Sun Tzu and the Art of War

It’s sometimes very tempting for people to believe that in a rapidly changing world, what’s new is all that has value. However, I believe that more and more, as fast as the world around us changes, we need to keep one eye on the great learning and wisdom of the past in order to understand how to operate most effectively in the world.

One example in recent years has been the increased interest in the work of the Greek stoic philosophers to understand and make sense of how to live an effective life. Other works that bear study to understand the world we live in include the writings of Plato or the Analects of Confucious. One of my favourites is ‘The Art of War’ by Sun Tzu. Even though the book was written over 2,000 years ago it still has valid lessons today for business or life generally.

For those who want to get a simple taster, or a way to share the work with younger learners, I recently came across a cartoon video series. The thirteen videos each take one chapter of the book and make it very accessible.

Some people are uncomfortable with models related to war, battle or conflict to deal with issues in modern life. however, I believe this is to ignore the fact that in many situations if we are in a situation where, given the chance others would potentially act on a win-lose basis towards us, then it is naive to proceed as though life should not entail competition. I believe one of the greatest strength in this written work is the emphasis on using strategy to avoid battle.

The Playlist of all Thirteen Episodes
(Click on the link above to open a separate tab with the full playlist of all the episodes)

Well worth watching (and hopefully being inspired to go on and read the book)





Building Schools That Reflect Modern Education Priorities

In many parts of the world, educators tell everyone who will listen that they believe in reform, that the old ways of education will no longer work and that children need a different kind of education that develops the whole child for life in the Twenty First Century! And then, they basically build school infrastructure that looks just like the old or merely tweaks old structures gently around the edges. In such circumstances, is it really surprising if parents and students are left doubtful about the convictions behind these espoused changes in modern education?

There are exceptions – the Green School in Bali comes to mind – built entirely from bamboo and very consciously designed with the needs of the children and the environment first and foremost. I’m also aware of projects elsewhere in the world that have sought to bring significant input from educators themselves at the design phase so that schools are developed in ways that realistically support innovative and creative approaches to Twenty First Century learning.

I have had conversations with school owners and promoters who feared that involving educators in the early design phases would expose them to grossly extravagant, expensive and unreasonable expectations. Where I have been involved in projects where teachers were engaged i found there was an element of this at the beginning. Teachers came to the table with high expectations and some pretty lengthy wish lists. However, as they engaged in the process they came to understand more of the considerations at play and were more than able to adapt their initial dream wish lists to realistic prioritized needs. The end result was construction that had 100% commitment from the educators (those part of the process and their colleagues) and with all parties having a clear understanding about what was being done – and why.

There’s another issue that is helped when educators are included in the process of design and planning for new school premises or facilities, that I’ve come across quite a few times. When owners/ promoters and designers sit down to plan the design and creation of a school building there are many equations that go on, with due inputs from the financial advisers. Every decision to create a room or learning space is critical. Under the traditional school structure patterns a standard classroom can be considered a ‘revenue generating space’ (If class sizes are going to be 25 pupils, then that room is worth potentially 25 X the school annual fee in annual revenue). However, a room designated as labs (computer, science etc.) or a music room, drama room, Special Education Needs space, storage rooms etc. are basically ‘cost centres’ as no further children can be admitted in to the school because of the existence of that room.

When new premises are built they are not utilised to full capacity. Over time, educators eye the empty spaces (long term planned as revenue spaces) and come forward with all sorts of projects and ideas for ways to use them (as cost spaces). Then, as the facility fills up, educators start to suggest that it is reaching capacity long before the student numbers envisaged in the original plans. When administrators start to talk of turning these spaces back in to what they were originally intended to be educators can get disappointed and resistant. It helps if there were educators involved in the initial processes who can verify and confirm the original room allocation intentions. Compromise on this can undermine the original financial modelling for the school – the price for that would ultimately be paid by parents through fees or compromises of cost cutting elsewhere.

