Lifelong Learning – How Are We Doing?

Lifelong Learning

These days it seems that almost every school, new or established, mentions in its mission, vision, values or some other important statement that lifelong learning is a major priority of the school. School Heads, Principals and Directors talk a lot about lifelong learning in major events and gatherings with students and/ or parents.

This has now been the case for a few years, so it’s worthwhile to pause and ask – How are we doing? Has all this attention on lifelong learning changed anything?

Well, first of all, where did it come from and why did people start to think it mattered? Around 10-15 years ago more and more evidence was emerging that pointed to the likelihood that young people in school were going to grow up in to a world and environment where they would not simply have multiple jobs, but multiple careers. It was clear that the pace of change in the world, especially technological, was accelerating and the best prospects for the future would lie with those people who through continuous learning were most capable of reinventing themselves, shedding their existing knowledge and taking on the right new learning.

I believe that if we look at the tertiary sector first, quite a lot has changed in response to the recognition of the need to support lifelong learning.  We have seen quite a rapid increase in the availability of online learning options that support adults in processes of continuous learning. There are also many brick and mortar institutions that have supplemented their traditional learning programmes with more modular offerings, sometimes offered as hybrids that are conducted part face to face and part online, with scope for people to learn more at their own pace to fit in with the fact that they’re often still working full time.

There is a definite break away from the idea that formal and informal learning are completely separate, or that formal learning all takes place in a purely linear fashion, to be completed in the earliest part of ones life by the age of about 21 – 25. We see Universities and colleges questioning what they should look like when it comes to physical infrastructure. It’s costly to create physical places of learning and therefore there must be a justification to create the physical infrastructure. Then, there are considerations about how specialised or general the learning spaces within those buildings should be in order to best support modern and effective learning practices.

Too often I see these debates happening when new institutions are being created, or where major construction is due. There are still arguably too many institutions (especially in developing countries) that look to purely and simply replicate the traditional models of the past, more intent on churning out young people with bits of paper than focused on enabling learning.

In developing countries, universities and colleges have not gone far enough to place the focus on self-directed, self-driven learning, owned by the learner. There are all sorts of arcane rules about attendance, rigid generalist course structures with whole cohorts progressing through at the same time, at the same pace, subject to strict rules, hierarchies, even uniforms. They look little different to traditional schools for overgrown children.

So, overall, worldwide i might be inclined to give the tertiary sector about a 5 out of 10 for progress towards playing their part in a world of lifelong learning.

And what of the K-12 schools?

Firstly, what is the role of K-12 schools towards lifelong learning?

I believe it’s twofold;

a) To equip young people, in age appropriate ways with the tools and skills to be effective self-directed lifelong learners. 
b) To ensure that pupils have the motivation to be self-directed lifelong learners

Every baby and infant is a highly self-directed, highly motivated learner. They don’t wait for anyone to come with a syllabus or a curriculum. They don’t wait for permission to learn or to be instructed. They don’t go out of their way to take short cuts to learning so that they can spend their time idly. So, we’d do well to question ourselves about how our schools stifle these natural inclinations that ought to be the perfect foundation to grow and develop tomorrow’s motivated lifelong learners.

I believe that one of the biggest problems with point b) is related to teachers. If, as an adult and potential role model for lifelong learning it would be fair to expect;
(i) Teachers admit to their own learning and talk about it openly.
(ii) Focus on potential more than performance, both related to themselves as well as their pupils,
(iii) Shed their focus on competence, in favour of vulnerability and the ambiguity of openly being a learner. If a teacher has to be the ‘fully complete expert’ in the classroom, then by implication their learning process is complete and they no longer need to be learners,
(iv) Teachers would be open about how they drive their own personal learning curriculum. They would openly talk about things they’re not expert in.  They would reveal to their pupils the things they’re learning. They would even be open to learn from the pupils in areas where they have more knowledge (such as IT).
(v) Teachers would not say things like, “Yes, I believe in lifelong learning. I’m always looking to learn from everyone around me.”
That’s a cop-out, an excuse for not pursuing real, hard learning. Instead, it implies that this lifelong learning is just another name for a dab of responsiveness and listening to others around – not something like real learning that involves investment of real time and effort in risk, vulnerability and deep dives in to new and varied areas of learning directly or even slightly linked to their work.

