Sun Tzu and the Art of War

It’s sometimes very tempting for people to believe that in a rapidly changing world, what’s new is all that has value. However, I believe that more and more, as fast as the world around us changes, we need to keep one eye on the great learning and wisdom of the past in order to understand how to operate most effectively in the world.

One example in recent years has been the increased interest in the work of the Greek stoic philosophers to understand and make sense of how to live an effective life. Other works that bear study to understand the world we live in include the writings of Plato or the Analects of Confucious. One of my favourites is ‘The Art of War’ by Sun Tzu. Even though the book was written over 2,000 years ago it still has valid lessons today for business or life generally.

For those who want to get a simple taster, or a way to share the work with younger learners, I recently came across a cartoon video series. The thirteen videos each take one chapter of the book and make it very accessible.

Some people are uncomfortable with models related to war, battle or conflict to deal with issues in modern life. however, I believe this is to ignore the fact that in many situations if we are in a situation where, given the chance others would potentially act on a win-lose basis towards us, then it is naive to proceed as though life should not entail competition. I believe one of the greatest strength in this written work is the emphasis on using strategy to avoid battle.

The Playlist of all Thirteen Episodes
(Click on the link above to open a separate tab with the full playlist of all the episodes)

Well worth watching (and hopefully being inspired to go on and read the book)





Building Schools That Reflect Modern Education Priorities

In many parts of the world, educators tell everyone who will listen that they believe in reform, that the old ways of education will no longer work and that children need a different kind of education that develops the whole child for life in the Twenty First Century! And then, they basically build school infrastructure that looks just like the old or merely tweaks old structures gently around the edges. In such circumstances, is it really surprising if parents and students are left doubtful about the convictions behind these espoused changes in modern education?

There are exceptions – the Green School in Bali comes to mind – built entirely from bamboo and very consciously designed with the needs of the children and the environment first and foremost. I’m also aware of projects elsewhere in the world that have sought to bring significant input from educators themselves at the design phase so that schools are developed in ways that realistically support innovative and creative approaches to Twenty First Century learning.

I have had conversations with school owners and promoters who feared that involving educators in the early design phases would expose them to grossly extravagant, expensive and unreasonable expectations. Where I have been involved in projects where teachers were engaged i found there was an element of this at the beginning. Teachers came to the table with high expectations and some pretty lengthy wish lists. However, as they engaged in the process they came to understand more of the considerations at play and were more than able to adapt their initial dream wish lists to realistic prioritized needs. The end result was construction that had 100% commitment from the educators (those part of the process and their colleagues) and with all parties having a clear understanding about what was being done – and why.

There’s another issue that is helped when educators are included in the process of design and planning for new school premises or facilities, that I’ve come across quite a few times. When owners/ promoters and designers sit down to plan the design and creation of a school building there are many equations that go on, with due inputs from the financial advisers. Every decision to create a room or learning space is critical. Under the traditional school structure patterns a standard classroom can be considered a ‘revenue generating space’ (If class sizes are going to be 25 pupils, then that room is worth potentially 25 X the school annual fee in annual revenue). However, a room designated as labs (computer, science etc.) or a music room, drama room, Special Education Needs space, storage rooms etc. are basically ‘cost centres’ as no further children can be admitted in to the school because of the existence of that room.

When new premises are built they are not utilised to full capacity. Over time, educators eye the empty spaces (long term planned as revenue spaces) and come forward with all sorts of projects and ideas for ways to use them (as cost spaces). Then, as the facility fills up, educators start to suggest that it is reaching capacity long before the student numbers envisaged in the original plans. When administrators start to talk of turning these spaces back in to what they were originally intended to be educators can get disappointed and resistant. It helps if there were educators involved in the initial processes who can verify and confirm the original room allocation intentions. Compromise on this can undermine the original financial modelling for the school – the price for that would ultimately be paid by parents through fees or compromises of cost cutting elsewhere.

There is a major caveat. The educators who are brought in to the design and planning process need to be those with open minds and creativity, ready to bring the best of new innovative educational thinking to the table and with a desire to create learning spaces that are flexible and effective to be used for today’s classroom practices and learning approaches.

