I originally came across the ‘Helsinki Bus Station Theory’ earlier this year and was struck by a number of key ideas from Arno Minkkinen’s commencement speech. Rather than summarise it myself, I’ll use Oliver Burkeman’s version from the Guardian:
There are two dozen platforms, Minkkinen explains, from each of which several different bus lines depart. Thereafter, for a kilometre or more, all the lines leaving from any one platform take the same route out of the city, making identical stops. “Each bus stop represents one year in the life of a photographer,” Minkkinen says. You pick a career direction – maybe you focus on making platinum prints of nudes – and set off. Three stops later, you’ve got a nascent body of work. “You take those three years of work on the nude to [a gallery], and the curator asks if you are familiar with the nudes of Irving Penn.” Penn’s bus, it turns out, was on the same route. Annoyed to have been following someone else’s path, “you hop off the bus, grab a cab… and head straight back to the bus station, looking for another platform”. Three years later, something similar happens. “This goes on all your creative life: always showing new work, always being compared to others.” What’s the answer? “It’s simple. Stay on the bus. Stay on the fucking bus.”
What hooked me at the time, and still does, is its relevance to teaching by challenging what has become a maxim and revealing a proclivity towards the ‘new’ that can be detrimental to doing great work with students and colleagues. The precept it challenges is that feedback is useful. With the work of Hattie, Berger (and many others before) now becoming a normal part of discourse when discussing education and professional development for teachers, it seems that sometimes we forget to explain that it is the quality of the feedback that matters, especially in a world of RTs, ‘Likes’ and ‘Favourites’. The kind of feedback we wish for our students can be missed or in extreme cases replaced by these tiny affirmations. As useful and helpful as these comments may be in certain contexts, they can represent feedback of the most tenuous kind (I often think about the hopefuls in televised singing contests when they are faced with the unvarnished feedback that they are not as good as they have been led to believe by family/friends in their desire to be supportive). Consequently, emboldened by these recommendations, the blogs/writing/books/talks proliferate. For every instance of the ‘wisdom of the crowd’ there lurks the spectre of ‘groupthink’.
According to Burkeman, the second aspect the metaphor illustrates is our propensity to ‘fetishise originality’. In education, this may be a new turn of phrase, a new technology, a new blog post or even a new book. The cost of chasing these new ideas, essentially taking the taxi back to the station and taking another bus, means that you will delay your progress in becoming the great, effective educator you hope to be. I was reminded of the consequences of keeping to the same route when I saw the project Dale Banham and Russell Hall are leading using Hattie’s work at the Schools History Project conference in July. Five years on after I was first introduced to the book by Dale, he is still grappling with the ideas to the benefit of his students and his school.
I was also reminded of deliberate and thoughtful work when the Head of Boys, Chris Nicholls, retired at the end of term. I’ve already written about him in a previous post and I don’t want to embarrass him any more although I think the picture below captures some of the depth of feeling the students had for him on his final day after 38 years at one school.
I’m not suggesting that absorbing new ideas and ways of looking at things is wrong. They are vital for development and are essential for finding your own way yet they should be tempered by the realisation that there are no quick fixes or slogans that substantively lead to progress. Minkkinen writes:
The buses that move out of Helsinki stay on the same line but only for a while, maybe a kilometer or two. Then they begin to separate, each number heading off to its own unique destination. Bus 33 suddenly goes north, bus 19 southwest. For a time maybe 21 and 71 dovetail one another but soon they split off as well, Irving Penn is headed elsewhere. It’s the separation that makes all the difference, and once you start to see that difference in your work from the work you so admire (that’s why you chose that platform after all), it’s time to look for your breakthrough.
The journey to becoming a great educator is hard and can be frustrating. However, by following Minkkinen’s exhortation to ‘stay on the fucking bus’, working hard, being reflective and possessing the courage of your convictions, which motivated you to start the journey in the first place, you may just become the great teacher you hope to be.