As teachers we break a subject down into components or elements of knowledge and understanding, into learning steps if you like. We then find the “best” way to deliver these steps in a way learners will, with a measured degree of effort, assimilate. This process is influenced by our knowledge and understanding of pedagogy and our relationship with the learners. In short we “scaffold” learning. Fairly straightforward but have you thought about it from a learner’s perspective? No? – Well read on!
Using what we know to learn what we don’t know
I have come to believe that we learn by building on what we know. This to me is a sort of mental map of my knowledge and understanding, knowing and learning (yes there is a difference, see this article: http://wp.me/p2LphS-ba). The bigger and more detailed the map the more confident we are and easier we find learning something new. For example it has been shown that speaking more than one language helps in learning a new language. I have a way of visualising this process of building on what I already know and call it “anchoring”. I look to make sense of what it is I am trying to learn or understand by referencing it with what I already know or understand what I have already learnt. I make links between what I already know and what I need to learn.
Anchoring essentially involves problem solving, an important aspect of Learning Intelligence, LQ (download a leaflet here: about-lq-with-lq-graphic). This is how this approach works and how a teacher can use it effectively in their lessons.
From the learner’s perspective
1) As the topic or subject is introduced we have to look and listen for words or phrases we already recognise.
2) We cannot assume they mean the same thing in this scenario as they do in others so we need to seek clarification and check meaning and relevance.
3) We take enough time to reflect on how what we know fits in with what we are learning. This also involves asking questions to check the links are valid.
4) Next is a sort of consolidation phase, where we explore a little further trying to see where what we know already and what we are trying to learn may take us.
5) This leads to as a sort of prediction phase where the links are established and we are ready to embark on a new learning journey. We can make educated guesses or predictions if given certain pieces of information.
So learning starts by seeing learning as a problem to solve and a period of analysis and reflection.
From the teacher’s perspective
1) Ask yourself what students need to know or understand in order to make a start on this topic and prepare questions you can ask to check before starting the topic.
2) Don’t assume understanding. Often the same words or phrases can be learnt without understanding. Build in a check and reflection phase during the topic introduction. Acknowledge and praise where students show understanding or can make links with relevant knowledge.
3) Create an opportunity for students to identify what they already know and how it can be useful in the learning process.
4) Introduce risk taking in the learning process. Encourage students to make assumptions or predictions about the new topic. Here are some questions that can be used to initiate this process. “Knowing what we know already what might happen if…?” “How do you think this might link to…?” You are actually leading up to “Let’s find out”
5) Don’t underestimate how much effort this takes on the part of the learner. Allow for structured mental breaks and reflection periods. Build in activities that create opportunity for pair or small group work and class feedback sessions.
The proof is in the pudding
I have tried this out on myself in learning about path-finding algorithms used in game programming and after 50 minutes I was in need of a mental break despite being very interested. I went through all the steps I suggest a student goes through here. During the process I was not passive, there is no good sitting there and hoping you are on the same page as the teacher. Learning intelligence, LQ, is about managing your learning environment and that means interacting with it.
There are two other observations to make about this approach. Firstly I was able to contribute much sooner than if I had just listened. I was in an active learner state earlier. This is important if we as learners are going to maximise opportunities for learning. For teachers it means a greater rate of progress.
Secondly I have a deeper understanding of the topic in a much shorter period of time and anchors that can be used to recall the learning links later. These anchors can be thought of the start of trail of “bread crumbs” marking our thought and learning associations. In case of reviewing or revisiting what we have learnt, and possibly forgotten, we can pick up the trail again starting from an established anchor point. By following the same trail we reach the same understanding but importantly we can do this independently using our internal prompts. A simplified example is knowing that 12 x 12 is 144 so when asked what 24 x 12 is we can start at 12 x 12 and quickly recognise we are talking about twice as much.
I would be interested if you scaffold your teaching or learning in this way too.
What does being a better learner mean?
