Friday, August 14, 2020

AI and ethics - it's not as good as you think and not as bad as you fear

Joanna Bryson, one of the world’s experts in AI and ethics is right when she points out that the big problem in AI and Ethics is ‘anthropomorphising’. AI is competence without comprehension. It can beat you at chess, Go and poker but doesn’t know it has won. Literally hundreds of AI and ethics groups have sprung up over the last couple of years. Some are serious international bodies like the EU, IEEE and so on, but it is important to examine but remain level-headed on this issue. The danger is that we destroy the social goods that AI offer, by demonising it  before it has been tried.

Having just launched a new book ‘AI for Learning’ in which I tackle these ethical issues in some detail, I thought I’d provide a taster for the ethical concerns as they may affect the world of learning. 


Let’s get one moral issue out of the way – the existential threat. This often centres around Ray Kurzweil's ‘Singularity’, the idea that AI will at one point transcend human intelligence and become uncontrollable. Other AI experts like Stuart Russell, Brett Frischmann and Nick Bostrom have speculated at length on ways in which runaway AI could be a threat to our species. Although there are possible scenarios where runaway AI will lead to our demise as a species, this is not an issue that should worry us much in using AI for learning. Many, such as Stephen Pinker, Daniel Dennett and other serious researchers in AI are sceptical of these end-of-days theories. In any case, it is highly unlikely that AI for education will do much other than protect us from such scenarios.


Much more relevant is the topic of ‘bias’. The problem with many of the discussions around bias in AI, is that the discussions themselves are loaded with biases; confirmation bias, negativity bias, immediacy bias and so on. Remember that AI is ‘competence without comprehension’ competences that can be changed, whereas all humans have cognitive biases, which are difficult to change. AI is just maths, software and data. This is mathematical bias, for which there are definitions. It is easy to anthropomorphize these problems by seeing one form of bias as the same as the other. That aside, mathematical bias can be built into algorithms and data sets. What the science of statistics, and therefore AI, does, is quantify and try to eliminate such biases. This is, essentially, a design problem, and I don’t see much of a problem in the learning game, where datasets tend to be quite small, for example in adaptive learning. It gets to be a greater problem when using a model such as GPT-3 for learning, where the data set is massive. It can literally produce essay-like content at the click of a button. Nevertheless, I think that the ability of AI to be blind to gender, race, sexuality and social class may, in learning, make it less biased than humans. We need to be careful when I comes to making decisions that humans often make, but at the level of learning engagement, support there’s lots of low hanging fruit that need be of little ethical concern.


The most valuable companies in the world are AI companies, in that their core strategic technology is AI. As to the common charge that AI is largely written by white coders, I can only respond by saying that the total number of white AI coders is massively outgunned by Chinese, Asian and Indian coders. The CEOs of Microsoft and Alphabet (Google) were both born and educated in India. And the CEOs of the three top Chinese tech companies are Chinese. Having spent some time in Silicon Valley last year, it is one of the most diverse working environment I’ve seen in terms of race. We can always do better but this should, in my view not be seen as a crippling ethical issue.


Gender is an altogether different issue and a much more intractable problem. There seems to be bias in the educational system among parents, teachers and others to steer girls away from STEM subjects and computer studies. But the idea that all algorithms are gender-biased is naïve. If such bias does arise one can work to eliminate the bias. Eliminating human gender bias is much more difficult.


It is true that some AI is not wholly transparent, especially deep learning using neural networks. However, we shouldn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater… and the bath. We all use Google and academics use Google Scholar, because they are reliably useful. They are not transparent. The problems arise when AI is used to say, select or assess students. Here, we must ensure that we use systems that are fair. A lot of work is going into technology that interprets other AI software and reveals their inner workings.


A danger expressed by some educators is that AI may automate and therefore dehumanise the process of learning. This is often within discussions of robot teachers. I discuss the fallacy of robot teachers in the book. It is largely a silly idea, as silly as having a robot driver in a self-driving car. It is literally getting the wrong end of the stick, as AI in learning is largely about support for learners. Far from dehumanising learning it may empower learners.


The impact of AI on employment is a lively political and economic topic. Yet, before Covid, we had record levels of employment in the US, UK and China. There seems to be a fair amount of scaremongering at learning conferences, where you commonly see completely fictional quotes, such as ‘65% of children entering primary school today will be doing jobs that have yet to exist’. Even academic studies tend to be hyperbolic, such as the Frey and Osborne (2013) report from Oxford University that claimed ‘47% of jobs will be automated in the next two decades’. Seven years in and the evidence that this is true is slim. What is clear is that skills in creating and using AI for learning will be necessary. Indeed, Covid has accelerated this process. I categorise and list these new skills in the book.


