Why we created LEVELUP!

Peter Thomas
Aug 9 · 11 min read

Haileybury’s Dr Peter Thomas, director of HaileyburyX, writing with Maria Bailey, director of counselling services at Haileybury, about LEVEL UP!, KEEP IT UP! and GLOW UP! three little handbooks for students.

LEVEL UP!

The HaileyburyX ‘LEVEL UP!, a little handbook of learning online

Deep in the first act of the pandemic, we were faced with the prospect of all of our students and teachers moving online. We didn’t know exactly how it would work or how long it would last. ‘Unprecedented’ is an overused word these days, but it did accurately sum up the situation.

Looking back 18 months or so from act three (or four or five) of the pandemic, we can get some perspective. Through a massive collective effort, we, like many other schools, managed the process brilliantly, and we can now re-evaluate what we did. One of our immediate imperatives was to ease students’ transition into online learning: for days or weeks or months, the familiar routines, cadence and subtleties of classroom learning and teaching would all be compressed into a little Zoom window.

We recognised that if we were going through this, so was everyone else, and we wanted to see if we could make a community contribution that would help everyone. We’re all in it together, after all.

So we thought hard about what might work and came up with the idea for a handbook called LEVEL UP!. It would collect together what we had learned, combine it with some established knowledge about how online learning works best and make it available to anyone who wanted it.

But we didn’t want to create a manual, or rules, or a guidebook. And we didn’t want it to be in the usual language, style and tone of ‘official’ schooling but in the language of students.

LEVEL UP!, like the following handbooks, is written as a mix of thoroughly sensible advice (“Light colour matters to your learning space too. Some studies suggest that you are more creative when light is a warmer colour, and you can concentrate better when the light is a cooler colour.” it says on the topic of setting up a study space); with right next to it the comment (“There have been lots of studies that look at the effects on the light given out by smartphones and why it’s VERY BAD. It melts your eyes and causes your brain to swell to the size of a pumpkin and leak out of your nose.”)

LEVELUP! on the topic of creating a study space.
LEVELUP! on the topic of creating a study space.

The decision to write in this way was because we wanted to speak to students in a way that would cut through the mass of (sensible) ‘official’ advice and hopefully get them to sit up and pay attention.

As we say in the parent and teacher notes to KEEP IT UP! The Art of the Bounce, the second little handbook:

All of the ideas, and the suggestions we make for activities, are drawn from a number of sources, including psychology and educational psychology. However, they are expressed in a vivid language which we feel provides a more approachable way to encounter what can often be less than engaging topics — ones that are often expressed in a language of therapy and more suited to adults.

So, in LEVEL UP! you will find advice on the subject of online behaviour expectations called I HAS INTERNETS, NO LURKING and DITCH THAT FROWN, and an outline of the benefits of breathing which says, “Close your eyes and try breathing in for a count of 6. Then out for six. Do that 5 times. You should feel just a little bit calmer. (If you are in fact not breathing at all you did it for a count of 50. This was a mistake. Do not do this.”).

Later, on the topic of notetaking, LEVEL UP! says:

Remember when we said there were two things, Thing One and Thing Two? Lie. Oops.

It’s a little white lie though, because we are burning to tell you about another totally awesome study skill that will make your head literally explode. You will be known as Explody Head. People will say See that guy? The no head one? Head exploded. Srsly.

During your time at school you have taken tons of notes. Tons and tons. We bet your notes, all collected together, would weigh 200 kilos. Maybe more. Lot of notes.

Like learning, people think it’s something you just do. But just like learning, you can get much better at it.

LEVEL UP! on note-taking skills.

You should have got the idea by now.

The mixture of talking about serious topics, coupled with some language jujitsu and self-consciously Dad-esque jokes, carries on throughout LEVEL UP! If, as a student, you are interested in the subjects and stick with it you fall into the cadence and get immersed in it. At least that was the plan.

We released LEVEL UP! as an Adobe Online document (which you can view online or download) on March 24, 2020 — right in the thick of act one of the pandemic. While we didn’t bother to ask people to register to read it or harvest any email addresses, Adobe Online provides an analytics dashboard that shows that LEVEL UP! was accessed over 2,500 times with a read time of 125 hours.

