Mixed Outcomes From Delaying School Start Times

Over the last few years there has been a growing level of noise about shifting school start time for teenagers in high schools. The argument is that teenagers’ body clocks are running on different time and that, to acknowledge that, we shouldn’t ask them to get up so early in the morning and school should start later.

I’ve read a lot on this and, my son for one would hate to hear me say it – I never really bought it. I remain open to be convinced, but as of now I just don’t believe the case has been made strongly enough.

Even before getting in to the science and the issues about children and their body rhythms there are, to my mind, some very obvious practical issues. In almost any city in the world, the one good piece of news with early school starts is that the commute time for children is reduced by the fact that they’re on the road to school before the worst of the traffic. As the early hours of the morning move forward, every 10 minutes later leaving home requires an extra 5 minutes on the road. So, you finish up with situations where a 45 minute shift in school start time only sees students leave school 20 minutes later than they were before. The rest of the time is ‘lost’ on the road in heavier traffic.

In addition, many families have their time routines dictated by the time parents need to leave for work. So, again, shifting the school start time may have relatively little impact for the child. practically, the family may still need the child to get up at about the same time.

Then, we come to all the reasons why this was being suggested in the first place.

When I was growing up, there was a continual game going on between me and my sisters and our parents. The object of the game from our perspective was to use every kind of subterfuge or time-wasting excuse to stay up. My son did exactly the same thing from an early age. I think it’s driven by all sorts of things. FOMO – fear of missing out is one part. In addition, there was television and that always seemed to offer the most interesting and tempting fare just after the allotted time for going to bed.

For children today two significant things have happened. Firstly, the temptations of media have multiplied exponentially. So much so that the TV may hold relatively little interest compared with the PS4, social networking etc. Secondly, ‘discipline’ and rules are not as cut and dried as they were in my time, especially with teenagers. Parents find they have to ‘pick their battlegrounds’ with their oh so sensitive teens. Peer pressure says that everyone else stays up to whatever time they want, so attempts by parents to exert any kind of rules are seen as draconian and completely unreasonable. Thus, masses of research that shows that like most adults, teenagers are sleeping less now than in the past.

So, if this becomes habitual, should we really be surprised that they can’t get up in the morning, or that their body clocks accept this as normal?

There’s another problem that started, I think, with my generation and has only got worse since – the laying in at weekends. This is the idea that you can get yourself increasingly sleep deprived all week, and then make up the deficit by staying in bed late at weekends. All my understanding today of the evidence is that this is disastrous – a terrible thing to do and highly detrimental to the body clock and to many other aspects of effective functioning.

I have to acknowledge that I picked up this particular bad habit in my younger years and, at times, it’s been hard to escape from. So, I can quite understand how children today are even more quickly sliding in to the kinds of habits that don’t support them to be at their best in the morning.

The evidence is starting to come out, more and more, that this was a naive and simplistic response to a problem that is really, more than anything else an issue of self-discipline, good habits and persistence in the face of temptations. Here’s a recent article;

US News – Later High School Start Times Yield Mixed Results

My son recently had a change of travel arrangements to school. it meant he leaves the house around 20 minutes later than he used to. For the first couple of months, this was great news and he was fresher, on time and I didn’t have to chase him out of bed in the morning. However, over time, even though i encouraged him to stick to the previous bed time, he started to push the limits on the bed time. The result – probably as much struggle to get up on time for the later time as for the earlier time. The benefit of those 20 minutes has already gone.

As I said before, I’m still open to being convinced that there is a scientific basis to this – one that doesn’t simply reflect that adjusted sleep habits have their own outcomes. In the meantime, I’ll keep working on undoing the bad habits I’ve acquired regarding sleep over so many years. Maybe, ultimately, setting good example is the best thing I can do for my own child.

Raising Children in the ‘Post Truth’ World

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Here is an article that I wrote that was published in the January edition of Ipoh Valley of Dreams. I was provoked to write it in response to more and more media comments about the world we’re living in and the nature of politics in the world.

I found myself very conscious of the impact all this can potentially have on children and young people, growing up confronted by all this.

Selling The Future

As educators, when we talk to parents about our schools, our approaches to education and what should matter most in the education of children, we need to talk a lot about the future – the future of the child, the future of the world we are preparing the child to live in and how that child can be helped to have the maximum chances of success in that future. So, for example, we talk about the vital importance of developing the skills of being a lifelong learner. This doesn’t just impact our communication with parents, but also with teachers.

That’s a massive problem for us because, as Seth Godin makes clear in this blog post – the future doesn’t sell, but the present does.