I touch upon all of these issues in the book and stick to my original premise that AI is ‘not as good as you think it is and not as bad as you fear’. Sure there are ethical issues, but these are similar to general ethical issues in software and any area of human endeavour where technology is used. It is important not to see AI as separate from software and technology in general. That’s why I’m on the side of Pinker and Dennett in saying these are manageable problems. We can use technology to police technology. Indeed AI is used to stop sexist, racist and hate text and imagery from appearing online. Technology is always a balance between good and bad. We drive cars despite the fact that 1.3 million people die horrible deaths every year from crashes and many more have serious injuries. Let’s not demonise AI to such a degree that its benefits are not realised and , as I discuss in the book, in education and training the benefits are considerable.


AI for Learning

The book ‘AI for Learning’ is available on Amazon. In addition to ethics it covers many facets of AI for learning; teaching, learning, learning support, content creation, chatbots, learning analytics, sentiment analysis, and assessment.



Bryson, J.J., Diamantis, M.E. and Grant, T.D., 2017. Of, for, and by the people: the legal lacuna of synthetic persons. Artificial Intelligence and Law25(3), pp.273-291.

Kurzweil, R., 2005. The singularity is near: When humans transcend biology. Penguin.

Russell, S., 2019. Human compatible: Artificial intelligence and the problem of control. Penguin.

Clark, D., Review of Human Compatible

Frischmann, B. and Selinger, E., 2018. Re-engineering humanity. Cambridge University Press.

Clark, D., Review of Re-engineering humanity

Bostrom, N., 2017. Superintelligence. Dunod.

Pinker, S., 2018. Enlightenment now: The case for reason, science, humanism, and progress. Penguin.

Dennett, D.C., 2017. From bacteria to Bach and back: The evolution of minds. WW Norton & Company.

Clark, D., Review of From bacteria to Bach and back

Thursday, August 13, 2020

Future of learning technology is invisible AI – AI is new UI...

Donald Norman said that the aim off all good technology is to be invisible. The future of online learning is that it will be smart and that these smarts will sort of disappear.  In learning, this is particularly important, as cognitive issue such as attention, cognitive overload, cognitive effort, feedback and practice really do matter. It is my contention that real efficiencies in learning can only come through AI. You make people smarter by using smart tech. That’s why I wrote ‘AI for Learning’, a book about how the invisible hand of AI will transform why we learn, what we learn and how we learn.

AI is everywhere

AI is everywhere. It is in every smartphone, tablet and laptop. Even in the hardware it optimises battery use and much of the AI functionality is built into hardware such as the Apple Neural Engine (ANE) or its custom-designed GPUs, similarly for Google and others. On the front-end it deals with face or fingerprint identity, is the fundamental technology behind Siri, Google Assistant and Alexa. The cameras and photos produced by your smartphone are laden with AI processing. Before you see a picture, AI has worked its magic. Manipulate that image with filters and image software and AI is the workhorse. More obvious features such as app selection, keyboard prediction, language translation, on-device dictation, health features. Some devices now have lidar, so know if you’ve put the device down, are about to lift it, are moving around, so that the device itself is aware of where it is and what it is being used for in the environment – all using AI.

Do almost anything online and it will be mediated by AI. Email, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google, Google Scholar, Maps, YouTube, Netflix, Amazon…. All interceded by AI. AI is also in online learning. Almost all informal online learning on Google, YouTube and other sources of learning are searched for, mediated by AI. Even in formal learning AI is now being used in real organisations to engage learners, support learners, interface through voice, create content, adapt content, personalise and assess learners. This is the core message in my new book ‘AI for Learning’ where I run through these options, with real examples, to signpost towards this new world of online learning.

Yet you are unlikely to be aware of AI’s ubiquity. It is in there, filtering out spam, stopping dick-pics, porn and hate speech, compressing and decompressing files, selecting things for you so that you are not simply washed over by a tsunami of information. Like the bottom of an iceberg, it now keeps the visible front of the internet afloat.

AI is the new UI

Although there’s lots of talk about UX design, AI is the new UI. It has given us voice in Siri, Google Assistant and Alexa. This is a great example of AI learning and therefore improving with use. My Alexa has gone from me supressing my Scottish accent to me not having to change my diction at all. Beyond voice we have the entire user interface tiled as AI is he intermediate that sits between you and the service. It is your personal butler. In Amazon, it tiles books and goods, in Netflix Box, movies and Box Sets, in learning what is right for you at that precise moment, a decision informed by who you are, what you’ve done so far and the aggregated data from all the others who have been in this situation. Like your satnav, if you go off course, take a wrong turn, it will guide you back on course and to your destination. Beyond this there are hopes of frictionless interfaces between mind and machine that allow the mind to control things, and possible, at some point, to accelerate learning. All of these interfaces, actual and possible are discussed in the book.

