Friday, January 28, 2011

Learning Technologies 2011: initial reactions

I have a semi-official job to do in respect of the recent Learning Technologies conference in that I have to collate the Twitter stream and the various blog posts into some kind of coherent report. It is going to be a fairly immersive task and I realise that it will change my perception of the event. So I have decided to set down my own, utterly subjective view of things before that happens.

As always, I noticed a significant disconnect between the conference upstairs and the exhibition downstairs. As someone put it during the post-event reflection yesterday evening: "the thought leaders are upstairs, looking at the future, while the vendors are downstairs, selling the past". Upstairs, people were saying 'content is a tyrant,' 'social is the way forward' and 'the LMS is dead', while downstairs, people were saying 'content is king' and (as Jane Bozarth put it) 'we've added social to our LMS'. Of course, the vendors will sell what the buyers want to buy. And the buyers don't know what they don't know, so they go with what they (think they) do know. Attending the free exhibition does not expose them to the messages coming out of the conference, which has a fairly significant price tag. I am increasingly convinced that we need to find a way to get the conference message to the exhibition attendees and will be putting some ideas forward to the organisers.

There were two themes that came out of the conference for me, both of which aligned with where my own head has been for a while.

Firstly, and fairly overwhelmingly, was the message that the value of failure has been hugely underestimated. We all know that we learn more from failure than from success. In fact, I paraphrased the key message of one speaker as 'the fear of failure is the enemy of success'. The problem is that L&D departments have been told that the whole point of us is that we are supposed to make sure that nobody fails. Ever. And when people do fail, we just know for a fact that it's going to be our fault, right? And some of us have only gone and believed this message. And so we've decided that we need to produce numbers to show what a difference we're making. And SCORM tracking to show that we did train them, but if they want to be stubborn/stupid/clumsy, well it's hardly our fault, now is it?

If people are punished for failing, the fear of failing will prevent them from 'having a go', from being creative, from exploring alternatives. I overheard one person saying that within Virgin, people are rewarded for having ideas and making suggestions...whether they work or not. Now that sort of culture engenders creativity. When people aren't afraid of, of.... and you know what? This is where my vocabulary leaves me in the lurch. What is it that follows failure in a culture that doesn't tolerate it? Do you get fired? Do you get laughed at? Do you get passed over for promotion or a salary increase? Well, whatever it is, it is clear that it needs to stop. People need to be encouraged to be brave, to be creative, to use their own initiative. Because it is these attitudes that will bring the results.

It is also these attitudes that are essential for an effective implementation of the other key theme, namely embedded learning. Increasingly, we are seeing people looking at ways to take the water to the horse, of putting the support where the people are. Mobile learning and social learning tools are part of the way that this can happen. They are the tools that help Joe Bloggs to go from the moment we call 'identifying a learning need' (and he calls 'oh hell, I can't remember how to do this') to finding a solution then and there, implementing it, and getting on with his life.

Picking up on the contrast between our name for that moment and Joe's name for it, another, less strident theme for me was speaking the language of the business. L&D needs to be aligned to the organisational business goals and express itself in those terms to the SMT/board. Intead of going in there half cocked with words like social learning and connectivism and twitter and all that malarkey, further convincing the decision makers that we are from some other breed who have no strategic advice to offer, we need to be expressing ourselves in terms of performance indicators and increased productivity and improved efficiency and such.

No doubt other bloggers will add their perceptions of both the conference and the exhibition, and I look forward to reading those. If you're one of them, please use the #lt11uk tag so that I can find yours.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The off-side rule

I recently had a rather public run-in with an old school friend. She had posted a photograph on Facebook of a mother and child behaving in a way that most of us would find socially inappropriate. But the exchange of comments on the photograph offended me far more than the subject matter of the photograph. The implication was that, as members of a different racial group, these people were in fact, subhuman, which explained the behaviour. I guess I realised that some people still held onto those archaic, offensive and unfounded views, but I was surprised to find them among relatively intelligent people. People I thought I knew. And stated publicly, to boot.

I expressed my objection. My son asked me why I didn't just leave it and 'walk away', but what you tolerate, you endorse, I reckon. I have since walked away, but I simply had to make an opposing view heard first. I thought I was being the voice of something closer to reason, but I was advised by the old school friend that I was making a fool of myself, and indeed, much mockery of me ensued, including invitations to try to live with people who behaved in this way.

