Friday, January 17, 2014

School leadership for a future world.


It has been a quiet time for writing blogs. Here, in the South Pacific New Zealand is on holiday but by now principals and teachers will begin to be thinking about the year ahead. I have been saving up some beginning the year activities to share in the last few days of the holidays which might be useful to start the year.
There are no boxes in the future

A few years ago at a BBQ I was talking to a recently graduated teacher who had not been given any real information about the position he was to take up in a couple of weeks. In an attempt to help him I put together some ideas that he, and other beginning teachers, might find useful. I have always liked the quote that there is no shallow end when you begin teaching – from day one you are faced with thirty plus students to ‘educate’. Those first days are important.

While teachers, even the experiences, are always apprehensive about what the year hold principals might well use the remaining days thinking how to better create the conditions to get the best from both teachers and students.

Leadership is important in any organisation – leaders set the tone, create the climate for better or worse. The last decades has seen principals being given them more responsibility while at the same time the current government has imposed greater accountability and compliance requirements. This paradox has led to schools ‘being over-managed and under led’. As a result of imposed formulaic ‘best practices’, evidence based teaching,  and the narrowing effect of National Standards, teacher and students creativity is at risk.

Let’s hope that while principals are relaxing they are thinking of better ways to lead ‘their’ schools so as to to create conditions to allow greater teacher creativity.

With this is mind it is important to step back and try and see the big picture about the purpose of education for the 21st Century. Our schools, even at the primary level, have their genesis in an
industrial era – timetables, bells, imposed fragmented curriculums, testing and targets and a success fail orientation – best exemplified by the sorting of students under National Standards.

It is hard to do such thinking when the school is in operation but the questioning of the assumptions underpinning traditional schooling based on mechanistic concepts of hierarchy, efficiency and bureaucracy is vital.

It’s obvious that we can’t expect future success as long as we stay wedded to  old approaches. As Einstein said ‘No problem can be solved from the same level of thinking that created it.’

It does concern me that many principals see little need to change – or prefer compliance to creativity, conformity to innovation; to ‘go along to get along’. To many principals have learnt to keep their heads down, not make waves and do as they are told by the Ministry (or really the Minister).  Too many, like the parable of the frog being slowly boiled, don’t notice the water heating – until it is too late.  Most appear to think being political or criticalis not for them and meekly comply without question with policies they know are wrong. Many just want to stay on the good side of those in power. At least this leaves the field open for courageous principals to lead the way to develop their schools as centres of creativity and diversity focused on helping all students discover or develop their unique set of gifts and talents.

Imagine a school focused on developing students talents as the purpose of education – to do so would require a new mind-sets by all involved and a rearranging of curriculum priorities. For all students to be successful they would need not only to be provided with integrated curriculum challenges to allow interests to be established but they would also need to opportunities to gain all the appropriate skills to achieve personal excellence. Literacy and numeracy would need to be ‘re-framed’ to contribute and not be an end in themselves.
Real innovation starts in classrooms


Such schools would require courageous leadership to combat old ideas and habits. Such schools would need new organisations based on self-managing teams and value, and share, the ideas of creative teachers. To be leader in such a school would be a real challenge.

Such leaders would, once  to develop the talents and gifts of all students has been agreed to, would need to respond continuously to change and to support and trust their teachers. A leader, in such an environment, needs to make sure the purpose of the school is clear to allow teachers to act in ways that align with the agreed purpose and to hold themselves accountable to agreed values to ensure success. Teachers would need to earn trust through their behaviours and actions but leaders need to create the circumstances in which trust can be earned.

Leadership in such schools presents a paradox – how to develop a unified learning community while at the same time allowing teacher creativity. This tension between the need for individual freedom and a sense of shared community will be on ongoing dilemma but it is possible to create resilient and adaptive communities as well as valuing individuality- no one is saying it will be easy. Individuals cannot survive alone – and we all need to work within agreed boundaries. Success depends on respectful relationships resulting in the organisation and the individual co-evolving.
About time we  took his advice!!

We have to learn to live with the paradox held together by their agreed shared purpose; what teachers have agreed to achieve. Diversity and uniqueness become contributions rather than issues of compliance. No one person has the answer – certainly not ‘experts’ distant from the school. Leaders have the responsibility to make sure what the school stands for is clear. Teachers need information, resources, opportunities to talk and share ,and support ,if they are to be trusted.

The model of creative leadership is translated to the role of the teacher in the classroom.
Life is uncertain -unpredictable
Life is about constant reinvention, adaptation and improvisation.
Life depends on diversity, imagination, creativity and imagination.
Life is about learning by taking risks.
Schools are too box like1
Success depends on all student having their unique talents and gifts developed.
Schools are where these qualities ought to be central.
Leadership is about creating such learning communities.
We need leaders who know how to nourish and rely on the innate creativity, freedom, and caring of people.
Such leadership is not easy – it is always dangerous challenging the status quo.
Rosy the Riveter WW2
Whatever the difficulty creative leadership is the pressing challenge of our time.
The new year could well be the time for principals  to begin conversations  about the purpose of schools in the 21st C with all involved.
A good start would be to put the currently side-lined New Zealand central - a curriculum that asks for all students to 'seek, use and create their own knowledge'.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree more. Some principals are wimps. But how would you envisage a days programme unfolding in a 'creative' school?

Bruce said...

If schools/principles/teachers/ parents accepted that the challenge of education is to develop every learners gifts and talents then the various learning areas would contribute to its realisation. A diversity of ways to achieve this would evolve.

This is in contrast to the imposed system of standards and fragmented achievement levels.

In classroom this would see the provision of a range of integrated inquiry learning experiences ( drawing on traditional subject disciplines and ICT) being the central challenge, with the main focus of literacy and numeracy contributing skills to achieve such a personalised approach.

This would be in contrast with the dominance ( and distorting effects) of the current over emphasis on literacy and numeracy.

There are creative teachers( but fewer schools), past and present, who provide inspirational examples.