Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Cultural difference a powerful source of opportunity

Walking in fresh December snow in the Caledon woods just north of Toronto on a Sunday afternoon with two Kaospilots friends, Peter Macleod and Pär Hultgren, we talked at length about KaosPilots and internationalization. Crunching past frozen ponds, exploring rock crevices and watching hawks, we mused about a core question: what made KaosPilots special in its first 15 years and what will make it fresh in its next iteration? In Christer’s words, if KaosPilots was the answer to the unemployment of the nineties, then what question do we answer today?

Kaospilots’ world view paper identifies 3 major areas of global challenge which will focus KaosPilots’ development: sustainability, cultural diversity and social innovation. With our aim “to be the best school for the world”, these challenging areas will have a serious impact on the educational process and curriculum, consultancy work and our personal interactions. They will also affect how we proceed with internationalization.

As the international board member from Toronto, Canada which is considered to be a living laboratory for cultural diversity, I wanted to offer some reflections on the topic of cultural diversity and KaosPilots’s internationalization strategy. Of course Toronto is not the only city where numerous cultures live together; but from my perch, there is something about how it is happening in Toronto which is recognized as more accelerated, more layered, more nuanced, oftentimes more successful and therefore worth unpacking in the KaosPilots context.

For many, the term “cultural diversity” is almost a cliché now, a politically correct way to avoid dealing with a complex and foundational matter. This means we must be very careful to understand what we mean by cultural diversity in relation to KaosPilots, especially because we each have our own experiences of it as an international group and we have important related aspirations for KaosPilots to describe and pursue.

At the October board meeting and party, I had several discussions with people who were curious about cultural diversity in Toronto. Two themes emerged which reveal how different our experiences of cultural diversity are. People would say “but you have a Chinatown in Toronto”, meaning that it was a ghetto and therefore not a good model of cultural diversity; and my response would be “yes, but we also have Little India, Little Italy, and Little Korea and everyone goes there, lives there, sends their kids to school together”. The second theme was hearing people link “diversity” with “problems” whereas we link “diversity” with “opportunity and excellence”. This is not to say that Toronto does not have problems related to diversity (far from it!), but rather to indicate an approach and an attitude which affect our personal and systemic responses to social integration, an approach and an attitude which we can influence and shape.
With the notable exception of the history of the aboriginal and Innu people, modern Canada is a very new country and Toronto is a young city. For the past few hundred years, people from around the world have migrated to Canada, seeking refuge from war, famine, economic devastation or persecution of all kinds. Canadians are not linked through blood relations but through the experiences of migration and refuge. This is different from most of the world’s populations. Currently, about half of the new immigrants to Canada settle around Toronto. With a population of 2.7 million people from 169 countries, Toronto is home to virtually all of the world's culture groups and more than 100 languages and dialects are spoken. Diversity of race, religion and lifestyle help define and set Toronto apart from other world cities. The city’s motto is “Diversity Our Strength”.
My family has been here for two hundred years and I have always lived in Toronto, but in Toronto, this makes me unusual. In my lifetime, Toronto has evolved so quickly that I have gone from being a member of the dominant race and class to being a minority. Almost three-quarters of Torontonians aged 15 or older have direct ties to immigration. About one-half (52%) are themselves immigrants while another 22% are 2nd generation immigrants with at least one parent born outside of Canada. The remaining 26% of the Toronto population (aged 15 or older) is comprised of individuals who were born in Canada to two Canadian-born parents.

I think the following two stories can give a glimpse of the wondrously evolved state of cultural diversity in Toronto and Canada better than facts and figures. The first is from Raj Beri, a self-described displaced Torontonian living in Los Angeles, who wrote about his hockey-loving mother in an article in the January 26, 2004 edition of Maclean’s magazine.
“Only in Canada could my traditional Indian mom, born in a hill station in Punjab, who spent nearly half her life not knowing what a hockey puck was, be standing up, yelling at the TV while Tie Domi [NHL hockey star] beats the stuffing out of some hapless rookie, or be concerned with such important matters as who the [Toronto Maple Leafs hockey team] will get to shore up their blue line before the trading deadline. This, I say, is cultural adaptation at its best and most bizarre.”
The second story will perhaps be of particular interest to Danes in the wake of the furor over the cartoons of Mohammed published in Denmark a year ago or to Swedes in Malmo who are engaging with a growing Muslim community . A new television comedy is being produced by CBC, Canada’s national public radio and television broadcaster, for release in January 2007. Titled “Little Mosque on the Prairie” (a hilarious reference to Little House on the Prairie, the popular book by Laura Ingalls Wilder that became a highly successful television series with a global following), it will explore the life of a small Muslim community living with the other residents in a small prairie town in western Canada. The show is written and produced by Zarqa Nawaz, a Canadian filmmaker whose films BBQ Muslims (a five-minute comedy about two brothers who are suspected of being terrorists after their barbecue blows up, shown at the Toronto International Film Festival in 1996) and Real Terrorists Don't Belly Dance. The first sitcom in the world to be set in a mosque, “Little Mosque on the Prairie” will look at universal themes of faith and community, showing a broad representation of secular and religious people in Muslim society, not just the extremes of the terrorist and the repressed woman.

