CEO’s Blog: March 2022: “How to code, and what to code.”

Viewers of regional news in the West Midlands will no doubt have seen the very recent story regarding the deployment of driverless buses to ferry passengers to-and-fro at Birmingham International Airport.  The inaugural journey was the source of much publicity with the system’s developers, together with local politicians, enjoying the ride. 

Driverless vehicles are not new, but still extremely limited in number and scope.  Were that not the case, we would not have had this event as a “news” story!  The reasons behind their relative rarity are two-fold.  First, on a technical level there are many considerations that are required for such vehicles to be considered safe and roadworthy – typically involving sensors, including infrared for night-time travel, and computer back-up should there be a malfunction.  Second, there is a confidence or perception consideration.  Observers will point out that we will readily place our safety in the hands of a stranger when we get on board a train, bus, or taxi and yet we are, statistically, far more reluctant to submit our welfare to an unseen but incredibly accurate and stress-tested microprocessor.  In this context, it is arguable that the technical issues are more easily surmountable than the psychological ones.

You are probably familiar with the quotation that “children must be taught how to think, not what to think” (Margaret Mead).  With driverless vehicles, we understand that there is primarily a “what to think” approach to programming.  Driverless cars are programmed with the rules of the road – speed limits, signage, rights of way etc. – and also the technical specifications of the vehicle, and how those may be affected by differing driving conditions such as the icy road, the cold start to the brake disks etc.  In this capacity, the computer controlling the vehicle has far more knowledge than any bus or taxi driver, or any other driver whose vehicle we may enter.  I think it is pretty safe to state that we all “get” that.

Where driverless cars struggle to convince us is at the psychological level.  After all, we can often see the taxi or bus driver and make a quick, superficial appraisal of their fitness to drive us.  Crucially, we also acknowledge that they have a “stake in the game” too.  Their own personal safety is a sign of their commitment regarding ours, as is their personal accountability should something happen.  Here, the driverless vehicle is, by definition, conspicuous by absence.  Maybe that’s why the term “autonomous” (suggesting a positive quality) rather than “driverless” (suggesting a deficit) is becoming the preferred term?

Finally on this, I read Noah Yuval Harari’s work “Sapiens” – in which he refers to the challenges of programming such vehicles.  The problems do not relate to the Highway Code or braking distances.  Relatively speaking, those ‘knowledge-rich’ aspects of learning are easy for the computer.  Far more challenging, and for me more interesting, are the philosophical and ethical challenges associated with coding an ‘autonomous’ vehicle (which, of course, is not truly ‘autonomous’ if it is programmed!).  Harari describes going into a car retailer showroom to peruse the latest models.  “Would sir want the Renault Egoist (which would, in the event of an impending accident, save the owner at whatever cost to other road users and pedestrians) or the Renault Altruist (which would make decisions to preserve whichever lives it could calculate most likely to be saved, whether that included the owner or not)?” Why car would you buy?  If you bought the “Altruist” would you feel safe?  And if you bought the “Egoist” would you feel guilty? 

We live in a world increasingly controlled by technology, and that technology is programmed with default settings – whether it is the number of rings on our mobile phones before they switch to voicemail, or the channel settings on the TV, or the preferred route calculation methodology on a SatNav.  Very few of us have the inclination or technical prowess to change them.  We stick with the default – where someone we do not know has made a decision to programme into devices the configurations that they have.  That is why we are seeing a rise in the prominence of coding and programming in our schools and society of course, but also why we are seeing a heightening of interest in ethics and philosophy.  The philosophy of “trolley dilemmas” is fascinating, and well worth a look if you are unfamiliar.  Their study has produced a field in its own right: Trolley-ology!  Trolley problem – Wikipedia

Our young people therefore need to not only know how to code, but what to code.  These decisions have far-reaching consequences.  Computer Science studies should always include a compulsory module on moral philosophy!   

As always, thanks for reading.

Mike

CEO’s Blog: February 2022: “That’s the only thing you need to know, Mike.”

