Thursday, February 27, 2014

REIGN OF ERROR WHAT DIRECTION SHOULD SCHOOLS FOLLOW?

Privatization is a favorite word of some people, but when it comes to education Diane Ravitch becomes concerned.  As soon as profit motivations are in control the concern for expenses shapes everything.  She finds herself arguing against the likes of Bill Gates, Barrack Obama and Michelle Rhee.  I put myself on Diane's side.

The so called "reform" movement has decided that schools should be held accountable and that the best method is through testing to measure the child, the teacher and the school.  Several objections arise.  Those who are to be accounted will select students who will make them look good, in other words avoid problem students.  Teachers will as much as possible teach to the test as a protection, putting other things to the side.  Furthermore as has been found in several instances cheating goes on (and not just at the student level).  Being accountable through tests can actually deprive youngsters of a true education.

It may be unfair to brand a whole movement as evil and incompetent that has such strong public support as American charter schools.  There are powerful Republican and Democratic government officials in favour of them and I might add powerful corporate figures.  Diane Ravitch used to find their views acceptable, but in "Reign of Error" she attacks them.

My own bias is evoked when powerful or loud people attack teachers.  Are they really the problem? As I read recently everyone was a student and feels they know all they need to know about teachers. At the same time we also personally feel outsiders do not understand our job. 

The author points out that "reformer" advocates claim that improving education will improve poverty. She feels poverty and racial isolation are more basic to the issue and back it up with some studies.  In reality many of the reformers have a hidden agenda.

Conservative reformers do not trust government.  They think schools should be run more as a business.  They believe testing is one tool and another is the ability to fire anyone not measuring up. Some also seem to believe  that teacher training is not as important as picking the right people and getting rid of the wrong.  Some see an opportunity to make money and rationalize the process. Motivations also include religion which in many cases wants to stifle science.

Getting back to my basic bias that teachers deserve more respect.  Many teachers aside from wanting to teach, crave security, so firings can frighten off some prospects.  They are not the most basic part of education--parents are.  If the parents see to the health of their children and provide an atmosphere conducive to learning they will learn more effectively.  With two parents working and more distractions than ever, raising children is a challenging task that few are really excellent at, including myself.

Too many people feel that education should be like a business.  But unlike businesses the job of schools is to work with whatever is available.  In other words they don't get to choose, whether a youngster is dedicated, talented or not, they are to be welcomed and encouraged to develop their talents.

Diane does offer lots of solutions to improving the American education system.

Testing to common standards is desirable, but should not be the only point of school.  When teachers are forced to teach to the test they are limited in meeting the needs of their students.  Testing does help uncover weaknesses, but should not be used as a stick to punish those who do not control all the variables.

Stability is critical to improving schools.  The reformers have caused a lot of turnover, not just by firing, but by discouraging.  It is important to attract good people who are properly trained.  Money attracts stronger candidates, but perhaps as critical is respect.  No teacher (or any professional) is perfect when they start their job, but they can all improve.  Supervision, mentoring, further education can all be helpful.

She disagrees with the premise that poverty and racism are just excuses for education failures.  Of course exceptional people overcome all odds, but by definition most people are not exceptional.  She feels the process starts before birth with pre natal care that is usually lacking amongst poor people.  It continues into the pre school age health care.  Nutrition is very significant.  Poor people are at a disadvantage during the school holidays while their richer student colleagues more often are involved with enriching activities.  To really rectify the imbalance between rich and poor means offering alternatives and at heart really dealing with the bigger issue of poverty.

Diane offers a lot of research and much detail to improve education. She feels teachers are the best source for how to improve education, not relatively uninformed business people, politicians or professionals that often have ulterior motives.  Any nation's most important resources are its young people, for they are the future.

Here in Canada a problem is the entrenchment of retired teachers as supply teachers.  It is natural for school authorities to prefer experienced teachers, especially since they probably know them personally, but how are youngsters to get started?  There are lots of enthusiastic graduates of Teachers' Colleges after having been encouraged to enter find there are few jobs open to them.  The Ontario government has lengthened requirements for teacher training in one effort to alleviate the problem.  Smaller classes are better for students and teachers and should be a higher budget priority.  Mentoring by retired and experienced teachers would open up more opportunities as well help to improve younger teachers. Awaiting these suggestions the immediate priority should be to limit retired teachers from taking the majority of supply openings.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Eleven Rings

Basketball is just a game, like hockey or baseball or soccer. Each has its peculiarities and we assume they are not as serious as business.  But one thing they have in common is that business involves a group effort that can be optimized with co-operative energy.   Of course at its highest level sports are business enterprises trying to maximize revenue and minimize expenses.

Phil Jackson is unusual in his approach to coaching. A lot of people would consider him weird with his emphasis on spiritual matters and others attribute his success to the luck of having Hall of Fame players to guide.  Bottom line, he has coached more NBA championship winners than any other person--11 of them referred to in the title.

