Images of learningMy kids don’t go to school. They never have done. Probably never will. Their Mum and I decided we wanted them to learn at home with us. When people ask me why, my short answer is that they were learning so well anyway that we really didn’t see the point in school. And yes, it’s legal.

Funnily enough, most people I talk with are pretty impressed, rather than disapproving. I think it’s because they imagine we are ‘dead brainy’ like teachers, when actually we’re just good at finding things out when we need to. Guess what, you probably are too, what with the internet, books, TV, that thing between your ears, and all. But it seems learning is synonymous with school. Nobody looks too closely at it or really questions it.

I’m always coming up with questions.

A while ago I posted some questions in search of answers. So far I didn’t get any, but that doesn’t stop them coming. Like a four year old asking their mother why they keep asking why, I keep on keeping on. This time my questions are about learning. Most, almost inevitably, have a school theme. I make no apology for that. But I’m not asking you to turn against schools, teachers, and all the rest of it. I’m just shining a light into the corners. I’d love to hear any answers or thoughts provoked. Feel free to add a comment.

Here are my questions:

  • If one of your parents hadn’t run along behind you holding on to the saddle when you were learning to ride a bike, would you never have been able to do it?
  • If the goal was to come up with the best possible means to nurture the natural learning capability of children would you definitely say schools?
  • Which is the better measure of taught reading, a child’s ‘reading age’ at age 9, 10, 11, etc., or the number of books, magazines, websites, and the like read for pleasure at age 30, 31, 32…?
  • If you set out now, as an adult, to learn absolutely everything you knew about history (or geography, or physics, or sociology) when you left school, how long do you think it would take you?
  • In your adult life have you ever found yourself thinking how much you’d love to be able to speak a second language? Did you ever used to think that when you were in a French, Spanish, or German class at school?
  • If retailers blamed their customers for not coming to their stores any more, rather than taking steps to learn what they’d done to drive them away, do you think they’d deserve to stay in business? So what exactly is the problem with truancy?

In every dream home, not a heart-ache, but a dishwasher. It wasn’t ever thus, as listeners to Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour will know. Whilst its place in our (well mostly women’s) liberation from domestic drudgery went without saying, the programme wanted to remind us that doing the dishes by hand wasn’t all bad. In the studio there was a heated debate: in our rush to save labour had we inadvertently lost one of the communal joys of family life?

It all conjured up in listeners’ minds scenes of domestic bliss. This image was shattered when Charlotte, my fellow NET2 convenor, reminisced about her pre-dishwaher days before leaving home. She told me that her dad used to say to the dryer who had complained about food and suds on the plates after he had (supposedly) washed up –   “it’s better than when it went in!” Dads, eh? They have an answer for everything.

How much better would it have been if the voice of the willing workers with the tea towels had really counted? All concerned could have shared their views on what clean looked like and agreed how they would work together to do what mattered to those who would be using the pots and pans next. That should have been easy enough, she doesn’t come from a big family. But what about in the real world of work where there are usually many more people involved and not usually all in the same room? How do they ever get to a shared view on their equivalent of ‘what clean looks like’? And when they do, what are the chances they’ll be capable of pulling off the delivery of it?

Charlotte is convinced that it’s all perfectly possible, though not necessarily easy to do. She has just finished editing a book in which the various contributors gave short shrift to her Dad’s slipshod ways. They didn’t do it to get at him, you understand. It’s just that, in one way or another, they all decided that the ‘and this is as good as it gets’ attitude was not for them. The book is chock full of stories from across the (Eng)land about the wonders done in such essential services as Fire and Rescue, Food Safety, hospital care of stroke patients, Advice on Legal and Social Welfare Problems and even Health and Social Care, where the bad news seems to come thick and fast.

