Amazing libraries of the world!

I spent time last week in a brilliant library – Double Bay Library in Woollahra, Sydney, and the experience was too good not to share. I had to find somewhere to dial into a board meeting in Hong Kong, and so I was on the hunt for good WiFi in the area – which indeed I found, but with so much more on top. I often say that I think schools should be at the heart of communities – well, so should libraries, and this one most definitely was. I have no idea how it was funded, nor what wasn’t built so that it could be built, nor how it compares to other libraries in the district or city (apart from the NSW State Library, which is fab) … I just want to celebrate what I found, and let others experience a bit of my delight!

Photo taken in Double Bay Library, Woollahra, Sydney

Opened in 2016, the library is spread over 3 floors and is marked by its hanging greenery, the multitude of different work spaces (including a stepped area which does dual duty as an auditorium), and what looked to my eagerly browsing eye like excellent children’s and adult fiction sections (I didn’t have time to look at the non-fiction section – this was at the very top of the building in the quiet zone). There was also an indoor slide for children … who would have thought that? The architects’ website describes it better than I ever could – with pictures – so check this out here – bvn website. They must have done something clever with the sound absorption too, because somehow, despite people talking and the fact that there were a lot of people using it, it seemed calm, yet warmly welcoming – a very facilitating place.

Anyway, what I really, really liked about this library was precisely the fact that it was being used! People were returning books, borrowing books, reading books, working on their laptops, researching on the many computers and iPads that were available, playing games in the Tech zone, and – essentially – engaging in lots and lots of learning. What a marvellous experience! Surrounded by and immersed in learning!

Abraham Lincoln is quoted as saying ‘All I have learned, I learned from books’. Today’s books are more than paper and ink (although nothing quite replaces the touch and feel of the physical object …) and civilised societies, which is what we surely aspire to be, are learning societies; societies which invest in learning and in libraries are wise.

Wouldn’t it be great if all our decision-makers had the same vision …?

Building intercultural confidence

A great day last Friday at the AIS Leadership Centre in Sydney, working with new Principals on how to enable their schools to become world leaders in the field of global education. It was gratifying to receive 5/5 ratings from all the participants (thank you!), but what really uplifted me were the ‘lightbulb moments’ that I witnessed, coupled with a determination to make sure that each and every one of their students was going to benefit from the thinking we had worked on, and the models which I have created, and to which I introduced them. What drives me personally is being able to have positive impact on leaders – and through them, young people – and Friday was a perfect example of how this can happen. Well done to the AIS for being so forward-thinking on behalf of its new Principals, in arranging this!

I was struck in particular on this occasion by how open these new Principals were to the thought that they could engage their communities in creating opportunities for their students. Working with – and shaping – the local, national and international community around schools is one of the key pillars of my focus in the schools with which I work, and I heard some brilliant examples of early-stage initiatives in schools run by some of these new Principals, which they were then able to share with their colleagues. All too often, schools feel as though they can’t ask for help from their immediate wider community, let alone a community that stretches far, far wider, but it is incredibly important that leaders do in fact have courage and reach out – only by doing this will they be able to provide the opportunities and pathways that their students deserve and need in a global world that is connected as never before, and where – as long as schools really, really prepare them to work interculturally – they will have amazing choices.

So – a huge shout out and good luck to all those new Principals who are either in their first year of leadership, or who are shortly to take up a new post. Remember to put the global at the heart of what you are doing in school, and you will make astonishing things happen. Go for it!

Dr Helen Wright is the author of Powerful Schools: how schools can be drivers of social and global mobility

Pointers needed! Game theory plus … what?

So … here’s my problem … and I need some help …

First, the background. Last week I attended a Maths Challenge certificate ceremony at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, during which I had the enjoyable experience of hearing a lecture on game theory. As part of the lecture, we all pondered again the Prisoner’s Dilemma, and why it was always statistically better to cheat or betray to gain an advantage in a game. (If you don’t know the Prisoner’s Dilemma, read about it here; in fact, the rest of my own Dilemma won’t make sense unless you do.) Now, obviously at least one of the prisoners is still worse off if there is some betrayal than if neither prisoner betrays, but game theory explains, through an analysis of the statistical probabilities, why behaving in what the outside world might see as a less honourable way is often the ‘safest’ route for game players to take.

