January 2015


Phone

I had not planned on getting an iPhone for Christmas. My wife is sweet, but not THAT sweet! Besides, I had just bought myself a cute little Azus Zenphone 4 which fits nicely on my belt. Unlike my hip and much more tech-savvy son, I have no Apple addiction, and have been content to simply use whatever device comes my way. Taylor’s College in Kuala Lumpur, where I have worked for the last eight years, was kind enough to provide me with a Dell laptop many years ago with XP Professional as a platform. I used that happily for many years and only recently upgraded to Windows 7.

A couple of years ago we were all issued with iPads to facilitate a move to a more electronic pedagogy, an initiative that has had mixed results. We are certainly a lot more tech dependent in school than we used to be. But the phone market is very fluid over here, and Apple does not dominate like it does back in North America. At any rate, with my iPad in daily use, it is not like I am unfamiliar with the brand. And of course you would have to be a Tibetan monk to have missed all the hype and hoopla that has accompanied the release of each new iPhone since its first release seven years ago. Don’t you listen when my wife tells you I have no patience!

But exactly how I got my hands on one is story all by itself. Allow me to relate it to you. I report directly to the CEO of Taylor’s Education Group, the entity that owns the College where I used to work and several other schools as well, including the university, where I am now located. During the past eighteen months I have managed to forge an entirely new direction for this company, and taken them into corporate social responsibility in a much more integrated way.

A website, which has been the principal vehicle for linking together all the various community service projects together, is now up and running. Its construction has occupied a huge chunk of my time for the last year and a bit. You can have a look for yourself, if you are interested. There have been other successes as well, but I don’t want to beat my own drum, just to tell you a story about a phone.

CSR is a bit a new thing over here, and it has been a tough sell, to say the least. My CEO has been very supportive of my efforts, and he appreciates the fact that I don’t bore him with the details either; I just get the job done. He always takes the time to thank me for what I am doing, and today he gave me an iPhone by way of thanks. To his credit, he did try to give it to me in time for Christmas, and it is rather more my fault than his that I was across town at the time, and he had to leave before I got back to the office. Today he got back. Getting me the phone was near the top of his agenda.

My CEO is a very rich guy. I know that some people don’t like him for that reason alone. Personally I have no problem with wealth, and always thought it was more important to God what you did with you money than whether or not you have any. It is for that reason that I admire Bill Gates and rather dislike Steve Jobs. But I will happily take his phone, and appreciate how and why I came to have one. It is fitting that this should happen on 9 January. See? I’m not so out of touch as you may think.

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Carol Dweck, America’s leading educational psychologist, conducted a series of ground-breaking studies (summarized here) into cognition that sought to assess the value of praise on student learning. Her intention was to determine if specific teacher responses impeded or encouraged learning behavior. Praise comments were divided into two categories: words and phrases targeting existing intelligence, and those targeting effort and ingenuity.

Readers can easily imagine for themselves what those comments might be. “Aren’t you a clever lad” is one that I often heard myself as I was growing up. On the other side of the coin would be phrases like, “You really worked hard on that assignment,” or “I like what you did in that part of your answer.” Students who solved the first problem were given the first set of praise comments, students who failed to solve the first problem were given the second set. The results were more than interesting; they have spawned an entirely new direction in pedagogy.

Students who were told that they were bright, clever, intelligent, gifted, and so on obviously enjoyed the attention. But a curious thing happened when Dweck gave them a choice on a subsequent assignment. Almost invariably they chose the easier task that would ensure them further praise of this nature; comments focusing on their existing intelligence. Students who were praised for their effort and ingenuity in tackling the previous problem were far more likely to choose the more challenging problem. This pattern repeated itself for the next few challenges.

However, when Dweck removed the option of choice in a final and most difficult problem, the students who had struggled through the earlier difficult problems were much more persistent and successful at solving this final problem than the supposedly “clever” students who often simply gave up in frustration. Even more remarkably, when Dweck gave all students the opportunity to mark their own work, the “clever” students were far more likely to lie about how successful they had been.

