Political events in 2016 have been screaming at us: WAKE UP!! Britons slammed the door in the face of their EU neighbours. Americans threw a rock (in the shape of Donald Trump) to smash the windows of the political establishment. Dissatisfaction with politics as usual is evident around the world.
What to do about it?
On one side of the political divide, people are feeling hopeless and shocked: how is it possible that someone like Trump won? On the other side, people have been feeling hopeless for a long time: Obama promised change, but so many communities are still facing poverty and racial tensions. Where is the change that was promised? How can the government be trusted? A similar scenario is played out in many countries besides the United States.
Many political leaders have failed to live up to expectations – or even listen to the concerns of ordinary people. In the US, this is what has made voters angry and turn to Trump. But the promises of Trump and other anti-politicians are exaggerated and hollow. They promise change but can they really make change happen?
As we have seen with Obama and will probably see with Trump, one person can (at best) inspire change, but making change happen takes time and is difficult. First, there are always pressures that favour status quo and undermine all change efforts. Second, today’s societies are complex and change makers are needed at all levels: in national and local governments, in businesses, non-profits, social enterprises and voluntary organisations, in the media, etc. Third, people are easily drawn to simple solutions, which are compelling but often misguided or inadequate.
Here are three examples to illustrate the point of complex problems and simplistic solutions that don’t work.
The loss of manufacturing jobs
Complex problem: Many Trump voters live in communities that are suffering because manufacturing jobs have disappeared. 20 million Americans worked in manufacturing in 1977. Today, this figure is 12 million. Some of the jobs have been lost to other countries (e.g. China), some have been lost because of technological advances. Over the same time period, many new jobs have been created, especially in the services sector. During the Obama presidency, more than 9 million new jobs were created. However, these were often jobs in other locations and required different skill-sets.
Simple solution: Abolishing free trade agreements and putting up tariffs, as Trump has suggested.
Likely outcome: The impact of free trade has been extensively researched. Tariffs will likely harm US consumers who are currently buying cheaper goods from China and elsewhere, such as clothes and phones. Longer term, the industries that are being protected will suffer because there is less pressure for them to innovate.
Better solution: Improving education and re-training people, so that they can work in health care, leisure and hospitality, retail, construction and other areas where jobs will be growing. Supporting the relocation of families to areas with more jobs and not enough qualified people.
Here are two graphs to illustrate the loss of manufacturing jobs in the US and the likely growth of jobs in other sectors.
Complex problem: There is dissatisfaction with the quality of education systems around the world. In the United States, 82% of students graduated with a regular high school diploma four years after they started 9th grade. The achievement gap is huge: children in extreme poverty are half as likely to graduate from high school, and one tenth as likely to graduate from college as students from the most affluent communities.
Simple solution: A myriad of education policies shape the school system in different states in the US (read more here and here). Arguably, the main driver that influences behaviour in schools is accountability. Schools and teachers are being held accountable for the academic achievement of their students and this data is shared publicly.
Likely outcome: Test scores may go up over time, but this does not mean that the quality of learning has changed. Test scores can be improved by teaching to the test, by expelling lower-performing students, etc. However, teachers do not necessarily have better skills to teach in ways that improves student learning.
Better solution: Invest in the quality of all teachers. Prioritise the sort of professional development that is known to improve student learning outcomes: it needs to be long-term (at least 15 hours, but preferably 50 hours, over 6 months), practical (related to the content of what is being taught), evidence-based, externally supported by experts, etc.
What kind of teachers’ professional development helps learners?
(Source: Prof Rob Coe.)
This example is from a very different context, but it also highlights how complex problems cannot be solved with simplistic solutions.
Complex problem: Millions of poor people in many African countries live in rural areas and work as smallholder farmers. They don’t have a stable income, they often experience poverty and suffer from malnutrition.
Simple solution: Give them food aid.
Likely outcome: This will provide short-term relief to farmers and their families, but is unlikely to help them get out of poverty longer term. It does little to improve the resilience of farmers to survive during periods of drought. (On the other hand, this solution may benefit agriculture producers in countries where ‘food aid’ is produced. For example: between 1991 and 2009, US has provided $3.2bn of humanitarian assistance to Ethiopia. 94% of this, worth $3bn, has been in the form of food aid. In 2008, 99% of food aid came from within the USA. Furthermore: because of transport and packaging, it cost $2 of US taxpayers’ money to deliver $1 of food aid from the US to Ethiopia. Source: Oxfam.)
