Sunday, 16 June 2019

LEJOG


This week sees the launch of my new book, ‘Teaching for Mastery’.  Later this year, another new book, ‘Curriculum and Task Design’, which I am writing with Chris McGrane will also go on release.  I am currently working on another new book, ‘Teach, Do, Practise, Behave’, which will be available in 2020 – this book is a response to the many teachers who have asked me to put together examples of my phasing model of learning.  The book takes several mathematical ideas and explores in depth how they would appear in the classroom during the four phases of a learning episode, with exemplar instructional materials, worksheets, tasks and inquiries.  So, then what?

2021 marks a particularly important anniversary for me, so I thought I’d do something a little different.  In April 2021, I will set off on a 1300 mile walk from Land’s End to John o’Groats.  My hope is that, along the way, perhaps for a day or two or even just a few hours (whatever is manageable), educators from across the UK will join me to walk and talk.  I want to discuss a whole range of educational issues and ideas with a wide variety of teachers and educators from all sorts of backgrounds, with all levels of experience and insight.  These discussions will come together in a new book, which I hope to be able to release in Autumn 2021, ‘Walks with Educators’ (working title – I’d be pleased to hear suggestions, particularly funny ones).

One of the fun things about walking LEJOG is inventing the route daily.  There is no prescribed path to take and it is entirely down to the walker to decide where to roam.  I have a rough plan, which I will stick to and deviate from as the mood takes me.  My intention is to walk through Cornwall and Devon along the northern coastal path, amble up to Bristol, cross the Servern into Wales, then take the Offa’s Dyke path.  I have walked Offa’s Dyke several times and really love the views from the path, but given my familiarity with this route, I might jump off the path and ramble somewhere unknown.  I might walk the full length of Offa’s Dyke and then cross through Cheshire to the Peak District, but more liklely I will leave Offa’s Dyke and cut across the country through Shropshire (where I will visit family) and then to the Peak District via Staffordshire.  After a pie and a pint at one of my favourite pubs in Edale, I’ll start off on the Pennine Way.  The Pennine Way is a 268 mile path, which I have walked several times and already know well.  It is an incredibly dull path, so I will divert many times en route to Scotland.  The path ends at Kirk Yetholm in the Scottish Borders.  I will then amble up to Edinburgh and then to Glasgow via Linlithgow (another chance to visit family).  It’s then onto the absolutely gorgeous West Highland Way, a 96 mile path from Milngavie to Fort William (my favourite section of the walk).  From Fort William, I will walk along the northern side of Loch Ness to Inverness, from where I will largely follow the coast to Wick and John o’Groats.

The walk will begin in April 2021 and end in July 2021 (all being well).  If you are an educator with interesting thoughts and ideas to share who would enjoy joining me for a day of hiking or you live somewhere along the way and would fancy talking education over supper and a pint, I would love to hear from you.

I will be carrying a full pack and intend on wild camping as often as I can (yes, I know it is illegal in England and no, I don’t give a damn), but if you fancy putting a trail battered hiker up for the night, please do let me know – the occasional shower and hot breakfast on a 90 day walk would be welcome!

I am also particularly interested to hear from several folk who can walk the same dates.  Some of my more bizarre friends have talked me into also making a ‘(Is this the way to) Amarillo’ video along the way… so if you don’t mind singing whilst other ramblers look at us with bewilderment, then you can join the hotchpotch band who will be edited together by a young person when I arrive home.

I am hoping ‘Walks with Educators’ will be an interesting mix of education theories, reflections on research, emerging evidence, classroom anecdotes, personal stories and colourful views on the state of schools, schooling and the education system as a whole.  If nothing else, at least I’ll be less fat than today.

Thursday, 18 April 2019

Antifragility


Parenting is pretty predictable, isn’t it? With the first child, parents are super cautious, they panic about everything, worry that every pause in breathing is a sign of terror, they coddle their child constantly, find it heartbreaking when the little one gets a cold or cries in pain after bumping their head.  The new parent goes to great lengths to ensure their precious darling faces no danger of harm or disease – they clean everything continually with antibacterial agents, they avoid play groups when rumour of an ill child attending spreads around the other new parents they have coffee with.  The child is wrapped in cotton wool and handled with care, like a fragile crystal doll.

And then the second child arrives.  Oh, sod it.  They can be thrown around, allowed to play in the dirt.  A sneeze?  Oh, so what?  They’ll get over it quickly enough.  Banged their head, well they all do that, no need to worry, everything will be fine.  The parent has learnt how malleable children really are and that there is no need to coddle and coo all of the time.

Children are not fragile.

