152 posts categorized "Leadership & Management"

May 18, 2015

Do schools ever want to partner with business?

 

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“Teachers like to agree with each other, when we talk about learning. It’s hard to change that, when the model we have wanted to make work has nonetheless been failing for 40 years.” Professor Brian Boyd

No area has remained up there in the contentiousness charts in Scotland as the notion of business and education working together to do something better for our young people.

Most schools do not ‘partner’ with colleges or universities. Instead, they are production facilities for undergraduates and college entrants. Fewer are set up to systematically provide apprenticeship opportunities as well as learning. At NoTosh, we’ve been working on a few, nascent projects to change the attitudes of schools from being these production facilities into something more of a life support - what metrics of success might we use if schools judged their success on the results of their alumni, five, ten or twenty years down the line, much like universities do?

City of Glasgow College have partnered with Newlands Junior College (NJC) to make the experience of a day in college more than what, in other circumstances, is too often perceived as a day off from school. The Junior College is called this, and not a school, for that very reason, to mark it out as a stepping stone between school and full-blown college. NoTosh helped last August to provoke the team around their thoughts of what 'unschool' might look like.

The College was backed and founded by Jim McColl, one of Scotland’s top business people. 

In the future, suggests, McColl, might be be possible to take funding of learning out of its pre-existing silos, particularly for this group of students, about 60 in every city at these ages, who just need a different approach to the traditional comprehensive approach? A crossover funding model that helps learning happen in both ‘school’ or Junior College and college or university might be interesting. In fact, some of the world’s top universities are thinking of such models for their own students: Stanford’s 2025 project talks about the Open Loop, where learning and work happen over far more than the usual four year degree, offering students a chance to grow through not just learning, but contributing to society through their work, too.

Such continuums of learning, from school to college to work, are the most rare in the world - we’re lucky in Scotland to have one in the form of Newlands Junior College. If we struggle to collaborate between educational institutions, then collaboration between those not in the world of formal education - namely businesses - feels far fetched. 

McColl is frank on his views of the traditional ‘comprenhensive’ education he received: he couldn’t get out of secondary school fast enough. In his small primary school “people cared”. He was the Dux of his class, even if, he jokes, the class only had seven pupils. Aged 16, he gained his Weir pumps apprenticeship, the choice grounded in nothing other than the fact it was the closest bus stop to his house. But, once there, the trainer told him: “Just work hard and we’ll give you all the support you need. If you want to get to the top, you just have to work hard.” He did. And in 2007 he bought the company. One might say he was successful, but not by any metrics of today’s academic race to nowhere. What he did have was a strong sense of self-efficacy, that sense that he could change the world around him, his own circumstances, through his own efforts. This is what is behind most powerful learning.

He saw that, particularly in Glasgow, poverty and deprivation were holding back too many youngsters. He held Focus Dinners with all the heads of Glasgow schools. They confirmed what he had believed: aspiration from the family was a key differentiating factor.

“Aged 14”, they said, “we can tell who is waiting to check out when they’re sixteen.”

Comprehensive is not comprehensive, he says: “We force kids who are just naturally more vocational into an academic system that doesn’t cater with them.”

The curriculum is made up one around a third in traditional core subjects of maths, science, English and technology, a third of College-based learning and the rest is Life Skills, led by Skillsforce, another partner from the world of non-formal education led by former military personnel. Each week has a theme related to doing better in life. “This week is eye contact week” explains McColl. “It’s funny at first, because they all over-emphasise things, but by the third or fourth day they’ve grown in confidence and hold conversations.”

The culture of obstacles lives on

The culture of obstacles referred to by Dr Murray, in her work engaging young people in the world of medicine, is what must be defeated, though, and it has to include the public sector. But the public sector has to do a better job not to hold back potentially useful ideas from outside its parameters. It has taken six years to get Newlands Junior College where it is today. Had the team waited for every funder and ‘stakeholder’ to give their accord, it would still be a sketch on paper. A third of local schools in Glasgow still refuse to engage with the model at all. There are also people who are too focussed on their own power games, and students are suffering in the meantime.

Compare this slow pace with the measured but impassioned ambition of McColl, who sees NJC and its future cousin schools around the country as always remaining a small family of schools, maybe 10-12 of them, and very much part of the system, an additional resource rather than an outside bolt-on to the system. 

We've got high hopes, hi-i-i-i-gh hopes...

