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Fragments II: micro stories about the learning business

What Will Families Photograph When Visiting Your School?

Have you ever driven home after work and realised that you have no recollection of how you got to your destination? It is one of the many tasks we do each day where the brain appears to be on "autopilot" and hardly registers the event, leaving us with that sense of not being able to remember what just happened.

I've written before about this difference between what we experience and what we remember, but in reading Jon Picoult's new book, From Impressed to Obsessed: 12 Principles for Turning Customers and Employees into Lifelong Fans, we are offered a new insight into why this might be happening. For Picoult at least, the key is that "our brains aren't wired like a video camera, recording every second of every experience. Rather, what we remember are a series of snapshots."

A pile of polaroid photos on a wooden floor

He goes on to explain:

"... those snapshots aren't taken at random. The camera shutter opens to capture the peaks and the valleys in the experience - the really high points and the really low points. Most everything else, all the parts of the experience that are just 'meh,' fade into the background and disappear from our memory.”

So, in other words, if I'm driving home from work and this all-too-familiar route is the same as it always is, the brain simply decides that there is little point in opening the camera shutter and committing anything to memory. By contrast, if the journey happens to coincide with a fabulous sunset or a long traffic jam, I am much more likely to snap the shot and recall it at some later point in time.

Now let's apply this thinking to the school tour, when a prospective family walks around your school for the first time.

Walking through corridors and peeking into classrooms, much will appear familiar to every member of the family. The desks, chairs, books, computers, science labs, and so on, will in many respects resemble previous experiences of school and therefore be somehow unremarkable. After all, generally speaking, a desk is a desk, however progressive or impressive the school may be.

The danger, of course, is that, faced with such familiarity, our brains will take snapshots of unscripted moments: an unkind word overheard in the playground, a distracted student in a classroom, or even a piece of litter on the floor. These minute impressions will be remembered and, from them, we will form opinions and make decisions that may or may not be true.

Some of these "moments" are unavoidable of course. School is always unpredictable. But, I think what Picoult may be helping us to understand, when it comes to the school tour, is the importance of being intentional and proactively providing a family with moments that are worth remembering.

Here are three things that you can try, all of which happen to be summarised by a word beginning with P.

  1. PERSONALISED. Obviously, a family wants to feel that you've been expecting them and that, for this moment in time, they have your full attention. Even more than this, however, a family wants to have an opportunity to tell their story, so try listening more than speaking, asking questions more than giving information. There is plenty of evidence to show that engagement increases the more that a family is given the opportunity to tell you who they are and what is important to them.

  2. PACED. We have this tendency in schools to feel like we have to show everything. But this will often lead to boredom. After all, there are only so many grade 4 classrooms you can see in a day! Try slowing the pace of the tour down and taking time to really limit the experience to 4-5 stops that are going to be meaningful for each member of the family.

  3. PREDICTABLE. When you peek into a classroom, it's often hard to know what to look at. Everything will seem familiar but even I, with my experience of schools, sometimes wonder to myself, What am I supposed to be looking at here? The key is to "frame" what people see in advance. Talk about how you understand learning and use words that people actually understand. As I often say, if you define learning in advance as "collaboration", a family will often see collaboration at several points during a tour.

The reasons why a family may end up choosing a school is always complicated and is rarely on the basis of a tour alone. By intentionally designing these moments for the brain to take a snapshot, however, we can perhaps move one step away from experiences that are just "meh" - that will quickly fade into the background and disappear from our memory altogether.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash.



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