Phil was born in a remote community in Montana and played high school and university basketball in North Dakota.  Like almost anyone who makes it to the NBA he was a key player at the high school and university level and used to getting a lot of attention.  But he was not a superstar and had to learn to blend in with others with more talent.  As a player he won one championship while a reserve player and actually was off a whole season due to an injury when the New York Knicks won a second championship. The injury gave him the opportunity to work with coach Red Holzman who he credits with teaching coaching basics.

In Phil's mind, the NBA has become too glamorized with the marketing strategy concentrating on celebrity players.  This has made too many players shoot for glory rather than fitting in with a team to optimize their effectiveness..

With talent comes a lot of ego. Can you imagine players like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant?  Or Dennis Rodman?  Or Shaquille O"Neal?  They were all capable of critical contributions, but they also could demotivate others that were capable of blending their talents towards victory.  Coaches were constantly dealing with the others who felt they were not getting a fair chance.  Phil was fortunate to associate with wealthy club owners, but they all had problems with melding expensive talent to expected championships.

Two of his greatest players, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippin once felt threatened by the Chicago manager drafting a European player, Toni Kukoc and overpraising him.  They ganged up on Toni at the Olympics, but later teamed up with him under the guidance of Phil.  All three players contributed to a championship ring.

Kobe Bryant came straight from high school with more talent than almost anyone and an exceptionally developed ego.  He resented anything that did not revolve around him getting the shot. Phil teamed him up with Shaq, one of the most physically dominant centers of all time and used to getting a lot of attention.  It was a long time before they became buddies.

He studied psychologist Carl Rogers who believed it was virtually impossible for anyone to change unless they thoroughly accept who they are.

Before a game, especially a tough one it is common for coaches to try to rouse up their players' emotions, but Phil preferred to try to quiet their minds.  He encouraged his players to meditate and practice mindfulness.   Yoga and Tai Chi were also offered.  He also took from Lakota Indians, including their way of handling anger.

From Red Holzman, "Practice doens't make perfect.  Perfect practice does."  Red also realized the importance of bench players and made a point to warn them when they would be expected to play and to watch the 24 second clock so they wouldn't be caught off guard.

Phil comments that a lot of details are just as important as the ones that get recorded.  An example is the assist which is awarded to the player who makes the pass that leads to a score.  He feels the pass that leads to the pass that leads to a score is just as important.

His approach to basketball is unique.  He was fortunate to have the physical and mental requirements to be a professional basketball player and wise enough to learn how to get others to achieve great success on the court and to find greater meaning in life.

Monday, February 17, 2014

"WINDFALL" WHO BENEFITS FROM CLIMATE CHANGE

Some of us find it difficult to understand how people can be so complacent in the face of scientific evidence of climate change. McKenzie Funk, author of "Windfall" can help explain.  As usual it boils down to money.  While some deny the problem, others see an opportunity.

While acknowledging that many, likely the majority of people are likely to suffer, some investors can see where there are opportunities.  Many of these smart insiders feel there is nothing much they can do to stop climate change, others cold heartedly prefer to maximize the opportunity.  Others are adjusting to changing circumstances.

For instance oil companies.  As Arctic ice melts big international conglomerates have access to more sources of oil and easier transport.

Insurance companies have been burned by climate disasters. However they have discovered they are able to raise their rates plus buyers are more motivated to protect themselves.  Insurance companies have also gotten involved with disaster rehabilitations such as private fire fighting companies.

McKenzie started a story about Alpine ski resorts having serious concerns with declining snow cover. Then he veered off to discuss Gulag camps where desalination was developed amongst Jewish prisoners.  Eventually with an Israeli sidestep this evolved to more sophisticated processes that helped make the Sochi Olympics survive melting weather.

Desalination, now used by Israel, Spain, Australia and others is one method of restoring drinkable water to where it is wanted, but it requires a lot of energy that contributes to climate change.

Canada stands to benefit in a number of ways.  The Northwest Passage is becoming more navigable each year and although foreigners assert it should be international waters Canada will still benefit. Although drought in middle latitudes threaten to increase food commodity prices, Canadian agriculture should be able to expand its growing season and area.  Canada also stands to benefit from increased demand for energy with both the oil sands and Arctic drilling.

Climate refugees may be hard to identify, but drought is a little easier.  High food prices force many to seek better conditions.  There is awareness of this in Europe increasingly threatened by immigrants from Africa and in India from Bangladesh and in the southern US from Mexico.  These can all be expected to increase.  One group that benefits from this are private prisons.

Small islands and coastal cities are most endangered by rising water levels.  One nation with a lot of experience and expertise is the Netherlands.  They offer a variety of water management solutions.