There is a major caveat. The educators who are brought in to the design and planning process need to be those with open minds and creativity, ready to bring the best of new innovative educational thinking to the table and with a desire to create learning spaces that are flexible and effective to be used for today’s classroom practices and learning approaches.

Needs from today’s learning spaces vary according to the age of pupils. However, I believe that bigger spaces with scope and flexibility to be divided in to smaller areas make most sense across all age ranges. Large open areas allow for dramatic engagement, activities that combine physical movement with learning, project based learning, role play etc.

There is also a need to acknowledge that the introverts among our students need ‘quiet time’ and small spaces where they can work with minimal noise and disturbance. These kinds of spaces are also invaluable for those children working to overcome challenges of distraction.

Promoters worry that such ideas would see far less students in larger spaces, undermining the financial efficacy of the schools. However, I believe that when schools break out from the traditional preconceptions, then we may see far more effective space utilisation. Currently, an enormous amount of built up area in schools is dedicated to corridors (often as much as 20%). This is necessary because of the way time is regimented so that either everyone is in rooms or everyone is out of rooms.

Next, especially in Secondary Schools there are lots of ‘single use’ spaces that spend large parts of the day out of use. In turn, when students vacate a classroom to go to a lab, a PE hall or some other outside activity, those classrooms are empty, wasted space. I have another longer blog post that’s half written right now that explores some even more radical ideas about how we might rethink the academic year. While I believe this carries many benefits, potentially one of the biggest would be to make far more effective use of expensive real estate and infrastructure.
(Watch out for that one coming soon.)

We won’t really be able to claim that we’re serious about modernising education until we reach a situation where most new schools and school buildings include innovative space use, allocation and design. It’s time to say farewell for good to the block shaped buildings with big corridors and rows of identical doors leading to identikit rooms. We must banish the rows of desks, the bells that mark out identical metered blocks of time where all the learners do prescribed things in rigid orders.

With this in mind, i applaud all those around the world who have the courage to do innovative things in school design. I share here a TED talk from about 4 years ago in which a really very modest and imaginative architect shares the thinking that lead to an amazing kindergarten in Japan. Worth watching for the spirit of ‘what’s possible’ and the responsiveness to the needs of learners as humans of a particular age.


Not Such a Baby Any More

First Day of School

Below is a post I wrote a few years ago on which i received lots of really nice feedback personally from anxious Mums and Dads whose children were about to start school for the very first time.  There were also a couple of teachers who told me it helped to remind themselves of what parents are going through as they receive the new children joining school.

The start of the academic year comes at slightly different times on the calendar around the world. In India it already happened a few months ago (The original post was written in April). However, in most international schools and those that follow a western calendar the new academic year will start very soon.

Please enjoy the article.


The day is fast approaching. Many parents will have lost track of how soon will be the day when their ‘little baby’ gets dressed up in their first school uniform, turns and waves as they head off to start school. It’s one of those momentous landmarks in the child’s growth and development and comes with many emotions for both parent and child.
For the child, nobody can predict how they will react. Some take this event naturally and calmly in their stride whilst some others may struggle in the early stages. Some are excited by the novelty for a couple of days, but then their reaction changes when they discover this isn’t a novel interlude but a new way of life with some limits on choice and freedom.
Let’s be honest – it’s not just all the issues about whether starting school is going to be stressful for the child – there are implications for the whole family. Many mothers, particularly, choose to stay at home until it’s time for the child to go to school. The arrival of that milestone means major upheaval and change for everyone. For a mother who has stayed home to be with her child it’s going to mean a return to work. For the whole household it’s going to entail new routines and attempts to establish new habits.
And those are just the practical issues – there are all the emotional issues as well attached to what this moment signifies – the beginning of an independent, non-dependent existence for the child and the beginning of a diminishing sense of being needed or essential for the parent.
So, those are the challenges and the reasons why this can be a difficult time. However, there’s another way to look at it. It can be seen from the perspective of wonderful opportunities; new friends, new learning, new experiences, passing through a gateway to an exciting future on the road towards growing up.
Different children react in different ways – they are truly all unique. Some are emotional and upset for a day or two, but then find their feet in the new environment quickly, find interesting things and people and start to enjoy the experience. Some others take a bit longer whilst others may be fine to start, but then start to get emotional when they learn that the first novelty wears off (but you still have to go!) and that school comes with a whole set of rules, codes and obligations which are non-negotiable. At such times it can be good to remind ourselves – “This too shall pass”.
So, what are some useful things that we can do to smooth this process and help our child have a positive and enriching start to school life?
• Make sure the child’s comfortable with the place, physically. Take the opportunity for a tour of the school if it’s available. It can even be a good idea to drive past the school a few times, pointing it out and anticipating that it’s ‘your school’. Driving the bus route can also help to make that familiar for the child.

