Google’s Vision Slip

google

A couple of weeks ago I wrote an article about Google and how I believed it set a terrible example to companies, young people and the world as a whole when it comes to the practice of living by (and sticking to) values.

Since I wrote that article, two further things have come to the fore that increased the strength of my concerns – one evidence of the company breaking away from the ethical moorings for which it was so respected and the second evidence of just how dangerous and harmful that could be (and why the founders might have wanted to distance themselves from the company they started)

Digital Trends – Former Google Exec Says The Tech Giant Doesn’t Prioritize Human Rights

The article above suggests not only a softening of commitment to human rights in respect of the company’s approach to China and other external issues, but also internally to the human rights of Google employees and outsourced workers

Final thought – Google achieved what is known as Quantum Supremacy – a level and speed of computer computation by a quantum compute that is many times faster than anything that can currently be achieved by the most advanced conventional supercomputers.

New Scientist – Google Has Reached Quantum Supremacy

As the article highlights, this is an early and tentative step on the journey to effective quantum computing. When it’s fully successful it carries great promise in areas like testing molecules for medicines etc. However, there is also a dark side with, for example, the power to render almost all current security encryption methods redundant and broken overnight. This would even impact the blockchain, and therefore bitcoin. let’s not forget that bitcoin exists to enable people to free themselves from the strictures of government controlled fiat currencies (especially when all electronic and therefore providing government with full details about one’s spending, lifestyle etc.). There are many companies racing to be ready for this with new encryption methodologies.

This much power in the hands of a commercial corporation that’s already showing signs of being more than happy to set aside its own codes of conduct and previous strong ethical stance is a cause for concern.

Values must still count and must continue to be at the core of how organisations move forward in to the future – we cannot buy in to an acceptance that corporations are now above morals, ethics and values. That would be to concede to an animalistic might over right future that would be bleak for humanity.

I’m Right, You’re a #@!*

Angry argument

A few weeks ago I was watching a Youtube video by an American who purports to give financial and business advice. I was shocked when, at one point, he said something I considered to be blatantly racist towards the people of another country. I simply wrote in the comments section – “Wasn’t that a rather racist thing to say?”

I went to bed and thought no more about it.  In the morning I saw a notification that there was a comment in response to mine. When I opened it, I was informed – “This is the internet, get over it you @#!*.”

It can appear very easily today that, hastened by online ‘anything goes’ communication, we are losing our ability to hold conversations or discuss matters where we hold different points of view. We don’t know how to argue any more. It has become the habit all too often to take comments that are critical of a point of view or an action to be statements of direct attack on one’s person and therefore justification for insults and direct attacks on the person of the other, regardless of whether we even know anything about that person.

Particularly in my earlier years in leadership positions I well remember that I used to have a real issue at times. I would put in extensive hours of research on a topic, consult with experts and other leadership team members, apply long and deep thought and often write long and detailed plans of action and other documents. Then it would come time to present the materials as a plan for action in a particular new direction to staff, or school parents. I would also burn a lot of midnight oil turning those ideas and plans in to powerpoint presentations and speaking notes, planning how I could accurately convey all the facts and details to the target audience.

And then, I’d present! And then, I’d get a shock when the audience reaction and response wasn’t the one I’d wanted or convinced myself to expect. Having a lot personally invested in those thoughts and ideas I would sometimes feel angry, disappointed, let down, even betrayed. I would lament, sometimes to myself and sometimes to close others how these people, who hadn’t spent all the time and effort I had, who didn’t have all the facts marshalled the way I had, could be so foolish as to not be grateful and appreciative that I had put in all the hard work on their behalf. As far as I was concerned, my facts and evidence were irrefutable, well organised and well presented and so, if those people were rejecting there had to be something wrong with them deep down. I would be tempted to put it down to character flaws or ulterior motives. I questioned whether they were really sincere in their protestations of loyalty to the vision and mission of the organisation.