AI – a learning example

A good example of the invisible hand of AI is Duolingo (I write about its relevance to learning here). Luis von Ahn is the brains, driver and innovator behind Duolingo. From Guatemala, he’s a mathematician and computer scientist on a mission to keep language learning free. With a value north of $1.5 billion and x50 more users than their nearest competitor and x5 the revenues, its sort of speaks for itself. Its personalization makes it habitual, the daily tasks and streaks are achievable and the behavioural science behind the formation of habit is solid. AI also provides the adaptive delivery of learning chunks. In fact AI drives its entire pedagogy, as it knows what you’ve learnt and, importantly, if you’ve been absent, what you’ve forgotten. Algorithmic personalisation may have more to do with rectifying forgetting than learning. AI also drives engagement, through notifications, algorithmically driven they decide what to say and when to say it. They notify you regularly, but not too much, the most effective notification is the ‘final warning’. If they feel you have dropped off, a timely message, making you feel slightly guilty. The user experience is simple, clean, plenty of white space, consistent palette, no teacher face or teacher avatar, simple progress bar at top of screen. The learning experience has open input for full phrases and sentences, allows people to type what they hear, remediation when you fail, sentence as audio when you get it right and they’re not scared of repetition, single day streaks, spaced practice. They work hard at this. I’ve seen it improve year after year. Importantly, learning wants to be free, and they have achieved this. They are all zealots for free education, well largely, as only 3% of users pay the subscription – learning wants to be free. Duolingo is just one of many examples of AI in learning in the book.

AI futures

To get a feel for how powerful recent advances in AI can be, look at GTP-3, a text generator which points towards the production of online content. It has produced text, even poetry that humans cannot distinguish from real human output. Think about how fundamental AI has become in the hardware and software in your smartphones and online in general.

It is important to focus on benefits of AI in learning. We are at the start of an era when education will be smart, scalable, sophisticated and free. Combined with 5G, possibly delivered anywhere on the planet via Starlink, with low latency and no blind spots, we can start to see a future where personalized education and training is free, translated into multiple languages, to allow knowledge and skills to be a global good.


Invisible interfaces, spam filters, porn filters, hate speech filters, faster delivery, optimised battery life, less latency, voice, improvements in picture quality, better video, personalisation, subtitling, accessibility features, translations, awareness in 3D space, recommendations – all of this is here on your smartphone and there’s more to come.

Yet what used to be called the ‘killer application’ is only just arriving – accelerated learning. AI give us frictionless interfaces with voice, IOT awareness, non-invasive and even non-invasive cognitive devices. AI gives us personalised learning through adaption (entire degrees now being delivered), instant feedback, support and scaffolding in learning. AI will also create content and deliver assessment. AI changes everything in learning. 

AI is already showing significant signs of using smart tech to make you smarter. This is exactly what I’ve written about in my book ‘AI for learning’.

Book: ‘AI for learning’

I tackle this and many other issues in my new book ‘AI for learning’. This is the first general book about how AI can be used for learning across all types of organisations, schools, Universities and workplaces. It is not a technical book on AI, although it tries to explain what it is in non-technical terms and dispels some of the myths. It is written for the many people who teach, lecture, instruct or train, also those involved in the administration, delivery, even policy  around online learning, also the merely curious. It is essentially a practical book about using AI for learning, with real examples of real teaching and learning in real organizations with real learners.

If you want a 20% discount and free delivery in UK or US contact me!


Also, of you are interested in using AI to create high-retention, online learning, in minutes not months, using award winning software, contact us here.

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

100 learning theorists... 2500 years of learning theory...

These were written as quick, readable introductions to the many theorists who have shaped the world of learning.





Greek mathematicians; (Pythagoras, Euclid, Archimedes)









St Augustine























Margaret Donaldson
























Atkinson & Shiffrin




















Honey & Mumford




































Black & Wiliam












Page & Brin


Chen & Hurley





Downes & Siemens


Nass &









Ng & Koller










See also my new book, just published on Amazon ... 

Also if you are interested in using WildFire, a service that uses AI to create online learning in minutes not months... contact me via the WildFire website form... and we can arrange a demo by screen sharing.

Sunday, August 09, 2020

TikTok; fascinating features for the future of learning…

Tik… Tok… the sound of the clock you used to hear in a room, when we had mechanical clocks. Isn’t it odd that a fantastically successful online service should be named after something users may never have actually heard, unless simulated digitally? To be fair it’s catchy and suggests time, a key feature of the platform, which delivers snappy, short videos.

My guess is that most teachers, lecturers and trainers have never used it, or only seen it over the shoulders of their kids. Yet, like YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, it is insanely popular. I’ve written a lot about what we can learn about learning from social media – mobile, anywhere, anytime, engagement, feedback, chunked, reinforcement, practice, personalised, social, data-driven, AI-driven. These are the things learning theory points us towards, yet are so rarely used in teaching and learning. Yet services like these and more subject specific services, like Duolingo, point the way towards newer, more personalised, approaches to education and organisational learning.

