Deep literacy: what it takes

Put aside AI and machine learning for a minute, and ask instead:

“What does it take to equip a human to be self-teaching?”

As a starting point – how many lines of code does it take to make a child who can read with fluency and ease and with critical understanding, and who loves reading, and is motivated to read and learn more?

We just tidied my kids’ bookcase, and I took a moment – okay, more than a moment – to count the books.

bookcase with 519 children's books post cleanup

519

There are 519 books on this book case (including those on the floor and nearby that should be on it).

There are picture books, stories, touch-and-feel books, comics, small novels, catalogues, phonics books, kids bibles, magazines, science books, poetry, stories and non-fiction books about other cultures, lots of books about cars, even a couple of hand-written and coloured books by his great aunt, and a couple of notebooks with short and often unfinished stories that he’s written himself.

He’s had them read and re-read to him by a range of people, had pictures pointed out, words explained, sounds and meanings spelled out, questions asked.

He’s listened, looked, laughed, frowned, cried on occasion, got fed up, desperately begged to have them read to him, been indifferent.

And he’s read them repeatedly by himself: browsed their pages, poured over the pictures, flicked through them, gone back to favourite bits again and again, skipped the endings or skipped to the endings, tried out the words, phrases and attitudes, in the real world come to us with questions, absorbed our answers, disagreed with our interpretations, shared with us bits that he’s loved, come to us with things that have scared him, made up stories just like them, and new stories of his own.

250

Did I mention the 250 leveled reading books – the books specifically designed to help kids learn to read – that live upstairs? Here’s a selection:

shelf of books

Or the books we’ve borrowed from friends or read at their houses, the books read at or borrowed from libraries?

Or the ebooks?

He’s probably read about a thousand books.*

190,000 and the less-than-one-percent

But it’s not just about numbers – which books he’s read is as important as how many.  Most of these books are a custom selection, just for him, made by someone with his current tastes and future growth in mind (my wife is something of a book-picking phenomenon) from the roughly 190,000 books aimed at children under 12 that are available to him in our culture.**

So the selection on these shelves represents the tip of a huge pyramid – roughly the best, most engaging and most appropriate 0.5% of books written for people like him.

Don’t forget the wrapper

That – the books themselves and the wrapper of love, support, enthusiasm, the culture of curiosity and valuing education, the relative affluence, and living in an economy that makes books like these cheaper than ever before if you bide your time and look out for deals – is what it takes to produce a solid reader at age seven or eight.

*I’ll try to estimate how many words this represents another time
**My point of reference for this was the number of books available on Amazon.co.uk – see this post for more information.

Full disclosure: here’s the bookcase pre-cleanup:

bookcase with 519 books

Bootstrapping the non-profit organisation Rule 4: Resist the urge to do average work for average people

This is the fourth post in a series applying Seth Godin’s rules of bootstrapping (see also here) to building a non-profit organisation.

Be a “meaningful specific” rather than a “wandering generality” – it’s the principle of concentration of force and energy to get work done.

Rule 4 ties into Rules 1 and 3 – “real work for real clients” who are “eager to pay” – and if you work at a non-profit organisation it has implications for how you work with both clients and donors.

Rule 4 and clients

For your clients, it means your service is for them. Not for people in general, and it might help your clients… but a specific product or service for their specific needs.

Take education in Indonesia as an example. There’s a huge need for teacher training and resourcing. This is true across the age-range (from pre-school to university level), across different types of school (private and government-run schools), across the whole archipelago, and in any subject area. Within each of these ranges are groups of people with different needs, and trying to serve them all will get you no-where. Trying to produce something for the “average” teacher will dilute your energy and make it impossible to make something meaningful for any individual – and your clients are individuals.

Far, far better to concentrate on the needs of a specific group (helping pre-school teachers at small charity schools to teach reading more effectively) and do it well. If you’re good, you might end up with something that grows and can be made more widely applicable.

Rule 4 and donors

The same principle applies to your donors. It’s hard to go to the world and persuade them that your cause is important, and that they should give you money. It’s much easier to find people who already think what you do is important, and convince them that you do it well enough to be worth supporting.

Again, be specific – who are you helping? Why those people? Why this service? What difference is it making? Tell stories of change in the lives of specific people to explain the work that you do.


Bootstrapping the non-profit organisation Rule 3: Serve Clients Eager to Pay for what you do (part 2 of 4)

This is the third-and-a-half in a series applying Seth Godin’s rules of bootstrapping (see also here) to building a non-profit organisation.

Rule 3: Serve Clients Eager to Pay for what you do (part 2)

In a nutshell, Seth says that if someone isn’t eager to pay, they’re not your client. You get to pick. So work for people eager to pay.

Eager to pay and scaling the non-profit

This is where the bootstrapping mindset comes into its own in the world of non-profits and social programs. If you can find clients who are not only eager to “pay” time, attention and effort to user your product or service, but to actually pay money… you know you not only have a product that they think is valuable, but one that can cover some of its own costs – or better, cover all of its own costs. Or better, cover its own costs, with a little left over.

We’ve pretty much reached this point at the literacy non-profit I work for in Indonesia, and the potential is huge. Instead of looking at our bank balance and asking how many groups we can help, we’re looking at ourselves and asking how we can get better at what we do so that we can serve more groups – because the growth is paying for itself.

Our program is far from polished and perfect, but it seems to be working. In the old days we had a list of people waiting for our program – waiting for us to find the money to be able to train them. Now the people on the waiting list are finding their own money – and the wait is a lot shorter.

