Politicians and Historians – Leave Those Kids Alone !!

As our children grow up in an ever-faster changing world, there are those who suggest that for employment reasons emphasis has to shift to STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) in terms of focus, attention and time allocation in school learning. There are even those who favour elimination, or at least considerable scaling back of humanities subjects such as history.

However, in any country where politicians or those politically connected advocate for reducing the significance of history in schools we need to be very suspicious of their motives. When politicians aren’t trying to reduce the amount of history being learned by their citizens (so that it’s easier to feed them a version of history that suits their future political agenda) we find them alarmingly ready to pressure academics, or reward biased academics, to ‘rewrite history, so that children and young people are taught history with distorted slants.

This is alarming as children and young people tend to blindly accept and believe whatever they are taught in schools, especially what is found in text books and other academic and education material. Sadly, there is ample evidence that academics can’t always be trusted to give our young a balanced, open and fair interpretation of the past, or to encourage them to explore different perspectives on that past to come to their own conclusions about what is most likely to be the reality.

Some might suspect that this is a ‘developing world’ issue and that it only goes on in those countries where their academic systems are less ’embedded’, less established in the longer term. It is true that it’s a bigger issue when combined with extensive banning of books in those countries, as this denies people the right to access alternative viewpoints from those being spoon-fed through the education system. This has, for example, been an issue in India where we have seen this combination of distortion of history with specific ideological and political slants combined with extensive banning of books that put forward alternative perspectives.

However, nobody should be complacent in any country.. The temptations to distort, blow up or play down the significance of particular past events or actions exist in every country. I would suggest in any place where the history suggests a past that was a continuous and virtuous stream of appropriate, wise and prescient decisions is a history that has been rewritten, glossed and beautified (and should be doubted for veracity).

Some of the reasons for distorting history are quite simple to understand. National pride and hindsight can leave many countries’ historians and politicians tempted to gloss over or reduce the significance of acts in the past that are embarrassing or humiliating in the national psyche. However, even here, there can be unhealthier motives than simple hubris or pride.

We can question the over importance of national pride as a form of xenophobia and a base for the kind of nationalism that manifests in negativity towatd outsiders and ‘the other’, rather than inclinations to acknowledge equality and the essential humanity of all. None of us should ever allow the artificial man-made construct of ‘a country’ to become so significant that it leads us to justify distorting the truth of history. Countries are strange, artificial artifacts of history themselves.  One only needs to look at continents like Africa, or the Arab nations. In the latter case the UAE provides an interesting example. Throughout its past it was an area of nomadic tribes for whom the Western construct of a nation was alien. In Africa, we see vast swathes of land bisected by razor sharp boundaries that were laid down by Western settlers to agree between themselves the carving up of different plots of land to satisfy their colonial and acquisitive nature of that time. Frequently, these artificial borders cut through the lands of existing local leaders, tribes and peoples without thought, without their involvement or agreement. To fail to understand this history is to fail to understand the struggles of most of those places today to take on the expected characteristics of statehood or nationhood when their country has peoples whose origins lie in tribes that may have had hundreds of years of animosity and rivalry, whilst their own populations have been split by these artificial borders. We see an example in the Middle East with the problems associated with the Kurdish people. They have no country of there own, but are spread across the borders of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran.

When I studied History in the UK, I think by and large, it was quite honest and open about aspects of the past in a lot of ways. There had been a movement in the 1960’s and 70’s to be more open, transparent and honest about things like the British role and complicity in the slave trade. However, it’s probably true that the history related to colonialisation tended to be heavily slanted towards the contribution of Britian to the countries colonised and how they benefited. There was, from my memory, for example, no mention of British mismanagement in Bengal causing famine that killed large numbers of people. In the teaching of the histories of USA and Australia there was little acknowledgement of the persecution and suffering of the indigenous populations. Some of the issues and heat generated by debate are highlighted in this recent article:

The Conversation – British history is Still Being Whitewashed By the School Curriculum

Here’s another article with further perspective on UK historical distortion:

The Telegraph – History Being Distorted by Politicians

When I moved to India, one of the first realisations I had on this subject was how certain aspects of Mahatma Gandhi’s personal life were completely erased from the history being taught to students. I nearly found myself in an embarrassing situation when I naively started discussing aspects that i was aware of from international writers on Gandhi. Seeing the blank and shocked looks on their faces I backed away quickly and retreated to safer ground.

