Wednesday, December 31, 2008

A different business model!

Yesterday I phoned a local music shop to ask for advice. Someone had made my son an offer on his bass guitar, and I wanted to know if it was a fair price. I explained this to the man who answered the phone. His response was to point out that, "Of course, we would have to charge you for this information."

"Why 'of course'?" I asked.

He was astonished. He explained that he was trying to run a business and he wouldn't be very successful at it if he gave advice free of charge. He assured me that, should I ever meet a freelance consultant and ask them a question, they would charge me for the answer. I responded by thanking him for his time and pointed out that I am just such a freelance consultant and I regularly give advice free of charge. He told me I couldn't expect to survive very long with a business model like that.

My own view is that, if I know of someone who has demonstrated to me (without charge) that they have expertise in a certain area, that I am more likely to go to that person when I want to buy related goods or services.

I give away ideas and advice in several places: discussion forums, community Q&A boards, this blog, Twitter. My hope is that, when someone who has benefitted from one my suggestions is in the market for something that I can offer, they will consider approaching me.

Perhaps I'm being naive. But I prefer the world I live in to the one occupied by the man at the music shop.

Oh, and we accepted the offer on the bass. My son is delighted with the cash injection. The buyer is delighted with his (beautiful) new bass guitar. Everybody wins.

A little trick I picked up today

Today on Twitter, I picked up a useful link from a contact I know only as Documentally (even though we have discovered we live pretty close to one another!). Since my husband has a congenital condition that causes his hands to tremble slightly, his photos tend to be blurry. Modern cameras have built-in technology to overcome that, so in recent years, this has been less of a problem but hand tremors can negate this technology on close-up shots. Documentally's link was to this video showing how you can make a stabiliser for under $1. I'm certainly going to give it a whirl!

Oh, and for those of you who still think that Twitter is not a learning tool... I present exhibit A.

$1 Image Stabilizer For Any Camera - Lose The Tripod - video powered by Metacafe

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

7th things you don’t need to know about me etc.

Hoo boy! Janet Clarey has tagged me with this meme. The trouble is the 'you don't need to know about me' bit is a danger zone for me. I have far too few no go zones in my conversation, and am likely to tell people stuff they neither need nor want to know about me. Especially now that I am working in isolation at home, and am therefore no longer in daily contact with the reining in influence of English colleagues!

Because this is not my first go at a meme of this nature, it's difficult to think of enough appropriate things.

I'll give it my best shot because, as Janet points out, it's a way to flesh out the person behind the blog, but I think I'll chicken out of the tagging seven other people bit... unless you want to have a go. In which case, tag - you're it!

  1. In high school, I was a sprinter - mainly 400m, although I was fairly useful over 200m and usually made the 4X100m relay team
  2. I played Hodel in Fiddler on the Roof many years ago and, my only regret about leaving the theatre world is that I am now unlikely to get to play Golde - a role I would have loved. I'm about the right age now, if anyone is casting - and I know the part well ;o)
  3. There is no limit to the number of times I can watch a favourite movie or read a favourite book
  4. I once had a car accident in which I fractured my skull in five places - I looked liked Rocky! My right eye was paralysed after the accident. The opthalmic surgeon prognosed (if that's a word) that my eyes would never quite work in concert again, and I would suffer double vision for the rest of my life. If you're observant, you can see that my eyes don't quite line up, but I only have double vision on the outer edge of my 3 o' clock to 5 o'clock range. If you ask really nicely, I'll let you run your finger along the jagged upper edge of my right eye socket ;oP
  5. I can't abide the sensation of being drunk, so I simply don't go there. I seldom drink more than a single glass of wine or cider, and I am at a loss as to why anyone would deliberately set out to get drunk
  6. I have been nominated for a Shorty award, even though I still haven't figured out what they are
  7. John and I got engaged 10 days after we met, and were married 9 months after that. It's the only time John has ever acted in haste! He is my complete antithesis, and we should be entirely incompatible. Nevertheless, we have been married for 20 years and are still going strong
So now you know.

The pendulum swings

I have been pondering this Christmas. And this is what I have been pondering about.

You know how I have been banging on about how work-related learning solutions need to be focused on what people need to do in their day jobs, and we need to stop burying them in theoretical head-knowledge?

Well, I'm wondering if the pendulum hasn't swung too far in that direction in some sectors.

I recently spent an evening chatting to a head teacher and her teacher husband. Both are about my age. The head teacher especially was expressing concern about the sort of skills being imparted to trainee teachers at college. According to her, newly qualified teachers (NQTs) and student teachers are all very well versed in a procedural approach to teaching. Almost to the level of say x, then do y, then say z.

She explained how, when she was training, she learnt a lot about how children learn. About how people respond in certain situations. She used this theory to develop an understanding about the sort of conditions that would be conducive to learning and to inform her teaching practice. What she wasn't taught was a great deal of nuts and bolts "how to teach". Her view is that NQTs now come equipped with a great many focused procedural skills, aimed at assessing pupils against the national standards, but little initiative. While they have strategies to deal with situations, they have little understanding of how those situations might have arisen in the first place.

I have seen some of the learning materials aimed at providing CPD to teaching-practitioners, and a large proportion of it would seem to be back her argument: if x and y conditions are true, then proceed as follows, if not, then take this course of action.

