I recently read No Rules Rules, which was by far the best book I have read this year. The book is co-written by the CEO of Netflix, Reed Hastings, and Erin Meyer. It is a book about how the ‘no rules’ culture of Netflix has helped to provide and sustain their competitive edge. Rules and top-down controls, it seems, just get in the way. Holiday policy? Travel and Expenses policy? Not needed apparently. Why? Because they are created to prevent people from doing the wrong thing, require paying people to police them, and create a bureaucracy that gets in the way of a culture of freedom and responsibility.
There are three steps to building a culture that can benefit from ‘no rules’:
Firstly, you need to have a high “talent density” in the staff. Typically, high talent does not like to focus on controls, but they are also expensive compared to the market. This is all very well for a high-tech firm that can invest profits into salaries, but surely impossible for schools that operate with fixed budgets. However, let’s not fixate on that for now…
Secondly, you need to encourage a culture of “candour” in order to provide an effective feedback loop about performance. This is not to say that colleagues can say what they want – there is a considerable explanation in the book on the need for feedback to be provided with positive intent, and the need for training and coaching to support staff to do this well. Some food for thought here about how schools might ramp up feedback on a regular basis – what might the impact be of training and then encouraging students how to feedback to their teachers. Win-win?
Finally, the big one. Once you have the first 2 things in place, you can then “eliminate most controls by leading with context, not control”. What does this mean? Just that. Rather than spending time trying to control everything through rules and regulations, lead by explaining the context and intent of what you want to happen.
This last one is a difficult one, isn’t it! Do schools need extensive discipline policies? Do schools really need to ban mobile phones? Do they really need a special policy for uniforms? These are all designed to control student behaviour. But don’t they just create friction? I can only imagine how many school and teaching hours are wasted chasing around students about the need for the right colours, styles, or lengths?
More controls = more policing = more frictions = more time not spent on teaching and learning. That’s not to say that I am arguing against any rules, but I do wonder what the impact too much focus on rules in schools that also aspire to champion voice, choice and agency in their young people.
The point is that if you are forever telling young people what they can not do, you are not spending enough time telling them what they can do. And that’s the whole point of school is it not?
It is that time in the year when schools are ramping up their efforts to attract new families to their schools. I know this because hidden algorithms on my social media have started spamming me with school admissions adverts for the next academic year. Whilst this intrusion always irritates me for many different reasons, it also allowed me to notice the extraordinary number of references to ‘academic rigour’ this year.
I can partially understand why parents would be attracted to shiny new buildings and schools with proven track records in producing outstanding results. I also understand why parents might be attracted to schools with a track record of sending students to the most prestigious universities. But what I can’t understand is why anyone would be particularly attracted to a school that champions ‘academic rigour’…
In my day (I hope this is the only time I catch myself saying this), rigour at school meant we copied a lot from the blackboard, took turns reading books out loud in class, traipsing around with heavy textbooks, and being forced to take humiliating cold showers after PE lessons. Some of this was considered good teaching (and still is) and some were accepted as essential character-building (and still is).
I do not have an issue with rigour per se – if something is worth doing, it is worth doing properly and not in a half-hearted way. So I like to see rigour in the classroom, as much as I like to see it in every other aspect of school life. So why make such a big deal of academic rigour? Well, it depends very much on how it is defined and what it looks like.
Olaf Jorgenson and Percy L. Abram recently shared their thoughts on The Dark Side of Rigor, and it is one of the best articles that I have read this year. Rigour, they argue, can refer to situations where “teachers demand students to think deeply and stretch their intellectual grasp to push their assumptions and apprehensions and tackle academic challenges they might not have otherwise tried”. They refer to this as “rigour-as challenge”. I’m super comfortable with that interpretation.
However, academic rigour more often characterized by teachers assigns an inordinate amount of homework or course reading, give tests that are beyond many student’s capabilities, and otherwise places heavy demands on students’ time, energy, and resources that they must subject themselves to sleep deprivation, isolation, emotional fatigue, and anxiety to earn high marks”. They refer to this as “rigour-as-suffering”. I’m incredibly uncomfortable with that interpretation, and it goes well beyond a cold shower.
Indeed, under the umbrella of academic rigour, Jorgenson and Abram suggest that many schools and parents have somehow “normalised adolescent stress and its debilitating effects on students”. Here, stress and anxiety is accepted (and not always intentionally) as an acceptable and necessary by-product to win in life, particularly where success is defined in terms of being admitted to a prestigious university or college.
This is not to say that academic achievement, ambition or aspiration is not a worthy endeavour, but there is an argument to be made against unnecessary, unhealthy, and inhumane academic distress – and the peril and ethics of putting student academic achievement ahead of student wellness.
