Category Archives: time

Being our best selves at school

Most Saturday mornings when I’m here I go to the farmers’ market in the local primary school which my kids attended. I was intrigued to see this appended to the door.


The first thing that struck me about it is how confusing it is: who, exactly is the audience? Is it the children, the staff, both?  What would a child of five or six make of it (given that this 50-something adult finds it difficult enough to comprehend)? Mostly the poster encourages us to live in the present – this is a new day, and we can make a new start on what happened yesterday. But surely today isn’t just a blank page for us to make an impression on because we are so bound up with others: there are all kinds of things unresolved from yesterday which may trip us up today. There are responsibilities and demands beyond learning in school to which we will need to respond. The poster invites us to learn from yesterday, although it’s not exactly clear what we might learn, and how we might do so if we’re exclusively focused on today. We’re encouraged to stop stressing about tomorrow, but we are supposed to stress about today. There are precisely 1440 minutes from which to extract the maximum, as if we were milking a cow. This creates what we might think of as the Extractor’s Paradox: that the more focused we are on getting the maximum out of our time, the less likely we are to do so. It’s just like the pursuit of the butterfly of happiness – the more you chase it, the more it eludes you. And 1440 minutes make 24 hours – shouldn’t we sleep? How anxiety-provoking to lie awake at night worrying about making the best of lying awake not sleeping. Today we’re going to be the best version of us, but how will we know? What happens if we’re not? Who decides? Will we find ourselves endless repeating the day over and over again, like Groundhog Day, until we reach enlightenment?

I realise that this is supposed to be harmless encouragement to everyone in a school to do their best. Unfortunately I find in it the conventional anxiety narrative of the neoliberal society: motivational, slight sinsiter platitudes as a veneer over relentless striving. Don’t rest; maximise; extract; be the best you can be; never stop remaking yourself; yesterday’s achievements count for nothing, because you have to prove yourself all over again today; the world’s your oyster; you can achieve anything.

I know that good schools, particularly ones with very young kids such as primary schools, accept kids however they turn up, ‘best self’, average self or even worst self, partly because they know kids bring with them all kinds of invisible baggage that has been packed for them, unconsciously at home. The school will cope with the cornucopia of selves who present. They acknowledge that school life can sometimes be tedious, that sometimes kids will be bored and will find themselves staring out of the window, and that they won’t be 100% motivated everyday. Kids are likely to enjoy playing and hanging out with their mates in the playground as much as learning in a committed way. They’ll be happy when they are completely absorbed in what they are doing, with no particular end in view. Learning will sometimes be deliberate, and sometimes accidental. And one of the most important lessons will be about learning to rub along with others, being in the mess of life with other people, noticing oneself in relation to others. We bring out the best in each other, we bring out the worst in each other: that’s what we have to learn to live with in school.

Visioning backwards

On Wednesday 16th October Mary Ward and Jo Collins, the founders of the Chickenshed Theatre, were interviewed by BBC Radio 4 presenter Jenni Murray on Woman’s Hour. They were invited onto the programme to celebrate the forthcoming 40th anniversary of a theatre which was set up to involve young people in theatre, irrespective of their abilities. Both founders had a shared belief that they could produce excellent theatre with young people if they could encourage everyone to accept what young people bring, rather than what they don’t bring. They argued, for example, that young people are often much less judgemental about other young people with disabilities than adults are: they simply accept the disability as a given and proceed from there, without fuss. They argued that discrimination is a learned, social behaviour. That commitment, and the continuous improvisational ability to involve other people in the undertaking, has created an institution which has lasted 40 years although it has never received Arts Council funding.

