Head in the Cloud

I found William Poundstone’s recent book Head in the Cloud – The Power of Knowledge in the Age of Google rather a disappointment. I had been hoping for an exposition of the neural benefits of being knowledgeable – but while disowning the view that cognitive development is only about material benefit, this is largely what the book confines itself to.


More interesting – if still flawed – is Poundstone’s use of online polling to conduct fairly large-scale surveys of public knowledge. With a clear eye to the market on both sides of the Atlantic, he meticulously cites examples from both Europe and America and the results, if taken at face value, make depressing reading. If education’s goal is to produce a more informed populace, it seems that so far we have barely made a dent. That said, one might question the informative value of asking people lists of what they do or don’t know, particularly when the examples in the book itself highlights the extent to which such knowledge is culture-dependent.

Poundstone goes on to correlate scores in such tests with ranges of other views and opinions, often in quite specific ways. He suggests that a high level of ignorance of basic factual information often correlates with more extreme views on a range of issues, something that recent events in the U.K. might reinforce. For example, the past week has demonstrated that many hard-Brexiteers have little real understanding of the institutions they purport to advocate, as seen in their reaction to the High Court ruling regarding the sovereignty of Parliament to trigger  Article 50. And a vox pop in Barnsley on Friday’s Radio 4 Today programme revealed that some people think that the U.K. has already left the E.U.

One might counter that the human species has always functioned more on a mixture of ignorance, prejudice and instinct that its more intelligent members might feel comfortable with – but in a time when the consequences of ignorance are so far-reaching, educators perhaps need to face the music here. Even in so-called developed countries, the power of those baser reactions appears closer to the surface than we have liked to pretend, and it is not an exaggeration to suggest that they present a risk to the very foundations of ‘civilised’ societies.

Poundstone’s book fails, however, principally on its inability to consider the more intangible benefits of knowledge – precisely the same failing as many current educational models. A dependence on supposedly-scientific method stymies any attempt to consider such matters: if one’s ‘proof’ is largely found in statistics and correlations, then one needs a quantifiable outcome to measure against. In this sense, it is indeed easiest to look at relatively practical matters such as test scores, and the eventual earning capacities of differing people. In this, Poundstone shows – relatively convincingly within his own confines – that those who know more tend to have more conventionally successful lives. He hints at the cognitive factors that may lie behind this – the Marshmallow Test gets a mention – but he fights shy of the more difficult analysis. Unfortunately, this is precisely the same mistake that many educational models make: they frame their success criteria in material or at least quantifiable terms, simply because the alternatives are too difficult to measure.

But this is one of the oldest flaws in the book: measuring what you can rather than what you need will not necessarily provides the answers you seek. I am not for a moment pretending that I know the way forward on this – but my longstanding motive for being in education is the intangible benefits. I suspect that this really lies in the realm of assembled neural networks –and by definition those are both so complex and so unique as, I suspect, to be beyond useful analysis.

Much of what successful education ‘does’ simply cannot be quantified – it falls within the realm of Wisdom, and the very nature of this makes it unquantifiable. It is also so multi-faceted that it defies the craving of formal education to ‘know’ and claim credit for its input. I would suggest that education itself is only of most effect when, like a good wine, it has had decades of laying-down in which to mature. In other words, its impact is time-dependent in a way that modern institutions and policies prefer to deny. It relies on accumulation of experience and the benefits of hindsight to make much practical sense. One (hopefully) only has to compare the world-view of a recently educated but still immature undergraduate with that of the same person in later life to appreciate this.

I think we are witnessing the consequences of the collective failure to appreciate such matters: on the one hand, people have never had so much access to information (and education) as they have today – and yet it seems not to be making for better-quality discourse or more considered opinion; if anything, the opposite. I suppose one might consider the real issue to be the divide between those who have (effective) access to information and those who do not – but in which case there remain far more of the latter than we care to admit. But in reality, those views do not seem to correlate with education; there are plenty of educated people who hold bigoted views, and I suspect plenty of the less educated who do not.

What seems to be missing is the transformation of knowledge into wisdom. I suspect that this is because it is a process that no teacher can really do for you; I come back to the notion that teachers are merely the planters of seeds. But the decision of formal education to disown Wisdom as its key objective cannot be helping. In his final sentence, Poundstone edges closer to the real issue: Google might tell you the answer, but it cannot tell you what to ask in the first place – and nor can it tell you what to do with that ‘answer’ when you have it. In this, I think a much more satisfactory answer was provided by the late Douglas Adams, through the voice of Deep Thought: a computer might have given you the answer – but it is up to the individual to work out what the question is.

And that’s where there is no substitute for a properly educated mind.


Beyond outstanding.

The grace of a soaring bird is not in its understanding of aerodynamics. The intense beauty of Bruch’s Violin Concerto is not visible on Nicola Benedetti’s Grade 8 music certificate. And I suspect that some of the world’s greatest sporting moments were more a product of chances seized than any premeditated plan. No matter how important the 10,000 hours, it’s having something ‘in your bones’ that counts.

I was party to a discussion about what a school should do if and when it is awarded ‘Outstanding’ by Ofsted.  

