All posts by Conrad Hughes

Conrad Hughes, (MA, PhD, EdD) the Campus and Secondary Principal at the International School of Geneva, La Grande Boissière. He has been School Principal, Director of Education, International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme Coordinator and teacher in schools in Switzerland, France, India and the Netherlands. Conrad, who is also a Senior Fellow at UNESCO's International Bureau of Education, a member of the advisory board for the University of the People and research assistant at the University of Geneva's department of psychology and education, teaches philosophy.

The juggernaut of the email part 2: weaponisation

We live in the age of communication, the knowledge economy we are told. Whereas the pre- email individual was buried behind closed doors, letters that had to be sent and layers of complex sociological networks that had to be penetrated to reach other people, today, anyone can get behind a keyboard and, either through email or indeed social media, press a button and their point of view is broadcast, possibly to thousands of others. 

It is no doubt an emancipation to be able to reach someone on the other side of the world in the blink of an eye, or to reach multiple readers at once, things that were totally unfathomable just a handful of decades ago.

However, as we have seen in the gruesome catalogue of human history, technology does not always lead to more humanity. It seems that the easier it is to do things and the more powerful the means, the greater the risk for someone to simply make other people’s lives miserable because of it. 

Have you ever found yourself in an email exchange wondering why none of it is happening face-to-face and then realised it’s because everything is being recorded, probably for ulterior motives? The tone of email exchanges of this manner are often stifled, legalistic and contrived to the point of being blatantly loaded. They are not exactly “nice” conversations and completely different to the tone you would experience in a live conversation, creating schizoid  parallel universes from the passing smile to the carefully crafted message, like meeting Dr cheerful small talk by day but Mr nasty email by night.

To be clear, this might be necessary when someone feels that they need to be protected, but in that case, it’s not really an exchange that’s taking place, it’s more like a deposition preparing for a tribunal. The quality of exchange this sort of song and dance creates is defensive rather than freely expressive. A war of words as the saying goes.

Hence Western  logocentric culture has not only sacralised the written word but made it infinitely more powerful than the spoken word because of its legal weight (although in some countries, like Switzerland, oral contracts are binding, they are, of course, much harder to prove). Emails of this nature are like traps being laid.

The French philosopher Jean Baudrillard spoke of “simulacra”, meaning fake representations of reality. But which is which? Where is the truth? In the conversation or the email exchange?

Then there’s the curious phenomenon of copying people on emails. There are two types of copying: those that are necessary because it is indispensable that others be made aware of the mail for technical reasons, and those that are there to create some sort of emotional effect. This can be copying people on messages of love and gratitude or, unfortunately, to embarrass and blame. Have you ever written to one person but then in response suddenly seen dozens of people appear on copy? It’s a bit bizarre if you ask me: a type of ambush.

Group emails become out of control when one person responds to the sender copying everyone else, especially if it is to insult them, like a public shaming contest.

Blind copying is a fascinating construct too: sending an email to someone but not letting that person know that you are including someone else on the message seems fundamentally dishonest, don’t you think?

In these ways, email is often weaponised. It is not used as a communication tool, on the contrary, it is a stone to throw at someone else, possibly in front of many other people or, more perversely, in front of an audience that the person getting hurt cannot even see and does not even know is there. 

Hopefully, as we become more and more used to the powerful means we have to communicate, we will use technology wisely and humanely to look after one another, to send messages of goodwill and peace.

(Photo by Tianyi Ma on Unsplash)

The juggernaut of the email part 1: incessance

Email was invented in the early 1970s as a means of accelerating communications through electronics. It only started to really hit the mainstream more than 20 years later.  Of all the major technological developments in the last 50 years, email is without a doubt among those that have reshaped the nature of communications and work the most substantively.

Whereas once upon a time people sent handwritten notes and met in person, got on a call or if they really wanted to flex some technology went to the trouble to send a fax, today’s world of work is dominated, overwhelmingly and massively, by email. Many office jobs seem to consist almost entirely of being stuck to a screen, to get through emails. 

