How we teach children and what they need to learn is a much debated topic. Steven Pinker (@sapinker) drew my attention to two articles in the Atlantic in his New Year’s tweet:
Why Johnny can’t add: http://bit.ly/UFp3a2 Why Johnny can’t write: http://bit.ly/Wc30nG
The thrust of these articles is that in our desire to improve education we’re missing out on some the essentials that only direct instruction can provide like the rules of grammar and times tables.
My own education was traditional and academic. I studied English, history, maths, sciences, French and Latin until I was 18, followed by four years at a liberal arts university. I was well taught, learned a lot and developed an interest and an ability to learn that has served me well. But there was a significant gap in my education.
At no stage did I ever learn anything that would help me choose a career.
I learned about business through my summer jobs and my own entrepreneurial endeavours in babysitting and catering. But when it came time to decide what to do when my education was over, I didn’t have a clue. The summer before my final year I did an internship with the Magazine Publishers of America. One of the speakers really inspired me so I applied for – and got – a job with him at Murdoch Magazines. And that was the start of my career. Could I have worked in finance? the sciences? healthcare? law? education? I probably could have done any of these. But I had no knowledge of careers or how to get any job that didn’t come and recruit on campus.
I believe we need to teach children much, much earlier in their education what different careers are all about, what people do in different jobs and what sort of skills are necessary to do well.
Over the last ten years I’ve worked with hundreds of young people and I’m struck by how much they need ‘real world’ learning experiences to feel motivated. For many students, direct instruction isn’t enough. They need to learn through doing; they need to understand the purpose before they can grasp the subject matter; they need to feel engaged to make the effort to learn the content.
If we can bring the world of work closer to the classroom, I think we can open up young people’s eyes to the possibilities around them. We can motivate and inspire them, give meaning to the curriculum in a way that goes far beyond passing exams.
We hear the complaints from business: young people are leaving schools and universities without the skills that businesses need. Meanwhile, young people struggle to find meaningful work or, in many cases, any work at all.
We can close this gap. Some people will hate the idea of “learning for work” – surely education is about so much more than producing a pipeline of new employees for business? But that’s to see work at its most mundane. Right now, we need a cure for cancer. We need a replacement for the internal combustion engine. We need to find a way to feed our growing global population. These are the tasks for the next generation of workers and there’s nothing mundane about them.
At the end of 2012, I was appointed to coordinate a programme to bring together the schools and colleges in and around Cambridge with local employers. Clearly I can see the advantages for young people in learning about careers. I can also see advantages for teachers in learning how the curriculum can be applied to ‘real world’ settings. And I also know from my experience of helping BT work with schools, that employees will gain an enormous amount by getting involved. It’s fantastic that this is a priority for our community and a very exciting project with which to kick off 2013.
Happy new year, everybody!
My father, who was a Republican, once explained to me that the way democracy worked was that everyone voted in their self-interest and that the results would therefore reflect what was best for the majority. I argued that I voted on the basis of what I thought was best for the most people. While I accept his logic, it’s never felt right to me to neglect the needs of others when I cast my vote.
If he were still alive, I’m sure my father would vote for Romney. Not that he has anything in common with the Tea Party and the rest of the right wing fringe but he would stick to his principles of voting for what’s best for him personally.
I take a broader view. I believe that my life is improved when everyone’s life is improved. I believe we need to invest in health and education, in social services and all manner of government programmes to give everyone the best possible opportunities. College shouldn’t be the preserve of the rich, nor should healthcare. To those who believe that the poor and vulnerable who need public support brought it on themselves I say: put yourself in their shoes for just one minute. Sure, there are people who could do more to get on. But there are many more who didn’t ask for the life they got. I know of children raised by addicts who sleep in boxes and scrounge for food. Children who dodge kicks and punches to try to get to school. Adults with mental illnesses who can’t work and become homeless. Would you deny these people some support?