If I asked you the same in terms of football, or any other sport you would more than likely think about skills, attitudes, understanding, motivation and a few other things besides. Would you tell me it was the number of goals you scored (yep I am in the UK!), the number of passes you made or goals you saved? I doubt it yet in some ways we judge learning success by the number of grades or qualifications and not how effective we are as learners.
Being a better footballer means being better at playing football, all aspects of it, and finding strategies to overcome challenges when faced with a better player or team. So I believe it is with learning, being a better learner is about managing your own learning to overcome learning challenges. Let me explain.
The concept of LQ or learning intelligence that I have developed is a way of focusing our minds on not just outcomes but the act of learning itself, becoming a better learner. This is not just about “learning to learn” it is about managing learning too. We can use LQ as a way of overcoming any challenges we face as a learner. By understanding how our environment, and those in it, impacts our ability to learn and in recognising the challenges it lays down we can begin to see learning as a problem to solve and not just a subject to master.
The problem we face in education is similar to a man who is running wearing one shoe and holding the other in his hand. We recognise he is slowed by the lack of shoe on one foot but we dare not risk losing time whilst he stops and puts on the other. So we continue to rush on knowing full well if we only took the time to put on the other shoe we would run much faster. We worry about never catching up if we take our focus off mastering subjects. This limits our learning.
If you have ever heard the story of the two men coming face to face with a bear you may recognise it. One man turns to the other and shouts “Run”. His friend replies “We will never outrun a bear” to which he replies “I don’t have to. I only have to outrun you!” So it is in education to get the top marks you only have to be at the top, in front of others. What potential you could have realised is unimportant so long as you out perform others.
My argument is if we took a little time to learn about how our learning environment impacts our learning and how to use LQ to leverage our learning we would learn easier, understand better and make quicker progress. You would also improve the chances of reaching your true potential. Well its more than an argument, it’s common sense just like running in two shoes is faster than running wearing one whilst holding the other.
*I have reflected on nearly four decades of teaching and spent the last five researching and trying to confirm theories to finally end up with the concept of Learning Intelligence or LQ for short. I define LQ as our ability to manage our learning environment to meet our learning needs. Once we are aware of the skills, attributes, attitudes and behaviours we possess and use or exhibit in response to learning challenges we can begin to leverage our learning.
This diagram shows those skills, attitudes, attributes and behaviours I have identified that are held or practised by successful learners.
LQ will make learning easier, better and quicker.
Don’t believe me, then I encourage you to challenge me. For every learning challenge their is a strategy. Explore this article to see what I mean: How to Learn Anything
No matter what the subject or the situation developing your LQ will make you a better learner. It’s like stopping to put on that second shoe. You know you should do it but for some reason you fear falling behind so you don’t. Where is the logic in that?
For more on LQ please read through past posts on this blog. If you are interested in workshops to promote or develop LQ then please get in touch.
More about the services I offer and LQ can be found at www.ace-d.co.uk where you can also download leaflets and free teaching resources.
Schools are pushing students at this time of year to make or exceed their target grades. A great deal goes on both during school, after school and during holidays to finish coursework or to revise topics. Revision strategies most commonly ask students to go over ground they have already covered, often in the same way with the same teachers and approach. What if there was a better way to reach those targets grades?
If we take a sporting analogy for a moment we can see that there is more to performance than learning how to do something and practicing it. Athletes have to believe in their ability to succeed and without this mental state it matters little how often they practice or train. What if our students did not believe in their ability and what if we did little to change that state of mind? Would it matter how much revision or practice they did if at heart they did not believe they would succeed?
Roy Leighton is involved with a school in Leicester in changing mind-sets of a group of Y11 students. They are using a better way to help students achieve and it does not involve revision in any school subject but it will pay off across all of them. In fact it will have a lifelong pay off for the students because they will believe in themselves.
I had the opportunity to accompany Roy on a visit to the school to meet with some of the students during the Easter Holiday and to see the better way in action. The better way is actually called the “Butterfly Model” and it is something Roy has been developing and refining very successfully. I have known Roy for some time and our work has a number of common elements including enabling learners to manage their own learning and to understand the emotional impact on our ability to learn. Roy once said to me: “We are holding different ends of the same stick” and I take this as a both a compliment and encouragement for developing my work on Learning Intelligence seeing how big the stick is that he is holding.
