Education is broken – but it doesn’t have to be

If you read this blog regularly you will know that my heart weeps for education.
At a time in which the world faces its greatest ever challenges, we are returning to
models of education that were essentially developed 200 years ago.

In Australia, we have the NAPLAN and
MySchool which are regressive simplistic
measures of student and school performance respectively. It is as though we have not moved a
millimetre from the industrial revolution model of education since wide scale public education
became common in the mid 19th Century.

In addition the Australian federal Education Minister,
Julia Gillard, declaring herself
a world expert on education has just announced a ‘back to basics’
national curriculum.

Kevin Donnelly, one of the most
conservative education commentators in the country has completed a 180 degree shift on national
testing. Previously one of the strongest and most vocal advocates for public accountability of
schools through ‘league tables’ Donnelly

now argues
that the evidence from overseas indicates that these measures do not increase
educational performance.

In this piece on the ABC website, he argues:

…an argument is put that test scores, while giving the impression of being scientific,
are not completely objective or reliable. In addition, standardised, multiple and short answer
tests (like Australia’s National Assessment Programme Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN)) measure a
limited range of skills as schools are forced to narrow “the curriculum towards the knowledge
and skills that are easy to assess on such tests”


Jeremy Ludowyke
, principal of
Melbourne High School,
(itself ranked #1 on literacy in Victoria), pointing out that his school is one of those that
stands to gain the most from national comparisons of the type promoted by MySchool describes
the whole initiative as ‘nonsense’
(The Age 8/2/10.)

At heart these initiatives are based on a belief that 

  • teachers have a cosy life and have little or no interest in providing high quality education
  • education has been hijacked by left wing ideology (eg see this piece by Donnelly)
  • parents demands are more important than the view of educators

It doesn’t have to be like this.

Wide scale public education was a mid 19th Century response to the industrial revolution.

Many argue that as a result it was modelled on the successes of industrial production. Children could be treated as items to be produced. You start with raw materials and apply the same processes consistently to produce items of consistent quality. Put all children through the same education and they will all learn the same things. Of course, some children are ‘naughty’ or ‘lazy’ and refuse to either apply themselves or to learn. But, by and large, the successful products of the system have similar characteristics.

Right there, at the beginning of public education, we were confronted with a dilemma. Do we educate children to provide fodder for the industrial machine or do we educate them to produce thinking individuals who will experience better lives because of their ability to make decisions for themselves?

We have never fully addresses this dilemma.

Perhaps we don’t have to. Perhaps we have moved beyond the industrial revolution to a place where educated, independent thinking individuals able to make independent decisions are what we need as a post industrial society and is also a socially just outcome of education.

In a future article I will discuss ‘modern’ approaches to education and how they might indeed be just what we need.

Perception – Seeing with Fresh Eyes

This “seeing with fresh eyes” exercise is something I often use when I find myself stuck or I think my client is stuck. When I’m stuck I can make decisions but I’m not confident about them. They might be OK or they might not, either way they don’t resonate. When I’m in this state this exercise really helps me to see things from a different perspective and usually enables me to see a key piece I’ve been missing. Why don’t you try it out?

Find a quiet place take a few calming breaths and close your eyes. Imagine the room you’re in. Because you’re imagining you can make it anything you want. You can change the colour of the carpet, rearrange the furniture, put people in the room and take them out again or turn the lights on or off. You’re now fully in imagining mode. Now let yourself go to sleep ready for a new day. You drift into a deep sleep and wake slowly from it. As you become aware of everything around you again you realise something is different. You went to sleep as the man you know you are but you have woken up as a woman.

Only you know you were a man right up until this point. All of your memories
are living a life of a man but everyone else seems to be living in some sort of parallel universe because to them you are a wife, a mother, a businesswoman!

Now it’s over to you to do the work of imagining what happens next. Here are some questions to get you started, but I want you to really put yourself in this situation and use your imagination to follow through with all the details.

Think about how you would handle the situation if: 

  • You sensed the board wasn’t taking your brilliantly prepared presentation seriously just because you were a woman?
  • One man kept looking at your cleavage the whole way through the presentation?
  • The men couldn’t look you in the eye and the women ignored you?
  • Whenever you made your best points, the men spoke over you or, to make matters worse, represented your ideas as their own?
  • You  were  a  woman  for  a  whole  day/week/month/year?
  • As  a  woman  at  home  you  are  now  a  mother instead of a father. How does your relationship with your children change? How do your responsibilities change?
  • How do you think you’d relate to your partner in this role reversal?

