Relating With Artificial Intelligence

When technology brings seismic changes in our world, it can be very easy to get overwhelmed, to struggle to see the wood from the trees and to maintain a rational perspective.

In the last week or so, we’ve seen very clear evidence. Out of nowhere, we all (well, those who exist in the digital world!) became aware of an AI based mobile phone app that claimed to apply a filter to see what a person will look like as they age. Apparently, it had been around a while, but this time it caught on virally, even with celebrities diving in to share pictures of themselves aged. Whole sports teams got the treatment and it shot to number one free download on both Apple Appstore and Google Playstore.

Then came the hangover after the initial excesses as numerous ‘experts’ came forward to share a few facts skirted over by the over zealous users. The company owning Faceapp is Russian – that’s always good to create a few scary bogeymen. Then, they pointed out that the terms and conditions essentially meant that users were handing over absolute rights for ever in their personal photos to the company. It also led to renewed concerns and debate about other Apps like TikTok.

This whole digital universe is so new, so novel and yet so ubiquitous that people really haven’t worked out their relationships with it.  For all the privacy concerns expressed, the reality is that digital photos and our own digital representation have little or no protection already. It’s the work of seconds for a child to copy and save any photo of any person from a website, a news site or a social networking platform. Can any of us really say we ‘own’ our visual images any more? We’ve seen similar in the past with digital music and video. Young people who would have said it was plainly immoral to walk in to a shop to steal a CD or a DVD have thought nothing of downloading enormous quantities of music, film etc. So, is it really any different? These people wouldn’t walk in to your home to steal your holiday snaps you just picked up from the developers, but somehow copying and pasting or saving your photos online doesn’t feel like theft – not really.

As a society we have to be open to having the deeper debates about implications and meaning.  For example, the ‘copy and paste’ culture is already a major headache for education – but one that gets little discussion on any serious level. If people come to have a lesser view on the ownership of anything that is put out in to the digital domain, then all sorts of issues arise about the ownership, copyright and protection of the written word. Just as debates raged in the music world – if people can take your creative output, use it, enjoy it, even pass it off as their own then where is the incentive to produce new creative work? In addition, in education, if a student can cobble together an essay in 20 minutes with bits and pieces mashed together by cut and paste from a handful of websites, then what, if any, learning is happening? There is little or no engagement with the content with the result that the student has done little to establish their own knowledge or understanding. But, even in the face of software solutions (such as Turn It In) to attempt to prevent plagiarism, there are major issues about academic honesty. Yet, still today, relatively few educational institutes have engaged with the hard tasks of establishing workable principles on academic honesty, let alone establish the trust environment in which all parties accept that it’s in their own best interests not to engage in such practices.

Getting back to FaceApp, there are further issues. Especially over the last year, we’ve all been regaled with copious verbiage about Artificial Intelligence (AI) and its implications in the world in the very near future. There is a serious danger that when the manifestation of AI in people’s experience is a silly face morphing software the reaction will be, “Oh, is that all we’re being told to worry about?” AI will be seen with ambivalence as something occasionally, mildly amusing and not as the behemoth that is going to sweep through almost every aspect of life like a tidal wave. People in positions of power, authority and leadership should be in deep introspection about potential implications and how they need to respond within their spheres of influence to help people to prepare for what’s ahead.

The most serious implications of AI are not somewhere uncertain out in the future. Some of them are already having an impact right now and raising challenging questions about how AI will change the nature of power in society, freedom and civil liberties and even life and death. In China (a country that assumes a greater and greater significance in the world as geopolitical power shifts to Asia from the West) we are seeing extensive use of AI in the areas populated by Uighurs. These are indigenous people in a large region of China who identify themselves as muslim. They’ve long suffered persecution and unfair treatment. But today, AI is being harnessed to spy on them, to find ‘reasons’ to collect potentially millions of them in concentration camps for ‘re-education.’ They are essentially being indoctrinated to become obedient and compliant citizens of China who will give up any inclinations to see themselves as different.