I recommend you check out his work on personal transformation here: http://www.royleighton.com/the-butterfly-model1.html
Here are the two elements of LQ, PBCF “Please Be Child Friendly” enabling and supporting the engagement of learners and SAAB the Skills, Attitudes, Attributes and Behaviours that form the enabling aspect of LQ. You can read more about LQ, starting with an introduction at LQ Introduction
Back to the school and students who voluntarily came in during the holiday to meet with Roy and carry on with the programme. This was his 4th visit and there are others to come along with “hangouts”, text messages and online resources that are part of the programme. This may sound like an advert for the Butterfly model but hey if you see something that works you should share it – right!
The session focused on being the person you want to be, making the changes you need to make and recognising the powerful emotions that influence our self-beliefs as learners. “Getting from here, to where you want to be”. Not your typical exam boosting session but one that is as essential as any in achieving success, just ask any athlete.
As students reflected on the last session and what they decided they wanted to keep, develop and let go you could see their energy rise ready for the challenges this session would provide. A significant difference to getting students to go over work they have already struggled with again which does little to alter their “learning map”, what they believe they can and cannot learn.
Looking at ourselves and recognising our strengths and our weaknesses is difficult, acknowledging these and then deciding what to do about it even harder, but hardest of all is actually doing something about it. I saw students fully engaged in this journey, facing up to the challenges and changing their beliefs about themselves as learners and having fun while they did so.
With the pressures schools face and not forgetting how these find their way to the teachers it is refreshing to see a school take a different approach, a better way, to achieving success. Some may even say a “braver way” and in many respects I would have to agree. Doing what is the norm, even if it does not always work, is less risky than doing something that is right when it is not recognised. The students who attended this session are in many ways pioneers and deserve recognition. I am sure they will show others there is a better way and I look forward to hearing of their success.
Some time ago I came across a TEDx Blog by Krystian Aparta about an “Open Translation Project” where translators shared their secrets to mastering a foreign language. This got me to thinking about learning and what I call “Learning Intelligence” or “LQ”
First, a bit about LQ
LQ is our ability to adapt our environment to meet our learning needs. This is just what these translators were doing – managing their learning environment to make learning easier and quicker. LQ consists of a set of skills, attitudes, attributes and behaviours (easy to remember “SAAB”) we can develop to help us learn. What the translators were doing is a great example of using LQ to learn and you can use this approach to learn anything.
So I set about changing the language and examples used by the translators to make it appropriate to learning anything using LQ.
The outcome is 7 things any learner you can do to learn anything. They are quite simple things to do but bring huge benefits making learning easier and quicker. See what you think, I have created a graphic to showcase the 7 steps of how to learn anything.
Here are brief descriptors of each step to go along with the poster.
Start with “Get real”, a way of ensuring your goals are achievable. Some people use the acronym “SMART” for targets or goals. SMART targets are specific, measurable, realistic and time related. If you Google SMART targets you will find them in use in business, coaching and other areas of life. The meaning of some of the letters can change “relevant” or realistic” is an example. They are ideally realistic, achievable within the time frame and can be supported by whatever else you are doing. Don’t take on too much at once.
This task is about arranging things so that what you want to learn is part of your life, you are reminded or encouraged throughout the day to keep learning. Reminder or information notes around the house can be one strategy you use or joining a club another.
There is often more to learn about something than what you first think so go exploring. What you discover and experience can help you learn easier and remember much more making the topic far more interesting and memorable.
Technology (mobile phones, computers, tablets etc) are all excellent ways of accessing information. Just be careful not everything you read is accurate or true. You can also join forums and ask questions. For more about “e-learning” see this article and guide.
Knowing why you are learning something is important for being motivated. Find out what the benefits of learning will be for you and when. Learning to drive may give you independence and becoming awesome at adding up numbers may help you get a job.
