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!

Backing Winners or Solving Problems?

problem-300x200

Few types of ‘managers/ leaders’  pride themselves more on their skills at solving problems than school administrators. Many school Heads revel in the image of themselves as the calm vortex in the middle of a chaotic storm. For them, the more manically busy the school day, the more they believe they are proving their worth as leaders. They take great satisfaction and achieve much of their status from their zen-like unruffled calm as they solve problems left, right and centre.

Whilst i don’t want to burst anyone’s bubble, I think this is a mistake and there is a better way of leading schools that can give them the scope to be better institutions delivering a better education for all pupils.

My starting point is an experience that has stuck with me for many years, that I’ve seen mirrored subsequently in the literature for personal development, happiness and, I believe, applies to organisations as well. The experience was when I was in my late 20’s and working for a Private Bank in the UK – providing a wide range of financial services to the richest clients of our bank. I had been managing an office for around 18 months and its performance was going really well; outperforming on sales and revenue targets, customer retention and all other measures. However, our Region was marginally under performing against targets. I had a regular monthly meeting with the Regional Sales Head.

We had a good rapport and the meeting that day took the form of a wide ranging brainstorming session. In the late afternoon we were batting around ideas  in a ‘reject nothing’ environment. At a particular point, I commented that most of our discussion related to problems – the offices with the biggest sales target deficits, the sales staff who weren’t achieving up to expectations etc.  We agreed to talk about what it might look like if we reversed and deliberately took control of Pareto’s Principal.

What would it look like if we spent 80% of our time and energy on the 20% who were achieving at the highest levels?

The Pareto Principle is better known as the 80:20 Rule. It states that 20% of a company’s customers contribute 80% of the profits, 20% give 80% of the problems and can be applied in many other ways. The important thing is to reccognise the principle, not to get hung up on the exact numbers. It had been set out in a book by Richard Koch around the time of our discussion. I still have my original first edition copy of the book

We were both excited by the idea and formulated some thoughts about what our days and actions might look like if we deliberately and consciously focused our energies on our 20% best customers and particularly in the sales team, the 20% of sales staff who were performing best.

There were a few months left in the financial year. During that time we did more on-the-job observations with our best staff, arranged an advanced sales skills course aimed at the best performing sales staff. One of the tougher parts was that we both set about being somewhat elusive for the ‘problem’ staff. Either we weren’t available, or we arranged pre-planned short ‘touch base meetings in which discussion would deliberately get cut short if they started talking about problems. When they did, the key was to always ensure that they left the table still owning their own problem.

Personally, the first effect I experienced was a lightening and enjoying my work more. I felt less weighed down by negativity. Across the Region, the responses were very positive. One very strong, high performing sales person turned down a job offer to go elsewhere (he was on the verge of agreeing to go). Three sales people who had been consistently weak over a number of years resigned and informed they wished to leave the company over a period of 6 months. This created the opportunity to promote and take on some new employees. The sales performance of the Region rose. Stronger performers became more ready to come forward and support less experienced (but positive) colleagues.

So, my question here is, applying the same principles, what would a similar Pareto approach in a school look like? Firstly, I think Principals would need to stop saying, “my door is always open,” to all. More selectivity is vital to ensure that 80% of time is available to go towards those who are positive, achieving and applying positive mindsets. Now, I can immediately hear the cries of callousness, of giving up on some people without giving them a chance to improve etc. However, I’m not advocating that school leaders ignore the under achievers, whiners and overly negative, but simply reduce the amount of time they spend with them to having them acknowledge their own ownership for the issues, commit to a timetable to deal with them and occasionally to follow up to see that they have done so.

The reality is that even if leaders could free up 10% of their time in a school day to spend with high achievers, coaching and supporting them to raise their game still further, three things in particular would happen;

a) Those high achievers with strong growth mindset would be enabled to achieve still more, have higher levels of motivation knowing that they are appreciated and valued (not ignored and left to fend for themselves because they’re not problems),

b) The leader would find they have more energy and drive.  Invariably, the kinds of people we are talking about here, the ‘problem’ people are energy takers or drainers. They stride in to the leader’s office with; “There’s a problem I think you need to know about,” They leave after some time task free and the leader just inherited yet another task to add to their already overloaded schedule.

c) There would actually be less problems. The culture of the organisation would be way more empowered. What the leader would be much more likely to hear about is situations that had arisen, been dealt with and were no longer of concern. It’s not a compliment to the leader if everything has to rise to the top for a decision. In a culture where attention is given to those who solve problems, that becomes the default expectation.

