Disciplined enquiry, or how to get better at getting better


How do you know what to do to improve your teaching? And if you can identify what you need to do get better, how do you know whether what you are doing to try and improve is actually making a difference where it really matters: in developing your students’ learning?

I think there are probably five main sources available to teachers to help them identify areas for their improvement. These are the data on their students’ outcomes, feedback from their colleagues, feedback from their students, research evidence into what works and where, and, finally, their reflections about their practice.

Each of these sources can be extremely useful, providing teachers with valuable insights into where they might need to focus. Equally, they can all be very unhelpful, giving unreliable feedback on areas of strength and weakness, particularly where limitations and nuances are not fully understood, or where potential improvement tools are used as performance measures.

Perhaps the best approach is to take a number of these sources of feedback together, increasing the likelihood of identifying genuine areas for improvement. In subsequent posts, I hope to outline a framework that harnesses these feedback mechanisms into a clear and systematic structure, but for now I want to focus on exploring just one means of self-improvement: getting better at being you.

In many respects, you are both the best source of feedback, and the worst of source of feedback; you can be wise and foolish in equal measure! The problem is that, whilst you are undoubtedly the one who spends the most time with your students and the one who thinks the most carefully about how to help them improve, you are also extremely prone to bias and flawed thinking, which can make it hard for you to trust your judgements, especially in relation to developing your own practice.

Others have written extensively about human fallibility and the dangers of trusting instinct. Daniel Kahnemman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, David Didau’s What If Everything You Knew About Education Was Wrong? and David Mcraney’s You Are Not So Smart all provide excellent insights into how we humans routinely get things wrong. It is clear, then, that we need to understand and respect our cognitive limitations and avoid thinking we know what works just because it feels right. Instinct is not enough. That said, I believe we can be useful sources of feedback in relation to improving our own teaching, particularly if we can learn how to reduce the impact of our biases and can get better at being more objective.

What is disciplined enquiry

Honing the skills of restrained reflection is the hallmark of a disciplined enquirer, and disciplined enquiry is what I have come to think is probably the best we way can grow and develop as a profession. Like many terms in education, disciplined enquiry means lots different things to lots of different people. For me, it represents the intersection between the science and the craft of teaching, and involves a systematic approach that encourages teachers to ‘think hard’ about their improvement and making use of the best available evidence to inform their decision-making. My definition of a disciplined enquirer tries to capture this complexity:

A disciplined enquirer draws upon internal and external experience – they operate as both subject and object in relation to improving their own practice. Through a systematic framework a disciplined enquirer develops the ability to limit the impact of bias, whilst learning how to become more attune to interpreting the complexity of the classroom, such as appreciating the role of emotions, the impact of actions and the nature of relationships. Over time and through deliberate noticing they become increasingly sensitive to interpreting patterns of behaviour and learning how to react better in the moment and how to make better decisions in the future.

Understanding how we make decisions

Perhaps the first step to becoming a disciplined enquirer is to recognise the nature of decision-making itself. Kahneman’s model of system one and system two thinking is instructive here. System one thinking describes the way we use mental shortcuts to quickly make sense of complex phenomena and to give us the appearance of coherence and control, whereas the system two model uses a more methodical and analytical approach to decision-making, where we take our time to review and weigh up choices. The trade off between the two modes is time and effort. The result is that busy teachers come to rely more and more on quick, instinctive system one thinking over the slower, more deliberate system two model, which can lead to mistakes.

As well as understanding how we make decisions and how we react to given situations, a disciplined enquirer needs to appreciate the way that we gain insights in the first place, since it is the opening up new ways of seeing that we are ultimately looking for in order to help us improve our practice. It seems to me that if we know the conditions under which we are more likely to learn something new, whether about our teaching, our students’ learning or any other aspect of the classroom environment, then we are better able to take steps to recreate these conditions and harness them when they manifest.

In Seeing What Others Don’t See, Gary Klein uses a triple-path-model to illustrate the ways in which we commonly reach such new insights. Klein’s model challenges the widely held notion of eureka moments, where inspiration or epiphany follows long periods of gestation. From studying decision-making in naturalistic conditions, Klein suggests there are three main triggers that typically lead to new insights – contradiction, connection, and creative desperation. These triggers, working on their own or in combination, shift or supplant the existing anchors that we ordinarily rely upon to make decisions. An anchor is a belief or story that gives us a sense of coherence and informs the decisions that we make, often without us even realising.


