Open letter - In a bid to help you, I have formed a hypothesis or two

1st February 2013 at 00:00

Dear Petra

Your implementation board on teacher education has a big challenge, as you know. Let me assist you by offering the "Smith hypothesis". Like the existence of the Higgs boson, it awaits total proof: but, also like the Higgs boson hypothesis, the evidence is accumulating.

In its simplest form, it states: "The ostensible receptivity of Scottish teachers to new ideas is an inverse function of the distance of their school from the centre of population gravity in Scotland, ie, the M8 Harthill service station."

Try new ideas in Stranraer and one is received with acclaim. Run a CPD course in Stornoway or Inverness and one is greeted with reverence. In the centre of Glasgow or on a bleak afternoon in Coatbridge or in Edinburgh, things are rather more robust and challenging. Given that I am writing for TESS, I am careful with my language. But I have been there and I have the scars to prove it.

Do not despair, though. There is a second, subsidiary hypothesis: "The gradual acceptance of a new idea is proportionate to the initial hostility with which it is greeted."

One departs from Stranraer or Stornoway or Inverness with a warm glow in one's heart. But nothing much subsequently happens. One departs from North Lanarkshire, Glasgow or Edinburgh with deep suicidal tendencies, but, six months later and with their own adaptations, they are doing these things. Indeed, they often say: "We invented this".

To be honest, I'm not entirely sure about my first hypothesis. But I am serious about the second one. There is much world-wide evidence to support it.

I think my most unpleasant career experience was being lacerated (metaphorically of course) by a group of primary heads in South Lanarkshire on a wet winter Friday afternoon in Hamilton. In retrospect, I think it was one of the most enlivening educational experiences I have ever had.

The wonderful Michael Fullan (a professor from Toronto who knows a lot about Scottish education) has good advice: let people vent; listen to them; and your initial opponents may well become your strongest supporters. Historically those in charge of managing change in Scottish education are not good at this. I heard an HMI about 20 years ago tell a national staff development committee: "It's all simple. Call the headteachers to a conference in Edinburgh, give them a keynote speech and a good lunch, then hand them a CD telling them what to do. End of story." I thought he was joking. But he was serious.

So, Petra, you know you need to generate a bit of a culture shift. Encourage debate; encourage dissent, even. Play it right and some of the most recalcitrant figures in Scottish education may become some of your best pals.

Yours sincerely, Iain

Iain Smith was at one time a dean of education in the University of Strathclyde. He writes in a personal capacity.

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