Key to businesses’ success is their sense of high expectation - businesses with incremental improvements in mind barely get past their first tax return. This sense of high expectations is visible in everything NJC does, from its physical decor to the time and effort put into excelling at life, not just subjects. There was an almost disapproving ripple of excitement when the audience were told every youngster at NJC has an iPad. Frankly, it was the statement of entitlement to whatever it takes that was the point, not whether the kids got an iPad or an A4 pad on entry to the school.

All things being equal, are opportunities for all young people there, and are aspirations from all of those around them there? Making sure schools provide that aspiration is the key.

If you want a kid to become a doctor, get them into operations

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Juliette Murray was, like me, a kid at school who got 5 “A”s, which in the West of Scotland put a certain degree of pressure on one’s shoulders to study either medicine or law. I studied European Law, and became a teacher - that's what a European Law degree does to you. She studied medicine and is today a practicing doctor, but the education bug is firmly rooted in what she chose to do next.

Murray noticed that, particularly in her local area, fewer students were applying to study medicine than the population number would suggest should. Not only that, nationally the number of medical students dropping out after beginning their course of study is increasing. She wondered if we might we persuade a more representative cross section of the community to become doctors.

Teenagers in the Operating Theatre

She set about improving the opportunities for local youngsters, aged 14/5, at the time of their work experience choices. Existing work experience for those who want to gain an insight into the world of medical doctors is a sanitised course in an educational skills centre, where bored teenagers endlessly take each other’s blood pressure. They have more chance of a realistic insight by breaking their arm and turning up to Accident and Emergency. As any dad-to-be donning surgical greens knows, getting into an operating theatre is where a passion for surgery will be born or, in my case, definitely put to one side as a career option. So, the question became: how might we offer a more realistic experience of what being a doctor, surgeon or other medical profession feels like?

Culture of obstacles
Starting with her local hospital, Wishaw General in NHS Lanarkshire, she set about overcoming what she describes as a “culture of obstacles”. Two years later, though, and students are indeed undertaking real life surgery work experience, experiencing a live operation theatre and seeing the pressure of the job first hand.

A key hurdle was finding students to populate the programme. John McGilp, head teacher at local Coltness High School, became a  partner in launching a 2015 pilot scheme, co-designing timing and content of various interventions throughout the year to find and prime students for the experience. Beginning with second and third year high school students, they had an early experience in June of the CAT test, required as part of every application to medical school, before other workshops on how to apply for the degree course and what kinds of subject requirements there might be.

120 pupils and their families came to an initial meeting of several high schools’ students, where they met with role models who raised expectations and aspirations. Above all, meeting other students from other schools in the area reinforced the idea that no-one was ‘alone’ in thinking of this ambitious path, that “people like me” did it, too.

The programme makes a point to involve other health care professionals, not just junior doctors, for those for whom it isn’t the right fit, or whose applications are not successful. And, in the meantime, more junior doctors are offering to participate, enthusiastic to help and increasing in number as word gets around.

If it's that good, why doesn't it happen everywhere?

This is a nascent and growing example of what happens when people, who no doubt have many other things going on in their busy lives, make a decision to spend that bit more effort on a mission they feel is worth while. Thankfully for Murray, she found a willing school partner early on, who put in an equal extra effort to make it work. But for ideas like this to 'scale', it requires more than a pack, website or even funding - there was next-to-no additional funding to make this possible in the first place, and not even a purchase code to buy coffee and tea for school kids.

There was just passion and perseverance to do what felt right.

Now, the team are adding to their passion with data showing how it works.

The key is whether other Head Teachers and their leadership teams feel passionate about closing the achievement gap in this way, raising aspiration of what might be possible, to set up and run a similar programme in their own area.

Does your country need you? One out of five kids say "no"

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Almost one in five young people in Scotland wake up in the morning wondering if their country needs them. In a country that has in many ways never felt so optimistic and excited about its future, this should be a momentous wakeup call, a call-to-arms for the whole community. The line comes from the opening page of Sir Ian Wood’s report on how employers and education might manage a genuine culture of partnership, and answering this claim was the palpable bone of contention during an evening last week of discussion, talks and food, with some of Scotland’s education leaders and management, at SELMAS.

