Foundations for Life

A hard hitting and powerful advert from Save the Children makes a powerful point. To have the best chance of living a successful life in the long term children’s start in life and their childhood needs to be protected and they need the best possible foundations. This is, perhaps, one of the most powerful influences on any society for the longer term.

Poverty, poor health and other life challenges in childhood blight future generations to more of the same problems. When investment in childhood pays such great long term dividends for a country or society, we do have to marvel at those so called advanced or economically well-off countries that skimp in this area.

Fast Company – These are the Best (and Worst) Places Around the World for Kids to Grow Up

Equality in the world may be an unrealistic concept. However, striving for equity of opportunity means ensuring that all that can possibly be done is done to ensure that the most helpless members of our society are given a fair chance and start in life. Supporting mothers of early years children, minimising the impact of conflict on children, ensuring early years education provision and effective public education on diet and health should be some of the minimum expectations.

More can and should be done.

International Mindedness

There has probably rarely been a time when the emphasis given to ‘International Mindedness’ in International Schools has come in to focus as more necessary or more pressing as a concept to be imbibed and understood.

To start – we need to be really clear what international mindedness and its promotion in schools is not – and that is frocks, food and festivals. You cannot say because you celebrate different religious and ethnic festivals, give children the opportunity to dress up and to try different foods then you have done what is needed to promulgate international mindedness.

It’s also not about some ambiguous claims about everyone being the same. Rather, the person who has international mindedness doesn’t stereotype people and is mindful and reflective of the prejudices they might have at an unconscious level. That can be an uncomfortable reflection at times. it’s not even about just simply being aware of diversity, but actually welcoming it, relishing it and seeing it as a positive.

International mindedness comes from a position of empathy, compassion and curiosity before doubt and cynicism. People who think this way acknowledge that whilst different people have different life experiences, perceptions and experiences, we are all connected. Some make the mistake of fearing that being internationally minded somehow means giving up something of who and what one is. In fact, there is no lessening of pride or connection with one’s own culture and origins. Retaining rootedness is an important aspect of identity and nobody is really advocating that everyone should consider themselves absorbed in to a single mass or entity that is humanity, devoid of customs, tradition, history or heritage.

The internationally minded person, because they feel connected, cares and considers that what happens to all people, anywhere in the world, matters to them. When thinking about politics, major world events, the inter-relationship between countries, climate issues etc. there is a need to think in inter-connected terms. It is no longer effective in an internationally shrunken world (through travel and the internet) to confine one’s caring and attention to what happens in your own backyard.

The greater the spread of international mindedness, the greater the benefits for all humans everywhere. International Schools can play a significant part in this, but leadership and teachers have to acknowledge that it’s a long road that requires unwavering commitment and the willingness to be a learning organisation, to introspect and reflect and to be self-critical when necessary.

In schools it starts with the vision, mission and values – the guiding statements and the extent to which they are lived, embodied in the day to day life of the school and especially in managerial practices, leadership and governance. There’s a continual need to assess the curriculum (both overt and covert) and syllabus delivery to determine the extent to which it embodies and furthers the core messages of inter-dependence and international mindedness. As much as possible, children should have the opportunity to learn languages other than there own as this is a significant bridge to international communication and understanding.

The importance of the element of caring is best served by promoting service learning as a key part of school life. This goes well beyond simply raising funds, but leads to full engagement with peoples whose life experiences are vastly different to those of the students.

I’m thoroughly convinced by the merits and value of promoting international mindedness through international schools. However, it’s vital that, in age appropriate ways it goes well beyond the superficial, the shallow and tokenism to enable box ticking. It must be a lived, fundamental part of the ethos of a school that can be sensed through all aspects of the life of the school and its pupils.

Being Strong is not Narcissism

As an educator, I’ve long held certain beliefs that underpin my approach and decision making – particularly the direction that i seek to bring to the schools under my care. One of the strongest of those beliefs is that it was always a mistake for people to suggest that somehow there was a polar choice between an academically oriented education for children or a ‘holistic development’ approach. Rather, i believe that when children are given the appropriate support and guidance they develop the ability to take their strength in one aspect of their life (maybe sport) and turn it in to strength in other areas – e.g. academics, personal relations etc.