Needs from today’s learning spaces vary according to the age of pupils. However, I believe that bigger spaces with scope and flexibility to be divided in to smaller areas make most sense across all age ranges. Large open areas allow for dramatic engagement, activities that combine physical movement with learning, project based learning, role play etc.

There is also a need to acknowledge that the introverts among our students need ‘quiet time’ and small spaces where they can work with minimal noise and disturbance. These kinds of spaces are also invaluable for those children working to overcome challenges of distraction.

Promoters worry that such ideas would see far less students in larger spaces, undermining the financial efficacy of the schools. However, I believe that when schools break out from the traditional preconceptions, then we may see far more effective space utilisation. Currently, an enormous amount of built up area in schools is dedicated to corridors (often as much as 20%). This is necessary because of the way time is regimented so that either everyone is in rooms or everyone is out of rooms.

Next, especially in Secondary Schools there are lots of ‘single use’ spaces that spend large parts of the day out of use. In turn, when students vacate a classroom to go to a lab, a PE hall or some other outside activity, those classrooms are empty, wasted space. I have another longer blog post that’s half written right now that explores some even more radical ideas about how we might rethink the academic year. While I believe this carries many benefits, potentially one of the biggest would be to make far more effective use of expensive real estate and infrastructure.
(Watch out for that one coming soon.)

We won’t really be able to claim that we’re serious about modernising education until we reach a situation where most new schools and school buildings include innovative space use, allocation and design. It’s time to say farewell for good to the block shaped buildings with big corridors and rows of identical doors leading to identikit rooms. We must banish the rows of desks, the bells that mark out identical metered blocks of time where all the learners do prescribed things in rigid orders.

With this in mind, i applaud all those around the world who have the courage to do innovative things in school design. I share here a TED talk from about 4 years ago in which a really very modest and imaginative architect shares the thinking that lead to an amazing kindergarten in Japan. Worth watching for the spirit of ‘what’s possible’ and the responsiveness to the needs of learners as humans of a particular age.


Free Education Webinars


Here’s a quick one as we head in to the weekend – a list of free online webinars for teachers and education leaders that you can sign up for:

EdWeb Professional learning Network – Free Webinars

(If you click on the link above it will open in a new tab or browser page. Then, scroll through the list of around 13-14 webinars. Click on any that interest you. They’ll ask you to fill in some brief details and you’ll receive your invitation to the webinar. I believe there’s no limit to how many you can attend)

As they’re US based, the time difference can be a bit daunting to attend such webinars live. However, most companies will advise at the time you book if there is going to be a recording available afterwards.

Rethinking Teaching

Mr Johnson is my newest classroom hero. I came across information about this award winning US teacher a few weeks ago and the more i learn about him and the way he has transformed his classroom the greater my respect for him.

Nothing suggests that this teacher is provided with a great deal more resources than any other teacher. But, the creative use of Project Based learning (PBL) and so much more of what he does is clearly inspirational, highly motivating for his students and it’s no surprise that his feats have been recognised already. I’m sure he’s destined to get a lot more recognition, but i hope also that other teachers will look to his inspiration.

Here’s a video in which he talks a bit about his motivations. What’s striking is that he is one of those whose motivation has come from a shockingly bad schooling experience and a desire and passion for something better for the children coming later.:

The classroom is called ‘Johnsonville’ and the teacher the self-styled Mayor. Students are citizens within this environment. They earn, contribute and have the scope to personalise their environment.

To support the Johnsonville environment there’s a Youtube channel, a WordPress blog site and clearly this high school drop out turned passionate educator goes out of his way to share what he’s doing openly, to inspire and encourage other educators to step out of their comfort zones, to create education spaces focused on the learners and to create environments where every learner can succeed in their own way:

Johnsonville – WordPress Information Hub

Stem Empathy Article – Bluejean

Getting Beyond HR Cliches

Job interview

As I was growing up, in order to earn money to fund studies and other needs I had many different J-O-B-S. However, they were all pretty menial, some very menial. While they may have given me many very valuable lessons for life they gave very little insight in to companies and big organisations. After I graduated I landed a job with the division of a major high street bank that serviced the financial planning needs of its wealthier customers (clients). This was really the first time that I started to have personal insight in to what went on in big organisations. Along the way, I started to realise that I had a lot of assumptions and beliefs – some of which turned out to be right and some very wrong.

