Modern Music and Critical Thinking – There’s a Problem Here

This an article accompanies my CoolTimeLife podcast entitled Modern Music and Critical Thinking – There’s a Problem Here. You can access it here.

I was watching a YouTube video the other day which talked about everything that is wrong with modern music. The host of the video, who goes by the name of Thoughty2, wasn’t even old. Probably around 23. It wasn’t like one of those 70-something prog rock old timers telling us what’s wrong with today’s music, but instead, he presented some interesting facts about how music is produced and marketed in this era, and I think there are some direct tie ins to at work productivity and workplace skills.

The video is available here. It’s about 20 minutes long.

Thoughty2 goes through a number of mechanical reasons about how modern hits by people like Taylor Swift are written by a very small group of people, and how a recurring musical note sequence called the Millennial Whoop echoes through dozens of modern hits, as this compilation video shows.

Now, as a musician myself, I can agree with much of what Thoughty2 was saying, but I could also picture his grandfather standing in front of a camera in 1963, slagging the long haired, gyrating freakishness of the Beatles, or Elvis, and lamenting the disappearance of quality music by Sinatra or the Big Band era. Go back even further and is great-great grandfather would have been complaining about Gershwin tearing the classics apart. Even Mozart and Beethoven were criticized for changing music too radically.

So is this change in music a change management issue? Every generation deserves its own musical heroes, after all, if only to distance themselves from their parents or older siblings.

But here’s the part of Thoughty2’s presentation that really resonated with me. He pointed out the effect that free downloadable music has had on its creation and quality. Back in the days of vinyl LPs and packaged CDs, you, as a music consumer had to head on down to the music store and plonk out some hard-earned money to purchase a collection of songs by your favorite artist. There’s a lot of work involved in that, and it wasn’t cheap. In 1975, an LP would have cost between $4.99 and $7.99. I remember wishing I could get the compilation triple album by KISS, which was retailing for an astounding $10.99 at the time. That might not seem like a lot now, but back in 1975, minimum wage in the U.S. was around $2.00 per hour.

Access to recorded music was expensive. But concerts, were cheap, compared to today, because they were the loss-leaders designed to get you to buy the merchandise and albums. Now, as David Bowie so accurately predicted back in 1980, music is free, which is why artists and their employers – the record companies – must recoup their costs through live performances at hundreds of dollars per seat.

So, is free instantly available music the culprit? Because it’s free or mere pennies, and because it is available for instant download, no time is needed to think through the process, to debate whether the tunes are worth buying, or to spend time afterwards listening over and over to the tunes if only to justify the cost of the purchase.

Instant access means that tunes must offer a combination of universal appeal and familiarity. To be too different entails too much risk. Tunes must have an instant hook – no long-extended introductions – and in many cases these play as a mere backdrop to the video.

Still, there’s nothing inherently wrong in that, in my opinion. Art must always strike a balance between innovation and comfort of it is to make money.

But it’s the speed issue that I’m looking at here. As attention spans shorten and instant access to information dominates, skills such as critical thinking tend to atrophy, and this poses great danger to businesses and productivity.

Thinking is a process that requires a type of mental massaging. I tell my audiences that two of the best ways to think are, 1. To take a walk – just walk around the block and think about nothing. Do not check your email. Just let your mind relax, and let the thoughts come. Number 2 is to write things out. This is particularly productive because firstly it lets your thinking mind let go of preliminary thoughts and place them on a tangible surface – paper or a dry-erase board. Without this step you will simply be stuck holding on to an initial idea or worry. You can only move past this by depositing it somewhere and giving your brain permission to move on. Also, hand-writing has a correlation to the pace of clear thought processing. The speed at which you write things out buys time for creative processing to happen. These two actions together help “real thinking” really happen.

Much of the challenges people have concerning time management and prioritization has to do with the speed of reaction overtaking the quality of thought. We respond instantly to any incoming stimulus out of the fear and pressure of high-speed messaging. We have lost the ability for example, to exert influence over others, to manage expectations and buy time for ourselves. Why? Because influence requires careful thought and time to implement.

