EI – Superheroes

As Ahmedabad based Educational Initiatives set out to create a series of videos with insights in to the thoughts of some of India’s most important educators I can’t think of a better start than an interview between two of my favourite educators (and people) in India, educators I respect enormously and have known since about 2004.

Sudhir Ghodke interviews Kiran Bir Sethi, the founder of Riverside School.

Kiran, like many of the founders of the better schools in India took her initial motivation from the needs of her own children and the failures and inadequacies of the existing system. What she’s gone on to create in Riverside is a wonderful, bold and innovative school, with all the right motives. In the interview it quite rightly highlights many of the issues that challenge those who create schools in a climate where inertia forces conventional thinking.

I especially liked her matter of fact response to the issues of not simply delivering what parents ask for, but having the courage to deliver what’s needed, bold and worthwhile and to help the parents to adjust and understand why it’s right.

Both Sudhir and Kiran highlight in the discussion something that’s always been important to me – if you’re school’s doing the right things, the evidence will come through what you see, hear and feel with the children themselves. Kiran acknowledges the values in creating Riverside that she had the freedom of time and space to innovate without being rushed by others’ agendas and also that some of the right things are done intuitively and then you acquire the language to explain those things later.

It will always require courage to innovate, especially in a field like education where so many take so personally the work that you do. In such a scenario the world needs many more with the courage and dedication of Kiran and Sudhir.

Love you, guys.

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The Responsibility Vacuum

 

There are things happening in the world that I think should worry us all. Those things have been a long time coming, but their implications are potentially very alarming. In short, I fear that if movement continues in the current direction the implications could be terrible, and all that despite the fact that it should have been such a good time. So much has been happening in the world for the last 20-30 years that should be setting humanity up for a world in which there is space and time to deal with challenges like global warming and to continue in the eradication of poverty while empowering humans to take ownership and responsibility for their lives like never before.

But, where are we instead? There are certainly the warning signs that humankind is on the path at an accelerating rate towards a very dark time. Why the fear?

The pictures above are of two pages from the reading material I collected from a Covey Leadership Foundations training programme i attended around ten years ago. I had taken the materials out , as I do from time to time, to review. I find that every time i do this i find something new, can check in on my progress on issues and the commitments that I’d made to myself. These two pages leapt out at me this afternoon and I found myself wondering – if you set up many of the people being handed power in many countries of the world today, how do they stack up against these thirteen behaviours of high-trust leaders? Quite frankly, I’m not going to name the country leaders, but I can think of some who probably fail massively against every one of these thirteen  behaviours.

So, the two questions I found myself thinking about were – in a world where the people are handing power to such low-trust leaders, what does that say about the world today, and what does it suggest about where we’re going in the future? And, as an educator, I can’t help asking what the education systems have done that contributed to people who elect such low-trust leaders?

An optimist might suggest that bad leaders being raised to political high office doesn’t matter, provided there are strong, high quality leaders in other areas, particularly in business. Some would argue that so much of the real power today is now invested in business, when the market capitalisation and cashflow of many major corporations exceed the GDP of many nations. However, when we consider that many of those feckless political leaders owe their elevation to business leaders who have put them on their thrones to serve their business interests, when we see scandals like Enron or Theranos or the actions of banks and financial companies, then business leaders may not be the saviours for the future.

Further, one might say that who are the leaders in politics or business doesn’t really matter as long as people are moral and ethical within their families and their close communities. Many want to believe that their happiness and contentment in life is not dependent upon what’s happening in politics, business, the country or the world.

However, I believe that today there is a slow, dawning realisation that this ostrich thinking has created a ‘crabs in the bucket’ scenario for the vast majority of people. Information about just how daunting are the challenges facing the world from;
a) global warming and climate change,
b) increasing shift of wealth to those already most successful, leaving middle class westerners with stagnating wealth and the younger generation destined to be worse off than their parents’ generation,
c) the vulnerability of millions of jobs (and the financial security they represent) from advances in artificial intelligence and other technologies,
d) the tipping point of no return in terms of personal freedom and liberty as technology enables ‘big brother’ to destroy personal privacy (CCTV, facial recognition, elimination of cash etc.)
e) build ups of lethal, powerful weaponry in the hands of low trust world leaders.