In the past, it always seemed to me that work-related learning on offer to existing/qualified practitioners was action-based, whereas the preparatory learning undertaken in the formal sector provided the grounding in the form of underlying theories. Is this approach falling away as we become increasingly wedded to informal learning?

Let it be be said that I am a fan of action-based learning, just-in-time performance support and all the related mechanisms for empowering people to do their jobs without dragging them through a raft of teaching. But I wonder if we aren't getting a little lazy on the theory side. I have railed on about the 'what' and 'how' in the past, pointing out that the 'when' and 'why' are equally important. I wonder if, even in some of our preparatory programmes of study we seem to be overly focussed on the what, when and how and forgetting the why.

Is an excess of 'if this then that' not a return to a form of behaviourism? When every job becomes a box-ticking exercise, who will there be who understands why such-and-such a box has to be ticked? Who will then decide that perhaps such-and-such a box has passed its sell-by date?

This puts me in mind of a (possibly apocryphal) story I heard who knows where, about a business analyst recently brought in to streamline the processes within a long-standing manufacturing company in London.

He looked at the forms that had to be completed at each stage and identified several changes that could be made. On one form, there was a box in which the supervisor of every shift was dutifully entering 'O'. There was a blur next to the box that must once have been legible text, but copies of copies of copies had seen to it that it was now impossible to identify what was so consistently being rated 'O' every day. The man asked several of the supervisors and none could explain what the box represented. All they knew was what they had been told to enter in that box. Much detective work unearthed a box in a warehouse, which contained the original master copies of all the forms in use in the factory. It seemed that, every day, the shift supervisors were dutifully recording that manufacture had been interrupted by zero air raids that day!

If no-one knows why we do a thing, are we not placing ourselves at risk of 'this is the way it's always been done' with no-one having the courage to change something, just in case it turns out to serve some vital purpose with the potential to bring the business to its knees?

Just wondering.

Image acknowledgement: Pendulum by Phillie Casablanca

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Merry Christmas

I know it's only Christmas eve, but I have had to adopt my husband's Scandinavian traditions, which means we will be celebrating Christmas tonight.

My elder son got to set the menu this year, while it was my younger son's turn to do the table decor. My husband will do the roast beast in the kettle barbecue outside (yes - in the winter!) so that I can have all the space in the oven for veg and yorkshire pudding. Everything that can be pre-prepared has been, and I have only one gift left to make (which is giving me no end of a hard time!).

I'll sign off now and see you after the festivities.

I'll drink a toast to you: may this Christmas be a time of glad tidings for us all.

Maybe the year hasn't gone quite as you would have liked (mine certainly hasn't!). Maybe you haven't achieved all you had hoped (me neither). Maybe there have been a few really dark moments along the way (join the club!). Maybe Santa won't bring you exactly what you hoped for.

But look at the faces around the table, or those that you meet in church on Christmas morning; listen to the voices on the phone or out in the street and remember - it isn't about the technology, it isn't even about the learning - it's about the people.

Merry Christmas to you. Thanks for being with me this year.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Singing the Technorati blues

I have been having an awful lot of trouble with Technorati lately and my emails to their support team have been met with a resounding silence. So now I turn to you to find out if anyone knows the solution to my little problem.

According to Technorati this morning, my blog was last pinged two days ago. Fine. However, according to Technorati, my latest post was this one, 17 days ago! All subsequent posts have slipped by unnoticed.

This has happened a few times over the past several months, and the only way I have been able to resolve it has been to get the Technorati team to look into it for me. This time even that doesn't seem to be an option.

And my rating is dropping like a stone into the bargain. I signed up for a Technorati account in order to be able to keep up with conversations in which I have been cited, so the rating issue isn't really important. However, since I had planned to use the information in my dissertation, I would prefer it to be accurate!

If anyone has any suggestions of alternatives to Technorati, in order to be able to keep up with conversations in which I am cited, I'm all ears. I'm fed to the back teeth with having to chase them for a manual update every so often. At the moment, I seem to be limited to the occasional narcissus-search, which means paging through umpteen mentions I already know about.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Why have goalposts at all?

I have a son who is studying PE/sports science in 6th form. He is sports mad and thoroughly enjoys what he learns in these lessons. He even finds the associated theory riveting. In the midst of all the trials the poor child is experiencing, this subject has been the one bright spot. We recently received a letter from the head commending his application and effort and saying that his hard work had been noted at the highest levels in the school. After a spate of negative letters, this was like finding a fresh spring!

The thing is, he seems to be the exception in the class.

When they have a practical lesson, he gives it his all - regardless of the sport being played. This is really driving the rest of the class nuts.

Honestly, B----, why do you have to take it so seriously?
Oh, lighten up!
Why do you have to make a competition out of everything?
It's not always a competition you know!
It's not about winning!

He gets the feeling that is considered mildly indecent to try to win. He was letting off steam about this recently and said two very insightful things:

  1. If it's not about winning, why do we keep score?
  2. If it not a competition, why don't we just get rid of the goalposts, the try line, the finish line?
Is this distaste for competition not perhaps a little dangerous?
  • There may be other contenders for the heart of the love of your life
  • There are bound to be other applicants for the job you want
  • You can almost guarantee that there will be more applicants than spaces for the study programme you want to follow
  • If you don't have goals, how will you assess your progress?
  • If you don't break a sweat from time to time, how will you ever know what you're capable of?
But the thing that worries me most is that the loss of a sense of competition seems inevitably related to drive, energy and enthusiasm in general. As far as I can tell, there is a growing number of people who are so completely disaffected as not to care very much about anything. Their whole lives appear to have become desultory - no other word will suffice. And I see an increasing number of them in some workplaces.