Our schools and school leaders still behave as if learning is something that is done to pupils, not something they do for themselves. The assumption built in to the culture of schools in dozens of ways big and small is that pupils would not learn unless made to do so. And, we have to say that the way most of the learning  in schools is still done, it’s no surprise that it will only happen under duress. It’s one-way, one size fits all (that it’s not personalised despite all the talk of personalisation I’ll save for another post).

Turning to point a)  a school/ learning environment that really cares about development of lifelong learning would place at least as much emphasis on process as outcomes. And our schools don’t. Schools would be places where children are encouraged and motivated to pursue deep and broad learning according to personal interests. They would be helped to understand HOW to learn most effectively.

This would bring in opportunities for children to learn and understand how their minds work, how memory works, how motivation impacts learning. They would not simply learn to read, but would be equipped with opportunities to acquire skills to read in different ways for different purposes. Children would be learning effective ways of note taking and how to work out the learning techniques and methods that work best for them.

An open climate based on common growth mindset, the presence of healthy grit to push through when learning is challenging, to seek out one’s own sources, to discern between the quality of different sources etc.

So, in conclusion – is it really fair and honest for schools to be telling the world that one of their core values is the development of lifelong learning? Are the school leadership really doing the introspection about every aspect of their school’s practices, habits, methods and whether they take their pupils towards or away from lifelong learning?

Are pupils walking out of the school gates the day after graduation saying  – “that’s all over and nobody’s doing that learning stuff to me any more,” or “Ok, I’m ready – where’s the next great learning that i want to bring on for me?” Are they seeing learning as a pull rather than a push process?

If not, then K-12 certainly isn’t at five out of ten. It might not yet even be at two out of ten.

A long road ahead and lots of work to do. And we won’t enable lifelong learning for pupils until we embrace it for ourselves.

That easy!

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RIP Tony Buzan

This isn’t the next blog post I expected (or wanted) to be writing. However, one of my personal heroes has passed away and I wanted to take a little time to share my recollections of this formidable man. I understand that Tony was still actively working. He had moved in to a new home from where he hoped and intended to produce lots of new creative work. Regrettably, that was not to be. A massive heart attack and a fall resulted in complications from which he was never to recover. He passed away on 13th April.

tony_books

I graduated from college at the age of 22 with a degree in law. I had been schooled in vast amounts of information and material, memorized enough of it, spewed it back in exams and been granted passes. However, it had left me cold about the whole process of learning and with rather mixed feelings on the potential of my own mind/ brain.

Then, in my mid twenties I was introduced to a few important books. These included “Accelerated Learning” by Colin Rose and a couple of the books written by Tony Buzan for the BBC. I was blown away. Suddenly, here were people sharing information with me about how my mind worked, how to make the learning and creativity processes more effective. Whilst I was excited, I was also more than a bit angry. This material had all been in the public domain for over 10 years. It was all as available to every teacher who ever taught me as it was to me. So, why had they denied me this critical learning about how to use my mind most effectively and how to maximise my potential as a learner? I felt like i’d been cheated, but had now opened Pandora’s box and there was no looking back.

That took me on a journey that was all essentially about learning, whether it was becoming a trainer in British Junior Chamber, training to teach English with CELTA, being a University visiting faculty, and then over time towards leading, setting up, turning around and overall trying to change and improve schools as places where others would be as inspired and excited by learning as I am.

So, in many ways, i owe so much to Mr Tony Buzan and it is with some little sadness today that I think I shall never get the opportunity to meet the man. There was a time, around 9-10 years ago when he was due to come to India and it was likely that I was going to get the chance to meet him. however, he got ill and had to cancel the trip, so the opportunity was lost.