In some respects, Klein’s anchors resemble the idea of mental shortcuts, or heuristics, in Kahneman’s model of system one thinking. The anchor and the heuristic both guide action, usually subconsciously, and both can prevent us from seeing things clearly. Whilst we need heuristics (or anchors) to make our daily lives manageable – getting from A to B, for instance, without endlessly checking the route – for more complex decision making, such as that which constitutes classroom teaching, they can often lead us to make mistakes or develop false notions of what works. Disciplined enquiry should therefore seek to find ways to engage system two thinking, and to consciously trigger the cultivation of better anchors to help us improve our decision-making.

There are a number of steps that can help achieve this end. The diagram below gives an idea of what this might look like in practice. None of the suggestions are a panacea – it is surprisingly difficult to shift our thinking in relation to our deeply held values and beliefs – but they are an attempt to provide some sense of how we could get better at not only making decisions, but also of being aware of the reasons why we are making those decisions in the first place. The goal for disciplined enquiry is, then, to try ti find ways to override system one intuition, and activiate system two consideration.


Identifying inconsistency

One example Klein uses to illustrate the trigger of identifying inconsistency is the case of an American police officer who whilst following a new car is struck by the strange behaviour of the man in the passenger seat. Following the car, which is otherwise being driven normally, the officer notices the passenger appear to stub a cigarette out on the seat. What he witnesses is at odds with his understanding of what people normally do when riding as passengers in new cars. As a result he decides to pull the car over – an action that leads to an arrest, when it turns out that the car has in fact been stolen.

There are several ways a disciplined enquirer can set out to deliberately create this kind of inconsistency of thought – the sort of cognitive dissonance that might lead to a useful new insight into an aspect of pedagogy. One obvious way is to actively seek out alternative views or dissenting voices. Rather than always being surrounded by likeminded opinions, whether online or in the staffroom, teachers wishing to improve their practice should spend time listening to the views of those with contrary positions. This approach helps to avoid groupthink and fosters the kind of self-questioning that might shed light on an area of practice previously hidden.

Spotting coincidence

Unlike the trigger of identifying inconsistency, the trigger of spotting coincidence is about looking for similarities and patterns between phenomena and using these revealed relationships to build new insights. One of Klein’s examples of how spotting coincidence can change understanding and lead to meaningful changes in practice involves the American physician, Michael Gottilieb. After noticing connections between the symptoms of a number of his homosexual patients in the early 1980s, Gottilieb began to realise that what he was actually dealing with was something very different and very important from what he had previously experienced. His insights led him to publish the first announcement of the AIDS epidemic.

There are two crucial aspects of this story in respect of disciplined enquiry. The first is that Gottilieb’s insight didn’t happen overnight. It was slow process over a long period of time involving the gradual noticing of patterns that could not initially be attributed to something already known. Too often us teachers try to make too many changes to our practices too quickly, without understanding or assessing their impact. The second important point is how much Gottilieb retained his focus – he didn’t just notice something once, think it was interesting and then move on; instead he relentlessly pursued an emerging pattern, consciously noting down his observations, until he could formulate his observations into something more concrete and usable.

One of the key things that leads to developing new insights is thus a combination of time and deliberate attention: being alive to the possibility that two or three things that have something in common may lead to something more meaningful, or they may not. As the name suggests, disciplined enquiry involves disciplined focus, something so often overlooked in education in the scramble to share untested best practice. It is far better to isolate one or two variables in the classroom and look to notice their impact on student learning, than to proceed on a whim.

Escaping an empasse

Perhaps the most poignant story in Klein’s book is the story of a group of smokejumers who were parachuted into the hills of Montana in 1949 in an attempt to control a large forest fire that was spreading quickly. The firefighters were soon caught in the fire themselves which was moving swiftly up the side of the grassy hillside. The men tried to outrun the fire, but sadly only two of the original 15 made it to the top. The other 13 could not run fast enough and were consumed by the onrushing flames.

