Monthly Archives: September 2018

Where to Speak 600,000 Words

bus inside

Which part of a bus is the most important? The engine? The driver? Wheels, brakes, fog lights? The passengers? No. It’s the Literacy Alcove.  The Literacy Alcove is usually towards the center, or at the front on the left. It normally has fold-down seats, is often filled with push chairs, babies, toddlers and their mums.  The buggy-baby-toddler-mum area. Where wheelchair users go too.

I propose that it’s here where a nation’s future is forged; where economic success is made or broken and where personal fulfillment begins.

Bold claims for a bit of a bus. Let me explain why:

I travel a lot. I choose public transport when I can, walk if it’s sunny and fly if I have to. I use buses a great deal. I see what goes on in the Literacy Alcove. Things like this: a mum and her baby boy get on. The baby is about 11 months old and strapped in a pushchair. He is big-eyed and alert. This is a bus for goodness sake; what’s not to get excited about. He’s looking around making eye contact with passengers, taking in the sounds, the colours, shapes, smells; seeking out something to connect with, something to learn, to do, to grasp. His brain must be crackling with electricity. He is full on ready to learn.

Mum parks the buggy so she can see him. She smiles, he smiles back. I’m anticipating a beautiful moment filled with the to and fro of a proto-conversation. Then mum takes out her phone, turns away and spends the rest of the journey on Facebook. Baby looks around for a while then zones out.

Sometimes you don’t see the first bit. The part where the buggy and its child get to face the mum. Once in a while the baby gets the phone and the mum pulls out another, bigger one. If you’re lucky (like I was this morning) nan gets on. She has her grandson for the day and there are no phones. I saw nan entertain baby for 20 minutes with a single bus ticket. She gave it to him and he scrunched it up, she straightened it out, then he examined it, licked it, flapped it, dropped it and waggled it. Then nan rolled it into a ball and played guess where it is. All the while talking to him and asking questions. Inspiring use of the Literacy Alcove.

More inspiring would be a bus company (First Bus, Arriva, whoever) that put poems and rhymes and songs there – instead of  serious lists of imperatives about buggies, wheelchairs and travel-based behavioral priorities. There could be books on strings, jolly cartoon characters talking and reading, big magnetic letters, textures, bells. A giant sensory alcove. Anything! Anything to get mums talking to their children. Lists of questions. Jokes. Funny pictures. Half finished sentences. Just something to start a conversation.

Some kids aren’t born with a silver spoon. Or any cutlery for that matter. They are poor in experience, opportunity and outlook (but not potential). They start school very much behind and many never catch up. One cause is scarcity of language in their first years. Some children start school with a 3000-story deficit and even the most effective teachers struggle to compensate.

We can fix this in the Literacy Alcove. Imagine a 20 minute journey taken 5 times a week for 40 weeks of the year. If mum speaks to baby for half that time at 100 words per minute, that’s 200,000 extra words a year. 600,000 more before they go to school. And that’s just in the bus.

First Bus, Arriva: free rides for mums who have a conversation with their child. The driver can check in her mirror. A fiver every time they sing a song to their baby. Vouchers for asking questions, pointing out interesting things. Rewards for language.

We can do the sums but I guarantee the cost of not doing this is more than fitting out every bus with a couple of posters and a book on a string.

Photo by Matteo Bernardis on Unsplash

Was Freud an AI Coach?


At the End of the Couch

This is Sigmund Freud’s coach. Sorry, couch, bit of a slip there. It’s in The Freud Museum so you can’t sit on it. But look carefully and you’ll see where he sat: that’s it, at the end, on the green chair, in a place where his clients (patients) couldn’t see him.

Imagine Fräulein Katharina reclining here in the 1920s; Freud sketching out her childhood on a note pad. Or Sergei Pankejeff, the Wolf Man, haunted by a dream of white wolves sitting in a tree. Four years’ regular analysis with Freud dug up poor Sergei’s  memory of barging in on his parents – who happened to be busy at the time copulating in a canine fashion. Hence the dream. To help him cope. Allegedly.

Freud’s work was hugely influential; foundational to psychoanalysis and other techniques of personal emancipation and growth. And although he was wrong about some things, he remains lodged in our cultural memory like Einstein, Ghandi or Harry Styles.

Face to Face

But that green chair still bothers me. I like to see my clients when I’m coaching. We sit face to face, side by side, or at any angle allowed by the independent coffee shop. I see the subtle non-verbals – a micro expression here, an eye movement there, an intake of breath or a tilt of the head. It all means something and it’s all grist to the coaching mill. But Freud ignored that.  He might as well have been on the phone. Or chatting online. Did he need to even be in the room? Which brings me to AI (artificial intelligence).


