Giving What We Can

Earlier this year, I mentioned the website givingwhatwecan.org, in a post about overseas development assistance.

Earlier this week, the BBC published an article about Tony Orb, who created that website. (Thanks Felicity for sending me the link.)

It's a timely reminder, in this supposed "season of giving", of how well off we are, and of how small sacrifices on our part can make a big difference to the lives of others, who aren't so fortunate.

Watch Tony explain why he has decided to give away a million pounds over his lifetime to help address global poverty.


Changing Education Paradigms

I just saw this fantastic video animation of a talk by Ken Robinson!

I think it's worth sharing further, for its insights into creativity and education, and the uneasy relationship between those two. And also for its cool visual design.

Ruth Bourchier, who forwarded the link to this video, said in her email that Ken Robinson used to flat with Guy Claxton. (I linked to a couple of videos of him in a previous post.) This seems to confirm what Ken Robinson says: "collaboration is the stuff of growth." I can just imagine those two, as students, having conversations about creativity and education; discussions that have shaped their views to this day.

I've always thought that there are "creative hotspots" at various times and places, where a bunch of like-minded individuals encourage each other to develop their ideas. I'm not sure that they can be replicated online. In the era of facebook, I'm still convinced that nothing beats real face-to-face human interaction. So, do the conversations I have with actual people shape me more than the books I read, or than what I view on the Internet?

I'm afraid that Fox Glacier in the early part of the 21st century is not one of the great "creative hotspots" of human history. That means I am relying, more than I'd like to be, on the virtual world of this blog, and its online habitat!


Microact now!

Today, I just came across a new site called ifwerantheworld.com. The idea of it is to turn all those good intentions into actions - "microactions", more specifically!

So, I've started my own "action platform". Check it out:

It's just a bit gimmicky for my liking, and heavy on the buzz words. But does it have potential as a tool for change? The site is only six months old, so I guess it's too early to tell...


Can I Help You?

A new report, out last week, from the CAF (Charities Aid Foundation) puts NZ and Australia at the top of its "world giving index". The report finds, "when giving is thought of as more than just money, a new order of global generosity emerges."

So, yay for New Zealand! (And Australia, of course!)

You can download the report here.

However... last month, John Key said New Zealand will not meet its pledge to donate 0.7 percent of GDP as foreign aid by the United Nations’ 2015 deadline. (See this article.)

This graph (from globalissues.org) shows the figures, for 2009:

It's easy to be cynical about aid, and give up in the face of corruption and mismanagement. William Easterly's The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest have Done So Much Ill and so Little Good (Penguin 2006) is on my wish list. There is certainly plenty of evidence to support his claim. However, Amartya Sen's more moderate response feels truer to me. He thinks Easterly's is an "overblown attack", which "obscures the real point: that aid can work, but only if done right."

So, we could still be doing more...

These websites provide points of departure for responding as an individual:


The Majestic Plastic Bag

Jeremy Irons narrates this fascinating documentary about an under-appreciated element of the modern ecosystem!

It's been a year since supermarkets in New Zealand backtracked on their decision to charge 10 cents per shopping bag. Now, we get them for free, in unlimited quantities ... thus ensuring the continued survival of the 'species'.


Learning to Learn

Several months ago, I was sent a link to a Guy Claxton talk, called "What's the Point of School?" and finally got around to watching it today.

Guy Claxton is a British academic who is interested in how children learn. Teachers are familiar with the ideas he's presenting. In fact, they've almost become clichés: I hear teachers talk a lot about helping children become "confident lifelong learners".So, it's disconcerting to realise how entrenched we teachers are in modes of teaching that simply do not foster children's capacity to learn. Professor Claxton reminds us that there are all sorts of ways that we can improve school results without genuinely increasing children's capacity to learn.

This shorter video, "How Children can Learn Better" (also from dystalk.com), outlines some key ideas of his, and gives suggestions for what parents can do to help their children become better learners.

The challenge for me in teaching is to focus less on their work and more on their learning.


What makes Us Happy?

Now that I have children, I have their happiness to think about as well as my own!

Naturally, Felicity and I think a lot about what we want for our boys.  We'd like them to be happy, well-adjusted individuals.  That's the easy part!  The hard part is working out what it means to be happy and well-adjusted.  And figuring out how success and happiness are linked to each other.  Sometimes, I feel we have divergent opinions on this.  I'm quite happy for my boys to be ski-bums if that's what makes them happy.  Felicity tends to think that would be a waste of their potential, and therefore they'd be less likely to be truly happy.  (I could be misrepresenting her position here!)  External markers of success inevitably shape our lives.  Certainly, it's a rare person who cares not at all for what others think of him or her.  And I'm definitely not one of them.