One of the two men to survive was Wagner Dodge who, like the others, initially tried to outrun the flames, but, unlike the others, realised that this wasn’t going to work and unless he did something different he would die. His quick-thinking insight was to set fire to a patch of grass ahead of him, thus creating an area of safety where he could stand with the fire deprived of its fuel. In a moment of literal life and death decision-making, Dodge had arrived at a creative solution that had unfortunately passed his friends by. Out of desperation, Dodge had discarded his intuition (to run), and thought hard about a radical solution (to cut of the fire’s fuel source).

Obviously, as important as teaching is, it is not really a profession that rests on life or death decisions. That said, there are aspects from the story of the Colorado smokejumpers, in particular the counterintuitive actions of Wagner Dodge, that a disciplined enquirer can learn from in an effort to increase their chances of generating new insights. Foremost amongst those lessons, is the way that a fixed condition – in this case the fire sweeping up the fireside – forced Dodge to focus on the other variables open to him. It may be that self-imposed limitations, such as deadlines, parameters for recording reflections or routines of practice, rather than stifle thinking, may actually encourage new ways of seeing. Being forced to consider all possibilities, including rejecting existing ideas and beliefs, could enhance our ability to make great sense of student interaction or learning. After all, the famous Pomodoro Technique is largely predicated on the notion that short bursts of focused, time-bound thinking produce much better results that longer, drawn out periods of study.

Disciplined enquiry is not easy and does make demands on what is already a very demanding job. That said, if there is a framework and culture that supports disciplined enquiry and makes the systematic study of one or two areas of improvement routine, then I think it could be a powerful means of both individual teacher and whole school improvement. What this framework might look like will be the subject of my next post.


ResearchED Brighton: inside out not bottom up

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I have been to several ResearchEd events, but I have to say that I thought yesterday’s conference in Brighton was the best one, at least in terms of the amount and quality of ideas I took away with me. The high standard of the speakers certainly helped, as did the deliberate decision to make the event more intimate. It really did make a difference to be able to ask questions of the speakers and to share reflections during breaks. Once again, a big well done and thank you to Tom Bennnet and Hélène Galdin-O’Shea, and to the university of Brighton hosts for offering up such a splendid and amenable venue.

If previous ResearchED events have been characterised by a bottom up approach to the use of research in schools, today seemed to be more about working from inside out – a slightly nuanced adjustment to the metaphor of grassroots teacher professional development that I think better captures the way in which inquiry – in all its different guises – helps to grow the individual and, in turn, develop the organisation. However you frame the metaphor of what’s going in educational circles at the moment, these events sure do beat the stale training days in expensive hotels of yesteryear.

The keynote session was delivered by the charismatic figure of Daniel Muijs. His very pertinent presentation was about the extent to which it is possible to reliably measure teacher effectiveness. Drawing upon a range of international research, including some of his own as well the large-scale study into measuring teacher effectiveness conducted by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Mujis outlined the complex issues surrounding evaluating the performance of teachers. It was very clear that whilst for every measure there are advantages to be had, these often come at a considerable cost and lead to many significant undesirable consequences.

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Whilst the negative effects of using lesson observation for summative judgements are legion, Muijs did outline some of the ways in which it is possible to make them more effective, particularly if you are willing to invest the time, care and resource necessary to develop a coherent framework, such as the Charlotte Danielson model, and to train observers adequately on how to use it effectively. Even then, for observation to meet adequate standards of reliability and validity somewhere between 6-12 observations per teacher per year are required. I doubt there are many schools up and down the country willing or able to invest that much resource into observing every member of staff throughout the course of the year. The conclusion was that whilst some kind of balance of measures is probably best, this is still far, far from being perfect.

I was glad I stayed in the main hall for the next session, even though that meant missing out on what I later heard was an excellent session by Becky Allen on avoiding some of the pitfalls of testing, tracking and targets. In the main lecture hall Louise Bamfield and Paul Foster introduced the Research Rich Schools Website, a result of an initiative from the National College for Teaching and Leadership, which commissioned a group of teaching school alliances to develop a framework research and development tool in collaboration with the RSA. I haven’t had chance to properly investigate the site yet, but it promises to be an excellent resource, not only for designated Research Leads, but more broadly for teachers and organisations interested in developing their engagement with research and inquiry a stage further. The different levels of emerging, expanding and embedding seem helpful for supporting schools who are at different phases of development.