Many people believe Romney is the CEO America needs right now. When I look at Romney I see an empathy vacuum. Making decisions based on the bottom line alone is too easy. Look at this video, directed by my classmate Gina Levy:
We have to start thinking about others. Obama didn’t bring about all the change he promised four years ago but change is hard when so many vested interests are blocking your every move. For this reason, and for many more, Obama has my vote.
Ted Hughes wrote in a letter to his son:
The only calibration that counts is how much heart people invest, how much they ignore their fears of being hurt or caught out or humiliated. And the only thing people regret is that they didn’t live boldly enough, that they didn’t invest enough heart, didn’t love enough. Nothing else really counts at all.
I subscribe to an e-zine called Brain Pickings that always gives me something to think about. This week it was the poet Ted Hughes’ letter to his son, where he addresses the child within all of us, hidden behind the armour we construct to protect ourselves. That family were no strangers to pain and trauma but he writes about the importance of feeling that pain – how important it is that the outer shell is pierced and the child within is forced to feel things. Because if this doesn’t happen, if we hide behind our false self, we are dead:
That’s the paradox: the only time most people feel alive is when they’re suffering, when something overwhelms their ordinary, careful armour, and the naked child is flung out onto the world. That’s why the things that are worst to undergo are best to remember. But when that child gets buried away under their adaptive and protective shells—he becomes one of the walking dead, a monster.
When I’m helping people improve how they communicate, I stress the importance of showing who you really are and this means showing your humanity, your individuality, your vulnerability. It’s only through these qualities that we can connect with others. The carefully formed and crafted exterior is a hard shell, a barrier. If we want to be counted, to connect with others, to matter, we need to open up and show ourselves.
I know this runs counter to the image of the successful leader: strong, sure, and confident. And it’s probably the last thing you expect to be told when you’re preparing for a presentation or an interview. But I’ve seen too many people stand up and talk and look to me like the walking dead. It simply doesn’t work. Ted Hughes got it right when he said invest your heart, ignore your fears of being hurt, caught out or humiliated, live boldly, love. The steps you take to become a great communicator are the same you take to live a great life.
I had a bad experience at a networking event once and it put me off networking for a long time. It was in Essex, at a large, indifferent hotel, and full of people in suits thrusting cards at each other. I have nothing against Essex. It’s a beautiful county and I’ve done a lot of really interesting work there in the last few years. But I remember nobody I met at that event and only remember my relief when I was able to flee.
I went to another event, not long ago, run by the FT for women who were non-executive directors. This was full of impressive and elegantly dressed women who were very good listeners. I got the chance to speak at some length to the keynote speaker, Robert Swannell, chair of Marks & Spencer’s, and his eyes swivelled as took in his audience; it was unusual to be in a room full of high-powered women. For one thing, they make a very different noise from a room full of men. I left with interesting contacts and new insights.
Last week I went to my third networking event and it was nothing like the other two. I went on a friend’s advice. I spend most of my working life catching the train out of Cambridge to work elsewhere and that’s ridiculous when there’s so much happening here in Cambridge; there must be people who need what I can offer.
The first thing that appealed to me was that it was at Clowns, a family-run Italian coffee shop/restaurant, which I love. The second, was that it’s small. There were about 14 of us: enough to have a useful discussion but not so many you can’t keep track of who’s who. I have since acted on something I learned and met subsequently with someone I met there, Johnnie Moore. It’s called Pitch & Mix; I recommend it.
The group operates on the Meetup platform. If you haven’t discovered Meetup yet, check it out. This is what they say about themselves:
Meetup’s mission is to revitalize local community and help people around the world self-organize. Meetup believes that people can change their personal world, or the whole world, by organizing themselves into groups that are powerful enough to make a difference.
Talking with other people always opens my eyes to new possibilities and lets me show people who I am and what I can do. For someone whose work is about helping people, there’s no better form of marketing. We all know that a recommendation from a trusted source is the best basis for deciding what to buy and word of mouth marketing works on this principal. There are dozens of Meetup groups in Cambridge and I’m going to be checking them out.
">Margaret Heffernan: Dare to Disagree
If you haven’t watched Margaret Heffernan: Dare to disagree on TED, then do.
