Category Archives: Conrad Hughes

The power of alumni

Every school and university is someone’s alma mater and alumni networks are more or less well managed, ranging from highly curated and tentacular Ivy League-styled operations run by a development army with polished and frequent communications, to semi-formal and ad-hoc arrangements by individuals organising parties and get togethers.

Educational institutions tends to view alumni as symbols of the institutions’ achievements and as potential fundraisers for the building of the institution’s posterity and legacy. Indeed, alumni contribute in major and concrete ways to schools and universities, allowing projects to thrive, programmes to survive and the infrastructure to be sustained.

Recently we hosted1500 Ecolint alumni from across the world. They gathered in our Greek theatre to hear the brilliant oratory of Canadian ambassador Bob Rae, LGBTQI ally Pritha Rami and Cambridge Zero’s Beth Simpson as well as the music of the award-winning singer and songwriter Lori Lieberman, who performed with our students and staff.

It was a wonderful, emotional, privileged moment to exchange with great minds and souls. What struck me was not only the passion that our alumni have for this remarkable institution, the world’s first international school, the veneration and ongoing respect they have for their teachers living and passed, but the widespread intellectual and moral engagement they have with world issues, the commitment they have in their lives to making the world a better place.

Through some rigorous exchanges, collective reflections and discussions, the reunion felt very pedagogical: we were learning from each other just as students would do in a well-run classroom. And this is where it struck me that the real power of alumni is that they are a living extension of the educational process; they are lifelong learners who are practising the values of what they learned out in the real world. In fact, alumni are not only ambassadors of the school, they are a continuation of the educational process through the example they set, the way they live their lives, the education they give to their own children.

I could feel in the words and actions of more than one the influence of their teachers, it was almost as if this was the great project that teachers would have been so proud of, only the project was no longer in the classroom, no longer hemmed in by assessment protocols, this was the school of life, the greatest lesson of all, the whole purpose of an education!

The power of alumni (from the Latin “to nourish”) is that they are the heartbeat of the school outside the classroom. The echoing of the heartbeat resonates with what happens in the school, and the life of the school drives the rhythm of the heartbeat outside.

For alumni are not only students but also custodians: when they return to school they hope to see the values that were there when they graduated; to make sure that the leadership is honouring the ethos of the institution, whcih is a good thing. Alumni help keep the moral purpose of the school in tact.  

To all my fellow educators and leaders: reach out to your alumni, engage with them, learn from them, let’s federate with all those who have been in our institutions to rally around the values of peace, inclusion and sustainability that characterise not only international education but UNESCO and the UN’s vision for the future and the clarion call of all humanist institutions.

When we start to think of the mission of our school beyond its walls into the whole community, those within the institution and those who continue its work outside: retired staff, alumni, ex-parents, it creates a tremendous effect of strength and unity; a beautiful song of life that folds everything into its melody.

Cultural celebrations

In a competence-based educational programme, one of the most fundamentally important constructs to develop is intercultural competence. This means being able to appreciate other cultures, having enough background knowledge about other people’s cultures to know who’s in the room and having the interest, respect and humility to want to learn more about different cultures and, in doing so, to honour the people around you and the generational stories they bring with them.

In Edgar Schein’s much quoted culture model, the visible tip of the iceberg is made up of artefacts whereas the more profound values and assumptions that make up cultural archetypes lie beneath the surface. The argument is that surface-level manifestations of culture (the famous five fs: fashion, flags, food, famous people and festivals) are fairly superficial and that celebrating these or knowing about them is not really taking you to the core of a culture.

I would agree but only to a certain extent. I used to be of the opinion that cultural fairs, international evenings and the like were stereotype-anchoring fanfares with nothing particularly profound about them. However, I’ve changed my views through time and believe that if cultures are celebrated intentionally and in the right way, the process is actually very profound. In any case, seeking deeper connections than visible ones should not should not prevent us from appreciating the visible. The visible is the outer shell of the invisible, something deeper, anyway, and cultural artefacts are primarily symbolic, they tell a story.

Learning the literature, philosophy and history of another culture is undoubtedly more profound gateway into its inner recesses: Wole Soyinka opens the mind to Yoruba culture, a full ToK unit on First People’s cultures allows one – as it did for my class and me – better understanding of what you are researching, for us it was the Wayfinders of Polynesia; studying Confucius gives one a profound insight into the political context of the Zhou dynasty in China.

But, does this mean that we should not celebrate cultural festivities at all? 

