Creativity – Key Skill

Wired to Create Crop

“The truly creative mind in any field is no more than this: A human creature born abnormally, inhumanly sensitive. To him …..a touch is a blow, a sound is a noise, a misfortune is a tragedy, a joy is an ecstasy, a friend is a lover, a lover is a god, and failure is death. Add to this cruelly delicate organism the overpowering necessity to create, create and create – so that without the creating of music or poetry or books or buildings or something of meaning, his very breath is cut off from him. he must create, must pour out creation. By some strange, unknown, inward urgency he is not really alive unless he is creating.”

Pearl S. Buck
Winner of Pulitzer and Nobel Prizes

Educators today are very fond of parading and selling the emphasis given to the development of creativity in their schools. Many have declared its importance through values, mission or vision of the school. This has been partly a response to the work of people like Dr Ken Robinson (highlighting the ways in which education kills creativity) and the recognition that creativity figures highly in most lists of the core skills that employers look for both now and in the future from their workforce.

However, I’ve really seen very little attempt by most educators to define what is really meant by creativity, what it would look like if a student had it and the best ways to ensure that school experiences nurture and cultivate it. How many schools could give an honest appraisal of how well they are achieving this aim?

The picture and quote above come from the best book I’ve read so far this year. As I read it I was continually mindful of this inclination towards creativity that is espoused by educators, but how the lack of detail or clarity suggests that these are simply nice words given little deep thought or introspection

The starting point is to acknowledge the types of creativity the world, business and schools want. in addition, as Dr Ken Robinson has highlighted over many years, the young infant doesn’t lack for creativity. A small child doesn’t need to be taught divergent thinking. When a child runs around the house or garden with a stick that is one second a gun, the next a flying broomstick, the next a walking stick and the next a cricket bat they show all the attributes of creativity.

The reality is that a lot of divergent thinking is not welcome in the classroom. Teachers fear the divergent thinking child. In fact, one chapter of the book shares research where children who were more creative divergent thinkers were among the least popular with their teachers, while their more compliant, obedient and passive peers were top in the popularity stakes. So, the child who is going to retain their creativity will need the resilience to deal with unpopularity and the treatment meted out to them by all around for ‘not playing the game.’

I had a very personal experience of this in primary school. I moved in to the classroom of a teacher I found incredibly frustrating. Her attention was all on power and control. It was a place where you spoke when ordered to do so, where obedience was the golden rule. I dared to ask questions and even after being given all the visual warning signals I continued to ask questions when dissatisfied with the dismissive responses i was getting. As time went on, the relationship between me and that teacher became more and more adversarial. Worse, she sought to turn my classmates against me with sarcasm and hints that I was stopping the class from moving forward (and the perception being that progress forward through the syllabus is what everyone’s supposed to care about). It all escalated to the point where the teacher suddenly took out a large roll of sellotape and taped my mouth shut. The sense of humiliation and belittling was horrendous. I received the message loud and clear that my curiosity, my desire to know things and understand some things deeper was not welcome in a classroom. Rather, classrooms were places where ‘playing by the rules’ counted above anything else and the punishments for daring to step out of line could be barbaric.

Creativity is challenging by its very nature. In 1959 Isaac Asimov pointed out that, “The world in general disapproves of creativity.” Many companies have had to take hard looks at their cultures to understand how they can create more ‘safe space’ for creativity. However, the focus on getting stuff done, continual movement of all in a common, shared direction in schools means that it’s majorly stifled in both teachers and students. Therefore, I conclude that any school that glibly declares it applauds creativity, but doesn’t ask itself serious questions and introspect continually is likely to be short-changing students.

Sadly, this gets brushed off by pointing out the inclusion of music, art and drama in the syllabus of the school and even that students can take these subjects through to examination levels. Also, much of the ‘creative time’ is pushed to extra curricular activities. A keen eye watching most schools’  annual talent competition would notice two significant things;

a) The levels of real, true creativity exhibited are minimal. The fact that a child can produce a reasonable rendition of a popular song or dance is hardly representative of creativity, and
b) Almost all the talent on show will have been acquired by the child outside the school, not in it.

