Tony Gurr

Posts Tagged ‘educational leadership’

Between a ROCK and a very HARD PLACE…(Pt 01)

In Classroom Teaching, Curriculum, Our Schools, Our Universities on 22/07/2012 at 11:48 am

If you are a blogoshere junkie (like me), you’ll have seen the phrase 19th Century “Factory Model Education” being thrown around a lot recently. This lovely little (dead) metaphor is frequently used by edtech zealots to beat up on teachers and schools who appear not to have quite woken up and smelled the coffee of 21st Century LEARNing.

Edtech critics, often painted as “luddites” by these “techie reformers”, bounce back and say it’s not about the technology at all – they cite the fact that there are armies of innovative artisan-teachers (and a fair few schools and colleges) out there doing just “fine” without all the bells and whistles that come with the edtech hype. What they stress is that it is not technology (or a lack of it) that matters – but rather it is a (very) real lack of understanding of what works and what matters in a classroom (“flipped” or not) that is the real killer

You see, we are just as likely to…


Or, even worse…

…by implementing edtech in an unthunking way (or introducing “new classroom models” centred only on technology and toys) as we are by not questioning what we do and have done in our schools and classrooms for years!


I’m not going to focus on the technology side of things in this post – I want to focus on the other stuff as the “factory metaphor” is not only used by those wanting to push the edtech agenda. Personally, I love luv “me tech” – but I have a great deal more respect for all those great teachers and schools that focus on the other things that matter in student LEARNing and success (and I ain’t just talking about success in the “examocracy” sense).

The problem is, of course, that not every school (or system) seems to have bothered to spend time finding out “what works” (let alone “what matters”)!


When we do look at the things that really matter in education…in our schools and colleges…the starting point is often bunch of people who ask the simple question “What are we here to do for the LEARNers”?

These people know that their job is to focus in on “real LEARNing” two of the following (go on – have a guess!):

OK – straightforward enough!



Getting to “deep” or “transformational” LEARNing requires that a school or college does a “great” job across the board. A “board” that usually has four elements:


These four elements are backed up by research study after research study and are frequently viewed as being “interdependent” – makes sense really! However, one of them stands out (again in research study after research study) – in terms of student LEARNing and success.


The TEACHer – and this is because:

Obviously, there’s a great deal of talk out there about what makes a “great teacher” (even dipped my toes into that little pool more than once). However, I have found that three things stand out whenever I come face-to-face with these so-called great teachers:






These LEARNing, QUESTIONing and CONNECTing “artisan-teachers” can and do make the difference to student LEARNing and success…even when not that tech-savvy (as the kids can do much of that themselves anyway)!

We need to honest, too – just as we know that not every classroom is full students with a real “hunger to learn” (especially after a few years of SCHOOLing), we also know that not every school is packed with the talented, hard-working and creative artisan-educators we noted at the start of this post…not YET!


In cases like these, is it possible that the other 3 elements can “make up for” any shortfalls on the TEACHing side? Even, “help” those techers who might not have achieved their own greatness till now?

I would argue “YES” – leadership and attention to culture and climate are critical ingredients of any great school or college. Most teachers can only see as far as their own experience (pretty much like everyone else) – and the working environment they operate in, along with the inspiration and support they receive, can nurture and help them grow.


So, what of curriculum and assessment? Can “great” thunking and practices in these areas do the same – and help teachers become as “great” as they can be?

Again, I would argue (a very loud) “YES” – curriculum and assessment thunking that is aligned with LEARNing, QUESTIONing and CONNECTing can be amazingly powerful in the area of teacher development. After all:


…or to put it in terms than many an educational manager or director may not entirely “like” hearing:


The sad truth is…it is in the area of curriculum (and, by default, the assessment practices that form part of many curricula) that a large number of schools and colleges let themselves (and their LEARNers) down…big time! The lack of careful attention to this critical element on the “board” – an element typically prioitised in all the schools and colleges that are widely considered “great places to LEARN” – is what can and does foster…


…by encouraging…


And, this can even impact some of our GREATest TEACHers…on occasion!

What’s Your PURPOSE?

In Book Reviews, Educational Leadership, Quality & Institutional Effectiveness on 11/10/2011 at 5:29 pm

Here’s a quick “brain-teaser”…


Take pen and scrap of paper (or open up a word doc)…I’ll give you a minute…OK?

