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Finding Flow

April 21, 2011 in Born to Learn, Uncategorized

Leigh MacTaggart Richter

This is a review of Csikszentmihalyi Mikhaily’s psychology of optimal experience by Leigh Richter, written just after reading a pre-publication of Overschooled but Undereducated in 2008

Being a teenager, I am compelled to write from a teenage perspective, and to promote in my writing, the benefits of adolescence and of course, point out all those lovely mistakes we humans are so fond of making. I love writing, I always have. It comes naturally to me and I find myself wanting to write more when I am enthused or thoroughly interested about something. When I was writing a piece on being Overschooled but Undereducated, I started out, like all good students are taught to start out, with an outline of what to write and include, and organized all the quotes I could possibly use. But as soon as the first sentence was down, I forgot about my carefully composed plan, letting it collect dust as my mind and fingers whirled away with the ideas glistening at the tendrils of my vivacious brain.

So what is this flow I write of? Csikszentmihalyi asks his readers to think of ‘life’ in the simplest terms; what we experience every day, whatever it may include. In this context, flow is easily applicable, but even more easily ignored. We go about our lives doing the most mediocre tasks that must be done in order to properly paint the picture of everyday life. Once in a while though, the paints are smeared together to create something completely different; someone new walks into our life, we are given an opportunity, an everyday task suddenly becomes interesting. But as we become used to these new as¬pects of life, they begin to fade into the canvas, their lines clearly defined yet the colours dulled. How¬ever, keeping your mind active and constantly finding new ways to accomplish certain tasks would allow you to keep a flow of energy. This flow of energy would act as a fifth gear, enabling you to persist in your task without becoming tired or discouraged, because your mind would be constantly involved in a fascinated state.

How many times a day do you begin something you must do and stop again and again because you are tired, or because you can’t seem to focus? It is common knowledge that the more energy you exert, the more tired you become. The same goes for mental recreation. So when we are forcing our¬selves to do something that requires little thought, we are actually using extra thought just trying to convince ourselves to keep going, as well as trying to stay focused. In this way, we tire ourselves out and are committed to boredom many times a day. Every human, no matter who they are or where they live, will at some point in their lives be subject to some kind of schedule or daily routine. For most, the earliest such a systematic life enters our lives is during the time in which we attend school.

For the full review click here, and for “A Young Person’s Guide to Overschooled but Undereducated” click here.

Grandparents' Wisdom

April 18, 2011 in Born to Learn, Uncategorized

In 1949 John Newsom, who had been demobbed from the army several years before to become Chief Education Officer of Hertfordshire, took time out from the gargantuan task of establishing a national system of secondary education to write a little book called “The Child at School”. “This book”, he wrote, “is intended for parents, and those interested in the way children grow up at school, who normally have only their own experience to help them, and who realise that education may have changed since their day”.

“It is parents who are largely responsible for the way their children develop in body, mind and spirit. And remember this”, said Newsom, “children are children first, and only school children second.

The year before Newsom’s book was published (I wonder if any of my readers could find a copy in a second-hand shop – it was a Pelican Special at 1 Shilling and 6 pence ) the Times Educational Supplement published an article entitled “What Should Every School Leaver Know”.

There were sixty items listed. These were not specific to any subject, nor were they examined, and they were intended for every school-leaver. How well would you do on some of these?

  • How to buy, take care of, and wear clothes to the best advantage; darn socks and mend boots. How to clean a room, make a bed, use an iron or light a fire.
  • How to behave at a concert, a church service, in a railway carriage or at meals.
  • How to grow and store ordinary vegetables so that there is an all-year-round supply.
  • How to mend a frozen pipe, a blown fuse, a blocked-up drain, a leaking tap, a broken window, a smoking chimney or an over-flowing WC.
  • How to read an ordinance survey map and use rail and bus timetables to plan a journey across the British Isles.
  • How to get the best out of a policeman, the postman, the doctor or the refuse collector.
  • What to do about a stranger asking the way, or a person who is quite destitute.


You may no longer need (as they did in 1948) to know “how to kill a rabbit or a chicken humanely,” but what about “looking after public property – e.g. library books”? And then, perhaps the most demanding of all, “how to detect ordinary tricks of crooked thinking – e.g. suggestion, tabloid thinking, rationalisation, emotional language, confusion between ‘or’ and ‘some’, arguing from selected instances, begging the question, illegitimate extension, or false analogy.”

So how well did you do, or were you just stumped? Does that mean you should go back to school and take more GCSEs, or does it remind you that there is far more to education than what can ever figure in exam results? If so, just ponder and ask yourself whether sometimes our grandparents did not think more deeply, and sensibly, than we sometimes do today. Am I possibly right – what do you think?