The ability to point to a handful of children with some degree of mastery playing the piano or violin, putting on a staged musical or writing a poem for the school yearbook or displaying a watercolour of three pointy mountains and a rising sun does not represent proof that the school inculcates creativity in its students. The fact that many of those things might be done in very formulaic, pre-precribed and predictable ways may actually be indicative of quite the reverse.

As the various chapters of the book highlight, creativity is not neat and clean and certainly not formulaic. Rather, it comes out of daydreaming, mindfulness and developing an awareness of the working of one’s own mind. Invariably (but not exclusively) it flows from and is most often found in those who have undergone some suffering and had the strength to battle through to the other side of their personal challenges. If schools are truly positive for creativity they need to think carefully about how they support students to build resilience and grit.

As the quote at the beginning highlighted, creativity often flows from heightened sensitivity. All too often, today’s schools teach such sensitive children to tone down their emotions, to put a lid on strong feelings and to learn to conceal or bottle up those feelings that would make them stand out.

In fact, this may highlight the area that requires most effort in schools. All too often, it’s just not cool to stand out, to be different or to show behaviour or thinking that is outside the norm. Instead, school cultures emphasise conformity, fitting in and complying. many spend way more time drilling children for ‘march past’ etc for sports day than in activities that develop and expand on ability to think differently.

Visions, missions and values are not meant to be just nice phrases that are tripped out, displayed on websites, brochures and hall walls. Rather, they should be treated as touchstones against which a school community is continually testing itself.  The work of school leadership around these driving principles is never done. They should be continuously introspecting and leading the debate, encouraging a willingness to publicly challenge, question and innovate – a process akin to peeling an infinite onion.

It’s time to get creative about how we develop creativity in schools.

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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.)

Lifelong Learning – How Are We Doing?

Lifelong Learning

These days it seems that almost every school, new or established, mentions in its mission, vision, values or some other important statement that lifelong learning is a major priority of the school. School Heads, Principals and Directors talk a lot about lifelong learning in major events and gatherings with students and/ or parents.

This has now been the case for a few years, so it’s worthwhile to pause and ask – How are we doing? Has all this attention on lifelong learning changed anything?

Well, first of all, where did it come from and why did people start to think it mattered? Around 10-15 years ago more and more evidence was emerging that pointed to the likelihood that young people in school were going to grow up in to a world and environment where they would not simply have multiple jobs, but multiple careers. It was clear that the pace of change in the world, especially technological, was accelerating and the best prospects for the future would lie with those people who through continuous learning were most capable of reinventing themselves, shedding their existing knowledge and taking on the right new learning.

I believe that if we look at the tertiary sector first, quite a lot has changed in response to the recognition of the need to support lifelong learning.  We have seen quite a rapid increase in the availability of online learning options that support adults in processes of continuous learning. There are also many brick and mortar institutions that have supplemented their traditional learning programmes with more modular offerings, sometimes offered as hybrids that are conducted part face to face and part online, with scope for people to learn more at their own pace to fit in with the fact that they’re often still working full time.

There is a definite break away from the idea that formal and informal learning are completely separate, or that formal learning all takes place in a purely linear fashion, to be completed in the earliest part of ones life by the age of about 21 – 25. We see Universities and colleges questioning what they should look like when it comes to physical infrastructure. It’s costly to create physical places of learning and therefore there must be a justification to create the physical infrastructure. Then, there are considerations about how specialised or general the learning spaces within those buildings should be in order to best support modern and effective learning practices.

Too often I see these debates happening when new institutions are being created, or where major construction is due. There are still arguably too many institutions (especially in developing countries) that look to purely and simply replicate the traditional models of the past, more intent on churning out young people with bits of paper than focused on enabling learning.