The next session was led by Andy Tharby on the ways in which his school, Durrington, have formed a partnership with Brighton University to support their teachers in running robust small-scale research projects. Originally the talk was to be co-presented by Brian Marsh, the school’s ‘critical friend’ from the university and from what I gathered a great bloke and fantastic storyteller. Unfortunately, Brian had to pull out at the last minute, but Andy carried on undeterred. Perhaps I am a little biased – I rate Andy’s blog and think he is excellent company – but it was really interesting to learn how his school are building up their engagement with research by matching it at different levels to teacher interest and expertise. Whilst he admits it is still in its embryonic stage, the many benefits of having a professional researcher to support, challenge and guide classroom teachers in conducting their own classroom inquiry were clear.

I don’t usually think of educational conferences in terms of their comedy value, but James Mannion’s presentation was a hoot! A combination of his own humourus and engaging style and the benefits of a smaller, more interactive audience, made this session both informative and enjoyable. James has spent the past 6 months or so working on developing an efficient and meaningful way to bridge the gap between educational research and classroom practice. He believes that ‘all teachers should systematically be engaged with professional inquiry’ and has developed a platform for this happen. The Praxis pilot platform, ‘launched’ at the previous Research Leads conference in Cambridge, provides an excellent online space for teacher to upload their own research inquiries, where they can then be shared and critiqued by others.

What I particularly like about James’s project is the way in which he has thought extremely carefully about how to make the whole process as efficient and as user-friendly as possible. There is an inquiry planner which follows a helpful format for thinking about and organising small-scale research.

  • Title
  • Context
  • Research Question(s)
  • Brief literature review
  • Avenue of inquiry
  • Research methods (how are you going to collect data? )
  • Findings / analysis
  • Conclusions
  • Evaluation

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Whilst I am not fully convinced about the overall aim of getting all teachers to be systematically engaged with professional inquiry (perhaps I simply need to know more about the terms of this statement), I find the sentiment behind it laudable and the effort expended on the project nothing short of remarkable. I can already think of several ways of incorporating James’s platform into the professional inquiry options on offer at my school. James will probably disagree, but I do see value in having a continuum of research options available for classroom teachers to engage with as part of their professional development. For James the word Praxis, as defined by Freire as ‘reflection and action upon the world, in order to transform it’ has much less baggage in educational circles than concepts like Lesson Study, practitioner-led research and disciplined inquiry. I am not so sure, and as Nick Rose pointed out, if anything it contains more of a trace of Marxist ideology. Anyway, for some, the small-scale teacher friendly Praxis model will be great, for others, models implied by the terms ‘disciplined inquiry’ and ‘lesson study may be more appropriate. Perhaps it is all semantics.

My day ended with Nick Rose’s wonderful session on different research tools he has developed to better facilitate teacher inquiry. In his role as research lead and leader of the coaching programme at his school, Nick has produced a number of excellent resources to better support the coaching process and help teachers to better understand what is going on in their classrooms. Some of these tools, all of which Nick stressed were for formative purposes only, included a classroom climate log, the use of student surveys and structured prompts to encourage focused self reflection on targeted areas of professional development.

For me, Nick’s session provided a lovely counterpoint to the findings about lesson observation made in Daniel Muij’s keynote, namely with regards to the different possibilities afforded to the profession from using observation as a formative practitioner tool rather than a high stakes judgement mechanism. I liked many of structured observation protocols Nick has developed on the back of Rob Coe’s work in relation to ‘thinking hard’ about subject content and poor proxies for learning. It was clear how these teaching and learning behaviours could be used as more proximate indicators of learning than the ones more commonly associated with Ofsted framework, particularly within a supportive coaching framework.

Those of you familiar with Nick’s fantastic blog, Evidence into Practice, will already know that Nick is an astute and incredibly meticulous thinker. His real life presentation style is equally impressive and I came out of his session with my head bursting with ideas. I can’t remember being so intellectually stretched by the complexity and range of ideas on offer in a session before, so when Nick announced at the end that ‘he has only just got started with this work’, I joined with everyone else in spontaneous laughter. Has there ever been such an example of ironic self-deprecation before? Probably not.

This was a wonderful day with wonderful people.

Thank you to all at ResearchED.

