Metaphorically speaking ..

2nd July 2010 at 01:00

Dangerous things, metaphors. As an English teacher and an amateur hack, I love them. At a recent conference on school leadership, I heard some wonderful ones - but I remain convinced that they are dangerous.

Norman Drummond of Columba 1400 concluded a wonderful contribution on leadership by quoting Leonard Cohen:

Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack in everything

That's how the light gets in.

Quite right. Perfect offerings are not only not required but can be a diversion from the achievable, and I'm uncertain how to interpret the metaphorical crack through which "the light gets in".

Dangerous things, metaphors.

Graham Thomson of the Scottish Centre for Studies in School Administration used a PowerPoint showing a polar bear approaching chained huskies to pose the question: "What came next?" The subsequent slide, surprisingly, showed the polar bear and the huskies frisking together in the Arctic sun. It brought a smile to serious faces. In education, as in the Arctic, the unexpected can be rewarding. Nice polar metaphor.

The two main speakers at the conference, Education Secretary Michael Russell and senior chief inspector Bill Maxwell, gave solid, workmanlike presentations on Curriculum for Excellence.

Judith McClure, convener of the Scottish Educational Leadership Management and Administration Society, proposed the vote of thanks. She took us back to the polar bear and the huskies and asked us to imagine not one, but two polar bears. One was the Education Secretary and the other the senior chief inspector. With a mischievous grin she asked us to imagine Scotland's headteachers and school leaders as the huskies. She told us that the polar bears and the huskies could be good friends and feel free to frolic with each other as equals. So far, so good, and the metaphor hadn't collapsed.

Judith then suggested that the huskies needed to be freed from their chains. They had to work together as a team but, even while playing with the polar bears, they should maintain that collective drive. Not many present cavilled at the thought of school leaders working as a team. Most welcomed the idea of freeing school leaders from their chains. Here the metaphor does begin to strain. In the Arctic, the huskies' chains are imposed by human drivers: in Scottish schools, at least some of them are imposed by the polar bears.

It is also contextual. The PowerPoint polar bear was a happy beast. It was summer. He had likely eaten a couple of salmon before he stumbled across the huskies. He may even have been a young, naive bear and thought the huskies were potential objects of affection. Imagine the season had moved on. The polar bear - oops, the two polar bears - were hungry. Wouldn't be much playful frisking then with a chained husky.

Let's return to the initial scenario. If the polar bears approach the headteachershuskies, genuinely seeking dialogue about how best to improve our curriculum and our school system, we should be happy to frolic and play. If the huskies can escape their chains and continue to work as a team, pulling together in the one direction, they'll be better able to deal with the polar bears as equals and have less reason to fear them. But huskies should never let down their guard: most polar bears in the wild return to type - predatory type.

As I said, dangerous things, metaphors.

Alex Wood is head of Wester Hailes Education Centre, Edinburgh.

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