Open Thinkering


Tag: charities

Painting over problems with AI in the third sector

A breeze block wall being painted over. An image of a door is being painted onto the wall as well.

Attending professional events can often reveal the wildly different mental models that underpin the work that we do. This was particularly evident to me at an event I attended yesterday, where the speakers’ worldviews seemed to differ significantly from my own. It’s a reminder that even within sectors where we assume shared values, such as the third sector, we can understand and interpret the world in vastly different ways.

For instance, the speakers at this event clearly demonstrated that you can work in the third sector and still uphold capitalist values. For example, focusing on ‘closing the gap’ without questioning why, in fact, the gap exists in the first place. To my mind, it’s not enough to merely address disparities; we should be challenging the structures that create these disparities.

Advocacy and activism should be integral to third sector work, pushing for systemic change rather than just mitigating symptoms. Yet much of what I heard was a ‘hope’ that people won’t be left behind in an inevitable AI-driven future, without a critical examination of how this future is shaped and who it benefits.

I also encountered some confusing references in passing to ‘AI literacy’. This term was used in a way that often lacked clarity and coherence. In my thesis, I argued that new literacies are not thresholds to reach but conditions to attain. AI literacy should be treated no differently from other digital literacies, requiring deliberate practice and an understanding of underlying mechanisms. It’s about encouraging and developing ‘habits of mind’ that allow individuals to navigate and critically engage with AI technologies.

We’ve been exploring definitions at, and I’m convinced that, as with other forms of literacy, definitions are a power move, with individuals and organisations seeking to dictate what does or does not constitute ‘literate practice’. AI literacy is one of many digital literacies involving not only technical skills but also an understanding of the ethical, societal, and economic implications of AI. Feel free to read about the eight elements which underpin this here.

Going back to third sector organisations and AI, the rush to adopt this particular technology seems to be mainly focused on increasing service efficiency due to limited budgets and challenges around funding. This is necessary due to a lack of funding, which is a symptom of our capitalist system, with its ‘winners’ and ‘losers’, inevitably leaving whole sections of the population behind.

Organisations find themselves in a position where they must continuously do ‘more with less’, driving them to embrace technologies that promise efficiency without questioning the broader implications. This often leads to a superficial adoption of AI, focusing on immediate gains rather than long-term, sustainable, and equitable solutions.

We need to think differently. If we can’t adopt a holistic and inclusive perspective towards humanity, how can we expect to do so for our interdependent ecosystem? While AI has the potential to aid in climate mitigation and health improvements, we have to collectively adopt a new mental model to use it effectively. Otherwise, it’s going to be an accelerant for a somewhat-dystopian future; not because the technology itself is problematic, but because of the structures within which it is used.

This means rethinking our values and approaches, moving away from a mindset of competition and scarcity towards one of collaboration and abundance. It may sound utopian, but only then can we harness technology’s potential to create a more just and equitable world.

Image CC BY-ND Visual Thinkery. Bryan originally created this to illustrate the concept of ‘openwashing’ but I think it also works in relation to what I’m talking about here: people pretending that there’s anything other than a big wall between the haves and the have-nots in society.

Politics: the biggest problem in education

The biggest problem in education is political interference in the work of classroom teachers. This post has been brewing for a while. One long-term influence is dissatisfaction with the current education system. This dissatisfaction is one of the reasons I entered the teaching profession in the first place, and also a reason I’m in favour of the Conservatives’ idea of independent state schools under the Swedish model. More short-term influences include Vicki Davis’ excellent blog post Administration Should Be Like The ‘Pit Crew’ and a meeting/confrontation I had today. As usual on this blog, I’m not going to mention where I work nor individual names there.

Although with the recent financial turmoil this is turning into a less illustrative example, the delegation of responsibility by the UK government to the Bank of England for some financial matters I see to be a great idea. It puts those with the greatest knowledge and experience in charge of something very important. Education, on the other hand, is a very party political matter with endless tinkering of the system to attempt to win the support of middle-class voters. I’m a believer in government being as small as possible: whilst the state needs to intervene in the ‘big picture’ of education, I think there are other organizations and bodies eminently more suitable to deal with assessment and examinations, for example.

Ever since the Conservatives introduced a free market into UK education in 1990, schools have become more and more like businesses. I’ve seen the good and bad side of this system. In 1990, the new rules allowed my parents to take me out of the local, very poor, middle school (at my request) and install me at a much better school. I’m not against parental choice, per se, but I’m certainly against the endless analogies and comparisons of schools to businesses. Educating children is not like making products to sell at a profit. Instead, I think a better model is schools as charities.

If schools were seen as charities they would be:

  • Independent
  • Able to raise money from various other organizations
  • Focused on process as well as results
  • Diverse in nature

The type of leaders needed in charities and NGOs are different from those required by business. I’m generalising monumentally here, but those at the helm of the former tend to have inspiration and drive quite unlike those in the latter group.

So those in charge in schools shouldn’t be good managers, they should be great leaders. Instead of flaunting their power within the ‘corporate hierarchy’ they should, as Vicki Davis states, support teachers – those on the front line:

To me, times are lean and mean.  The classroom should be like a well maintained car and administration should be like the pit crew. They should give the classroom the tools they need, encouragement, a mission, and quick “pit stops” to improve and keep them going…

If you’re not helping the cause of education, you’re hurting it.  And with times being tough, those who count themselves leaders need to take a hard look at their own rolls when asking teachers to make cuts.  For, to ask teachers to make sacrifices when you aren’t willing is unfair and breeds contempt.

Although I’ve been accused of it for the first time today, I’m not one for manipulating others and playing politics within my organization. Not at all: I’m there to make things better for the system – locally, nationally and internationally. The problem with a strictly hierarchical system is that it is nothing like a meritocracy. I’m certainly not questioning the overall ability of the senior management at my school, but I have felt, at times, and in my career overall, times when my ability as a professional to make decisions and put forward opinions has been undermined somewhat.

I’d like, as Vicki again mentions, school hierarchies to be as ‘flat’ as possible. Obviously, there’s a need for management. But now, more than ever, teachers need to be given freedom and be shown trust to exercise their professional judgement over issues affecting them. Not to do so would be to play politics for politics’ sake and to undermine potential educational experiences for a great number of children.

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