Saturday, January 9, 2016

Lights and The Circle of Concern

We have loaded the dog, and are seated in the front of the Subaru ready to depart for a quick trip (very quick as it happened) to the vet. The dog's two small lumps have changed shape and grown over the past few months - quite rapidly, to me - so I suggest we need to get it checked earlier on the odd chance it is not benign. (The vet was busy so we decided to go later; my mood not helping, either.)

It has been snowing a lot recently, with mostly grey overcast skies dominating. This morning, a rare appearance of blue skies increased the glare but soothed the sun-starved mind. I place my foot on the brake pedal and push the start button to turn the engine on and warm the chilly car.

My wife, God bless her, reaches over, puts her hand through the steering wheel and states "turn the lights to automatic as we don't need lights now as I can see" as she turns the switch to automatic.

Now, mind you, I admit, I am a bit put out by the "driver in the passenger seat" making such an executive decision for me (confidence bias or arrogance - I must say I am the better driver between the two of us). But, her statement comes on the back of something that has really been "getting up my nose" in a big way lately, something that simply boils down to people living only in their own circle of concern without the slightest thought for others. This is becoming (has become) a global phenomena as examples are easily recognizable on any day in any media, from "king hit" violence to gun ownership debates to not waiting in a line for other passengers to alight before getting on a train. Over the holiday period, this phenomena has been highlighted by the seemingly complete lack of understanding by many drivers as to why their vehicles have head lights.

It is winter so I usually leave for the morning walk with the dog between 6.30 and 7.00 a.m. - about an hour later than the summer months. In the evening, it is an hour or two earlier, leaving between 3.30 and 4.00 p.m. rather than around 6pm. In winter, at these times, even on a clear day, the light is still developing (or is fading quickly) making visibility an overconfidence fool's game: we believe we can see clearly but fail to think that others may not be able to clearly see us.

In Europe and Australia it is quite common practice to drive with lights on - especially on a highway on a sunny day - but also as soon as it starts to get grey, such as on a day with overcast weather. Turning the lights on is not to help the driver see the road better - that is quite meaningless - but so other drivers (and pedestrians and cyclists) will be better able to notice you. (This is what the driverless cars have yet to figure out, and nor have those automatic light switches! useful only for when it gets dark and one forgets - which technology seems to be encouraging: forgetfulness.)

On my walks, I am amazed and bewildered by the number of cars I notice - dark colored and white colored and grey colored and one's with stripes - that blissfully drive about without their lights on, and without the slightest concern that they may not be easily seen by others. I demonstrated the difference between vehicles with their lights on and those without by asking my daughter which she could see first and furtherest and most easily. Of course, it was rhetorical. My eyes are not bad, nor are they 20-20, but I have had to catch myself several times when about to cross the street as a car has suddenly appeared (without lights).

A graduate student of mine was stopped by a policeman on a bicycle when she was riding her bicycle at about 5pm en route to our class. To cut the comedy that ensued with that event short, I raise the issue to highlight that the policeman stopped her because she did not have her light on. My student remarked: "But I could see so why did I need to use my light?" I replied: "It is so other people, especially aged people, around the hospital area, can see you!" Did she change her ways? Unlikely.

In Japanese there are two words that can mean safe: anzen and anshin. Anzen refers to being safe and anshin to feeling of being safe. When a driver does not use lights in winter, on snowy or rainy days, at dawn or dusk, they are usually operating in anshin; but they are not anzen. The same is often noticed with seat belts: a parent or driver is strapped in but the child remains unharnessed (but I won't get started). It results from operating only within one's own circle of concern.

When my wife reached through the steering wheel when I was driving to turn the lights to automatic from the "on" position and said "we don't need lights now as I can see" I reacted (quite badly, no doubt). I challenged what she said and explained - well, tried to - that her thinking was exactly the problem I had been discussing with her about car lights nearly every morning after returning from my walk with the dog. "It doesn't matter whether you can see but it helps others to notice you" I iterated.

A battle ensued with neither side willing to retreat.