I was reading a book the other day about an infamous educational administrator in the 1950s who, it was commented, “was rarely to be seen in his office”, this meaning that he was suspected of not doing his work. Nowadays, it’s the opposite, school leaders who are in their offices all the time are doing something wrong: they should be out and about, walking the corridors, dropping in to catch up with people, socialising and taking in the ambient culture. This is true, but when do they answer the dreaded emails that are piling up irrepressibly in their inboxes while they enjoy some face-to-face social contact?

Perhaps the expectation is that they do this at night, or over the weekend, or during public holidays, or in the small hours of the morning?

And of course, strolling through an organisation can lead to you being caught by a glare and the ominous statement: “did you get my email?”

Then there’s email addiction. The worst example is in meetings when people are reading their emails while someone else is speaking, only stopping when they have to give their own presentations to the person who was speaking earlier but is now reading their emails. Why are people online more important than those right in front of you? If you chair meetings and people are talking, make sure the others close their laptops. I call it “sharking” the laptops: “shark’em please!” It really is intolerable to give a presentation to an audience that is not looking at you.

A friend of mine once said that there is only one way to answer emails, it’s one by one as they come. I tried this but found it quite difficult since some are clearly more important and pressing than others and some require research, multiple action points and cannot be answered on the fly. When I saw him at a conference a few years later he had forgotten his earlier advice: now it was “I try to answer the important ones, and once in a while, to impress people, I’ll answer right away!” he said.

It feels a little like fighting a losing battle, or Sisyphus rolling his stone up the hill to see it go all the way back down again. Like the Nine Headed Hydra, if you answer one mail, another will grow in its place. You can’t win against emails, they creep up on you as Birnam wood comes to Macbeth, in a slow but unstoppable march: a moving forest of messages coming to get you. You wake up in a cold sweat, you were having a nightmare. To get to sleep you answer a few emails but before you know it it’s time to go to work, where more will be waiting for you. 

Teachers and students, people whose time is made up primarily of face-to-face contact, receive emails too. The more of them that pile up in their inboxes, the more difficult it is to find what little time there is left on either side of a full day to answer them.

The incessant flow of emails, the fact that they can be written so easily and fired off at all times of the day has meant, quite simply, that work has increased enormously, to bursting point. But has it become more meaningful?

What to do? I think there is only one solution: each of us has to practise it, individually: be kind when thinking about sending an email. As I’ve seen in some people’s email signatories, “do you really need to send this?”

Photo by 84 Video on Unsplash

An education for human flourishing

Anyone who studies the sociology of education knows that for hundreds of years it has been considered part of an economic vision of human behaviour. Consider the language used to describe assessment: “value added”, “rates”, “distinction”, “grade averages”, “results”, “promotion” and so on.

This is because the structure of assessment, largely derived from 19th century econometricians like Francis Galton with a heavy dose of statistical analysis (which really starts to dominate the world of assessment through classical test theory) emerges from classical economics in which the ideas of Adam Smith are concentrated on the notion that labour creates wealth.

Human Capital Theory

This way of looking at human life as linked to productivity is called human capital theory, elaborated in the 1960s by Gary Becker and Theodore Schultz. It has dominated, and continues to dominate, global belief systems about education. The idea is that human beings invest in education because there will be economic returns.  If you spend money sending children to school, they will develop skills to become productive, graduate from school and enter the workplace where they will make more money than if they never went to school. This is why people are willing to invest in education.

Is it true that going to school makes you more economically productive? Basically, yes it does.

Signalling

There’s an interesting theory rooted in evolutionary biology that was narrowed down to economics by Michael Spence in the 1970s called signalling. Here the idea is that people go to school (and university) not because the experience of schooling will allow them to gain more earnings, but because of the brand value of the diploma. Job candidates with certificates and degrees are seen as a “safe bet” since, they have proved that they can pass at school or get into a competitive university. If someone wants to go to a top tier university, it should be because they want a quality education, but signalling theory states that it not really for that reason, in fact it’s to have that university on their CV, since this is what employers are looking for. This is why people are prepared to pay so much to get into these universities, because the simple brand value of the degree is much more likely to produce a return on investment.

Human Flourishing

It’s time to look beyond both of these theories. It’s true that education is an investment, that it prepares for the workplace (although more and more professions are actually calling on competences that aren’t developed in the narrow repertoire of academic skills of school assessment) and the brand value of a degree is something that is highly sought after. However, there is so much more to what it means to be educated.