The original theme of my February Blog was planned some time.  However, I have felt compelled to reflect upon the events of the last few days in the Ukraine and, together with so many others, offer my thoughts on how this can be considered by our schools. 

When I was a trainee teacher, my first placement school was a Roman Catholic high school in Liverpool.  My head of department, and mentor, had the initials “JC” and irreverently referred to himself as “the second most important JC at the school, but I’m the only one with initials on the timetable”!  As we planned my first series of lessons for my Year 8 class, he told me they were studying a unit of the national curriculum entitled “The Making of the United Kingdom”. 

A key aspect of the unit focussed, quite naturally, on Henry VIII and the Reformation (the breaking away of the Church of England from Rome).  “JC” wanted me to tread carefully, delivering the unit with integrity and objectivity, yet understanding the context of the students and the Catholic school I was teaching in.  He sat me down.  “OK, Mike.  This is the bottom line: Martin Luther?  Good Catholic (he went on to reference to Luther’s condemnation of the sale of indulgences and the excesses of the medieval papacy which many modern Catholics would concede as requiring reform).  Henry VIII? Bad Catholic (then articulating Henry’s pragmatic and cynical use of church powers for personal gain).  Got it?  That’s the only thing you need to know, Mike.  Any problems, let me know.”  Having processed all that, I set out to teach the module.

Teaching historical events, even those with consequences today, is far more straightforward than teaching events of great magnitude that we know will become “historical” but occur in our own times.  There have been numerous events in my three decades of teaching that I could reference here, but perhaps the most obvious and profound example would be the September 11th attacks on The World Trade Centre and The Pentagon in 2001.  Teaching in a culturally diverse school, our approach needed to be one of abhorrence towards the perpetrators together with great sadness for the victims, but a clear acknowledgement that our school community is a harmonious one and must remain so. 

With regard to the recent events unfolding in the Ukraine, and all such events of magnitude, my reflections would be as follows:

First, that some children will be afraid about the consequences for them and their immediate families here in the UK.  It can be difficult for them to rationalise and contextualise complex geopolitical situations, and they require our reassurance – in as much as we can offer it.

Schools can be a place of harmony and sanctuary.  We are affected by the world and its divisions, but we remain communities with joy and care for each other at our heart.

When our children ask questions of us, we should recognise that they are curious – which is good – and that they trust us to answer them honestly and sensitively – which is also good.  In that context, we need to ensure as adults that we understand those events sufficiently that we role model the qualities of active citizenship we seek to impart into our children. It is also honest for us to frame our answers in the humility of our own limitations, however.  Children sometimes think their teachers know everything.  For them to hear from us occasionally that we do not is no bad thing!

In an Information Age, we should encourage children to triangulate information from a number of sources, and that those sources need to be as reliable as possible.  Our students’ favourite YouTubers may have views on a seismic event, but our young people should not give those views any more credence than their own unless they have good reason to.  There is plenty of propaganda and ‘fake news’ out there too. With war, there always is.  Concluding this point, there will always be conspiracy theories and “edgy” opinions that are often seductive to some young people who baulk at conformity to any perceived orthodoxy of view.  But the “edgy” theories of holocaust-deniers, alien abduction victims and flat-earthers are only seductive because they are on the margins.  And they are on the margins for a reason. 

Finally, as educators we should be able to distinguish that our requirement to be “apolitical” does not mean the need to be morally ambiguous.  Sometimes the marshalling of undisputed facts makes it clear that a situation is not “evenly balanced”, and that all sides of a debate deserve equal ‘air time’ any more than flat-earthers should get time in our geography lessons or alchemists in our chemistry laboratories.  Some situations are clearer than that:

We work in an exciting and changing world, which sometimes doesn’t just wait at the school gate but comes into our classrooms whether we like it or not, and whether we feel ready or not.  Our over-riding priority is always the wellbeing of our children and their families.  From there, we can help them understand that world.  I am always in admiration for all those who work with sensitivity and strength in equal measure to ensure those ends.

As always, thanks for reading.