Yes, it was sunny and bright and lights to see were not needed. However, the circle of concern is faulty. Firstly, bright or otherwise, lights help other drivers, pedestrians and cyclists see you more easily (as I demonstrated with my daughter) - no less so on bright, winter days with snow and ice abounding on roads and footpaths. Secondly, a failure to admit fault that her thought was only in her circle of concern (my wife is a therapist so I guess I am even more sensitive about walking the walk if talking the talk) bothered me - as the same "does not compute" moment was experienced with my Grad student, and no doubt does with the minions who don't appreciate the value of using lights. Thirdly, related to the emotional button that was pressed no doubt, that she found no fault when she reached across to make an executive decision about how I should drive without giving it a second thought (something I might be guilty of when talking to students).

My wife is the most wonderful person. This personal story drove (pun intended) me to write about the use of - or lack thereof - car lights reflects the tendency for us to exist only within our very small circle of concern, at the expense of others. The examples of our inability or choice not to think beyond our circle of concern may be different from context to context (physical violence in Australia, guns in the USA, etc), but are common to all humans. Those societies that believe they are above such selfish survival techniques are deluded and deceived. I, too, may be blind to my own examples, but at least I try to consider the bigger picture, and that is what we should all do.

(p.s. I was concerned that as a visitor to Japan that I might be applying my driving standards and therefore my thoughts were misplaced. So, I checked with my neighbour who worked (now retired) at a diving license school. He assured me that drivers were taught to drive with the "day lights" switched on. "They forget" he said.)

Friday, January 1, 2016

Happy New Year 2016

Which line to ride at the station, direction to the next stop along;

All trains look the same with mostly unreadable names;

Messages colour coded for our minds, help comprehend the mysteries behind;

The tracks fade ahead in shadows, hiding all our world’s future sorrows; 

Of this planet and its tears, cuts the deep dimensions for our billion years.

If we take this road to time, we have to change to stay on the line.


Now is my time to sieze the day...

Friday, December 25, 2015

The mind boggles

When a “ Yes, Prime Minister” moment (or two) occurs, which, may I add, are not isolated events but seemingly endemic to the wider system, I just can’t resist leaving it to the book. 

I had several of those moments recently. The first was at a meeting where a vote by "secret" ballot for the promotion of another member was required. After listening to the brilliance and achievements made by this junior member - and seriously, as I have never heard such lengthy accolades for a single individual before I assumed s/he must have won the Nobel Prize! Sadly, I was mistaken - the administrative staff diligently with solemn application - even resisting a smile from an offhanded comical quip - distributed the pre-prepared ballot slips. Our duty as academic members was to decide whether the learned persons we had just been informed about were eligible for promotion to the next level. On the ballot paper we were to either mark  “O” or a “X” (yes or no annotation) in the box on the ballot paper. Not too taxing - yet! At the bottom of the ballot paper we were given a space to write our own names - no, I was not mistaken, nor am I misleading you. And, I am not describing Mr Bean’s adventures. Remember, this is supposed to be a secret vote and that is why I assumed there was not simply a show of hands. Of course, I, allowed or otherwise, refused to write my name on this secret ballot. (I doubt it would have required Sherlock Holmes to determine whose the “unnamed” ballot paper might be from as I was likely the only person rebel enough not to do it.) What followed next was “ the straw that broke the camel’s back”: the administrative staff proceeded to walk around with a ballot box into which we were to place our “secret” - anonymous - votes so they could then be tallied. Good grief! Am I to believe this was merely ceremonial rather than a true evaluation based on due academic or democratic process? It was just comical - if it wasn’t so seriously flawed. And they think I am negative! "Yes, PM" or "Mr Bean"? Take your pick. You won’t be wrong.

The second unbelievable moment was when, at another meeting, on the same (unfortunate) day, the long awaited release of the JMOOC was announced. One poor sod (for reasons that will become evident soon) was asked to give a short presentation to explain (minus the costs and a few other key details) and demonstrate some (I hope it was only some) aspects of this MOOC. For those who are not aware what a MOOC actually might be: it is a Massive Open Online Course that started as a research project in the USA, but has since grown to be more common place. I have taken a few MOOC courses from EDx, with mixed results (passing some and incomplete in others as I was too busy to keep up with the imbalanced course work, amongst another reasons I won’t comment on here). Opinions about MOOC are mixed; the data not being overly kind presently. Personally, I like the idea of courses from universities being available for free (or very minimum cost) to the wider public, simply because I encourage the philosophy of life-long learning, not least for improving educational standards but also for the health of the mind and brain. Notwithstanding, I am aware that MOOC have many shortfalls, including evidence that learners are actually engaging with the learning potentials (though that same claim could be made of many face-to-face courses I have witnessed here in Japan), feedback issues due to the large number of enrolled students (one of the courses I successfully passed had more than 20,000 enrolled), and questions about whether the people who are taking a MOOC are the the audience who should be enrolling (such as people like me or the people who have never been to college or high school), amongst others. 

