It is extremely instinctive to avoid conflict. For decades, schools have been presented with ideas for change and development, multiple ‘experts’ explaining the rapid evolution of technology, the workplace, and global human requirements. Due to the conflict these ideas can cause in a school, leaders and teachers have become extremely adept at supporting the status quo by inventing excuses for why they can’t be expected to do ‘too much crazy stuff’ (by the way, three different schools’ leaders said these exact four words to me in conversations this year).
This is why I found the following 2012 TEDGlobal talk by Margaret Heffernan, really powerful. Her bio on TED states: The former CEO of five businesses, Margaret Heffernan explores the all-too-human thought patterns — like conflict avoidance and selective blindness — that lead organizations and managers astray.
In this talk, Heffernan uses excellent true stories to illustrate that avoiding the things that challenge our assumptions can have disastrous consequences. Likewise, finding systematic methods for embracing and allowing ideas that challenge to be aired can make all the difference in turning an organisation into a leading example for others. I listened to this and saw obvious parallels in all the schools I’ve worked in. Schools will only make real and relevant progress if they can ensure school leaders and teachers organise and then listen to genuinely critical friends.
Cultivating a school culture that is not just an echo chamber of professional back slapping or an isolated ivory tower of decision making is difficult in schools where the leaders are not skilled or prepared for challenging the status quo. As Heffernan explains, this has the tendency to make people less likely to offer any challenge in the first place. The echo chamber within the school then continues to develop what are seen as more robust arguments against change. One of my most quoted statements from a post this year was: “schools should spend more energy challenging your school’s status quo, than any alternative that might be suggested.”
“Teachers will meet after work only to discover in conversation that they have the same gripes about work but see no potential impact from voicing them”
In many schools who claim a friendly atmosphere amongst staff, this friendliness and social comfort is often seperate to any professional or operational issue. If you’ve ever been on a team-building excursion, you’ll know what I mean by seperate. Furthermore, teachers will meet after work only to discover in conversation that they have the same gripes about work but see no potential impact from voicing them. In contrast, I know a small number of schools in New Zealand that ensure teachers and leaders have at least one identified critical friend. In one high school, this system is site-wide and on a rotation each year to ensure many different perspectives are heard on any idea or current practice. Students are also involved in planning meetings to help the school appreciate things from the viewpoint of those receiving the learning experience. This has created a more open, adaptable and friendly culture towards developing and improving all aspects of school.
I’m off to read Heffernan’s book Wilful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril. I think many school leaders should do the same.