September 2016


  • Find your inner chimp
    Reflective practice has long been recommended as a good thing but how does it engage the brain? Professor Steve Peters devised the Chimp model to identify the neuroscience behind reflection and help improve individual performance. More
  • Beyond data
    Leaders need a holistic view of their school if they are to set priorities that will truly accelerate learning for all of their pupils and especially for the most vulnerable, says Philippa Cordingley. More
  • More or less?
    Why is there an over-supply of teachers for PE but a shortage for business studies? Professor John Howson looks at the modelling process that predicts the number of trainee teachers required nationally and why it’s never an exact science. More
  • Making an in-road
    A Secretary of State from a comprehensive school is just one of the post-referendum changes for education. Malcolm Trobe looks at what’s in Justine Greening’s in-tray and what else is on the agenda for the year ahead. More
  • P8 ready
    Greg Watson looks at how senior leaders can use their existing programmes of assessment to help all of their students continuously improve and explores what’s next for the new measure. More
  • Powerful knowledge
    Schools should teach children to know and to learn for the rest of their lives, not for short-term gain, says Headteacher Carolyn Roberts. If they fail in that task, inequality will continue to blight society. More
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Reflective practice has long been recommended as a good thing but how does it engage the brain? Professor Steve Peters devised the Chimp model to identify the neuroscience behind reflection and help improve individual performance.

Find your inner chimp

As a doctor, I appreciate that both physical and psychological health are intertwined and both are crucial to our wellbeing. Constructive, reflective practice undoubtedly brings improvement and change but what are the neuroscientific foundations for this approach?

I introduced the Chimp model as a means of accessing the mind. Seeing the mind as functioning with three individual but interacting systems helps to shed some light.

The orbitofrontal cortex and amygdala are powerhouses within the brain that drive one system that I have named ‘the Chimp’: it is necessarily impulsive, dominant and fearful. Among other things, it doesn’t think clearly through the consequences of its actions and is an autonomous part of the brain.

A second system that I named ‘the Computer’ includes the hippocampal areas and parts of the amygdala. This system uses memory to impose learnt behaviours and beliefs and also throws values into the mix. These automatic Computer aspects may, inadvertently, have unconscious faulty programming – something worth investigating, as they will influence how you perceive yourself, others and the world in which you live.

You are the third system, termed ‘the Human’, and are distinct from the other two parts of the mind, which act like a machine. Your conscious awareness and agenda are based in areas such as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. Your role is to constantly manage the other two systems.

So, effectively, you the Human exist in your mind alongside an amazing machine consisting of two separate parts, Chimp and Computer. Reflective practice accomplishes management and fine-tuning of this machine in our heads by checking for and assessing various aspects of our functioning, including impulsive decision making, agendas, and methods of working and beliefs, and also compares our values with our behaviours.

Lessons for heads

If asked to suggest some content for reflective practice for a headteacher, I would begin by offering a challenge.

First, I would ask some simple questions, such as: “If you could improve your psychological skills and understand yourself and others better would this improve your professional performance?” and “Could you improve the quality of your life and, if so, would this have a positive impact on your personal and professional lives?”

If the answer is yes (let’s be frank, the questions are rhetorical – the answers are yes), then what are you doing currently to be proactive in these areas? How are you looking after yourself in terms of lifestyle and emotions? It is self-evident that any person who is in a good place within themselves is much more likely to perform well, whatever they are undertaking. Reflect on the advantages both professionally and personally of improving your emotional skills and the quality of your life.

Working with a non-judgemental mentor or coach, who can act as a sounding board, can be very helpful to ‘isolated’ leaders.

In my work helping people with psychological health, the concept that we can significantly improve our psychological health, even if the starting point is reasonable, is often over-looked. There is little difference when compared to the physical body. The mind can be fine-tuned and there can be significant improvements in its performance by training it and getting it to become ‘psychologically fitter’. This will give an individual a better quality of life with more positive and energising emotions. The result will also have physical benefits as neurotransmitters and hormones released affect all of our bodily systems.

Successful people demonstrate proactive behaviours. In other words, they have a thought-through plan that they then implement by auditing progress. If you are to work with your mind to increase the chance of success, it’s good to have a plan and to measure changes and outcomes. Formulating a proactive plan to improve the quality of your life, and then reap the spin-offs from this professionally, needs time to be dedicated to it. Only you can decide if the investment is worth it. Try not to offer yourself excuses if it is a priority. Experience has shown me that individuals who offer just ten minutes a day can see meaningful changes.

Recognise the machine within

From my perspective, the starting point for reflection is to understand the mind in terms of structure and functioning and the rules within which it works. Once we have an appreciation of this we can then decide on agendas and methods of working and recognise when the machine within our heads is hijacking us.

Everyone is unique so it is important to work this out for yourself and your individual circumstances. Learning to operate the mind is a skill. Therefore, applying new approaches and ways of thinking takes time and may have setbacks and learning points. Maintaining the emotional skills acquired is essential if the mind is not to be allowed to return to default position.

Real-life situations will have a different understanding and be dealt with by a different approach depending on where you have directed the blood supply in your head. Examples such as retention of staff, personal satisfaction and collaborative working are all outcomes, not causes. Somewhere change has to occur in the mind not just in the processes involved. If we form a process, then we need to make sure that the process is effective and functional. However, it isn’t just a process that needs to be refined. We can have the best process in the world but if the person entering it is not in the right frame of mind then the process may not be implemented correctly. Getting into the right frame of mind before any activity will affect the outcome regardless of how effective the process may be.

In contrast, decreasing budgets, exam result targets and recruitment of staff are challenges for the mind to take on. The danger, and it is a danger, is that stress and stress-related illness insidiously appear and become acceptable as part of the role of the headteacher. Ask yourself the question: is it a strength to look after your emotional health and a weakness or flaw not to do so? Or doesn’t it matter?

In a busy life with pressured work and continuous scrutiny, time for any activity is clearly precious. However, being in the right place psychologically can bring effective and efficient ways of working and getting into that right place may be time well spent. Only you can make the right choices for yourself. What I would ask is that you reflect on your current psychological health before making choices about whether to work on it or not.

Discover your inner chimp

ASCL in association with Professor Steve Peters’ consultancy, Chimp Management Ltd, is hosting a series of workshops this autumn for school and college leaders. The objective of the workshops is to provide an alternative perspective to managing the day-to-day challenges that school and college leaders experience. Together, we will work with leaders to help them understand how the mind works practically, how they are working with their own mind and how to develop the emotional skills they need to get the best out of themselves and others. The workshops will offer leaders practical ideas on how to identify, develop and maintain the emotional skills they need to be effective.

Save the dates in your calendar and book your place online:

The mind can be fine-tuned and significantly improve its performance by training it and getting it to become ‘psychologically fitter’.

Professor Steve Peters is a Consultant Psychiatrist and Senior Lecturer in Medical Education at Sheffield Medical School.