Rex Karmaveer Education Change Champions – Reflections

A couple of weeks ago it was such a pleasure to see the Rex Karmaveer Education Change Champions event come together after long discussion and lots of work behind the scenes by the Rex Karmaveer team, especially by Eitu Vij Chopra.

Now that a couple of weeks have elapsed, I wanted to capture my thoughts and reflections from the conference and awards ceremony.

1. My Mojo
I never really had any doubts, but being part of the discussions and interactions over this day reinforced in my mind that my enthusiasm and drive to bring about significant change in education is every bit as strong as it ever was.
I’m brimming with ideas and, if anything, my biggest challenge I have to deal with now is I can’t be all things to all people at the same time and have to pick and choose the projects that i’m going to take forward. One of my biggest criteria will be the level of potential impact from those actions.

2. I’m a Bit Rusty
Years ago I really wasn’t very good at speaking or engaging with audiences. But, I wanted to be and was determined to get good. So, I grabbed every opportunity I could, including engaging in debating competitions all the way up to winning at national level in UK.
However, as i prepared for my keynote session on the morning of this one day event, I recalled that I had basically only spoken in front of one audience in the previous 18 months or so. This made me way more apprehensive than I would normally have been for such an occasion.
And, I realised the next day, that affected my preparation – I over-prepared and tried to be too rigid over the content, my notes etc.
And it showed. I was not as fluid as i would want to be – plain and simple I was rusty. Just like riding the proverbial bike, you don’t forget how to do these things, but it takes time and some practice to get back up to speed and return to past performance levels (so as to then work to go beyond those past levels).
So, the task at hand is to find every opportunity I can to engage with audiences, big or small (already grabbed one opportunity last week, that benefited from being a short impromptu involvement). I will get back up to speed asap.

3. Great Work Going On
The seventy five or so schools that were represented at the event were curated and hand-picked as the founding group. And, I have to say, very well curated – these were people and schools that were worthy of recognition. In future years schools will be challenged to prove that they merit lining up alongside these schools. They represented the whole spectrum of K-12 education in India, from across the whole country and the whole spectrum from elite private schools to government aided schools working at grass roots levels in rural and deprived inner city areas.
What was clear was that there is a lot of great, innovative work happening where schools are giving their pupils the opportunity to give back, to contribute to their communities and to the wider society.  Lots of children are getting the benefits that come in life from being a go-giver, recognising that they gain when they contribute to making the lives of others better.

4. Choices
One of my pleas on the day to all the schools concerned was to widen the choices available to students. Too often I see situations where a single school project for community action is agreed upon and then all in the school are asked to engage in it. This is a problem and challenge for students whose own drives and energy don’t align with the chosen project.
There are almost infinite possibilities for what can be done and if there is enough choice available that means something to ignite the passion in every pupil. For those schools that are smaller or lack resources, then collaboration has to be the way forward to increase the variety of giving opportunities for pupils. That can be collaboration with other schools or colleges or even collaboration with local companies and their CSR engagement activities.

5. Fear of Bold Change
¬†¬†Educators remain largely fearful of making bold changes. In India, particularly, the last 12-15 years have seen appreciable changes in approaches to primary education. Classrooms look different, the pedagogy has changed and the atmosphere is very different. However, there’s an incongruence that stands out where educators seek to convince parents and other observers that they believe in progressive child-centred, whole child educational methodologies, but then flip the switch when children move from primary to secondary school – where the same old teacher-centric, rote based, content driving methods are still used to drill pupils for exam success.
At that point, anything else becomes peripheral and bolted on usually as extra-curricular activities. The reality is that in secondary schools where students are getting opportunities to develop what are colloquially known as soft skills (or Industry 4.0 skills) is not in their standard core classes, but in the extra curricular bolted-on parts of the school programme.
Then, as educators we wonder why we’re not always taken seriously as a profession.

