Looking on the Bright Side for the Future

When Jared Silver writes, it’s frequently thought-provoking, enlightening and worth considering.

This is a very interesting piece he’s written for Edu Surge that puts the argument that as the internet becomes readily available to anyone anywhere in the world, so, we are entering a new human revolution that will unlock human potential at levels we cannot even imagine.

EduSurge – The Impending Human Capital Revolution

His evidence for this is the rarity, historically of Indian or Chinese Nobel Prize winners – because the people in those countries didn’t have the same access to knowledge and education compared with those in more developed nations. Now that the internet is freely available everywhere, so everyone can have access to all of human knowledge.

The first issue I would have with this argument is that by no means does the internet contain all of human knowledge or even most of the best knowledge. I think we’re a very long way from that and will continue to be for a long time. For one, even if we think of new knowledge that is published in books. At most, people give access to snippets of it online in order to entice more people to buy the books. They’re not about to give it all away for free. Secondly, there are vast parts of the world’s population who have severely restricted access to the internet, with large parts of knowledge placed behind curtains where they are not permitted to go. Laws and rules that restrict access can all too easily be imposed on people in any part of the world, justified by nebulous concepts like ‘national interest.’

As highlighted by Daniel Kahneman in ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ there are different kinds of thinking (engagement with knowledge) that lead to advances in human development. Whilst the internet and ubiquitous accessibility might give greater potential for the fast and shallow kind of thinking, it gives little scope for the slower, deeper forms of thinking. For that deeper thinking, people need access to the kinds of written material not generally accessible through the internet (at least for free) and access to other thinkers and experts in the chosen field with whom to share thoughts and ideas. On the latter point, email and ability to ‘find’ experts has had interesting implications. I recall a meeting and discussion with Dr Howard Gardner in which he slightly ruefully acknowledged that today he spends a far greater proportion of his time responding to speculative communication that he receives from people all over the world who want to tap in to his knowledge and insights. There is serious risk that this heightened level of accessibility makes his work less whilst giving little benefit in the enhanced knowledge of those corresponding with him – considering that the vast majority will still only be engaging with him at the most superficial levels.

One thing that Jared Silver’s article doesn’t really make clear, is whether he sees this human revolution emerging because a few more exceptional people will be able to emerge because of their newfound access to knowledge, information and each other, or whether he actually foresees an overall raising of all intellectual levels of all people. If he’s arguing for the latter, I’m really not sure that his examples about Nobel Prize winners are convincing proof as these people are by their very nature the exceptional, rarest of the rare.

If you walked in to most western school classrooms (or those in more affluent private schools anywhere in the world) and asked students what the internet changes, gives them access to most of their answers would relate to social networking and gaming. There is a strong argument to say that, especially with its addictive qualities, the internet is far from fueling an intellectual step forward for mankind, but rather giving him new and previously unforeseen ways to fritter away life on meaningless, addictive and compulsive activities. This is at its worst for those receiving a lot of unfettered access in their youth when the wiring of their brains predisposes them towards addictive and compulsive activities that give them repeated doses of dopamine and other neural ‘drugs’ that have nothing to do with enhancing mankind. instead, like the Soma of Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ it dulls the mind, eats up their time in ways that don’t challenge or move them forward intellectually and keep them limited in their advancement.

This has become of such concern to some educators that it leads to news articles like this recent one from the UK:

The Times – UK – Your Teacher’s At The Door – He Wants Your Xbox

Some years ago i had the privilege to host as a guest in one of our Delhi schools the great economist, CK Prahalad (who I suspect if not taken from us too soon was destined to be a future Nobel Prize winner). over coffee before and after the event we had conversations ranging over a wide array of topics. The one that has always stuck in my mind was his fears and apprehensions for the youth we worked with. The new young elite of India whose parents were all too frequently the first generation in their families to taste real economic success. he saw them suffering from a disease he described as “Affluenza” – an infection of plenty that undermines motivation and drive when these young people are growing up with all opportunities handed to them with ease and lacking the drive and the need to strive that marked out their parents’ generation. Such a level of complacency is more likely to lead to short cuts than hunger to use and access all possible information and knowledge that is accessible in the world.

