Monthly Archives: February 2020

Forgotten Gifts

What’s the connection between this:

Architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water House

And this:

Fröbel’s Gifts (19th Century educational play materials)

You can go here (until 13th April 2020) to find out:

Or read on if you’re not in London before then…

All play means something.
Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens

In 1938 Dutch historian and cultural theorist Johan Huizinga published Homo Ludens in which he argued for the importance of play in society and for its role in generating culture. He gave play 5 characteristics:

  • It is free; freedom.
  • It is not real life.
  • It is distinct from real life by where it happens and for how long.
  • It creates order.
  • It is not connected to any material interest; no profit can be gained.

Huizinga’s thinking made play central to human development and to society’s success. But decades before, Friedrich Fröbel, a German educator, whom we can thank for the word ‘Kindergarten’ – and for a set of eponymous educational toys – firmly and formally embedded play into early childhood experience.

Fröbel’s Gifts

The active and creative, living and life producing being of each person, reveals itself in the creative instinct of the child. All human education is bound up in the quiet and conscientious nurture of this instinct of activity; and in the ability of the child, true to this instinct, to be active.
Friedrich Fröbel

Fröbel’s 20 gifts are a progression of play materials helping children to understand their environment and their relationships. For example Gift 3 is a cube made from 8 smaller ones designed for the hands of a 2-3 year old who can assemble, destroy and reconfigure the original shape. Under expert facilitation, the child is given opportunities to represent their experience, to make connections, to gain new knowledge and to develop a concept of beauty.

So profound was the effect of the gifts that it directly inspired abstract art, the Bauhaus movement and several modernist architects – all of whom had experienced Fröbel’s materials as young children.

The smooth shapely maple blocks with which to build, the sense of which afterwards never leaves the fingers: so form became feeling.
Frank Lloyd Wright

So there you have the connection. Fröbel’s gifts in part inspired Frank Lloyd Wright’s architectural thinking. But where are the gifts now?

I recently visited the Wellcome Trust’s engaging and superbly curated exhibition. From Fröbel to Huizinga to Barbie to Fortnite it tells the story of play and includes some surprisingly forward-thinking historical artifacts – and also some culturally awkward ones.

I left inspired but then reality dawned.

I see superb practice in the ‘Kindergarten’ settings in which I work. I see play and laughter and frustration and resilience and failure and success. I see humanity nurturing humanity with skill and love and intelligence. I see adults playing ‘for’ young children. But then these little bundles of curiosity and furious, furious creativity turn 6, then 7, then 8. They are made to sit and to write and ‘behave’. They are tested on the thinnest sliver of the world’s rich knowledge and judged, labelled, condemned because of it. Play becomes playtime and equates to ‘running around a bit’ and ‘not working’.

When play is designed out of curricula, health is designed out of society.

Something to think about:
How did you play as a child?
How do you play now?
Where is play in the lives of the children that you teach?
What are your gifts to the next generation?

The 3Rs are Dead; Long Live the 4Rs

29th December 2019 was just another Black Friday in Carnaby Street, London. But unlike its neighbours, the Raeburn clothes store was closed. A sign outside read, ‘Buy Nothing Repair Something’. The sign is now a poster inside the shop,

Today we are closed for business and open for creativity. We’ve disabled our online shop and closed our physical stores.

Raeburn’s design lab up the road in Hackney stayed open and offered a free community drop in repair service – of any brand or no brand of clothing.

Why is it that Timberland, The North Face, Disney and many others seek out Raeburn and, more specifically, founder and lead designer Christopher Raeburn? Why do they want to collaborate and co-create? The answer is simple: it’s the company’s integrity; approach to design and because of its care for our precious planet. Christopher says,

I think as a designer you have an obligation to consider what you are doing and why; ultimately, we want to make strong, sustainable choices…

Companies want his thinking. They want his why and his how more than his what. He’ll help them remake their own what (their product) into something that’s far, far more than it was before.

The Raeburn philosophy comprises 4Rs – the first eponymous, the rest world changing and we’ll look at them here in turn:

Raemade, Raeduced, Raecycled garments


There’s a great deal of excess military clothing and equipment out there – unused, unusable or unsafe – and Christopher Raeburn hunts it down with archaeological rigour. It’s then taken apart and rebuilt.

Imagine a bomber jacket that was once a fighter plane’s parachute air-brake; a silk dress cut from a cold war battlefield map or a jacket that used to sit poised and packed as a Chinese air force parachute.

It’s all about value, about thinking in lifetimes not days. Each garment is numbered so you know you’ve bought one of a small run. You also know Raeburn will repair it free of charge forever, and when it’s beyond repair will remake it again: jacket to cushion to handkerchief to wallet is a wholly probable evolution over decades. Put simply, less clothes, lasting longer.

The principle: seek out the surplus, find the excess, bring it out of storage and make it into something new (but with a design nod to its heritage, its provenance).