Look at ransomware for example. How often does cybercrime like this happen not because of any sophistication on the part of the hackers, but because they send one of those phishing emails that fool people into thinking their bank account has been frozen? People read them, and they react without thinking. They click on the link and the malware is allowed in. Phishing is a crime of distraction that exploits the busy-ness of its victims.

Similarly, much of the polarization happening in politics, especially in the U.S. also has to do with the fact that people no longer need to think through issues or talk with other people to come to a considered opinion. It is easier now to simply find an organization or news site that already sides with your beliefs or fears and wrap yourself inside. You will no longer hear a person of one political stripe say to someone with the opposing belief, “yes you have a good point there.” Instead disagreements are started and ended with a fast demographic smear: “you’re a liberal” or “you’re a dem” or you’re a republican. An “us versus them” mentality has taken over politics and has extinguished reasoned argument.

Critical thinking is a skill. It is the type of skill that needs to be taught to school age kids as well as to adults. It’s like street-proofing. You must give people an awareness of the importance of stopping and thinking before acting, otherwise their lives or careers will be in jeopardy.

Now in case you think I’m playing the old man here, dissing the younger generation for acting too quickly with their mobile phones and their autotuned musical heroes, I’m not. Music reflects its culture and our current culture is high-speed and ubiquitous. But there’s one thing that is not evolving as fast as technology, and that is the human brain and body together.

Reaction is reflex. It is not thought. Consequently, people lose the capacity to prioritize or frame a discussion when they exist solely in a reactionary state. Building a strong relationship with your manager, managing up, as the term goes, is impossible when neither of you have the time to do it. The same goes for delivering feedback to an employee or engaging in active listening. So many valuable activities and resources go out the window when people do not give themselves the time to fully use their thought processing skills.

A recent article in Quartz at Work outlined the concept of the silent meeting, being used by groundbreaking companies like Amazon, in which the first 30 minutes of an in-person meeting are spent in silence as the meeting attendees read the meeting material and reflect upon it before speaking.

This strongly echoes the original philosophy of Apple when they were the ones changing the world, whose campuses included lots of space and time for employees to meet, chat and cross-pollenate their ideas. This is where human brilliance and synergy some from.

One last example: how many careers, political campaigns or brands have gone quickly south due to a single ill-advised tweet? A moment of passion which flies around the world and eradicates years of carefully built trust and reputation?

There seems to be no time allowed any more to sleep on idea. To see how you feel about it tomorrow. There’s a lot to that idea, because twelve or fourteen hours from now you will be a different person: chemically, emotionally, refreshed and re-set after a night’s sleep. You will be a different person tomorrow.

What I am saying here is that critical thinking and taking time to think things through before acting will become a competitive advantage to companies that actively support it. Because far from me, or Mr. Thoughty2 being the old man in this scenario, the truth is, we are all old, female, male, of any age, we share a physiology that is not evolving as fast as our machines. We all use the same type of brain matter and autonomic reflexes to keep us alive. I honestly think the future rests with those who can use the best of their physical and mental makeup, and that has more to do with time than with speed.

The Law of Sharp Edges – Maximize Synergy by Framing a Conversation

There are many times when communicating via text or email is insufficient. The dynamics of human creativity are not one-dimensional. Thoughts and ideas must be echoed and bounced off one another so that we may experience and interpret the patterns that reverberate around us. Think, for example, how much more productive it is to “talk it out” with someone, rather than merely texting back and forth. Think also about how damaging it can be to keep feelings bottled up inside, or the complications that can arise from someone misinterpreting the tone of a text message. Creative thought thrives on the positive interference patterns that happen when two creative forces intersect. It falls away when given only a unidirectional track upon which to work.

Live conversation is essential for situations where there is something that needs to be created, agreed upon, resolved, or worked through. There is no real substitute.

When people contemplate getting together, whether face-to-face or over the phone, the thing that often puts them off is the fear of getting trapped in a conversation filled with small talk and irrelevancies. But it need not be that way. I use what I like to call The Law of Sharp Edges, which states that if you give someone a clear delineation – a guideline as to where things start and end rather than just a vague idea, they will be more likely to accommodate your request or behave as you would like them to.

Here’s a bad example: “Can I call you tomorrow?”

Here’s an excellent example: “Can I call you tomorrow at 2:00 for a 10-minute chat about the ABC project?”