One final thought – if you were to ask most leaders they could probably list out their staff members who sap their energy (and that of their colleagues) and those who underperform, are overly negative in their mindsets and who sap time. What they may not have stopped to consider is how much they could do with the time freed up if they stopped pandering to these people’s toxicity. Also, many will argue that they have to tolerate these individuals in their teams because they are good subject experts or bring some skills which would be hard to replace. However, i believe this is mistaken and that it fails to take full account of the overall harm that toxicity and negativity brings.

As leaders, we steer our organisations in the direction where we place the majority of our attention. If we focus on problems, even successfully solved problems, that’s what we’ll have. Instead, I’m arguing for a stronger focus on positive, self-directed teams and individuals who accept accountability, take ownership and responsibility and move the organisation forward.

Footnote! I’m not advocating here that we apply 80:20 to pupils or to ‘customers’ (parents). This is where schools are not like conventional businesses, who might pick and choose the customers they want to give most attention on the basis of profitability etc.  That would be unethical. In fact, on that issue I believe that schools tend to err towards paying too much attention to students who lie at both ends of the bell curve, often leaving those in the middle not getting as much support to fulfil their potential. But that’s for another article, another day.

 

Tony Robbins – “I am not your guru”

I came across the full length documentary about tony’s work. A film crew were given significant access to film his six-day “Date With Destiny” programme.

I give fair warning, for anyone not so familiar with Tony’s work that he uses some pretty strong language. There is a section in the film where he talks about why he does that. Also,  some of the interventions do touch on some past experiences in the participants’ lives that are pretty challenging to hear.

Giftedness

In many schools across Asia, the announcement by school leadership that they plan to launch a specialist ‘Giftedness Programme,” stimulates lots of excitement on the part of a proportion of the parents. Of course, these are most usually the ones who have been declaring for ages to anyone who would listen that their child was ‘special’, that the material being learned in the class is beneath their child and that really there should be a special programme that will tap in to the unique needs and abilities of their child.

Some years ago I was attending a dinner in Delhi, India that was held in honour of a very prominent Harvard professor renowned for his writings that shaped the work of many teachers and educators. His wife is also an educator of some renown – her specialisation being in the field of giftedness. I found myself sitting opposite her. During conversation at dinner, I clearly managed to ask the question she’d been asked before (and probably since) that was not welcome – “If we’re differentiating effectively for all our pupils, meeting them where they are, then do we really need specialist giftedness programmes?”

I know, I shouldn’t have done it. It was naughty of me. But, it just sort of slipped out. To be fair, the withering look I got was only second on the night to the one she gave the enthusiastic school principal who kept trying to engage her in discussion about her husband’s work, instead of hers!

However, I think it’s a perfectly acceptable and genuine question that needs to be asked, and I know that there’s more than enough evidence that others are also questioning the traditional orthodox approaches. I worry on a number of grounds. Firstly, I’m ultra cautious of anything that seeks to put labels on the children or to conveniently pigeon-hole them in to categories or ‘types’. Secondly, I fear that putting this particular label on to children can be another simple way like stating a child is SEN that exonerates the teacher from putting in the hard miles to reach, engage and help that child to learn. Often, it even leads to that child being taken out of the mainstream classroom, thereby reducing the class of remaining children to a more homogeneous core that can then all be delivered the syllabus in a standardised ‘one size now fits all’ way. The risk is these processes are used to clear the classroom of outliers, to simplify the teaching process. Nobody’s doing that consciously, but it can be the end effect.

Then there’s the issue of whether ‘Gifted’ programmes really work. What would we mean by working? If we are identifying these children as advanced, ahead of their peers, of higher intelligence and capable of transacting syllabus material faster and to more advanced levels than other pupils, then surely it would be appropriate to look for evidence of those students out-achieving their peers in to adulthood – both because of the attributes identified that justified putting them on a special programme and because of the fact that the programme should enable them to flourish and to fulfil the greater potential identified.

However, the evidence shows very little evidence of these outcomes. In fact, my understanding is that most studies of long term impact of giftedness programmes show very weak evidence of positive gains or outcomes.

