Cambridge Strategies, a research body associated with Cambridge University, recently included us in their Innovation 800 project, which celebrates 800 years of academic excellence at Cambridge and which identifies global leaders in the field of educational change, in schools, universities and business.
ICHK was included in the list of 100 most innovative schools worldwide in recognition of a series of initiatives we have established in order best to support our students’ development as learners and well-rounded human beings.
Telling our story in a few words for inclusion in the project was not a simple matter. There is no one thing that makes us the school we are. Rather, there is a range of factors. Taken together they combine to create a vision and culture uniquely supportive of our ambition to properly equip young people for lives in a rapidly changing world.
The Innovation 800 feature catalogued these factors. From a pastoral perspective, the 5+1 Model fosters an environment of growth, mutual understanding and shared respect, and safety. In terms of curriculum, Human Technologies introduces a perspective on life and learning that is unique in its capacity to encourage critical thinking and responsibility for one’s own decisions. And imaginative timetabling allows for Deep Learning, with its more authentic, immersive and memorable school experiences, and for Free Learning and the chance to pursue personal interest while nurturing self-governance and self-regulation.
Each of these elements is worthy of lengthy examination in its own right, let alone as a part of a complex whole. And here lies an essential challenge for innovators in the early 21st century.
The truth is we don’t do careful analysis especially well nowadays. We live in an era of short attention spans – a sound bite culture in which, we are told, people have run out of patience with ‘experts’ and their know-how. Ours is a culture where politics is conducted by Twitter and corporate interests are sustained by Instagram; a culture of kneejerk reactions, filter bubbles and groupthink. We’re cash rich, time poor, or so we are told.
This is a big problem for innovators, especially when innovating in areas pigeonholed by long-established convention and orthodoxy. Why so? Because it requires space and time to explain why innovation is needed, and still more time to explain how it will make things better. And the time and space are not available. Plus, when it’s undermining deeply held beliefs, innovation is, for many, an unsettling, if not upsetting, prospect. So, people being people and, on the whole, disinclined to being unsettled, they listen selectively or not at all. Which leaves innovators with a tough nut to crack, especially in an area as resistant to change as education.
This is why I am always looking for devices or strategies (at ICHK, we would call them technologies) for telling the ICHK story as concisely, compellingly and clearly as possible. Quite apart from making our school’s project more immediately accessible to prospective students, parents and teachers, it also helps to clarify in our own minds what we are hoping to achieve.
At a recent Open Day, I found myself with the task of explaining to a room of interested but uninitiated parents why they should be giving serious consideration to ICHK as the preferred destination for their children’s education. I knew that the story I was telling was one of innovation and transformation – and that some of them might find it unsettling. The technology I relied on to clarify the message was a Venn diagram, but a Venn diagram with a twist. In this blog, I will briefly sketch my argument and dig a little into its significance. In a later blog, I will examine what it means for school more broadly.
My starting point was to ask parents what it was they wanted from secondary school. What should the seven years spent at school, and therefore available for little else, mean for their children? It’s a substantial investment of time, energy and relinquished alternatives and it needs to be justified. For it to be worthwhile, there are four areas in which we would want and expect to see clear development and achievement in the teenage years: personal growth; social skills and confidence; understanding of the way that the world works; and attaining the qualifications that open the door to the next stage of life, whether that be university or employment.
This is where the Venn diagram came in – because it nicely illustrates that we need not choose between the four elements. Rather, they can and should happily overlap and co-exist:
And, for many schools, in my experience, that would be the beginning and the end of the conversation: “Don’t worry! Trust us – we cover it all!”
However, neat though it is, this is an inadequate answer to the question, “What do you want and expect of school?” In real life, while the Venn diagram might do a valuable job of reminding us of how categories of thought and action are similar and dissimilar, mutually implicated and separate, overlapping and discrete, it does a poor job of examining the dynamics and intersections at the heart of these relationships unless pushed to do so. Pushing the technology, then, is the next step – and the more revealing one.
Tasked with reconceiving the diagram as it corresponds to ICHK, I represented it thus:
At our school, I explained, personal growth absolutely comes first. We principally design our students’ encounter with school in such ways that they can ‘produce’ themselves. We give them many and diverse occasions on which to explore and discover who they are, drawing forth from themselves the latent qualities that lie within, reflecting on these qualities, building on them, practicing and rehearsing them.
