Why you have to light the blue touch paper

It’s forty years today since we first set foot on the Moon. 40 years. But what have we done since?

When I was doing my undergraduate degree, using a NASA satellite to study an Active Galactic Nuclei, I thought man landing on the moon was the most important thing we’d ever done. If aliens came to look at Earth then, that is what they would remember.

Today they’d see Google and the iPhone.

Hardly comparable to stepping foot on another celestial body.

So why didn’t we go back? & Why don’t your students care?

Two reasons, one is apathy. People got bored of seeing the same pictures.
Yeah, we’ve done that, they say. This is human nature. There’s a ton of stuff on Genki English, but most people only come back everyday to read what’s new. Give your students a textbook and they’ll look and then get bored. Give  them something new each week and they’ll be excited again.

NASA should have figured this out at the time, and gradually rolled out new things as they went along, promising more each time, to keep people enthralled. But to be fair they were a little busy with other things.

Luckily we can learn from them. Just give your kids worksheets one at a time. Keep them varied. Sometimes give none. Sometimes do a grammar lesson.  Sometimes do nothing but games. Keep them on their toes.

The only way to get 100%

The second reason is that we stopped being led. Leadership is the reason we got to the moon. President Kennedy set the goal and it was something that everyone could see and work to towards, and they all worked miracles. Can you imagine if someone wasn’t working 100% on the lunar project? It would never happen.

Fast forward 30 years later. Then I was first being offered science PhDs and there was no leadership, no target or goal to aim for. Spending four years studying the ultra violet variation of one particular star just didn’t  enthral at all. So I decided to come to Japan. I got a real telling off for that, even from a Nobel prize winner. To be fair my aim was to learn Japanese and then join the Japanese Space Programme. But 1997/1998 was when all their rockets blew up and they cancelled the entry programme for foreigners. Now I know I’ll go into space, but I’ll just buy a ticket from Richard Branson.

Saving the world isn’t done how you think it’s done…

One reason we didn’t go back was that people started looking at the Earth, saying “how can we spend billions on sending people to space when there are so many problems here?” For a long time I agreed, surely we could use all that talent and ability to clean up the planet and then move on to the next step?

Now I believe that this thinking was wrong and has caused more problems in the world.

The fad now is “saving the world”. It’s what girls give you adoration for, it’s what guys give you credit and respect for. When I choose new projects now, helping to save the world, even if it’s just in a small part, feels good. Both for myself, the karma aspect and that’s what people compliment me on most.

But what I, and many other people in the field, have found is that we already know many of the solutions. We know how to solve poverty, we know how to educate, we even know how to feed and clothe people. “Hang on, it can’t be that easy, why aren’t we doing it then?” you may say. That’s where we come back to the leadership, and teachers, thing again.

With your 24hours…

It’s because as a people we don’t have a super goal, we don’t have an overall time span, we don’t have a moon to shoot for. Saving the world might sound cool, but what does it actually mean? How do we know when we’ve done it? When do we have to do it by? Remember Kennedy’s goal was putting a man on the moon and bringing him back before the decade was out. It was the last 5 words that made the difference.

And how many people switch off the TV and actively do something to help? Without a defined and time limited goal, people procrastinate, we can never give 100% because there’s always a nagging feeling we might not be on the right road. It’s easier to leave it to someone else.

Starbucks everywhere?

The teachers I work with in some of the slum areas are some of the best in the world, but they still need motivating and leading. They too need to see what future life they are leading their students to. We certainly
don’t want McDonald’s and Starbucks on every Hyderabad street corner. What do we mean by taking people out of poverty? Does it mean all our happy smiling kids in China and India have to start worrying that they didn’t get the latest DS game?

Until now politicians have traditionally done the leading, but politics is now out of date because the world isn’t split into countries any more. Politicians can never think globally, or beyond, because their power is local. NPOs and NGOs have the reach but not the resources. Big business should be the way to do it, but too many of their leaders have sullied their reputations.

Flies and States…

What we need is a supra-national goal. What we need are leaders to give us a beautiful turn of phrase that we can all relate to. Something everyone can believe in and go for. Something that religion or nationalism can’t
disagree with, something that everyone can get on board with and give 110% towards.

And what we need is someone to give us that vision.

Why is Neil Armstrong not out there inspiring the youth of today to do amazing things like he did? Well, I hear it’s because his communication skills aren’t that good. Interestingly enough he did become a teacher, but then quite when his school became a state school.

President Obama might do it. So far he’s not Kennedy, although he might end up being more if he puts those fly swatting skills to good use. I really hope he does because his life until now has been the embodiment of a 21st century role model. If he decided to do something we’d all follow.

Guess who…

I can tell you something though. The next, next world leader is out there now. And she or he is sitting there in one of your classrooms.

She or he knows what has to be done.

He or she is waiting to be inspired.

She or he will have unnatural talent, personality and abilities.

But he or she is waiting for that one person to light the blue touch paper, to provide them with the pivotal memory or experience that will catapult them into making their destiny real.

That inspiration will be something small, one turn of phrase, one activity or one image. It will be over in an instant but stay with them forever.

And in 9 cases out of 10 that inspiration will come from a teacher.

It will come from …you.

Richard Graham

Hello, I'm Richard Graham. And when I was a kid I found school to be sooooo boring... So I transformed my way of teaching. I listened to what the kids were really wanting to say and taught it in ways they really wanted to learn. The results were magical. So I'm sharing it all with you now...

7 Responses to “Why you have to light the blue touch paper”

  1. Carol

    You are so right Richard! Everyone needs reasonable and sometimes way out goals and time limits. I am better at getting things when I have a ton of things to do because otherwise it’s just too easy to procrastinate!

    Students need goals as well and I think tests, unfortunately, are a way to make many kids work. THe question is how to motivate students, especially teenagers, to learn other than threatening with tests? Too many of my students just don’t feel that education period is all that important then get really far behind and eventually give up totally. THey have NO goals in life… and few teachers to inspire them.

    Even university professors get caught up with research, and research is fine, but all too often they forget why they are doing it! Why get all that education and do all this research? For what purpose? To get tenure? To be recognized? I feel it should be done to be applicable somehow in life, to move us forward.

    But you made a comment that really struck me, teachers play a huge role in inspiring kids. (The flip side is that sometimes they can ruin a students desire to learn as well.)

    Thanks for sharing your views on this Richard!

  2. Margit

    Richard, thanks for this rich article, on the first day of a new week, being also the first day of school summer holidays.

  3. Flossy

    Thank you Richard for a very thought provoking article. I agree that we must all strive to improve the world around us and ourselves. Going to the moon was a major achievement for mankind.

    It is very easy to not care and see poorer countries as a burden. Money does seem to be raised and then spent in many peculiar ways. Often administration costs are so great, that hardly any money reaches its destination. Governments who spent money unwisely have a major effect too. Education within these countries has to be the key to a successful future for any land.

    Inspiring future leaders, inventors, doctors, teachers, lawyers etc. is the job for every teacher in every part of the world. Inspiring someone to have the goal to succeed is one of the most important things a teacher can give a student. I am sure we all remember the teacher who convinced us to take part in a certain cause in our youth. Maybe also the teachers who believed in our dreams and made us see them as a reality.

    Richard – I am also intrigued that you wanted to join a space program. I do hope if you buy a ticket you will make a YouTube film for us all to share in your experience!!! I wonder how much a ticket will be??

  4. gumby

    OK I feel like a gumby (in the UK definition) and not the Gumby character in the US on which my name was based. What is ‘blue touch paper’?

  5. richard

    It’s the piece of blue paper at the end of a firework that you light to make it zoom up in the air!

  6. Flossy

    Gumby – I never realised your name had such meanings!! I checked out the uk dictionary one and also looked at the character you mentioned on wikipedia. Very interesting.

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