Zero Tolerance?

6 March 2021

For home-learning last week, my little daughter was asked to research historical events about the 1st March.  It was an interesting activity that stimulated a lot of conversation at home (did you know that Henri Becquerel discovered radioactivity on 1st March 1869?) and I was so pleased to see the value and enjoyment that she was clearly getting from doing it.  Wouldn’t it be great if all learning was like that?

Whilst conducting her research, and wonderfully off-task, my daughter wanted to share with me that 1st March is was Zero Discrimination Day.  I learned a long time ago that there is a special Day for just about everything you could care for if you search the internet, and I was just about to steer her back on track when I caught myself (which doesn’t happen often) and asked her why she wanted to tell me about it.  

“Well, sometimes it might be good to discriminate”.  

My daughter is only 8 and she is not known for her philosophy (nor me to be fair), but I thought that that was a pretty interesting observation.  I’ll come back to it…

For information, Zero Discrimination Day is an annual day celebrated on 1 March each year by the United Nations and other international organizations to highlight the urgent need to take action to end the inequalities surrounding income, sex, age, health status, occupation, disability, sexual orientation, drug use, gender identity, race, class, ethnicity and religion that continue to persist around the world.  Discrimination and inequalities are closely intertwined.   Today, we are seeing this played out globally in what some commentators are calling ‘vaccine apartheid’.  So, as far as international days go, I think this one should get a little bit more of my attention than Star Trek Day (September 8th) or Star Wars Day (May the 4th!

Back to my daughter…  “What do you mean it might be good to discriminate?”, I asked.  “Well, sometimes we need to do things to help certain people and not others.  Like when they don’t have the things we have.  Then it is OK.”

In her own way, she was trying to explain that there is a place for positive discrimination.  And I think she’s right.  Tackling inequality is, for me, as critical as taking on climate change.  But I don’t think we can do this with just warm hearts and words – positive action, discriminatory if need be, will be needed if we are committed to a peaceful and sustainable future.  

At school this week, I have been learning about some of the extraordinary work different student groups are leading to make a difference.  These are positive action groups that are directed at addressing global inequalities – from Voices for Refugees to Write for Rights (and many more Global Concerns groups), our students are motivated to fight discrimination and inequality. 

There is nothing ‘ZERO’ about what they are doing.  They are truly amazing.

The aggregation of marginal strains

Maybe I am just over-thinking things at the moment.  Today I saw a boy sitting on his own with his hands holding his head.  He’s fed up. Stressed.  Lonely.  I don’t really know, of course, but that’s what is going through my mind.  So many people are suffering from the cumulative impact of COVID, and I just assume that this is another boy feeling the strain.

Marginal Gains

An excellent read is ‘Atomic Habits’ by James Clear (2018).  It describes the importance of building the right habits and breaking the bad ones.  One fascinating anecdote from the book describes the success of the British cycling team.  Between 1908 and 2003, the team had won just a single gold medal in the Olympic Games.  However, things quickly turned around when David Brailsford was appointed as the performance director in 2003 and introduced a principle he called “the aggregation of marginal gains“. 

“The whole principle came from the idea that if you broke down everything you could think of that goes into riding a bike, and then improved it by 1%, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together”. (Brailsford, 2012)

Brailsford set about breaking down the objective of winning races into its component parts. He was on the look-out for all the weaknesses in the team’s assumptions, all the latent problems, so he could improve on each of them.  For example, by experimenting in a wind tunnel, he noted that the bike was not sufficiently aerodynamic. By analysing the mechanics area in the team truck, he discovered that dust was accumulating on the floor, undermining bike maintenance. So he had the floor painted pristine white, in order to spot any impurities. Diet, sleep, weight, fitness, training, conditioning, clothing…no stone was left unturned in the search of 1% gains.

The result? Just five years after Brailsford took over, the British Cycling team dominated the road and track cycling events at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, where they won a remarkable 60 percent of the gold medals available. Four years later, in London, the team set nine Olympic records and seven world records. And the relentless success was repeated again in Rio in 2016.

What happened after 2016? Well, after the rapid rise there followed an inevitable big fall for British cycling. Allegations of bullying, sexism, discrimination, and a culture of fear were all bi-products of the doctrine of marginal gains. It transpired that each glorified 1% gain was shadowed by an unsustainable 1% strain.