To be honest, at the time I enjoyed the intellectual challenge, and filed it (probably rather naively) into my ‘fictional world’ or ‘suspension of disbelief’ folder – an interesting question about amorality in the virtual world, but one which could be explored at a different time, and which might not in any case transfer to the real world. Then, however, on Monday, I realised suddenly that we need to take this a lot more seriously than I had thought. I was listening to a very different lecture in the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford, following a board meeting, this time given by Tom Steyr, billionaire-turned-grass-roots-activist and arch-critic of the current political structure of the US, and he pointed out that in his opinion the behaviour of the current US President was a sign that he was trapped in the Prisoner’s Dilemma, choosing to cheat and betray his way out of situations because on balance, this made it more likely that he would win. This really, really made me think … I wonder how much of our culture is permeated by people consciously (or subconsciously, through imitation of others) employing the learnings from game theory. A simple Google search reveals hundreds of thousands of reflection and scholarly articles on the impact of game theory on war, politics and international relations. And my question is this – are we really turning into a society where cheating is the de facto modus operandi?

Well, I refuse to accept that this is either desirable or necessary – every ethical bone in my body screams otherwise – but what I could do with is some input from experts (amateur or professional) in game theory which will help me (all of us) understand game theory in practice in real life … Is there an equation out there that incorporates the multiple, layered and complex variables that actually influence how we can and should choose to behave in the kind of civilised society to which we aspire?

I’d love any pointers – links, thoughts or theories – that any of you might have … please, just get in touch. Where shall I start reading? In the meantime, I shall be busy resurrecting my school Scottish Higher Grade Mathematics in my spare time …

The (as-yet-unrealised) wisdom of Homo Sapiens …

Yuval Noah Harari’s ‘Sapiens’ has been sitting on my shelf for FAR too long, waiting, tantalisingly, to be read, but this past weekend I plunged in … and couldn’t put it down. I haven’t finished it yet – so, please, no spoilers – but given that there is a sequel of sorts (Homo Deus), then I am hoping it doesn’t end (yet) in total annihilation and catastrophe. As global issues become more pressing – as plastic waste builds up (and countries like Malaysia wake up to not wanting to be the dustbins of the world, and turn container ships back towards Europe), and as the biodiversity of our planet plummets – we really, really need to start considering the possibility that it won’t actually be all right after all, no matter how much we hope it will be.

In this window of time where we can choose still to hope, however, we can’t simply sit around and ruminate. Action is needed … and in this, Dr Harari gives us some direction. He deconstructs the notion of unique nationhood, and challenges what we mean by ‘Us’ and ‘Them’; moreover, he points us towards global solutions:

“The appearance of essentially global problems, such as melting ice caps, nibbles away at whatever legitimacy remains to the independent nation states. No sovereign state will be able to overcome global warming on its own… the global empire [is] being forged before our eyes”. (Chapter 11)

How, though … well, an uplifting meeting a cup of tea that I had earlier this week with a wonderful, highly experienced coach and change agent reminded me of the importance of dialogue, and it set me thinking about how we can more explicitly teach everyone (including young people – the future of the world) to engage in dialogic practice. We don’t have a lot of time, but we do need to do something. So another book is winging its way to me … William Issac’s ‘Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together’.

Watch this space. 

Why choose to teach abroad?

Escaping (literally) from the turmoil of Brexit and the political machinations of the UK can appear a particularly attractive option at the moment. Although I have written in the past about why teaching abroad can be enormously beneficial, both personally and professionally, I thought it was an apt moment to recall why this is the case – especially because I was reminded at the recent Council of British International Schools (COBIS) conference in London very vigorously of the great opportunities for UK teachers (and others) that lie in cultures other than their own.

Last year, COBIS conducted a major survey looking into teacher supply in British International Schools and found that 94% of senior leaders in British international schools find it challenging to recruit the required quality of teaching staff; by implication, this means that the roles are there and waiting for highly qualified and proficient teachers. They also looked at the flow of teachers out of the UK and back into the UK, and found positive motivations underpinning each of these – a desire for travel and new experiences when going out, and a desire to come home and bring back knowledge and experience when returning. Teacher movement abroad is – happily for children in the UK – demonstrably not a one-way process.

Of enormous encouragement were the findings of COBIS about what teachers gained from their time working in schools in different countries: 79% felt that they had grown in cultural awareness, 76% felt that they had developed a global outlook and were more internationally minded, and 58% spoke of the greater adaptability that they had developed. What marvellous personal and professional outcomes! And how amazing if as a result of this personal and professional development, teachers – with their immediate access to young people – can be role models for global mobility!

