Sunday, 4 August 2019


These three powerful books have in common a concern for how we use reason to navigate the dilemmas of our times. Being “Timeful”, “Factful” and aware of “Deep Time” as we build the stories that make sense of ourselves, means stepping outside of our immediate reality and looking to see where we fit in a much bigger scheme of things. It means seeing ourselves as deeply embedded in myriad complex systems and working with humility and a little awe to understand and act.

Below I’ve copied my thinking about each book or you can read the original reviews here on Goodreads.

Timefulness: How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Help Save the WorldTimefulness: How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Help Save the World by Marcia Bjornerud
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Part geology lesson, part teleology and part plea to take seriously our responsibilities to our children and the planet.
By taking the long view of history (that’s billions of years), Bjornerud reminds us that the human species is part of something very much bigger than ourselves. We are the product of evolutionary systems that have been - literally - millennia in the making and which wax and wane and twist and turn with startling complexity. Chemicals form and combine and are stirred by the revolutions of the planet, pounded by forces from within and without and heated and cooled into microscopic crystals and massive continents. It is a dance which is stunning to observe but built on a choreography we only dimly understand.

It’s too easy as a non-geologist to look at at the world and see stability. Rocks, after all, are rocks and the point of them is that they are stable. The seasons come and go according to an immutable rhythm and, whilst human history changes at an often dizzying rate, the physical world around us is the stability we need to “ground” our human experience.

This, however, is a profoundly dangerous delusion. Just as biological systems change and evolve, so too does the geological world; all that is different is the timescale. Bjornerud reminds us that ‘rocks are not nouns but verbs—visible evidence of processes: a volcanic eruption, the accretion of a coral reef, the growth of a mountain belt.’ (p. 8) As we enter the Anthropocene (the first geological time period in which ‘rates of environmental change caused by humans outstripped those by many natural geologic and biological processes’ p.128) shortsighted human timescales are compressing natural systems to create pressures that are potentially catastrophic.

The evidence is there in the geological record for what can happen when systems are this far out of joint. But if there is one message that is clear in Bjornerud’s description of geology, it is that things are complex. What exact outcomes human behaviour will have on natural systems through the Anthropocene isn’t clear: that we are having an effect and that that effect is already causing significant change is unambiguous.

How we respond to complexity seems to be one of the greatest challenges faced by humanity at the moment. Shortsighted political responses that put time into soundbites and reduce complexity to polarised binaries are not the answer. In contrast, the concept of “timefulness” is a useful tool because it opens a space for engaging with all the systems that act on our complex reality - both those within the timespan of a human life and those systems that function within the timespan of a planet. Bjornerud tells us that: 
In Greek, there is a useful distinction between time as something that simply marches on—chronos, and time that is defined within a narrative—kairos . Hutton [one of the founders of the discipline of Geology] gave us the first glimmers of planetary chronos , but the task of calibrating it, and adding kairos, has consumed geologists for the past two centuries. (p.26) 
It is in this distinction between chronos and kairos that I find the real heart of this book. Mechanical chronos measures reality, human kairos gives it meaning. “Timefulness” gives us a tool to help measure and understand our world and to write more just stories not just for our own time, but also for the time of generations yet to come.

Factfulness: Ten Reasons We're Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You ThinkFactfulness: Ten Reasons We're Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think by Hans Rosling
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There are so many things to love about this book. Let me begin with a quote: 
"The world cannot be understood without numbers, nor through numbers alone. A country cannot function without a government, but the government cannot solve every problem. Neither the public sector nor the private sector is always the answer. No single measure of a good society can drive every other aspect of its development. It's not either/or. It's both and it's case-by-case." (p. 201) 
Rosling is a master statistician but statistics is not his master. Part psychologist, part storyteller and part researcher, Rosling's pragmatism describes a world full of hope and possibility without hiding the challenges and the dangers. He points out that humanity is achieving great things even if our instincts cause us to miss much that is happening. This is a book about bias as much as it is about statistics and a book about the importance of context and navigating through the realities of a complex world with an open mind and a generous spirit.