Here’s a very interesting article from The Guardian, published about 6 months ago:

The Guardian – Education – Why There’s No Such Thing As A Gifted Child
(click on the link above to open the page)

The article carries some interesting evidence about how so many of the most exceptional adult achievers were very often average performers who didn’t stand out much during their school days. It also highlights something that is also reinforced in much of the research associated with growth mindset – IQ is not fixed and the attributes that might lead teachers to wish to identify a child as ‘gifted’ might be potentially capable of development in every child. Therefore, i firmly believe that instead of seeking to compartmentalize those children who appear to be at one end of the bell curve at the moment, educators should be seeking to put across a message to every child in their care that emphasises that their potential is limitless, that their opportunities and abilities will flow out of their effort and application over time and that all can excel at something if they are motivated and ready to work at it.

I have added links below for three articles I wrote as part of this blog in earlier years. Especially interesting is the one that highlights that being labeled and separated as gifted can be seen as much as a curse as a blessing for many children.

My Blog – Earlier Post – Selecting Gifted Children
My Blog – Earlier Post – Educating Gifted Children
My Blog – Earlier Post – Downside of Giftedness

Dinosaurs in the Classroom

This isn’t the article i intended to write on the blog. That’s still half written, so i’ll save it for another day. Instead, I saw something that got me so hot under the collar that i felt the need to get some stuff off my chest.

First, a bit of background about what’s made me mad.

Over 30 years ago, I was a young man fresh out of college and early in my first career as a private banker. I was excited and thrilled to be out in the professional world at last, ready to build my career. However, I had already had a few months to realise that all was not necessarily well in the world of work and that there were many sharp rocks in the water that could harm a career or harm the idea that all the people working in an organisation are strongest when they all align and pool their best efforts in a common direction. A couple of short stories will illustrate.

Initially, I had to rotate through all the departments of our bank – to understand the work done by each department and begin to build my technical knowledge. I started in the wills, trusts and estates department, full of dusty ledgers and ruled by arcane sets of rules on double entry bookkeeping. Maybe work that entails whole days rifling through the personal possessions of people who’ve just died does something to the inhabitants after a while. After a few weeks I was given a task to collate the records of a large collection of share certificates. Some were for defunct and bankrupt companies, some had been taken over, in some cases the shares had been split many times. It was technical and time consuming work that required great accuracy. I was new, i wanted to learn and i threw myself in to it heart and soul. Extra hours, skipped lunch breaks – I was in the zone. When I’d finished I checked and double checked my work before taking it to the desk of the supervisor.

He opened up the ledger, looked it over for a while and then told me he’d get back to me. Three days later he called me to his desk. He didn’t invite me to sit, pushed his glasses down his nose and peered over the top at me. “Hmm. Interesting.”
My heart lurched. I’d been so careful in the work, had taken such care. Had I made a mistake?
“Wellllll, it’s all correct, as far as it goes ……………. but this isn’t the way we do it here.”
“But is the information accurate, correct and understandable?”
“Yes, Mark. But, you need to understand, this isn’t the way we do it around here.”

All my pride in that piece of work just washed away like someone had pulled out a big plug. I struggled to understand how a piece of work could be right, accurate, clear and yet ……… all wrong because it wasn’t laid out according to some hidden, secret, set of protocols. needless to say, I was made to lay the information out in exactly the way required. my enthusiasm and sense of ownership had gone and somewhere I was cautioned to limit my inclination to use initiative and innovate.

man-holding-his-head-with-hands_1154-47

In the following weeks I picked myself up, renewed my energy and decided to be positive and optimistic, putting this experience down more to the individual I was reporting to than the system as a whole. I threw myself back in to my work with new energy.

A few weeks went by. I will never forget a particular Friday when i took some time out to go to lunch with a couple of my colleagues. As i was coming back in to the building I suddenly felt a tug on my elbow. A much older colleague with whom I’d had little dealings asked/ told me to step in to a meeting room. As I entered, I recalled that someone had pointed him out to me as ‘the union rep.

“Mark, I needed to talk to you on a very important matter.” He looked stern. “It’s come to our attention that you’ve been working late, taking work home and doing extra projects for the management. It must stop immediately. You’re setting a bad example, management will start expecting it of everyone and we can’t have that.”

After I picked my jaw up off the floor I figured out how I wanted to respond. I won’t write exactly what i said here, but the gist was that I told him to mind his own business and that I would thank him not to infringe on my rights to choose how i approached my career.

There is a little side note to that story. About 5 years later I bumped into said Union Man at a company event. By that time I’d undergone a few promotions, moved jobs and offices, done a secondment in the Channel Islands and was generally moving forward in my career pretty rapidly. He, on the other hand, still sat in the same office, doing the same job at the same grade and was known to be full of bitterness towards the company that he considered had failed to recognise his talents! My only hope at the time was that he wasn’t getting to pour his poison in the ears of any other young, keen and ambitious employees.