I'm not going to go into any history of the MOOC at this particular academic organisation other than to say a few years ago I proposed a MOOC-like idea, developed in English, as an option that could be “piggybacked" on top of a collaborative program between the Japanese organisation and another SE Asian country’s organisation that were having discussions at the time. My suggestion was to NOT create a MOOC - although I could see wider benefits if it was in English - but create an Open U-like course linked to the web page that could be accessed by interested members of the public, and one which could be used for any collaborative program that may eventuate. Do note: the Open U-like course would be multilingual - not monolingual for a predominantly Japanese-speaking audience only! Put simply, I am particularly sensitive of the Galapagos Mentality that runs rife and handicaps the citizens from becoming anything more than diligent citizens blown one way or the other at the beckon call of the media and government that feeds them. Japan MUST get its information out to the international community so it can stand on its own as an adult and not cower behind the book of one thousand excuses. (That may sound harsh but Japan has so much to offer but is being held back by some very poor and self-seeking powerful interest groups). Japan’s future potential is to extend its “clever power" reach and reputation, not via a domestic focus, such as a JMOOC that will have minimal hits (unless the culture of on-line learning changes suddenly), but by showing the international community that it is an equal player in more than genetics, medicine, robotics and mathematics. 

OK, no dirty laundry,  but the template I presented to both the SE Asian organisation (and which had them signing up immediately for a test collaborative course) and to the organisation’s leadership, was interactive, learner-focused, and was immediately applicable to the learner’s world, with potential for paper-based material available (over and above pdfs and ppt files on the course). Politics aside, which is what “ killed” the goose, another person managed to acquire about $10,000 from JMOOC - Japan’s MOOC association, no doubt with links to Todai. Think what you could really create with this money! One could make a fantastic interactive course. The result, as presented? About 10 x 10 minute videos of several learned members talking in front on a blue/green screen on to which a photo of the organisation's campus and a powerpoint slide presentations were superimposed. $10,000! A YouTube channel. Simply, that is all it is: a YouTube channel; a one directional one-in-ten-million other channels all hopefully waiting to be digested. (Not to boast, but a YouTube channel created for my students’ work some years back had 200,000 plus hits! Why? Applicability and suitability to the target audience). Interactivity of the MOOC presented? Didn’t see any. Opportunity for student feedback? Didn’t see any. Peer to peer discussion? Didn’t see any. Assessment information? Didn’t see any. 10 week course? Saw that with 10 videos.

The really sad part for me was when the other members clapped and cheered as if the “MOOC" was some brilliance - that some YouTube channel represents a MOOC. Was this an example of Groupthink? Ignorance? or just a case of Japanese politeness?

So much for the opportunities to get Japan out to a global audience. So much for showing that Japan is capable of effective educational theory and pedagogy. So much for… The implicit bias. What do I know with a PhD from the University of Cambridge in education, technology and learning? It means squat when you’re not “in” or when people’s worlds are locked inside cardboard boxes. I really do feel sorry for the youth…

Please do buy the upcoming book about many of the “adventures in advanced japan: you really won’t believe it" - or if you do, you will struggle to reconcile the advanced nation to the reality within.

Merry Christmas


Friday, December 11, 2015

A.I., Trolley Problem and Futures

I’ll come back to the π-type learner soon. This posting relates loosely to that string of thought connections.

I read in the New Scientist (9th Dec. 2015) "Super-literate software reads and comprehends better than humans” and in a news report in the ABC Australia on an 11th December 2015 Science article  on how scientists are teaching (taught) a computer to “learn” like a human. Both articles caught my attention, not least that we still know so little about the brain and all its glorious mysteries - although we have come a long way in leaps and bounds in the past decade clarifying many hypotheses so how intriguing to be reverse-engineering the process in an attempt to understand it; but also as the articles relate to a possible future scenario where A.I. devices or entities will do many white-collar jobs just as technology did to factory production lines.

