Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Don't have nightmares!

Hiding under the covers

Are students ready for the BRICs challenge? Did you know that adolescents are not really people? And if you died at your desk would your staff know? Ian Gilbert poses some questions to keep school and college leaders awake at night.

Leadership of... Rule-breaking

Put simply, creativity means breaking the rules; to look at the way things are and think, "Nah, not like that now, like this." As a leader, is it your job to think new thoughts or to maintain things the way they have been?

Darwin didn't use the term 'evolution'. The phrase he used to describe the way organisms survived by adapting to changing situations was 'descent with modification'.

Creativity is cognitive evolution. Playing by the rules and doing what we're told is the opposite of evolution. It is descent without modification. And when things don't change, they die.

Do you encourage rule breaking among staff? Students? Yourself? What if your motto for the 21st century were: "It's better to ask forgiveness than seek permission"? (But in Latin, obviously.) I'm not advocating anarchy, although have a look at these quotes from people who have gone through just such a process:

"Order or chaos." Ricardo Semler, Brazilian industrial leader and author of Maverick.
"Let chaos reign." Andy Grove, former head of Intel.
"Forecast for most companies is continued chaos with a chance of disaster." Arie de Geus, Shell.

I am suggesting that the previous purpose of education - to generate future workers who did what they were told; who knew enough of the 3Rs to be able to make sure they were doing things right; who would respect authority, love God and country and die for both if asked - needs to change dramatically.

Leadership of... The future of the brave new flat world

Consider these forecasts for the BRICs economies (Brazil, Russia, India, China):

  • India larger than Japan by 2032

  • BRICs larger than G6 (UK, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Poland) by 2039

  • China larger than everyone but US by 2016

  • China larger than US by 2041

What sort of world order are you preparing students for?

Or consider the best-selling book on business The World is Flat by Thomas L Friedman. Its overriding message is a wake-up call to us in the West: "The future is coming!" Friedman talks, for example, about jobs that are 'fungible', meaning they can be digitised and sent elsewhere in the world. Why should I pay my accountant 37.50 an hour when I can pay someone in China 3.75 an hour to do exactly the same work? Are our successful schools and colleges simply preparing the next generation of unemployed accountants?

While reading this book, a question kept coming into my head: Why do I need a teacher when I've got Google?

There are good answers to this question but only for good teachers; teachers who teach children, not subjects. And if you still think teaching can't be outsourced check out www.tutorvista.com - qualified personal tuition for just 50 a month coming to a computer near you all the way from India.

Leadership of... Brains

Is yours a 'brain-friendly' school or college? Do you keep up to date with learning in the same way you would expect doctors and nurses to keep up to date with medical science? This is way beyond dabbling with learning styles or leading staff in a round of Brain Gym during Monday morning briefing.

Are you aware, for example, that adolescents are not people? That the bit of our brain that balances risk and reward is the pre-frontal cortex or PFC and that this is the last part of the brain to mature, a process which takes 20 to 30 years? Did you know that there can be as much as three years' difference between maturation levels of children of the same age?

Such insights explain much about student behaviour as well undermining so much of what goes on in the name of discipline and teaching.

Leadership of... Trying new stuff

Insight should lead to innovation. To what extent, then, do you not only encourage but actively seek out and reward innovation, even if it does not lead to great lessons every time?

A classroom is a laboratory, where each lesson is a mini-action research project. And if every lesson is an experiment, teachers cannot fail.

But teachers are scared. They are scared of letting their children down and scared of what Ofsted will say, though Ofsted boss Christine Gilbert explicitly encourages innovation in the 2020 Vision document. They are scared of what their colleagues may say (sometimes teachers are their own worst enemies).

Most of all, in my experience, they are scared of what you as heads and principals may say (despite what you actually say).

To what extent are you encouraging a 'ready; fire; aim' culture, where getting some lessons wrong leads to making a great many lessons better for a great many students?

Leadership of... Not wasting money

One example of 'the way we've always done it' is the use of supply teachers. I was approached by a school that said, "Enough!" and was looking to technology instead. Together we built the Learning Bug which is, in effect, teacher-less learning. Where can you draw a line in the sand?