The workings of human motivation, drive and the inclination to purpose have been areas of fascination to many (Daniel Pink – Drive, Roy Baumeister – Willpower, Viktor Frankl – Man’s Search for Meaning, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs). Just because opportunity is available to people, doesn’t mean they will take it, grasp it or see it as important. People’s aspirations and feelings of what’s possible or what are realistic and meaningful life goals are not simply shaped by exposure.

For example, ten to fifteen years ago, there were plenty of eminent experts who suggested that the growth of the internet would lead to new and greater levels of cultural understanding, empathy and recognition of common purpose amongst people of the world. The argument was that knowing people from all over the world, being exposed to them, understanding more of their culture would reduce fear, animosity and distance. however, as we see a wave of nationalism, protectionism and inter-cultural and religious sabre rattling, it’s clear that there is still just as much potential for people to be divided on ethnic, racial, religious or nationalistic lines as there ever has been.

In conclusion, the possibility that future Nobel prize winners might be more evenly distributed throughout the world doesn’t, in my view, automatically add up to a human revolution. Access and opportunity don’t change things on their own. Whilst i can agree that intellectual and knowledge accessibility may contribute to greater equity in the world, there is no rule that says a rising tide of accessible knowledge will raise all boats.

Is Talent A Thing?

As something a bit different, today i want to share a really thoughtful and interesting radio broadcast from the UK BBC Radio 4, on the subject of talent.

It comes from the perspective of how people get employed for jobs and how the typical recruitment interviewing process does a rather poor job of matching the right people to the right role opportunities. The presenter, having done a pretty good job of debunking talent as a reason for recruiting people, goes on to explore what would be effective and sensible criteria for recruiting.

Along the way, she takes inputs from Google HR, Carol Dweck (on Mindset) and Angela Duckworth (on Grit). She also explores the concept of ‘cultural fit’, growth in intelligence (at the individual and society level) and some techniques for better interviewing that gets us beyond simply employing the people we like.

BBC Radio 4 – Is Talent A Thing?

These are issues that go to the very root of how we ensure that, as often as possible, we get “the right people on the bus.” Maybe there are no organisations where this is more important that schools. I believe it’s so critical that we be given the support of our school communities to recruit for character and attitudes, rather than paper qualifications etc. However, when companies employ for attitude they do so in the knowledge that they then give themselves the time to train for the skills specifically required on the job. However, in schools, parents have a direct interest in the skills levels and their expectations are immediate. Therefore, often, a parent will want that the person with the better immediately applicable skills (subject knowledge, classroom management techniques etc.) is employed as that immediately impacts their child’s education, even though that person may not have the best attitude or be the best person to have in the school for the longer term.

In International schools where the Principals and other campus leadership are on relatively short fixed term contracts, these short term vs long term issues are even more critical. The teacher who can deliver something today will too often be preferred over the one with much to offer in the longer term. When compared with other types of organisations, i fear this puts schools at too big a disadvantage. can you recruit for immediate skills and teach/ train/ mentor for attitude? I rather fear that is a long and bumpy road. I’m really not sure that schools are ready or able to train teachers for those things.

For us as educators, there’s another dimension that is critical. This is that we must also be helping our children to acquire these attitudes and attributes to enable them to have the best possible choices available to them and the best chances for success in their future lives. Grit, Mindset, resilience, EQ and other factors have to figure prominently in our thinking for the pupils – and they won’t come from drilling syllabus in to them! Further, teachers with Grit, growth mindset and positive social and emotional skills are most likely to be equipped to help pupils acquire those skills and attributes.

Maths Fear and Anxiety

Teachers and parents need to be aware of their role in the creation of maths anxiety. At times, I have seen students suffer massive debilitation because of it. One young lad, who had strong academic credentials and was expected to do well, go to a good university and have a strong academic future became so anxious that he required me to meet him outside the examination room before the exams, to talk him down to stay calm and to walk him in to the exam room. He then wanted me to be there to meet him when he came out, after the exam was over.

