The annual uLearn conference is over for another year, and as the new term begins it’s worth taking a little time to reflect on the ‘big ideas’ we came away with — the overarching themes and messages that persisted through the various keynote, spotlight, and workshop presentations. I had the privilege of doing a quick summary at the end of this year’s conference, and want to share that in this blog post as an ‘aide memoire’ for those who are interested.
For me, there were three ‘big ideas’ that kept surfacing (four if you count my two “F” words) which are expanded on below:
“Do not raise your children the way [your] parents raised you, they were born for a different time.”
― Ali ibn Abi Talib
The theme of change was overwhelmingly present in all of the keynote presentations. And not just any change — we’re talking exponential change. Change of such unprecedented proportion that it is becoming impossible to predict the future with any certainty at all, and where our ability to cope is severely challenged. The message was clear, we need to do more to understand the significance of this exponential change for our schools, our learners, and our society. It is time to recognise that our linear ways of dealing with change in the past are simply inadequate when it comes to preparing our young people for their future.
As educational leaders, we are extremely well-versed in the linear approaches to change and change management. We settle in for months, and sometimes years, of sequential interventions designed to help us adapt to the latest change in curriculum, assessment, or pedagogical approach. The problem is that we’re constantly feeling like we’re ‘behind the eight ball’ and never achieving anything before the next wave of change is upon us. This is what happens when we attempt to respond to exponential change in a linear way.
If there was one key message from each of our presenters, it was that we need to set aside many of our traditional approaches to change, particularly if we see ourselves as leading the change, or worse, managing it (now there’s an oxymoron). Linear approaches to change are premised on the notion of certainty — that by doing x and y in sequence we’ll end up in the changed state of z. The problem is, the world of exponential change is characterised by uncertainty — and that is a state that is almost impossible to manage in the traditional sense.
Coping with uncertainty requires everyone involved to accept that they may not have the answers, and more importantly, to realise that the answer is more likely to reside with the collective rather than in the mind of a single individual (i.e., the leader).
As educators, we need to move beyond seeing ourselves as the ones who are passing on our knowledge to our students, or even, facilitating them to discover that knowledge for themselves. We don’t have all of the answers, and the uncertain future our learners will face will present them with challenges that only they will be in a position to solve. This requires a level of humility in our actions as educators, and a growing emphasis on the development of competencies as distinct from domains of knowledge. As one of our keynotes observed; “I want my students to stand on my shoulders, to solve problems I/we can’t yet solve”.
“Focus on changing beliefs – it’s the only thing that matters”
– Eric Mazur
Through the conference we were repeatedly reminded to ask the ‘why’ question — to examine the beliefs that lie behind our actions, be they the things we do as individual educators, or the systems, structures, and processes we adhere to and defend with such vigor.
Understanding how our beliefs shape behaviour is central to understanding how we can respond to change. We see the impact of change in practice without the change in belief all too frequently in our current system — be that the move from single-cell classrooms into open, flexible learning spaces, or the adoption of new forms of assessment. Unless they are underpinned by a fundamental change in belief on the part of the educators involved, the change to some of these things will, just as quickly, be followed by a change back — ending up in the proverbial ‘ping pong’ we see in so many situations – from the school level through to the political level.
Most importantly, we need to consider the notion of coherence — from our beliefs at the centre, the expression of these in terms of the values we espouse, to the practices that we engage in on a daily basis. If there is any inconsistency across these three ‘layers’, then we discover the fragility of any initiative we might engage in – however well intentioned it may be. This is where asking the ‘why’ question becomes so important. We need to be constantly reflecting on the beliefs that underpin our actions, as this is the only way we will build a unified view of the purpose and value of what we are seeking to achieve in our schools, our Kāhui Ako, and our system.
The “F” words
“Fail Fast, Fix Fast, Learn Fast’ is a leadership maxim I advocate”
— Kevin Roberts
If there’s one thing our education system isn’t easily disposed to embracing, it’s the notion of failure. We simply don’t have time for it. Having to deal with failure will simply hold us back from ‘covering’ everything we need to get through, or cause too big a gap to emerge between those who can and those who can’t.
The big issue here is that we live in a time where innovation is being celebrated as something we need more of in our education system – we’re constantly being told how we need to encourage innovators and entrepreneurs in our schools, and yet, for these people, the one thing they have in common is failure. More than that, they have learned through failure. They understand how to confront failure and to learn from their mistakes.
The secret is to heed the advice of ex-Saachi and Saachi CEO, Kevin Roberts, whose maxim is to ‘fail fast, fix fast, and learn fast’. In other words, don’t despair when things go wrong — use the opportunity to find a solution, and to ensure you learn from that so that you can avoid the same mistake in the future. If we are to succeed in coping with change in this exponential future, we need to make sure that our teachers and our learners are given permission to fail, and from that failure come to a position when they gain both success and insight as they turn their failure into an opportunity for learning.
Finally – one more “F” word that was prevalent in our conference – FUN!! As educators, we can become overly serious at times – to the point of being morose, at times. Amid the excitement, the learning, the challenges of the conference, it was good to see people simply having fun! This is something we do well to recall as we return to the work we do on a day-to-day basis in whatever context we come from. If we lose the sense of fun, we lose an important ingredient in what motivates us to do what we do, and what attracts others to work and learn alongside us.