, examination or test

Seriously, this was the definition in the dictionary. To challenge something is to test it, try it out, see where its weaknesses are. In the end, this is how your education is assessed in this country – your learning is put under examination. Whilst it is possible to shore up your work with last minute revision, quick fixes and sticky tape, the only way to guarantee that what you have learnt stands up to the test is to make sure that it is securely, properly learnt in the first place. This has the added benefit of taking the stress out of revision as you are going over things you already know again, rather than trying to learn them for the first time. To use the old cliché, this is a marathon, not a sprint. Talking of which…

Challenge: 3. noun: a task, undertaking etc. to test one’s powers or capabilities to the full

This Easter holiday I enjoyed three great sporting events which saw competitors testing their powers of endurance and stamina to the full – and beyond. Firstly, the London Marathon; the water-based endurance test of the Boat Race; and the equestrian challenge of the Grand National. I was sat on my sofa for all three of course, but I haven’t been idle, pushing myself in my own challenges. I am continuing to keep up with my New Year’s resolution of accentuating the positive, and I made a concerted effort to get back on track with my reading pledge challenge, finishing Mick Waters’ Thinking Allowed: On Schooling  and reading Veronica Roth’s Divergent trilogy cover to cover – both highly recommended.

Challenge: 4. noun: a difficulty which stimulates interest or effort

This is the kind of challenge that I’m really inspired by, and I’ve recently come across the story of NFL full back Derrick Coleman, celebrated in this advert for Duracell, which illustrates this idea perfectly.

Coleman was declared deaf at the age of three. Despite playing American Football through  High School and college at UCLA, he wasn’t picked in the NFL draft and was dropped by the Minnesota Vikings when signed as a free agent. However, the Seattle Seahawks gave him a chance, and he scored his first touchdown for them in December 2013 against the New Orleans Saints. Coleman is now a Super Bowl champion following the Seahawks 43-8 demolition of the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII.

Coleman is a true example of resilience in the face of difficulty. Not all of us face the challenges that he faced, but we all have difficulties to overcome, be they physical, emotional, social, or other. How we respond to those challenges is everything; we can let them overwhelm us, or we can use them to stimulate us to try harder, seeking help where we need it and resolving never to give up.

And finally, a word about challenging behaviour…

Challenging behaviour in the classroom – East High style

In the books I was reading for my challenge over the holidays, Tris, the main character in Divergent impressed me with her “never give up” attitude, but it is Mick Waters I want to return to. Mick Waters talks about challenging behaviour, what he calls “giving your teacher a hard time.” He says that most students, when asked what they would do to give their teacher a hard time, would try:

  • Talk over your teacher
  • Rock on your chair
  • Leave your coat on
  • Forget to do your homework
  • Pretend you haven’t done your homework

However, what Waters goes on to say is that there are other ways to demonstrate really challenging behaviour. He recommends you try:

  • Asking for a more detailed explanation
  • Asking searching questions
  • Asking the teacher to help you understand the subject in more depth
  • Asking for detailed feedback on your work to help you improve
  • Asking for books and websites you could study on your own to help you understand more about the subject
  • Asking for places to visit where you could see the ideas and topics you are learning about in action

Try and challenge yourself to challenge your teacher this week. Push yourself to push them. You’ll both see the benefit.

Assembly – Positive

This assembly is all about New Year’s resolutions and is linked to my previous mini-blog about positive language. You can find the Prezi here.

You’ve got to accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative

Latch on to the affirmative

But don’t mess with mister inbetween

A little jaunty intro music as the students come in never did anyone any harm!

As the first assembly of the year, I begin by talking about resolutions. I refer here to Alex Quigley’s blog about forming good habits in New Year, New Habit? Tips for New Year’s Resolutionsand in particular this excellent graphic from Charles Duhigg’s ideas:


Of course, I’ll use Calvin and Hobbes as well, as they always have plenty of good things to say about resolutions!

My resolution for 2014 is to accentuate the positive in everything I do. This will include the Bill-Rogers-inspired positive language pledge that I took in February, banishing “stop talking” for “please be silent”, and “don’t be late” for “please be on time.” However, I will also be extending this into a growth mindset approach to teaching and learning in the new year, looking to turn setbacks into learning opportunities. I will be planning opportunities for my students to fail in the classroom by pitching lessons just beyond what they can currently do, so that they can develop better. For this to work I will need to teach a positive attitude to failure.

Nelson Mandela: inspiration

Who better to illustrate this than Nelson Mandela, who said: “the greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.” I will also refer to some of the examples from my Failure Assembly from last year, including Lionel Messi and the great Pete Docter, creator of Buzz Lightyear, Carl Fredericksen and director of Monsters Inc.

To conclude, I will discuss the positive aspect of schooling and the opportunities in front of the students in 2014. Mandela himself said “education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” Students need to ensure that they have a positive impact on themselves and their communities in all their actions and endeavours, referring back to the incredible example of Malala Yousafzai:

Malala Yousafzai: Inspiration

She is an example of true greatness and positivity, turning the ultimate setback – being shot in the head – into a true opportunity for growth. As Mandela said:

“Sometimes it falls upon a generation to be great, you can be that generation.”

So what will you resolve this year?

Assembly – Grit and Flow

My assembly this week is hugely indebted to Alex Quigley‘s excellent blog post Winning Ugly: The Secrets of ‘Gritty’ Teaching and Learning, and to David Didau‘s Grand Unified Theory of Mastery. If you haven’t read either of these, I can’t recommend them highly enough. My aim is to talk to the students about the need for “grit” if they are to achieve the “flow” that they aspire to.