Nothing beats travelling, working and living in a place other than one’s original home. Teachers have a ready-made pathway and opportunities just waiting for them. Seize the day …

Dr Helen Wright is the author of Powerful Schools: how schools can be drivers of social and global mobility

Addressing our assumptions

Two very different events which I attended at the end of last week in Edinburgh ended with a very similar message about the importance of getting to know the people around us, and I thought this was worth reflecting on for a moment.

The first event was a session on diversity – and, specifically, how we can deal with our unconscious bias, hosted for the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries (IFoA) at the offices of KMPG in the shadow of Edinburgh Castle. People from all fields of actuarial work attended, as did a number of connected guests (I was there because I chair one of the IFoA’s Strategic Boards, their Lifelong Learning Board), and the discussion was robust and at times (to quote the chair of the IFoA’s Diversity Action Group), “appropriately uncomfortable”. For there is, of course, an incredibly vast amount more work that we need to do as individuals and collectively to address the prejudices that we have, and the harm that these can cause; and we should not fall into the trap of feeling self-satisfied because we have a small level of awareness, or of assuming that we have ‘done our bit’ … learning to accept people for who they actually are is a lot harder than it sounds, and we need to work a lot harder on it.

This task is made even harder because, as we heard at the event, research shows that 61% of the workforce regularly engage in ‘covering’, ie covering up or hiding something that is important to their identity … and yet, the more we know about people, the more likely it is that we all understand them, and therefore the more likely it is that we will embrace who they are, and that our lives – and theirs – will be enhanced as a result. There are plenty of very good reasons why people ‘cover’ – through fear of being disadvantaged or ridiculed or hurt – and so therefore the message that emerged was the imperative of practising getting to know people, to give them places and spaces where they feel they can trust enough to talk more openly about themselves, and of accepting them for who they are.

The very same message emerged the next morning when I visited the Edinburgh Steiner School, set in lovely surroundings in South Edinburgh, and gained an in-depth insight from teachers and students about their particularly creative and grounder approach to education. They were calmly and confidently explicit about their intention to nurture a harmonious personality in children with all aspects of their character well-developed, resulting in confident, independent and self-aware young people. What was interesting, and what differed slightly from many other schools which I have visited over the years, it that this sense of self-awareness went far deeper than the individual; it has a purpose, best articulated by one of the current students, who delved deeper – “Steiner has taught me”, he said, “not to make assumptions about people but to find out about them, and stop and appreciate them.”

I have often thought that good schools have a lot to teach other professions about how they grow and manage people, and to hear the same message articulated in two very different contexts, but within less than 24 hours of one another, served to confirm this. More importantly, the message these events mutually reinforced is one that we need to act upon if we are going to have any real chance of drawing out the best of the human race in these challenging global times. So … at the risk of stating the obvious, be aware of the sameness and difference of others, and practise getting to know people (and not just people who seem like everyone else we know).

Above all, let us take responsibility and commit to making a difference. And do it today.

Real and relevant: adult and child worlds on a Sunday morning

I spent Sunday morning this week with my daughter at Kidzania, the ‘indoor city for kids’ situated in Westfield Mall at White City, London (and replicated in various major cities across the world). For those of you who don’t know Kidzania, it is designed so that children aged 4-14 can explore a replica ‘city’, with a range of structured activities centred on establishments such as newspaper offices, a fire station, a detective agency, a hospital and a pilot training facility … the sorts of establishments, in fact, that can be found in any city, but just condensed (and shrunk in height) to make them entirely accessible to children.

It was not in fact my first visit, but I found it as highly stimulating as my first – and do remember that the adults are not really supposed to be involved in the activities; my interest came purely from my observations and reflections on the concept and practice that I could see. The children were joyful, moving purposefully from activity to activity, making choices about where to go, counting and managing their money (they earn a salary for some activities, and have to pay for others), and generally taking charge of their learning. As an educator, what could be more exciting?!

Reflecting on the session, I returned with renewed vigour to the question of how our schools can replicate a sense of this meaningful, relevant, work-orientated learning as part of their curriculum. Schools, after all, are mandated by society to nurture and develop the interests, skills and awareness of their students, and part of this mandate must be to ensure that these young people can connect with the sorts of experiences that they will have when they start to work in paid employment in their twenties.

