Sunday, 21 January 2018

Education- the Finnish and New Zealand experience (the tide is turning)

The obsession with certainty in education is perhaps a characteristic of our western way of life. We seem to want to know without doubt that what we teach, how we teach it and how we measure its efficacy is backed by the evidence. The evidence says that we should do this or do that in schools and this is how it should be measured and reported on. These imperatives are thrust upon a weary and disenchanted mob of educators whose autonomy in the classroom has been surrendered to the experts and the evidence they claim is true. 

Pasi Sahlberg who is the former director general of the Ministry of Education and Culture in Finland and a visiting professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, has been appointed professor of educational policy at UNSW. He says:

“Maybe the key for Australia is loosening up a little bit, less top down control and a bit more professional autonomy for teachers.”

Mr Sahlberg on his travels in Oz is reported to have said that he was broken hearted to see students in schools buckling under the stress of high expectations, presenting with anxiety and stress related crying and vomiting. This prompts me to consider how the school curriculum itself and its reliance on testing and assessment puts undue stress on the students who we claim ‘are at the centre of all we do’ is an antecedent to mental ill health.

Pasi Sahlberg

In his neck of the woods standardised testing is almost universally rejected and there is more of a focus on play. Teachers are required to have masters degrees and they maintain a high level of autonomy. Students start school at seven years of age and may never be exposed to any kind of assessment! Yet Finland when compared to other OECD countries based on key education metrics including literacy and numeracy (Program for International Student Assessment – PISA) is the strongest performer!

So what happens in the years before students start formal schooling at the age of seven? There is a focus on health and well-being and play is considered to be a natural way for young people to learn how to relate to others, develop their problem solving capabilities and to build and maintain positive mental health. All this without ever having been tested on anything!

Kirsti Lonka, Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Helsinki asserts:

‘Without creativity, a sense of wonder and play, none of the great achievements in science or art would’ve been born. When we know how to foster these skills in schools, our children have the best opportunities to grow up to be happy and skilled people.’

Meanwhile back in Australia students start school at age five, and they are acculturated into the regime of NAPLAN, ongoing assessment, competition and school league tables where schools are focused on results and teachers are under too much control. Is it any wonder that our students from the early years onwards are presenting with issues of anxiety, depression and anger? Is it possible that the school is a risk factor for the social, emotional and behavioural problems that children develop?

Since NAPLAN was introduced ten years ago reading and numeracy have improved slightly and writing skills have gone down and despite all the resources that have been invested in our system of education we haven’t hit the lofty heights of excellence we were hoping for.

In New Zealand change is afoot as the new Prime Minister moves to incorporate aspects of the Finland model into its approach to education. The National Standards of Literacy and Numeracy has been abolished for years one to eight and schools will choose their own way to assess children’s progress, allowing educators more autonomy and control over what they do. Minister Chris Hipkins says that schools will still collect a range of data to track student performance but it will not go to a central database to create school league tables (Labour's education plans revealed). The aim is to focus more on learning and less on excessive assessment.

There is a wide body of evidence that a significant number of children experience a mental (ill) health condition. Educators don’t need statistics to know this as they work daily with students who present with a range of emotional and behavioural dispositions. A fair question would be to ask if these conditions are caused and /or exacerbated by the imposed learning and assessment regime. Sahlberg and his New Zealand counterparts might agree with this proposition. Beyondblue has published the following statistics to consider:

‘One in seven young Australians experience a mental health condition. Breakdown: 13.9% children and adolescents aged 4-17 years experienced a mental disorder between 2013-14, which is equivalent to an estimated 560,000 Australian children and adolescents.’

If the hypothesis above has any credibility then it may be asked; what is the function of mental health education and promotion in schools? The answer is always that we want our students to be happy and successful but perhaps educators and school counsellors might in part be addressing the response of students to the stressors they experience in the learning context. In this sense it could be the case that school is bad for some kids because they have been introduced to formal learning too early and they haven’t had enough time to build those foundation competencies and attitudes that are conducive to long term success in a school setting; they’ve had not enough time to play.

Michael McGowan in the Guardian, Australia tells us:

‘Research has demonstrated that play in the early stages of development can engage children in the process of learning and studies in New Zealand have found that by age 11 there was no difference in reading ability between students who began formal literacy instruction at age five or age seven.’