Seth Godin blog – It’s Almost Impossible to Sell the Future

So, while we’re earnestly selling parents on the idea of their child’s long lifespan, the likelihood of multiple careers, need for flexibility, resilience, lifelong learning and re-learning skills etc., the parent just wants to ask, “What did my child score on this week’s Maths test?” Further, teachers are very often sold on the idea that their work only has real meaning and motivation for them if they’re engaged in activities that show immediate response – can I see that this child is better at using adjectives this week than last week, is the class better at reciting their seven times tables this week than they were at the end of last term?

I firmly believe that this is one of the biggest hurdles that gets in the way of the kind of reforms that education needs. Whilst those of us who’ve studied hard, worked to understand the latest research, strived to understand where the leading experts tell us the world is going in the future and then put in the tough work to figure out what that should mean for reforming education are, to some extent, destined to find many of the most important messages falling on deaf ears with the key stakeholders we need to carry with us.

They all want to know what’s appealing, shiny, new and now. In these circumstances, we shouldn’t be surprised that when schools are marketing or even when educators are sitting around planning together, the talk is almost entirely about how we can do what we do today, just a little bit better. This incrementalism feels comfortable to all concerned, but in a world that is changing as fast as ours, it may be doing a massive disservice to our children and producing a generation of children for whom it will be a matter of luck and exposure as to who is able to take most advantage and succeed. There would be way too many students lead to believe that if they diligently apply themselves as the teachers and their parents tell them, produce good scores and grades, that the world will be theirs. When they discover this isn’t the case, they’re going to feel sorely cheated.

Teachers have their motivation tied to seeing short term gains in children’s learning. So, focusing on the children’s acquisition of ‘stuff’ is inevitable. Parents and school leaders are also happy to focus on these things because they provide easy, simple and immediate measures for accountability. “How else would we know if the teacher is doing their job effectively?” they might all ask.

The challenge is that we need to find the right ways to steer our children’s education in an effective direction that provides a meaningful preparation for the future and the longer term, by carrying teachers and parents with us. This is a hard message to sell, and we’re going to need new ways to do that. The easy way out would be to settle for incrementalism and work to introduce a few future focused elements in an education approach which remains short-termist. However, I believe this would be to fail our children and we have to figure out how to make the future more appealing, believable and

Moving Learning Forward

Here’s a great new TED talk that will particularly appeal to anyone who’s bought in to the ideas and concepts of growth mindset. Whilst the headline and the promotion of the video may be focused on adults who want to get ‘unstuck’ in making progress in the things that matter to them in their lives, I believe it also carries some important and valuable lessons for education.

When planning for lessons and supporting children’s learning, it’s vitally that educators have clarity in their intent about when an activity is geared to learning and acquiring knowledge or competency and when it’s designed for practice. Too often, there’s a muddy vagueness about which we’re trying to achieve and a belief that if they’re merged together there will be discernible progress.

This process can also be made more overt and transparent with the young learners – so that they understand at any point in time whether they’re engaged in a learning activity or a practice activity.

Questioning Stereotypes on Millennials

We’ve been told many things about millennials as a way of identifying them as a group and being able to understand how they differ from those who were the generation that came before. it’s been very tempting at times for people to hear the suggestions about what defines millennials and to then look for clues to back up those beliefs.

So, we’ve been told that millennials are the laziest, flakiest, neediest and most self-absorbed generation that has ever lived. It’s said that they’re almost impossible to employ because they are so desperate for praise for even the slightest of effort, jump ship at the drop of a hat without developing any sense of loyalty or commitment and that they have been so pampered that they can’t take criticism.

It’s a truism that any attempt to take a whole ‘category of people’ and to generalise them in to a stereotypical definition and place them in a box is doomed to failure. But, it’s useful when we get actual data to enhance our understanding of what really goes on in the minds of any pre-defined group.

This really matters when we consider that over half of the world’s current population is under the age of 25. Incidentally, there are many definitions of what is a millennial, but the generally accepted textbook definition of a millennial is a person born between the years of 1982 and 2004. So, today our Secondary Schools, colleges and increasingly our working places contain sizable populations of these people. It’s often suggested that many of the problems for this generation stem from the fact that they were brought up in a climate of the ‘self-esteem’ approaches to child-rearing – a set of beliefs that criticism and negativity should never be used with children, that everything must build their self esteem.

So, it’s useful when there’s real research that seeks to determine whether/ how much truth there is in the stereotypes. The following video and article clearly demonstrate that (at least in the USA) the evidence is weak at best. For example, the interesting term ‘work martyrs’ (otherwise workaholics) applies more to millennials than to any other generation. These are the infamous American workforce members who don’t use all their vacation allowance.