Michael Sandel, in his recent book, The Tyranny of Merit, also describes how it is not just the losers who suffer under academic rigour; many of the winners also progress onwards and upwards carrying wounds – he refers to these young people as wounded winners and shares a number of harrowing statistics concerning the rise and rise of mental health issues that appear to coincide with the increasing pressure to achieve the results that they need to go the universities and colleges that they want to go to.
It should be said that some students absolutely thrive under the conditions of academic rigour. They love the high pressure, content-focused and standardized learning environments that constitute a rigorous education in many schools. But for too many other students, academic rigour amounts to suffering. The unending pursuit of success leaves many students under a state of constant stress and fatigue.
So what to do?
I don’t have the answers to this one. But here are some things that we might think about:
1. We may need to reframe academic rigour so that it represents rigour-as-challenge. We want students to be challenged and as a result, they will sometimes be uncomfortable and stressed or anxious. Some stress is healthy and normal and to seek to remove stress or anxiety would be a neglectful preparation for life at or beyond school.
2. Perhaps we might even look to start talking about academic vigour rather than rigour. I would much rather see the vigour in my classroom, rather than rigour (mortis).
3. We may need more support. If we acknowledge that we need to work with the education system we have, schools will need to increase their awareness and provision for mental health and well-being for both the losers and winners of the current system. We need to think about what systems, structures, strategies, staff, training…is needed to do this well. There will be some things we need more of (additional experts and staff training for sure), and some things we need to do differently. For example, I can see that we need to assume that students need to be equipped with tools and strategies to help them better look after themselves…
4. We may need to redefine success. If the only game in town is a high stakes programme designed for admission to the most prestigious universities and colleges (which becomes more competitive each year due to a growing number of applicants), then students will be required to endure increasingly more “rigour” to achieve success – more tutor hours, more work….more suffering. But there are other learning programmes and other ways for students to shape and define their success.
These days, cold showers are associated with their health benefits. What I used to experience as humiliation and suffering is now something I might pay good money for at a spa. We need the same thing to happen with rigour.
Rigour can be good – but it has to be done the right way if there are to be any benefits.
Mitchel Resnick, LEGO Papert Professor of Learning Research at the MIT Media Lab, offers a useful metaphor to use when designing learning: build “high ceilings, low floors and wide walls”.
I was first introduced to this wonderful metaphor by a colleague when working at the International Baccalaureate a couple of years ago. It has been playing on my mind again this week as we have been thinking about how we want to design our new programme for high school students in Grades 9 and 10.
A ceiling often represents the highest point we can reach. A low ceiling is restrictive, whilst a high ceiling can provide both room for growth and something to aim for.
But who decides on the height of the ceiling? What is high for one person might not be for another; this is one of the great paradoxes of the standardised mass education system. We want students to show what they have learned by taking them through a standardised curriculum and then mass testing them to produce an order of merit that can be used to determine the winners and losers. There remain a number of reasons why societies might wish to retain this system (efficiency), however, it is also very obvious that mass standardisation and testing is limited to that which is being measured.
So we need to create learning that can allow students to determine their own best self, and to reach as high as they are motivated to go.
Low floors is another way of thinking about barriers to access. This is not about removing rigour or making things easy; it is about designing and scaffolding learning so students can jump in and get going regardless of their starting points. We know that some students opt out of learning if they think that it will be too difficult for them (self-efficacy) and some will not even be allowed to even try (via school selection). We see this in situations where schools value their reputation for high grades over the actual learning experience for students.
So we need to create learning that is designed to inspire and include (rather than exclude) students.
As important as high ceilings and wide walls are, Resnick believes that it is even more important to have wide walls:
It’s not enough to provide a single path from low floor to high ceiling; we need to provide wide walls so that kids can explore multiple pathways.
Why are wide walls important? We know that kids will become most engaged, and learn the most, when they are working on projects that are personally meaningful to them. But no single project will be meaningful to all kids. So if we want to engage all kids—from many different backgrounds, with many different interests—we need to support a wide diversity of pathways and projects.
Not all students need or even want to, follow the same programme. In life, we can often choose when we want to be measured and we can go where we thrive. But in schools, we do not always get much choice. Does that make sense anymore? Did it ever? This goes way beyond vocational v academic polarities; mounting evidence shows that a large number of college graduates are underemployed (different to unemployed), meaning that they work in jobs that do not require a degree. In the US, for example, this number sits at a staggering 42.5% (here too).
This is not just a metaphor about how to make learning student centred, inclusive and accessible, it is also about making sure that what students learn is actually relevant and useful. Standardised educational systems are efficient at creating large amounts of graduates, but it seems that it is not equally efficient at producing the sorts of graduates who are needed to meet the Future of Work.
Wide walls. Check.
I really do like this structural metaphor, but at the same time, I am conscious of the irony of using it at the same time I want to make a case against factory education. Something to think on.
In schools, the timetable can often be the graveyard of great ideas.