In my youth, my favoured sport was rugby. For many years i was tall and willowy and that wasn’t the best build for the game. However, with some good coaches I worked at it, bulked out and eventually reached a reasonable level of performance. Rugby culture has long held a strong orientation around selflessness and orientation around the team. It’s changed a bit these days, but in my day, when a player scored a try he (or she) got a brief pat on the back from the nearest colleagues and everyone got in place quickly to get on with the game. There were no fancy celebrations or glorification of the individual. Today, the media wants to make a big issue of the person who dots the ball down at the end, ignoring all that has gone before.

In Delhi, there are a couple of occasions that come to mind when I felt the need to intervene, believing it was important that children be learning the right lessons, not just for sport, but for life. On the first occasion one of our schools was hosting an inter-school cricket tournament. When the final came around, our home team hadn’t got through. As the two teams took to the field, I heard some bad-mannered booing from students beside the field. After a short while, I saw some of them walking around the perimeter of the field, behind the bowler’s arm. This is very off-putting for batsmen. I needed to take them to one side to inform them that they were being very selfish and not treating the finalists with the respect deserved (for beating them to get there!) After some time, I saw a bowler take the wicket of the opposing batsmen. What I then saw was shocking. He ran down the wicket and leered and celebrated right in the face of the disappointed batsman. The two umpires on the field did nothing to stop this disgusting and atrocious behaviour. This might be something these children had seen an idol do on TV, but had no place in school sport. I was probably more shocked by the failure to act on the part of the umpires (school PE teachers). At the change of overs when they came off the field I took them to task, having seen similar behaviour played out a few more times. The umpires seemed surprised at my concern.

To my mind, this is at the very root of the issue between self-belief and narcissism. To be proud that you’re a good cricket bowler is healthy. To be motivated to hone your skills, to work to be the best bowler you can be is all positive and bi-products of grit and a growth mindset. However, reveling in the downfall of the batsmen, belittling them and taunting them is to fall in to negative and unhealthy narcissism. The sad fact here was that the adults, educators couldn’t tell the difference and didn’t see the need to do anything about it.

On another occasion there was a basketball game. As the game got in to the last few minutes the teams were neck and neck. The lead kept changing hands. There was tension and supporters of both teams were shouting encouragement from the sidelines. In the last couple of minutes, one team opened out and maintained a small gap – enough to win. As the final whistle blew the team were ecstatic. They jumped, they whooped, they hugged each other. Except for one boy. I was standing close to the scorer’s table. Instead of joining the huddle with his team mates, he ran towards the table shouting, “How many points did I score?” Before he had the chance to receive an answer, I swiftly took him by the shoulders, turned him around one hundred and eighty degrees, pointed him towards the huddle – “Go and celebrate. The TEAM won!” He got it, smiled sheepishly and ran off excitedly.

When I went to Sharjah to take up a new job our first responsibilities were all about creating a brand new school. In the rushed first weeks i was asked to come up with a ‘strap line’. It was needed very quickly for a document that was going to the printers. We were at a very early stage in the project, so there wasn’t really a big team to consult. I sat down to play with ideas, trying to get to the core of what i saw as most important in terms of core messages I wanted the new school to convey. I slept on the ideas for one night, not convinced that I yet had what i was looking for. I was back on the case next morning. I came up with a lot of ideas, before the one I knew was right came in to my head – “I am me, I am unique.” To me, it was about emphasising personalisation in education and learning to respond to the individual needs of each student. I wanted each student to know their own strengths, leverage those strengths whilst acknowledging those things that were still to work on. When we launched brochures and other materials with this phrase on, it really resonated with parents and students. Teachers also saw what was expected of them in supporting the uniqueness. I clearly remember conversations about how this was not a matter of simply giving them platitudes, telling them they were wonderful etc.

Here is an article that relates to a book putting across the same point. Self awareness and self belief are important attributes for youngsters today. There is, indeed, a narcissism problem largely caused by polar and simplistic thinking. There is a world of difference between growing up understanding that I’m unique or believing that i’m special, entitled and expecting to have everything come my way.

The Guardian – Self-entitled, moi? Teens, narcissism and why ‘special’ and ‘unique’ are different things

Recruit the Restless

As Seth Godin points out in the blog post link below – change is never going to come from those who signed up for the status quo, for certainty, for an environment within which getting everything right is the expected norm.

