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

The Schools We Don’t Want

There are plenty of people ready to speak out about the type of schooling we no longer want, the industrial model education of yesterday that gets perpetuated in slightly altered forms despite the weight of voices to speak out against it. I’m as guilty as the next man for this. Prominent people who’ve stressed the need to get away from this model include Seth Godin, Sir Ken Robinson and now George Monbiot, British writer on politics and society;

The Guardian – George Monbiot – In the Age of Robots, Our Schools Are Teaching Our Children to be Redundant

George Monbiot is a respected writer on society, politics and a prominent columnist on important issues. In the article, with perfect justification, he attacks the industrial model of education, the gaps between what’s going on in too many schools today and the skills young people need to really flourish in the Twenty First Century and the relevance and applicability of much of the knowledge being crammed in to children. He also does a reasonable job of highlighting some of the reasons why, despite all the protests, little changes.

However, it’s when Monbiot, like many other commentators before him, comes to the alternatives that we see one of the reasons why change is so difficult. He gives a number of examples – giving students ipads, taking them out in to nature, imaginary project tasks, Reggio Emilia but for many educators, parents and even the politicians the sheer variety of these different options seems to be what daunts them and eventually causes them to settle for little tweaks around the edge of the existing industrial paradigm model.

For example – if we take the ‘getting back to nature’ idea, I know plenty of urban brought up children for whom this would be a minor form of hell. They would be uncomfortable with dirt, uncertainty, potential dangers and risks. Some might also be unsettled by the uncertainty of purpose, with the result that their learning in that environment is very limited and they just count off the time until they can get back inside a building.

Taking the artificially constructed projects idea, I was recently intrigued by the ideas developed by Marc Prensky (the man who came up with the terms – digital natives and digital immigrants) in his book – “Education to Better Their World.” He sees a future where a great deal of children’s school time is spent on real projects with real implications and real impacts. I don’t think anyone knows exactly how such an approach would work, yet. But, it’s going to be fascinating to follow through on those ideas.

At one point, Monbiot’s article becomes more about teachers than children. I’m afraid i don’t buy in to his ideas that if you just leave teachers to do whatever they wish and go individually in whatever direction they choose, this will deliver the answers. With justification, parents and society cannot accept that the educational outcomes for an individual child become a mere lottery and a game of chance determined by who happens to be their teacher. We also cannot be naive that teaching is ‘a calling’ and a passion for every teacher in every classroom. For an enormous number it’s a job choice out of a variety. In such circumstances, we need clarity in our expectations, we need accountability and a strong commitment to supporting the learning and continuous improvement of the educators.

I don’t claim that I’ve got all the answers any more than anyone else as to exactly how a the most ideal school education programme should look going forward. However, I believe for all of us collaboratively, the answers lie in developing our understanding of the world our children are growing up in, their needs for the future; emotionally, socially, economically and spiritually (in the broadest sense). The child and their interrelationship with their world now in the future should drive our decision making.

New Perspective on ADHD?

For quite a few years there have been people ready to at least hint that all might not be healthy around the issue of ADHD. Concerns have arisen about how the condition came in to existence, was recognised formally, how the pharmaceutical industry mad it a point to emphasise that this was a condition meriting long term treatment with powerful medicines and how it came to be diagnosed so readily that in some parts of the US one in eight children have had this label put on them.

When i talk about those who hinted that all was not well, one prominent person who immediately comes to mind is Dr Ken Robinson. For a long time he’s been questioning whether all is well, though prefacing most of his comments with a statement that he’s not qualified to say that ADHD doesn’t exist. People like robinson have to be very careful indeed. many have taken on the vested interests of the pharmaceutical industry and found that they paid a heavy price. For someone like him, discovering that routes to get his messages out about the needs for change in education would be a price too high to pay.

So, it struck me very forcefully when i saw that someone very prominent in the psychology field has now broken ranks and dared to come out and say just that – he doesn’t believe ADHD exists!

Power of Positivity – Harvard Psychologist Reveals ADHD Doesn’t Really Exist
(Click on the link above to read the article)

As you read the article, it’s very clear that Kagan isn’t just making a point about ADHD alone, but about the general pattern of over-diagnosis in the mental health profession that is having a devastating effect on too many people’s lives. Not every symptom is a reason for a diagnosis. He advocates for more time to be spent investigating causes.

In a school environment, I have often seen that it’s way too easy for the professional child carers to look for a simple diagnosis that can be dealt with when that’s what all the parties concerned are looking for. The parents want an answer for why their child is how they are (and why they’re different to other children) and the educators often want the child to comply more with norms so that educating in the classroom is made more consistent). In these circumstances, to explore causes means to unpick and expose all sorts of issues about the family, how they live, the patterns of their days and their interpersonal relationships, their communication, their routines (or lack of), their habits, their diet. Often, this is not what sits comfortably with the parents – with all the implications that they might have to take some responsibility for what’s happening with their child. Inadvertently, or otherwise, their actions may be at the root of their child’s problems. And who wants to be the professional taking parents down that route when the alternative is to tell them their child has a condition, common in their environment, and that it can be dealt with with an appropriate pharmacological solution.