I was aware that lots of companies and organisations made big issues of the importance of their people. Most declared to the world that their people were critical. So, I expected that the HR department of a company would be at the very core of organisations. I was in for a shock.

There are some interesting clues. While CEOs, COOs, CFOs and even occasionally marketing heads sit on the boards of companies, the Head of HR very rarely does so. Partly leading from that, it’s incredibly rare to see Heads of HR rise to hold the CEO position. Ironically, some of this is wrapped up in the complex gender issues that see a higher proportion of senior officers in companies holding the HR role. Somehow, in the hard-nosed world of Corporates it’s considered that the HR role is a good role for women, to address all those touchy-feely issues that can actually be irritants to those single mindedly focused on shareholder value and the pursuit of profits.

On e other thing that was memorable, was the way that the overall HR responsibility was split between two separate operations – HR and Personnel Departments. The latter dealt with all the administration of people; time keeping records, holidays, pensions, taxation, salaries. These are tasks that if a company does them right employees will never sing the organisation’s praises, but get them wrong and employee morale can quickly be undermined. This was really an Admin department related to people and arguably not an area of high creativity or flair. Focus is often on doing these things at the lowest possible cost, with the maximum efficiency.

The other department, on the other hand, was different, but still somehow secondary to those seen as more directly impacting the bottom line.  This dealt with manpower planning for the shorter and longer term, recruitment, training and professional development. I believe sidelining these functions and responsibilities, because their outcomes are less immediate is a mistake for most organisations.

For example, I’ve seen too many school situations where leadership treated recruitment as an irritant to be completed as swiftly as possible, so as to get back to the day to day running of the school. Insufficient thought is given to creative sourcing of potential candidates, thought out means of sifting those candidates who do apply and interviews are short and cursory.  If an individual has the qualifications on paper the interview is often more a case of the individual not losing the job offer than gaining one. Little regard is paid to their fit with the existing team, contribution, longer term goals and ambitions etc.

What goes on was summed up very well in a quote i came across from a UK company HR Head, “We hire people because of their knowledge and professional experience, but we fire them because of their behaviour.” Arguably, in many schools it’s worse – we hire them simply because they have they represent the least bad fit with regard to having the academic certificates required for the role. Now, I know here many school Heads will cry foul and say they have no choice because parents want to ‘see a body on the job’. However, have they ever, really, engaged in the open dialogue with their parent communities about the longer term implications of this? In my experience, within reason, you can ask parents to back you to take time to find the right candidate for the school, rather than jumping at the first qualified teacher.

For those who think this is a ‘waste of time’, they should just tot up the man hours and the untold cost of angst, bad will with other staff, parents and students when the wrong people are recruited. For any organisation to fulfil its vision with full energy and in a timely manner i believe it’s critical to have the right people on the bus. You can never make recruitment an exact science, but everything you can do in the short term to limit turnover or effects of bad recruitment in the longer term will have a massive impact.

I also believe that in any environment where employees believe they have choices it’s vital that there is an effective HR representation to work in collaboration with line managers to ensure that employees are appropriately motivated – both to deliver their best work, and to want to stay and not get tempted away by competitors.  There’s a need to understand the drivers and motivators for employees, to be clear about how reward packages match up to alternatives (inside and outside the profession) and that employees are getting the recognition, development opportunities, affiliation scope and rewards that make them feel motivated. Today, many workplaces involve different genders and broad age ranges of employees and line managers need specialised input on how to meet the differing needs of different stakeholder groups.

I was reminded of all these factors and more recently when reading a discussion forum on the ’12 Manage’ website. For those not familiar, this is an online resource that is well worth taking some time to explore. The link below is to the specific discussion forum on the myths and realities of modern HR. Users following the link may need to fill in some brief details to subscribe, but it’s free.