In fact, doing it this way has allowed us to serve more groups as a gift – not ‘for free’ but ‘at our expense, as a gift, because we love what you do’ – than we did back in the day when it was free.

Finding the clients who are eager to pay might well help you get your product or service to more of the people who are eager, but can’t.

A crappy bridge

I didn’t manage to photograph the bridge, but I’ll post one of a similar bridge next time I see one.

It was a pretty sorry affair over a murky stream, just wide enough for a motorbike. Bamboo slats, no siderails, a strangely drooping curve.

Crappy infrastructure.

But here’s the thing: that bridge is an act of will. It’s there because someone wanted to cross the river, and they made a bridge.

It’s easy to criticise crappy infrastructure in developing countries and not ask this question: who built it, for whose needs?

It’s easy to talk about cultutes of dependency, and there is often reason to. But ask yourself this question:

When was the last time you built a bridge?

Time Travel (2)

The Future is here, it’s just not very evenly distributed.

William Gibson

There’s a second way to look at this. If looking at other places can help us see the future, it can also help us see the past.

One of the things I love about Jakarta is that sometimes it feels like living in Blade Runner (shiny buildings, giant LED screens, life in air conditioned bubbles) and Dickens’ London (dingy alleyways, door-to-door tradesmen, whole families sleeping packed into tiny rooms, pointless death from preventable causes) at the same time.

More on that another time – today I’m interested in how looking ‘back’ can throw our values into sharper relief. I notice:

  • More time, and less rushing – time to pass the day with people. It’s rude to rush.
  • Generosity that’s sometimes hard to get your head around, especially from the poorest. I’ll never forget the generosity of friends who have almost nothing but will give me a snack, a drink, a meal almost every time I visit. I’ve learnt to receive more easily here.
  • People who live so close together often have a better understanding of just how contingent life is. They see more babies born, live and sometimes sleep alongside three or four generations of their family, prepare and bury their own people. Closer to life, closer to death.
  • There’s a DIY ethos here – the men of the neighbourhood butchered their own animals at the feast of the sacrifice. They’re not professionals – but it means a lot more for it.

I hope to come back to this theme – there’s more to say. Each of these values – and others like ‘tradition’, ‘family’, ‘community’ – have their wonderful upsides and their suffocating drawbacks, and we see plenty of both.

Can we keep more of the good parts of our culture as it changes?

Can we reclaim the longed-for things we’ve lost?

What can I do to make your job easier?

I ask each member of my team this question at the end of the ‘Any Other Business’ part of our meeting.

I used to think of it as a management question: what can I do – or stop doing – that will make you better at your job?

And it’s a great management question.

It’s also a really helpful question to bear in mind when you’re working on a product or process, and when talking to customers.

  • How can our skills help you achieve your goals?
  • How can we make our curriculum (product) easier to use? Could we make it fun to use?
  • Can we change our training materials (product, service) so that training is easier to deliver, and teachers learn the most important things better and faster?
  • How can I organise information so that it’s easy for my team to tell customers what they want to know: what we offer, how much it costs, what they get in exchange for their money and time, and when and how they can get it?
  • What can I do to make reporting (process) as easy and as light touch is possible, and generates information that is useful – and actually gets used?

Everyone wins when you ask questions like these, listen, and take action.

Time Travel (1)

The Future is here, it’s just not very evenly distributed.

William Gibson

There are ways in which we can all see the future, And ways we can learn to see possibilities and bring them into being.

One way of seeing the future is to look at those ‘unevenly distributed’ pockets where it’s already arrived. What new technologies – in the broad sense, including both new gadgets and new ways of thinking, organising work or doing things – what new technologies are overcoming old obstacles and enabling change? How might they be relevant you and your organisation?

Some examples

Here are some concrete examples: the things I’ve got my eye on for my work in education in Indonesia. None of them are really that new – not even new for Indonesia – but they’re new for education in Indonesia, especially in education for the poorest. My questions are:

  • Is it possible that the amazingly rich children’s book culture of, say, the UK, could flourish here? What would it take to grow a ‘children’s canon’ of locally written and published books that were widely known and loved, and a tribe of children’s authors who were household names? Room to Read and the Asia Foundation’s Let’s Read! Asia program are already doing great work to encourage this, but there’s so much more to do.
  • What possibilities will develop for literacy education and teacher training as internet access becomes ubiquitous, even in the most remote areas? What things that have been scarce up to now – teaching resources, teacher training – will become less scarce, or even abundant?
  • What needs to happen so that high-quality electronic teaching and learning resources of the sort already established on the English-language-and-culture internet are available in Indonesian – and then in local languages?
  • Does the open-source movement in software and hardware offer a useful model for developing the above? If enough people start using resources, some of them might share improved versions back into the system, while also localising resources for their own contexts (e.g. to regional languages and culture, or for the needs of a particular group of people)
  • Would a set of widely accepted open-source standards for specific aspects of education, and for teacher training and curriculum development as a whole, be a helpful scaffold for this process?

Further reading

  • If open source is something you’re interested in, you could start by reading Eric S. Raymond’s classic open-source manifesto, The Cathedral and the Bazaar. It’s free!
  • If you’re interested in open-source education standards and resources – or better still, open-source education and standards for Indonesia, you might be interested in an article (.pdf – see page 6) that I wrote for the HEAD Foundation’s magazine THink.

If you’d like to talk about open-source education and standards, including for Indonesia, please get in touch via the contact page.

*Here’s an attempt to embed the .pdf for direct download:

**It worked!