by Chris Nash
As we go into the summer vacation period it’s a good time for principals and aspiring school leaders to step back from the frontline and do some deep reflection. Of course, some of that reflection should be on the immediate pressing issues for your school and it’s community and unresolved practical issues of delivery. However, the beauty of the extended holiday is that you also have time to swim into deeper, philosophical waters. In other words you have a precious opportunity to pay attention to your own learning, after a year of paying attention to the learning of others.
The power of self-reflection
This sounds like an invitation to allow your mind to wander, and that’s not a bad thing. However, if you want to make your philosophising productive I think it’s worth anchoring your research in a key critical question -‘how do people learn well?’ This includes metacognition. Don’t be afraid to reflect on your own experiences as a learner for insights into the learning process that may be applicable to your school context. For example, some of my best insights into learning for the last few years have risen from self-reflection about my struggles to learn Chinese, the first language of my students, teachers and school community. This reflection has been powerful because in this learning situation I have become a ‘bilingual student’ experiencing and trying to solve the problems my Chinese students encounter in climbing the twin mountains of English based IGCSE and A Level courses. A practical outcome has been the greater use of audio materials to deepen learning, because I found listening to be a critical driver of improving my Chinese.
Catching up with changing currents
I think too it’s worth directing our inquiry about learning towards the underlying political and cultural currents of our time. Of course it’s essential that we keep our schools as objectively distant from direct politics as we can, but the ‘big ideas’ in society are part of the ecosphere in which we make learning happen and I believe good leaders will not only be aware of wider social arguments but able to link them to the school mission where appropriate.
Here in the UK, a political leader has just made a commitment to improving the importance of ‘oracy’ in education. Clearly the education policies of the UK only have an indirect bearing on international education, but many of our students in future will have to compete with better equipped domestic university applicants. I see this as a wake up call to our international community of school leaders to go back to basics on the emphasis given to oracy in our own bilingual schools. The research shows that the ability to vocalise, explain and describe thinking orally precedes and prepares for academic writing. In my classrooms in a Chinese international all-through school, there is an anxiety and an urgency amongst teachers to move too quickly to written work, in all subjects. I have to remind them to build in time for debate and discussion, especially giving time and attention to the use of English, which will be critical to their success in higher education.
Keep it Critical
So, I for one am enthusiastic about this potential improvement in UK education and will be ready to borrow and adapt any educational materials or resources that it leads to. However, never neglect the importance of your own questioning of ideas that you come across in your research. Oracy is a powerful first principle in learning, but is it sufficient by itself? For me, the answer to this is a firm ‘no’. I think there is an ‘a priori’ to expression and debate – critical thinking itself. In my own university education I met many perfectly formed speakers whose ‘oracy’ could not be better, yet the content of their polished performances was perfectly vacuous. Furthermore, their well-rehearsed veneers of articulacy collapsed in the cut and thrust of debating. So another face of your back to basics philosophy should be to refocus teachers on making sure their lessons are thinking rich. This means having an answer to the inevitable objections that ‘critical thinking takes invaluable time away from exam preparation’. How do you answer this question I wonder? For those of us in the international sector having a convincing answer to this issue is essential and in the long term interests of bilingual students who will need all the abilities of ‘question makers’ rather than mere ‘question takers’ to thrive on their degree courses.
One of my favourite nuggets of wisdom about school leadership warns us of the danger of ‘getting lost in the thick of thin things’. This is the dilemma all established and emerging school leaders face. We are deeply committed to the day to day excellence of our schools and absorb ourselves in countless issues that are deeply important at the time, but nevertheless do not always have long term impact. Therefore, this holiday period is an invaluable opportunity to reconnect with the philosophies that drove you into education in the first place – to reconnect and refresh! Let’s share our professional learning this summer through Leading Your International School.
If you want to learn more about mission and values in a startup school, our recent webinar is available on YouTube, here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X1m5IMhXxWc&t=30s