The type of education we should be developing is not just certificate proving productivity or capital earning potential. Education teaches you subtlety, how to appreciate complexity and detail, the intricacies of history, culture and art. A good education should thrust you into wonderful discussions with great minds, open your mind, teach you to see and love beauty and help you make important existential decisions in life. A great education helps develop compassion, appreciation of others, and gratitude. These competences are neither “capital”, nor are they “signals”, they are keys to a more tranquil, spiritual and mindful life, whether employers see that or not.

One would hope they would, and that organisations would build themselves up by recruiting people who carry these values rather than sheer marketplace efficiency. As long as education is seen as a means to an end rather than as an end in itself, it will be narrowed, cheapened and will, ultimately, be a missed opportunity. It’s sad when parents put pressure on their children not to follow what they love but what the parents think is high status. What inner joy, resilience and character will come from that?

This is why at the coalition to honour all learning we continue to work together for alternative assessment systems, away from excessively high stakes, narrow zero-sum game competitions breeding aggressive individualism and, instead, towards a system-wide revolution where schools, higher education institutions and employers look for gifts, competences and collective goods for a more inclusive, peaceful and sustainable world in which passion for learning and happiness flourish in diverse learning societies.

Visual Arts and Education: understanding history and context

A recent trip to Venice was an immersive experience in some of the works of the great Italian Renaissance artists, notably Tintoretto and Bellini, whose extraordinary paintings adorn several churches throughout the city.

Seeing their works in churches is an authentic experience that links one to the historical continuity of the initial inception of the paintings: this is how they were intended to be seen, and it is a privilege to be able to still do this, although non-Venetians have to pay more or less systematically at every church, unlike in Rome where it is still possible to see Caravaggio’s work for free in churches as many did for hundreds of years before the globalisation of tourism.

Why might it be important to view artworks in the settings for which they were originally conceptualised? 

After all, the works are less well lit in churches, one has to stand in the slightly stiff and cold silence and the overall atmosphere of the museum is replaced by the austerity of a place of worship. Furthermore, frescoes on interior walls and ceilings can be difficult to see, especially when compared to well-lit works perched at eye level in an art gallery.

However, this is how these works should be viewed and appreciated. In the hauntingly simple and gorgeous church of the Madonna dell’Orto in Venice for example, where Tintoretto served as a chaplain, his grave lies right next to his dramatic panel of the last judgement: the spiritual purpose of Tintoretto’s work, embroiled with the existential anxiety it expresses are unified by the palpable and very moving traces of the artist’s life. One senses the significance of the place of composition which is much more than a backdrop to the art, it is a vital part of the art.

The way we encounter art today, and this has been the case since at least the late 1700s or early 1800s when the most famous European museums, such as the Louvre, Uffici and Prado were opened to the public, is in exhibitions. Hundreds of paintings and sculptures sit alongside one another in an industrial concentration that is difficult to seriously contemplate and digest. Rather than spending time at each painting, visitors shuffle from one famous painting to the next, walking past dozens if not hundreds of paintings composed by less well known artists. I’ve always felt that it is futile trying to view too much in an art museum, and prefer to appreciate one or two floors. How much art can one take in in two hours anyway?

There is another problem with the decontextualised positioning of such works, which is the ethics behind the curatorship of the works themselves, most especially concerning ancient art. For example, almost all Ancient Egyptian works viewed outside of Egypt (in Turin, Paris, Berlin and London for example) found their way to these places under the questionable policies of Napoleon Bonaparte whose emissaries either traded for them in an unscrupulous manner or simply stole them. Understanding how obelisks appeared in Paris, Rome and London or the Elgin Marbles ended up in the British Museum allows for a fuller understanding of the journey behind the art works, their political and cultural imprint, which is part of their story.

On the other hand, walking through the forest of columns at Karnak, or standing before the Colossi at Memnon in Egypt, one is irremediably drawn to the religious significance of these monuments: portrayals of the power of the sun, giver of life and light. A little understanding of obelisks will have you know that they were intended to always be grouped in pairs, standing on either side of the entrance to a temple. So the fact that the famous Luxor Obelisk stands alone while her sister is at the Place de la Concorde in Paris is not just an aesthetic incongruity, not a mere act of material theft, but a disruption of a sacred symbolic placement, thousands of years old. Indeed, by uprooting works of art from their original contexts and displaying them for decorative purposes, the metaphysics of an ancient belief system are destroyed. In fact, most of the obelisks one sees in their natural setting in Egypt today stand asymmetrically alone on one side of a temple entrance, leaving a gaping wound open on the other side, where the twin was literally uprooted and shipped to an English, Italian, French or even American city.