The bad example puts people “on the hook for the entire day.” It’s like being on call. You know the event might

happen, but you don’t know when or for how long. This has a profound impact on your entire internal self-preservation system. Your instinct fears the unknown, and it’s not an overstatement to point out that something as simple as a vague phone call commitment is indeed an unknown. As such your body reflexively tenses itself for the interaction to come.

The excellent example removes the unknown and delivers three essential knowns – when it will be, how long it will last and what it will be about. It makes it a far more appealing thing to commit to since there are sharp edges surrounding the event. It is constrained and finite.

Such simple techniques will make a huge difference in productivity and process, by merely allowing the dynamic creativity of live conversation to flourish without fear. The many tools we have to facilitate live discussions, from meeting rooms to phones, video-conferences, online collaborative chat apps, even virtual presence devices like the Double (pictured) or Beam, still need to win someone’s attention through the most basic of concerns: “how will this hurt me and how will I benefit?” Once you can get such instinctive self-preservation needs out of the way, your conversation is free to do what it does best: make progress.

CoolTimeLife Podcast Episode 6 (Managing Your Metabolism) Show Notes

In my 6th podcast, released February 27, 2017, I discuss the impact your metabolism has on your day, your sleep and your work. Here’s the blood sugar curve that highlights the roller-coaster energy level of a typical day:


Here is the black light aquarium room at Google. Pretty cool, eh?It’s an extreme example of a creative workspace. You might not be able to get your employer to spring for one of these, but the same benefits of mental decompression, can be obtained by taking the time to go for a walk.


For more information about sleep, check out the excellent website Van Winkles.

I mentioned effective meetings in this podcast. This was dealt with in detail in Episode 4 – The 55-Minute Meeting.

If you are discovering this post before having heard the podcast, search for CoolTimeLife on iTunes, or visit, which will point you towards iTunes, Android and others.

The Benefits of Working in Cool-Time

2nd-Edition-Cover-FrontCool-Time refers to the art and the science of never breaking a sweat, either mentally or physically, as you go about your day. Cool-Time is the end result of the state of mind and attitude brought about by the techniques in this book. There is an amazing sense of comfort and progress that happens when you feel in control.

Working, traveling and communicating in Cool-Time ensures that the highest, most useful faculties of your mind are present and ready. Stress, anger, confusion and frustration can be controlled by proper planning, anticipation of contingencies, timelines and constraints, and acknowledging where you are and where you should be.

Why is this so important? Quite simply, it’s an edge. Most people just try to get by. You see them running for buses, stuck in traffic, stuck in meetings and stuck in their jobs. No room for movement or improvement in any of these areas. You see them eating their lunch at their desks, afraid to take a moment for themselves lest their job or career be put in jeopardy.

These busy people. You see these people texting at the dinner table or while walking down the street. You see them buying headache and stomach remedies to counteract what the stress is doing to them. You see them counting down the days to Friday when they supposedly can get some rest.

These people – your colleagues, clients, competitors, family members, and probably you yourself, are living lives the wrong way round, so that stress, anger, helplessness and overload are front and center on the personal playing field, while clear thought and calm sit it out on the sidelines.

This is no way to exist, and it’s certainly no way to get ahead. Stress pushes away the ladder of success, leaving its key components undisturbed and out of reach. You, however, have the power to change that, by living in Cool-Time.

Yes, you will still have to deal with crises, managers, deadlines and delays. But it is the manner in which you handle them that will be different. Your calm, competent air will be admired. Some will even see it as charisma or leadership. Your mannerisms and mindset, now supremely able to ride the chaos and confusion of the day, will become obvious to others, with a brighter sparkle in your eyes, with body language and posture that conveys confidence and ability, with a voice that delivers credibility and authority, and with decisions, ideas  and actions that demonstrate excellence.

Planning creates a sense of control, which creates real control. That is what working in Cool-Time is all about.

This is an excerpt from my book, Cool Time: A Hands-On Plan for Managing Work and Balancing Time. If you would like a copy, hop on over to my Books page. If you would like me to come and speak to your group, contact details are available on my Speaker page. Either way, you will win back time and money. It’s just practical common sense.

