I Was Going To Write About Procrastination, But ……………………

….. no, I didn’t put it off. Or not too much!

Fast company and others in pursuit of the ever more efficient worker who can get more and more done in less and less time (without seeming to suffer any undue stress) are fond of writing articles with simple tips for overcoming procrastination, like this one;

Fast Company – 9 Realistic Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Stress Less

I think there’s nothing inherently wrong in suggestions such as; breaking a task down in to bits, taking baby steps, setting a deadline and getting competitive with yourself or having an accountability obligation to someone else. However, those ofus who have ever acknowledged our procrastination to ourselves and stopped to ask hard questions know there are two elements that are much less often talked about.

Firstly, in my experience people who procrastinate are rarely people who procrastinate on everything. Therefore, there’s a point at which tough questions need to be explored about the tasks that are being postponed and put off. Sometimes it can be that we need to really dig down and explore what’s happening at the unconscious level – there may be very valid reasons why we feel uncomfortable with a particular task. Issues of values misalignment come to mind. It could even be that there are aspects of the place, time or circumstances that make a person so uncomfortable that a normally dynamic, action-oriented person starts to hold back, withhold effort or procrastinate on taking actions where they feel the stress of doing something that is incongruent with their values. eople normally think of stress as a negative and unfortunate byproduct of procrastination. However, I’d suggest that sometimes the stress comes first and gives rise to the procrastination.

Secondly, what if procrastination is seen sometimes as our intuition’s way of saying, “Not yet.” That the task, if done now might lead to overly hasty actions that would be regretted later. Impulsiveness, action taken without enough research or evidence/ justification can be worse than no action. Sometimes we need to listen to our intuition and what it tells us. In such circumstances there could be very valid reasons to wait a while. Haven’t we all had the occasion when that burning issue that sits on our ‘To Do’ list for some time becomes a job that didn’t really need to be done and can simply be scrapped? As time moves along, yesterday’s burning issue may become today’s inconsequential matter.

So, in short, I’m making excuses for nobody here. However, let’s acknowledge that not all procrastination is bad. The starting point is honesty with ourselves to determine the right response.

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Getting Creative

Creativity is a critical area for success in the world today. Sometimes, today, it can be tempting to see the most creative people as the ones who managed to ‘survive’ education without having all the creativity squeezed out of them!

If we want to be more creative, or be more successfully creative, it makes sense to take note of the views and ideas of thoise who are already doing it. There’s no single right way. I think each of us has to find the way that works best for us. However, that doesn’t happen if all we ever do is the ‘same old same old,’ if we never step out of our comfort zone and try things. In fact, resilience, ability to bounce back, willingness to step out and try as many different ways as possible figure prominently in the advice from some of the most successfully creative people.

Here’s a nice Fast Company infographic where they’ve taken thoughts and ideas from some of the most renowned creative people today.

Fast Company – The best Creative Advice

Some, after reading these, might be tempted to think that the advice given applies more to people who do inherently creative stuff, whether it’s writing, making music or TV programmes. However, I think that would be a mistake. Creativity is essential for all of us, in both personal and professional life. Apart from anything else, creativity brings originality and a greater variety of options or choices about how to tackle an issue, solve a problem or move something forward. It enables the creatively oriented to move beyond simply replicating what they or others have done before.

Educators and parents have a great deal of power over a young child’s creativity. I believe that some amount of it is innate in every child. However, conditional love and approval and narrowly defined expectations can soon cause the child to believe that creativity is essentially a sign of weakness, a foolish erring from the approved straight and narrow. Under such circumstances, so many bury that innate creativity so deep, that it may never emerge again to play a part in their lives.

The comments in the article are clear. Being creative takes courage, persistence and resilience. It requires the ability to step beyond what others expect or will approve of. Nevertheless, we live in a world today that has some massive challenges to deal with if humanity is to advance in positive ways. For that, vast numbers of creative minds will need to be unleashed. We, in education, have to give more attention to how we nurture creativty, rather than contributing to closing it down.

Dysfunctional People Can Be Contageous

Education, in most people’s minds is different to just any old ‘J-O-B’ in a company. Being responsible for the education of children is something fundamentally different to selling insurance or manufacturing widgets. However, most educators will share my view that that doesn’t change certain innate aspects of human nature when you look at schools as workplaces where people come together, charged with responsibilities to achieve certain ends individually and collectively as teams.