History has shown us what can happen in such circumstances, when uncertainty and insecurity reach extremes. The vast majority of people like to believe on the way up, when life is rosy, that they’re creating their success. However, when uncertainty and insecurity start to snowball, people want to be relieved of their responsibility and accountability for their own lives. ‘Strong’ leaders who ramp up the fear of ‘others’ (anyone not like us) will happily convince them that in return for giving them power, they will be the paternal, benevolent leader who will protect them and relieve them of their responsibilities for themselves. Today, we are seeing different versions of this happening throughout the world. Whether you divide people on religious grounds, blame the ills on drug dealers and users or influx of foreigners. All amount to the same thing.

The evidence is that this is working for people in positions of power. Will it always? Perhaps the worst risks will come when those in power seek to use their positions to achieve aims and goals outside their own countries/ domains. This brings power operations in to conflict with each other eventually. Again, history suggests that the ‘little guys’ are the biggest losers from such situations.

Some readers may find this all rather negative. If there is hope, I believe it lies in this issue of trust. Because, the past also suggests that leaders don’t get to be in control and power indefinitely when their approaches are based on low trust strategies.

Recently, I heard a speaker in a blog post (sorry, I can’t remember the source) talking of responsibility as response ability – the awareness that I have the ability, the freedom, capability and the awareness to be responsible, responsive.  a person with responsibility doesn’t blame others for the state of anything, and doesn’t look for others to provide the solutions to life’s challenges.

Early in this piece I referred to the impact of education in such world experiences. In the last 30-40 years a lot has been done to expand education to a bigger and bigger proportion of the world’s population. However, so far, too many now have access to school, but not necessarily education. Much more must happen to ensure that education for the majority is built upon developing critical thinking skills, empathy and emotional intelligence and a generation of young people who genuinely embrace their right and duty to take full and complete responsibility for their own lives. On Friday we saw the biggest demonstrations yet across the world from young people striking from school to take to the streets to demand action on human impact on global warming. This is encouraging. We are seeing first signs of young people in the US turning against the politicians on the issues of gun control after the awful pattern of shootings in schools which cannot be rationalised away by thinking, educated people.

So, there is hope, and educators must understand the role that they have to play.

 

Mobiles in Schools

In secondary schools today, few issues are likely to generate more heat and angst than those that relate to mobile phones. The ‘right approach’ is as fought over in schools as it is in many homes.

At one extreme are those who simply say mobile phones have no place in schools and pupils should be banned from bringing them to school. This can get reactions and kick back from both students and parents. It also, all too often, brings an encouragement to subterfuge and dishonesty as students work to find ways to get around the strict rules.

The premise for such arguments is students can’t be trusted and have inadequate self-control. Also, it says that the mobile phone has nothing (or little of benefit) to offer to the learning process in school and the downside is distraction and disengagement from the learning process.

At the other end of the spectrum are those who believe children should have full freedom to carry phones in school. Such approaches usually emphasise on expectations of appropriate mobile phone etiquette, common-sense and responsibility, rather than strict rules around phones.

The starting point for those at this end of the spectrum is high expectations of students, their ability to acquire the skills to master their own phone use responsibly and to do what’s right in their own best interests for effective use of their learning time in school. Also, there’s a strong belief that whether we like or not these children are going to live and grow in an environment where the mobile phone is so ubiquitous, so embedded that the process of learning to control the phone needs to start as early as possible.

There are, of course, many shades of perspective in between these two extremes. However, if there’s one thing that is common in my experience, it’s that when you talk with people they struggle to determine whether their approach is right. Are they making the best decision? We’re all fumbling in the dark on this one a bit.

The video above shows one perspective – a scheme that has moved from theatres and concert venues to schools. In many ways this solution comes from the ‘they can’t be trusted’ mindset. Allowed to carry their own phones through the day children won’t engage effectively with their peers, they will undermine their own ability to build effective interpersonal skills. When we think about it, the reason performers found this solution appealing was because they were offended by audiences’ divided attention, and also that they wanted to prevent recordings being circulated freely to others. It could be argued that educators are in the business of sharing knowledge, and therefore should not be taking steps that limit the spread (if they really believed students might circulate recordings of their lectures!) or that educators should want to create learning experiences that hold students’ attention, are engaging and don’t fear distraction by phones.

I’m very interested to know what others think on this. Is the mobile phone, and particularly social networking so pervasive and addicting that personal discipline cannot be the way forward for children? Are these actually bigger issues for adults who are digital immigrants than for the digital natives for whom choices about how to keep the phone in perspective in their lives is a part of growing up?