@LearningSpy's Grit/Flow Cycle

@LearningSpy and @TheRealMrRoo’s Grit/Flow Cycle, designed by @Pekabalo

As the students come into the hall I will be playing this video, showing Itzhak Perlman performing Antonio Bazzini’s La Ronde des Lutins: 

This astonishing performance establishes the concept of “flow” at pretty much its zenith! Flow, then, is being able to do something well. So well, it seems almost effortless. Perlman manages to make this most fiendish of pieces in the classical violin repertoire seem like a breeze, remaining seated, flourishing his bow, enjoying the performance.

My second illustration of "flow"

An illustration of “flow”

How, then, should we go about achieving this state of flow? Counter-intuitively, to achieve this apparently frictionless and smooth process, we first need to apply “grit” to give us traction.

“We define grit as perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Grit entails working strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress. The gritty individual approaches achievement as a marathon; his or her advantage is stamina. Whereas disappointment or boredom signals to others that it is time to change trajectory and cut losses, the gritty individual stays the course.” (From ‘Grit: Perseverance and Passion for Long-Term Goals’ by Angela L. Duckworth and Christopher Peterson via HuntingEnglish)

“Grit” is perseverance; hard work and effort sustained over time. This grit will give the learner purchase on the slippery surface of the learning in just the same way as we grit an icy road to allow traffic to flow freely.

Grit means putting the hours in. Putting in the time. Putting in the effort. Repeating something until you know you can do it well. Itzhak Perlman says (here) that repetition is the key to successful practice – again and again and again. Slowly. He does give a warning though – there is such a thing as too much practice. I’m sure the students will breathe a sigh of relief, until they hear that his idea of “too much” is anything more than five hours of the same thing in one sitting. Now that is grit.

My challenge to the students is to aspire to “flow” in all their learning by applying “grit” in their lessons and at home. I will speak to them about the importance of deliberate practice – not just “doing work” but thinking about the knowledge and skills they are applying to the task and how they will use the process to improve.

I started the assembly with Perlman playing La Ronde des Lutins – the dance of the goblins. I will finish with another example of La Ronde, this time from the masters of “flow” FC Barcelona:

This training ground exercise is the perfect mesh of grit and flow – deliberate practice demonstrated by those who demonstrate mastery. And enjoy it.

You can view my assembly Prezi here.

The Tika Taka clip is from another excellent HuntingEnglish post: Effective Exam Revision – ‘Drill Baby Drill’


In delivery of the assembly I thought I would demonstrate “lack of flow” by attempting to play La Ronde des Lutins on the violin myself. I can’t play the violin. “How,” I asked Year 9, “am I going to get from sounding like this” – scratch, screech, squeal – “to sounding like Itzhak Perlman?” And we’re off…

In the dinner queue, lunchtime. Year 9 boy: “your violin playing was pretty good actually, sir.”


Assembly – Different

Assembly – Different

I’ve been experimenting with Prezi for my assemblies. Here’s one on “Difference”.

It starts with “D” for DNA – what makes us different from one another? How the chromosomes give us our unique features, including our eye colour.

“I” is for eye colour (sort of!). Some have brown, some have blue. This leads into the famous (“F”) Brown Eyes Blue Eyes experiment by Jane Elliott. She told a class of primary aged children that research had shown that brown-eyed children were cognitively superior and that they would have extra free time, self-directed learning etc. Blue-eyed children were inferior and would have no play-time; they would have intensive tuition to catch them up. This powerful simulation of prejudice saw the children react in a variety of ways. You can watch the experiment below (too long for an assembly!) and read more about it on Wikipedia here.

I then connect this to the struggle against real oppression of black Americans in the Civil Rights movement, and to the oppression of the Jews in Nazi Germany. Being told that, because someone was different, they were somehow less than you, led to extreme prejudice, hatred and violence which took generations to overcome.

“E” is for equality. I talk about the equals sign – both the bars are the same shape and length, but they are not identical. One is higher than the other. The are similar, but different – they are equal. Equality is not about being the same as everyone else, it is about having the same opportunities and being treated fairly by others.

Here’s the best bit – the Metronomes.

In this Physics experiment, the scientist sets off five metronomes at different tempos and at different times. They tick along in cacophonous chaos, independent of one another. But, when he lifts the plank onto two drinks cans, their momentum is transferred through the base and they synchronise. This shows that we don’t all have to be the same. We can tick along in our own rhythms but, if the circumstances and conditions are right, we can all beat as one. I even used the phrase “if we can balance the plank of our school on the coke cans of equality, we can all tick along together”. That may have been overdoing it but it got a good laugh from the Head of English.

To finish, a beautifully touching letter from Sophia Bailey-Klugh to President Barack Obama from November 2012 as he stood for re-election.  As the daughter of a gay couple, she thanked him for supporting same-sex marriage. She then asked for advice on how to respond to those who saw such a thing as “gross and weird.” I read out her letter, and Obama’s tear-jerkingly brilliant reply. I had to steel myself here not to weep openly in front of nearly 400 teenagers! You can get the text of both letters from the fabulous Letters of Note blog.

I finish on Obama’s wonderful phrase: even though we are all different, we all have the right to be treated equally. Far from separating us, our differences unite us.

Get the Prezi here.