I’ve always chosen to live (and work) according to the spirit of the famous poem ‘Invictus’, by William Ernest Henley;

“I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.”

We are none of us helpless and we hold our fate in our hands. I also find common cause with writers like Cal Newport, Seth Godin, Simon Sinek and Adam Grant;

Cal Newport – So Good They Can’t Ignore You

“Stop worrying about what you feel like doing (and what the world owes you) and instead, start creating something meaningful and then give it to the world. Cal really delivers with this one.”
–Seth Godin, author, Linchpin

Adam Grant – Give and Take 

Simon Sinek – Leaders Eat Last

These writers all have in common that they are considered to be Twenty First Century thinkers and writers, espousing the right ideas for those who want to succeed in a rapidly changing and demanding environment.

I well remember after i left banking in the late 1990s that as I worked to change my career I started to evaluate where I wanted to work. Without ties, the world was open to me. In some ways, the decision was made for me when people started talking genuinely and seriously about legislation that would, by law, limit the working week. As though, somehow, in some sort of socialist Lala Land it was going to be mandated that nobody must have ambition, nobody must make effort to rise above anyone else, nobody should gain or benefit from the fruit of their own labour. This was all the motivation I needed to set out on an international venture that has now stretched for close to 19 years.

Young people today are growing up in a very different world to the one that I grew up in. It’s way more global, more connected, faster paced and requires a greater level of continuous learning (and unlearning) . This is exactly the kind of world that Newport, Godin, Sinek and Grant are pointing towards. This makes two things very clear to me;

a) When adults say of lifelong learning things like, “I make a particular point of learning from everyone around me,” you’re listening to someone who’s fudging it. Lifelong learning means real learning, not just the lazy practice of kidding yourself that because you spend time around others you’re absorbing their knowledge and wisdom by osmosis. If that was true, we should give every kid in school and A grade when they pass out – just because they showed up and spent time around others.

It also, though, doesn’t necessarily mean the frenzied pursuit of more and more bits of paper. Certificates that say you attended some programme of learning don’t necessarily represent a good fit with the knowledge you need at the time. The best learning to meet the needs of an ever evolving life is the learning that can be gathered through a self-generated and evolving curriculum based upon personal interest, opportunities and circumstances.

b) And this one is the real bee that got under my bonnet and inspired me to park the other article i was writing – people like Union Man shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near Twenty First Century children or their teachers. Their toxic line in mediocrity is so unhealthy that it has no place.

What do i mean – here’s an article published in TES that had me almost frothing at the mouth;

TES – Teachers Shouldn’t be Expected to Work For Free

This article seems to start off on the subject of school/ education funding. However, suddenly it veers off in to a rabid attack on school leaders in a style that would have been worthy of a protege of my Union Man from 30 years ago.

According to the writer, every time a teacher is offered an opportunity to learn, to grow, to expand their skills in to new areas their first response should be, “Not until you tell me what’s in it for me.”

This is how we prepare and motivate teachers to lead a new generation towards fulfilling their potential, grabbing opportunities in the global economy. Do the world’s great creators, artists, designers, idea generators ask, “Can I get away without doing this extra half an hour of effort?” or “Tell me what I’m getting paid before I put in this effort.”

This is the way educators in Britain will condemn another generation of young people to live stunted and denuded lives, wondering why they’re not better off than their parents’ generation, wondering why all the money and jobs seem to be flowing elsewhere, why Asian economies are so buoyant while theirs remains so anemic.

If the writer needs extra time to watch Great British Bake Off, rather than supporting a generation of children to get the best possible education that is his prerogative. But I wish he’d keep it to himself

 

Classroom Posters

Teachers are often looking for some good, powerful and effective posters for their classroom walls;

Edutopia – Motivational Printable Posters

Looking on the Bright Side for the Future

When Jared Silver writes, it’s frequently thought-provoking, enlightening and worth considering.

This is a very interesting piece he’s written for Edu Surge that puts the argument that as the internet becomes readily available to anyone anywhere in the world, so, we are entering a new human revolution that will unlock human potential at levels we cannot even imagine.

EduSurge – The Impending Human Capital Revolution

His evidence for this is the rarity, historically of Indian or Chinese Nobel Prize winners – because the people in those countries didn’t have the same access to knowledge and education compared with those in more developed nations. Now that the internet is freely available everywhere, so everyone can have access to all of human knowledge.