World Economic Forum – Positive Narrative For the Global Community

The article also carries some other interesting data. It’s good to see that such a high proportion of millennials hold a positive perspective on the future. It would be easy to believe that, bombarded with negative media reporting, they would be beaten down to believe they lived in a world that was only going to get worse, certainly not better. They are, in fact a generation of optimists.

Their attitudes towards refugees in their countries or neighbourhoods shows that there is a caring and compassionate leaning that belies the reputation for self indulgence and self interest. The report and the survey don’t seem to touch upon why the levels of civic engagement by these people were so low in UK Brexit referendum or the American election. However, it does suggest that if they were more politically active and voting, their influence would lead to very different outcomes.

One belief of my own does seem to be borne out by the survey – these young people are more acutely in to money than those who went before. ironically, we know from other research that, at least until now circumstances have meant that they don’t make money in the ways of previous generations. It’s said that they are the first generation since the industrial revolution to make less in real terms at the same age than their own parents did. I think this highlights the need for leaders in organisations to engage these younger employees, to help them feel a greater sense of purpose, belonging and contribution to their organisations. However, we may still have to accept they’re more likely to gripe about the money! maybe we and they just have to live with that fact.

Whilst there’s encouragement in this video, the article and the research, I do believe that we need to paying more attention to changing the ways we educate and the ways we lead to get the best from these young people.

The Gentle Leader

Why do organisations exist? What is their purpose? What should be the ‘status’, roles and rights of different stakeholders? In the total history of mankind, the modern day organisation is still something very new, so to a large extent, we’re still engaged in a process of figuring out the answers to these questions.

The earliest organisations were tribes of hunter-gatherers where people came together out of mutual benefit. To serve one’s personal best interest entailed contributing your best to the group. Where necessary, there were traditions and norms in the group that enabled cohesion and a sense of duty and loyalty. leadership was often determined by lineage, sometimes by strength, size and simple power.

The industrial revolution brought very different kinds of organisations – far larger, more complex and with many more artificial processes to create the sense of belonging, commitment and common interest. There are plenty who are willing to say that the primary role of such organisations is to maximise value for the owners – everything else is peripheral. If this is true, then the duty of leaders is to organise all resources and stakeholders in the best possible way to achieve this aim of owner value growth. And further, those who are best at achieving this rise to the top and become the leaders.

We know that these things called organisations can cause some very odd human behaviour. For one, isn’t it pretty odd when we think about it that in organisations where only 13% of employees say they are engaged, all the employees turn up daily, on time and do the work they’re told to do, at least in principle. Further, we know from the work of experts like Stanley Milgram (famous obedience experiments) that the authority, status and title of being a leader can enable us to hold enormous and powerful sway over others. For those unfamiliar with Milgram’s experiments, he took subjects in to a lab situation where fake other subjects were required to learn and memorise random pairs of information. When they made mistakes the subject was required to administer an electric shock to them. If they showed disquiet about doing this they were instructed to continue by an official, lab-coated technician who clearly held authority in the lab. Shockingly (pun intended), almost all subjects in this situation continued to administer ever stronger levels of shocks to the person in the other room, even when they were screaming for mercy or even appeared to have passed out due to the extreme pain. They may have shown stress and anxiety in what they were doing, but all the time the authority figure told them to carry on doing it, they continued.

Modern society has many ways, right from when we’re very small, of drilling in to us the importance of compliance with authority. Whether it’s parents or teachers in school, so much of what goes on is about obedience, compliance and rewards and punishments are used continually to reinforce the ‘correct’ behaviours. To my mind, this raises some critical questions that i believe we’re not asking enough and where we shy away from the very difficult discussions we need to have;

a) As parents and educators, we need to challenge ourselves in critical ways as to our role and duties when dealing with children. Is our primary duty to teach them how to comply? When schools put ‘citizenry’ on the syllabus is this about performing a role for society that will make people do what they’re told, when they’re told, how they’re told?

b) As parents and educators do we inadvertently find ourselves acting as the agents for compliance with the small minority who wield the real power in our society, whether those are politicians or big businesses? Do we see frequent examples in our school activities and the syllabus that are actually about reinforcing, for example, beliefs that consumerism is a good, healthy and positive way to exist in the modern world? Do we, consciously or unconsciously, teach children that having things, acquiring things and joining in the pursuit of the latest shiny objects is a positive, healthy way to live in the world – almost that it’s our duty? The reality is that whether we like it or not we live in a modern society where if a sufficient number of us switched to consuming more for our need rather than our wants, modern consumerist, production based economies would hit crisis very quickly.