Learning on your own is hard, learning with others who want to learn the same thing is much easier. You will find you can quiz each other or set each other challenges or just revise. You can also receive encouragement from others when things get difficult to understand (they normally do when learning something new)
Task 7 is an important reminder not to worry about making mistakes. We all make mistakes and one common barrier to learning is the fear of failing but that this is just a step towards achieving your goal. Okay not a big step and perhaps a backwards step at times but a step none the less. Learn from your mistakes.
I am happy for you to download and use the above graphic but please acknowledge the source.
If you would like a high resolution graphic file to download and print then I have made these available through e-junkie (a secure online publishing site) for £4. Click on the button below and you will be taken to the checkout where you can pay by credit card or PayPal. Other arrangements can be made if you prefer, just drop me an e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org and include “H2LA” in the subject.
How to Learn Anything Poster purchase and download
A time of exams and a time of testing
Here in the UK we are rapidly moving towards the Y11 and Y13 examination or key stage 2 testing phase in our schools. These are significant transition points in education and carry with them considerable pressures. Get it right and learners have life choices, get it wrong and we are “picking up the pieces” in a number of ways.
How can parents help their children during this time?
The question I want to look at in this article is “What can parents do to support their children at such times as these?” I also want to provide strategies that can help both the parent and the child deal with the upcoming challenges.
The issue of homework
Whilst examinations and tests are points of high involvement and stress for parents there is the issue of homework too. Homework tends to increase prior to periods of testing and is often seen as synonymous with revision. Much of what I say here applies to the daily issue of homework, especially if we aim to foster lifelong learning and don’t want the morning ritual in many homes that starts with the question “Have you got your homework?” and ends with both parents and children being stressed.
Let’s start by looking at things from the learner’s perspective.
They will have had mock examinations or practice tests by now and be rehearsed in the practices that are involved in taking them. They will be trying to reach expectations or maintain progress towards them. For some it may be an expectation too far, they may already be beginning to fold under the pressure. Even if they have done well so far there is the pressure to do it for real when the time comes. Revision and homework don’t have to be lone activities, you being in the same room can be a form of support. Without a strategy and without support we are expecting a great deal from our children.
The learning environment
Remember we are all different and where you like to study is not the same as your child’s. There are a number of myths around where study should take place but the common one is on your own and in a quite place. Think for a moment, at a time of stress and anxiety do you relish the idea of being sent to your room, to be isolated? Few of us do. I even moved my own home office into the “flow” of the home rather than be isolated from the energy that is part of family life. Remember we look forward to things we enjoy and put off the things we don’t! Working at the kitchen table, lounging on the sofa or on the bed, indoors or outdoors . With bright light or dim light, with music or without. These are all acceptable places and ways to study. The key though is to be organised.
Remembering the ways to help
Here is an acronym or mnemonic (I am not sure which you would call it) that can help PARENTs be supportive of learners and I am going to use it to outline the strategies parents can use to effectively engage with their children. A more detailed workshop can be provided for a group of parents or you can request a copy of “The Parents Guide to Study” from the link at the end of this article. The basic approach is to be “gently” involved, think of your role as being more of a “guide” than a task master or time keeper.
The meaning of the acronym PARENT is to:
Participate, Ask questions, Reflect, Encourage, Negotiate, Time
What each letter means
Participate – Find out what is going on. Know the dates and key times of all examinations or tests. Provide a reason and relevance for doing their best (not rewards). Work at using peer groups to provide support and not distractions. Understand what learning needs and preferences your child has (for example some like the quiet and others like a busy background). Homework does not have to be alone work either.
Ask questions – but do not interrogate – AVOID using “Why?” , it makes us defensive (try it, ask somebody why they are doing whatever it is they are doing and see what response you get). Find out what topics are being studied and see what you know about them. You can ask about how they remember best or what new things have you learnt. You can ask your children to explain things to you (pretend if you do know or understand that you do not). Ask how they think they can improve. Use positive emotional triggers – “How did you feel when you did well at….?”