How many times have you come up with a great idea that you think will transform your school? Maybe it was something you thought would help bring the school closer to its stated mission, vision, or values? Perhaps you have been inspired by what another school is doing? Or possibly a good idea has come from something you have read or come up in conversation?
Some deep thinking students at school this week put together a proposal for the school to start later in the day. The idea, based on a growing body of research that will not surprise anyone who lives with young people, is that early starts just don’t jive. Wouldn’t it make sense to move the whole school day an hour later? Perhaps. And perhaps not. Evaluating ideas such as this one are incredibly difficult as potential benefits can often be overshadowed by potential detriments. And as these students are learning, and I have learned myself on numerous occasions, taking on the timetable is thirsty work.
Of course, it is not just teachers and students who come up with new ideas. Parents carry their own educational experiences with them; influential research and industry are telling us that schools are not aligned to the future of work, and we are living through a disruption that has shown that some of the things we thought were important in schools are not that important anymore. Maybe they never were.
And whilst there appears to be a general consensus for change in education, what this might actually look like in schools is highly contested. This includes questions around the way that universities select students through the academic credentialing system, how schools assess student learning, and the value of interdisciplinary learning and skills.
To be honest, I might be more interested in exploring another idea that I heard this week from a couple of other students who introduced me to their idea of BYOT (Build Your Own Timetable) where once a week students can build their own timetable and attend the classes that they want, with the teachers that they want, and perhaps at the time that they want to as well. Of course, some readers will be thinking that this idea is barking mad, and others will be thinking why only one day in the week? That’s how it goes these days.
But who gets to decide which ideas are taken forward?
Forrest Gump once said:
“My mama always said you can tell a lot about a person by their shoes, where they going, where they been”.
Likewise, I think you can tell a lot about a school by their timetable. Look closely and you can see where they are going and where they have been.
Is student mentoring important? Are academics more important than activities? Are the sciences more important than the arts? The length of lessons might signal a particular approach to teaching and learning; the number of subjects available might signal whether breadth or depth of learning is more valued; the name of lessons might signal whether the school wishes to be ‘progressive’ or ‘traditional’ or perhaps something else altogether. What gets included on the timetable, well…it just matters.
So I have come to view the timetable as the spectacular culmination of compromises between the school’s educational philosophy and priorities, parental expectations, and the need to achieve efficiency.
There are many aspects of a school timetable that can signpost a school’s educational philosophy – and the school priorities that reflect it. Many schools espouse a holistic educational mission but are then unable to show how this translates into their timetable. Vicariously is the most likely answer.
But up against a school’s philosophy will often be the hard edge of reality.
The perfect timetable needs to be perfectly resourced, and by definition would offer very little efficiency. Even the most affluent schools in the world are accountable to their stakeholders for their cost efficiency, particularly if it means that money can be reinvested in additional resources, new facilities, or other improvements in teaching and learning. So if there was a choice between adding an additional student to a class, or employing another teacher to avoid that, most schools would make the same decision. In the same way, a school may feel that food technology lessons are valuable, yet be unable to prioritise this when set against the significant investment in the specialist teachers and facilities when that money could be invested elsewhere. And I have also worked in a school which removed physical education from the timetable to make room for ‘citizenship’ studies, a decision I can still not get my head around.
Parents too play a significant part in timetable considerations, particularly after it has been established. Firstly, they (we) build our lives around the timings of the school day. Pick-ups, drop-offs, meal preparations, shopping, work…everything….revolves around the times. They are inter-connected. Secondly, parents have certain expectations from schools, particularly when parents are able to make a choice in where they send their children. These choices were often made on what was on offer at the time. So if a school changes from offering A levels to offering the IB Diploma, for example, or suddenly changes what is being offered in the curriculum, then they will likely (and should) have something to say about it.
The fact is that the longer a timetable has been fixed in place, the more difficult it is to change it. It gets locked into place by systems, structures, and processes that become more and more complex and efficient as times go on. I have mentioned the impact on parents, but school buses (local transport) catering, employment contracts, budgets, and a hundred other considerations also come to mind. Each year, if a school is being well run, it will be creating more and more efficient ways of delivering the same outcomes. So when it comes to making a decision to change things, it will either carry an above-the-line cost or require so many other people to agree to the change that the idea may just not be worth the pain after all. Sometimes, we might not even bother waiting to hear what the computer will say.
Don’t ask Carol
So we need to think around the timetable. How do we do that? Here are 4 ideas:
Timing. Some ideas will gain more traction if presented at the right time. Presenting a new hybrid model for blended learning might land better now than before COVID.
Plan ahead. The planning that goes into the timetable is significant, even with the latest software to help make it both elegant and efficient. If you want to propose a change it might take more than a year to model what it might look like. Dropping a great new idea in the final few weeks of the school year and expecting a positive response is a bit naive. This happens a lot by the way.