If one is to enjoy the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum, it is equally necessary to travel to Athens to look upon the empty spaces at the Acropolis from where they were amputated. This is how we can fully connect the historical journey behind them.

What are the implications for all of this on education? Quite simply to give our students the historical depth of understanding to appreciate art fully so that they might have not only a critical perspective but a richer reckoning of the original purpose of art. Seeing a work as “beautiful” or well composed” is an incomplete analysis since there is almost always a strong sociopolitical context to understand in order to fully contemplate the work, feel its character and presence, its identity. 

Whereas art and humanities teachers should always look to embellish students’ knowledge of the historical context of the works they are studying, mathematics and science teachers should do the same, explaining to students that while we might look at arithmetic in a functional, pragmatic sense today, for the Ancients, numbers were sacred symbols with magical, transformational  power. Having some inkling of the Egyptian and Babylonian origins of mathematics helps us appreciate how ancient mathematicians such as Pythagoras and his lineage of Chaldeans  were numerologists, attributing sacred properties to numbers such as 9 or Pi. And why is this important? Because it reinforces the mysterious allure of mathematical elegance, its abstract, magnetic power and, therefore, the central role it has always played alongside philosophy and religion in several cultures as a key to a deeper meaning and series of hidden truths. For the Ancients, maths was not invented, it was discovered.

So the next time you’re in an art museum, or viewing an artwork in its original context, or you’re in a teaching moment where you have the privilege to sensitise your students to great works of art, like those of Frida Kahlo, Katsushika Hokusai or Jacopo Tintoretto, or should you be teaching any other construct for that matter, be sure to expand upon the context and history as much as the plastic composition, for therein lies a story worth telling.

2024 Resolutions

For those who follow the Gregorian calendar, we move to 2024. The New Year brings with it a chance for each of us to commit to personal and professional resolutions. What are yours? For me, there are three (I tend to relate to the power of three as a trinity of purpose, cadenced by a ternary rhythm and the depth that seeking beyond one or two goals brings – the third will often be the one that requires more searching whereas the first two appear at the surface of the mind as givens).

First, not forgetting the “big rock” of innovation. It is far too easy to forget about the broader purpose of our work and to fall into the quicksand of “business as usual” and in so doing, to inadvertently cause the organisation we are leading to stagnate to an inward-looking, grinding halt. Education has the power to shape the future and if we do not actively and intentionally move the needle of necessary curriculum reform towards global citizenship education with a pronounced, forward looking position on technology, particularly artificial intelligence, it simply will not happen. Answering emails must be done, and administrative humdrum needs to be managed, but pulling away from this to look at the whole from a 10 000 foot view is essential, and when we do this, we are reminded that much needs to be reformed and dynamised.

Second, to consistently look at the students in our care and the adults we are serving through the lens of human flourishing. By this I mean using the spirit and methods of coaching to seek gifts in people and to do what we can to convert those gifts into talents. This involves the principles of gifted education, faculty-led growth conversations and feedback (including working on building a culture of psychological safety for feedback to be constructive and honest). In every person there are gifts, and the mind needs to be brought back to this notion before writing others off, judging them or labelling them as incapable or incompetent. We are all on a journey of self becoming.

Finally, kindness. With the horrors of war raging across the world, increased related social tension and polarisation in communities at different scales and levels, we can lapse into blaming and shaming, bitterness and aggression. Sometimes, paradoxically, people are treated inhumanely in the name of something humane. If we believe in transparency, justice, equity, peace or togetherness, then these cannot merely be words brandished in a type of virtue signalling while the actual behaviour beneath the words speaking up for these causes is poisonous. Leaders have to be compassionate, to be understanding, and to convert the negative into the positive, the will to hurt into the wish to heal. It’s easy to stand on the side lines and curse others, no matter what high and mighty principle is used as an excuse for this behaviour, but it is much harder, and much more the responsibility of the true leader not to sink to these depths and, instead, to seek solutions. This is not easy and we should not pretend to have the key to unlock the doors of negativity that close off our common humanity, but we must try, every day and in every action, to look to the light of kindness, especially when enshrouded in the darkness of hatred.