CPD and the Second Law of Thermodynamics


‘Time is the school in which we learn, / Time is the fire in which we burn.’

Delmore Schwartz

CPD and the Second Law of Thermodynamics

Thermodynamics is the study of heat and energy. Its laws describe how energy moves around within a system. The first law describes how energy can never be created or destroyed, only transformed from one form to another. The second law concerns inefficiency, degeneration and decay, and it expresses the idea that without external energy closed systems naturally progress from order to disorder or entropy.

Schools are complex systems, with interacting or interdependent components that come together to form an integrated whole. As with all other systems, schools need external energies sources to help them thrive and to prevent the steady onset of entropy. This post outlines how we are hoping to keep our school system vibrant by harnessing the external energies of educational research and enquiry. We think it will enliven our professional development programme and complement the excellent training that already takes place within our school.

Professional Capital

We want an environment where teachers and classroom support staff think about, discuss and reflect on student learning in an informed way. Whilst I favour a stronger evidence-base as a means of establishing this kind of ethos, I realise it is unrealistic (and probably undesirable) to expect all staff to be actively engaged in undertaking research. John Tomsett and Alex Quigley at Huntington, pioneers in the use of evidence in schools, are clear about this point. John Tomsett refers to the fictional figure of Masie Tubbs, a full time teacher and parent who consistently achieves outstanding outcomes but does not really have the time to read articles, engage in action research or use social media for professional development.

For teachers like Masie, there are a number of different ways to arrive at a better understanding of ‘what works’. We are therefore building a programme of professional development (or Professional Growth as we will be calling it) that draws upon a range of different sources, and aims to be as relevant to every individual teacher’s needs and circumstances as possible. There are options to be engaged in professional growth activities at different levels of enquiry. From the more research-led participation of Lesson Study through our membership of the National Teacher Enquiry Network (NTEN), to looking at the research findings of others via the support of our recently appointed Lead Learners (see below). The good practice that already exists within the school will be spread through Master Class seminars organised by our Teacher Coaches, and other sessions run by teachers with specialist knowledge and experience.

Our Professional Growth model thus combines the best of what already exists within the building with the latest impetus and thinking from elsewhere, albeit largely distilled research at this stage. The internal energy supply is our existing teachers (teachers like Masie), whose insights and observations have demonstrably led students to successful outcomes year in and year out. At present the incoming external energy source will largely be orientated around the consumption of educational research and theory, but as we build a culture of deeper enquiry and reflection, this will hopefully lead to greater knowledge creation. In this sense the structure of our Professional Growth look inwards and outwards: it builds upon what we already do well, but it also seeks to learn from outside what we can do to be even better.

Professional Growth Wednesdays

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Professional Development that is structured into blocks does not really work. Whilst there are occasions when whole a whole school INSET might be beneficial or necessary, such as for the coming together of staff around a core theme or message, ideally PD should be embedded within the fabric of the working week. Professional development cannot be seen as a bolt on to the ‘real work’, with extra activities that people do and or have done to them long forgotten or discarded once the day is over. After several years flirting with different modes of delivering staff training – twilight sessions, action research and day workshops – it has become abundantly clear that for meaningful personal growth to occur our teachers must have the time, resource and support necessary to enable them to engage, refine and critique their practice on a regular basis.

From September we are therefore collapsing our meeting cycle and making every Wednesday afternoon a time for some form of Professional Growth. We operate a two-week timetable and each week will alternate between department INSET time (to be designed by departments to work on areas such as subject knowledge, joint planning etc.) and a personal choice from a menu of Professional Growth activities (sessions run by teachers for teachers). In the first half term back every member of staff will plan their own training diet, which will include some time for independent reading and reflection. Whilst this is still not enough time, it is a step in the right direction.

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Teacher Coaches and Lead Learners


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For a while now I have been wrestling with the extent to which I think our profession can and should be guided by evidence. I am personally convinced that the new dawn of educational research we appear to be entering into is the best thing to happen to education since I have been a teacher. It feels exciting and the right way for our profession to bring about sustained improvement. Yet, I am also aware that in many respects we just don’t know the true impact that a research-led approach to school improvement will have on student outcomes and that properly scrutinising first hand findings is an acquired skill that many teachers do not currently possess. Studies likes that being conducted by Huntington School and the EEF should hopefully provide us with both some of the answers as well as the tools to deliver them effectively, but in the meantime it seems we just don’t know. My intuition (which is increasingly becoming a dirty word) tells me that we should be aiming to be a more informed profession, but regardless of what studies reveal, I would think that given the complexity and range of variation within our profession there will always be a place for listening to experience and heeding to common sense.