I believe he was ultimately responsible for writing (or co-writing) over 80 books. I believe one of the reasons he was able to be so prolific was because of the learning, creation and ideation methodologies that he had developed.

Mind Map

Of all Tony’s work, to me, the stand out will always be mindmapping. However, whilst I saw and experienced the benefits so much, it was often frustrating to say when others treated it as though it was something a bit ‘weird’, a bit out there. I still use it for every speech or presentation, every major piece of writing (including most of the posts on this blog), any times when i need to unleash my creative juices or to formulate ideas. I’ve used them collectively in groups as well as on my own.

I remember an occasion when some teachers did extensive work with students of Classes 6 and 7 to familiarise them with the techniques and benefits of mindmapping. Responses to a short immediate survey were that students found it exciting, interesting and intended to make it a natural and regular part of their study and learning approaches.

However, we then went back to do a further survey with those same students after about 6 months and found that less than 10% were still using mindmapping at all, and even some of them only sporadically. What was most disheartening was that the most significant reasons why students had stopped were associated with the fact that others weren’t doing it. Children were uncomfortable to do it if everyone else wasn’t doing it, or it wasn’t being imposed. There was a “people like us don’t do stuff like that” inertia that meant the students had largely dropped this very promising set of techniques. Worse, what were they doing instead? Spending hours using highlight markers to mark out significant sentences in textbooks – a method scientifically proven to be a very poor and inefficient way to learn. However, people like us do that, so we blindly do it.

I’m not sure whether Tony or his companies around the world conducted research on the stick-ability of their methods and techniques. I suppose it wasn’t really in their interest to do so if the results might have been weak. However, I personally would love to see more work in this area.

At this time as Tony has passed away, my thoughts are with his family, friends and all his colleagues across the world who have lost a leader and inspiring teacher. I hope that the best legacy for Tony Buzan and his work will be a renewed interest and enthusiasm for his ideas and their application to bring about better learning and greater creativity. People will readily jump in with phrases like ‘being a lifelong learner’. We haven’t yet done nearly enough work around what this means and how, most effectively, people should learn most effectively throughout their lives and how to harness that learning creatively. There is much work to be done.

Seeking Out The Way Forward

Note: This is, by far, the most personal (and therefore most difficult) blog post I’ve ever written. There are some ‘professional’ acquaintances who’ve advised me that I really didn’t need to write it, even that it might harm me professionally if I write it. However, whilst I respect their viewpoints, I feel that it is necessary for me personally. Also, to write it is to acknowledge that what I do and what I am is not just some sort of corporate role.
Educators have a very personal relationship with others, be it the students, their parents or the staff and people we mentor along the way. Educators are not cold and unfeeling, but give something of themselves and are very personally invested. Educators are also not superheroes, but men and women with their own vulnerabilities, their own internal dialogues of questions, doubts and introspections That’s one of the reasons why, so often, it’s referred to as more of a calling than a job.
So, for better, or for worse, I’ve written it. Big intake of breath, here goes ……

You know that old saying about other people’s opinions not defining us and how we’re all supposed to pay no heed to what others think of us?

Do I believe it? I want to.

Do I live it? No.

Do any of us, really?

That was a rhetorical question – I don’t have a clue what the answer is. Am I in a camp of one, or are we all just convinced that we’re winging it, one step away from being called out as a fraud at any moment? One step away from being found out as the Emperor strutting down the street in his birthday suit.

Not only have I had to confront and acknowledge that my decisions are very swayed, even driven, by what others think, but also most of the time professionally my assumptions have been that others’ views of me were not very complementary. I don’t know whether or not it became easier to deal with this when I learned that it had a real name – “Imposter Syndrome.”

I really don’t know the extent to which others experience imposter syndrome. There are frequently reports written that suggest it’s far more prevalent than most realise, the hidden bulk of the iceberg below the water that few acknowledge openly and out loud. This is especially the case as, it seems, from the reported evidence that it’s far more prevalent for people in senior roles and that the more people rise in their careers the greater its manifestation. It also becomes obvious that in such circumstances as a person rises in their career, it becomes harder and harder for them to openly admit to this complex to others around them. Certainly, that’s how it’s long felt for me. There’s nothing worse to me than the thought that on telling those around, “I feel inferior and lacking in the skills and competencies of my role,” to be answered with, “Well, now you mention it, here’s the list of all the ways we also think you’re lacking and inadequate.”