Impact. If the change proposed to the timetable will only affect a small number of students, and not much, then it will be unlikely to be supported. A better idea would be to cluster proposals together so that there might be a cumulative impact.
Consultation. Your idea will be better if it is not presented as your idea. If it is a good idea, share it and see who will champion it. Effective consultation will also mean that you have a stronger research base on which to make a more compelling case for change.
Much of this blog might sound a bit defeatist. However, education reformers need to know what they are up against if they are to be successful. In a previous blog, I shared that I think that education reform has a Wizard of Oz problem – it needs more brain, more heart, and more courage. This blog is an attempt to apply more of that brain.
“I am Loki of Asgard and I am burdened with glorious purpose”
First uttered by Loki in the first Avengers film, these words are the culmination of his ambition to rise to what he believes is his pre-ordained right to power. At the risk of being a spoiler, it doesn’t end well for Loki.
The use of the word ‘burdened’ is used (I think) because Loki really does feel like he’s obligated to become a king – to claim victory over as many people as possible, so he can feel worthy of glory and fulfillment. In part, it is also an acknowledgement that achieving his purpose will come at a cost.
As is the way these days, many schools have been publishing their annual summer exam results on social media over the past few weeks. Most have lots to celebrate this year – it’s been a bumper season after all – so why not share the fact that your results are the “best ever”? In fact, some of the posts have been so fervent that one can’t help but wonder if their exam results were, after all, the achievement of that school’s ‘glorious purpose’? You would certainly think so. Schools have always been competitive, but we are living in an exponential age where schools seem to be leaning into their results averages more than ever. For many schools, like it or not, exam results are both how they define themselves, and it is how they are in turn defined by others – it has become both their glorious purpose and their burden.
I wonder how schools will celebrate next summer? More best ever results? I don’t think so, but I am sure schools will somehow find some way to spin out an impressive success story.
Attaining high averages, and doing this year on year, continues to be a considerable burden for students, parents, teachers, and schools; the expectation to maintain or improve results is stressful for everyone involved. Indeed, so great is the pressure for some schools that they need to pull hard on a number of levers to keep their success juggernaut going. Here are the top 5 levers (off the top of my head) that some schools use to keep the results flowing:
Lever 1. You can increase your average by only selecting students who will be able to achieve the highest grades. You can do this through short entry assessments, or through ‘interviews’, or by profiling student applications. You can even make this appear transparent, fair, and equitable.
Lever 2. You can increase your average by becoming so exclusive that only the most affluent parents can afford to attend your school. This will also help make sure that your parents will have the resources to invest in additional tutors. More tuition + more exam preparation = greater advantage and success.
Lever 3. You can increase your average by reducing the choice that your students have to select their study options. Students can be directed to take the subjects where they have the highest probability of success.
Lever 4. You can increase your average by removing or reducing superfluous activity that sits outside the academic programme. There are so many distractions in schools these days, time that could be spent on additional study or test preparation.
Lever 5. You can increase your average by building a stronger competition culture within the school community. Remind parents, students, and teachers what ‘“success” looks like. Reward high attainment through scholarships, public accolades, and awards. Consider ranking students too – it helps to focus the mind.
Pull on these levers and your school averages go up. It really is that simple.
Whilst there is nothing wrong with celebrating student’s exam results; many schools are equally committed (in words at least) to being more diverse, more equitable and more inclusive (DEI) – none of which are really championed by schools who use these levers to perpetuate their success. Furthermore, the impact on students within schools configured to achieve exam results is more visible than it has ever been and there is an emerging narrative that suggests that such environments can significantly affect children’s mental health and well-being. And with so much focus on exam success, there is also a growing consensus that not enough time is being directed towards what David Perkins calls “life-worthy” learning – learning that matters.
With this in mind, we might expect to see more schools pulling on these counter-levers:
Counter lever 1 – intentionally select students for diversity
Counter lever 2 – reduce access barriers (particularly to achieve the above)
Counter lever 3 – cultivate student choice and agency (particularly where young people want to follow their passion)
Counter lever 4 – hold true to your holistic education philosophy – focus on learning
Counter lever 5 – create a ‘best self’ culture
There are more ways to define success than school averages – we just have to get better at telling that story. What we can not afford to continue doing is to allow exam success to hold DEI; mental health, well-being, voice, choice and agency to ransom. Can we do better?
If I were to channel my inner-Loki, the God of Mischief, I do wonder if some schools out there would have the courage to celebrate their exam results going down – in the worthy pursuit of being more accessible, more inclusive and more diverse? Or might that a burden too far?
I hear this too often in schools. And it pains me.
The grade delusion
Etched into several of my childhood core memories is the experience of being given back assignments by my teacher. There was a familiar pattern that I recognise now. The teacher, slowly walking around the classroom, hands back our workbooks so we can face our judgment. I can still feel the anxiety, the fear…the silence of the room. We would be given time to read the teacher’s written feedback, but there was no point – the grade mark said it all. And then the silence would give way to a storm in the form of a ruthless student inquisition. I can never remember exactly who led the inquisition, but I do remember the question everyone was asked: “What did you get?”. There was nowhere to hide.