This ‘Fast Company’ article is written about companies, but I’ve known characters that matched all of the toxic stereotypes listed working in schools, and a few others besides;

Fast Company – 5 Most Dysfunctional Coworkers

Somehow, when people behave in the kinds of ways described in a school it feels worse – because there’s a kind of moral dimension to the work. I’m often left with a feeling that if they wanted to be that way, behave in such manners, they should have gone and taken jobs in environments where they wouldn’t be harming children and their education.

The ‘more understanding’ side of me, reminds that often these people are blind to what they’re doing and there’s a degree of needing to seek to understand them first, before setting out to have them understand that what they’re doing is wrong in educational environments.

Tackling such people takes courage and often is far from easy. In my experience, staff will complain incessantly about such people, behind their backs, but won’t tackle or confront them directly. The perception is that this is very much a responsibility for the management. Ironically, if the confrontation or challenge, when it comes, leaves the toxic individual feeling hurt, those same staff may even side with the hurt feelings of the individual and accuse the leadership of callousness! I stress here, I’m not looking for sympathy for leaders – just pointing out that teachers can be so empathic at times that they’ll even feel sympathy for a hurt trouble-maker!

However, almost always, these situations must be tackled and leaving them to get worse has far more serious implications for the school.

Of course, we know that human nature is such that nobody is going to read these 5 portraits and identify themselves – it will always be someone else!

Mindfulness – For or Against?

“What did people get before stress was invented?”

This was a joke I first heard some years ago, but always thought it certainly had a ring of truth about it. I find myself picturing a group of Neanderthal hunters who have spent a day and a half stalking a woolly mammoth. They begin to surround the animal. It’s jittery and restless as it senses danger. They have no body armour, little or no defence and only the most basic and rudimentary weapons. The hunters are starting to sweat, their heartbeats are raised. As they close in for the kill, suddenly the leader of the tribe calls all together, gets them to sit down in a circle and informs them to, “focus on your breathing, and be fully here, right now.” In the meantime, the woolly mammoth wanders away to safety.

In today’s equivalent ‘hunting’ environment, all employers would like their employees to be less stressed, to be able to focus well on their work, to not let conflicts derail their efforts and to work together in the most efficient ways as effective teams. In pursuit of these goals it’s inevitable that managers and leaders will search around for the next ‘silver bullet’. There is an all round sense that so much more could be achieved (so much more profit made), if we could just make the imperfect human beings somewhat less imperfect!

There is no doubt at all that when it comes to attempts by organisations to improve their people, the current flavour of the day is Mindfulness. You would be hard pushed to go through any magazine or leaderrship/ personal development shelf in a bookshop without seeing plenty of publications on the subject. It can sometimes seem like everyone’s talking about it. Now, you can call me an old cynic, but that alone is reason enough for me to feel the need for at least a bit of doubt and questioning. Is it all that it’s claimed to be? Is it really a panacea for workplace stress? Is it going to give us happier workers, more capable of tackling the pressures of their work to high standards? Some cynics would say, instead of advocating Mindfulness for employees to handle stress better, we should create less reasons for them to feel stressed in the first place (conflicting instructions, changes in deadlines, unfulfilled commitments and promises etc.)

At times when I read and hear about mindfulness I am reminded of the work of Mihalyi ‎Csikszentmihalyi on ‘Flow’, that I first read over 15 years ago. This is the idea that things become effortless when you’re working in the moment, engrossed in a task for which you have the requisite skills. It strikes me that flow and workplaces today are a challenge. Whilst an individual may reach flow states when working on a task alone, how many of us work alone for any length of time. Once you bring in all the ambiguities associated with interruptions, other people’s agendas and conflicting priorities it may become impossible to achieve any kind of flow state. Maybe this is really the root source of all that we call workplace stress. In which case, Mindfulness won’t make it go away, reduce it or solve the problems it contributes to inefficiency and under achievement. The best it can do is enable to stop and smell the flowers, maybe putting others’ actions, communication etc. in to a little better perspective.

I do buy some benefits, but not in some sort of cookey ‘flavour of the day’ kind of way. Maybe that’s just me. When the trendy set moved on from NLP, I’ve continued to explore it, to test and experiment with the many ideas encompassed within (that’s for another blog post on another day!). For example, I downloaded a mindfulness bell reminder to my mobile phone and tablet. It chimes at random times through the working day. When I hear it, it causes me to stop for a second, check what I am doing at the moment and ask myself the question whether I’m doing the right/ best thing at that time. If I’m not comfortable i shift to a new task. In that sense, i see it as a useful time management tool.

