Dare to be different

31st October 2014 at 00:00

Henry Ford is often mistakenly quoted as having said: "If you only do what you've always done, you'll only get what you've always got."

Regardless of its provenance, the saying captures the stasis that often exists in schools. The configuration is the same in most institutions: age-aligned year groups, allocated blocks of time for each subject, a timetable for the school day, terms and holidays, and so on.

To my mind, the solution doesn't lie with a simplistic notion of "doing" something different. I would like to offer an alternative version of the saying: "If you only observe as you've always observed, you'll only see what you've always seen."

We are all, without exception, trapped by our default perspectives when looking at any issue. If we always look at things in the same way, we may not even be able to see the problems.

Albert Einstein recognised the importance of stepping back and taking another look. "If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution," he said, "I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes."

Einstein was able to look at problems through different frames of reference and, as a consequence, he generated alternative questions, which led to innovative answers.

Being able to shift your frame of reference is key to enhancing your imagination, because it enables different insights.

So, if reframing problems is at the heart of innovation, how can schools escape from their default views?

There is a tendency to try to put ourselves in the position of the learners. But we forget that young people have been conditioned by their educational experience and are limited by the short chain that ties them to what they already know.

There's another misattributed Henry Ford quote, which says: "If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses."

I know this is controversial but, in my experience, some of the most conservative forces in a school are the students. That's not to say that young people don't have a role to play in imagining and shaping the future of education. But we must help them, as well as the teachers, to break free from the status quo.

So how do we begin to reframe our professional world? We need to tinker with our points of view.

The power of metaphor can be useful here. I use seven metaphorical lenses - sculptor, scientist, builder, gardener, parent, conductor and villager - to help leaders escape from their default positions and assess their schools with fresh eyes.

It is quite remarkable to witness the shift when people are free to inhabit another point of view and shape an alternative vision that differs from their normal window on the world.

Don Ledingham is director of innovation leadership at personal development consultancy Drummond International

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