Graham Leicester: What we need now is real ‘butterfly thinking’

THERE is an appetite 
for innovation and radical thinking in education – now we have the tools to make it happen, writes Graham Leicester.

THERE is an appetite 
for innovation and radical thinking in education – now we have the tools to make it happen, writes Graham Leicester.

The Commission on Education Reform concluded earlier this year that reform is easy to envision but almost impossible to deliver.

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

Keir Bloomer, its chairman, lamented: “Every country in the developed world is engaged in educational reform. Yet they all struggle to break free from the organisational constraints of systems designed in the 19th century. Nobody has yet developed the change processes that lead to genuinely transformed practice.”

In other words, in spite of our best efforts, we are all stuck. Just as I suggested in these pages last month: “boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

But an impressive national event hosted by Education Scotland this week at Inveralmond Community High School offers grounds for hope that this time, in Scotland, things could change.

This was an event with a difference, one Sir Humphrey would have called “brave”. It was run by pupils. Primary school children spent the day filming snippets on their iPads and interviewing delegates. They also led the entire conference in the Hokey Cokey.

The day opened with an inspirational anthem – It’s My Future, sang a wonderfully energetic group of students of all ages (we must make sure the video goes viral on YouTube). The young people who will make the future offered a simple mantra – “believe in yourself, believe in your dreams” – and asked for an education system that would take it seriously.

Other pupils came to the podium to tell us why the system needs to change. “The world is changing four times as fast as the classroom”, said one, “If we are going to catch up we need to be enterprising, creative, innovative and inspired.” The days have long gone, suggested another, when an education system can simply “force an all-knowing curriculum down our throats. We are all individuals, Scottish individuals on an international stage.” And against a background of Keane’s Everybody’s Changing a final group recited a litany of scary statistics about the world of tomorrow. The gauntlet had been flung down.

The good news is that the system is now able to respond. For the event also marked the launch of a new approach to fostering “transformative innovation” in the education system in Scotland.

The phrase is deliberately chosen. Education Scotland is setting the bar high. It knows transformative practice is rare – but realises that one of the reasons is because it gets no dedicated support in systems fixated with improving the status quo. Genuine transformation changes a caterpillar into a butterfly. We will have no “transformative practice” so long as all efforts at reform are about putting the caterpillar on a treadmill to improve its fitness.

If we are going to break out of this trap then we need to create a legitimate space for visionary, aspirational, butterfly thinking. That is what Education Scotland, formed out of a merger of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education (HMIe) and Learning and Teaching Scotland (LTS) has done with the development of the “Opening Up Transformative Innovation” kit distributed to all delegates at this week’s event.

The kit is based on IFF’s “three horizons” framework which encourages groups to experiment with three modes of thinking – managing the existing system, brainstorming promising innovation, and aspiring to something better in the future. These are all perfectly natural and can be heard in any day-to-day conversation. But in a professional environment the voice of the visionary is usually suppressed (“dream on!”), the voice of the innovator often dismissed (“that would never work here”), and the voice of the manager of the existing system is very rarely positive (“we’re all going to hell in a handcart”).

When all three voices (which we all have) are respected and given free rein in the discussion, what emerges is a very different map of the landscape revealing, often for the first time, a pent-up visionary energy in our school system.

It turns out that in most schools there is an appetite for radical innovation and always one or two individuals keen to try something different – to push the boundaries of their existing practice towards a desirable future that seems unattainable in the existing system. But with no real management experience or support, no time, no money, no training budget, no consultants or facilitators available, how can schools take the next step: the move from insight to action?

That is an issue that needs more than a simple kit to address. It is the nub of the wicked problem of education reform the world over.

What Education Scotland has done is to take the bold step of identifying an initial cadre of inspectors to be trained in the use of a powerful set of change tools (developed by my IFF colleague Jim Ewing) that they can now use to support schools in the implementation of radical innovation. The approach is cascading through the whole organisation. From inspectors to change agents: that really is transformative.

The early results are very encouraging. Participating schools show a shift in mindset to believe that it is possible to implement radical change; a new capacity for leadership at all levels (including pupils) now that people can get a sense of where they want to go and how to get there; and an impact on confidence and skills for learning and for life amongst pupils using these approaches.

It is the last of these that, for me, is most significant. One of the strong themes of the Inveralmond event was the challenging world that young people are now entering. Resilience, the capacity to self-motivate, to manage disappointment and anxiety, to maintain inner-strength – these are clearly going to be prerequisite competencies for this next generation.

I now see young people taking these tools developed for school leaders – the three horizons approach to envisioning aspirational change, the “Implemento” tool for moving beyond fear and anxiety into action, etc – and using them, with teachers, with their peers and in their own lives. That is really encouraging. Because adopting a transformative response to today’s challenging times is not simply a wicked issue for institutions and organisations – it is a capacity we all need to develop. These tools can help.

Back in August 2009, I wrote a piece in this newspaper suggesting that if government really wanted “culture change” in Scottish education, it needed to develop a new, more patient, approach to reform that would also countenance “uncomfortable” innovation that challenges and subverts the status quo.

I am delighted to see Education Scotland now launching such an approach on the world – and the international attention and interest that has followed.

But transformation takes time. I also wrote that “government must hold its nerve” if it is to reap the benefits of such boldness. I was phoned the day after publication by a special adviser keen to reassure me that the government would indeed hold its nerve. I can only hope, in today’s more nervous and fractious political environment, that this will still hold true.

Remember: “Nobody has yet developed the change processes that lead to genuinely transformed practice”. Education Scotland has taken up that challenge. We should all do what we can to support it in achieving that mark.

• Graham Leicester is Director of International Futures Forum