In the school group where I was in Delhi, a gong would sound over the tannoy system twice during the school day. It was a wonderful, soothing sound. The standard practice was that wherever you were, whatever you were doing, you stopped, focused on your breathing for a couple of seconds and then proceeded with your normal activities after it finished. We saw definite calming of the children, improvement of focus in lessons and less aggressive behaviour.

By my reckoning, those are benefits worth having.

So, I was interested to come across this article recently that shares some scientific discoveries about what is going on chemically when people practice mindfulness and conjectures about why those could be beneficial:

Harvard Business Review – Mindfulness Can Literally Change Your Brain

There’s an interesting debate that goes on in most countries when it comes to workplace training and professional development. There are many who believe that whilst the organisation/ employer can legitimately ‘enforce’ training related to the technical skills of the job a person does, they draw the line when the training is about changing or influencing them as a person. The alternative argument is that work today is so entwined with the rest of our lives that it is necessary for us to strive to be the best we can be in all the roles in our lives – not just the workplace, because we cannot isolate one role or domain from the others. If we are unfulfilled and frustrated in aspects of our health, personal relationships or some other part of life we’re not going to be able to perform at our best in our workplace.

As I suggested earlier, not everyone is ready to jump on the Mindfulness bandwagon or to welcome it as a panacea for all workplace ills.

Here are two recent articles that focus on the doubts, on the potential negatives;

Huffington Post – Is Mindfulness Harmful?

Fast Company – The Downside to Mindfulness Practices at Work

Ultimately, the personal development ‘industry’ is there to make money. Telling the world that what you taught last year is still the best thing to be doing today doesn’t pay. So, we need to be discerning about ‘flavour of the month’ solutions. When we find things that work for us, individually or collectively to be “my best me”, I believe what’s more important is to build the practice in to our habits and keep it there for the longer term – not to pick it up, do it, benefit, but then drop the habit because something new and shiny comes across the radar. In that, I believe Mindfulness practices can be a useful part of our long term habits.

The Future of College

There’s a saying that’s sometimes used by self-help gurus and management/ leadership experts that says that there’s not much point in climbing to the top of the ladder, only to find that the ladder’s leaning against the wrong wall!

Well, the same could well be applied to the process of education. To many students (and parents) today, their focus as far as outcomes from school education is simple – the best possible scores/ results that enables the best college or university admission. In India this leads to bizarre circumstances where the cut-offs for admissions in some colleges can exceed 100% (Ok, yes, work that one out). When parents see this happening to today’s school pass-outs, they tend to figure that they must double up on their efforts to drive and extract maximum score performance from their child with increased pressure on academic performance (never mind whether we’re really giving thought to the ‘how’ of great academic achievement – that’s an article for another day).

However, what if, by the time your child leaves school the college or university as we know it today no longer exists? If that is a serious possibility then might it cause parents to re-evaluate what their child really needs from their school education.

Here’s a fascinating article from Fast Company that explores changes that are already happening in further Education right now and there’s no question if these continue, then college will look very different for the children studying in schools today.

Fast Company – This is the Future of College

As I read this I had a few thoughts. Firstly, I suspect strongly that there’s still a lot of scope for more innovation that we haven’t started to see yet. Secondly, the pressure for these innovations and changes is already coming, especially from industry and employers who have started making very clear how they are not prepared to accept a further education system that turns out too few candidates with the skills and competencies that employers need and require.

Finally, if college is going to change so drastically, what kind of ‘different ladder’ are students going to need from school? How will their schooling need to be different? I’d love to get views of parents, fellow educators and even students. Whatever, the answers, it’s clear to me it won’t be about chasing another 0.1% on board results.

Innovating in the Right Places?

It’s a funny old world.

Here’s an article I spotted some weeks ago from Fast Company in which they set out to recognise the world’s 50 most innovative companies for 2015:

Fast Company – 50 Most Innovative Companies
(Click on the link to read and review the 50 companies)

Please take a look at the list before reading on.

First off, let’s excuse the USA-centricity of the list – that’s kind of inevitable! Then, I ask you to think about two things that have been troubling me since I went through this list a few times;

a) In the Western (wealthy economies) world, populations are aging – and quite fast. The baby boomers are reaching retirement in vast numbers, living longer, but not having looked after themselves so well along the way, not always in the best condition!