In developing countries, universities and colleges have not gone far enough to place the focus on self-directed, self-driven learning, owned by the learner. There are all sorts of arcane rules about attendance, rigid generalist course structures with whole cohorts progressing through at the same time, at the same pace, subject to strict rules, hierarchies, even uniforms. They look little different to traditional schools for overgrown children.

So, overall, worldwide i might be inclined to give the tertiary sector about a 5 out of 10 for progress towards playing their part in a world of lifelong learning.

And what of the K-12 schools?

Firstly, what is the role of K-12 schools towards lifelong learning?

I believe it’s twofold;

a) To equip young people, in age appropriate ways with the tools and skills to be effective self-directed lifelong learners. 
b) To ensure that pupils have the motivation to be self-directed lifelong learners

Every baby and infant is a highly self-directed, highly motivated learner. They don’t wait for anyone to come with a syllabus or a curriculum. They don’t wait for permission to learn or to be instructed. They don’t go out of their way to take short cuts to learning so that they can spend their time idly. So, we’d do well to question ourselves about how our schools stifle these natural inclinations that ought to be the perfect foundation to grow and develop tomorrow’s motivated lifelong learners.

I believe that one of the biggest problems with point b) is related to teachers. If, as an adult and potential role model for lifelong learning it would be fair to expect;
(i) Teachers admit to their own learning and talk about it openly.
(ii) Focus on potential more than performance, both related to themselves as well as their pupils,
(iii) Shed their focus on competence, in favour of vulnerability and the ambiguity of openly being a learner. If a teacher has to be the ‘fully complete expert’ in the classroom, then by implication their learning process is complete and they no longer need to be learners,
(iv) Teachers would be open about how they drive their own personal learning curriculum. They would openly talk about things they’re not expert in.  They would reveal to their pupils the things they’re learning. They would even be open to learn from the pupils in areas where they have more knowledge (such as IT).
(v) Teachers would not say things like, “Yes, I believe in lifelong learning. I’m always looking to learn from everyone around me.”
That’s a cop-out, an excuse for not pursuing real, hard learning. Instead, it implies that this lifelong learning is just another name for a dab of responsiveness and listening to others around – not something like real learning that involves investment of real time and effort in risk, vulnerability and deep dives in to new and varied areas of learning directly or even slightly linked to their work.

Our schools and school leaders still behave as if learning is something that is done to pupils, not something they do for themselves. The assumption built in to the culture of schools in dozens of ways big and small is that pupils would not learn unless made to do so. And, we have to say that the way most of the learning  in schools is still done, it’s no surprise that it will only happen under duress. It’s one-way, one size fits all (that it’s not personalised despite all the talk of personalisation I’ll save for another post).

Turning to point a)  a school/ learning environment that really cares about development of lifelong learning would place at least as much emphasis on process as outcomes. And our schools don’t. Schools would be places where children are encouraged and motivated to pursue deep and broad learning according to personal interests. They would be helped to understand HOW to learn most effectively.

This would bring in opportunities for children to learn and understand how their minds work, how memory works, how motivation impacts learning. They would not simply learn to read, but would be equipped with opportunities to acquire skills to read in different ways for different purposes. Children would be learning effective ways of note taking and how to work out the learning techniques and methods that work best for them.

An open climate based on common growth mindset, the presence of healthy grit to push through when learning is challenging, to seek out one’s own sources, to discern between the quality of different sources etc.

So, in conclusion – is it really fair and honest for schools to be telling the world that one of their core values is the development of lifelong learning? Are the school leadership really doing the introspection about every aspect of their school’s practices, habits, methods and whether they take their pupils towards or away from lifelong learning?

Are pupils walking out of the school gates the day after graduation saying  – “that’s all over and nobody’s doing that learning stuff to me any more,” or “Ok, I’m ready – where’s the next great learning that i want to bring on for me?” Are they seeing learning as a pull rather than a push process?