Elsewhere in China there are forms of experiments being carried out to harness AI as a major vehicle in programmes of manipulation and control of the citizens. People are tracked, monitored and identified with vast arrays of face recognising cameras. The system identifies those who “do good” and gives them incentives and rewards. Those identified “doing bad” can be punished in all kinds of ways. On a massive scale it amounts to a process of harnessing technology for mind control and the creation of a subservient, compliant and passive citizenry who can be controlled in almost every aspect of their lives. Of course, there are all sorts of questions about what gets defined as good or bad behaviour, and by whom. This is reality and once it’s been harnessed in one country there’s no reason why governments elsewhere can’t adopt at least some more subtle elements to increase their control and power over the population.

The rapid increase in use of AI is going to change the fundamental nature of the relationship between man and machines, especially in the arena of work. Vast swathes of jobs will disappear – most notably those that require precise actions to carry out predictable and consistent actions with little variability. As yet, society has no real answers for how to retrain those displaced from work so as to remain economically productive. In vast parts of Asia and Africa in the last 30 years millions have been lifted out of poverty by the shift of millions of jobs of low and semi-skilled nature. In this time birth rates have remained high and so, for example, in India there is still unemployment conservatively well over 10%. The jobs that were flowing to the East are the very jobs that AI is likely to undermine. As yet, we still have no simple answers for how society will respond to these issues.

One final word on FaceApp. It doesn’t seem to have mattered very much to anyone that the software actually seems, as far as I can see, to be useless and poor in what it claims to do. Does anyone recognise the person in the picture below?

Faceapp copy

No, I don’t recognise him either. Nor, I’m sure would my mother or any other relatives. Which is kind of odd considering this is what FaceApp believes I looked like when i was younger!

So, if it can be so wildly wrong in figuring what a person looked like when younger, why should we take at all seriously what they predict we’ll look like when older in the future?

So, all just a silly storm in a Russian chipped teacup? Let’s not get diverted from the real issues of AI by such nonsense.

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Brain Fitness

Brain

Here’s a quick share.

There’s a new 12 part video series which is being shared free of charge over the coming days about prevention of brain disease, especially ways to prevent Alzheimers disease. However, I think it’s going to carry a lot more information that will be useful for ways to have a healthy brain in all ways:

Science of Prevention – Alzheimer’s Episode 1

You do need to move quickly on this as the first two episodes have already been released and will only be visible for a short time. The other ten episodes will be issued over coming days.

Like our physical health, we can’t or shouldn’t simply take our mental health for granted. There are actions we can take, things we can do to ensure that our brains will serve us well and support all our life goals throughout our lives.

Who We Really Are

Sharing a great short video (about 4 1/2 minutes). It’s all about how we engage with the world. Incidentally, I interpret that in the references the ‘God’ and divine processes, this doesn’t just tie to any one religion or any religion at all. Rather, it relates to being spiritual beings in the broadest sense.

We are in the world, and the world is within us.

Tim Cook – Apple CEO

Tim Cook

“If you want to take credit, first learn to take responsibility.”

Tim Cook, Apple CEO
Stanford University Commencement, 2019

A highly relevant and timely message from the heart of Silicon Valley, where he acknowledged hard questions need to be asked about credit and responsibility. New generations can learn this lesson, so that they won’t repeat the mistakes of others.

 

 

Principal Pipelines

Principal Office Sign

In schools Principals matter – they matter a lot. Some research has suggested that in immediate terms, their impact on student learning is second only to quality of teachers. However, I would suggest that in the longer term the quality of school Heads matters way more. For one thing, it will be very hard for a school to have high quality teachers doing their best work if there is poor leadership of the school.

Those of us heavily involved with private schools education have seen too many examples of good or great schools reduced to pale shadows of what they have been by the wrong leadership. Thankfully, we’ve also seen instances of the mediocre, ‘nothing special’ schools transformed in to great schools by the arrival of inspirational and impactful leadership. In all of this, the worry is that schools are clearly very vulnerable and sensitive on this issue of who leads.

It’s therefore a worry that insufficient long term attention is given to who will lead. I’ve even, sadly, seen instances of schools doing great work where the future looks vulnerable because all (including the great leadership people themselves) are behaving as though all the good will just keep rolling on in to the future looking after itself.

