Friday, 20 March 2009

the moon and the finger pointing

image: flickr iron fillings
there's an old Buddhist aphorism about confusing the moon with the finger that points at's meant to warn against deifying the Buddha instead of grasping the heart of the message he brings.

Currently the most significant and devastating illustration of the error is in the stories emerging from Mid Staffs NHS Trust:

Hospital chiefs blamed poor record keeping and employed more coders to correct a seeming anomaly in their mortality figures. In the meantime, patients were ill cared for and received inadequate or incorrect treatment. The true message was lost as people focused on the medium delivering it.
Its easy to blame government's "target" cultures for such failures: everyone is so busy filling in forms they don't have time for real human contact. That's pretty much what Haringey said in answer to the death of Baby P.

And I think there is a truth here. What "target cultures" do is not just take up valuable person to person contact time in producing figures and reports, they start to convince us that those figures and reports are the real business and that the humans behind them are incidental. Because in fact what is happening is that the measure of progress towards a target is mistaken for the target itself. In this case, the figures were the pointing finger, whilst the real target is afterall the safe and humane care of a real live person.

On a different but related topic, last night my daughter (doing her A2s this year) was complaining about the amount of work she had to produce for her Business course. I was fairly dismissive in a kind of "when I was your age, missy" kind of a way until she revealed that she was compiling a report on Motivation that was expected to reach around 30,000 words. Yes. that's right - I didn't slip an extra nought in there. THIRTY THOUSAND words for an A level course work piece.

I read through parts of it and it was really quite good. I pointed out a couple of minor confusions about Herzberg, but she assured me she wouldn't be marked down for such errors, it was writing lots of stuff that would get her an A.

I accept she may have misunderstood instructions from her teachers in this assertion, but actually I think this does reflect some key messages she is getting from school: its not what or how deeply she learns that seems to matter, but whether she produces the volume of words deemed appropriate.
Target culture could even be said to be apparent in the area of social networking: rapid amassing of followers seems to be the goal of many on Twitter and Facebook, and a good deal of traffic is self-referential and solipsistic. But surely the aim of social networking is, well, you know, social networking? Conversation, meeting people, virtually or in real-life or both?

Focusing on figures, volume, reports, public inquiries, grades - those things we can measure and produce as evidence - makes us feel secure. It makes us feel we are achieving something. Because how do we measure learning? How do we measure caring? How do we measure humanity or our relationship to one another? That stuff is hard....
The moon is a long long way off: the pointing finger - well, now: I can quantify that!

Saturday, 7 March 2009

The Curse of Knowledge

Werewolves, educators, leaders - we have a lot in common when you think about it : lonely, misunderstood, living under a secret curse, liable to turn into a raging monster under the light of the full moon - ok well maybe not the last bit - but are we (not the werewolf) Cursed by Knowledge? *

Yesterday I was creating a short video tutorial for new students on an e-learning programme and, wanting to show them how to download an electronic journal article, I selected - entirely at random - one from the Harvard Business Review in 2006 entitled The Curse of Knowledge.

It describes an experiment where one group of students had to tap out a tune with their fingers whilst the other half of the group had to guess the tunes. (You might like to try this at home.....!)

Heath D & Heath C -The Curse of Knowledge (2006)Harvard Business Review Vol 84 Dec

Does this resonate with any students, educators or leaders out there? The article goes on to recommend that leaders use concrete language and stories to illustrate points and make knowledge transmissable to others. Good advice. But I think what really struck me (as an educator) was how easily we forget what it is like to learn something once we have become masters of our art. I teach salsa classes and some times I am flabbergasted by how hard people find it to grasp the basic rhythms. In my day job I try to encourage students (and sometimes colleagues) to use blogs and wikis and social networking tools and can't understand why they find it difficult: my curse is that I sometimes forget what it is like to be back at that apalling place of not knowing, feeling stupid, clumsy, and frightened of making mistakes (as long as I remain within MY comfort zones, that is!)..............

So lets all make a resolution to go out and learn something new, difficult and challenging at least once a year - and enjoy watching the teacher turn into a werewolf when we don't get it!!

*(and yes that was a pathetic link to allow me to use this great movie poster)