When did education get so complicated?

I don’t mean the complexities of solving a difficult algebraic equation, or developing a scientific hypothesis, or scratching our heads over the meaning of data and how we can use it to improve teaching and learning in our respective schools and tertiary institutions. I certainly don’t mean the complexities of defining what makes a brilliant teacher, or working out how to ensure every child achieves to their full potential, no matter their ethnicity or family income.

All of that is the exciting work that sees educators and the community constantly challenging the norms of student achievement and how to better them. In my view, that’s as it should be.

The complications that seem to have been to the fore over the past year or so in the education sectors with which I work have had more to do with the ‘politics’ of education. Parents and schools joined forces to reject larger class sizes. Christchurch schools reeled from apparently poorly communicated decisions about school reorganisation in the city. The new Secretary for Education resigned after a brief year in the role. Many regional polytechnics lost funding for foundation level programmes in their regions, shedding staff and students as a result.

The strange thing about all this is that – behind such badly-received policy initiatives and conflicts amongst ministers, officials, parents and teachers – everyone could probably argue that they have the best interests of students at heart. It’s hard to deny that better outcomes for all children, enhanced teacher development and better value for money in tertiary education aren’t important. Everyone is probably working to those ends anyway.

The difficulty arises when consensus has not been reached on the best way of achieving these goals.

Consensus is hard

Consensus takes longer and sometimes it never comes, but in general it saves money in the long run because if people buy into a system, they will make it work. If they don’t, and if it is forced upon them, they will subvert it. ‘Productivity’ is not just an economic construct – it’s a reality in all workplaces that we only really notice when it drops or disappears altogether. And this usually happens when people lose the point of what they are working to achieve.

I’ve been reflecting on this recently since reading a great article about how leaders can unwittingly kill meaning at work. They often do this in the process of striving to achieve some very laudable goals. The authors, Amabile and Kramer, used some choice phrases to describe certain leadership behaviour including “Strategic attention deficit disorder” , “Corporate Keystone Kops” renditions, and – my personal favourite – “misbegotten big, hairy, audacious goals”.

The result of such behaviour is of course that the staff (and parents and students) who are the very people whose creativity, commitment and productivity we desperately need are variously confused, frustrated and downright depressed about constantly shifting goalposts and chaotic implementation of a never-ending stream of new policies.

I can see how people feel like that, and it may explain some of the pretty strident reaction in the education sector to various new policies that have been announced. Trying to keep up is exhausting at times, and somehow “do more with less” doesn’t quite cut it as a vision that will spur us all on to greater heights.

How about simplicity?

So all this has made me hark – only briefly mind you – for simplicity. It’s made me focus on the small things that make educational politics a sideshow rather than a barrier.

Simplicity was evident in the end-of-year performance at Marewa School that I attended last December. The kids participated with evident pride in kapahaka, choir, and Samoan groups. They clapped their classmates enthusiastically when they were presented with academic achievement and character awards. A large number of parents and family members, predominantly Mãori and Samoan, were there to support their “mokos”. As a member of an extended family supporting a much loved ten-year-old, I felt incredibly proud and welcome.

Similarly, I had the privilege of presenting NCEA excellence awards at Karamu High School in February. The assembly was well-organised and the students were superb. They shook my hand, looked me in the eye, told me about their future tertiary and career plans, and again were watched with evident pride by a large contingent of parents who had taken time off work to attend to support their teenagers.

At another local secondary school, the Principal helped transform a class of 14-year-old girls by filling in for their form teacher when she left on maternity leave. They were a fairly troublesome group by all accounts, so she taught them – of all things – to knit. They all contributed to a knitted blanket for their teacher’s baby. Their mothers and grandmothers became involved. The girls lined up at the Principal’s office at lunchtime, not because they were in trouble, but because they wanted to show her their progress, or ask for help with dropped stitches. Their teachers talked to them about their knitting rather than their behaviour. Morale soared. Engagement with the school increased. Retention in education took one big step forward for womankind.

I met one of my ex-students recently who reminded me that I used to read from A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh at Monday morning assemblies when I was Principal of Napier Girls’ High School. We laughed at how weird that seemed to outsiders. It started when I was asked to share my favourite book from childhood with the girls. It continued when I had a steady stream of visitors to my office complaining when I hadn’t read from that book at least once a month. Some of the younger girls in the front row used to suck their thumbs, quite unselfconsciously, when they were listening. Some of the older students, fresh from weekends of mayhem and misbehaviour, savoured the brief return to the simplicity of childhood and the hundred acre wood.

As we all navigate our way through the seemingly thousand acre wood that is our current education system, it would be nice to know that just now and then we would bump into Eeyore, freshly triumphant from building a house.

“Do you see Pooh? Do you see Piglet?” he would exclaim. “Brains first, and then Hard Work. That’s the way to build a house!”

If only it were that simple …

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