At Ecolint this year, across the seven schools and three campuses, our students, parents and staff celebrated Diwali, Dia de Los Muertos,  Hanukkah, Eid, Nowruz, the Lunar New Year and Christmas. We also celebrated Neurodiversity week and will be celebrating Africa Day later this month. Parents came on campus to set up cultural stands, students stood up in assemblies and taught each other about the historical and religious significance of festivities from their countries, students learnt about essential symbols from other cultures. And all of this happened in a context of joy, serenity, sharing and peace. It was particularly moving to see the community learning about each other in a time where international conflict is building walls between people. The way of peace is surely built on crossroads and bridges.

I was at a conference explaining these cultural festivities to a group and someone said “yes, yes that’s the easy bit”. Well, it’s not actually that easy, the organisation is colossal and it can only be done with large scale community participation, one risks being criticised for celebrating one culture and not another and by onlookers who will say, yes this is all very superficial. But how superficial is it to see children from different cultures and sometimes from countries at war with one another dyeing each other’s hands with Henna, learning classical dance steps together, learning each other’s calligraphy and mythology?

It’s actually more profound than we think. Cultural festivals are not just superficial parades of clichés, they are living testimonies to thousands of years of history, they are living pieces of collective identity, and they bring us together in something that becomes universal. 

My message to fellow educators is not to be afraid to celebrate culture, not to think it’s not enough and therefore should not be done, that intercultural competence development has to be some uniquely intellectual and morose affair. Celebrating culture is a wonderful way of bringing the community together and building up intercultural competences, for we learn best when we learn together, when we are involved and – why not – while enjoying it at the same time.  

These three steps can be considered to ensure a meaningful cultural celebration:

  1. Don’t cheapen the experience by treating it like a mere party, link cultural celebrations to a higher cause: peace and inclusion for example, or global citizenship. This gives the event a deeper meaning and mission-aligned purpose.
  2. Make sure it’s inclusive and involves students, parents and staff and most especially those from the culture or part of the world being celebrated: put them in the driver’s seat to organise it (“nothing about us without us”). 
  3. The emphasis should be on learning (rather than eating!).

What is particularly powerful in these events is the personal reflection they engender. When you experience another culture’s expression and in such a way that it touches you, when that piece of music enters your soul, that dance connects with something atavistic inside you, when a poem from a far away place awakens something lurking in your unconscious state, even when something makes you stand back and feel different, it ultimately brings you back to yourself through the mirror of another human experience: in that reflection you encounter your own culture. This is intercultural learning and when it is kinaesthetic and lived, it’s visceral and emotional. This kaleidoscopic turning inwards through outward-facing signs, this learning of the self through the other enriches our sense of what it means to be human, reminding us of the collective mosaic that makes up our collective story and how beautiful the many faces of humanity are.

Moving away from the industrial paradigm of performance review

Performance reviews are thoroughly embedded in the psychology of industrialisation. Some of the earliest traced instances of the idea of annual performance evaluation go back to the 19th Century textile industry (which was driven by the slave trade): managers were judged against the productivity of their annual output, the rewards would be compensatory and consequences for poor productivity would ultimately be termination. This system of reward, based on a crude production model ultimately meant harder exploitation.

This scientific management approach was further developed in the army. During WW1, there was a need to establish some sort of ranking or evaluation system to decide who should be discharged from service due to inadequate performance according to a merit system. As many elements of capitalism, industrial psychology and social planning developed quickly after WW2, so did performance management, entering the domains of business, social services and industry, particularly for people with extra responsibilities, managers and leaders.

And as is so often the case in education, there was a mirroring effect of these broader sociological developments in schools and universities. Foucault has shown in books like Discipline and Punish (1975) and Madness and Civilisation (1961) that schools, hospitals and prisons were built according to normative principles of power, behavioural codification and control. Although he did not elaborate the point fully concerning assessment per se, there is clearly an echo of the industrial approach to performance in the end of high school high stakes summative assessment model: students are expected to perform, the results of a year’s (or sometimes more) work is evaluated and the results decide on future pathways (failure, passing, accelerated future opportunity). So a Foucauldian analysis of the structure of the end of high school assessment allows us to draw parallels with traditional performance management in the workplace.