Then we find ourselves dealing with outdated sexist remarks about female officials in sporting contests. The online discussions abound, ranging from shoulder shrugging, to outspoken objection from women to 'how can you judge an offside from the kitchen' (I kid you not).

The original comments were actually rather laughable in the light of the fact that the English women's football team enjoys far greater success than their male counterparts. The women's rugby and cricket teams have also shown themselves to be forces to be reckoned with.

When I posted a link on my Facebook page to the newspaper article linked to above, one Facebook friend mentioned his own objection to a current advertisement from Boots. The ad shows two women with streaming colds meeting in the street. They update each other on their incredibly hectic schedules and then one explains that she's just had to pop out and get some medicine for her husband who is in bed with a cold, poor thing. They part company on this note. Back to their superwoman routines. It seems this advert may have gone one step too far for male viewers, and I can't say I blame them.

The campaign started a few years back with the theme tune 'Here Come the Girls' and it took a humorous look at the different approaches of the two genders to things like the office 'secret Santa' and Christmas party. Now that it has spread into life in general, and the men aren't being painted in a very flattering light. I guess Boots has identified that their customer demographic is overwhelmingly female and has decided to play to that.

This is what has been called 'reverse discrimination' (which is in itself a discriminatory term, in my view). And it helps nobody's cause. Having been subjected to discrimination for so very long, one would hope that people would not subject others to treatment they found unpleasant. But it seems we have a long way to go before we acquire the sort of grace shown by Nelson Mandela on his release from prison and his appointment as President.

I guess we're still off-side. We still have a lot to learn.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Psychomotor learning

Yesterday afternoon, I spent a freezing hour and some change on the side of a very muddy rugby pitch watching my son's team take on the team with the worst reputation for dirty play in the league. It was a good, hard game which threatened to spill over into violence a few times but never quite did.

I was struck by a few things about the learning involved in a psychomotor activity like playing a sport.

There is unavoidably a fair amount of behaviourist learning that goes on. Twice a week the team practices for a couple of hours. Over and over and over again, they practice the drills. Pass this way, kick that way, tackle this way, lay the ball off that way. Again. No, not like that. Like this. Again. Better. Once more. Now you're getting it. Again.

And last week, my son enjoyed the fruits of this kind of learning when he scored his first try. He was running down the left wing, following their outside centre (who is one of the most gifted young players I have ever seen). Alex had the ball and was running, whippet-like for the try line. My son was exactly where he should be. Alex got tackled. The ball popped up and my son picked it up beautifully and dotted the ball down for a try.

Torv's perfect take

He was in the right place at the right time and, thanks to the drills, he did the right thing. He told me afterwards how it 'all just came together'. He had been prepared for exactly this eventuality. He saw the point and the benefits of the drills and will work at them all the harder now.

He believes.

Yesterday, I was chatting on the side line to one of the coaches (the father of the prodigy, Alex), who pointed out that my son needed to develop his skills at 'looking for work'. I explained that he had come rather late to the game of rugby, and was still learning the ropes. The fact that he makes the team with gaps in his knowledge is testimony to the fact that he has a lot of raw talent, but it needs to be developed. The coach promised to help him in this area and offered to get his son on the case as well.

Shortly thereafter, he stepped up to the line and yelled to my son, who was close by "Torv! Look for the inside ball." Torv looked for the inside ball. A little while later, he could see that the other team was preparing to kick the ball out to touch right where my son was standing on the left wing. In these situations, there is the possibility that the winger could hoick the ball out of the air and start a run for the try line. André yelled, "Torv! Get ready for the kick!" Torv got ready for the kick.

Because he really wants to improve, and because he has high regard for the coaching he gets, Torv responded to this touchline guidance.

And my face lit up like a beacon.

All that coaching, all those drills? That's the 'just in case' learning that you have to have in place in a psychomotor situation. But those calls from the touch line? That's 'just in time'. That's embedded learning, that is. That's learning while doing.

And it works.

What a happy geek I was: on a Sunday afternoon, watching my 17 year old son and his friends demonstrating the outcomes of two different approaches to learning and taking a 20:15 victory in the process.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Learning about learning through cooking with children

I recently started a cookery blog, the reasons for which are explained on the blog itself, should you be interested. Obviously cooking is about cooking and learning is about learning. So it's easy to keep the two blogs separate. Unlike with my two Twitter accounts (one professional, one personal), I am unlikely to find myself double posting something in both places.