Reflect – find or make opportunities for your children to reflect, recap, internalise, or explain. Short periods work best and if you can make them spontaneous so much the better. Remember mistakes are part of the learning process. Work at building self-esteem, it’s going to take a battering!
Encourage – it’s important you stay positive and purposeful and not to let negativity build. Focus on getting better and not just results. Show how much you believe effort leads to success and set a good example. Praise only when praise is due and make it specific.
Negotiate – it’s about goal setting and creating win/win situations. AVOID bribery. Talk about consequences and be consistent. Remember choice is a powerful motivator but not if it is free choice.
Time – our lives are influenced by every second. A break or leisure activity are as important as studying if managed properly. They can keep us fresh and can break negative moods. Plan ahead to try to minimise anxiety and stress where you can. Rehearse what will happen at key times so they are part of the process and as ‘normal’ or familiar as they can be.
The PARENT Poster
To make it easier to remember the parent role I have designed a poster that you can put on a wall, cupboard door or any place you find yourself passing by regularly.
As a PARENT learn to stand back
Although PARENTS is also a useful acronym I have left the “s” out of the acronym as it stands for “stand back“. Learning to stand back is probably the hardest thing for a parent to do. Let them make mistakes, it’s part of learning. Your job is not to do it for them. I know this can be nail biting and frustrating but better to learn the lessons of life early. I have worked with college/university students who are in a terrible state because they have not developed the skills to cope on their own or do not know how to handle failure.
Well that is how to be a PARENT at a time of examination or testing and during homework time. I hope you found it useful.
Using the PARENT poster.
I am happy for you to download and use the graphic in this article but please acknowledge the copyright.
If you want a high resolution version in the form of a PNG file suitable for printing up to A3 size then I can provide that at a small cost, more of a donation really to cover hosting costs (£1, about A$2, US$1.5). The poster is available via eJunki, a secure online publishing website, by using the”Buy Now” button where you will be able to use PayPal or make a card payment.
If you are a school and want a license to print as many posters as you wish, starting at £25 a year, get in touch at email@example.com and I will send you the details
PS – Possible book for parents
I am considering extending this article into a guide for parents “The Parents Guide to Supporting Home Study”. If this is something you would like to see then please let me know (via twitter @4c3d or e-mail)and I will put pen to paper!
The Learning Relationship explained
Let’s start by explaining what a “learning relationship” is. This graphic is my way of showing how the responsibility for learning should, over time, pass from the teacher to the learner. The time period may be a single term, year, key stage, a course, or educational phase (primary/secondary). This is the form of relationship that will ultimately produce independent rather than dependent learners, learners able to manage their own learning rather than be dependent on others to manage it for them.
At the start the teacher has the primary responsibility and will have planned and resourced the course. Little is expected of the learner other than turning up and having some basic equipment appropriate to the course. For example the learner responsibility may consist of turning up with a pen and pencil or include a book, an apron, or PE kit or other personal specialist subject equipment. A positive disposition is always useful as is an element of motivation to learn. Where these do not exist then the teacher has an additional, but not insurmountable challenge.
Once the course has started and the teacher sets out their expectations it becomes increasingly the responsibility of the learner to engage in the learning, making an effort to take part, to work at understanding and applying knowledge. Think of this as being set a topic to learn or a book to review or completing classwork and homework. This does not absolve the teacher of responsibility, as the diagram shows there is still a significant requirement on the teacher and these may take the form of motivating, encouraging, coaching, or tailoring approaches and materials etc. There is never a point where the teacher is without some responsibility.
Planned responsibility changes
There comes a time in the learning relationship period when the teacher will temporarily take back some of the responsibility. This reclaiming some element of responsibility is primarily is a time of redirecting, initiating, review or assessment of (and for) learning. It is both a small percentage of what has already transferred and for a limited period of time only. There may be several of these occasions over the course but it important to recognise that each one is planned and forms part of the process. The teacher will prepare the learner for such occasions making sure that they understand the purpose and outcome of each one.