In subsequent years it’s been intriguing for me to see the ways in which significant aspects of the country’s history are particularly rewritten to suit am agenda preferred by those committed to the doctrine of Hindutva. They tend to play down or deride the impact of the moguls and adjust other aspects related to the past (even denying evidence from archeologists). Initially, this was done in certain states that were controlled by these parties, but as they have gained more power at the centre, so they seek to promulgate these versions of history across the whole country. Today, even the interpretations and conclusions drawn about the assassination of Gandhi are fiercely fought over.

The following article from 2018 highlights that when we look at how this process happens in different countries, one thing is clear – the greater the quality of the country’s education system, the greater the extent to which people are willing, able and ready to challenge and question what they’re being told. As a result, some of the rewriting in India is blatant, unsubtle and pays little heed to the howls of horror from the learned and intellectuals – in fact, it becomes a good opportunity to portray such people as being against the nation and to undermine the respect for learning and knowledge;

Outlook India – Rewriting India’s History, Hindutva Forces Meddling With India’s Present and Future

I was motivated to write this by an article this week highlighting that the increasingly polarised and belligerent politics in the US is now manifesting in the same kinds of historical distortions for political ends, even in what is being taught to children living in different states.

New York Times – Two States, Eight Textbooks, Two American Stories

Many questions arise? Does all this really matter so very much? After all, it’s only the past and history. I believe it matters a great deal. History, as a store of knowledge should be there to guide societies in to the future and hopefully even enable them to learn from their errors, make better, wiser decisions and progress better for the good of all. Regrettably, too often, when history is being distorted it’s being done to favour one group of people over another.

There are issues in education where it’s hard for politicians to interfere, because the combined voices of educators and parents limit their misbehaviour. Regrettably, this isn’t one of those issues. Too often, we find that there are large proportions of the parents whose own political ideas, beliefs that they’ve bought in to cause them to seek and encourage those things that endorse and justify their stance. Thus, they can be the politicians’ biggest allies. It would be nice to believe that educators would raise their voices for what’s right – fair and critical exploration of history (warts and all), that enable children and young people to develop their skills of reasoning, questioning, analytical and critical thinking. Sadly, whilst some educators stand firmly on the high moral ground, we see too many who are not able to see past the fact that they are citizens in a polarised society first, educators second!

It’s a sad fact that when most of the loudest and most strident voices are leading towards extremism, including reshaping of history to create justifications, anyone who dares to speak out for moderation or balance is liable to find themselves labeled extremist, reactionary and divisive. The lemming that refuses to go with the flow over the cliff doesn’t make itself popular with its fellow lemmings.

Ultimately, what’s right goes to the very heart of what school, learning and education are for. If we believe that they are not to pander to the agenda and manipulations of politicians, then instead we must de-empasise the importance of the curriculum content that may come and go, but rather focus on the skills and competencies to develop in our students. Those who develop their skills of critical and evaluative thinking will draw their own conclusions and practice healthy skepticism about history that doesn’t seem consistent, congruent or on which different commentators have put forward different perspectives. They will also have developed the character, personal strength and resolve to be questioning of all orthodoxies, even those to which they may personally be most drawn.

 

Sleeping For Exam Success

Sleep for exams

Particularly in India, I know that with the festive season and New Year over, for many students their thoughts have turned to exams in March. Some will believe that through super-human and inhumane scheduling they will squeeze out phenomenal marks in order to secure the college or higher secondary stream of their choice (and because they and their parents are going to wrap a considerable amount of their own identity and societal status on the height of those marks and especially beating their peers).

Whilst it’s laudable to set goals and put maximum effort in to achieving them, so every student has to acknowledge they were not born with the ability to do the impossible. Their relative success will actually be most down to how smart they plan and execute their preparation. Smart, intelligent planning, execution and consistency will always trump random, unplanned or unscientific effort.

Probably nowhere is this more important than in relation to sleep. There’s a certain irony that students spend much of their time these days bemoaning their special needs for sleep, only to ignore all their needs and the science when exams loom on the horizon. I can admit that when i was young I made a lot of mistakes in these areas – mistakes that undoubtedly cost me and prevented me from fulfilling my full potential. However, today’s youngsters have access to so much more information, science  and really should find it much easier to do what is in their best interest.

The following article is fascinating. Some of the conclusions are pretty obvious, but there are also some surprises;

Science News for Students – Surprise

a) Lack of sleep WILL impair performance in exams,
b) Good sleep habits before exams doesn’t just have a small impact on performance – it may be one of the biggest influences,
c) Losing sleep for one or more nights can’t be made up by sleeping longer on another night. (This isn’t just important for exam preparation – there is now copious evidence that old habits common when I was young, to incur a sleep deficit during the week and make it up at weekends doesn’t work!)

