School Through the Eyes of Others

Pillars

Early in my experience of heading a school for the first time, I vividly remember the experience of a meeting with a prospective parent who had come in to discuss the possibility of admitting his son in the new school that was soon to open.

I met him in the reception area, shook hands and we headed through to my office. Nothing at all unusual at this stage, though conversation wasn’t exactly flowing. The gentleman was tending to answer questions in short or mono-syllabic responses. As we sat down in our seats I noticed that he was sweating slightly across his forehead and also that he was breathing from very high in his chest. As we started to talk he picked up a brochure and it was clear the paper was fluttering in his hand. Our discussion continued to be disjointed.

I paused, took a deep breath and asked, “Are you feeling uncomfortable?

He laughed, breathed and asked if it was really so obvious. He then admitted that his own school experiences had been rather traumatic, including some very unpleasant experiences in the Headmaster’s office. I smiled at him, told him mine wasn’t all a bed of roses either and suggested that we might have a walking meeting around the school grounds instead of sitting in the office.

We headed out of the door, walked for about 40 minutes with conversation flowing freely in a very relaxed manner. He made clear within about 5 minutes that he would be admitting his son. In the rest of our conversation we simply got to know each other better and, along the way, he shared some of the experiences he’d had in school that he’d only realised on that day had stuck with him in ways that were deep and powerful.

I share this memory because I have often felt that as a profession those in education are not always as good as we might be at seeing the education experience through others’ eyes. When educators do see the experiences in schools through the eyes of pupils or parents, too often there’s a temptation to be dismissive, to suggest that it is what it is and others should adapt. In the words of Stephen Covey’s fifth habit of highly effective people we need to do a better job of seeking first to understand and then to be understood. That doesn’t mean educators don’t have a right to be heard and understood, but is a matter of sequence and priority.

Recently, I read of an interesting story from the world of design thinking. The design company IDEO had been invited to consult for a hospital to look at how they might redesign the entire patient experience. IDEO are renowned for not taking half measures. Among other things, one of their designers actually checked himself in to the hospital as a patient and documented his experiences. When it came time for IDEO to present to the management, instead of a fancy presentation full of ideas and recommendations, they were shown a six minute video of nothing but the ceiling of a hospital ward.

They understood immediately that this is the mind-numbing reality for patients (for hours, not six minutes). This galvanized all the personnel of the hospital, not just the management, to work actively with the designers to come up with alternatives, to see the hospital experience from the perception of users. They came up with an enormous number of implementable ideas, because of a high sense of ownership. The ideas generated didn’t necessarily require big budgets, but made significant differences.

If we applied similar approaches to our schools, what might be achieved? If we treated everything that goes on as open to question and exploration, what might we change? What excuses about curriculum, budgets, time and others’ expectations would we put to one side?

This is not about terribly complex solutions. It’s about simple things that when all added together could add up to a big deal. School leadership and/ or outside inputs can lead the way, but i believe ownership will be far greater if the people in the school are a critical part of the movement. It’s important to make it fun, make it playful and very positive. Try things out. There’s hardly likely to be lots of dangerous downside on any changes, so better to go ahead and take action.

Change in schools doesn’t have to be about high cost IT or technology interventions.  If it’s motivated and driven with continual reference to the school’s values, vision and mission and from this perspective of ‘user experience’ it can gain its own momentum that will make change and innovation a way of daily life in the school.

(Would schools built for little people to be comfortable in have great big pillars like in the picture above? Worth thinking about.)

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