Now, and without looking at any webpages…write down…word for word

…the “mission statement” of the place where you work!


I’ll give you a couple of minutes…OK?


Now, I’m guessing most of you did not do the little exercise I suggested (yes, I have hacked into your camera – and see everything you do)…not because you do not know your mission statement off-by-heartbut because you do not really “care” about it very much!

…or perhaps you just wanted to respond in a similar way to my dear, dear friend House!

I’m sorry (and House would agree) – “mission statements” are NOT very sexy!


Especially, as far as teachers and educators are concerned – thousands of whom have been subjected to “mission retreats” staged to help them “wordsmith” a more articulate version of the “wall art” that these statements inevitably become.



Wall art that just ends up collecting dust…and, more often than not, is never truly “walked”, “lived” or “enacted”. If only more educational consultants or so-called “quality gurus” would commit a revolutionary act or two

What I’m saying must be true … it’s on the web!


If I’d asked you to jot down a few thoughts about the things you are really “passionate” about, you’d probably be still scribbling away…

The difference is that you’d be scribbling about “purpose” – the “ideas” that drive you, the “beliefs” you’d be prepared to get into a fight for (well, at least miss breakfast for)…in short, what is “right” and what is “worthwhile”.

House has a purpose…(over and above annoying Cuddy – what will he do now she has “left”)


Steve Jobs (still) has a purpose…


Do youDoes your institution?

8 defines purpose as:

“…the reason for which something exists or is done, made, used, etc”.


OK, this definition might suggest some form of cognitive awareness of the linkage between “cause and effect” or perhaps some form of anticipated result that “guides action”. But, seriously…it sucks at conveying the “power” the word carries for most human beings.




Remember that piece of music that brought you tears last week, that movie that made you think about trying to be a better “father” (or mother), the “act of kindness” you saw in the mall that reminded you “not all people are assholes“…that episode of so-and-s0 “dizi” that made you want to get up and “make a real difference

…or just that lesson that they all seemed to “get” (and said “thank you” for).


Are we all, as individuals and a species, not looking for “purpose” in our lives? Do we all, perhaps at some primal level, not wish to be inspired and motivated by ideas or schemes bigger than ourselves? Are we all, as employees or leaders, not looking for some form of meaning to give us the motivation to complete our own work and signal to us that this work is moving us all towards a better, brighter future?


Purpose, as a concept, has been a buzz-worthy word for some time. However, it is only recently that business and management gurus have begun to take note of the potential of this seemingly simple notion – the smartest of which have all “trashed” their mission statements, in favour of a focus on purpose.

Mourkogiannis (2006) made the case that all great companies need a purpose and that purpose is critical to an organisation’s success. Concerned primarily with business success, his central argument was that it is not organisation and structure, but rather ideas that drive organisations, and it is these ideas that determine the success of a business. And, he knows how to define the word:

“…the reason for doing something that appeals to our ideas about what is right and what is worthwhile


This type of conceptualisation conveys how critical purpose is for individuals – and institutions.

Purpose is about engagement, involvement and “passion” – and it’s a choice.

A choice we can make in our lives…and “at work”.


“Nikos Amca”  also argued that successful institutions are more influenced by the strength of their purpose (and moral ideas) than the strength of their leaders. He maintained that it is purpose that becomes the “engine” of a successful institution and the “source of its energy” – because it is also purpose that most of us want from work, even over money and status.

Again…you are reading this on the web…must be true!

Hear me out…hear me out!


Purposenot “wall art” – that is “living” and “lived”:

  • makes people feel their “work” is worthwhile
  • fosters more “care” and consideration of others
  • helps to build “better” relationships
  • maintains morale and energy levels
  • reduces risk aversion and “fear”
  • helps innovators move from current convention to next practices
  • inspires everyone to be the best version of themselves they can be

So, the next time someone asks you to update the “mission statement”just say “NO”!


Instead, invite that person for a coffee and, together, consider:

  • What do we do? What is our purpose?
  • Who are we doing this for?
  • What do we want to create – together?
  • Where are we right now? What is today’s situation? How do we know?
  • How can we excel? How can we be the best version of ourselves? 