• We may have good or bad memories ourselves when it comes to our experiences as a child going to school. Whatever the memories, it can be important for your child to emphasise the positive aspects and to avoid talking about negative memories around the child. Focus on things like making friends, building friendships, caring and nurturing teachers, the joy of learning (on this point, it’s good if your child comes to realise that learning is still a fundamental and natural part of your life today).

• If there are older siblings and other relatives who play a prominent role in the child’s life they can also be enlisted to support with their ‘good news’ positive stories about school and learning (or at least to keep their negative feelings to themselves for a while),

• Don’t make assumptions about how much your child understands the principles of why they go to school. Instead, use gentle questioning to explore their feelings, their emotions and their understanding of what’s happening. The more they talk and express the better equipped we can be as adults to respond appropriately.

• As the child opens up they may well reveal anxieties and apprehension. Far better than dismissing these fears, it’s good to let the child know that it’s OK and understandable to have those feelings and how we deal with similar types of feelings in our own lives.

• When sorting out admission there are lots of issues for parents, choosing the school you want, securing the admission (just ask parents of young children in Delhi this year!!), then all the administrative issues, fee payments, books, stationery, uniforms. It’s understandable if you get a little frazzled at times. However, it’s a good idea to just limit how much frustration you express about your child’s new school in front of them – you don’t want them starting with negative feelings.

• Routines are a vitally important way of reducing stress and anxiety in a busy day. Don’t wait until term starts to begin the school routines. Adjust bed times, getting up times, breakfast routines etc. some days before the school starts, so that the child makes those adjustments easily. Getting adequate sleep is critically important to the learning process.

In addition, a child who has had insufficient sleep will tend to be more emotional, sensitive and worrying. School starts early and children who take buses to school start even earlier. So, we need to plan for this before the term starts. Make sure as much as possible is done the night before; tiffin, water bottle, uniform, bag etc. so that things can be calm and orderly in the morning. Right from an early stage, involve the child in this process as your helper – in time you can begin to give them their own responsibilities.

• Many schools serve food as part of taking a holistic approach to child development and as part of bringing the children together to learn, bond and grow together. It’s not going to do your child any favours if they have extremely narrow or picky food habits, or worse a heavy inclination towards sweet and salty snacks etc.. Start the process of being ‘unfussy’ within the context of a healthy diet as early as possible so that the child can adapt easily to the diet in school.

• Let your child know that you and their teachers are now going to be in a positive partnership for their good.

• The first days of separation are going to feel hard for parents, especially mothers. Find some things to ‘get busy’ with during those hours. However, plan to make sure you are where you’re supposed to be (school gate, reception, bus stop) well before time so that there can’t be any hiccups that cause the child stress.

• At the end of a school day your knowledge of your child will stand you in good stead. Some will be an instant chatter box, wanting to tell you every little detail of what they did, who else did what, said what …. etc. Others will want and need some quiet processing time before they are ready to open up and share their feelings about the day. Go with what’s right for your child. It’s important at times like this, though, that we make sure we give our child real quality time and quality listening. They shouldn’t feel they have to compete with our mobile phone!

