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

The puzzle of how teachers learn best

How do teachers learn best? What is the best way to improve professional practice so that this has a positive effect on student learning outcomes? These questions have been puzzling me for years and here is why.

A newly qualified teacher was having a really tough time at school. He was teaching in a secondary school in a socioeconomically deprived area. The reality was quite bleak, he told me a few years ago: his students were not paying any attention to him. Our conversation happened one evening in Birmingham, during a seminar that my colleagues and I had organised. The next day we visited a school – and it blew his mind. It was the first time he had seen a high performing secondary school that served students in a very challenging context. These boys and girls, despite the challenges of poverty in their community, were learning amazingly well!

About a year later, the same teacher told me that this had been a turning point in his teaching career. He started truly believing that all of his students could succeed in school. He said he just had to continue learning and reflecting how to improve his teaching practice.


This story inspired me but also made me think. Teachers learn in many different ways. There is no magic formula that works for everyone. Observing excellent teachers may have had a big impact on him, but it appeared to have less impact on many others. So I kept wondering: what are the best ways to support the professional learning of teachers?

About a year ago I was in Shanghai, one of the world’s top performing school systems. I came across a surprising answer as to why their students are doing so well. Teachers spend about a third (!) of their working time learning together and collaborating with their colleagues. This is an interesting decision: class sizes are larger in Shanghai (35 or more students in each class, source) and therefore, teachers have fewer lessons each week. This creates more time for teachers, which they spend preparing lessons together with their colleagues, and participating in various professional learning programmes.

This lesson from Shanghai seems consistent with the results of the most recent international survey of teachers and headteachers (TALIS, 2013). The countries where learning outcomes have improved most rapidly tend to invest more in the professional development of their teachers. For example, in England, most teachers had attended courses and workshops, but relatively few had participated in research, observed teachers in other schools or taken qualification programmes. Overall, these participation figures in England are quite similar to international averages, but well below countries that invest more heavily in teachers’ professional learning (e.g. Estonia and Singapore, no comparable data exists on Shanghai).


Participation in different types of professional development activities (TALIS, 2013)

Investing in professional development is likely to pay off, but what is the best way of spending this time and money? In the same international survey (TALIS, 2013), teachers’ views on the impact of professional development activities were explored. Across all countries and almost all professional development activities, most teachers thought it had a positive impact on their teaching! For example, six out of ten teachers in England had attended professional development activities focused on improving knowledge and understanding of their subject field. Of all these people, nine out of ten thought this training had a moderate or large positive impact on their teaching.

This is interesting, but does it explain what kind of professional development is most effective? Professor Robert Coe: “We do not know a lot about the impact of teachers’ CPD on students’ learning outcomes, but what we do know suggests two things: that the right kind of CPD can produce big benefits for learners, and that most of the CPD undertaken by teachers is not this kind.” The table below summarises research on the criteria of highly effective CPD, as described in two recent reports (by CUREE and by Rob Coe).

Unfortunately, relatively few teachers have access to this sort of professional learning opportunities. According to the TALIS survey, one in three teachers in England had participated in collaborative learning activities or research with other teachers. One in five had taken part in CPD over an extended period of time (taking place on several occasions spread out over several weeks or months).

These questions were explored further in a survey of teachers conducted in England by V. Darleen Opfer and David Pedder of the University of Cambridge in 2010 (source). They asked teachers about the features of the professional development activities they had participated in over the previous 12 months. Here is what they found.


Features of CPD that teachers have access to in England (Opfer and Pedder, 2010)

It appears that most teachers have attended lectures or presentations, but relatively few have actively practised using pupil materials or engaged in extended problem solving. Opfer and Pedder conclude: “There is little indication that current CPD is seen as having an impact on raising standards or narrowing the achievement gap. This is despite the fact that the vast majority of teachers thought that CPD would have a positive impact on pupils’ learning and achievement.”

“There is little indication that current CPD is seen as having an impact on raising standards or narrowing the achievement gap.”

— V. Darleen Opfer and David Pedder

And so we are left with this fundamental challenge. Significant improvements in learning outcomes cannot be mandated by policymakers, they will happen only if teachers are able to improve their teaching practice in a meaningful way. This takes time and effort – there is no other way. Teachers are most likely to learn best when learning is sustained so that they can try out new practices and explore evidence of trying new things. Learning is likely to be more effective when it is collaborative, active, informed by research and supported by external networks.

This is not an easy recipe for success, but it is worth trying.

Reinvent teachers’ professional development

New and more effective models of teachers’ professional learning are needed. These have to take into account the challenging reality, including long working hours, the pressure of inspections and exams. Creative Generation is an organisation trying to reinvent teachers’ continuing professional development. We hope that our efforts contribute to teachers regaining a sense of professionalism and experiencing the beauty of learning in their classrooms more often.