In Scotland, based on my experience and the stories told at Thursday night’s event, I’d suggest that there are three fatal blows to closing an achievement gap, most of them rooted in how education and business choose to play with each other. I'm going to walk through them over a few blog posts to come:

1. For some schools and businesses there is a lack of interest in partnering - the “what’s in it for me” just isn’t visible.

2. For other schools and businesses, there is a lack of knowledge on how to partner and what to partner on - “the what’s in it for me” is maybe agreed upon in principle, the enthusiasm is there, but what the “it” might be is the challenge.

3. Finally, for some schools, there is a genuine disdain and contempt for working with any organisation that is not their own, and publicly funded. Here, business and schools can't even agree to play with each other.

May 17, 2015

Whole-school language of learning, or everyone for themselves?

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A large part of NoTosh's time with schools is spent helping leaders and teachers decide upon common languages of learning. Having a shared vocabulary to describe what we're doing means we spend less time working out what we mean, and more time talking through the nuances of what makes one piece of practice exceptional and another less so - and we can all then improve together, based on what works best.

Feedback is arguably the one element that everyone says "we do that well already, and we do a lot of it!". We have trouble sometimes even engaging teachers to want to think about this more than 10 minutes, because everyone feels they're "feedbacking to death" already. It is seen as a given that feedback is the element that, when done well, can improve the quality of learning more than anything else.

But it's not that feedback is important that is worth exploring. The interesting part is seeing how to engage students in peer- and self-assessment much more, and to make any teacher-led assessment worthwhile. Recently, I've been working with schools where the main battle is getting students to see peer- and self-assessment as being just as important as teacher feedback.

Alex Quigley's school have been exploring how to seam quality feedback throughout the institution, through a whole-school approach to feedback. And this feedback policy has, in fact, replaced their marking policy. His latest blog post is a rich example of how to go about a whole-school language of learning around one element - feedback - and reap the benefits of a coordinated approach in the way that each department then adapts this for their own context.

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April 24, 2015

Keeping students at school 24/7 through the Seven Spaces of Learning

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Imagine designing a school where the bell never rings, the day never ends, that keeps students in for as long as possible, in the same way as Google has designed its campuses to keep employees happy, but working.

That's what we explored during a fun field trip visit this week to Singapore Management University's SMU-X with the Facilities team and some great educators from Singapore American School (above), as they consider how they might create a more agile process for teachers to propose learning space innovations.

The space's project manager and initiator is Gan Hup Tan, Associate Director of Strategic Planning at the University, below. He's used design thinking principles to attempt the creation of a 'sticky space', where students choose to spend their time. But also visible were a large number of different type of space, and their type dictated, without signage, how it might be used. They fell fairly close to what I've come to call the seven spaces of learning.

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In a fascinating visit we witnessed that very concept, with many students even opting for a quick nap in the "Quiet Room", on inflatable mattresses and soft furnishings, so that they could rejoin their learning, with peers, in one of the many collaborative spaces nearby:

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 Ownership of the space is a challenge: it is open 24/7 with very much 'background' security staff, and no librarians or permanent 'assistors' on hand. And yet the only room with instructions on its use is the White Room, head-to-toe-to-floor idea-painted, with glass walls and door, so that students can map out big ideas:

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Interestingly, both here and on smaller whiteboards along the lines of workstations, there was plenty evidence that students claimed these spaces for personal expression, personal ownership. Cartoons, sketches and fun 'tags' felt like their principal purpose was to make students feel more at home, give more of a sense of belonging in an otherwise transient space.

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While most space was purposefully ambiguous in purpose, there was the one-button recording studio:

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Students insert their USB memory stick to start the system. Television lights switch on and the system is instantly ready to record, as soon as the big silver button is pressed:

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As soon as the recording is complete, press the button again, and the whole movie is saved, instantly, to your USB. Remove the USB, the lights go out automatically, and you can leave with your movie ready to upload. It's a lovely example of technology reducing the barrier to achieving a prototype of thinking, good enough to get feedback if not quite Hollywood in terms of editing. 

Does it work? Well, as I headed back to my hotel after dinner, a paused by the building. At the junction were six student-looking youth, takeaway food in their hands, heading towards the door. One swipe of their cards and they were in. 11pm learning - it’s certainly when many of us did our best work back in the day, no?

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February 23, 2015

Expectations #28daysofwriting

This is what they call a "forward" post. I wrote it yesterday, when I had wifi and time, and am posting under today's date. I have a (reasonable) expectation that I will be alive tomorrow, and that this will not, therefore, freak out anyone unduly.