Fragility describes those things that are irrevocably damaged or made useless by randomness, breakage, stress or being forced to operate beyond their current limit.

A wine glass is fragile.  Drop it on a hard kitchen floor and it will shatter into countless useless pieces.  Its function is completely destroyed by the damage it has endured.  Fragile things are defined by the very fact that such out of the ordinary events end their utility.

What is the opposite of fragility?  Is it robustness?  Robust things do not break when dropped or thrown around, robust things maintain their utility even under stress and even when attacked.

But the utility of robust items does not improve when out of the ordinary events impose stress, harm or damage upon them.  They remain constant.

The opposite of fragility is not robustness, it is antifragility.

Antifragile things or systems improve when out of the ordinary events impose stress upon them.  The action of harming an antifragile system makes it stronger and even more useful than it was previously.

There are many antifragile things and systems.  Take, for example, the human immune system.  It is an incomplete system at birth – even though it is remarkably complex and sophisticated, the immune system is not designed to stop the attacks and potential illnesses it will face throughout a lifetime.  Instead, the immune system is a learning, adaptive system.  It must encounter randomness and stress before it can learn and adapt to overcome those stresses.

The enlightened new parent knows that wrapping the child in cotton wool only serves to make them weak, not strong.  The enlightened new parent carefully and deliberately exposes their child to risk.  They let them play with the child with chicken pox, they let them mess around in the dirt, they encourage them to climb trees and know that each small fall improves their ability to both assess and deal with the inevitable risks that will come along in life.

Children are antifragile, not fragile.  They need to encounter problems and harm – carefully and deliberately and appropriate to their developmental stage – such that they learn to adapt and become strong, not weak, adults.

The parent drip feeds risk and randomness into their child’s life in a calculated and compassionate way.  Antifragile systems become stronger through exposure to randomness and stress, but antifragile systems lose their utility and become weaker if the stresses imposed upon them are beyond their ability to adapt at that developmental stage.  Exposing children to severe or sustained harm irrevocably damages them and the result is a weak adult who cannot cope with the demands of life.  It is a heinous abuse of the child to deliberately impose upon them severe harm.  But, this should not be used as a case for treating the child as a fragile system, keeping them in a bubble away from all harm – such children will not be able to overcome the challenges that their life will undoubtedly present to them at some point.  It is extremely unhelpful to treat children as fragile and it is disingenuous to attempt to justify such treatment by wielding the argument that abusing children is wrong.  Of course it is wrong.  But so is treating children as though the universe holds within it no harm or risk or randomness or stress.

Children are antifragile.

This is true of their biological systems – sometimes bones get broken and when they do those bones reform stronger; their immune system grows more capable at defending them from disease by encountering disease – and it is also true of their cognitive systems.

In order to become sophisticated thinkers, children need to encounter randomness, stress, emotional shock and the stark fact that they are at times simply wrong.  These encounters, handled correctly by the expert teacher, make children stronger.  The civilisations humanity has built over hundreds of thousands of years, the arts, the music, the insights, the knowledge, the skills, the disciplines and the unquenchable thirst for new enlightenment define our very souls.  Humanity has, through great endeavour and pain, established profound thoughts and ideas.  To engage with these ideas is difficult and requires sustained effort and the ability to overcome uncomfortable emotions.

Learning new ideas is hard.  It requires a significant shift in the knowledge structures and schema already embedded in an individual at the moment of meeting the new idea.  Many new ideas are uncomfortable, particularly when they require us to re-evaluate our own beliefs.  This discomfort is painful – to be told that you are wrong or to face such tricky ideas to grasp that it might take many years of very hard, very purposeful thinking is not an easy state of mind for most people to adopt.

The child who is treated as though their cognitive systems are fragile is the child who is always told they are correct.  They are the child whose parents and teachers will pussyfoot around them, never wanting to ask them to do anything difficult, never wanting to question and correct their naïve beliefs.  The fragile child is praised whenever they present an idea, no matter how foolish it is, no matter its utility.  And this treatment is often justified by claiming it is compassionate.  Claiming that feelings are more important than thoughts and ideas.  But it is not kind to praise the child who is incorrect, it serves only to make them ill-informed and frustrated.

Children are antifragile.  The expert teacher should carefully and deliberately manufacture scenarios for their pupils to meet tricky ideas and to feel discomfort in the moment for the long term gain of enlightenment.  The incorrect child should be told they are incorrect.  This creates an emotional shock that alerts the child to the fact that they better listen really carefully to the correct knowledge that the teacher will now explain to them.