If you can make it to our next meeting on 24 May you will get a chance to hear from one of the book’s authors, Simon Guilfoyle. Don’t be put off if you don’t work, like him, in the police service. You’ll learn lots about what you can do (and not do) if it feels like you’re swimming against the traditional tide of doing things. Whatever your level of authority, if you are, or want to be, a leader introducing change then it’s likely, as Machiavelli said, that you will have as “enemies all those who are well off under the existing order of things, and only lukewarm supporters in those who might be better off under the new”.

Charlotte will be there too with copies of the new book at a very special price! Come and see her have the last laugh. Ha!

As the vernal equinox arrived a good friend told me of his delight at hearing the bees on the cherry blossom in his garden. “That’s what you pick up first”, he said, “the noise. As you stand and watch, you see one bee moving and then, all of a sudden, you start to see them all. Loads of them.” He was planning to recapture the experience again and again whilst it lasted.

Such spectacles might become a less common sight – and sound – according to the journal Science which had two reports about the effects on bumblebee colonies of a pesticide in widespread use. In one study the hives of bees exposed to these neonicotinoids produced 85% fewer queen bees than those which weren’t, suggesting the chemical is suppressing bee populations on “a pretty staggering scale”. In the other study researchers tagged bees exposed to another type of neonicotinoid and tracked their movements. They found that significant numbers got lost and did not return to the hive, threatening the colony’s viability and ultimate survival.

The hazards of pesticides have been known for some time. In the early 1960s, Silent Spring, Rachel Carson’s expose of the lasting damage caused by DDT, was influential in setting the stage for the environment movement. More stringent controls on the agricultural use of pesticides followed. In the case of neonicotinoids, doses (if adhered to) are deemed safe if they do not exceed what occurs naturally, a level that does not kill bees. But, as Dr. Henry from the tagged-bee study noted, “the authorisation processes ignore possible consequences for the behaviour of bees”. He therefore hoped “the people in charge will be more careful”.

In a 1968 lecture, Gregory Bateson (1904-1980) worried that our ability to ‘be more careful’ was slipping away as we harnessed the white heat of modern technology (like pesticides). He predicted that, with more effective machines and tools at our fingertips, we would find ourselves getting into deeper messes. Bateson put this down to a curious twist in the way our minds operate.

We act according to what we see as common sense. But this is an unconsciously edited version of just a small fraction of what is going on around us. The ‘editor’ in our heads creates what we see under our noses based on what we want to get – such as better crop yields by deterring or killing creatures that deplete them. That’s a fantastic short-cut to get you quickly to what you want. In science it has given us ‘a bag of tricks – some of them very valuable’, as Bateson acknowledged.

But this ‘curious twist’ lets us down when it comes to acting wisely. It’s not unusual to find we have an emergency on our hands, or one just waiting around the corner. Faced with these crises, we have little time to plan and are left, as Bateson said all those years ago, “with a dim awareness that expediency will never give us a long-term solution”. That sounds very reminiscent of Dr. Edwards Deming’s warning that industry, education and government were being ruined by best efforts. Many have since mistaken his guide to acting wisely as simply a bag of tricks. But that’s for another blog post. Time now to go out and enjoy the noisy Spring.

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Later this month, we’ll be holding our latest NET2 session, Stop Getting By, Start To Fly – The Best Steps Businesses and Other Organisations Can Take in Difficult Times. There will be no expert at the front, no font of all wisdom, everyone hanging on her every word. Instead, we’ll be unlocking and channelling the expertise and collective wisdom present in the room.

So how will we do that?

Well, first thing to say is that all sorts come to NET2 events. There are deep learners, focused on drilling a mile down into their favoured areas of interest. Others come because they are dissatisfied with the way things are and are curious about how to make a change for the better. There are those who seek personal development and those eager to help develop others. While some want to learn new tools and techniques to take back to the office, others are simply glad to be out of the office, among friendly faces.  Most like to meet people and network with friends old and new, people who get where they are coming from, with stories and knowledge to share that will help recharge the batteries before we return to our daytime haunts.