The first issue I would have with this argument is that by no means does the internet contain all of human knowledge or even most of the best knowledge. I think we’re a very long way from that and will continue to be for a long time. For one, even if we think of new knowledge that is published in books. At most, people give access to snippets of it online in order to entice more people to buy the books. They’re not about to give it all away for free. Secondly, there are vast parts of the world’s population who have severely restricted access to the internet, with large parts of knowledge placed behind curtains where they are not permitted to go. Laws and rules that restrict access can all too easily be imposed on people in any part of the world, justified by nebulous concepts like ‘national interest.’

As highlighted by Daniel Kahneman in ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ there are different kinds of thinking (engagement with knowledge) that lead to advances in human development. Whilst the internet and ubiquitous accessibility might give greater potential for the fast and shallow kind of thinking, it gives little scope for the slower, deeper forms of thinking. For that deeper thinking, people need access to the kinds of written material not generally accessible through the internet (at least for free) and access to other thinkers and experts in the chosen field with whom to share thoughts and ideas. On the latter point, email and ability to ‘find’ experts has had interesting implications. I recall a meeting and discussion with Dr Howard Gardner in which he slightly ruefully acknowledged that today he spends a far greater proportion of his time responding to speculative communication that he receives from people all over the world who want to tap in to his knowledge and insights. There is serious risk that this heightened level of accessibility makes his work less whilst giving little benefit in the enhanced knowledge of those corresponding with him – considering that the vast majority will still only be engaging with him at the most superficial levels.

One thing that Jared Silver’s article doesn’t really make clear, is whether he sees this human revolution emerging because a few more exceptional people will be able to emerge because of their newfound access to knowledge, information and each other, or whether he actually foresees an overall raising of all intellectual levels of all people. If he’s arguing for the latter, I’m really not sure that his examples about Nobel Prize winners are convincing proof as these people are by their very nature the exceptional, rarest of the rare.

If you walked in to most western school classrooms (or those in more affluent private schools anywhere in the world) and asked students what the internet changes, gives them access to most of their answers would relate to social networking and gaming. There is a strong argument to say that, especially with its addictive qualities, the internet is far from fueling an intellectual step forward for mankind, but rather giving him new and previously unforeseen ways to fritter away life on meaningless, addictive and compulsive activities. This is at its worst for those receiving a lot of unfettered access in their youth when the wiring of their brains predisposes them towards addictive and compulsive activities that give them repeated doses of dopamine and other neural ‘drugs’ that have nothing to do with enhancing mankind. instead, like the Soma of Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ it dulls the mind, eats up their time in ways that don’t challenge or move them forward intellectually and keep them limited in their advancement.

This has become of such concern to some educators that it leads to news articles like this recent one from the UK:

The Times – UK – Your Teacher’s At The Door – He Wants Your Xbox

Some years ago i had the privilege to host as a guest in one of our Delhi schools the great economist, CK Prahalad (who I suspect if not taken from us too soon was destined to be a future Nobel Prize winner). over coffee before and after the event we had conversations ranging over a wide array of topics. The one that has always stuck in my mind was his fears and apprehensions for the youth we worked with. The new young elite of India whose parents were all too frequently the first generation in their families to taste real economic success. he saw them suffering from a disease he described as “Affluenza” – an infection of plenty that undermines motivation and drive when these young people are growing up with all opportunities handed to them with ease and lacking the drive and the need to strive that marked out their parents’ generation. Such a level of complacency is more likely to lead to short cuts than hunger to use and access all possible information and knowledge that is accessible in the world.

The workings of human motivation, drive and the inclination to purpose have been areas of fascination to many (Daniel Pink – Drive, Roy Baumeister – Willpower, Viktor Frankl – Man’s Search for Meaning, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs). Just because opportunity is available to people, doesn’t mean they will take it, grasp it or see it as important. People’s aspirations and feelings of what’s possible or what are realistic and meaningful life goals are not simply shaped by exposure.

For example, ten to fifteen years ago, there were plenty of eminent experts who suggested that the growth of the internet would lead to new and greater levels of cultural understanding, empathy and recognition of common purpose amongst people of the world. The argument was that knowing people from all over the world, being exposed to them, understanding more of their culture would reduce fear, animosity and distance. however, as we see a wave of nationalism, protectionism and inter-cultural and religious sabre rattling, it’s clear that there is still just as much potential for people to be divided on ethnic, racial, religious or nationalistic lines as there ever has been.

