Plan early, plan twice?

Photo by Hugo Rocha on Unsplash

Our leadership team has had the same conversation with staff for the last 3 weekends:

Friday afternoon: “Ok, we are all set for Monday.  Thanks for the hours of planning this week to get this right…”

Saturday morning: “Ah, sorry to interrupt your weekend.  New changes just announced.  New plan needed for Monday…”

It feels at times over the last 547 days that I have been living in some sort of Edge of Tomorrow time-loop of Live, Die, Repeat*.  That feeling of having to keep going back to the beginning is emotionally exhausting (for everyone).  In fact, leading through COVID is possibly the most demanding thing I have ever been asked to do.

I used to think that the saying “plan early, plan twice” was convenient wisdom that could be rolled out when people got away with their own last-minute planning.  But the truth is that in particularly dynamic environments, where the variables are constantly changing, it makes a lot of sense to wait until the last safe moment to commit to a particular course of action.   This is possibly why I have often heard it coming from experienced military commanders.  

Last week, we somehow managed to deliver our leaving graduates a lovely celebration that has been in the planning stage for over 12 months.  In the end, close to the 11th hour, it was split into 6 separate events on campus, including a Livestream – and was possibly the 7th different version of what was a ‘finalized’ plan.  “Plan early, plan 7 times”…doesn’t quite have the same ring does it?  With hindsight, one might wonder if next year we should plan to avoid 11 months of guessing, anticipating, worrying, fretting…and just hold off planning anything until a few weeks before the event?  I am not so sure.  My suspicion is that it was only possible to navigate all the last-minute changes needed as a result of all the learning that had taken place in the previous planning months.  Dwight Eisenhower once said that “plans are useless, but planning is indispensable”.  That makes a lot of sense to me too.

But for all our exhaustive planning for the perfect graduation, which was as likely to be canceled as run, it was just one calendared event amongst many that we have successfully planned and delivered this year.  Looking back at a successful graduation event it is very difficult to contemplate whether all the effort was worth it.  Of course, it was.  But what of all the hundreds of other (dare I say less glamorous?) events that have taken this year – equally impacted by COVID?  I wonder if there are any compounding effects to so much uncertainty?  Or am I making too much to it?  

In more normal contexts, the phrase that I heard from my tailor last week (yeah…I know…that’s not normal but I needed something to wear for the graduation at the last minute!) is to “measure twice, cut once”.  In simple terms, he was telling me of the wisdom of investing extra time in the planning process in order to avoid any mistakes.  Looking back, this seems to be the default model for this school and a reason why it is so successful, I think.

We have started planning for next year – and I have already heard several times: “do you think we will be able to do this face-to-face next year, or shall we plan for virtual?”.   What should I advise my staff?  What wisdom do I share?  Don’t plan too early?  Or start planning now for both eventualities?  And if the latter, how do I take responsibility for how exhausting that will be at a time when I want to prioritize health and well-being?  

Like I said, leading through COVID is incredibly tough, but it’s also really important to get it right…I had better start planning for Monday.


*Edge of Tomorrow is a film I enjoy with Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt, released in 2014 and based on the 2004 short novel “All You Need is Kill” by Hiroshi Sakurazaka.

To boldly go…

When I was growing up I wanted to work on a starship.  

Science Officer or Captain – I wasn’t too fussed.  I just loved the idea of flying out into the unknown, meeting new people, and exploring strange new worlds.  Throughout my life I have always embraced leadership challenges and intentionally taken myself out of my comfort zone even when it might have been easier to continue along a particular path.  Those words ‘ to boldly go’…they have lived with me since I first met Spock and Captain Kirk over 40 years ago.

Growing up I thought that being bold meant making fast, decisive decisions.  I probably thought it meant being brave.  A bold person would surely jump in rather than be reticent.  Later, as a soldier, I thought being bold was a virtue linked fairly close to being heroic.  Captain Kirk would have done it this way.  Who doesn’t want to be heroic?*

But now that I am moving towards ‘middle adulthood’ (this article is great) I am not so sure whether being bold is what I want to be.  As I have grown older, with more and more responsibilities, making choices has become more and more difficult: it is one thing making decisions that impact yourself, it is another thing entirely when you are making choices that affect others.  It is hard enough walking the thin line when no one is watching; it is exponentially more difficult when a leader is walking the same line with Captain Hindsight and everyone else watching you in the Arena  

Rather than trying to be bold, I am now more interested in making the right sort of choices.  If they turn out to be bold – even better.  But there is a difference.  