In one of my classes today a student conducted a presentation on “bosses”. There was, of course, the usual confusion by many students in grasping that leader and manager are not synonymous. Both are crucial. Notwithstanding, the presentation provided a useful springboard upon which to bounce a discussion on future working scenarios. Nearly all students were oblivious to A.I. ideas - well, I can’t really see any reason why they should not be since no-one teaches the students about such ideas - philosophical or practical. There are courses on philosophy and an introductory course on the Mind available (by me, a blending of brain science, cognitive science and behavioural science/economics), and one faculty member is a mathematician who also teaches rudimentary systems information related stuff, but not any that I am aware are teaching technology and/or AI and future scenarios. The students were seemingly unaware of A.I. stuff - almost zero! - even less than me! No-one had even heard about the Turing Test. A few had heard about some mysterious science fiction - a “driverless car” - but little more.

I mentioned the above articles to the students and asked them to discuss the future scenarios that would likely play out in their working life (most probably within half their working life) but would definitely be reality in their childrens' world. During the course of the discussion that followed, one student felt that a world where A.I. were managing and operating white-collar jobs would not be desirable as if the A.I. made a mistake it would not be able to take “ responsibility" for the error - say, as a human might do. (I pointed out that many bureaucrats and others of similar mindset already do not take any responsibility…). The student’s opinion provided a wonderful opportunity to introduce the "Trolley Problem”.

In line with most other reports on results from this problem, about 15% of the class chose not to pull the lever to make the trolley change tracks to kill one but save three (or five or whatever number).  85% believed that it was morally a better choice to kill one than three. The 15%, however, felt that it would be a wrong (moral) choice to take an action as your action would result in the death of a person, whereas doing nothing is not a result of your action (possibly inaction). Do we have a moral obligation to take an action to save the three (or five) even though we would still kill one?

I am not the first to transpose this dilemma on to a driverless car scenario: you are the only person in the autonomous vehicle; the A.I. that controls the vehicle has to make a decision, allow the car to hit a tree and kill you or steer into another path and kill three bystanders. What would you prefer the A.I. to choose?

Until the enthusiastic designers of the driverless car are able to convince lawmakers - and more importantly, the consumer - that self-sacrifice is an acceptable option, I cannot envision a rapid uptake by the wider public for such a vehicle - especially if it is to carry you, and your family!

Although the trolley problem made for a mind numbing detour for the students, the discussions highlighted to the students that perhaps the education they were being given was not sufficient - necessary, but insufficient. “ And why aren’t we getting exposed to skills and proficiencies that might be beneficial for our future?” asked one student.

“Well, it is complicated, but I will simplify and highlight a few factors” I responded. “Firstly, the idea of experience, as we discussed before [on escalator promotion and sempai-kohai cultures, experience may only be of the organisation, possibly making for good managers but not necessarily leaders or leadership], there are many in universities who are highly competent in their area, but have limited experiences in other world or organisational contexts. Simply, they cannot see. Their view of the future is much the same as their view of the present - and their personal past. And, secondly, it would be a scary thing to admit that what one had been teaching for 20 years was now obsolete. What would they do?” (Collaborate with others outside their discipline would be a good start.)

If much of our educational process and repertoire do not adapt and the creative ideas that continue to arrive upon as at ever increasing rates continue as the norm, will the masses have the skills, proficiencies, or mental capabilities to participate in society? Humans are an adaptable lot, so no doubt the entrepreneurial types amongst us will enable us to feel safe on the 13th Floor. Perhaps the whole paradigm will shift, the orange skin will slip, and we will be blissfully assimilated. Then, perhaps, as a friend joked, the Japanese will come out victors in their future ageing/ed societies and economies as A.I. will smoothly integrate into organisations and the society to fill the void left by the human absence (and increase GDP by factors humans could never achieve).

I am sure the Oxbridge’s, MIT’s, Harvard’s, Stamford’s et al, not to mention Google, Facebook and the unknown newbies yet to be discovered, have it all in hand...