There was an inevitability that the end outcome of such an exchange was tense relations, loss of rapport and less trust in both directions. When relationships are damaged in this way, the next communication can only be harder still because it starts from a position of mistrust. The other thing that people come to realise about such exchanges is the enormous loss of energy, drive and enthusiasm, for which both are again inclined to blame the lack of reasonableness of the opponent. Hostility levels can continue to rise, or one or both parties withdraw whilst adamant they were always 100% in the right and that the other party is entirely to blame for any harm done to the relationships.

We can see parallels today in the arguments roiling around in India about recent law changes pushed through by a government emboldened by its majority after recent elections.  We also see similar with the arguments about Donald Trump in the US or Brexit in the UK. In each of these disagreements both sides put enormous energy in to marshalling facts, data, ‘evidence’ to put the case that they are 100% right, their opponents 100% wrong.  But, in all these disputes people are going further, with two disturbing factors;

1. Both sides in these polarised arguments take their sides according to the party that they already support. In other words, if I align with a party on the right in my country’s politics, then I agree and push the agenda of every policy or argument from my peers on the right, without exception. it has become anathema almost to say that whilst I align with ‘this side’ I cannot agree with X, or am uncomfortable with Y without certain safeguards etc.
Instead it’s  – I’m on this side and therefore I think X, Y and Z and will argue for them until my last breath. Further I will belittle and condemn anyone foolish enough to align themselves with any other position or to listen to any ‘facts that might question my/ our perspective. People like us think things like this, support people like us and condemn people like them!
This is made worse by another factor online, namely that the algorithms being used by search companies etc mean that to keep me ‘hooked’ (to keep the promises to the advertisers) I will be fed a diet largely consisting of the viewpoints and perspectives that reinforce my belief in X, Y and Z. This convinces me that I am ‘one of the smart ones’ and further cements my view that all those who disagree are either willfully obstructing the truth or ignorant in the extreme.

2. Having presented their ‘facts’ in great and careful detail, when their opponents offer any alternative facts there’s a lack of listening, an unwillingness to contemplate that the ‘other side’ could have anything worth saying. Further, when they don’t accept ‘our facts’, not only do we alienate ourselves from them, but resort to name calling, personal level insults and assumptions that they are unreasonable, blinkered and

Such complexities and subtleties of human relations are never perfected in an entire lifetime. Nevertheless, it is vitally important that people are committed to learn and to put in the effort to strive to be better, in order to further better human relations at both the personal and the larger scale. I fear that we are at risk of argument fatigue and the changes brought by the relative anonymity and safety of distance and ease provided by the internet may see humanity go backwards in its development of these skills.

For children growing up today there are massive risks. When we were young we spent far more of our time playing, often in  fairly large groups, with a lot of independence. Disagreements were an inevitable part of that play, but we independently learned how to work through issues, negotiate over differences of opinion and to separate feelings and emotions at times so as to understand circumstances.

Today’s children live far more isolated lives. When they do interact it’s within the environments of computer games and social networking – and as I’ve already said these domains tend not to observe the same standards or expectations. In the real world, when you’ve insulted someone, called them vulgar names or inflicted pain and hurt by needling them at points of sensitivity, you still have to look them in the eye and also look other peers in the eye who will have seen and heard your actions (and will share judgements about you). Online, a level of callousness and ‘out of the world’ sense can mean that bad behaviour, being unfair or nasty carries little by way of real world consequences.

In such circumstances, we have to fear further deterioration in people’s abilities to disagree, let alone considering the ability to handle cognitive dissonance. This is the discomfort that may be experienced by a person who holds two opposing views in mind at the same time. On this, the writer F. Scott Fitzgerald is famously quoted as saying, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” By this definition, there are evidently few first rate intelligences around today, and there will be even less in the future.

In these circumstances there is a genuine need to ensure that thinking and communication skills form a significant part of the learning process in schools. ‘Facts’ are readily and easily available. The ability to marshal an argument that makes sense, to argue it effectively with others and to engage with their responses involve a set of skills that are well worth developing.

