Leadership Legacy

One of the recurring pleasures I have in life is coming into contact with people who knew my late father.  He had been a family doctor for over 40 years and had selflessly ministered to the needs of a close-knit community throughout that time.

Having a relatively unusual surname people ask me whether or not he was any relation and inevitably, upon hearing that he was my father, launch into telling me stories about how he had helped them – and usually their family. The stories of impact are even stronger from those who worked with him – especially young doctors who came into contact with him as trainees.  It often transpires that he has had a seminal impact upon those individuals who used him as a role model and exemplar upon which they based their own future behavior.

Now the point of this story is to explore what it is to be a leader.  I use the leader here in its more general sense, as I would describe anyone who has a role in supporting and shaping a community as a leader, in his own terms, my father was a leader in his community, just as would be a teacher, or minister, or a sports coach, etc.

As I read leadership programmes and courses it strikes me that my father hadn’t been trained in any of the theory or mechanics of leadership – yet he had developed an intuitive understanding of how to engage with individuals that inspired confidence, interest and self-belief.

It was while trying to think about the characteristics of high quality leadership that I came to the conclusion that it can only really be measured in terms of legacy – and not short-term legacy on an organisation, but on long-term legacy on the life and behaviour of individuals.

So what are those characteristics that mark out the person that leave such a legacy? As regular readers of this column are aware I like the number seven – so in order to arbitrarily limit this list I’ll stick to what I reckon are the seven features of long-term leadership legacy.

The first of these is ‘passion’, a passion for what they do, and a level of enthusiasm that rubs off on all those around them to the extent that we are infected by that same passion.

The second characteristic of leadership legacy is ‘truth’. People often use the description authentic leadership – but put more simply we are naturally drawn to people who have an inner sense of being ‘true’ to themselves first and foremost – and through that sense we are more inclined to place our trust.

The third, is ‘knowledge’, I’m not talking here of people who can absorb every fact about their chosen area and regurgitate it at will – but about people who have a depth of understanding about their area of work and who carry that knowledge very lightly and allow it to be demonstrated through what they do – rather than what they say.

Fourthly, those who leave a lasting leadership legacy are driven by a sense of ‘duty’ and service which transcends self-interest – in fact it can occasionally become self-harming – but it’s exactly that element of self sacrifice which makes such people so appealing in a world where we come to think that there is an ‘angle’ on everyone’s behaviour.

The fifth feature is an ‘interest’ in other people – once again not through what the person can get out of that relationship but simply the pleasure to be gained through seeing them developing their own passions and abilities.  We talk of mentoring and coaching but ultimately it’s a matter of simple human relationships where one person passes on something of deep worth to another person – and in so doing gains enough from that unsophisticated transaction.

The penultimate feature of leadership legacy is perhaps a little surprising but in my experience those who leave the greatest legacy have a ‘flaw’ – not a huge destructive handicap – but something which reminds us all that they are human beings just like us, capable of the same mistakes and errors, but which put them just within the reach of our imagination enough to encourage us to strive to be like them.

Finally, there’s something about these people that is difficult to put your finger on – Professor Rev. Norman Drummond would describe it as being connected to their ‘spirit’ – a connection between their head and their heart that transforms their behaviour from disconnected actions into a purposeful life.

Looking back on the death of my own father I wrote a poem that same evening and one of the verses read:

Your family extended to a community

And we sought refuge in your knowledge

In your vitality and wisdom.

Protected against our fear of suffering

We passed our worries on

And you absorbed them

Putting them in a black bag

Within your soul.

It’s this notion of ‘soul’ – or essence, if you will,  - that inspires confidence amongst those around such a person to the extent that in challenging times we know things will “turn out to be alright”.

I suppose that if any of us who have leadership roles should have any ambition about our legacy it should be that – sometime, long after we are gone – that someone meets one of our children and tells them that we left something behind in them that still lives on.