To ‘the victim’ it feels like you’re sitting on a fragile pile of cards, that one good gust of wind from the wrong direction can send you tumbling and throwing you in to a very visible and fully justified humiliating heap. Almost anything could bring it all down and reveal you for what you truly were all along.

Like me, I think most closet imposters are able to keep enough of a lid on it, to find escapes for their anxiety and the stress and to get on with their jobs, even to give all the impressions externally of being self-assured, confident and clear in their convictions and what they’re doing. In fact, if you can’t do that you’re unlikely to reach or sustain a high position for any length of time. So, maybe all imposters at high level are practicing effective coping skills. But, this does come with a heavy price – the continual stress, anxiety and the doubts that hold you back from chasing the best opportunities or fulfilling your true, full potential. Just squeaking by isn’t much of a way to go on.

Many years ago, when living in New Delhi and being Director of a Group with over 4,000 pupils, I wrote that my biggest responsibility in managing my own life was balancing the priorities and interests of those 4,000+ children with one child – my own child, my son – Thomas.

Those who know me well know that just over a year ago I lost Thomas, my son, in tragic circumstances. For nearly five years I had lived and strived as a single parent. So, suddenly in a moment my whole world was turned upside down. Thomas was 16 and in so many ways, my life revolved around him. I’m not going to claim I got everything right – parenting is one of those responsibilities where perfection is impossible and the best anyone can say is that they strive to be the best they can each day, to learn and to endeavor to be a bit better the next day.

There is no question this has been the biggest test of my life. Over the last 13 months my emotions and feelings have gone on the most gut-wrenching roller coaster ride you could ever imagine. There have been times of anger, woeful self-pity, optimism that is suddenly overturned and plunged in to the depths of pessimism.

Many times I saw hope in immersing myself in past loves, including writing posts for this blog. However, every time I sat down to write a voice in my head would say things like, “People are going to see you for the fraud you always were. They will denounce you. How can you advise or counsel anyone about anything to do with children when you couldn’t protect your own one single child?”

The result is that whatever sense of imposter syndrome I had before has been magnified massively. It feels like the moment I stick my head above the parapet, I will be there to be shot at. That instead of being able to do some good and bring something of value, I will be the subject of sniggering, derision and even disdain.

As a result, even this post has been written, re-written, deleted and begun again more times than I can count. As I sit here writing now I still don’t have any idea if I’ll have the courage to finally publish and press the button.
In recent weeks, as a result of some reading, things heard in podcasts etc. I have had two significant thoughts that may enable me to finally move on here;

1. The first is that after writing nothing on this blog for well over a year, there’s every possibility that when I finally press the button and publish this post ……….. nobody will even notice. We can all make the mistake of believing that people are paying far more attention to us, our actions (or inactions), our motives etc. than they really are.
So, I might feel like I’m bearing my soul and publicly admitting to my vulnerability and fears about being a fraud and an imposter, and nobody even notices.

2. Maybe the bigger revelation – or at least it was in some way revelatory for me – is best encapsulated by the youngsters’ online saying, “haters gonna hate.”
For anyone who seeks to produce anything in the world, however much they strive to perfect it, there will be those people for whom it doesn’t work. There will be people who either have an issue with the person, the message, the means by which it’s communicated etc.
You really can’t please all the people all the time – and that’s OK. Nobody ever achieved any measure of success in any creative arena if they set out to produce something (or to be someone) to appeal to everyone. The fact is that some of the most highly regarded creative works in the world are rejected, scoffed and sneered at by some.
I went on to the Amazon website and looked up some of the most successful and highly regarded books published. By way of examples, the novel ‘The Da Vinci Code’ has 11% 1-star ratings, The Handmaid’s Tale has 16% 1 and 2-star ratings. The Secret – 12% 1-stars,. Even the Bible, the Koran and the Bhagavad Gita (in no particular order) had between 5 and 18% 1 and 2-star ratings.