Further, even as adults, we have to acknowledge that these are areas in which we can never get too good. There is always scope for improvement. I outlined earlier the issues and challenges I had as an, at times, obsessive leader. I recognise now that it made me less of a leader than i could have been. I know I will still have times when my vision for something, backed by my own passion for it and the fact that I’ve invested the time and effort to become passionate is not uniformally welcomed by others, needs to be sold and cannot simply be bulldozered. and that even despite the fact that, today, there are signs that people living in an unsettled and uncertain world may welcome having leaders who bully them down a particular course of action. Leaders with the ‘courage (thick-skinned-ness) to be unpopular, to bully and pressurise seem to be in vogue. I want to believe that this is just a phase the world is going through and that ultimately it will still always value, respect and want more to be lead by those who seek to carry others with them rather than exert bullying force and power.

If you believe that man-made impact on global warming is a bogus sham created by interested parties, or that the earth is actually flat nothing is achieved if I simply come to you and tell you that you’re wrong. Even if I follow up with a vast array of scientific evidence (facts) to put my argument and refute yours, there will still be nothing achieved. In fact, worse, we’ve seen lots of evidence that this will simply cause your belief to become even more entrenched and you are very likely to double down on your beliefs and the perception that those who seek to persuade you otherwise are bad in some way.

So, we come to the question – how can we argue, disagree and communicate more effectively, so that we arrive at ways forward that are more humane, sensitive and actually effective? So that we don’t sacrifice long term relationships in order to achieve short term wins. What are the elements of effective discourse to be built in to the education process and school learning so that young people can master these skills and make them a natural part of their character?

Here are a couple of useful starting points I would like to share – ones that struck me as particularly useful and appropriate.

The first is a link from Psychology Today that looks at why we shouldn’t try to shut down argument, that it serves a valuable purpose if we will just keep it in perspective, avoid getting emotionally overloaded by it and approach it as a vital part of the long term process of making our personal relationships stronger and more effective:

Psychology Today – The proper way to Argue

The second is a longer read, but well worthwhile. It comes from Eric Barker, the writer of the ‘Barking Up The Wrong Tree’ blog and the book of the same name that came out last year. The book is superb and I would thoroughly recommend it – one of my best reads of 2019. Eric’s method is to draw significant amounts of research together from credible sources to address a challenge at which, if we can get better, we can have more success in life.

In this particular article he addresses the question of how one might persuade another to change their viewpoint or opinion on something. He starts with the most fundamental point – you’re going to have little or no scope to change a person’s mind by restraining, forcing, bullying, hectoring or belittling the other person. You cannot begin to have any chance of convincing anyone of anything until there is rapport and a feeling on the part of the other that you do not wish them ill or intend harm to them. He advocates kindness.

I have a sneaking suspicion that, all too often, these days when people engage in aggressive arguments, especially online, they know right from the start that they will not change the point of view of the other. Rather, they actually intend that by sanctimoniously professing their viewpoint and belittling those of the other, they will feel better about themselves. This is a small victory of little consequence and comes with a heavy price in terms of the loss of civility, decency and effective human engagement. When lawyers in court refer to the opposing lawyer as “my learned friend,” it highlights that they are setting out to journey together towards a shared, common, understood truth (win-win) rather than in an adversarial, gladiatorial battle to the death (win-lose) .

Barker’s article goes on with some level of detail, to outline a number of the key ways that rapport can be established and that one can attempt to persuade another to change a viewpoint (in fact, to create an environment where they persuade themselves that there is some reason to doubt their earlier beliefs).

Barking Up The Wrong Tree Blog – Eric Barker – This Is How to Change Someone’s Mind
(Click on the link above to open the blog post in a separate window or tab. While you’re there I would thoroughly recommend you sign up for Eric’s regular email notification of new blog posts (about once a week) to read more)

For a final thought, I turn to Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Covey didn’t invent these 7 habits, rather he distilled them from long term wisdom about what works – what is effective. Firstly, we can take habit 2 – begin with the end in mind. Unless your intention is really to alienate others and cause them to hold beliefs with which you can’t agree more firmly than before, you need a change of strategy. if you always do what you always did, then you’ll always get what you always got. Just winding people up for the sake of it online really does make you nothing more than a keyboard warrior and you shouldn’t be surprised when people ignore you. If you have other objectives, you need to get clear about what they are.

