the importance of understanding learning (for what it really is …)

Tim Lott has a good and reflective article in the Guardian this weekend.  The thesis of it, I think, is that learning ability is but a small piece of what society should see being a human really consists of:

[…] However, the prestige of those who achieve highly in examinations (Plomin’s studies focused on academic results) has much to do with our collective overvaluing of learning ability as a society.

I’m not sure he’s entirely accurate, though.  I don’t think we overvalue learning ability so much as misunderstand – or even misapply – its virtues.  And I speak of myself as much as anyone.

I’ve worked more than anything else in my life as a language trainer: just two languages, mind – English to the Spanish; then Spanish to those living in Britain; then English to a rather more varied cross-section of variously frustrated (occasionally frustrating) online learners.

In fact, the truth is that Croatian was my first language, till about the age of three.  Although I was brought up in a typically Miss Marple-style Oxfordshire thatched cottage, my isolated, then Yugoslav, mother – who spoke English very well – didn’t think at first to speak to me in it.  So as well as being a trainer, I also know very well the role of learner (a disconcerted young learner, at that).

To such an extent that later in life, that Spanish I mention above I learnt from scratch in the streets, shops and bars of northern Spain, whilst a smattering of class-based Russian (three sometimes desultory years, anyhow) followed a couple of years after I arrived.

As the trainer I describe, I’ve always prided myself on my ability to learn lessons.  But reading Lott’s piece today, I begin to question even my virtues in this.

He lists a whole host of seriously important qualities:

Academic skills are just a relatively small component of a whole nexus of traits that make up a well-rounded human being – including such qualities as empathy, emotional intelligence, imagination, kindness and curiosity. […]

And he’s right of course, but – I beg to differ on one point – he’s also inexact.  Learning ability, whilst perhaps defined by some as academic ability, if properly understood and applied can also relate directly to the qualities he goes on to contrast.  If society accepts that learning ability can only be measured quantitatively in the context of “highly intelligent people who were ill-functioning and dislikable human beings”, and that the alternative must be “many people, not the sharpest tools in the box, who nevertheless had dignity, integrity and self-respect”, then I think – as I said at the top of this post – we run the appalling risk of both misunderstanding learning ability and misapplying it.

Isn’t it possible to contemplate that the dignity, integrity and self-respect of the “blunter tools” came not out of measurably lower levels of learning ability but, instead, of such highly-tuned abilities, applied at a very early age to surviving the sadness and inequity of not being able either to aspire to what came naturally or pursue what might really have made the heart – and mind! – sing?

If there is one thing I have learnt, as a fairly unsuccessful trainer and learner both, it is that people are excited by, engaged via and in love with situations and other people who encourage them to play to their strengths.  We used to call them talents, these strengths; now the statisticians and reductionist pedagogues blithely inform us we only need 10,000 hours to become a genius.  Either way, I do know – from bitter personal experience and tragic observation of others – that when you allow someone to learn what makes them whole, there is no bluntness to be seen in any moment, nor any individual

It’s only when you force a person, a human being, a member of this species which, for example, is characterised by its astonishingly innate ability to learn something as beautifully sophisticated as language (for goodness sake!), from the ages of two, three and four, and to astonishing degree … it’s only when you force such a creature to accept that the world only requires of them the ability to learn how to make a hundred burgers an hour … it’s only then that they finally apply all that learning ability to crunching down their sharper potential in the face of a terribly blunting world and environment.

I don’t feel, from where I have lived my life, that people who are dignified, full of integrity and respect themselves, and on top of that are perceived as blunter in their intellects (a sort of noble savage, perhaps; it’s an extreme interpretation and maybe unfair to Lott’s thesis, but that’s kind of where I think I have to go even so) must necessarily be as described – even when society believes it fairly judges, with all the tools of the sharper souls amongst us, that this objectively is where they must situate themselves.

I’m clearly preaching what I fail to practise, of course.

In those objective terms, those terms I’ve already alluded to, I’m a poor trainer, because I’m unable to make a very good business of it.  And I’m a poor learner, because I keep on – year in, year out – stubbing my toes against similarly multiple stones.

But where I do admit that Lott is absolutely spot-on is in highlighting the importance of “empathy, emotional intelligence, imagination, kindness and curiosity”.  And reflecting on my own life, I now believe, justly enough I think, that I used to have all of these qualities at one time, too.

Yet, of late, I have to say, I feel they have leaked away.  My experiences over the past ten months have led me to understand that, actually, I am not a very pleasant person at all; that what has happened to me not only in the last ten months but also – maybe – much longer than that is as a result of my inability to come to terms with the reality that, for some unfathomed reason, I prize learning above sharing, intelligence (the cold, academic sort Lott identifies as forming part of our societal predicament) above true emotion, and talking about things above talking about people.