Obliquity – valuing an indirect approach to educational improvement

Sir Harry Burns, Scotland’s Chief Medical Officer, argues that the promotion of health has for too long been based upon a deficit model. That is, we tend to focus on identifying the problems and causes of ill health. In turn this leads to the identification of outcomes all directed towards a particular deficit, e.g. reduce the number of people who smoke; reduce alcohol intake; or increase exercise levels.  The system is comfortable with these discrete outcomes and develops strategies and activities aimed at achieving these outcomes.

Yet the evidence clearly shows that such a deficit led model has not led to any substantial impact upon those most vulnerable to ill health, i.e. the poorest in our society.  Sir Harry recommends that in order to promote good health we need to focus on what creates health (salutogenesis) rather than the traditional view of preventing illness.

In order to achieve that goal people need to be able to understand their lives, manage this day to day, and see themselves and life as worthwhile. People who feel they have little control over life experience more stress. This chronic stress mechanism in the body risks seriously damaging health and quality of life.

In turn this has led the Chief Medical Officer to propose that we fundamentally shift public health policy towards seeing the assets within people as individuals and in groups within communities, and that we support people to work together and take control of their own lives.

Such a conclusion challenges those of us in public service who have been conditioned over the years to focus upon a simplistic notion between cause and effect, e.g. reduce smoking levels by implementing a smoking reduction strategy; or (in our world of education) improve literacy levels by introducing a new reading scheme. This approach appeals to our managerialist tendencies and enables us to set targets, allocate budgets and evaluate success, thereby fulfilling our obligation within the professional management hierarchy.

Yet Sir Harry Burns is not alone in challenging this managerialist approach, with its simplistic assumptions regarding cause and effect, and suggesting that a more holistic and seemingly incidental approach can allow us to achieve our goals more effectively.

The concept of ‘obliquity’ (the state or condition of being oblique) was first proposed by another famous Scottish medical figure in the form of the Nobel Prize winner Sir James Black, which he defined as follows:

“In business as in science, it seems that you are often most successful in achieving something when you are trying to do something else. I think of it as the principle of ‘obliquity’.”

Obliquity has been further developed by Scottish economist John Kay, who argues that often the best way of achieving our goals, especially those which are particularly complex, is to do so indirectly.

“Strange as it may seem, overcoming geographic obstacles, winning decisive battles or meeting global business targets are the type of goals often best achieved when pursued indirectly. This is the idea of Obliquity. Oblique approaches are most effective in difficult terrain, or where outcomes depend on interactions with other people.” John Kay 2004

The paradox presented by Kay is that if you want to go in one direction that the best route might often be to go in another. The irony of Kay’s work is that the managerialist aspirations of those of us involved in public service delivery leads us to mirror what we think to be the effectiveness of the rationalist commercial approach. We set outcomes, we attempt to control parameters, we measure and evaluate, but above all we get locked into doing things the way we have done them in the past and expect different outcomes just because we have planned them better. It was Einstein wasn’t it who was attributed to have described this as insanity i.e. “….doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.”

Yet what we tend to miss is that the world which we inhabit is complex and imperfectly understood. Any analysis of our plans would support such a conclusion given the extent of our certainty that we can succeed where others have failed.

So what has all this got to do with our own complex business of education? Well from a personal perspective the concept of ‘obliquity’ strikes a chord in my intuitive understanding of how the world works.

For education is an iterative process which benefits from an open minded and adaptive approach which values problem solving and creativity.  As soon as we begin to believe that we can make a predictable connection between an action and outcome then we are almost destined to fail. “Results are what we expect, consequences are what we get”  Robert McNamara

Consider the traditional approach to improving the educational outcomes for the lowest attaining 20% of students in our schools – an intractable problem for Scottish education. Typically we would identify the students, plan a range of actions targeted at their deficits, and sit back expecting positive results – and then be surprised when no substantive change takes place.

An oblique approach to the problem would not tackle this directly but would amongst other things address the culture of the school, teachers’ values, and the value placed on education in our most disadvantaged communities.

Yet such an approach would take courageous leadership from a school leader, particularly in a professional environment that places undue value on sophisticated plans and confident ‘direct’ action.