Learning is now often driven by data and AI and looking these globally popular media services doesn't suggest that this is how education and training will be delivered but they do have some very important pointers towards what is possible in delivery.

My contention, in my book ‘AI for Learning’ is that all online learning will eventually be dominated by AI, as smarter tech is needed to produce smarter people. Almost all informal, online learning uses data and AI. You search on Google or Google Scholar, find that YouTube video, get knowledge from your social media network, buy a book on Amazon – all mediated by data and AI. Even in formal online learning, personalised, adaptive systems, such as, so good that the University who used it invested a seven figure sum in the platform, are being driven by data and AI techniques. Online content can be created by AI ( and AI is used to engage, support, deliver and assess learning in schools, Universities and the workplace.

TicTok AI and data driven

TikTok, for that matter all social media, would not exist of it were not for data and AI. Its user data fuels personalisation. Isn’t it odd that AI uses huge amounts of aggregated data from hundreds of millions, if not billions of users to, counterintuitively, fuel personalization? At that one moment when the system decides what you need, it brings the supermind of smart AI, combined with unimaginable amounts of harvested data, to deliver what it decides you are most likely to need at that one moment. It gets to knows your preferences, what you searched for, what you’ve ‘liked’, how long you watched, if you commented. These are all signs of interest – insights into you innermost thoughts. That’s what good teaching needs, insights into the individual minds of learners, not one-size-fits-all approaches to arbitrary sized classroom, lecture or course size groups.


TikToks can be up to 15 seconds long, but you can connect multiple video clips together for up to 60 seconds of total recording. Longer videos, recorded separately outside of TikTok can also be uploaded. I’ve written a lot about using video for learning and TikTok’s use of video is both strength and a weakness. To be fair the videos are short – that is a blessing. But they are for fun, not serious learning tasks. Longer video needs further reinforcement due to the well-researched phenomenon of transitory forgetting while watching. We specialise in this with WildFire, where the video narration is grabbed and turned into active learning by AI, so you get the best of both worlds, the affective engagement of video plus effortful learning. 

Nevertheless, the discipline of getting super-short videos for learning is an art form and check out some TikTok videos – they are often wonderfully concise and point the way towards the sort of learning support that an LXP may want to deliver for push or pull learning events in the workplace or practice and reinforcement in education.

Making TikToks

It’s so easy to make videos, just select 15 or 60 secs, point your camera and tap. Note that you can tap to start and stop therefore have a series of different shots. There’s also a Timer button on the right of the Camera screen to give yourself a few seconds before it starts recording. The app will continuously record for you. Then you use the Checkmark button to Preview your video, to add sounds, effects, text, and stickers. Tap Next and you’re done. Simply add a description, hashtags, and tag your friends, also choose who you want to view your post.

You have a Bookmark icon to see videos you've favourited, or have saved to watch later. You can even search by sounds and effects! Hashtags, however, are more popular and relevant for learning. Or you can re-visit videos you've liked by going to the section headed by a Heart icon. You can like, comment, save or download videos for offline viewing (if the creator allows). You may even be allowed to ‘duet’ or react to their TikToks. Then here are options to create a live photo or GIF from the video and share


The speed adjustments are fascinating. When you create a TikTok, a slider at the foot of the Camera screen allows you to record at .3x, .5x, 1x, 2x, or 3x speed. You can go to Effects > Time > Slow Motion, if you want to slow it down. The ability to speed up or slow down videos in learning allows the learner to see the process in slomo or faster for a quick overview. You can, for example, creating flashcard apps and revision test at different speeds.

Reactions and duets

Another great feature is the ability to film your reactions to a video, in picture. Think of the possibilities here, for teacher, lecturer and trainer commentary, user generated assignments and feedback. The ‘duet’ or sharing two video feeds on one screen, is also popular.  


This may sound weird but TikTok has a alternative economy going on. You can actually buy gifts and gift to people you like. To get TikTok gifts, you must first purchase TikTok coins. These are available in different bundles, the bigger the bundle, the bigger the discount. They can’t be refunded or turned into cash. 

However, you can send digital gifts and these can be turned by the recipients of these gifts, into diamonds, and diamonds can be turned into cash. Interesting model for getting learners in touch with brilliant teachers.


You can set your account to private, save drafts for later posting and message. In other words, your content can only be seen by others you authorise. TikToks can be set to be viewed publicly, to friends or private separately. Of course, it has the now obligatory hashtag functionality. There’s a ‘live’ feature of you have over 1000 followers and Analytics are also available, who liked, commented or mentioned your TikToks.


Unsurprisingly, lots of detach companies have taken an interest and TikTok has initiated a partnership programme. You can use #EduTok to find this content.  TikTok understand the importance of non-entertainment functions to consolidate their position. There’s some imaginative use around instruction and testing. What TikTok shows is that there is an insatiable appetite among the young to create, edit, add music and effects to video online. Every Instructional or Interactive Designer in the land should have TicTok on their smartphone. To develop these skills on micro-learning.