Nevertheless, in my small favour, I do have to share one more thing with you before I finish tonight.  I was watching the 2011 “The Muppets” movie last night.  The one which currently hits over 90 percent on Rotten Tomatoes – even from the critics.

I didn’t stumble across the rating before I watched the film, but found the film – whilst watching it – so very watchable, engaging and ingenious that I saw it in one go.  I saw the weak parts of the storyline immediately of course (I studied Film & Literature at uni, so it’s hardly surprising), but the humanity of the puppets and people who appeared in the film – and were therein so gorgeously contained – swept me along, like all good Hollywood always has.

And I cried, over and over again.  Tears, real tears, streaming down my face.

It obviously touched me in some fundamental way.  They weren’t tears of laughter either, but tears on perceiving arrival: the arrival, the destiny, the fate of good people in a world which rarely likes to favour people who try to be good.

I have always, in a way, thought not just that I should be good but also that I could be good; and yet have never really felt I was able to do what the world asked of me in this respect.

That’s a bit sad, isn’t it?  I just wish I could change how I felt.  I really do.

Anyone know how I might?

the editor’s algorithm

How about this?

How about we took the twenty years of Peter Preston’s editorship of the Guardian newspaper – analysing and cross-referencing every single story that was published, along with every single journalistic angle that was observed and chosen?

Then, just for fun, we could do the same with Alan Rusbridger’s twenty years just finished, at the helm of the same paper.

Yes.  I know.  Two questions arise.  The first being: is it possible?  The second being: why do it?

Firstly, the first.  We’d have to set up some kind of criteria, that is true.  Maybe something along the following lines:

  • each story could be defined in terms of:
    • length
    • wordcount
    • register (ie complexity of sentence structure etc)
    • subject matter
    • visibility (ie how prominent the paper chose to foreground it)
    • how long-running it became (ie a single-article story vs a narrative arc over time)
  • defining the angles would be more difficult, and perhaps I am not the best-placed person to decide this (lack of technical knowhow for starters), but some kind of sentiment analysis could probably come in useful here

The idea, then, and I only suggest the Guardian because it’s the newspaper I know best (it could, of course, equally apply to any publication with sufficient history), would be to create a mathematical representation – an algorithm if you must – of the editorship’s style and heteroglossia that each individual created, developed and left behind them, over their period of time as editor of the paper.

The sum of all their decisions – as well as the decisions of all their teams of course.

In much the same way as Rusbridger’s leaving describes:

Yet, nevertheless, and even so, allowing a singular editorial voice to be extracted, identified, typed, scored and made patent.

That’s my thesis, and one it’d be nice to be able to test too.

Don’t you think?


So there we have it: the editor’s algorithm.  A process whereby the accumulated intelligence and intuition of the Prestons and Rusbridgers of the world could almost be bottled, before being … what?

Well.  An application does occur to me: how about we had an online newspaper – just like the Guardian, in fact, is these days – whose content you could read and absorb, according to the filter of absolutely any historical editor the paper ever had?  Back to the days of CP Scott even.

Or, even, a Guardian edition of today, recomposed at the click of a button exactly as if it had been edited by a Kelvin Mackenzie or a Piers Morgan … or maybe a Ben Bradlee or a Tony Gallagher …

Now onto our why.  “What on earth would this be useful for?” I’m hearing you say (if, that is, you’ve read thus far!).  It’s a good question, and one I’m not exactly ready to answer.  But in the world of journalism and ideas, having an idea like this is surely worth writing an article about.  At the very least.  To be able to identify, at such a high intellectual level, the maths behind so many complex decision-making processes – processes that surely kick into play when a newspaper’s editor-in-chief creates, recreates, develops and sustains over such a long time a media voice of such complicated parts – would be fascinatingly uncovered by a project like this.

To be able to bottle top-class editorial decision-making, that ability to edit reality which often reveals so quickly so much useful truth about our planet and the societies that make it up, would be a grand achievement indeed – not only in order to understand highly competent journalism and its processes better; also, to apply the acquired knowledge to many other areas where high-powered data analysis, interpretation and (what we might term) an “applied intuition” is necessary.

Anyone up for it?  Come on!  Don’t be shy … as it says on my gravatar, I don’t bite at all!

the cusp of change #keepitintheground #guardianlive

I was at the #keepitintheground event yesterday, in London at Kings Place.

You can currently find background to the event itself here at the Guardian Membership site.

As the page tells us:

The event will be chaired by the Guardian’s editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger, and will feature a guest panel of Nick Stern, President of the British Academy and chair of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, Meryam Omi, Legal & General Investment Management, Dale Vince, founder of Ecotricity, Steve Howard, head of sustainability at Ikea, Lisa Ashford, CEO of Ethex and David Blood, co-founder of Generation Investment Management

All the speakers had something serious to offer, and whilst some spoke far more than others, the different approaches and voices of the seven participants made the evening a fascinating foray into the realities of business, and their more than occasional disconnect from the planet.

