The Nature of the Beast (Part 1)

History is filled with examples of remarkable individuals or groups, who forge fantastic empires and systems that drastically change how people live and think. Yet, a few short years or decades after they are gone, what they built shudders into a slow collapse or sometimes, even a sudden fall.

One of my favorite stories is the legend of Alexander the Great and the Gordian Knot. In one version of the tale, Alexander marched into the ancient province of Phrygia where there was an ox cart tied to a post with an intricate knot. The knot was famous for being so tangled that no one could untangle it and there was in fact, a prophecy that anyone who could untangle the knot would go on to rule all of Asia.

Alexander tried for a while to undo the knot in the usual way, without success. And then he stepped back, drew his sword and cut the knot in half with a single blow. Shortly after, he went on to conquer Egypt and large parts of Asia, greatly expanding the Macedonian Empire started by his father, King Philip II.

He did all this before he died at age 32. To the older people reading this, think back a bit and look at what you were doing at age 32, then you would probably understand why he is called “the Great.”

The Macedonian empire lasted around 150 years, reaching its height during Alexander’s reign and slowly declining thereafter due to internal strife and struggle.

Mention “Macedonia”to people today and probably 9 out of 10 will look back at you with blank stares. Where now is the empire that this young conqueror built?

The story shows a pattern often repeated until today in the business world. Consider the story of Nokia. It is hard to imagine that less than 20 years ago, Nokia meant “cellphone” just as much as “Google”means search on the internet.

Nokia was then the leading cellphone maker in the world, besting its competitors by a large margin. It offered different models catering to every price range. Its iconic ringtone was and is still familiar to those today in their late thirties and above.

Mention Nokia today to a teenager and he’ll probably look at it as just one of the minor players in the cellphone market, with probably less brand recognition than Apple or Samsung.

This is the nature of the beast. It is the struggle between innovation and stability, between creativity and conformity. Innovators cut through a gordian knot of problems with a brilliant solution, then bureaucrats take over and try to implement systems to duplicate, scale up and sustain the success, inevitably creating another gordian knot that may end up being more tangled than the first.

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

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The Teachertainer (Part 2)

The modern understanding of the word education is perverted. In fact, if I ask you right now about your education, you would probably enumerate the schools you’ve attended and the degrees you’ve earned. The more letters you can put after your name, or the more expensive your school is, the prouder you are of your education.

We have taken education to mean the time you spend in the classroom, or your government-approved instructional institution (whether public or private) that confers degrees or diplomas on individuals. We have taken education to mean sitting on a desk and listening to an expert lecture on a certain topic, and the measure of your being educated is how well you perform on certain tests that these experts deem you must pass, otherwise you are uneducated.

It is this misconception that has led us to expect great educators to be great teachers, and thus to be great entertainers.

The classroom is only one way to get an education. Listening to a teacher’s lecture is only one, among hundreds, of ways that we learn, and it is not even the most important or most significant. In a survey done among adults asking them to rank their own methods of learning, the number one method turned out to be conversation or interaction with others, and of the lowest ranked methods of learning was through teaching or lectures.

Dan Greenberg said it best in Turning Learning Right SIde Up (co-authored with Russell Ackoff):

“Traditional education focuses on teaching, not learning. It incorrectly assumes that for every ounce of teaching there is an ounce of learning by those who are taught. However, most of what we learn before, during, and after attending schools is learned without it being taught to us. A child learns such fundamental things as how to walk, talk, eat, dress, and so on without being taught these things. Adults learn most of what they use at work or at leisure while at work or leisure. Most of what is taught in classroom settings is forgotten, and much or what is remembered is irrelevant. In most schools, memorization is mistaken for learning. Most of what is remembered is remembered only for a short time, but then is quickly forgotten. (How many remember how to find a square root or ever have a need to?)”

What I realize now, having been both a student and a teacher, is that students barely remember the lessons you painstakingly prepared for in the classroom (maybe they will remember one or two lectures, three if you’re lucky ), but they will always remember how you treated them as human beings. This truth is especially felt when I think about and meet my former teachers, and also when I get together and talk with my former students.

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

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The Teachertainer (Part 1)

There is a viral video of a certain teacher who, while teaching, seems to write on the projector screen behind him with a permanent marker. After trying unsuccessfully to erase the mark with his hand, he opens a video of this other teacher giving a lecture in Math (and it is shown on screen), then calls out to the teacher in the video and asks for help. To everyone’s surprise, the teacher in the video seems to hear him, then moves his own window closer to the mark, and also tries to erase it. What follows is an entertaining sequence of funny and cleverly choreographed actions and animations to get that mark off the screen. Even though the video doesn’t show the students, you could tell by their laughter and their audible remarks that they are having a lot of fun.

The comments were also interesting, “Wow, I wish I had a teacher like him in high school,” or “This guy is so cool. I wouldn’t have been bored with math with him around.”

Whatever the specific comments, the general public consensus is that this guy is such a great teacher. I wouldn’t be surprised if this video was shown to college education majors as an example of what excellent teaching is all about. Most people who shared and commented on that video seemed to agree on that point.

And most of them are wrong.

We have come to a point of gross misunderstanding about education — that it equals entertainment. We judge the educators’ competence by their ability to “make things interesting” and we put a lot of unfair pressure on teachers to also be entertainers, all in the name of “being equipped with different teaching strategies.”