However, a friend of mine recently asked me to post recipes that would be possible for her to make with her children. This prompted a post on my cookery blog - the first non-recipe post - that would almost do just as well on this one. In fact, I have almost certainly mentioned some of its content here before.

The core of the matter is that, when my children were little, they used to act up in the supermarket during the weekly shop. Yup. Just like anyone else's. And I hit on this idea to keep them from getting bored. Each week, each child was given a £5 budget to buy the ingredients for a meal for the family. They then had to make this meal one evening. They were allowed to ask for as much assistance and advice as they liked, and I handled anything hot or sharp, under their direction.

When talking to parents about cooking with kids, I always remind them of two things:

  1. There will be mess. Lots of mess. Accept that and deal with it...afterwards
  2. They won't do things as quickly or as well as you could. Get over it. Don't be tempted to take over from them. They will learn far more from doing it imperfectly themselves than from watching you do it brilliantly.
And you know, this is true of just about any learning experience, regardless of the age of the learner. The first time around is almost inevitably going to be messy. If the goal of the experience is only a nicely turned out whatever-it-is, then the mentor/teacher/guide/manager/whoever is going to want desperately to step in and make it pretty, make it right.

But I'd suggest that's a short-sighted goal.

Next time, you want the learner to be able to do more on his/her own, surely? You want to be able to step gradually backwards until the point comes when you can quietly step out of the picture altogether on that particular recipe/task and know that it will be done as it should, with the added personal flair of the individual who now owns the task.

And let's notice, too, that I didn't take my kids to a different room two days before and talk them through how the dish was going to be prepared. I didn't even demonstrate it for them. We did it together. In real time. And some of the results were disastrous. But that's okay... because we all learnt as much from them as we did from the successful meals. Maybe more. Probably more.

Some of the disasters cost us money. That is inevitable. But the £5 budget wasn't for the meal. It was for engaging my kids. It was for providing them with the opportunity to achieve something. To do something that was a real contribution to the day to day business of the family. And it was cheap at the price.

The sense of accomplishment each child had as the family sat down to a meal he had prepared, was priceless. And, of course, they had to explain to Dad exactly how it had been done, because, of course, he was desperate to know. And, of course, Mom's contribution was talked down and their own was talked up. Which is as it should be.

Learning isn't something that happens in a classroom. It is something that - like life - happens while we're making other plans. All. The. Time.

But we have to prepared for the mess. We have to be prepared for imperfection the first few times.

We have to get over ourselves.

We also have to realise that it isn't enough to just speak a thing and expect it to have results. On which note, I'd like to steer you towards this post by the Goldsmiths.

Monday, January 17, 2011

On measuring empathy

The second episode of The Brain: A Secret History explores the issue of emotions: what they are, what role they play, etc.

It was interesting to note the conclusion that even 'rational' decisions are based upon emotional response, and that our ability to rationalise is impaired when we lose the ability to feel emotional responses.

But I was particularly interested in the area of empathy. Probably because I have a tendency to feel the emotions of others so powerfully, that it can have a disruptive effect on my own life. Michael Mosley was tested for empathy and found to be far from as empathetic as he had believed. But I would question the results of the test, and here's why.

The test involved exposing Mosley to a series of video clips of people being subjected to mild-to-moderate pain experiences (mainly being pinched on the back of the hand), and then being subjected to a comparable experience himself (he was smacked on the back of the hand with a ruler). His brain activity was measured during both activities and then compared. To what extent was the brain activity of his own pain replicated when he witnessed someone else's pain?

One major flaw in the experiment for me is the following: during the video clips, he did not seem to be shown the faces of the people being hurt. Just the physical act of the pinch. If empathy is about emotion, I suspect the replication sought would be more obvious if the subject were to see the manifestation of pain on the faces of the filmed subjects.

Furthermore, if empathy is about emotion, it is far more likely that an empathetic response would be exhibited when observing a subject experiencing emotional, rather than physical anguish. While I don't think I'd be terribly impressed to see one person pinch another, I can be utterly incapacitated by someone else's emotional trauma. The episode began with Mosley climbing into a small, dark, underground space, where he experienced genuine fear. I found my own heart rate and anxiety to be significantly elevated while watching him.

