The world according to Potter Part 2 -- Opposites Attract

In this brief series I am looking at the concept of "one-upmanship", as developed by Stephen Potter, and exploring how the observations he made 50 years ago might still be applicable in the world of educational technology today.


As I said in the first article in the series (which contains much more background information), his books are concerned with the study of how to be "one up" on other people. Although they are written very much tongue-in-cheek, they are clearly based on real-life observation. I first came across them 40 years ago, and have read and re-read them over the years for their humour. However, I find myself more and more discovering that a number of aspects of modern life may be found in these books, despite the elapsing of half a century, a fact which I believe puts them on a par with other classics such as Parkinson's Law and The Peter Principle.

To summarise, the 4 main books he wrote on the subject were:

  • Gamesmanship, or the art of winning games without actually cheating

  • Lifemanship, which was concerned with the application of the principles of gamesmanship to everyday life

  • One-upmanship, which was a further extension of Lifemanship, and

  • Supermanship, or the art of staying on top without falling apart.

In Potter's world, the practitioner of one-upmanship, or Lifeman as he or she is known having completed the Lifemanship Correspondence course, has one overarching thought: that if you are not one up then you are, by definition, one down.

Looked at in the cold light of day it sounds ridiculous, I know. But Potter very accurately described people and practices that you and I see almost every day of our lives. So suspend your disbelief and bear with me, as today I look at the law of opposites.

Presentational dissonance and self-contradictory names

As I have said in the past, in describing activities for which I coined the term "presentational dissonance", some practices are inherently conttradictory. Examples that spring to mind immediately are:

  • Authors who write books about self-publishing -- for a publishing company, and

  • A lecture I attended once which lasted well over an hour -- on the importance of participatory learning techniques.

  • More recently, one might add those globe-trotters who visit different parts of the world to deliver lectures on the benefits of e-learning and the interactivity of Web 2.0.

But there is a far more powerful manifestation of this sort of thing: the conjuring up of names for initiatives which are really the precise converse of what the initiatives are actually about.

For example, three or four years ago in the UK there was a welfare initiative called "Supporting People". Under this initiative, the hours of work of wardens in sheltered accommodation were cut, and sometimes reduced to zero, thereby placing at risk some of the most vulnerable people in our society. When I enquired why this was being done, I was told that the organisation concerned had chosen to do it: apparently, it was not an inherent part of the policy itself. Well, maybe it was, and maybe it wasn't, but the point is that once Supporting People came on the scene, some people stopped being supported.

A more recent initiative, this time in the Health Service, is called Fit for the Future. Note the clever play on the word "fit", which in this context means fit as in healthy, and fit as in suitable. Apparently, in the future there will not be traffic jams, and there may not even be accidents and emergencies. Why else would my local Health Trust be using Fit for the Future as a means by which to axe perfectly good locally-based Accident and Emergency units in hospitals, and force people to travel to a modern hospital that can barely cope now, let alone when that happens? In other words, like "Supporting People", "Fit for the Future" seems to me to mean the exact opposite of what it sounds like it was supposed to mean.

But the prize must go to "Building Schools for the Future". I am not referring to the programme itself, which has achieved some success, but the name. If you think about it, it contains the seeds of its own failure, making success that much more difficult to achieve. After all, if one were to really start to think futuristically about education, one might hesitate to think in terms of schools at all. And as for building, would that even merit a mention, except perhaps as a footnote?

The Potter dimension

So where does Potter fit in with all this? Well, before I tell you, here is a little more background information which will prove useful to you. Potter's "day job" was English lecturer in the University of Oxford. So there is a kind of in joke running throughout the books whereby Potter gives spurious academic-sounding names to types of behaviour. I'll go more into this in another article, but to give you an idea of what I mean, he came up with such immortal terms as "Trojan Horsemanship", "Book Reviewership" and "Derby and Joanmanship" (with its associated phenomenon of "still-ridiculously-in-love-with-each-othering"). It will therefore come as no surprise to learn that Potter came up with a very apposite term for what I've just been describing.

