Looking for the possibility

Benjamin Zander of the Boston Philharmonic is ...
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I am, as those who read my blog regularly will know, a great fan of the TED Talks. However many of these talks I watch there is always one that comes along and moves me. Recently, I got a link from a Tweet (as usual) to a TED Talk from 2008 in Monterey by Benjamin Zander. The Talk was called “Classical Music With Shining Eyes“. It was an amazing talk. I was, like the audience that were privileged to see and experience the talk, swept away by Zander’s obvious love for his subject (classical music) and his hands on approach to delivering a lecture that quite often involved him in standing right in front of the front row of the audience and interacting directly with him.

This TED Talk has now been  added to my all time favourite TED Talks that was originally 10 talks and has since grown to (now) 13 (I am not superstitious!).

Having looked at this wonderful talk I then looked for other talks that Benjamin had on Youtube. I found a wonderful talk that he gave at the Davos Annual Meeting in 2008. This was simply wonderful. Here was a brilliant musician telling some of the world’s leading businessmen and women about how they should look at the world. He said that, at age 45 he came to a turning point in his life (his “Road to Damascus”). He realised that,as a conductor he was silent during any performance. His role though was to get the best out of others.

He then showed a diagram of a mess of lines that looked like a maze gone wrong and this he referred to as “the reality as people see it” the here and now of what is and what cannot ever be. On another chart though, that he walked over to, there was a central vision and from this everything was possible.

I thought about what he said in relation to the current education debate. The testing culture is about the “here and now” it denies possibility because it aims at quantifiable results but it lacks a vision and it denies possibility.

I was going to write a blog post about how I belong to a group of people who can see the future very clearly.. who know that education is about collaboration, creativity and dreaming new solutions not learning a narrow curriculum that will get us nowhere. Then I saw this video and Zander’s words made me see that I had to rethink my post. His simple idea is what it is all about.

I love the idea that he has that all students can be “A” students and that we must let them see their possibilities not tell them their inadequacies. Please watch the video below and you will see very clearly what I mean.

2010 Creativity World Forum

Oklahoma City Skyline from I-35
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I have to admit that I am very excited by the forthcoming Creativity World Forum which is due to take place in Oklahoma City on November 15th -17th. Apart from anything else is the list of speakers that they have lined up.. it reads like a “Who’s Who” of exciting and innovative people like Sir Ken Robinson, Daniel Pink and Pranav Mistry any of whom I would gladly have paid to see on their own!!

Unfortunately I am unable to get in there in person but in these days of video I am sure that there will be a number of fascinating talks that I will look forward to seeing on the net.

I really feel that Oklahoma is to be congratulated on having taken the idea of creativity on board and giving it such a public face. In these days where schools are relying so much on standardised tests and narrow curriculums here are many examples of where innovation and creativity is paying huge dividends.

My favourite part of the promotional video is where the speaker says that, as he speaks, there are probably two nineteen year old people in a garage somewhere inventing something that will transform the lives of many if not all of us on this planet.

I can only hope that the World Forum will be seen by as many policy makers and politicians as possible and that they might begin to get the message that creativity is the basis of our future and that without it we may face a much more negative scenario for our children to inherit.

Learning and Unlearning

Cover of "The House on Beartown Road: A M...
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I love the way that the internet has opened up opportunities to get to know about books, articles, videos that you may never have had the opportunity to read or watch. I have reviewed one such book which was the wonderful “Maus” a cartoon biography about the holocaust and beyond by Art Spiegelman. I got to know about this book as a reference which started from a Tweet about cartoon books in education.

Recently, I followed yet another Tweet reference and found out about a book called “The House On Beartown Road” by Elizabeth Cohen. I looked the book up via a Google search and found out that it was a book about her experiences of living with her baby daughter and her father who had Alzheimer’s Disease.

I looked up my local library service here in the United Kingdom and found that they did not stock the book. Amazon U.K. didn’t either so I looked up Amazon in the U.S.A. and there it was and remarkably cheap as a second hand book (I later found out that it was an ex-library book from somewhere called the Colwich Community Library).