Good leaders aren’t always good at looking at the future of their organisation after they’ve moved on. I will never forget a discussion with the prominent Head of a highly reputed boarding school in England. That school is over 400 years old. He told me that when you lead in such circumstances you are always made mindful that the role, and the school, are never really yours, but rather you are a custodian within the limits of your time in service. He went on to express the view that in such circumstances the Head owes an enormous duty of care – not only to all the existing pupils, parents and teachers, but also to all those who went before and all those who will come in the future. This makes the leader continually mindful of the school as a long term continuous entity on its own foundations independent from the leaders who come and go.

In industry and business, lots of attention is paid to leadership pipelines – ensuring that not only are there good leaders in position today, but also that there is a better chance to have great leaders for the future (who are trained, motivated and ready to step in to roles with all the required skills and competencies, and rough edges smoothed off.)

This is much more achievable in large organisations with big, diverse workforce. When I worked for a bank in the UK there was an elaborate process for this. To be honest, at times that process was too dogmatic and rigid and would struggle in today’s fast paced, rapidly changing business environment. However, some system and process is certainly better than nothing at all. In the bank all who were deemed to have some senior leadership role in the future were sent on a one week Assessment Centre. This was an incredibly intense experience – 12 faculty and a head faculty with twelve individuals undergoing assessment at any time. On the final afternoon you would get a feedback discussion session that went on for 2-3 hours. Then, the following week, the faculty would submit a report that placed a letter on your personnel file. You were not allowed to know this letter, but it spelled out whether you were deemed to be long time mega-high, moderately high or medium high flyer. This served to enable the HR department to figure out what development  opportunities you needed along the way, which training programmes and postings to ensure that when you arrived where you were going you had all the skills and experience needed to be ready for your roles. it also enabled manpower planning to predict what manpower or resources at senior levels might need to be brought from outside to fulfil needs and avoid compromises with candidates deemed weak. Theoretically, the letter on the file wasn’t cast in stone, but in all reality, that was generally what happened, so I did have concerns about the rigidity built in to the system.  It also assumed a stable and predictable world and business environment within which to plan.

Today, it’s much harder for businesses to make predictions on manpower requirements for different calibres and skills requirements in to the future. Nevertheless, schools should be able to make reasonable predictions as their world and leadership requirement changes are far less volatile or market dependent. Yet, it doesn’t happen nearly often enough, with the result that when critical needs arise owners are left fishing desperately in the open market, their schools left vulnerable with all the implications for all stakeholders.

I have a few recommendations;

a) The first for groups with multiple schools – strategic plans will indicate the intended numbers of schools in future years. With this information, along with turnover data, the organisation should be able to predict future leadership requirements. Some form of appraisal that brings strong talent to the attention at Group level should aim to identify early those with future potential. Then, structure current roles, special project leadership opportunities and training (internal and/ or external) to ensure that they get to expand their leadership skills before they are called in to more senior roles,

b) Examine the culture of the group. If there has been a tendency for each school Principal to see their own school as an independent ’empire’ within the group, work gradually to develop more cross-group vision. Only in this way will people understand when small local inconveniences are created in favour of the bigger group wide benefits of promoting someone strong in to a leadership role elsewhere.
Groups where the Heads put their individual school’s interests ahead of those of the group will fail to realise the benefits of being a broader group. It needs to be understood that the owners/ CEO/ Director may need to move individuals for the good of the Group (and because failure to satisfy their career ambitions will probably see their services lost from the Group quite soon anyway).

c) When recruiting, especially for junior leadership and supervisory roles, keep in mind the future potential of candidates to meet more senior organisational roles and requirements,

d) Consider something that we were able to do very successfully when I was in Delhi – making at least one mid-level supervisory role (academic coordinators) in the group non-permanent. We gave people two year contracts in these roles. the thinking was that;
(i) If they had potential for higher leadership they would move on to new roles within the two years,
(ii) if they were unwilling or unable to step up to more senior roles, then it would be understood they would return to the teaching ranks after the two years. This also had the added advantage that people didn’t get ‘power crazy’ in these roles, knowing that in time the person they were leading would be their leader!
(iii) This had the advantage of avoiding ‘dead man’s shoes.’ Those with leadership aspirations among the teachers knew that within a relatively short time they would get opportunities to build their skills and prove their abilities in a supervisory role,
(iv) Structure more leadership development and training for those in these roles across the group,
(v) Only in exceptional circumstances would a person serve two terms in such a role,
(vi) The role carried an earned allowance, rather than a higher salary,
(vii) Group level leadership took personal and active interest in this cohort, so being more aware of how they could potentially fulfil roles right across the group. Being seen as ‘supernumerary’  their current leaders always knew that they were not part of the permanent local leadership structure.