Of course, the tricky part here is that in order to assess the level of empathy, the subject has to observe someone else in emotional distress, and then be subjected to emotional distress him/herself.

This brings an issue of ethics into the story. One can hardly publicly humiliate people or give them news of a fictitious bereavement in the name of science. But perhaps it would be possible to ask for volunteers to enter the 'fear cave' after watching others do so. Perhaps one might also be able to establish a benchmark of the brain areas activated after a bereavement, and then to record brain activity of people watching someone who has been bereaved. It would be difficult, but surely not impossible to obtain suitable data and material without being unethical.

Just wondering....

Friday, January 14, 2011

On academy status

I'm not going to pretend to be an expert on this subject. Quite the contrary, in fact! But my son's school is in the process of considering Academy status, and they're currently holding meetings with parents who want to learn more. I confess that, since my son is already in sixth form, I feel somewhat remote from the whole business and haven't given it too much thought. However, for parents with kids lower down the school, there are a lot of questions - particularly in the light of the fact that ours is a faith school.

I came across these materials on which I thought might shed some light for teachers and parents at schools considering going down this route.

I have heard positive reports from struggling schools that have switched to this model. But I have no idea what happens in the case of schools that are not struggling. I guess only time will tell. And my inner cynic (yes, even I have one) tells me that we will encounter problems no-one has thought of or catered for beforehand, some of which may prove to be showstoppers.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Your very first conference?

I have been chatting to Don Taylor about the upcoming Learning Technologies conference. Via the wonder that is Twitter, I have discovered that some of my tweeps are coming along to what will be their very first conference and they're feeling a little apprehensive.

Of course, screeds of stuff has been written about conferences and how to make the most of them and and and, so this is just me adding my twopen'orth.

So many of us attend online events these days, even if it's just a tweetchat. So we've grown accustomed to swooping in for the designated hour or two and swooping back out again to return to life-as-usual (which may even involve going back to bed, if the time difference was unkind). Since the technology exists to attend conferences online, I would suggest that it is very important to home in on the value-added of a face to face event, and capitalise heavily on that.

You can attend presentations in an online conference. You can take part in the group-wide back channel text chat. Sometimes, you can fire off a private message to an individual attendee (depending on the platform being used and what the moderators are doing with it). You can raise questions.

But now you're travelling a few miles, or a few hundred miles. As well as your travel costs, you may be running up a travel and subsistence bill. You are also (if it isn't too indelicate of me to point it out) increasing your carbon footprint. So, I suggest, you put in a little effort to make it a worthwhile exercise.

So what can't you do (readily) online?

During/after sessions

  • Introduce yourself to the people who sit on either side of you. Exchange business cards/v cards.
  • Go up and introduce yourself to the speaker.
  • Take note of the person who asks the question/shares the anecdote that resonates with you, and go and exchange business cards/v cards at the end of the session.
  • Participate in the small group discussions. Don't deprive the rest of the group of your perspective - you might just provide someone's lightbulb moment.
  • Ask questions/make observations. While you can do this online, my experience is that people are more reluctant to take the mike, and will make almost exclusive use of the back channel (although some find that distracting and disable it)
Use breaks/evenings to
  • Put faces to names. Discover that the person you consider lofty and exalted is just human.
  • Get eyeball to eyeball with the person/people with whom you've had a long running exchange of views online... or the person you've been following from afar (don't be shy, you may never get another chance).
  • Hole up in a corner with a few people who face similar challenges to your own.
  • Have a tweet up.
  • Introduce yourself to presenters of sessions you're not attending. There is usually a speakers' room, so if they have work to do, they'll take refuge there - if they're in the common area, they're fair game. ;o)
  • Go out for lunch with someone who can serve as a sounding board for your latest wacky idea.
  • Take a stroll around the exhibition (if the conference coincides with one).
  • Take in local sights - especially if you've travelled abroad - preferably with someone local.
I'm sure there are several more things you can do. But those are my 'starters for 10'. And if you're coming to Learning Technologies, come and find me and say hello!

Friday, January 07, 2011

A formative learning experience

A post bubbling out from today's earlier offering.

My mother was a bookworm. She was also a single, working parent from fairly early on. The education model in which I found myself during the earlier years of my school life involved a great deal of independent, investigative learning. Since it was a logistical nightmare to get me to the library to access reference books, my mother set about creating a reference section in our home library. This involved purchasing a set of encyclopaedia (World Book of Knowledge, if I remember correctly, since anything more upmarket was out of her reach), various text books and - joy of joys to my little heart - the Time Life Nature series.