An air-brake, RÆMADE
Cold War silk maps. Archived, stored, found, RÆMADE


RÆDUCED products come from new natural fibres; generally (GOTS Certified) Organic Cotton items, but also wool and silk. The RÆDUCED ethos looks at decreasing impact through addressing CO2/water/transport issues.

New, digitally printed silk (from Moving to Mars)

The principle: think long term across a product’s whole lifetime – its birth, life, journey, changes and death – and only then judge its value and its cost. And ask, just how many clothes do I actually need?


If it can be used again, use it again. Wool can be respun, cotton can be respun. Plastic can be gathered and reformed. Raeburn sell a cashmere sweater. Not quite 100% – a mix of Tencel (from wood pulp), Polyamide (reused plastic) and reclaimed cashmere. They argue, why use new when used can be reused?

The principle: Why is it sitting there in landfill? What can it become instead and how can this transformation best happen?

Raeburn brand thinking is inspiring, necessary, and scalable. Its transformative and transferable. That’s why, from this learning designer’s perspective it is so compelling.

In an educational environment veering dangerously close to a retro and reductive 3Rs ethos, we desperately need this kind of 4R thinking.

The Reading, wRiting and aRithmatic will take care of themselves – these skills are functional, foundational and easily acquired through systematic proven programmes – which will become ever more effective once we fully commit to and trust machine learning and artificially intelligent products.

But currently that’s all we seem to do – drill the basics – especially in primary schools. Children loose their childhood, their play, their chances to create. Design has been designed out of the curriculum; the future hobbled by a mis-remembered ‘golden’ past and troubled by an overloaded, anxious present. We must design and produce a transformation of learning through principles like Raeburn’s Rs.

Something to think about:

In your day to day teaching, what can be remade, reduced, recycled – practically as in actual materials and objects, or pedagogically as in ways of teaching and learning?

What are your 4 principles of teaching and/or learning?

Thanks to Jake and Marina for talking me through the brand ethos.

I’ll be creating a series of resources this year linked to ethical design and principles like Raeburn’s. Look out on the website and in the monthly mailing.

Contact Raeburn direct for lab tours and workshops.

A Better Accountability for Schools

The Window

Wednesday. 12:01pm. A collective sigh of relief from headteachers across the land. Ofsted won’t be coming this week. If you’re currently in ‘the window’ you’ll know all about this weekly crescendo and crash. It’s a bit like a very slow, ominous wave, creeping up the shore (Sunday, Monday, Tuesday), breaking all over you (Wednesday) – cold and full of seaweed – then sliding back down the beach (rest of Wednesday-Sunday), ready for another go. Ridiculous. Pointless. Inefficient.

Here’s a proposal for a better system for the national accountability of schools. It has three parts:

  1. An MOT
  2. Jury Service
  3. Economics


1. MOT

CARThe MOT is an annual assessment of vehicle safety and road-worthiness. Introduced in 1960 by Minister for transport Ernest Marples, it checks 21 features including tyres, brakes and the ever useful horn. If you own a car, you know the test is coming, you know you’ll pass or fail it and you know exactly what to do to prepare (make sure your washer fluid is topped up, for example).

I propose a school MOT, once a year, to check that the basics are in place. It costs around £58 and is administered by a friendly, if untalkative, team of eduneers (educational engineers) who drive about in a van stopping off wherever an MOT has been booked. (This model is preferred over taking your school to the test center).

Features tested would be inspired by the actual MOT but relate directly to the quality of educational provision, for example, steering, (i.e. leadership),

2.1.1. Steering gear condition
To check the condition of the steering gear:

Turn the steering from lock to lock and observe the operation of the steering gear.


2.1.1. Leadership gear condition
To check the condition of the leadership gear:

Ask senior leaders how they successfully direct the school and accept 2 pieces of illustrative evidence.

2. Jury Service

GavelPeople between 18 and 70 years of age have a civic duty to serve on a jury if called to do so. Roughly 35% of citizens are invited to take part, so there’s a 1 in 3 chance you’ll get asked. Jury members (usually 12) check facts impartially. They are not experts in law – that’s the judge’s role – but they do provide a commonplace view of a legal scenario. They bring reality to bear on an abstract system, they pursue truth based on their life experience and in doing so make our legal system practical and authentic instead of abstract and out of touch.

You know where I’m going with this don’t you. Teachers inspecting teachers (like Challenge Partners already do).

I propose that part of progress to UPS includes an increasing requirement on experienced teachers to inspect, advise and hold to account their colleagues. I’d much prefer tough empathy than uninformed punitive condemnation. Teachers know what it’s like to struggle with pupil behaviour, to wrestle with competing demands and to shoulder target-driven workloads. At UPS, a teacher-inspector wouldn’t accept excuses but they would fully understand reasons.

