Category Archives: Culture

A Christmas Message from the Ministry of Learning

Photo by Joanna Kosinska on Unsplash

Dear Teachers. Dear Leaders. Dear Inspectors, Advisors, Specialists and Consultants. Dear anyone who dedicates their professional life to creating a better future for our young learners. Dear Educators,

The Ministry of Learning would like to take this seasonal opportunity to offer you all a heartfelt Thank-you! Not a strategic, mediated or political one. A real one. A real, genuine, authentic Thank-you.

Thank-you for choosing the one profession that creates all the others.

Thank-you for your resilience, your strength and your perseverance in the face of daily volatility and uncertainty.

Thank-you for your flexibility, your dynamism and your pragmatism in responding so effectively and efficiently to last minute requests.

Thank-you for your patience, your humility and your maturity when anger is directed towards you (wrongly, you just happened to be the nearest target).

Thank-you for your creativity, your innovation and your confidence since early 2020 in taking learning online, then off, then back again. You looked wonderful on Zoom/Teams/Meet by the way. And sounded even better. The kids loved it and adapted so well.

Thank-you for going above and beyond. For taking laptops and dongles to homes. For insisting on just one glimpse of a vulnerable child through their lounge window, to know they are safe, for now.

Thank-you for your commitment, your positivity, your good humour and your willingness to safeguard the wellbeing of those around you.

Thank-you for caring.

Thank-you for prioritising relationships and well-being over accelerated catch up (you can’t have the latter without the former); thank you for being a rock in the turbulence faced by children, their families and their communities.

Thank-you for showing up day after day, week after week, month after month.

It’s been a unimaginably tough 20 months but you have stuck it out. You have bent in the wind but not broken. You have fallen many times but have always got up. You have walked through chaos, complexity, ambiguity and confusion but have found clarity at the other side. You have grown. You have learned so much. You are stronger, tougher, wiser now.

The nation thanks you for your skill, your knowledge and your character.

The Ministry of Learning thanks you for adding value to the future.

Please enjoy a wonderful holiday, whenever it comes, and take a well deserved slice of rest and recovery for yourselves. We look forward to working alongside you in 2022.

You Cannot Save the World (But We Can)

French helps here: Tu (singular, familiar form of you) will not, on your own, save the world – from whatever it needs saving. But vous (plural, formal) just might. All the yous together make an us, a we, an ourselves, that can do this – if we choose to.

We can mitigate some aspects of climate change; we can change attitudes; can beat viruses; can end hunger. We can make sure every child on the planet is fed, loved and educated. We can make our world a kinder place.

But will we? Will you? Will you add your tu to the collective vous?

Let me share a really simple way to begin: Stop – Start – Continue.

Pick a theme that helps make the world a better place (personal, local, national, global – your choice). Then choose one, small action that you will STOP doing; one that you will START doing; and one that you will CONTINUE to do.

The psychology is simple and beautiful: STOP is the usual, expected injunction – stop wasting food; stop smoking; stop ignoring nature’s cries for help. We’re used to this kind of thing from our schools days – even if we don’t like it, it’s familiar.

But START is positive: a meaningful action and personal impact. It gets you up and moving with purpose.

and CONTINUE is a wonderful affirmation that you were already doing something positive. It’s confirmation that you’re playing your part.

Here’s one of my SSCs:

STOP eating meat at breakfast and lunch. (I’ll take the full leap one day, I promise)

START using the Too Good To Go “end food waste” app. (surprise bags of just-going-out-of-date goodies from chain and independent cafes, supermarkets and coffee shops)

CONTINUE getting oddbox deliveries (the unwanted, overbought, unloved yet perfectly in-date-and-edible vegetables that would otherwise end up in landfill)

Small actions; my agenda; not everyone’s, but a micro-contribution to the more ethical use and consumption of food. Why this focus? For me, just the statistics really:

931 million tonnes of food waste was generated in 2019 (UN Report)

820 million people went hungry in 2019 (WHO Report)

It’s not my intent for you to conflate the two findings though it’s hard not to feel a horrible irony. Other numbers are available for juxtaposition – funding to treat diabetes vs that for malnutrition for example (go look). And you can even watch these kind of numbers grow and change live here at Worldometer.