Whether it is looking to resolutions for the New Year, luck and prosperity in the Lunar New Year in February, exchanging wishes among the family for Nowruz in March, Rosh Hashanah in September, Al Hijri in July or other cultural celebrations of regeneration and change, some commitment to values helps keep us focussed on becoming better human beings.

May your resolutions lift your sites to tomorrow for the development of individual, common and public goods.

History through Cinema

Most history teachers would rightly wince at the idea of learning history through films. Similarly, few good literature teachers will ever accept a film as a proxy for a novel or play. The condensation, vulgarisation, artistic licence all oversimplify the facts and frequently misguide audiences into understandings of history that are wholly inaccurate and sometimes damagingly so. 

As such, the clichéd post WW2 Hollywood productions of Biblical and Egyptian historical themes have impregnated minds with blonde Jesuses, white Cleopatras and Pharaohs. Worse, the earlier phenomenon of minstrelsy, which informed the first expressions of American cinema, created violent anti-Black stereotypes that for historians such as David Olusoga, were archetypal engines for racial prejudice. Similarly, glorified images of John Wayne shooting his way through Native Americans have drawn up a global collective unconscious of American history based on harmful stereotypes. 

Life imitates art as Oscar Wilde once said. The truth of the matter is that while classroom and textbook efforts to educate students about history are important and formative, most people will have ideas about the past that come from movies they have seen, and few will be able to tell what is factual from imaginary.  While historians and academics pore over manuscripts and archives, publishing articles on pedantic details of historical facts, the person on the street’s head is filled with a romanticised cinematic portrayal of the past: Russel Crowe, Colin Farrell and Joaquin Phoenix have written the popular history books.

We can fight against this truism, but where will that lead to? What if referring to popular media rather than ignoring it was a way of broadening education and understanding of the world? If our students are learning about the world through popular media, surely we should scaffold learning around that?  

Recently I watched the Netflix series African Queens: Njinga  by Jada Pinkett Smith. This documentary is about the mythic Ndongo Queen Njinga who resisted Portuguese slavery for decades in the early 17th Century. The documentary is based on academic research from Angolan Archives and the work of scholars from reputed universities. Importantly, the academic source material is from African and Black scholars, this being part of Pinkett Smith’s design to reappropriate Black history.

What struck me in watching the documentary was the tenacity, violence, greed and dishonesty of slave traders in the 1600s in Africa, who systematically and ruthlessly broke oaths and contracts, and the devastating impact on Angola of what they did. The Slave Trade remains a dramatically undertaught subject in history lessons. Worse, in some American states, such as Florida, the so-called benefits of slavery are being taught in the history standards. Relativists will compare it to other forms of slavery, pointing out that there are more slaves today than ever (there always have been but we have greater access to information today, that’s the difference).  Make no mistake, up to 20 million people (probably more) were killed or displaced through one of the worst episodes of human history, and the scars remain. Films like Njinga are important, and should be watched as they relay the emotional and social violence of the times.

At the same time, I experienced a parallel biopic encounter with Napoleon, portrayed by Ridley Scott through a lens of sweeping frescoes like paintings by Jacques-Louis David. Here was a quite different experience, unlike Njinga, the untold story upon which light would be shone, here was a famous “great man” of history being narrated in an established blockbuster format much in the vein of traditional Hollywood depictions of the well beaten path. What struck me was less what was told (famous and heavily recounted events such as Napoleon’s coronation, his relationship with Josephine, the battles of Austerlitz and Waterloo) but more what was not told (pillaging of artworks across Italy, known as “i furti napoleonici”; grand scale theft of Egyptian treasures and his 1802 reinstatement of slavery). And at the same time, there was the contemporary obsession in biopics to deconstruct “heroes” by exploring Freudian or Jungian personality themes – all these “great men”, it would appear, suffered from some sort of narcissism, sexual frustration or neuroticism. Is this not more of the cult of the personality, drenched in postmodern psycho-sociological dogma?  