Of the many things to consider about cultural diversity, what is noteworthy in these stories, apart from their ability to use humour to portray diversity, is the fundamental importance of the integration of cultures, rather than ghettoization or assimilation. Fear of difference is one of the biggest problems in the world today. The only way to overcome this fear is to engage with difference, to embrace it, to risk being offensive sometimes in order to understand it, rather than hiding behind political correctness or simply tolerance. I believe that this is what Toronto is doing so well with respect to cultural diversity – creating a place where cultural differences are seen as powerful sources of possibility, opportunity and excellence.

Coincident with the lived experience of the evolution of cultural diversity, the current debates about cultural diversity are endlessly fascinating, complex and momentous. For example, Tony Blair has said that anyone coming to Britain has a right to be different and a duty to integrate. Canadians are being asked if religious and cultural norms of immigrants must give way to Canadian values. A recent book by an American professor, Walter Benn Michaels, captures the central problem of the loss of focus on economic inequality in its title: The Trouble With Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality.

I have a big hope that KaosPilots will find Toronto to be a vital place/base from which to experience and explore one of the most sophisticated examples of cultural diversity in the world. With its rich, constantly changing mix of cultures, Toronto is always evolving at an accelerated rate. This social evolution is not controllable or predictable. It begs to be fused with KaosPilots’ deep curiosity, talent for social innovation and fearlessness about taking risks. We have so much to experience and understand about this critical issue, with Kaospilots and for the world. Let’s go!

Thursday, January 11, 2007

What can the KaosPilots take to the world?

What can the KaosPilots take to the world?

Here are just three newspaper headlines from The New York Times in the month of November: “Schools Slow In Closing Gaps Between Races”; “Most Students in Big Cities Lag Badly in Basic Science”; “As Math Scores Lag, a New Push for the Basics”.

Historically, public education has been the ladder of opportunity in America. Families could come from anywhere in the world, and even if they didn’t speak English, they could put their children into the public schools of America’s big cities, confident that their children would learn the language, would get an education, and would begin the journey to a better life. In large measure, the promise of the American Dream has had as its first principle the idea that public education—that learning—is not only the grat equalizer but also the great enabler.

Why? Because deep down, we all want to believe in the even grander ideas of democracy and a society that operates as a meritocracy. We want to live in a country—or a world—where your effort and your talent will take you as far as you want to go; where the historically limiting factors of race or gender, religion or national origin give way to individual aptitude, however it is measured or defined. Your gift, your passion may be music not math, counseling not consulting, or environmentalism not entrepreneurship. It doesn’t matter; one is not more “worthy” or “important,” more “valuable” or “acceptable” than another. What does matter, in an ideal sense, is a commitment to study, to learning, and a love of life-long learning.

But before there can be life-long learning that has to be a beginning. The first steps of public education have to be strong and solid before the higher rungs on the ladder can be climbed.
And today, not only in America, but also around the world, public education is a massive, systemic failure.

In the United States, the response has been national legislation: The No Child Left Behind Act. This measure was designed to create performance benchmarks in English and math—test scores—that America’s school children are required to achieve. Then schools and school districts are held accountable: If their scores don’t measure up, they risk losing their federal funds. In worst case situations, the school districts could be taken over.
This approach is failing, failing as miserably, massively, and systematically as the schools have failed for years.

So here’s where we are.

There is widespread agreement that good public education is essential to the future—for the well-being of individuals, for the well-being of societies, for economic reasons and for social and political reasons.

