Sunday, July 22, 2007

Time to be unreasonable?

Many years ago, at a Principal's Conference, I heard Australian educator Hedley Beare say to principals that to survive they would have to become 'customised Indiana Jones's' - happily 'cutting through red tape' but to be basically moral. Good advice but not taken by most principals.

From my observation the principals who make the biggest difference in their schools have taken the advice of Australian educator Hedley Beare and become a 'customised Indiana Jones'. They do the imposed compliance requirements badly and then get on to focus on the important things. To try and do everything is stressful, demeaning and, worse still, destructive to teacher and student creativity. Trying to 'double guess' continually being revised Ministry requirements creates, what one writer calls, a 'corrosion of character'. This is not helped by impending Education Review visits which create an unhealthy reactionary 'anticipatory dread' - easily seen by an outbreak of clear folders.

Good advice for any school leader would be to take Hedley Beare's advice and do what they think is important. If they aren't sure they should ask their teachers, their students or their parents what they think is important. All the 'wisdom' is not situated in Wellington, held within endless imposed contracts, or by 'experts living in their distant insulated 'ivory towers'. Once they have worked out their collective shared beliefs about what is important then they should just do it, and then to continually improve by a process of enlightened trial and error! This is the only 'strategy' that will ever work.

The paradox is that by doing what is expected, by being 'normal', or reasonable , by complying, means that principals then settle for ordinary results. Real creative success means taking the risk to step outside one's comfort zone and to be different.

This 'risk taking' mindset may be uncomfortable because we all have been 'trained', particularly at school, to do as we are told. The pressures to accept the conventional norms of the 'status quo' are powerful - as is is said, 'to get along you have to go along'! To make things worse eduction is, by nature, a conservative environment. It ought not to be. Education is all about developing in students the attitudes and skills for them to thrive in what will be an unpredictable and fast moving future.

Education, in contrast, is changing too slowly - and any future movements are all too often countered by reactionary pressures to move back to the past. It is time for courageous leadership - for innovative risk takers who dare to think differently. We need educational leaders who have the courage to work with their communities, their teachers, and their pupils to negotiate unique approaches. To do this they will need the skill to tap the wisdom innate in all involved to develop a shared sense of direction, or vision,and an agreement about values and shared belief about teaching and learning, and then to get everybody 'on board', or as they say, ' roughly pointed west'.

The paradox is that by being different school leaders, if they hold their nerve, will become recognised in the future as leaders. History is full of people whose ideas , although ridiculed, or ignored at the time, are now part of how what we think as 'normal'.

Such leaders appreciate that success comes from following what the school collectively believes rather that complying to Ministry 'audit culture' constraints, or trying to gain the security of being 'approved' by Education Review officers.

Innovative schools develop the conditions to value and develop the talents and gifts of all their students ( by 'personalising' learning) and not by restricting themselves to the limiting vision of succeeding at achievement targets.

Such innovative schools are open to ideas from any source that will help them achieve their vision and happily network with like minds - or anybody with ideas that might help. Such ideas are not accepted uncritically but are adapted to suit the situation

Innovative schools are flexible and agile, not only open to ideas but, most importunately of all, open to change and experimentation. Such schools believe in 'enlightened trial and error', continually reflecting on their actions, seeing themselves as 'learning communities'.

Real success will never come from 'compliance it can only be achieved by being different, by taking risks, by being creative, by being 'customised Indiana Jones'.

If school principals really want to add their collective 'voice' and wisdom to the educational debate, and in turn to the direction we must take as a creative and innovative country, we need more Indiana Jones type leaders.

Time to cut through the red tape and face the real challenge of the future!


Anonymous said...

I sense a touch of criticism of principals in your latest blog? Do we not have enough creative princpals in our system? If not what could we do about it? Actually I fear you are right - principals have been turned into educational managers putting into practise ideas pre-determined for them.This is not a healthy situation - no wonder stress is on the uptake.

Anonymous said...

Being 11 weeks into a new principalship I have experienced some of the compliance issues you are writing about Bruce.

Auditing has taken a lot of time as has an ORRS reverification process - BOT meetings, property issues and other management type activities.

One thing I was not prepared for was the actual amount of time I spend on teaching and learning - it is minimal at present.

Bruce Hammonds said...

Greetings Tom

Pleased you found time to write your comment. The only real answer is to network with others in the same boat and work out, where possible, mutual answers to your common problems.

Two problems as I see it. One: too mnay principals have 'hoodwinked' themselves into believing they are OK ( reminding me of the captain of the Titanic) or know it is problematic but prefer to keep their concerns to themselves - both will wind up drowning!

Anonymous said...

Perhaps it is time for schools to have funding for another postion , Dealing with ministerial, OHS compliance etc leaving Principals to focus on educational leading.From my experience on BOTS (both primary and secoundary) I would comment that Principals sometimes don't have the abiltiy to administer and facilitate inovative education at the same time.

Bruce Hammonds said...

I think that schools should work collegially with each other ( not in competition to atract the 'best' students - or their parents). One thing they could share is administrative, financial and buildings assistance. This would be great if it included all schools in geographical area. Such schools could aslo work together sharing ideas about teaching and learning. Transitions between schools is an issue - for some students( the less academic but variously talented) must find it like landing in a foreign country.

Anonymous said...

Hi Bruce,
Jody here ... here is a blog for you to read... some familiar themes for you!

Bruce Hammonds said...

Thaks Jody.

I found the weblog and really enjoyed reading it.It did sound very familiar! You would think we might have taken up the challenge, laid down by Sir Ken Robinson, to develop every students creativity as a national priority but not so far!. He presented at this years Principal's Conference.