So, I need to get some realism. There are surely already those in the world who never needed me to have a dead son to decide they don’t like me, what I stand for, my views and approaches on education or even the colour of the shirts I wear. And that’s Ok. It’s their right. I never wrote for everybody and I never will. And i can’t live my life on the basis that I need to please everybody all the time

The fact is that everything that’s happened has not put out the light or diminished my drive and enthusiasm to bring about some real change in education. Change that can help to ensure that the school and learning experience meets more of the needs of more children more of the time. If I can make even the tiniest scratch, it’s good for every person impacted, even good for the world and good for me along the way.

And if there are some people who want to reject me or my writings, especially because I’m an educator who couldn’t protect his own child and keep him alive in this world, that’s OK.

But, I will write – quite possibly profusely (the dam may be about to break and I’ll discover a flood had built up ready to gush. I will write because it’s the right thing for me to do. I’ll also write because I think it’s what Thomas would want me to do. Will I magically be free of the sense of being an imposter? I doubt it very much. My only hope is that the more I work and write anyway, the less those feelings will be relevant or matter.

Thomas, from now onwards this blog is dedicated to you and your memory. You were a wonderful young man. Sensitive, caring and with a fierce sense of justice, right and wrong and how the world ought to be. Your passing has revealed the frequency with which others looked to you as a person to reach out to, a person who would care, a listener ready to do whatever you could to lighten their burden a little. The quality of a life is more significant than the quantity. You, my son, were a quality human who lived a short quality life. I love you, my son.

The Over-Scheduled Child

A child, just like the rest of us, has 168 hours in a week. They typically spend about 56 of those hours asleep. Most spend around 30 hours a week in school with a further 8 hours getting ready for and travelling to and from school, with about 7 hours of homework thrown in for good measure. Those are hours when the child is under instructions, following a clear agenda set by others, under the control of strict discipline regimes.

Recent survey evidence has suggested that the average child is spending 60 hours a week engaged with screens; gaming, watching TV or using social networking. By my reckoning all of the above leaves them a paltry 7 hours for ‘growing up’, for the unstructured time to think, be themselves and develop their unique human consciousness. And that’s all assuming that they’re not among the rare children who still sit down to eat family meals, if they do, those might easily take out another 3 hours in the week.

When you think about a child’s time in this way it becomes even more startling to think that parents would be tempted to cram in to every child’s days a variety of ‘after school activities’ – tuitions 9to repeat the school learning, clubs, activities, organised sports etc.

Here’s an article recently written about what this means in the Indian context, but how growing numbers of Indian parents are thinking twice about what they’re doing by scheduling their children so heavily. The article does, honestly, hint at the fact that some of this over-scheduling is done in circumstances where parents are convincing themselves that the activities are for the child’s benefit, when at times it’s a convenient child-care facility to enable them to live their lives with all the choices that they’ve made about how they’re committing their time.

Scroll – Over-scheduled, under-slept children experience neural fatigue

I have a strong wish that the parents who are scheduling their children in this way would invest more time in learning about the latest thinking and knowledge about children, the development of the mind, positive psychology and the science of human potential. Along with this, they would benefit personally, as well as be better able to support their child if they learned more about the scientific awareness of the learning process. I’ve written it before, but i do believe, that as parents we have to ask ourselves some challenging questions when we’re prepared to invest time and effort in to the learning required for running a business or pursuing a profession or job role, but not invest any significant amount of time in to learning how to fulfil our life responsibilities as a parent.

One of the saddest ironies is that the over-scheduled approach has little to no chance of leading to a child achieving mastery of anything. Spreading oneself so thinly, going through so many activities is going through the motions. It doesn’t permit for passion, motivation or the focused practice that can lead to achieving any decent level of competence at something.