Seth Godin Blog Post – In Search of Familiarity

In fact, worse, it’s not enough to just recruit good people who believe that they are ‘safe hands’ to educate children. Not only will these people not initiate change, they will resist it by every means at their disposal. They’ll demand data and evidence in bucketloads. And, even when you produce evidence they’ll have to refute it, doubt it and ultimately fall back on, “my way has served well in the past.”

This is almost certainly the reason why we’ve gone so many years since Dr Ken Robinson spoke up in the first TED conference about what needed to change in education if we were to avoid short changing a generation of youngsters in their preparation for a vastly different world, yet we have really seen so very little change. In fact, when we see the obsessive zeal applied to the gathering and endless tweaking of data, we have to suspect that people have inadvertently set about entrenching and solidifying the existing ways of doing things. Too many have convinced themselves that the old way is perfect, provided we can just measure more, gather more data and carry out more assessment.

Instead of humanising an education of curiosity, creativity and engagement with thew world around, we’ve sought incremental improvements in the existing systems by focusing on turning children in to so many data points to be graphed and mapped through to academic success.

The curious, the challengers, the restless – they do show their faces in the education world, but too often in programmes like Teach for America, Teach for India, Teach for Malaysia. They stay for a couple of years, but too often see that they’re never really going to change the system, so treat it as an interesting experience before they head off to other fields where change is more accepted.

We have to figure out how to get more restless people in to our profession, and then keep them here long enough to make a difference.

How To Change The World

The revolution in technology didn’t just bring a new generation of business people who approach business in new and innovative ways, but also a new and very different generation of philanthropists. These people’s business success has enabled them to make vast sums of money for themselves. However, many of them are very clear about the sense of importance regarding giving back to society and using their wealth to bring real change, to give back to society and even to endeavour to find solutions to long term issues that have caused disadvantage, inequality and hardship.

Historically, it could easily seem, at times, that however much money was put in to philanthropic activities it was never enough and it only seemed to scratch the surface of the world’s (and humanity’s) biggest challenges. Today’s donors are generous with their wealth and creative in their mindset and the approaches they bring to giving and ensuring that they achieve effective outcomes that bring real change in the world. There’s a strong focus on equity and opportunity.

I was very enthused to see the following video from the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, that discusses in some detail their philosophy and approach to giving and making a difference in the world

The Dell Perspective – The Future of Philanthropy

The release of this video coincided with the couple’s decision to increase their endowment by $1 billion with particular focus on supporting social entrepreneurs:

Forbes – Dell Announces $1 billion commitment
Fast Company – Why the Dell Foundation is Betting Big on Social Entrepreneurs

There are those who are sometimes inclined to denigrate social entrepreneurship as somehow less meaningful or ‘serious’ than hard-core business. However, as we see from the Dell Foundation’s core principles, there is nothing lightweight or flimsy about their approach;

Dell – 8 Principles for Changing the World

Character as a Differentiator

As a young person, you want to stand out from the crowd? Is an extra 0.1 on your grade point average going to achieve that? Will one additional extra curricular activity on your biodata make the difference? In this day, it’s all pretty unlikely that your academic and other activities are going to make you significantly discernible from the mass of students applying for University places, or later for internships or jobs?

No, but as this well-written New York Times article makes clear, what will always make a young person stand out from the crowd is character.

New York Times – Check This Box If You’re A Good Person

It’s vitally important that our response, or that of our children, shouldn’t be to carry out altruistic acts for show or to tick boxes/ have others perceive us as empathic, kind and sensitive. It has to come from a genuine desire to help others, to treat others with respect and equality.

One question that will inevitably come to mind – can we teach this? How can we increase the likelihood of empathy in our children? This is a highly relevant and important debate in our schools as “compassion” is one of the values highlighted within the mission of the Tenby Schools, along with integrity. High empathy, caring and kindness won’t happen just because we tell our children that it’s right or the appropriate way to think and be towards others.

Firstly, I believe the likelihood is increased significantly when we, the adults, model empathy – in other words we show ourselves to be warm, kind, caring and compassionate to others – especially where there is difference. We need to show our children the mental processes of being understanding, thoughtful of others/ other-centric.