TikTok did something that was hinted at in the move towards massive YouTube use and Instagram… video. The internet is like a huge Darwinian environment where services go through a process of natural selection. The fittest survive, namely those with the most users. TikTok’s the result of that evolution. Rather than sneer at such apps, we need to reflect on what hey tell us about how technology can be used in learning. The lessons are clear. It has to be data and AI driven. Chunking matters and layers of social interaction, even payments, fuel use. The switch towards AI-driven learning is here… tic… tok…

Friday, August 07, 2020

Wellness, Happiness and Mindfulness - Holy Trinity of bogus therapy culture

Wellness, Happiness and Mindfulness

In the 1850s Dr. John Harvey Kellogg invented Corn Flakes but his reasoning behind the invention is surprising. He was obsessed with sin, and in particular masturbation, seeing bland foods as a suppressor of such appetites. There is more than a touch of the Kellogg motivation in modern wellness, happiness and mindfulness training. We are seen as in need of redemption with deficits that need corrected by HR. We are instructed on how to be well, happy and mindful… as that will lead to greater productivity. How on earth did this happen, that HR became the supposed masters of our innermost feelings?

A battery of techniques has emerged in organisations from the therapy culture that grew out of psychoanalysis and other fashionable social trends in the 1960s, such as meditation. Several narratives underpin these fads; the therapy narrative where all are in need of cognitive cures, deficit narrative where all suffer from some sort of emotional deficit and binary narratives where the language of deficits is reinforced; well - unwell, happy - unhappy, mindful - mindless. Yet, the evidence is strangely absent. What went wrong?

All is not well with wellness

This is a huge business, around $8 billion in the US alone. Yet it is largely based on articles of faith, not research. The first large, randomised-controlled trial of an employee Wellbeing programme suggested they are a waste of money. Jones et al (2018) in their study What Do Workplace Wellness Programmes Do, took 12000 employees, randomly assigned them into groups, but found no “significant causal effects of treatment on total medical expenditures, health behaviors, employee productivity, or self-reported health status in the first year”. This study is important, as it avoids the self-selecting nature of the audiences so prevalent in other studies on wellbeing. The lack of controls renders most studies in this field largely useless as the basis for recommendations. 

Did they reduce sickness? No they didn’t. Did it result in staying in your job, getting promotion or a pay rise? No, it didn’t.  Did it reduce medication or hospital visits? No, it didn’t. This was true for almost every one of the 37 features studied. The bottom line is that there is no bottom line, no return on investment. The interesting conclusion by the authors of the study is that wellness programmes, far from helping the intended audience (the obese, smokers etc.), simply screens out those who are already healthy, yet the burden of cost is borne by all.

Workplace ‘wellness’ programmes abound, largely surveys and weak documents no sooner read than forgotten. Since when did HR think they have the right to take over the role therapists and responsibility for the emotional welfare of employees? HR, rather than sticking to the worthy role of employee development, pay and rations, has always wanted to be taken more seriously. But what gave them the right to take control of our emotional lives? Why do they think they are qualified to become therapeutic and moral experts? In practice, this often means reading one or two self-help books or a short course run by people who themselves cobble together some evidence-free, PowerPoint and downloaded survey template. In truth it ends up being superficial, if not hollow.

And it is not only in the workplace that therapy culture has taken root. In schools, wellbeing is seen as a necessary condition for learning and attainment. Yet a longitudinal study that looked at the relationship between attainment and subjective wellbeing, measured three times over six months on 807, 790 and 792 students respectively, showed that wellbeing did not predict academic achievement.

In some US Universities, students are asked to sign Wellness contracts. The University of Massachusetts, along with many others, has a Campus Wellness Contract. Undergraduates are asked to sign a contract that commits them to a healthy lifestyle (roughly conforming to white, Christian values). Perhaps the last thing many need at that age of joy, curiosity, exploration and risk, is some contract that turns you into a dull, conformist. Is that the real goal of education, to be ‘well’, as defined by some dull, abstentious benchmark?

Wellness Syndrome by Carl Cederstrom and Andre Spicer, is another welcome antidote to this wave of woolliness. The authors rightly expose it as a faddish syndrome, really a moral obligation and imperative to regulate your feelings and behaviour. The well - unwell, happy - unhappy dualism slips into the good - bad moral imperative. What they posit as the real mechanism for this movement is an appeal to narcissism. It is a programme actually appeals to the ‘me’ in all of us. Their main point is that it is counterproductive. The more you seek wellness, the less well or happy you become. 

