Which side of the road do they drive on?

Map of the world showing the driving directions for all countries and any changes that have occurred, beginning with Finland’s change in 1858
     drives on right      drove on left, now drives on right      drives on left      drove on right, now drives on left      had different rules of the road within borders, now drives on right

[Map from Right- and left-hand traffic]

While working at the National College of Ireland, I got into a lunchtime discussion about driving, in particular, about why some countries, such as Ireland, drive on the left and others, such as the US, drive on the right. None of us could even say with much certainty how many people in the world did it one way or the other. Seemingly simple questions led to many jokes, confident pronouncements, and further questions about changeovers, what boats and planes do, and so on.

As I began to look into it more, I realized this was yet another example of how simple questions can lead to interesting inquiries without end. One of the most interesting sources I came across was a website, Which side of the road do they drive on?, edited by Brian Lucas, and based in large part on The Rule of the Road: An International Guide to History and Practice by Peter Kincaid. Here’s an excerpt from the site:

The side of the road one drives on seems to be one of those mundane details of everyday life which people take for granted and never bother to write down. In his book, Kincaid comes up with a blank: “I have been unable to discover any firm evidence as to what the rule of the road was in any part of the ancient civilizations in Greece, Rome, or Assyria. It seems inconceivable that there was not one.” We have found, however, evidence that the ancient Romans drove on the left.

In late 1998, the remains of a Roman quarry was discovered at Blunsdon Ridge, near Swindon, England. It is one of the largest and best-preserved Roman quarries known. Ruts in the road leading to this quarry are much deeper on one side of the road than on the other. If it can be assumed that the side of the road with deeper ruts was the side used by loaded carts leaving the quarry, while the side with shallow ruts indicates empty carts arriving, then we can conclude that at this particular location, at least, the Romans drove on the left. (Sources: a web page in the SwindonWeb Local News Archives for October 1998 which has since disappeared, and an article by Gwynne Dyer, Is driving on the right right or wrong?, from 1999.)

Another piece of evidence comes from a Roman coin. Robert Pease writes that he has seen a picture of a denarius from between 50 BC and 50 AD showing two horsemen riding past each other, right shoulder to right shoulder (i.e. each keeping to the left side of the road).

It was amazing to me to learn how this simple practice connects with our physical characteristics, modes of transportation, revolution and empire, warfare, commerce, and many other aspects of daily life.

What we do not know: The betrayal of our values

I returned to the US in June after living a year living in Ireland. Many people have naturally asked, “What was it like? How was it different? What did you learn?”

It’s hard to know where to begin. I may have learned as much about myself and my home country as about Ireland, or other countries I’ve visited. And, mostly, if I learned anything, it was how much I don’t know about other people and places. As Confucius says: “To know that we know what we know, and that we do not know what we do not know, that is true knowledge.”

Our Hollywood Self-Image

But one specific thing I’ve become more aware of is a gap between what most Americans conceive as their moral stance on the world and what many abroad see as our actual practice. I suspect that many of us in the US identify with Jefferson Smith in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. He’s decent, naive, idealistic, earnest, fair, caring, and above all honest, embodying all the American small town values. He’s not sophisticated or slick, but he’s the kind of person you’d like to have as a friend or trust for political leadership. Mr. Smith asks us to adhere to “just one, plain, simple rule: Love thy neighbor” and reminds us that “there’s no compromise with the truth.”

What’s interesting today is that many abroad would also identify with Mr. Smith. And they admire the US for modeling his values, offering hope for other countries. They recall our promotion of the Kellogg-Briand pact, the struggle against authoritarian regimes, the Nuremburg trials, the United Nations, the Geneva Conventions, as concrete examples of how we have stood for truth, peace, courage, and justice, just as Mr. Smith might have wanted. Their values are our values; their people are our people.

But then, we part ways, because of something many Americans do not know. Continue reading

Living teaching: The genius loci

My most memorable moments in Dublin came through encounters with living people, the many warm individuals who introduced me to life in the city and country, and from all the enriching, direct experiences, some of which I’ve tried to recount here.

But oddly enough, I also value the encounters I had with people who live on only in their writings or institutions. I say “oddly,” because I could easily have come to know them somewhat without being physically present in Ireland, and yet I seemed to need the tradition of place, or genius loci, to open the book.

One of these is Cardinal John Henry Newman. I didn’t know much about his work, other than valuing the many Newman Centers on university campuses. Frankly, I had a negative view, that his focus was on education for “gentlemen,” and that he held an elitist and sectarian approach to learning. At best, his ideas were locked away in 19th-century Ireland and unlikely to be relevant to my world today.