They say those of us over 50 won’t be around to see the world boil. But our children and grandchildren will be, and surely that’s more than enough of a reason for tu and vous and you to act now.


The Sad Truth About Happiness

My sister sends me two WhatsApp messages each day, without fail,

At 9am: Good morning Mike and Lucy.

At 9pm: Good night Mike and Lucy.

Less frequently and less predictably she might ask,

Wot have you been doing today? or announce that, The wether is nice here.

I reply with brief, predictable messages of my own and occasionally add,

How are you feeling today?

Her answer is always the same,

I am happy today.

And, of course, she is. My sister is well cared for in her sheltered accommodation. She gets on with her flat-mates, has her own space, and exists in a mostly harmonious environment of structured freedom. Her week is a mix of routine and scheduled surprise; shopping, walking, gardening, cooking. Her needs are few and her likes extend to The Wurzels and a wide selection of DIsney and Pixar DVDs. At 47 years old, I believe that she is, as she reports, happy.

But how can I be sure? Is her ‘happy’ the same as her friends’? Or mine, or our parents’? How do we know if we are ‘happy’ or if those around us share the feeling? What, indeed, is happiness?

To find out, take your pick from the sagging shelves of happiness literature. And there are a lot of shelves to browse: The Art of Happiness; The Power of Happy; 15 Minutes to Happiness; A Monk’s Guide to Happiness; The Happiness Advantage; The Happiness Hypothesis and even Bill Bailey’s Remarkable Guide to Happiness.

Their messages are crisp and clear: Renounce over consumption! Simplify your life! Get out more! Notice nature! Connect with people! Give! Learn! Meditate! and, as the prescient Susan Jeffers compelled us in 1987, Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway!

Achieving happiness either clears the ground for our personal, deserved success or helps us reframe what success can be.

Social psychologist Dan Gilbert adds a pragmatic voice to the mix. In Stumbling on Happiness he argues that happiness is subjective and elusive. We can only define it for ourselves and the definition bobs about like a balloon in a storm. There are no objective criteria for ‘happiness’.

Gilbert notes that our happiness is often confined to the past (nostalgia, good times) and the future (anticipation, fantasy) but that both are flawed mental activities: we misremember the past, making its recall better or worse that it actually was and we selectively edit our imagined futures. How often is your experience of an event less than you imagined it would be? Was that holiday all you dreamed of? Maybe you edited yourself out and focussed only on the sea and the palm trees; your moods, biases, personality, aches and pains oddly missing from the beach vision…

Finally, Gilbert recommends we pause before seeking our happiness – whatever we deem it to be. Do you really want that car, that house, that life, that experience? Go ask the people who already have what you think you want. What do they say about it? Maybe your happiness lies in a different direction.

So, the sad truth about happiness is that it’s diverse, elusive, unpredictable and subjective. No reason not to seek it, but maybe real happiness is found in the journey not the destination.

Scripts for Being Radical

Radical Candor

Do you care about the people you work with? Do you challenge them if they need to change? Do you care for them and challenge them at the same time?

You’ve likely heard of Kim Scott’s ‘Radical Candor’ (book at Amazon) advocating the principles of ‘Caring Personally AND Challenging Directly’. Omission of one or both, argues Scott, makes for team dysfunction and reduced productivity.

Prioritising care can lead to ‘ruinous empathy‘: necessary (and difficult) professional feedback is withheld through fear of upset or ‘rocking the boat’. Overemphasising challenge is aggressive and causes fear, disengagement and conflict. If a leader lacks both you’ll know; manipulation and insincerity prevail.

But to care AND challenge is to have ‘Radical Candor‘ – you give essential, performance-related feedback for the sake of the other person’s growth and success. You care about them doing well. ‘I’m telling you what needs to change in your practice so that you can achieve more, can be more, can do more‘.

Of course, it can be hard to balance the two: picking your moment to give the tough message; reading the context, the other person, the risk; preserving their esteem, their control, their security. But here’s why taking the risk makes sense:

Receiving Radical Candor

Imagine that, even though you believe you’re doing the best job possible, you actually aren’t. You don’t know this; you haven’t realised; you think things are just fine as they are. After all, non-one’s told you anything different. But you are making things harder for yourself and running at 80% efficiency.