In what seemed like a very short space of time (about a week) the book arrived from the U.S.A. On the front cover there is a photograph of an empty rocking chair in the front of a house and just above it is the sub-title of the book “A Memoir of Learning and Forgetting”.

What had interested me in the book was that the author, Elizabeth Cohen, had presented a very interesting verbal image for me to think about. She said that at the time of writing the book she had exactly forty years between the ages of her daughter and herself and her eighty+ father, a retired, distinguished labor economist. She likened this to a kind of graph with a parabola, herself at the peak and centre, whereby her young daughter was like a sponge, knowing very little but learning all the time and becoming, as the book develops more and more skilled in coping with the world. She was the mature developed human being, able to cope with the world in which she has learnt the skills that she needs to survive on a daily basis and then there is her father, at one time a brilliant academic who seems to forget important life skills on a daily basis and in a sense is “unlearning” the skills that we all need to cope with our lives.

I expected to learn a lot about the nature of learning when I started to read this book but the overwhelming thing that I learnt from the book was about the nature of family ties and the importance of love. It is a beautifully written book and covers a very difficult subject without laying on the emotion in thick dollops. The fact that it is written unsentimentally is indeed its strength because at times she covers subjects that could so easily have been milked for their emotional power.

The other thing that I liked about the book was its honesty. The authoress  is a journalist  by training and brings all the skills of a really good journalist to bear in giving us the facts of her times struggling to live with her father declining right in front of her. She celebrates the times that he manages to remember things and then just reports the fact that he forgets important details or gets himself lost wandering downstairs. She is aware of her role as a nurse, a confidante, an advisor and most importantly, a loving daughter to her father, who at times does not even remember who she is or confuses her with her mother.

But there is another important aspect of this book. It is on the development throughout it of her infant child. Indeed the book was really written for her because it is about her development and her growth and it charts a significant period in her life. At the beginning of the book we learn that Elizabeth’s husband leaves her for another woman and therefore the only permanent male figure in her life is her grandfather who she calls “pop pop”.

Ava, Elizabeth’s daughter would be too young to have an accurate (indeed any) memory of this time. Her mother has therefore left a record that she will be able to use in the future when she has moved along the upward curve of the parabola towards adulthood.

Towards the end of the book she writes:

“That is why I will hang the picture up. So she can always see him. I am hoping somewhere deep in the neurological structure of her brain she will retain a sharp orange flare of Daddy. The man who followed her around one winter and worried about her falling down the stairs. The man who built a fire to keep her warm when she was sick; who said “Hi there, little guy,” every time she entered a room. Who loved her so completely, although he never learned her name.”

As you can see from the above paragraph from the book, this is indeed a beautifully written book that probably deserved much more attention than it received when it was first published, which is why I am bringing it to your attention in this blog posting in the hope that someone may do as I did and get hold of a copy and read it… it was certainly one of the best finds that I have come across in a very long time.

“The House On Beartown Road” by Elizabeth Cohen published by Random House, New York in 2003, ISBN 0- 375-50727-2

Dancing Under The Gallows


This is a wonderful film on so many levels. It is about Alice, the oldest living holocaust survivor, who survived the concentration camps because she was a concert pianist who played practically every night of her stay in Theresienstadt

What stands out about Alice is her love of life, her forgiveness of her experiences of life and her love indeed worship of music that kept her alive and which still keeps her going at 106.

She is 107 next month and is looking forward to her party. Happy birthday to a wonderful human being who really does inspire and enhance our lives.


What I owe to the arts

Yesterday I went for lunch with a group of colleagues. We were saying goodbye to one of our number who was retiring. We sat at a table overlooking the street in which the restaurant was situated and opposite was an old church that had been re-opened as a performing arts college.

A group of students carrying flagpoles came out at one stage and seemed to be making their way to another part of town. “They are probably rehearsing for the street dancing or theatre,” said one of my colleagues, “they perform every week in town.”

At the end of the meal we left the restaurant and two young men were standing by a wall next to the church/college. They were rehearsing lines from a play.. reading their scripts and trying to get the right stress to the words.

Listening to these young men reminded me of the time that I had wanted to spend my life as an actor and a writer of plays. Circumstances had made me change my mind and I had eventually become the teacher and now consultant that was saying goodbye to our colleague who had herself a lifelong interest in literature and was forever telling us about the latest novel that she had read. She had become a children’s literature expert and was a consultant for the B.B.C. and had written books on literacy for them.