e) This is a slightly tough one, but i believe if great leadership candidates for the future come across the radar, either through general interactions or recruitment, groups should be willing to consider taking them on board occasionally when available, even if a role requirement isn’t there immediately. In the short term this entails carrying a modest amount of extra cost, but can help ease pipeline in the future and can offer senior level staff to take on one off projects to advance the group.
However,  there’s a continuous need to not less this get out of control and to be clear about when and why it’s done.

f) For stand alone individual schools, this is much harder. They can’t afford the cost burden of carrying extra surplus leadership staff and it’s also undesirable as they’re liable to tread on each others’ toes.
In International Schools there is an acceptance of fairly frequent turnover, as most individuals prefer not to stay in one location for too long. There is a lot of research evidence that the optimum ‘sweet spot’ for school heads is around 3-5 years from taking up their role. So, history of movement and likely future plans should be a part of the recruitment process and thinking. In my experience, Heads with school going children tend to stay longer in one place.
In other respects, schools should build some strengths based on an expectation of turnover and less dependence on any one individual. A strongly team-based leadership approach and acccessibility of all the leadership team to parents can help to ease transitions when they do occur.

g) International schools that employ both expat and local employees should establish longer term plans to bring some strong locals through in to the leadership teams. This sends a strong message on career prospects to ambitious local teachers (both current and future recruits) and enables these leaders to provide continuity when expat leaders change. They are likely to serve for much longer time in each school.

h) Over time,  for this and other reasons many international schools stand to gain far more than they lose by building collaborative open trust relationships with other schools in the city/ country/ region. This entails breaking out of narrow competitive mindsets. As well as enabling schools to share training costs and resources at times, provide joint liaison with Ministries and local policymakers, it can also enable schools to support each others’ leadership needs for the longer term.
I won’t pretend this is easy. It takes time and personal investment to build the trust and it can be fragile if there’s a hint of poaching or otherwise undermining each other.  However, owners/ Directors shouldn’t underestimate the harm done to all international schools if any in the geographical vicinity fall on hard times as it makes all parents doubt the sector.

I was inspired to write this piece by a few articles etc. that i read in recent weeks about some research from the US, by Rand Corporation, involving the Wallace Foundation and some experimentation in Principal Pipeline management. I was surprised that the suggestion was that this was so very radical, or that it carried benefits for students and schools.
The following links provide more information for those interested:
The Hechinger Report – Study Examines Wallace Foundation’s Principal Pipeline Project
ASCD Webinar – Principal Pipeline
Wallace Foundation Videos – Principal Preparation

Leadership matters and recruitment in the open market will always be a hit and miss affair, not an exact science. Schools have a long term presence that requires long term thinking, planning and vision to ensure that present or near term success can all come tumbling down through latent fragility. Schools are ‘people businesses’ and these people issues require significant investment of time, effort and creativity.

 

 

Creativity – Key Skill

Wired to Create Crop

“The truly creative mind in any field is no more than this: A human creature born abnormally, inhumanly sensitive. To him …..a touch is a blow, a sound is a noise, a misfortune is a tragedy, a joy is an ecstasy, a friend is a lover, a lover is a god, and failure is death. Add to this cruelly delicate organism the overpowering necessity to create, create and create – so that without the creating of music or poetry or books or buildings or something of meaning, his very breath is cut off from him. he must create, must pour out creation. By some strange, unknown, inward urgency he is not really alive unless he is creating.”

Pearl S. Buck
Winner of Pulitzer and Nobel Prizes

Educators today are very fond of parading and selling the emphasis given to the development of creativity in their schools. Many have declared its importance through values, mission or vision of the school. This has been partly a response to the work of people like Dr Ken Robinson (highlighting the ways in which education kills creativity) and the recognition that creativity figures highly in most lists of the core skills that employers look for both now and in the future from their workforce.