Meanwhile, I’m guessing the teacher was probably delighted. All the hours of marking and writing comments for the students to absorb, reflect upon and determine their next steps of learning. #Worthwhile. And wasn’t it great to see all of the students peer-reviewing their work? #Outstanding.
In the time it takes for a class of students to line themselves up in order of birthdates, shoe size, name or height (yes, we’ve all done it… about 2 minutes), or for two teams to be picked by students for a football game (yes, done that too.. about 2 minutes)…that’s about the same amount of time it needs for each child to work out where they stand in relation to their peers. Those up at the front feel glorious, validated, and perhaps relieved. Those in the middle are often just grateful that they are not at the bottom. And those at the bottom have just been told, again (no words needed), that they are not very good at the game they are playing (school) – and they are not going to be hoodwinked by the words of encouragement that sat under the grade they were served. Maybe they will try harder next time?
What a delusional state of play!
Comparing ourselves against others seems to be a very human thing to do. There are lots of good reasons why we do it and I am not making the case against the utility. What I am suggesting is that we need to be aware, particularly when working with young people, of the consequences of comparison. We need to own them.
In society, when people compare themselves with others around them, they often identify inequalities. Take nurses’ pay in the UK at the moment. Many nurses feel that they are underpaid (I agree) compared to other professionals such as teachers or police officers. At the same time, teachers feel that they are underpaid compared to other professionals such as doctors. And NHS doctors feel that they are underpaid compared to their private-sector counterparts. We live with comparison; we find our worth in comparison, and we often find our self-esteem in comparison. Relativity is the key here. In my anecdote above, the ‘bottom’ student in one school could well be the ‘top’ student in another school – so the effect on students is the same regardless of their relative ‘ability’.
Like many, I have been reading around the subject of well-being, happiness, and belonging over the last few months. A consistent theme that comes up is around gratitude: how it provides a foundation for happiness; how it turns what we have into enough; and how it helps keep things in perspective even when things are not going so well. It has led me to contemplate and explore the notion of absolute v relative gratitude. One of which I like: the other, not so much.
Relative gratitude, I think, is much easier to cultivate and often takes the form of:
“I have X, which is so much more than that person has, and for that I’m grateful”
“My situation is bad but their situation is worse and, for that, I’m grateful”
Relative gratitude by its very nature and definition brings a comparative element into gratitude which, to me, steals the joy of gratitude. And would we really want to determine our happiness in this way? Is this how we should condition young people?
Absolute gratitude, on the other hand, is much harder to cultivate and it requires being in a constant state of thankfulness for whatever is in your life (the good, the bad, and the ugly) as every event, circumstance, person that you come across is presenting you an opportunity to learn, grow, evolve.
Absolute gratitude takes the form of “all is well”, “I am blessed”, “I am whole”, “I am fortunate”, “I am so lucky” without regard to anyone else’s lot or situation.
Comparison is the thief of joy
Theodore Roosevelt once said, “comparison is the thief of joy”. I haven’t always understood where he was coming from. But if all we do is compare ourselves relative to others, we may be left with feelings of inferiority or superiority – and neither is entirely desirable.
And that is why I don’t like to hear the words, “what grade did you get?”.
Our leadership team has had the same conversation with staff for the last 3 weekends:
Friday afternoon: “Ok, we are all set for Monday. Thanks for the hours of planning this week to get this right…”
Saturday morning: “Ah, sorry to interrupt your weekend. New changes just announced. New plan needed for Monday…”
It feels at times over the last 547 days that I have been living in some sort of Edge of Tomorrow time-loop of Live, Die, Repeat*. That feeling of having to keep going back to the beginning is emotionally exhausting (for everyone). In fact, leading through COVID is possibly the most demanding thing I have ever been asked to do.
I used to think that the saying “plan early, plan twice” was convenient wisdom that could be rolled out when people got away with their own last-minute planning. But the truth is that in particularly dynamic environments, where the variables are constantly changing, it makes a lot of sense to wait until the last safe moment to commit to a particular course of action. This is possibly why I have often heard it coming from experienced military commanders.
Last week, we somehow managed to deliver our leaving graduates a lovely celebration that has been in the planning stage for over 12 months. In the end, close to the 11th hour, it was split into 6 separate events on campus, including a Livestream – and was possibly the 7th different version of what was a ‘finalized’ plan. “Plan early, plan 7 times”…doesn’t quite have the same ring does it? With hindsight, one might wonder if next year we should plan to avoid 11 months of guessing, anticipating, worrying, fretting…and just hold off planning anything until a few weeks before the event? I am not so sure. My suspicion is that it was only possible to navigate all the last-minute changes needed as a result of all the learning that had taken place in the previous planning months. Dwight Eisenhower once said that “plans are useless, but planning is indispensable”. That makes a lot of sense to me too.