It could be argued that, in the face of learning experiences that are boring and uninspiring, early generations of children didn’t need mobile phones to be distracted. From solitary pursuits like gazing out of the window or doodling, to participatory processes of cheeky note passing, hangman or battleships my own school days saw plenty of ways to be distracted long before the arrival of mobile phones.

So, are you a hard-liner, a soft touch advocate or something in between? Please share your thoughts.

 

The Mob Fears the Truth

 

Seth Godin – Blog Post 

(Click on the link above to read the blog post)

A very timely short blog post from Seth Godin, the day after the Indian election result, as Britain is pulled apart with ramifications that will last for years over the Brexit debacle. In these days of conspiracy theories, we know that however extraordinary it may seem, the flat earth believers can pull together enough of them to fill conference halls.

Then, on global warming not happening, gun violence in America and on so many other issues we see the impact of fearful mobs. The more facts are given to them, the more firmly they grip on to their irrational beliefs and each other.

If Seth missed one further critical point, it’s that there are dark forces and people with evil intent who want to manipulate the mobs’ fears and uncertainties in a world where they struggle to keep up with change, to believe they’re under threat and need to band together more forcefully to protect themselves. In the end they finish up protecting nothing more than the devious intentions of their manipulators.

My final thought on this – educators deal in facts and truth. Educators also hold learners’ hands as they step beyond their fear to use their own minds to explore the implications of facts and truths. We help learners to acquire critical thinking skills and the courage to apply them.

 

Who Said Lectures Are Useless?

There are plenty of people in education who want to suggest that the lecture offers a very poor way of learning, is old-fashioned and out of date. However, I suspect that none of those people have ever taken the time to watch Professor Robert Sapolsky of Stanford University holding a lecture theatre of students spellbound in the palm of his hand.

His subject is Human Behavioural Biology and you might think there would be few takers for such lectures on Youtube. However, if you go and check out the lecture above, you’ll see it currently has over 3.2 million views. Sapolsky’s appeal is that he makes what he does look incredibly easy, and that’s a fine art. He takes complex subjects and through stories, humour and superb delivery makes them accessible.

We are truly living in an amazing world today. For those with the energy, the commitment and motivation and willingness to allot the time, learning can be gained from such a source for nothing more than the cost of internet bandwidth.

This is not just one lecture, but the first in a series of 25. That’s a lot of hours investment, but these days Youtube does offer the scope to speed up such videos. Even running at 1.25X speed cuts the time by 20%, without any loss of comprehension.

Before anyone asks – yes, I’ve watched them all. And it was worth it.

Putting Parental Fear in Perspective

band-aid-on-knee

When I was around eight years of age i lived in a relatively small village in England. At weekends and during the vacations it was common for me to head off around a mile away from home to go to play at the homes of two of my best friends – ALONE! Part of the route was by a small path that ran between fields, another part through a wood and another part beside the main road through the village that had no pavements. Once I’d met up with my friends we would sometimes play in fields, sometimes head in to the woods. There was a fluctuating group of boys and girls. We climbed trees, skidded down hills, skinned our knees and bashed our elbows. We got in to scrapes and solved our own issues. Inevitably, sometimes people fell out with each other and had disagreements. When those times happened it was deeply important to us, but we figured out between ourselves how to solve those conflicts and repair friendships.

Often our play entailed creating fantasy worlds of our own, our vivid imaginations blending to concoct amazing scenarios. One day we might be spies, another day city planners creating a new nirvana. At such times, we’d often lose all track of time. We were all tasked with responsibilities to reach home in time for meals (with consequences if we failed). Of course, we had no phones and most of the time no money (so, no phoning home with excuses for why we would come late). So, if you were tight on time, you ran – simple.

Young people tend to roll their eyes when people like me talk about our childhoods and our experiences or the vast differences between our childhoods and theirs. However, I tell this little tale with some very genuine concerns that what today’s young are missing out on were the learning environment for the very skills, competencies and character traits considered to be most important in the Industry 4.0 environment; emotional intelligence, resilience, problem solving, communication, interpersonal skills and creativity.