Maybe it's too much of a stretch to lay the blame for this at the door of those dreadful 'sports days' where no spectators are allowed, no-one wins, no-one loses and a bunch of kids aimlessly drift from station to station around a circuit. But I'm willing to bet it doesn't help!

Now I'm not advocating that we encourage our kids to go out there and draw blood in order to win at all costs, but I would like to see them being encouraged to care, to try.

The Scrabulous saga continues

I wish I could take it as a sign that the people of Hasbro read my blog, but this week's PC Pro podcast covers the news that "Scrabble owner Hasbro drops its case against Facebook imitator, Scrabulous." Apparently Scrabulous is a firm favourite in the office at PC Pro, too!

I was quite tickled that this discussion took place on my birthday (yesterday), so that was the day I came to receive this piece of good news. But is it good news? Or is it too late? Now that so much development work has been done on the poor relation, Wordscraper?

I will say this. The first sign I get that Scrabulous is once again on offer via Facebook, I'll be there like white on rice. Are we on, Mr Downes?

Putting the end-user at the centre

The 1 December edition of Time magazine (ironically, the same edition in which this Michael Kinsey essay on the downside of blogging appeared), there is a 10 Questions interview with Magic Johnson.

In the print version, the very first question was "What is the most important business lesson you've learned?" Johnson's response was:

Always make your business about the customer and never about yourself. I learned that when I invested in a sports-paraphernalia store. I was also the buyer, so I bought everything I liked and didn't buy anything that the customers liked. I ended up losing a lot of money because of that.
In the same edition, there is a KBC advert with the strapline "We start from the principle that every client is our only client" - very Jerry Maguire! Note: I had never even heard of KBC before, so I can't say whether they succeed with this ethos!

Few things are guaranteed to send me incandescent with rage as quickly as shoddy customer service.

I am looking for a new mobile phone at the moment (please don't flood me with the pros and cons of the iPhone - I'm not on that kind of budget) and the sales person in the first shop we went to couldn't do enough to assist, even down to bringing out a few handsets for me to play with - all this AFTER he had established that he wasn't going to be able to supply us with a phone because his branch doesn't do business contracts. He helped us settle on one or two to choose from before sending us across the way to the company that could sign us up. My husband (who had been dragged along as my adviser, since my eyes glaze over and my mind clangs shut when they start explaining the contracts) was so impressed that he made what - for him - amounts to a little speech as we left (look - the man's a phlegmatic Swede, what can I tell you?).

Perhaps we could be cynical and say that, with the credit crunch on, the salesman has the time to spare for customers who aren't going to net him a commission, but his whole demeanour was that he wanted me to end up with the phone-and-contract combination that would best suit my preferences and my budget.

The problem is, that the customer we come into contact with is usually he-who-signs-the-cheque or a direct representative. Surely the real customer is he-who-uses-the-learning-resource? We need to find a way to put that person at the centre. It's a tough call, trying to get the commissioning client to set their own demands aside for long enough to see things from the end-user's perspective. Often, they're so busy seeing themselves as your customer, they forget to the end-user as theirs (and therefore, by extension, your ultimate customer).

We need to develop some politely assertive ways of bringing the learner back into focus in all our discussions with the commissioning client, or we could end up learning the lesson that magic Johnson learned.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Fixing what ain't broke

A short while ago, Hasbro forced the removal of a Facebook application called Scrabulous. I made my views known at the time. Since then, we addicts have had to look for other ways to scratch that itch.

There is an online version of Scrabble (not sure if that link will work, since it goes to an app within Facebook), but it's most unsatisfactory. It's clunky. The interface is bleagh. It's not available in the USA and Canada. And it doesn't notify you when it's your turn to play.

The other option is called Wordscraper (once again the link may not work). But things keep changing. First, it was the board layout that was both different and changeable, as a result of which some fairly mediocre words could rack up stupendous scores. There also seems to be an attempt to go all 2.0 on us, since you have the power to design your own board layout. I don't like this bit. I like the rules of a game to be constant, so that I can hone my skills within those constraints. I would hate to head out onto the squash court to find that my opponent has been allowed to redesign the court for the game, and I am faced with a completely different layout from that I am accustomed to playing on.

The distribution of the letters is different, as are the points values of many of the letters. When you have known all your life that there are 12 Es in a game, and that a Q is worth 10 points, it is disconcerting to run out of Es when only nine of them are on the board, and to see your opponent score 12 points for playing a Q.

The most recent change, which has got my most regular opponent and me grinding our teeth is that we suddenly find ourselves faced with racks containing 8 letters, rather than the usual 7. You would think that would open up a whole range of additional possibilities, but we have found otherwise. I have heard snippets of research (which I admit that I have never followed up) that the human mind tends to work well with visual groups of seven. I have no idea if this is the case or if this the reason Scrabble's 7 letter-racks work so well. What I do know, is that, trying to play a 'bingo' (making a word with all the letters on your rack, for a 50-point bonus) with 8 letters is far more difficult than with seven - and I have yet to manage it. We are playing much lower scoring words than usual.