If not, then K-12 certainly isn’t at five out of ten. It might not yet even be at two out of ten.

A long road ahead and lots of work to do. And we won’t enable lifelong learning for pupils until we embrace it for ourselves.

That easy!

International Mindedness

There has probably rarely been a time when the emphasis given to ‘International Mindedness’ in International Schools has come in to focus as more necessary or more pressing as a concept to be imbibed and understood.

To start – we need to be really clear what international mindedness and its promotion in schools is not – and that is frocks, food and festivals. You cannot say because you celebrate different religious and ethnic festivals, give children the opportunity to dress up and to try different foods then you have done what is needed to promulgate international mindedness.

It’s also not about some ambiguous claims about everyone being the same. Rather, the person who has international mindedness doesn’t stereotype people and is mindful and reflective of the prejudices they might have at an unconscious level. That can be an uncomfortable reflection at times. it’s not even about just simply being aware of diversity, but actually welcoming it, relishing it and seeing it as a positive.

International mindedness comes from a position of empathy, compassion and curiosity before doubt and cynicism. People who think this way acknowledge that whilst different people have different life experiences, perceptions and experiences, we are all connected. Some make the mistake of fearing that being internationally minded somehow means giving up something of who and what one is. In fact, there is no lessening of pride or connection with one’s own culture and origins. Retaining rootedness is an important aspect of identity and nobody is really advocating that everyone should consider themselves absorbed in to a single mass or entity that is humanity, devoid of customs, tradition, history or heritage.

The internationally minded person, because they feel connected, cares and considers that what happens to all people, anywhere in the world, matters to them. When thinking about politics, major world events, the inter-relationship between countries, climate issues etc. there is a need to think in inter-connected terms. It is no longer effective in an internationally shrunken world (through travel and the internet) to confine one’s caring and attention to what happens in your own backyard.

The greater the spread of international mindedness, the greater the benefits for all humans everywhere. International Schools can play a significant part in this, but leadership and teachers have to acknowledge that it’s a long road that requires unwavering commitment and the willingness to be a learning organisation, to introspect and reflect and to be self-critical when necessary.

In schools it starts with the vision, mission and values – the guiding statements and the extent to which they are lived, embodied in the day to day life of the school and especially in managerial practices, leadership and governance. There’s a continual need to assess the curriculum (both overt and covert) and syllabus delivery to determine the extent to which it embodies and furthers the core messages of inter-dependence and international mindedness. As much as possible, children should have the opportunity to learn languages other than there own as this is a significant bridge to international communication and understanding.

The importance of the element of caring is best served by promoting service learning as a key part of school life. This goes well beyond simply raising funds, but leads to full engagement with peoples whose life experiences are vastly different to those of the students.

I’m thoroughly convinced by the merits and value of promoting international mindedness through international schools. However, it’s vital that, in age appropriate ways it goes well beyond the superficial, the shallow and tokenism to enable box ticking. It must be a lived, fundamental part of the ethos of a school that can be sensed through all aspects of the life of the school and its pupils.

Toxic Staffrooms and The Courage To Lead

Great educators are by their nature reflective. They take time to ‘look inwards’, to reflect on their actions, their words and their impact on others. At times this can lead them to be quite ‘confessional’. However, such occasions do sometimes provide opportunities for introspection for their fellow educators.

Here’s an article from an American teacher that is almost confessional in nature, but that touches on something that too many teachers and leaders in schools all over the world have experienced – the potential toxicity of staffrooms. She also makes the valid point that it’s not limited or confined to a particular place or room, but manifests anywhere in a school where talk is overly negative, cynical or crosses the line to become gossip-laden.