The shift, across the world, to helicopter parenting and wrapping children in cotton wool is a response to very real and driving fear for parents. This is terribly sad and ironic when we consider that the world in which children are growing up is actually safer when considering data on crime etc. Worse, as it has always been, children are more at risk statistically from people they know within their homes than they are from strangers in the outside environment.

If children are given freedom, will they get in to scrapes and problems? Yes, almost certainly – we did. But, solving those problems, working through the implications of our own actions was a very big part of our learning and development. And, almost always the implications are really not so terrible.

Data today about how little time children get to spend outside is deeply worrying. To me, it’s inevitable to find direct correlations between these changes in the process of growing up, exposure to nature, levels of independent activity and the increasing levels of compulsive behaviours, depression and mental illness as well as the challenges that flow from over-sensitivity to setbacks, disappointments and life challenges.

Ironically, with hours of computer games and social networking exposure, I would hazard that in some ways children today are at greater risk in the very state their parents are keeping them to ensure their safety. With growing pollution (and in Asian cities summer heat) the temptation to use these as justifications for the children being in for many hours, staring at screens is obvious.

Lenore Skenazy became famous, or rather infamous, in the US a few years ago when she let her child ride on the subway unaccompanied. The media went in to a frenzy as she was labeled ‘the worst mother in the world.’ To her credit, she didn’t roll over, but rather has spent the time since expanding on her approach as a philosophy she calls ‘free-range parenting.’

Here’s a video of an interview she gave last year, sharing her views.

Lenore and others have created an organisation in the US that seeks to work with schools and parents to provide help and to encourage loosening of the reins:
Let Grow

Can we bring these ideas in to other parts of the world effectively?

To help with some of this, researchers have identified four types of parenting style:

  • Authoritarian.
  • Authoritative.
  • Permissive.
  • Uninvolved.

A detailed discussion of the four styles I’ll save for another post, but there are some good summaries available through searches online.

As educators, we have to meet children and parents where they are and not where we wish they might be. This means that if children have been used to sheltered, helicopter parenting, then we have to understand that’s the starting position. However, if we are serious about a responsibility to educate and develop the “whole child” then we need to pay close and careful attention to;

a) What we can do to educate and support parents to be realistic and support their children in the most responsible ways (and this includes making sure that teachers are informed and playing their part, including sharing a consistent message)
b) What we can do to expand the horizons of children, to help them to develop the characteristics of independence and interdependence, as well as creating an engaging environment in the school that enables children to develop and practice character, real problem solving.

Childhood has the potential to be such a special time in a person’s life. When we deny children a natural childhood we don’t only deny them all that’s good, but we deny them so much of the growth and learning that will enable them to be their best and to grow up living effective lives. Free the children!

Lifelong Learning – How Are We Doing?

Lifelong Learning

These days it seems that almost every school, new or established, mentions in its mission, vision, values or some other important statement that lifelong learning is a major priority of the school. School Heads, Principals and Directors talk a lot about lifelong learning in major events and gatherings with students and/ or parents.

This has now been the case for a few years, so it’s worthwhile to pause and ask – How are we doing? Has all this attention on lifelong learning changed anything?

Well, first of all, where did it come from and why did people start to think it mattered? Around 10-15 years ago more and more evidence was emerging that pointed to the likelihood that young people in school were going to grow up in to a world and environment where they would not simply have multiple jobs, but multiple careers. It was clear that the pace of change in the world, especially technological, was accelerating and the best prospects for the future would lie with those people who through continuous learning were most capable of reinventing themselves, shedding their existing knowledge and taking on the right new learning.

I believe that if we look at the tertiary sector first, quite a lot has changed in response to the recognition of the need to support lifelong learning.  We have seen quite a rapid increase in the availability of online learning options that support adults in processes of continuous learning. There are also many brick and mortar institutions that have supplemented their traditional learning programmes with more modular offerings, sometimes offered as hybrids that are conducted part face to face and part online, with scope for people to learn more at their own pace to fit in with the fact that they’re often still working full time.

There is a definite break away from the idea that formal and informal learning are completely separate, or that formal learning all takes place in a purely linear fashion, to be completed in the earliest part of ones life by the age of about 21 – 25. We see Universities and colleges questioning what they should look like when it comes to physical infrastructure. It’s costly to create physical places of learning and therefore there must be a justification to create the physical infrastructure. Then, there are considerations about how specialised or general the learning spaces within those buildings should be in order to best support modern and effective learning practices.