Put people like this in a room with tea and coffee and, like most everybody, they’d talk whatever, and no doubt learn something. But when the goal is to actively unlock and harness all that capability and positive will for change to produce something concrete – such as a detailed framework of the best steps to take in difficult times – then it’s vital to have a productive, tried and tested way to do that. On the 29 March we’ll be using Logo Visual Thinking (LVT).

But what’s that? Well, for those who know next to nothing about LVT, we took a few minutes out to ask Peter Cruikshanks, who will be facilitating our time together on the 29th, about LVT and why he’s such a fan of the approach.

NET2:  So, Peter, thanks for agreeing to lead our next meeting and for talking to us today. We’ve had a go at LVT before, all those hexagons and white boards, it’s fun. But what’s the attraction for you?

Peter:  I’ve been a fan of LVT for about 10 years, ever since John Varney introduced me to those yellow hexagons in amongst the delights of High Trenhouse.  Ever since then I have been getting out my hexagons at almost every opportunity. Especially since going out on my own as a consultant to owners of SMEs in Yorkshire.

NET2:  Yes, lovely place High Trenhouse. But why do hexagons work for you and your clients?

Peter:  Here’s my thinking. Firstly, we all need time to think and talk. Everybody seems to be getting on with actions, achieving goals, and doing lots of “doing”.  Yet most organisations that employ people are complex and success needs some thinking and collaboration.  And for me that’s where LVT comes in – it encourages bosses, managers and workers to stop and think about an issue or question, then express their thoughts on the hexagons, and then share that thinking with others.  In my experience that sort of activity doesn’t get done enough and we risk ending up with half-thought out actions, supported by half the team.

NET2:  So it’s a tool for reflective collaboration with a view, ultimately, to purposeful action?

Peter:  Definitely. I describe it as STOP, THINK, TALK AND ACT – a bit like the Green Cross code!

NET2:  Right, seventies memories of Dave Prowse come flooding back. But what is it about the quality of the collaboration and all that talking? Many of us can talk with the best of them. Is LVT just an excuse for a talking shop?

Peter:  Not at all. How many times have you heard people say, ‘I thought you meant…’ whether at home or at work?

NET2:   Plenty. Often with people who I expected would get what I was on about.

Peter:  Exactly. In every organisation I have worked in as an employee or consultant, somebody in a leadership role has said, ‘we need more communication up and down this business’.  There is always some truth in that, but it’s not just more communication, it’s better communication. In organisations, there is so much scope for misunderstanding, jumping to conclusions, and the like.  Mostly it doesn’t matter too much. With day-to-day stuff people work it out – eventually. But when these errors happen at a strategic level, then it’s time to worry!  So here is where LVT stands out – by focusing on the words people use and using dialogue, clustering phrases together to create ‘molecules of meaning’, people come to understand what’s really meant and the chances of misunderstanding are significantly reduced.

NET2:  Okay, so is it like brainstorming plus, with hexagons?

Peter:  Definitely not. We’ve all done the Post-It brainstorming, haven’t we?  I find the content or quality of the output is often very mixed, ranging from one word ‘catch all’ comments to really tactical ideas that form somebody’s pet agenda.  And who loses out?  The organisation has to work harder to be innovative and the individuals involved feel let down from their brainstorming session.

NET2:  Been there…

Peter:  Of course. Yet LVT, with its rigour, is a method that gets quality out as the output – with the help of a good facilitator! [Laughs] And when used to its full extent it reveals new levels of thinking and ideas that a few sticky bits of paper can’t.

NET2:  Sounds good. So, even though we’re not a management team coming over all strategic, you think LVT will help us collaborate and pull together our diverse thoughts on the best steps businesses and other organisations can take in these troubled economic times.

Peter: Absolutely. It’ll be enlightening. And for those who’ve never come across it before, I have no doubt LVT will be a good technique to try out.

NET2:  Great stuff. Thanks again for agreeing to do it. We’re looking forward to it. And thanks for this chat.

Peter:  You’re welcome, NET2. See you in Brighouse on the 29th.

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