Machiavelli

Machiavelli

Few figures in history have got a harsher rap than Mr Niccolo Machiavelli. In today’s language we use his name as a pejorative label for all the worst characteristics we see in leaders.

However, I believe he’s been harshly judged, especially when one considers the historical context of the time when he was writing. This was a man who understood that when you are in a position of power, or aspire to power (even if with the best of intentions), you’re going to catch dirt and cannot naively sit back and believe that the rest of the world will benignly orient itself around your goals.

The following is one of my favourite quotes from Machiavelli. Reading it I’m reminded so frequently of the benchmarks I always sought to apply when there were failures or mistakes in a team i was leading. What type of mistake was it? Was it a first, or was there a pattern? The last line is also a valuable reminder to me that I had better not ever be tempted to settle for self-pity or acceptance of status quo. It’s my life and my duty to do bold things with it. A ship is safe in harbour, but that’s not what ships are built for.

I also believe that as educators we have to ensure that students spend time immersed in thoughtful contemplation on such writings, exploring their applicability in their own lives.  Only through the exploration of such ideas can they develop the inner compass that will equip them to thrive in a world that changes ever more rapidly.

“All courses of action are risky, so prudence is not in avoiding danger
(it’s impossible), but calculating risk and acting decisively.
Make mistakes of ambition and not mistakes of sloth. Develop the strength
to do bold things, not the strength to suffer.”

Niccolo Machiavelli
16th Century Philosopher

 

The Value of Struggle

I had taken the back off my transistor rado any times. But, this time I was feeling that bit more daring and, armed with a small screwdriver I started to undo the screws inside the back that would separate the inside parts from the case. There were various bits and pieces that I really wasn’t sure about – not sure what part they played or their significance.

My aim. The sound had become a bit rattly in recent days, like something wasn’t connecting 100%. I was feeling very curious and pretty confident that I could get in to the connections between all the various bits, find something loose, make it tight and proudly gt to listen to all my faourite songs on the radio knowing that i had made the sound better.

An hour and a half later, I sat on the floor feeling a cold sweat creeping across my skin. This really hadn’t gone how I wanted it to. I had various ‘bits’ of the radio laid out on the flor in front of me, a little pile of screws to one side and the case lay forlornly at a distance. This was now the second time I’d taken it all apart and my actions were starting to get a little panicked. The first time I was calm, confident and assured – I now realised, too much so. When I’d reassembled, put the screws back in, slotted in the batteries and turned it on I felt a sickening in my stomach as there was no reaction, pin drop silence. The radio was completely dead.

I heard the call to go to dinner. I ate, but didn’t really taste the food as I was so aware of my guilty secret tucked under the edge of the bedspread so as to be out of sight. The jumble of electrical pieces that i no longer felt confident or sure how they were going to go back together. As soon as I could reasonably get away, I headed back to my room where I simply made things worse and became more anxious for another hour. This was a mess. I was filled with a sense of guilt. The reminder of hat a radio cost and how i would be held to account for a lot if this one was ruined for ever.

Bedtime came and still no progress. I didn’t sleep very well that night. Another hour of tinkering in the morning was enough to make me realise the unpleasant truth – I was going to have to fess up. I had no choice to ask for help.

The long and the short, it didn’t go half as bad as my fear had built it up. Yes, there was the usual dose of parental anger, but that soon subsided. A week later I was taken through the process of how the radio went together and hey presto, it worked again (and the insignificant rattle of the loose speaker was sorted as well). It had been an unpleasant experience, but, as i reflect on it today it contained so much valuable learning – learning that I’m just not sure children get today. I think as a result of this and other experiences I grew up more able to undersand that uncomfortable feeling inside when things are not going the way they’re meant to. I learned not to go at a task like a bull in a china shop, especially if it was going to stretch me at the limits of my knowledge and experience. I learned that there are times to rely on your own independent skills and times when you should tap in to the superior skills of others. I also learned that when you head in to something it’s a good idea to lay down a string so that you can backtrack out of it when you need to.

Today’s children are growing up in a very different world and, I fear, are losing out on a lot, including the ownership of one’s own learning. I was reminded of my experiences with the radio when i read this sensitively written article from a teacher (and parent) about the ways in which modern parenting and educating are removing children’s love for learning and making them passive recipients of learning – the most successful of whom get the biggest wins and successes in the academic game.

The Atlantic – The Gift of failure – A Fear of Risk Taking Has Destroyed Kids’ Love of Learning

I believe we can address these issues. I also believe that we we it to our children to be talking about these issues and the potential alternatives. There are solutions and, if practiced consistently enough, we can help our children to grow up curious, innovative learners.

Ability Grouping and the Fixed Mindset

Here is an excellent scholarly article, a bit longer than some, but well worth the 10 minutes or so to read. It explores the issues of ability grouping so prevalent in British schools and sometimes elsewhere, especially in relation to Maths.

Jo Boaler Professor of Maths Education Stanford University – Ability and Mathematics
(Click on the link above to open the file as a pdf)

The article is very interesting from a number of perspectives. Firstly, it draws on Carol Dweck’s work on Mindset to explain why ability grouping doesn’t work and in fact why it causes poorer performance for lower and average achieving students.

I also found it really interesting when talking about neuro-plasticity and the implications for learning Maths, especially when it comes to how mistakes are treated. I was reminded of a classmate when I was in school. He was a high achiever in Maths and it tended to come quite easily and naturally to him. However, he was so traumatised by the sight of a cross on the page in his exercise book if he got a question wrong that he would carefully remove the page from his book with a knife and reproduce all the sums on the page on a fresh page with the error corrected (and all on the reverse side of the page if necessary). Then, after some time, he even took to asking the teacher to re-mark the work so that it would be seen to have only ticks and no crosses or evidence of failure (in his mind). I’m sure that teacher loved him!

I believe the article has lessons for those teachers practicing differentiation, especially in the ways that it has been encouraged by KHDA in Dubai. Here, vast numbers of schools are not physically segregating the students, but the teachers are confidentially categorizing them in to one of four categories (High, mid, low and SEN). Whilst they stay physically in the same classroom they are given different work, especially in the form of different levels of complexity and challenge in worksheets. We shouldn’t be too surprised that the UK OfSTED (Office of Standards in Education – responsible for UK school inspections) has had a strong influence on KHDA. My suspicion is that most of the time, consciously or unconsciously, the children know what’s going on and understand it as a form of ability segregation – in other words, they’re buying in to a fixed mindset as a point of principle.

So, the three big takeaways for me – we need to create classroom setups where every student can strive to achieve at high levels. Secondly, we need to inculcate a mindset that emphasises rigour, effort, practice and thoughtful experimentation so as to develop the growth mindset in a bigger proportion of the pupils (and teachers). Finally, we need a cultural change with regard to how success and failure are defined and treated in the classroom, especially as regards the handling of mistakes.

Learning When Information is no Longer the Issue

Here’s a really nice 10 minute TED talk from a US teacher sharing her journey as an educator and her findings and perceptions about learning from mistakes:

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