A Question of Democracy

April 14, 2011 in Born to Learn, Uncategorized

We all want the best for our children

Some years ago I wrote a short Paper on the relationship of education to democracy.  It read: “To send your child to the local school, or decide to go private, is a question that splits families apart.  It raises a fundamental question – is education primarily for private gain, or for the public good.  Although we rarely see it in these terms, isn’t this actually a question about our faith in democracy?”

“I’ve never thought of it like that,” said an experienced journalist some weeks later.  “As far as I’m concerned I just want what is best for my child.”  Which sounds so very obviously right, could anybody ever challenge it?  But there is a problem; within any closed society what may be best for one may create a problem for the others.  How is that resolved and – critically – by whom?  This is what democracy should be all about.

When I compared my life experience with that of the journalist I realised how different it had been.  I grew up in post-war Britain as it struggled to clear the bomb sites and build a welfare state.  The message of my schooling was that the more privileged you were, the greater the obligation on you to assist the less well off, and to build social capital.  Of my closest friends at school two became scientists, one a doctor but most became teachers.  The journalist, being 25 years younger than me, had been born into a world which was already pretty pleased with itself, but where fewer of the more able Sixth Formers thought of becoming teachers.

In the spirit of the time my generation had great faith in democracy for, after all, had not the War been fought to prove the superiority of democracy over totalitarianism? We also had a deep faith in what is called social capital – those nebulous and largely invisible sets of relationships that hold families and communities together.

To people of my way of thinking education, social capital and democracy are all part of the same piece.  It is why my wife and I thought that to send our children to a ‘socially segregated’ independent school weakened the kind of society we thought it was our responsibility to build.  Democracy can’t flourish unless each new generation is well-nurtured in the affairs of the mind, and appropriately inducted into the responsibilities of adulthood and the maintenance of the common good.  To me important as school is, it is only one of the key three components of a child’s life – home, community and life in school.

Important as we believe is the education of our own children, so inevitably has to be the education of everyone else’s children.  As John Donne expressed it so eloquently in the 17th century: “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.  Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.”  It is why that great democrat John Milton 20 years later wrote “I call a complete and generous education that which fits a man to perform justly, skilfully and magnanimously all the offices both public and private, of peace and war.”

Until the English (as with other nations) believe in their public life as well as their private affairs, that democracy really does matter, and matters for every man-Jack of them, they will never understand why every child matters.  Woe to democracy if we continue to ignore such an ages-old reality.

Click for here for an expanded paper on this topic as delivered in both Birmingham, England and Sydney, Australia in July 2008.


The 9:13 to Paddington

April 11, 2011 in Born to Learn, Uncategorized

The 9:13 is a happy train.

The 9:13 is the first train on which cheap day family returns are available from Bath. Those of us wearing smart suits as we head for late morning meetings are, as the Easter holiday is upon us, outnumbered by enthusiastic families off to see the sights of London. The 9:13 is a happy train.

As a kid I remember going on such journeys clutching my “Eye Spy” books. I remember one superior version which was designed specifically for the journey from London to Edinburgh. With a series of route maps it explained the significance of each bridge we crossed, the larger and older churches, the reasons for the marshalling yards, and the importance of the different factories. I lost that book long ago but I still look with interest out of the windows to search for an explanation for the landscape.

Two days ago my train rattled at high speed through the 3-mile Box Tunnel, stopping all conversation. As it emerged I heard a little girl two seats away say to her mother “Tunnels are frightening. Why can’t the train stay in the open air?” I couldn’t hear the mother’s response but I wondered how Brunel, the great Victorian railroad engineer who built this – the largest tunnel to have been ever driven through rock at that stage – would have explained it. He had difficulties in his own day for one sceptical Victorian had produced a calculation to show that a train entering the tunnel at 20 miles per hour would create such a vacuum in the limited air space that it would rapidly accelerate and emerge at 200 miles per hour and kill all the passengers in the process.

On the way to get some coffee I overheard a father explaining the significance of the old engine sheds at Swindon. I wondered what others would make of the cooling towers at Didcot and why it is that the new Tesco store in Reading has been built with a clock tower that suggests this megastore is really at the heart of an old village green.

“Your children ask fascinating questions,” I remarked to the mother as we left the train. She looked at me somewhat apprehensively “I’m sorry if they disturbed you, but they’re so excited!” All I could do was give her my best reassuring smile as her children pulled her off in another direction.