And there is widespread agreement that what’s being done now, both in education and to reform education, isn’t working.
After that, there is little agreement.
Is the problem not in the schools and in the classrooms, but in the families? Are parents at fault?
Is the problem not with the students, but with the teachers? In the United States, the teachers’ union is very strong—is that the problem?
Is the problem not with the teachers, but with the administrators? Is there too much bureaucracy?
Is the problem not with the administrators, but with the elected officials? Are elected school boards to blame for flawed policies and bad budget priorities?
Is the problem financial? Are teachers underpaid? Are we putting too little money into our buildings and facilities?
Is the problem class size? If the ratio between students and teachers were smaller, would student performance go up?
Is the problem in the curriculum? Perhaps we’re teaching the wrong things, or in the wrong way?
Is the problem in the way we’re teaching? Perhaps our pedagogical techniques haven’t kept pace with the times—do we need more computers and fewer blackboards, more experiences and fewer books?
Is the problem just in the society—are we simply witnessing the gradual breakdown of social standards and social order, an inexorable erosion of old-fashioned virtues? Is what’s missing as simple as structure, accountability, and no-nonsense discipline?
Everyone has an opinion; few have data.

But there is one source of data worth taking a look at. Several years ago, the State of Arizona decided to take a serious look at the future of public education as it concerned Hispanics. The concern: that “demography is destiny”—and that if the state didn’t find a strategy to improve the educational performance of its fastest growing population, its economic future would be severely jeopardized.
Using a methodology developed by Jim Collins, whose book Good to Great has become a must-read for leaders in all kinds of industries and sectors, including not-for-profits, Arizona tried to isolate the variables that could account for a public school making the change from being a “good” school to a “great” school.

The findings may not be surprising; they may, in fact, be nothing more than common sense. But they do help to change the discussion about education to something based on facts and data, and not mere opinion. Some of the findings are:

*The most important person in determining the overall performance of a school is the principal. The principal sets the standards, inspires the teachers, and establishes the overall tone for the school and the direction of the school.
*While it is true that measuring performance is important for accountability, measurements have to be done for each student—averages don’t matter. What matters is how each student is doing. And progress has to be measured every week, so that interventions can be made before learning problems escalate. If a student doesn’t get a certain kind of math problem, the time to take corrective action is immediately.
*Working with students isn’t just a matter of each teacher taking responsibility in his or her classroom; it takes a team of teachers to see the whole student, and to address learning needs and learning styles as a group. Principals who get their teachers to work together are the kind of leaders whose schools create real learning gains.
*When it comes to curriculum, there is no “silver bullet.” School districts have a bad habit of believing that one reading program or one math system is somehow going to elevate their students’ performance—just because of the teaching methodology. The Arizona study says that’s just plain wrong—there is no “best” curriculum. Far more important is that a district pick a system and stick with it, rather than making frequent changes in search of the right one. When it comes to curriculum, too much change is a problem, not a solution.
But these findings are currently confined to Arizona, and even there, I’m sure, there is still great disagreement on how to implement them—or whether to implement them at all.

I’d like to believe that the KaosPilots can become a contributor to the larger conversation about public education and the future, not only in the United States but also around the world. As a board, we were asked at our meeting in Aarhus, “What can the KaosPilots take to the world?” As a school, I think one thing the KaosPilots can contribute is a calm, considered inquiry into what it will take to make public education work as a positive force for as many people around the world as possible.
When it comes to education, what works for the KaosPilots—and how can those principles be identified and then applied to other educational programs?
Over the years, what have the KaosPilots learned about education—what key knowledge can we distill that could help others who are grappling with improving education?
What do the KaosPilots see as the key ingredients to making public education work better?
How can the KaosPilots get involved—either as individuals or as a school—in efforts to improve public education?
Are there examples—in Denmark or around the world—of public schools that are working? Where are they and what could they teach all of us? What best practices could be distilled and transferred for the benefit of others?
As the KaosPilots enters its next phase—and as the new international board develops and grows—I’d like to see education become a focus and a contribution. The KaosPilots have much to teach—and always more to learn—about the essence of learning and the promise of education.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007


Welcome to the 'Board's corner' reserved KaosPilot International Board - the word and theme being free, absolutely free to write about the things they have in mind - as inspiration, provocation etc. for the KaosPilot students, staff and network or whoever interested in our website.

First contributor is Michael Doneman, Australia, writing about one of the KaosPilot core values: Compassion.


Not long ago in Aarhus, as part of the first gathering of the Kaospilot’s International Advisory Board, members of the Board were sectioned off in pairs to spend time with a group of KP students over lunch. For me, this was one of the most memorable parts of the visit; the students, after all, are our raison d'être and I’m always invigorated by the energy and openness of such conversations and the vitality and confidence of these young people.