Then, we can turn to habit 5 – seek first to understand, and then to be understood. You’re not the only perfectly reasonable, sane, intelligent person on earth. Just because it may not be obvious to you, there is a reason why the other person thinks or believes what they do. And, as Barker highlights, those beliefs are frequently wrapped up with self image, identity and values. If and when you have an understanding of why they hold the beliefs they do, then you might be able to begin to introduce alternative viewpoints to them.

As I said earlier, I’m still working on these things and know I’ll never be perfect. You cannot be too good. However, as a person who wants to make a positive contribution in the world I know I must continue to refine and develop my skills. The effort is worthwhile, however long the journey. There will be better and worse days, but that’s all part of the road towards mastery.

 

Why Do Values Seem To Be Such Hard Work?

google

Leading by values, driven by values, the speed of trust, values education, living our values, smart trust, trust matters – these are all phrases (and book titles) that have been heard as much over the last 10-15 years at the tables of curriculum planners and education leaders as corporate honchos, HR Heads and even occasionally political strategists.

The principle has always, to me, appeared eminently logical and valuable – have children focus on acquiring strong values in their formative years and there’s an increased likelihood that they will grow up to be not just ‘educated’ but also good citizens – people who place a priority on practicing and living by positive and virtuous values, thereby making a more harmonious, positive and effective society.
(Note – this is very different to ideas of inculcating subservience, obedience and docility that have been barely veiled motivations of some of the arch-engineers of mass education over the last Century)

However, it’s also said that children learn from what we do more than what we say. Further, when there is inconsistency between the two, they will cease to believe our words and will even think less of us for our duplicity.  Generationally, there’s overwhelming evidence that this is where we are today – children and young people looking at adults, shaking their heads in horror and disinclined to hear too much more of our nonsense about trust, integrity and values.

Here, i’m not specifically talking of our destruction of the environment or crass economic policies – both of which ride a short term gravy train, all to be paid for on the never never by future generations. Nor am I talking of venal politicians who can barely get words between their lips before they let the side down with blatant and stupid lies (in this day it takes about 30 seconds to prove they’re lying). Here, I want to talk about the impact when a beacon of light held up to show the way to a promised land proves to have been a false light, deceptive with smoke and mirrors to conceal its ugliness.

I’m talking about Google (the picture at the top of the article was probably a clue. Not only does the story of Google appear to be showing all the signs of a massive let down to younger generations. it’s even leaving an old codger like me with the bitterest of tastes in my mouth.

Google has been a story of phenomenal  exponential growth. There probably isn’t another company that’s had more written about it, in popular media and in books. And, for years, almost universally, what was written was about a company that was tearing up the old rule books about company culture, about how companies behave in their relationship with their own employees. Here was a company who very publicly declared a key part of their mission was “don’t be evil.”

Books about Google have proliferated, but somehow I only got around to reading one of the best known, “Work Rules,”  by Laszlo Buck a few months ago. That reading feels almost redundant now and saddening for all the energy that went in to extolling to the rest of the corporate world that if companies would just be true to their vision and values they too would attract and have the pick of the very best of talent (and therefore grow to be phenomenally successful). In barely 21 years this company that started out as a Stanford University project by two allegedly reclusive and shy students; Larry Page and Sergey Brin has grown to be a worldwide colossus employing over 110,000 people. many things that Google did culturally have been adopted by other companies and even the 20% projects idea (allowing employees to devote 20% of their time to a project that intrigues them away from their main work) has been adopted in many schools worldwide to facilitate creativity and project based learning.

So, what’s gone wrong at Google? Nothing at all, if the share price is the arbiter of good and bad. However, share prices and the maximisation of shareholder value are the currency of old-school companies, not the new youngbloods, like Google. However, here’s just some of the evidence for the prosecution;