In the early days of blogging with my school students, back in 2002/3, I'd use forward posting on the foreign trips we made because mobile access to blogging software on my Nokia was so expensive. At the time I gauged our expectations of living tomorrow high, but was young enough and foolish enough to forget that, should our coach have gone off piste 88 mums and dads, notwithstanding the rest of our families, would have been rather taken aback to see us "happily arrived in Caen", and not in the mortuary. 

Expectations are funny things. We all like to believe we have different expectations, but some of our expectations are just hardwired, like the pentatonic scale, into our beings. This year, the case was proven when I felt obliged, finally, to remove my kid from her local school and attempt to fund a better future in a local private school. The principle reason for this move, against many education bones in my body, was that state education in my neck of the woods feels like it has lost its sense of expectation for every kid. Our expectations are realistic, perhaps, and the intention of supporting all children to achieve will help the lower 20% become a much more able lower 20%. But there will always be a bottom 20%. And if our efforts are in setting expectations for the middle, all kids will  tend to aim a little below whatever we set them. In her new school, Catriona is flourishing, with expectations set at a stratospheric level and a hidden understanding that, really, the goal isn't to meet them at all. There's something else going on.

This ties into what we consider 'normal' expectations. My expectation of being alive tomorrow (today) when this is posted are high. I place trust in my pilots, my plane and my fellow passengers, not to do us any harm.

My expectations of living another day along with my students back in 2002 were equally high, but not entirely shared by nervously grinning colleagues when they knew what I had prepped for future-posted blog posts.

My expectations for my kids' own learning are stratospheric. At 4 and 7 years old, I expect them to be able to do anything that they want, as long as... and there is the tough bit. What are the conditions for expectations that mean some schools succeed in pitching them perfectly, and others, on a systemic level, fail completely?

This is not a pushy parent, or a doting dad post. This is all about helping my kids learn earlier than I did what Steve Jobs put thus:

"When you grow up you tend to get told that the world is the way that it is, and your life is just to live your life inside the world, try not to bash into the walls too much, try to have a nice family life, have fun, save a little money...

"That's a very limited life. Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact:

"Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it, you can build things that other people can use.

"Once you discover that, you'll never be the same again."

February 22, 2015

Set a clear destination, but prepare to change the route #28daysofwriting

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This morning I set off for Dubai, and on to Hong Kong and Nanjing, before returning for a couple of days in Dubai, and then home in time for tea on Friday. It's a hectic week, with a lot of time in the plane. Something I've noticed over the past year is that flights have become longer. Most of the time, this is because of war and conflict 38,000ft below.

Take the initial route to Dubai, for example. Until last summer, this trip took me routinely over Southern Turkey, Syria, Mosul and Basra in Iraq, down the Persian Gulf sea border next to (but avoiding) Iran, and into Dubai (the blue line in the graphic above. Source: Daily Mail). I used to enjoy peering out at the flames from the oil fields of Iraq and the bright beacons of Kuwait.

Now, the safest route is a good 10-30 minutes longer, over what is deemed safer - Ukraine, the annexed Crimea and Iran, coming in through the back door to Dubai.

The destination hasn't changed but, due to horrific circumstances in Syria, Iraq and Eastern Ukraine, the route has had to.

When an organisation is looking at its strategy, I often find that the route and destination are conflated, they become one and the same. If the destination is too far flung or far-fetched, then we don't leave the current status quo. If the destination is appealing but the first attempt to get there is thwarted, we tend to see strategy teams crash land, declare a failure, and walk all the way back, slowly and painfully, to the status quo of before.

The teams who reroute overnight are rare. The teams with a genuine pioneer spirit are rarer - they tend to be the ones who call up my team to help them get to some genuine BHAGs (Big Hairy Audacious Goals).