The Brazilian pedagogue and philosopher Paulo Freire pointed out in his 1968 masterpiece  Pedagogy of the Oppressed that historical narratives would change through time but would ultimately have to be rescued by a humane discourse that would almost certainly come from the oppressed themselves, who would reappropriate their own narratives. He also advocated for an educational journey that would take place outside of classrooms, in households and community centres. This is where the popular narrative would form a world view. 

Watching Njinga, and reflecting on Napoleon, makes one think about what we teach, why we teach it, which stories should be told, through which media and why, and what representing the past means for the present and the future. 

(image from wallpapers.com)

Lead by the rules … but kindly

Rules and regulations are essential guardrails to prevent abuse and malpractice. Rules guarantee consistency, fairness and objectivity.

But is it through the rules alone that we will create a humane culture?

Morally corrupt rules

There are two problems to consider: first, what if the rules are morally wrong? What was disturbing about the Eichmann trial in Israel, in 1961, was that the Nazi henchman  Eichmann was not a spectacular monster but a nondescript, slightly effaced bureaucrat who believed, in committing acts of atrocity, that he was simply following orders. 

The 1961 Stanley Milgram experiment, in which participants were told to authorise the administering of electric shocks to a subject by actors looking like doctors, showed, with alarming conclusiveness, that people are capable of harming others, to the point of killing them, if told to do so by authority figures. Just as the Asch conformity experiments (where participants were placed in groups that were following a script to give wrong answers, hereby influencing the unknowing participant to follow them and also give a wrong answer) show that we buckle easily under peer pressure and rarely have the courage to stand up for what is true and right if the crowd is promoting what is wrong, 

This explains behaviours under morally corrupt governments or leadership systems where those perpetrating harm are simply following the rules and doing what they are told. It’s easy to judge those that act this way, but it isn’t easy to stand up to a crowd and even less so to break the law. Some of the great freedom fighters of history were standing up to morally defunct systems of governance, and putting themselves at risk in doing so so it is understandable that not everyone has the courage to do this.

Disingenuous interpretation of rules

The second problem is more subtle, it is a question of intent. Rules, regulations and bylaws were often created to allow certain liberties to be exercised and/or to prevent certain abuses from taking place. However, they can be used for ulterior purposes: to block someone’s freedom, to ostracise or silence, attack or harm. This is precisely why there are legal battles, because people interpret the law and in ways that are not always philanthropic to say the least. In essence, it’s not because the rules allow you to do something that you should necessarily do it: a zealously legalistic approach to leadership will quickly create a nightmarish climate of hostility where the phrase that wins the day is “the regulations say I can do this”. This explains why in some environments there is such a disparity between statutes and vision statements and what happens on the ground. Concepts like “freedom” can actually mean cultural imperialism and “transparency” a witch hunt. The truth is that if you don’t like someone, you can use the rules to hurt them.

Moral discernment

Moral discernment is needed to judge the spirit of an action, over and above its technical alignment with the rules and regulations. To give a perhaps trite example, if a tennis umpire decides to disqualify a player based on an interpretation of “unsportsmanlike behaviour”, it is technically possible for the umpire to make such a decision based on their own whims and prejudices and basically punish the player because she or he does not like him or her, using the vague idea of unsportsmanlike behaviour liberally and, therefore, abusively. In this example, the rules are being followed, but what is being done is morally wrong.

For the great 4th Century BCE Chinese philosopher Confucius, ruling by laws and punishments is ineffective because it infantilises subjects, not creating within them any agency or desire to own and solve problems. On the contrary, leaders should use the principle of ren as a guiding light: a higher moral principle based on kindness and compassion. This, for Confucius, will instil values in people an that is what is important rather than blindly following rules.

So at the end of the day, and especially in terms of our goal as educators across the world striving for a future which is not only inclusive and sustainable but humane too, it is the higher order moral imperative that should trump the miserly following of rules. Rules must be respected, but they can be interpreted, and the overarching question should be if what is being done through the rules is lifting people up or damaging them. If it’s the latter, it’s either not a good rule or it is being implemented disingenuously.

