“Most of the successful people I know have tons of bad ideas.”
— Kevin Systrom, co-founder of Instagram.
This is as true in education as it is in entrepreneurship. Success and leadership is less about always being right or always having the great idea — and more about being willing to be wrong and having the courage to pivot at the right time.
The education ‘system’ is engrained and rigid. When, as an educator, you choose an unconventional strategy or challenge the status quo or disrupt the system in some way, there is only one guarantee – you will be judged.
When Paul Richards, Superintendent of the American School of Dubai, decided to (successfully!) abandon email as a form of internal communication, he was judged. It’s brilliant, and it worked, but there were (mis)judgements made. When Salman Khan launched and popularised Khan Academy, he created a new paradigm of mass education – and he was criticised and judged.
In every school, there are leaders and teachers who are willing to ask brave, challenging questions, to think differently, to push boundaries. It is these educators who are gradually edging us towards an exciting new horizon. And in each case, there is someone eager to criticise them.
Whether you’re a Year 8 kid or an experienced teacher, it takes courage to stand up, to stand out. But there’s always an easy alternative. Sit down, fit in and say nothing.
For a long time, educational research has focussed on trying to understand and distil what outstanding educators do. Whilst there is certainly some merit in this approach, ultimately it is much more important for us to learn how outstanding educators think.
That’s because each situation, each class, each lesson is different. There is no single prescribable way to do things. It’s one of the beautiful things about teaching – and one of the reasons why teaching itself is a craft and not a science.
One of the common characteristics of the best leaders in any field, and certainly in education, is the ability to adapt successfully to unique situations by integrating intuition, reason and imagination to develop a contextualised, unique solution. When faced with a challenge or choice, instead of simply being able to consider Option A and Option B and choose the better one, outstanding educators have the ability to think differently. They can innovate in real-time to create an Option C – an option that contains elements of Options A and B but is superior to both.
Roger Martin describes this skill as ‘opposable mind’. It is a skill that can be practiced and developed. When we are able to see an Option C, experience, norms, status quo, and traditions become not constraints but, rather, sources of unimaginable possibility.
If you haven’t tried active, noise-cancelling headphones before, you’re missing out on quite an amazing experience. These headphones have the ability to create a peaceful quiet – even amidst the din of a bustling city, a busy office, or an aeroplane cabin. Consequently, they eradicate much of the distracting environmental stimuli that steals the currency of our consciousness – our attention. And when used effectively, these headphones can facilitate a much deeper, more focused, and more sustained attention.
If only there was a version of this technology that could assist with cancelling some of the noise of schools. It’s not just the sound they would need to subdue, but also the plethora of other distractions that make schools feel always-busy, sometimes-chaotic, and rarely peaceful.
When you ask educators, anywhere in the world, what they most want for their students, you get the same answers: wellbeing, happiness, meaningful engagement with life and learning. But it’s so easy to lose focus on these absolute foundational elements when surrounded by cacophony of distractions that are ever-present in schools.
All of the genuinely world-class educators that we see around the world, share a number of similar skills; one of which, is the ability to cut through the noise – to constantly focus their energy on what really matters.
Put those headphones on.