But the idea wasn’t to rack up views to make us feel important or popular. Instead, as we said:

Our aim really, though, is to be useful. This is why the content is broken up into sections that can be read standalone, but we think KEEP IT UP! is better read as a whole as there are common themes (and we hope, some funny jokes) that run through the text. Give it to your students, read it to your students, take pieces of it and use it as you wish.

You can explore LEVEL UP! on Adobe Online here, and listen to Peter Thomas talking about the project in this video on Vimeo.

KEEP IT UP!

The HaileyburyX ‘KEEP IT UP! The Art of the Bounce, a little handbook of resilience

As we emerged into act two (or three) of the pandemic, our thoughts turned to some of the issues that students would encounter as a result of not just the lockdowns but the general sense of life being disrupted.

Numerous scientific and anecdotal studies have pointed up the effects of the pandemic on children: social isolation, impacts on learning, family life and relationships, and the disruption to life as normal. As Victoria, Australia’s Commission for Children and Young People say:

“We have clearly heard that COVID–19 hasn’t just impacted the day-to-day lives of children and young people, but is having a wider and deeper impact on our next generation.’

Building on LEVEL UP!, we published KEEP IT UP! The Art of the Bounce on January 11, 2021.

It was written from a perspective of an extended period of remote learning and lockdown and aimed to address the more complex issues of building and maintaining resilience (the bounce as it is called in KEEP IT UP!) that students were facing after the best part of a year of disruption.

Following the same underlying logic, and using the same style and tone, KEEP IT UP! covers topics including self-motivation, maintaining social connection, self-acceptance, recovery from failure, expressing gratitude, the psychology of flow and sleep hygiene. It also includes a variety of practical actions that students can themselves take to assert their agency in a situation where little is certain.

KEEP IT UP! is also practically oriented — about taking action — whether that’s about things to do in your head (headbounces) or things to do in the world (worldbounces).

The bounce is a metaphor for the act of building resilience. But we make it clear that what’s covered in KEEP IT UP! is not just about the pandemic: it’s about the development of lifelong resilience. In doing this, we wanted to help students focus on the future, and transcend the now.

Just like in LEVEL UP!, we try to turn official advice into accessible, actionable, student-centric things to think about and do.

For example, in the section called What’s your #smalljoy? — part of a theme about flow (or The Science of Unstuckification as we call it) — we talk about simple, practical things to unlock the power of everyday joyful things:

Now you are getting flowing and doing your doey things we’re going to go next level unstuckified.

You may have some things that are unimportant to everyone else but that just really tickle you.

Tiny little things that make you cackle like a hyena and hoot like an owl. These are your #smalljoys.

Smalljoys are really important because they give you just that little bit of lift, a tiny little bit of bounce that helps you turn that frowen upside-dowen.

KEEP IT UP! on the power of #smalljoys — everyday joyful things
KEEP IT UP! on the power of #smalljoys — everyday joyful things
KEEP IT UP! on the power of #smalljoys — everyday joyful things

As we caution in the notes to KEEP IT UP!, although we are dealing with subjects that are traditionally the domain of psychology and educational psychology, we don't intend it to be a complete manual for resilience, or authoritative or original and certainly not to replace professional, qualified mental health support — the work of those professionals is essential, and now, urgent.

You can explore KEEP IT UP! on Adobe Online here.

GLOW UP!

The HaileyburyX ‘GLOW UP! A little handbook of positivity, growth mindset, grit, compassion and gratitude’

And finally, in act three (or four, or five, of an indeterminate number of acts) of the pandemic we’ve arrived at GLOW UP!, the latest of our handbooks.

Like KEEP IT UP!, GLOW UP! is about helping students not just cope but to be the best versions of themselves that they can be.