But here I detected a slight hesitation in that confidence. What, I asked them, was their understanding of the value of compassion, as an element of practice within the school and in their work outside the school?

The question generated a certain amount of interest and conversation within the group and again later on, and became my motivation to begin this reflection. For the students, I’m guessing there was a general interest in the abstract, but also the kind of curiosity inspired when any of us wonders how something that seems commonplace and ordinary actually works, when we question what normally we take for granted. Why is the sky blue?

In the short time we had together, the nearest we come to understanding the concept of compassion was really a kind of dance around the quality of empathy, which I understand as the capacity to identify and subjectively experience the emotional state of another, or some approximation of such. But is this the same as compassion?

Most people with an awareness of the school’s conceptual scaffolding will know of the claim to operate through an ‘organizational DNA’ comprised of six core values: Playful, Balance, Streetwise, Real World, Risk Taking, and Compassion. For a student of Zen Buddhism like me, this last word comes with considerable baggage, which is why I brought it up with the KP students in the first place. For my teachers it’s foundational, a value which constitutes, along with the conception of wisdom, the two wings with which a practice (and a life) might take flight. Together, wisdom and compassion allow us to know and to love: how can we love someone, for example, without understanding them, and how can we understand them without loving them?

But please (please!) don’t read this as a Buddhist tract. One of the attractions of the teachings for me is that there is no requirement to hang ‘isms’ from them. I use them here because they’re coherent and they’re practical. Other frameworks would do the job; this happens to be a good one for the subject.

So I asked the students about compassion, and I ask you now. What is compassion? What does it mean to you, conceptually and practically? Why do we include it as a core value of our process, our pedagogy, our organizational DNA? What does it look like in the air and on the ground?

What if I were to propose that, of the Kaospilots’ six core values, the value of compassion actually underpins and conditions the other five? What if I were to agree with the Tibetan hermit Shabkar that ‘with compassion, one has all the teachings; without compassion, one has none of them’? How might I make that argument?


Compassion literally means ‘shared suffering’. This seems like empathy, except that the desire to share the burden, not just feel it in common, seems to me like a desire to do something about it, a call to action. A burden shared, as they say, is a burden halved.

Perhaps we can think of compassion as a lightening of the load, a freeing-up of energy. Perhaps compassion provides some space for experimentation. For play.

How can I be ‘playful’ without having some degree of lightness, of the consciousness of a child, of not-knowing and curiosity, a reprieve from the responsibilities of adulthood, of freedom from my burden, however temporary? And to take on part of someone else’s burden, can’t that also be an invitation to play?

Calling Forth/Streetwise

Buddhism and quantum physics agree that the act of measuring phenomena, of bringing our attention to them, actually influences the way they manifest in the world. Light manifests as a particle or a wave depending on our instrumentation, the design we bring to the experiment. The same goes for electrons and other sub-atomic entities. And the same for us: aren’t we physically composed of these?

Aboriginal people travelling the songlines of Australia talk of ‘singing up’ the country as they walk through it. No song, no country. No song, no singer.

Our engagement with the world calls forth its reality, and our engagement with the world also calls forth compassion. We are wired for reality, and we are wired for load-sharing.

The sharing of suffering, the lightening of a common load, arises as we call forth the reality of things, as we create maps within which features can be recognized and read, within which action is possible. The Dalai Lama says: ‘Compassion makes one see the picture clearly.’ Without compassion, then, our picture of the world is cloudy, maybe it’s not there at all.

How can I be ‘streetwise’ if I can’t recognize the street?

Perhaps this reads a bit literally; perhaps ‘streetwise’ just means being hip to trends, to fluctuations in the fashion meters. But even so, how do I orientate and engage with these if I have no map, no social-cultural GPS? If the drive to compassion is at one with the drive to call forth the world of things, surely a map-maker without compassion is a bad map-maker?


The drive at the foundation of compassion to share a burden, to share and in sharing, lighten suffering, need not be entirely altruistic. If I help someone who clearly needs help, whether or not that help is acknowledged or even recognized, I construct an image of myself and my agency in the world which is strong, positive and able. I construct myself as one who has control, who can make choices.

And it may be that I don’t even have to actually enact the help in order to benefit: it may be that just in cultivating a compassionate awareness of others and the world, that I construct myself, in a similar way, as strong, positive and able. Compassion helps me become the best I can be. As such it can be understood as a self-actualisation skill, a competency that can be learned, developed, nurtured. I come to a place of ease with myself, I rest in the moment, l am at a point of balance, I have the capacity to tip this way or that way at will.

