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Monday, February 23, 2015

Unstructured Play: Lessons in Leadership

Smelly Boy managed to find his way onto a research project mentored by an Industry Expert in some sort of engineering science. The team has chosen to develop a thermal suit.

Again, Smelly Boy is the group leader. It occurred to me that this was too much of a coincidence. In the past 2 years, Smelly Boy has been ...

(1) team leader in 2 charity fund raisers (1 of which topped the class)
(2) class chairman (re-elected again and again)
(3) CCA Vice Captain
(4) Deconstruct Team Leader (the team built a 3D scanner and was 1st Runner Up)
(5) Team Leader for Construction of Self-Cleaning Table
(6) Team Leader in every academic group project (except 1)
(7) Team Leader for the Applied Research Project (even though he had told me that he did not want to take on any leadership role in Sec 3)

When I thought back to primary school, I realised that Smelly Boy had already demonstrated leadership skills in...

(1) Organising a HW Group
Smelly Boy was very upset that I kept forbidding him to do this or that HW. It became quite embarrassing to explain to friends and teachers that he had not done his HW and wave his mother's excuse letter at them. By about middle P5, he would come home and announce, "I finished all my HW in school Mom!

In Sec 1, he confessed to me, "Actually, I got 7 friends together. We each took charge of one small part of the HW load. We met in the mornings in the school hall, sat in a circle, and did large scale copying."

(2) Organising Class Rankings
Smelly Boy's class decided to do open reporting of exam results. 3 girls took it upon themselves to ask for every single classmate's mark for every part of every exam at every CA or SA. All the data was keyed into a spreadsheet. Smelly Boy facilitated the process by encouraging his classmates to contribute their marks. It had to be done in a non-threatening way and in a way that preserved the self-esteem of ALL the students. Smelly Boy's class had great chemistry.

If you can copy each other's HW and have each other's backs whilst you go around shooting girls' backsides and playing Virus, there has to be some class chemistry right? No bullying. No demeaning other kids. No blatant boasting. Just plain and simple friendship, no matter what your test scores are.

The result was that every time I asked what his class ranking was in whatever the subject, Smelly Boy knew. And hey... I had to ask because the PSLE t-scores were and are still in effect. It is a competitive system based on a single number. I needed to know where he stood vis-a-vis the rest of the cohort so that I could calibrate how much to NOT push him. Push him enough and no more because there are other important things in the education of a child.

How Did He Learn To Organise People?
The more I thought of it, the more impressed I was. This aspect of Smelly Boy had completely flown under my radar. It was not something I taught him. Naturally, I wondered where and how Smelly Boy learnt to organise people and get them to pull together.

Then it hit me!

All through P4, P5 and P6, Smelly Boy spent all Sunday next door with 15 cousins. They played ALL DAY! As was to be expected, there were the usual dramas of kids crying... quarrels... etc... Smelly Boy was the 2nd oldest in that gaggle of kids. So, I guess he had to pull more than his fair share of duty in peace-making, organising, getting things done.

A lot got done. The kids organised themselves to make guns out of A4 paper, play Princess Rapunzel with empty house removal boxes (errr... they had to make the castle first), play War Games when a small van came to visit the driveway...

Results of the On-the-Job Leadership Training
Curious about HOW Smelly Boy leads, I asked him to explain to me how he delegated tasks to his team. This is what he said.

"The Industry Expert Mentor gave us a deadline by end of the month. I decided to give us some buffer so I set an internal deadline for middle of the month. The Mentor and I developed the task list. I met with my team and gave them the task list. Then I asked them, "How ah?"

Nobody said anything so I volunteered to take this task and this task. Then I asked them which tasks they wanted. At this time, the very responsible ones picked out most of the tasks they thought they could handle well. 

I have 1 piece of deadwood so I picked some non-critical tasks and told him to do them. I don't need the fella anyway. He is with me because no one else wants him. We'll be fine even if he does nothing. I will just make sure he does not join my team in future projects."

The only thing I taught Smelly Boy was talent recruitment. Projects are important in secondary school, especially in IP. So, already in Sec 1, I had had a word with Smelly Boy to scan the class for talent. Hardworking and responsible students who would work well in a group. At the same time, I made it clear that Smelly Boy had to himself behave in a way that made him attractive for top talent to work with.

By end of Sec 1, Smelly Boy had assembled a loose group of friends who worked well together and played well together.  They always tried to work together through Sec 2. This rather stable group across projects allowed Smelly Boy more flexibility in assigning tasks. The boys had different strengths and weaknesses. Smelly Boy single-handedly built the self-cleaning table for 1 project. In the music project, his classmates accepted Smelly Boy as deadwood because he is tone-deaf. His only duty was to ring a bell. Other people were deadwood in other projects.

Managing Upwards
What I was really impressed with, was the way he managed UPWARDS! His teacher had written off the Self-Cleaning Table Project as "too complex to implement". Smelly Boy built the table and got permission to do that topic.

His current mentor was not keen on the Thermal Suit idea but Smelly Boy had done some pre-work with his team. They had read up and found out, and Smelly Boy was in a position to convince his mentor that it was doable and a good idea.

Now, how did my little Gong Gong figure out that to get Boss to say "Yes" to anything, one must first respond to Boss' fears and sweep those away? Smelly Boy did not just lead his friends. He lead his Teachers too!

Unstructured Play teaches lessons important in life. Let the children play in large groups of 10 to 20. It teaches them...
(1) initiative
(2) problem-solving
(3) negotiation
(4) kindness
(5) consideration
(6) .... so much more...

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