Teachers should seek to make children truly resilient.  Children should be able to face tricky, sometimes hurtful, ideas head on so that they can overcome and continue to learn.  The randomness and stresses the expert teacher places on their pupils are calculated and careful, designed to make the child stronger and more knowledgeable.  This is what resilience means – the child who can grapple with ideas, debate, justify, adapt to new knowledge or put right those who are wrong.  The resilient child grows into the resilient adult who is not afraid of thoughts and ideas, who knows that harm exists but who is ready to take up arms against it and help make humanity better.

There is nothing resilient or moral about the education that some pupils face in schools with policies that instruct teachers to always praise or never point out a child is wrong or to award every child a medal on sports day.  There is nothing resilient about the child who has been conditioned to block out challenging ideas – the child who hits the block or mute button on their social media at the slightest hint of an opposing idea is not strong, they are weak and they will not cope well with the demands of life.

The case for antifragility was first put forward by Nassim Taleb in his 2012 book “Antifragile: Things that gain from disorder.”  Taleb describes systems in economics, business and society that are antifragile, which led me to think about antifragility as applied to children and learning.  In 2018, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt published “The coddling of the American mind.”  Lukianoff and Haidt also apply Taleb’s thinking to children.  It was attending a lecture given by Haidt last year that brought me to further think about the fact that children truly are antifragile and that this has been known in the teaching profession for a very long time as an item of simple common sense.  Whenever I speak with teachers about antifragility, the response is always that it is clear that pupils must carefully encounter tricky situations if they are to become free thinkers capable of navigating through life with autonomy and a sense of purpose.  Yet, so many schools and colleges have adopted policies that clearly position children as fragile.  These policies are counterproductive and are restricting the beautiful and meaningful intellectual journey that all pupils could be taking if viewed as antifragile.

Sunday, 30 December 2018

Six ways to spend time while dying



I am dying.

You are too.

It is a surreal experience to sit in a small room with a stranger and listen as they tell you that the cancer is aggressive and unpredictable, that it is time to think in months, not years, and that you should begin to get your affairs in order.  When the consultant told me that I did not have much time left, I did what I assume most people do in the situation;  I considered my life and thought of things left undone and then I tried to do them all.

I was first diagnosed with cancer in March 2006.  The expectation was that I would not make it to my next birthday in July.  As I am sure you can imagine, this was rather a surprise and dashed inconvenient.  I had so much left to do.  When I looked back on the amazing, love filled, exciting, interesting and joyful life I had led, I was unable to feel cheated or in any way rueful.  In every respect, I had led the most fortunate of lives and was thankful for all that had come my way.  To be dying at an earlier age than I had expected was, of course, not what I wanted, but I did not feel any fear or the rage that I know others have gone through.

I started to make a list of things to do in my final months.  Ways to spend my time while dying.  Most are as you would expect: spend more time with family and friends, travel, laugh, be happy, see things I had not seen, quit my job.  Nothing unusual.  I started to cram in all that I could and had an absolute blast doing so.

July arrived, my birthday bash was fabulous and, although in pain, I was still around.  By this time, many doctors had prodded and probed, reconsidered, cut bits of me out, filled me with drugs.  The usual.  Carefully, step by step, my consultant extended her initial time line and started to talk about “next year” and other vague predictions.

So, it looked as though I was not going to kick the bucket quite yet.  This realisation dawned on me in parallel with another: I was still dying.  We all are.  Why had I been putting things off?

The sharp focus that comes with being told there are only months remaining brings laser clarity to those ambitions and desires that rumble away quietly, unnoticed inside.  Now awoken, I would not allow these to slip away.

One thing that played on my mind a great deal when I was diagnosed was the disparity between my life and the lives of some of the other people I had met who received similar prognoses to me.  The inequality was stark.  But cancer is a great leveller.  For the first time, I built relationships with people from entirely different backgrounds to me.  We formed a strong bond with each other; we would see each other at the hospital, at support groups, at fundraisers and some social events.  These strangers who entered my life because of this thing we shared in common.  People from all walks of life.  As we got to know each other, I was reminded time and again how lucky I have been to have lived the life I have.

I thought carefully about the reasons my life had been so full of joy.  My parents, my family, my friends.  But also, my education.

I did not and do not know how much longer I have, but I decided in 2006 to do all that I could to try to promote education as widely as possible.  To many, this seems an odd mission (my friends call it my moral crusade), but I have enjoyed every minute of the work I have done since making that decision.  Education has the power to set human beings free, the power to transform lives, the power to save.  I can think of no better use of one’s time than to promote effective education, battle against bad practices, and widen access to learning.  Once upon a time, I was a teacher.  My reach ended at the school gates.  The very day I was told I was dying, I knew I had to pivot to helping teachers, rather than individual pupils.  It is the teaching workforce that holds the answers.