From the age of about 7 or 8, I pored over those editions. I forget which one it was that explored things like colour blindness, dwarfism/gigantism and psychology (I think it was Evolution), but that was my absolute favourite. It literally fell apart from use. And I wanted to know more. I regularly hauled it out and subjected my poor mother to my own theories about the content, as well as myriad questions.

When I started studying learning theory as an adult, I found I already knew about Pavlov and Skinner. I had read and reread about them in my precious Time Life books. When I shared this with my lecturer, I was informed, with raised eyebrows, that I must have been a most precocious child.

I don't remember that being the case at all. I just remember being fascinated.

One of the experiments that featured in the book was Harry Harlow's work with baby Rhesus monkeys. These were taken away from their mothers and placed in enclosures where they had a choice between terry cloth or wire frame 'mother'. In one group, the wire mother was fitted with a milk bottle. In the other, it was the terry mother that was thus equipped. Without fail the monkeys preferred the covered option, even when it offered them no food. I remember reading the conclusion about the preference for a tactile experience and wondering whether the monkeys perhaps preferred the covered version because it offered them a hiding place of sorts, rather than because it was more cuddly.

It's very frustrating to be 8 and have no-one to ask about such things. But I remember wanting to know. I remember that drive. That endless exploration of a series of books which constitutes a landmark in my learning experience, and experience which carries on to this day.

How thrilled I was to find several photographs of the Time Life Nature series... with Evolution in every single one!

The secret history of the brain

For those who are in a position to access BBC programmes, either in real time, or on iPlayer, I would like to recommend that you catch BBC4's The Brain: A Secret History. It is a documentary about the history of experimental psychology, and the first of three episodes ran last night at 9pm GMT.

As I had expected, it was simultaneously enlightening and deeply disturbing. There was coverage, including direct video footage of several of the experiments we've read about or studied: Pavlov, Skinner, Milgram et al.

The cruelty to animals and the breathtaking lack of concern for people's human rights beggars belief, as always; and the views expressed by some of the experimental researchers in their heyday fills me with impotent rage. At one point, my husband had to leave the room. I think I might have followed if this were my first exposure to the concepts. As it is, my exposure to the work of the likes of Pavlov and Skinner dates back to the Time Life Library series which my mother acquired when I was about 7 or 8, and the issue that addressed this subject was one I returned to so many times that it eventually fell to bits.

I was an by the time I first heard of Stanley Milgram and his eponymous experiment. My very first reaction was to ask whether the naieve subjects were given counselling afterwards to help them cope with the revelation of what they were prepared to do to another human being. I mean: how do you make peace with such knowledge about yourself? Last night's episode included an interview with one of the few surviving subjects, and it was plain that the man is still traumatised, nearly 50 years later! There are times when one doesn't want to be vindicated. For me, this was one of them.

Coverage of electroshock therapy included a case study of one young woman institutionalised for brain reconditioning by her mother because of arguments about a new boyfriend. This involved interviews with the (now much older) woman herself... well, suffice to say I was seething. Nevertheless, it is heartening to see that the human mind is more resilient than expected.

The show is presented by psychiatrist Michael Mosley, who at one point takes a hallucinogen as part of the programme. His passion for his subject is infectious, although I might be the wrong person to make that call, since I had a pre-existing fascination with the subject.

Did anyone else catch it? What were your views?

Thursday, January 06, 2011

On living the one-buttock life

If you're a regular reader, and you have an ounce of insight into human character, you will have surmised that I am going through a rather discouraging period, right now. And being who I am, my lows can get pretty low...after all, my highs are somewhat stellar.

Knowing this about myself, I have had to learn over the years to take myself in hand, to put myself in the path of waves of inspiration, instead of wallowing in the Slough of Despond, as I am often tempted to do.

Sadly, one can learn some rather hard lessons about people when the going gets tough. Where one expects to find a 'Barnabus' (an encourager), one sometimes finds an accuser, or a lecturer... which is no help at all, you can take my word on this! Sometimes, even the Barnabuses have a grace period: when the solutions they have suggested, or the advice they have given, or the succour they have offered yields no change, they move on, unable to bring themselves to stick around for the long haul when things don't turn out as they expect.