If we care about students fulfilling their potential, we have to acknowledge the existence of maths anxiety and do all in our power to help children to address it and to empower themselves with the tools and the confidence to be in control of their feelings about the subject.

The Harm We Can Do in Early Years Education

A few years ago, I read a pretty alarming study that had come from Germany. A situation arose there, in a particularl area, where early years approaches to education were being changed from quite an academic’ approach to a much more play-based approach. However, as this process was going along there were political changes and the process stopped. it stayed stopped for some time whilst people figured out where to go next.

This created a unique situation – otherwise consistent for demographics and other background, about half the local children were experiencing a play approach in early years, the other half a much more academically oriented approach. Researchers latched on to the opportunity this represented and started a longitudinal study that tracked these children right through in to their adult years. Incidentally, after those differing early years experiences they were randomly educated through the same experiences in later years.

So, what did they find out?

a) Firstly, the children experiencing the more academic early years approach experiences academic benefits over their peers UNTIL CLASS 4. After that, the positions were reversed and there was an ever-widening gap with the children who had the play-based experiences outperforming their peers.

b) Maybe most alarming, in adult life, the children with the more academically oriented early years showed higher levels of alcohol and substance abuse, trouble with criminality, involvement in domestic abuse, psychological illness, obesity and poor health.

These are really quite alarming outcomes, especially as the research really didn’t flag up any long term positive benefits from the more academic approach to early years learning. Even more alarming when we see the pressures that come to bear throughout the world to make early years education more content driven, more teaching-centric and more focused on ‘getting an early start’ on the ‘stuff’ of school learning.

If all that wasn’t enough, here’s some further, new research from Stanford University, working with colleagues in Denmark about the difference between early and late starts for kindergarten. It showed those starting earlier had much higher levels of inattention and hyperactivity much later in their schooling. These are known factors that can be major negatives for academic outcome achievements

Quartz – Stanford Researchers Show We’re Sending Many Children To School Way Too Early

I don’t believe for a minute that we’re going to be changing the ages at which children start school. Therefore, it becomes critically important that we work to ensure that the experience they have is a low pressure, high-play one. We also need to invest considerable energy to educate parents, to share knowledge and expertise with them, so that they understand why the lay logic of a hasty start and early academic pressure are dangerous and counter-productive for their children.

False Myths Don’t Give Up Without a Fight

Every professional field has its myths that don’t stand up to scrutiny. It would be perfectly understandable in education if we were confronted with the challenges of myths held by parents and other lay people. After all, we continually are reminded that everyone went to school and therefore has their own perceptions about how school should be.

However, what worries me far more than our need as educators to educate the parents about what they should want and need for their children is when there are educators who continue to advocate for old orthodoxies even though they are thoroughly discredited as myths without substance.

John Hattie, Australian educator has made his career analyzing vast quantities of meta-analysis data to determine what does and doesn’t produce tangible results in education. Here’s a good article from NPR in which Hattie sets out three myths that need to be buried;

NPR Ed – 5 Big Ideas in Education That Don’t Work

Of the five points that are highlighted as largely ineffective (or at least on their own) is small class sizes. The reality is that masses of research has failed to show the benefits of small class sizes that so many expect.

Hattie terms his research and findings “Visible Learning”. If I have an issue it’s that he starts with the big assumption that they only real things that matter to us in schools are academic learning, as measured through standardised and summative tests and exams. Nevertheless, to the extent that those things do matter, his research provides very useful guides for educators about what produces better academic results and what has little or no impact.

If the article linked above highlights what Hattie’s research suggests doesn’t work, here are two videos that suggest the things that he sees as offering better enhancement to pupil learning:

Two Kinds of Love

A great TED video for the weekend for every teacher or anyone who cares about education, and children's learning.

The two loves a teacher can bring to the classroom every day; their own love for the subject they're teaching and their love for the children.

Joe Ruhl in this great TED talk shows that many of the greatest strengths and skills a teacher can have are really not so very new.

Schools of Possibility and Hope