My best teacher was TV

I’ve been absent for a while. I decided that I shouldn’t be blogging just for the sake of it and in the world of information overload, it would be better to be absent rather that contrive something to write about each week.

I’ve been busy working on my business, taking it in a slightly different direction, working things out, trying things out, making changes –it’s a constant learning process. In the last few days, I’ve read some interesting articles on education, what is the point and purpose of it and do the current models work in the 21st century. I’ve read significant chunks of Seth Godin’s education manifesto, Stop Stealing Dreams, which is well worth a read if you operate in the education space, have children or are vested in making the world a better place. It got me thinking about my formal education and whether it had prepared me for life today. Seth Godin also gets you to acknowledge a teacher that mattered and whilst I do have those, there was no one name that stuck out. I looked back at how I learnt, whether the content of the curriculum was a good fit, the benefits of my education and the shortcomings a formal education, which focuses on grades, has on being entrepreneurial and creating business success.

I reached the conclusion that my best ‘teacher’ was TV — it inspired, motivated, entertained, expanded my knowledge, never made demands and let me come to it. I grew up in Hackney in the 1980s with an older sister and my mum and dad, later came my two younger brothers and my paternal grandmother. I went to the local school, preceded by my sister who was two years ahead of me, I read books from school and joined the local library and read avidly. I was a good student, I did my homework without being asked, was engaged with learning and sucked up knowledge from wherever I could. One of the major sources for me was the TV –lots of it and from an early age. When I was growing up there were 3 channels and then 4 and they weren’t on 24/7. Sunday TV was generally boring –politics and religion and dedicated kids TV was for a few hours a day with favourites like Philip Schofield and Gordon the Gopher. If there were Asian people on TV, we watched it –from Madhur Jaffrey cookery programmes, The Jewel in the Crown to the epic Mahabharata.

As I got a little older I had my routine of watching TV straight after school for a bit, then it was off to the mosque 5-7pm and then a bit more TV mixed with dinner and homework. There was only one TV in the house in the living room and so we generally watched together. With only 4 channels there wasn’t much choice but I still managed to watch many programmes regularly including: Eastenders, Brookside, Hartbeat, Rainbow, Thundercats, Smurfs, Beverly Hills 90210, Blockbusters, Desmond’s, Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Crossroads, Howard’s Way, Bergerac, Happy Days, Mork and Mindy, Top of The Pops, Gladiators, Catchphrase, The Price is Right, The Clothes Show, Holiday, Strike it Lucky, Grange Hill, Neighbours, Home & Away, Twin Peaks, ER, Sex and the City, Ally McBeal, Dallas, Dynasty, Hart to Hart, Wish Me Luck, X-Files, LA Law, Tomorrow’s World, The Bill, Biker Grove, Degrassi Junior High, Playschool, Sesame Street, You and Me, Dawson’s Creek, the Crystal Maze, Blind Date, Terrahawks, the Krypton Factor, Dempsey and Makepeace… and many more that would take up a whole page. I didn’t even understand it all when I watched it, for example, I was only 10 or 11 when Twin Peaks was aired, but TV opened up a whole new world that wasn’t accessible to me. They weren’t ‘educational’ programmes per se, but for me they were educational. I was exposed to things that I never would have been exposed to –the good, the bad, the ugly. It made me question things, appreciate another point of view, have something to talk about in school the next day or look up something further, get interested in history, get clearer about my own opinions, gain a new opinion.

Last night, once again, it was whilst watching TV that I gained clarity over something that I was mulling over. It was by chance I ended up watching The Richard Dimbleby Lecture on BBC1 where Nobel Laureate, Sir Paul Nurse, was speaking about the importance of science in the world today –how it could help problems we are facing such as food shortages, climate change, healthcare and the economy (a transcript of the full lecture is available here). Although I felt some of the arguments he made a bit reductionist, it was an inspired and thought-provoking lecture and a brief pang of regret passed through me about not pursuing science beyond A Level Biology.

Learning and education don’t need to happen in a prescribed way –my education is formed of many things including the traditional model of school and university, but also shaped by those TV programmes I watched many years ago. When I was younger, I had limited resources and couldn’t be fussy about where knowledge came from and it would have been less rounded if I had relied on school and the people I knew at the time. I am certainly not saying TV is a panacea but at the same time we mustn’t form elitist views about what constitutes education. It is only with open-mindedness that we will design an education fit for the 21st century.