Meeting the needs of our customers

I recently had the pleasure of spending some time with a chief executive of a major UK service company.  In terms of the bottom line there can be few people I’ve ever encountered who adopt a more concentrated and determined focus on making the business ‘hit it’s numbers’. However, as we spoke it became obvious that in order to ‘hit the numbers’ the organisation places service quality and customer experience at the heart of making the business work.

What fascinated – and surprised me – was that I had more in common with this leader of British industry than I might have expected.  There is a tendency amongst those of us who work in the public sector to imagine that we somehow inhabit the higher moral ground than those who are simply motivated by filthy lucre.  Yet time after time, this person challenged my perceptions by continually reflecting upon how the managers and staff in the organisation place the needs of customers at the forefront of their practice.  So much so that the chief executive often ‘cold calls’ on outlets and tests the customer orientation of the team.

The logic behind such practice is very clear – if customers don’t enjoy or appreciate the service they are given then the chances of them spending their money again with that particular service company is very unlikely. In turn the chief executive then asked me whether or not I thought schools were accountable the same manner.  Of course, private schools have a paying relationship with the customer – where custom can be withdrawn – but no such transactional relationship exists in the state sector.

It made me think again about the nature of the relationship between schools and parents in the state sector.  If a parent can’t pay for private education, and cannot move their child to another school due to lack of transport, or the fact that another school is unavailable how does the customer influence the quality of the provision?  Quite simply the only route open to them is to complain if the quality is not to their satisfaction.  Yet in terms of my friend’s company such a limited form of customer feedback would be far too late based upon the fact that many people don’t complain they just take their business elsewhere.

So one could argue that state schools are relatively closed environments in terms of customer accountability. Where else in a citizen’s life – other in than the health service – are a customer’s options so limited? Think of our internet providers; supermarkets; car manufacturers; restaurants; banks; etc. – the common feature is that we  – where, if so inclined, can take our business elsewhere.

But surely a school is accountable through its local education authority and through that to the local council with locally elected members, and finally through inspection bodies such as Education Scotland and the Care Inspectorate? Surely that is enough? Once again its worthwhile thinking of private sector examples – most of which have similar accountabilities through shareholders, boards, and audit processes – in addition to the accountability to the customer.  Yet none of them would think that such ‘outward facing’ accountability takes precedence over the needs and preferences of the customer.

It’s at this point in this line of logic that most of us involved in Scottish education come to an abrupt halt – because the next step takes us into unthinkable territory – i.e. some form of direct accountability to the customer. Our first problem lies in the notion of education having ‘customers’ -  it’s an area I’ve explored on numerous occasions and without fail it stimulates intense antagonism from educationalists who see any notion of education being ‘productised’ as a step too far.

However, my fear in the current financial environment is that a local authority’s capacity to act as the prime agency to which schools are accountable is under huge pressure.  Yet we know that headteachers would prefer to retain the status quo in terms of line management accountability – and that there is no certainly appetite for parental governance. So here we are at an impasse – which may not become completely obvious for another couple of years.

On hearing this the chief executive asked whether or not there was any opportunity for the management to opt out – in commercial terms the concept would be akin to a ‘management buy out’ I explained that we have explored such models before but that there had been no appetite from parents for self-management.  But that wasn’t what the chief executive had in mind –  “customers don’t opt out – but managers can” was the response.  And so we explored the notion of how a management team in a school might negotiate a  ‘management buy-out’ from the local authority. The biggest shift in such a model would be that the school would have to set up a board of governance – with a very clear and unambiguous focus on meeting the needs of its customers.

I tried to explain that there were huge obstacles in even contemplating such an idea but the chief executive warmed to the challenge and put it to me that surely the system must provide space for its best managers to operate in a more directly accountable manner with their customers.

We decided to leave it there but the idea has remained with me ever since – gnawing away at my imagination at how such a seemingly crazy idea might actually work.

Solving the Recruitment Gap

A Scottish Government Report on the Recruitment and Retention of Headteachers in Scotland  (2009) evidenced the growing crisis in recruiting headteachers in Scotland:

There is an increasing focus on these issues in many countries where recruitment and retention of senior leaders has attained “crisis” status, impacting with particular force in areas seen by aspirants as less desirable, such as schools located in inner cities and less accessible rural communities.