Too often I see these debates happening when new institutions are being created, or where major construction is due. There are still arguably too many institutions (especially in developing countries) that look to purely and simply replicate the traditional models of the past, more intent on churning out young people with bits of paper than focused on enabling learning.

In developing countries, universities and colleges have not gone far enough to place the focus on self-directed, self-driven learning, owned by the learner. There are all sorts of arcane rules about attendance, rigid generalist course structures with whole cohorts progressing through at the same time, at the same pace, subject to strict rules, hierarchies, even uniforms. They look little different to traditional schools for overgrown children.

So, overall, worldwide i might be inclined to give the tertiary sector about a 5 out of 10 for progress towards playing their part in a world of lifelong learning.

And what of the K-12 schools?

Firstly, what is the role of K-12 schools towards lifelong learning?

I believe it’s twofold;

a) To equip young people, in age appropriate ways with the tools and skills to be effective self-directed lifelong learners. 
b) To ensure that pupils have the motivation to be self-directed lifelong learners

Every baby and infant is a highly self-directed, highly motivated learner. They don’t wait for anyone to come with a syllabus or a curriculum. They don’t wait for permission to learn or to be instructed. They don’t go out of their way to take short cuts to learning so that they can spend their time idly. So, we’d do well to question ourselves about how our schools stifle these natural inclinations that ought to be the perfect foundation to grow and develop tomorrow’s motivated lifelong learners.

I believe that one of the biggest problems with point b) is related to teachers. If, as an adult and potential role model for lifelong learning it would be fair to expect;
(i) Teachers admit to their own learning and talk about it openly.
(ii) Focus on potential more than performance, both related to themselves as well as their pupils,
(iii) Shed their focus on competence, in favour of vulnerability and the ambiguity of openly being a learner. If a teacher has to be the ‘fully complete expert’ in the classroom, then by implication their learning process is complete and they no longer need to be learners,
(iv) Teachers would be open about how they drive their own personal learning curriculum. They would openly talk about things they’re not expert in.  They would reveal to their pupils the things they’re learning. They would even be open to learn from the pupils in areas where they have more knowledge (such as IT).
(v) Teachers would not say things like, “Yes, I believe in lifelong learning. I’m always looking to learn from everyone around me.”
That’s a cop-out, an excuse for not pursuing real, hard learning. Instead, it implies that this lifelong learning is just another name for a dab of responsiveness and listening to others around – not something like real learning that involves investment of real time and effort in risk, vulnerability and deep dives in to new and varied areas of learning directly or even slightly linked to their work.

Our schools and school leaders still behave as if learning is something that is done to pupils, not something they do for themselves. The assumption built in to the culture of schools in dozens of ways big and small is that pupils would not learn unless made to do so. And, we have to say that the way most of the learning  in schools is still done, it’s no surprise that it will only happen under duress. It’s one-way, one size fits all (that it’s not personalised despite all the talk of personalisation I’ll save for another post).

Turning to point a)  a school/ learning environment that really cares about development of lifelong learning would place at least as much emphasis on process as outcomes. And our schools don’t. Schools would be places where children are encouraged and motivated to pursue deep and broad learning according to personal interests. They would be helped to understand HOW to learn most effectively.

This would bring in opportunities for children to learn and understand how their minds work, how memory works, how motivation impacts learning. They would not simply learn to read, but would be equipped with opportunities to acquire skills to read in different ways for different purposes. Children would be learning effective ways of note taking and how to work out the learning techniques and methods that work best for them.

An open climate based on common growth mindset, the presence of healthy grit to push through when learning is challenging, to seek out one’s own sources, to discern between the quality of different sources etc.

So, in conclusion – is it really fair and honest for schools to be telling the world that one of their core values is the development of lifelong learning? Are the school leadership really doing the introspection about every aspect of their school’s practices, habits, methods and whether they take their pupils towards or away from lifelong learning?

Are pupils walking out of the school gates the day after graduation saying  – “that’s all over and nobody’s doing that learning stuff to me any more,” or “Ok, I’m ready – where’s the next great learning that i want to bring on for me?” Are they seeing learning as a pull rather than a push process?

If not, then K-12 certainly isn’t at five out of ten. It might not yet even be at two out of ten.

A long road ahead and lots of work to do. And we won’t enable lifelong learning for pupils until we embrace it for ourselves.

That easy!

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