6. Courage of Convictions
¬† When a speaker made the point that schools should have potential at the core, not performance, there were audible responses from across the audience regarding expectations of parents and other stakeholders when it comes to the focus on exam success and how it’s meant to be achieved.
However, if this is the case, I would ask those educators to reflect on how they currently select their schools’ sports teams? Are those selected on performance or potential basis? Would they have the courage of their convictions to choose their sports teams on the basis of grit, drive, passion and enthusiasm rather than outright talent and performance, even if that meant less trophies in their cabinet?
I don’t have the right, or the temerity,¬† to walk in to my doctor’s surgery and state – I have this condition, so please write me a prescription for medicine X immediately. Instead, respecting that the doctor is the professional expert in his/ her field I tell them of my symptoms, answer their questions about the nature of my malady and then receive their diagnosis, followed by their prescription for what can solve my issue. That is because i look at them as a professional.
However, as educators, we want to be seen as professionals, and yet see no inconsistency when we pander to the ‘patient’ telling us what the treatment is going to be for their condition. If educators are to be seen as the experts in the room, as the professionals, then we must be willing to learn, develop our professional beliefs (and evolve them over time as new knowledge becomes available) , understand the needs and prescribe accordingly.
One very important factor in this is that our professional views must come from a place of competence, congruence and consistency. That includes educators within an institute having invested enough time to build common views as to what they believe and what they practice. If leadership and teachers are singing different tunes we shouldn’t be surprised when parents and pupils doubt their credibility. If we’ve researched and understood where we want to go, worked on common language to describe the journey and articulate is consistently and clearly, we can bring change and educate parents to want what they need for their children.

In conclusion, a great day, a lot of excellent interactions, met up with some old friends after a long time and made some new friends. Those most committed and with the courage  to commit to excellence and innovation in education need to find each other and have these opportunities to mix, exchange ideas and renew their enthusiasm for the challenges.

Criticism

Jeff Bezos

“If you absolutely can’t tolerate critics, then don’t do anything new or interesting.”

Jeff Bezos, Founder of Amazon
(Who knows plenty about both being criticized and doing new and interesting things)

New Beginnings

Disruptive education roundtable

As much as we may want to believe that we can plan and map out our lives and that things like goal setting put us in control of our own destiny, fate can often have other plans for us. personally, i don’t believe that means we should stop making plans, having a future focus or taking actions towards our determined purpose. I think the more we do that, the greater our ability to refocus, adapt and strike out on a new path when fate does intervene.

The personal events in my life in early 2018 impacted every aspect of my life in every way possible. Professionally, it meant a period away from work. International Schools Partnership (ISP) had only just completed the acquisition of Tenby Schools around 6 weeks before and we should have been fully immersed in integration at that time. When it was time for me to re-engage I had undertaken a new role for ISP focusing on business development.¬† This wasn’t necessarily a route i would have automatically pursued, but actually gave me a lot of interesting learning which will be invaluable in the future. However, it wasn’t necessarily a career route that i would naturally have chosen. However, one thing it did give me was space and time, along with the inputs and guidance of a London based outplacement consultant to really get some clarity of thought on what i want to do. I hope that I still have 15-20 years to contribute professionally to the world!

What has been clear to me throughout the process has been that i remain as passionate, committed and dedicated as I ever was to bringing about change and reform in education that more closely aligns the learning experiences of young people with their needs to flourish, excel and fulfil their potential in a world that changes ever more rapidly. In order for that to happen for young people requires that schools become better places to work where the creative talents of teachers can be honed and released. This, in turn requires major upgrade in the support and development for those who take up leadership roles and positions in education.

I’ve concluded that i cannot make the impact I want or challenge entrenched orthodoxy as much as i might wish whilst employed by any single school or schooling organisation. So, whilst still potentially open to business development opportunities for ISP, I am setting out on the road less traveled as an independent education consultant, coach, trainer, writer and with the freedom to take up projects alone or in collaboration with others that excite me and where i believe real impact can be achieved.

I cannot thank enough ISP, my former colleagues and team at Tenby (especially the Principals and the Central Office team) and particularly Charles Robinson, ISP Group Business Development Director for their support and help in what were, at times, challenging and dark months.

Reinventing yourself professionally is an amazing experience. One part fear, one part excitement it challenged me to question so much about myself. There are those who say it’s wrong for people to define and identify themselves so greatly with who they are professionally. However, it’s something i always knew and accepted about myself – I am what i do and I will always assess myself on the basis of the extent to which i believe I’m making a difference in education.