Now I want to take your thinking to another level. Instead of negative thoughts and feelings, I want you to think about the opportunities this presents. Suddenly you have the ability to see the world through a completely fresh set of eyes. Everything is the same and everything is different. You have the opportunity to experience how perception really works.

You have the ability to noticethings  you  never noticed before. You have the ability to notice things about your company that you never noticed before.

Think about relationships:

  • Who has the real power?
  • What really  matters  to  these people? 
  • What  really  matters  to  the company? (is it more than just profit?)
  • Although  your  gender has changed, do you think the core of you has changed?
  • Think about the things that really matter to you. Have any of those changed?

By allowing my imagination to really get into experiencing all of what the contrast has to offer, and by allowing myself to step out of my own body and look at life with fresh eyes, this exercise has allowed me to see what really matters to me, sometimes with a clarity that I’ve never before thought possible!

Other results I’ve discovered is a different type of energy and the ability to act swiftly and decisively.

I hope you give this ‘seeing with fresh eyes’ exercise a go. Your world may become a place of clarity, full of possibilities and opportunities.

If you would like to share your scenarios and experiences I’d love to read them – just click the ‘comments’ link above.

Where is the focus of your attention?

There’s nothing like a crisis to focus our attention. We saw that recently here in Victoria on Black Saturday where all the emergency agencies, the government and a great proportion of the community could think of nothing else.

On a wider scale, the global financial crisis has focused the attention of world governments, financial regulators, economists and business leaders. For many of us, our attention is resolutely focused on surviving this dramatic downturn.

For many of us we have been happy in the past for our financial controllers to give us a summary of the balance sheet and point out anything that needs particular scrutiny. Now we go through it with a fine tooth comb. In the past we have been relaxed about some sections of our business that weren’t performing – allowing them time to develop. Now we need to justify everything we do to ourselves and our owners.

Many of us had forgotten what it was like to be so focused.

[Indeed one of the good things to come out of a downturn is that it shakes us out of our complacency and, like a bushfire, while it destroys it also prepares the ground for new growth to emerge.]

Perhaps, in the midst of all this activity we should stop and find a few microseconds to reflect on the balance of our priorities. There is no doubt that when times are tough our first priority must be survival. But I wonder if focusing all our attention on survival is the best way to increase our chances of doing so.

What subtle signals might we be missing by looking so closely at ourselves? Is this just another cyclic (albeit much larger than normal) downturn or are we observing the emergence of a new world economic order? Of course we cannot know the answer to this question in the traditional sense of the word and there is no shortage of analysts prepared to give us (often conflicting) opinions. But what do our on senses tell us and to what are our senses atuned?

One of the most courageous things we can do in the midst of a crisis is to not act. I love the title of a book I was introduced to recently:

Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There!

That is, even though everything is urgent, take time to stop and pay attention to what you may be missing.

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The End of Wall Street’s Boom

The Spiral Path has linked to Michael Lewis on several occasions. In this piece, Lewis gives his take on what went wrong on Wall Street. In the introduction he reminds us of his three years at Salomon Brothers:

To this day, the willingness of a Wall Street investment bank to pay me
hundreds of thousands of dollars to dispense investment advice to
grownups remains a mystery to me. I was 24 years old, with no
experience of, or particular interest in, guessing which stocks and
bonds would rise and which would fall. The essential function of Wall
Street is to allocate capital—to decide who should get it and who
should not. Believe me when I tell you that I hadn’t the first clue.

I’d never taken an accounting course, never run a business, never even
had savings of my own to manage. I stumbled into a job at Salomon
Brothers in 1985 and stumbled out much richer three years later, and
even though I wrote a book about the experience, the whole thing still
strikes me as preposterous—which is one of the reasons the money was so
easy to walk away from. I figured the situation was unsustainable.
Sooner rather than later, someone was going to identify me, along with
a lot of people more or less like me, as a fraud. Sooner rather than
later, there would come a Great Reckoning when Wall Street would wake
up and hundreds if not thousands of young people like me, who had no
business making huge bets with other people’s money, would be expelled
from finance.

He goes on to discuss his surpise that, twenty years later, Wall Street was still going strong. No amount of scandal or impropriety, it seemed, could dent America’s advantaged youth from embracing wealth like never before. This was, according to Lewis, until an otherwise obscure advisor named Meredith Whitney from Oppenheimer Securities who

on October 31, 2007, ceased to be obscure. On that day, she predicted that Citigroup had so mismanaged its affairs that it would need to slash its dividend or go bust. It’s never entirely clear on any given day what causes what in the stock market, but it was pretty obvious that on October 31, Meredith Whitney caused the market in financial stocks to crash. By the end of the trading day, a woman whom basically no one had ever heard of had shaved $369 billion off the value of financial firms in the market. Four days later, Citigroup’s C.E.O., Chuck Prince, resigned. In January, Citigroup slashed its dividend.