In her book ‘Exuberance’, Kay Jamison wrote

“For most mammals, including ourselves, early exploration of the world is enhanced, indeed often made possible, through the exuberant play of youth. Such play, it has been said, is the business of childhood, but play is more than that; it is a deadly serious business. Much learning must get done in not much time, for youth is, indeed, a stuff which will not endure”.

In an article in the Guardian on 8th April, it was noted that children who read books and did one other cultural activity increased their chances of going to university (is anyone actually amazed?)

Challenge of Change 1532/2011

April 8, 2011 in Born to Learn, Uncategorized

Niccolo Machiavelli: Never knowingly lukewarm

Niccolò Machiavelli (1469 – 1527), the Italian philosopher and humanist was one of the main founders of modern political science. His most famous writing, The Prince (1532), concentrates on the reality of politics and the possibilities for a “new prince” to undertake the difficult task of ruling whilst at the same time introducing a completely new order to society, in which effective truth is taken to be more important than any abstract ideal. Of the difficulties of bringing about profound change, Machiavelli wrote…

“And it ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who have the laws on their side, and partly from the incredulity of men, who do not readily believe in new things until they have had a long experience of them. Thus it happens that whenever those who are hostile have the opportunity to attack they do it like partisans, whilst the others defend lukewarmly, in such wise that the prince is endangered along with them.”

In April 2011, Neil Richards, one of the 21st Century Learning Initiative’s Trustees wrote in a short essay, “Education systems are cultural constructs. Each generation inherits an emerging world, and this poses a difficult problem for educationalists; quite simply our educational structures always seem to lag behind; they seem most appropriate for a world that is in the process of decay, rather than one which is in the process of development. This march of progress, however, is not based upon easily identifiable fault lines; there are no seismic shifts breaking our links with the past; changes are not synchronised or ordered in neat modules of development. Shifts are subtle, messy, unpredictable, serendipitous, overlapping and, most often, chaotic.

In the course of human development there have been moments when some new paradigm of understanding, or the merging of cultural ideas, impacts in a major way upon societies, but change, and more particularly profound change, will most often lead to division and reaction…click here to read more

Calling Parliamentarians!

April 4, 2011 in Born to Learn, Uncategorized

Does contemporary educational policy simply react to symptoms, whist failing to address underlying design faults?

Shortly before last year’s General Election in England the Initiative sent a Briefing Paper on the design faults at the heart of English education to all M.Ps. This is well worth revisiting. It stated,

The basic function of education in all societies and at all times is to prepare the younger generation for the kind of adult life which that society values, and wishes to perpetuate. Those values change over time so that the present structure of English education is a result of numerous decisions taken in times past by educationalists and politicians as they reacted to social and economic environments very different to today.

The Paper urged Members to consider the ages-old tension between nature (what we are born with) and nurture (being the way our surroundings influence the way we grow up). It asks: Does contemporary educational policy simply react to symptoms, whist failing to address underlying design faults? If the answer is ‘yes,’ how can future policy avoid such faults and build its programmes on firmer foundations? Unravelling the relationship with nature to nurture, and then coming to terms with those misunderstandings from the past that colour contemporary judgements, is not easy. Yet to fail to do this is to undermine new policies, and perpetuate underperformance.
The Paper asked Members a number of apparently simple questions:

  • Why is schooling split at the age of eleven, and why is it that primary pupils generally enjoy their education, but secondary pupils don’t?
  • Why, if the early years of education are so important, are secondary schools better financed than primary?
  • Why, if education is so important, aren’t teachers held in higher regard?
  • Why, given the significance in earlier generations of adolescence as a “proving ground” for adulthood, does modern society treat adolescence as a problem, not as an opportunity?
  • Why, if one of the most significant indicators of future success is the quality of home life in the earliest years, are schools now expected to take on ever more of what until recently were the responsibilities of parents?
  • Why are those aspects of schooling that children enjoy most called extra-curricu¬lar, as if they don’t matter so much and are only informally offered?
  • Why are Steiner and Montessori Schools so popular with professional parents?
  • Why, in a largely secular country, are Faith Schools generally so popular?

Simple as such questions may appear, the explanations are far from obvious. They epitomise the deep dissatisfaction with English education that has existed for generations.
Only by carefully analysing where any country’s education system has come from can any government propose a strategy that differentiates between short-term panaceas to deal with urgent problems, and the much longer term structural changes needed to build up whole generations of young people who know how to learn, who can communicate, collaborate, think for themselves and make decisions. Only in this way will England, as the case in point, so strengthen the younger generation that they will have the energy and the wisdom to revitalise civil society.