notes from JK

The Element – On education and creativity, plus my books of 2009

Academic inflation continues ever apace, it is now the case that a PhD isn’t enough for some posts. My father worked over 30 years for a bank. He entered with nothing more than A-levels. Since then the job, which has little changed in substance, now requires one or more degrees, probably an MBA would help too.

Meanwhile the British government continues its process of expanding the length of compulsory education. It is bringing forward the school starting age from 5 to 4 years young. Furthermore it is extending the education and training age to 18, up from 16 years. So in total they are potentially adding 3 years to the length of compulsory education.

For all those children who hated school, felt constrained and misunderstood, this is a disaster. We already start school earlier than most European countries, and don’t have better results to show for this early start. As Sir Ken Robinson has so ably shown – there is a huge list of very successful people who only blossomed after school’s negative effects had had a chance to wear off.

Truancy is at record levels too — no wonder what with more testing, a more restrictive curriculum, and the failure to nurture diverse types of intelligence. We are killing creativity and extinguishing passions with an incessant focus just on ‘academic’ education; that is maths, literacy, and sciences.

You can’t learn many of the most valuable things in life simply by being told them and then reciting them for a test. Education should be a much richer experience. We have absolutely no idea what life will bring for our children. We cannot possibly imagine what the world will be like by the time they leave education, especially considering the current failures to tackle climate change.

I was extremely fortunate to recently visit what I think is an excellent example of following your passion, caring for the environment and the unexpected connections education can bring. During a North American family reunion I visited Tom’s of Maine in Kennebunk, Maine, USA. Tom’s produce natural personal care products such as toothpaste, dental floss and soap. The company works towards an ethical mission which includes donating a proportion of revenue to charities and treating their employees with care and respect.

When visiting their factory I was impressed with the breaks staff took for exercises, the way disabled staff were supported in being productive team-members and the care taken in reducing the environmental impact of their operations. While there I also picked up the two books written by Tom Chappell, which I found to be fascinating, inspiring reads.

In particular the books tell of how Tom (who co-founded the firm with his wife Kate) started to lose his passion for the business as the focus became ever more on ‘making the numbers’. Rather than quitting by selling the business, Tom decided to take up a part-time theology course at Harvard. This rather unexpected change in direction for a former insurance salesman led to a renewal in his passion for his business. He engaged on an ethical, environmental and creative level resulting in a wide set of changes in how they did business and a massive increase in the number of new product ideas. Creativity was unleashed.

How many people would have advised Tom to go on a part-time theology course to resolve his business problems or loss of passion? Not many I would imagine. He writes that many of his colleagues had their doubts, and I’m not surprised. But by connecting with an alternative way of thinking and different people a new passion was found. I think we’re all better off for the work Tom’s has been doing since then. It’s not to say we’ll all renew our passion by going on a theology course, but to say that creativity and passion are not science, they lie in unexpected connections.

I’ve been searching for my passion, slowly homing in on what it means for me to be in my element. Through school I focussed on good grades and subjects that would have the most use for employment. To some extent I regret that now.

Some of the choices I had to make were ludicrous. For example for my A-levels I wanted to do Physics, English Language and Biology. I was told only English Literature was available and I couldn’t do it anyway as it wasn’t possible to combine it with science subjects. So at 16 I had to choose between science or ‘arts’ not just for A-levels but for my university career also. I ended up doing Maths, Physics and Chemistry with A/S French for Professional Use. I had hated maths since age 10 and didn’t feel strongly about chemistry one way or the other. Physics I did enjoy, but partly because I had yet to reach the maths-intensive levels.

How utterly mad to force a 16-year old to make such choices. It’s difficult enough in one’s thirties making career choices, let alone when one is still very much a personality in development. I know my old school has now gone for the International Baccalaureate to try and broaden pre-university education.

IB is probably an improvement but lacks the opportunity for subjects such as dance, music or sculpture to fully integrate into schooling so that pupils of all abilities and passions can be catered for. We need to completely turn our educational system upside down. Helping people to find and nurture their passion is quite possibly the most important thing we can do for one another as a society.

Reads of 2009

I’ve read many excellent books this year, in fact barely any have been duds. Ones that spring to mind include Tristram Stuart’s “Waste” and Prashant Vaze’s “The Economical Environmentalist”.

Only two books this year have fundamentally altered my way of thinking, challenged me in the most positive ways, and been deeply impressive.

These were Sir Ken Robinson’s “The Element” and Tom Chappell’s “The Soul of a Business”. If you read just two books in 2010, make it those. To expand and support them two other books are worth a look, Sir Ken’s “Out of our Minds” and Tom’s “Managing Upside Down”. They aren’t quite as good or punchy as the first two, but they usefully expand the ideas and context.

More Resources:

I first came across Sir Ken through his incredible, must see, TED talk (via Garr Reynold’s great blog Presentation Zen)

If you are looking for your passion, Po Bronson’s “What Should I Do with My Life?” is another useful, non-prescriptive, book.

Note: All Amazon links for books will pay a commission to me if you purchase the book.

current affairs

The Learning & Skills Council fiasco

You may have been aware of the grand plans a good number of colleges in Brighton & Hove had been preparing over the last two years. These plans involved new facilities, amazing new buildings, incredible resources and flights of architectural imagination. Certainly I didn’t agree with all the detailed plans but I welcomed the additional resources scheduled to be ploughed into education in our local colleges.

But the resources weren’t in fact there. In an astonishing, jaw-dropping tale of mismanagement it subsequently emerged that the Learning & Skills Council, a government quango, had massively overpromised. They had told hundreds of colleges to proceed with their plans, take out loans and hire consultants, architects etc to flesh out their plans. However finally the LSC had to admit they couldn’t afford to pay for all the schemes they had initially suggested should proceed.

How so many colleges could be led up the garden path by a government body beggars belief, it’s an epic cock-up whereby hundreds of colleges will be left out of pocket due to government failings – taxpayers are paying for these problems.

A committee of MPs have come to similar conclusions. More from the excellent Westminster blog I Spy Strangers (who I feel report on Parliamentary business in an old fashioned way – which is a good thing in this context):

A committee of MPs has castigated the “financial fiasco of the capital programme in further education colleges” and blamed the “heinously complicated” management structure at the Learning and Skills Council.

“But, as we set out in this report, no-one was keeping an eye on the total amount of money which was being committed and the value of applications coming forward.
“In December 2008 it suddenly dawned on the senior management of DIUS and the LSC that the total potential cost of projects which had received ‘Approval in Principle’ exceeded the capital budget and many more applications were in the pipeline.
“Far from trying to damp down increasing demand in 2008 the LSC had been encouraging it.”

I hope Brighton & Hove’s colleges pull through this, I know we’ll support them 100% in trying to recoup their losses from the government.