3. Economics

HandIn 1776, Scottish Enlightenment thinker, Adam Smith published An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. In this definitive work he introduced The Invisible Hand, an economic concept suggesting that a free market will organise itself without the intervention of government.

He argued that individuals pursuing self interest, in a market where they are free to produce and consume, will cause a natural flow of prices and trade. The market moves as if directed by an invisible hand – which is actually the emergent behaviour of millions of individual decisions about what to buy or sell and millions of judgements about what has value.

I propose that schools should be left alone (apart from an annual MOT and UPS jury service inspections) to get on with the business of teaching and learning. The invisible educational hand will soon get to work. It’ll emerge from the children, their parents, the local community, the media and even the teachers in school and in nearby ones. If a school is failing its pupils, it’ll loose value and pupils will go. If a school is succeeding, it’ll gain value and pupils will arrive. And (heavens above) if we actually attached funding to number of pupils, the invisible hand could really get to work.

You might say this last idea is in play now. That educational capitalism is a travesty which undermines authentic learning and values-driven teaching. Maybe so. But to really see what cards the invisible educational hand will play, we must first remove the very visible and unnatural foot of Ofsted. Mr Gove unleashed market forces into education, but they are not yet free to become fully efficient.

There you have it. My proposal for a better way to hold schools to account for their pupils’ futures (remember, most children in school today will be alive in the 22nd century):

  • An annual basics check (MOT)
  • An expert self-inspection (Jury Service)
  • Market forces (the educational invisible hand)

After all, does anyone loose sleep over an MOT; worry unduly about someone who knows their profession, helping them out; or complain excessively when the price of apples goes up a bit?

Something to Think About

Is there actually any research to show that inspection systems like Ofsted’s help raise progress and achievement? (I’ve not found any yet)

How would you best hold schools and teachers to account?

What is the most effective way to help a teacher become even more effective?

Becoming a Mediator

Conflict 1

Becoming a Mediator

I’m involved in a workplace disagreement today. My partner (business and life), Lucy (above, top, bearing down), wants my input on finance and marketing jobs; I’d planned to write resources. We’re not on task because we’ve got the extra job of arguing. Five minutes of sulking (me); justification (her); and a coffee in the kitchen fixed it. After 20 years of occasional working from home we’re good at the swift resolution of minor misunderstandings.

But I’m not making light of the serious stuff; the scenarios where interpersonal conflict undermines confidence and diminishes productivity. These are workplace ‘disagreements’ that really hurt and cause lasting harm. Professional relationships sour into manipulation, harassment and bullying where one human being willfully (or even accidentally) damages another. It might be a difference of opinion, banter gone too far, unhealthy competition or even sexual and physical abuse. All are commonplace; none need go unacknowledged or unresolved.

As a coach I see a lot of this second hand. 90% of my coaching work includes  ‘people issues’. My clients are either involved or trying to sort things out, and are often wholly unprepared to do so.  As well as this, coachees sometimes have internal conflict, battling with themselves, beating themselves up or judging themselves against some irrelevant personal criteria. You could say they have a longstanding workplace grievance against themselves. I can work with that, it’s my job, but I can’t reach beyond and into their workplace unless invited to do so.

So I’ve decided to invite myself, by training as a mediator. I’ve decided it’s a natural and necessary development of my professional offer and my training starts in March. I’ll share the journey with you here and I hope it helps you in some way too. You can even join me on the training if you like – details here

Starting Points

Conflict is a fact of life in the modern workplace; against a backdrop of tumultuous political and economic change and highly pressurised work environment.
Managing conflict in the modern workplace, CIPD 2020

CIPD Workplace Report
If you want to know the scale of the challenge – and what to do about it – start here. This report from CIPD describes the good, the bad and the ugly of the contemporary workplace. One finding (from over 1000 respondents) suggests that, “people managers are at the forefront of identifying and managing conflict, as well as often being a cause of it.” Conflict arises from differences in personality and working styles and the most common associated behaviour is lack of respect.

The potential impact is stark:

Our findings show how devastating the negative effects of conflict can be on people. Stress, a drop in motivation or commitment, anxiety and a loss of self confidence are the most common effects on people, but some individuals say the impact is felt for years, and their confidence will never be the same again.

However there’s good news, which is part of the compelling attraction of mediation,

Respondents to our employer survey are significantly more likely to report a number of tangible outcomes in their ability to handle conflict where they have invested in people management skills training for their managers. 

Learning to Mediate

Obviously nothing replaces actually doing it under the guidance of experienced trainers, but I’ve found The Mediator’s Handbook an inspiring and practical read. It’s a ‘what/how’ book rather than a ‘why’ one, covering the principles and practice of successful mediation. I think I’ll leave it laying around next time I’m working from home.

Mediators Handbook

Something to Think About

  • What kind of situations cause workplace conflict?
  • What’s your experience of conflict or grievance?
  • What, exactly, is conflict?
  • Is one person’s conflict another’s lively debate or bonding chat?