Three years on the situation doesn’t seem to be getting any better – particularly in the Primary School setting.

A combination of factors including, a relatively small pay differential between primary Headteachers and Deputes; relatively few principal teachers who have sufficient management experience to make the jump; and a perception by many that the job is too demanding.

In the next few weeks East Lothian is to advertise 7 headteacher vacancies and I am concerned that we won’t receive sufficient interest for all of the posts.  It was with this in mind that had a chat with a colleague who is a Principal Teacher in a secondary school.  An exceptionally talented individual she is concerned that the reduction in senior management posts in secondary schools will limit her prospects of gaining further management experience.  I asked her if she would be interested in a management post in a primary school. Her reaction was very positive and it seems to me to be a worthy of consideration – especially with the 3-18 focus for Curriculum for Excellence. In fact I wrote about this possibility a few years ago for TESS Leadership Skills – are they transferable?  I am convinced that such scheme would create a surge of interest from committed teachers who have significant management experience which would transfer successfully to a primary school environment.

The main obstacle for such a thing to happen is the qualifications barrier – secondary teachers are not qualified to teach in primary schools. However, perhaps there is a solution. What if a person wishing to be considered for a Management post in primary school had undertaken – or committed to complete the On-line post graduate certificate in primary education offered by Aberdeen University? What if the authority paid for half of the £900 fee? Are there any people out there who would be interested in such an opportunity?

And before anyone asks – yes I do think that primary teachers could manage in a secondary school environment!

Drop me an e-mail if this is something you would like to follow up.

 

 

 

The best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas

“It’s easy to stop making mistakes. Just stop having ideas.” Unknown

“Too many people run out of ideas long before they run out of words.” Unknown

“The difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones.” John Maynard Keynes

“The best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas.”
Linus Pauling

“Good ideas are not adopted automatically. They must be driven into practice with courageous patience.” Hyman Rickover

“A committee is a cul-de-sac down which ideas are lured and then quietly strangled.”
Sir Barnett Cocks

“If at first, the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.” Albert Einstein

“An idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all.” Oscar Wilde

“New ideas pass through three periods: 1) It can’t be done; 2) It probably can be done, but it’s not worth doing; 3) I knew it was a good idea all along!” Arthur C. Clarke

 

S3 Graduation Certificate?

TESS have published an excellent article by Danny Murphy entitled How should we measure improvement in the future?

In the article Danny explored the notion of establishing a Scottish Graduation Certificate.

This was a strange coincidence as I’ve recently been reviewing a number of posts I’ve previously written on the idea of an S3 Certificate. Perhaps the idea is worthy of resurrecting?

Here are some a link to these posts and a copy of an article published by TESS in 2008:

The recent OECD report on Scottish education contained a recommendation for a Scottish Certificate of Education for pupils in S4-6. While pondering the significance of this recommendation, I was challenged by a secondary teacher about how he was going to keep kids motivated for three years while they experienced a broad-based S1-3 curriculum. The teacher’s challenge was that if we could not motivate kids in two years, why would extending that by another year make a difference, especially if our entire secondary education is driven by the certification system?

The “reality” is that in many teachers’ – and students’ – minds the S1 and S2 curriculum is only given value by its link to the certificated curriculum. In fact, such is the power of this “value through certification” that some schools in Scotland have introduced the certificated curriculum even earlier. The logic of this step is quite compelling, and it certainly demonstrates that a school is doing something to address these allegedly fallow early years of secondary school.

So if, in reality, most secondary school curriculum models are driven by a “trickle down” effect of certification, why not recognise the power of such a driver and seek instead to build a different engine.

That would be to create a Scottish Certificate of Education, for which students would be eligible at the end of S3. In the OECD proposal, such a certificate was to be for the 3-18 curriculum. But I believe that there must be some means of capturing a young person’s achievements between the ages of three and 15 before they start to engage with the world of formal qualifications. This would form a junior Scottish Baccalaureate.