One of the places I can usually find something to lift me, is TED talks. Yesterday, I was reminded of this one by Benjamin Zander, and I have been immersing myself in Zanderness ever since. I have been tracking down everything of his that I can find.

I find myself affirmed in the passion with which I approach my life. I am compelled to acknowledge that the heart on a sleeve must inevitably take more knocks than the guarded heart. But I remember that I do not do what I do because of what it will or won't mean to my own heart, but because, as Zander puts it in this and other clips:

  • Our job is to awaken possibility in other people. Who are you being that your people's eyes aren't shining?
  • We are about contribution. That's what our job is. It's not about impressing people.
  • The voice that says "No," is actually not very interesting.
  • In contribution, there is no 'better' and that is all.
Zander says on his website:
The best review I ever got was not from a music critic, but from my father. He was 94 years old at the time and completely blind. He attended a Master Class I gave in London and sat there in his wheelchair for about three hours. When it was over, I went to speak with him. He lifted up his finger in his characteristic way and said, "I see that you are actually a member of the healing profession." It seemed to me the highest accolade.
I agree. These are the accolades that I long for. And - bless all your lovely hearts - I get a few that bear some resemblance. The tragic reality is that I can't take the good will and the encouragement that so bouys me to the bank. But, at a time when I find myself inclined, out of desperation, to make compromises in order to pay the mortgage, Zander reminds me that I am already doing my job. Like so many of the other worthwhile jobs I do (wife, mother, local community member), it doesn't come with a salary cheque. But, also like those other jobs, perhaps it can co-exist alongside one that does. Let's hope so, because I am simply not designed to lead a two-buttock existence!

This is the man who gives all his students an A at the start of the year, on the condition that they write him a letter as if from the end of the year, that begins "I got an A because...." describing the person they could and would become if only their enxiety and the little voices that say "No" didn't get in the way. How's that for a radical and empowering approach?

There is just so much I could say about Benjamin Zander, but you have access via your search engine to all the very same materials I have watched and read over the past 48 hours, and, because you're in a different space from me, perhaps you might find inspiration in bits I didn't even notice. But I encourage you to carve out a little moment of Zander-immersion for yourself today - especially if you're a discouraged member of the learning profession.

Let me know how that goes...

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Personalised leader boards

When I was 10 years old, I started at a new school. It was in a different province from my previous school, and therefore subject to a different local authority.

All the new standard fours (grade sixes) gathered together. The three teachers had decided on their own method of splitting us up among themselves. They placed us in order of average percentage from the previous year's exams and then counted us off: 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3....

All the 1s went with Mr W, all the 2s with Mr S, and all the 3s with Mr K. I didn't even know what an 'average' was. We didn't have those at my previous school. So I just opted to use my maths result (90%) and wound up in Mr W's class.

In my previous school, we didn't have such things as 'class positions'. I had been in what would probably now be called the gifted and talented stream (in our school, it was called the 'achievement' class), and probably fared a solid middle of the range performance overall. But I'm guessing. Achievement stream teachers experienced a freedom to engage in personalised/differentiated teaching that today's teachers can probably only dream of. The only person who ever compared my performance to anyone else's in the class was my mother (long story).

The new school was very much about competition.

For the first term, we were seated in order of those 'average percentages' from the previous year. This put me about 3rd or 4th, I think. The child with the highest average sat front left from the teacher's perspective, with the second placed child next to her and so on, so that the front row contained the 6 highest performers from the previous year. The lowest achievers were placed in the back of the class, because they were deemed lazy.

At the end of each term, we were tested on every subject (this was the norm in the South African education system in those days, so I tend to smile wryly when British parents complain that their children are over-tested with their four-times-in-twelve-years system). Each child's results were averaged out, and the great shuffle began. One term, I was placed 6th and so on the very edge of the first row, in imminent danger of moving back a row if I didn't look to myself. What pulled me down were my results in Afrikaans: a much higher level of fluency was required in the Eastern Cape than had been the case in Natal, and my proficiency wasn't up to the task (it soon was, though - my Afrikaans granny was mortified at my poor skills in the language, and addressed them forthwith).

I can't tell you how stressed we were around exam time. Little poppets of 10 years old, getting into a right state about dropping down the order. And the teachers relished it. They felt it was good for us. The top three achievers in our class (whose names and faces I still remember as if it were yesterday) were in very close contention. Their stress levels were the highest. How Louise sobbed when she dropped into third place one term!