  1. A ‘Censored search engine’ being developed on behalf of the Chinese Government:
    In late 2018 there were reports that after condemnation and bad feeling from employees within the company, and others outside, Google had stopped work on the project Dragonfly. To many it was shocking that they would even consider being part of such a project when their previous message to the world had always been about the power of the internet to give people free access to information.
    However, even in 2019, there have been strong suspicions that work on this project is still ongoing in secret:
    The Intercept – Ongoing Project Dragonfly
  2. Google Found to be Providing Funding to Climate Denier Organisations
    Evidence emerged in 2019 of money from Google going to organisations that included those who lobbied most effectively to encourage President Donald Trump to leave the Paris Climate Agreement. Again, to many Google employees with strong science backgrounds this is shocking and alarming, but especially disturbing in the clandestine way it’s been done:
    Salon – Report Reveals How Internet Giant Funds Climate Villains
  3. Google’s Willingness to Work Closely With the Trump Government on Border Agency Cloud and Other Projects
    Tech employees and their Californian neighbours tend to lean towards Democrat politics and for many of them this has driven their decisions to take their technical knowledge and skills to Silicon Valley rather than pursuing the big mega bonuses in the New York financial markets.
    Also, a high proportion of the employees are first or second generation immigrants themselves, so are disturbed and troubled by the Trump government’s treatment of immigrants:
    The Verge – Google Employees Refuse to Be Complicit in Border Agency Cloud Contract
    (Article also references another controversy related to a government contract for drone footage related software)
  4. Google Using Its Size and Power to Stifle Competition, Control Search and Drive Revenues – Being Evil
    The Federalist – Why Big Tech Companies Can’t Stop Being Evil

  5. Google’s Increasingly Confrontational Position With Dissenting Voices:
    Fast Company – Fired Google Employees Cite ‘Don’t Be Evil’
    The sort of dispute referred to in this article might seem humdrum and commonplace in so many other company environments. However, it’s the massive changes in a culture that was held up as a model for future business that has shocked many.
    This case has also highlighted what are perceived to be unfair and unreasonable ways to exploit casual and contract labour outside the company.
  6. Google Siding With the Big Bankers in Financial Markets
    The blockchain, bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies have partly come into existence as a backlash against the abuses of power and manipulations of the big banks. So, it doesn’t please many people to see Google siding with the big bankers to develop products and services that may undermine the development of unregulated crypto markets that have the potential to give citizens privacy and power over their own money, spending etc.
    Forbes – Perhaps Google Will Kill Bitcoin After All
  7. Google Changing the Rules Unilaterally
    One aspect of Google’s ‘community’ oriented culture was the infamous town hall meetings where every employee could attend in person or electronically and put any questions to the founders and senior officials.
    In Work Rules Buck talks openly about how this wasn’t always comfortable, but that it was a critical and vital part of the company’s culture. He even went as far as to title the second chapter – ‘Culture Eats Strategy For Breakfast.’ The subtitle  – If you give people freedom, they will amaze you.). The subtitle of the sixth chapter was – ‘Take power from your managers and trust your people to run things.’

 

In the book he cites examples of where Sergey and Larry took very personal interest in preserving and building up these cultural aspects of the organisation and how it created a strong message that Google was the place to work for the most free-thinking, creative and talented programmers and computer scientists. It’s surely not a coincidence that Larry and Sergey announced they would be standing down from their executive roles in the companies (including the parent company Alphabet). They announced this in an open letter to all employees:
Blog – Google – A Letter From Larry and Sergey

The final word on Google today sums up the current situation, from a University Professor of Innovation:
Medium – Suddenly, at Google, it’s Get on the Programme or Get Out

Where does all this leave us as far as values are concerned. Should we continue to give such a high priority to values in education – both as guide rails for how we run our schools and what we expect our pupils to imbibe, practice and make their own. Yes, in fact, I believe that failures like this just reinforce that we need to give even more importance to values.

We need to be able to have open, transparent dialogue about what happens when values meet challenging and ambiguous situations. As the children in school become older and more mature, so it’s vital that we expose them to debate and discussion around the fact that values are nothing except when they are tested, challenged and that when truly and fervently held they actually do not fall and crumble under the weight of pragmatic flimflam, but are instead strengthened like steel cast in the fire.

Values are not just marketing tools, or nice words to adorn the walls. They have to burn at the very core of individuals and organisations. At times they must be defended and protected. So, for example, if institutional investors are going to be one-dimensional stakeholders ready to push for values to be jettisoned in the pursuit of more profit, then company founders should have the courage to grow slower and refuse to take the institutional money.