I won’t deny it. I, too, was an entertainer. Ask my former students what they remember me for and they will probably tell you that they remember me sitting or standing on the teacher’s desk, or that I told jokes, or that I would suddenly shout at them, pretending I was angry, then smile when I saw their frightened faces, or how I would openly challenge rules on decorum like wearing shorts instead of the officially prescribed uniform.

I also went through a phase when I myself thought that it was my job to capture my students’ interest, to do things to keep them from staring out the window and focus instead on my wonderful lecture about force, mass and acceleration.

Let me tell you what I learned from that experience. I learned that it is unfair to expect that of all teachers. Imagine if all teachers would spend time creating entertaining videos or try to be funny when they’re actually not. It puts undue pressure on the teacher to put on a good show (especially when being observed by the principal or heaven forbid, the accreditors) instead of simply teaching.

But all this is simply a matter of wrong expectations, and we have wrong expectations because we have the wrong idea of what education is all about. That is the root of the problem, and that is what I will address next.

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

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Visiting Sudbury Valley School (Part 3)

“Don’t do it,” said Mimsy.

Mimsy Sadofsky is one of the pioneers of Sudbury Valley School (SVS). Apart from Dan and Hanna Greenberg, she is one of the school’s longest-serving staff since it opened in 1968. All her three children graduated from the school.

She said those three words as her advice on our desire to open a Sudbury school here in Davao.

“Don’t do it,” she repeated, when I chuckled the first time. “I’m serious,” she said. “Move here, send your kids here.”

Then we talked about the never-ending challenges of starting and running this type of school. You literally get bombarded from everywhere — government, other schools, even parents. She knew the pain, and wanted to spare us or prepare us for it.

Society has a hard time wrapping its head around the idea that there can be any other type of “education” than the “standard” model. Many people have become successful despite not going through the school system or dropping out of it. In fact, some of the most recognizable names in the world were once dropouts – Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison, Oprah Winfrey, Ellen Degeneres, Tom Hanks, Coco Chanel, Al Pacino, Jim Carrey, Ralph Lauren, and so on.

I’m sure you know someone who didn’t do well in school but are at the top of their game in their business or profession. The person who has the reputation as the best doctor in your community may not have topped the board or graduated with honors. I know several successful businessmen who admit to just copying from their classmates or who were troublemakers.

Even my own father did not finish high school. His schooling was interrupted by World War 2, but his education went on as he learned how to fight and struggle for survival — building a pharmacy business that started from a box of medicines he and his brothers carted to the public market every day.

When he was still alive and active in the business, he was often mistaken for a doctor because he could tell you, from memory, what this or that medicine is for, what the dosage was and what are the side effects. He told me that he and his brothers had to learn all those the hard way, by painstakingly reading the literature found in each box.

Education does happen in the absence of, and in spite of schools. The goal of SVS to provide an environment where students have the time and freedom to explore what it is they really want out of life, how to relate with other people, and discover who they really are — but not to dictate to them what it is they should be learning. Without the desire to learn, teaching is useless.

It is a difficult journey we face, but when my wife asked Mimsy if it was worth it — the heartaches and trials — she answered, “Oh every minute, every second.”

That’s all I need to know that this is a cause worth fighting for, because Davao deserves a Sudbury school.

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

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Visiting Sudbury Valley School (Part 2)

One of the highlights of our visit was sitting in a couple of Judicial Committee (JC) meetings.

Now, one might think that a school like SVS would have little to no rules. After all, students can do anything they want, right? Wrong.

SVS has a rulebook with neatly numbered rules divided into topical subsections. There are rules protecting general welfare, rules governing use of the school’s facilities, rules concerning school management and even rules on the judicial system which detail what the JC can or cannot do.

Some examples of the rules are:

  • It is not permitted at school to shout, or display in a public place, obscenities, images, or language generally regarded by the outside community as inappropriate for a school environment.
  • Chewing gum cannot be sold at school.
  • No one may apply a personal scent product inside a school building.

While these may look like rules in any other school, the difference is that anyone may propose to amend, discard or add another rule, subject to discussion and votation. So these are not just rules handed down from on high but they are made in agreement. There is a sense of ownership and responsibility, and even pride, in keeping them.

The JC is a special committee that meets daily to discuss various cases of rule violations. It is composed of 5 students, a Judicial Clerk (serving as chairman of the meeting) and an adult staff. Everyone gets one vote. The staff has no special authority or function in the committee.

The JC studies each case and attempts to reconstruct the situation. They call in the accused and/or witnesses if necessary for them to write an accurate narrative. Then they discuss, debate, and decide which rule had been broken. They then asked the accused if he or she pleaded guilty or not guilty. If guilty (which happened most of the time), the JC would then decide on the sentence or punishment. Punishments would usually be in the form of a fine or restriction of certain rooms or facilities for a fixed time period. For example, if someone was guilty of being excessively noisy in a room where that wasn’t allowed, that person would be banned from that room for a week.

We watched in fascination how a bunch of teens and pre-teens took their jobs seriously, laboring over the wordings of the report to make sure it was a fair and accurate representation, and at one point, the JC Clerk even inhibited himself from the case because he was a witness and would therefore be biased.

The entire process was also open to anybody who wanted to come in and observe how the “justice system” works. People would walk in and out of the meetings, sometimes listening for a bit, then going out again. There was a boy whom we thought was just lounging around as he had his headphones on and was looking at his phone the entire time. We were surprised after the meeting when he took off his headphones and started talking, quite articulately, about the case, and how he had never seen that happen before.

The JC provided hands-on experience of what a democratic judicial system is all about, and is a hundred times more effective than any classroom lecture can be.

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

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