After seeing this interesting forum discussion you can explore the other resources and will find that it’s very extensive, with materials on almost every con ceivable topic on management and leadership.

12 Manage Forum – Old Myths About HR

Many of the users also provide external links to more in-depth material on the topics under discussion. However, within the website there’s an enormous amount of material and information available, as well as the forums where experts share their viewpoints in open discussion. What can make these especially interesting are the differing viewpoints and perspectives from around the world.

To conclude, I believe HR has to assume a far greater significance within organisations. That it hasn’t always is something HR people need to introspect on because they, more than anyone else, know the potential impact  – for good or bad – when HR practices and approaches serve the business needs.

For Better Learning, Teach Children How Their Brains Work

I’ve long advocated that if we want children to ‘own their learning’ and develop the inclinations and habits to become lifelong learners, then its important that the learning process be as rewarding, satisfying and effective as possible. I’ve gone as far as to say that it’s my belief that in our schools there are no bad learners, only learners with bad  or weak learning styles and approaches.

This is not at all surprising when we consider that generally children have been taught little or nothing about their brains, how they work and how that impacts learning. It’s like all the attention has gone on outcomes, with zero effort to address issues of the process. The result is that vast numbers of learners finish up with weak or inadequate outcomes simply because their methods weren’t the best.  All ‘what’ and no ‘how’.

This short video from Stanford University shares insights from a collaboration project with an innovative school to address some of these issues and to explore the results.

I Disagree With You


(c) Calvin & Hobbes

“You’re just a complete cretin! You would say that.”

“It’s the internet, stupid.”

It’s easy to see the world we live in today as one where people have lost the ability to argue, disagree or even simply exchange viewpoints without resorting to personal attacks, win-lose confrontation and the very lowest levels of discourse.

The above statements are both ones that I’ve actually received from posting comments of my opinions on Youtube and Twitter. Of course, there have been many far more vulgar ones that I don’t intend to share here. None of them come from people who ‘know me’ in the real world. Is it in fact the depersonalisation that makes it so easy for people to resort to such responses to people who remain strangers to them – people they will likely never meet?

One of the results of all this bad and negative communication is a fear expressed by many that society is becoming uglier in its inability to allow anyone to hold an opposing view and that people have lost the ability to argue or disagree effectively. Ironically, the second quote above just a few days ago was made in response to a very mild comment I made to say that i was uncomfortable with the racist epithets thrown around casually by a popular and much viewed financial commentator from the US. While many blame the internet for this apparent loss of civility and decency in discourse, ironically this person appeared to be telling me that I shouldn’t be concerned by what the video maker had done because this was the internet, where anything and everything goes and the normal rules and expectations of human interaction don’t/ need not apply.

However, in almost every country of the world you will hear complaints of increased incivility, intolerance and ‘zero sum’ communications. We see it in the discourse in the media, we see it in politics – increased polarisation and communication that fails to communicate.

Whether it’s conspiracy theorists adamant in their beliefs that the moon landings were faked or that the earth is really flat, whether its those arguing for Brexit in UK or the sometimes almost rabid supporters of Trump in the USA they are all marked out by one key trait – they express opinions as facts and when challenged or questioned their response is usually to express the same opinion, but louder, more bluntly and with more scathing obfuscation of the arguments given against them.

To me, there is an issue that should concern us in modern society where, increasingly, to express an opinion in a way that tolerates and is open to others’ views is seen as weak. Someone who prefaces their words with phrases like; to me, I believe, possibly etc. risk being immediately marginalised as woolly thinkers. The world wants to applaud and support those who are demonstrative in expressing their viewpoints, even when that crosses the line to opinion as irrefutable fact. Once you’ve declared something to be an undeniable fact, then directly and indirectly a person who expresses any other opinion is essentially calling you a liar. This legitimizes an immediate degeneration to insult, expletives and making the issue about the person rather than the allegedly disputed fact.

