Category Archives: Leadership

The Liberation of Learning

We all have a view about what education should be like – and we know what it looks like in reality. In the currently dominant model of education, the focus is on learning prescribed syllabus content, determined by what can be easily assessed by written examination, namely, factual recall, divorced from much consideration of relevance or interest and driven by a remorseless concern for successful examination results. The watchwords of traditional education are rigour, knowledge, examined assessment and opposition to student control over the learning process.

This is, of course, not the only way to think about education. By way of contrast, the educational progressive favours independent learning, arguing with Dewey that the centre of gravity must be nearer the child: their interests, concerns and questions matter when we are determining what is to be learned. Progressivism draws on simple but often neglected insights into the learning process, such that students learn better if they are interested in what they are studying, are able to make significant choices about the learning process and the form in which they exhibit their knowledge, and have time to develop a deep understanding rather than simply memorising facts for short term recall.

Progressive education embraces the realms of the unknown, the imaginative, the evaluative and the creative. Learning is connected much more directly to life itself. It is an active process of inquiry and exploration, involving the individual construction of meaning within the domains of study. Skillful exploration of such domains is often not susceptible to assessment by means of a written examination, not least because the choice of question lies with the student. It can however be assessed, and rigorously so, by means of extended projects, a form of assessment which is for many purposes more valid than an examination, not least because students have many skills other than those which lead to success in short, sharp written tests.

Amongst these polarized views of education, where should we stand? For some years now, I have believed that we need a new movement of educational liberation. The processes of teaching and learning have been shackled by an approach which values only what can be measured and which sees only examinations as a valid form of assessment. Education, which should be about the examination of life, is reduced to a life of examination. As for teaching, since the goal is to succeed in the next round of tests, the dominant method is that of direct instruction. ‘Tell us what we need to know’, the student insists, taking for granted that the ‘need to know’ is determined by what is on the test, and that the best way of learning is for the teacher to provide the ‘right answers’ (meaning, once again, those to be written in the exam).

The effect of this process of the reduction of education to test preparation is to lock education into a matrix which is stifling, uninspiring, ineffectual (much of what is learned for tests is thereafter forgotten), psychologically damaging, pedagogically shallow, economically misguided (for the workplace needs creative critical thinkers, not well-trained sheep) and destructive of the roots of liberal democracy.

Despite the ubiquity of this scheme, it is not difficult to describe a better alternative, and some of us have dedicated much of our professional lives to building it. My book, Bloomsbury CPD Library: Independent Learning, offers a practical guide to independent learning, representing the fruits of a quest to find a new way ahead, whilst recognising the inevitable need, as things stand, to work within a framework where a traditional conception of the curriculum remains dominant.

What is manifestly the case is that we need more radical measures to find a way ahead and to give progressive educational methods space to feed into the educational mix. In my book, I review some of the research evidence which shows clearly that the best education combines the core insight of a traditional approach (some things need to be taught directly) with the insight of progressivism (deep learning begins with the learner’s own questions). We need what I would call ‘directed independence’: a process in which we teach students the skills and knowledge they need in order to be able to go on to learn for themselves.

This approach requires space and time for open discussion and debate in the classroom and for students to be able to work on extended projects of their own choosing. In my experience, and the experience of many teachers, it is when we give students freedom to choose and think for themselves, within a carefully structured learning environment, that they do their very best work. Currently, though, this type of rich, deep learning is confined to small pockets and the margins of the syllabus. It should be at the heart.

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Dr John Taylor is Assistant Head (Director of Learning, Teaching and Innovation) at Cranleigh School and is responsible for the development of independent learning across the three schools in the Cranleigh Foundation.

Bloomsbury CPD Library: Independent Learning is out now.

 

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June O’Sullivan’s Top Tips for Successful Leadership

Honesty and Integrity…Confidence…Inspiration…Commitment…Passion… Communication…Decision Making Capabilities… Accountability… Delegation and Empowerment…Vision…Courage…Passion…Emotional Intelligence… Resilience… Persuasion…Curiosity…

Leadership is constantly in the news. Mostly for the wrong reasons as we see example after example of weak leadership. Weak leadership is dangerous; it causes businesses to fail, organisations to collapse and for those working with children— especially poor children— it leads to failing education standards. But hey, it’s easy to criticize from the safety of an armchair. The reality is that leadership’s tough.

I have enduring admiration for good leaders, that’s because I spend my entire working hours trying to be one. Like most leaders, I have a lasting vision.  Mine was to create the best social enterprise childcare model where all children, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, could thrive and succeed. I think it’s wrong that children from poorer families can’t easily access great childcare, especially when so much research demonstrates the correlation between good leadership in nurseries and schools and good outcomes for children.

Of course, a leader with a vision needs a team of people to support that vision. Great leaders make great nurseries and I am blessed with a team of staff and nursery managers who similarly believe in providing the best childcare. They want to make a difference and do something great every day, which is a continual challenge.