Afterall, and as Mourkogiannis reminds us, the role of “real leaders” is to “discover” (not simply “invent”) a purpose – and then build a “community of purpose” that truly “walks-its-talk”…

…and “lives” its “purpose statement“.


The BOOK (if you want to have a gander)…


Can a committee write a poem?

In Educational Leadership, Our Schools, Uncategorized on 02/10/2011 at 8:12 am

John West-Burnham asks this thought-provoking question in his book “Rethinking Educational Leadership”.

Think about it…it is a question that touches on a great many issues in the arena of allthingslearning; creativity, change, and collaboration.

As you think, take a read of this poem – a poem that captures the hopes and dreams of many educators around the globe:


What is a Teacher?

What is a teacher?

A guide, not a guard.

What is learning?

A journey, not a destination.

What is discovery?

Questioning the answers, not answering the questions.

What is the process?

Discovering ideas, not covering content.

What is the goal?

Open minds, not closed issues.

What is the test?

Being and becoming, not remembering and reviewing.

What is learning?

Not just doing things differently, but doing different things.

What is teaching?

Not showing them what to learn, but showing them how to learn

What is school?

Whatever we choose to make it.


West-Burnham points out that committees can, in fact, write poems – this took me by surprise (as I had immediately jumped in with both feet and said “no way”)!

His rationale is this – just the mere fact that a committee is given a learning opportunity like this can be the “seed” that grows into an “oak”. Moving through the process, asking the right questions (at the right time) and being able to call on “teachers” of their own choosing – might just be enough, or the start of something different.

Simply creating time, space and opportunity to consider allthingslearning and allthingseducation by a “committee” might allow us to consider whether we are asking the right questions.


My thanks to Lee Crockett, Ian Jukes and Andrew Churches for permission to post the poem. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be publishing extracts from their new book – Literacy Is Not Enough (2011) – as a series of guest-posts.

Have our Educational Leaders got the “STUFF”?

In Educational Leadership, Quality & Institutional Effectiveness on 30/08/2011 at 5:59 pm

Earlier, in a post on teacher LEARNing, I mentioned Tom Peters – the “guru of gurus” (or, “uber-guru” as the Economist describes him), in the world of business!

A friend of mine called and asked me why I so often refer to “business leaders” when I talk about educational leadershipa good question. He also said that it might be counter-productive as educators have little time for allthingsbusinessnot so smart!


The answer is simple – part of our trouble in educational leadership is that we have tried to set up our LEARNing on leadership as a “separate discipline” (damn those bloody academics!) – as if educational leadership were something totally different to leadership in business, health, or dentistry

Leadership is leadershipgood leadership is good leadership! And, if we can learn something from business, health, or dentistry – sobeit!

Besides – Tom’s a cool dude!


So, I’m going to take a closer look at “Uncle Tom” and see if he can help us out some moreif that’s OK?

The title of this post is not something Peters asks per se – but he does talk about the “stuff” quite a lot. For him, the “stuff” is:

I can almost see my friend “cringe” as he reads the last of those!

Perhaps, I can redeem myself by also adding that Peters’ view of leadership is not that of the “all-knowing-commander” or “order-giver-extraordinaire” (we touched on this in an earlier post – the “my-way-or-the-highway” approach to leadership in education) – and that Peters himself believes that the traditional textbook definition is fatally and fundamentally flawed!



OK, OK – perhaps we need to modify what Tom says for educational leaders – and re-order it a bit:

That “fits” better…yes?


Tom also tells us (among many other pearls of wisdom –often presented in bright colours and outlandish typefaces) that:

  • Leaders love “mess”!
  • Leaders understand that “it all depends”!
  • Leaders “do” (and “re-do” – because they make “mistakes” – OMG)!
  • Leaders create blame-free cultures – and engender trust!
  • Leaders accept responsibility!
  • Leaders break down barriers!
  • Leaders connect!
  • Leaders nurture (and build up) other leaders!
  • Leaders are great learners – who give credit!
  • Leaders know themselves!
  • Leaders do stuff that matters!

Come on! Who is gonna disagree with that? Isn’t this what all educators want from their learners, their leaders – and themselves? This Tom bloke might be onto something, after alllet’s elect all these leaders to run our countries. Hell – let’s hire all of them to run our schools and universities, right now!

