Tuesday, May 10, 2016

If You Want Change, Learn When to Argue and When to Stop: Getting stuck in the wrong fights can eat up energy - so learn to use it wisely

Credit: https://pixabay.com. CC0 Public Domain
by Tim Gray, Transformation: https://www.opendemocracy.net/transformation/tim-gray/if-you-want-change-learn-when-to-argue-for-it-and-when-to-stop#

If you're trying to create change on an issue, your time and energy are as deep and wide as the ocean, right? Or possibly you're a human being like the rest of us.

Here's how you're unusual. At some point you've recognised that there's a problem, seen that there are solutions, and have a drive to bring others to the same point of view and make stuff happen.

That's fantastic, and much needed. But that very thing puts you at odds with most people, who are not operating in a rational problem-solution mode. Often campaigners and activists assume that other people's heads are operating in the same way as theirs, but it isn't true. Most people, most of the time, are running on habit.

Sometimes a response comes from argument, or a genuine statement of someone's fully thought through views and position. More often though, a response happens because their worldview feels like you've poked it and it has to release that energy through a defence or a counterblast. For example, if you warn people about carbon emissions from their cars, parents making the school run feel like you're saying that their life is wrong. Talking about vegetarian food? People whose habits have formed around more traditional fare will need to express how weird they think you are.

Their response might not make much sense. It might even be transparently crazy. But once they've issued it and it's become part of their publicly-expressed self, it's covered by their defence umbrella too. Your instinct might be to keep making points to persuade them. But the problem is, you're not in an argument. It's not a discussion. They're not interested in exploring your points: they're fighting off an intrusion into their day.

If that's the situation, all you’re doing if you keep going is adding momentum to their resistance. When the next person comes along with ideas that seem related to yours, they'll be more inclined to fight them off. They'll get invested in casting you as bad. They may even adopt into their social face or personal identity that they are a person who fights that thing, and become actively involved in movements that oppose you. Habits build on habits.

Some people put massive amounts of effort into fighting small changes that have triggered their defence systems. One example that bugs me is the movement that treats Agenda 21 - a statement of intent from the 1992 Earth Summit - as a government conspiracy. You can easily demonstrate that it's not what they say it is, but they're invested in it and worldviews don't willingly admit that they are wrong.

So what to do? 

Put your feelers out

First, develop a radar for when people actually want to discuss something and when it's a fight brewing. Then try not to feed more energy into the resistance.

Of course it's important to have discussions, to claim idea-territory and help thinking develop. At the right time those can be amazing. There are also times when it's important to make counterpoints - for example if people are spreading inaccurate information that others might pick up. But do it sparingly, be polite and try not to engage with antagonism. Sometimes you need to make a surgical strike and then withdraw.

If you make a furious rebuttal to every comment it becomes easier to paint you in a bad light, and you'll use up a lot of energy that could be better spent where more movement is possible. Online forum users know that there's no shortage of people with seemingly endless reserves of time and a driving need to knock things down, muddy the waters and steal power. I sometimes say that the majority of online comments are people rehearsing their worldview and personal identity. It's about them, not you.

Also, we live in a time when old stories are breaking down - about working life, the economy, the structures of society, relationships, communication beyond borders, who we meet on our streets, what technology can do, and who has authority and answers. That means increased levels of what I call ‘mental inflammation:’ people are being asked to think about things they previously took for granted, and their brains are on high alert to shoot down new demands that need processing. There are a lot of defensive people out there.

So make your difference strategically: a nudge here, a support there, and a big push just at the right time on the way to momentum and tipping points. 

Be your message

Secondly, take lessons from marketing. The old model of 'interruption marketing' that gave us mailshots, TV ads and PPI calls is increasingly discredited. With so much choice between information streams, people are rejecting marketing that gets in their face. Today's world favours approaches that build relationships, credibility and authority. That's how things work online, and it's spreading outwards from there.

This tells us something that maybe you'll find uncomfortable. Your lever for change is not just the arguments you can marshal, but who you are. Or, rather, what kind of person you're perceived to be. Your message is not separate from you. If you want people to follow you somewhere, you have to be someone they can trust, someone with a vision they want to see realised.

