Be more fox.

Multa novit vulpes, verum echinus unum magnum.

A ‘temporal landmark‘ is a way to navigate our lives. Certain important dates, such as a birthday, the New Year or an anniversary, are prominent and stand out from the ceaseless march of time. Daniel Pink in his book When describes them as ‘a chance to start again by relegating our old selves to the past.’ Temporal landmarks allows you to contrast between your present self and an aspirational future self, thereby focusing the mind and providing a motivational boost. They can help us to fashion fresh starts. August is the fourth anniversary of my blog and I have been reflecting a lot about the saying ‘A fox knows many things, but a hedgehog one important thing‘. This surviving fragment of the Ancient Greek poet Archilochus work, has contributed to an enduring way of classifying people into two distinct groups. Isiah Berlin, in his essay The Hedgehog and the Fox which explores the styles of thinking of great authors throughout the ages, describes this distinction:

For there exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision, one system, less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel – a single, universal, organising principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance – and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way, for some psychological or physiological cause, related to no moral or aesthetic principle.

Philip Tetlock uses the the Fox and the Hedgehog distinction in his book Superforcasting to differentiate between types of experts, those of the ‘Big Ideas’ and those who were more pragmatic and eclectic in their approach. This way of of classifying, hedgehogs, who view the world through the lens of a single defining idea; and foxes, who draw on a wide variety of experiences and for whom the world cannot be boiled down to a single idea, is a good way to divide the behaviours of PE Teachers. Reflecting back over the last fours years of blogging in pursuit to develop my craft I can see my professional behaviour through the lens of both the fox and the hedgehog.

  • The fox is always learning, but the hedgehog thinks they know everything.
  • The fox is adaptable, but the hedgehog is immovable.
  • The fox enjoys exploring the deep, but the hedgehog seeks comfort in the shallow.
  • The fox wants to listen to understand, but the hedgehog just listens to answer.
  • The fox understands they won’t know everything, but the hedgehog will never understand the limit of what they know.
  • The fox is willing to experiment, but the hedgehog is happy to keep doing the same thing.
  • The fox approaches things from multiple perspectives, but the hedgehog only from theirs.
  • The fox asks themselves why are they wrong, but the hedgehog asks themselves why are they right.
  • The fox is happy living with paradoxes, but the hedgehog is happy living with dogma.
  • The fox is open to change their mind, but the hedgehog is entrenched in their beliefs.
  • The fox takes responsibility when things go wrong, but the hedgehog puts mistakes down to bad luck.
  • The fox wants to try to become more accurate, but the hedgehog just wants to be right.

Within a PE lesson there is no way to tie up all the loose ends that present themselves each and every time, however desperate we might want to. Being a hedgehog only works in PE and School Sport if everything we do always works the same way, with every child, in every instance. Being a hedgehog works if the meanings we have for movement are the same meanings that every child we teach have. Being a hedgehog only works if progress and learning is linear for everyone, but my experiences disconfirm that. What works for one class need not work for another, and what works for one class today need not work in the same way for the same class in the next lesson. Things are never the consistent and predicable, even if we taught the same lesson, to the same class, in the same way something different would occur each and every time. Being a hedgehog does have it’s benefits, but we are tricked by its offer of a reassuring fantasy that teaching’s (and life’s) most difficult questions have just one right answer.

Perhaps I’m being unfair to the hedgehog. The purpose of the PE Curriculum needs to be clear. Often our professional decisions are led by global issues such as battling obesity or developing character. PE is better served by focusing on local issues; the needs and wants of the school community it serves. If we are like a fox with regards to purpose, we end up trying to serve multiple purposes as we value multiple things. The problem, of course, in pursuing many ends without any prioritising pretty much guarantees that none of them will be accomplished very well. With regards to purpose we need to be more hedgehog, prioritising a clear and shared purpose of the curriculum (that is local), and be more fox like in achieving it.

To continue to develop the craft of teaching physical education our beliefs must be open to challenge. However we crave the sense of being a coherent, consistent self. A self based on being right, being smart, being competent, being good decision makers, and that are beliefs are true.  Any messages that conflict with this are often unsettling and our natural inclination is to battle them. We see challenge as at attack on our identity. The hedgehog becomes defensive and curls up in a ball. The fox embraces them, sees that we are always in progress, and seeks comfort with uncertainty. If our identity is always under construction, it is the way of the fox that leads to a potentially better construction.

Being more like a fox forces you to reframe your thinking. You have to seek out the ‘other side’ or no progress can be made. How good are you at taking critique from others and using it in a beneficial way? How good are you are taking responsibility for the things that happen in the classroom? How good are you at seeking out information that challenges your beliefs? The fox views these things as helpful, not as a threat. As a novice fox I’m learning to enjoy uncertainty, embrace insecurity, stop thinking in terms of absolutes and become familiar with failure as this forces me to confront the truth that my best could be better. I’ve chosen to accept the incompleteness of my knowledge, both professionally and personally, rather than enjoy false comfort of certainty.

No one is truly all fox or truly all hedgehog. However we need to be clear on those things that we want to be immovable on and those things we want to be flexible on. This year I’ve made a professional commitment to kick over the ladder and develop my craft as a PE Teacher. If the journey from apprentice to master is to be achieved, then I need to be less hedgehog and be more fox.

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