Marginal strains

Whilst there have been incredible gains in dealing with the COVID situation – vaccines, remote-learning, circuit-breakers – it is also not difficult to see the cumulative strains in our students, staff, and leaders. Here are some that immediately come to mind:

Cumulative strains for students

  • Adapting to constantly changing COVID-safe arrangements
  • COVID-fatigue
  • Cognitive overload – different ways of learning and teaching
  • Social learning, interactivity, play
  • Missing friends, family
  • Loss of loved one
  • Exam uncertainty – stress and anxiety
  • ‘Falling behind’ narratives – stress and anxiety
  • Fear – fuelled by constant COVID news

Cumulative strains for teachers

  • As above
  • Increasing working hours – also impacting on physical health
  • More plates to keep spinning – more cognitive overload (not sure that’s a thing?!)
  • Increased scrutiny – stress and anxiety
  • Managing student stress and anxiety

Cumulative strains for school leaders

  • As above
  • Increased accountability
  • Inevitable depreciation of goodwill from staff to keep all the plates spinning
  • Managing staff stress and anxiety

Individually, each of these strains is possibly manageable. But it is the aggregation of each of these strains that is clearly impacting schools and the mental health of each and everyone of us, albeit this will differ depending on where in the world people are living with COVID.

As as a school leader myself, I am acutely aware that I need to do all that I can to mitigate against these strains. One way, of course, is to focus on 1% gains. If we took each of the items above and came up with something that made things just 1% better, would that be enough? Perhaps we introduce more mindfulness activities for the students (maybe good for students, maybe not so good for teachers who need to create all the new resources and then deliver them)? Perhaps we pay teachers more? Perhaps examining boards and governments could provide clarity over the running of exams for the next few years (and then stick with it?). Perhaps we schools employ more professional staff to support mental health? Perhaps…

3 things on my mind

  1. For every 1% gain, I can see that we are almost always introducing another 1% strain into another part of the system.
  2. Surely something has to give? We can not expect to continue with the mindset that we can carry on doing everything in schools the same way as we did before. There is an uncomfortable truth we need to face – as things stand, there is some complicity in the rise of mental health issues. We want students to cover the same curriculum, sit the same exams, keep doing home-learning… we want them to stay on the horse. I think we will need to step back and be prepared to make some courageous decisions (perhaps take some fences down?).
  3. Mental health is not a new phenomenon. It did not arrive with COVID. And nor will it evaporate with COVID. So how will schools need to adapt to become better at supporting mental health? How will schools be able to demonstrate that they do this well?

What about the boy?

So I asked the boy what was going on. He told me he had lost some of his lego and didn’t know where to look for it. Sometimes, it’s as simple as that.

Brailsford, D. (2012, August 8). Olympics cycling: Marginal gains underpin Team GB dominance.

Clear, J. (2021) Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones. New York: Avery.

Whatever happened to Goldilocks?

Perseverance, NASA’s Mars Rover, successfully landed on the Red Planet this week to search for signs of ancient microbial life, and to advance the quest to explore the past habitability of Mars. Wow.

I know this because my children asked to stay up well past their bedtime to watch the landing happening live on YouTube. As a life-long science fan, I was secretly elated with this show of interest, but I was also curious to see if they were just trying it on to stay up late. So I started to probe…and sometime later we found ourselves orbiting the subtle geopolitics of the latest Space Race and the science of the ‘Goldilocks Zone’. It was a great discussion, and possibly the first time that I have had the certain feeling that my own children will far exceed my own understanding of the world we live in – an existential moment I will remember.

I acquiesced. They watched Percy’s (the Rover nickname, apparently) landing and then sloped off to bed perhaps a tad underwhelmed. I guess we peaked in the conversations earlier.

For my part, thoughts drifted from Percy to Goldilocks. For those who don’t know the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, let me try and abridge:

Goldilocks is feeling rather hungry. On the kitchen table (not her own mind) there were three bowls of porridge. She tasted the porridge from the first bowl. “This porridge is too hot,” she spluttered. Next, she tastes the porridge from the second bowl. “This porridge is too cold,” she shivered. So, she tasted the last bowl of porridge. “Yum, this porridge is just right,” she smiled as she ate it all up.If we wish, we could therefore refer to a Goldilocks Principle, whereby for something to be ‘just right’ it must fall within certain beneficial parameters. And we could say that when the effects of the principle are observed, it is the Goldilocks effect. Easy.

The Earth can sustain life because it is not too close to the Sun and not too far. Unlike the other planets in the Solar System, it is just in the right place for life to be able to exist. Mars is apparently on the cusp of the Goldilocks Zone and so there’s a chance we might find some evidence of life if we look in the right places. You don’t know if you don’t try I guess.

We often see the Goldilocks effect in schools. Learning something new can be satisfying but hard. In fact, it’s not hard enough, students won’t do a very good job of learning because they get bored. And if the learning is too hard students also don’t learn – they get disheartened.