Because this is the key to rerouting. It's a multi-team multidisciplinary effort, and everyone needs to know their role. Having everyone 'collaborate' on the same stuff is just group work, and the equivalent of having the entire ground staff, airline leadership team, crew and, if there's any space left, passengers on the rerouted plane:

  • teachers and students need to really understand where the institution is with a snapshot (three-week?) immersion. They need to learn the questioning skills that will unearth the really interesting emotional, empathetic and factual stories in the institution.
  • leadership need to provide a space in which the war room of thinking can be visible (and addable to) by everyone during this tight period of immersion.
  • the same research team need to work with school leadership to synthesise the mass of data they have gathered.
  • with outside help and provocation, the design and leadership team need to have confidence in putting forward to the Board the key problems and opportunities they have found, through pitches.
  • the Board have to be pushed to think beyond the micro and 'safe', and think about the inspiring future they can envision using the data they have been shown.
  • design teams need to iterate their nascent ideas to solve the problems they identified, before the Board commits to their wording. Their prototypes and feedback will inform the process.
  • everyone, whenever and with whomever they are working, needs to be aware of their decision-making rights and role in order to really collaborate.

Having a strategy, having a destination, is not enough. You need to have a timeline that shows when each of these steps will take place, and when each prototype will become more solid, should they prove successful. These tools enable the leadership to leave the flight deck, and let teachers, students, parents and other teams get on with their jobs, confident in the turns they take.

February 13, 2015

Would you rather look smart or be smart? #28daysofwriting

 

Reggie Watts breaks me up every time I hear the beginning of this TED Talk. It's funny because, so many times before, I've heard this kind of faux-erudite nonsense from self-proclaimed intelligentsia, in an unfunny context. It comes from people who want to look smart, instead of just being smart. Click play and read along...:

"... and that's one of the things that I enjoy most about this convention. It's not so much, as so little as to do with what everything is. (Laughter) But it is within our self-interest to understand the topography of our lives unto ourselves. (Laughter) The future states that there is no time other than the collapsation of that sensation of the mirror of the memories in which we are living. (Laughter) Common knowledge, but important nonetheless. (Laughter) As we face fear in these times, and fear is all around us, we also have anti-fear. It's hard to imagine or measure. The background radiation is simply too static to be able to be seen under the normal spectral analysis. But we feel as though there are times when a lot of us -- you know what I'm say'n? But -- you know what I'm say'n? Cuz, like, as a hip hop thing, you know what I'm say'n, TED be rock'n -- you know what I'm say'n. Like so I wrote a song, and I hope you guys dig it. It's a song about people and sasquatches -- (Laughter) -- and other French science stuff. That's French science. Okay, here we go. ♫

Watts is then just smart.

Would you rather look smart or be smart? For the past decade I've been a fiendish reader of all things simplicity, especially the art of making complex ideas simple. I've often been off the mark on that one, but not for wont of trying. I take solace from the fact that most policy on education, most curricula, most education research is written in such a way as to render its content useless for the people who need to understand it most.

One way writers aim for simplicity is to pace themselves against readability scores. Andy Maslen, copywriter genius featured in yesterday's post, has just fist-bumped himself with a lifetime best score of 98.2 for readability of some copy he wrote. The other end of the spectrum is just as amusing. Marcel Proust's Swann Way has one sentence whose score is -515.1: 

"But I had seen first one and then another of the rooms in which I had slept during my life, and in the end I would revisit them all in the long course of my waking dream: rooms in winter, where on going to bed I would at once bury my head in a nest, built up out of the most diverse materials, the corner of my pillow, the top of my blankets, a piece of a shawl, the edge of my bed, and a copy of an evening paper, all of which things I would contrive, with the infinite patience of birds building their nests, to cement into one whole; rooms where, in a keen frost, I would feel the satisfaction of being shut in from the outer world (like the sea-swallow which builds at the end of a dark tunnel and is kept warm by the surrounding earth), and where, the fire keeping in all night, I would sleep wrapped up, as it were, in a great cloak of snug and savoury air, shot with the glow of the logs which would break out again in flame: in a sort of alcove without walls, a cave of warmth dug out of the heart of the room itself, a zone of heat whose boundaries were constantly shifting and altering in temperature as gusts of air ran across them to strike freshly upon my face, from the corners of the room, or from parts near the window or far from the fireplace which had therefore remained cold—or rooms in summer, where I would delight to feel myself a part of the warm evening, where the moonlight striking upon the half-opened shutters would throw down to the foot of my bed its enchanted ladder; where I would fall asleep, as it might be in the open air, like a titmouse which the breeze keeps poised in the focus of a sunbeam—or sometimes the Louis XVI room, so cheerful that I could never feel really unhappy, even on my first night in it: that room where the slender columns which lightly supported its ceiling would part, ever so gracefully, to indicate where the bed was and to keep it separate; sometimes again that little room with the high ceiling, hollowed in the form of a pyramid out of two separate storeys, and partly walled with mahogany, in which from the first moment my mind was drugged by the unfamiliar scent of flowering grasses, convinced of the hostility of the violet curtains and of the insolent indifference of a clock that chattered on at the top of its voice as though I were not there; while a strange and pitiless mirror with square feet, which stood across one corner of the room, cleared for itself a site I had not looked to find tenanted in the quiet surroundings of my normal field of vision: that room in which my mind, forcing itself for hours on end to leave its moorings, to elongate itself upwards so as to take on the exact shape of the room, and to reach to the summit of that monstrous funnel, had passed so many anxious nights while my body lay stretched out in bed, my eyes staring upwards, my ears straining, my nostrils sniffing uneasily, and my heart beating; until custom had changed the colour of the curtains, made the clock keep quiet, brought an expression of pity to the cruel, slanting face of the glass, disguised or even completely dispelled the scent of flowering grasses, and distinctly reduced the apparent loftiness of the ceiling."