The Blended Mindset

This blog post, written for HP’s Business Value Exchange , entitled, The Blended Mindset is available for review at This post proposes that people need to maximize their human skills such as creativity and relationship to match their technological abilities.  Click here to read.


The True Dangers Of Allowing Social Media In The Workplace

This blog post was originally written for KPMG and was posted at

Would you let your employees use social media on company time? The response to this question is usually an emphatic no. The reasons given make sense, at least on the surface: “People are here to work, not to play.” “We cannot trust our employees to not waste the entire day playing around online.” “The optics would be very bad for our customers.”

Indeed, people are hired to contribute their skills for the advancement of their employer. But there is a significant distinction between time spent at the desk and actual productivity. The end results of a task assignment are not a factor of the amount of time spent in front of a computer screen, but the quality of the effort exerted by the individual. That can vary greatly depending on time of day, stress levels, even what the employee ate for breakfast.

Productivity is a result of physiology, not of face time.

The Health Aspect

Access to social media during the workday offers at least one improvement, and that is in the area of mental focus and stamina. The human mind and body were never designed to work at a consistently high level of output for a sustained number of hours. We just cannot do that. Instead, we work best in bursts of energy punctuated by rest. By visiting a favorite social media site for just a couple of minutes per hour, employees benefit from a rhythm that feeds the mind and allows for greater amounts of productivity, accuracy, and creativity.

The crux of the issue becomes one of definition: what does “access” mean? Those who push back against the idea of social media in the workplace maintain a perception that employees will spend their entire day with one eye on their favorite web site, and their attention permanently divided. But that‘s not the only way. Companies that have succeeded in allowing social media into the workplace are those that have established a “best practice,” such as allowing just a few minutes per hour, with the employee accepting the responsibility of returning to work without needing to be told.

This brings forth two profound benefits.

The first is that this type of mental break fits in with the body’s natural rhythms and the individual employee’s personal attention span. Some people have attention spans of an hour or more, and can work for extensive periods. Most however have a limit that is well inside a one hour block, and exceeding it simply results in distraction, delay and/or procrastination.

Secondly, allowing access contributes to employee engagement and loyalty, whereas an outright ban damages the trust relationship. Employees like to feel respected, and being locked out of social media simply results in diminished motivation paired with an increased desire to move to greener pastures.

There is also a growing demand for employee wellness and work-life integration. With recent discoveries demonstrating that sitting for long periods per day presents the same types of health dangers as smoking and overeating, the pressures mount on employers to offer a balanced working environment, and this includes mental health as much as physical.

The Literacy Aspect

The term “literacy” in the current era encompasses more than just reading and writing. It involves the intellectual ability to parse information; to sort through huge amounts of incoming data, to determine what is relevant and what is not. People who are capable of doing this become capable of handling the high-speed, multi-level pressures of the modern workplace. Those who can produce the work required of them while having access to social media are generally going to be more agile and productive employees. For them, deprivation leads to distraction and frustration. The multimedia workplace is actually where they thrive.

The Optics

What about what the customers might think? If a customer walked through the office, and if they were to see a computer screen that had a social media site on it, what would they think of the organization? This is a matter of great concern for employers. However, more and more businesses are answering this question by pointing to the quality of their products and their customer service. A growing number of modern businesses are succeeding not by caging employees, but by letting them live “free range,” working according to their personal and physiological needs. Customers need to experience– if they have not already– that environmental amenities such as social media contribute to quality rather than detract from it. And that is what customers seek.

It is a natural response from business owners to envision the risks in every new development that comes along. But so, too, their capacity for steering their company through the wind and waves of the marketplace demand agility and awareness. This includes recognizing the benefits in an upgraded workplace – one  that  includes access to social media.


Redefining “Results”

This post originally appeared in the July 2014 issue of Time Management magazine.

People who seek advice on time management often tend to lust after the concept of winning back more hours in the day in order to get things done. “If only there was a way to freeze time,” they say, or “If I could just squeeze another hour or two out of the day, I could get caught up.”

Well, maybe, but consider the following non-time-related issue:

A friend comes to you and says, “I have a problem with credit cards. I am maxed out, I am paying hundreds of dollars per month in payments and I feel I am getting nowhere. What should I do?”

