Broken systems

In any civilisation, you’re in a system; so there are rules to follow, structures to abide by, and hence a sort of order emerges from the system. Of course the order can be disorderly but you get my drift. When however, certain realities don’t line up the way they do in a system, we think that it is broken.

I’m not too sure about that. Sometimes, we think that a system is broken because it is leading to an outcome which we don’t desire nor think is desirable. Whilst the designer or perpetrator of the system may agree with you on the outcome and results, they may not think the system is broken.

The reason being that their key objectives for the system does not align with yours. What you think as an undesirable outcome may be an unintended but necessary consequence of the system; and the results which you don’t agree with may not even be part of the consideration.

And that is the challenge when one works within a system. It is terribly difficult for a system to start paying attention to a new attribute that is worth looking at when measured against the values that inherently power the system. Effectively, the conversation goes like this:

You: ‘Hey system, you need to start looking more into the environmental damage you are causing while trying to make profits!’

System: ‘Ah, environmental damage. Does looking into it generate more profits?’

You: ‘Well, the point is thinking about we are trading-off environmental sustainability in our process of profit. Maybe we can rethink about the way we make a profit?’

System: ‘Sure! Come back to me when there’s a profitable way to reduce the environmental damage. Meanwhile, we carry on with what works.’

The reason we are facing climate change is not really because the system is broken but because the system we designed is working perfectly well – it is just trying to solve a completely different problem than the one we are facing or trying to get it to solve.

The only way is to establish new rules and new ways of doing things, of structuring our lives, our companies and our economy. This is why Enea Consulting, where I work at, has combined efforts with Isabelle Kocher de Leyritz to form Blunomy.

For now, the branding might still feel very foreign to an Asian mind, the URL quite strange (is the firm French or Malaysian?), the fonts on the website feels a tad bit too avant garde for the liking of the general masses. But the message, the intentions and planned actions are clear. We understand that the systems are not broken but they are simply not designed for the challenge that confronts us today. That is why we are not here to fix the system; we need new ones to replace them.

Just to reiterate that views presented here are entirely personal and do not represent the stance of any organisations I’m employed by or have any affiliations with.

When you disagree

I once argued that education should be reimagined and redesigned. It is no wonder why Einstein was attributed to say he doesn’t allow schooling to interfere with education. The content of our education is at its best when it is not prescriptive but more about the process that students get to go through.

And along that process, we want them to learn things about themselves, about the world and how to interact with others. One of the key topic amongst this, is around disagreement. How to disagree is a useful skill and one that a human being, since being a kid would have to face.

My colleague has a 1.5 year old girl who struggles when her parents say no to her. She just finds it difficult when her will is impeded and she is helpless. To a certain extent, her way to take back that agency is to break down and cry. To a large extent, the type of tantrum is a kind of power-grab. And we intuitively know that. Except like all power-grab, this sort of emotional violence is not exactly the healthiest way of interacting.

So kids will and should learn how to disagree, and to feel a sense of agency over the situation even when things are not according to their will. Are parents capable of teaching that? How about schools? Why are we leaving that only to the domain of experts or psychologist? Shouldn’t that be a universally taught skill?

Again, we don’t like to teach or train people along metrics we cannot measure. How to disagree isn’t exactly something that can be easily quantified. So no one wants to teach that. It’s a shame because it is probably way more important than the nucleophilic substitution reactions we learnt in Chemistry.

Copy with understanding

My mind often gravitate back to my school days. I did spend almost 20.5 years in school or something kind of education institute so my schooling life still constituted more than half of my lifetime so far. I wonder if the memories get more faint as you progress along. While I think the greatest lessons I learnt were outside the classroom, it was still largely the school days that were so formative, it helped produce ideas and principles that underpin how I thought about things.

It could also be some kind of survivor bias because the values or ideas that I subsequently discarded after going through the test of time. One of the values that I acquired over time in school was to ‘copy with understanding’. Basically, when you copy something – especially homework for school – you want to do so to save effort but you should at least spend some effort understanding why an answer is the right answer. At least for the particular question. Think about how the answer connects with things you’ve been taught or learnt. Consider how the question was asked and what the answer might be if the question changed, just by a little.