But for all our exhaustive planning for the perfect graduation, which was as likely to be canceled as run, it was just one calendared event amongst many that we have successfully planned and delivered this year. Looking back at a successful graduation event it is very difficult to contemplate whether all the effort was worth it. Of course, it was. But what of all the hundreds of other (dare I say less glamorous?) events that have taken this year – equally impacted by COVID? I wonder if there are any compounding effects to so much uncertainty? Or am I making too much to it?
In more normal contexts, the phrase that I heard from my tailor last week (yeah…I know…that’s not normal but I needed something to wear for the graduation at the last minute!) is to “measure twice, cut once”. In simple terms, he was telling me of the wisdom of investing extra time in the planning process in order to avoid any mistakes. Looking back, this seems to be the default model for this school and a reason why it is so successful, I think.
We have started planning for next year – and I have already heard several times: “do you think we will be able to do this face-to-face next year, or shall we plan for virtual?”. What should I advise my staff? What wisdom do I share? Don’t plan too early? Or start planning now for both eventualities? And if the latter, how do I take responsibility for how exhausting that will be at a time when I want to prioritize health and well-being?
Like I said, leading through COVID is incredibly tough, but it’s also really important to get it right…I had better start planning for Monday.
*Edge of Tomorrow is a film I enjoy with Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt, released in 2014 and based on the 2004 short novel “All You Need is Kill” by Hiroshi Sakurazaka.
When I was growing up I wanted to work on a starship.
Science Officer or Captain – I wasn’t too fussed. I just loved the idea of flying out into the unknown, meeting new people, and exploring strange new worlds. Throughout my life I have always embraced leadership challenges and intentionally taken myself out of my comfort zone even when it might have been easier to continue along a particular path. Those words ‘ to boldly go’…they have lived with me since I first met Spock and Captain Kirk over 40 years ago.
Growing up I thought that being bold meant making fast, decisive decisions. I probably thought it meant being brave. A bold person would surely jump in rather than be reticent. Later, as a soldier, I thought being bold was a virtue linked fairly close to being heroic. Captain Kirk would have done it this way. Who doesn’t want to be heroic?*
But now that I am moving towards ‘middle adulthood’ (this article is great) I am not so sure whether being bold is what I want to be. As I have grown older, with more and more responsibilities, making choices has become more and more difficult: it is one thing making decisions that impact yourself, it is another thing entirely when you are making choices that affect others. It is hard enough walking the thin line when no one is watching; it is exponentially more difficult when a leader is walking the same line with Captain Hindsight and everyone else watching you in the Arena
Rather than trying to be bold, I am now more interested in making the right sort of choices. If they turn out to be bold – even better. But there is a difference.
My leadership team is currently grappling with a conundrum. As we come to the end of the current school year, we are working out what our priorities should be for the new school year. The context will be familiar to you: we remain fixed in a global pandemic that is not going anywhere; staff well-being is being affected by extreme uncertainty; separation; cognitive overload…and so on.
Here are two questions we are asking ourselves:
Should we give teachers the space they might need to recharge by delaying the project until things are back to normal?
Should we continue with the project as, even if it will be additional work, it is inspirational and we think it will provide both a welcome distraction and exciting professional development?
This recent article from the New York Times on Flourishing v languishing has us thinking that we need to help staff, students (and ourselves) to flourish rather than languish at times like these. But at the same time, even Captain Kirk’s chief engineer, Scotty, sometimes used to shout out “I’m giving her all she’s got, Captain! She cannae take anymore!”. There are always limits to how far we can push things.
So one could argue that choosing either of these possibilities is bold.
As it happens, it is not to Kirk or Spock that I have turned to for advice this week. Rather, it is to the less fictional General William Slim, who commanded the 14th Army for the Allies in Burma following the surrender of Singapore in 1942. Slim is widely cited as one of Britain’s finest generals but he is also one of the least well known; indeed the 14th Army is often called the ‘Forgotten Army’ because despite it being the largest army in the world (by 1945), the British press were more preoccupied with the war in Europe than a faraway Army comprised mainly of Indian troops (with some British and African Divisions too).** In 1945, Slim commanded over a million multinational troops and his leadership helped turn Defeat into Victory in one of the most challenging and successful campaigns fought in the War. So what is Slim’s advice?
When you cannot make up your mind which of two evenly balanced courses of action you should take – choose the bolder.
There are a few things to take from this:
Firstly, there is nothing spontaneous in what he is suggesting. Systematic evaluation of the pros and cons of different courses of action might eventually lead to two seemingly evenly matched choices that might be made. Others have been considered and discounted.
