Monthly Archives: April 2011

What’s wrong with education?

In an earlier post – The American Caste System – I stated that there are many things wrong with the current education system and that there were too many things to put into a single post.

This follow-up post highlights how our education system stifles creativity with standardized testing, and how the rules in place are completely out of line with reality.

Test taking is a great example.  In school, you are told not to copy, not to speak with anyone else, and not to use any books, computers or the internet.  But when was the last time that you were given a work task under those conditions in the real world? 

I am willing to bet the answer would be never – not only that, but you would be told to find people who had done this before, and use all the resources available to find the answer.  And you would be rewarded for collaborating in this fashion.

I would prefer that during tests students have access to all the resources available, but the tests were then made much harder – focusing on the students’ ability to digest information and make sense of it, come up with new ideas, and find solutions.  Instead, we are feeding our kids lies and misinformation (usually in the form that there is only one right answer) and, in the process, crushing their creativity and their ability to think outside the box.

While researching this post, I came across the video below and realized that Sir Ken Robinson had, once again, done a better job of summarizing the situation than I could ever do.

I was particularly struck by his statement that, based on some tests, 98% of kindergarten kids rate in the genius level and that this declines over time.  This is backed up by the observances of Peter Skillman with his “Marshmallow Challenge” which gives similar insights, and if that isn’t a sign that our education system is failing our kids then I don’t know what is.

So, in the spirit of using all the resources available, I will just leave you in the capable hands of Sir Ken Robinson.  I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

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Filed under Career, Children, Education, Life - or something like it, Technology, The Human Condition

Managing: Is it you or me?

Are you having trouble communicating with someone on your team?  Frustrated that your messages are not getting through?  Read on…

Many years ago I was leading a team of developers at a large bank.  It was a great bunch, but I was having a lot of difficulty with one of the team members.  For the purposes of this post we will call him Fred.

Fred was bright, enthusiastic, technically excellent…and causing me serious headaches because everything had to be repeated to him several times.

I  would explain the task he was to work on and he would agree that he understood everything.  Later he would drop by my desk and ask me a question which showed that he clearly did not understand, and I would then explain in more detail.  He would leave, only to come back later with more questions, and this would continue until the task was complete.

To say that I was getting frustrated was an understatement.  I was actually starting to wonder whether Fred was worth keeping around, since I was spending so much time with him that I could have done the job myself and had less frustration in the process.

Fortunately fate intervened when a friend emailed a program to me with instructions to run it and let me know what I thought.  This was back in the early days of email when programs sent to you could be run with without any fear of viruses.

At first I thought the program was a joke since it asked a whole series of very odd questions.  I can’t remember many of them, but I do remember it showing several pictures of clouds and asking me to say which one was most like my personality.  Huh!?

After answering these dumb questions the program produced a personality profile of me that was disturbingly accurate.  Included in this analysis was a picture of a brain divided into two halves, with a dot indicating whether you were a visual or aural learner.  My dot was just slightly off-center on the aural side.

And that gave me an idea…

I sent the program to Fred and he came over saying “That’s amazing!  That profile is me to a T!”  Looking at his results I noticed his learning style was as far into the visual area as it could be.  I had my answer!

I immediately changed tactics.  I’m no artist, in fact I can barely draw a stick man, but when I went to speak with Fred I would take a blank piece of paper and draw.  Usually it was pictures of computer discs and stick-men with arrows between them.  It didn’t matter.  From that point forward Fred would get what I was saying instantly.  In fact he turned into the star of the team and ended up taking over from me when I moved on to another company.

It wasn’t Fred’s fault that he didn’t understand – it was mine!  I was explaining things in ways that made sense to me, but communication has to be performed in a way understandable to the receiver.  If I deliver a perfect explanation in English, but the recipient is French…who is at fault if the message doesn’t get across?  By not understanding my audience I was the one that was having the communication failure, not Fred.

Figuring out the audience is essential for all communication.  These days I ask myself a few questions before getting started, including:

  • Do they need detail or just an overview?
  • How technical are they ?
  • What type of personality are they – give-me-the-facts-and-get-out or someone who likes to chew the fat a little before getting into work?
  • How much time do they have? Someone that needs to leave to tend to something urgent is unlikely to pay attention to your detailed presentation.

Spending just a little time to find out about your audience can pay huge dividends in making sure that your ideas are not only heard, but also understood.  To this day I draw often.  I love the white-board in my office and use it often – just in case I have another Fred on my hands.

So, the next time you are having trouble getting a message across, ask yourself one question…is it my fault?

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Filed under Career, Education, The Human Condition

Pass The Salt (Lake City)

This year’s summer vacation started with a trip to Salt Lake City, where we met my Brother and Sister-in-law who came in from London.