Stepping outside of the classroom, schools might also apply the Goldilocks Principle to their learning programme to ensure that students can thrive – is it too narrow or too broad? Enough choice? Enough focus on the mission? Enough focus on skills for life? Enough homework? Enough opportunities? Enough social and emotional support….and so on. Indeed, schools spend inordinate amounts of time trying to get things perfect, and I have yet to hear of a school that thinks that they have got it ‘just right’. Is it even possible? I am not sure, but I imagine I will need to channel my inner NASA Rover (Perseverance).

The thing is, it all depends on what sits at the centre of the system. In the Three Bears, it was all about Goldilocks being satisfied. She was the centre of the story. In the same way, brilliant teachers put each child at the centre of their own learning, and as a result, they help each student thrive in their own optimal Goldilocks Zone. Schools, however, find themselves orbiting a number of competing systems, each with their own Goldilocks Zones: The “child-centered” sun has a different gravitational pull to the “budget’ sun”, which is different again from the “university admissions” sun, different from the ‘parents-expect this’ sun, and different from the “government says do this” sun.

Is it any wonder why some schools sometimes feel like they are lost in space?

So where were we? We started with a sense of wonder and awe at the search for extraterrestrial life, whilst at the same time questioning the underlying motives and cost-benefits. I have a fairly optimistic mindset, but I have zero expectation that we will find life on Mars. But I don’t think it matters. As my children found on the slow way up to bed, sometimes we can learn more by making the journey rather than being consumed about what we might, or might not, find when we get there.

Cake or Death?

Good comedy makes me happy. In one of my favourite comedy sketches, Eddie Izzard takes on the role of the Grim Reaper, offering a series of unwitting participants the choice of “cake or death”. It’s not too difficult to make a decision here…just as long as there is enough cake to go around!

I Zoomed-in to speak to my children last night. They are currently snowed in at home because the Netherlands is experiencing its first snowstorms in over a decade; whilst I am 10,000 km away in a Singapore hotel completing two weeks of quarantine. I don’t like being away from them, and at some point in the conversation I inevitably found myself asking the big question:

“Are you happy?”

I ask the question because I know the children miss school, miss their friends, miss doing things that they used to enjoy. I also know, because the internet tells me, that many children affecting by COVID are experiencing higher anxiety levels, are less motivated, and are less happy than before COVID. So I need to ask the question because I want to be a good dad. They must be suffering some form of happiness-deficit and my job right now is to ask about it and fix it if I can:

Child 1:
Dad: “Are you happy?”
Child 1: “Yes, very happy thanks”.
Dad: “Great to hear”

Child 2:
Dad: “Are you happy?”
Child 2: “I think so, what do you mean?”
Dad: “Are you happy?”
Child 2: “I’m fine”
Dad: “OK. How can we make you happier?”
Child 2: “But I am fine, I am not unhappy”
Dad: “But you are not happy?”
Interlude …five minutes later…
Child 2: “I am absolutely fine, Dad. I’m OK. I just miss you.”

I am no child psychologist, but it does not take much to see what is going on here. Child 1 knows how to play this game. He wants the happy question to go away as quickly as possible so he can get back to reading his book. But Child 2 has reminded me before I had the chance to stop myself, that life, our emotions, and problems…are so complex that they do not translate well in the binary terms of black or white, good or bad, happy or unhappy. Not for the first time, I have fallen to what the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins (2004) described as the ‘tyranny of the discontinuous mind’. Dawkins argues that humans often seek the reassurance of an either-or classification. Likewise, computer scientist and philosopher Kees van Deemter (2010) refers to the ‘false clarity’ of a definite decision or classification that humans clutch at, even when the situation is uncertain.

So, at least I can understand why I defaulted to dichotomous thinking in this situation: what parent would not want their children to be happy? Indeed, Dr. Robin Berman (2019) says that it is both human and typical of how we parent today — we want to rush in and fix things. The problem, however, Berman argues is that our desire to fix things (acting as a soother) for our children can have far-reaching consequences such as: preventing the growth of agency, the inability to regulate emotions…and so on. Instead of trying to protect our children, we might be better served trying to teach them how to tolerate being unhappy.

Again, I am no expert, but I have long agreed with this sentiment. So tomorrow I might start with “how are you feeling?” and take it from there.

In the context of my own children, here is what I need to get better at:

  1. Tolerate their feelings without trying to rush in and fix them. Give space to work it and take a coaching approach.
  2. Don’t treat them as if they are fragile. Otherwise, they will become fragile.
  3. Be more self-reflective. This is the only way to improve at anything. Parenting included.
  4. Emphasize their feelings. Don’t deny them.