What if we could create a Scottish Certificate of Education which was more akin to the Duke of Edinburgh Award, or the John Muir Award, where it is more about accumulating achievements as opposed to any external exam? Such a curriculum would give schools the freedom to create the content within their SCE course, using the headings set out in Curriculum for Excellence, for example, skills for learning; skills for work; skills for life; curricular achievements across a broad spectrum; health and well-being; numeracy and literacy.

The only externally-assessed element would be numeracy and literacy, leading to the proposed Scottish Certificate for Numeracy and the Scottish Certificate for Literacy. A school’s S1-3 course could be submitted for external moderation to ensure it met national standards but, within that framework, there could be considerable freedom.

In my “imagined” curriculum, the focus in S1-3 would be on an “achievement port-folio” where employability would be a key component. I know that, for some, the idea of employability as a focus for education is a step too far. But we can flesh out a definition of employability which would be compelling, inclusive and, above all, easily understood by young people, parents and the wider community.

I know this proposal seems to run counter to the concept of non- certification before S3, but if we seek to change our practice we need to recognise the reality in our schools and build from where they are.

Learned Hopelessness: challenging the notion of destiny

“Children’s lives to be worse in the future”, so read a headline following a recent Ipsos Mori survey where almost two-thirds of people believed the current generation of children will have a lower standard of living than their parents.

Such a headline chimed with something Professor Graham Donaldson, former senior chief HMI for Scotland, recently identified when he referred to one of the greatest challenges facing Scottish education to be a young person’s perceived sense of ‘destiny’. It’s ironic that Graham should use such a word given its significance to Scottish History – to which, of course, I refer to our iconic ‘Stone of Destiny’. However, in Graham’s sense of the word it was not to be a hopeful, aspirational, or confident view of the future, but rather quite the opposite. In fact he was referring to a ‘hopeless’ view of the future, a future set out for you by dint of your socio-economic background, which – to our eternal shame – has more of an influence upon your educational outcomes and future than just about any other country in the developed world.

It was this notion of hopelessness that triggered for me a connection with what psychologist Martin Seligman termed to be ‘learned helplessness’. The idea refers to the phenomenon where a person’s sense of personal agency, to do and achieve things for themselves, is undermined by circumstances from which they cannot escape. Eventually the person gives up and accepts their situation regardless of the harm it may be causing them.

By linking Donaldson’s notion of a damaging destiny and Seligman’s concept of helplessness, I wonder if we are facing an even more pervasive limit to personal growth. I am referring here to the challenges facing all of our young people, regardless of socio-economic background, as a consequence of the global economic downturn. The concern here has to be that our next generation becomes so conditioned by circumstances to accept their “destiny” and in so doing fall victim to ‘learned hopelessness’.

Imagine the impact upon a generation of children and young people who come to accept that their future is hopeless and learn from their peers, their parents, the media, and society in general that their destiny is mapped out and that they cannot expect to experience the ‘happiness’ of previous generations.

Such an assumption might lead those of involved in education to conclude that whatever we do as teachers our young people are destined to have unhappy and unfulfilling lives, as their standard of living is going to be lower than our own generation.

However, such an assumption is based upon the premise that happiness is in direct proportion to one’s standard of living. If that was the case, it would have to follow that our parents were unhappier, than we are, and their parents, in turn, must have been unhappier than them and so and on, and so on.

In fact the evidence is quite the opposite with a 2009 OECD report showing that for most of the last 25 years, people born between the Great Depression and the end of World War II were more likely than early baby boomers to report being very happy.

It is surely the role of teachers then to challenge the orthodoxy that young people’s futures will be “worse”.   For what is teaching if not to plant a seed of hope in a future beyond our time? No successful teacher I have ever known has resigned themselves to believing that their efforts are not imbued by that sense of hope for the future. In fact that’s perhaps the single most defining factor between the teacher who goes through the motions of teaching, and the teacher who transforms the lives of young people by sharing their belief that anything is possible.

For it seems to me we have two choices. Firstly, we could sign up to the notions of despair and hopelessness, and accept that children’s lives will be worse, regardless of whatever action we take. Alternatively, we could believe, that our efforts will provide a foundation upon which a young person can find happiness from being absorbed in a personal interest; can be resilient and can cope with future challenges; lives a life of personal meaning by having a sense of belonging; and, has the wherewithal to accomplish their own personal goals. Above all we must recognise that a person’s happiness in the future will depend on their capacity to build and sustain social ties as part of a community, or even communities.