My leadership team is currently grappling with a conundrum.  As we come to the end of the current school year, we are working out what our priorities should be for the new school year.  The context will be familiar to you: we remain fixed in a global pandemic that is not going anywhere; staff well-being is being affected by extreme uncertainty; separation; cognitive overload…and so on.

Here are two questions we are asking ourselves:

  • Should we give teachers the space they might need to recharge by delaying the project until things are back to normal? 
  • Should we continue with the project as, even if it will be additional work, it is inspirational and we think it will provide both a welcome distraction and exciting professional development?  

This recent article from the New York Times on Flourishing v languishing has us thinking that we need to help staff, students (and ourselves) to flourish rather than languish at times like these.  But at the same time, even Captain Kirk’s chief engineer, Scotty, sometimes used to shout out “I’m giving her all she’s got, Captain! She cannae take anymore!”. There are always limits to how far we can push things.

So one could argue that choosing either of these possibilities is bold. 

As it happens, it is not to Kirk or Spock that I have turned to for advice this week.  Rather, it is to the less fictional General William Slim, who commanded the 14th Army for the Allies in Burma following the surrender of Singapore in 1942.  Slim is widely cited as one of Britain’s finest generals but he is also one of the least well known; indeed the 14th Army is often called the ‘Forgotten Army’ because despite it being the largest army in the world (by 1945), the British press were more preoccupied with the war in Europe than a faraway Army comprised mainly of Indian troops (with some British and African Divisions too).**  In 1945, Slim commanded over a million multinational troops and his leadership helped turn Defeat into Victory in one of the most challenging and successful campaigns fought in the War.  So what is Slim’s advice?

When you cannot make up your mind which of two evenly balanced courses of action you should take – choose the bolder.

There are a few things to take from this: 

Firstly, there is nothing spontaneous in what he is suggesting.  Systematic evaluation of the pros and cons of different courses of action might eventually lead to two seemingly evenly matched choices that might be made.   Others have been considered and discounted.

Secondly, Slim accepts that whatever the course of action selected at this point, there is no such thing as certainly in the outcome – there is no such thing as guaranteed success as there are too many variables to second guess.

Thirdly, at this point, and only at this point, the boldest choice should be made – the most innovative, ingenious and surprising choice.  But ultimately, Slim believed that the bolder choice would inspire his soldiers and help with the maintenance of morale – the magic ingredient for winning the long war.  Slim was bold, but never reckless.

To boldly go.  That’s all I ever wanted to do.  But I need to do it the right way. 

*For the record, I was lucky enough to avoid being faced with that particular dilemma.

** I acknowledge that there is a much longer conversation that could be had here but I also want to try and remain vaguely on topic.


Blum, Dani (2021) The Other Side of Languishing Is Flourishing. Here’s How to Get There. The New York Times.

Slim, William (1956) Defeat into Victory. Cassell: London

Why do we keep paving the cowpaths?

Derek Sivers says that we should let pedestrians define the walkways.  Here’s his anecdote:

A new college campus was built, but one thing was still debated: where in the grass should we put the paved walkways?

Some people thought the walkways should go around the grass, to leave it green. Some thought the walkways should cut across diagonally.

One professor had the winning idea: Don’t make any walkways this year. At the end of the year, look where the grass has worn away. That shows where the students are walking. Then just pave those paths.

Brilliant idea.  Or not?

Cowpath theory

I have often heard of this referred to as the ‘cow path’ theory of design, which (allegedly) draws its origins from the story of how the streets of Boston were originally laid out in the 17th century.  The streets of downtown Boston (and many other old cities) are characterized by labyrinthine roads that seem to follow no logic at all until you are told that these roads were once cowpaths that cattle trod when moving through Boston hundreds of years ago.  At some point in time, someone decided to pave those cowpaths.  Whether the origin story is true, or not, I would assume that modern city planners would not build the same roads if given the chance to start over.  

In the same way, what would happen if the college (above) wanted to have a grassy quad in the middle of the campus for students to use for sports or relaxation?  Would they really want to pave a walkway right through the centre of it just because it represents the shortest distance between two points?  Would it really hurt those students and staff to take a couple of moments to walk around it?  Perhaps they could design walkways that encourage people to use them?  

So there is an obvious design tension here.  It makes sense to work backward from what the users want – to see what preferred paths are – but at the same time, is there not also a need for the design to reflect what was actually envisioned in the first place?  Cowpath thinking does not just apply to a college campus and street planning, it can be found wherever you look and can be described as a tension between idealism and pragmatism (Naumof, 2021).  

As such, I wonder if Apple would have removed the headphone jack from the iPhone in 2016 without some ‘wireless’ idealism? 

The pragmatic 3.5mm jack, a ubiquitous piece of technology so good that it was still going after 70+ years, was consigned to the past to make room for a better wireless future. A future of using either Apple’s new (and expensive to buy) wireless AirPods – or flapping around with extra adapters to plug in the (now) old headphones.  Apple told us that the decision was underpinned by having “the courage to move on, to do something new that betters all of us”. 

I was not convinced at the time, and this was a view shared by many tech pundits who saw the move as evidence that Apple was in decline and lost without Steve Jobs. A loud contingent of iPhone users, including myself, vowed that their next smartphone would be an Android with a 3.5mm jack.  The share price for Apple dropped, petitions were launched, and the market sat waiting to watch the doom unfold.  But it didn’t.  Perhaps it wasn’t such a big deal after all.

Why did Apple remove the headphone jack? Predominately, taking it out freed up a load of space to introduce a load of new innovations to help maintain its market position. However, there were other reasons cited such as improved sound quality, design aesthetics, and the convenience of a hands-free UX. But it was also consistent with the long-standing strategy for Apple products to operate completely wirelessly.  

Many organizations find it easier to layer new ideas on top of the old way of doing things – without really thinking if the old way is still the best way of doing things.   Paving over an existing cow path is the easy way out, but not always the best way.  Not paving over a cow path takes a commitment to a different way of doing things. It also requires educating those affected by the change as to the benefits associated with the new design.  I guess this is part of what makes Apple different.

Digging in?

Whether we like it or not, school education is still shaped by the higher education admissions system.  It is less of a paved walkway and more of a 7-lane motorway.  

The inescapable (and pragmatic) truth is that although COVID has caused huge cracks and potholes to appear, it is still the only road to take people where they want to go.  Some commentators think that COVID is going to set the conditions for the education system to be reformed – for the old roads to be dug up – but if you look closely, that is simply not evident at the moment.  People are digging in – not up!

The mother-of-all-cowpaths is actually being re-paved.  It is not being paved in the same way as before – it is being done with greater efficiency, using new materials, processes and technologies.   And at the same time, there are new vehicles being developed that will continue to help (those who can afford them) avoid any traffic, queuing, or any other inconvenience.

So what exactly is going to be different when the dust settles post-COVID?  My own idealism is for an education system with greater access, inclusion, and diversity – what I feel are the prerequisites for a more peaceful and sustainable planet.  But I worry that the hard edge of pragmatism is going to make that work more challenging than I might like.

Paving the cowpath is a bad idea.  It’s a bad idea in a city.  And it’s a bad idea when thinking about reforming education.  When you upgrade something, you can usually do better if you focus on the desired end result, not simply replicate existing practice with new technology.

Digging up?

Before leaving it at that, I thought I would share three particular paved cow-paths that I feel need digging up if education is to be made more relevant, fairer and worthwhile for (all) our children.

  1. University Admissions. Can we have a higher education admissions system that recognises a greater range of evidence to determine student ability and/or suitability? It should not all rest of the result of summative high stakes exams. This is the big one for me.
  2. Standardised testing. It drives learning and teaching. And not in a good way. Many schools are mandated to do them. Many others do them by choice.
  3. The academic offer. If a learning programme is only aimed at getting students into (tier 1) higher education, then it can only serve a specific cohort of students. It also serves to define a very narrow benchmark for what success looks like. Particularly in high school, I would see students having more choice over what, how, when and where they want (or are best placed) to learn. No one should feel that they have failed at school.