And the same for individuals. The person who can be tempted to cast aside flimsily held values will be hollow at the core, susceptible to vulnerabilities and destined to fail to be all that he/ she can be.

 

Creativity – Key Skill

Wired to Create Crop

“The truly creative mind in any field is no more than this: A human creature born abnormally, inhumanly sensitive. To him …..a touch is a blow, a sound is a noise, a misfortune is a tragedy, a joy is an ecstasy, a friend is a lover, a lover is a god, and failure is death. Add to this cruelly delicate organism the overpowering necessity to create, create and create – so that without the creating of music or poetry or books or buildings or something of meaning, his very breath is cut off from him. he must create, must pour out creation. By some strange, unknown, inward urgency he is not really alive unless he is creating.”

Pearl S. Buck
Winner of Pulitzer and Nobel Prizes

Educators today are very fond of parading and selling the emphasis given to the development of creativity in their schools. Many have declared its importance through values, mission or vision of the school. This has been partly a response to the work of people like Dr Ken Robinson (highlighting the ways in which education kills creativity) and the recognition that creativity figures highly in most lists of the core skills that employers look for both now and in the future from their workforce.

However, I’ve really seen very little attempt by most educators to define what is really meant by creativity, what it would look like if a student had it and the best ways to ensure that school experiences nurture and cultivate it. How many schools could give an honest appraisal of how well they are achieving this aim?

The picture and quote above come from the best book I’ve read so far this year. As I read it I was continually mindful of this inclination towards creativity that is espoused by educators, but how the lack of detail or clarity suggests that these are simply nice words given little deep thought or introspection

The starting point is to acknowledge the types of creativity the world, business and schools want. in addition, as Dr Ken Robinson has highlighted over many years, the young infant doesn’t lack for creativity. A small child doesn’t need to be taught divergent thinking. When a child runs around the house or garden with a stick that is one second a gun, the next a flying broomstick, the next a walking stick and the next a cricket bat they show all the attributes of creativity.

The reality is that a lot of divergent thinking is not welcome in the classroom. Teachers fear the divergent thinking child. In fact, one chapter of the book shares research where children who were more creative divergent thinkers were among the least popular with their teachers, while their more compliant, obedient and passive peers were top in the popularity stakes. So, the child who is going to retain their creativity will need the resilience to deal with unpopularity and the treatment meted out to them by all around for ‘not playing the game.’

I had a very personal experience of this in primary school. I moved in to the classroom of a teacher I found incredibly frustrating. Her attention was all on power and control. It was a place where you spoke when ordered to do so, where obedience was the golden rule. I dared to ask questions and even after being given all the visual warning signals I continued to ask questions when dissatisfied with the dismissive responses i was getting. As time went on, the relationship between me and that teacher became more and more adversarial. Worse, she sought to turn my classmates against me with sarcasm and hints that I was stopping the class from moving forward (and the perception being that progress forward through the syllabus is what everyone’s supposed to care about). It all escalated to the point where the teacher suddenly took out a large roll of sellotape and taped my mouth shut. The sense of humiliation and belittling was horrendous. I received the message loud and clear that my curiosity, my desire to know things and understand some things deeper was not welcome in a classroom. Rather, classrooms were places where ‘playing by the rules’ counted above anything else and the punishments for daring to step out of line could be barbaric.

Creativity is challenging by its very nature. In 1959 Isaac Asimov pointed out that, “The world in general disapproves of creativity.” Many companies have had to take hard looks at their cultures to understand how they can create more ‘safe space’ for creativity. However, the focus on getting stuff done, continual movement of all in a common, shared direction in schools means that it’s majorly stifled in both teachers and students. Therefore, I conclude that any school that glibly declares it applauds creativity, but doesn’t ask itself serious questions and introspect continually is likely to be short-changing students.

Sadly, this gets brushed off by pointing out the inclusion of music, art and drama in the syllabus of the school and even that students can take these subjects through to examination levels. Also, much of the ‘creative time’ is pushed to extra curricular activities. A keen eye watching most schools’  annual talent competition would notice two significant things;

a) The levels of real, true creativity exhibited are minimal. The fact that a child can produce a reasonable rendition of a popular song or dance is hardly representative of creativity, and
b) Almost all the talent on show will have been acquired by the child outside the school, not in it.