Lesson planning needs to account for this approach and I have written about how that can happen and what it looks like here: http://wp.me/p2LphS-a6 A more in depth lesson approach is in the form of mindful learning, again I have covered this topic in an earlier article. See here “An Introduction to Mindful Teaching”: http://wp.me/p2LphS-om and “Just what is Mindful Learning”: http://wp.me/p2LphS-u for ways to question and interact with learners that promotes learning responsibility both from a learner and teacher perspective. A great deal of my work on Learning Intelligence, or LQ, is based on finding ways to promote in learners the ability to manage their own learning environment to meet their learning needs. The idea of the learning responsibility ratio is part of that work.
So what can be so powerful as to distort this ideal model of teaching and learning?
Martin Robinson (www.martinrobinson.net) says in his article “Teachers, Cheating and Selling Achievement” [i]
“Different children every year are expected to perform better than children did the year before. This means that although every year the children change, the school is expected to improve, the children are not the reason for this improvement, the school is. This is not teacher centred or child centred education, it is school centred, and with statistical modelling it will be school eat school out there.”
How then does this impact on the teaching and learning responsibilities?
Consider for a moment the concept of responsibility and who is most likely to assume or feel responsible for examination or test results. I am not asking who is responsible but who is most likely to act in a way that shows responsibility. My experience is it is the teacher who immediately feels responsibility for their students achievement and rightly so. Few teachers lack any form of relationship with their learners and are inclined to feel an element of responsibility. There are however caveats to carrying this burden. If the teacher has done everything they can or could do and despite their best efforts the learner has failed to comply with instruction, complete work, or co-operate with the teacher then we would probably agree it is not the teacher’s fault. The outcome is not the teacher’s responsibility (fault).
In a high stakes environment that requires year on year improvement, that sets threshold levels or standards it is not acceptable to describe a lack of achievement as being down to the learner. Blame must be allocated. Blaming the learner[ii] will not wash with government and so it must be the school that is at fault. The school after all is both a responsible organisation and an identifiable target more so than any individual pupil. The stupidity of this is made clear if we take the following example.
A man is driving (the pupil) a perfectly good, safe, car (the school) and loses control and crashes.
Let’s consider who is responsible for the accident. Is it the car (the school) or the driver (the pupil) of the car who is responsible?
I think I would be safe in assuming most people would regard the driver to be at fault.
Distorting the Learning Responsibility line
The impact of blaming the school (and the school ultimately blaming the teacher) on the learning responsibility line is dramatic. It is no less dramatic on how learners can see themselves in terms of responsibility for the outcomes of their education. Let me give you a personal example of what I mean before showing you the revised learning responsibility line and explaining why it becomes so distorted.
I had a sixth form student join my class from a neighbouring school recognised as “outstanding”. He was struggling and appeared not to have a firm grasp of the basics despite having excellent GCSE grades. He was struggling and so I decided to ask why and see if I could not put things right. He listened attentively and politely said “You do it for me Sir. You know it will make you look good” Apart from being shocked by his answer, and his cheek, I began to wonder where this attitude had come from. What he had worked out was the distortional effects on the learning responsibility line brought about by the wrongful allocation of responsibility and accountability. He knew that because of his past track record of achievement any future “failure” could easily be accounted for by my teaching. It was I who was responsible for him succeeding. I was left wondering how long this particular student had known this! I did not “do it for him” and possibly that day he learnt his very first lesson. He never did finish the course!
Back to the distortion of the learning responsibility line of the Learning Responsibility Diagram. If the teacher takes back responsibility either by too large a degree or too frequently then the decent of the line is slowed and the transition becomes or assumes a “saw tooth” like profile rather than being gradually graded towards a transfer of responsibility.
