Take off the blinkers

4th February 2005 at 00:00
Professors of education, like people in glass houses, should take greater care about where they aim their stones, says Antony Luby.

In the most recent issue of Teaching Scotland, the journal of the General Teaching Council for Scotland, Walter Humes, launched a coruscating attack entitled: "Do we trust our educational leaders?" As someone who has expressed similar views in these very pages ("Fashioning a union of vision", TESS, January 9, 2004), I hesitate, but only slightly, to argue that Professor Humes has overstepped the mark.

Indeed, some may believe that he is ensconced in an ivory tower and far removed from the realities of the classroom, but I couldn't possibly comment - although, the phrase that "people in glass houses shouldn't throw stones" does come readily to mind.

Humes complains of the "narrative privilege" held by the educational leaders who "write the official reports, issue the press releases, spread the approved discourse and dictate the terms of the debate".

However, at least classroom teachers read some of these reports and participate in the debates, or "stage-managed consultations", as he prefers to call them. But what of the narrative privilege held by Humes and others in the Scottish educational research community? How many teachers in the staffroom eagerly reach out for a copy of the Scottish Educational Review? Could it be a case of sour grapes?

But enough of throwing stones: it only adds to the "profound cynicism" of which Humes speaks. Rather, let us focus on the last paragraph of his article where he speaks of "trust in leadership, nurtured in a climate of honesty and integrity". This is achievable, for it has been done in the past and can be achieved now. How? By leading from the side. Real and sustainable curricular innovation is rarely achieved by "leading from the top".

While the "leader" may have access to narrative privilege and create the impression of success, usually it is just that, an impression, and does not last. Either the "leader" disappears into the distance, often to take up a new post, and the troops are left behind, murmuring: "What was that all about then?" Or the troops go through the motions, the boxes are ticked, and on the surface all appears to be moving forward smoothly.

In reality, the whole process has been subverted and little or nothing changes in practice (see my January 2004 letter in the context of enterprise learning and formative assessment). This kind of experience undermines trust in leadership and fails to establish a climate of honesty and integrity.

On the other hand, "leading from the side" can achieve real and sustainable curricular innovation. With this approach, small groups of teachers work side by side, teaching the same pupils. Lessons are planned collaboratively, teachers are participant observers in each other's classes and a climate of integrity and honesty is formed as the classroom teachers become the leaders.

Indeed, many moons ago I was fortunate enough to be involved with an initiative that promoted this approach of "leading from the side" (enterprise learning in Scottish Borders).

However, such initiatives are often confined to a relatively small number of teachers. Lacking access to narrative privilege, their efforts remain unheard of, and so a process of "reinventing the wheel" has to take place some years later in another part of the country. But this can be remedied.

With the advent of chartered teachers, Scottish education is beginning to form a cadre of staff who are well placed to lead from the side. The narrative of the classroom can become a shared experience in which the "official" educational leadership has a role to play. But it must be on the terms stated above - that is, it too must collaborate in the preparation of lessons, lead by the example of its teaching and earn the right to be a participant observer in colleagues' classrooms. This narrative can also be shared by professors of education. But again, it must be from the classroom, and not from the ivory tower. What say you, Walter?

Antony Luby teaches Catholic religious education in Aberdeen secondary schools.

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