I learnt this value both ways, when I was copying the homework of others and when I dished out my homework for others to copy. I am glad I was in one of the more ordinary classes in school, where I had classmates who didn’t do homework and needed copying; and most were happy to collaborate and “distribute the work”. There were better classes where students mostly kept to themselves and classmates were individualistic and competitive.

Sometimes you look back and by the sheer force of time, things you thought were bad, turned out to be great after all.

Gardening in School – Education or Distraction?

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Homework: Watering the plants

I chanced upon a very interesting article by Gloria Dawson on The Daily Green. This phenomenon is not so much seen in Singapore than in the United States, where gardening in schools was introduced and encouraged, in particular by US First Lady Michelle Obama, to raise students’ interests in gardening, nurture green thumbs as well as environmentalism and encourage healthy eating.

I thought such initiatives were pretty self-explanatory in terms of benefits, are pretty much non-political and non-debatable. Dawson had however found an article by a Caitlin Flanagan that expressed much disdain for school gardens, with the argument that “schools are taking kids out of the classroom” when they need to spend more time in the classroom to learn and be educated on the basics, and then eventually climb the educational system. It was something I never really thought about given Singapore’s higher-quality educational system, but in America where educational standards are dropping and schools struggle to keep students interested, school gardens may backfire in their intentions as well.

Statistics so far appear to indicate that school gardens have somehow helped boost grades and “understanding of lessons”, probably indirect effects of being involved in a garden. It might perhaps create interest in staying in school, or create opportunities to pick up skills such as organisation, leadership and responsibility which would be useful both in lessons and outside of lessons. Unfortunately, the school gardens initiative has caught on with political posturing and people are lambasting the educational system and those who implement the initiative. At least Flanagan’s arguments were not exactly without merit, but it appears that Dawson is implicitly pointing fingers at politicians who are blaming the school gardens initiative to their advantage.

There’s really plenty to learn from school gardens, in terms of skills and knowledge. Where your food comes from, how to eat healthily; children need to know given that they now live in a very much urban society where food is convenient and global and they do not know where their food comes from, what they should eat, how much they should eat and so on. Again, I am reminded of the book ‘The End of Food’ by Paul Roberts that I am currently reading about and will review in due time. Links to other articles about the school gardens argument are in The Daily Green article.

Public Education

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Traditionally education has been mostly funded by the governments, at least mass education. Things didn’t start out this way of course; education started out as some sort of pastime for the rich kids and subsequently became a tool to distinguish the aristocrats and peasants, serving the function of supporting what was eventually called ‘high culture’.

In fact, education wasn’t so focused on writing, reading and arithmetic in the beginning – it consists mostly of life-skills like archery, horse-riding, a little hand combat, a couple of classics. But then people realised that civilized behaviours helped cultivate deeper relationships between people and improved interactions between strangers whose education has resulted in some sort of informally synchronized norms. Crude traders therefore decided to become ‘educated’.

As technological advancement made education an economic necessity, government started to intervene in the market for education. Theoretically speaking it is because the rising external marginal benefit resulting from education so the good becomes more of a market failure as the potential positive spillover effects increase. Mass education became important as the educated bunch tend towards a critical bulk. When everyone around you are educated then the cost of not being educated rises. When all your trading partners consist of educated people who demand certain standard of conduct when doing business, then there’s more pressure to be educated. Government spending on education thus climbed, but in a good way.

It’s then a pity that budget deficits caused by the economy education have been helping to support all the while is causing funding for education to be slashed. Yet like what is mentioned The Economist article, this is an important opportunity for private sector education providers. For-profit education might sound like a bad idea since they have all the incentives to dish out qualifications to those with ‘financial quality’ and shun the poor smart ones; this is the moment for them to correct their image and raise their standards of education to those of public education; this selectivity will benefit them long after a boom in private-section education industry.