The punchline?

Eddie Izzard offers ‘cake or death’. But life does not dole out such simple choices. And in the case of my own children, and in life in general, I think it’s fine to turn down the either/or option.

Dawkins, R. (2004). The ancestor’s tale: A pilgrimage to the dawn of life. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

van Deemter, K. (2010). Not exactly: In praise of vagueness. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Berman, Robin (2019) Unhappiness: The Key to Raising Happy Kids.

Education reform has a ‘Wizard of Oz’ problem

In the Wizard of Oz, the heroine, Dorothy, finds herself on a quest with three companions; a scarecrow in need of a brain, a tin man with no heart, and a lion without courage.

In our uncertain times, as schools seek to navigate the complexity of the immediate future and think about how they need to adapt, this story is a good metaphor to encapsulate some of the biggest problems educational reformers are facing today.

Not enough brain

In some ways this is not quite true — there is no end of experts who can explain what they think needs to be done to ‘fix’ schools. Indeed, anyone who has gone through 10+ years of schooling is of course entitled to suggest what works well and what needs improving, based on their own user-experiences. And in these times of home-learning, where our pedagogy has been laid bare (all the good, the bad, and the ugly) for all to see, there has certainly been no shortage of things to say about the state of the art of modern schooling. We can also point to the exceptional number of educational think-tanks, research groups, and inspirational thinkers who are shining a light on what schools could be (or even if they are needed at all).

So when I suggest that there is not enough brain, I am suggesting that it is still not enough and that educational reform can not take place unless the right brains are engaged, at the right time, and in collaboration with each other. COVID has certainly accelerated educational reformation, but this sector has proven to be remarkably resistant to transformational change. Paradoxically, rather than transforming education, much (but not all) of the heralded educational-technology has actually been leveraged to restore the inefficiencies with the current systems of education. You need a remote learning solution? We got that. Falling behind? We can help you with that. You need to run exams at home? We can do that too.

But we don’t need a more efficient system: I think we need a new system. Educational reformers and leaders need to bring their brains together to make a compelling case for change. We might not want to rely on the Wizard here.

Not enough heart

One of the shifts in education has been to put the child at the centre of their own learning — and this is certainly evidenced in educational frameworks such as the (updated) International Baccalaureate Primary Years Programme (PYP) which promotes the development of learner agency through Voice, Choice, and Ownership. This is a framework that is not focused on tests but on the child and the learning. It certainly feels like we are going in the right direction. But of course, this all comes to a shuddering halt once we reach high school — where we feel the need to start filtering out the winners and losers. In the UK, where I first taught, I could not get my head around how and why a nation would stand behind a system that each year tells roughly a third of its young people that they have failed school after over a decade of learning. Failed. And I have since found that the UK is not alone in the spectacular waste of human capital, with all the subsequent social and emotional damage that comes with it. And it only gets worse, when you consider the number of winners who subsequently drop out of higher education.

So, I can not understand the purpose of systematically failing young people — certainly not from an educational or societal standpoint. I can, however, agree that not all young people have either the ambition or aptitude to succeed in higher education. But is this really the only purpose of education? Those with the brains (see above) would suggest it is not. So why put them through it? If we had more heart, we would surely extend the gift of Voice, Choice, and Ownership to those in high school. What would that look like? More pathways; more ways to succeed; more ways to define one’s own success; more ways to contribute; and more ways to matter. I would happily take a potion if offered.

Not enough courage

Sadly, even if we can muster enough brain and enough heart, it may not make a difference if we lack (immense) courage to make a change.

The thing is, it’s a big step between talking about change, and actually making the change. The nature of schools is that they are incredibly busy with little (or no) spare capacity for ‘above the line’ strategy development. So when teachers are invited to re-imagine their craft, their curriculum, their ways of working and thinking about learning and teaching….often without extra time or resources, that’s obviously a difficult sell. Leaders, therefore, need to have the courage to take the teaching staff on this most uncomfortable of journeys.

Then there are the parents, potentially the audience who are being asked to exercise the most courage (or trust). My experience is that parents are the most aware, and the most supportive, of the need to reform education for their children. But they can also be reluctant for that change to be made to their own children if there is a feeling that it might adversely impact their life-chances. On the other hand, when parents are convinced of the need to change, there is no greater force for change — an educational ‘nirvana’.

The End?

The great irony of the film is that it turns out each of the characters had exactly what they needed all along. There was no real magic. They each found exactly what they needed when it was really demanded of them.

Can we?


I have unashamedly borrowed the ‘Wizard of Oz’ leadership model used in this blog from one of my old teachers (Directing Staff) at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst. You can enjoy his excellent, article here as well as many other inspirational leadership insights.

