A brave new world of ideas

10th May 2013 at 01:00
Rub shoulders with educators from other cultures and excellent ideas are likely to rub off on you

I was in New Zealand when I had one of my best ideas for improving learning in my school. In 2007, I was at the International Confederation of Principals in Auckland, listening to Sir Ken Robinson, the creativity man. It wasn't anything in particular that he said. Rather, his inspirational talk set my mind running. I'm not sure I heard all of his session - I was scribbling too furiously as my own, barely connected, concept grew.

What the idea was doesn't matter. But the experience poses an important question: do you really have to travel to the other side of the world to get a good idea?

Of course not. But it's true that I've never had my best ideas in school: it's just too busy. The contradictory joy and frustration of school leadership stem from the fact that your day never goes according to plan - you're constantly interrupted by the stream of people and issues that come to your door or computer screen. Accordingly, I always advise newly appointed school leaders: "Get out more."

It's not obligatory to travel abroad for new ideas, but it helps. Rubbing shoulders with educators from other systems, cultures or traditions, you are struck first by the differences. But, invariably, over a few days you discover that you share infinitely more hopes and fears, aspirations and frustrations. From that interaction, you start to develop your own ideas, the solutions appropriate to your setting.

There are dangers in international benchmarking. We are plagued by policymakers constantly deciding that, for example, Finland's high level of attainment means that it has all the answers for other education systems. Clearly it has many, but you cannot transplant one country's approach wholesale into another. Sadly, politicians try to do that - their heavy-handed cherry- picking and imposed "solutions" give international comparison a bad name.

For teachers and school leaders, by contrast, there is no such danger. Generally, the best ideas we develop for our schools are part stolen, part adapted. The successful approach at the school 10 miles down the road won't quite suit us, but we like the basic premise. So we borrow the concept, mould it to our particular context and make it work for us. Looking internationally simply provides a bigger palate from which to borrow, adapt and create anew.

There are many opportunities to go to conferences or for study abroad, so volunteer and ask the school governors to fund it. It's encouraging, too: comparing notes with people from other systems, we often find that we are not doing so badly and encounter admiration for what UK schools achieve.

I'll come clean. The great idea I conceived in New Zealand was one I never saw through. Instead, against expectation, I got a new job. Perhaps that trip was the catalyst, I don't know. But I'm certain that the international dimension has helped me and the schools I've led. Think about it - and get out more.

Dr Bernard Trafford is head of the Newcastle upon Tyne Royal Grammar School in the UK.

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