If you talk about a future of renewable energy but it seems to make you bored or miserable, why would anyone want to go there? If you talk about animal rights but you're angry all the time, why would others want to be like you? The things you say are framed by a lot of stuff that gets picked up (often subconsciously) and colours the way you're perceived, or even blocks the connection altogether. There are skills to gain if you really want to serve your message.

In the online business world of entrepreneurs and thought leaders this is often called 'personal branding.' That phrase may make you think of corporate language that you don't like or trust, but today in those circles it's usually accompanied by talk of ‘authenticity’ and ‘integrity.’ That's because those things feed the hearts of those who are doing the work, and of course are good for business.

That leads on to a larger point: don't neglect your own personal development. Make balance and happiness part of your mission. When the flaws in the world call to you loudly it can be hard to enjoy your time here. Believe me, I know. My superpowers include seeing how things can be better, a strong sense of right and wrong, and empathy for suffering.

That cocktail brings massive frustration with the way people mess things up, along with the desire to wrestle them into better shape. It's what makes me interested in why people act the way they do and how change works - and it turns out that shouting doesn’t do it.

We only have the one life. Service is noble but deliberately martyring ourselves is dumb - and kind of rude really when you remember what's on offer in the world. We only have so much energy and we need to use it wisely. Movements for change need to get smarter and more human.

You might just find that when your life and who you are shine out of you, that's the most powerful campaigning tool of all.

Friday, May 6, 2016

How Children Use Their Emotions to Learn

Emotions show
Emotions show (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
by Ana Aznar, University of Surrey; Bart Carlo Rienties, The Open University, and Garron Hillaire, The Open University, The Conversation: https://theconversation.com/how-children-use-their-emotions-to-learn-57938

Emotions play a critical role in everyday life. The ability to express, regulate, and understand one’s own and others’ emotions - known as emotional competence - is linked to good social skills and to doing better at school.

Children and adults who are emotionally competent tend to have more successful social lives. And children with a good level of emotional competence tend to be more popular among their peers, have more friends, and display higher levels of pro-social behaviour than children who are not as emotionally adept.

Children who are emotionally competent tend to learn better and to do better in school than their less emotionally adept peers.

Differences in children’s emotional competence can be observed from a very early age. For example, some toddlers will throw a tantrum when they are not allowed to have an ice cream before lunch, but others who are better at regulating their emotions, will not.

One of the main contexts in which children learn about emotions is with their family. It is through interactions with their siblings and parents that a child learns to understand what to do when his mother is upset or how to negotiate his sibling’s anger when he broke his favourite toy. As children grow, the extended family, peers, teachers and what they read or watch are also relevant in children’s development of emotional competence.

Mothers who mention more emotion words such as “sad”, “guilty” or “happy” in conversation with their children have children with a better level of emotional understanding than those whose mothers don’t do this. Both the frequency and quality of mothers' use of emotional words and phrases also has an impact. Mothers who explain the causes and consequences of emotions - “I am angry because you painted on the wall” - have children with a higher level of emotion understanding than children whose mothers who don’t and just say “I am angry”.

Standoff. Maryna Pleshkun/www.shutterstock.com

Academic boost

Starting from a young age, children who are emotionally competent are better able to adapt to the transition between nursery and school. They are better able to face the more challenging demands of school life while at the same time having less one-on-one support. These children continue to do better academically throughout the school years as they tend to better manage the stress and anxiety that school life frequently provokes.

There are two main reasons why children who are emotionally competent tend to do better academically at school. First, emotionally competent children tend to have more friends and are more popular among their peers.

When a child is well-adapted to their school life, he or she is more likely to do better academically. In contrast, children who have problems in relationships with their friends in school, may have their concentration, motivation, and working memory affected. Children who have difficulties dealing with their emotions are also more likely to display behavioural problems such as anti-social behaviour or anxiety problems. This makes the child’s learning process more difficult throughout their time at school.

A second reason is that children who are emotionally competent tend to have a better relationship with their teachers than their less emotionally able counterparts. Teachers also tend to demand more of those children with whom they have a good relationship - so in turn, these students tend to put more effort in to please their teachers.