Today, for whatever reasons, I am still kicking about.  But I keep with me the urgency and drive I felt when told to count in months not years.  I dedicate the majority of my time and money to trying to help teachers.

The deadline was finally lifted in 2011.  No longer was my consultant willing to put a date on my expiry, but instead adopted the language of hope; “there is every chance you can beat this.”  I like that challenge.  But reminders of the precarious nature of life are frequent; the pain I am in at all times, the medication I take, the friends I made who have lost the fight; the loss of physical strength, the difficulty with some everyday tasks.

Some reminders are blatant.

In October 2016, I was bounding up the stairs at Old Street station as I did most days when travelling to our London offices.  Suddenly, I lost my breath and felt a burning all over my body.  I thought I was going to collapse and then, I did.  I landed in a mess at the bottom of the stairs, the contents of my bag scattered around me, strangers walking on by.  My energy was completely gone and the thought that entered my head was, I’m going to be late for a meeting.  A discussion with my consultant later that day was inconclusive, but the reminder was there again in my mind.  Uh-oh, I thought.  I reviewed my life to check I had not slipped into old ways, to check I was living every moment, to check I was doing the things I want to do while dying.

In March 2017, we were hosting one of our national conferences, MathsConf9, in Bristol.  The day begins with me welcoming the delegates and giving a short introduction talk.  Twenty minutes before the start of the conference, I started to cough.  When I looked at the handkerchief in my hand it was full of blood.  An immediate foreboding came over me and I thought, I can’t die at a bloody MathsConf!  I raced to the lavatories and locked myself in a cubicle.  The coughing continued.  More blood.  Lots more blood.  But slowly, the coughing passed.  I went to the sink and washed my mouth out with cold water. This had never happened to me before and it weighed heavily on my mind throughout the day, but I am pleased that I was able to launch the conference with something approaching calmness and joviality.  I mentioned it to nobody until I arrived home the next day.

Sitting with the consultant in the same room she had spoken to me in 2006, she now told me that there were “complications” with my oesophagus and that it was possible the cancer had returned.  I was a trifle irritated by this, but again thankful for my life.  After more investigation, prodding and probing, in August 2017 I spent some time in hospital having a few more bits of me cut out, which happily appears to have resolved the issue.  Again another reminder: life is precious.

I find these reminders extremely useful.  It is so easy to be blind to the beauty of life, so easy to lose sight of what matters.

I can’t grumble about being ill.  Sure, some things are a tad inconvenient; remembering to take medication, finding it difficult to eat, being in pain, no longer being able to rock climb or play football.  But these are inconsequential details against the majesty of life.  These reminders hold me to account, keep me in check, ensure that I am doing the things I believe to be important.

Here are six of the ways I choose to spend my time while dying:


Be a good man
For as long I as can remember, this has been my single greatest ambition.  I was raised and surrounded by good people.  I have always wanted to rise to the challenge of being the same as those people.  I aim to be moral, strive to do the right thing, want to help others and always put other people first.  Whether it is my Christianity or the profound impact of the goodness of my parents and their parenting, something makes being good my main focus in all areas of my life, from interactions with strangers to the time I invest in my friendships, from social relationships to the way I do business.  Being good, retaining a sense of goodness, envelopes it all.  I struggle to understand why any other approach would be desirable.  From what I can tell, being good also leads to being happy.  I know many, many people in business, for example, who are driven by greed or who deploy underhand tactics.  I interact with many people like this through the businesses I run and they always strike me as empty and lacking.  I want to tell them that life is too short, that this is not a dress rehearsal, that it is possible to be ethical in business and still succeed, but so often they are incapable of hearing.

Be good.  I promise you, it brings so much happiness.


Spend time with loved ones
My family and friends mean everything to me.  Helping them to feel happy, secure and loved is of ultimate importance to me.  Like most people, I guess, I have just a small number of close friends; five people I truly click with.  Being in their company makes me incredibly happy.  We have seen each other at our best and at our worst, we are there at the drop of a hat if needed, we make each other laugh, make each other want to be better people, and protect each other from ever feeling alone, afraid or broken.  We take turns at being strong and, like all human beings, have periods when we fall down.  But the power of true friendship is knowing that if one does fall, one will be surrounded by love.  When I think back, for example, to the time of my last operation in August 2017 and how they flocked to my house from across the globe, interrupting their own busy lives, just to be near me or spent hours on the phone with me where circumstances made travel impossible, I am overcome with joy at having such good people in my life.

