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!

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