Last week I had my first coaching session with PocketConfidant. PC isn’t human. PC chats with me online. PC is an Artificial Intelligence. An AI coach. Here’s an excerpt from our conversation. At this point I’m telling her about times when I’m most productive:

PC: Talking about the context of your situation, where and when does it happen?

Me: So, it’s when I’m truly free, I feel autonomous – which is rare – but that’s when I am fully occupied and I don’t feel other responsibilities.

PC: How are you impacted by this experience?

Me: I don’t know. Wanting it more? Questioning where I am? Yes, it makes me hungry for freedom to work in new ways.

PC: If we dig a little deeper, tell me what do you really want?

I chatted with PC for 20 minutes. By 10 it felt like I was on line to a fellow coach. I gained a couple of insights of equal significance to those I’d normally expect with my own professional supervisor.  There were a few lumps and bumps in the conversation but overall it was extremely effective. I loved it. So I sought out PC’s creator – Olivier Malafronte from PocketConfidant to find out more. Hear me chatting with Olivier about AI coaching and the fascinating questions it poses.

Whose Agenda?

I’m beginning to see why PC works. Coaching mantra #101: ‘It’s your client’s agenda; pause your own’. Coaches listen, challenge, reflect, but they never advise. That needs discipline when you have a solution and your client is struggling (Coaching mantra #102: ‘Trust the process.’) PC doesn’t have an agenda. She can’t; she’s not conscious. She’s just a very clever piece of code that’s learning all the time. You know she’s not steering you towards her goals; she’s using tough questions to help you reach yours. Every session she completes makes her better for the next time. And one day, Olivier tells me, she will speak.


If you are a coach you might now be getting twitchy about your job. What happens when PC is better than you? And cheaper. And available 24-7, 365. And 100% trustworthy (within the limits of bank-level security and above). Don’t worry yet. That’s not going to happen any time soon, if at all. AI experts disagree about when artificial intelligence will surpass human. Predictions start at 10-20 years (not going to happen) to never, with 100 years hence being a popular bet. And what if in 2118 this super coach gets free and decides the best way to ensure #101 (the agenda one) is to remove all agendas by destroying the planet? Again, don’t loose sleep over this. One of the biggest sub branches of AI is safety research, a discipline that grapples with the practical and existential issues of keeping friendly (and unfriendly) AI on the leash.

Augment not Replace

For now PC is used to augment human coaching in three ways:

  1. To prepare for a session – the client works with PC to discover themes for their human coaching.
  2. During a session to seek clarity – the client pauses a session and uses PC to explore a difficult topic.
  3. After or between sessions  – the client checks in with PC to develop the work.

So, maybe Freud was right to stay at the end of the coach. Sorry, couch. Maybe that kept his agenda right out of his clients’ faces so they could become more by talking more? Maybe a non-judgmental, trusted AI is what we need.

I wonder how far we will allow AIs to help us become more human?

Bake Offsted

Wagon Wheel

My grown up children made this. In fact they made twenty of them. They are wagon wheel biscuits inspired by last week’s Great British Bake Off. They let me eat one and I thoroughly enjoyed it. And not just because of its taste and texture. My wagon wheel makes a point about assessment and inspection.

Paul Hollywood and Prue Leith would slate this biscuit (and fair dues my 19 and 22 year old would slate them back). This biscuit would not stop any shows or elevate any star bakers. It would fail. It would bomb. It would not meet the success criteria:

  • It’s blackberry and apple jam not strawberry.
  • Chocolate is missing from the sides.
  • The marshmallow filling is bought fluff.

But let’s see this in a different way. My adult children lead separate lives at different universities. They were home together for once and chose to collaborate. They used homemade jam; fruit from our nearby field. They saved time buying fluff. They reduced calories by skipping the chocolate sides. They compromised looks for taste. They created a complex biscuit after several fails. They had fun, they connected, they became kids in the kitchen again. It was lovely to watch.

Non of this would count in GBBO but it has great value to me. And there’s the rub with school assessment and inspection. What do you value? What counts? What REALLY matters for the children we’re launching into the world. Does Ofsted see or just look?

Public accountability for public money: a necessary safeguard. But it’s not sufficient for authentic future-focussed education. Ofsted is expanding its focus: looking wider; moving on from simple, absolute measures. But what will the new criteria be? How well will official aims match personal and global needs?

Future thinkers list many skills and qualities likely needed for 21st Century employability: a handful – maths, empathy, data literacy, negotiation, collaboration, cognitive flexibility. These and more should be the central focus of inspection. I worry that we do an exceptional job inspecting the 1980s instead of using formative comment to shape the future. Consider this; most of the children you teach this week will be alive in the the 22nd century.

Every biscuit is a success, it just depends which criteria you value. Every child is a success, it just depends how you see them and if you’ve done more that take a cursory look.