However, I’ve really seen very little attempt by most educators to define what is really meant by creativity, what it would look like if a student had it and the best ways to ensure that school experiences nurture and cultivate it. How many schools could give an honest appraisal of how well they are achieving this aim?

The picture and quote above come from the best book I’ve read so far this year. As I read it I was continually mindful of this inclination towards creativity that is espoused by educators, but how the lack of detail or clarity suggests that these are simply nice words given little deep thought or introspection

The starting point is to acknowledge the types of creativity the world, business and schools want. in addition, as Dr Ken Robinson has highlighted over many years, the young infant doesn’t lack for creativity. A small child doesn’t need to be taught divergent thinking. When a child runs around the house or garden with a stick that is one second a gun, the next a flying broomstick, the next a walking stick and the next a cricket bat they show all the attributes of creativity.

The reality is that a lot of divergent thinking is not welcome in the classroom. Teachers fear the divergent thinking child. In fact, one chapter of the book shares research where children who were more creative divergent thinkers were among the least popular with their teachers, while their more compliant, obedient and passive peers were top in the popularity stakes. So, the child who is going to retain their creativity will need the resilience to deal with unpopularity and the treatment meted out to them by all around for ‘not playing the game.’

I had a very personal experience of this in primary school. I moved in to the classroom of a teacher I found incredibly frustrating. Her attention was all on power and control. It was a place where you spoke when ordered to do so, where obedience was the golden rule. I dared to ask questions and even after being given all the visual warning signals I continued to ask questions when dissatisfied with the dismissive responses i was getting. As time went on, the relationship between me and that teacher became more and more adversarial. Worse, she sought to turn my classmates against me with sarcasm and hints that I was stopping the class from moving forward (and the perception being that progress forward through the syllabus is what everyone’s supposed to care about). It all escalated to the point where the teacher suddenly took out a large roll of sellotape and taped my mouth shut. The sense of humiliation and belittling was horrendous. I received the message loud and clear that my curiosity, my desire to know things and understand some things deeper was not welcome in a classroom. Rather, classrooms were places where ‘playing by the rules’ counted above anything else and the punishments for daring to step out of line could be barbaric.

Creativity is challenging by its very nature. In 1959 Isaac Asimov pointed out that, “The world in general disapproves of creativity.” Many companies have had to take hard looks at their cultures to understand how they can create more ‘safe space’ for creativity. However, the focus on getting stuff done, continual movement of all in a common, shared direction in schools means that it’s majorly stifled in both teachers and students. Therefore, I conclude that any school that glibly declares it applauds creativity, but doesn’t ask itself serious questions and introspect continually is likely to be short-changing students.

Sadly, this gets brushed off by pointing out the inclusion of music, art and drama in the syllabus of the school and even that students can take these subjects through to examination levels. Also, much of the ‘creative time’ is pushed to extra curricular activities. A keen eye watching most schools’  annual talent competition would notice two significant things;

a) The levels of real, true creativity exhibited are minimal. The fact that a child can produce a reasonable rendition of a popular song or dance is hardly representative of creativity, and
b) Almost all the talent on show will have been acquired by the child outside the school, not in it.

The ability to point to a handful of children with some degree of mastery playing the piano or violin, putting on a staged musical or writing a poem for the school yearbook or displaying a watercolour of three pointy mountains and a rising sun does not represent proof that the school inculcates creativity in its students. The fact that many of those things might be done in very formulaic, pre-precribed and predictable ways may actually be indicative of quite the reverse.

As the various chapters of the book highlight, creativity is not neat and clean and certainly not formulaic. Rather, it comes out of daydreaming, mindfulness and developing an awareness of the working of one’s own mind. Invariably (but not exclusively) it flows from and is most often found in those who have undergone some suffering and had the strength to battle through to the other side of their personal challenges. If schools are truly positive for creativity they need to think carefully about how they support students to build resilience and grit.

As the quote at the beginning highlighted, creativity often flows from heightened sensitivity. All too often, today’s schools teach such sensitive children to tone down their emotions, to put a lid on strong feelings and to learn to conceal or bottle up those feelings that would make them stand out.