In the Supermanship book, there is a riotous exposition of the natural one-upness of babies, and how to counteract it. In one paragraph, he says that as well as being undermined by the baby itself, parents will also start to be got at by external forces in various guises. He writes:

"Baby Literature makes itself felt first, and Baby Instruction. Many prettily got-up booklets start with the dictum 'Enjoy your baby'."

To this last point is appended a footnote which states:

"This is known in Yeovil [where the Lifemanship Correspondence College is based] as 'The Petrification of the Implied Opposite'."

If the term "Building Schools for the Future" is not a superb example of the petrification of the implied opposite, I don't know what is. Another example we might cite is "e-learning credits" which, when this form of funding first appeared at least, had everything to do with digital content and nothing to do with e-learning, and involved no type of credit in the usually-understood meaning of the term.

Implications for educational technology

So what does all this mean for the educational technology subject leader? I'm not interested in having a dig at the names of initiatives just for its own sake. After all, things have to have names, and the pithier and more evocative the better. But from the point of view of, if you like, the consumer (ie us), we have a responsibility to try and tease out exactly what any new initiative entails. Does it really mean what we took it to mean at first glance? What does the small print say? Is it deliverable? And is it even worth delivering? Can we deliver it with our existing policies rather than spending time and energy setting up new structures?

And let's be clear about this: some initiatives really do do what it says on the tin. Harnessing Technology is about finding ways of harnessing technology in the service of learning. The Hands-On Support funding of a few years ago was very much concerned with providing practical, in-class, support for teachers using educational technology. It's only by scrutinising the various policies, strategies and initiatives that we can get behind the soundbite of the title to determine what it's really all about, and sometimes what we discover is actually good!

And if it does turn out to be an example of the petrification of the implied opposite, it is our responsibility to try to ensure that the initiative lives up to its promise, rather than down to our lowest expectations.

This article was first published on 31 October 2007.

The world according to Potter Part (1) Going Metric

In this brief series I'd like to see how the writings of Stephen Potter might be applicable in the world of education -- and, in particular, educational technology -- today. Writing predominantly in the 1940s and 50s, Potter codified the art and science of "one-upmanship". In so doing, he not only inspired a generation of undergraduates to put his theories to the test and invent new "ploys" and "gambits", but inspired the making of a film ("School for Scoundrels") and, perhaps more importantly, was taken seriously enough for the term "one-upmanship" to be cited in academic books.

His books are concerned with the study of how to be "one up" on other people. Although they are written very much tongue-in-cheek, they are clearly based on real-life observation. I first came across them 40 years ago, and have read and re-read them over the years for their humour. However, I find myself more and more discovering that a number of aspects of modern life may be found in these books, despite the elapsing of half a century, a fact which I believe puts them on a par with other classics such as Parkinson's Law and The Peter Principle.

So, with no further ado, let's see what Potter has to offer the educational ICT (Information & Communications Technology) subject leader in a school, Local Authority or School District. For this to make as much sense as possible, imagine yourself to be of a certain mindset: that of regarding every waking moment as an opportunity to place yourself, or appear to be, in a superior position to those around you. It may all sound too far-fetched, but as you read on I think you will start to recognise people you know....

I have already written about this in the context of getting ICT embedded in a school. In today's article, I should like to explore the wonderful world of statistics.

I don't know if you have noticed, but every presentation by a Government spokesperson consists of at least 5 minutes (and often much more), of statistics. Whatever the topic under consideration, there is always a section that goes something like this:

"Since we were elected X years ago we have more than doubled the number of Y, and over the next 3 years we will increase this by a further Z percent".

We hear it all the time in presentations about educational ICT in the UK, but it appears in every other branch of public affairs too.

The thing about statistics, though, is that so much depends on context, even if the figures themselves are (a) accurate and (b) not subject to interpretation -- both of which assumptions are highly dubious for a start. For example, if an educational spokesperson were to announce that the Government will spend an extra £10m on in-service training for teachers over the next 3 years, that sounds impressive until you work out that, in the UK, that amounts to just over £22 per head, or around £7.50 (approximately 15 USD) per teacher per year. (See for the statistics on which I have based this calculation.)