In the last few weeks I’ve attended events that reinforced imy beliefs that this is right for me now. One of them I’ll be writing about in a separate post. Yesterday, I attended a Roundtable meeting in Kuala Lumpur entitled “Disruptive Education.” 50 or so people from all sorts of areas associated with education, both public and private sector. A few present wanted to challenge the use of the word “disruptive” as being overly negative. It’s understandable that many will want to believe that all we need to do is a bit of evolutionary change, incremental tweaking around the edges. However, I’m even more convinced than ever that we need significant change and we have to rapidly increase the pace at which we bring those changes.

I’ve decided to keep my base in Kuala Lumpur. Over three years here I’ve come to love the place and the people. It’s also got all the strategic accessibility of Singapore with a fraction of the cost of living! I did consider a move back to India, but sad to tell all my Indian friends that with the history of my lungs a permanent move there just would never have worked. The air quality was bad when I left 6 years ago, but it’s way worse now. However, from here I believe I can work across a large swathe of Asia, and that will undoubtedly include India.

In terms of exactly what I’ll be offering, that will emerge over the next few weeks and I will be writing more with some of my plans. However, in the meantime, I am very much available to anyone who wants to reach out for discussions. There are already some interesting and very exciting ideas under discussion. I know life won’t be getting boring any time soon.

For anyone who does want to reach out to me to discuss projects or ideas, please, for now, do so on my personal email address: markp.india@gmail.com

 

RIP Tony Buzan

This isn’t the next blog post I expected (or wanted) to be writing. However, one of my personal heroes has passed away and I wanted to take a little time to share my recollections of this formidable man. I understand that Tony was still actively working. He had moved in to a new home from where he hoped and intended to produce lots of new creative work. Regrettably, that was not to be. A massive heart attack and a fall resulted in complications from which he was never to recover. He passed away on 13th April.

tony_books

I graduated from college at the age of 22 with a degree in law. I had been schooled in vast amounts of information and material, memorized enough of it, spewed it back in exams and been granted passes. However, it had left me cold about the whole process of learning and with rather mixed feelings on the potential of my own mind/ brain.

Then, in my mid twenties I was introduced to a few important books. These included “Accelerated Learning” by Colin Rose and a couple of the books written by Tony Buzan for the BBC. I was blown away. Suddenly, here were people sharing information with me about how my mind worked, how to make the learning and creativity processes more effective. Whilst I was excited, I was also more than a bit angry. This material had all been in the public domain for over 10 years. It was all as available to every teacher who ever taught me as it was to me. So, why had they denied me this critical learning about how to use my mind most effectively and how to maximise my potential as a learner? I felt like i’d been cheated, but had now opened Pandora’s box and there was no looking back.

That took me on a journey that was all essentially about learning, whether it was becoming a trainer in British Junior Chamber, training to teach English with CELTA, being a University visiting faculty, and then over time towards leading, setting up, turning around and overall trying to change and improve schools as places where others would be as inspired and excited by learning as I am.

So, in many ways, i owe so much to Mr Tony Buzan and it is with some little sadness today that I think I shall never get the opportunity to meet the man. There was a time, around 9-10 years ago when he was due to come to India and it was likely that I was going to get the chance to meet him. however, he got ill and had to cancel the trip, so the opportunity was lost.

I believe he was ultimately responsible for writing (or co-writing) over 80 books. I believe one of the reasons he was able to be so prolific was because of the learning, creation and ideation methodologies that he had developed.

Mind Map

Of all Tony’s work, to me, the stand out will always be mindmapping. However, whilst I saw and experienced the benefits so much, it was often frustrating to say when others treated it as though it was something a bit ‘weird’, a bit out there. I still use it for every speech or presentation, every major piece of writing (including most of the posts on this blog), any times when i need to unleash my creative juices or to formulate ideas. I’ve used them collectively in groups as well as on my own.

I remember an occasion when some teachers did extensive work with students of Classes 6 and 7 to familiarise them with the techniques and benefits of mindmapping. Responses to a short immediate survey were that students found it exciting, interesting and intended to make it a natural and regular part of their study and learning approaches.