Derek Sivers (2020) Hell Yeah or No

Nick Naumof (2021) Paving the Cow-Paths: The Demise of Idealism and the Pathway to Pragmatism

Beware of butterflies

This week, a student asked me if she could take some action to show support for a climate cause that is important to her. It involved wearing different clothes for the day and so she was asking for my permission to promote it school-wide at very short notice. If I said yes I might be responsible for a chain of events that could either end up either a disorganised mess or an unmitigated success. Conversely, If I said no, for all I know I could end up being responsible for putting out the flame of a future UN Secretary-General. So it goes.

Such thoughts would appear to be practical expressions of Chaos Theory.  One of the most profound principles of Chaos Theory is the so-called “Butterfly Effect” – which was pioneered through the work of Edward Lorenz back in the 1960’s – with the discovery that small changes in one place (in a deterministic nonlinear system) can result in large differences in a later state of the system. The unexpected result led Lorenz to a powerful insight into the way nature works: small changes can have large consequences. The idea came to be known as the “Butterfly Effect” after Lorenz suggested that the flap of a butterfly’s wings might ultimately cause a tornado. 


I think most people can relate to the “Butterfly Effect” and identify a time in their life when they have had to live with the unintended consequences. Some of my hardest lessons remain both painful and seminal in the way that I think about things…

Once upon a time, I was completing a peace support mission as a young Captain in the British Army.  In one village we visited, I was invited to a ‘shura’ with the local leaders.  High in the mountains, and under a cold blue sky, we discussed ways in which we could help make things better.  On this particular day, due to a last-minute change in plans, I was unexpectedly left to lead discussions for the first time.  There were 3 requests made:

1 – to not be here.

2 – to provide access to medicine and doctors.

3 – to provide shoes.  

The first ‘ask’ was outside of my gift at the time.  But it made the most profound impact on my world-view and helped set me on a path that would eventually lead me back into school leadership and promoting education as the best way to build a peaceful and stable world. I traveled a long way to find that out. If I hadn’t been there that day, it’s entirely possible that I would still be wearing a uniform and certainly not writing this blog.

The second ‘ask’ was something we acted on.  We set up pop-up medical clinics, flew in trained doctors and nurses, and then people would travel long distances and risk their lives to get to them.  However, the unintended consequences of this well-intended philanthropy were often tragic.  The clinics, and those who sought medical care from them, inadvertently became targets for attack for cavorting with the ‘enemy’.  Later, the approach changed so that local people were offered training to become medical professionals; undoubtedly with new consequences…some positive and some not so positive. 

The third ‘ask’?  Well, this was something that I wrote home to my wife about.  Struggling to understand what was going on, and wanting to help in some way, I suggested she might send over some of my old trainers (new ones would have turned their wearers into targets) for me to share when I next had the opportunity.  Three weeks later a box arrived.  Not one pair of shoes, but a boxful.  Then another box arrived, and then another and then another.  And then for several months, the boxes kept arriving (and as far as I know they might still be arriving (13 years later) full of shoes.  It turned out my wife told her mum about the need for shoes, who then told her friends…  All very well intended, but for the fact that by the time the shoes had arrived, anyone wearing new shoes in the wrong place, at the wrong time, would also become a target for attack.  So, somewhere, out yonder, I am sorry to say that there may, or may not, be several thousand old shoes waiting to be discovered.  Or maybe they already have and there’s now a flourishing second-hand shoe industry I am responsible for?  That would be so cool!


One of the humbling privileges of leadership is being able to make decisions.  Some of these decisions might make a huge difference, others not. But we need to make them.

What I find odd, however, particularly when working with young people, is that we often remove the opportunity for them to make any decisions at all.  We think that we know better, that we can predict what will happen if certain decisions are made.  Some of that is certainly true – and we call this wisdom.  However, we need to let young people gain their own wisdom.  They can only do that by being given the opportunity to take responsibility for their own decisions. They need to be allowed to fail.

In the end, I did not make the decision for the student.  It’s her decision.  I’ll take my chances with whatever the butterfly serves up, and so can she.  And we’ll both be better for it.

Caveat: I am not a mathematician – so apologies for any mishandling of Chaos Theory and any misapplication of the Butterfly Effect. I blame popular culture!

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.