I’ve had occasions where I’ve been saddened as I stood with a parent whose child obediently agreed that they love doing all the different things they’re doing. This isn’t producing genius. if anything it’s more likely to destroy the potential for genius and worse, it plays on the child’s desire to please the parent – to be seen as an obedient and good child who will receive the recognition and praise of their parent. this is conditional parenting and a major cause of stunted lives in later adulthood.

Of course, on the scheduling of tuitions to extend beyond school learning, parents will claim that this is necessary to achieve the results they need because there is inadequate trust that the child and their school are achieving the levels of learning needed. I wish that parents would solve this by talking more with their child’s school and teachers – instead of subjecting the child to duplication through tuitions and other ‘driven’ learning approaches to extract more academic outcomes.

We can do so much better for our children, with the right information, the right learning and the right approaches. Parenting isn’t about quantity. We’re not going to enable our children by just doing more stuff to them. We must work with their interests and allow them the space and time to grow up, to become fully rounded people.

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What Did You Learn in School Today?

This is a bad question to ask a child after a day at school, for a multitude of reasons.

Firstly, a day in school is a pretty emotional and draining experience for many children. As a result, by the time the school day gets over the child is mentally frazzled and needs time, space and ideally sleep, to enable them to mentally process al the knowledge and information they’ve taken in.

It’s commonly a frustration to parents that their child seems to remember more about the social aspects of what happened in school, than the academic learning. it may even cause some parents to fear that academically their child isn’t learning very much. He or she can tell you lots about who did what to whom, who said what to a teacher and got away with it, who got punished for what etc. The plain reality is that the social elements and aspects of school are incredibly important to our children. We shouldn’t underestimate how many important skills are being developed through these social interactions – skills that will be vital in adulthood.

Another problem with the question is that the learning experiences of the day are so broad and various that the child is hard pressed to figure out which bits, which elements we the adults might consider most important or want us to share with them. Plainly, the child knows that they’re not expected to give a verbatim report of everything they saw, heard, felt or experienced (and all their judgements and reflections) during the day.

It’s known that a lot of learning isn’t really ‘mine’ until I’ve slept to process it and take full ownership of the memories. This is another reason why such a question can prove challenging.

For many parents, so far, this will all be very unsatisfying. As attentive, keen and diligent parents they want to know that they can show an interest in their child’s learning, ensure their child is maintaining focus and effort and check that their educators are doing their job.

The question becomes – “Well, if that’s not the right question, then what is?”

The following article may contain the germ of an answer.

The British Psychological Society Digest – Could the Way we Talk to Children Help Them Remember Their Science Lessons?

This makes a lot of sense to me. Intuitively, it’s what I often tended to do with my own son when he was younger. It also, as a generalisation, is a line of questioning taken more often by mothers than fathers. I wonder whether the nature of the questions asked, the child’s vocalisation of the answers all serve to provide extra focus for when the child sleeps, enabling better absorption of the learning and greater access for recall later.

Whatever the explanation, I believe this merits more research and in the meantime is a habit worth adopting by parents.

Moving Learning Forward

Here’s a great new TED talk that will particularly appeal to anyone who’s bought in to the ideas and concepts of growth mindset. Whilst the headline and the promotion of the video may be focused on adults who want to get ‘unstuck’ in making progress in the things that matter to them in their lives, I believe it also carries some important and valuable lessons for education.

When planning for lessons and supporting children’s learning, it’s vitally that educators have clarity in their intent about when an activity is geared to learning and acquiring knowledge or competency and when it’s designed for practice. Too often, there’s a muddy vagueness about which we’re trying to achieve and a belief that if they’re merged together there will be discernible progress.

This process can also be made more overt and transparent with the young learners – so that they understand at any point in time whether they’re engaged in a learning activity or a practice activity.

The Harm Done By Tuitions

ivod-tuitions-article

Here’s an article I wrote that has been published in this month’s edition of Ipoh Valley of Dreams magazine.

With apologies to Jane Kuok – I’ve got no idea why i look so white in the photo, or where the full stop went at the end of the article – but well spotted!

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