So, what if your manager knew of a couple of things you could do differently that would make your job easier and eventually get you promoted. You’d get more done; you’d enjoy the work more, you’d thrive. Would you want them to keep this to themselves?; keep quiet in case you get upset; or would you want them to come out with it? And if they did, how would you like to hear their message?

Giving Radical Candor

Here are a few phrases to get you started – whether your radical candor aims to help a team member, a child, a colleague, friend or even a family member:

I’ve noticed a few things that might help you get this done more effectively, may I share them?

There’s a difference between what we were expecting to see and what we’re actually seeing. Let’s talk about what might account for the difference.

I’m going to share a couple of ideas here that I need you take on board right now. Tell me what the positive impact might be for you…

And if you want to make this a whole lot easier in your organsiation, normalise it. Have the big discussion up front before anyone needs to use radical candor. Reach a shared understanding of what radical candor is, why it’s important and how you’ll all use it for the organisation’s benefit.

Then you’ll work in a culture where everyone cares personally and isn’t afraid to challenge directly.

Here’s Kim summarising the core concept.

Four Words for 2021

I didn’t choose them; I heard them at a Gallup webinar last spring: Trust, Compassion, Stability and Hope. The Gallup folks suggested businesses use each one to guide a pandemic response. Thinking Classroom had just lost 90% of its income and its biggest client (out of the blue; not related to COVID) and didn’t qualify for any government support. The advice was timely and meaningful.

Those four words saved the business; enabled it/me/us to look outwards instead of in, to look beyond close family, beyond extended family, past neighborhood, city, nation and out to our irrevocably connected world. Work shifted online, Zoom School started and food could be placed on the table.

May I humbly pass on these four words to you as guidance for the end of 2020 and support for the challenges and changes of 2021.


Choose who you trust and explore your trust in them. The politician, the scientist, the journalist; the mathematician, the social commentator, the influencer; the friend, the family member, the child. Pause and think before you judge; before you form and crystallize an opinion. And then consider yourself; your integrity, your intent, your actions. Find the trustworthiness there. If you see it, others will too.


The pandemic has laid bare our values, beliefs and personalities. It’s accelerated and amplified what was already present. Maybe you’ve been shocked by behaviours of friends and family? By their interpretation of social rules and its difference to your own understanding? Maybe you’ve been empowered by extreme acts of love and care, seen first hand or in the media. Maybe you need to cut someone a little slack, or have it cut for you. Maybe walking a mile in someone else’s moccasins might not be such a bad idea right now.


When everything changes what remains? What is left, left for you? An object? A memory? A person? Where is your anchor? Seek out the music, the poetry, the film and TV, the books the photographs, the recollections and the words which, for you, are timeless. Build your own stability from this raw material then help others to do the same.


This will pass. Maybe not when or how you want it to, but it will pass. Hope is not about wishing for this to end or about demanding a return to normal. Hope is a quiet, almost silent confidence that’s heard once the noise fades. Hope is a state of being, a way of believing in the present just as much as in the future.

Trust, compassion, stability, hope. Please pass them on.

Elizabeth and her Kids

Eventually I decided to invite Elizabeth to my online Zoom training. She’d given birth to twin boys in May but was happy to bring them along. She’s not sure where their father is at the moment. Most of the other delegates laughed when she logged on. But that didn’t surprise me; you’ve not seen Elizabeth. She didn’t say anything and only stayed for five minutes. I’ve not seen her since but I did email afterwards to see if she was OK – and to say how much we valued her visit.

Elizabeth is a four-year-old goat. She lives at Cronkshawfold Farm in Lancashire, UK and for £5.99 she’ll come to your online meeting. On the face of it, a novelty, a welcome relief among 200 lockdown Zoom calls. But also a gift to the wonderful educators in the training session:

Our 5-year-olds would love this during teacher check-in.
We could show our own pets.
We could build a STEM lesson on this (see below)
We could invite neighbourhood professionals for a Q&A.
We could get our friends to show the view from their windows – in Ohio, Dubai, Skye, Nairobi

We could show an object close up and slowly zoom out.
We could, we could, we could….

Elizabeth (and her two kids) kick started our creativity with their perfect innovation. Perfect in my eyes because her fee helps fund Cronkshawfold’s purchase and installation of renewable technologies. A loss transformed to a gain – see previous post here.

