People often talk of knowledge or skills in education as if there is a battle between them with no resolution in sight. As I sat in Chapel on Monday morning and listened to the guest preacher, I focused on a word I have not heard in a long time (certainly at school). Phronesis. Loosely translated, it means practical wisdom and this was the focus for a talk I gave at the weekend.
On Saturday, I travelled to Bristol Grammar School to be part of the Pedagoo South West event. The main thrust of my workshop seemed to be one just on great leadership using the ‘Multipliers’ model we use at Berkhamsted. Yet it really stemmed from a discontent about the lack of wisdom in schools, on Twitter and in blogs when discussing education. The origin was a series of tweets from a revered Senior Leader on Twitter when they were at the Teaching, Learning and Assessment Conference on the 22nd March. As this person sat in the conference hall and listened to Elise Foster, they tweeted this:
In one sense, this seems like a fair question. However, they tweeted this a few minutes later:
I wondered what they were really trying to do. Where they really interested in what Elise had to say or had they made their mind up already and asked a question they already had an answer to?
I have been reading (or re-reading) a lot of Stuart Hall of late and what keeps me going back to his work is his drive to understand the world in its complexity so that he and others could intervene effectively. Asking questions for Hall was not a quest for Sophia (theoretical wisdom), but there was a practical aim (Phronesis). The goal was wisdom, or to be exact, practical wisdom. To gain such practical wisdom, one has to ask questions and more specifically, the right kind of questions. For Hall this was a lifelong struggle which brought him in to conflict with Marxist theory, the traditional method of political critique. For Hall, orthodox Marxism was not enough and in recounting his struggle against this group and the ideas they had, Hall likened it to
…wrestling with the angels – a metaphor you can take as literally as you like.
I framed the talk/workshop as something akin to this as I would be going against revered tweeters/senior leaders/bloggers on Twitter and would not use the usual suspects to help make my case. No Willingham, Bjork or other bloggers. Just good old fashioned reading, thinking and doing (the work) to drive what I had to say. Simply put, it was an exercise in Phronesis. If Socrates and Pierre Abelard agree that wisdom can be gained by asking questions, I asked what questions the following leaders asked themselves in the situations I flashed up on the screen. The Headteacher who arranged a mock Ofsted inspection without apparently telling anyone (not even the Senior Leadership Team). Then Stephen Munby, Head of Comberton Village College who stated:
Tight values, loose control: get the values right, get good people, find opportunities and let it go.
What type of questions (if any) did Steve Fairclough, the Head of Abbotsholme School ask when he stated in a public meeting that teachers should ‘fear failure’ as it was a good thing. Were these the same type of questions which Caroline Hoddinott, Head of Haybridge School asked when she declared, ‘we keep really focussed on core purpose’? I then referred to the question asked by the Senior Leader on Twitter and their subsequent response. I suggested that in this instance, the questions that exemplify poor leadership were poorly formed. Alternatively, they were the result of ‘disciplinary questions’ where the person asking the question already knows the answer they are looking for and uses the power of the question to exclude people or ideas (or to be so sure that they do not check themselves). As a school leader or educator interacting with other Twitter/Blogging/Teaching folk, I suggested that this was a very poor way to understand and intervene. I went on to identify a second type of question, an ‘authentic question’, where the person asking seeks to genuinely understand, dig deeper and gain the wisdom to intervene in an effective way. I suggested that an ‘authentic question’ is what a ‘Multiplier’ approach to leadership can foster and that it affords us the capacity to intervene effectively in a complex world because our business was with human beings, not things. For me, being a ‘Multiplier’ starts with the key question: are you the genius or are you the genius maker?
In the ‘Multiplier’ books, they identify types of ‘diminisher’ – the people who do not utilise the intelligence of the people around them.
As interesting (and cringeworthy in terms of recognition) as these ‘pure’ types are, they are not genuinely ‘human’, so I suggested that they were not really the problem. It was the more human ‘Accidental Diminishers’, the ones who thought they were helping but did not realise the effect they were having on those around them, that were the problem.
I highlighted two of these. The first was the ‘Always On’ person. This person would go to conferences and events like Pedagoo, TLAB14 and TeachMeets and come back with new ideas. Then they would go to another conference and change their mind. I mentioned Senior Leaders are guilty on this especially when it comes to technology.
The problem with switching every week is that leaves colleagues in confusion and so people shrink around them. One way to overcome this problem was to ‘Play Fewer Chips’ by giving yourself a budget of ‘poker chips’ in a meeting with each chip representing a comment or contribution. They would be used wisely so you say fewer things, but being more effective in what was said.
Another way to overcome the ‘Always On’ persona was to give someone else ‘51% of the vote’ whereby you would hand responsibility to someone else and say they had ‘51% of the vote’ but 100% accountability. I mentioned that at Berkhamsted the academic cluster group meetings are chaired in a rotating fashion by the HoDs and they decide the agenda and run the meeting. I also mentioned our ICT strategy group which includes mostly senior management. It is chaired by a HoD.
The second ‘Accidental Diminisher’ was the ‘Rescuer’.
This is the person who would step in to remove burdens that people brought them. The problem with this approach is that by taking away responsibility, you weaken the reputations of the people who you have helped and people come to depend on you. One way around this is to ask people when they present a problem what the solution is. They usually have an idea yet may not feel able to express it.
If you lead like a ‘Multiplier’, your school/colleagues begin to grow and it attracts others.
I did mention that this sounds like a nice idea. I then asked the delegates to answer the questions below in relation to someone at work they really get on with.
Once everyone thought about this and then discussed it, I asked them to think about someone they did not necessarily like or get on with. This hard task is central to being a ‘Multiplier’. It is only when you ask questions to comprehend the complexity of the world/your colleagues, that you earn the wisdom to utilise their intelligence and skills at the highest point to achieve great things.
Finally, I gave an example of the appraisal system in use at Berkhamsted. No one was really happy with the system we had so we decided to change it. After working on the framework for a while, we gave ownership to a group of HoDs who refined, changed and then ultimately convinced the other HoDs to adopt it. We are still in the process of refining the whole process but a detailed series of posts on it can be found here.
I then introduced the delegates to Mr Baer from ‘The Multiplier Effect’:
I also used Pierre Abelard’s words to suggest, once again, that questioning was they key to wisdom:
Now, I am not sure of truth claims but questioning leads us to a better place. I ended the presentation with challenge/question for Monday morning. Are you the genius or are you the genius maker? If we really seek to comprehend the world around us and to make it better, why just rely on one brain? If we are in the ‘human business’, maybe we should follow Woodrow Wilson’s advice:
After a few questions, I returned to the idea of diminishing questions in terms of the ‘Where’s the research’ question. I showed them a version of the ‘Multipliers’ research design and asked them check it out for themselves in the book.
I want to thank Mark, Robert, BSG, Rachel and all the delegates/speakers at PedagooSW. I also need to thank Threepwood for being a ‘good egg’ and refining many of the ideas.
The original presentation can be found on Slideshare.