I expected to agree with everything Ikea’s Steve Howard said, and didn’t – in particular that active investment was as important a tool as divestment.  I agreed entirely with David Blood (he of Blood & (Al) Gore fame!), co-founder of an investment corporation, when he suggested that whilst the moral case for divestment was unassailable, the business case was almost as powerful.  His introduction was well structured, very American in its listenability – very to the point; very professional; very optimism-raising.

In fact, to be honest, I went into the event, expecting to be sad at the end – and came out of it, quite buoyant …

I found Meryam Omi, of Legal & General, a most persuasive intelligence: a thinking person in a place I would have expected outright rejection of the issues on the table.

That’s simply a sign of my personal prejudices taking charge of my perceptions of reality: it ennobles her and shames me.  Her call for clients to make a move as well, to ask for different approaches to investments, was notable and significant, and echoed for me many things I try and advocate in politics.  We must stop expecting everything to be handed on a plate; we must step up and take engaging control ourselves, too.

She was also disarmingly frank about the short-termism rife in her sector.  A grand speaker, as I say.

I found Dale Vince’s belief in Ecotricity tech, and thus the importance of controlling demand not just supply, touching, appropriate and actually far less hippy-ish than one might have expected (they do say “never trust a hippy” after all, don’t they?!).  In this Steve Howard had already clearly agreed, as Ikea proceeds proactively to change the nature and carbon footprints of the technology it sells in its shops.  I’m not sure the technological hopefulness is necessarily altogether wise, though – whether it sends out the right signals to the gathered business audiences out there: surely it plays into the geo-engineering getouts the big fossil-fuel companies love to promote.

Lisa Ashford, meanwhile, presented ethical investment’s best foot, and appealed in her discourse to the more humane side of those present.  As CEO of an ethical investment organisation, Ethex, I again found my prejudices a little stricken by the sincerity, honesty and humanity.

The overarching thesis did, however, seem to be economic: that these things will get done precisely because the economics is on the side of the divesters.  The problem, then, becomes managing the decline of hugely important industry.  What would, for example, be wrong is to follow the lead cooked up by the Spanish government over the past couple of years where existing vested interests and energy corps receive a tax (imposed after the event) from every solar-panel owner – a tax, in fact, on the sun for the benefit of powerful industry lobbyists.

No.  The management has to be done in some other way.  Maybe Steve Howard was right, though it pains us (me!) to admit it: whilst divestment from certain tech is possible, a plan of engagement is necessary for, say, international transport.

There was little time for the public to ask questions; most, in fact, seemed to be asked by investment-fund personnel of one sort or another.  There was, however, one I should’ve asked myself near the end: following on from a Canadian proposal I read about earlier in the week, would it be useful to see the fossil-fuel sector through the prism of Big Tobacco?  That is to say, sooner or later, to legislate in favour of health warnings on petrol pumps?

Which brings me to Nick Stern, who was quite the most powerful speaker of all – not because of personal charisma (there were many on the panel with bagfuls of that …); rather because of the charisma of his monumental stats – stats he communicated gently but not baldly; stats he allowed to speak quietly for themselves.  And although I don’t remember the detail, it never is my strength, I can remember a couple of global figures (and do correct me if I’m wrong): hundreds of thousands of deaths in China alone directly due to the emissions of hydrocarbons.  And tens of thousands in Britain every year.

More people dead, in fact, via emissions than our vehicles kill on our roads.

Now if that doesn’t deserve a health warning on petrol pumps, what does?

Two final things: firstly, an observation.  Alan Rusbridger alluded to the continuation or not of the #keepitintheground campaign.  It’s clear the new editor-in-chief of the Guardian, Katharine Viner – who starts her job on Sunday – is going to keep the pressure up on the industry and its hangers-on.

But as Meryam Omi so powerfully reminded us, this is a job and a half for everyone concerned.  The planet may be in the process of being shortsightedly carved up by business elites, but nowhere during all of human history has the grassroots been so informed or connected.

Secondly, a final anecdote: I once taught English for a year in a Spanish school.  A sociopathic schoolkid always brought a knife to class.  He was allowed to because his father was a big contributor to school coffers.  I had to deal with this; I didn’t very well.  One-to-one, he was most charming.  But in groups, he became a monster.

This is what’s happened in business.  The big contributors allow the knives into our lives, and turn face-to-face charm into the idiocy of public relations.

This is what we must reach out to prevent.

It’s time to re-engineer corporate behaviours – to reach out to the sociopaths and show them enough is enough.  But not just enough is enough; also how to change.

For as the session served to conclude, this may – after all – be that cusp of change we’ve ached so long to arrive at …