New Scientist - https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg22830512-600-super-literate-software-reads-and-comprehends-better-than-humans/

ABC News Aust.- http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-12-11/scientists-teach-computers-how-to-learn-like-humans/7020740

 Science article - Science 11 December 2015: Vol. 350 no. 6266 pp. 1332-1338; http://www.sciencemag.org/content/350/6266/1332

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Education Alignment 1

Whether we like it or not, higher education has become commoditised.  It is about economics, dollars and cents (or lack of sense). It is no longer free. For many in the academy it is about bringing in stipends, grants and awards - a publish or perish lifestyle (much of what is published should be perished). Students incur substantial expense for the privilege of the experience ‒ the fiscal wherewithal most often a gift from parents who also dream of the day their child will be independent. Education is marketed as improving wealth and health, for which we in the academy proudly highlight evidence to correlate the claim. Higher education is proclaimed as necessary because graduates earn more throughout their life than those who do not have an advanced degree. Generally, this is true, but we quite conveniently forget about boom societies, such as witnessed in Australia, where trades professionals and unskilled labor can earn as much or more than university-trained office workers. Education is necessary ‒ but what is being offered within the educational process is no longer sufficient.

Moreover, in Japan, where I have spent a good deal of my higher education life, many students should not even be at university. University entrance exams are proclaimed to sort the students into those capable from those who may not be so capable. I will overlook the fallacy that these exams generally are only sorting tools for those who will be able to survive the stagnant Japanese (business and social) culture from those who would do better pursuing a career elsewhere and on a different pathway - for life! - to highlight that at times the results get “adjusted” and “justified” to ensure that the “bums on seats” quota is attained. A failure to do so would bring the wrath of the Ministry, seemingly more frightening than the prospect that less students means less profit. However, it would be remiss of me to place the blame solely on the student for they are merely products of the system that is antiquated, failing to stimulate inquisitiveness and self-inspired acquisition of learning potentials. I will consider this topic in other blog where I can provide further reading to support the position.

If we were to design a universally agreed upon rubric for “acceptable" knowledge acquired throughout university, measured by assessment instruments that draw on application of that knowledge (declarative and procedural memory) - output proficiencies - many institutions may discover that they have inadvertently positioned themselves within the Degree Mill business. It is easy to tar all with one brush stroke, and I apologize to those institutions that are leading the way in creating the futures, such as Stanford, MIT, Cambridge etc. etc. etc. to even small, mostly unheard of institutions that at least have educational philosophies in place to equal the more prestige institutions, such as Hakodate Future University. However, many institutions are merely talking the talk but only the facade is changing, especially evident in societies that promote image over substance. Many institutions claim the new "business-speak” but the reality is thin when tested.

Alignment is important in many areas of our daily life. Astrologists speak of an alignment of the stars that will bring good (or bad) fortune and opportunities. Architects and builders understand that beams and foundations need to align to strengthen structures (besides, it is awkward living inside a house with a sloping floor or table or benches). Archaeologists use alignment as secondary evidence to associate features. Data structure aligment in computing refers to arranging data in memory to fit the designs of machines. In physiology and sports aligning the placement of bones correctly is so the muscles do less work. And we align the wheels of our cars to improve performance (and stop that annoying vibration that comes at higher speeds). Aligning the culture of institutions and organizations is no less important. Papke (2014) succinctly discussed the importance of aligning organizations with culture, employees, and customers in his book True Alignment: linking company culture with customer needs for extraordinary results. Papke argues that the“extraordinary companies and teams are those in which the what, why and how are aligned”. Great strategic thinking in higher education has been by those who were able to connect future visions to strategies that connect what, why and how amongst all the diverse and competing interests.

The problem is that a “ brand”  in higher education is not merely selling a product, much the way Sony or Microsoft sell merchandise; it involves careful consideration of the discipline, the research, knowledge in and across educational domains, delivery, service and the hopes and promises offered to the consumer ‒ the student. The term “human capital” is sometimes used to explain “who” students are and their relationship to the wider society. The human capital jargon is based around business and economic mindsets. However, the evidence is at best spurious that the training students are receiving at higher educational institutions, in either STEM or non-STEM-related programs is commensurate to the extravagant fees paid for the privilege of the experience. Perhaps for the Humanities and Social Sciences vis-a-vis STEM (another blog to follow on the STEM v non-STEM discussions) Williams (2002, p.59) succinctly captures the matter: “a major challenge facing higher education is that it cannot tell the public or politicians anything meaningful about the most important result of a college education, that is what students learn.” Well, we could, but we perhaps we have ourselves to blame for the predicament (especially if Japan is an example).