We see in the article that Kagan has already come under attack for daring to speak out, and has been forced on to the defensive. The power of big pharma and entrenched attitudes are powerful indeed. His request that ‘we search a little deeper’ before diagnosing children is a perfectly reasonable one. However, I’m left feeling that as it’s not in the best interests of those concerned – the parents or the professionals, it’s not likely to change any time soon.

Changing Our Approach to Work

After the business barons got out of hand exploiting their workers with unhealthily long work shifts in awful conditions, the 8-hour shift came as good news and was almost luxurious for many. It went on to become embedded in the mentality of working people having been fought for and hard won. There was a slogan used by the campaigners that went, “Eight Hours for Work, Eight Hours for Rest, Eight Hours for What We Will!”

It’s held firm for a long time now, and been exported to every corner of the world. But, in so many ways it just plain doesn’t work any more. Here, this informative and entertaining article from Forbes highlights just some of those reasons – and suggests what could work so much more effectively for us.

Forbes – Why The 8-Hour Workday Doesn’t Work

While reading this I became aware of my own personal hangups that don’t make such changes easy. Early in my professional working life, it was the late 1980’s and i was working in a bank where there were a lot of very traditional and ‘set in their ways’ people. I had had many part time jobs during my student days and always worked hard. Here, suddenly, I was faced with an environment within which it was more important to be seen working and ‘busy’ than to actually get work done or achieve outcomes.

One of my biggest shocks was when i watched a senior gentleman who had just returned from his annual vacation labour for two whole days making lists of all the correspondence and work that had arrived on his desk during the two weeks he was away before he wrote a single letter in response or made a single phone call. It even troubled me that, in his absence, all work related to his clients was simply added to a growing pile on his desk. there was no comprehension that our responsibility was to meet needs of clients/ customers (and that a person’s holiday was an inadequate reason for them to go without service!)

There were time clocks in the office where each employee had to insert a plastic key that would then cause it to show how much time you had worked over the month. Some of the laziest and most unproductive people in the office used to show the highest numbers of hours at the end of every month! Figure that one out. There were all sorts of games and scams people could play. I really didn’t want to join in. In fact, far from playing the game, I got in to trouble after i’d been there about 6 months and to be spoken to sternly by the union representative. He informed me that it had been brought to his attention that I had been taking on ‘extra projects’ for managers and taking work home in the evenings and at weekends. This was to stop immediately!

I ignored the union rep and reminded him a few years later when I had been promoted a number of times and he still sat doing the same job as before. Nevertheless, the seeds had been sown at that time for my decision to strike out from my home country and head to the East, where attitudes to work and time tend to be rather different. i haven’t looked back really – in fact, this year I’ve moved further East!

I still suffer from guilt. We are all well aware of the ability for office workers to ‘guilt’ those who seem to be slacking if they have a personal or casual conversation in the workplace, or come a little later than others, regardless of work done, output achieved etc. I’ll even guilt myself for walking in half an hour after others, even though I know that I sat down and did two or three hours of great quality work that I’m proud of the evening before at home.

There’s one area where I do disagree with the advice in the Forbes article. I think when one is in the state of ‘Flow’ identified by Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi the need for breaks every hour melts away. Certainly, for me personally, the clock stops mattering when i’m in my groove like that. To force myself to take a break would actually be an annoyance, would break the flow and make me less productive. That doesn’t seem to make much sense to me.

It’s not just the time issue that needs major rethinking in our approaches to work. it’s also how we behave in our offices, how we organise them and how we make them places where people can actually get work of real quality done. These problems are well brought out in this TED talk;

Going back to my early working life, eventually i became a manager after a few years, in charge of an office with about 14 people working (or, I worried, too often not working), interrupting each other continuously. When i brought this up as an issue, people were shocked. I suggested a plan whereby anyone could put up a little flag at the front of their desk (we were entirely open plan). This flag meant, don’t interrupt this person. You couldn’t keep the flag for more than an hour at a time or for more than 2 hours in a single day. People didn’t like this. When the next ‘upward appraisal’ session came around they gave me a bad mark and complained i was making myself inaccessible. The truth was, it was vitally important to them to maintain the status quo. Concentrated, uninterrupted work time would mean we’d have to show some good work. Worse, it meant that you couldn’t impulsively go and stretch your legs whilst dumping some ‘upward delegation’ on your boss.

I’m writing this in the evening, sitting in my home with beautiful classical music playing in the background – Bach, if anyone’s interested. I worked at home all day today and didn’t even leave the house. I got real work done. Work that was important and matters. And, I probably achieved more in my work today than I had in the last week. i didn’t watch TV or waste my time. I did do some exercises and take a shower in the afternoon when I felt my work flagging. That left me ‘good to go’ for a few more hours afterwards.

So, why do i feel guilty?

 

Problem Based Learning

You don’t have to wait to grow up before you can apply your mind to real-world problems and challenges. Will students in such an environment lack motivation or question the relevance of what they’re learning?

This is development of real world skills in a real world context, whilst as a by-product the children just happen to acquire masses of knowledge (which they retain better because of the high levels of motivation, the relevance, the emotional engagement and the connectedness of what they're learning.

For teachers who want to start thinking about how to build more problem based learning in to their repertoire, here's a starting point from Edutopia;

Edutopia - Solving Real-World Issues Through Problem Based Learning