I'll admit this now. I've not read the book. Nor have I actually read the sentence that I just copied and pasted here. Why? Because it's not really the point of this post.

The point of this post is to place an intellectual earworm in your mind, ready for Monday morning, or the next time you turn finger to keyboard, pen to paper, to convince anyone to do anything. No-one cares how smart you try to show yourself to be,  how smart your strategy might look, how smart your tech programme appears to be. They care how smart all of it really is, meaning your job is to share it in as simple a way as possible.

(The readability score of this blog post, without Proust, is 80. #fistbump)

February 12, 2015

Your strategy does not interest me. Next! #28daysofwriting

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NoTosh doesn't just help scores of schools and private business with their strategy; we're in the process of adjusting our own course, too. What I've noticed, is that the activity known as 'wordsmithing' is normally referred to dismissively, with disdain, as something someone else will do much later on, once they "real work" of strategising is done. These leaders could not be more wrong.

Far from the afterthought or polishing to which the task is often reduced, getting the wordsmithing right as you create your strategy is vital if you want people to really believe in it.

To help me on NoTosh's own strategising I've been diving into Andy Maslen's tomes (that's his distinguished mug on the top of the post). For a copywriter extraordinaire, he tends to spend at least half his books helping the reader understand what it is they are trying to do and why the hell they're doing it. I can imagine a few strategies dying a necessarily premature death by around p.43 of most his books. 

A key point that resonates as I undertake a few schools-based strategy projects, is this one:

People want to know what's in it for them (WIIFM?).
They don't care how clever you are.
They don't care that you are proud / humble / honoured about anything.
They don't care how much excellence you promote.
People want to know what's in it for them.

He suggests a couple of writing tools that will help education strategists (any strategist, really) to convey their 'why', and in turn the WIIFM, so much more clearly:

  • KFC:
    What do you want your reader / student / parent / teacher / peer to know, how do you want them to feel about it, and what do you want them to commit to?
  • Don't use the 'F' word - use the 'B' word
    Don't list off the features of your latest product / school / initiative / programme of work / technology roll-out. Tell us the benefits in our lives. This works in the same way as I suggest people should pitch new ideas to their peers: start with a 'pain', turn the thumbscrews until we're begging for an answer, and then tell us all about how your idea is going to make our lives so much better.
  • FAB: Grab me by the ... benefits
    Features first, then tell me the general advantages of working in this way might be, and then tell me the benefits to me personally.
  • Don't assume I'm paying attention
    Too many governmental policies, school strategies and "research-based" approaches to learning simply assume that the audience should be receptive to the new idea. This is a fatal flaw, and undermines even the best ideas. Assume that your audience has plenty of other far more interesting things to be doing, and write your strategy or pitch to wrestle their attention back towards you. Try starting the strategy with the words "How" or "Now" and see how people want to take part in making it happen.

 

February 11, 2015

Working out a school's competitive position even when it's not competing #28daysofwriting

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Most schools are state schools, so the idea that leadership might spend time working out a competitive position, or value proposition, often seems absurd. Surely that is an exercise the preserve of private schools and, even more so, private business? State schools are for local kids - the value proposition is that the school is closest to your home. Period.