There are three fundamental problems with this approach to performance and learning:

  1. The first is the notion of performance itself, a term steeped in the assumptions of industrial production, output, yield and capital. Human beings are not conveyor belts in factories, banks or storing systems, so to calibrate their development against such quantitative metrics, which is essentially treating them like machines, reduces and in fact mechanises who they are. An employee is much more than the KPIs designed to measure performance and a student is much more than performance on examinations.
  2. The second is that there is a type of learning bulimia when industrial yield models, based on annual (or quarterly) balance sheets are transferred to learning: high stakes summative assessment lends itself to rote-learning and a concentrated burst of output, leading to much of what was learnt for the examinations to be forgotten. One of the criticisms of annual performance reviews in the workplace is that they are essentially backward-looking, requiring employees to think ahead but based on earlier rather than current performance, much the way that examinations test knowledge learnt in the past whereas the deeper goal should be to predict if not prepare for future learning.
  3. Finally, summative evaluation systems drive performance metric-related behaviour (as opposed to more authentic learning behaviours). Teachers teach to the test, students learn for grades, employees work towards reports and yardsticks. As the old adage goes, “we measure what we value and we value what we measure”. But what exactly is it we are measuring at the end of a year and how valid could such a measurement really be? In fact, the worry is greatest in the workplace where such a system could very well push employees to focus on the metric (financial results for example) to the point where the end justifies the means and behaviours to arrive at that goal become problematic if not abusive and unethical. Excessively high stakes systems promote cheating and gaming the system.

Just as many organisations have been turning away from traditional annual performance reviews for some time now, to move to ongoing feedback with a formative purpose, so too should assessments in high school mirror gradual progress alongside if not instead of summative assessments, this way the assessment system promotes learning and is less of a judgement of learning and more narrative of a learning journey. In order to improve, we need feedback on the fly, what Dylan Wiliam calls embedded formative assessment.  This is just one of the reasons why institutions such as those in the coalition to honour all learning are looking to reform assessment deeply and in such a way that a students’ competences, which have been developed over time in authentic settings, can shine naturally rather than be drawn out of a highly pressured and contrived one-off test environment.

Quality research has shown that in schools sustained achievement is a better predictor of future achievement than high stakes assessment performance. By continually contributing to the painting of a picture of the graduate or the employee, step by step, the learning will be richer, the organisational culture will be more pedagogic and the final goal more authentic. For those of us in positions where we are able to influence this, let’s move away from the industrial model (end of year performance reviews) to a more human-centric one (ongoing, feedback-rich, coaching-styled conversations).

(image: Free factory backgrounds from pikbest.com)

Critical Race Theory: Learning from Kimberlé Crenshaw

Kimerlé Crenshaw has an extraordinary CV: with degrees from Cornell University (BA), Harvard University (JD) and the University of Wisconsin, Madison (LLM), she is a specialist in race and gender issues and professor at both the UCLA School of Law and Columbia Law School. She has published widely and is best known for founding critical race theory (CRT) and the construct of intersectionality. It was an immense privilege for me to hear her give the 2024 AERA keynote at Philadelphia just two days ago. 

There was a special feeling in the air when she took to the stage, with rapturous cheering and a spontaneous standing ovation. She launched into her talk with a power and eloquence that sustained itself beautifully throughout the hour, during which time she held the attention of a crowd of at least 3000 people. It was one of those moments in life where you feel that you’re part of something special, lucky to be there, part of history. It hasn’t happened a lot to me, but when it has, I’ve felt it, and this was one such moment of grace and historical transcendence.

In the wake of Claudine Gay being removed from Harvard for what appear to be ideological reasons (this the shortest ever tenure of a Harvard president, and the only black female one at that); over 20 states vetoing or overturning the teaching of Critical Race Theory (CRT); the revision of Florida’s African American history standards to argue for the so-called benefits of slavery; the banning of a Disney film about Ruby Bridges (the first child to be placed in an all-white school in the South after desegregation) – again in Florida; the banning of works of literature such as The Hate U Give (Angie Thomas), I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (Maya Angelou) and The Color Purple (Alice Walker) and a presidential campaign underway called America 2025 with the goal to “rescue the country from the grip of the radical Left”, Crenshaw argues that there is coordinated attack against Woke.

CRT is widely and, in some cases, intentionally, misunderstood and subsequently weaponised. It is portrayed by its dissenters as Marxist propaganda, a doctrine which forces students to endorse a certain race-centred ideological position. However, this is not what it is. CRT is an analysis of the racialisation of policy, power yielding and politics historically and in present day social dynamics. If one looks through the history of slavery and subsequent indentured labour and colonisation, and if one does so honestly, accepting the facts, it is quite simply impossible to disentangle racism from the wider scope of mainstream historical exegesis, to conveniently dissociate it from  philosophical movements of the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution and much building of nation states across the world. These were built on a bedrock of exploitation, any serious scholar knows that.

Theories of postcoloniality date back to at least the 1960s, CRT goes back to 1989: these are well-founded and substantiated positions. To read a 2009 article I wrote on the intersection between education and postcoloniality, see here.

“The past walks with the present” Crenshaw told us: the legacy of historical racism is still with us today, it manifests itself in statistics on access to education, wealth and power. The term “white privilege”, which causes unease – perhaps understandably, is nonetheless a necessary term which designates a reality: the systemic favouritism towards white people rather than people of colour in many economic, social and political realms. To contest this de facto is to seek alternative facts, opinions over data, disbelief over research, refusal over the acceptance of something that is clearly and patently a fact, at the very least in the United States.    