Now, I suspect that the problem here is that the designers of the app are trying to stay one step ahead of a copyright/patent breach. When we're designing learning solutions, what's our excuse? Do we keep changing things, too - just for the sake of making them different, for keeping the user on his/her toes?

Do we have a valid reason for delivering this module in a different format and using different navigation than we used for the last one? If the answer is yes, good on yer! If the answer is 'well um', I'd suggest putting yourself in the user's shoes and revisiting the overhaul. Whose interests are you serving?

Regular readers of this blog know that I am all in favour of changing the way we do things, if we find a more efficient approach, and that I have no patience with 'this is the way it's always been done'. But equally, change just for the sake of change, just to be different, isn't really helpful to anyone.

"I read your blog" and other surprising revelations

In the past few days or so, I have been surprised to discover two regular readers of this blog in unexpected places.

The first was during a game of Wordscraper (more about that, anon) with Stephen Downes. In the chat panel, I referred to a blogpost of mine, which Stephen said he remembered. Remembered? This meant he had read it in the first place! I remarked that it never occurred to me that he was a regular reader. It seems he is - of this and many more blogs than he believes people realise.

Last night, a friend described how moved he had been by the Zander video. I asked how he had come to hear about it only to learn that he, too, is a regular reader of this blog. He said "You'd be surprised how many people read it."

It's humbling to think that my ramblings reach further than I had realised. It's also gratifying to know that the interest in the conversation is ever-extending, that Everyman is well and truly taking the reins of the read/write web.

Stephen's is one of a list of names my kids may still be the only people in their peer groups to know, because they regularly hear me talk about them. But this may change. Because the names on that list crop up quite often on this blog, and because this blog has readers in unexpected places (the friend I mentioned is a financial adviser - totally unrelated to the world of L&D), that list of names is becoming known in new places. And perhaps these non-L&D readers will be challenged/inspired/motivated (pick your verb) to take control of their own learning journeys. So perhaps, one miniscule patch at a time, inconsequential people like me (and you?) will change the face of work-based learning provision.

Go us!

Friday, December 12, 2008

One-buttock learning

Two separate people commented on my recent post with a link to this video. You'll have to watch it to discover what the title of this post means.

I was so touched by Zander's passion I called my beleaguered elder son to come and watch it with me. I wish I could say that the light came on in his eyes, but that would be a gross exaggeration. I have encouraged him to undertake the time travel Zander suggests and write a letter from his future self. He said he'd give it a go. I hated school myself, and was badly suited to its rigours and restrictions, but I have since managed to find the secret to "one-buttock learning".

If I could have one Christmas wish, it would be that my son would unlock that secret, and if it can't apply to learning, that he would at least rediscover his zest for life and all that it has to offer.

Anyone out there in a position to give me the yearning of my heart?

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

For no good reason

Richard Nantel, Dave Ferguson and I (and a few others) have been having a comment-versation about a video of Richard's daughter learning to play the guitar on Facebook.

For no good reason at all, other than a snatch of French lyrics Dave quoted, I was reminded of this song. Several people have done bang-up jobs of covering it, in French and in English (and no doubt in other languages, too) including some friends of mine. But I hope none of them will be offended if I say that no-one captures the undercurrent of quiet desperation quite like Jacques Brel did.

Learning to sing, learning to play an instrument is about more than just producing the right notes in the right order. It is about imbuing those notes with meaning; giving them life; giving them soul. Were it not so, no-one beyond a 5 mile radius of her home would ever have heard of Edith Piaf, for example. She didn't always hit the right note, she was not beautiful and she stood on one spot on the stage. But boy could she wring every ounce of passion out of a song!

Monday, December 08, 2008


I almost forgot to share this picture which I took this morning. Now I know what you're thinking - you're wondering what exotic location I have travelled to (oh, humour me!), when in fact this was view that greeted me from my very own bedroom window when I rolled out of bed this morning.

Yeah, yeah, I know - shepherds' warning and all that. I don't care. I reckon it's a great way to start a day.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Christmas crunch

This Christmas is going to be tough for most of us. To be honest, I find it somewhat distasteful that we mark the occasion of a child born into abject poverty (regardless of whether or not you acknowledge the divinity of said child) by means of excess: too much food, too much alcohol, too much spending.

So perhaps it is no bad thing that we are being forced to tighten our belts this time around. Perhaps it will give us cause to re-examine the way we choose to celebrate Christmas.

With my own fledgling venture into self-employment as yet unproven in terms of providing a steady income, we have made a rule this year: all gifts have to be something you have made, something you will do or, if you're absolutely desperate, something from the 99p shop.

In case you are staring down the barrel of a similarly budget-strapped Christmas, I'd like to share a few ideas. Maybe you'll find something to inspire you.