The ability to point to a handful of children with some degree of mastery playing the piano or violin, putting on a staged musical or writing a poem for the school yearbook or displaying a watercolour of three pointy mountains and a rising sun does not represent proof that the school inculcates creativity in its students. The fact that many of those things might be done in very formulaic, pre-precribed and predictable ways may actually be indicative of quite the reverse.

As the various chapters of the book highlight, creativity is not neat and clean and certainly not formulaic. Rather, it comes out of daydreaming, mindfulness and developing an awareness of the working of one’s own mind. Invariably (but not exclusively) it flows from and is most often found in those who have undergone some suffering and had the strength to battle through to the other side of their personal challenges. If schools are truly positive for creativity they need to think carefully about how they support students to build resilience and grit.

As the quote at the beginning highlighted, creativity often flows from heightened sensitivity. All too often, today’s schools teach such sensitive children to tone down their emotions, to put a lid on strong feelings and to learn to conceal or bottle up those feelings that would make them stand out.

In fact, this may highlight the area that requires most effort in schools. All too often, it’s just not cool to stand out, to be different or to show behaviour or thinking that is outside the norm. Instead, school cultures emphasise conformity, fitting in and complying. many spend way more time drilling children for ‘march past’ etc for sports day than in activities that develop and expand on ability to think differently.

Visions, missions and values are not meant to be just nice phrases that are tripped out, displayed on websites, brochures and hall walls. Rather, they should be treated as touchstones against which a school community is continually testing itself.  The work of school leadership around these driving principles is never done. They should be continuously introspecting and leading the debate, encouraging a willingness to publicly challenge, question and innovate – a process akin to peeling an infinite onion.

It’s time to get creative about how we develop creativity in schools.

School Through the Eyes of Others

Pillars

Early in my experience of heading a school for the first time, I vividly remember the experience of a meeting with a prospective parent who had come in to discuss the possibility of admitting his son in the new school that was soon to open.

I met him in the reception area, shook hands and we headed through to my office. Nothing at all unusual at this stage, though conversation wasn’t exactly flowing. The gentleman was tending to answer questions in short or mono-syllabic responses. As we sat down in our seats I noticed that he was sweating slightly across his forehead and also that he was breathing from very high in his chest. As we started to talk he picked up a brochure and it was clear the paper was fluttering in his hand. Our discussion continued to be disjointed.

I paused, took a deep breath and asked, “Are you feeling uncomfortable?

He laughed, breathed and asked if it was really so obvious. He then admitted that his own school experiences had been rather traumatic, including some very unpleasant experiences in the Headmaster’s office. I smiled at him, told him mine wasn’t all a bed of roses either and suggested that we might have a walking meeting around the school grounds instead of sitting in the office.

We headed out of the door, walked for about 40 minutes with conversation flowing freely in a very relaxed manner. He made clear within about 5 minutes that he would be admitting his son. In the rest of our conversation we simply got to know each other better and, along the way, he shared some of the experiences he’d had in school that he’d only realised on that day had stuck with him in ways that were deep and powerful.

I share this memory because I have often felt that as a profession those in education are not always as good as we might be at seeing the education experience through others’ eyes. When educators do see the experiences in schools through the eyes of pupils or parents, too often there’s a temptation to be dismissive, to suggest that it is what it is and others should adapt. In the words of Stephen Covey’s fifth habit of highly effective people we need to do a better job of seeking first to understand and then to be understood. That doesn’t mean educators don’t have a right to be heard and understood, but is a matter of sequence and priority.

Recently, I read of an interesting story from the world of design thinking. The design company IDEO had been invited to consult for a hospital to look at how they might redesign the entire patient experience. IDEO are renowned for not taking half measures. Among other things, one of their designers actually checked himself in to the hospital as a patient and documented his experiences. When it came time for IDEO to present to the management, instead of a fancy presentation full of ideas and recommendations, they were shown a six minute video of nothing but the ceiling of a hospital ward.