This landmark study has since been confirmed by a mountain of research and supporting theory, and “Growth Mindset” pedagogy has become something of growth industry of late. The tenets of this theory are few and foundational, and counter basically all that we have thought about learning for generations. The theory contends that there is no fixed intelligence. The brain is almost infinitely malleable and capable of learning and growth, even in advanced old age (a comforting thought to us older learners!). It seems that the much maligned adage of “fake it until you make it” actually makes good pedagogical sense. Apparently we all have the capacity to grow into our jobs simply by consistently applying existing knowledge and being willing to make the effort to solve the problems before us with persistence and ingenuity.

The downside, if there is one, is to be cautious of the messages we give to others. Praise for what they already know and can do well, is counter-productive and leads to both stasis and deception. Praise for what they are attempting that they haven’t been able to do before, encourages growth and persistence. In others words, we want to avoid our children saying “I can’t do that,” and encourage them to think instead, “I can’t do that, YET!”

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Pam and I have been Asia for nearly eight years. Believe it or not, that is the longest we have lived at any one place in our marriage. We didn’t start out with this in mind, but it seems that the Lord had His own plans for our lives. It is true that we spent 20 years in St. Thomas. It is also true that we lived in four different houses while we were there and spent two years overseas. For us, eight years is the max, and frankly we are getting a little restless. I probably would have been happy to leave two years ago, but this new position in community service opened up, and I saw huge potential for personal growth. We had also just embarked on a Master’s and Malaysia has pretty good internet. We opted to stay for a couple more years. But always, running in the background, there is the question, and perhaps the tyranny, of “Or”

There have been a lot of “Or”s in our marriage. Do we settle in London or St. Thomas, which is safer for children and has cheaper housing? Do we send our children to a public or a Christian school, where they can develop Christian friends and have the benefit of smaller classes and phonics-based reading? On my deferred salary leave year do I pursue my Master’s, or do we go to Bangladesh and serve the Lord where the needs are great and the workers are few? Do we keep this older house that we can afford, or do we buy something that will escalate our debt and give our children some privacy to develop as they go through their teenage years?

Coming a little closer to the present, do we maintain our high-paying jobs at the peak of our careers or do we give them up in order to do what we have purposed in our hearts to do for God? With mixed success, and apologies to our children for our many failings, we have always chosen what seemed best for others, rather than ourselves; made decisions that fed the spirit, rather than the flesh, regardless of the cost to us personally. Now it is time for another “Or” decision.

Do we remain in Malaysia, which has become like a second home to us, comfortable in positions that are in no danger of running out of ministry opportunities, or…..? And it is the uncertainty of that “Or” that marks this decision as unique. There is no viable alternative at present, just a lot of unknowns. This we do know: our kids are getting older, and more importantly, our grandkids are getting older. Once a year at home just isn’t enough to maintain those relationships to the depth and consistency that is in keeping with our commitment to family.

But the cost and the time it takes to get home from Malaysia is just prohibitive. So, despite how comfortable we now are here, despite the honour and recognition that we now receive in our present positions of leadership, despite the uncertainty of the next step, we are asking the Lord to find us a place of ministry a little closer to home. Our target destination is the Caribbean, but we would take Central or South America, or even Western Europe depending on the safety of the locale and the opportunities for ministry.

Consequently, I started putting together my résumé and references and registering with agencies back in September. As of this writing, I have sent off fifty applications to various schools in the region. To date there has been no response, but it is early yet and hiring typically doesn’t start until the New Year. I recognize that I am old, although I don’t often feel it, and know that there are several fields now closed to me on account of my age. I know too that if we are able to leverage this move to the West, it will likely be our last kick at the can.

For this reason so we want to ensure that we find a good posting that will allow us both to work productively and leave us room to grow into those positions. Given our work experience and our growing educational lineage, I am optimistic that the Lord has something left for us to do. Nevertheless, if you are so inclined, we would greatly appreciate your prayers for us on this adventure. It would be wonderful to be within five hours of ‘home’ if we were needed. Or if we just needed to get a hug from a grandchild or two. This is our Christmas and New Year’s wish. If you would share yours, we would consider it a privilege to pray for you as well. Blessings on those decisions, and thank you for following us, as we seek to follow God.