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‘Just Shut Up!’

There are blogs, tweets, texts, updates on various platforms, conversations other people are having on the bus, train, street as you make your way to work. There’s a quick natter with one of your friends on the phone, your colleagues, clients, friends and then conversation at the dinner table.

In today’s world, there is so much being transmitted.

As a communications trainer, my focus tends to be on how to make that transmission clearer so that it is heard and understood, but the programmes I’m currently developing have taken me down another route. I am always advocating more communication but that doesn’t mean more speaking. In our attempts to get our point across, we very often over-communicate to satisfy ourselves rather than the other person. I am guilty of this too, so this week I ask you all to take some time and ‘just shut up’. Be still, close your eyes, take a deep breath, ground yourself, feel the ground beneath your feet … be silent.

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How does it feel to just have some space, to be still? Good, isn’t it? We should all do it a little more often!

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‘I Think I Love You’

It’s 2012, many people have made new resolutions goals for the year ahead. Some of these inevitably revolve around communication- ‘I’m going to network more’, ‘I’m going open up more at work’, ‘I’m going to close more sales‘, ‘I am going to get that promotion’ – you get the idea. And so we start with great enthusiasm and gusto but then we realise why those same goals never amounted to much last year.

The reason why you haven’t taken to networking or sharing yourself at work is that it doesn’t ever quite go as you planned. You have no problem when you talk to friends or are in familiar situations, however, in a new and important situation you find yourself lost for words. When normally you are calm and composed, but in front of an interview panel or meeting someone you admire and look up to for the first time, you find yourself saying jumbled up sentences and coming across as a blathering wreck.

What is happening you wonder? A bit of brain science but I will keep it nice and simple:
The amygdala in your brain is critical in scanning for danger so when it perceives a threat it gets into action- very quickly. It triggers the ‘fight or flight’ response which shuts down your cortex, which controls a lot of the higher processes of thinking and analysing to allow our instincts to take over (e.g. to step back from a fast approaching car). The reason why speaking in public or sharing yourself triggers your ‘fight or flight’ response is because we still have primitive templates in the brain which tell us that to ‘stand out from the crowd’ is dangerous. Thousands of years ago, to be expelled from a group meant death – we are programmed to ‘stay together’. This is also why our minds turn to mush and we can’t seem to ‘think straight’. The normal approach of telling yourself to calm down and tell you that the danger isnot real doesn’t work because in the battle of the cortex and amygdala, the amygdala is designed to win.

Something very similar happens when we are in the initial stages of love, as our amygdala also controls positive emotions. Whenever the object of our affection approaches our amygdala takes over and the higher thinking processes shut down. You are trying hard to impress, say something witty but instead it’s a car crash. Then to top it all off, you are trying to survive the situation and remove any feelings of embarrassment, you want to run away but you aren’t thinking straight. Confusion sets in- ‘do I really like them? Maybe I don’t? Oh, I don’t know anymore!’ Suddenly, you hear yourself saying ‘Hey, I think I love you!’

Image: AKARAKINGDOMS / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

So whether it’s communication in your personal or professional life, here are a few things you can do:
Breathe: not just any old breathing – the out-breath should be longer than the in-breath, as it is the out-breath that stimulates the parasympathetic system i.e. your relaxation response. Try counting in to 7 and out to 11, or in to 5 and out to 8 – whatever feels comfortable. And breathe deep, from the diaphragm, not from the upper part of the chest.

Muscle tension/release exercises: try clenching your fists; hold them tight for a minute or so; then slowly release. This works on the principle that muscles cannot be tensed and relaxed at the same time – it is physically impossible. We tend to ‘tighten up’ when we get nervous, so this is a way of relaxing muscle groups.

Prepare: your amygdala tries to protect you from things you find threatening, one way to reduce the fear of the unknown is to prepare and practice. But make your practicing count by gently exposing yourself to slightly more uncomfortable situations, e.g. if you want to network more go to a small meet up and talk to one new person and gradually build up. If you want to try your luck at love, take the anxiety out of it and play a game simply to talk to people you find attractive. Your brain will gradually build up a pattern that doesn’t trigger the same levels of anxiety as it used to and if you develop a new pattern that is strong enough this will over-ride the old one.