The causes of the teacher resuming responsibility are always down to accountability. Teacher accountability arrives in a number of guises but always with the same drivers – assessment, inspection or observation. The higher the stakes the greater the number of occasions of imposed responsibility the teacher experiences. In such circumstances we also see a higher workload and greater levels of stress for the teacher. Teachers are for the most part compliant. They have their learner’s interest at heart and this makes them vulnerable to such pressures. Add in performance related pay, career impact of working in a “failing” school and you have the perfect storm conditions. If you make the consequences of “failing” high enough people, and teachers and schools are no exception, will do extraordinary things to make sure they don’t fail.
The outcome of the distorted learning line may not be seen in examination or performance results but it will be in the ability of the learner to manage their own learning to meet their learning needs. We will not have independent lifelong learners but we will have dependent learners who lack the responsibility for their own learning. We will have drivers that blame their cars for not preventing them from having accidents.
As for the teachers and the schools well we will probably have a teacher shortage and failing schools. There is no other possible long term outcome unless we change the focus of responsibility from the teacher to the learner. As Martin says “it will be school eats school out there” and this does nothing to promote learning or develop in the learner the skills, attitudes, attributes and behaviours that will enable them to manage their own learning – to be life long learners.
If you want to find out more about how the LQ approach can raise attainment and enable learners then please get in touch. I run workshops and I can address TeachMeets, run CPD events or the like.
Other related articles:
The return to school looks at how leadership influences learning relationships.
Part 4: The one and only learning theory that counts is … looks at how apportioning blame is the only outcome of one way of doing something. Blame follows after the tightening of procedures, monitoring and checking.
[ii] Once again I have explored the Blame Game in a series of articles called “The one and only learning theory that counts is…” You can find specific post concerning blame here: http://wp.me/p2LphS-r6
I have been led by others and I have led others. I have studied leadership and I have experienced good and poor leadership. I have worked for leaders and worked with leaders. As a leader I have made mistakes and learnt from them and I have learnt from the mistakes made by other leaders. This article is about what I have discovered about leadership (in a nutshell).
Google leadership and you get definitions, styles, skills, theories, books & courses. There are probably T shirts and I know Edward de Bono came up with a set of coloured hats. What can I hope to add to what has already been written? Well this is a more a practical reflection on leadership, experiences of leadership if you like triggered by a #SLTchat session on leadership. It is also specific to education. You may not think education leadership is any different to any other form of leadership but I believe it is. Yes there are similarities but the process of becoming a leader and of being a leader is somewhat different. So instead of an article about being a leader or leadership, of which Google suggests there are millions, this is more about working with leaders, being led by good and poor leaders, true leaders and simulacrums.
Firstly all teachers are leaders, they lead the learning of their pupils. This relationship is no different to the relationship between any leader and those they lead. The maxim of “lead by example” is often forgotten by teachers, they forget what it is like to be a learner. This makes them poor leaders and poor teachers. Poor leaders because leaders should never stop learning from those they lead. Poor teachers because forgetting the anxiety of learning, the need to belong, of having to face choices and needing a voice will limit your ability to build learning relationships.
Secondly the route to school leadership is based on teaching less. Doing less of the things you love doing, things that brought you into teaching in the first place. An ex head teacher shared what drove her to be a school leader; it was “the sphere of influence” factor. The more responsible the position the greater the sphere of influence you have. There is certainly passion and belief attached to this drive but perhaps also ego and they make for difficult things to balance in leadership roles.
As a teacher you have influence on the pupils you teach, as head of department this extends to the teachers in your department and as a leader of a school the pupils and teachers in your school. Some would argue you have an influence in the community too. Others are driven by other motives, those of ambition, status, responsibility, notoriety. It often strikes me as strange though that we draw these people from a pool of talent that came to teaching to teach and many may be poorly suited to school leadership although they pursue such ambitions. Perhaps that is one reason for so many leadership books, courses, and even qualifications. There is more about suitability for leadership in my next observation.