Surely such an inventory describes much of what we are attempting to achieve through Curriculum for Excellence. I know that most parents that I speak to, first and foremost want their children to have happy lives. At a time when we see students with five ‘A’ passes at Higher and First Class degrees struggling to make their way in the world it’s never been more important that we take a more rounded view of education in order to equip young people with the necessary skills and outlooks to face an uncertain future.

If then, we are to avoid “learned hopelessness” we need to ensure that we are not “teaching hopelessness”. In order to achieve that goal we would be well advised to learn from a small country such as Bhutan, whose strategy for promoting the national well being of their population is based upon their commitment to “Gross National Happiness”, or does such a notion fail to resonate with the Scottish psyche?

 

The impact of repealing legislation: the role of local authorities in education

The juxtaposition at the recent ADES conference of Mike Russell, Cabinet Secretary for Education in Scotland, and Steve Munby, Chief Executive of the English National College for School Leaders, provided an interesting perspective into the possibilities for the future of Scottish education.

Mr Russell was very careful not to give away anything about changes to the governance of schools post local elections scheduled for May 2012. However, the general consensus is that change is on the horizon and that it will see more devolution of power to schools and headteachers; a change to funding mechanisms to schools and the associated role for local authorities; and an associated change to the role of local authorities in setting policy.

No-one reckons that there will be wholesale changes along the lines that were experienced in 1995 when the most recent local government reorganisation took place. Primarily due to the fact that any externally driven change requires the government to pick up the tab for the change process, etc.

This is where a comparison between what has happened in England over the last 25 years or so can prove useful. I must emphasise that I do not think Scotland will follow the English model in terms of the final outcome, e.g Academies, Trust schools, etc, but rather that we might follow the change strategy.

For it seems to me that one of the main means adopted in England has actually depended more upon repealing legislation, as opposed to the starting point being the creation of new legislation. That’s not to say that new legislation won’t be necessary but that the starting point could be to consider which pillars of the existing system could be pulled away, which in themselves might lead to radical change.

This is certainly what happened in England in the 1988 Education Reform Act, which saw a range of powers for Local Authorities being removed and either passed down to schools and their governors, or passed upwards to the government. Over the next 23 years those twin directions of travel have been inexorable. This is most recently evidenced in the 2011 Education Act, which further repealed the duties of local authorities.

In that period the government have not had to legislate for change in the organisational structure in local authorities, but rather by changing the responsibilities of local authorities the government created an environment where the local authorities had to adapt themselves to their changing role.

So what might be the duties currently undertaken by Scottish local authorities which, if removed, might lead to the most significant change?

To my mind there are four duties outlined in the “Standards in Scotland’s Schools etc. Act 2000“, which, if removed, might result in dramatic change to the education system in Scotland.

The first of these duties relates to the role of the local authority in relation to school improvement. This would be a fundamental shift in practice and would transform at a stroke the role of the local authority.

Section 3

(2)An education authority shall endeavour to secure improvement in the quality of school education which is provided in the schools managed by them; and they shall exercise their functions in relation to such provision with a view to raising standards of education.

The second duty which could be removed might be in relation to the local authority’s role in determining educational objectives for schools in their area.

Section 5

Education authority’s annual statement of improvement objectives

(1)For the purposes of their duty under section 3(2) of this Act, an education authority, after consulting such bodies as appear to the authority to be representative of teachers and parents within their area and of persons, other than teachers, who are employed in schools within that area and after giving children, young persons and such other persons within that area as appear to the authority to have an interest in the matter an opportunity to make their views known, shall, by such date in 2001 as the Scottish Ministers may, after consulting the education authorities, determine (one date being so determined for all the authorities) and thereafter by that date annually, prepare and publish a statement setting objectives.

The third associated duty which could be removed might be in relation to school development planning, which would remove the obligation of the school to take account of the local authorities statement of educational objectives. (although this would be superfluous if section 5 (1) were removed.