Maybe the biggest surprise – the biggest impact doesn’t come from the overall quantity of the sleep, the quality, the amount of restlessness, but the consistency AND this doesn’t need to be consistent just for a few days, but ideally for weeks or even months.

I don’t have any exams coming up, but have set as a health goal for 2020 to be more consistent on bed and rising times.

Students, that consistency needs to start now as a habit and then be maintained right through to your exams. Here’s to your success!!

 

Parenting Online Conference

Happily Family Conference

Educators work with a variety of key stakeholder groups. However, there are none more important than children and parents. We live in an age where, rightly or wrongly, people believe that parenting is harder than ever. I don’t actually believe that it’s overall harder, but there are certainly new challenges and issues for parents to deal with that were not there in the past.

For many parents change, challenges and new issues can leave them like rabbits caught in the headlights of an oncoming truck. I also believe that too many parents dissipate all their mental bandwidth on other issues leaving little or nothing left over for their parenting. I’ve often marveled that apparently highly educated and intelligent people too often apply more thought, care and diligence to decisions they make in their professional lives than in the raising of their children. In the distant past this wasn’t considered to have mattered – the world changed very slowly and people lived in multi-generational family units. Family elders were seemed to have all the knowledge and experience to guide their children as they in turn raise their own children. Today, parents are dealing with such different issues to earlier generations that the elders have little to offer that’s really valuable (and they often live a long way away).

As educators we find parents often seeking guidance or suggestions. Also, strong educators are continually engaged in dialogue with parents to dovetail what’s happening in the school and the home aligned for the benefit and development of the child. Both need to be working in ways that are positive in the child’s growth, development and to be and become the best possible version of themselves.

The reality is that there are great resources and opportunities for parents who want to tap in to knowledge, experience and ideas. These are also of great use for the tribe of educators. For me, I think this will be the fourth year that I’ve signed up for the ‘Happily Family’ online virtual parenting conference.  This is organised and compered by husband and wife team Cecilia and Jason Hilkey. They are former early years educators who saw a need to meet for parents to access the best possible advice and ideas for how to enhance their parenting skills.

The sign up is a quick 1 minute through the following link:

Happily Family – Online Conference Sign Up

The way it works is very simple. Each day around 5 interviews are put up live online. They can be accessed free for around 48 hours (if I remember correctly). Within that time you are free to watch as many as you like. Another 5 come online each day. If you want full, long term access to all the videos, for example for use with parent workshops or teacher CPD,  they offer a simple arrangement to buy that access.

Enjoy!!

Keeping Up With Edtech

Edsurge

Things move fast these days in the area of education technology. There are few better ways to keep track of what’s happening, so that educators and school administrators can build effective IT strategies and plan effectively to meet their IT needs for schools and colleges than Edtech oriented conferences. These take place throughout the year, but it can be hard work to pick and choose when and where to attend.

So, this is a handy link. Edsurge have done a lot of the hard work, identifying 50 of the top Edtech oriented international conferences all over the world in 2020., available to download.

Edsurge – Travel the Globe With These 50 International Education Technology Events in 2020
(Click on the link above to open in a separate tab or window. Then fill in a short form to receive an email to download the guide)

For those who are not familiar, Edsurge is a very useful and thorough email newsletter that comes out around twice a week that carries a lot of useful information about what’s happening in Education Technology – well worth subscribing.
I’m not on commission or getting anything back for endorsement!!

The Changing Job Market

Job Changes

Along with others, for years I’ve been writing about how education and schooling needed to adjust to prepare young people for a fast changing world and particularly to acknowledge that many of the jobs our students will go on to do are vague or unclear when those children are in school. This has been one of the strongest forces and arguments behind ‘lifelong learning.’

But, occasionally some might be tempted to ask whether there is proof on this. Has it turned out to be true that the nature of jobs is changing rapidly and will continue to do so. Well, yes, in fact there’s plenty of evidence and here’s a very interesting article that highlights evidence of rapid growth in demand for 15 jobs that didn’t exist in 2010:

Ladders – Article – 15 Jobs No one Knew About in 2010 That Everyone Will Want in 2020

This is the reality and is so clear to me that debates about needs for lifelong learning preparation in schools are superfluous. Instead, we need to be talking about how best to prepare children and young people with the right mindsets to adapt and succeed in this fast changing world.

The Bayesian Model – We Need To Understand the Dark Times Ahead

Cloud 1

In recent weeks I came across the phrases “Bayesian Model” and “Bayesian Inference” a few times and started to wonder what it was (and why it was cropping up so much now).

