Looking for wisdom and empathy


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.



(Source: McKinsey)

Improving education

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.)

Supporting farmers

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?

Perhaps not.

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:

  1. 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.

  2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).

  3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.

  4. 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

Luxury or necessity? Critical thinking and problem solving should be at the core of learning for all

This article appeared in Unlocking a world of potential, a publication by British Council.

Even in a world where most children are still learning basic skills, critical thinking and problem solving can and should be taught.

In a low-income community in South Delhi, India, students are reading Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Today’s discussion is about the Potions Master. The teacher encourages students to think independently. ‘I don’t want solutions which the author gave you. I want you to be thinking, to be imagining of a better solution.’ What happens next? It is visible that students are thinking hard; they are trying to come up with different answers. Deeper learning is happening. You can see an inspiring video of this classroom here.

Learning to think critically and solve problems is not easy, but classrooms like this one suggest that all children are capable of it. However, the reality in most schools around the world is quite different. Even if children were capable of critical thinking and problem solving, they are currently not mastering these skills. Only four out of ten primary school students reach a basic level of competence in numeracy, literacy and science. Given this reality, what is the role of critical thinking and problem solving? Can these skills be taught at all?


Percentage of children who reach a basic learning level in reading, writing and arithmetic. Each country is represented by a circle sized in proportion to its population. Click here to see the interactive infographic or here to read The Learning Challenge report.

The meaning of critical thinking and problem solving

Cognitive scientists suggest there are three types of thinking: reasoning, making judgments and decisions, and problem solving. Critical thinking is a specific way of thinking. This means that reasoning may be uncritical or critical, and the same applies for the other two types of thinking. It is critical if it has three features:

Effective – critical thinking avoids common mistakes such as only seeing one side of an issue, discounting new evidence when it conflicts with your previously held views, reasoning from passion rather than logic, and failing to support statements with evidence.

Novel – critical thinking involves thinking in new ways, not just remembering solutions or situations that are similar enough to guide you.

Self-directed – critical thinking involves thinking independently, in a way that is not overly controlled by anyone else, such as a teacher.

When young people choose what to study, they can think critically by considering multiple perspectives: the opinion of family members, possible job openings, wages and graduation placement rates. A recent international survey suggests that fewer than half of young people have the necessary knowledge about all of these different perspectives.

Effective thinking also involves an open mind: being open to new evidence even if it is in conflict with one’s previously held views. For example, some people think that HIV spreads by sharing baths, towels or cutlery, or using the same toilets or swimming pools. In fact, none of this is true. But discrimination continues in many communities, even if people’s views are based on misinformation and prejudices. How will people react when they are presented with evidence on how HIV really spreads? It is not easy to change one’s mind, especially if the issue is very emotional. That’s why the attitude of having an open mind and being open to new evidence needs to be practised at school, so that it becomes a habit.

Is it important?

Critical thinking and problem solving may sound like terms that a young philosophy student would talk about at university, but actually these are important skills for everyone.

One of the main reasons is an economic one: it is about jobs and livelihoods. Critical thinking enables people to make better decisions and improve their livelihood. This is vital for everyone. For example, 75 per cent of the world’s poor live in rural areas and are farmers. Being able to think critically about different approaches to water and grassland management may boost productivity and increase income. In some communities, adopting different breeds has grown milk yields by 65 per cent, and better grassland management has doubled the income of herders.

The economic argument has far-reaching implications. Because of technological change and productivity growth, the nature of work is changing in agriculture and many other industries. A growing proportion of jobs now require teams of people working together to solve unique problems, as opposed to routine problems. However, relatively few students learn these skills at school. In most countries, fewer than one in ten (15-year-old) students are able to solve fairly complex problems creatively, according to the PISA tests in 2012. 


Creative problem solving among 15-year-olds

According to management consultants McKinsey & Co, 75 million young people around the world are unemployed and a shortfall of 85 million high and middle-skilled workers is expected by 2020. In a recent international survey, four out of ten employers said a skills shortage is a leading reason for entry-level vacancies. Alongside general work ethic and teamwork skills, problem solving is among the skills that are highly valued among employers – but where the competence of new hirees does not meet expectations.

Critical thinking and problem solving are also important for another reason, which goes far beyond jobs. The purpose of education is also about enabling learners to fulfil their potential and make a positive contribution to the world. Better critical thinking and problem solving would enable both.

Can it be taught?

This brings us to the question: if critical thinking and problem solving are important, can these skills be taught?

General critical thinking programmes have been relatively popular in the past. These have often focused on learning ‘how to think’, but research suggests that this approach usually brings about a modest benefit. Why? Critical thinking is not a general skill; you always think about something. Being able to think critically about historical events does not mean that the same person is able to think critically about the nuances of farming. Both critical thinking strategies and content knowledge are needed.

Therefore, a more promising approach involves integrating critical thinking in to subjects. Critical thinking strategies – such as looking at an issue from multiple perspectives – need to be made explicit by the teacher, and practised extensively by students.

All of the above can only be achieved if we invest in high quality professional learning programmes for teachers. How to model critical thinking, how to ask open questions, and how to provide feedback that enables students to solve non-routine problems. Teachers need new skills and better tools to meet these expectations. Curriculum resources have to be redesigned with critical thinking and problem solving in mind. And finally, the focus of exams needs to shift to evaluate these skills as well.

If students learn how to think critically and solve problems, it would make a big difference to their livelihood and happiness. This is not a question of luxury.