In a fast changing, VUKA world I can understand why people can be tempted to seek certainties where they are impossible. People in positions of power and authority who want or need to gain the trust and confidence of others are tempted to ‘give the people what they want’. As a result, the politician who, far more honestly, declares that to the best of his/ her ability,  based on studious in depth analysis of a situation, taking the views of experts etc. believes or hopes that the outcome of taking action X will be desired outcome Y, i seen as weak, uncertain and ineffective as a leader. Instead, too often, we finish up with the blind leading the blind and apparent certainty and conviction in ‘facts’ actually being a smoke screen or a fudge for a lack of in depth analysis or research. It’s like we’re saying things move too fast to do real analysis of anything and once we have an opinion the only way to get progress is to bluff conviction and certainty of belief.

The more I thought about this issue, the more my thinking kept returning to the failure of education to take students in to these kinds of areas of learning. How many of us in school were ever taught (or ever learned) how to disagree, how to enter in to effective and deep thinking and exchange of viewpoints and ideas with others? certainly, schools haven’t done this, so instead, young people learn from what they see in the media, what they see others doing on the TV and what passes for debate on the internet.

Some teachers/ educators might want to claim that at least the students who take part in debating, especially at higher competitive levels do get to learn these skills and competencies, even if not overtly and directly. However, over some years I’ve been increasingly concerned that when judging or observing debates, intra or inter school, even at national competition levels tend to lack real debate, but instead are viewed and judged as a series of stand alone autonomous speeches on alternative viewpoints. The participants rarely engage with their opponents’ arguments for fear of being seen as combative. In the absence of debate judges have no choice but to just judge on quality of speaking.

However, I believe there is a very good tool, too much neglected or not known by educators, that could be used in schools to teach effective debate – essentially to teach children how to disagree. It could be enormously valuable in enhancing the education and learning process, as well as having a material impact in the wider world if it improved the quality of discourse between people holding differing perspectives..

The tool that is available is sometimes known as “Graham’s Hierarchy of Disagreement.” it was developed by Paul Graham and set out in an essay he wrote in 2008. Paul Graham is a highly renowned computer programmer, developer of Silicon Valley companies and founder of Y Combinator. It’s portrayed as a pyramid:


For more in depth understanding of each of the levels in the hierarchy, I would strongly recommend reading Paul Graham’s original essay on the subject, available here:

Paul Graham Essay – How to Disagree

Immediately, by just looking at the pyramid, or reading Graham’s article, we can see where so many of the problems are occurring, whether it’s in politics or what passes for debate on the internet. The vast majority of ‘arguing’ is taking place at the bottom levels of the pyramid. Even when not seeking to ‘win’ arguments through base name calling, still too often the chosen routes have more to do with undermining the credibility of the other person to be expressing a view, rather than the actions or words associated with the higher levels of the hierarchy.

I referred earlier to school and college level debating. Sadly, too much of what passes for debate is simply the participants camping safely at the fourth level, never able to elevate their approach to the higher levels, and careful to avoid the lower levels so as not to incur the displeasure of judges. Incidentally, on that, I’ve known some very fine debaters who could take deliberate and very conscious diversions in to the lower levels of the hierarchy in competition and get away with it, because they did so with humour, sensitivity and proved themselves equally adept at soaring to the highest levels as well to get to the crux of a debate motion.

In public (or internet) debate, would it be too much to believe that we could elevate more of the discourse to the levels 5 to 7 in the hierarchy? I’m not sure, but i believe it’s at least worth the effort. Even if we still saw politicians and others resorting blatantly to the lower levels, we would at least see more people more aware of what they were doing, why they were doing it and very often why they are doing it to conceal their own inadequately thought out beliefs. We would have a common, shared language to talk about such things. also, people who’ve expressed a perfectly valid and legitimate opinion on an issue would be better equipped with knowledge of the hierarchy to understand the responses they get from others. If someone simply resorts to personal insult we can significantly reduce our felt need to respond in a similar way.

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”

I believe we should teach our young to develop their higher intelligence and be able to use it effectively, as well as to be able to identify when others are, or are not, doing likewise and to respond accordingly. For one thing, I believe we would see a generation who would be far less fragile about issues when their views and beliefs are challenged. Not only would we have a more civil world, but also one in which through higher quality debate and engagement man’s progress can be significantly enhanced.

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