One emerging trend in higher education that causes me some concern, particularly in East Asia, is for institutions to opt for structural adjustments, changes to the façade, rather than practical systemic audits to attract and develop the human capital. A contradictory experience for the student results from the misalignment, especially for the international student, who may want to learn of and in another culture, but may have goals and objectives different to the acceptable less-than-sufficient practices of host cultures. As I sit here at Starbuck’s drinking my latte with an extra shot (anybody else have this need?), I am reminded of the lesson higher education could learn from the company - and Apple also springs to mind. Starbucks is not a coffee shop: it sells an experience, which just happens to include coffee. Apple also provides a useful analogy: although the costs to own an Apple technology are way overblown (even though I am caught hook, line and sinker owning all Apple technology), customers are prepared to outlay the money because the brand “Apple” brings intangibles that bridge the gap between production costs and sales pricing. Perhaps, this is what Stanford U.’s D-School or MIT Media Lab amongst others are able to achieve. Those higher educational institutions that have both prestige and profit are able to claim that the intangible benefits (name, brand) justify the costs and any gap between educational training and eventual workplace skills (at least, the graduates portray that image and are therefore in demand). The remaining bulk would have a difficult task to “prove” the fees justify the experience.

Higher education is important and the institutions are valuable resources, but like many organizations, they (we) are struggling to come to grips with the new paradigms emerging. Students are acutely aware that macro and mesa level variables are not in alignment with their micro level reality. Developing higher educational institutions is complex and difficult ‒ and even more so for developing economies still to develop I- or T-type learners, or those developed economies that have too many sunk costs in I- and T-type learners to invest in π-type learners.

Simple corrections can be made and solutions are available (see π3 Training Tab above).

To be continued…

Papke, E. (2014). True Alignment: linking company culture with customer needs for extraordinary results, AMACOM: New York

Williams, H.M. (2002) The ever Increasing Demands Made on Universities in the United States by Society and Politicians, in As the Walls of Academia are Tumbling Down, Werner Z. Hirsch and Luc E. Weber (Eds). pp. 53-61, Economica: France

Monday, December 7, 2015

Education Futures 1

The Dilbert Principle (It’s useless to expect rational behaviour from the people you work with, or anybody else for that matter... come to peace with the fact that that you’re surrounded by idiots) challenges us with an audacious statement. Unfortunately, the reality is quite clear: higher education has a plentiful supply of idiots. There are a myriad reasons behind this unfortunate situation, ranging from super intelligent people in their field but no transfer to another, lack of real-world experience outside of education culture, not interested in anything other than research, to considering whether the profession just attracts idiots. I am most likely the king of the idiots, especially since I dare to pen (well, type) this blog, which summaries a satirical (but serious) paper I wrote (see CV) from notes of a book I am compiling. Moreover, I work with, and have worked with probably some of the smartest people on earth - and some of the kindest and most considerate. This does not negate that many others are short sighted, bureaucratic, dogmatic, out of date, neurotic, working in systems that support the idiots and not the able, sexist, are replete with implicit bias, and offer little hope for students. Harsh? Read on.

I realised early in my school life that teachers were very poor at explaining why studying a certain theory or topic was practically useful for my future life. The rhetorical quip that flowed with abundance was that these theories and learned topics “enable you to think more cleverly if you have studied it.”  I will concede that what is studied and its relationship to the future has some minimal explanatory power, but it is very weak on any predictive qualities, especially in Humanities or in societies where what is studied can have little bearing on future career. I have also come to realise that there is a dearth of - likely, no evidence that consistently shows a correlation between studying complex algebraic equations and making people more successful or prepared for the world into which they will graduate. But, I will leave that for another blog.

Unfortunately, my experiences at university were repeated. For example, Accounting and Economics professors were unable to fully and simply explain how the grand theories would be practically useful in my futures. Continually I heard that companies would have their own systems, but learn the theory, as the systems will be based around the theories.“It is simple and rational.” I find this particularly ironic now as Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky have demonstrated that humans do not make rational choices and therefore rational economic theory has severe flaws, and although double-entry accounting has merit, many of the accounting systems used in organisations are specific to the organisation and could as easily be learned by on-the-job training (or by off-the-shelf software) than by sitting bored-to-death in lecture halls enduring mono-tone diatribe from professors bent on proving the hypothesis that boring subjects are taught by boring people (a logical fallacy, of course - boring people teach boring subjects? Equally as bad!).

