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The Ultimate Treadmill

March 16, 2012 in Born to Learn, Uncategorized

"we have to adjust our lifestyles to make more meaning of life"

An early morning jog is a fine way of keeping fit but more important to me is the way it tunes my mind up for the affairs of the coming day. In British Columbia recently it was so wet that I had to visit the anaesthetic atmosphere of the hotel gymnasium where, on four successive days, I pounded away on the treadmill. My body might have gained from the exercise, but it did nothing to get my mind ready for the day ahead. I was simply bored. Treadmills keep you going but they don’t actually get you anywhere.

An email this morning from a student at Atlantic College, reassured that he could go on a gap year this autumn to investigate human learning after leaving school, wrote “I feel happier now that I’ve decided to do this, rather than enter into a reductionist university course next year!” His thinking sounded so like those students at the University of Victoria when they said, “we have to adjust our lifestyles to make more meaning of life, (none of us) want to be as screwed up as are many of the parents of our friends. You are older than us. Please do help us to understand why we are in this extraordinary muddle… it’s a pointless treadmill (that word again) that just exhausts us but gets us nowhere”.

So just where are we trying to get? What are we educating people for? Do we see them simply as future customers able to distinguish between 200 brands of cereals, or as pilgrims (in the sense of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress) preparing to direct their own lives in a purposeful and positive fashion? Figuratively, do schools see themselves as providing the cages for battery hens, or the opens paces needed for free-range chickens?

This is a truly existential question to which my simplified answer, made up of five points, is contained in the attached document, which is only a starter for what has to become a bigger and more fundamental discussion. This has been written hopefully to engage the attention of those undergraduate and graduate students at the University of Victoria (and elsewhere) as they explore the Underground Curriculum. It will be interesting to see where the conversation goes, for as a recent “16 rising 17” said, “It’s easy to fit in, it’s much more difficult to think outside of the box”.

A Perfect Storm?

March 8, 2012 in Born to Learn, Uncategorized

University staff and teachers; elected officials and parents; administrators, pupils, business people and teachers-in-training, all coming to face a new economic as well as social and cultural reality. Maybe we are indeed living, hard as this may seem, in the best of times.

“What you have brought to this group is a new sense of vision, a sense of excitement that they have not had in the past – you have found ways to inspire them to do that which they have not been able to do for the past 20 years. And I think that is a GREAT accomplishment.”

Emeritus Professor Bob Doll of UVic and formerly of the University of Louisiana

My recent three-week lecture tour of British Columbia came shortly after addressing a conference of the European League of Middle School Education held in Prague. The citizens of Prague, back in January, were still mourning the death of their former President, Vaclav Havel, the poet, playwright, philosopher, political thinker and for long years a political prisoner; it was he who did so much to bring about the end of Communism in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s. To me Havel’s whole philosophy is encapsulated when he said, in the late 1990s, that “education is the ability to perceive the hidden connections between disparate phenomena”.

In a society’s ability to think carefully, deeply and connectedly lies its best assurance that it can defend and perpetuate democracy.

Seven thousand miles and nine time-zones away, that thought helped me to inspire still more confidence in the people of British Columbia (which for many months had been embroiled in a damaging dispute between the Teachers’ Union and the Ministry of Education), that as one of the world’s leading educational jurisdictions there was still more it had to do… and to do both for itself, and to inspire other countries by its thoughtful innovations.

I know Canada well and have visited British Columbia between 15 and 20 times in the past dozen years, and have spoken in more than a third of its 60 school districts. Now against the troubled backdrop of an industrial dispute this three-week tour was different to any I had made before – more localised as being confined to the two large urban centres of Vancouver and Victoria; more intensive because I was effectively housed within both the University’s Education Faculty and amongst the senior officers of the Ministry of Education; and more profound because I got to listen to many of the deepest thoughts of principals and superintendents struggling to make a good system even better.