This is certainly food for thought for those who drive and direct what schools do in Australia. Finland and New Zealand educationalists would perhaps agree with Susan E Noffke in “Revisiting the Professional, Personal, and Political Dimensions of Action Research" who comments on:

-        ‘… the widespread influence of neo-liberal policies which have resulted in a culture of ‘performativity’ (Ball, 2003). One prominent example is the attempt to reduce the parameters of educational work to doing only that which results in gains in the narrow band of standardised achievement test, and the ‘mapping’ of curriculum and instructional strategies against that which is tested.’ P.18

Susan E Noffke
A culture of ‘performativity’ sees schools teach to the requirements of a national testing regime. Teachers may feel pressured to organise the curriculum around skilling the children to do well in exams which may in turn narrow the teaching and learning process. What teachers are saying about NAPLAN

‘NAPLAN preparation is taking up a lot of time in a crowded curriculum, that there are other curriculum areas that are seen as not as important because they’re not tested. That they teach more to the test, so they make sure that they cover the knowledge that’s on the test, and that means that they’re not teaching other things.’

This was 2012 and one wonders if anything has changed? But we persist in our schools to put a heavy premium on assessment and though unintended the outcomes are plain to see. Perhaps the winds of change are gathering momentum. The Finnish and New Zealand experiences are wafting on a breeze of hope for the future.

Friday, 19 January 2018

The Construction of Brain Bully - It'll do your head in!

My name’s Brain Bully and you most probably don’t know me and that’s a problem for you. Why? Because I am a major player in how you might feel about yourself, others and the world in general. The extreme negative emotions you may experience are always accompanied by an action or actions, which contrive against you. Yes I’m Brain Bully and I really can ‘do your head in!’ You might ask yourself at times ‘why did I do that? Or ‘why do I feel so angry when things don’t go my way?’ These questions largely go unanswered because you don’t know about me and you won’t know unless you find out. Some find out by reading and talking to others about how they might feel about things and an attentive ear may pick up on little snippets of tell-tale signs that I am somewhere lurking deep within you. This insight can be the beginning of a self-help journey that may in time purge your mind of me, an alien menace that resides in your deep and dark subconscious self. But it isn’t exactly accurate to suggest that I am something separate from you. Rather than to describe me as a parasitic alien thing, it would be more apt to say that I am you! Wasn’t it Rene Descartes who said:

‘I think therefore I am!’

I am you in this sense because I am the thinking that undermines your ability to achieve your goals and meet your wants and desires; to acquire happiness and success. So I am you and you are me and we work together to make your life a misery unless you do something about it of course.

I am you
You are me
We work together
To make your life
A misery!

You have constructed me over time. You have observed your world and listened to others around you to work out how this game of life is played; what are the rules, how do you get what you want, how do you relate to others and what you think about yourself. Voila!

You think you are dumb and hopeless; you believe this to be true about you and you say to yourself often, ‘what’s the point in trying I can’t do this. I’ll never be any good.’ This is your self-talk, how you talk to yourself and this is played on a loop in your head ad nauseum. This inner chat reinforces your belief that you are what you say you are. How you feel and act is attached to this self-talk. But where is this self-talk coming from? I am the self-talk generator buzzing away within you and until you find me you are stymied! I will get stronger and stronger if you don’t locate me and end my tenancy in your head.

I am linked to the feelings you experience and the actions you take which are symptoms of something that’s not quite right for you. I am dangerous because you are not happy with your lot and you think this is the way it will always be! And that’s the way it will be if you allow me to continue on my merry way. Henry Ford once said:

‘If think you can or you think you can’t you’re right!’

What thinking rules have you constructed, your habits of thinking that lay deep down within you? If you can find out what they are you are then in a position to do something about it. Remember you have constructed these rules and you can deconstruct them and relearn new, healthy habits of thinking. You made me and you can unmake me but you don’t know that yet.

‘It’s all my fault’ you declare ‘that my life is a misery and I feel so down and aimless.’ You are right up to a point but don’t flog yourself for this because to this point you did so in ignorance. You are now becoming more aware of the idea that the beliefs you have constructed are linked to the emotions you experience and the actions you take. I am the unhelpful beliefs which underlie your feelings of unworthiness but where do they come from? It’s all to do with your story, the distance you have travelled to now. You made me remember?

