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Let's be scientists: The case to rethink education

Each morning I wake up, hop in the car, put in my earphones and head for the podcast app. My commute to work is short, so I’ll often opt for a short reflection or business podcast. I tend to avoid listening to podcasts with an education focus. This is for two reasons: the first is that I’m beginning to think the answers to education lie in other sectors, in thought leadership and outside of the teaching sphere. The second is that I’m finding more and more that these podcasts tend to be more focused on providing the answer to education’s complex problems.

This can sometimes feel like our workplaces, getting bombarded with some new initiative, idea or answer each week. For experienced teachers, the whiplash from each novel hope can be frankly exhausting, with cynicism towards new ideas becomes our default mode after a while.

This blog post comes in response to Adam Grant’s latest book Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don't Know. In it, Grant outlines three common modus operandi: preacher, prosecutor, and politician; arguing that we fall into one or more of these roles when we engage both with others and in conversations with ourselves.

When we are set on promoting our ideas, often at the expense of listening to others, we are locked in Preacher mode. Prosecutor mode occurs when we actively attack the ideas of others in an effort to win an argument. And, if we spend our time seeking the approval of others, with little conviction, we operate as Politicians. Grant argues that “in each of the three mindsets, the truth takes a back seat to other considerations: being right, defending your beliefs, and currying favour.” His book urges us to reconsider these positions and focus our energy on listening and asking questions, as opposed to providing answers.

So, when do we see these modes in our workplaces and how can we counteract them?

Schools that Preach.

You would think that educators of all people would be open to the idea of not having all the answers, as hypothesising underpins the very nature of inquiry.

However, certain schools are often upheld as thought leaders in the teaching sphere. Education conferences, webinars, councils and reform groups tend to amplify the same voices. I don’t believe that these leaders are overtly preaching that their model works best but they are providing solutions, often backed by research applied to their specific contexts. As a congregation, we are guilty of believing that these models are ‘right’ and are quick to apply them to our own contexts, often without first consulting our communities. Part of the problem is that education is not simple and too often we jump to the conclusion that “this solution” or “this model” will work. We want to be presented with a simple truth and fall prey to believing that if we just do the right thing, then success will follow. I’ve written before about how often these ideas are boiled down into simple binaries of progressive vs traditional.

When we believe we have the answers, we become blind to the flaws of our model, attacking any opposition to our ideas. We become prosecutors.

Teachers that Prosecute.

I was recently talking to a colleague about a surprise observation that happened in the last few weeks of term. They were perturbed by the fact that they were not told an observation would be taking place. After some reflection, I concluded that such observation was a valuable opportunity to have an authentic moment of my lessons captured. I know that when I am prescient of an observation, I’m tempted to perform, rather than to offer a snapshot of my day-to-day teaching practice.

The problem here is the way we view observation, as a tool to regulate performance and competency, as opposed to an opportunity for growth. As teachers, this can be a vulnerable space so we become quick to defend our practice, to explain away our potential pitfalls and ultimately to close our doors.

In this space, teachers act as both the prosecution and defense. When we become defensive of our practices, we become quick to attack the practices of other teachers that threaten our own understanding. I can reflect on the number of times I have seen practices that jar with my own and have been quick to disregard them as “bad” or “wrong”. Again, I’m forgetting to ask questions. I should be asking: “Why am I critical of this practise? Is it effective? And what do the students think?”. When we shift our focus from the courtroom to the classroom and realise we are not on trial, we have a hope of becoming the best practitioner we can be.

Leaders that Politick.

Even the most effective leaders have staff that feel a bit done. Teachers have been asked time and time again for their voice on education matters, changes and initiatives. I remember feeling frustrated at the lack of outcome around the Tomorrow Schools Review, when it felt as though the feedback listened to was those with the loudest, most powerful voices. Such consultation processes seem hollow when there is a lack of clarity around what information is collected, where it is going and how it will be used to inform decisions.

As Grant would put it, it feels as though these processes are about seeking the approval of others, rather than authentic opportunities to give feedback. When schools engage in opportunities to gather staff and student voice, it’s important to articulate how this data will be used. Too often, we are offered opportunities to share our ideas, only to find that the decisions were made independent of the ideas suggested. It’s no wonder then that staff become complacent when giving feedback. When we don’t connect feedback to practice, what we end up with a disenfranchised staff and student body, where critique, becomes therapeutic, as opposed to an opportunity to instigate change.

The problem here is that leaders who operate in politician mode are more interested in feedback as a means of placating dissenting voices. What they need to be focused on is finding truth.

Thinking like a scientist

So how do we get to the truth? Grant argues we need to think more like scientists, to reconsider, rethink, and re-evaluate. We need to treat our answers as hypothesis.

In order to avoid preaching, we need to be willing to accept that we don’t have all the answer. “Here’s the solution to your problem” becomes “Here are some ideas that our school tried, what does that look like in your context?”. Surrounding ourselves with diverse voices that will challenge our assumptions, is a step in the right direction.

If we want to make sure we don’t fall into the prosecution trap, we need to re-evaluate our questioning of others practice and the security of our own ideas. Our ideas around education need to be presented as reflective questions, not statements of undisputed truth. Grant suggests that this process begins by basing your identity, not on your opinion but rather on your values. This practice leaves your open to considering other ways of effectively achieving those values.

Lastly, we need to make sure that we indicate how we are going to use data collected from staff and students. Figuring out ways to make this process explicit will assure that we are interested in finding the truth, as opposed to merely currying favour. We need to be committed to listen to the dissenting voices within our communities and encourage them to hypothesize.

In the search for best practice, we need to reconsider our assumptions, re-evaluate our opinions and rethink our answers. When we do, we have a hope of getting a little closer to the truth.

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