My younger son is pretty good at coming up with homemade gift ideas for his Dad. Check out this last minute save from Father's Day. He has also used bits and bobs found in the garage to make a key rack to hang behind the front door.
I am pretty good at knitting, so I have been known to knit complicated Kaffe Fassett garments. However, the yarn for these can be rather pricy, so you could scale it down and use remnants to make hats, scarves and mittens/gloves. You might also try your hand at a spot of cross-stitch, glass painting, etc.
Gifts from your kitchen
Every year, I use my mother-in-law's delicious recipe to make almond crunch. You can also make fudge, cakes, biscuits, lollipops (these are dead easy: sugar, water and flavouring!) and so on. If you're any good at making jams and preserves or homemade wine, these can be beautifully wrapped to make lovely gifts. I have one friend who has converted an old filing cabinet into a smoker and uses it to make homemade smoked salmon which she gives as gifts.
Personalised recipe book
Once, many years ago, I was stone broke. My boyfriend at the time was a keen cook. I bought an indexed notebook, covered it in beautiful paper and handwrote in it several of his favourite recipes collected from his friends. Of course, the rest of the space was intended for him to write new recipes discovered on his many evenings eating out in the homes of friends. It took me hours and hours. He absolutely loved it.
Photo collages
It's usually possible to pick up large clip frames for very little. One year I gave my husband a collage of photos of the boys and me for his office. He has reciprocated with photos for my desk, too.
If you're daring
This is for the braver ladies. If you've seen the movie calendar girl, you'll know where I got my inspiration. One year, I colluded with a (female) friend to compile a tasteful girlie calendar for my husband... with me as the girlie. It cost nothing but time and effort. Of course, it was a bit of a double edged sword - he loved the calendar, but wasn't really free to hang it up anywhere where others might see it!
Get intangible
Download the backing track of a special song, record yourself singing it, and then use that as a soundtrack for a photocollage or video, which you could publish on YouTube. You could also create an animoto video using photos that are special to the person. Or how about a collection of photos to be used as a screen saver?
Create a CD of a person's favourite songs, songs that express your feelings for that person, or that mark the milestones of that person's life or your relationship with them. Make a personalised CD label for it. I did this for our last anniversary, for which we had agreed not to spend money on gifts for each other.
If you're any good at writing poetry, you could write one for a person. If you do decent calligraphy, you could write it up and frame it. If not, you can go for the option of printing it out using a suitable font. If you're really prolific, you could write a whole anthology and get it printed and bound.
You could consider making a set of vouchers for someone, which they can redeem against your services in some or other capacity. For example: my older son doesn't much like playing on the XBox any more. My younger son loves it, but he doesn't like playing alone. He's always after his brother to play with him. This year, my older son is giving his little brother ten vouchers each worth an hour of his company on the XBox. Similar vouchers could be made for lawnmowing services, foot massages, carwashing, romantic homecooked dinners, etc... your imagination (and daring) is the only limit.
This is your life
For his 40th birthday, I compiled a 'this is your life' folder for my husband. I collected handwritten anecdotes from friends and relatives around the world. These, together with photos and contributions from me about John in his different roles (son, brother, husband, father, employee, etc.), were collated in a file. On the day of his party, all the cards attached to gifts he received, as well as photos of party were added to the file. He was so tickled with it that, when my own 40th rolled around, he went one step further and had a professional scrapbooker make one up for me. It is one of my most treasured possessions.

Anyone got any other ideas? Let's see if this Christmas our gifts can be personal and meaningful without costing a bomb.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Surely there can be few things more iniquitous?

Today's UK newspapers are almost all leading with stories of the case of Shannon Matthews - possibly because of a Panorama on the subject on TV last night.

When this little girl went missing in February of this year, my heart ached for her mother, Karen. Like many other mothers (and probably several fathers) I was moved to tears by her emotional appeal for the return of her daughter on television, and the constant replay of her call to the emergency services (apologies for the entirely inappropriate advert on the front end - I can do nothing about that!)

As the days passed, I told my husband with grim certainty, "They're going to find a body."

I was wrong.

She was found alive less than a mile from her home 24 days after her disappearance. She had been kept drugged and possibly tethered in the home of a man alleged at the time to be a paedophile. It transpired that he was the uncle of Karen's partner.

When the child was not restored to her home once she had been found, alarm bells began to go off. People who had given of their time and money searching for the missing girl became suspicious that there was more going on that met the eye.

It has now transpired that Karen had been an abusive mother who had arranged to have Shannon kidnapped in a bid to get her hands on some reward money. She had intended for Shannon to be the 'new Maddy'.

Neighbours are feeling betrayed and abused. Some of them went on marches, had T-shirts printed, conducted private searches and held candle-lit vigils with the woman who knew all along exactly where her child was.

This is a betrayal of trust on the most fundamental level. Not the trust of the neighbours. By comparison, that is small fry. The trust of the child.

I am incoherent with rage, for which I apologise. No child asks to be born, and when they are, those who are tasked with a duty of care towards that child need to step up to the oche... or make alternative arrangements. Children are not a means to an end.

One newspaper alleges that Karen Matthews referred to her children as a means to get her hands on 'benefits' (in the UK, parents are provided with a small sum of money each week for each child in their care - in spite of our relative affluence, and my non-native status, even I receive this amount of money each week for my two boys).

In the aftermath of the Shannon Matthews story, much has been made of the issue of the British 'underclasses'. There is a great deal of 'well, what else can you expect from people like that?' in the plethora of YouTube compilations on the subject. To my mind, this is not the point, and it does enormous disservice to those whose circumstances place them in such estates, where they are doing their level best to play the hand they have been dealt and to provide for their families.