As a young person you were told what to do. If you did what you were supposed to you were a ‘good girl.’ If you did badly, or made a mistake, you were chastised so you believed you were a ‘bad or naughty girl. ‘You were exposed to this kind of interaction from an early age and because you were a smart kid you deduced that if you did OK you were good and if you made a mistake you were bad. This led you on a path to seek and to need the approval of others. You would try so hard yet often you couldn’t please significant others enough which you always construed as meaning ‘you are a bad girl!’ I was born when you decided you were only worthwhile if other people gave you permission to be. Mission accomplished!

I was doing OK until some smart teacher you had in year 4 told you how you created me, and what you could do about it. This was my undoing, the beginning of my end but I didn’t go away easily. I put up a fight but to your credit you worked hard to get rid of me.

Your teacher said to you ‘your thinking is a bit crooked. You believe that you are worthwhile only if other people think you are. You have learned to believe this and it makes you sad a lot and it stops you from trying because you are too concerned about how others might judge you. This kind of thinking is called Brain Bully thinking and it is unhelpful and we are going to get rid of it before it does any more damage.’

It took a while of solid work but you were determined and though I tried hard not to I began to lose my grip on you. Something had infected my robust irrational self and you no longer tolerated me. I was like a flickering light bulb nearing the end of its life. I was no longer you and you were no longer me and in time you let go of your misery. You had worked me out, found where I lived and gave me my notice to vacate.

I am no longer you
You are no longer me
You have let go
Of your misery!

It wasn’t long before the vacancy sign had gone and you had a new tenant. You began to feel better and others noticed how you would set yourselves achievable goals and work hard to realise them. You were more adventurous in trying new things and it wasn’t such a catastrophe when things didn’t go your way. You were less reliant on how others viewed you because your approval of you was more important than others approval of you. You began to feel more comfortable around others as people began to seek out your friendship. Bugs Bunny would approve!

What had happened? How did this transformation come about? Well that’s another story. Stay tuned!

Thursday, 4 January 2018

Building Confidence - accepting oneself unconditionally

Even the most competent and composed amongst us will say how we have battled or continue to battle our inner demons of self-doubt and low self-worth. Some would measure their self-worth against goals achieved and how popular they are with others. This kind of ‘confidence glow’ can be temporary if one is inclined to put all of their psychological well-being eggs in the same ‘self-esteem’ basket. Albert Ellis, creator of Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy, famously stated:

‘Self-esteem is the greatest sickness known to personkind because it’s conditional.’

We condition ourselves when we rehearse and re rehearse certain ingrained thought constructions that are unhelpful or helpful to us. Ellis claims, and I agree, that if a person’s self-worth is contingent on how others regard them or how well they do at tasks it can be very harmful. They will feel OK or not OK depending on which way the self-esteem winds blow! This is what Ellis called conditional self - worth, how one esteems oneself when they are approved of and when they do well; self-esteem.

What then is the psychological antidote to the self-esteem scourge? How do we start to help those students whose confidence waxes and wanes in response to the approval of others?  Perhaps it would be useful to note some of the consequences of coming down with a bout of the dreaded self-esteem bug – approvalitis!

People who conditionally accept themselves are much more likely to experience mental ill health than not. Why? They tend to put all their faith in how others value them and if this isn’t forthcoming they feel down, undervalued, and disapproved. They might say to themselves:

I’m worthless.
No one likes me.
I’m a failure
… Etc.

If a person’s significant other withdraws her friendship and approval this can have an adverse impact on her. The fact that she has been unfriended is a fact, there is evidence to support this conclusion.  However the belief that this then means she is worthless is a position that can be challenged. It is here that the teachers and counsellor’s work begins because the goal is to help her understand that her worth was never given to her in the first place so it can’t be taken away. She has constructed these ‘thinking rules’ so she can deconstruct them if she works hard at it. The question is how? As Eleanor Roosevelt said:

‘No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.’

Another question is if she gives another person consent to make her inferior how does she know she is doing this? The job is to help her understand that whilst others may reject her in fact, it is a myth to then believe she is worthless because she has been rejected. It is the goal of the educator to help her replace her fragile self-esteem belief with the more robust and evidence based unconditional self-acceptance habit of thinking. This will not change how life unfolds but it will lessen the impact of unwelcomed events will have because she is more psychologically robust. Dr. Jonas Salk who developed the polio vaccine talked about the idea of psychological immunisation:

“If I were a young scientist today, I would still do immunisation. But instead of immunising kids physically, I’d do it your way. I’d immunise them psychologically. I’d see if these psychologically immunised kids could then fight off mental illness better. Physical illness too.”