And yet, when you look through this list of 50 companies how many could really be said to be innovating for this demographic? How many are grasping the opportunities to bring enhanced quality of light in the older years (whilst also, I’m sure, they would make a great deal of money from these people)? It seems that somehow serving this burgeoning population of oldies just doesn’t get innovative people excited enough to want to do great work for them – even though the money would surely be good.

b) Putting aside those that relate to passive leisure (and arguably the nonconstructive wasting of time) such as HBO, Netflix etc. and those whose products or services impact all age ranges (Google, Apple) there are so few companies in the list who can be said to be innovating for future generations, for children or, more particularly, for the radical changes needed in how tomorrow’s society learns and is educated.

Is this just a reflection of the fact that Industry and the world of commerce is still so hell-bent on the short term, driven and motivated by desire for quick money, the quarterly P&L and instant results, or do we just have a generation of innovators who are plain selfish and can’t be bothered to apply themselves for the future?

In similar vein and again with the future as much as the present in mind, I’d have been much happier to see some organisations that were making significant contributions to solving or addressing environmental issues.

Hmmmm.

When Bean Counters Take Charge

One of the interminable debates that goes around and around in education is the issue of how much teachers should be paid. When pointing out the shortcomings of education systems in most countries, critics frequently point to the fact that teachers are typically paid in the lower ranges of salaries for people with their levels of academic qualifications (except notably in Scandinavian countries).

As a result, i was very interested to read this Fast Company short article about a Manhattan Charter School, that set out to pay teachers well above normal levels:

Fast CoExist Article: When a School Pays its Teachers a Lot, Lot More

The teachers in the school were paid a lot more than normal – around $125,000 plus performance bonus potential compared to less than $75,000 normal teacher salary in the area. However, right from recruitment it’s clear that the culture was very different. Firstly, the recruitment climate seems to have been more akin to that found in high intensity commercial environments. These teachers were expected to do a lot more work, to undergo extensive professional development, to take on more administrative duties and were subjected to very vigorous performance assessment.

There are some startling aspects that stand out in the article and some that aren’t mentioned on which I would love to know more.

Firstly, the culture driven in the school saw teacher turnover of 47% in a year. This is truly startling. What does a ‘hire and fire’ culture like that do to school atmosphere, sensitivity and attention to the holistic development of children. What kind of place is this for a child?

The only criteria the article tells us about on which the school is assessed is the performance of the children in standardised tests (quelle surprise!) and, it seems, the research was sponsored by none other than the king and queen of bean counters – The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Corporations like Microsoft work on principles like – ‘what gets measured, gets done’. As a result, they fall in to the belief that these are the same principles that should be applied to schools if you want to achieve improvements in education.

Now, let’s get cynical here for a minute. If I’m a teacher in this school, let’s say you’ve given me a class of 30 children at class 5 level. How they achieve in standardised tests is going to determine whether I get to keep my job. It’s also going to determine whether my boss gets to keep his job (important!). In the first 1-2 weeks working with these children, I’m going to do some fairly rigorous pre-assessment. As a result, I might conclude that I can categorise the children in my class. First, there’s the A-Team. These are kids for whom school learning comes easily, who are already achieving ahead of average and they have home environments that drive academic achievement. The A-Team are my bankers. Come the end of the year they will deliver, almost regardless of how well I teach them.

Then, at the other extreme is the F-Team. These are kids with low self esteem, already some way behind in their academic achievements for a variety of reasons. I’m not going to expect anything great from this bunch. The least I need to do is to make sure that they don’t massively let me and the school down. However, they have a loser mentality and i don’t have time to address that. So, I just need to work on the basis of damage limitation and a few simple tricks so they don’t drag my figures down.

In the middle are two groups. The B-team are safe bets. Not spectacular and probably they and their families are content with their performance. They’re not really capable of much more without a lot of effort and there’s no guarantee that they will respond in the 40 or so weeks I’ve got to work with them. So, I look to them for solid, but not spectacular results.

Then there’s the C team – a group who have not performed that well in the past, but have far more potential. This is where my energies will go. If i can lift this group sufficiently, my overall class figures will look great, I’ll get my bonus, I’ll get to keep the job and my boss will get to keep his.

So, we’re all happy?

Really?

Is there anything just about that? Is there anything moral about it? Sadly, as the teacher, I’ll excuse myself on the basis that ‘It’s the system’.

This can’t be the way, surely. Doesn’t the education reform debate and research have to happen on a far more human and humane level than this?

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