Steve Mouldey blogged yesterday about his own school's vision, and how it sets this state school, Hobsonville, apart from other schools in the area. In this post he cites an excerpt from Grant Lichtman's #EdJourney (pp. 92-94) where the notion of value proposition is justified on the fact that students have more mobility between education provision (other schools, homeschooling, online) than ever before. Steve talks about a notion of value proposition that I'd disagree with:

"The Value Proposition, as I understand it, is about what you actually do compared to what you say you will do (much like Espoused Theory vs Theory in Use by Chris Argyris)."

In our startup work, the value proposition is much more clearly understood as what you do compared to what your competitors say they do, or are perceived as doing, by their customers. The competitors might not actually deliver on what they say they do, but the perception of the customer is all.

For example, in my local area of Edinburgh are three primary schools:

  • the closest one to home is in a Victorian building, where school inspectors have repeatedly made the point that capital building and repair projects eat into funds that could otherwise be used for learning. I decided not to send my child there;
  • the one at the top of the hill has a fabulous reputation, thanks to the perceived quality of the high school with which it is associated. The high school changed head teacher years ago, and has been on decline since then. The primary school's inspectorate report is average. I decided not to send my children there;
  • the Catholic school is the furthest away from home. Catholic education is often perceived as a good choice - parents chose to send their children there, whereas the other state schools are often default schools, being closest to home, ergo, parents who make a choice care more about their kids' learning, ergo: the kids will be more engaged at home as well as in school. Also, on a visit to the school, this perception was reinforced during a school tour and two successful first years for our eldest. We chose to put our first kid there.

But this school's value propositions (in this case: quality of learning, getting the job of learning done, lowering cost (it's free!)) were not consistently applied. As soon as our daughter hit Primary 3, the key reason for using this school - quality of learning and getting the job done - suffered. A new teacher, needing some solid support from other teaching colleagues and the leadership team, struggled as neither was offered sufficiently. The cost of sending my kid there increased dramatically - she was unhappy, which made her mother and me devastated. The cost was not financial. The cost was emotional.

My kid no longer goes there. We've increased costs substantially, by opting out of the local education system and sending her to a school 20 minutes away. However, we are guaranteed on the value proposition of the new school - a consistently excellent education, no quibbles.

A value proposition, even if you are a state school, is a vital value to hone down, not just so that kids aren't ripped out of your school but so that everyone, including the leaders, can be held to account when kinks in the system appear. If you state that excellence in education is your value proposition, then you'd better get that nailed, all the time, every time, or perceptions will change and take a long time to bring back.

And defining a value proposition is easy - you can really only choose one top value you pursue, and a close-place second one. Beyond two core value propositions, your team will be lost and not know what they are chasing:

  • newness
    New schools can use this as a value proposition for a few months for each new school year to be introduced, to gain traction fast but, above all, to inspire distributed leadership and innovation in teaching and learning among its staff. It won't just happen - it needs stated as the value proposition by the school's founders.
  • performance
    Is your school in the top 10, top 20, top 50 of the country? Work out where the cut-off point for your excellence might be, where your performance is considered worth talking about. Equally, movement from mediocrity to excellence is worth talking about. The Bohunt School (11th best in England, from the middle ground, in six years flat) is my global fave for that kind of heroes story.
  • customisation
    Do you offer a learning experience that is genuinely student-led - can I make the kind of education I want?
  • "getting the job done"
    Do you consistently get kids what they need - not excellent, not poor, but you will get them into college / into an apprenticeship, and you fail no-one?
  • design
    Amazing facilities? Beautiful resources? Great food in the restaurant (not canteen...)?
  • brand/status
    Are you already in a position of being "the" school that people send their kids to? How do you maintain that with another value proposition that no-one else offers? This nearly always goes hand in hand with another value proposition that justifies the brand.
  • price
    Most state schools are free or near-to-free to attend. Price isn't a great VP in that case. For private schools, this is a huge consideration.
  • cost reduction
    Much like price, the cost of education is already low for most. Being geographically well-placed reduces families' costs of getting to school. Providing transport for children is another way. Providing technology is another.
  • risk reduction
    Do you reduce the risk that a child will fail, through additional support or a specific strategy?
  • accessibility
    Do you give access to activities or experiences that are normally the preserve of private schools? Or do you offer access to university early on, to students who would not normally expect that? Or do you provide access to business-building where most schools do not?
  • convenience/usability
    Are you close by, or run with flexible hours? Are you approachable for parents? Do you have facilities that help students stay in school longer? Holiday learning days?

Pic  |  Ref: Business Model Generation

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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