Constructivism explains how people acquire knowledge when they interact with their environment. Knowledge doesn’t exist somewhere outside the individual to be absorbed but rather it is co - constructed between the subject and others in various contexts. The idea is to acquaint the student with this idea; that they have constructed the beliefs that inform what they do and how they feel in response to life’s challenges. If they feel anxious or down then they may well be tethered to a self-esteem belief i.e. conditional self – acceptance. I will refer to one who thinks this way as a ‘self - esteemer.’ We want to challenge and change this ‘thinking rule’ to unconditional self-acceptance (USA), a ‘self-accepter’ rule.

I have posted many blog posts which suggest ways in which we can assist students develop unconditional self - acceptance e.g. Psychological Immunisation and Little Jack Horner and here I offer another suggestion. This is a lesson I developed to teach students about constructivism and how it relates to USA. These ideas can be used with students from mid – primary onwards.

First establish what unconditional self-acceptance is e.g.

When we accept ourselves unconditionally it means that anyone’s opinion of us (good or bad) is just that, an opinion and cannot define our ‘total’ selves because we are made up of maybe hundreds of different traits, qualities and characteristics none of which alone can describe us totally. We all make mistakes but we are not totally bad. The positive qualities still remain. In other words we are not our mistakes just as we are not our successes. We are just worthwhile no matter what! We want to help our students develop the ‘thinking rule’ that; ‘what I think of me is more important than what you think of me.’ This is not an arrogant position but one which is supported by what we know about ourselves and how well we accept what we know about ourselves to be true and factual.

Next hand out enough white and yellow Lego blocks to groups of two or three to construct a small wall.

Ask the students to do the following:

Please build a wall that best reflects what we know unconditional acceptance to be. Remember we can make mistakes and we may have qualities that aren’t perfect but in the main we are all OK. The white blocks represent our positive qualities and capabilities and the yellow represent those things we can work on if we choose.
  •  Some may construct a wall predominantly of white bricks and a few scattered yellow ones.
  • Others may have different ideas e.g. a wall constructed solely of yellow
  • Others may construct ones completely white.
Encourage the class to consider the various construction’s and ask them to explain why they have made their walls as they have e.g.

Which wall best represents the idea that we are not perfect but that we are always worthwhile?

If yellow bricks represent things that we are not so good at what does a wall made of all yellow bricks mean? Is this true?

What are we thinking if our wall is made entirely of white bricks? Is this possible? Can this be true?

We want our students to see what ‘worthwhile’ looks like. If they accept what is represented by the wall constructions they can see that no matter what they are always OK (represented by option 1 above). They can then start to practice the belief of unconditional self-acceptance. It may just be a daily reminder to think e.g.

‘I will make mistakes but I am not a mistake.’ Or

‘People may not like something about me but I have hundreds of good qualities. I am not their opinion.’ Or

‘What I think about me is more important than what others think about me.’

Option 1 indicates a healthy appreciation that a person has many more positive qualities and attributes than negative ones and may regard those as areas for improvement. This reflects a rational view that even when we make mistakes or others think ill of us we are always OK. This is the hallmark of the ‘self-accepter.’

Option 2 represents a view that ‘I am not OK. Most or all of me is not good, therefore I am not good.’ This wall construction is an irrational idea because it denies the preponderance of positive qualities that a person has. It is important to provide evidence to a person thinking this way that this is not a true and accurate self-worth picture. This self-view represents the beliefs of a ‘self esteemer.’ This belief underpins a tendency to feel down often and/or anxious because this person believes that she’s bad/hopeless/unlovable.  

Option 3 suggests that there are people in the world who are perfect. This is an errant perspective that cannot be supported with evidence. Is there a person for instance who has never made a mistake? This belief causes anxiety and depression if such a view is held by a person who strives to always e.g. get 10 out of 10 for a test or who could never handle any kind of constructive advice because this would mean that she wasn't 'perfect' and then others would see how 'bad' she is and that would be a 'catástrophe!

Remind your students that we construct our beliefs just like we construct a wall. Our ‘thought walls’ are made with the bricks we think are the right ones. What we believe to be true can be helpful or unhelpful and believing that we are always worthwhile is true and if we don’t believe this we can mentally deconstruct the old wall and build a new one that best represents who we are!

We are ‘self-accepters’ and we build strong and powerful ‘thought walls!’