Watching emotions at work

It seems clear that emotions play a role in learning. Some researchers even suggest that learning simply is an emotional experience.

These questions are starting to be explored outside of traditional lab settings. Several techniques to identify emotional expression have been developed by computer scientists to make predictions about people’s emotions. These include monitoring facial expressions, heart rates, and even the comments students write down.

These techniques are currently being researched at the Open University and have the potential to be used to study wider groups of students.

There are obvious ethical questions that arise when talking about using technology to measure emotions. Parents, teachers and school administrators may have concerns about student emotions being tracked using technology. Research that uses these measures will need to show how such analysis benefits student outcomes.

Given how important emotions are to learning, it won’t be too long before we see emotional measures right next to traditional measures such as attendance and grades in efforts to support students to achieve their goals.

Ana Aznar, Postdoctoral Research Fellow , University of Surrey; Bart Carlo Rienties, Reader in Learning Analytics, Institute of Educational Technology, The Open University, and Garron Hillaire, PhD candidate, Institute of Educational Technology , The Open University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

A Life Not Defined by Work

by Alecia Simmonds, Womankind: http://www.womankindmag.com/articles/a-life-not-defined-by-work/

Australians, we like to tell ourselves, are a laid-back, easy-going people whose home is girt by beach. We chuck sickies, down tinnies from the esky, and ‘get maggot’ after work. In fact, we barely even acknowledge that we work.

When we imagine the typical Strayan, they’re either at the beach with the kids or gazing wistfully into the red dust from a bush-cottage verandah. Strayans, John Howard famously told us, are “relaxed and comfortable”.

Except of course we’re not. And figures everywhere prove this: a 2013 OECD report found that more than 14% of Australian workers put in more than 50 hours a week, which is way above the OECD average of 9%. An Australia Institute study found that Australians work the longest hours in the developed world with an average of 1,855 hours at work each year, which is 200 hours more than employees of other countries.

Some 11% of Australians took no annual leave in 2014, according to a study by a leading travel website. And, unsurprisingly, numerous studies have found that we’re pretty anxious as a result, with Australia ranking as either the second or third most stressed-out country in the world, alongside America and Japan.

The typical Australian is less a beach-loving larrikin than a conformist workaholic sitting in the lonely gloaming of a computer screen late at night suffering hypertension. And you don’t need figures to realise this. When was the last time you met someone who didn’t rush straight into talking about their job, or who was introduced in a way that managed to avoid their work status? How many friends do you have who aren’t constantly ‘busy, busy’, who don’t work overtime, or who take off every weekend? How often does a conversation with a stranger resemble anything more than a recitation of resumes?

Work has cannibalised our lives, our conversations, our very selves. Every now and then, usually around election time, governments acknowledge this when they discuss the ‘work/life balance’. The solutions are always asinine: meditate, do lunchtime yoga, eat chia seeds, or work flexibly - particularly if you’re a woman.

I would like to propose something a little more radical. Three words: Just. Do. Less.

I think we need to assert our right to sloth, to play, to sociability, to pleasure, to creativity and to time that is marked not by the ticking of a clock but by the rising and setting of the sun. We are more interesting than our labour and our identities are richer than our work status. How anaemic, brittle and thin humanity starts to look when being productive becomes our primary purpose. Rather than begging companies and governments for flexible work practices so that we can work at home as well as in the office, we need to resist work itself.

Lest you find this argument a touch extremist, let me tell you that work has not always been such a big part of who we are. In fact, you can trace our gradual obsession with productive labour by examining the changing meaning of the word ‘sloth’ over the centuries.

According to academic Rebecca de Young, sloth originally meant being lazy in your devotional work to God - which also included community service and charity. During the Reformation in the 13th century, the concept of religious devotional work was extended to apply to all forms of labour and to this extent diligence became a sign of our love of God (the word diligence comes from the Latin diligere, meaning ‘to esteem or love’). The harder you work, she says, the more you prove that you love God.