In reality, with everything happening in the world today, this might be one of the most important concepts that everyone should know about. It provides considerable explanation for the increasingly bitter polarization that we see happening in so many parts of the world today. Therefore, it goes to the heart of the world we’re living in today, and the world we’re shaping for tomorrow.

My search for information came up trumps when i found the following article. It’s a fascinating, scholarly article that shares in a very readable manner the background and research that explains the Bayesian inference, why it matters and the worrying state of polarization in the world today;

Center for International Relations and Sustainable Development – Bleak Future Ahead – The Science Behind Contemporary Polarization
(Click on the link above to open and read the article in either a new window or new tab)

What we learn from the article is firstly the big bad news – when people hold to an extreme idea or set of ideas, the more they hear that agrees with them, the more they will be drawn to those views as endorsements of their existing beliefs and refute or disregard opposing views. Unfortunately, we don’t tend to see people listening to the opposing views and as a result moving towards a middle ground or even a third position that can accept or acknowledge justifications in both opposing sets of views.

The article goes on to talk about some factors that have existed in the past that had a tendency to act towards anti-polarization. However, the writers – Alison Goldsworthy and Julian L Huppart draw conclusions that match my own fears – the forces that are pushing people towards polarized views are stronger than ever, and the forces that might have acted as checks and balances have been so weakened as to render them weak and ineffectual.

People’s exposure to media used to come from a daily newspaper and perhaps a daily TV news broadcast. However, today we are saturated with views from 24-hour news channels that pump up the intensity to maintain viewership, alongside continual debate and exposure through social networking and the sharing culture (exacerbated by algorithms that tend to ensure we see most the material that accords with our existing views). There’s another related factor – in those times there was at least some attempt made by newspapers and TV channels to take a middle line, to avoid providing a platform to extreme polarizing views. These media companies retained a high level of trust and were seen as a genuine source of factually reasonable information. Today, media companies command much less trust and are often seen as peddling the polarizing views of particular interested parties. They make no pretense of impartiality at the time of elections, but push the agenda of their chosen party.

Secondly, in the past, one of the biggest factors that led people away from polarization towards extreme views was balancing, rational and reasonable human interaction, most often with close trusted relatives and friends. Today, many have more interaction with relative strangers online than with close associates in the real world. These interactions often don’t practice the same human niceties and tend towards more rapid and extreme polarization. Once a person takes a stand on an issue, they are more likely to move towards stronger iterations of that viewpoint, with less balancing possible from friends and relatives. In fact, the media has carried many examples of situations regarding Trump in the US or Brexit in UK, where families and friendships have been destroyed through polarized position-taking.

Historically in our democracies, not only were the press and media seen as being an important trusted neutral voice, but so also were judges and figures related to election administration. However, we’ve seen both of these institutions and the trust in them severely undermined in many countries. Politicians have taken steps to gain control over judicial appointments and then paraded to their supporters as a virtue their willingness to appoint judges who will err in favour of their policy wishes and inclinations. In the US we even see a situation with an Attorney General appointed, William Barr who acts in many ways more like a personal defence attorney for the President of the country, even willing to undermine faith in the US CIA and FBI and due legal processes. With regard to elections we’ve seen many cases in countries across the world of blatant gerrymandering, suggestions of corruptible electronic voting proceeses, postal vote frauds and more recently extensive foreign interference in the voting outcomes of national elections. The sad reality is these don’t even all need to be true to serve the purpose of undermining belief in the integrity of the processes and encouraging further polarization of views.

If there were no extremist, polarizing politicians and leaders, people would inevitably listen more to rational middle ground compromising thinkers and influencers. However, this is not how it’s been working. Instead, as the views and opinions of people become more polarized, so politicians ‘follow them’ out to the fringes and seek to make themselves appealing with more strident and extremist messaging. In most countries today, to be a politician who seeks middle ground, compromise, open and transparent debate is all too quickly to be written off as a woolly idealist who isn’t willing to stand up for something.

In terms of such polarization extremes, we have been here before, even within the last 100 years. However, the fears of the writers (that I share) are that the balancing factors that pulled us back from the extremes eventually in the past aren’t present with adequate strength today. So, it increasingly appears that there will need to be something on the level of a catastrophe or disaster maybe on a worldwide scale to poor enough cold water on the extreme polarized influences and bring people back to a point where they’re ready and willing to listen to each other, compromise and unify out of a common interest in our humanity.

In the meantime, I struggle to hold out too much hope for putting the online media genie back in the bottle, getting adequate numbers to engage in thoughtful, non-combative offline debate and discussion or renewing public confidence in impartial and independent judiciary or non-partisan electoral reform.