To follow the spirit of the law, to think before applying what is allowed and to always frame decisions ethically is what is needed for human flourishing. Remember that harm is not always done by caricatural evil-looking wrong doers, but on the contrary by little grey men following the rules quietly, unethically and viciously.   

And if you are a leader, next time you implement the rules in such a way that someone is being hurt, think twice. You might be doing what is technically permissible, but are you doing the right thing?

Psychological Safety and Education

In the 1950s, the educational psychologist Carl Rogers coined the term psychological safety. By this, he meant an environment in which people can explore their creative potential, take risks, not be afraid of failure, express themselves freely and essentially feel secure in that safe space that allows them to be themselves.

The concept might go back to the 1950s, but we still need to be reminded of it today.

For decades educational systems have been built on the wrong ideas: premised on shouting at children, threatening them, hitting and humiliating them while creating a stifling, stern atmosphere wrought with fear and power hierarchy. Unfortunately this Victorian model is still in force in some institutions, practices and households today.

What this type of behaviour does is it pushes students into their reptilian brains, shredding any sense of confidence in them and, ultimately, as it models symbolic and physical violence, it reproduces this in students who will not know any better than to copy the unpleasant behaviour they have been subjected to and exact it on others.

A good school looks at students in the exact opposite way: we are here to make sure that the classroom is a place where you want to be,where your self belief is built up every day by acts of validation, kindness, recognition, gift spotting and encouragement.

Unfortunately, some of the remnants of the Victorian past still make their way into what might look like enlightened classrooms through seemingly innocuous but potentially damaging throw away comments, sarcasm, damning reports and, quite simply, an inability to be generous enough to see someone’s potential and to say it. Giving a student a bad grade can be enormously hurtful to their inner core, and it should be scaffolded carefully and sensitively, not done with a sense of impatience or superciliousness. 

When students are starved of the feedback they need to garner that quantum of confidence to grow out of their shells, it can be demeaning or worse. This is all the more so since children need the validation of their teachers, in many ways it counts for more than that which comes from families and friends because it is institutional and less tinged by favouritism: it’s the first exposure to the outside world and whether that place will be friendly or hostile.

If we really want creativity, critical thinking, interpersonal sensitivity, multi literateness and human flourishing, then we have to keep reminding ourselves of the idea of psychological safety and should not be misguided into thinking that harshness, coldness, negative feedback and emotional cruelty bring out the best in students.

Some people, already down a track of mastery, already confident and thirsty to go from good to great, might actually seek out this type of “tough love”, the clichéd draconian sports coach type of relationship with their teacher, but these are exceptions and should be understood as such.

Finally, psychological safety, like so many  socio-psychological concepts, is not only educational, it speaks to the professional world too. We all know how tough it is to have a supervisor who never lifts you up, loses their temper, shuts you down and tries to make you afraid: they are lost in the same Victorian illusion and are not bringing out your creative potential. 

You might not be able to change that, but you can control the way you deal with your supervisees, so create a space for them to flourish and give your people what they need to thrive: a feeling that with you, they are safe, they can grow, they can fly. 

 (photograph: Ali Kazal)

The neurocircuitry of prejudice

I wrote my EdD some years ago on prejudice and the different ways that we might consider mitigating it through pedagogic strategies. It was a fascinating journey into the labyrinth of social psychology and neuroscience (here’s the publication if you’d like to go deeper). As my research deepened, it became clear to me that prejudice cannot be eradicated, only reduced, and with great difficulty at that.

What is it that causes prejudice? Well, there’s certainly no simple answer to that – as it means, literally, to prejudge a person, to make up your mind about them before knowing them, before giving them a chance and without deliberately controlling that impulse to judge. And often prejudice hardens too: we cherry pick evidence to reinforce the original position we have taken, to substantiate the judgement, discounting counter-evidence. Trying to undo all of that in our dense psychological framework is asking a lot.

One thing that researchers have known for decades, going all the way back to some of the first social experiments that were run just after WW2, is that when the context flares up (war, economic depression, political tension), fear sets in and, almost automatically, outgrouping increases, stereotypes are rekindled and prejudicial beliefs are exacerbated. When fear sets in, the amygdala – a subcortical “emotional brain” as it were, which regulates instinctive behaviours – plays a central and all-encompassing role in dominating thinking, pushing us into “fright or flight” or “reptilian brain” mode (these terms are layperson shorthand and are actually technically contested, but they will do for now by means of a short cut).