My hope is that, in the right caring environment, with adequate counselling, this little girl can overcome this unspeakable betrayal and fulfill her potential in life.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Oh dear, the dreaded annual question!

Learning Circuits' big question for December is rapidly becoming something of a tradition. And like a certain other December tradition, it's one I dread - although for entirely different reasons.

Why do I dread having to tell you what I learned about learning during the course of the year? Because I learn so much, but I don't keep a record of it. My views and my professional progress change imperceptibly with every new post I read, with every online seminar I attend, with every in-the-flesh conference I go to, with every article I read, with every conversation I have with another learning professional, and sometimes even during conversations I have with people who have nothing to do with learning.

So let me give you an analogy. My sister-in-law is a potter. A proper one, with a studio and a wheel and a kiln and everything. When she sits at her wheel, she starts with a lump of clay and ends up with a pot. But ask her how the pot changed during the 17th minute of the process and she won't be able to tell you. By feel, she reacts to the minutiae of the clay and the wheel and and and. The difference is that, before she starts, she knows what the finished product is going to look like. At the start of each year, as I begin to throw another learning pot, I have no idea what it's going to look like at the end. In fact, I can't say I start a new pot every January!

So let me just list a few off-the-top-of-my-head things that have made blips on my radar this year:

  • Cathy Moore's post on action-based learning gave shape to some of my thinking about the point of workplace learning initiatives
  • Sort of related to this, 2008 has been, for me, a year in which two mantras have been 'workplace learning is about change' (although it's not always easy to get the commissioning client on board with this!) and 'what's it for?'
  • I have discovered that I am synaesthetic, which has had a revelatory impact on my understanding of myself and my approach to learning and teaching, and information management in general
  • There are influential people out there who hold the same view as I do about formal education... but that doesn't seem to change anything
  • An increasing number of people are standing up and being counted on the bah humbug side of the learning styles fence... but this doesn't change the almost religious ardour of those on the other side of it
  • Blogging is dangerous and freedom of speech is conditional
  • Academic learning is not the access-all-areas learning space I thought
  • Just-in-time performance support is learning... so there!
That'll do for now, I think.

Daily life in Zimbabwe

This account describes the daily life of Moses Mudzwiti - an ordinary Zimbabwean. If you prefer, you can read it within its original context of The Times newspaper. This, ladies and gentleman, is some people's reality. Aren't you glad you don't have to try to do your job under such circumstances? Hat tip to Jeremy Nell for the link. (Oh, and please note that a 'madam' in southern Africa is not a brothel keeper but the woman who employs domestic staff).

MY days don’t begin because they never end — life in Harare has become one endless chase. Around the clock most of us in Zimbabwe’s capital are chasing after something.

Like my countrymen, I have honed my search-and-find skills. With an ear to the ground, I am ever ready to rush to where it is at. Sometimes my wife, Nyarai, and I make a quick 30km dash just to buy fresh milk.

All it takes is a phone call. There is always something available in limited quantities somewhere. All you have to do is stay on your toes. Ice cream, yoghurt, bread and butter can all be found at reasonable prices if you are connected.

Otherwise, the only other place to buy groceries is the local Spar, where prices are three times the norm elsewhere in the world. Besides, they only accept the rand, British pounds and US dollars.

But lately it’s fresh water we are chasing in Harare.

Nearly every second car has some huge water tank at the back. Even sedans are doing their bit. Everyone seems to be carrying water from one part of town to another.

The other day I hooted at the car in front of me and flagged the driver down. I thought his car was leaking fuel. It turned out it was water dripping from his boot.

Like most of the northern suburbs, Highlands, where I live, has not had a drop of state-provided tap water for more than four months. The taps that are running are fed by boreholes.

Somehow these once serene suburbs have turned into giant villages. Other than the presence of traditional chiefs, most people live exactly the same way they would in rural areas — without electricity and running water.

Many of the former “madams” in suburban Harare collect firewood and cook on open fires, just as their great-grandmothers did.

Regular power cuts have made cooking on an electric stove a distant dream.

Zimbabwean city women have even learnt to carry huge water containers on their heads.

If it wasn’t so awful we would laugh at how the passing years have turned back the hands of time. The lack of water has exacerbated the devastating cholera outbreak, which has killed more than 400 people in just a month.

Just like in the movie Hotel Rwanda, we have turned our swimming pool into a water reservoir.

In the movie, desperate people sought refuge at a hotel during Rwanda’s genocide. They ended up using water from the swimming pool when their taps ran dry.

The water crisis in Zimbabwe has taught us to control our bowels more effectively as well. Otherwise, one has to make countless trips to the swimming pool to fetch water with a bucket.

As for bathing habits, anything goes. From using the same bath water more than once to cleaning up with a moist towel. After all, we can’t give up the only one we have left — dignity comes with personal hygiene.

Like many Zimbabweans, my family and I have learnt to cope with our miserable existence. We cannot even afford to sleep.

The power generally comes back in the night, so most chores have to be done then.

Simple things like checking e- mails and watching television are major achievements when completed successfully.

I cannot remember the last time I watched a football match to the end because invariably, the power cuts out at some point.

When I first arrived from South Africa in the middle of the year, I thought my PC had packed up because it kept switching off.

The lights were turned on, but when my wife couldn’t get her expensive microwave oven to function we knew the power supply was dodgy.