Do you have any top tips that you use in nerve-racking situations? Does anyone have similar goals as described above and can I help you? Please post in the comments below.

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The Communication Connection

Communication allows people to connect and throughout time we have all wanted some degree of connectivity with our fellow humans. Times change and people connect in different ways. 2011 was the year I embraced twitter -a little late I know- but maybe I was supposed to be a little late to the party. It just makes connecting with people so much easier and I’m sure if I had joined earlier it would have been easier still as the place wasn’t so crowded.

The thing that worked for me as I started my life in the twittersphere was just to do my own thing. I didn’t read guides on how to get more followers and how to use it for marketing, what to tweet about, or whether it should be about my personal life or my work life. I did ask a few people about what they did in the offline world but I did pretty much what I would in life-  I just hung out, started listening to some conversations and then slowly join in. There was no big strategy, I followed people’s whose values resonated with mine, people I was interested in and started sharing the knowledge I had. Given what was happening in my life this year, I inevitably wrote lots about start-up businesses, issues affecting young people, communication and also tennis! What was required was to understand how the technology worked but that didn’t faze me, I guess the most difficult thing was limiting everything to 140 characters!

Tweets are just mini-conversations and they work best when they are real, relevant and connect with their audience. Once you’re comfortable about the technology, then it is no different from any other conversation- work out what your message is and transmit. Sometimes these conversations are with specific people but usually they are to the twittersphere in general, people get interested and then they engage with you (by following you, retweeting you or replying to you). It’s amazing who you can get to know and what can happen. I have connected with people I didn’t know previously and have subsequently met them- some are becoming friends, others clients- all from 140 characters!

I wanted to acknowledge the following people for what they added to my twitter journey this year and they fully embody what I love about twitter. They are #mytoptweeps2011, so in no particular order:

  1. @matt_hodkinson – Matt’s tweets are informative, funny and make the world of social media hugely accessible. He engages with you and has fully used twitter to his advantage and now makes regular appearances on the BBC- something that came about from one tweet.
  2. @jonathanfields – I followed Jonathan because he was tweeting about being an entrepreneur and being creative. I was instantly hooked and this year I really took on the wisdom he so generously shared through his tweets and blogs.
  3. @Kent_Healy – Kent had a phenomenal year (read his review of 2011 here), but he only appeared on my radar half way through 2011. He is an entrepreneur writing about approaching things in a ‘uncommon way’ and when he was passing through London in late October I got to meet him and his lovely wife.
  4. @DjokerNole – You don’t need to be a tennis fan to appreciate Novak Djokovic’s tweets. His tweets work because they are directed to his fans and are so humble, appreciative and also funny. Although he doesn’t follow many people he still manages to engage in conversation- many a business and celebrity could learn a thing a two from this man.
  5. @DavidMcQueen – David is a friend in the offline world but having his daily tweets in my life meant that it strengthened the original connection. We were already connected on Facebook but twitter allowed for those quick exchanges, the ability to draw others into the conversation- and he knows a lot of people!
  6. @FreeRangeHumans – Marianne was an early tweep that I followed and started engaging in conversation with. I loved what she stood for (escaping the 9-5 and leading a location independent lifestyle) and she struck the right balance between tweeting about her business and personal life.
  7. @LollyDaskall – If there was one word to describe Lolly it would be ‘generous’. Lolly really got me thinking about how I talked to individuals on twitter and also introduced me to personalised ‘Follow Fridays’. I really started to take more care over my tweets after getting some insight from Lolly.
  8. @SangeetaHaindl – I met Sangeeta at a Personal Branding Workshop I attended in April and started following her after that. What I love about Sangeeta is her ability curate interesting news information- the news she finds can sometimes be quirky or simply offer a new take on something that is going on. She’s also very speedy at getting the news out there.
  9. @Okwonga – Musa was an old university friend with whom I had Family Law tutorials. I love his tweets because they are ‘Musa Okwonga’. He has an ability to tweet about sport, his poetry and spoken word gigs in the same breath as politics and controversies in the world without it seeming disjointed and without pulling any punches.
  10. @Melody_Hossaini – Melody was on the UK version of ‘The Apprentice’ when she came to my attention. She was running a social enterprise and her work was similar to mine and I wanted to talk to her. I had seen her work website with an info e-mail address but thought that she was probably getting inundated as ‘The Apprentice’ was being aired at the time. I tweeted her business twitter and the next day I was speaking to her. She’s great because she talks to her followers all the time and I know that makes a huge difference to people who follow her.