In conclusion, the possibility that future Nobel prize winners might be more evenly distributed throughout the world doesn’t, in my view, automatically add up to a human revolution. Access and opportunity don’t change things on their own. Whilst i can agree that intellectual and knowledge accessibility may contribute to greater equity in the world, there is no rule that says a rising tide of accessible knowledge will raise all boats.

The Gentle Leader

Why do organisations exist? What is their purpose? What should be the ‘status’, roles and rights of different stakeholders? In the total history of mankind, the modern day organisation is still something very new, so to a large extent, we’re still engaged in a process of figuring out the answers to these questions.

The earliest organisations were tribes of hunter-gatherers where people came together out of mutual benefit. To serve one’s personal best interest entailed contributing your best to the group. Where necessary, there were traditions and norms in the group that enabled cohesion and a sense of duty and loyalty. leadership was often determined by lineage, sometimes by strength, size and simple power.

The industrial revolution brought very different kinds of organisations – far larger, more complex and with many more artificial processes to create the sense of belonging, commitment and common interest. There are plenty who are willing to say that the primary role of such organisations is to maximise value for the owners – everything else is peripheral. If this is true, then the duty of leaders is to organise all resources and stakeholders in the best possible way to achieve this aim of owner value growth. And further, those who are best at achieving this rise to the top and become the leaders.

We know that these things called organisations can cause some very odd human behaviour. For one, isn’t it pretty odd when we think about it that in organisations where only 13% of employees say they are engaged, all the employees turn up daily, on time and do the work they’re told to do, at least in principle. Further, we know from the work of experts like Stanley Milgram (famous obedience experiments) that the authority, status and title of being a leader can enable us to hold enormous and powerful sway over others. For those unfamiliar with Milgram’s experiments, he took subjects in to a lab situation where fake other subjects were required to learn and memorise random pairs of information. When they made mistakes the subject was required to administer an electric shock to them. If they showed disquiet about doing this they were instructed to continue by an official, lab-coated technician who clearly held authority in the lab. Shockingly (pun intended), almost all subjects in this situation continued to administer ever stronger levels of shocks to the person in the other room, even when they were screaming for mercy or even appeared to have passed out due to the extreme pain. They may have shown stress and anxiety in what they were doing, but all the time the authority figure told them to carry on doing it, they continued.

Modern society has many ways, right from when we’re very small, of drilling in to us the importance of compliance with authority. Whether it’s parents or teachers in school, so much of what goes on is about obedience, compliance and rewards and punishments are used continually to reinforce the ‘correct’ behaviours. To my mind, this raises some critical questions that i believe we’re not asking enough and where we shy away from the very difficult discussions we need to have;

a) As parents and educators, we need to challenge ourselves in critical ways as to our role and duties when dealing with children. Is our primary duty to teach them how to comply? When schools put ‘citizenry’ on the syllabus is this about performing a role for society that will make people do what they’re told, when they’re told, how they’re told?

b) As parents and educators do we inadvertently find ourselves acting as the agents for compliance with the small minority who wield the real power in our society, whether those are politicians or big businesses? Do we see frequent examples in our school activities and the syllabus that are actually about reinforcing, for example, beliefs that consumerism is a good, healthy and positive way to exist in the modern world? Do we, consciously or unconsciously, teach children that having things, acquiring things and joining in the pursuit of the latest shiny objects is a positive, healthy way to live in the world – almost that it’s our duty? The reality is that whether we like it or not we live in a modern society where if a sufficient number of us switched to consuming more for our need rather than our wants, modern consumerist, production based economies would hit crisis very quickly.

c) As educators, especially in the private sector, we’re fond of selling our credentials on the basis of our inclination to develop young people who will be leaders tomorrow. However, do our actions match our words? If we teach children in elementary classes that blind obedience is the only way to comfortably succeed in our classrooms, are we actually producing tomorrow’s compliant followers and obedient grunts, rather than true leaders? Worse, are we, at times, producing those who will be very good at ‘kissing up and kicking down’ who will form the vital middle layer that enables the vast majority to be controlled by the tiny minority?

d) Further, are those of us engaged in International education in developing countries part of an inadvertent process where we trade off access to greater worldly knowledge and exposure for the efficiency of compliance that will ensure that those countries don’t rise to preeminence at the expense of our own ‘Western’ countries current superiority?