So, a conversation we'd had prompted me to go online yesterday, in search of answers!  I found a New York Times article by David Brooks, written over a year ago, which led me to a beautiful, long article from the June 2009 Atlantic Magazine, written by Joshua Wolf Shenk.  It describes the longitudinal study conducted since the 1930s on a group of Harvard students that included JFK (often called the "Grant Study") and the story of the man who, for the past 42 years, has been leading the study: George Vaillant.  It's a fascinating insight into the complexity of human life, and the impossibility of pinning happiness down to a simple formula.

On the face of it, these men were all the very picture of success.  Indeed, that was the point of the study when it first began: to extract a kind of recipe for success.  That project went by the wayside fairly quickly, as various "successful" men succumbed to alcoholism, mental illness, or somehow lost their way.

Listen to Dr Vaillant share some thoughts from his involvement with the study:

As David Brooks puts it so beautifully, in the NYT article, "There is a complexity to human affairs before which science and analysis simply stands mute."

It confirmed for me the Aristotelean notion that we can't judge a person's happiness until after their death! 

With my boys, all we can do is offer them love, provide them with as many opportunities as we can, let them choose their own path, and then hope for the best!

Incidentally, Aristotle believed that children couldn't be happy!  Listen to Myles Burnyeat, talking to Nigel Warburton on Philosophy Bites, if you want a short introduction to Aristotle's conception of happiness.

He's a cheerful looking chap, isn't he!


Rien à Dire

This poster perhaps encapsulates blogging better than anything I've seen!

(Image: CUBE

Even when I'm trying to be as honest and relevant as I can, I still have a lurking insecurity that it's all been said before, and better.  So, how can I truly claim to have something to say?

It's a poster by Alan Fletcher, "Britain's Most influential graphic designer".  CUBE (the Centre for the Urban Built Environment) in Manchester just had a retrospective on his work.  Too bad it ended last week.  And too bad it's on the other side of the world from where I live.

This is Alan talking about his book The Art of Looking Sideways.  He was a fascinating and prolific character.


On Being Malleable

It's been a while since I posted anything to this blog.  The new house we moved into, earlier this year, has no telephone line!  So, I've been largely without internet since January.  I can't say that I've missed it all that much!  I've been reading more books, instead of reading online articles.

However, after my (admittedly half-hearted) attempts to get a land line to our property have come to nothing, I've finally signed up a for mobile broadband deal.  This could be a good occasion for a rant about phone companies and the privatisation of public assets: New Zealand now has several inefficient phone utilities when previously it had just one!  But it's my increasing reliance on the internet (and therefore, phone companies) that interests me more.  I'm also just a little worried by the ways that I am shaped by it.

 Image: Doron Meir

Clearly, media shape as well as inform our thinking.  And the internet may be shaping my thinking in ways I don’t particularly like.  I read an article by Nicholas Carr, in The Atlantic, nearly two years ago, which suggested that whereas deep reading (in a traditional medium) equates to deep thinking, the internet encourages skimming and "power browsing".  Also, the internet appears not to foster concentration and contemplation.  I skimmed his article again (conscious of the irony) when I checked the link just a moment ago.  But how can one really criticize the internet?  It provides access (once you've got your connection sorted) to an astounding quantity of information.  Someone like Carr risks sounding like a luddite, but his concern is that information is all the internet makes us care for: the goal is to get lots of it, with no regard for its quality.  Knowledge is an archaism.  Wisdom even more so.

But perhaps it's not about "better" or "worse", just "different".  Perhaps the new technologies are developing an internet generation who simply think differently.  The timespan necessary to evaluate the effects of this new technological mode of exchange may be far longer than the human lifespan.  I'm at an age where I'm becoming aware of my finiteness.  Or rather, I have a sense of the dimensions of my finiteness.  So, I'm aware that, say, ten years is a big percentage of one's life.  The questions I'm asking are: What have I been doing the past ten years?  What has been shaping my thinking? And how much choice do I have about it?

Perhaps what I'm sensing is a need to take greater control over what it is that shapes me.  What do I want to be influenced by?  I don't want to be just drifting along, absorbing whatever comes my way.

That core of idealism still remains...