If you have any doubts about the commercial pressure, remember the Australian ‘wellness’ blogger, Belle Gibson, who lied about having terminal cancer, just to sell her blog and book. Belle is a foolish young girl that deserves pity rather than scorn but many proponents of mindfulness, wellness and happiness are playing a similar game. It is a game that appears time and time again in HR. A book appears, training courses appear, ‘practitioners’ pop up, then an army of HR people get out there promising utopian increases in efficiency and organisational productivity on the back of their own self-propelled beliefs. The whole thing becomes a marketing exercise that uses its own hot air to fuel itself.


The wellness, happiness and now mindfulness debate goes back to the Greeks and reached its peak with Bentham, Mill and subsequent philosophical and political debate around `Utilitarianism’ in the late 19th C. ‘The Greatest Happiness Principle’ led to a definition of happiness in terms of pleasure and the absence of pain. However, Bentham’s ‘hedonic calculus’ proved too primitive and awkward to use in any practical sense. Mill opted for quality, not quantity, with a focus on higher pleasures, but there were still problems of definition, and measurability. The arguments that ‘happiness’ is vague, difficult to measure and cannot be used as a guide for moral or social well-being, remain a problem for positive psychology.

Unfortunately, just as we thought it had receded into history, specious psychoanalysis brought all of this back under another guise; therapy culture. It all started with Freud but it was Rogers and more recently Seligman, that dragged it into the world of education and training. The idea that ‘happiness’ is the sole purpose of life, or even an end-in-itself, seems to have taken root in our therapeutic culture. Life is not a simple calculus of happiness - unhappiness. Even a cursory look at the complexity of human feelings, emotions and behaviour make that idea seem childish. Even Seligman, the pied-piper of happiness, came to reject this simple term and moved towards ‘flourishing’.

Constantly worrying about how well you are is no way to live your life. In these two clever studiesCan seeking happiness make people unhappy? Paradoxical effects of valuing happiness, two groups watched a happiness inducing video. Those who had undergone exposure to ‘happiness’ treatment before watching the video felt worse than those who had not. The authors argue that valuing happiness is self-defeating as the more it is valued, the more disappointed you become. It would seem that happiness expectations can lead to disappointment, and therefore feeling less happy, when faced with real world situations.

Unfortunately HR has caught a bad dose of ‘happy clapping’ and middle managers have latched onto the idea that we should try to engineer this happiness. You see it in the work-life balance debate (read work=unhappy, life=happy). You also see it within organisations, as HR tries to take control of the emotional welfare of employees. Self-appointed armies of mentors, coaches, counsellors and therapists are all over organisations searching for pathological deficits. Everyday emotions and ordinary contention are diagnosed as illnesses and people are offered cures, well bromides. This is not a plea for grumpiness, it is a plea for realism and sanity, before the therapeutic culture starts seeing the whole of society as an asylum full of pathological patients who need to pay for their sins. People deserve dignity at work, fair pay and conditions, a safe workplace and a good work environment. They are adults, not children. my happiness is MY business. 

The great Barbara Ehrenreich, in Smile or Die, is one of many who have criticised the rise of positive psychology and thinking. She thinks the ‘wellness’ and ‘happiness’ movement replaces reality with positive illusions. You can think positively but “at the cost of less realism”. Seligman’s book Authentic Happiness was been seen by Ehrenreich as a “jumble of anecdotes” and found his formula for happiness banal: H = S+F+C (Happiness = set range, circumstances and voluntary control). In the Journal of Happiness Studies she reads study after study linking happiness to every conceivable outcome but it is a lop-sided view of the world, with no room for the realism of negative results.

‘Mindfulness’ yet another mindless fad in education 

More recently, a particular species of wellness swept through education and corporate training – mindfulness. In truth, it is not new at all. It goes back to Buddhism, Freud, then Rogers and the relentless effort to get therapeutic theory into education. But there is plenty of reasons for rejecting this particular manifestation of the wellbeing madness.

Mindfulness is yet another example of adults taking their new-age, adult fixations and forcing them on the young. It is not as if kids take naturally to such unnatural behaviours, as they are naturally exuberant. Education should be about opening up young minds not forcing them to do things that faddish adults think is right for them. Education is about both mind and body but that means being alive and kicking, socialising with others through play, games and sport. Kids are lively and locking them up for most of the day in classrooms, often accompanied by enforced silence, is bad enough, without forcing them to sit in even more complete, communal silence. They are gloriously alive at that age and should play and learn, be lively and curious, not mimic artificial, adult fads. Education is about both mind and body but that means being alive and kicking, socialising with others through play, games and sport. Kids are lively and locking them up for most of the day in classrooms, often accompanied by enforced silence, is bad enough, without forcing them to sit in even more complete, communal silence. They are gloriously alive at that age and should play and learn, be lively and curious, not mimic artificial, adult fads.

Enforced silence and focus can sometimes be in order, especially when learning to think, reflect and generate meaningful analysis, synthesis and written work but to fetishize non-productive silence as part of self-development, is a stretch. For adults, it represents an easy but illusory solution to what is actually quite difficult, facing up to the fact that many things in life are actually quite difficult and complex. When. The solution is to simply ignore this by periods of forced inaction, we are perhaps exacerbating problems, not solving them.

