The map and the territory: avoiding educational Sat Nav

In my car we have a battered old map from 2006.  I really should get a new one.  Friends have suggested I should get a Sat Nav. 

I refuse to as a matter of principle.  Why? What’s wrong with a Sat Nav? I did ask myself that recently when I was lost in south London trying to find a house to collect a piece of furniture I’d bought on e-bay.  But, I do prefer to read a map.  Indeed, I wouldn’t set off on a journey without one.  Handy though the Sat Nav would have been on that particular trip; and indeed convenient though they are, I don’t like the idea of being told what to do by a disembodied voice, however silken and beguiling its simulated female tones. I prefer to think for myself. even if that means the journey is less certain for it. 

I think that when you’re on a journey, when you’re driving, you should be alive to everything around you; sure, you need guides, you need people to point you in the right direction if you take a wrong turn; you should benefit from the experience of those who travelled the route before.  But, not to think for yourself about where you’re going, and how exactly you are getting there; that seems to me to be sleep-walking through life.

My famous name-sake, the Russian author, playwright and philosopher Leo Tolstoy, led an interesting life, often rejecting the obvious path, ending his life living extremely humbly and spurning his aristocratic inheritance.  Famous for his novels, such as Ware and Peace and Anna Karenina, he also wrote a lot of essays and philosophical reflections. One such was this: he wrote that “The two most powerful warriors are patience and time”.  He elaborates that “Patience is waiting. Not passively waiting. That is laziness. But to keep going when the going is hard and slow – that is patience.

 I wonder whether the appeal of Sat Nav technology is tied up with our desire for the fastest routes through things; with a lack of patience; with laziness.  Please understand me – I’m not having a go at technology – progress is good; technology empowers and liberates people.  This is good.  But, my question is whether the quickest route is always the best.  And whether sometimes it is better to make choices for yourself rather than accept the wisdom programmed into a computer. 

Indeed, there are some hilarious – and also rather disturbing stories – about the extent to which people will hand over their free will to their Sat Nav, trusting them despite all the evidence of their senses. I love the true story about the group of bank workers on a Christmas shopping beano to France who were taken to the wrong country after a sat nav blunder diverted their coach seven hours off course.  The office outing was scheduled for the French city of Lille; they were diverted 98 miles away to a village of the same name across the border in Belgium.

Staying with Belgians (nothing personal against them of course), a Belgian truck driver blamed his electronic way-finder after leaving a £20k trail of destruction in his wake in Wadebridge, Cornwall.  Directed by his sat nav into an unsuitable cul-de-sac, the hapless trucker put his foot down in a panic, ending his turning manoeuvre by ploughing over a mini roundabout, getting a car trapped under his lorry, and destroying five more vehicles.

And what about the story of the cab driver taking Earl Spencer’s daughter Katya to a Chelsea football match ended up 146 miles off course in Yorkshire after  the driver’s sat nav directed him to the tiny village of Stamford Bridge.  They missed the Blues’ 2-1 victory over rivals Arsenal.  Good thing too (as an Arsenal fan).

Clearly, it’s not the fault of the machines, but the mindlessness of their users.

Schools shouldn’t give their pupils a Sat Nav; we mustn’t allow our youngsters to slumber brainlessly as they are led by educational GPS. The learning journey is about discovery – the map and the territory;  it should be enlivening; it should not always be comfortable; it should challenge us.  Certainly, we do not want to be paralysed by fear of the unknown; we want to feel secure and at ease – and we all need occasional reassurance that we are on the right path.  But, there are many ways to get to where you’re going.  Our job, as teachers, is to provide maps to guideour youngsters over the ancient ways; the job of the pupils is to read the maps for themselves.

Reading for Pleasure – received wisdom & common sense backed up by evidence in new IoE report

In a week that saw the announcement of arguably the highest quality Booker prize short-list for a good while, the results of a major piece of research into the effect of reading for pleasure were published today [11 September 2013]. The key finding is that regular access to books between the age of 10 and 16 actively boosts pupils’ vocabulary and spelling skills and, the report argues, reading even enhances their performance in maths.

The educational visionary and genius Dr Seuss, and his trusty Cat in the Hat, were onto this a while back. The Cat says:

I can read in red. I can read in blue.
I can read in pickle color too.
I can read in bed, and in purple, and in brown.
I can read in a circle and upside down.

I can read with my left eye.
I can read with my right.
I can read Mississippi with my eyes shut tight.

There are so many things you can learn about, but
You’ll miss the best things if you keep your eyes shut.
The more that you read, the more things you will know.
The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.

Dr Seuss: ‘I can read with my eyes shut’

Graeme Paton, Education Correspondent for The Daily Telegraph, reported: ‘In the first study of its kind, researchers found that children who receive bedtime stories from their parents as infants perform better than those who go without. But it emerged that reading for pleasure during secondary school had the biggest effect, with books judged to be more important to children’s development at an older age than the influence of their parents.
The study by academics at the Institute of Education […] found that reading had the strongest effect on vocabulary development but the impact on maths and spelling was “still significant”. The findings come amid continuing concerns that too many children are shunning books in favour of iPads, games consoles and television.

Research earlier this year found the relative difficulty of books read by pupils “declined steadily” as pupils got older, with large numbers of children ditching them altogether in secondary school.  Dr Alice Sullivan, co-author of […the] research, said: “There are concerns that young people’s reading for pleasure has declined. There could be various reasons for this, including more time spent in organised activities, more homework, and of course more time spent online. However, new technologies, such as e-readers, can offer easy access to books and newspapers and it is important that government policies support and encourage children’s reading, particularly in their teenage years.”