My family are good people too.  In fact, as a family, it is our raison d’être.  Being surrounded by goodness as a child defined me.  I have never understood why any parent would choose anything other than goodness.  When I was a child, friends from school would stay at our house over the summer because they did not want to be with their own parents.  At weekends, when parents visit their children at school, I see fathers ignore their sons or those who criticise every word their child says.  Again, these men look broken, lost, empty and desperate.  I struggle to understand why they are not able to see the joy that would come if they showed their children love instead of indifference or cruelty.


Support chosen causes
As a Christian and a human being, charity is important to me.  There are so many people in such great need, but there are also so many of us who are incredibly fortunate.  We have a duty to play our part in easing the pain of those who have fallen.  Of course it is impossible to concentrate on all things at once, so I have a number of causes that I campaign for and support financially and practically.

Education is, of course, top of my list.  Amongst other work, I am a director of two education charities, which strive to make the system better and I also do as much pro bono work as I can fit in.

I support cancer research and care through very regular financial donations as well as fundraising activities and awareness raising.

Ending homelessness (and particularly rough sleeping) is another cause I try to dedicate time and resource to as often as possible.

Finally, suicide prevention has become tremendously important to me – in recent years, I lost someone extremely dear to me and now try to give financial support to, and raise awareness of, organisations that help those who are in such extreme pain and torment that they are considering taking their own life.

Those four causes are the ones I have chosen to dedicate my time, money and effort to.  If those of us who are fortunate each chose just a few causes to support, I believe the impact would be substantial.


Travel
The world is enormous. There is so much going on, so many things to see, so many people to meet, lives to touch.  I travel as much as I can.  I want to see and feel the way people live, want to dip myself in as many cultures and traditions as possible.  The one thing that strikes all travelers, I guess, is that human beings are fundamentally the same.  Their lives are different in rich and varied ways, but at the core, we are all the same.  Watch children playing in the streets of Delhi or Tehran, in Copenhagen or Split, in Newcastle or Moscow, in Lima or Melbourne, in Nouakchott or Beijing.  They are all the same.  They laugh at the same things, cry at the same things.  That fundamental bond is affirming and uplifting.


Live a varied life
In the pub a few weeks ago, my chum, Tom Rees, told me he found my blog to be a bizarre mix, by which he meant he found it odd that my blog was not just about education.  This comment from Tom is what led me to write this particular blog.  It strikes me as odd that anyone would write a blog about just one thing.  I am dedicated to education, but it is not who I am, not all that I am.  It is not even the greatest part of me.  When I was eleven years old, my teacher challenged me to become a scholar in the traditional sense; to be learn’d, to know everything there is to know across all possible disciplines.  I am interested in education, in art, in science, in philosophy, in anthropology, in music, in sport, in… well… everything.  This is why my life is varied and colourful.  I have various business interests ranging from education and technology to pharmaceuticals, property and architecture.  I have varied personal interests from mountaineering to theatre to writing and playing in my band.  I have varied relationships from deep friendships to hilarious acquaintances, from the spiritual to casual.  I know there are many people who are one-issue and there are many who have taken the blue pill.  But I want to be alive to truth and all that life has to offer, I love to have real interest in a wide and diverse range of ideas, activities, disciplines and relationships.  I can only imagine how bleak life would be if one was interested only in a single subject.

On reflection, this blog is perhaps a rather long response to Tom’s question, but hey, writing it has been a good way to spend the time while waiting to board a flight!


Learn
I am addicted to learning.  Always have been, hopefully always will be.  It doesn’t matter what the subject is, I love to learn.  If I am walking to the office from the train station or driving to a meeting, I am invariably listening to a book, lecture, podcast or course.  This might be a 150 episode language course or a history of architecture in Portugal or a discussion about freedom of speech or learning about some obscure inventor.  I just adore learning.  I am lucky to have offices and homes in Central London and Cambridge, which means evenings can always be filled by attending public lectures or debates or readings in local bars or listening to lectures on the street.  I love learning an entirely new discipline and seeing the connections within it and the schema it builds, but I also love trivia – I do not accept that knowledge is only worthwhile if it has utility.  I love knowledge for its own sake and enjoy the fact that my mind is filled with half-forgotten facts and disjointed pieces of information, which I can play with.


These are just six of the ways I spend my time while dying.  You are dying too.  Think carefully about what makes you happy, the ambitions you have, the places, people and things you wish to see.  Ask yourself if you are putting any of these things off.  If you are, there is no need to.  Don’t leave it too late, live now.