There is one further factor that we need to add in to the mix – not talked about in the article, but i believe critical. Though we currently by so many measures live in a world that is the best it’s ever been, there have rarely, if ever, been such levels of personal anxiety, stress, depression (record suicide rates) and sensitivity and vulnerability. There has probably never been a generation to live that can be so triggered and emotionally wrecked by the expression of political or social viewpoints that people disagree with. This all contributes to a level of intensity in the situation that is beyond anything seen before.

A final thought – for those of us working in education, we have to be aware that these polarized positions, views and stances will be held by educators we employ and by the young people we teach. They, even less than adults, will fully understand how their views have emerged or how harmful they can be. We need to invest considerable effort in determining the kinds of learning spaces we want – ones where all controversial issues are avoided, shut down or suppressed (out in the open, while triggering, polarizing argument continues online) or places where we teach young people that there are other ways to engage, debate, exchange viewpoints and to break out of the ideas that our identities are wrapped up in the beliefs we sign up for and champion. This will not be easy, because the educators themselves must lead the way.

 

Supporting Equity and Social Mobility

Do we fundamentally want to live in an environment that is most beneficial to me (regardless of all consequences for others) or one that is inherently fair to all?

Well, first off, I don’t believe the former is sustainable and that the greedy, avaricious approach to life ultimately ends in disaster for all. Human aspiration is a wonderful thing – it drives people to create, strive, contribute and ultimately serve society in the course of raising themselves up. I believe it is the most fundamental force that has brought mankind to where we are today, and will solve our biggest challenges in the future.

However, aspiration only really serves in society if there is adequate evidence that it’s a right for all, not just a privilege reserved for those already most fortunate. Mobility in society is inherently a positive thing, in that it sets up the evidence to all that the world they live in is a meritocracy. Within a meritocracy where you start on the journey of life does not have to be seen as a predeterminer of where you can aspire to reach, or actually what you can achieve within your one lifetime.
(Incidentally, I’ll be writing a separate article about meritocracy soon as the concept has been under the microscope lately)

In such a scenario, where meritocracy is a genuine force and hard work and application, effective risk taking and synthesis of innate and learned skills can see someone move up to the pinnacle of success from any starting point there is one, key critical ingredient – equity in the access to education and knowledge.

As we come to the end of the second decade of the Twenty First Century it’s fair to say that in some ways we could consider there has been considerable progress. As basic elementary education of some form has been brought to more and more, the numbers of people in the world living in absolute poverty have dropped appreciably. However, over the last 10 years in most developed countries we’ve seen evidence that within country the equity has been undermined. Data on social mobility shows stagnation, as evidenced by this article from the UK:
The Guardian – Social Mobility Almost Stagnant Since 2014
Along with this, we have seen evidence from the world that the levels of wealth of those already most wealthy is rising rapidly. Economists worry that this does little for the world economy as such people have finite limits on their spending capacity.
Daily Mail – World’s Wealthiest People Got $1.2trillion richer in 2019

Within most developed countries suspicions run strong that the ‘haves’ run the economy and the state (including education) in ways that ensure their elevated status is secured and that the system prevents those starting out on lower rungs of the ladder from climbing.

Inevitably, there are all sorts of debates that arise about the relative resources of private and public education systems, as well as disparities of assets and quality between schools in poorer and richer areas. When digital access has become so important, issues of concern arise where wealthier homes have access to broadband and computers whilst poorer homes tend to rely only on mobile phone connections and data.

One critical aspect that has proved to be an enormous leveler that shouldn’t be underestimated is access to public libraries. In a time when almost every government touts their desire for citizens to be lifelong learners, to take responsibility and ownership for their own learning throughout life, libraries play a vital part. However, regrettably, too often in many countries they have been seen as easy pickings at times of austerity and when looking for government budget cuts. This was highlighted in a recent article from the World Economic Forum:

World Economic Furum – Cities Where Libraries Are Thriving

Seeing the relatively poor figures for London, I was saddened that my awareness is that in the UK as a whole, London is a good deal better off than most cities that have lost their public libraries. For me, growing up, regular trips to the local lending library were a family outing and a reminder that all members of the family were readers and learners – self-improvement as a lifelong exercise.

Here’s a short video that shares the message very well:

 

I believe one of the best ways for the future of libraries is to reduce the spend on stand-alone public libraries, but instead to create libraries integrated in to schools, colleges and universities that open their doors to the public.

I finish this article with a video that inspired me when I first saw it 6 years ago. It talks to everything that libraries can be, how they can put the learner at the very centre of the design and development process. There is focus on collaboration as much as seclusion and it’s exciting. I really recommend this video to educators. It’s been a big inspiration to me:

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