Thank you to all the people who I follow and have connected with this past year who have made twitter a place I like being.

What are your experiences of twitter and who are your top tweeps of the year? Comment below or on twitter via the hashtag #mytoptweeps2011. You can follow me on twitter @sufiyapatel

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The State of Education

I’ve had a keen interest in young people and their lot ever since I was young enough to fall into that category! When I was 14, I was trained by the charity Brook, to become a sexual health peer educator. It certainly was a huge learning curve and I went on to deliver workshops around all aspects of sexual health in schools, youth groups and homeless hostels. I am dismayed that the provision on sex education or SRE (sex and relationship education) is still a controversial subject almost 20 years later, but this isn’t a post about SRE.

Last night, I happened to catch a bit of BBC Question Time when the panellists were discussing education, young people and unemployment. Mary Bousted, Leader of the ALT union raised the point that the National Curriculum under Michael Gove was becoming more academic and less skills-based. There seemed to be some consensus around having a more skills-based curriculum. David Frum said that to deal with employability we needed to take advantage of being part of Europe and learn languages so we can work in other European countries more easily. While all of these are valid points and not something I disagree with, they are not a panacea. A lot of people question whether educating young people should be the sole responsibility of the state, and indeed it shouldn’t be (and isn’t), but given that education is something the state provides, I think it should take a lead role.

The fundamental problem with education today is that it is out of date and does not support the world as it is today. Therefore, despite there being continuous reforms none of them really deal with the bigger picture. The last government introduced the aim of 50% of people under 30 having ‘an experience’ of higher education and started the academies model to help devolve power to individual schools. This government has introduced free schools and are bringing about (another) change in the national curriculum. However, all of these are small tweaks and we still have lots of young people ill-equipped to deal with the world out there, regardless of the qualifications they have or have not achieved.

Currently, many people talk about having different pathways in education- one being more academic and following the current school to university progression model and the other more practical around learning a trade and using the apprenticeships style model. But sticking to this way of thinking misses the point. We have for too long placed higher regard to the academic model that any alternative seems like the poor relation and therefore people following it must somehow be inferior. Going down this path is not the answer. It also doesn’t deal with the other issues amongst which one is why people get turned off education and learning.

As babies and toddlers, we are curious and fascinated by anything new- we have this in-built thirst for knowledge. Then we get to school and even the things we found interesting somehow end up being boring. We sit in rows, have scheduled breaks all regulated by bells, whistles or beeps. I never really lost my thirst for knowledge but I quenched it in spite of the obstacles of my schooling often via the public library. Neuroscience shows us how agile the brain is and how capable it can be, but we seem to deliberately place limits on its potential. We seem to teach through an auditory channel even though we know that people learn very differently. Then we blame young people for being disengaged.

I would like to see a curriculum that allows children and young people develop life skills, such as communication, empathy, team work, having an enquiring mind, not just to learn facts to put on an exam paper every few years. Something that incorporates different learning styles and sets people up to succeed in the 21st century, so that young people feel they can make choices rather than being told what their capabilities are. The past few months I have helped many young people who are feeling extreme pressure as they apply to university (or not!), feeling like their lot in life is already pre-determined. The fact that we have a recession at the moment just heightens the problem.

It is no surprise that there is a burgeoning sector committed to helping young people achieve- from large-scale organisations like The Princes Trusts to many SMEs and one-(wo)man bands. This sector seems to be growing, addressing the gap that currently exists within schools and society as a whole when it comes to educating our young people. However, not all young people benefit as services are often localised, working with a group of students rather than the whole school or come in to deal with the aftermath when students have dropped out of the education system. I wish I could get all these people working with young people together and get them to create the new curriculum so that their expertise was available to all and not just the few. Until the government of the day are obliged by the people to take a courageous step, we will have to continue to muddle through in the haphazard fashion that we have.

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