It appears that Americans, and the rest of the world for that matter, were very much prepared to accept that Wall Street Bankers were corrupt. What came as a shock to us all was that it turns out they are also stupid.

Australia’s worst ever natural disaster

I have to pause for thought to remember the events of the last few days around me. As I sat in air-conditioned comfort last Saturday, Australia suffered its worst ever natural disaster with at least 170 people having lost their lives and the towns of Marrysville and Kinglake wiped off the map as devastating bushfires swept my state of Victoria.

Each day as I read the news, it sinks in a little deeper just how terrible this event has been and how sudden it was.

Initially for us it was just the hottest day ever recorded in Melbourne, but then the news started filtering through. We had been complaining about how hot and awful it was but we were safe and we had air conditioning. People not far to the north of us were at that very time losing everything – including for too many, their lives.

If you are so moved, the Red Cross is organising a bushfire appeal.

Now is the time to innovate

It’s pretty scary reading the papers and listening to the news these days. We are all left wondering how this current downturn will play itself out. Unfortunately I don’t have a crystal ball and make no claim to any ability to predict the future. I don’t know what is going to happen any more than any commentator on current affairs.

That said, I’d like to propose two ways of looking a the current global situation:-

  • learning from the past
  • learning from the future

Firstly

Learning from the past.

You may already know this, but I’ll ask anyway. What do the following companies have in common:

  • Motorola
  • Hewlett Packard
  • Xerox
  • Unisys
  • Texas Instruments
  • Revlon
  • Ryder?

I deliberately organised the list this way so that you might be misled by the first five entries that they were all technology companies. But you would have know that Revlon was in the cosmetics business and probably (although I had to refresh my memory) that Ryder was a transportation and logistics group.

If you haven’t worked it out yet, I’ll tell you. All these companies were founded during the Great Depression. My source for the short quiz above was this article by David Silverman (although Silverman in turn tells us we could all do this research independently by checking Funding Universe .)

David also points out that a number of well known brands and products of today were established during the Depression. So while many businesses were going to the wall, it was as hard as it ever had been to raise capital and consumer confidence was at an all time low, some individuals were bold enough to launch new enterprises that have passed the test of time and some companies launched new products that have turned out to be stayers.

Now I have to put a disclaimer in here. This is, by necessity, a first look analysis. I generally criticise research which looks at successful anythings to try to find what the successes had in common. This applies to companies, leaders innovators, entrepreneurs and anything else you might like to name. We don’t know from this brief analysis how many companies started during the Depression went bust and how the success rate of startups during that period compares with that of startups during more bouyant times. So I am not suggesting this proves a downturn is a better time to innovate than during a boom. I am suggesting though that some people who have tried have found success in doing so.

And this first level analysis makes some sort of intuitive sense. Even if we think of it in terms of ‘survival of the fittest.’ Anyone can make money during a boom but in tough times, only the fittest (or perhaps in a business sense, the smartest) survive. A recession shakes us all around and sorts us out. During a recession we have to find new and smarter ways of doing things. We have to use our advertising dollars smarter. We have to work out which parts of our business never really made sense anyway but coasted along in the boom and which parts of our business could be the source of sustainable growth into the future.

All sorts of questions come to mind regarding our employees. Which ones stuck by us in the boom when they could have made more money elsewhere? Who shows real promise with creative thinking and can come up with some of the new ideas we need to survive and prosper? Who have just been hanging on and coasting.

Finally, as other businesses fall over around us what are the new opportunities? We can be fairly sure we are not going to grow by copying outdated business models or just copying products that our erstwhile competitors can no longer provide. But what new products and services do these holes in the market call out for?

“Oh for a crystal ball,” you may well exclaim. This is where we move on to my second way of learning:

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Changes at The Spiral Path

Big changes are happening at The Spiral Path.
I have moved the blog to a much more robust server. Some of you have reported some problems with links to the site. That should pretty much be a thing of the past.
The elves are still working away at tweaking everything and getting the site working absolutely perfectly. You will see the sidebar doesn’t include everything it used to. I am working on rebuilding this with updated links and information. Please come back and check it over the next couple of weeks.
You will also soon see a new look and feel I completely revamp the site to match my chriscurnow.com site.
I am sure you will like the changes.
Thanks for your patience while I and my elves are working on the update.
I’d like to hear what you think.