This all means that I think there are a number of judgements, particularly on the behaviours of teachers in classrooms, which can and should continue to be made for the benefit of others. A study is not necessary for me to make a case for using a seating plan, or to advise an NQT against talking over their students. Get a group of experienced teachers in a room and I think they would all pretty much agree on the same or similar methods to create an environment conducive to learning. Now whether this then leads to learning is perhaps an entirely different matter, which is why I think it is helpful, at least as a starting point, to think of behaviours for learning and behaviours of learning: in the former the focus is on the actions and behaviours of the teachers, whilst in the latter the attention turns more to the learner. For the past few years our Teacher Coaches have worked very successfully with colleagues on enhancing key aspects of how they manage their classrooms better and create the conditions in which learning is more likely to occur, such as organising space, time, positioning and the use of resources. Going forward, our Coaches will continue to share insights like these, either on a one to one basis with those who request it, or through Master Class seminars that form part of our Professional Growth menu. There may be scope here in the future for the kind of practice sessions advocated by Doug Lemov in his taxonomy of teaching techniques Teach Like a Champion.

Lead Learners are somewhat different to Teacher Coaches. Whereas Coaches focus more on the behaviours of the teacher and deal more with the ‘certainties’ of classroom management and instruction, Lead Learners will focus more on the behaviours of the students and to the messier, harder to discern (and even harder to evaluate) process of learning. As with the Coaching model, the different insights into learning will be arranged into a common framework, which will be used to direct the work of the Lead Learners and give structure and coherence to their research activities. These areas can be seen as different lines of enquiry that each Lead Learner pursues in an effort to build up levels of expertise. I will blog about these frameworks in due course.

The insights into learning that each Lead Learner gleans – from a combination of wider reading and active enquiry via Lesson Study – will also be shared with staff as part of the Professional Growth programme. Through a variety of digestible formats, such as presentations, short distilled research overviews or shorts and one-to-one support, our staff will be able to benefit from the insights and findings of others. These formats will act as an ever-involving resource for teachers to enable them to better understand the impact of their teaching on their students’ learning, and to make informed adjustments to their teaching.

Working Minds

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The core objective of ensuring quality ongoing professional development is more likely to be met if teachers themselves are responsible for leading and shaping the majority of the training. The division of teacher support and training into Teacher Coaches (behaviours for learning) and Lead Learners (behaviours of learning) is a significant step towards establishing a CPD programme designed by teachers for teachers. This bottom up impetus will be further enhanced by the development of a Working Minds Group – a kind of think tank or executive body that meets each term to share experiences on the ground and to work collaboratively to plan and deliver training that meets the needs of both teachers and support staff.

The Working Minds Group will comprise the Teacher Coaches and Lead Learners, as well as the SLT member responsible for Teaching and Learning. In addition, the Group will include a number of enthusiastic volunteers keen to make a significant contribution to the development of staff training and, in turn, the school itself. I think it is important that there is at least one non-teacher as part of this group. As well as having significant responsibility for shaping the school’s Professional Growth programme, the Group will also have a considerable voice on the implementation of Growth Mindset principles. Such an approach will hopefully ensure that a culture of learning will gain a bigger and more sustainable buy-in from staff and that Growth Mindset will not become yet another fad, but an intrinsic part of the way that members of our school system approach their learning, whether as a pupil, a member of the site staff, school office or a classroom teacher. At least, that is the hope!

Time is a fire

The second law of thermodynamics is ultimately an expression of a sad, painful truth: that since our universe (indeed all universes) is in itself a closed system, there will come a time – millions and millions of years from now – when it too will run out of energy. This law gives us a lens through which to understand the fragility of time, an understanding so beautifully captured in the Delmore Schwartz’s couplet I used as a preface to this post. And so, if time really is ‘the fire in which we burn’, we need to make sure that the precious time we have available to us at home and at work really is ‘the school in which we learn’.