Sometimes the electricity voltage supplied is so, low electric bulbs remain dim.

The later it is, the stronger the current, which is why Nyarai does her laundry and baking late at night.

Though we have a state-of-the- art generator, fuel is too expensive for us to be able to afford constant use. At R10 a litre, petrol is certainly not cheap.

The only liquid that has enjoyed an astronomical rise in price in Harare is water. A woman in Southerton, another suburb, was this week doing brisk business selling water for R2 a litre.

Our family borehole, which only works with electricity, has become the centre of our survival.

At night we fill up containers and distribute water to our many less fortunate relatives.

Now and again we also have relatives coming over to have a bath.

Our dinner conversations inevitably steer towards how badly President Robert Mugabe’ s government is running Zimbabwe.

Many times we reminisce how “Zimbabwe ruined Rhodesia”.

Luckily for now, we can still have dinner and a glass of water after.

Jus becuz

I'm a long time lolcats fan. Today I learned that there are loldogs, too! Just thought I'd share the first one that genuinely made me lol:
see more puppies

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Eddies: don't forget to vote!

The Edublog awards 2008 nominations are up and you can swing by and vote for the blogs of your choice in each of the 16 categories.

And no, this blog isn't nominated, so I don't have an ulterior motive for steering you towards the polling booth ;o)

Is it time for Car 2.0?

I recently had a few problems with my car. They were problems of the sort that could have got me killed. I'd be bowling along the motorway at 70mph (national speed limit in the UK), when the car would suddenly die. An alarm would sound, lights would flash and the display panel would instruct me to stop (like I had a choice!) because of a fault with the emission levels.

When you're in heavy traffic, in the fast lane, with a dead car, you have no way of getting across the traffic to the safety of the hard shoulder.

So I did what you do. I took it in.

The service folks ran a diagnostic check on it. This basically involves attaching the car's on-board computer to a diagnostic computer so that the car can tell them what's wrong with it. Then they kept it for several days before getting around to fix it. Apparently it had developed a software fault and had needed an upgrade.

And I thought "Why can't I do that?"

Haven't we reached the point where we should be able to do this kind of stuff? We carry out software upgrades and install service packs on our computers. Why not our cars?

In the so called 'good ol' days', I would nip down to the local supplier, pick up a service pack for my make and model of car and then get stuck in changing plugs, points and condenser. I could change the filters faster than I could fry an egg, and, as long as I could get someone with the requisite upper body strength to loosen the sump nut, I could do an oil change, too.

Nowadays, I'm told that some models don't even have a bonnet (hood) that can be opened without a special key issued to accredited service professionals.

An erstwhile colleague of mine once told me that his brand new, swanky car developed a problem of some sort. He stormed into the dealers to give them a piece of his mind. The lady at the reception desk asked for his key, which she plugged into a computer on her desk (presumably a version of the diagnostic machine my guys were talking about) and told him exactly what was wrong with the car and what they would do to remedy it.

So this is what I reckon. In the old days I referred to above, if you had a rough idea of how your car worked, you saved yourself a fortune. If you didn't, you took it in to the shop and got royally ripped off. They told you the overhead swivel shaft was bent, the splashfeet wipers needed to be replaced and the allynyumnyum tank had sprung a leak. You nodded sagely and wrote out a cheque.

The current arrangement must surely be placing us at risk of the same unscrupulous operators. With the on-board computer as off-limits as the pre-Gutenberg Bible, we're at the mercy of the high priests of car maintenance.

If the data can be stored on a key, why can't we plug the key into our own computers, connect to the manufacturer's website and run our own diagnostic check? If what the car needs is a software upgrade, why can't we download that directly to the key and then upload it to the car via the ignition? Or, better yet, why can't we interface directly with the on-board computer, connect to the manufacturer via a wireless network and download what is needed directly to the car?

Sure, we have to bear in mind that we entrust the safety of our families to these vehicles, but we did that when we bundled them into a car on which we had changed the wheels, set the timing and replaced the carburettor.

Am I being over-ambitious? I put this to my husband, and he spouted all sorts of stuff about liability and data security and stuff, but I'm probably not clever enough to be convinced. If they can figure out a way for us to download a patch to the machine that runs our business and therefore represents our livelihood, surely those issues can be addressed?


The war on AIDS

I have a young friend in South Africa whom I have known since he was a little boy. He is now permanently bemused to find himself one of that country's top cartoonists.

I subscribe to his feed for my daily dose of his particular brand of humour. I have often been tempted to link to one of his strips on this blog, but have realised that the humour is embedded in the South African-ness of the situation and may be completely meaningless to an external audience.

However, Jeremy recently brought a close to the most locally branded strip and replaced it with one with a broader appeal (and, as a sad but inevitable consequence, considerably less bite). He also has a single panel current affairs commentary type cartoon in one of the country's English language newspapers.

His two daily cartoon strips form the backbone of his blog, although he does also write other posts (in which he reveals that the little boy I used to know remains very near to the surface).

Like all good cartoonists, Jeremy is more than just a print version of a comedian. Today's cartoon from The Times makes reference to the declaration by the the deputy chair of the South African National Aids Council that "the war (on AIDS) is over".