The third observation I will make concerning leadership in teaching is about the nature of teachers and I know there are exceptions but bear with me. I have a theory that we explore careers that reflect the environments we favour, that we feel comfortable in, have the talent for, or are thrilled by. Fate may decide that is not where we end up but that is another story. If we take the case of teaching then I would argue that those who are successful in school, and who enjoy school and benefit from the rewards of being compliant (a requirement for success as a pupil in school) will tend towards seeking out careers with a similar environment. Teaching is one such career. The result is, since teachers were compliant students, a compliant teaching workforce. This has its benefits but when we consider many of the leaders we hold in high regard, those who have been successful, are mavericks, non-conformists, even rebels it begs the question about the suitability of compliant leaders when it comes to doing what is right rather than what is required. There is certainly a case for “horses for courses” and at times any organisation requires different styles or types of leadership however this is another example of how leadership differs in schools.
Education is exposed to political will, ideas and pressures. Schools are not autonomous and be it a board of governors, an academy chain, local authority or any other body that is responsible for the school they ultimately set policy. Where that influence extends to inspection, standards, and regulation (as in the Government) a particular set of powers are employed to direct what happens in schools. Many leaders in schools (at all levels) may disagree with policy but few will be obstreperous. A few will find creative ways around the direction and quietly do what is right other than what is required. Ultimately though, unless successful, there is no reward for challenging policy or being anything other than compliant. This creates its own set of problems for leaders in schools, how to operate a sphere of influence in line with their own experience, philosophy, and ideology when it is in conflict with a government directed policy. It is also responsible for setting up a certain style of leadership, one that is to do more with “enforcing and regulating” than engaging and enabling.
My final observation is possibly less specific to education and it is that there are two types of leaders. I am not talking about styles of leadership, anyone can adopt a style or at least try. I am suggesting that there are those for whom leadership comes naturally and those who aspire to leadership but who lack the understanding and drive to truly understand what leadership is about. Knowing which one you are working with is essential for your own wellbeing. I believe you can tell which one you have by observing and noting certain behaviours. The first type of leader is the true leader and the second is a simulacrum, an imitation that looks like the true leader but gives themselves away in the following manner. I have tried to layout in the table below what their approach is and what happens to individuals and teams when being led by each type of leader.
|Engages and consults before making a decision.||Narrow and selected consultation before making a decision. Often vulnerable to pressure from individuals.|
|Makes decisions in a timely manner and describes rational.||Decisions are often delayed and changed without providing a rational.|
|Carries out actions with minimum delay but ensures resources are available with acknowledgement of consequences.||Actions are instigated without considering incidental consequences. A lack of planning or co-ordination evident.|
|Accepts when an error is made and willing to re visit decisions openly and without seeking to blame. Evaluation of events provides useful insights that are acted upon.||May blame others and events when things go wrong. Reluctant to re visit decision more likely to adopt another course of action without evaluation.|
|Views evidence objectively and without ego||Tends towards subjectivity with possible bias based on self.|
|What you see is what you get. Although diplomatic also open and honest.||You are never sure of the reaction you will get.|
|They build trust fostering the ethic of working with or for them.||Those being led tend towards being sceptical, they begin wondering what is behind the actions or decisions.|
A poster I designed to emphasise these points under “Good” and “Poor” leadership actions, something to print or pin on your wall, is available to buy and download. The links are at the bottom of this article.
If you have the option to work for a leader then look for the signs of a simulacrum before you decide. If you have no option but to work with or for a leader then “forewarned is forearmed”!
So there you have it, a practical look at leadership in education. As for my own approach to leadership it is best summed up by the way of a poster I designed based on the mnemonic “ENABLE”. I see this as the most apt verb to describe the actions of a successful leader. “Leaders enable” has a certain ring to it I think too!
What each letter of ENABLE stands for:
- E is for Engage – with those they are leading
- N is for Nurture – both the team and future leaders
- A is for Articulate – a vision, the challenges and the way forward clearly and convincingly
- B is for Bridge – the gap between people, ideas and strategies in order to move forward
- L is for listen and lead with empathy and understanding
- E is for Encourage – all to participate, to challenge and to take risks
Leaders ENABLE high resolution poster file at £1 *
What Leaders do high resolution poster file at £1*