The Same Sun

Photo by ros dagos on Unsplash

I’m in my 178th Zoom meeting since lockdown. For once I’m not the host. I can enjoy this one in a different way. Twelve of us are arranged neatly on the screen: F from Nairobi, W is in Idaho, B North Carolina and S from what looks like a studio flat in Sweden. Others call in from Germany, Denmark and the UK.

It’s 1930 BST. The sun is bright and yellow and low. It cuts in through my office window and hides half my face. On screen I’m very film noir, like most close up shots in Blade Runner.

This is relaxing. The conversation flows. It’s guided well by W and in a Zoom reverie I suddenly notice the sun’s presence for everyone else. It’s on their cheek, or hair, or it’s behind them, or streaming in through their own windows.

I have to say this: ‘Folks, can you see the sunlight where you are? Can you feel it on your face or your back? Do you feel its warmth? Can you see it in these twelve tiny rectangles in front of us all? It’s the same sun isn’t it?! We’re under the same sun. We can point to the same sun.’

Twelve people disengage from their laptop cameras. Their heads raise a little, their eyes focus elsewhere, to the sunlight. We have turned away from each other but towards the sun.

We are connected in a completely different way. From our disparate locations we are now all looking towards exactly the same place.

Photo by Sam Marx on Unsplash

COVID-19: Losses, Gains, Transformations.

I remember Jake from my first year of teaching; shaved head, small for a 10-year old, wiry, quick. Never quite in trouble, never quite on task. He lived in a tower block with his mum and her boyfriends. He thought everyone had six dads. He never smiled.

One day I raised my arm in front of him; pushed my glasses up. He flinched and his little fists came up. Poor Jake. That one hard-wired action showed me his whole life. How often had he defended himself against peers and those supposed to protect him?

Jake’s home life was a cauldron of neglect and abuse. We did what we could. I don’t know what happened to him, I hope he made it. That was over 20 years ago.

Jake suffered a continuous barrage of ACEs – Adverse Childhood Experiences. Violence, rejection, abuse, bullying one after the other, again and again. Most childhoods have one or two ACEs. His never stopped. He was damaged, possibly beyond repair. Jake suffered chronic, acute stress and carried a huge allostatic load. Each shock to his tiny system pumped out cortisol, shutting down his pre-frontal cortex, impairing his executive function, his ability to think ahead, to persevere, to succeed. He was physiologically and mentally scarred for life.

I can never feel what Jake felt, but since COVID-19 I have a much better idea about it. One shock after the next, one loss after another. First security goes, then safety, then power, control, income and finally freedom. There’s no time to process one loss before the next arrives.

An ‘ideal’ loss looks something like this:

The model is not without its critics but it helps affirm our emotions. They may be unwelcome but they are definitely expected.

When the ground beneath us moves we reach out for something to hold: family, friends, habits and behaviours. We cling to values, beliefs, objects and experiences, whatever it takes to keep steady. When Jake’s ground moved his fists came up. When our ground moves we seek out our comforts, our knowns. In this we can, if we choose to, find our gains.

I’ve spoken to my father more in the last two weeks than the last two years. I’ve learned more about Zoom since Sunday than in 20 years consulting. I’ve built personal and professional relationships of a quantity and quality unimaginable even a month ago. And I’ve set up a Zoom pub with my old university pals. We meet every Friday. We drink, we talk nonsense, we connect.

We will be remembered for what we do, what we say and what we write during this crisis. We will all be transformed. We’ve been shown something terrible and how we respond to it will define us for the rest of our lives.

If Jake is out there, I know he’ll be one of the strong ones in this. His early life was nothing but loss. He knows it, he understands it. I truly hope he found a life of gain and transformation.

What are you losing?
What are you gaining?
How are you transforming?

Suffering is a universal experience occurring across space and time, revealing the “big T” Truth that going down, going through, and going into the unknown can be powerfully transformative.
Fr Richard Rohr

COVID-19: Our Wicked Teacher

Murderous Sneeze
I’m standing on platform 1 at Bristol Temple Meads Station. A young woman nearby sneezes into her hand. The train pulls in and she gets on ahead of me gripping the handrail by the carriage door – with the sneeze hand. Four more people touch the rail after her (I don’t). I see one of them touch his mouth; another rubs her eyes. Later, at my destination, I shake a colleague’s hand and realise afterwards that I’ve touched my mouth before and after doing it.

