Relationships? Talk to the elephant

What’s Debate? Debate is all about winning an argument. It’s war and as we all know, all’s fair in love and war. We know what Debate means, the toffs learn how to do it at nanny’s knee. It’s a blood spattered battle of words, with crowned winners and cowed losers. It’s PMQs.

How about Discourse? That’s one of those words that drips off the balcony of the ivory tower and lands, plop, on the busy pavement below. Discourse is about throwing good ideas around in order to test them out and get even better ones, a fleeting shadow to most and the life-blood of invention to a few. Good Discourse doesn’t lead out and away to the podium, it just leads back up the tower to more Discourse, a Möbius strip of a stairway. I’ll leave it where it is in its interminably muted inexplicability and take you to where the music’s playing.

Bare Bait and Debate

Dominic Cummings is working at the edge of the Flat Earth, thrashing his way through the jungle of misunderstanding about how to get people to change their minds on something they hold dear. His approach is evidence-based.

You may have responded to the first few words with a slight emotional flutter when you read ‘Flat Earth’, making yourself an under-your-breath promise to read no further. The rest of the sentence was boring anyway, a weak attempt to drag in the image of the jungle, verdant density and darkness, all dripping humidity and biting insects, when the chances are the closest experience you’ve had of real jungle is Disney’s version. But having said it, having put it on the table, the possibility of the Earth being flat is there, just a niggly, metaphorical bit more than it was. I straightened the paragraph up by letting you know Mr. Cummings is at the cutting, not to say hacking, edge; yes folks, he’s evidence-based! Now you feel a bit more certain you can trust him, don’t you? Evidence-based eh? Can’t be bad.

Mr. Cummings, no relation to the horse painter as far as I know but I stand to be corrected, was Mr. Gove’s adviser when he, the aforementioned, was the boss at Education. In case you don’t have the faintest clue what I’m talking about, the two characters I’ve named are Conservatives. In case you don’t have a clue as to what that means either, they are members of a political party whose very successful stand at the last UK general election was entirely down to the stage management skills of the recently elevated Lynton Keith Crosby (born 23 August 1956). He has a clear and daring approach to winning elections that has stood him in great stead. He’s evidence-based too. Good man, an undoubted intellectual. So why did he say, during the UK elections; “How Would You Feel if a Bloke on Early Release Attacked Your Daughter?”

And why did Mr. Cummings say under interrogation by a House of Commons select committee last week; ‘Accuracy is for snake oil pussies’? a comment reported in a  Guardian article?

Mr. Cummings, adviser to the Vote Leave campaign apparently prompted this exchange;

“I don’t think it’s Vote Leave’s job to provide figures,” Cummings announced triumphantly, his eyes swivelling manically.

“But Vote Leave quotes numerous figures on its website,” said Tyrie (the committee chair), “Most of them misleading or inaccurate.”

“Accuracy is for snake-oil pussies,” Cummings hissed under his breath. “And besides, I’ve got a really bad memory.”

It’s rather a weird phrase isn’ t it? Having read it I’m not sure what sort of image I should have in my head to represent a snake-oil pussy. A rather beady-eyed and bedraggled small cat? A ….. no, I can’t go further into his parallel world. I just know how I feel about it. I hate it. I’ve been brought up to know that numbers have some factual equivalent in the real world, that even when the supermarket gives me a price-per-123gm.-portion I can recalculate this as a per-kilo price to compare it to a competing price-per-227gm.-portion, given a smart-phone (why do you think they’re called smart?), to find out which one is cheaper. With certainty built in. Mr.Cummings cuts across this by telling us that numbers are something different in his world.

They are symbols of power, transporters of emotion, no more no less.

But is that all there is to it, loud-mouthed bullying? Or is it (lowered eyes, reverential tone) evidence-based?

Because the evidence (no references, see? That’s how I’ll treat you, hanging on my word as if it were some kind of truth lodestone) says that if you want someone to do as you tell them, to change their mind or their voting habits even, the first thing you must do is to put on the table a big emotional jelly, wobbling about and looking like it might jump off the plate and down your throat any time soon. It’s even better if it’s a bit weird, morphing into the shape of an alien camel with three jelly humps on its head at one moment and into a snake-oil pussy at the next. That’s because it makes it even better at catching your flittering attention and holding it in its sticky jelly paws.

Whatever you put on the table stays in the head of the observer, doing it’s creative work. It’s an act of imagination, so it doesn’t matter whether it’s a jelly of lies or of truths, it’s job is to splatter you emotionally. Because emotionally loaded information tunes your attention, narrows your gaze to that part of the world that is to be subject of the next part of the learning process, rational thinking. Without it you’d have no idea where you were going.

Talking to the Elephant

I was riding an elephant in Nong Nooch garden one afternoon, up wide pathway between two low hedges. The elephant trainer walked ahead. It was obvious to me as the rider where we were going, up the path to the top of the hill, in clear view from my vertiginous vantage point. Then I felt the elephant take a sudden, swinging left turn below me, walk breast high into the hedge and selected a juicy nosegay of greens. The trainer addressed it sharply in Thai, the elephant ignored him, munched the first bunch  and was carefully searching for another trunkful. As the rider, my only option was to keep calm and wait to see what happened next, looking beyond the hedge. The trainer laughed, touched the elephant’s ear and we all swung back onto the path, the elephant chewing the veg, the trainer chatting to the elephant and me sweating elegantly. My elephant was forty six years old and she was bigger than me in many ways.

Jonathan Haidt in his wonderful book ‘The Righteous Mind’ develops the elephant and rider metaphor in thinking about how to teach monkeys new tricks, to make learning happen. He says; Talk to the elephant, not to the rider, because the rider serves the elephant, not the other way around.

The elephant is intuitive, emotionally sensitive, non-reflective, it responds to information from the world as if it’s life depended on it, which of course it does. It is always looking ahead, a gustatory optimist, and if it steps to the left, the rider must pay attention to what the future looks like over that way, to search out the hazards and the possibility of life beyond the hedge. The rider is a reflective intellectual and serves the elephant well if she pays undivided attention to where the elephant is going, but there’s no point in trying to get the elephant to take another route by winning an argument with the rider. She’s the servant, not the boss and the elephant is just plain big. You have to talk to the elephant.

A light bulb moment

So that’s why relationship is always top of the pops when we look for what leads to successful learning and what the teacher can do about it. Relationship is elephant talk.

And that’s why debates/arguments between tweeting riders go on for ever and the big roll bloggers/advisers go for your guts with their pointy phrases.

And that’s why we – that is people like you and me who know that schools are not supermarkets, with executive directors looking at everything on the distant shelves though their number binoculars – keep on telling stories that make you laugh and make you weep, that the elephants, big and small, understand, and why we keep on and keep on. We do it because we trust intuition, we’re elephants too, with our own clear-sighted riders serving our every step and turn.

And that’s why we have to keep all the little pachyderms with us, and know about their strengths, their hopes and their dreams to make sure they’re in their best space and why we play out real stories in imagined worlds with them. Big ones, small ones, some as big as your head. And only when we’ve got the elephant-talk flowing freely do we get the riders to switch on the headlights and show the life ahead, whatever it might be, for the best.

It’s relationship folks.