The world lost a great man when Rosling died in early 2017. This book is an important part of a powerful legacy.

Origin Story: A Big History of EverythingOrigin Story: A Big History of Everything by David Christian
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A remarkable book. It strikes me that it reframes history to focus less on the social interaction of humans and more on the way humans fit within systems. It's not so much a history about the political interactions of humans, but a history of the way, throughout time, systems have evolved, thrived and sometimes died. Although humans are central to the story, we are not the most powerful players and, in our dance with entropy, we have a lot of steps still to learn.

One of the key ideas I found myself reflecting on was that the binary “human/nature” is simplistic and unhelpful. It sets too narrow an historical vision and sees humans only in the political context of a few thousand odd years of history. A better historical vision sees humans as a part of nature, recently evolved and acting within a complex system which may or may not be sustainable. Whether we are responsible for climate change is not the most important question; far more important is "can we use our skills and understandings to act within the natural systems of our biosphere to make it sustainable?" And just to be clear, a non-sustainable system is one that dies. Christian reminds me that, whilst my lifespan may be too short for the timescale of systems sustainability to have too detrimental an impact on me, the next half dozen generations to follow will be severely impacted. This impact can be positive or negative and decisions we make now will be decisive.

One last observation: for my colleagues at United World Colleges, this is an important book also because it reads almost as a manifesto for the teaching of history with a UWC agenda. No accident perhaps given that the author is a graduate of UWC Atlantic College. The Big History Project is well worth a look. And Christian's dedication says it all: 
"I dedicate this book to my family, to my grandchildren, Daniel Richard and Evie Rose Molly, and to all students everywhere as they embark on the momentous challenge of building a better world."

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And lastly, a different, glorious, take on timefulness:

The Clock of the Long Now from Public Record on Vimeo.

Saturday, 1 December 2018

The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality TestingThe Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing by Merve Emre
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is not an easy book to quantify. Emre begins with a critique of the Myers-Briggs test but, having explained that the test in not valid in the scientific sense, she goes on to write a book which is far more interesting than a simple critique. Her project is to explore where the Myers-Briggs test comes from - a fascinating slice of 20th century history on its own - and how and why it has become so deeply embedded in modern society.

It was in Emre's discussion of Michel Foucault's concept of the "laboratory of power" that much of the power and danger of the test emerged - for me at least. Foucault argues that in framing the world in particular ways, the scientific project limits understanding to those dimensions. In the case of the Myers-Briggs, the 16 dimensions based on 4 binary constructions subtly define and confine the insights of test-takers. Subjects become "introverted" or "extraverted" because those are the only options. And the insistence of the MBTI organisation that personalities never change means that the possibility that individuals behave in different ways at different times in different contexts is completely discounted. There's a fatalism to the test which can provide stability in a complex world but also injects an unsettling simplicity.

Emre's book provides an alternative to that simplicity. Hers is a complex exploration of identity embedded in historical context. The personalities she describes change and evolve as they intersect with others and with happenstance. Most certainly there are themes and consistencies that emerge across the text, but these understandings recognise the meaning that comes through contradiction and the poetry of personality which provides a humanity beyond type.

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Wednesday, 25 July 2018

The questions you don't ask

I have just found the following post in my "drafts" folder. I wrote it several years ago. I think at the time I didn't want to publish it as it seemed a little unfair to mention relationships between my daughter and her teachers. Now, with the passage of time, I think the ideas are important enough to share.


As a teacher it's always interesting to be a parent - interesting and sometimes a little challenging.

This week my wife and I had Parent-Teacher Conferences for our daughter. The conferences are structured so as to be "3 way" with the emphasis on engaging the student to explain their learning and planning for next steps.

We had 7 interviews and what I found increasingly fascinating was watching the way my daughter responded to each of her teachers. Her body language changed noticeably from one subject to the next. With some teachers she was confident and forthcoming, with others she was visibly smaller. There was no correlation between her demeanour and her success in the subject. With her Maths teacher, for example, she was engaged and responsive despite finding this subject very challenging and not getting great results. It was clear both from my daughter's body language and from what the teacher had to say that they both have a plan for progress and they both have faith that greater success will come.

As I listened to other teachers giving information about test scores and curriculum objectives, the questions I found I really wanted to ask was this:
What are you as a teacher doing to build my daughter's confidence and resilience? How are you modelling a set of behaviours which will set her up for success in later life and allow her to do something meaningful with the curriculum content you are teaching?

As teachers, we put so much time and energy into thinking about what to teach and so little time into thinking about how. I don't mean "how" in terms of curriculum delivery, I mean "how" in terms of how we provide models of the kinds of people we want our students to become; I mean "how" in terms of the personal skills and qualities that we know will be necessary for students to build and sustain the relationships with knowledge that will be so important to the future they need to build.

This question seems to have particular resonance at the moment because we are articulating our Personal and Social Education (PSE) curriculum at UWCSEA. As I explained in a previous post, this seems to me to be an intriguing challenge. In this area of the curriculum it seems important to go beyond writing lesson plans. To extrapolate from the questions I wanted to ask my daughter's teachers, the questions I wonder about with a PSE curriculum are these:

What are you as a school doing to build the teacher's capacity and intentionality in the way they interact with students? How, through your curriculum, are you providing the planning spaces for staff to reflect on these interactions and plan for them intentionally? Do you see the PSE curriculum as only content or also as process?

I don't pretend that these are easy questions, nor that they are necessarily being asked in the most coherent way, nor that I have the answers. These questions seem to me to be a logical extension of an understanding that, to some extent, values are "caught, not taught" and that, if we truly believe that students can grow in these areas, we ought to believe it for staff as well. The training we have been given at UWCSEA in "Looking for Learning" and "Cognitive Coaching" suggests to me a very deep understanding of the importance of this kind of thinking but it is an understanding that sits alongside the articulated curriculum - not necessarily within it.

So I wonder what a more intentional approach to modelling some of these behaviours might look like? In regard to my own practice as a teacher, I think about the importance of being at the door to greet my students rather than sitting at my computer. I think about the learning that can come from stopping to help a Grade 6 student who is struggling to open his locker. I think about the time taken to prepare students to sit and talk to patients at the rehab hospital and modelling these conversations to them as I introduce them to a patient for the first time.

Too often I am too busy or too tired to do these things but I need to ask myself what has made me too busy or too tired and whether that part of the curriculum matters as much.

Creating the Schools Our Children Need: Why What We are Doing Now Won't Help Much (And What We Can Do Instead)Creating the Schools Our Children Need: Why What We are Doing Now Won't Help Much by Dylan Wiliam
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Not surprisingly Wiliam's key advice to those with the pursestrings in education is to invest in teachers and particularly in improving their abilities to use formative assessment. For those who've read anything else by Wiliam, this isn't going to be new. What is new and well worth reading are the chapters leading up to this conclusion. Wiliam carefully and systematically works his way through the many other possibilities for investing in school improvement and explains why either they don't work or they aren't cost effective or we don't have good evidence.

The overarching theme that came out of the first two thirds of the book was a reminder that teaching and learning are complex and, like any complex system, when you tweak one element, the effects ripple in often unpredictable ways. Treating education as some kind of linear machine where turning a dial will have a predictable result is simplistic and silly and yet we still continue to do it. Human learning is probably the most complex system that has ever existed in our universe and yet those outside the profession continue to treat it as though it is a sausage machine. The single most complex mechanism we have for engaging in this system is a professional teacher and Dylan Wiliam reminders us that investing in teachers and supporting them to become increasingly professional is the cleverest thing we can do. More complex and able than a single teacher is a collaboration between teachers and more powerful than that would be a professional collaboration between teachers and the community. We are, after all, all part of the evolution of learning that creates our culture. Wiliam's book provides a lot of carefully considered evidence to help us do a better job as a profession and as a community.

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Saturday, 7 April 2018


A baklava city
With its traditional
Forty layers of paper
Thin pastry, honey, pistachios.

Our guide told me it's
Best turned upside down
So that the crisp
Foundation sticks

To the top of your
Mouth - like words
Struggling for articulation.
All that history:

One religion built
On another and
Another. Pagan temples,
Under Cristian churches,

Beneath Mosques,
Shadowed by office
Buildings with
Telecom-tower minarets.

And through it all,
1700 years of tourists
Wearing away at the stone,
Crawling through the layers,

In the honey-sweet
Sickliness of history.

Link to my photos - a week in Istanbul April 2018

Monday, 29 January 2018

How many words do you have to write before what you have written has never been written before?

Lemon poltergeist
Got it in two -
At least according to 
Google who knows all
About the digital world.

But what of the millennia
Before the internet?
Did some child in 
A distant town 
In a far away time
Utter without understanding
These exact words?

Or was it the code-name
Of a Russian spy
With a penchant
For English mysticism 
And a love of citrus?

Maybe a dying 
Colonist at the 
End of his tether
After yet one more
Year watching 
His trees and dreams

Two words seem
The real challenge
Would be to create 
New meaning
From only one


Sunday, 28 January 2018


From time to time a group of my Middle School English colleagues travel down to the Kindergarten to learn with and from our remarkable Kindergarten teachers. We use a protocol from their Reggio Emilia practice to explore student learning and become smarter teachers together. 

One teacher presents a brief snippet of learning from their classroom: something they videoed; a piece of student learning; an observation they have made. The rest of us listen as the teacher explains what they have brought and why. Then each of us responds one at a time exploring the learning through the various lenses of the student’s perspective, pedagogical perspectives and conceptual understandings. Finally the teacher who has brought the snippet reflects on what they’ve heard and there is discussion about how to push learning forward for this student or class.

When we met recently, we were asked to direct our focus to a new learning space that was being established just outside the classroom. From where we sat on tiny stools, knees around our ears in the K2 classroom, we looked out through the glass doors to a low wooden fence that had been placed under the outside awning. A space had been established as wide as the classroom and encroaching about 4 meters out into the playground. We were told that the students had expressed a desire to have a space to paint and work creatively outside and so the teacher had worked with them to establish this zone beyond the classroom. Her question was “what next?” how best could she work with the students and the space to support student growth?

Various observations were made about the way students were exploring creativity and play and the final conversation explored the way the space that had been mapped out existed as a transitional space between the playground and the classroom. As Shakespeare would put it, neither fish nor foul, this space was neither classroom nor playground but open to the defining grammars of either or both. 

We spent some time during this discussion exploring the implications of “play” and “creativity” and how ownership of the playful or creative space engenders agency and student engagement in the space and the learning. Students tend to own playgrounds, teachers tend to own classrooms. This littoral zone between the outside and the inside was a playful space where learning might be defined differently and creativity fostered. The trick, we decided, was in continuing to support the students to take ownership of the space and in exploring ways to break down some of the expectations around what belonged inside and out.


I’m reminded by this conversation of a Gwen Harwood poem: “Littoral”. Harwood was an avid reader of Wittgenstein and her poetry often engages with the phenomenological challenges of language and meaning. How does language come to reflect a world "outside" and does our sense of reality exist in the space of language "inside" or in some kind of transitional space between? The inquiry is reminiscent of the noema/noesis dichotomy of Husserl later elaborated in the philosophy of Heidegger. 

The littoral zone Harwood evokes in her poetry is, at the literal level, the tidal zone between land and ocean ‘where life began’. Neither sea nor land, Harwood's littoral zone features elements of both; meaning exists there as a penumbra of potential. It’s a poetic space between certainty and ambiguity, land and water, where new understandings can be formed. 

“Littoral” describes a reverie as the poet’s children play on the tidal rocks and concludes:

My children call
across the wind for me to come;
the tide streams through a honeycomb
of rock and air. This littoral
margin of land and water still
vibrates with life, where life began.

In the poem Harwood’s reverie is broken by the calls of her children who are exploring the tidal pools around her. This, like the reverie that produces the poem, is a temporary space inhabitable only briefly before the tides sweep back to claim it.


With Harwood's metaphor in mind, I return now to reconsider another piece of work that we looked at with our Kindergarten colleagues. This snippet was offered by a Grade 8 teacher and she began by showing us an entry ticket where the student apologised for being unable to explain the theme of a novel:

I have no idea. I hope you are having a nice day Ms X.
We then watched a video clip of the student having a conversation later in the class. The student described an event from his novel and then went on to reflect on what it might mean in terms of a theme. The explanation was a little off track for the novel and very tentative and the teacher was wondering what to do next.

Again our conversation turned to the agency of the student. This student had crossed from a pedagogical space where meaning was something he saw as coming from outside to something that he could start to explore and define for himself. The feeling of the group was that his efforts were to be celebrated and encouraged and that “getting it right” was a secondary concern at this point in his development. We discussed the need to keep supporting him as his identity changed from a person who is passively taught to a person who actively learns.

As I reflect on Harwoods metaphor of the littoral, it strikes me that this tentative step into finding meaning is profoundly important for the development of this student. A spark to be protected, fanned and fed further. This is a student who has seen school and literacy as something that is done to him and over which he has very limited control. In this piece of video, he was taking early steps to take control of the process and learning is becoming something he can do for himself.

And the Littoral zone that fostered this learning? For this student I feel it was two things: a "just right" novel that engaged him and give him the confidence to run with his ideas; and a classroom that gave him the space and grace to explore and search for his own meaning. 


One final tentative reflection as I enter my own littoral zone between the space where we speak with confidence about curriculum and the watery uncertainties that support our emerging ideas. We are doing a lot of work with "knowledge" and "conceptual understanding" in our evolving curriculum design at UWCSEA. In much of this work I detect an implicit assumption that "knowledge" is one kind of epistemological entity and "conceptual understanding" a different kind of beast altogether. I would like to explore a different formulation: understanding as a littoral zone at the margins of the certainties of knowledge - not so much an entity as an attitude. Not so much something to be "discovered" as a way of engaging with knowledge. In this formulation I suspect that understanding is not a secondary state following knowledge but a more primary state of inquiry and uncertainty; a creative space where meanings can be formed because the hard-edged artifice of knowledge is worn away by waves of uncertainty.

Harwood explores something along these lines in another of her poems.

Thought Is Surrounded By A Halo 
Gwen Harwood 
Show me the order of the world,
the hard-edge light of this-is-so
prior to all experience and common
to both world and thought,
no model, but the truth itself. 
Language is not a perfect game,
and if it were, how could we play?
The world's more than the sum of things
like moon, sky, centre, body, bed,
as all the singing masters know. 
Picture two lovers side by side
who sleep and dream and wake
to hold the real and imagined world
body by body, word by word
in the wild halo of their thought.

Named after an aphorism from Wittgenstein, Harwood's poem reminds us that the playful space between language and the world is beyond naming. Knowing is not understanding and understanding is beyond knowing. Too much of learning exists in the firm ground of “knowledge” where the pedagogical grammars of control provide a firm ground of certainty. I suspect that understanding, by contrast, is a littoral zone where we engage with the watery uncertainties of the unknown. This littoral space is fragile, playful, creative and often a little disruptive; it’s a space between the K2 classroom and the outside playground, between the words of a novel and the inquiring mind of a reader, a space we inhabit tentatively when we are most alive and learning.