Skip to main content

Platform: A simpler way to be better

Top of the Government's stated priorities is education and central to that the aim to improve the quality of learning and teaching. Someone in my position cannot help but be encouraged. For more than two years I have had the privilege of a post which has allowed me to read, think, write and talk about learning and teaching, and to a lesser extent teacher development and how schools are run. In that time I have worked with more than 1,600 teachers across Scotland and I have had the opportunity to travel to the United States. These experiences have convinced me that ministers are absolutely right to seek improvements. We have a significant gap between what we now know about how people learn, teach and lead effectively and what, for the most part, we do in our schools.

Schools have improved greatly over the 20 years I have been in education. The gap exists because our increased knowledge about how people learn, teach and lead is moving at an even faster rate. This new knowledge not only comes from educational research, but from research on the brain, developmental psychology, and, believe it or not, from physics, mathematics and biology in what has come to be known as the "new sciences". Just one examples illustrates the gap. It is believed that 95 per cent of what we know about the brain and how it learns has been learnt in the past three years.

Match that against the fact that it is 20 years since the average teacher in a Scottish school went through initial training. Most have not had the opportunity to engage with ideas about learning and teaching since then, and to reflect deeply on what they think and do. Some don't even see the need.

This is the fundamental reason why attempts at educational change have generally failed to bring about the changes that really matter. This despite the fact that they have been led by able and committed people with well thought out plans. One secondary headteacher in a recent workshop spoke for many others when he said: "Learning and teaching is the most central issue for schools to address, but the most difficult. Why?"

To answer this question we need to recognise the obvious. The quality of learning is determined to a huge extent by the behaviour of teachers and particularly how they relate to their pupils both individually and as a class. As Aristotle put it: "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence is not an act but a habit." What teachers repeatedly do is to large extent based on their values, what they believe and what they feel: about themselves, about people and how we learn, about life and about the world. But for anyone to reflect on these beliefs and feelings, let alone develop them, is not easy. It is certainly not something that can be forced, pushed through by mandate and measurement. Yet we seem bent on forcing change. It was certainly the main modus operandi of the previous government. Tony Blair talked during the election about his desire to "drive things through" if he entered Downing Street, suggesting that is what everyone would expect him to do. He had a fair point - that is indeed what we expect a Prime Minister at the head of a new government with a large majority to do. It is also what we expect at all levels in the system: in the council chambers of the new authorities, in the offices of the directors of education and new headteachers.

But hopefully we can abandon some of the rhetoric he used in the campaign and recognise that strong leaders have the confidence genuinely to empower.They do not feel that they need to make things happen, but in David Bohm's words "listen purposefully to what is needed, and know what needs to happen". They are also capable of asking questions such as: "How do we create the conditions for supporting developments in learning and teaching which individual teachers and the school as a whole believe are needed?"

The "create-the-conditions" model for change is much less macho and superficially less attractive than the "how-do-I-make-things-happen?" model. For one thing it means starting where teachers and schools are, not where we want them to be. It also means reconsidering the anti-teacher mentality that sometimes seem so prevalent. It means acknowledging that although teachers need to be challenged they also badly need support.

Margaret Wheatley, a professor at Brigham Young University in Utah, argues in the title of her recent book that the "creating-the-conditions" model is A Simpler Way. Indeed she believed it is the only way to bring about real change in areas so complex and varied as learning and teaching. She has done possibly more than everyone else to relate theories from the "new sciences" to leadership and the way organisations work. I believe her work has immense implications for the way we approach school improvement.

Much of her thinking is based on what some call the "science of self-organise systems". This science suggests that all living systems, from a cell in the human body, to an individual, a team, an organisation, a country even the universe itself will "self-organise" if the right conditions exist. The theory is that if the conditions are right new systems and structures will emerge: they need not, indeed cannot, be imposed.

Attractive as these ideas seemed to me after years of helping to impose new systems and structures, I have to admit that initially I found them difficult to take on board. The turning point was when someone at a workshop took me aside and explained what she believed were the crucial conditions for self-organisatio ns, where we have an identity, a purpose, a vision which we believe is worth while; it is freely chosen and shared; we are honest and open about current reality. Where generating and sharing information is part of the culture. Where we give and receive feedback about what is happening and how well we are doing; we value each other and develop relationships where there is mutual trust and respect, where we can be real and we can accept other people for who they are not for what we want them to be.

The "create-the -conditions" message is an extremely positive one for those working in schools, who have little influence over systems and structures. For them it genuinely is a "simpler way". Working on vision, building relationships and sharing information are things everyone can do in their day-by-day, minute-by-minute in classrooms, in the staffrooms, wherever they work, to help make the changes that really matter.

But it is essential also that our leaders at all levels take this message on board too, and given our expectations and our normal ways of working it does not appear so simple for them. They need courage to recognise that significant change really does need to be bottom up as well as top down; that it really does come from lots of small changes rather than through major initiatives; that it really is a continuous process and not a one-off or a quick-fix.

If we are to make the improvements in our schools that the country needs and our young people deserve, we need leaders at all levels who have the strength and the confidence to take the simpler way.

Ian Smith is development fellow with the Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum.

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you