And how much money did schools collectively spend on supply by between 2003 and 2006? That's right, 2,571,013,084.

Leadership of... Little things

One thing I stress to teachers is that if the word 'laminate' crops up when planning lessons they are trying too hard. Millions of pounds of neuro-scientific research often boils down to one little change in a classroom that can change everything forever. Don't let any teacher tell you that they can't implement multiple intelligence theory, for example, because they don't have the time/ money/resources/training. It's not true. Teaching children a quick 'muscle memory' technique takes seconds but can mean the difference between two out of ten and ten out of ten. A set of Post-It pads makes for just as good a 'kinesthetic learning opportunity' as a set of laminated cards in their own colour-coded envelopes. Using rhythm can be just as effective (and much more efficient) than using rote.

Leadership of... Thinking

I was a copywriter in advertising for a while (something that explains my relaxed approach to starting sentences with words like 'and', 'but or 'so'. And to verbless sentences). So, I was expected to think up ideas to sell things that people didn't need to people who couldn't afford them anyway. Yet, when I sat there staring into space doing this I was accused of doing nothing. So, I busied myself with not thinking.

Do you feel the same way? If someone entered your office while you were sitting with your eyes closed, feet on the desk, deep in thought would you apologise? Would staff prefer you to your job without thinking?

Is yours a thinking school or college? Do you teach students how to think as well as what to think? Do teachers stop teaching long enough for students to think for themselves?

If, as Piaget suggests, intelligence is 'What you use when you don't know what to do' would all your students, especially your A* students, be able to answer 'Thunks' such as 'Is a broken down car parked?' or 'Is there more future or past?' Are students - and staff - able to share what they think with as much confidence as what they know?

Leadership of... Self

I once heard that self-esteem is like oxygen masks in an aeroplane. If you are traveling with a child, you put yours on first and then help them (and if you are traveling with more than one child, choose your favourite).

To what extent are you looking after yourself to be able to look after others? Are you practising what the behaviour expert Charles Handy calls 'proper selfishness'?

There's a true story of a man who died at his desk. No one noticed for three days. Why? Because he was always the first one in and the last to leave. Would staff notice if you were dead?

Dee Hock is the man behind the world's first trillion-dollar business, Visa. In his words: "Without management of self no one is fit for authority no matter how much they acquire, for the more authority they acquire the more dangerous they become... Lead yourself, lead your superiors, lead your peers and free your people to do the same. All else is trivia."

Leadership of... A world where whatever innovations you have in mind will probably not be enough

Churchill once said, "Headteachers have powers with which prime ministers have not been invested."

Gordon Brown - a former Chancellor of the Exchequer - came to power declaring "Education is my passion." One of his first acts? To put in charge of education a man who had been at the Treasury.

In the words of American business guru Tom Peters, "Education is economics; economics is education."

You have the future of this country in the palm of your hands. You have the future of the world there, too.

We are living in a time where, in the old trumpeter's adage, "If you can say it, you can play it." Ideas from science fiction - controlling computers with our thoughts, restoring sight to blind people with 'braingates', instant translation devices, lifts half way to the moon, holidays in space and more - are becoming a reality.

The learning environments of the 21st century could resemble something from Asimov very quickly. We are also living in a century where it is possible that our species may not see out the end of it. Such a time demands that headteachers use the power that Churchill so envied. After all, as one American general put it:

"If you don't like change, you're going to like irrelevance even less."

Ian Gilbert is the founder of Independent Thinking Ltd. For more information about Learning Bug, Thunks or anything else above, email ian@independentthinking.co.uk or visit www.independentthinking.co.uk Ian's new book Why Do I Need a Teacher When I've got Google? is out later this year.


Annual Conference 2008

Ian Gilbert challenged and entertained delegates at last year's ASCL Annual Conference with his thoughts on 'Leadership of...' and other topical issues. For more thought-provoking, inspirational and informative speakers and seminars, don't miss ASCL Annual Conference 2008 in Brighton, on 7-9 March. To find out more or to register, visit www.ascl.org.uk

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