(Note that I resist here the temptation to write ‘when they enter the ‘real’ world’; I believe more and more firmly that we do not take seriously enough the fact that our children already inhabit the ‘real’ world – they work, live, experience the world around them … how much more real can the world be? This will be a topic for another blog…)

When I speak at conferences and work with schools on social and global mobility, I emphasise the importance of community involvement in developing relevant work opportunities for students, and I sometimes refer people back to a paper which was written in 1998 but which still rings true today. Written by researchers at Brown University, as part of the drive to facilitate a better transfer of people to the then ‘workforce’, the paper makes a particularly salient observation:  

“The most important factor in a school’s ability to put [the vision of developing a strong school-career path] into practice is the involvement of a broad community of adults in the learning experiences of young people. This is by no means standard practice in our schools. For most of this century, what students have been expected to do in school has been dissociated from the life and work of the community in which they live. Unlike the last century, when young people participated in the farming, small businesses, and trades of their family and neighbors, the work of adults has become largely invisible to today’s young people. There are few, if any, opportunities to work alongside adults, or to be taken seriously in an enterprise worthy of adult concern.”

The authors then take the reader through a series of very practical ‘how to’ steps, based on the 6 As of planning work-related experiences and strategies (Academic Rigor, Authenticity, Applied Learning, Active Exploration, Adult Connections, Assessment Practices), which – as they demonstrate – help teachers and school leaders see students going out to work as a rigorously and carefully thought through part of their learning journey. It is often said that the old ideas are the best – and certainly, ideas which have stood the test of time as these ones have are absolutely worthy of our attention.

What we should perhaps consider carefully is that education systems on the whole have not really embraced these notions – ‘work experience’ is often seen at best as an add-on (and at worst as a distraction) from the ‘real’ focus of preparing students to achieve high academic grades … ignoring the fact that these are systems where the majority will (no matter how this is packaged) by definition fail, because they won’t be able to reach the highest grades, upon which the rest of their future is predicated.

Experiential learning – learning by reflection on actual doing – is how we learn as adults, and so (unsurprisingly!) so too do children. Let’s start by talking more about how we can all work together to integrate and embed whole world experiences more effectively into the education of our schooled children. Learning is for life, not just for Sundays, after all …

The absolute imperative of understanding other people’s cultures

I have just been dipping in again to Erin Meyer’s very readable book ‘The Culture Map’, which I do from time to time, just to remind myself of the urgent imperative of developing cultural understanding in a globalised world – the world in which our young people are growing up, and in which they will have to work and live. To the initiated, the terms ‘intercultural sensitivity’, ‘intercultural understanding’ and ‘intercultural fluency’ – all of which I group together under the encompassing term ‘global mobility’ – are without any shadow of a doubt essential for our young people to be able to flourish and thrive in today’s world; what is deeply concerning, however, is that so many people are as yet uninitiated into this concept …

Perhaps Erin Meyer’s words will help … in her conclusion, after several chapters of (fascinating, thought-provoking and enjoyable) examples of how diverse cultural teams have learned to work with one another by understanding better where they stand on various different scales of interaction and philosophy, and by exploring the preconceptions with which they have been brought up, she reminds the reader that while every individual is of course different in their own human right,

‘Yet the culture in which we are brought up has a profound impact on how we see the world. In any given culture, members are conditioned to understand the world in a particular way, to see certain communication patterns as effective or undesirable, to find certain arguments persuasive or lacking merit, to consider certain ways of making decisions or measuring time “natural” or “strange”.’

Leaders who are armed with this appreciation are, she points out, far better prepared to be able to understand and work effectively with people from around the world, and, as she points out,

When we worked in offices surrounded by others from our own tribe, awareness of basic human psychological needs and motivations, as well as a sensitivity to individual differences was enough. But as globalization transforms the way we work, we now need the ability to decode cultural differences in order to work effectively with clients, suppliers, and colleagues around the world’.

For adults already enmeshed in the world of work – or wishing to extend their sphere of influence and their success – then The Culture Map makes an excellent starting point; school leaders should absolutely read it too, because the beauty of school is that it provides an opportunity for children and young people to have time, over several years, to become immersed in an appreciation and working knowledge of the subtle differences of other cultures … provided, of course, that the school really, really commits to a fundamental shift in its priorities and in its primary focus.