Eventually, sloth became stripped of its spiritual dimensions and with “the secularisation of sloth” came the “spiritualisation of work”. By the 20th century, work supplanted religion as the source of individual identity. It assumed a divine status, associated with redemption and vocation (a spiritual calling). This is why we talk about ‘feeling guilty’ when we take an afternoon off work.

But it’s the Industrial Revolution that marks the moment when work consolidated its conquest over sloth and play. A mass market of commodities created new desires that in turn created indebtedness which then created more of a need to work. Today this takes the form of working two jobs to pay off the pool that you never get to swim in because you’re too busy working two jobs.

The 19th century also marks the moment when work became moralised by the rising middle classes: it was a sign of your respectability and capacity to self-govern, while not working was a mark of deviancy or corruption. The ability to govern the self gave you the right to govern others. Unlike the indolent ruling classes and the itinerant working classes, the middle classes were industrious. Their private capacity for labour gave them a political capacity for government (or so they argued).

Today, I think the problem is not just that work continues to be associated with morality (which is how we get victim-blaming terms like ‘dole bludger’) but that work has conquered every aspect of our lives. And nowhere is this more obvious than when we talk about a work/life balance.

‘Life’, you would think, could mean many things: writing a novel, getting lost on a bushwalk, sipping tea with friends, travelling, creating beauty through art - the list is infinite. Yet here it is narrowed down to mean unpaid care-work. And as such it is feminised - when we say ‘life’ we mean picking up the kids after school or performing a thousand forms of private labour without which the public world of work couldn’t function.

‘Life’ has come to stand in for a lack of freely accessible childcare options and affordable aged care. It carries the burden of a malfunctioning state. When we talk about the work/life balance, what we actually mean is the balance that women have to strike between paid work and unpaid work so the state can spend less on caring industries. It also means that those women who opt for ‘flexible work arrangements’ often just end up turning their lounge rooms into offices.

In the rare moments that work/life balance is used to signify time for relaxation and leisure, then the framework remains one of productivity. We need to allow workers to take time off so that their mental health doesn’t suffer, so that their productivity at work doesn’t decrease so that the profits of the company don’t go down. It’s not the worker that is the concern here. It’s the corporation.

I remember first being confronted by our obsession with work when I returned home to Australia after living in Paris for three years. As much as I am loath to confirm the sepia-tinted Amélie stereotypes of romance and scooters and crème brulée, some of it is true - in particular the healthy disrespect that the French show towards work. 

When the government tried to increase the minimum age of retirement from 60 to 62 there were riots, upturned cars, and the country was brought to a standstill. The French take five weeks holiday per year and the 35-hour work week, although contentious, still largely stands for those in the public service. But on an everyday level, if you were to while away an afternoon nibbling fromage and sipping vin rouge with your French friends I reckon you’d probably notice something quite startling: they rarely discuss their work. In fact, to do so is considered a bit vulgar, insofar as you are potentially asserting status.

I was chastised when I complained about French libraries or even grocery stores not opening on Sundays (“Pfft, Alecia, the workers need to take a break too!”) and I also came to love the fact that a sunny day often meant calling in sick and devoting the day to hedonism. Having liberated the conversation from the tedium of work, my French friends would discuss poems that they were writing, they’d debate readings of Baudelaire, they’d argue about politics, they’d attend protests and we’d all spend a long time musing upon the pleasures of food. French protest culture is about protecting these delights; it is about claiming their right to a life that is not defined by work.

The great tragedy for Australians is that this used to be us. In 1856, following a strike by stonemasons in Melbourne, we introduced an eight-hour day, and we were the first country in the world to do so. The 24-hour day, it was argued, was divided into three lots of eight hours: one for work, one for leisure and one for sleep. By the 20th century, thanks to a strong union movement, we had a global reputation for being a ‘workingman’s paradise’.

And it’s from this history that we get all of our most beloved national stereotypes about being relaxed and easygoing. The good news is that if we’re to believe the cliché about all stereotypes containing an element of truth, then we still believe in a world outside of work, even if we don’t practise it. The challenge is to start living it and living life again, and by that I mean a life abundant with small pleasures and grand curiosities; a life of joyful sloth and playful laziness. A life liberated from the tyranny of work.