Many people, in seeking to answer such a question might reply, “cut up your credit card,” or get a loan or a line of credit and pay off the balance right now.” These are two highly practical suggestions, but they will not solve the problem. They will not achieve the desired result.

A person with a credit card has a spending problem. The habit of spending on credit, of giving in to the temptation or distraction of the immediate will not be cured by removing the debt or destroying the card. A person who cuts up a credit card can still shop online and a person who converts a credit card debt into a bank debt will quickly have two sets of debt, as the freshly emptied balance gets used again.

The trick to successful credit card management is to develop new habits that replace old ones. Habit such as paying only with money available, or diligently paying the credit card balance to zero every week. These habits take time and effort, and the odds in favour of relapse are great.

The same thing applies to tasks and time. People who win back an hour or two in their day, either by delegating some work, eliminating it entirely, or cutting back on the time spent in meetings or responding to email, only to fill those newly-won hours with more of the same have achieved nothing. Nothing, that is, except a form of ergonomic inflation. It’s like saying “I have learned how to speed-read and speed-type. Now, instead of handling 100 emails per day, I can handle 200.” Is that really an achievement? Do those extra emails deliver twice the success, or do they simply add more redundancy to the pile?

The issue here is a difference in results. Being able to do twice as many largely impractical tasks, may feel like achievement, but it truly isn’t.

One application of the Pareto principle (also known as the 80/20 Rule) is that 80% of the value of a meeting happens within 20% of its duration. So why do meetings last as long as they do? Because they can. Why do we reply to as many emails as we do? Because we can.

In short, if a person is actually able to win back two, three or four hours of extra productivity time in the day, they had better be very sure of what they plan to do with it, because much like a freshly cleared credit card debt, it can refill awfully fast.

So how to ensure all time is well-spent? Through adequate planning. Investing in a small amount of time to plan the day means that everything can be accounted for. An email that contains a task request that will take more than two minutes to complete should be promoted into a scheduled activity. What about the crisis-of-the-day that almost always happens? Schedule it anyway. If it has better than 75% odds of happening sometime after 9:00 a.m. today, then assign a moveable block of time on your calendar right now, and fill in its name and official start time later.

The goal here is to stay totally aware of the value of every minute of the day. If every credit card came with an app that revealed the true price of every item purchased on credit, for example a $100 small appliance actually costing $700 after three years of interest and late payment charges, many people would rethink a spontaneous purchase.

That’s how planning can achieve results. Genuine productivity happens when the value of the work done exceeds the sensation of work being done. In other words business instead of busy-ness. A result should always represent a positive outcome, not merely an outcome.

The Power of Shared Goals

This blog was originally posted in the December 2014 issue of Time Management magazine.

There is great power in setting goals for oneself, of course, but this doesn’t mean that a personal goal should remain personal. One of the best ways of getting something done is in fact by sharing; not delegating the work necessarily, but by sharing the vision; because vision shared is often vision squared. The more people who hear about an idea, who discuss it and debate it, the better the end result will be.

This mutual discussion opportunity is sometimes referred to as synergy: an energy that aligns with other people’s, and expands creativity and motion beyond what any one person can do. A goal, after all, is an end point, a milestone at which an achievement is recognized. The path towards that endpoint usually has many steps and challenges along the way.

One of the best ways to ensure a goal is achieved is to brainstorm the heck out of it; to take a group of people into a room with a dry-erase board and some markers and ask them to go at it: to find the problems, to think up alternatives, to draw connections and to construct what-if scenarios. As Michael Dell once said, “Try never to be the smartest person in the room. And if you are, I suggest you invite smarter people … or find a different room.”

Examples of shared goals are everywhere. In 2014, Elon Musk, creator of the Tesla electric car, famously opened up its designs and patents to anyone who could do better. This was not an exercise in pure altruism of course, since an expansion of the electric car market would benefit Tesla’s goals of selling more cars across the U.S. and the world. Similarly, the website highlights the benefits of opening up a problem to the world with the goal of solving it sooner and more efficiently. Innocentive offers financial rewards to people who can solve specific problems, mostly in engineering and science. The people invited to solve these problems are outsiders – they don’t work for the company – but they have experience and ideas, and their contributions have helped major manufacturers develop and market new, improved products in all markets – including consumer goods and industrial.

The sharing of goal information then, is a time-efficient strategy, since no-one is truly an island. People have worked for the last few decades in a highly siloed existence, communicating by email and by meeting, with very little opportunity for full feedback and discussion. Goals, whether they be personal and career-related, or project-oriented, seldom get to blossom in a time-constrained workplace rife with distractions.

There are, however, new opportunities for the sharing of goal information with the advent of the collaborative work environment that is now making its mark on businesses across the country. Collaboration and conversation provide far greater opportunity for the cross-pollenization of ideas as open-concept “online conversation areas” start to replace email as a method for real-time interaction and synergy to happen.

Some companies have taken this concept even further by using the data extrapolated from social media to bridge gaps between people, using an internal Facebook-style of social interaction to encourage both discussion and the discovery of hidden talents within them. The matching of aptitudes and attitudes revealed by social media-styled interactions hold greater promise, many feel, than more traditional assessment tools such as Myers-Briggs, when it comes to matching employees to a company’s goals.

The bottom line, then, becomes a statement of individuality versus group effort. Goals are good to have. People need to identify them and make them tangible. But a goal without input from others will offer little in terms of traction and momentum. To work, they need to be shared.


Project Management: Using Social Media to Build a Tribal Team

Post Sponsor

ScubaIn addition to our own posts, I write for PM Hut, which publishes writings from experienced project managers.  This link takes you an article I wrote on using social media to match people up to tasks in order to create a better team. Here is an excerpt:

It is tough enough getting people to work together on a project, given that they have their own schedules and priorities to deal with; so choosing the right types of people for the tasks requires more than just a cursory glance at their résumés. A project manager needs to know more.

Traditional social media outlets such as FaceBook and LinkedIn offer great insight into people’s personalities. The information on these profiles is public (not confidential), and reveals a great deal more about a person that can be useful not only in getting the project done correctly but also ensuring that the individual team members are matched up as best as possible to their own internal motivations and passions.

Suppose you discover, by looking through a team member’s FaceBook or LinkedIn profile that this individual has a passion for scuba diving, and in addition, s/he also is certified to teach others how to scuba dive. How relevant is that? It is unlikely to show up on a résumé, but this is a skill, born out of a passion, that reveals a capacity for taking on a risky situation correctly, and even being able to teach others in this activity – a natural leader, detail-oriented, and risk-aware. That sounds like some great attributes for a team leader.

To read more, please click here.


The Puffin: Learning about the World through Ship Tracking

The Puffin. Photo credit: Peter Feldnick,

The Puffin. Photo credit: Peter Feldnick,

One of my biggest regrets about being educated in the 1970s is how little we actually learned. High school history in Montreal at that time, was extremely limited. It focused almost entirely on Jacques Cartier, Samuel de Champlain and the Seignieurial farm

ownership system. The fact that the French lost the Battle of the Plains of Abraham was glossed over, the Treaty of Paris ignored, and instead greater focus was placed on the apparent injustices and indignities suffered in perpetuity by French Canadians to this day. One was led to believe that Jacques Cartier himself discovered North America, and not the Italians John Cabot or Christopher Columbus, and definitely not a bunch of shaggy Vikings or Norsemen who spoke something that wasn’t French.

In the politically sensitive days of the late 1970’s, with separatist fervour having reached a zenith, it is no surprise perhaps, that the ruling Quebec education ministry would place great stock in ensuring that students learned nothing about the rest of the world. The rest of the world was not overly concerned about Canada-Quebec constitutional affairs, and thus it was not only unimportant, it was non-existent.

What this means to 40 or more years of high-school students pouring from this corner of Canada is the perpetuation of stereotypes. The rest of the world seemed distant and backward to us, a globe filled with coolie hats, bicycles and jungles. It was hard to imagine that countries such as Vietnam could have air-traffic control centres, or that the Chinese could have icebreakers and nuclear power. And what was the Berlin Wall for anyway? None of this helped the separatist cause, therefore it was not to be discussed. We as students were left ignorant to the workings of most of the world in order to adhere to a “greater” educational policy.