Section 6
School development plans

(a)a development plan which takes account of the objectives in the authority’s annual statement of education improvement objectives published by that date in the year in question and sets objectives for the school;

Finally, the last duty which could be removed might be in relation to the delegation of budgets to schools. This presupposes that the delegation scheme is devised by the authority. However, if this were removed it could be replaced by a national scheme of delegation which is simply overseen by the authority.

Section 8

Delegation schemes

(1)An education authority shall have a scheme for delegating to the headteacher of a school—

(a)managed by them; and

(b)of a category of school which is stated in the scheme to be covered by the scheme,
management of that share of the authority’s budget for a financial year which is available for allocation to individual schools and is appropriated for the school; or management of part of that share.

    Of course, these are simply personal musings on the future of local governance of education and are not based in any inside knowledge of what will happen once the local elections have taken place. Nevertheless, it’s important for people in my position to have some view of how the things might change and how we could adapt if these were to come pass.

Twittershare: Using Twitter to improve education (Part 1)

We held a brainstorming session on Thursday with a view to exploring how we could maximise the potential of Twitter for teachers, learners, parents and other stakeholders. The initial thoughts we explored on Twitter – see #twittershare

What follows is a thought-piece (Part 1) on suggestions which emerged during the course of the meeting with a view to helping us establish an implementation strategy.

It’s important to stress from the outset that Twitter is only one tool in the box, and as such, regardless of it’s potential benefits, should always be seen as part of a wider systems based approach to educational improvement.

1. Give Twitter A focus; don’t make Twitter THE focus.

Ironically when attempting to promote the use of Twitter there is a tendency to focus upon the tool itself – as opposed to what the tool can do help us achieve our educational objectives. These objectives could be: improving student learning; creating a network of collaborative professionals; promoting partnership and understanding between parents and schools; involving stakeholders in creating new policy; sharing valuable experiences, ideas and sources with others; etc. The list of objectives is only limited by our imagination but the basic point remains the same – “Don’t make Twitter THE focus, but give Twitter A focus.”

2. Look beyond early adopters or willing volunteers

If you look at the profiles of many Educational Tweeters they often profess to have an interest in technology. That’s probably to be expected and yet to base a strategy on people’s passion for technology is to alienate a huge swathe of the population. I’m sure there are lessons to be learned here from the likes of Steve Jobs who tried to focus on making his tools align with the needs of the user – even if the user wan’t initially aware of their needs.

The second element of this principle is that so many educational initiatives across the globe have foundered on the forlorn belief that we can create change by growing beyond a band of willing volunteers. It was Professor Richard Elmore who most eloquently identified this fundamental flaw in the majority of educational change strategies. For the reality is that such change models rarely extend beyond that self selecting group leaving the majority of professionals to continue with their practice relatively unscathed. The unspoken philosophy adopted by such individuals can be captured by the phrase “I won’t get on this one as there be another one coming along soon”, i.e. if they keep their heads down their practice will go unchallenged.

3. Help leaders to lead by example

This is an imperative for changing the practice of the profession yet all too often we (leaders) expect and even encourage others to adopt practices when our own continues to conform to what we know – “don’t do as I do, do as I say”. It’s difficult to work out exactly why this is the case and it must be something to do with the fear that we may be perceived by our employees to be wasting our time on something which perhaps appears to be peripheral to the “serious” business of management.

The second obstacle is the legitimate concern that many leaders just don’t feel they have the time available to engage in anything new and possibly tangential to their central function. This concern will only be overcome if leaders are able to see that the tool can actually allow them to achieve their goals in an even more effective and time efficient manner than their current practice – if it doesn’t, then it shouldn’t be used.

4. Overcome the fear factor

We must never underestimate the fear that people have for exposing themselves to the public on an open network. Most professionals have been brought up within a highly hierarchical system where communication is decidedly up-down in nature and just as frequently controlled by others. This is not necessarily a bad thing as teachers, and even managers, can be protected from themselves, and others, in such a controlled environment.

The idea of sharing one’s thoughts, or being immediately accessible to young people or parents can be enough to put off even the most intrepid professional.