Now, there is nothing startling about this per se, but what is interesting is the fact that it is completely disarming unless you (a) happen to know the underlying stats and (b) can do lightning fast calculations. The point is, by the time you have even had a chance to think about it, the moment is gone, and the speaker is on to yet another "fact".

Interestingly enough, Stephen Potter recognised the power of this sort of approach. In "One-upmanship" there is a chapter called "Doctorship", in which Potter discusses the important topics of medical studentship, doctorship, patientship and healthmanship. (I will be examining Potter's use of terminology in a future article.) In a footnote he says:

"An effective statement in the right context can sometimes be: 'I have had 140 days' illness in my life.' Listeners are unable, without a lame pause for calculation, to know whether to commiserate or admire."

So how does this apply in the context of educational technology leadership? The answer is that in today's world, metrics are all-important. I personally believe that that is how it should be, but it's easy to be fooled by statistics which sound good but which, on closer examination turn out to be less than desirable or even meaningless.

For example, I have no idea why any teacher would want their students to receive thousands of comments about their work, because not only is that volume of comments unhelpful, it is completely unmanageable, as I have already said recently (see, for example, the October 2007 edition of Computers in Classrooms, which is available via a free subscription).

I also think most RSS feed readership statistics raise more questions than answers, and that (for my website at least) Technorati's statistics are fictional. More importantly, the metrics given out by companies need further scrutiny.

For example, a technical support company that claims that 99% of its call-outs are rated excellent inspires no confidence in me whatsoever. If the company has 10 employees, each doing one job per day, it means that over a two week period one of those jobs or days will not be rated excellent. That sounds quite a lot to me.

Similarly, a web hosting company that promises 99% "up time" may actually be promising that you may have to put up with the site being "down" for 15 minutes a week, assuming a 25 hour school week. Even if we leave school out of it, given the global nature of communications, I don't want my website to ever be down, not even for 5 minutes a week -- and even then, I want it to be planned for so that I can put a notice up and warn people. Yes, I know I am asking for the impossible, but my point is that statistics like "99% up-time" are meaningless unless we understand the context in which they are cited.

As an educational technology leader, you should at least know some important statistics. When evaluating the quality of a school's ICT provision (at the request of the Head of ICT or the Principal), I make a point of asking a number of questions which involve facts and figures and which the Head of ICT should either know or have immediate access to. It is astonishing how many don't. For example, do you know if there is a difference in attainment in ICT between girls and boys in your school? If so, is it significant? Do you know the cause? What are you doing about it?

As well as knowing some basic figures, you should also know what they mean. Statistics are often given a spurious veneer of credibility by the addition of a graph. I recall one teacher showing me "before" and "after" charts to illustrate how much his students had progressed over the last term.

"But what were the tests actually measuring?", I asked.

"I don't know", came the reply. "But the point is that whatever it is, it has gone up."

Getting back to Stephen Potter, he was making a wry observation about the cavalier use of statistics. Although he wrapped it up in a humorous, not to say unlikely, package, he was alerting us all to be on our guard.

This article was first published on 20 October 2007

Psychology, Not Technology

Don't try to be TOO helpful (photo of a sign in Queen's Hospital, Essex, UK)Are you an evangelist? No? Think again. Most of the people in this educational technology game have a quasi-religious zeal that is almost palpable. You don't even have to go very far to see it -- no further than your desk, in fact. Just look at the latest posts of any blogger, and it's odds on that at some point in the last week he or she has waxed lyrical about some new application they've discovered, or a new website that will change the world.

In fact, it's arguably even worse than usual at the moment because of people going on about the best developments of the entire decade. Give me strength!

Leaving aside the fact that, in my opinion at least, these flights of fancy are rarely thought through properly, they are likely to succeed in convincing only those who don't need convincing. The real challenge is this: how do we convince others of the benefits of educational technology, and get them to the point where they will at least entertain the idea of trying it out, even if an act of conversion (there's that religious talk again) is a bridge too far.

The first thing that we need to do is select our target, for want of a better term. There are three groups of people, broadly speaking: those who are convinced of the benefits of technology, those who have no real opinion one way or the other, but who are getting good results and therefore see no urgent reason to change, and those who won't touch technology with a bargepole.