If one of the goals of an education is critical thinking, then how can we have critical discussions if we are not ready to accept the truth of history and the factual reports of the present? It is surely not by banning books and forbidding teaching of theory that any progress will be made. How can we evolve educationally by not allowing for the analysis of race in an overarching epistemological appreciation of reality?

Theory is everywhere in education, from science to mathematics to the learning of languages to the humanities. A good education should expose students to several theories: feminism, Marxism, liberalism, nationalism, even polemical and controversial theories such as fascism. CRT has its place in education, it is a theory and in fact, a central theory that explains reams of present day social stratification very saliently.


Crenshaw ended her brilliant lecture by asking us to not be afraid to defend this educational approach, not to cave in to lobbying and political pressure, including pressure from parents who might have a media-informed misunderstanding of CRT. If we want a more just, equitable, diverse, fair and free world, which are prerequisites for genuine democracy and genuine intellectual freedom, as educators, we have to be bold and continue to fight for the right to teach intricacy, nuance, subtlety, difficult ideas, uncomfortable ideas. This is in the pursuit of those elusive but necessary nuggets that scholarship and education seek: truths.

Wikimedia Commons Photograph by Mohamed Badarne, CC-BY-SA-4.0

The difficulty of reintegrating into the world as you once knew it after an international education

I have often heard this argument: graduates of international schools struggle to adapt to non-international environments, including their own. After years in a type of international bubble, the transition to a local reality can be difficult.

The thought that stands out to me is the whole idea of adaptation to life after school. In fact – and this is what I am going to argue in this piece – that process being difficult might actually be a good thing.  

What if a great education causes a certain defamiliarisation by dint of the new concepts it evokes in the learner, the thresholds crossed, making it impossible to turn back to earlier pastures with the same views and feelings as one had in an earlier life, a little the way an adult returns to a childhood playground only to find that it is much smaller and fragile than what was in the imaginary prolongation of its existence in the memory? 

As we learn, we deconstruct, we go back over and open up (“analysis”  – literally in Greek “lysis” – to open  up, “ana” – backwards), we discover and rediscover in ways that cause us to become strangers in our own lands, whether we physically leave those places or not. 

I think of Jean Paul Sartre’s troublesome centre of consciousness Antoine Roquentin in his phenomenological (and, to me, his best) 1938 novel Nausea: it is a profound awakening in Roquentin which suddenly creeps up on him, meaning that he can no longer go about even the most banal tasks, like turning a door knob or turning the page of a book, without the action feeling different, as if he is now living his life through a different consciousness, outside of himself. 

My interpretation of the book is that Sartre is communicating the idea of learning powerful and profound new concepts. We start by seeing things as absolute, with an inner meaning, a “thing in itself”, which is pleasing and comforting, secure and peacefully simple; then a great teacher, or an extraordinary book (for me it was Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, which I read at 17), or perhaps some profound experience, shakes our foundation, enlightens us, breaks down – even shatters – the mirror we had been looking at all along and leaves in the broken shards a world to be recreated, pieced together with difficulty.

This seminal conversion – like Siddhartha becoming the Buddha under the Bodhi Tree – is when we turn the page from the easy plenum of ignorance to the difficult path of knowledge. It’s a turning point.

And this is when a true education starts: we understand that the world might be noumenal, it might have its inner truths, but no one can get inside them, we will forever be outside of them. We can no longer stand on the side lines and judge the world with the naiveté of a child who lives in binary oversimplifications. Nothing is simple anymore. Nothing is as it was.

It’s a bit like a student discovering what historiography means and what it implies; or when students are first taught Plato’s allegory of the cave (and what a privilege to be the teacher who gets to take them into that place!): these learnings are levers that propel students into an entirely new understanding of just about everything. Threshold concepts are irreversible and transformative, integrative and mind changing.

So, yes, an international education does defamiliarise students from the world as it was before. It will be slightly strange to go back home after a powerful educational experience, whether it is international or not (the international dimension is really that phenomenon of defamiliarisation cast over questions of culture and identity). This is not a bad thing, it’s a beautiful, strange, painful and intriguing thing all at once. Let’s not forget, after all, the etymology of the word educate: ex-ducere – to lead out of. As we learn, we are led out of our former selves into our new selves, leaving the old self and the world as it appeared to that old self, behind.

(Image: 2024-04-03-17-53-50_The-Scream-Painting-Images-_-Free-Photos-PNG-Stickers-Wallpapers-Backgrounds.png)

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.