How can I seek ‘balance’ in the world without first understanding – and balancing - who I am?

Interdependence/Real World

When we begin to understand the suffering of others, we tacitly recognize our connection with them. Thich Nhat Hanh has a lovely teaching which begins with a meditation on the hand. Look deeply into your hand. Is it not possible to see there the hand of your mother, your father, maybe both of them? This isn’t so surprising; we know how genetics works. So it’s also possible to know that the hands of our mother’s mother, and father’s father, also contained their children’s hands, that is, our parents’ hands, and so on, as far back in history as we would like to go. And so also for our children, and their children, as far forward as we choose to project.

Backwards, forwards, and sideways as well! Isn’t your hand composed of cells, and aren’t at least some of these cells the output of your digestion of breakfast this morning? And wasn’t the wheat that made the toast or the rice that made the congee grown by a farmer, in collaboration with the sun, water and various minerals? Nothing so very spiritual about this; it’s about the transfer and recombination of atoms, after all.

And your hand is pretty real, right?

We are wired for reality because we’re wired into reality. In fact, we’re not only connected to all these things, we depend on them. No song, no singer … No breakfast, no singer. So reality is defined by interconnectivity and interdependence.

The Kaospilots education proposes to ground itself in the real world; its value is determined experientially and empirically, experiences and outcomes as real as our hand. Hands are practical, they’re tools, they caress and they build, but they are connected to and depend on everything else. They are simultaneously the reflection of compassion and the instruments of compassion.

How do I relate to the ‘real world’ without an understanding of the interconnectedness and interdependence of all things?

Action/Risk Taking

The Kaospilots is a platform for action, as distinct from, say, reflection, though of course they’re entwined. We set out to be the best school ‘for’ the world. To frame this goal is itself an act of compassion: we want what is best for something greater than ourselves. To engage in action ‘for’ the world we locate such action in the moral-ethical domain. If we set out to act in an ethical way, not as an expression of sentiment, we have to relate our action to a moral standpoint.

Risk taking is about action, a leap into the unknown, a departure from convention. It’s about throwing away our anchors, at least for a moment, but I suggest its value is realized best, and our evaluation of its outcome is most skillfully measured, when we hold onto a compass when we leap. It requires us to understand what is at stake in the field of our actions and interactions, what there is to be lost and gained and how, in the end, our risk taking might result in benefit for others. A thought experiment proposed in Aarhus by my fellow Board member and friend Ketan Lakhani begins with the provocation: what am I prepared to die for? Another way of putting that might be: for what purpose and from what position am I prepared to take the ultimate risk?

As our school takes steps to internationalise its practice, and our friends and advisors cast and recast the school’s work in a variety of contexts, the risks involved (not least the business risks) can be benchmarked with the value of compassion in mind. It’s a bottom line.

How can I ‘take risks’, how do I even know what a ‘risk’ is, without some perspective on the causes and effects of my actions, without the moral-ethical yardstick of compassion?


Perhaps I have tortured some definitions here. But even so, if we as a school propose to operate with a set of values underpinning our practice, isn’t it worthwhile to consider, and reconsider, not just how to define these values but what the implications are for action?

I’ve asked a lot more questions than I’ve suggested answers. I do so to reflect the ongoing debates in my own practice and the kinds of issues that arise (when things are working well) among my colleagues and fellow-travellers at Edgeware. Just today I’ve been exchanging email with an Edgie about an ethical dilemna involving the sub-contracting of work to another Edgie. In the process she proposed that her ethical orientation, a Christian one, involved a pursuit of the so-called Golden Rule (‘do what you would have done to you’) which she contrasted with her understanding of a Buddhist orientation (‘don’t do what you wouldn’t have done to you’). This is a fine and wonderful point, pregnant with implications for her practice and mine. Together, they make for a vigorous and open discourse and a richer, more useful intervention in the world. Both are about compassion.

I would love this to work as a provocation, a ground for dialogue, tacit or explicit, which might serve the Kaospilots students with whom I first discussed the matter of compassion. Because the quality of the answers we find, and the quality of the dialogue itself, is conditioned by the quality of our questions. And what will proceed from that is compassion on the wing, understanding tempered by love and love by understanding.

Michael Doneman

Edgeware Creative Entrepreneurship
MWK 1.6 Pty Ltd
ACN 076 567 247
46 Annie St, Auchenflower, Qld 4006, Australia
Ph 07 3369 6897
Mob 0402 394 166
Int. (+61)

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