Secondly, Slim accepts that whatever the course of action selected at this point, there is no such thing as certainly in the outcome – there is no such thing as guaranteed success as there are too many variables to second guess.
Thirdly, at this point, and only at this point, the boldest choice should be made – the most innovative, ingenious and surprising choice. But ultimately, Slim believed that the bolder choice would inspire his soldiers and help with the maintenance of morale – the magic ingredient for winning the long war. Slim was bold, but never reckless.
To boldly go. That’s all I ever wanted to do. But I need to do it the right way.
*For the record, I was lucky enough to avoid being faced with that particular dilemma.
** I acknowledge that there is a much longer conversation that could be had here but I also want to try and remain vaguely on topic.
Derek Sivers says that we should let pedestrians define the walkways. Here’s his anecdote:
A new college campus was built, but one thing was still debated: where in the grass should we put the paved walkways?
Some people thought the walkways should go around the grass, to leave it green. Some thought the walkways should cut across diagonally.
One professor had the winning idea: Don’t make any walkways this year. At the end of the year, look where the grass has worn away. That shows where the students are walking. Then just pave those paths.
Brilliant idea. Or not?
I have often heard of this referred to as the ‘cow path’ theory of design, which (allegedly) draws its origins from the story of how the streets of Boston were originally laid out in the 17th century. The streets of downtown Boston (and many other old cities) are characterized by labyrinthine roads that seem to follow no logic at all until you are told that these roads were once cowpaths that cattle trod when moving through Boston hundreds of years ago. At some point in time, someone decided to pave those cowpaths. Whether the origin story is true, or not, I would assume that modern city planners would not build the same roads if given the chance to start over.
In the same way, what would happen if the college (above) wanted to have a grassy quad in the middle of the campus for students to use for sports or relaxation? Would they really want to pave a walkway right through the centre of it just because it represents the shortest distance between two points? Would it really hurt those students and staff to take a couple of moments to walk around it? Perhaps they could design walkways that encourage people to use them?
So there is an obvious design tension here. It makes sense to work backward from what the users want – to see what preferred paths are – but at the same time, is there not also a need for the design to reflect what was actually envisioned in the first place? Cowpath thinking does not just apply to a college campus and street planning, it can be found wherever you look and can be described as a tension between idealism and pragmatism (Naumof, 2021).
As such, I wonder if Apple would have removed the headphone jack from the iPhone in 2016 without some ‘wireless’ idealism?
The pragmatic 3.5mm jack, a ubiquitous piece of technology so good that it was still going after 70+ years, was consigned to the past to make room for a better wireless future. A future of using either Apple’s new (and expensive to buy) wireless AirPods – or flapping around with extra adapters to plug in the (now) old headphones. Apple told us that the decision was underpinned by having “the courage to move on, to do something new that betters all of us”.
I was not convinced at the time, and this was a view shared by many tech pundits who saw the move as evidence that Apple was in decline and lost without Steve Jobs. A loud contingent of iPhone users, including myself, vowed that their next smartphone would be an Android with a 3.5mm jack. The share price for Apple dropped, petitions were launched, and the market sat waiting to watch the doom unfold. But it didn’t. Perhaps it wasn’t such a big deal after all.
Why did Apple remove the headphone jack? Predominately, taking it out freed up a load of space to introduce a load of new innovations to help maintain its market position. However, there were other reasons cited such as improved sound quality, design aesthetics, and the convenience of a hands-free UX. But it was also consistent with the long-standing strategy for Apple products to operate completely wirelessly.
Many organizations find it easier to layer new ideas on top of the old way of doing things – without really thinking if the old way is still the best way of doing things. Paving over an existing cow path is the easy way out, but not always the best way. Not paving over a cow path takes a commitment to a different way of doing things. It also requires educating those affected by the change as to the benefits associated with the new design. I guess this is part of what makes Apple different.
Whether we like it or not, school education is still shaped by the higher education admissions system. It is less of a paved walkway and more of a 7-lane motorway.
The inescapable (and pragmatic) truth is that although COVID has caused huge cracks and potholes to appear, it is still the only road to take people where they want to go. Some commentators think that COVID is going to set the conditions for the education system to be reformed – for the old roads to be dug up – but if you look closely, that is simply not evident at the moment. People are digging in – not up!
The mother-of-all-cowpaths is actually being re-paved. It is not being paved in the same way as before – it is being done with greater efficiency, using new materials, processes and technologies. And at the same time, there are new vehicles being developed that will continue to help (those who can afford them) avoid any traffic, queuing, or any other inconvenience.
So what exactly is going to be different when the dust settles post-COVID? My own idealism is for an education system with greater access, inclusion, and diversity – what I feel are the prerequisites for a more peaceful and sustainable planet. But I worry that the hard edge of pragmatism is going to make that work more challenging than I might like.