Mike

CEO’s Blog: January 2022: From ‘snake oil salesmen’ to ‘grifters’ – the eternal importance of due diligence.

Welcome to my January blog.  It’s arguably too late to wish readers a Happy New Year, but it would be impolite not to – and I’d rather be accused of being a little tardy than rude!

I worked with a very skilled, experienced and somewhat battle-scarred Deputy Head who would regularly describe those who appeared to overstate their credentials or promise mountains and deliver molehills as “snake oil salesmen”.  This term refers to charlatans who, purporting to be doctors, swindled the credulous of their savings for a miracle cure which didn’t work, but by the time of realisation by the customer, the swindler had long since left town. 

Whenever we engage in recruitment, and whenever we seek to engage external suppliers of training or expertise, our due diligence compels us to dig deep in order to ensure we have sourced an individual of quality befitting of what we require and what our schools deserve.  Alistair Smith, in his “ten features of world class schools” elevated “Recruit well” to the lofty status of feature #1 on his list, and with good reason.  Great schools are constructed by great people.  Rigorous selection processes, challenging tasks and the testing of competences and values are all a part of the assurances we require. 

Likewise, when selecting individuals to lead staff training and development programmes and events, we need to demonstrate the same levels of discernment.  Certified programmes, such as NPQs and Masters qualifications, carry an implicit, de facto, mark of quality – but only when delivered effectively. The rigour, relevance and legitimacy of other training can be far more hit-and-miss.  Many of us will have heard stories of headteachers and senior leaders who, having hired guest or even “keynote” speakers to major events will sit, open mouthed and agog, as the speaker espouses messages far removed from the school’s own direction of travel or even its fundamental values.  This can only come through a lack of due diligence.  Specifically, being unaware of the content and tone of what will be delivered in advance of the session itself.  We need to be better than that.

Where I have some sympathy for those headteachers and senior leaders is when they are genuinely mis-sold.  The educational charlatan, or to use the language of the millennial, the “grifter” is ubiquitous.  With sanitised yet slick profiles on LinkedIn and Twitter, and a few vanilla testimonials from unverifiable sources, they peddle their wares as consultants, trainers and facilitators.  Twenty years ago, their market appeared centred on “ideating” and “future-scaping” (ugh!), ten years ago their gaze shifted working with disadvantaged learners, and today we appear to have a fixation upon the promotion of diversity, inclusion and equity. 

Please do not interpret the above as an expression that these are areas where I do not believe there is work to be done.  There is.  Plenty of it.  That’s the point.  The “grifter” will “follow the money”. 

We need to be wary.  I sometimes think “what would our best governors on our strongest governing bodies ask?”  They may ask the following: What area for development or problem are you seeking a solution for?  Why is this solution the right one? What alternatives did you reject, and why?  Why is this deliverer the right one? How will you know if this has been impactful?  If these questions cannot be answered with confidence and specificity, I would suggest further consideration at the very least prior to engagement. 

You may be asking what has spurred this blog.  Have I, or we at JTMAT, had our fingers burned?  The answer is “No.” Or perhaps “not yet.” No due diligence is watertight, but we do look to mitigate risks.  Seeking out, rather than asking for, testimonials and recommendations is valuable.  If the advisor or consultant came from a background of working in schools, looking at the performance of the school during their tenure and after (leadership is legacy, after all), may also be prudent.  In the age of information, none of these steps should prove time consuming or costly – and many readers will rightly point out the obviousness and mundanity in all this.  And yet I still see regularly consultants and advisors with no demonstrable evidence of their track record, no legitimacy of their proposed methodology, and no tangible impact of its implementation hired by schools. 

So my advice, such as it is, would be that your time and that of your colleagues is precious, as is the money entrusted to you to spend on staff training and development (a common casualty when the financial cleaver is being wielded to balance the budget).  Spend both wisely.  That means undertaking sufficient due diligence to be confident that what you’re getting is aligned to what you need.  It’s that straightforward.  It really is.

As always, thanks for reading.

Mike