That’s why training must accompany any attempt to encourage teachers and leaders to use Twitter. That training should be aligned with the focus (see point 1) and should happen in conjunction – as opposed to the “here’s a Twitter course”.

5. Hand over the training process to our students

Teachers and school leaders are used to the traditional top down, cascade model of training which has been the dominant training approach for the last fifty years. However, by encouraging our students to become the teachers we achieve two things. Firstly, we model to students that we are also learners and that no single group has a monopoly on knowledge. Secondly, the training we would receive could be collaborative and once again model the kind of learning and teaching approach we would hope to promote in our classrooms.

6. Seek out the Ryan Giggs effect

It’s a sad fact that Twitter use exploded in the UK when people wanted to find out information about the mystery footballer at the centre of a news scandal. Not that I’m suggesting that we mirror Mr Giggs’ behaviour but that we look for events, news and possibly personalities that people can only get access to through the medium of Twitter.

7. Create the tipping point though lots of tiny steps

Promoting Twitter use will never be achieved through the traditional single BIG project approach. The approach we should be taking is to build its application into everything we do to the extent that it eventually permeates everyone’s practice. By seeking to achieve that tipping point, the group of “late” or even “never” adopters – as described in Point 2 – are much more likely to begin to make of use of the tool and, in so doing, achieve the more important underlying objective of improving educational practice.

Release them if you dare

See – Curriculum for Excellence – senior phase options

Option 37. No parent/teacher meetings in senior phase – replace with student/teacher review meetings – parents can shadow.

This might appear to one of the more extreme options to be considered but it’s worth holding back on an immediate reaction until further explained.

By the time students get into the senior phase (the last three years of upper secondary school education) they will have spent 13 years in the formal education system – with at least one, if not two, parent teacher consultations/interviews each year.

Parents are keen throughout that period to know how their child is progressing, know how they can help their child, and generally show an interest in their child’s education. In the early years of education this can be very helpful and builds a strong partnership between the student , the school and the parent.

Yet we still think that by attending parents evenings with our 16 or 17 year old child and think that we can influence them when we get home to up their rate of study or change their attitude to school. Some hope! (I know – because I was that parent!)

So perhaps it is time to consider alternatives?

I wrote a poem when my brother’s son was born which seems quite appropriate for this topic:

A CHILD’S HAND

Take your child by the hand

and hold the future there

Keep him upright if you can

Release him if you dare

It’s this last line which most of us as parents have difficulty with, i.e. letting go. 

Yet within a year or two they are off to university, or college, or employment and we no longer have the influence we thought we had when they were at school.

So why is it that we don’t try to prepare young people for that transition from the claustrophobic atmosphere of  parental control (even if it is a fallacy)  - where we are metaphorically sitting on our child’s shoulder?

The concept of helicopter parents  has been well documented in the world of higher education – or “overparenting” – yet we, as parents, have been conditioned over the previous 15 years to think that we have to step in to protect and shape our child’s future.

Perhaps we need to consider breaking this umbilical cord whilst our children are still at school and get them to take more responsibility for their own progress? It’s at this point that the change from parent/teacher consultations to student/teacher consultations begins to take on more of logical perspective.

The idea would be based on a dialogue between the teacher and the student, at a time when the parent is available, but where the parent shadows their child and doesn’t interview the teacher.

In this way the responsibility for the learning process shifts from the parent to the child and the learning partnership between the teacher and the student is reinforced.

Of course, I know that many teachers and students would find this observed discussion to be extremely difficult. The tongue-tied student and the teacher who is uncomfortable speaking to the student as an equal is very easy to imagine. But if well managed through a conversation template. e.g Student: “this how I feel I’m doing in this  subject”; “This is how you could help me learn better” and Teacher: “You seem to be having problems with ……..” and “You are showing real promise in ………” and “If you were to try to ……………….”

The role of the parent is essentially observational but could have a concluding element where the student speaks to their parent in front of the teacher about their progress or otherwise.

I know this seems like a radical idea but when you see how ill-prepared young people really are for going off into the world of higher education or employment then anything which prepares them to be more independent and responsible learners has to be a good thing.