Another consequence of climate change is that insects spreading northward and with water, causing diseases like Dengue, Nile virus.  Big and far seeing corporations are developing strategies such as genetically modified seeds as well as genetically tampered insects.

Geo engineering options are becoming more sophisticated.  Patents are being registered.  One basic source is the fact that major volcanic eruptions have had a cooling effect on earth.   One consequence affected rainfall

Not everyone is concerned about money so much.  Greenland has many monetary opportunities, but underlying it for many is the chance to be independent.  Oil, agriculture, mining, tourism, water are all areas that would help them to independence from a benevolent colonizer, Denmark.

The average person can do very little (but they can do some things such as set an example, educate). They can adjust within their circumstances.  Wealthier people in positions of authority can do more, but there is risk of losing their power.  Then there are opportunists.  Between adjusters and opportunists the rest of us have an uphill battle.  It is not just climate deniers that are the problem.

Some people think they are beyond consequences.  Maybe they are right.  Or maybe there is more than meets anyone's eyes.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

OVERBOOKED and thoughts on tourism


In a world where robots and low income workers are sucking up jobs, tourism is a growth industry.  It creates jobs, cash flow and meaning to a lot of people.  But and a big BUT, author Elizabeth Becker points out there are some serious concerns.

A lot of what I read was about exploitation of workers and environmental and cultural problems.  In the United States cruise business, the owners have exempted themselves from American laws so they can hire foreign workers at greatly reduced wages.  Some tourist destinations are so popular that the masses of people cause serious environmental damage as well as diluting their cultural uniqueness.  Tourists at Angkor Wat area have lowered the water levels so much that foundations have weakened.

Many nations have caught onto the idea that attracting tourists is a great way to provide jobs and tax revenues as well as helping foreigners to appreciate their country better.  Voluntary transfers of money from rich nations to poor nations does tend towards greater international equality. Unfortunately too much of a good thing creates stress.

To the author the two most ideal examples were France and Costa Rica.

France, is the number one international tourist destination.  Way back in 1936 France was the first nation to have a two week paid vacation.  More than most nations France invests money into culture and a lot of tourists have come to respect their homage to artists and writers.  They have developed a reputation for one of the best cuisines and vinicultures in the world and it is supported by boosting agriculture which also makes the countryside more pleasant for rail and motor rides.  Tourism support is important even in tough economic times.

Costa Rica is a small country without an army.  They have taken an approach that emphasizes nature. Many of their rivals try to cram as many people into a cruise ship or tour bus hiring cheap foreign labour.  Costa Rica uses its natural parks and encourages small tourist groups with local trained guides and staff.  Eco-tourism is important to other countries such as in Africa.

United States was a major tourist destination, but is now trying to catch up.  The Republicans under Newt Gingrich used their power in the 1990's to downgrade tourism as they felt it was not proper for the government to involve itself.  It had been planned to emphasize the tourism opportunity offered by the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, but even though Newt Gingrich represented Georgia he and others forced budgets to be reduced as much as possible at this time.  Not long into the George W Bush tenure, 9-11 shifted everything and the biggest concern became security with tens of thousands of security staff being inserted into the tourist process.  Barrack Obama was criticized for flying to Europe to support an Olympic bid for his home town of Chicago.  He and many others were shocked that Chicago was the first city to be eliminated from the finals.   An investigation uncovered that foreigners were very reluctant to visit the United States as there was too much awareness of humiliating treatment of incoming tourists at entry points.  America has a lot to offer and the situation is slowly turning around as the Democrats feel the government has a strong role to play.

A basic problem is cramming too many people into limited facilities.  One of advantage is that such efforts make it more affordable, but too many people bundled together make the travel experience more superficial and harmful.  Placing restrictions on vacation enjoyment for environmental reasons is seen by some as elitist.  A partial solution might be education--both for those guiding us and for tourists. Elizabeth Becker likes the idea of locally more thoroughly trained guides who can give more value and deserve more compensation.  We have all heard of the ugly American and the author now says the problem is more exemplified as the ugly Chinese tourist.  Traveling is an opportunity that we can all appreciate better when we understand cultural differences should be celebrated not diminished.

One fact that surprised me was that travel agents are making a bit of a comeback.  Most people search the inter net and are able to make all sorts of arrangements that seem to save money.  Like anything else important, an expert travel agent can help make your travel time more enjoyable and respect financial restraints.  Specialization is one key strategy for agents.

Traveling has played a strong role in my understanding of the world and my own country.  When my best friend, Bob Stone moved to Vancouver I got a chance to see a distant part of Canada I had vague ideas about.  Many things were enjoyable, but one thing that struck me was the ferry boats.  I didn't realize how big they were or how critical for linking the largest city with the provincial capital. When my son, Michael decided to go to school in Victoria that widened my understanding of Vancouver Island when I ventured outside Victoria and my friend Bob joined my wife and I to enjoy Tofino and Coombs.

