October 30, 2010

[ #msief ]: John West-Burnham's Seven Questions for Leaders of Learning

John West-Burnham
John West-Burnham ended the Partners in Excellence Worldwide Innovative Education Forum with a set of conversations. What would your conversations be around these questions?

Are we just about Improvement or are we truly trying to move to transformation in learning?
Are we becoming immune to improvement, in that there's a limit to how much we can approve? If that's the case then what we really need is innovation that transforms where we are, that moves what we're doing into a new space where we can further improve.

"We cannot restructure a structure that is splintered at its roots. Adding wings to caterpillars does not create butterflies - it creates awkward and dysfunctional caterpillars. Butterflies are creating through transformation." (McLuhan, 1995)

But why move off into new ground? Is it a given that change is good, that where we have improved to is not good enough? We innovate because opportunity, well-being success, learning, inclusion and excellence are not available to all.

It comes with its challenges. When I was introducing a totally project-based, product-based curriculum in my French classroom in 2002, to when I propose it to teachers all over the world now, the loaded response is: "That's great, really engaging, but at the end of the day we've got to pass exams." The implication is that different = worse. If we've managed to get 80% of students (or 99%) succeeding with these, splintered methods then how could any change improve on that?

What is the reason for our change and evolving projects? What is its Moral Purpose?
Equality and equity of provision is a fusion that leads us to true social justice. Any strategy focusing on innovation has to promote social justice to be long-term sustainability.

"The high quality and performance of Finland's education system cannot be divorced from the clarity, characteristics of, and broad consensus about the country's broader social vision. There is compelling clarity about and commitment to inclusive, equitable, and innovative social values beyond as well as within the education system." (Pont et al 2008:80)

And what future is it leading us to? What future are we creating?
If you were to ask students what their criteria of success were for the schooling process they would almost all say "fairness". They have a strong sense of justice, of social justice even. If you ask teachers, they'll use the word "consistency". Leaders have to translate policy, words, into practice. They have to tell stories that capture imagination and provide a guiding light for everyone that hears and uses those stories - these stories are what management consultants call 'vision'.

Allowing people just to dream about what they would like as a future for learning is hugely powerful. Giving permission to believe the unbelievable can create a path which people can end up working towards. Building scenarios, pictures of a preferred joint future are vital in helping paint a target around the arrow.

This process is vital - we need a moral destination for our work to make the journey to its achievement possible, and easier. What is it we're trying to do, where does it lead us, why are we taking this journey and why are we going to that destination?

What trust networks have we been able to gather, and how are we going to use them?

"We don't come fully former into the world. We learn how to think, how to walk, how to speak, how to behave, indeed how to be human from other human beings. We need other human beings in order to be human. We are made for togetherness… to exist in a tender network of interdependence. That is how you have ubuntu - you care, you are hospitable, you're gentle, you're compassionate and concerned."
Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

"We-Think emerges when diverse groups of independent individuals collaborate effectively. It is not group-think - submersion in a homogeneous, unthinking mass. Crowds and mobs are as stupid as they are wise. It all depends on how the individual members combine participation and collaboration, diversity, and shared values, independence of thought and community."
Charles Leadbeater.

"That leaves us with just two main sets of factors behind Easter [Island]'s collapse: human environmental impacts, especially deforestation… and the political, social and religious factors behind the impacts… competition between clans and chiefs driving the erection of bigger statues requiring more wood, rope and food.
Jared Diamond

One of the challenges is the extent to which we are going to sustain innovation through sharing. How do we build communities of learning for students, moving schools from places of learning to places of communities. Professional generosity is one of the most powerful means of raising the whole educational game. Part of this, in a virtual sense, is to do with the defaults of systems: all too often the virtual learning environment is set to default sharing with just the class or the school, and not the world. But collaborating with a school 6000 miles away is probably easier and more common than collaborating with the school just down the road - how many secondaries / high schools regularly collaborate, whole school, with another neighbouring high school.


"When trust is high, the dividend you receive is like a performance multiplier… In a company, high trust materially improves communication, collaboration, execution, innovation… In your personal life, high trust significantly improves your excitement, energy, passion, creativity and joy in your relationships…"
Stephen Covey

If you want me, as a teacher, to really let hog of my habituated practice, to work in different ways, then I've got to trust you.


Children in schools go through all phases of trusting within just one school day. When you're a 12 year old boy you live in a control culture ("In by 8pm or else"). By 16 there's some delegation and negotiation ("How about 11pm? Hmmm, how about 10pm?"). By 18 you're legally empowered to do what you want ("What time might we see you"). As a 32 year old you are bound by family but not  ("Who are you?").

Is what we're doing a vocation or just a job?

"When people are in their Element, they connect with something fundamental to their sense of identity, purpose and well-being. Being there provides a sense of self-revelation, of defining who they really are and what they are meant to be doing with their lives."
Ken Robinson

When faced with 350 Head Teachers deemed by a national accountability agency as "Outstanding", John asked "Why are you outstanding?" Two thirds responded: "A sense of calling."

And when we face a huge range of pressure, where are our reservoirs of hope?

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without words
And never stops… at all.
   Emily Dickinson

Long-term sustainable innovation, leadership and creativity depends on a sense of hope. The most creative and innovative heroes we have all seemed to have this deep well of hope.

"The patterns are simple, but followed together, they make for a whole that is wider than the sum of its parts. Go for a walk; cultivate hunches; write everything down, but keep your folders messy; embrace serendipity; make generative mistakes; take on multiple hobbies; freqneutn coffee houses and other liquid networks; follow the links, let others build...
Steven Johnson

The connection that we aspire to make is shared by all educators: the neural pathway. The child and the family connecting and interdependent. The community connecting. Then get connectivity between communities.


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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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