What she says is so important: disagreements are essential if we want to think hard, learn well, and achieve great things. Conflict, clash, the grit in the oyster – all of these are crucial conditions for productive thinking. But this isn’t what you find in most organisations. I believe if we can learn to challenge each other, we can improve our businesses, our governments and our own lives in so many ways.
We can all visualise the narcissistic leader who’s surrounded by yes men. And it’s some kind of joke. Except it’s not. Too often in workplaces we dare not criticise or challenge. Heffernan cites a US study which said 85% of executives said there were issues or concerns at work that they were afraid to raise. Afraid because they didn’t know how it would play out. Fearful it would rebound badly on them. Imagine that: they know or suspect there are problems but they say nothing. Can we really believe our organisations are running as well as they could be if employees aren’t speaking out?
Heffernan demonstrates through the example of a working partnership between scientists the importance of disagreeing with colleagues. One kept trying to prove the other wrong, not because he had to be right for any reasons of ego or belief system but because he knew that being a critical friend was the best way he could help her continue to challenge, research and prove her theories.
I have worked with lots of different organisations over my 20 plus years career, both in-house and as a coach and consultant. As I’ve learned more and more about human communication, I’ve started to observe differences. And the biggest difference, and the one that has the greatest impact on an organisation’s ability to collaborate effectively, is the degree to which they’re willing and able to argue with each other.
At Dialogics, the buzz word was challenge. Almost every day someone would say to someone else: “Can I challenge that?” We asked permission (because we believe challenges should be invitational) but we could equally have done it straight out; it was so much a part of the culture. And when someone challenged me I thought, good, bring it on. Not so that I could defend my position rigidly, but so that I could test whether my thinking was as robust as it should be and perhaps learn something new.
When I spend time in companies where this is not the culture, I get frustrated by the things that are not being said or the compliant (but untrue) responses to the boss’s ideas. They imagine they will win him round or get their way eventually but it’s inefficient. If you disagree with something, you need to say so, not to create trouble but to engage in productive, serious thinking. “Taking it off line” or, worse, ignoring it altogether only gets in the way of good work.
One of the other points Heffernan makes is that we are programmed as humans to choose people who are like us. Instead, she says, we should be seeking out difference: hiring people from different backgrounds, different ways of thinking and find ways to engage with them. This is never so true as in the current discussions about corporate governance, and where it’s gone wrong. Too often, board failure is the result of insufficient challenge from people who were too similar to or too entwined with each other. I can’t think of a better explanation for why boards with women members are outperforming those without. Ethnic and age diversity would equally provide the potential for new perspectives and healthy challenge. I sit on several committees with a severely disabled woman and she is brilliant on many levels, not least reminding us what it’s like for people with limited mobility.
So why don’t we disagree with each other at work (and instead store it all up and take it out at home)? Mostly because we don’t know how to give or receive challenges. When I’m teaching communication skills to groups I often do an exercise which has come to be known as carpets or floorboards. It’s called that because that was the topic that led one participant to break down in tears. You see, the point of the exercise is to listen wholeheartedly to someone who has an opinion that you disagree with. You never express your opinion but you just help them to fully describe why they feel the way they do. Then you feed back to them what you’ve heard and what you’ve understood they’ve told you. So where’s the disagreement in that? The point is that once you’ve demonstrated that you’ve heard and understood the other, then you’ve earned the right to voice your own point of view and to be listened to with equal respect. I also call it disagreeing without damage. No one’s feelings are hurt, no one loses face. Both people are heard. So why the tears? The woman who had spoken for a full two minutes about her preference for carpets said that in twenty years of marriage her husband had never listened to her as considerately and for so much time as that stranger just had.
How we communicate matters. Learning how to and then being prepared to disagree when something needs to be challenged is crucial. People fear conflict but being in an environment where things aren’t said that should be is really toxic. Heffernan says we need to be teaching kids and adults at every stage of their life how to argue their positions if we want to have a thinking society. I agree.