Cardinal John Henry NewmanFortunately, a colleague, Leo Casey, was able to gently point out that my conception was based on not knowing anything, and to suggest that if I did open a book, I might learn something.

In this case, the book was Cardinal Newman: The Catholic University, which contains a selection of his writings. University College Dublin, which he presided over, published it in 1990, to commemorate the century after his death. One of the essays in the collection is entitled “Living Teaching rather than passive reception of facts.” It’s from his The Idea of the University, and introduced me among other things to the term, genius loci.

Newman writes about “young men,” but I believe that today he’d quickly revise his essay to include all people. He asks a provocative question: Suppose we

had to choose between a so-called University, which dispensed with residence and tutorial superintendence, and gave its degrees to any person who passed an examination in a wide range of subjects, and a University which had no professors or examinations at all, but merely brought a number of young men together for three or four years, and then sent them away…[which of these would be] more successful in training, moulding, enlarging the mind, which sent out men the more fitted for their secular duties, which produced better public men, men of the world, men whose names would descend to posterity

Newman is quick to say, in his 19th-century style, that he can’t fully endorse the second model, as he considers “idleness an intolerable mischief.” But he has “no hesitation in giving the preference to that University which did nothing, over that which exacted of its members an acquaintance with every science under the sun.” He explains as follows:

When a multitude of young men, keen, open-hearted, sympathetic, and observant, … come together and freely mix with each other, they are sure to learn one from another, even if there be no one to teach them; the conversation of all is a series of lectures to each, and they gain for themselves new ideas and views, fresh matter of thought, and distinct principles for judging and acting, day by day…students come from very different places, and with widely different notions, and there is much to generalize, much to adjust, much to eliminate, there are inter-relations to be defined, and conventional rules to be established, in the process, by which the whole assemblage is moulded together, and gains one tone and one character…

that youthful community will constitute a whole, it will embody a specific idea, it will represent a doctrine, it will administer a code of conduct, and it will furnish principles of thought and action. It will give birth to a living teaching, which in course of time will take the shape of a self-perpetuating tradition, or a genius loci

Here then is a real teaching…it at least recognizes that knowledge is something more than a sort of passive reception of scraps and details; it is a something, and it does a something, which never will issue from the most strenuous efforts of a set of teachers, with no mutual sympathies and no inter-communion, of a set of examiners with no opinions which they dare profess, and with no common principles, who are teaching or questioning a set of youths who do not know them, and do not know each other, on a large number of subjects, different in kind, and connected by no wide philosophy

Newman recognizes the limits of such self-education, but nevertheless argues, the result is better than for

those earnest but ill-used persons, who are forced to load their minds with a score of subjects against an examination, who have too much on their hands to indulge themselves in thinking or investigation, who devour premiss and conclusion together with indiscriminate greediness, who hold whole sciences on faith, and commit demonstrations to memory, and who too often, as might be expected, when their period of education is passed, throw up all they have learned in disgust…they leave their place of education simply dissipated and relaxed by the multiplicity of subjects, which they have never really mastered, and so shallow as not even to know their shallowness.

How much better, he says,

to eschew the College and the University altogether, than to submit to a drudgery so ignoble, a mockery so contumelious! How much more profitable for the independent mind, after the mere rudiments of education, to range through a library at random, taking down books as they meet him, and pursuing the trains of thought which his mother wit suggests! How much healthier to wander into the fields…

[or from] the beach, and the quay, and the fisher’s boat, and the inn’s fireside, and the tradesman’s shop, and the shepherd’s walk, and the smuggler’s hut, and the mossy moor, and the screaming gulls, and the restless waves, to fashion for himself a philosophy and a poetry of his own!

Newman’s style is dated, but his questions are more relevant today than when he wrote. Our university education, indeed formal education at all levels in both the US and Ireland, often strives to do little more than load minds against examinations. We run from the idea of genius loci and see no need for living teaching.

Meanwhile, university administrators worldwide now measure success against a benchmark of mechanization. Efficient, modular, and uniform delivery of certifications is the goal. Newman reminds us that achieving that goal means not only that students will “throw up all they have learned in disgust,” but that society will ultimately throw up the university in disgust as well.

Community development: What works, or not?

Much has been written about community development from the perspectives of community members, educators, activists, local governments, social workers, or other participants. Although each perspective highlights particular issues, common themes run through some very diverse settings.