This presents an institution with precisely the same problem as anyone who has just won gold – what do you do for an encore? The risk, of course, is that the higher you fly, the further there is to fall, and while school inspections are not competitive as such, there seems only one way to go from the top. So the secret might be to pretend that it isn’t the top after all, merely a false summit on the way to greater glories…

All well and good so far: many people like a challenge, and it is no doubt helpful for management to have another carrot to dangle (or stick to wield) to keep the donkeys on the move. The problem is this: what should that new summit be? If you have built your entire reputation on complying with the demands of an organisation like Ofsted, have done everything it required of you and received in return its top grade, no matter how much ‘more of the same’ you do, you will receive no further recognition; you will never know if you’re still getting better, the criteria simply don’t go there. The summit is the summit. Even if you do carry on doing more of the same, it isn’t going to show – unless of course Ofsted does the very Ofsted-like thing and moves the goalposts, effectively downgrading its own benchmarks. I suspect there are only so many times it can try that trick before someone launches a serious assassination attempt on its boss…

The other curious thing about top marks – be they Ofsted gradings or league-table positions, is that not all schools get there by the same route. I have read several interviews with heads of very successful schools, who seemed almost surprised to have received accolades, as they were ‘just doing what they always did’. One was adamant he did nothing to prepare for Ofsted, at all. Other schools, on the other hand (probably the majority) sweat blood to attain such heights, and then risk paranoia at their fear of falling. What do some schools have in their bones what others drive themselves into the ground to achieve?

I’m not convinced there is only a single route to success; even Ofsted passes no comment about how one reached the target, simply that one did; as far as I know, it makes no public comparison between different strategies for getting there. Some approaches grind their way up to where others seem to be simply soaring: same result, but one route is a lot more painful than the other.

The obvious, if mechanistic approach seems to be rigorous control over all aspects of what the school and the personnel within it do. Strict quality control and strong accountability will pull every one into line and ensure that they deliver the best – assuming, of course, that you can correctly identify what ‘best’ is.

But I’m not so sure. While those surprised head teachers might indeed have been doing those things behind the scenes, it doesn’t really explain their surprise.  Maybe they were just lucky with the raw quality of their students and innate talent of their staff – or maybe they found another, more oblique route. The problem with grind is that it tends to be self-defeating.  Much has been written on the demotivating effects of strident management and excessive control. Daniel Pink’s excellent book ‘Drive’ defines the problem.

To motivate people, you need to respect their desire for autonomy, mastery and purpose. You also need to tap into their intrinsic reasons for doing things, rather than trying to bolt-on incentives, whether of the carrot or stick variety. You need to create opportunities for what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi  calls Flow. In other words, the opposite of all the things that conventional wisdom says you should do. The basic logic is unnervingly simple: people do better when they’re happy.

I’m a classic example of this: highly internally motivated (for example in my music – and my reflecting about education) – but if someone started directing me to do it, setting me targets and ultimata, the motivation would very soon dry up. Contrary to what a carrot-and-stick outlook might expect, the very experience of being manipulated saps people’s energy and interest.

This would be made all the worse by the increased difficulty of action. The inevitable imposed routines, procedures and checks would divert my time and energy away from my core purpose, remove my autonomy – and very probably further drain my enthusiasm as well. The success criteria imposed to assess my progress might well not be congruent with my own motivation and may not therefore reflect what I am actually trying to achieve. For spice, some added threats about what could happen if I didn’t meet the target might tempt me to game the system, my original motive replaced by a more primitive fear and desire to fend off bad consequences at any cost.

There is a story of three medieval stone masons carving sculptures for a cathedral in Italy. When asked what they were doing, the first said, “I am carving the most beautiful sculptures from stone”; the second said, “I am helping to make a beautiful building for our city”, while the third replied, “I am building to the glory of God.” Which was right? And what would have happened if you were to tell one of the masons he was “wrong”? In fact, there is nothing wrong in allowing all three to go on following their own motivations – they are still working in complete harmony.

Ofsted’s Outstanding grade is a confected and artificial benchmark, even allowing for the commodification of a word that should be used exceedingly sparingly. Reaching it has the effect of homogenising procedures and narrowing goals, but it does at least bring to a school a degree of freedom from being under the cosh. Just as Nicola Benedetti undoubtedly had to work through the grades before she became a virtuoso soloist, I can accept that such a process is probably necessary. But simply to carry on to grades nine and ten (if they existed) would not, in my mind constitute going ‘beyond outstanding’, more a failure of imagination.

Miles Davis said of genius, “Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there”. I think it is the same with education. The real quality is not in the mechanics – it’s what comes when you set practitioners free to follow their instincts – even if it means sometimes breaking the rules. Genius is not characterised by adherence to mechanical rules, and real education (as in what happens inside people’s brains rather than computer spreadsheets) is simply not a definable, quantifiable entity that can be pinned down as though we are assembling a Big Mac. It requires individuality, intuition and creativity – the very things that are so difficult to do on command.

For school managements, that offers a fearsome prospect – it implies less management for a start – but I suspect it is nonetheless what those surprised heads do. John Tomsett, the head teacher from York, has written about the need to trust his staff, to learn from what they say and do, to remove unnecessary constraints, and to create the possibility for them to flourish as individuals – both inside and outside school. That is what will make them great teachers in the true sense of the word. He has had the confidence to let go, and believe that his staff will strive for their best. It will actually deliver more.

I think it was the boss of 3M who said, “Hire good people and get out of their way”. He was right; my experience of recent educational developments is that they have simply made my job (and life) much harder; that the quantity of work has been increased for comparatively little gain in quality (that’s an inescapable trade-off). In fact, I have been taken away from my core purpose, and in the process had my inner motivation quashed and replaced with an inferior, imposed replica. My happiness and drive decreased; I have had to fight a hard inner battle to preserve them.

I’m not sure what all the answers are to “what next” – but given recent experience, I’m certain that it isn’t more of the same. A paradigm-shift is needed, and I hope the foregoing (and the wider content of this blog) might point if not the, then a way.

Once you get to the summit of the mountain, the only way upward is to fly free…