And so a virus might ride its way around our herd, leaping, sliding and firing itself between us; the ultimate freeloader, the dangerous hitch-hiker; the subtle, invisible, murderous travel companion.

World War Z
I’m writing this a few weeks later. It’s mid-March 2020 and the world is in uncharted, pandemic territory. I’m washing my hands more and not touching my face. Scenes from the films Contagion, 28 Days/Weeks Later and even World War Z, though wildly extreme, are closer to our experience than ever. We have a problem. We have a big problem. We have a wicked problem.

A wicked problem is ‘difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize. It refers to an idea or problem that cannot be fixed, where there is no single solution to the problem; and “wicked” denotes resistance to resolution, rather than evil.

Think about the diversity of national response to the COVID-19 pandemic: China leverages its communist ethos on mitigating behaviours; Italy shuts down; the US restricts entry and the UK adopts a high risk, contrarian nudge strategy of facing it head on and letting it run its course to a faster herd immunity. ‘Solutions are not right/wrong but better/worse‘… ‘it can take a long time to evaluate solutions‘. Each government is doing the best it can with the data and resources available to it. But none yet knows if their best is good enough.

We don’t always solve a wicked problem. We poke it to see how it reacts and then poke it in a different way to see what else happens. Our focus is on finding out not fixing. It’s frightening and it could be devastating but we can learn at least 3 important things while COVID-19 plays out:

1 Anti-Fragility
When the shock comes, what do you do? Break? Stand firm? Fight back? The scale from fragile to robust does not end at resilience. It extends further to ‘anti-fragile‘: Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure, risk, and uncertainty. – Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Fragile breaks you; resilience keeps you strong in the face of adversity, but anti-fragile accepts that life is unpredictable; that in every shock is found a gift. It isn’t about naively embracing a crisis then exploiting the opportunity. No, anti-fragile is an attitude, a mindset, an assent to whatever the world does and a commitment to co-create with it.

Fragile is the shattered pane of glass; resilience the oak; anti-fragile the reed bending in the wind.

COVID-19 can teach us to be anti-fragile.

2 Humanity
People you know may die. Your business may fail or take a serious hit. You might loose your job. Your investments will shrink. You could feel fear, anxiety, dread. None of this is in your control but how you respond to it is.

We’re realising just how connected we are; just how dependent we are on each other; just how much we can influence another human being. If I don’t wash my hands, you might die. I could be your executioner and you might be my father. (He’s over 90, has serious underlying health conditions and I have to decide if or when I’ll next visit him. For now, I’ll phone more and do his online grocery shop.)

The virus shows how linked we are and the links that it exploits can also be the ones we use to understand and care for each other.

COVID-19 can teach us to think beyond ourselves.

3 Creativity
I’m looking at my bookings for the next 3 months. It’s a mix of face to face coaching, training, teaching and e-learning design. Some of it will be cancelled, some rescheduled, some will go ahead.

I’m asking myself, how much of this works if I’m at home, if I can’t travel or if my clients can’t? I sometimes use Zoom and Skype but could I use only Zoom and Skype? Will my clients be at the other end? Will they value that as much as the original plan. I’ll let you know.

If I do find myself with a blank diary and an empty bank account a plan is already in place to create a new offer, a new style of delivering Thinking Classroom. I’ve created a 9-year plan to meet my new goal (enrich the life, work and learning of 10,000,004 people each year).

I might not have much toilet paper, beans or soap, but I’ll have a mission. I’ll have something to create.

COVID-19 can teach us to innovate, to create.

Wicked Scars
The cull of the Black Death eventually lead to urbanisation and the empowerment of the peasant classes. However in the 3rd century smallpox reeked havoc on the Romans by following the same trade routes which had established the empire’s wealth and power.

We don’t yet know what scars COVID-19 will leave on our planet but, as a good friend once taught me, ‘scars tell you where you’ve been they need not dictate where you’re going.’

There will be wicked scars but there are 3 lessons here if we choose to learn. Anti-fragility, humanity, creativity.