You can ignore the first and third groups, and concentrate on the middle one. Then what you have to do is hone in on individuals, and here is where people make the classic mistake. They try to convince the teacher concerned that technology will allow them to do what they already are doing, but more effectively.

Even if you're not already wary of technology, that sounds suspiciously like a coded message:

"You're not doing as good a job as you could be doing, but don't worry, I can help."

Patronising, or what? And if you happen to be younger than the teacher concerned, the message is likely to be even less warmly received. So what is the answer?

Firstly, forget about doing the same stuff better. What is really interesting is doing stuff that you simply can't do at all with the 'old' technology.  It isn't only technology that can widen horizons, of course. One way of making children aware of what schools were like a hundred years ago is to arrange a trip in which they are immersed in a school environment of a hundred years ago, even down to the clothes and the curriculum.

Technology can help you widen children's horizons too, and thereby enrich their educational experience.

But there is another aspect too, and that is the psychological one. Stephen Potter, author of the one-upmanship books over fifty years ago, understood this very well. His books, whilst humorous, had a serious side to them too. Predicated on the axiom that if you're not "one up" then you're "one down", the books are full of psychological insights into human behaviour, and quite often recommend a course of action that is the exact opposite of that which one might naturally adopt.

To give you a quick idea of what I am talking about, take just one idea from Gamesmanship (subtitled: The art of winning games without actually cheating"). Potter says:

"... it is unsporting, and therefore not gamesmanship, to go in, eg, for a loud nose blow, say, at billiards, or to chalk your cue squeakingly, when [your adversary] is either making or considering a shot."

He goes on to say, however, that it is perfectly legitimate to whistle a tune whilst taking your own shot -- especially if you keep getting the same note wrong. That would be virtually guaranteed to get your opponent so agitated that he or she would start to make silly mistakes.

(Unfortunately, most of the 'Upmanship' books are out of print, although it's worth looking on Amazon for used copies. I've placed a link to one called 'One Upmanship' on my Amazon Books page.)

So, back to the subject in hand, and I think that a pertinent section from Lifemanship (the application of the principles of Gamesmanship to everyday life) is Woomanship, which is about how to attract a member of the opposite sex. There's a section called "Triangulation, or Third Person Play", which recommends the following, if you are in a situation in which the person in whom you are interested is being suited by another:

"The wooman if he knows his business will, as soon as he knows the identity of this Second Man, leave the girl almost unattended, if necessary for days on end, and make a thorough examination of this person, observe, make discreet enquiries at his place of employment. And then, once he is thoroughly acquainted with the Second Man's character, he can woo with a clear mind and heart. For he will know what to do. He must be sure that his character, habits, hobbies, tastes and mannerisms are the precise opposite of his rival's."

Now, if you stop to think about it, this is brilliant psychology. What's the point of trying to be like the girl's current suitor or boyfriend? She already has him! The only sensible course of action (assuming you accept the basic premises of this situation in the first place, of course!) is to be the complete opposite.

I would contend that the same applies when it comes to winning someone over to the joys of technology. There is little point in trying to convince them that they will get better grades, if the grades they are getting are already good. There is no point in being incredibly exuberant, because that just turns people off: there is nothing worse than a friend who has just discovered a new religion/holiday resort/musician/health food, because they just never stop going on about it. In the end, they achieve the reverse of what they intended.

A far better approach would be to adopt the opposite attitude, which in this case would be almost complete indifference. Yes, be available to help people, lower the barriers to entry, as it were, but don't go overboard. For example, rather than say:

"I've seen this fantastic new program that will transform your teaching of geography overnight",


"I don't know if you're interested, but I've come across this geography program. I don't even know if it's any good. I was wondering if you could look at it and let me know what you think, like is it worth getting? But if you're a bit busy, it doesn't matter."

In other words, place him/her in the position of the expert (which they are, actually) whose advice you are seeking. Most people respond well to being approached in that sort of way.

Although this is not ostensibly the same as the romantic situation described above, there are similarities. The teacher already has an attachment (to traditional ways of teaching). You are trying to woo them away from all that. It's a clear case of needing to understand a little bit of human psychology, rather than a great deal about educational technology.