Let’s look at a day in the life of a nursery manager. Wake up to a text from two staff from the early shift telling you they both have diarrhoea and vomiting. Rush to the nursery so you can recruit an agency staff member to remain in ratio. Redeploy the team so that babies are not disrupted by the change of staff. At 8am, busy working parents arrive. One mum’s upset because of a difficulty at home and wants to talk, another has an issue with the fees. A child slips up and hurts his head. Two staff members need to reflect on their attitude to each other. The student tells you that her tutor has announced she is visiting later and she forgot to tell you. This is all before you’ve had a cup of tea.

You end the day with a staff meeting where you want to help the team reflect on the quality of their teaching. You’ve been observing and think they could differentiate and extend more. You’re keen to develop a new piece of action research because you want to measure the benefit of playing music during the day.

How do you manage all this with calm and confidence? I designed a model that summaries all the areas Early Years leaders need to be able to juggle.  It’s quite an ask given that nursery managers are often undervalued and their abilities underrated by the public.

June Blog Diagram

Most leaders are not superheroes, just ordinary people doing extraordinary things because of their great commitment. High management goes hand-in-hand with tremendous responsibility and power which needs to be respected and wielded with care and thoughtfulness. Good leaders buzz with emotional intelligence; they can read people in order to respond with sensitivity and humanity. They care about their staff, which includes having those frank conversations to pull staff into line. Performance management can be considered negative but it’s the framework that gives staff members clarity and a manageable set of expectations that help them recognize, articulate and ultimately achieve their next step.

Leaders need to get things done. I love the completer finisher staff who like to see things through within that SMART target. It’s marvellous to see change occur, no matter how small, like a new display or a whole refresh of the baby room. The joy’s in the sharing, praising, celebrating and evaluating what has been achieved. Even if it’s a fish supper at the Staff Meeting. The progress should always be documented, whether it’s face-to-face with parents, posted on Facebook, written in a newsletter or uploaded to YouTube.

Here are my top ten traits of strong leadership (in no particular order):

  Strong Leadership Consequences of Weak Leadership
1 Visionary with a sense of purpose and ambition You are lost and out of your depth and the business will fail
2 Credible and knowledgeable (a pedagogical leader) Nobody respects you and you will lose in the marketplace
3 Committed and passionate, caring for the staff and purpose Staff will neither follow you nor show loyalty
4 Brave and risk-taking Cowardliness leads to an unwillingness to face problems and a lack of innovation
5 Curious; keen to learn and support others to learn Disinterested staff and poor retention and loyalty. Risks business profitability and success
6 Persuasive, challenging and motivating Unconvincing so staff won’t follow
7 Great communicator Risk of poor organisation culture and brand damage
8 Decisive Doddering about so lack of trust and direction
9 Humble and humane Arrogant and unpopular so no leeway when things go awry
10 Emotionally intelligent; understanding yourself and your motivations Detached and distant so performance and retention likely to be poor

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In my book Successful Leadership in the Early Years, I developed a  practical questionnaire to assess the quality of individual leadership. It might be worth having a look and completing it alone or with staff to review your leadership.

 

June O’Sullivan MBE is chief executive of the London Early Years Foundation and a regular media commentator. Her upcoming books 50 Fantastic Ideas for Nursery Gardens and 50 Fantastic Ideas for Engaging Dads will be out in July and September this year.

 

Riding the Storm

James Hilton, author of Leading from the Edge: A School Leader’s Guide to Recognising and Overcoming Stress, reminds us that it’s important to switch off from work over the school holidays:

In the run up to Sports Relief, I have been following the trials of a number of celebrities, including ‘The One Show’s Alex Jones and Formula One’s Suzie Perry taking part in BBC’s ‘Hell on the High Seas’.

Tasked with sailing a 65- foot yacht around some of the trickiest waters in the UK, they had a clear route and plan in mind. However, forces beyond their control came into play, in the shape of predicted gale force winds. This, combined with sleep deprivation, severely affected the celebs, but they finally emerged victorious raising around a million pounds for some very worthy causes.

Working in education, external forces frequently knock us off, what we know to be the best course. The ability to deal with stress often lies in a sense of feeling in control. The difficulty is that, so many of our targets in our professional lives are dictated to us. The solution? To try and regain some control by setting our own personal targets – regaining some mastery of our own destiny.

So with Easter nearly upon us, two important things for one of the most dedicated and hard-working professions in the world.

Firstly, the ability to switch off from work is crucial to staying resilient. Some of us find it easier to relax than others. If you find it hard, then work on distracting your mind instead.

Secondly, set yourself a personal target that you are in control of. Read that book that you have been meaning to get round to, see that film, join an evening class.

Teaching is one of a few professions where you can always do more but this Easter – try and relax and set your own targets and you will feel so much better – I promise you.

Ride the storm – never let it engulf you!

9781472917348 Leading from the Edge