Researchers analysed the behaviour of around 6,000 children as part of a long-term study that tracks the lives of thousands of people born in 1970. It looked at how often they read during childhood and then compared reading habits to test results in maths, vocabulary and spelling at various stages. Children who were read to regularly by parents at the age of five performed better in all three tests at 16 than those who were left without a bedtime story. But it emerged that the greatest effect was felt between the age of 10 and 16. Children who read books regularly at 10 and more than once a week at 16 gained higher results in all three tests at the end of secondary education.

Reading was found to be more important for children’s cognitive development at secondary school than the influence of their parents. The combined effect of regular reading, visits to the library and ready access to newspapers at 16 was four times greater than the advantage children gained from having a well-educated parent with a university degree […]. Dr Sullivan added: “It may seem surprising that reading for pleasure would help to improve children’s maths scores. But it is likely that strong reading ability will enable children to absorb and understand new information and affect their attainment in all subjects.”’ * DT, 11.9.13

This long-range study backs up what common sense tells us. Indeed, one comment posted on the Telegraph website suggested that the findings of the report are about as surprising as the headline: “Shock news – water is wet”. If it’s that obvious that reading is good for you, why is it newsworthy? And why am I going on about it again? Well, the most important truths bear repeating. People who read are, quite simply, better educated. What we read reveals something about our character and personality. That we read, tells other people about how we value learning itself.

I shall read to my 4 year old daughter this evening. Winnie the Witch is her current favourite. I shall read to her not because I want her to do well at school, although that would be nice, of course. I shall read to her because it is a pleasure. Tonight I think we’ll give Winnie the Witch a break – and go with a bit of Dr Seuss.

No excuses

What’s the worst excuse you’ve ever used? The worst excuse for being late, or not having done something you were supposed to do, or for missing an activity. Sometimes, like white lies, excuses are used to avoid hurting feelings or to maintain good relations. You decline a party invitation saying that you have a prior engagement. Do you really?

One of the great theatres for the performance of excuses is the reasons employees give for taking the day off work. The following are genuine examples – not, I hasten to add, given by staff at my school, but taken from an employment website:

‘My dog is having a nervous breakdown; I forgot I’d been hired for the job; my toe is stuck in the tap; a bird bit me; I was upset after watching ‘The Hunger Games’; I locked myself inside my house and I can’t get out; I can’t find my car; I’m stressed out and if I come to work I’m likely to punch someone.’

This kind of excuse-making is funny on one level. Some may indeed be true, but excuse-making ends up debasing the trust between people and, often, insults the intelligence of the person on the other end of the excuse. George Washington, the first US president said: “It is better to offer no excuse than a bad one”. It is far better to tell the truth and face the consequences, than it is to damage trust.

The second kind of excuse is what psychologists call ‘rationalization’: this is when the individual deals with emotional conflict and external stresses by through the elaboration of reassuring, self-serving and incorrect explanations. In other words, you deceive yourself; inventing a more comfortable illusion, in order to avoid facing the truth. We may do this when we find things tasks difficult and want to give up. When we fail, we may look for things outside ourselves to ‘soften the blow’ – these excuses are simple self-deception. And they prevent us from developing and facing up fully to our challenges.

Martin Luther King, Jr. said: “It seems to be a fact of life that human beings cannot continue to do wrong without eventually reaching out for some rationalization to clothe their act”. Rationalizations – excuses – prevent us from dealing with the mistakes and wrongs we have done, both on an individual or collective level. Think about some of the justifications for acts of aggression and war.

The existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre explored the idea of self-deception. He wrote: “For many have but one resource to sustain them in their misery, and that is to think, “Circumstances have been against me, I was worthy to be something much better than I have been. I admit I have never had a great love or a great friendship; but that is because I never met a man or a woman who were worthy of it; if I have not written any very good books, it is because I had not the leisure to do so; or, if I have had no children to whom I could devote myself it is because I did not find the man I could have lived with. So there remains within me a wide range of abilities, inclinations and potentialities, unused but perfectly viable, which endow me with a worthiness that could never be inferred from the mere history of my actions.” But in reality and for the existentialist, there is no love apart from the deeds of love; no potentiality of love other than that which is manifested in loving; there is no genius other than that which is expressed in works of art.” Whatever ones views of Sartre’s atheistic existentialism, these words have the ring of truth: we are judged by our acts – what we do, rather than being judged on the quality of the excuses we offer for the things we didn’t do.

In a book on leadership and self-deception, philosopher and business consultant C Terry Warner looks at sport as another theatre for excuse-making. “Except in a very few matches, usually with world-class performers, there is a point in every match (and in some cases it’s right at the beginning) when the loser decides he’s going to lose. And after that, everything he does will be aimed at providing an explanation of why he will have lost. He may throw himself at the ball (so he will be able to say he’s done his best against a superior opponent). He may dispute calls (so he will be able to say he’s been robbed). He may swear at himself and throw his racket (so he can say it was apparent all along he wasn’t in top form). His energies go not into winning but into producing an explanation, an excuse, a justification for losing.”

The spirit of good-sportsmanship is vital: playing fair and 100% committed to the final whistle and looking to learn rather than make excuses. Similarly, in our work, we must not seek to deceive ourselves or others. Honest effort and honest reflection are keys to improvement. Florence Nightingale, that epitome of honest good work and courage, said: “I attribute my success to this – I never gave or took any excuse”.

May this be a year of ‘no excuses’: let’s try to embrace our challenges, face and learn from our failures, and get stronger by doing so.