However, we then went back to do a further survey with those same students after about 6 months and found that less than 10% were still using mindmapping at all, and even some of them only sporadically. What was most disheartening was that the most significant reasons why students had stopped were associated with the fact that others weren’t doing it. Children were uncomfortable to do it if everyone else wasn’t doing it, or it wasn’t being imposed. There was a “people like us don’t do stuff like that” inertia that meant the students had largely dropped this very promising set of techniques. Worse, what were they doing instead? Spending hours using highlight markers to mark out significant sentences in textbooks – a method scientifically proven to be a very poor and inefficient way to learn. However, people like us do that, so we blindly do it.

I’m not sure whether Tony or his companies around the world conducted research on the stick-ability of their methods and techniques. I suppose it wasn’t really in their interest to do so if the results might have been weak. However, I personally would love to see more work in this area.

At this time as Tony has passed away, my thoughts are with his family, friends and all his colleagues across the world who have lost a leader and inspiring teacher. I hope that the best legacy for Tony Buzan and his work will be a renewed interest and enthusiasm for his ideas and their application to bring about better learning and greater creativity. People will readily jump in with phrases like ‘being a lifelong learner’. We haven’t yet done nearly enough work around what this means and how, most effectively, people should learn most effectively throughout their lives and how to harness that learning creatively. There is much work to be done.

Tidying the Toys in the Sandpit

sandpit

It’s very rare that you can bring together a room full of educators to talk about where we should be going in education without pretty universal agreement that the status quo is not acceptable. All will agree – things must change! In such circumstances you then really have to wonder why so little really does change.

When there is change, I would argue that almost all of it really amounts to little more than twiddling at the edges. Somehow, despite the voiced acknowledgement of the need for significant changes, we just really haven’t changed anything very much. I find this the equivalent of lining up the toys in the sandpit. It’s still the same sandpit and the same toys and it can only be a matter of moments before those toys are thrown all over the sandpit just like before, with no evidence remaining of how tidy they were.

99% of change and reform in schools and in education is pretty much the same.¬† Incrementalism is the norm. So, a teacher or group of teachers take a process or a policy. Debate it to death. Tweak it a bit and then move on to the next thing. If enough of these little tweaks happen in a school, then the school gets tagged with the label ‘progressive.’ To some, that’s praise – to some, an insult implying that they just leave well alone.

Often these initiatives are so fragile and minimal that a change of personnel and the phrase, “this is how we used to do it,” can be enough to make them disappear leaving no evidence – just like the toys in the sandpit. The response from parents and students is often a rolling of the eyes and phrases like, “I wish they’d make up their minds what they’re doing.”

Attempts to reform, bring real change or to get people to look at education in different ways also come up against big challenges. I have noticed an invidious process whereby something new gets attacked with the challenge, “prove it works.” This leads to paralysis by data and supposed research. One striking recent example is in relation to Grit. This was a concept expounded on particularly by Angela Duckworth and expanded in her book:

Angela Duckworth – Grit

I found this book very thought provoking and intuitively felt that the ideas in it were valuable and had a real place in education. However, subsequently, since that book was published there seem to have been a whole bunch of ‘experts’ who have been hell-bent on refuting the key points behind the ideas. Their tools are to “teach” the principles of Grit to children and then “Test” to see what impact that has on students’ achievements. To me, this is just awful science, little to do with education and also deliberately distorts the intentions behind the original ideas. For example, if Grit gets built in to the values and principles in a school and that results in a pupil sticking through tough times in a job or a marriage 25 years later¬† – how can you have tested for that? How do you put a value on that? Also, what exactly are you testing for? Whether children produce higher/ better academic outcomes because this particular material was taught? I’m really not sure that was ever the idea.

Something is not only valid because you can do it, then test for it and prove some outcome in the traditional tests that have always been a part of the academic system. I would really want to see a far more optimistic, open and positive attitude towards change and new ideas.

In these circumstances, it’s easy to see how all real change can get closed down by narrow blinkered testing for ‘proof of impact.’ Then, that tempts people to focus only on the little incremental changes, the little tweaks.

I want to see us being far more bold, challenging and questioning big issues. In the coming weeks i have a whole bunch of these where I want to raise the questions. I don’t claim to have all the answers, but hope that I can stimulate debates and discussions that will shift the needle. I would also love to hear from readers with your ideas for the big things in education and schooling that we can and should challenge or question. Let’s bring forward the debates on these issues.