Mindfulness plays a neat trick. It is a wolf in sheep’s clothing as it is actually mindless meditation under the guise of mindful attention. What we need is more mindful, external attention on learning, teachers and other people in learning. This means getting involved, not idle internalizing. It means being alert and attentive, as we know with certainty that outward-looking, psychological attention is a necessary condition for learning. The sort of internal attention that is needed for learning is to do with the coding, elaboration, scene setting, deep processing and practice, especially spaced practice, that leads to cognitive improvement.

The therapy business, and it is very much a business, finds it difficult to define ‘mindfulness’. Some relate it directly to Buddhist meditation, others to reflection on your physiological processes, others to internal cognitive reflection. In fact, it is somewhat contradictory, a stilling of the mind yet a strong sense of presence or attention to self, using a selfless, meditation-based practice. There’s no consistency as mindfulness is many things to many people. This is always a worry and often a sign that all is not well with a practice. It has all the hallmarks of a fad; not evidence-based (in terms of learning), promoted by celebrities and suddenly erupts as the ‘next big thing’. Of course mindfulness will have been long forgotten in a few of years’ time, as another temporary bromide hits the market.

Behind every fad, there is often a book. In this case, it is Mindful Work: How Meditation Is Changing Business from the Inside by David Gelles. His evidence is largely anecdotal, mainly the testimonies of the stressed-out executives who dabble a little in meditation, like it and do a top-down job applying their hobby to their employees. Even when workplace studies are considered they are of such poor design that they can be discounted. The key examples are, of course, companies who have the luxury of trying this stuff out. Already, massively successful, cash-rich companies in tech, health insurance and finance. Google, Aetna and Goldman Sachs - yes Goldman Sachs! Imagine using the company that was instrumental in the financial crisis, disastrous destruction of the Greek economy and participator in Malaysian corruption, to sell the idea of being ‘mindful’. A company that has inflicted financial misery on millions used as an argument for increasing ‘compassion’? This is an Orwellian world, where crooks define good behaviour. Hedge-fund managers are even quoted. Meditate in order to rape the markets but feel good about yourself at the same time.

Ultimately Gelles does not answer the key question, that many of these companies are in the game of making huge profits, avoiding tax. It is capitalism, not compassion that drives them. Mindfulness schemes allow them to mask heir compassion and pretend to be compassionate.  These therapeutic approaches in the workplace are fundamentally about PR and money, not mental health. "Militaries round the globe are using it for their snipers,” says Gelles. Well that is good to know. Feel calm while you blow someone’s brains out.

Here is a thought experiment. Let’s suppose you run a factory or hours billable law firm and you are faced with a recommendation for a ‘Mindfulness’ programme, which was recommended as 20 minutes a day. In a 40 hour week you’d have to guarantee a 4.6 % increase in productivity just to break even. Note that in the Gelles book, there is only one solitary example of this being used in a blue collar environment, for good reason. Are we being asked to believe that factories, shops, rubbish collection, bar staff and dozens of other jobs will see these increases in productivity through meditation? Of course not. It is a luxury only the swindlers can justify.

Learning styles, L/R brain theory, whole word literacy, Brain Gym, playing Mozart while kids learn –we have seen this stuff served up in real schools, driven by nothing more than the need for ‘fillers’ in ill-organised INSET days. Education does itself no favours by snatching at these crazes. It opens teachers and trainers up to the sort of unnecessary mocking that their enemies adore. Similarly in organisational training, where adults are increasingly having to participate in what many regard as infantile crazes.

When it comes to the evidence, let’s be careful here and ask the usual questions. What is the source? What was the method? There are far too many self-proclaimed, survey-monkey theorists ready to promote something which they already make a living from. As John Higgins (to be fair a supporter of wellness programmes) says, the evidence for the impact of these programmes is never clear, as “those who took advantage of the programs were likely individuals who already highly driven, motivated, and oriented toward self-improvement”. This has far more to do with the on-going obsession HR has with binary, therapeutic and even Silicon Valley narratives, than science.

Therapeutic narratives

The dominant narrative that underlies all three is the therapeutic narrative that goes back to Freud but includes many others, especially Carl Rogers. This narrative lies deeper than the one above, as it draws on a Freudian view of the world that sees almost everyone in need of therapy. It has its origins in Europe but reached its apotheosis in the US and California in particular. Carl Rogers is known as the founder of 'client-centred' therapy and his promotion of counselling. He also had a keen interest in education and his therapy-oriented methods became widely adopted in education and training through coaching and mentoring. His influence can be felt everywhere in the learning world, especially through counselling and therapeutic techniques in education and the workplace.