This morning, I came across an entry in Facebook from Edutopia. It read as follows:

Almost every one of us can point back to a creative pursuit, in or out of school, that enhanced our skills, knowledge, or understanding. Yet the majority of secondary school students in the United States aren’t required to enroll in arts courses, many elementary schools nationwide lack art classes o…
I thought, as I don’t do enough, about the first sentence above.. that “almost every one of us can point back to a pursuit, in or out of school, that enhanced our skills, knowledge or understanding”.
I have written elsewhere about my favourite book “To Kill A Mockingbird” and how it effected my outlook on life. I have watched a performance many years ago at the National Theatre in London where the actress playing Willy Lomond’s wife in “Death of a Salesman” did her famous speech over his grave towards the end of the play. I often recount, to any who might listen, about the fact that the audience seemed in total silence,as one, with one breath between us, witnessing a great moment of acting.I remember the first time that I saw the opening scene and the dramatic music of “West Side Story” and marveled at the sheer genius of Orson Welles in directing “Citizen Cane” and “The Magnificent Ambersons” whilst still in his twenties. There  are countless times when music has transported me, or made me angry or happy. I appreciate art and sculpture but do not have the same connection with them that I do with music, drama, cinema or literature but know that there are many for whom a painting or sculpture can have the same effect as the other arts do to me.
I will say it here, so that anyone will know, that I love and have been changed as a person, by living in a world (and a country such as Britain) where the arts have always played such an important part in our lives. In many ways I did  get the chance to experience literature, drama and music in my education. Like Rachel Carson with her dystopia of “Silent Spring” I cannot imagine and would find it very hard to live in a world without the arts.
I applaud Edutopia’s stand for the arts in education. I owe the arts so much that the very least I can do is to raise my voice, via this blog and to anyone who will take the time to read it, to plead that we must defend arts education in our schools because they are so important and they must never disappear from our lives.
I will end with a Youtube video of Kristin Chinoweth and Idina Menzel in a PBS documentary about the making of the musical “Wicked”. The section is the rehearsal and song of “For Good”. In this song there are the lines “bacause I knew you I have been changed… for good”.
Although this is about a person, I think it reflects my feelings for the process that allowed me to cry and be moved by this song, to experience the thoughts about the nature of friendship and good versus evil. How can we not have the arts promoted and taught in our schools?

So what’s the point?

A colleague of mine is retiring. We decided to take her out to lunch today to say goodbye. So we went to a local restaurant and had a really good meal.

The conversation was good as well.Being educational consultants we managed to talk almost exclusively about schools! We discussed the schools we were working in a the moment and quizzed an ex-colleague of ours who has recently left the service to become a headteacher (Principal) 0f  a Primary (Elementary) school.

After a while one of us said that she was adamant that her daughter was not going to spend her half term holiday immersed in silly, pointless homework. She wanted her to have fun and get to unwind since she was concerned about the pressure that she felt her  daughter was under to achieve exam and test passes.

This statement unleashed one of the most interesting discussions that I have been a part of for many years. The colleague who was retiring said that she had recently been able to get out a number of her daughter’s old  exercise books from her secondary school.

“It was amazing,” she said, “just how much pointless rubbish she had to learn whilst at her school, none of which she would ever use again in any meaningful way.”

This opened the floodgates to a whole series of personal memories from our own school days. We had to memorise pages from a well known novel or lines from a well known poem which “killed it dead for me” said one colleague. “They never explained algebra,” said another, “they just said that you do this and you get that”.

There was a general agreement that we had forgotten much of what we had been taught and were not allowed to have our opinion that it was a waste of our valuable time  to our almighty teachers who were delivering the knowledge from “on high” that “was good for us”.

We of course were the successes of the system. We all went on to get degrees and  then join the teaching community. We were “good teachers” so we escaped from the classroom (what’s the point of that?) and became advisors whose main job was to make our colleagues effective deliverers of much of the material that we had agreed to ourselves was not going to be of value to our students!

We even got to the point of revolutionary thought…”what’s the point of it all anyway?” “What’s the point of homework?” “What’s the point of boxing our children up for hours in nice neat rows and giving them material that they do not want and will never really use in their adult life?”

On the way back to my office I chatted with a colleague who discussed what we had all said. “We are running a Victorian militaristic/factory model of education,” he said, “that’s why there are nice neat rows and thirty was considered an optimum number because they could be dragooned effectively by the teacher/Sergeant Major!”

“So what do we do about it?” I asked.

“That’s up to our political masters,” he said, “we are aware that much of what they say is pure rubbish but we have mortgages to pay and a lifestyle to uphold!”

I walked back into my office with a gloomy feeling. I know that much of what we do is not to support teachers and help children learn.. it is to produce teachers who are effective at achieving results.. but will the current generation of students  come out of school having studied the same old nonsense that will mean nothing to them as they become adults?

The joy of blogging is the ability to let off steam. Just as the discussion in an informal setting over lunch had been to a group of intelligent educators. But there is no doubt that at some time and place the Victorian model must end. As Sir Ken Robinson has said so many times, we must change this system because it is not achieving anything. Even the guardians of the system like we consultants, are aware of its shortcomings.. but we are afraid to venture into an opposition when there are the lures of high pay and status for upholding the status quo.

I think though that there is change in the air. It is the change that technology is bringing to our society. As in all revolutions there will be pain and victims and there will be the reaction of those who believe  “the old ways are the best”. But a change will definitely come and maybe one day, some of us (probably the younger ones!) will be able to support learning in schools where students have a curriculum that fits their own interests and skills. We will support the teacher as an “effective leader of learning” and we will be able to see our students (our children) interested in what they do and gaining important skills that will set them up for a lifetime of learning and the “Victorian model” will be consigned to the history books where it should have been many years ago!



What I learn from Twitter

Tweeting bird, derived from the initial 't' of...
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A few days ago I retweeted the following Tweet:

jasonhbuck jason buck
“Twitter is some of the best professional Development I have ever had” @thenerdyteacher #140conf #edtech #edchat
I can only say that this is so true. I came to Twitter as a person who believed that it was just about telling your friends where you were and what you were doing. I was soon introduced to the power of the hyperlink and the idea of Twitter communities.
I have learnt that, as in any any network, the larger the number of members the greater potential there is for getting information. I went on a small personal crusade to enlarge my Twitter following and found, much to my surprise, that if I followed some people they actually followed me back!
As the circle of “members” of my personal Twitter community grew then I received more and more links to videos, blogs, articles and feedback from conferences that I had not been to but which others had and were reporting on.
I soon realised that Twitter was indeed a powerful means of me getting a continuous flow of professional and indeed life development. Many of my blog posts were as a direct result of Tweets.
But there is more to Twitter than just information. There is the chance to communicate. This has meant that I feel a part of an ongoing discussion. Recently this has been based on the controversies surrounding cutbacks in my own country (The United Kingdom) or the big debate about testing and teacher efficiency in the United States.
Every Tuesday at 5 p.m. here in the U.K. (12 noon in Eastern United States). I try to make myself available for #edchat. This is a wonderful opportunity for me to put in my own opinions on subjects such as testing, the use of technology, what sorts of ways and means we should be embracing in bringing about a 21st century education and other fascinating subjects. I love the ebb and flow of the conversation and the fact that we can disagree and yet learn from each other.
Through Twitter I get to hear about breaking news in the world. Through Tweets I can find myself watching a video that moves or makes me angry, or listening to a song that makes me cry.
For the uninitiated Twitter can seem to be a big waste of time, yet for those of use who are in it and love it it has opened up so many pathways and helped us to understand where we are and possibly shift our ideas or positions on important issues. It has introduced me to people who I may never have communicated with without it and many of them seem like friends now even though I have never met them in the flesh. Indeed my Twitter community has now spread to my Facebook one and I now have a number of Facebook “friends” that I met originally on Twitter.
If you are reading this post and have never tried Twitter then I can heartily recommend it.. it may well change your life and outlook. In many ways it has changed mine, which is why I agree with @jasonbuck “Twitter is some of the best professional Development I have ever had”