In short, the dark thunderclouds send us into panic and we react by minimising other people, casting them as friend or foe and, of course, this can lead to discrimination and worse. 

The next time someone attacks you, judges you, labels you, realise that they are probably acting, subconsciously, from a place of fear.

Hence, one of the core goals of an education is to help us become aware of the alarming ease with which we can lapse into prejudice and to equip us with the means to make intentional, metacognitively aware decisions that are counterintuitive, and cut against bias.

Rather than lapsing into the comfort of labelling other people, painting them as outgroup villains while wallowing in the warm illusion of belonging to a fictitiously homogenous ingroup; we have to train ourselves, as incommodious as it might be, to walk away from that intuitive prejudicial thinking and to turn to the more difficult work of reconsidering people as individuals and not as groups, listening to what is said and not judging because of who is saying it, and judging after, not before the fact. 

In fact, if education is to move to its highest force, so as to extend consciousness to cosmic, spiritual realms, this would mean not judging another person at all but seeking empathy and likeness. After all, in 99.5% of cases, we share the exact same DNA.

Easier said than done, but if there is one place where the higher and narrower road of compassion and understanding can be built, it is in the classroom. 

(Shoutout to Melanie Wasser for the photograph)

The Springbok Rugby Team: Three Educational Lessons

“Rugby is a hooligans sport played by gentleman” the saying goes (as opposed to football, which is the opposite). Hyperbole aside, there is something remarkable about the camaraderie one finds between rugby fans: there are never crowd incidents and a deontological code of respect transcends not only the discipline players have in accepting the referees’ decisions, but the whole culture of rugby, which, despite the surface violence of the game itself, is built on peace and friendship.

This year’s rugby World Cup saw South Africa win for the fourth time in a nail-biting final against the mythic All Blacks. In following the team, three concepts came to mind which can help us in our reflections about the potential effect of an education:

  1. Unity

There was nothing individualistic about the squad. In fact, one of the hallmarks of the team was that the “bench” (the substitutes) was essentially as important as the starting players. The coach’s strategy was to use the substitutes strategically rather than merely to replace tired players. When interviewed on the victory, the charismatic captain Siya Kholosi spoke of a fleet of birds flying in a V formation – when one drops out, another automatically takes the position that has been left vacant. Assessments, projects, and general learning environments that draw on the collective and understand that learning is a social, team effort are more successful than cultures built on individualism. When students support each other, learning gains are stronger. 

  1. Relevance and purpose

The players kept coming back to the importance of this win for South Africa, a country that has been ravaged by iniquity and violence but at the same time in which there is an extraordinary human spirit. During the apartheid years, rugby was an entirely white sport but over the years it has come to be more multiracial and today the whole nation celebrates the Springboks’ victory. The players were clearly motivated by a higher purpose – the lift that this would give people at home – and this brought out the best in them. Our curricula must be relevant to the needs of society and the planet, not dry intellectual abstractions. This is all the more important in a world where climate change, political upheaval and globalisation are particularly virulent sources of change and impact. Curriculum relevance is about serving students with an education that makes sense to them and equips them for social realities.

  1. Self-belief

The Springboks beat France, England and New Zealand in the Quarterfinals, Semifinals and Finals by one point in each match! Every single detail mattered and on each occasion it came down to the accuracy of a kick, the precision of a tackle on the try line or the discipline of a scrum. To win like that, down to the wire with your back against the wall, takes not only courage but a razor sharp mentality that will not waver from a belief that victory is inevitable. We teach our students subjects, skills and dispositions. Self-belief, confidence, mindset are vital and should feature strongly in curriculum design and the hidden curriculum. Our students are entering a fairly daunting world where there will be no shortage of challenges, and they will be successful if equipped with that deep-seated belief that they are capable of something exceptional. This is an educational value that comes down to parenting as much as teaching.

In a world divided by war, let the beauty of sports continue to inspire us to work together as a team and, at the end of the day, to come together as friends. There is tremendous value in sports as I’ve written before, and the exhilarating Springboks reminded us of the power that it has to lift the spirits of millions of people.