e) If we are leaders in the educational domain, why do our schools need ‘anti-bullying’ policies? Is bullying such a ubiquitous and natural activity that we need a deliberate policy against it? Or, is that we create such awful artificially competitive environments in our schools that children’s behaviour is steered towards acts of physical violence towards each other as an unfortunate byproduct?

f) If we are leaders in the educational domain, how should we lead if we wish to have schools/ organisations that are sensitive to the needs of all stakeholders and produce a caring culture that provides the right environment for children to grow and develop naturally?

g) What, if anything, can educational leaders already teach leaders in other types of organisations? It already seems to me that there’s ample evidence that old style leadership ways of manipulation, sticks and carrots and force/ pressure are not producing the outcomes that the organisations seek for the longer term. I personally know that I had been trained in many ways in the traditional and conventional late Twentieth Century leadership approaches and style during my time working for a major UK bank.

As I transitioned in to the education sector, especially in Asia, I realised that I had to un-learn so much of what i took for granted. If I had lead in education the way I had lead in banking I would have achieved very poor results. In my early career I often had bosses who would ‘provoke and cajole’ me to be very task oriented. People issues certainly came second. Even as I was later encouraged to shift my position, it was conveyed that you needed to give people a higher priority (after making sure that you make all the top-down targets that are set). So, you get the classic middle-manager stress – you’re told to be a people person and to carry people with you, whilst being managed from on high in a thoroughly task oriented manner. The result, for many is phony people orientation that is actually more manipulative than caring.

So, having been thinking about these things (what else do you do with a four day Chinese New Year break from the office?) I was stimulated to write this piece when i read this article from Greg Thompson of Bluepoint Leadership Development.

Bluepoint Leadership – The Gentle Leader

In the article, Greg makes the case that the time of the ‘wolves’ is over – leaders who use good, bad, honest and dishonest means to achieve their goals and to meet the simple ends of maximising owner value at any cost in organisations. Instead, he advocates for a form of leadership that is far more akin to Servant Leadership. Some make the mistake of interpreting servant leadership as the leaders making themselves martyrs to organisation and people, everyone’s whipping boys to be used and abused. I don’t interpret it that way. For one, in the pursuit of the best interest of the most, there are times when a servant leader is duty bound to get tough with individuals who put their self-interest ahead of the collective needs. Also, the leader has a duty to lead the debate around vision and the fundamental purpose of the organisation. They then owe it to the collective group to address issues of individuals whose ideology or actions are incompatible with that agreed vision. However, when they have to deal with such situations, they must maintain the dignity of the individual and deal with circumstances with compassion. people need to be given reasonable chance to align, but the key is alignment to a commonly agreed and shared set of goals, rather than something artificially imposed from the top.

The rewards for getting leadership right in this age are more motivated and engaged employees, the fish shoal swimming in a common direction, less worthless conflict, lower employee turnover and a greater ability to attract highly motivated, talented employees in to the organisation.

Some fear that gentler, more collaborative and open leadership leads to harm to the interests of the organisation. Plainly, if a company has the scope to introduce technology that will significantly reduce costs compared to competitors, but at the expense of 30% of employees losing their roles, it requires a very mature level of understanding throughout the organisation to engage employees in a debate that sees them put the organisation’s needs ahead of their own short term self-interest. However, if employees in that scenario knew that the alternative was loss of competitive position and maybe even the complete failure of the organisation, they may see and understand the need. The compassionate and gently lead organisation provides support and help for retraining and job alternatives for those impacted and the level of trust is such that they understand what needs to happen.

Community in organisations and trust isn’t necessarily built in those challenging times. Rather, it’s built over the long time whether things are going well or poorly, so that there is a surplus of trust to be drawn upon in those challenging times.

In conclusion, school and educational leadership comes in all sorts of shades and levels of quality. However, I believe we’re now in a time where the best of schools leadership offers lessons and guidance to the leadership of many more types of organisations about what it means to build community, to lead with caring and compassion and to give a genuine voice to all stakeholders whilst leading towards a vision which is truly inspirational for all stakeholders.

Growth Mindset in Sports

Physical education, games and sports are a vital and integral part of a fully rounded holistic education. I also believe that for many children they also provide some of the most powerful and transferable experiences of what it means to be an effective learner. A child who develops a strong inclination towards a particular student quickly learns the natural connection between effort and outcomes – the more I train and apply myself, the better I become and the more success I can achieve in the sport.