‘What was your vision for Chickenshed?’ Jenni Murray asked. ‘We didn’t have a vision as such, we didn’t sit down and say “this is our vision”’, Mary Ward answered arguing that they had both felt impelled to include as many young people as possible, ‘but we just did it, and as we did it we became more and more committed to this idea that everyone can contribute to the production, the final end.’ Continue reading

Managing with paradoxes in everyday organisational life

In previous posts I have drawn attention to some of the enduring paradoxes of organisational life. Organisations are sites of both stability and change, innovation and habit, creativity and destruction. Even in every day activity employees are confronted with paradoxes of the individual and the group, of the ‘I’ in the ‘we’, and the need to both compete and co-operate with others to get things done. And when reorganisations happen there are likely to be both winners and losers from the changes, employees will feel both recognised and misrecognised, included and excluded from the new arrangements.  The ordinary paradoxes of every day life in organisations often call out strong feelings in employees, which in turn may provoke anxiety in managers as they grapple with what they might do to alleviate the discomfort, both their own and that of the people they manage. Continue reading

How our theories of time affect how we meet together

Whenever people agree to meet together to discuss work it seems to provoke deep anxiety about how to do it. To a certain extent this is well motivated: as a matter of mutual respect, it is worthwhile reflecting on what there might be to talk about and to come prepared. Participants in the meeting, particularly those with greater responsibility for organising it, want to be able to ‘use the time well.’  There is often a fear that not planning things in detail will look ‘unprofessional’, or that not mapping out all of the time will ‘open a can of worms’.

‘Making good use of the time’, then,  sometimes leads to over-planning, trying to map out how the meeting should go in highly detailed ways, sometimes by setting objectives for each session of the meeting and trying to tie things down to the minute. This arises from a linear, instrumentalised understanding of time and the presumption that thought  precedes action. There is a assumption that we can anticipate, as we plan the meeting together here and now, how things will unfold at some point in the future and that our thinking today is adequate for the situation we will encounter when we meet together. Sometimes so much effort is put into ‘structuring’ the meeting, with games, presentations, ‘feedback sessions’ and the other appurtenances of workshops and extended meetings that we have all become accustomed to using, that most metings will have very little opportunity for evolving in unexpected ways. The ‘structure’ prevents it happening, and the meetings do indeed unfold according to the plan with spontaneous and important discussions breaking out in the coffee and lunch breaks instead. This is particularly ironic when people are coming together to discuss how they might work differently, or how they might adapt to new and emerging circumstances. They try and contemplate the new in very habituated ways.

I was recently in a meeting where we sat around a table and were subjected to Powerpoint presentation after presentation as a way of ‘discussing the work’. Of course, that’s the last thing we did, because there was very little time to discuss the work with the presentations taking up most of the time. One might say that what was needed was greater variety in the presentations, a different sort of organisation: more games, more ‘break-out sessions’. We could say, still, that we need to ‘use the time better’.

Suppose we think of time differently, though, not as a linear phenomenon, but as a cyclical process. Supposing, as St Augustine suggested, we are only ever in the present: the present of the past, the present of the future and the present of the present, the last of these the living present where we wrestle with all three. If we consider , if we could allow ourselves, that we are constantly reinterpreting the past in the expectation of the future, cyclically, then allowing time for this exploration in the living present, where spontaneous irruptions of the planned might allow for a different future to emerge from the one that we have been anticipating. If we could pay better attention to how we are thinking about how we think, rather than paying attention to our timetable and our objectives, maybe we could come to understand what we are doing differently.

This might suggest further instrumentalism, however, if we convince ourselves that we can plan into the programme refelection sessions where the radical insights will necessarily occur, a bit like thinking we can plan to spend ‘quality time’ with our partners or children. We still delude ourselves into thinking that we can  manage time perfectly. Unfortunately, none of knows when this quality time will arise. Good quality discussion is a skilful practice that develops episodically between people in an environment where they can sustain both knowing and not knowing where the discussion might be heading.  It is a risk – it may turn out that we have not  ‘used the time well’. Tolerant of ambiguity, of undertaking planned activities with an expectation that important and unplanned things may arise as a consequence, skilful discussants are able to negotiate continuously how to go on together. They are aware that when we plan things together we are hit and miss.

Allowing for episodes of reflection, being alert to suggestions, irruptions, conflict and constantly interpeting  important themes of conversation that are not necessarily present in our meeting plan could open the way up to all kinds of exploration of the new and the unexpected. Our meetings never unfold in a linear fashion, but emerge as we struggle with each other over what we think we are doing and who we are. In this struggle we come to understand ourselves, and what we are doing, differently, and unpredictably.

“We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”