Imagine for a minute that you are Andy Murray. You are a top player and a real professional. Your strength is in returning the serve really well and your backhand strike is great. But maybe you’re thinking you need to improve your forehand shot. What sort of training or professional development will enable you to achieve this? It’s probably a combination of focused practice, being attentive to your mistakes, and trying to get feedback from an expert coach. You might spend time analysing videos of tennis legends with the best forehand shot, as well as recordings of your own shots, to identify small steps for improvement.

Admittedly tennis and teaching are not exactly the same. However, both are complex skills. So why is professional learning for teachers so different? In a recent survey, 77% of teachers in England reported that they had attended in-school workshops or seminars. Most frequently, this involved listening to lectures or presentations (67%). Less than one in five teachers have been involved in more active forms of CPD such as practising the use of pupil materials (17%), extended problem-solving (9%) or demonstrating a lesson, unit or skill (6%, Opfer, 2010). Wouldn’t it be odd to ask Andy Murray to attend a lecture on forehand technique that involves little or no practice?

Teacher CPD needs to be reinvented, because most existing programmes have clear limitations. One off trainings or workshops are simply too short to have an impact on teacher practice. Whole school CPD sessions are often not relevant enough for many teachers. In order to be relevant and helpful, sessions should be active and ideally, subject-related. General sessions for all teachers are useful up to a point. It is important, for example, to know the main principles of formative assessment – the need to be specific and clear with feedback messages, or the importance of providing helpful feedback in manageable units, in order to avoid cognitive overload etc (Shute, 2007). These ideas are necessary but not sufficient to improve one’s teaching. What would be even more valuable is the opportunity for teachers to improve their knowledge of how pupils learn their subject best. For example, if a student is struggling to compare and simplify fractions, how do you provide useful suggestions that will move the learner forward? Unfortunately, surveys suggest that few teachers currently have access to practical and subject-specific professional development opportunities.

At Creative Generation, we’re trying to reinvent teacher CPD and make sure that more primary teachers have access to high-quality, affordable professional learning opportunities. What do we mean by high quality? Evidence suggests that CPD is likely to help teachers improve their practice and have a real impact on learning outcomes when the following criteria are met:

  • Intense – at least 15 hours (preferably 50) of professional learning
  • Sustained – over at least two terms
  • Content focused – allowing teachers to improve their knowledge of subject content and how students learn it
  • Active – teachers have opportunities to try new practices and discuss how they work
  • Supported – external feedback and networks are required to improve and sustain one’s practice
  • Evidence-based – promotes strategies supported by robust evaluation evidence (Coe, 2013)

Even if programmes are built upon a solid understanding of what makes teacher CPD effective, two challenges remain: time and motivation. Given the current climate of high-stakes testing and inspections, as well as the huge workload that primary teachers are experiencing, how will anyone find the time and motivation to engage with this?

Lack of time is the most important constraint. As the recent DFE survey indicated, primary classroom teachers work, on average, 59 hours per week (DfE, 2014). If teachers feel that CPD is irrelevant, it will be considered a waste of time. Any successful programme needs to be practical and relevant enough so that teachers feel they’re winning back time. One solution is to ask teachers to bring their lesson planning to the CPD sessions. This would enable teachers to collaborate on their planning and immediately implement the ideas they’ve learned during the trainings.

Motivation is the other major constraint. Without motivation, there cannot be effective learning. This is true for students as well as adults. Is there a solution to this? Unfortunately, there is no easy fix. Motivation depends on many complex factors. In case of teachers and their CPD, however, one big idea emerges. Teachers in England were asked a few years ago about the most important reasons for taking part in CPD. What were the two most crucial factors? Positive impact on pupils’ learning and improved achievement for pupils (Opfer, 2010). Therefore, teachers need the opportunity to learn relevant knowledge, practise the new skills, and ultimately improve their impact on pupils’ learning outcomes.

A couple of years ago I was in an English lesson taught by a friend of mine. In front of the classroom, a six-year-old boy was giving a speech. He could pick any topic, and the only requirement was that he had to speak, as loudly and clearly as possible, for one minute. By the way, English was not his first language and he had been learning it for less than a year. After about 30 seconds, he ran out of words. So he just stood there, arms crossed, until the minute was up. When he was done, his classmates began giving him feedback. They said a few things he had done well and some things he could perhaps improve. Finally, the teacher shared his comments. He reminded everyone that a couple of weeks before the same boy had been too scared to say anything in front of the class. He had just stood there and started crying. Now, even though this time he could not speak for the full minute, he had made huge progress. It was obvious that the teacher was immensely proud of the boy. The boy was still standing in front of the classroom, smiling.

Experiencing these moments when students have visibly learned and grown – this is the beauty of learning. We need to reinvent teachers’ professional learning and ensure that high-quality, affordable CPD enables more teachers to experience the beauty of learning more often.


The professional development programmes of Creative Generation are focused on improving learning outcomes in primary English and mathematics, especially problem solving, comprehension and critical thinking. If you’re interested in finding out more, please email me.

This article was originally published in ‘Primary Voice’.