As if to prove some of my earlier posts wrong, the flight was mercifully uneventful, and the kids were very, very well-behaved – although the noise-cancelling headphones might have had something to do with that.  What a thoughtful gift to give a man with three young children.

I can’t verify that Joanne was on her best behavior as we were in different rows, but the one time I did seek her out, I found her playing Uno and flirting with a young Stud Muffin Mormon Missionary.  Perhaps this is the Big Love that we all hear about making its presence felt.

We met up with our kin outside the hotel and were immediately introduced to one of the dominant features of Salt Lake City – Vagrants that would appear every time my sister-in-law tried to light a cigarette.  They were always polite, but I swear they were all ex-magicians, because they would materialize, blag a cigarette, and vanish in a haze of fresh smoke.  Pioneer Park seems to be a Mecca for these poor people.

We were only to spend one full day in Salt Lake City, so we set off early the next morning and made for Temple Square, which all of the guide books listed as a “must see”.  The walk there took us through what has to be the cleanest and, at the same time, most barren city I have ever been in.  There were almost no people around (unless you counted the homeless) and one had the odd feeling of being one of the last people on Earth.

After a short stop to let the kids play in a fountain to cool off (it was already starting to get warm), the sight of the temple peeked into view above some buildings.

We entered the gates and were instantly greeted (accosted might be a better word) by two pretty young women asking if we would like a tour.  Since we were right next to the visitors’ center, we opted to try that first. Once inside, we were greeted by two more young ladies, asking if we needed to be shown around. This was to be a recurring theme  – pairs of young women all eager (a little too eager actually) to provide information and show you around.

At first, it seemed very nice and friendly.  They would ask your name, the names of your children, where you were from etc. and then start to tell you about the area you were touring.  Woven into their dialog about a building, or the craftsmanship in a chair, would be little snippets of information about the vision of Brigham Young and how Jesus has been such a powerful influence in their lives.  Near the end of their tour, forms and pens would magically appear (there’s that magician element again) and they would politely ask for your details so that someone could visit you and provide information on how to join their merry band.  As I said, nice and friendly at first – downright creepy after a while.

The buildings themselves were beautiful and a lot of work had obviously gone into making the place spectacular.  In fact, we learned that the pews in the Tabernacle were pine that had been hand painted to look like oak because they didn’t have ‘the best’, but wanted it to look that way.  Honestly, I couldn’t tell that it was paint even on closer inspection.

Unfortunately the temple itself is restricted to entry only by Mormons, and even then only on special occasions.  There is a large model of it in the visitors center that you can look at, along with descriptions of the various rooms that can be accessed using touch screens.

But, as the day wore on, the word ‘creepy’ started to be used quite regularly.  Everything somehow felt too controlled and artificial.  The Stepford Wives movie came to mind on more than one occasion.  I had the strangest feeling that peering beneath the veil of excessive politeness would unearth some horrible truth – a bit like those pew seats really.

Eventually we managed to escape Temple Square (without giving our names to anyone!) and, other than a request for gas money from a man who pulled a large, red, gas-can from a top hat just as we walked past, we made it back to the hotel unmolested.

Since we still had a bit of time left in the day we decided to head to Antelope Island, which one of the guide books had said was beautiful.  I can only assume that the person writing that had either succumbed to the cool-aid or had lived in a dumpster, because that place was hot as hell and as barren as the moon – and not in a good way.

The visitors’ center has to be one of the ugliest buildings I have ever seen, and gave the impression that it was really designed as a place from which to watch nuclear weapon tests.  Which, thinking about it, might not be a bad idea…

Eventually we left the visitors center and headed to the beach of the Great Salt Lake, with the plan of letting the kids swim before an early dinner.  Walking from the car to the lake involved a schlep across about a mile of hot sand and a carpet made of billions of tiny black flies.  Yuk! One man who I passed looked back at the fly barrier at the water’s edge, shook his head in wonder and said “And they [Brigham Young and his band] chose to stop here???”

We let the kids swim for a while but, since those of us not swimming were simultaneously being cooked and attacked by flies, we kept the swim (err…float) short and headed for the “restaurant”.  I put restaurant in quotes, because it turned out to be another bunker – this time with a fridge.  I think they had hot-dogs too, but we decided to limit our feasting there to an ice-cream before heading back into town.

The next morning we loaded up the Rolling Turd and headed for Yellowstone via the scenic route.  It wasn’t long before we were surrounded by the awesome natural beauty of the Grand Tetons, which played a stark contrast to the place we had just left behind.

Salt Lake City certainly has some beautiful buildings…but I’m still not convinced that the people there are real.  Honestly…I was glad to see the back of it.

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Filed under Children, Life - or something like it, The Human Condition, Travel