This is the first in a series of articles about taking risks with Education Leadership, Learning and Teaching. The articles are based around a workshop that I have been doing with the same name for Scottish Local Authorities and the EIS.
Risk is a difficult thing to talk about because everybody has a different perception of risk. The image below sums it up for me perfectly, I don’t know many people who would argue that the picture does not show a risky activity (imagine filling in the Local Authority forms to get approval for this activity!).
The interesting thing is that the children in the picture make this journey and take this risk every day. This is because they are walking to school.
The challenge these children and their teachers face is no different in principle to the challenge we face when deciding to take pedegogical risks in the classroom or the leadership risks needed to rapidly imporve a school. We have to weight up the balance between risk and reward. The children and adults in the picture from Gulucan village, West China take the daily risk to get to school because they believe that the reward of education (which statistically leads to the long term reward of better social and economic security) is worth it.
In UK schools we need to develop a culture where we encourage teachers to take pedagogical risks to better prepare young people for the long term reward of being responsible, productive citizens in the third millennium. It needs to be made clear at a government and LA level that it is OK to challenge the norm if schools are acting in the best internets of the children and communities that their serve. Like all risk taking, risks should be risk assessed and good risk assessments are based on evidence.
I loved the evidence-based risk taking approach that I saw at Monkseaton High School near Newcastle when I went to visit near the start of the year. By challenging the norm when it comes to school design, school timetable and pedagogical approach they have not only created an inspiring building to learn in but empowered children to attend and want to learn.
For example, If you attend Monkseaton High School you might notice the following risk taking approaches that challenges to the norm:
- The school day starts at 10am. Why? Well, teenagers need a lay in and that’s been scientifically proven by the University of Oxford.
- The building is kept at a constant temperature of 18.5 degrees Celsius. Why? Well, teenagers are naturally hotter that adults (it’s because they are growing during puberty) and according to research 18.5 degrees Celsius is the best learning temperature for teenagers.
- The sports hall is in the middle of the school building. Why? Well, not only does it send the strong message that sport and exercise are central to the school (exercise is very important for the brain as well!). But also the open plan computing areas become facilities for spectators. Audience and showcase are important for all sports performers and athletes.
- If your studying or revising for your GCSEs you might find that the lessons are as short as eight minutes in length, then you have a break, then another eight minute lesson, then a break, then another eight minute lesson. Why? Well, ‘Spaced Learning’ has been developed by the school with Terry Whatson from The Open University University and if you look at this years GCSE results it seems to be working. You might also like to have a look at the ‘Spaced Learning’ Toolkit which the school have developed with the help of the Paul Hamlyn Foundation and the Innovation Unit.
Now, I’m not saying that any of the above aspects of the learning at Monkseaton could easily be replicated in another school. But it is the responsibility of schools and school leaders to vacuum up the best ideas and develop their own local recipe that suits the local need.
Think about Tesco as an example. Most Tesco stores have key aspects that are the same because of what people need. In the same way that all UK schools should have some aspects that are the same because that is what all children need (eg: being safe, qualified staff, high connectivity etc…). The interesting thing about Tesco is that if you go to the one in my home town of Weymouth it sells buckets and spades because it is by the sea. But, if you go to the one in Haddington near where I live now, it doesn’t. Why? because although the core aspects of both stores are exactly the same they have adapted for local need and acknowledged that some people need different things.
In short, in the same way that industry has evolved schools need to evolve as well. If we continue to structure our schools with extended and complicated hierarchy they are likely not to succeed in the third millennium and education will reach a crisis point.
The same crisis point that has already been reached by our banks (some of the worlds most hierarchal organizations). Governments can’t continue to bail out banks in the same way that they can’t continue to bail out education. The solution and quick fix is to devolve more power and responsibility to individual schools - but with this comes added accountability and there are still unanswered questions if this typ eof model would be sustainable in the long run.
Of course it is not just the banks and Tesco that we can learn from in education. Many schools rely on the fact that people have to go to them (by law) and that they are trusted institutes. People went to Woolworths. It was a trusted brand and household name but it didn’t evolve. It didn’t digitize, it didn’t change with the times, it went bankrupt and closed down as people voted with their feet and realized they could get an equivalent (or sometime better) service elsewhere.
We can’t let this happen to our education system - it has to remain world class and schools must remain safe, exciting and worthwhile places to go.
For this to happen schools must evolve.