Paving the cowpath is a bad idea. It’s a bad idea in a city. And it’s a bad idea when thinking about reforming education. When you upgrade something, you can usually do betterif you focus on the desired end result, not simply replicate existing practice with new technology.
Before leaving it at that, I thought I would share three particular paved cow-paths that I feel need digging up if education is to be made more relevant, fairer and worthwhile for (all) our children.
University Admissions. Can we have a higher education admissions system that recognises a greater range of evidence to determine student ability and/or suitability? It should not all rest of the result of summative high stakes exams. This is the big one for me.
Standardised testing. It drives learning and teaching. And not in a good way. Many schools are mandated to do them. Many others do them by choice.
The academic offer. If a learning programme is only aimed at getting students into (tier 1) higher education, then it can only serve a specific cohort of students. It also serves to define a very narrow benchmark for what success looks like. Particularly in high school, I would see students having more choice over what, how, when and where they want (or are best placed) to learn. No one should feel that they have failed at school.
This week, a student asked me if she could take some action to show support for a climate cause that is important to her. It involved wearing different clothes for the day and so she was asking for my permission to promote it school-wide at very short notice. If I said yes I might be responsible for a chain of events that could either end up either a disorganised mess or an unmitigated success. Conversely, If I said no, for all I know I could end up being responsible for putting out the flame of a future UN Secretary-General. So it goes.
Such thoughts would appear to be practical expressions of Chaos Theory. One of the most profound principles of Chaos Theory is the so-called “Butterfly Effect” – which was pioneered through the work of Edward Lorenz back in the 1960’s – with the discovery that small changes in one place (in a deterministic nonlinear system) can result in large differences in a later state of the system. The unexpected result led Lorenz to a powerful insight into the way nature works: small changes can have large consequences. The idea came to be known as the “Butterfly Effect” after Lorenz suggested that the flap of a butterfly’s wings might ultimately cause a tornado.
I think most people can relate to the “Butterfly Effect” and identify a time in their life when they have had to live with the unintended consequences. Some of my hardest lessons remain both painful and seminal in the way that I think about things…
Once upon a time, I was completing a peace support mission as a young Captain in the British Army. In one village we visited, I was invited to a ‘shura’ with the local leaders. High in the mountains, and under a cold blue sky, we discussed ways in which we could help make things better. On this particular day, due to a last-minute change in plans, I was unexpectedly left to lead discussions for the first time. There were 3 requests made:
1 – to not be here.
2 – to provide access to medicine and doctors.
3 – to provide shoes.
The first ‘ask’ was outside of my gift at the time. But it made the most profound impact on my world-view and helped set me on a path that would eventually lead me back into school leadership and promoting education as the best way to build a peaceful and stable world. I traveled a long way to find that out. If I hadn’t been there that day, it’s entirely possible that I would still be wearing a uniform and certainly not writing this blog.
The second ‘ask’ was something we acted on. We set up pop-up medical clinics, flew in trained doctors and nurses, and then people would travel long distances and risk their lives to get to them. However, the unintended consequences of this well-intended philanthropy were often tragic. The clinics, and those who sought medical care from them, inadvertently became targets for attack for cavorting with the ‘enemy’. Later, the approach changed so that local people were offered training to become medical professionals; undoubtedly with new consequences…some positive and some not so positive.
The third ‘ask’? Well, this was something that I wrote home to my wife about. Struggling to understand what was going on, and wanting to help in some way, I suggested she might send over some of my old trainers (new ones would have turned their wearers into targets) for me to share when I next had the opportunity. Three weeks later a box arrived. Not one pair of shoes, but a boxful. Then another box arrived, and then another and then another. And then for several months, the boxes kept arriving (and as far as I know they might still be arriving (13 years later) full of shoes. It turned out my wife told her mum about the need for shoes, who then told her friends… All very well intended, but for the fact that by the time the shoes had arrived, anyone wearing new shoes in the wrong place, at the wrong time, would also become a target for attack. So, somewhere, out yonder, I am sorry to say that there may, or may not, be several thousand old shoes waiting to be discovered. Or maybe they already have and there’s now a flourishing second-hand shoe industry I am responsible for? That would be so cool!
One of the humbling privileges of leadership is being able to make decisions. Some of these decisions might make a huge difference, others not. But we need to make them.
What I find odd, however, particularly when working with young people, is that we often remove the opportunity for them to make any decisions at all. We think that we know better, that we can predict what will happen if certain decisions are made. Some of that is certainly true – and we call this wisdom. However, we need to let young people gain their own wisdom. They can only do that by being given the opportunity to take responsibility for their own decisions. They need to be allowed to fail.
In the end, I did not make the decision for the student. It’s her decision. I’ll take my chances with whatever the butterfly serves up, and so can she. And we’ll both be better for it.
Caveat: I am not a mathematician – so apologies for any mishandling of Chaos Theory and any misapplication of the Butterfly Effect. I blame popular culture!