Edweek – Why I Avoid The Teachers’ Lounge, And You Should Too

There are many factors that go in to making up the culture of a school. Among the most influential aspects that are all encompassed under ‘leadership’, I believe are;

a) Vision, Mission and values (V-M-V) that are clearly articulated, inspiring, exciting and it’s made clear that they are for every stakeholder in the organisation. It can be all too easy to see the articulation of V-M-V as a ‘one-off exercise’ – a quick inspiring talk to the staff at the beginning of the year and job done. V-M-V have to be made a living, dynamic part of every activity, every significant discussion and it has to be clear that they’re not a five minute wonder, but a fundamental part of the school for the longer term. It must also be very clear that they apply in all respects to all stakeholders; pupils, teachers, non-academic staff, parents and even outside vendors who support the school’s activities. They are not a menu to pick and choose from on a whim and, as adults, we have to be very clear that we are to model the values as consistently as we can for the children, holding ourselves accountable to the highest professional standards. We must walk our talk.

b) Accountability – In short, a leader can’t lack the courage or sense to lead and cannot be denied their right/ duty to do so. There can be times and occasions which are hard to deal with. Informal leaders can emerge who consciously or unconsciously espouse values and beliefs different to the organisation or who have bad habits (e.g. toxic gossiping) that are highly detrimental to the good of the institution. When the individual is a ‘good teacher’ in the classroom this can be especially tough. It is the leaders’ duty to guide and counsel the person, coach them, hold them accountable for the actions which are harming the organisation. Ultimately, despite the fact that they can deliver good work themselves, in the worst case scenario where they won’t or can’t change it can be right for the leaders to decide to part ways with the individual. Ultimately, permitting someone to exist in the organisation espousing or practicing incongruent values can be a worse failure of leadership than allowing someone who lacks skills or competence in their role.

When the leadership has given the individual every chance to change, there is no failure in taking ultimate responsibility. However, we need to be aware – toxic staffroom people can be popular people at a personal level, especially if they satisfy a personal need of staff members to have an outlet for negative feelings!

c) MBWA – this was a wonderful acronym I learned from the business writer, Tom Peters, many years ago. It stands for Management By Walking About. In essence, it’s simple and clear – as leaders we’ve got to put ourselves out there, even if that requires some very rigid and forceful diary management and the strength to say ‘No’ at the right times. In my view, this is probably a more critical factor in schools than in any other kind of organisation. Schools are all about people. As a leader, if we choose to allow it, there will always be more than enough people who can create situations that seem to justify us spending our entire work day in our offices. However, we must never forget that sitting in our offices we receive only the information from the outside environment that others choose to send us/ bring us or lead us towards. When it comes to ‘Teachers’ lounge’ tendencies, this can actually risk leaders becoming part of the very issue that threatens the culture of their school or department. Then, we become reliant on only the perspectives of others about people, mood and ground realities – instead of going out and really feeling things for ourselves, hearing what everyone has to say (not just those who choose to bring us information). School leaders must ensure they carve out time to see things for themselves, to hear people and genuinely listen to all stakeholders and to get their own feel for what is happening in all areas of their school.

I once joined an organisation where I discovered that there was an accepted norm/ practice that required the Principal to knock and virtually ask for permission to enter the staff room! To me this was symptomatic of some past MBWA breakdown. What could staff possibly be doing, in the staffroom, in school, that the Principal didn’t have the right to know? After a few weeks we learned a great example of what was going on in that staffroom. New teachers would get cornered by ‘old’ established teachers and mocked for their hard work, attempts to innovate and compliance with requests/ directions from the school leadership. There was a kind of mafia of cynicism in that room that plainly was not in the best interests of the school and certainly not in the interests of children and their learning. New staff were stressed and hurt by the conflicts they were experiencing between the positive and inspiring words of the school leadership and this localised negativity. Situations like this are tricky to deal with. If you confront those concerned directly they may turn against those who they believe have ‘grassed on them’. It could have left a new teacher very vulnerable. Ultimately, we were able to find out from loyal committed longer term staff that this had happened multiple times. As a result, when the individuals concerned were confronted they had no one person they could target. Some immediately distanced themselves from the problem by staying in their classrooms during free periods. Ultimately, two who might have been considered ringleaders left and went elsewhere (where word reached us that at least one was doing the same thing!)

