December 21, 2009

Why The Head Needs To Buy In To What The Bottom Wants

Burning papers
Should we start burning our curricula and nationally managed plans, as Chris Woodhead, below, suggests? Pic CC

Changing anything is tough, but it's even tougher if the management in your organisation, be it a school or corporation, don't get passionate about the change as much as the innovators. Over the past decade, formal education has mostly got the mix terribly wrong.

Clay Shirky understands the challenges faced by innovators when, in an abstract, he points out the political power-play that can occur over the transition period from The Thing That Went Before to The Thing That Cam Along Right After:

When reality is labeled unthinkable, it creates a kind of sickness in an industry. Leadership becomes faith-based, while employees who have the temerity to suggest that what seems to be happening is in fact happening are herded into Innovation Departments, where they can be ignored en masse. This shunting aside of the realists in favor of the fabulists has different effects on different industries at different times. One of the effects on the newspapers is that many of their most passionate defenders are unable, even now, to plan for a world in which the industry they knew is visibly going away.

I have been a member of at least three innovation departments in the past four years. Make of that what you will. We've had some big successes. We've killed a lot of puppies the bosses didn't want, too.

But in education, ironically, the biggest challenge of the day is not burying the remarks of innovators or observers of technology's effects on our life and learning. It is not gaining buy-in from top management to programmes that seize changes happening 'on the outside' of the classroom. No, the biggest challenge is a lack of understanding and passion in the teaching and parental trenches behind the ideas that some of our leaders, élites and management teams have concocted.

Chris Woodhead I don't often agree with Chris Woodhead's takes on education, but this from a couple of weeks back just rings 'fact' to me:

"In Scotland, as in England, the lesson of the past 10 years is that the top-down imposition of progressive child-centred education does not work.

"Head Teachers should be freed from all central political prescription. They should be allowed to determine what their children learn, how much their teachers are paid, how resources in their schools are to be deployed.

"Different teachers will come to difference decisions, and the concept of parental choice will begin to have meaning."

("Scrap all this top-down nonsense and set our teachers free to teach", article non-retrievable: Sunday Times Scottish Edition, December 6th)

Scotland, like many countries striving for educational change at the moment, is not getting the mix right: you get the distinct feeling that there's almost too much buy-in from the top to a hyped ideal, and too little comprehension of the means of reaching that ideal amongst the very people who have to make it happen: teachers, yes, but also students and parents.

Is he right? Should we, as Woodhead suggests earlier in his article, "burn" the Curriculum for Excellence and other similar documents that appear in our various districts, countries and kingdoms? Should we re-professionalise the professionals working at the whiteboard face?

Would the criticisms of overzealous centralisation stretch as far as a school district or Local Authority's virtual learning environment, as they currently stand and are used? What about the concept of national intranets - is that a centralisation that will serve us well into the next more distributed decade?

Or is the alternative that he suggests merely a path to further confusion amongst parents, presenting a terrible paradox of choice most would rather do without?

I genuinely don't know if we are heading too far in one direction in this tricky pushme-pullme game of managerial and political jockeying. Your comments, answers, solutions welcome...

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About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is the founder of NoTosh, the no-nonsense company that makes accessible the creative process required to innovate: to find meaningful problems and solve them.

Ewan wrote How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, a manual that does what is says for education leaders, innovators and people who want to be both.

What does Ewan do?

Module Masterclass

School leaders and innovators struggle to make the most of educators' and students' potential. My team at NoTosh cut the time and cost of making significant change in physical spaces, digital and curricular innovation programmes. We work long term to help make that change last, even as educators come and go.

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