When you try to please everyone, you can end up pleasing no one

This week, I was thinking about Aesop’s Fable, “ The Miller, His Son, and Their Ass “ while I was reflecting on my parenting skills at the end of another 168 hours of lockdown…

If you are not familiar with the story, a miller and his son take their ass to the market to sell it, and along the way they meet several individuals or groups of people who comment or criticize them on their trip. The miller and his son adjust their journey following each of the comments or criticisms: when told they should be riding the ass, the miller puts his son on the ass; when criticized for not respecting the aged, the miller replaces himself on the ass; when criticized for being lazy, the miller then lets his son ride behind him; and when told they could more easily carry the ass rather than have it carry them, they proceed to tie the legs of the beast and haul it around with a pole. As they cross a bridge near the town, the townsfolk laugh at the sight before them and the commotion frightens the ass which breaks free of the restraints and tumbles into the river.

The moral of the story is that if you try to please everyone, you can end up pleasing no one.

I think this has been a fair reflection on my efforts this week to try and please the various members of my family. Everything I tried to do this week to please one member of the family just triggered an issue with another. So when I (thoughtfully) agreed for my two eldest children to stay up 30 minutes beyond their normal bedtime, I was not expecting the high-pitched objections from the youngest one. Likewise, when I negotiated a complex peace deal allowing the youngest child to choose the TV channel the next day, I was not expecting the rebellion that ensued. Then, in an attempt to broker some peace and quiet, I finally acquiesced to learn how to play Minecraft with all 3 children, which eventually led to me trying to entertain my (feeling left out) wife by showing her I could still do a head-stand. Except I couldn’t still do a head-stand. And I ended up expending 60 of those 168 lock-down hours in bed and a further 5 with a chiropractor. Only Aesop was laughing at that point.

Outside the home, I can see that I am not the only one trying hard to please. As an international educator, I am watching and waiting to see what will happen with international exams this year, in response to the prevailing realities of COVID. As you might expect, there is an incredible amount of commentary about it across the news and social media. The current position is that there are many international schools and students who are in a position where they could complete examinations this summer, as well as many schools that simply can not, either because of a lack of teaching hours or because schools are not safe to open. So, canceling exams will lead to criticism from those that are ready, and running exams will lead to criticism from those that can not. It’s a complex situation and I am glad it is not my problem to solve…

As things stand, it appears that the only way to please everyone is to have different methods to obtain a final grade — some achieved through teacher/school grades and some achieved through examinations. The problem with this dilemma is that we are being presented with a two-tier system, both of which will claim to provide a fair grade to students. But even with all the best will in the world, there is going to significant grade-inflation where results are based on teacher/school grades and this will mean that results from sitting examinations will surely have to be compensated in some way (perhaps an AI algorithm? Too soon?) to ensure that there is parity for all students. Then there will be bias to deal with…questions with equity…moderation procedures…and so on. I am still not sure who will take on the role of the ‘ass’ just yet…because this story is not finished just yet.

One might be tempted to take Aesop’s Fable and conclude that it’s better to not bother listening to criticism at all — but I think that would be missing the point. Dealing with criticism is an essential component of any learning process — it drives continuous innovation and presents us with perspectives that we may not have thought about. But when we react to criticism merely as a means of trying to satisfy a particular commentator or group, things usually go horribly wrong.

And while the Miller and myself may not have heeded Aesop’s message, there’s still time for the thinkers and decision-makers behind international school exams to navigate a sensible route through it all, ignoring the distractions and loud voices, and make sure that all students get what they deserve — and that’s a fair and equitable opportunity to show that they can do this summer.


I can’t think of a more apt name for a blog site with my name next to it. Serendipity is something that happens to us all at one point or another – but it also describes an important piece of my educational philosophy. Life is a continuous journey of self-discovery, and along the way things happen, sometimes without design, that provide opportunities for us to learn and grow.

These moments of serendipity are sometimes trivial, sometimes life-changing, and sometimes not even noticed. I was actually intending to name this blog in the singular, but I think it makes perfect sense to use the plural given that moments of accidental learning seem to be a feature of my life and work.

I first heard the word serendipity as a 7-year old. My mother wanted to use it to name a new pre-school nursery she was opening (she has long championed the virtues of play and discovery learning) but in the end she (regrettably) decided against it. I hope it wasn’t entirely my fault for not grasping the concept at the time…but for whatever reason, it was not until a few days ago (35-years later) that I serendipitously stumbled across the word again…whilst trying to think of a name for this blog…

Anyway…I like it.