When we step up to be leaders it shouldn’t be for money, or for status or personal prestige. It really has to be because we want to make a positive difference in the education field. Our best opportunities to do that flow out of the extent to which the ‘butterflies fly in formation’ and that comes out of both words and practice aligned to common understanding of V-M-V.

A final word for teachers – in this time of school break and the opportunity to reflect on our practice – if you think that maybe, like the writer of the article, you’ve been inadvertently sucked in to being part of staffroom issues, now is the time to commit and pledge yourself to rise above them, to strengthen your commitment to the V-M-V of your school (and I stress, I’m talking here to all teachers everywhere). We can decide to be part of the solution, instead of being part of the problem.

Tenby Educators – Academic Year End

Dear Tenby Educators
Following on from my end of term letter to you all, I promised you some more information here!
As educators who espouse the virtues of ‘lifelong learning’, it is vitally important that we too make lifelong learning a natural part of our day to day life. As educators, we are in a unique position to model the values of the school for our children.
I also happen to believe that this value of ‘lifelong learning’ is a win-win for all of us – growing feels positive, learning is enriching. I also believe that educators share knowledge, so for me that’s the biggest reason why this blog exists.
Vacation time is important for us to recharge our batteries, to reflect on our professional practice and to set goals for ourselves that motivate, inspire and excite. I believe humans are a bit like bicycles – we’re at our best when moving forward and standing still really does us no good at all.
I take this opportunity to share with you my personal selection of great reading, perfect for vacation.

1. Mindset, Carol Dweck
This is a book I’ve been very fond of recommending to both colleagues and parents, ever since I read it for the first time. I believe it deserves to be right up at the top of the reading list. Carol Dweck is a professor at Stanford University. Her book explores, through research findings the impact of the Fixed Mindset vs Growth Mindset. The starting premise is a simple one, but as the book highlights the implications are massive. Educators and parents who are not aware of the findings in this book can be inadvertently reinforcing fixed mindset that can blight the lives of children as it infects their beliefs about academic abilities, propensity and skill in learning, creativity, sports and physical skills and abilities.
If you choose to read only one of the books on this list, this is the one I recommend.

2. Happier, Tal Ben-Shahar
A small slim book, but one of of my favourite books. The book is a bi-product of Tal’s course that he used to teach at Harvard – the most popular and most attended course there. Yes, indeed, the young under and post-grads of Harvard are smart enough to realise that they can have all the skills, intelligence and ability to get in to one of the world’s great academic institutes, they might be destined for great professional success – but, none of that guarantees them happiness in life. Tal is a part of the ‘Positive Psychology’ movement that is applying the rigour of academic research and thinking to what might previously have been strictly the domain of the self-help movement.
Very thought provoking and well worth exploring.

3. Flow or Finding Flow, both by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
I’ve read both of these books twice, and took something new away each time. Both are fascinating and well written books about how to ‘get in the groove’ so that tasks don’t feel like tasks and we get more done of what we need to do to achieve our goals and aspirations.
These have occasionally provoked some really interesting conversations with students about how to create meaning and purpose in mundane tasks. I talked about how when I had menial manual jobs as a youngster I would set myself targets related to how quickly I might complete a task, how accurately, estimating various aspects and then seeing how close I could get to those estimates. As I did this I found time on task flew by, I avoided boredom, got the job done and felt satisfaction afterwards.

4. Linchpin by Seth Godin
In a changing world, everyone needs to pay careful attention to how they ‘make meaning’ in the world, carve out a niche for themselves and do work that is engaging to them.
On my first reading of this book I found so much that was significant both for us as adults and for children in school, being prepared for life.
In short – it’s about how people make themselves indispensable (and that includes reading and learning!)