 

Backing Winners or Solving Problems?

problem-300x200

Few types of ‘managers/ leaders’¬† pride themselves more on their skills at solving problems than school administrators. Many school Heads revel in the image of themselves as the calm vortex in the middle of a chaotic storm. For them, the more manically busy the school day, the more they believe they are proving their worth as leaders. They take great satisfaction and achieve much of their status from their zen-like unruffled calm as they solve problems left, right and centre.

Whilst i don’t want to burst anyone’s bubble, I think this is a mistake and there is a better way of leading schools that can give them the scope to be better institutions delivering a better education for all pupils.

My starting point is an experience that has stuck with me for many years, that I’ve seen mirrored subsequently in the literature for personal development, happiness and, I believe, applies to organisations as well. The experience was when I was in my late 20’s and working for a Private Bank in the UK – providing a wide range of financial services to the richest clients of our bank. I had been managing an office for around 18 months and its performance was going really well; outperforming on sales and revenue targets, customer retention and all other measures. However, our Region was marginally under performing against targets. I had a regular monthly meeting with the Regional Sales Head.

We had a good rapport and the meeting that day took the form of a wide ranging brainstorming session. In the late afternoon we were batting around ideas¬† in a ‘reject nothing’ environment. At a particular point, I commented that most of our discussion related to problems – the offices with the biggest sales target deficits, the sales staff who weren’t achieving up to expectations etc.¬† We agreed to talk about what it might look like if we reversed and deliberately took control of Pareto’s Principal.

What would it look like if we spent 80% of our time and energy on the 20% who were achieving at the highest levels?

The Pareto Principle is better known as the 80:20 Rule. It states that 20% of a company’s customers contribute 80% of the profits, 20% give 80% of the problems and can be applied in many other ways. The important thing is to reccognise the principle, not to get hung up on the exact numbers. It had been set out in a book by Richard Koch around the time of our discussion. I still have my original first edition copy of the book

We were both excited by the idea and formulated some thoughts about what our days and actions might look like if we deliberately and consciously focused our energies on our 20% best customers and particularly in the sales team, the 20% of sales staff who were performing best.

There were a few months left in the financial year. During that time we did more on-the-job observations with our best staff, arranged an advanced sales skills course aimed at the best performing sales staff. One of the tougher parts was that we both set about being somewhat elusive for the ‘problem’ staff. Either we weren’t available, or we arranged pre-planned short ‘touch base meetings in which discussion would deliberately get cut short if they started talking about problems. When they did, the key was to always ensure that they left the table still owning their own problem.

Personally, the first effect I experienced was a lightening and enjoying my work more. I felt less weighed down by negativity. Across the Region, the responses were very positive. One very strong, high performing sales person turned down a job offer to go elsewhere (he was on the verge of agreeing to go). Three sales people who had been consistently weak over a number of years resigned and informed they wished to leave the company over a period of 6 months. This created the opportunity to promote and take on some new employees. The sales performance of the Region rose. Stronger performers became more ready to come forward and support less experienced (but positive) colleagues.

So, my question here is, applying the same principles, what would a similar Pareto approach in a school look like? Firstly, I think Principals would need to stop saying, “my door is always open,” to all. More selectivity is vital to ensure that 80% of time is available to go towards those who are positive, achieving and applying positive mindsets. Now, I can immediately hear the cries of callousness, of giving up on some people without giving them a chance to improve etc. However, I’m not advocating that school leaders ignore the under achievers, whiners and overly negative, but simply reduce the amount of time they spend with them to having them acknowledge their own ownership for the issues, commit to a timetable to deal with them and occasionally to follow up to see that they have done so.

The reality is that even if leaders could free up 10% of their time in a school day to spend with high achievers, coaching and supporting them to raise their game still further, three things in particular would happen;

a) Those high achievers with strong growth mindset would be enabled to achieve still more, have higher levels of motivation knowing that they are appreciated and valued (not ignored and left to fend for themselves because they’re not problems),

b) The leader would find they have more energy and drive.¬† Invariably, the kinds of people we are talking about here, the ‘problem’ people are energy takers or drainers. They stride in to the leader’s office with; “There’s a problem I think you need to know about,” They leave after some time task free and the leader just inherited yet another task to add to their already overloaded schedule.

c) There would actually be less problems. The culture of the organisation would be way more empowered. What the leader would be much more likely to hear about is situations that had arisen, been dealt with and were no longer of concern. It’s not a compliment to the leader if everything has to rise to the top for a decision. In a culture where attention is given to those who solve problems, that becomes the default expectation.