While visiting Victoria I learned that advertisements don't always guide you to the best experience.  I learned about my favorite restaurant, Pagliacci from a guide book with no ads and later was directed to another favorite one, Ferris Oyster Bar by locals we encountered on a walk.  My daughter Heather decided to go to school on the other coast, in Halifax.  Discovered another great city and learned other great places like Cape Breton and Yarmouth.  On a sales trip I discovered Ile d'Orleans just off Quebec City with a very lovely culture.  http://bit.ly/NwJqhA

I have also visited United States and pretty much always enjoyed myself including New York City, Florida and Las Vegas.  I was surprised to read in Elizabeth Becker's book that most of the tourist workers in Las Vegas are unionized proving you can be fair to workers and make money.

Living most of my life near the Great Lakes (Oshawa, Hamilton) I actually lived in Haliburton, a popular cottage area and learned to appreciate its good points.  Later I spent short time in Port Dover, Port Stanley and Wasaga Beach, enjoying them.  Local vacations are usually easier on your budget and time table, but they offer relaxation and learning opportunities too.

On an international scale I have visited Cuba four times, all at the same resort and each time expanding a little bit beyond to include Havana (fascinating in many ways), Veradero downtown, a cave and sailing for the first time.  More recently went to New Zealand which had me out of my time zone and hemisphere  more completely than ever. http://bit.ly/134PsCu

Money is the big limitation for traveling, but it is one of those opportunities that make one want to extend their resources.  My son, Michael has been to many countries in Europe, Asia and Africa and has a much better idea of how other people think, what they live with and has seen many beautiful things.

Many of these vacations were important enough to my psyche I have written blog posts on them.

A few summary thoughts.  Tourism is a wonderful thing.  You don't have to go far to to learn something new or to enjoy yourself.  Ideally you are looking for two way conversations with people who have a different perspective or view something beautiful.  Tourism is a logical way to spread money, giving many people a meaningful job. Tourism cannot be easily outsourced, but too much can be duplicated as when shopping malls and theme parks seem too much alike.

Monday, February 10, 2014

A WHOLE NEW MIND by Daniel H Pink

We are reeling from changes in the job market.  It seems that hard labour and boring data work  can be done much cheaper in the developing world. and that machines can do ever increasing more cost effective labour.  We are producing more material goods than we can use.  All this, according to Daniel H Pink is the results of centuries of left brain thinking.

Daniel Pink's last two books got my attention and respect.  "A Whole New Mind" was published before both of them in 2006. There has been more science and anecdotal support since then while the basic idea is still sound and worth exploring.

Our left brain is logical and allows us to analyze.  The right brain is not only where our emotions enter, but many skills such as synthesizing to make better judgments such as recognizing faces (and detecting falsehoods) or what is likely to happen in the next instance.

Daniel Goleman brought emotional intelligence to our attention.  Success has never been just about having more raw intelligence than others or even hard work.  Understanding people at the emotional level can be just as, if not more critical.

Daniel Pink points out that while manufacturing is drifting to low labour cost markets and/or using robotics, other people are enjoying a high standard of living if they can tap into artistry, such as designers or artists.

Right brain thinking might favor some people, but it is something we can all cultivate.  Pink identifies
6 essential R-directed aptitudes:  Design, Story, Symphony, Empathy, Play, Meaning.  He describes them with examples, and also  makes suggestions how you can develop your right brain skills.

Design can apply to a wide range of products and services and is at its best when it add beauty to something that is useful.

Story is actually a mechanism that is often more useful than statistics to communicate information that people can understand.

Symphony deals with relationships and putting parts into a whole.  One tool used in this section is metaphors which are used to help us understand new things and ourselves.

Empathy helps us feel what others are feeling.  It is a characteristic missing from autistic people.

Play is a phenomena that by definition excludes monetary incentives (of course professional athletes might disagree), yet it frees the mind to concentrate.

Meaning is the goal of most of us.  What is the point of it all?  Pink finds that gratitude is normal for people who have found a sense of purpose to their life.

Looking to the future as individuals as well as society we need to take a closer look at our right brain capabilities.  Left brain activities are still valuable, but are carried out much cheaper in other markets. Dan gives many examples and suggestions to prove it need not be a painful adjustment.

My first book of Daniel's was "Drive" which dealt with motivation which I can see might have been suggested from the topics of "A Whole New Mind".  Motivation is often discussed  in terms of providing financial incentives, but Pink  finds the strongest motivation is not monetary, although the need to survive has to be dealt with first.  His latest book, "To Sell is Human" was an excellent analysis that points out almost everyone is selling.

To keep up to date with this innovative thinker visit:  http://www.danpink.com/