5. Disrupting Class by Clayton Christensen
A Harvard Business School professor who has built his reputation on work about how technology does so much more than just lead to incremental changes in any industry, turned his attention to how technology can radically disrupt the field of education.

6. Schools That Learn by Peter Senge
This certainly wins the prize on this list for the biggest and heaviest of the books – maybe a bit too heavy for your hand luggage if travelling. Peter Senge is one of the world’s leading authorities on Systems Thinking. In this book he turned his attention to schools, education and parents. There is an accompanying website that provides more information:
http://www.schoolsthatlearn.com

7. Good to Great by Jim Collins
One of a series of books that looks at companies and organisations from various fields, exploring how they get beyond just merely being good companies or organisations, but become outstanding – and, maybe more important, sustain it.

8. The Leader Within by Stephen Covey
Most people know Covey for the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (and subsequently, the Eighth Habit). In this book he translates the habits in to a set of principles that can be used to create a school culture, following through in some detail some of the first schools in the USA that did so.

9. The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything by Sir Ken Robinson
The man best known for his groundbreaking TED talk that challenged some of what he perceived as wrong in education today. It’s the most watched TED talk ever and has been the inspiration for many educators to bring meaningful change to schools and their teaching.

10. Punished by Rewards by Alfie Kohn, or
Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn
A somewhat controversial and provocative, New York based educator who has published many books setting out well-reasoned arguments that challenge some fashionable and accepted orthodoxies when it comes to teaching, schools and parenting. Reading Alfie Kohn’s work leads us to start to question things we may have taken for granted in many ways about children.

Bonuses:

11. Drive, Daniel Pink
As a long time reader of Pink’s books and his blog this book had been on my ‘to be read’ list for quite some time. It’s a fascinating exploration of human motivation. It’s relevant for us to understand our motivation as adults, but also to understand children’s motivation to learn.

12. Giving Voice to Values, Mary C Gentile
I originally received this book as a gift from a professional colleague. Ms Gentile is a professor of Babson College, USA and the book explores the issues of finding courage to lead through values and inspire others. It explores how values can be the driving force for an organisation and for leadership.

Nurturing Educator Talent in Schools

culture-79-638

Some years ago I coined a phrase that went something like this – “We don’t have the right to ask great teachers to work alongside mediocre colleagues.”

There are times when we have to ask ourselves some deep and challenging questions about some of the incongruity in education and especially in the way schools are run – the gaps between what we say we want, and our actions. For example. most educators today say that they want their schools to be places of differentiated learning where each child gets to fulfill their potential guided by the most motivated, professional, skilled and talented educators. But then, we see rushed and uncoordinated recruitment processes and even new teachers rushed in as compromises because teacher work load (numbers of lessons to be taught) is treated as more important than finding the best teacher to enhance the team.

The result of such practices is that teachers (and even sometimes pupils) see a mismatch between what’s said and what’s done – in which case, they’ll ignore what’s said. Is it naive of me to believe that teachers who want to be part of a high performing team would rather cover for a vacancy in the team for some time, rather than see a compromise candidate hastily rushed in? I have to say, my experience suggests such views are very rare. Then, let’s not even get started on how new teachers are integrated in to teams, mentored, brought in to the fold to really understand the culture of the school they’ve joined and what it expects of them (sending the message that managing the processes is way more important than the culture).

I believe that when looking at issues of leadership in schools and how our schools run today, whilst there’s a fair amount of talk about school culture as it relates to the students, there’s not nearly enough talk about school culture when it comes to the employees. This is not fully compatible with the suggestion that we aspire to meritocratic, high-performing workplaces. Culture matters in organisations – it matters a lot. We need to be paying far more attention to how we lead and how we create cultures of high performance.