As already said, starting school has the potential to be a wonderful and memorable time in the life of the child and the family. With a bit of careful thought and attention we can increase the likelihood.

Happy school life and great learning wishes for all the children starting school for the first time this year!!

Free Education Webinars


Here’s a quick one as we head in to the weekend – a list of free online webinars for teachers and education leaders that you can sign up for:

EdWeb Professional learning Network – Free Webinars

(If you click on the link above it will open in a new tab or browser page. Then, scroll through the list of around 13-14 webinars. Click on any that interest you. They’ll ask you to fill in some brief details and you’ll receive your invitation to the webinar. I believe there’s no limit to how many you can attend)

As they’re US based, the time difference can be a bit daunting to attend such webinars live. However, most companies will advise at the time you book if there is going to be a recording available afterwards.

Rethinking Teaching

Mr Johnson is my newest classroom hero. I came across information about this award winning US teacher a few weeks ago and the more i learn about him and the way he has transformed his classroom the greater my respect for him.

Nothing suggests that this teacher is provided with a great deal more resources than any other teacher. But, the creative use of Project Based learning (PBL) and so much more of what he does is clearly inspirational, highly motivating for his students and it’s no surprise that his feats have been recognised already. I’m sure he’s destined to get a lot more recognition, but i hope also that other teachers will look to his inspiration.

Here’s a video in which he talks a bit about his motivations. What’s striking is that he is one of those whose motivation has come from a shockingly bad schooling experience and a desire and passion for something better for the children coming later.:

The classroom is called ‘Johnsonville’ and the teacher the self-styled Mayor. Students are citizens within this environment. They earn, contribute and have the scope to personalise their environment.

To support the Johnsonville environment there’s a Youtube channel, a WordPress blog site and clearly this high school drop out turned passionate educator goes out of his way to share what he’s doing openly, to inspire and encourage other educators to step out of their comfort zones, to create education spaces focused on the learners and to create environments where every learner can succeed in their own way:

Johnsonville – WordPress Information Hub

Stem Empathy Article – Bluejean

Getting Beyond HR Cliches

Job interview

As I was growing up, in order to earn money to fund studies and other needs I had many different J-O-B-S. However, they were all pretty menial, some very menial. While they may have given me many very valuable lessons for life they gave very little insight in to companies and big organisations. After I graduated I landed a job with the division of a major high street bank that serviced the financial planning needs of its wealthier customers (clients). This was really the first time that I started to have personal insight in to what went on in big organisations. Along the way, I started to realise that I had a lot of assumptions and beliefs – some of which turned out to be right and some very wrong.

I was aware that lots of companies and organisations made big issues of the importance of their people. Most declared to the world that their people were critical. So, I expected that the HR department of a company would be at the very core of organisations. I was in for a shock.

There are some interesting clues. While CEOs, COOs, CFOs and even occasionally marketing heads sit on the boards of companies, the Head of HR very rarely does so. Partly leading from that, it’s incredibly rare to see Heads of HR rise to hold the CEO position. Ironically, some of this is wrapped up in the complex gender issues that see a higher proportion of senior officers in companies holding the HR role. Somehow, in the hard-nosed world of Corporates it’s considered that the HR role is a good role for women, to address all those touchy-feely issues that can actually be irritants to those single mindedly focused on shareholder value and the pursuit of profits.

On e other thing that was memorable, was the way that the overall HR responsibility was split between two separate operations – HR and Personnel Departments. The latter dealt with all the administration of people; time keeping records, holidays, pensions, taxation, salaries. These are tasks that if a company does them right employees will never sing the organisation’s praises, but get them wrong and employee morale can quickly be undermined. This was really an Admin department related to people and arguably not an area of high creativity or flair. Focus is often on doing these things at the lowest possible cost, with the maximum efficiency.