They understood immediately that this is the mind-numbing reality for patients (for hours, not six minutes). This galvanized all the personnel of the hospital, not just the management, to work actively with the designers to come up with alternatives, to see the hospital experience from the perception of users. They came up with an enormous number of implementable ideas, because of a high sense of ownership. The ideas generated didn’t necessarily require big budgets, but made significant differences.

If we applied similar approaches to our schools, what might be achieved? If we treated everything that goes on as open to question and exploration, what might we change? What excuses about curriculum, budgets, time and others’ expectations would we put to one side?

This is not about terribly complex solutions. It’s about simple things that when all added together could add up to a big deal. School leadership and/ or outside inputs can lead the way, but i believe ownership will be far greater if the people in the school are a critical part of the movement. It’s important to make it fun, make it playful and very positive. Try things out. There’s hardly likely to be lots of dangerous downside on any changes, so better to go ahead and take action.

Change in schools doesn’t have to be about high cost IT or technology interventions.  If it’s motivated and driven with continual reference to the school’s values, vision and mission and from this perspective of ‘user experience’ it can gain its own momentum that will make change and innovation a way of daily life in the school.

(Would schools built for little people to be comfortable in have great big pillars like in the picture above? Worth thinking about.)

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!

International Mindedness

There has probably rarely been a time when the emphasis given to ‘International Mindedness’ in International Schools has come in to focus as more necessary or more pressing as a concept to be imbibed and understood.

To start – we need to be really clear what international mindedness and its promotion in schools is not – and that is frocks, food and festivals. You cannot say because you celebrate different religious and ethnic festivals, give children the opportunity to dress up and to try different foods then you have done what is needed to promulgate international mindedness.

It’s also not about some ambiguous claims about everyone being the same. Rather, the person who has international mindedness doesn’t stereotype people and is mindful and reflective of the prejudices they might have at an unconscious level. That can be an uncomfortable reflection at times. it’s not even about just simply being aware of diversity, but actually welcoming it, relishing it and seeing it as a positive.

International mindedness comes from a position of empathy, compassion and curiosity before doubt and cynicism. People who think this way acknowledge that whilst different people have different life experiences, perceptions and experiences, we are all connected. Some make the mistake of fearing that being internationally minded somehow means giving up something of who and what one is. In fact, there is no lessening of pride or connection with one’s own culture and origins. Retaining rootedness is an important aspect of identity and nobody is really advocating that everyone should consider themselves absorbed in to a single mass or entity that is humanity, devoid of customs, tradition, history or heritage.

The internationally minded person, because they feel connected, cares and considers that what happens to all people, anywhere in the world, matters to them. When thinking about politics, major world events, the inter-relationship between countries, climate issues etc. there is a need to think in inter-connected terms. It is no longer effective in an internationally shrunken world (through travel and the internet) to confine one’s caring and attention to what happens in your own backyard.

The greater the spread of international mindedness, the greater the benefits for all humans everywhere. International Schools can play a significant part in this, but leadership and teachers have to acknowledge that it’s a long road that requires unwavering commitment and the willingness to be a learning organisation, to introspect and reflect and to be self-critical when necessary.

In schools it starts with the vision, mission and values – the guiding statements and the extent to which they are lived, embodied in the day to day life of the school and especially in managerial practices, leadership and governance. There’s a continual need to assess the curriculum (both overt and covert) and syllabus delivery to determine the extent to which it embodies and furthers the core messages of inter-dependence and international mindedness. As much as possible, children should have the opportunity to learn languages other than there own as this is a significant bridge to international communication and understanding.

The importance of the element of caring is best served by promoting service learning as a key part of school life. This goes well beyond simply raising funds, but leads to full engagement with peoples whose life experiences are vastly different to those of the students.

I’m thoroughly convinced by the merits and value of promoting international mindedness through international schools. However, it’s vital that, in age appropriate ways it goes well beyond the superficial, the shallow and tokenism to enable box ticking. It must be a lived, fundamental part of the ethos of a school that can be sensed through all aspects of the life of the school and its pupils.

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