Looking back now, I can't see how any of that benefited anyone, to be honest. And I wonder about the boys (because they were all boys) in the back row. The 'lazy' ones. Mark, Shaun, Tony... I wonder what they went on to do with their lives. I wonder if they continued to be 'lazy' and/or 'stupid'. I wonder if they opted out of the race at that point, or if it pushed their 'I'll show you' button.

And, of course, the same thing was going on in Mr S's and Mr W's classes. So, when Louise was in third place in our class, she may well only have been in 4th or even 12th place over all. And as for how she might have fared across the whole city, district, province, country, world.....Who knows? Ours was such a tiny pond. But the competition was so fierce, it was all we focused on.

Take, for example, the leader board on the game of Word Twist, as seen from my perspective:
How smug might I feel to be so close to the top of the list? How hard did my oldest friend, Cathy (we've known each other since January 1974) work so that her name could sit above mine on that list? Does she sit at the top of her own leader board? Does Nathan (my daughter's boyfriend) sit at the top of his? Does he have other friends who have outperformed him? And how would we fare when compared against the global results? Will I ever manage to oust Nathan from top spot?

Does it matter?

No. Not really. It's a bit of harmless fun, and the competitive aspect serves as a prod.

But I am an adult. I know that this is not Important. I know that, even if I trounce Nathan soundly, I will still feature nowhere on any global achievement list. I also know that, even if I did, it wouldn't change anything.

But when I was 10 (and 11 and 12 and...), it mattered a lot. And nowhere near as much to me as it did to some of the kids who wanted to get into medical school or whose parents bribed them with rewards or threatened them punishment.

I wish I could go back and find out what model that earlier school followed (if any) that resulted in a situation where none of us knew or cared where we featured in the class rankings. We only knew that we had done better or worse than the previous term, and that our results in maths were stronger or weaker than our results in art (or whatever). We knew who else in the class was gifted (or otherwise) in the subjects we excelled at, because of the points at which they got to spend time on self-directed projects.

I know. Life is competitive. We compete for the interests of the object of our fancy, we compete for the job we apply for. But making a leader board out of learning?

And don't tell me it doesn't happen any more. It does. Maybe not in your kids' school, or the school at which you teach, but it happens.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Choosing perspectives

It's no secret that 2010 took a sudden left turn in July and became an annus horribilis for me. One thing after another went wrong. When it came to Christmas time, I decided to put it all behind me and focus on making the festive season as pleasant as possible under the rather trying circumstances, and address my life's crises from a fresh perspective in the new year. But the year had one last sting in its tail. My mother phoned me a few days after Christmas to tell me that my super-fit, ultra-marathon running uncle had had a massive heart attack while on the treadmill at the gym. While under sedation, he developed pneumonia. He only regained consciousness today. When I heard the news, I could only groan, "What next?"

My uncle is one of two remaining influential male figures in my life who have been there from the very beginning. The other is also an uncle, but of the 'by marriage' sort. The two of them have known each other since they were teenagers and, during family Christmas holidays when I was growing up, they tended to forget that they were no longer in their teens, and got up to all manner of mischief. They loom large in my childhood mental photographs, and the thought of losing him makes me feel physically ill.

Up until that phone call, I would have said that my most urgent desire for 2011 would be to secure a source of income. But suddenly it has become far more urgent that my uncle should recover. Completely. And run the Two Oceans again.

Although we aren't much into New Year's resolutions as a family, we have adopted the practice of setting ourselves goals for the year ahead, which we share over our New Year's day lunch. At this point, we also reflect on the year that has passed, and I realised that some great things had happened during the year. With everything that had gone wrong, it had been all to easy to forget the things that had gone right. And all the many days that had been wonderfully ordinary and uneventful. All the days which had included little triumphs of the sort so often, so easily forgotten.

So I decided to sign up for the 365 project (I hope that link works - the site is being a bit iffy. Let me know). Having a daily record of the year: the little moments, the big moments - will keep things in perspective should (God forbid) the wheels not reattach themselves, or fall off again.

I don't have a wonderful camera, and I'm not a gifted photographer. But the project isn't just for those who can tick both those boxes.

Perhaps you'd like to join me on this journey. Or perhaps you might like to start one of your own.