Not perfect but strong!

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

The Rules That Guide Us

We have rules that guide our behaviour many (if not all) of which we are unaware! Psychologists tell us that we behave as we do because of certain rules we have constructed over time. These rules are so deeply ingrained in our subconscious that we would find it hard to articulate the rationale for doing what we do or feeling how we feel. The great Albert Ellis said:

“Too many people are unaware that it is not outer events or circumstances that will create happiness; rather, it is our perception of events and of ourselves that will create, or uncreate, positive emotions.” Albert Ellis Quotes

Where do these rules come from? Do we learn them from others and if they are unconscious ‘belief rules’ how can we get to know them? I think it’s true to say that our ‘rules of engagement’ with the world around us are indeed learned but what’s the likelihood of ever learning what they are? This would be insightful, new knowledge which would have benefits for the learner. What if some or most of these ‘thinking rules’ were unhelpful or self-defeating? Knowing this we could then, if we so chose, find better ways of seeing the world; perceiving it in a different way.

Our reality is forged within the contexts in which we are socialised. Every interaction we have with others and with our environment, our ‘habitus,’ will determine how we view ourselves, others and the world in general.

‘Habitus is one of Pierre Bourdieu’s most influential yet ambiguous concepts. It refers to the physical embodiment of cultural capital, to the deeply ingrained habits, skills, and dispositions that we possess due to our life experiences.’ Habitus

Our learning within our ‘habitus’ is connected to events and happenings but do they themselves constitute our experience of them or is there other things to factor into the equation? When we are subject to an event or happening we are called upon to assess that happening. What does it mean? If a young person (let’s call her Sally) consistently sees positive examples of interaction between others and herself where each player shows respect and kindness to each other she will draw certain conclusions about what she experiences, she will attach meaning or meanings to those events. These meanings are constructed by the individual in relation to what is happening around her.

‘People construct their own understanding and knowledge of the world, through experiencing things and reflecting on those experiences.’ Constructivism

What kind of ‘thinking rules’ might the young person have constructed which will inform and direct the choices she will make in various situations? According to Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT) theory created by Dr. Albert Ellis in the 1950’s we construct ‘habits of thinking’ that can be either helpful (rational) or unhelpful (irrational) in pursuing the goals we set ourselves. Those that are helpful to us are characterised by attitudes that accommodate the unfairness and unpredictability of life. For example when confronted with a problem, the resilient person may feel disappointed/inconvenienced. Another person who is less resilient may experience extreme anger and embitterment. These contrasting dispositions are linked a particular mindset of each individual which each has constructed and which guide how each feels and behaves.
Sally would believe that:

She doesn’t expect things to always go her way and when problems arise she can handle the inconvenience. The situation is not catastrophic, there are many more issues that cold be worse than this. Life can be unfair but she expects that his can be so!

Another might believe:

Things must be the way she wants them to be. This should not happen and she can’t stand this big imposition. Life is unfair and bad things always happen to her! This is the worst thing that can happen!
Each perspective or estimation of the event will result in different behavioural and emotional consequences for each. The event is not entirely to blame for the behavioural and emotional outcomes experienced by the person. According to Marcus Aurelius:

“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.” Marcus Aurelius 180AD

Stoic Philosopher Marcus Aurelius

These ideas have been around for millennia and Albert Ellis incorporated this philosophy in his Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy counselling/psychotherapy model. Can these principles be conveyed to students in the school setting?

They can and have been introduced to students in many schools (preschool – year 12) around Australia very successfully. Giulio oversees the implementation of Rational Emotive Behaviour Education in his school in South Australia. This is the fourth year this whole school mental health education/promotion/prevention program has been in place and outcomes have been very positive to date for students. He has set up the Centre 4 Rational Emotive Behaviour Education which provides free professional learning to educators, counsellors and allied agency workers. This is the third year of its operation and feedback is always very positive in terms of its usefulness to participants who attend the ten workshop program.

The workshops cover the understanding and application of REBT in the school setting. The application of REBT in daily teaching practice is called Rational Emotive Behaviour Education. For more information about workshops and other questions regarding REBE please contact Giulio on

You can also visit his blog REBTOZ for more information and blogs about REBT/REBE. You might find this article about how to teach REBT using Shakespeare’s Hamlet useful CBT Today, Volume 43 Number 1 or using nursery rhymes to illustrate REBT principles here Psychology Today.