These themes are highlighted in a 2005 report, Community Development: A Guide for Grantmakers on Fostering Better Outcomes Through Good Process, written by Bill Potapchuk of the Community Building Institute, with Malka Kopell, of The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. But the perspective is one I hadn’t considered, namely that of grantmakers, those who seek to foster community development through grants. The report identifies eight elements of good process for community development:

  • Requires advocacy, seeking a process that leads to more investment, connection, and authentic participation
  • Effectively coordinates, links, combines, and supports various initiatives to ensure that they work in concert, using a shared strategy and supporting a common vision
  • Responds to and reflects a widely divergent set of interests
  • Is not imposed on people
  • Ensures that community residents are meaningfully engaged and have sufficient power to influence decisions
  • Creates safe opportunities for authentic dialogue across differences
  • Fosters collaborative conversations that become more strategic, holistic, and systemic over time
  • Anticipates conflict and seeks to discuss it in ways that forges common ground

We could use these eight elements as a rubric for describing or evaluating community-building efforts. For example, I recently encountered a quasi-governmental organization, which had control over significant funding but distributed that in a very patriarchal way. There was little opportunity for authentic participation, which meant that it was difficult for different initiatives to work in concert, use a shared strategy, or support a common vision. Activities were imposed on people, thus lessening the value of even worthwhile initiatives. Meanwhile, real needs were often not met or even recognized. There was little authentic dialogue across differences or a chance to forge common ground. The net result was that the organization failed to meet its lofty mission statement.

In contrast, I’ve seen at St Andrew’s Resource Centre in Dublin an organization that embodies all eight elements–authentic participation, a common vision, respect for difference, all leading to collaborative conversations that forge common ground–even if they might use different terminology. Similarly, Paseo Boricua in Chicago succeeds in part because it creates that space for dialogue and a respect for each individual.

In fact, it is the respect for difference that enables each of these very different organizations to build a sense of a common purpose. In each case, the realization of the eight elements is both means and end. Engaging participants makes it possible to accomplish specific tasks, but the engagement is itself a crucial aspect of community building. As a result, the sense of purpose and individual worth within these communities enables them to achieve far more, even with limited resources.

Africa Day, Dublin

May 25 was Africa Day, the commemoration of the founding in 1963 of the Organisation of African Unity, which later became the African Union. In honor of that, the Irish Aid organized a wonderful set of Africa Day events, held at the Irish Film Institute, the National Botanical Gardens, and other venues. We went to those at Dublin Castle and the Chester Beatty Library.

There were musical performances and dance, lectures, storytelling sessions, photography exhibits, arts and crafts, and food from many regions and cultures of Africa.

A notice prior to the event advised bringing suncreen and umbrellas for the rain, which was a good indication of the variability in the weather this time of year in Dublin. But the weather turned out to be friendly and helped make it a worthwhile day all around. By mid-afternoon there was a line to get in to the Dublin Castle grounds. I hope this becomes an annual event.

Technology in Docklands Education

One of the most interesting experiences for me this year in Dublin was to work with Abi Reynolds and Leo Casey on the Technology in Docklands Education (TIDE) project. The aim was to meet with 24 Docklands-area schools and other partners to investigate the current use of technologies in teaching and learning, to document their experiences, and to report on current and future needs. Most of the schools are in one of the DEIS categories (officially disadvantaged). You can see the entrance to one of the TIDE schools, the St. Vincent’s Girls School on North William St., in the first photo.

St Vincent\'s, North William StThe research design involved face-to-face interviews with principals and teachers, followed by an online survey. We learned about the school library, computer resources, interactive whiteboards, digital cameras, and other resources. We also observed some ICT-based activities in the classrooms or neighborhood.

For the analysis, we used scenario-based design (Carroll & Farooq, 2005) to describe the current situation and to identify needs. This led to producing scenarios of use—stories about exemplary projects, such as a stop-action animation involving Little Red Hens (see second photo). We also identified scenarios of support—stories of ways that the schools could be helped to enhance learning.

Visiting the schools gave me a good sense of education in inner-city Dublin, but also of the local communities. I became familiar with landmarks such as Five Lamps, Sheriff Street, and Ringsend, and learned about how Fairview Park near the River Tolka originated through landfill.

Many of the joys and challenges in the schools seemed similar to what I’ve seen in schools in China, Australia, Russia, the US, etc. But I also found myself expecting to be surprised as each school revealed its own special identity. One Principal told us that they had a large population of Filipino children, in part related to the demand for health care workers in the nearby hospitals. He said it had transformed his school, with all of the children becoming more interested in language, culture, and geography.