In fact, this may highlight the area that requires most effort in schools. All too often, it’s just not cool to stand out, to be different or to show behaviour or thinking that is outside the norm. Instead, school cultures emphasise conformity, fitting in and complying. many spend way more time drilling children for ‘march past’ etc for sports day than in activities that develop and expand on ability to think differently.

Visions, missions and values are not meant to be just nice phrases that are tripped out, displayed on websites, brochures and hall walls. Rather, they should be treated as touchstones against which a school community is continually testing itself.  The work of school leadership around these driving principles is never done. They should be continuously introspecting and leading the debate, encouraging a willingness to publicly challenge, question and innovate – a process akin to peeling an infinite onion.

It’s time to get creative about how we develop creativity in schools.

School Through the Eyes of Others

Pillars

Early in my experience of heading a school for the first time, I vividly remember the experience of a meeting with a prospective parent who had come in to discuss the possibility of admitting his son in the new school that was soon to open.

I met him in the reception area, shook hands and we headed through to my office. Nothing at all unusual at this stage, though conversation wasn’t exactly flowing. The gentleman was tending to answer questions in short or mono-syllabic responses. As we sat down in our seats I noticed that he was sweating slightly across his forehead and also that he was breathing from very high in his chest. As we started to talk he picked up a brochure and it was clear the paper was fluttering in his hand. Our discussion continued to be disjointed.

I paused, took a deep breath and asked, “Are you feeling uncomfortable?

He laughed, breathed and asked if it was really so obvious. He then admitted that his own school experiences had been rather traumatic, including some very unpleasant experiences in the Headmaster’s office. I smiled at him, told him mine wasn’t all a bed of roses either and suggested that we might have a walking meeting around the school grounds instead of sitting in the office.

We headed out of the door, walked for about 40 minutes with conversation flowing freely in a very relaxed manner. He made clear within about 5 minutes that he would be admitting his son. In the rest of our conversation we simply got to know each other better and, along the way, he shared some of the experiences he’d had in school that he’d only realised on that day had stuck with him in ways that were deep and powerful.

I share this memory because I have often felt that as a profession those in education are not always as good as we might be at seeing the education experience through others’ eyes. When educators do see the experiences in schools through the eyes of pupils or parents, too often there’s a temptation to be dismissive, to suggest that it is what it is and others should adapt. In the words of Stephen Covey’s fifth habit of highly effective people we need to do a better job of seeking first to understand and then to be understood. That doesn’t mean educators don’t have a right to be heard and understood, but is a matter of sequence and priority.

Recently, I read of an interesting story from the world of design thinking. The design company IDEO had been invited to consult for a hospital to look at how they might redesign the entire patient experience. IDEO are renowned for not taking half measures. Among other things, one of their designers actually checked himself in to the hospital as a patient and documented his experiences. When it came time for IDEO to present to the management, instead of a fancy presentation full of ideas and recommendations, they were shown a six minute video of nothing but the ceiling of a hospital ward.

They understood immediately that this is the mind-numbing reality for patients (for hours, not six minutes). This galvanized all the personnel of the hospital, not just the management, to work actively with the designers to come up with alternatives, to see the hospital experience from the perception of users. They came up with an enormous number of implementable ideas, because of a high sense of ownership. The ideas generated didn’t necessarily require big budgets, but made significant differences.

If we applied similar approaches to our schools, what might be achieved? If we treated everything that goes on as open to question and exploration, what might we change? What excuses about curriculum, budgets, time and others’ expectations would we put to one side?

This is not about terribly complex solutions. It’s about simple things that when all added together could add up to a big deal. School leadership and/ or outside inputs can lead the way, but i believe ownership will be far greater if the people in the school are a critical part of the movement. It’s important to make it fun, make it playful and very positive. Try things out. There’s hardly likely to be lots of dangerous downside on any changes, so better to go ahead and take action.

Change in schools doesn’t have to be about high cost IT or technology interventions.  If it’s motivated and driven with continual reference to the school’s values, vision and mission and from this perspective of ‘user experience’ it can gain its own momentum that will make change and innovation a way of daily life in the school.

(Would schools built for little people to be comfortable in have great big pillars like in the picture above? Worth thinking about.)

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