Better solution: (1) Supporting farmers with credit, so that they can buy high quality seeds and fertilizers. (2) Deliver seeds and fertilizers to local villages, because distances are vast and transportation is often underdeveloped. (3) Train the farmers so that they can maximise the yields from their farm. (4) Create access to markets, for example, through a network of local village markets, where farmers can sell their produce and earn an income. One Acre Fund has already served more than 300,000 families with this solution. The income of the families has gone up by more than 50%.
Are we doomed?
Each of these problems discussed above requires a thoughtful solution. Soundbites don’t bring manufacturing jobs back; simplistic policies are not enough to make a difference to learning outcomes. Wisdom is needed. By wisdom I mean the ability to understand issues, use knowledge and solve genuine, complex problems.
At this point, I can imagine despair. “People are not educated enough to come up with these wise solutions and put them into practice. If they were, we would have seen more progress.”
According to the latest international surveys, roughly one in twelve young people can read, understand and critically evaluate a somewhat complex text. One in eight can use their mathematical knowledge to solve real-life problems. One in nine can creatively solve somewhat complex problems. These are average figures for the wealthy members of the OECD, such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, etc (PISA, 2012). In poorer countries such as Brazil or Malaysia, roughly one in hundred students can read critically and solve somewhat complex problems.
So are we doomed?
Imagine a conversation about the quality of education 200 years ago. At that time, 12% of world population was literate, according to estimates. (In Great Britain, that figure was around 50% and in a few countries like the Netherlands, around 85% of people were literate. But in the world as a whole, one in eight was literate.) Today, 85% of the world population is literate. Who would have believed it 200 years ago?
(Source: Our World in Data.)
Or take another example. In 1950, about half of all primary school aged children around the world were actually in school. Today, this figure is 91%. (Source.) Would you have believed it in 1950 that this was going to be possible?
So while I am sad and worried about the state of the world, I am also optimistic. Unbelievable advances are possible over the course of our lifetime, if we harness the resources and talents that are available. The question is: do we want to do it? Do we want to work together with people who may have different views, perhaps also different values? That is where empathy comes in. Empathy means understanding the feelings and perspectives of other people. This is the foundation of good communication, teamwork and leadership.
Like many others, I have also recently reflected on the need to engage with, and listen to, people who have different views. Not argue to change someone’s mind, but listen and engage. I am reminded of Daniel Dennett’s comments on how to argue intelligently. Dennett suggests these four steps which help compose a successful critical commentary:
You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.
You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.
Imagine what political debates and social media conversations would be like if these steps were followed? Or how the 24 hour news media could be a force for good if they tried to understand people with diverse views, instead of promoting their own ideology?
We are not doomed. In many schools around the world, children are already learning how to disagree respectfully and how to understand people with different points of view. In social and emotional learning programmes, children learn to identify and express their emotions, to solve problems with their friends and family members, to manage their emotions and calm down. Second Step is one such programme, backed by robust research. One of the skills children practise is how to calm down: by using their personal stop signal, by naming the feeling (thereby beginning to control the emotion) and by breathing deeply, counting or using positive self-talk. Children learn that they need to calm down before beginning to solve an emotional problem with their friend or family member!
When speaking about this kind of work, some of my friends have said: “I wish I had learned these skills when I was younger!” Indeed, imagine what would happen in families, schools and workplaces when more people learn to understand each others’ perspectives. When we learn to listen to each other.
(At this point, I am not going to comment on the immigration debate, or the rise of race and religious hate crime. Both of these topics are highly relevant to what I have discussed above, but they probably need a separate post.)
One day, all people can fulfil their potential and become positive contributors to the world. To achieve this dream, we need more wisdom and greater empathy.
This is my personal reason why I work to support the development of wisdom and empathy, problem solving and teamwork among their students. This is why we are creating learning resources and supporting the professional development of teachers.
Incredible progress has already been made over the past 50, 100, 200 years. Let us try to speed up as we move towards that better world.
Take action now
- Get engaged or support my work at Beyond, designing learning resources that support wisdom and empathy. If you are interested, please email me.
- Find out how you can support the social and emotional skills of your children or students.
- Find out how you can make a positive difference by choosing how to spend the 80,000 hours of your career.
- Learn how to give wisely: read about effective altruism and support one of the high performing charities.
- Learn about BRAC, one of the best providers of low-cost and good-quality education in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Afghanistan and many other countries. Support their schools.
- Explore how students can reflect on the topics of racism, prejudice and antisemitism in order to promote the development of a more humane and informed citizenry.
- Learn more about Kalamaja Open School in Tallinn, Estonia. I am part of the founding team of the school and it has social-emotional learning at its heart.
- Support one of the two organisations I helped set up earlier in my career in Estonia: Heateo Sihtasutus and Noored Kooli.