Over the last 15-20 years we went through a situation where, in education and in parenting there was so much emphasis placed upon building self-esteem. This led to adults stressing specialness, uniqueness and feeling good about oneself. Regrettably, as the children impacted move in to adulthood we’re seeing massive shifts towards narcissism and away from empathy, caring and compassion. The child brought up in the high self esteem environment is more likely to be seeking verification of themselves, endorsement of their feelings of self-worth. However, the child brought up to see being empathic to others will, more likely, find their self actualisation in acts of kindness and positivity towards others.

In schools, I believe there’s been a lot of good and positive work in this direction that can help us to move further. One example is the scope for using tools like Jenny Moseley’s Quality Circle Time with children of all ages. These processes allow children to be more reflective of the effect of their actions and behaviours on others and how they feel according to how others act. In this way, the children learn for themselves and guide each other to be more understanding of what others need and expect from them.

It’s positive that we’re seeing more interest in schools putting a focus on social and emotional development. I’m particularly hopeful for programmes like the Ashoka Foundation’s “Start Empathy” Changemaker schools. It’s vitally important, though, to not treat empathy as just another subject area in school, to be packaged as a set of lessons or even just parceled as part of PSHE to be ‘delivered’ to children. Rather, it has to be built in to the ethos of the school, an integral part of everything from discipline policies to approaches to sports, learning and play time.

There is much work to be done. We have to do more for these children. Schools and education systems or societies that turn out predominantly narcissistic, self-absorbed children are going to find that they haven’t served them well to live their lives most effectively. They certainly won’t have prepared them well to be leaders of others in their lives. All this will, increasingly, make it likely that their university selection chances will be less.

Getting Good Habits Early

Teachers invest a great deal of time in enabling children to learn their seven times tables, until 6 X 7 = 42 becomes a very automatic and speedy output. But, as useful as this skill might be (perhaps?), how much time is invested in enabling young children to acquire habits that are proven to play a part in enabling a person to live a successful life?

Aristotle is quoted to have said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”

Evidence keeps mounting, in my view for the benefits of the right habits and the potentially horrendous limitations or impairments that happen for those who don’t acquire positive habits early. There’s also an awful lot of evidence that the development of positive habits is easier and more effective when two things happen. Firstly, getting the habits early. And secondly, being mindful and aware of the good habits, why they matter and the benefits of having them.

When we look at the acquisition of habits from the perspective of being a parent or an educator, one of my own strong beliefs is that a habit is only a habit if it’s owned by the individual and that only comes with self-discipline based development and understanding of the ‘why’. The key to this is we can’t put habits in to children through enforced discipline. So, making children act in particular ways “because I say so” or because we’re big, you’re small and we know best and you must be obedient is not the way to build positive, constructive habits. In fact, I see greater likelihood that when the pressure is taken off, there’s a strong chance that we’ll see the young person follow the very opposite habits and go down unproductive paths.

Obviously, when a child is really young, we have to take the lead on habit development. They have to come from us. But, as the child gets older, we need to hand over more of the responsibility to the child. I often compare this to flying a kite. When it gets up in the air we pay out more line – equivalent to handing over more of the power to the child. If there’s a lull in the air flow, the kite may dip and even start to fall towards the ground. At that point we draw some of the line in (not all of it!) until the kite height and the wind strength are compatible. Then, as the kite steadies, we start paying out more line again.

I believe that somehow, today, parents and educators have come to believe that the antidote to strict, controlling parenting is completely laiiez faire parenting where children are left free to make all their own choices and judgements. These appear to be very dangerous extremes. Instead, the right way is to aaply the kite analogy above. This does require investment of time and effort, flexibility and strong awareness of the adult to both their own emotions and how the child is responding to the opportunity to set their own routines and habits.

With regard to habits, we need children to know and understand the implications of good or bad habits, be given the help to acquire the good habits, reflection when they let the good habits slip and to get back in to believing they are capable of establishing clear, positive habits – growth mindset is also a vital ingredient.

here are two recent articles that show, if not definite cause, then certainly strong risks for children who don’t have positive, healthy habits in their lives early on. The first suggests a strong correlation between teenage obesity and failure to have positive, regular bedtime habits in the early years of life;

NPR – Eat, Sleep, Repeat – How Kid’s Daily Routines Can Help Prevent Obesity

The second again highlights correlation, but not yet conclusive evidence of cause, regarding very young infants and screen use causing delayed speech development;

CNN – Speech Delays in Kids Could be Linked to Mobile Devices

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