I met with many teachers-in-training, not always as convinced as they would have liked, about the relevance of their courses. Over a three-week period I participated in some 40 ‘events’ ranging from the 450 delegates at the Superintendents’ Conference, to faculty ‘fishbowls’, ministerial staff conferences and many specific meetings with groups of faculty, teachers, school board officials and administrators, all of which were loosely structured around three whole-day public conferences, in which Ministry and University folk met with teams of teachers from several local school districts. (How this differs from my current experience in the UK!). Several times I had lengthy discussions with the Minster who – even though I did not know of his existence four moths ago – is possibly a distant cousin through part of the Abbott family who emigrated from Devonshire to Saskatchewan in the first part of the nineteenth century,

Behind all this activity Havel’s words gnawed away at many peoples’ thinking. Yes, I had probably helped many to recover a sense of vision of a better way of bringing up children, but as that third conference drew to its close so the clash between the educationalists’ passion to educate children to think for themselves, and the ever-present economists’ advice to politicians for schooling to prepare young people to serve the needs of a modern, efficient state became all the more sharp.

“A global solutions programme based at secondary school”, reported one school working with a local resident Andrew Weaver, a Nobel winning scientist, “is really calling into question the entire economic assumptions that apparently underpin the justification for what schools are expected to do… for example can we really talk about this kind of experiential learning in school while at the same time simply DEBATING whether a pipeline bringing a source of fuel the world really shouldn’t be burning up at this rate, should go right across our Province so that we – locally – can make money out of what well-educated youngsters in school are coming to see is a desperately bankrupt economic model?”. No wonder if, in the minds of thoughtful youngsters, teachers seem to have surrendered their moral authority.

The same theme was taken up by another; “I come from business, I have worked in business, I am successful in business; business has the power to change the world and make it a better place, but at what point does the rubber hit the road and business has to say we are at fault for bringing on so many of these problems where we haven’t balanced all the factors properly – we need to start to change it, and we need to do this urgently”.

Deeply challenging questions but, interestingly, the very articulation of such issues seemed to make people feel better. They were expressing what they really thought. The genie was so truly out of the bottle that it would be impossible to put it back again.

Talking Stick

Time was fast running out. I was presented with a wonderful piece of local carving – a ‘talking stick’ – something which the indigenous cultures see as a mark of authority for only the person holding the stick can speak in an assembly. It is made of Yellow Cedar, the smell of the sap still there when held with a hot sweaty hand…

At the very end of the last day seven education students invited me to go with them to the lookout point on a high point at Oak Bay from which there is a quite magnificent 270 degree vision of the Straits of Georgia and on to the Olympic Peninsula (in the United States); “that is where we get our best thoughts”, they told me, “a kind of dead poets society*”. Spectacular as was the view with a full gale blowing, there was just no chance of reflecting on anything as we each struggled to retain our balance. But back at the home of one of them, over a substantial tea, one of these young teacher-in-the-making said

“You are older than us and I expect when you started as a teacher no-one quite understood that the economy couldn’t forever be pushed ever-harder without doing terminal damage to the viability of the planet, whilst also exhausting people in the process. But all this is much clearer to us now, this is a changed perception that so far most people don’t realise. As a teacher in the future I think it will be my first task to help youngsters learn to be themselves, and then help other people to do the same. We have to adjust our lifestyles to make more meaning of life. I don’t think any of us want to be as screwed up as are many of the parents of our friends…”

“Yes” responded another, “just how we are going to build an education system that supports a new economic model that is both respectful of our individual personal, emotional and spiritual needs, and appropriate to the economic issues that face us… I just don’t know. That is what we are trying to understand”.

Jeff Hopkins, in the preceding blog of 23rd February, could well be right.

Dead Poets Society

Right now, in early 2012, British Columbia may well have the perfect storm… political will and bold leadership, is part of it… backed up by the late adolescent energy of those young people who really do look for solutions and have the energy and skills to implement them. They are the connectors and harmonisers who, alongside other young people of similar attitudes in many other countries, have the stamina to ride out the storm and find a better landing place. Upon my return to England I found an email from one of these teachers-in-training quoting Howard Thurman, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

March 8th 2012

* The Dead Poets Society (1989) tells the dramatic story of an English teacher (Robin Williams) who inspires his students through his teaching of poetry.