The other department, on the other hand, was different, but still somehow secondary to those seen as more directly impacting the bottom line.  This dealt with manpower planning for the shorter and longer term, recruitment, training and professional development. I believe sidelining these functions and responsibilities, because their outcomes are less immediate is a mistake for most organisations.

For example, I’ve seen too many school situations where leadership treated recruitment as an irritant to be completed as swiftly as possible, so as to get back to the day to day running of the school. Insufficient thought is given to creative sourcing of potential candidates, thought out means of sifting those candidates who do apply and interviews are short and cursory.  If an individual has the qualifications on paper the interview is often more a case of the individual not losing the job offer than gaining one. Little regard is paid to their fit with the existing team, contribution, longer term goals and ambitions etc.

What goes on was summed up very well in a quote i came across from a UK company HR Head, “We hire people because of their knowledge and professional experience, but we fire them because of their behaviour.” Arguably, in many schools it’s worse – we hire them simply because they have they represent the least bad fit with regard to having the academic certificates required for the role. Now, I know here many school Heads will cry foul and say they have no choice because parents want to ‘see a body on the job’. However, have they ever, really, engaged in the open dialogue with their parent communities about the longer term implications of this? In my experience, within reason, you can ask parents to back you to take time to find the right candidate for the school, rather than jumping at the first qualified teacher.

For those who think this is a ‘waste of time’, they should just tot up the man hours and the untold cost of angst, bad will with other staff, parents and students when the wrong people are recruited. For any organisation to fulfil its vision with full energy and in a timely manner i believe it’s critical to have the right people on the bus. You can never make recruitment an exact science, but everything you can do in the short term to limit turnover or effects of bad recruitment in the longer term will have a massive impact.

I also believe that in any environment where employees believe they have choices it’s vital that there is an effective HR representation to work in collaboration with line managers to ensure that employees are appropriately motivated – both to deliver their best work, and to want to stay and not get tempted away by competitors.  There’s a need to understand the drivers and motivators for employees, to be clear about how reward packages match up to alternatives (inside and outside the profession) and that employees are getting the recognition, development opportunities, affiliation scope and rewards that make them feel motivated. Today, many workplaces involve different genders and broad age ranges of employees and line managers need specialised input on how to meet the differing needs of different stakeholder groups.

I was reminded of all these factors and more recently when reading a discussion forum on the ’12 Manage’ website. For those not familiar, this is an online resource that is well worth taking some time to explore. The link below is to the specific discussion forum on the myths and realities of modern HR. Users following the link may need to fill in some brief details to subscribe, but it’s free.

After seeing this interesting forum discussion you can explore the other resources and will find that it’s very extensive, with materials on almost every con ceivable topic on management and leadership.

12 Manage Forum – Old Myths About HR

Many of the users also provide external links to more in-depth material on the topics under discussion. However, within the website there’s an enormous amount of material and information available, as well as the forums where experts share their viewpoints in open discussion. What can make these especially interesting are the differing viewpoints and perspectives from around the world.

To conclude, I believe HR has to assume a far greater significance within organisations. That it hasn’t always is something HR people need to introspect on because they, more than anyone else, know the potential impact  – for good or bad – when HR practices and approaches serve the business needs.

Coaching Insights

I’ve now followed Bluepoint Leadership Development for a few years, particularly valuing the fact that they back up the consultancy work they do with some great, high quality free resources. They produce some excellent webinars.

Here, I’ve shared the first webinar in a series of 4 on coaching. Interestingly, these days, most online coaching resources relate to how people earn money as external coaches, working with individuals. Bluepoint focus more on internal coaching within organisations.

The second of the videos in the series is already available and I believe videos 3 and 4 will come available over the next couple of weeks. The videos are available both through Bluepoint’s own website or their Youtube channel.

For those who find real value in the materials, there are more on the company’s own website;

Bluepoint Leadership Development Website

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