Wise up or you'll find life's a snore

4th January 2008 at 00:00
We are used to hearing heads pronounce on their pupils as learners, but they too are learners. At one end is the nodding head, at the other the wise head.

Nodding heads have either learnt little since being promoted or do not apply learning to the running of the school. In their schools there will be no sense of excitement and little innovation. Key questions about functions and roles will not be asked. Pupils will notice that the school is mechanistic and blinkered. Bright staff are likely to be frustrated; and if they have any get-up-and-go they will quickly decide it's time they got up and went. Nodding heads can plod on for years, well within their comfort zone.

Wise heads are different. However experienced, they retain an appetite for learning. Built into the way they lead their schools are the ways in which they will add to their knowledge and understanding. They want to be effective leaders within a broad frame of reference.

So how do they do it? Wise heads network dynamically. They know that all organisations grapple with similar challenges - communication, customer expectation, quality management, dealing with disaffected staff etc. They want to hear how people who have not set foot in a school for years tackle these things.

Wise heads know we don't learn from experience. What we learn from is reflection on experience - and that needs time. Wise heads take this time, somehow.

Wise heads know how to research. They don't just Google it; they pursue evidence-based enquiry and know how to use speculative information - not just to get letters after their names, but to make connections.

Wise heads know how to think. They can hypothesise, extrapolate and get to grips with paradox and fuzzy logic. This enables them to analyse what they have learnt, to challenge it, and to apply it.

Wise heads do not lead from within comfort zones. They put themselves and their schools on the line for external inspections and analyses. They want relevant news, good or bad, from knowledgeable sources.

In a school led by a wise head there is a buzz; there is a sense of continuous development, debate and sophisticated service to students. The school will be on the map locally, perhaps nationally. The pupils will notice that their learning has a context, that they are understood and valued; that the school is up with what is going on. Parents will notice that the school is culturally aware, a place where things do not stand still.

Wise heads know that in 10 years time, good schools will be almost unrecognisable. Far from being intimidated by this, they want to be in the vanguard.

We need more wise heads. It's as simple as that! If you don't agree, find yourself a nodder and nod off.

Nigel Collins, Assistant principal at the British School in The Netherlands.

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