Little has changed in many parts of the world and in many institutions. Some argue that it is their culture (whatever that really means as I get the sense this is the security blanket that one falls back on to when an outsider challenges a norm). Such behaviour is not cultural in the sense of a country’s identity. These are personal choices, based on personal preferences, security and skill sets. It is cultural in the sense that the education systems we have built, especially in many universities around the world, including Asia, Africa and the Americas, are based on models from Europe. There is much good to be found in these models, but they need updating. The Model T Ford had four wheels, a gearbox, brakes, seats and even a rudimentary trunk, but it is not suitable for the contemporary household. In all areas of the world, including Japan, there are examples of excellence, but for many, the basics are simply wrong, out of date, useless in preparing youth for a future of possibilities, kill an inquisitive spirit and reinforce old patterns that are incongruent to stated objectives. Harsh? Read on.

A friend and I when having lunch recently and discussing Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk on education, agreed that one of the most important take-home messages in the talk was the following (paraphrased): When will the young kiddies who start school in 2016 likely retire? For most, between 2076 and 2080, if most existing variables change little. The problem is, we know - well, we should damn-well know -  that many of the existing variables will be change. Therefore, the real question is, as posed by Sir Ken Robinson, what will the world be like then? And what skills will be needed then? Is our current model preparing students for that world? How about 2050? 2035?

Just as Artificial Intelligence and robotics replaced or supplemented many blue collar jobs, so it will (is already) going to replace white collar workers. The future is not about masses who can do high-level Quantum maths or trigonometry. For a percentage of the population this will be crucial. For the majority, not a necessity, and if that is the goal of education, then it is wasted resources as computers and A.I. can do it faster and more error free than we humans - already! Are many content with replicating themselves through students rather than equipping them with skills to solve problems, seek solutions, create alternatives and consider possibilities.

At what point is it enough to keep accepting the Three Monkey Principle (hear no evil, see no evil and speak no evil)? Take an example of investing and saving money. How few people in the wider population know anything about it and yet we are continually berated people aren’t saving enough for their retirement”over the media waves by less-than-genuinely-concerned-for-my-personal-welfare politicians. Understanding basic finance should be mandatory study. (One colleague attempted to introduce a basic“life skills”course only to find he had to defend the choice he made from within his own discipline.) The same should be applied for basic health and medical understanding, which could improve lifestyle choices and may even enable citizens to quickly recognise the quackery of those in the medical profession who adopt a“choo choo choo” one-second stethoscope touch when listening to a patient’s chest as productive as trying to get milk from a bull.

Take home from this blog (to be continued) is (1) what futures?, (2) is the system adequate?, (3) are we equipping people with the life skills for the world we are creating?

Saturday, December 5, 2015


Moving along at a paltry 200km/ph on the Hayabusa Shinkansen bound for Shin Aomori, and then to Hakodate via the Super Hokuto, it is hard to reconcile experiences and observations in this country filled with anomalies and contradictions. I sit on a westward-facing seat so the blind is predominantly drawn to stop the rapidly falling winter sun’s rays blinding me from my keyboard. (I was not born into the world of computers but grew into them and therefore I readily acknowledge that although I can type at reasonable speed, it is not touch typing: I need to see those keys!) The drawback is, of course, that I cannot appreciate the scenery as it whizzes by - not that there is much to be admired presently as there is little more than urban sprawl, which is not that pleasant in many places but even less aesthetically so in Japan.

Japan boasts some beautiful temples, shrines, parks, trees, gardens and old houses, which can be found in almost any neighbourhood - not just the main tourist attractions that draw millions. Sadly, the “City” (I assume it would be local and city bureaucrats) seem not to have the same sense of value. Power lines, power poles, road signs, billboards, side rails, fences, flags, amongst other eye-polluting menagerie photo-bomb the visual appreciation. Notwithstanding the threat from natural disasters that have facilitated the need for power lines to be above ground (not too sure the logic holds up here as gas is under the ground, but I am no expert), these in-your-face pollutants have sprung like weeds in the “need” to be modern drive. (“Modern” or “developed" is also at times a fallacy as a good deal of Japan outside urban areas [hard to define when the sprawl becomes rural sometimes] is not connected to sewage but to site-specific septic tanks that require emptying periodically, and which have an unfortunate side effect of creating a rather unsavoury pungent odour that permeates the neighbourhood when the “poo truck” arrives to do its duty).