Monday, December 01, 2008

Smart boys, bad grades: tips for parents

Picking up on my anguish, with his ever-sympathetic eye, Harold Jarche sent me a link to this site, which addresses the issue of bright boys whose scholastic results don't reflect this.

I homed in on the section titled 'Tips for parents', which I'd like to reproduce here, verbatim, for the benefit of other parents in similar situations, with a thinking out loud reaction to each:

  1. Ask your boy, “How was your day?” Do it every day, and of course listen to his response. If you get too short a response for two days in a row, ask a follow up question. Do not always inquire about homework or school as the only area of concern.
    Check. I do this every day in the car on the way home, and at various other moments when the context is right.
  2. Every day, tell your boy, “You are a good kid.”
    Check. Several times a day. Together with "I'm proud of you, you know."
  3. Allow and encourage computer work. Instead of saying “playing on the computer” ask your boy “what are you working on your computer.”
    Check. Except my son appears to have developed an addiction to a particular game and times supposedly allocated to work often wind up being spent in the game instead. We're pretty flexible on the subject of Internet access, social media and computer usage in general, but we've had to put a ban on this game - it was taking up every waking moment!
  4. Minimize punishment for behavior that does not hurt others.
    Check. But we also point out how it might hurt him. At 17, he needs to start swallowing the 'big boy pill' and facing up to reality.
  5. Give him $10. Immediate, unexpected reward is great reinforcement.
    No. No. And thrice no. I will not bribe my children to produce what they're perfectly capable of. If he's not prepared to do something because it's important to him, bribery isn't going to change that, and it will send him all the wrong messages.
  6. Advocate for your boy. It is important for your boy to know you are supportive and willing to help.
    Check. But he must not abuse this knowledge. When he has misrepresented the situation to me and I am left defending a position on a false premise, I become incandescent. I will not tolerate dissembling. My view is that when you screw up, you man up.
  7. Talk to teachers. Engage with teachers as often as you need to.
    Check. And this isn't always easy.
  8. Talk to your doctor, and get a second opinion if you feel it is warranted, on medicine. This is not medical advice, nor advocating medicine.
    Ha! On the NHS? Don't make me laugh.
  9. Guys are critical. Dads, older brothers, male supervisors at work, help your boy have a male role model. Guys don’t need to do a lot, they just need to do and say a little and it goes a long ways. Talk to your husband/companion about a few positive things to do or say. Explain the ‘deal’ with boys (neurology).
    Hmm. This point seems to presuppose that only mothers are reading this article. Interesting. My husband is pretty good at this - it is something for which he been commended on many occasions by other dads.
  10. Explore alternatives to your current school. Not every situation is right for everyone. Explore other public schools, virtual schools, home schooling, tutoring.
    Worth considering. Sadly, a virtual school would require a higher level of self-discipline than he possesses, home schooling is out, since I work and tutoring is very pricy. Nevertheless, it is an option we're considering. We might also have to consider another school. The school he attends at the moment is very highly regarded, but he just doesn't seem to be a very good fit with its ethos. This is not a new scenario to me. In fact, it takes me back 30 years to my own high school years!
  11. Talk to school counselors. If you get a good school counselor, use her or him when you need to. They can be a positive help in working with teachers.
    Good point. Need to get on this right away.
  12. Ask about modifications. Changing a teacher, course subject, day or time. Just as your boy has a certain learning style, a teacher has a given teaching style. Not every teacher can respond to every student. So see if you have options.
    Sadly, this is not an option. I say sadly, because there is at least one teacher who has pigeonholed my son in the 'naughty boy' slot and will not acknowledge anything he does at all.
  13. Talk to other parents. It helps.
    Check. But I find other parents in this school are totally married to traditional mores. I find parents in the blogosphere far more informed and helpful.
  14. Let your boy know what is up with Smart Boys, Bad Grades. It’s not an excuse, but it is a reality. Go with your hunch. As a parent, you know the most about your boy.
    Check. He also knows that my own grades in high school were little better than mediocre, even though much was expected of me. He knows that school isn't his last shot at it, but he also knows that later shots at it will be undertaken under far less conducive circumstances. It's tough trying to get your degree while earning a living and raising a family - ask me, I know!
The site also includes a 'tips for teachers' section. Any suggestions as to how I might persuade his teachers to visit?

Human talent is often buried deep

This is a direct quote from this keynote speech by Sir Ken Robinson to the recent iNet Conference.

He draws the comparison with valued natural resources buried deep in the ground, requiring skill and effort in their extraction.

He relates the story that Paul McCartney and George Harrison were in the same music class in high school and were both regarded as being without musical talent - and they hated music lessons. As he puts it - there was this music teacher with half The Beatles in his class... and he missed it!

After what I have recently been through with my son, I felt enormously encouraged. I don't always agree with everything he has to say, but I find myself torn between relief that someone has such clarity of vision... and gets to express it in spaces with wide exposure, and frustration that nothing seems to be changing.

Save the springbok

Today has been declared 'save the springbok' day in South Africa. There are moves afoot to do away with the springbok emblem for the national rugby team.

There are those who see it as symbolic of a racist regime, and want it abolished.

There are those - Nelson Mandela among them - who see it as the symbol of the national rugby team, current holders (for the second time) of the world cup - regardless of the colour of the faces of the players.

Supporters of the emblem are wearing springbok paraphernalia today.

Guess which camp I belong to!