This narrative refuses to die and has morphed from fairly benign mentoring to more intrusive counselling and now onto wellness, happiness and mindfulness. Descriptive definitions suddenly become prescriptive techniques to be applied to all. Just as the underlying Freudian theory fades, this narrative, the therapeutic narrative, described well by Frank Furedi in Therapy Culture (2004) gets resurrected. Employees are not patients, the workplace is not an experimental therapy sandbox and HR are not psychotherapists.

Deficit narratives

The language plays into another more general narrative that lies beneath therapy culture – the deficit narrative. The weird assumption that all learners and employees are mentally deficient and in need of therapeutic help from educators and HR has taken hold, resulting in mindfulness, wellness and happiness jargon being bandied about like ant-depression tablets. Well-meaning but , they assume emotional deficits in us all and demand that it be reduced through half-baked, new age fads.

The conceit of therapy culture is that the answer to school attainment or productivity is always more wellness, happiness or mindfulness. The glass is always half empty. We always seem to have deep 'deficits' and his deficit mindset calls for reducing the deficit. What  is worse is education and training’s tendency to turn the deficit definition of emotions into something far worse – the pathological definition of education and training, where our emotional well-being and health is a key target for schooling and training. When education and training is seen as a cure and cognitive deficiency a disease, we need to worry.

False binary narratives

We can applaud attempts to make life less stressful and the use of therapy techniques for mental illness but there is a dangerous line that is crossed with wellness, happiness and mindfulness. That line is the push of therapy culture into the workplace. While these three mini-movements are different, they are all part of the same broad pathological narrative, where employees are seen as having something wrong, a form of original sin. The language used betrays the problem. 

Wellness v unwell

With wellness or wellbeing, the hidden assumption is that we are unwell and need to be made ‘well’ by whatever craze hits the HR conference circuit. Those who do not take part in dancing to the new company tune are branded as the unwell. It is an odd form of binary benchmarking.

Happiness v unhappiness

With the cult of happiness we have the simplistic ‘unhappy’ versus ‘happy’ assumption. If you are not being made happy, you are dysfunctional and unhappy. In practice, the emotional landscape of all humans is far more complex that this binary suggests. People have complex emotional lives that are tied up with their lives at home and outside the workplace. People are neuro-diverse and rarely fit into this sort of classification.

Mindful v mindless

Note the odd juxtaposition of ‘mindful’ with ‘mindless’. Am I really less fulfilled in my life than those who practice Mindfulness? Mindfulness becomes righteousness when it dismisses the rest of us as falling short of its some self-proclaimed cognitive and moral standard because we don’t practice an obscure meditative technique. That is where the line is crossed, the assumption that one is not mindful if not practicing some meditative technique.

These are precisely the false binary choices that these movements lever to peddle one-sided solutions. It poses mutually exclusive language to artificially bolster a case for the product (usually consultancy or a training course). By all means make the workplace a better place but these simple, binary oppositions in no way reflect the rich and complex mental states of people at work. These programmes assume simple dualisms. Treat people well, respect them, make sure they are fairly rewarded, listen to what they have to say, develop their skills but don't cross that line and become their pseudo-therapist.


Beware of words ending in –ness – wellness, happiness, mindfulness. They are catch-all terms that seem to mean everything but in the end, when implemented by HR in organisations, mean nothing. Life and work is not an illness. There is no problem in anyone choosing to partake in yoga, reflexology, mindfulness, wellness, laughter therapy, happiness – whatever – but that is a lifestyle choice, not a workplace imperative. This lifestyle training is something HR are neither qualified nor suited to manage. Often perfunctory conference talks or potboiler paperbacks on the subject, get turned into designing or buying ‘courses’, with the dubious and non-evidence-based claim that it will transform the business. What is far more likely to solve psychological problems in the workplace are direct actions that reduce pressures, from more equity on pay, professional management, good working conditions to flexible working. It is not the organisations job to solve mental health problems. Indeed this sort of meddling may make things worse.


Jones, D., Molitor, D. and Reif, J., 2019. What do workplace wellness programs do? Evidence from the Illinois workplace wellness study. The Quarterly Journal of Economics134(4), pp.1747-1791.

Mauss, I.B., Tamir, M., Anderson, C.L. and Savino, N.S., 2011. Can seeking happiness make people unhappy? Paradoxical effects of valuing happiness. Emotion, 11(4), p.807.

Yang, Q., Tian, L., Huebner, E.S. and Zhu, X., 2019. Relations among academic achievement, self-esteem, and subjective well-being in school among elementary school students: A longitudinal mediation model. School Psychology, 34(3), p.328.

Seligman, M.E., 2012. Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. Simon and Schuster.

Barbara Ehrenreich, 2010. Smile or die: How positive thinking fooled America and the world. Granta books.

Furedi, F., 2004. Therapy culture: Cultivating vulnerability in an uncertain age. Psychology Press.

Gelles, D., 2015. Mindful work: How meditation is changing business from the inside out. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.