Bruce, Bertram C., & Reynolds, A. (2010, February, in press). Technology in Docklands education: Using scenarios as guides for teaching and research. Educational Studies, 36(1).

Carroll, J. M., & Farooq, U. (2005). Community-based learning: Design patterns and frameworks. In H. Glllersen, K. Schmidt, M. Beaudouin-Lafon, & W. Mackay (Eds.), Proceedings of the 9th European Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work (Paris, France, September 18-22, 2005), pp. 307-324. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer.

Our presentation to the Principals and teachers:

Mother Jones

This May, I feel connections to Mary Harris Jones, who was born in 1830, possibly on Mayday, in Cork, Ireland. She was a prominent labor and community organizer in the US, best known as Mother Jones. Her birthplace is in one of my favorite counties in Ireland and her burial place is not too far from my home in Illinois in the Mount Olive Union Miners Cemetery. That cemetery is also the home for coal miners killed in rioting associated with strikes which she had led.

Mother Jones’s legendary work during her 100 years of life is an inspiration. Her concern for working people caused her to be at odds with union leadership at times, as well as with companies or government. This combativeness led to her being called many things, including the “Miners’ Angel.”

Another labor organizer described her as “the greatest woman agitator of our times.” A DA called her “the most dangerous woman in America,” because she could inspire supposedly contented workers to demand their rights. When a Senator denounced her as the “grandmother of all agitators”, she answered, “I hope to live long enough to be the great-grandmother of all agitators.” She herself said “I’m not a humanitarian; I’m a hell-raiser.” I can’t pretend to or even fully imagine anything like the life she led, but I still admire her courage and caring.

Mother Jones magazine

Beyond place and dates, I feel a connection to Mother Jones in that I find the magazine named after her, to be one of the best sources for insights into current events. It probes deeper into issues than mainstream news services such as NY Times, BBC, or Deutsche Welle and has more factual content than most blogs or opinion magazines.

A good example, and what I started to write about today, is an article called Irony Man, by Nick Turse. It’s in part a review of the film Iron Man, but is really more a review of America’s disastrous foreign policy and how its most enduring harm may be to our own psyche and culture.

Dodder birds

Dodder walkFor much of my time here in Dublin, I’ve walked to work alongside waterways. First, it was the Liffey River. Then for a long time it was the Dodder, the second large, remaining, and still aboveground river in Dublin. Sometimes, it has been the Grand Canal. Each of the waterways has its collection of birds, the best being those along the Dodder.

I would often see a grey heron just downstream from the bridge near our apartment. There is also a pair of mute swans, who swim almost always close together, but every few weeks they have a day when they separate by a half mile. There are two main types of gulls, one I think being a Galway gull. swan in DodderThey’re fond of standing on the walkway’s stone railing, until I’d get with 44.5 inches, or was it 46.3?

Near where the Dodder joins the Liffey, I occasionally see cormorants. Further upstream mallards are very common and also moorhens, but they’re a little harder to see because they hang out below the brush near the bank. Magpies will also come down to the water at times.

mallardNote: The distant, red cranes in the photo of the walkway aren’t the feathered kind.

The Fís Book Club

Fis Book Club

The Fís Book Club has received an enthusiastic response from schools here in Ireland, and now in the UK. Fís means “vision” in Irish, and also stands for Film in Schools. It’s been developed at the Institute of Art, Design, and Technology in Dun Laoghaire.

The Fís Book Club is essentially a web-place where children post video book reviews based on their independent reading. The methods for making and posting the reviews are simpler and more straightforward than on other sites I’ve seen, thus allowing the focus to be on the reading and response.

The collected video book reports form a child-friendly online video Book Review Catalogue, which is accessible only to the participating schools. Teachers and children within the project can watch the videos of other children’s book reviews, find books they might like to read, or compare responses. There are no advertisements in the site.

Learning at work seminar

Learning at Work Seminar

The National Centre for Partnership and Performance (NCPP) and National College of Ireland are today hosting the Learning at Work Seminar: Practical Responses to the Future Skills Challenge.

Participants will discuss responses to the challenge posed in video case studies, as well as learn about:

  • Organizing learning opportunities
  • Public and private-sector workplace initiatives
  • What motivates people to take up skills courses
  • How to nurture a learning culture
  • Blended learning

My slides are below: