Thursday, September 29, 2011

Space to think...

Space to think, vital space, head space.

This is it, they can't damn this flow. The English course, an Indian summer, there we were, sitting on the grass, the concrete walls of the institution, vaguely irrelevant. It was impossible to feel anything other than free. The students were standing, others walking, some lounging, chatting, reflecting on their personal projects.

I am sitting on a sofa at home, drinking coffee, writing this. Is this my work? Not sure what it is, but it appears necessary.

Yesterday I went to pick up my daughter at the creche. I looked around at the play space. Lovely bright colours, hand painting on the walls, boxes full of toys, little kids moving freely, busily building their real, imaginary worlds.

I rushed off this evening to the parent teacher meeting at my son's school. I sat facing uncomfortably front at an adult designed child-sized desk. I gazed anxiously at the lists of homework, the shelved exercise books and the high set windows.  Outside, the kids were kneeling on the playground tarmac, playing with their Bayblades.

I got my finger stuck in a metallic chair once. The more that I struggled, the more that it swelled up and made its release unlikely. It was in a German class with the man who would successfully convince me that German was not for me. I remember nothing more about his class.

With a lot of tugging, a sizeable pat of butter and no little pain, I was freed. From that day on, I was the undesirable element.

One afternoon, to my considerable pleasure, he excluded me from his class.  I went off to my study and ate toast. Perhaps the best piece of toast I ever remember eating.

Dormitory, library, lavatory.
Sleeping in a room with thirteen co-detainees left little space for privacy. Showering was communal, baths shared, adolescent angst barely hid. Escape was a common subject of discussion at my school. Tales were told of the three boys who managed to get as far as Preston. We only got as far as Blackpool ice-rink. We bribed the monitors.  I didn't like ice-skating, I couldn't care less.

Peace, on week days, was a lavatory cubicle.  Sundays,  I squatted a corner of the library behind the magazine rack. In times of stress, I continue to find comfort in plastic bound glossies and anonymous silence.

Four walls and a door
Let's just close the door, so nobody can hear what I have to say.

Why do we insist on sitting people down on chairs to learn? How much do other people's spaces condition our behaviour? Would we want other people to choose our furniture for us?  Why do prisons and some schools have high-set windows? What has learning got to do with facing front? Aren't we missing something if we only look in one direction? What is it about libraries and comfort? Should the bell at the end of the school day be a release?

Banksy mural 
Photo PaternitéPas d'utilisation commercialePas de modification Certains droits réservés par walker cleavelands 

Monday, September 12, 2011

Diving for pearls? (they're all cultured now)

Before the beginning of the 20th century, the only means of obtaining pearls was by manually gathering very large numbers of pearl oysters from the ocean floor, (or lake or river bottom). The bivalves were then brought to the surface, opened, and their tissues searched. More than a ton were searched in order to find at least 3-4 quality pearls..

Bored yet? Not to your fancy? I give up!  No, I didn't write that introduction, I know nothing about all of this; I cribbed it off Wikipedia, and here's the photo to prove it:

Now I don't know about you, but I hate wasting my time reinventing the wheel, searching for that link...(yawn) somewhere on page 46 of a Google search. After all that effort, when you have found that rare pearl, there is a temptation to hide it away, with your precious favourites, or to show it off proudly at meetings to less well endowed colleagues.

- Look what I know, aren't I a clever clogs me?

- No actually, he found it on the internet...on his phone.

Another tempting lure for us learners is to copy and paste the content from the oyster which is our world (wide web) and to pretend it's our work. Never done that? Of course not; we are pearly whiter than white (unlike those poaching students).

So in this age of collaboratively cultured pearls (thank you Wikipedia!) it is getting easier and easier to find stuff to learn and to copy, to make us seem really bright. Yes, it does help if you know the right type of mollusc which interests you, something about its natural habitat, and even where the other expert pearl divers or farmers hang out....

All these points I will return to, but for now, let us just cast our gaze across the ocean which is the internet and reflect........

All done? OK let's go on.

No question, our apprentice fishers will need to learn how to search effectively, how to work together and where to find friendly experts to save their precious time. Joyous with a successful trawl, they will need to know how and where to share their find(ings) and/or how to transform it/them into culturally valuable individual works of art/science/cuisine etc.In this way, they themselves might become recognised one day as unique...

Knowledge, it is safe to say, does grow on trees.

I have a particular fishing tool that I would like to share with you today. It  works in  net browsers, in and out of Twitter, it enables you to organise your links with tags in organic coral-like structures, and makes your diving or culturing work available to all by embed, by mail or by inviting others to join in the fun.  Want a shift of paradigm? You are not alone in our ecosystem! By clicking on the little pearl,you can even fish as a team, err, as a school...of fish, together, in the high seas.

Here it is, take it all, take a single pearl... my colleague did this afternoon. Here is my priceless tree just below. I confess that it is not all my own work.

Learning to learn et Language learning social networks / Search dans sensor63 (sensor63)

I shall be teaching my students how to fish the net together very soon. It will save my breath.  Why should I dive so often at my age? The kids can do it.

Original Photo Credit for pearl diver :Kuwaitsoccer

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Settling old sores.

My son's football team lost this afternoon.

To be honest, they were whipped, pasted, buried, truly humbled 6-0, 6-0, 4-0, 3-0...

It was a dash to their young egos. Unfortunately, the expected transfers to Barcelona might not be on the cards this season, certainly not before the next mercato..

If the kids were taught a lesson today, so was I, by their young team coach.

He sat them down, as their heads dropped in disappointment and complimented them on their willingness to run and to play. "Don't worry," he said, "this is your first year, we'll work on it in training." "Your goal-keeping showed bravery," he said to my son. "Today, I just want to show you one thing," "Look.." and he picked them up and showed them just one new technique to work on. "There's no point me telling you everything you did wrong because you won't remember it and you won't go out and enjoy yourselves," he concluded.

They brushed themselves off, got up and lost their last match 2-0.

I am often struck by the parallels between learning a language and learning to play a sport. It takes years of practice to develop the skills required to compete. If you don't enjoy a sport, you will never have the motivation to put in the hours of training. If you don't have intrinsic motivation to listen and to read and to speak and to write you won't get very far in your acquisition of a language. Failure and mistakes are an inevitable part of learning and are essential to success. Michael Jordan's failure went on to become part of his Nike enhanced myth.

Failure, here in France, is unfashionnable; competence, quality, control is projected everywhere. 'Competent' teachers feel it a quasi duty to underline in red ink everything which is incorrect. The kids are often battered and bruised into silence and shame at their incompetence. Work, homework, is serious stuff, exercises unquestionnably given and children driven to unquestion.

Rewards, marks, averages and scores are settled in the educational psyche. Would it not be time to wonder if our time might be better spent?

I would recommend reading Daniel Pink's Drive! to teachers wishing to reflect on their motivations. Listening to or reading JK Rowlings 2008 Harvard Commencement speech entitled The fringe benefits of failure might accompany their leisurely read of Harry Potter.

While I am dwelling on my son's goal-keeping career, I can't help thinking that we need to celebrate heroic failures who came good despite their early disappointments. We all have so much to learn, we are all sensitive to the remarks of our fellow players.

When I was the age of my son I dreamt of playing rugby for England. I sorely failed in this ambition. My rugby teacher, however, left me with a few words of encouragement which have helped me deal with my repeated failures over the years. "This boy has a big heart," he wrote in my school report. "Give me 14 more players like him, and we would never lose." It doesn't take much red ink to build up self-esteem, perhaps much more to destroy it.

Samuel Beckett sums it all up for me,
"Ever tried? Ever failed? No matter! Try again. Fail again. Fail better."

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Monday, September 5, 2011

Eieio... (Phone)...

Two year old in restaurant.

- No no sit down. No, no!!!
- Please, if you sit down, you will have an ice-cream.
- No! NO sit down!

Parental exasperation, last resort.

Parent takes out iPhone. Two year old looks triumphant and sits down immediately.

- EiEiO, EiEiO!

Instantly the toddler is transformed, she is in a state of transe-like flow.

-Old Macdonald had a farm, EiEiO!

That App cost me three or four euros but it's worth every centime. If I had tried singing every nursery rhyme I know, my daughter would have ended up standing on the restaurant table, in the ice-cream.

-  No! No sit!

I am quite sure that we don't all bond with the same objects around us in the same way, so it is very difficult to judge technology objectively. For some kids, it's a handkerchief, for others a teddy, but heaven forbid that you should forget the object of love and its importance for the loved one.

As far as I can see, the smartphone to this toddler appears  principally to be an interactive nursery ryhme. To me, it is an essential professional tool for learning, teaching and networking.

For my colleagues at work, there are those who appear desperately attached to their cassettes, the photocopier, the cardboard folders, books and all and I can only say that I am beginning to feel empathy for their apparent resistance to another age.

The other day, in a frenzy of domestic space rationalisation my wife threw out all the CD boxes for my CD's. After all, who should give two hoots for plastic boxes? You still have the music and the sleeve notes.

Oh reader, my despair! For me, the joy was in the gestures; reaching out to the box, turning it around in my hands, feeling the slight designed-in resistance on opening the lid....The Cure! Boys Don't Cry!

All of this brings me back to the day I saw a TV presenter spread jam on a CD in order to demonstrate how relatively indestructible a slice of music this would be. It must have been in the 80's when I had time to listen to my music.... My two year old did the same test recently, I feel frankly that I have been conned.

I don't go for music downloads, I am like many of my teaching colleagues. It's not that I can't see that my students think me absurd for actually buying CD's but I suppose I am of another time. I have too many memories...

It is not that we cannot see that we should perhaps move on and keep up. Reason is what makes us grumpy. Giving up that which makes one feel secure, takes time and gentle encouragement. We don't like being dictated to, particularly when it comes to our tools (comfort blankets...)

Kids are generally pretty good at helping their parents to evolve. They are only too happy to show them what they know how to do. They have the time, peer support network, and curiosity to learn how stuff works. They have less or no nostalgia for the old ways of doing things. Their time is coming.

Now teachers, I feel we have to find some way to compromise here, to own up that it's ok to have teddy bears, to know nursery ryhmes. The kids wil help us learn, or they will learn quite happily for us, if we let them.

We all need to have confidence in our need for security and to let go. We are living in a different epoque but Old Macdonald still has his farm, with pigs, horses, donkeys, and sheep...


Sometime in the future

- When I was a kid we used to have a thing I loved. I think they called it an iPhone. But I called it EiEiO...

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Saturday, September 3, 2011

What I learnt from the Michelin Man...(breaking the mould)

I confess to an emotional attachment to Michelin.

I know that this will be seen by many as suspect. After all it's a multinational corporation we are talking about here. It's not fashionable to profess one's admiration for such a company.

I had better explain myself.

I have been living in Clermont Ferrand for almost half my life, As one arrives in my city, the capital of Auvergne in France, one is met by a gigantic billboard announcing factory buildings; this is the capital of Michelin.

Nobody in Clermont Ferrand can ignore the might of the company in the fabric of the community. For you, Michelin maybe only mean tyres and Bibendum, the company's logo, here it also names a family: Edouard, Andre, Marcel... streets, stadiums and schools. Clermont and Michelin are indissociably linked, for better or worse - fact.

As in all family histories, there have been shadowy stories and tragic instances. Stories of collaboration with the German occupier during the second world war or resistance to it followed by deportation and imprisonment. Triumph,..untimely death punctuate its saga.

Major conflict, industrial/internacine dispute, innovation, competition, domination, secrecy, distrust run deep here; emotional attachment does not preclude reasoned detachment or harsh judgement.

For all its failings, Michelin indisputably knows how to make trust-worthy radial tyres for your car, plane, tram, bike, tractor, truck or space shuttle.

One might remark: one tyre does not fit all.

Last Sunday, we took the kids to the park and while they were tiring themselves out, running, sliding and swinging. I fell into discussion with a Michelin man. He had just arrived in the capital after stints in the USA, Germany, the UK...

He was unquestionably, a Michelin man. Michelin men seem all to be of the same mould. Analytical, reasoned, reliably dressed and attached, Jean-Claude (we will call him JC), had worked in other corporations before being adopted by the Michelin family, thus giving him means of comparison.

Elsewhere, he had been used to being driven, his time and productivity counted to the last toc. The Michelin mind-set came as rather a shock.

"Yes, we think the fit between us is good, come and work with us." They had said at the interview.
"Oh right," said JC, "Er what shall I be doing."
"Oh don't worry about that." came the reply, "Trust us, come and work with us."
"Eh bien d'acord."

JC signed his contract.

A little while later, he was given an office and the vaguest of missions.

"OK, you have a month. Go and talk with us, see what we do, see what interests you. We'll talk together about where you'll be working after. Trust us."

A month later after observing JC from afar and chatting with other company men, the men came back and assigned JC his first real job. A variety of assignments around the world followed at regular intervals. Michelin invests in such men who will manage.

JC was now about to enter the lofty heights of the corporation's headquarters.

Financial director for agricultural tyres, his career was taking off. Happy, analytical, if not un-critical, JC expressed his admiration for the Michelin way. As the kids were whooping with joy in the play park.

I made mental notes:


How many older kids in school get to seriously play freely? Should they be so driven? How much time do we give them to find their route? How much of our observation is done from afar? How much time do we take to imagine their missions with them? Are we so impatient to mould them to be competitive that we tire them out? Do we confuse education with manufacture? What do we do to help them break our mould?


One tyre doesn't fit all.

You can't assemble a company or a community without trust.

Constant adaptation is essential to remain en route.

Freedom of action does not come without constraints.

Apprenticeship cannot be dissociated from research, repetition, or revolution.

Capital growth is rooted in social responsibilty.

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