In LEVEL UP! and KEEP IT UP!, some of the most important people in students’ lives — parents, siblings, friends, peers— were in the background. As KEEP IT UP! says, “Your parents have no doubt told you this OVER AND OVER but sometimes they are right. You can’t always win.”

and

We’ve all had the one friend (we made up), Jessica, who’s like It’s TOTALLY unfair. Sarah never sent back a snap when I snapped her that selfie of me and I’m NEVER going to do that again, like EVER, and I’m going to block her so she’ll NEVER see any of my snaps again EVER. This is not cool, Jessica — and it’s not cool to Sarah (who we also made up) either.”

We wanted to recognise the many people students rely on, especially parents and families, and all of the relationships they are part of. Glowing up — being your best self — applies to parents just as much as it does to their children, something we explore in notes for parents alongside each topic. We say:

We have called this next handbook in the series GLOW UP! because it seems to capture what we all want our children to be — glowing. This does not just mean just a focus on social and emotional wellbeing, but on the glow that happens when children are striving, achieving, succeeding, learning and developing: achieving academically, maintaining healthy relationships, acting within appropriate boundaries, being independent, remaining calm, taking responsibility, approaching problems wisely and dealing with, and learning from, setbacks whatever they might be.

Like the previous handbooks, GLOW UP! is all about taking complex ideas, setting them in a context in an accessible way, and encouraging students to make use of them. Concepts like grit, growth mindset, self-compassion and gratitude are explored — but this time with suggestions for parents in how to help their children actualise them.

GLOW UP! on the topic of grit for students
GLOW UP! notes for parents on grit

As we say, “parenting is hard. There are so many demands on your time and energy as a parent that sometimes it seems like the sheer mountain of things to pay attention to is unclimbable.” But of course, as we all know, being a parent is rewarding, and helping our children develop new ideas and strategies can both promote healthy and respectful relationships for children and make the parenting task, challenging as it is, more rewarding.

We've released all of the LEVEL UP! little handbooks under an Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0) licence. Anyone is free to Share (copy and redistribute the material in any medium or format) and Adapt (remix, transform, and build upon the material for any purpose, even commercially) as long as they attribute us and pass along the licence terms. It will hopefully encourage people to make some use of the little handbooks.

Writing them was a lot of fun. The chance to explore subjects in a new way, to play around with language — confident that the ideas are based on evidence and the underlying concepts are well-established — was liberating.

Our hope is that of the (so far) almost 4,500 or so views, and during the cumulative 287 hours of reading by our anonymous readers, some little bit of our little handbooks has done something a little bit useful.

Visit the HaileyburyX LEVEL UP! project to download all of the little handbooks.

Maria Bailey is Director of Counselling and an Education and Developmental Psychologist at Haileybury in Melbourne, Australia. She is an Education trained (Sec) Educational & Developmental Psychologist, a Board Approved Supervisor, part of the APS Disaster Response Network (DRN) and a PEERS certified practitioner (Telehealth) for Adolescents. She has published articles on physical activity, sense of belonging & mental health; psychomotor skills, working memory, reading and mathematics. She is also an IC Member for Beyond The Tour (Tennis) and a TA Development Coach.

She has six children. Six. That’s a lot.

Dr Peter Thomas is director of HaileyburyX and a research leader, international educational strategist and educational technologist who has worked in the areas of online learning, microcredentialling, AI in learning and mobile learning in industry, higher education and K12 for 20 years. He appeared on The Educator Hotlist after only 12 months in the K12 education sector and he has won awards for his work on HaileyburyX. He has led technology organisations for companies including an FTSE100 business, founded and led research institutes in two hemispheres and established the first research programme in the human factors of mobile devices. He has worked with governments and companies around the world, with universities including MIT, Cambridge, and Melbourne, and with partners in the US, UK, China, Japan, India, Australia and South Korea, raising tens of millions of dollars in public and private funding and publishing over 150 peer-reviewed scientific papers. He is co-founder and CEO of upling, a data-driven cybersecurity education platform for K12 schools and is the creative director for Medicine Unboxed, an arts and medicine project funded by Wellcome, for which he designed 10 sell-out international events and founded one of the world’s biggest single arts prizes.

He has one child. Just the one.

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