More than anything, we encourage students to apprehend who, what, how and why they want to be. We deliver them a wide range of opportunities that take personal development, in all its dimensions, as their common focus. Consequently, all our students act in public drama performances; two thirds of them represent the school at sport, while every one of them understands what it is to engage in physical exercise that stretches the mind and body; they work in teams across different years in Deep Learning, self-selecting topics to immerse and engross their creative imaginations; in Free Learning and Enrichment & Flow, they take direct responsibility for their studies in carefully scaffolded sessions that extend and deepen with their experience; in Human Technologies they reflect on the part culture plays in their lives and what it means for their opportunities as people; and they participate in and contribute to an accepting community that welcomes a wide range of children, with many different learning and living profiles, a microcosm of the world that awaits.
And, we firmly believe that, within this extended, ongoing, challenging but secure project of self-growth, ICHK students learn how to be socially adept, develop their confidence and compassion, get an authentic feel for how the world works and, precisely because of this wider project, surpass their own expectations at public examinations. It is for this reason that the diagram suggests that the bulk of the three other circles are nested within that of ‘personal growth’. Comprehensive, multi-dimensional personal growth comes first. Good habits, good strategies, good regulation and great qualifications follow.
What of those segments that lie outside of the predominant circle? It is worth spending a moment exploring these outlying regions. Here we begin to reveal some of oft-ignored features of life and of schooling.
(1) One part of the Human Technologies curriculum is looking into social scripts and strategies that might be thought of as ‘technologies of false sincerity’ or ‘technologies of manipulation’. We examine the ways in which people knowingly attempt to persuade others through ‘mind-tricks’ and cynical impression management. We learn how the techniques of selling work and how we are liable to be irrationally swayed by devices that tug at our unconscious impulses. We look at the media, at how, in all their forms, they encourage ways of interpersonal communication that are concerned more with appearance than with authenticity. All this offers important insights, lessons and warnings … but not, we trust, skills that our students would want to internalize and draw on themselves. We can think of this knowledge as something to be viewed – and eschewed – objectively, and not to be incorporated within the self.
(2) An unfortunate truth of school is that not everything that one learns there about the world and its workings is of genuine interest. Nor does it always contribute to one’s sense of who one is or what one might become. Merely think back to your own experience of school as proof of that. At ICHK we acknowledge this, but place our trust in two mitigating factors: firstly, we endeavor to make even those moments in the curriculum that do not appeal (and, of course, they will be different for every student) as engaging as possible. In this way, while they may not add to an individual’s growth, nor should they detract from her overall enjoyment in learning. And, secondly, through building genuine choice into the curriculum, we hope these moments are encountered as infrequently as possible.
(3) Finally, we come to perhaps the most inconvenient truth of all: that despite schools placing so much emphasis on the examinations that lead to qualifications, they represent, for many students at least, the feeblest opportunity for personal growth in their secondary careers.
This is true in two senses. First, they add little to students’ understanding of the ways in which the world works. Second, they contribute little of value to the students’ sense of confidence and self-worth.
Yes, of course, some of what is ‘covered’ in exams is relevant and true – and remains relevant, even in a rapidly changing world. And, yes, of course, attaining well in public examinations and receiving top marks briefly offers reassurance and the sense of a job well done. But the nature of education is rather like the predicament of a striker in football: you are only as good as the last goal you scored … and the goalposts keep moving.
So it is that, as a student, before you know it, the knowledge you learned is out of date, the next programme of learning and examinations looms and you are back on the well-documented qualifications treadmill! In any case, and more dangerously perhaps, as Carol Dweck points out, the downside of measuring oneself against standardized qualifications is the risk of believing that they are a ‘true’ and ‘timeless’ reflection of your ‘ability’, thus leading to a fixed mindset. At some point, as Dweck makes clear, a fixed mindset is likely to be your undoing.
Ironically, then, the aspect of schools that examination league tables capture and on which they encourage us to fixate is, or should be, the least area of concern for students and parents. The truth is that, if the culture of the school is right, if it promotes personal growth, if it fosters confident and socially minded learners, if it encourages an open and energetic curiosity about how the world works, and if it inculcates habits of determination and diligence, the examination results will follow. And, in these circumstances, the qualifications can, rightly, be seen as the by-product not of schooling but of an education.