I often wondered what Japanese thought of these "eye sores", as I had developed a suspicion that possibly they just didn’t notice them at all. This assumption was not based on some random thought spontaneously arriving like an “aha!” moment; it was based on observations of behaviour and on behavioural and cognitive science about information overload and information processing. You could imagine my delight when the opportunity came to test my hypothesis. In one of my classes at a well-known Japanese university, a student was presenting Pecha-Kucha-style on his hometown. One of the images showed a beautiful old rural house sided by two gorgeous Japanese Juniper and a lovely quaint Japanese garden in front. About a quarter of the way from the top, sprawling across the image were multiple power lines silhouetted against a spotless blue sky. It was a tragedy to the beauty of the cultural icons that were in that scene, but one that I have become accustomed to seeing. I asked the student if he could recognise what was out of place in the photo: “which of these things is not like the other” moment. To my great amazement he could not identify anything. I therefore specifically pointed out the numerous power lines polluting the image of the cultural icons to which he responded: "I didn’t even notice it!” The Invisible Gorilla?

I look over my shoulder at the other passengers seated in Car No.1. The front car of the Hayabusa has only six rows with a two-three cabin configuration. I am in 6D, on the bulk head, because an electrical consent is situated on the wall in front, meaning I can connect my computer, phone or iPad - my phone is charging while I tether from its connectivity. (The wonderful unlimited download package I have chosen on my mobile phone means I don’t have to panic about the mounting costs that come from those out-of-date in-the-wrong-paradigm limited free Internet contracts.) Moreover, the passenger seated next to me is also able to charge their device/s should s/he so desire as there is another consent on the side wall - remember this little tidbit: Shinkansen’s have power sockets but they are only on the side walls so target a window seat or a bulk head for the newer versions - unless in Gran Class or Green Car when the configuration is a little different). As with the passenger seated next to me, most of the others in the Car are either asleep or are reading a B6 paper-based book that are churned out by Japanese publishing houses on a menagerie of topics, fictional, factual or wannabe believed-as-factual pseudoscientific fantasy. I am nearly the only one using any technological device that is not a phone (there is one chubby man ogling something on his phone device).

Even though I tend to read, listen to or watch most of my books in digital format recently, I am still partial the paper-based edition. There is some satisfaction in the tangible experience of turning pages, feeling the paper’s texture, adding post-it stickies with notes and thoughts that relate to - or vaguely relate to what is at hand at that moment - an idea later illegible and beyond any declarative or procedural memory as to what it alludes - simply, lost somewhere after existing briefly as a moment in time in working memory. There is also the reality that when the moment comes - and it will - that your body decides that it is time for you to have a nap and you drop the book. Of course, you wake instantly, retrieve the book, look around to see who has noticed your stupor and feelings of foolishness that are coming over you: no one has - likely they are too polite to laugh at you. The relief does not abate so quickly when it is my iPad: I fuss over it, check the screen, the switches, the sound, the most important apps - games and SMS - for the next ten minutes. A book? No worries!

Here I am seated in one of Japan’s most advanced technological masterpieces surrounded by analogue entities. These are people about the same age or younger than me. The juxtaposition stimulates my mind and a thousand thoughts engulf me.

Ironically, the motivation to start this blog has been caused by me giving a task to students in one of my classes: Tokyo Stories. Those stories will soon follow in the tab link on my web page. Another motivation to reactivate my web page and this Blog also has roots in discussions during about six meals with friends and associates in the past two weeks. These encounters both reassured me and confirmed that many around me in my professional and daily existence have no idea about preparing youth for the futures that are racing toward us. And, my activation stems from a “mado giwa” (literally translated as window sitting, but refers to when a person at an organisation is not given any responsibility other than to “stare out the window” - to turn up, a job I know many bureaucrats in many countries would love if they do not already willingly doing so) responsibility. I will explain more about that in another blog soon. The forces came together and once again the message was clear: only you can get yourself out and only you can create opportunities for the stars to align. I could choose: the quagmire created around me or the futures I believe in. This Blog is part of that road ahead. It will not always focus on academic rhetoric nor use appropriate academic methodology to discuss ideas. Much will be about experiences and life in Japan, and more specifically, higher education. For more academic and professional information and discussion, please read π3 Training, Teaching and Experience Tabs.