c) As educators, especially in the private sector, we’re fond of selling our credentials on the basis of our inclination to develop young people who will be leaders tomorrow. However, do our actions match our words? If we teach children in elementary classes that blind obedience is the only way to comfortably succeed in our classrooms, are we actually producing tomorrow’s compliant followers and obedient grunts, rather than true leaders? Worse, are we, at times, producing those who will be very good at ‘kissing up and kicking down’ who will form the vital middle layer that enables the vast majority to be controlled by the tiny minority?

d) Further, are those of us engaged in International education in developing countries part of an inadvertent process where we trade off access to greater worldly knowledge and exposure for the efficiency of compliance that will ensure that those countries don’t rise to preeminence at the expense of our own ‘Western’ countries current superiority?

e) If we are leaders in the educational domain, why do our schools need ‘anti-bullying’ policies? Is bullying such a ubiquitous and natural activity that we need a deliberate policy against it? Or, is that we create such awful artificially competitive environments in our schools that children’s behaviour is steered towards acts of physical violence towards each other as an unfortunate byproduct?

f) If we are leaders in the educational domain, how should we lead if we wish to have schools/ organisations that are sensitive to the needs of all stakeholders and produce a caring culture that provides the right environment for children to grow and develop naturally?

g) What, if anything, can educational leaders already teach leaders in other types of organisations? It already seems to me that there’s ample evidence that old style leadership ways of manipulation, sticks and carrots and force/ pressure are not producing the outcomes that the organisations seek for the longer term. I personally know that I had been trained in many ways in the traditional and conventional late Twentieth Century leadership approaches and style during my time working for a major UK bank.

As I transitioned in to the education sector, especially in Asia, I realised that I had to un-learn so much of what i took for granted. If I had lead in education the way I had lead in banking I would have achieved very poor results. In my early career I often had bosses who would ‘provoke and cajole’ me to be very task oriented. People issues certainly came second. Even as I was later encouraged to shift my position, it was conveyed that you needed to give people a higher priority (after making sure that you make all the top-down targets that are set). So, you get the classic middle-manager stress – you’re told to be a people person and to carry people with you, whilst being managed from on high in a thoroughly task oriented manner. The result, for many is phony people orientation that is actually more manipulative than caring.

So, having been thinking about these things (what else do you do with a four day Chinese New Year break from the office?) I was stimulated to write this piece when i read this article from Greg Thompson of Bluepoint Leadership Development.

Bluepoint Leadership – The Gentle Leader

In the article, Greg makes the case that the time of the ‘wolves’ is over – leaders who use good, bad, honest and dishonest means to achieve their goals and to meet the simple ends of maximising owner value at any cost in organisations. Instead, he advocates for a form of leadership that is far more akin to Servant Leadership. Some make the mistake of interpreting servant leadership as the leaders making themselves martyrs to organisation and people, everyone’s whipping boys to be used and abused. I don’t interpret it that way. For one, in the pursuit of the best interest of the most, there are times when a servant leader is duty bound to get tough with individuals who put their self-interest ahead of the collective needs. Also, the leader has a duty to lead the debate around vision and the fundamental purpose of the organisation. They then owe it to the collective group to address issues of individuals whose ideology or actions are incompatible with that agreed vision. However, when they have to deal with such situations, they must maintain the dignity of the individual and deal with circumstances with compassion. people need to be given reasonable chance to align, but the key is alignment to a commonly agreed and shared set of goals, rather than something artificially imposed from the top.

The rewards for getting leadership right in this age are more motivated and engaged employees, the fish shoal swimming in a common direction, less worthless conflict, lower employee turnover and a greater ability to attract highly motivated, talented employees in to the organisation.

Some fear that gentler, more collaborative and open leadership leads to harm to the interests of the organisation. Plainly, if a company has the scope to introduce technology that will significantly reduce costs compared to competitors, but at the expense of 30% of employees losing their roles, it requires a very mature level of understanding throughout the organisation to engage employees in a debate that sees them put the organisation’s needs ahead of their own short term self-interest. However, if employees in that scenario knew that the alternative was loss of competitive position and maybe even the complete failure of the organisation, they may see and understand the need. The compassionate and gently lead organisation provides support and help for retraining and job alternatives for those impacted and the level of trust is such that they understand what needs to happen.

Community in organisations and trust isn’t necessarily built in those challenging times. Rather, it’s built over the long time whether things are going well or poorly, so that there is a surplus of trust to be drawn upon in those challenging times.

In conclusion, school and educational leadership comes in all sorts of shades and levels of quality. However, I believe we’re now in a time where the best of schools leadership offers lessons and guidance to the leadership of many more types of organisations about what it means to build community, to lead with caring and compassion and to give a genuine voice to all stakeholders whilst leading towards a vision which is truly inspirational for all stakeholders.

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