One final thought – if you were to ask most leaders they could probably list out their staff members who sap their energy (and that of their colleagues) and those who underperform, are overly negative in their mindsets and who sap time. What they may not have stopped to consider is how much they could do with the time freed up if they stopped pandering to these people’s toxicity. Also, many will argue that they have to tolerate these individuals in their teams because they are good subject experts or bring some skills which would be hard to replace. However, i believe this is mistaken and that it fails to take full account of the overall harm that toxicity and negativity brings.

As leaders, we steer our organisations in the direction where we place the majority of our attention. If we focus on problems, even successfully solved problems, that’s what we’ll have. Instead, I’m arguing for a stronger focus on positive, self-directed teams and individuals who accept accountability, take ownership and responsibility and move the organisation forward.

Footnote! I’m not advocating here that we apply 80:20 to pupils or to ‘customers’ (parents). This is where schools are not like conventional businesses, who might pick and choose the customers they want to give most attention on the basis of profitability etc.¬† That would be unethical. In fact, on that issue I believe that schools tend to err towards paying too much attention to students who lie at both ends of the bell curve, often leaving those in the middle not getting as much support to fulfil their potential. But that’s for another article, another day.

 

Teacher Classroom Language

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In my experience, the vast majority of teachers want to be the very best they can be in their roles and to reach every student to the best of their ability. In my experience, as a result, teachers spend lots of time exploring their subject and ideas on the best teaching methodologies in relation to the content of that subject. They pay lots of attention to classroom management, maybe also to child psychology, how to motivate students, effects of discipline methods and pedagogy.

But, in my experience, not much time or attention goes in to aspects related to the teacher as a communicator. To my mind this is a major shortcoming when we consider that teaching is so dependent upon communication, consciously or unconsciously. Sometimes there is attention paid to the language of the subject, to aspects of correctness of use of the language that is the medium of instruction (e.g. English, especially when not the mother tongue of the teachers or students). However, not much professional development training goes in to aspects of body language, use of semiotics (use of signs and symbols), use of voice or how language is used.

In NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming) there is a well known pre supposition that states – “You cannot not communicate.” In other words, we’re all communicating, all the time. Even not communicating communicates. We’ve all seen that a teacher can often get a much quicker response from an unruly, noisy or excitable class of pupils by standing silently with a particular facial expression than by shouting, remonstrating, cajoling or even threatening.

Teachers want to impact students when they communicate with them. I remember years ago (I think the first time was when undergoing sales training) learning that when we communicate our impact is made up of:

  • 55% what we do with our body, physically (including the face)
  • 38% what we do with our voice (tone, speed, volume, timbre etc)
  • 7% the words we use

Seeing these figures it would be easy to make the mistake of thinking that as a result words don’t really matter very much. They’re not very significant. However, I believe this is a very grave mistake, especially when we take in to account that whilst using the right words we also have the opportunity to use our voice in the most effective ways for a combined 45% of the total impact.

So, for many teachers there’s an area here where they can bring about significant and valuable improvements, if they pay attention. However, one of the biggest challenges with language and communication is that most of what we do and say is automatic and unconscious. In order to question and challenge our own communication we have to bring it in to conscious awareness. This isn’t always a comfortable process, but i believe the benefits make it worthwhile.

The ASCD (the biggest US organisation for teacher and educator professional development) holds periodic webinars. Some of these are exclusively for members. However, today I want to share information on an excellent webinar that is free for all to see – you don’t need to be a member to log in to watch the replay of this one.

Mike Anderson is a US elementary teacher who has published a few books. I read his earlier book, “Learning to Choose, Choosing to Learn” which was very good. This webinar was to introduce the core ideas behind his latest book, “What we say and how we say it matter: teacher talk that improves student learning and behavior.”

In the webinar he shares masses of really good material and I’m sure teachers will benefit from giving this a little time. To watch the replay of the webinar, click on the link below. When the page opens, click where it says “Watch now”.

ASCD – Professional Development – What We Say – Webinar

Enjoy, and please share your feedback and thoughts on the content here.

 

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