I believe there are interesting lessons that can be learned from elsewhere, although often in education suggestions like this can also be treated as a form of heresy. In my experience, schools have more than their fair share of ‘NIH’ – Not Invented Here. This is a syndrome that comes with phrases like, “well that might work there, but it wouldn’t work here.”

When we think of high performance meritocracies most people would figure that Silicon Valley technology companies fit the bill pretty well. For some years I’ve been intrigued to get my head around whether there are lessons we can learn from the culture of technology, high growth companies, even if they might still require some adaptation. In my research in this area, I was fascinated to come across the stories of a famous document that was produced by Patty McCord (who was, at the time, Chief talent Officer at Netflix). When the document was publicly shared it acquired ‘cult’ status. It’s easily possible to find and download copies online today (Just Google ‘Netflix Culture Deck’) It’s basically a 126-slide Powerpoint deck that sets out a manifesto for a high performance culture. However, it’s been described by Facebook COO, Sheryl Sandberg as “may well be the most important document ever to come out of the valley.”

I’ve now read the slide deck 4-5 times and I find it stimulating my thoughts in different ways every time. The starting key principles are that common sense is a far better tool for leading organisations than rules and that the best performing organisations should look to employ ‘fully formed adults.’ There’s a high emphasis on valuing the organisation’s values and management’s responsibility to manage context, not control and to offer ‘top end remuneration.’

Here are two articles, well worth reading. The first is a Huffington Post article describing the key atrtibutes of the Netflix Culture. At the bottom of the page you’ll find the 126 slide deck:
Huffington Post – One Reason For Netflix’s Success – It Treats Employees Like Adults

The second article, from Harvard Business Review is authored by Patyy McCord herself and sets the Culture document in context and provides some interesting insights in to the thinking:
Harvard Business Review – How Netflix Reinvented HR

I loved the references to Enron’s espoused values (and we all know how important they were in practice). I have always believed that in our schools we have to be deadly serious about our values. They’re not just a few fancy words on a website or a poster – they have to encapsulate the culture and the DNA of the school. The idea is that in most circumstances, responsible, professional mature adults can figure out exactly how they should be responding to a set of circumstances by reference to the values and common sense. it doesn’t need sets of rule book and regulations, and it certainly doesn’t require the cynical game-playing of management making rules and staff working to interpret them to their personal advantage (and often the disadvantage of the culture).

The Netflix document doesn’t advocate a ruleless wild west. Rather, it places the emphasis on rules existing where they need to. Plainly, in schools, in all areas that relate to child safety, hygiene and those aspects that can’t be compromised there is a need for rules that are well understood and implemented by all.

There have been times when I’ve been saddened to see a form of collegiality in schools that amounts to complacency about mediocrity and careless or even shoddy, uncaring work. Teachers can, at times, have a propensity to believe that the only way to be is to act on the basis that we’ll all say nice things all the time, look the other way regarding others’ shortcomings (and they will do the same for us) and the most important thing is that everyone should ‘get on.’ In the meantime, quality of teaching and learning are compromised and everyone knows it. I once saw a situation in a school where supervisors conducted performance appraisals of newly joined teachers. The new teachers had been given ratings of 4 or 5 out of 5 across the board. However, when confronted face to face the supervisors admitted that some of these teachers were a long way short of acceptable in standards of performance. In one case, they even wanted the teacher to be asked to resign, but had not been willing to give real, actual honest feedback about shortcomings. There are few things in the workplace that generate more cynicism than performance appraisals, and with good reason.

If, as educators, we are going to choose to bring in and adapt practices from the world of commerce and business, with the intention of raising the standards and quality of our schools, then we need to be ready to look to sources that are innovative, bold and daring (and effective), rather than replicating the humdrum and those things which have already so often proved themselves to do more harm than good to organisational culture.

So, if we were to open our minds to the kinds of ideas contained n the Netflix Culture document, what kind of schools might we have? I hazard that for one, leaders would get to spend far more time focused on the development of children and less on tinkering with the rule books!

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