So, as the concept of ‘Growth Mindset’ has developed over the last few years, it was important that specific attention be paid to its application in the area of sport. So, I was very pleased to see from this article that a book has been written on that subject;

Mindsetworks – Blog – Put Me In Coach – Growth Mindset in the World of Sports

Whilst I’m very keen to read the book, the article suggests that the writers have done a good job. One of the points that struck me was one where from time to time i’ve deliberately chosen to have provocative and thoughtful debates with teachers – how should children be chosen for school sports teams? All too often, the child with the high level of innate early talent gets called up for the team over the child who may be starting from a lower base, but who has the growth mindset and potential to work and strive to develop the technical skills.

The other thing the article talks about is the areas where sports coaches can sometimes have ‘blind spots’. Whilst they may pride themselves on a growth mindset approach towards the children and their technical skills and competence in the sport, they may harbour fixed mindset attitudes towards things like resilience, motivation and mental toughness. It’s important that coaches recognise that these are all things that can be learned and tailor their approaches accordingly.

Higher quality coaching that utilises and harnesses the power of growth mindset thinking can ensure that more children get more rich and rewarding experiences from their engagement with games and sports.

Behaviour Control

If I bought in to the idea that the right way to enable each student to fulfil their long term future in life was through behaviour control and that a teacher’s principle role in the classroom is ‘child control’, then I might be tempted to believe that Classdojo was one of the greatest innovations to hit the classroom. Certainly, plenty of teachers have been buying in to it, with enthusiastic support from lots of parents. These parents would be the kind (I’m not going to name names or even say in which school) who tried to persuade me to have CCTV installed in the classrooms and buses and to give them online access to the live footage – “so we can see what our children are up to during the day.”

Here’s an article about the rising use of Classdojo in English schools:

The Guardian – Good Day At School? There’s An App For That.

I’ve experienced Classdojo over a few months as a parent and also had many interactions with teachers who were using it for a while, and those starting to experiment with it in their classes. Most of the teachers with whom I’ve discussed it had very positive intentions. They talked in terms of reinforcing positive behaviour, encouraging the good etc. etc. However, whenever I talked with teachers who’d been using it for some time and asked the question, “which generates more discussion, the plus marks or the minuses?” their answers were always the minuses.

There’s the first problem. Like test marking, in the minds of students the avoidance of minuses (crosses) becomes far more important than achieving success, mastery or simply getting things right. As a parent I could see clearly why this was so. Human nature dictated that inevitably a day where my son’s Classdojo record showed maybe a single plus would pass without comment. However, as soon as minuses started to appear I inevitably felt the need to question him about them. He, in turn, would become naturally defensive and invariably there was some complex story involving others, provocation etc. In short, it didn’t provide anything of great value and probably was a negative for trust. After a while I became so uncomfortable with it, that I stopped looking at the record.

When it comes to negatives, the article quite rightly picks up n the potential issues regarding privacy. However, it barely touches on the bigger and more important issue – that use of such an app is inherently manipulative and seeks to bring about positive classroom behaviour through coercion and pressure and through wielding external ‘carrot and stick’ motivation. Does this really serve any purpose in the longer term development of the child, or just buy some peace and quiet for the teacher? Also, we’re not talking here about the nature of what’s going on in the classroom and how that encourages and motivates the very bad behaviour that Classdojo then tries to eliminate
or control.

Those educators in the article all say that the scores on Classdojo are a private matter between the child and the teacher (and their parent), but never shown in front of other pupils. However, I’ve even known educators to delegate the inputting task to a student in the class – presumably because the teacher found it distracting from the lesson activity (so what is it for that student?)

There’s a telling sentence in the article – near the beginning where it refers to “at least one teacher in half of all UK schools,” which is very telling about schools culture on this and many other issues. Individual teachers are given the freedom to decide whether to use such software, independent of their peers and the leaders in their school. When a parent admits their child in a particular school, don’t they have a right to expect some commonality, some consistency in policies and the school’s ethos on such matters as discipline? Doesn’t the issue of how children are motivated and the use of extraneous and intrinsic motivation methods come under whole school policies and practices, defined and riven by the values of the school? In short, too often, no it doesn’t. The values, mission etc. are all too often defined poorly, debated and discussed little with the result that each teacher can pretty much choose to define them however they wish in keeping with their personal ethos.

There is a need for innovation in schools and no question in my mind that technology has a great deal to offer in terms of enhancing the learning experience for every child. However, the tail shouldn’t be allowed to wag the dog. Children, their learning, development and their needs should be the drivers of change.

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