Teachers everywhere have always been hamstrung by policy. Great teachers, those with an absolute concern for their students and a burning desire to elicit curiosity within them, continue to bristle with frustration at the regulations that hold their talents in check, especially with the access to information and interaction that we now have. It is not necessarily the teachers’ fault, if students like me emerge from the system under-educated.

But today, there is so much more potential. Think, for example how much scientists such as Chris Hadfield have done to make science cool. Or Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman from Mythbusters. Not only by showing how it’s done, but by including students in the conversation; talking to them through Twitter and FaceBook; giving them a voice and a sense of personal ownership; giving them a feeling that what they are being taught has relevance, rather than just being part of some dusty curriculum.

All of this to say, if I were a teacher of history, and if I had some freedom in creating a curriculum, I would start by getting my students to track some ships.

A couple of years ago, moored in Toronto’s commercial harbour, was a bulk carrier called the Puffin. She was nothing special, a 650 foot long ocean-going hauler that looked like she had seem many ports and a great deal of weather. A giant mechanical scoop was unloading raw sugar from her holds to the Redpath refinery warehouse right there on the dock. As I looked at that ship, I wondered where she came from, what her routes were, and what sort of life she had lived.

These questions led me to a website called, where shipping enthusiasts as well as the merely curious can track an enormous number of ships across the globe, thanks to public access to the International Maritime Organization’s AIS (Automatic Identification System). The site allows you to build a personal “fleet” of ships, and includes photographs, ship details and email alerts – everything needed to watch these vessels ply the oceans of the world from the comfort of your living room.

The port of Kronshtadt, Russia. I had never heard of it until the Puffin dropped anchor there.  Photo credit Alexander Demin,

The port of Kronshtadt, Russia. I had never heard of it until the Puffin dropped anchor there. Photo credit Alexander Demin,

The Puffin, it turns out, does not have a set route; she plods along from Finland to the Caspian Sea, trekking across the Atlantic into the mouth of the St. Lawrence to load up in Duluth, and then might as easily be spotted on the coast of South America or Africa. This ship and its crew have criss-crossed the globe in the manner of what used to be called a tramp steamer.

Now, whenever the Puffin enters a port, I am alerted by email, and I take great pleasure in flying to that port, virtually, of course, courtesy of Google Earth, where I can peruse photos taken by people in these very harbors; I can look at the city and the coastline, and see what the crew of the Puffin sees. Anywhere the Puffin goes, I go, and along the way I take time to learn a little about the town she is currently moored in; its history, topography, climate, economics and population. I have the luxury of learning far more than the hard-working crew does, certainly, but city-by city, port by port, I am learning about the world, all thanks to the itinerary of this one vessel.

Ship traffic in the English Channel, courtesy

Ship traffic in the English Channel, courtesy

If I were a teacher of bored and distracted high-school kids, I would want to ask each of my students to adopt a ship like this; to learn about it, about the companies that hire it, and about the cities it visits. I would want to see pictures of the harbors, and I would want the students to show me when their vessel was in empty open water, or when it was plying the dizzyingly busy straits of Europe and Asia. I would want them to feel they owned that ship and that they cared about the history of its ports-of-call.

Would it work? I don’t know. Teens can be awfully hard to reach. But what I have learned about them is that some of their aloof and perplexing behavior comes from their desire to make sense of a world that they did not ask for and which seems to have rules and patterns that they do not own, and for which they have no voice. What I have learned as an educator of adults, is that people learn best when there is relevance paired with a dynamic, kinesthetic delivery system that engages the body, the mind and the imagination. Only then can it be absorbed into the soul with pleasure.

There are many great educators out there who have achieved great things through their skill in captivating and inspiring their students, and maybe my idea is still a little too lame, I am not sure. But what I do know is that there has never been a better time to connect with a student’s curiosity, to cut through the emotional funk and confusion and present each one not with a rubber-stamped career profile, but instead with the opportunity for sheer awareness and connection.

I stand awestruck at the opportunities for interaction and engagement that the world of social media offers. It’s a long way from 1970’s government-issue indoctrination, and hopefully it will infuse a passion in many more young people, by showing them that this is indeed their world, and that this world owes them the opportunity to learn on their own terms.