In our world today, where our children’s generation face whole-world problems which can only be tackled on a global scale, cross-cultural communication, at a deep and powerful level, is essential. In the schools where I have challenged and worked on global mobility, I have seen how it is possible to make a difference, and my message to schools and their leaders is … act now … and start immediately by educating yourselves … because where you lead, others will follow …

Dr Helen Wright is the author of Powerful Schools: how schools can be drivers of social and global mobility

AQI – Global problems, global solutions

One of the differences about working in Chinese schools, as I was reminded last week, is the importance of AQI. AQI, as I am sure you know, stands for Air Quality Index, and there are strict guidelines in schools in China for what needs to happen if the AQI rises above certain permissible amounts – above 100, for instance, children with respiratory sensitivities are required to stay indoors; and there is a sliding scale right up to 300+, when the school will be closed and no children allowed out at all.

It can be tempting to dismiss this as an issue restricted to the mega cities of Asia, or to blame it solely on outdated industrial practices which have long since been abandoned in other parts of the world, but this would be entirely false. (Besides, I have never seen as many – non-polluting – electric cars as I did in China.) Download an AQI monitor with global reach, and you will see oranges and reds (neither of which is good…) across the world. And the thing is… air doesn’t stand still. What is in the air will travel. One city’s problem is all of our problem, and any complacency we might feel, from wherever we hail, about ‘we’re ok’ is – quite frighteningly – completely unwarranted.

Climate change is without question, surely, one of the most pressing issues of our time, and it requires global solutions that start with each of us, but extend far beyond this. If the scientists are to be believed – which, quite frankly, they probably are – then we have little over a decade to avert unimaginable disaster. Our planet is working overtime to try to clean the air as we pollute it, and we need to start loving it a lot more, confronting our emotions and connecting with nature. My friend Nadine has worked in this field of research for years – read what she has to say, and listen to the voices of young people as they try to make politicians wake up to what they really, really need to be deciding on, now!!

There are tough decisions to be made, and we can’t keep living the life we have been living. Everything we do will help, so reduce your own emissions, understand what is happening in the world around you, eat less meat, leave the car at home, carbon-off-set your travel, recycle, cut down your over-consumption of everything, and agitate…

And start by downloading an AQI indicator… but remember – we share the same air… if there are reds anywhere in the world, this air is coming in our direction too. We are all in this together; let’s stop thinking it is someone else’s problem…

Wax, Wellington and Wellbeing: global essentials

This last week has been a whirlwind of activity for me in the great Chinese cities of Shanghai and Hangzhou, where I have had the pleasure of speaking at the Wellington Festival of Education. I have shared the experience with some other fascinating speakers and educators, and it has been enormously stimulating to elicit excited and immensely positive reactions from the many, many attendees – parents, teachers and other interested adults. I am returning to the U.K. on a real high, with a strong sense of having had impact and of having contributed to an important debate on education which transcends cultural boundaries. What a week!

See the source image

A recurring theme in the conference – one to which we kept returning, in various different guises – was that of ‘wellbeing’. Quite rightly one of the major issues of the educational world, wellbeing at EdFest manifested itself in several different ways, from Professor Ferre Laevers and his scale for measuring wellbeing, to Professor Sir Jonathan Bate’s work on reading poetry aloud as a way of improving mental health, and to Ruby Wax and her reflections on ‘How to be Human’; if you have a chance to see her brand new one-woman show on tour, go! The laughter alone will make you feel more mentally healthy, let alone the messages she imparts.

As part of this journey over the past week, the conversations we had have taken my thinking on social and global mobility to another level, namely that the intercultural confidence that forms the core of global mobility is an important contributor to wellbeing, to the extent that we cannot afford any longer to ignore the deep and central importance of global mobility in schools, and as an underpinning driver for student activity in and beyond the classroom. Global mobility is a fundamental subcomponent, I demonstrate, of social mobility, which is all about young people having choices in life – the choices that lead to self-determination in life and a sense of purpose, both of which are prerequisites for wellbeing.

Global mobility matters! And, as I have been sharing with parents and educators over the past few days, it is eminently possible to achieve, with the right combination of inspiration, catalysing and coaching. I love helping schools on the path towards a closer embedding of great practice in their work, and the amazing discussions I have had over the course of EdFest China have strengthened my resolve.

Together we can make a difference – onwards!!