Peters believes all this (and boy, does he believe it – with a passion) because we have to accept that the world is today a very different placeor that the world of business today is very different to that of “yesterday”.

Hmmmm – could that be true of education, acaba?


So, anyway…he tells us, we need very “different” leaders – from those we had “yesterday“:

Personally, one of the things I really like is the way Tom tries to help us understand the need to tear down a lot of the myths that hold us back:

  • Leaders are not the best performers!
  • Leaders say “I don’t know”!
  • Leaders put people first – really, really, really!

This last one is the crown jewel for many educators – and demonstrates that leadership is really about people (not just “lip-service” about people). Peters focuses a great deal of his attention on the idea of leaders as “talent developers” (the “people stuff”):

Now, tell me…if Peters not describing the “ideal boss” here – or even, the ideal colleague?

OK – enough of my hero-worship!


What Peters says has a great deal of relevance for education, for teachers, for learnersand educational leadership. Indeed, what he is talking about gives us a pretty good “model” for what leaders need to know (dare, I say it – “be”) and what they need to do.

In fact, if we really push the envelope, there is not a lot more to do – apart from a few more questions about:

The people stuff (leaders as “talent developers”) – in education:

The inspiration stuff (leaders as “dealers in hope”) – in education:

The results stuff (leaders as “success mechanics” – and not just mechanics of “exam results”!) – in education:


Oh, yes – and a couple more questions:

  • Is all this stuff “learnable”?
  • Does all this stuff apply only to high-ranking, formal leaders in education – or also teachers, too? 
And, if you are an educational leader rşght now:
  • Do I have the “stuff”? If not, how do I know and what can I do about it?


But, that’s for another post!

The End of the HIGHWAY…

In Educational Leadership, The Paradigm Debate on 07/03/2011 at 11:08 am


In my 25 years in the world of TEACHing and LEARNing, I have come across many managers / supervisors that have graduated from the “my-way-or-the-highway” school of thought. Many of you will also know I frequently discuss ideas from the “walk-your-talk” school of leadership.

Now, I know we are warned (by Obi-Wan) that “Only the Sith deal in absolutes” – but I thought it might be useful to compare these two perspectives and look at which form of “educational leadership” might be best suited for a 21st Century Learning Organisation.

Besides, even a Jedi has to look to the dark side now and again.


In the brave, new world of 21st Century education, success now depends not only on an institution’s ability to adapt, but also being able to adapt quickly. If our schools, colleges and universities are to make headway and evolve to meet the new challenges we are facing, they must make LEARNing a central element of their cultural capital.

Tony, that’s just silly”!

I hear a few of you mumble.


“Surely, our schools, colleges and universities are all about LEARNing…aren’t they”?

Sadly, this is not the case.


Many of our schools are “teaching schools” (not LEARNing schools). The majority of higher educational institutions remain institutions of “instruction and research”.

They have all evolved in a culture that prides itself on being “learnED” and many simply fail to acknowledge that “houses of LEARNing” need to be built on a stronger foundation – a culture of LEARNing.


Schein defines culture as the sum of solutions to yesterday’s problems and views an organisation’s culture as the collective behaviours, intentions, and values that people develop over time to make sense of the world. He is right – who am I to disagree with the Jedi Master of organisational leadership?

But, the purpose of culture is to “teach” people how to “see” the world (Bodnarczuk). As our world is changing so fast, we need to look at the type of culture that is required.


A new vision of “next practice” in organisational culture has been emerging over the past few years. This vision is radically different to the type of culture many of us “grew up” in – it is radically different to the views of many educational managers and supervisors who “learned” us (and are still “learning” us today):

Many of the notions and concepts upon which this new vision is based are more “human” and more “organic” than the more mechanistic views of the Taylorist bureaucrats of our world.


The centrality of “LEARNing” in this new paradigm of cultural capital cannot be overstated.

In the face of ever-changing conditions and uncertainty, more and more educators are beginning to see that real change will not come from curriculum renewal or professional development programmes alone (they would be great, too) – it needs to begin at the level of culture and LEARNing is the key.

The “my-way-or-the-highway” educational manager often just does not “get” this – (s)he lives in the past, (s)he has a specific world view that conditions the decisions (s)he takes and the ways in which (s)he interacts with those around (or “under”) him or her.

Don’t get me wrong…I am not saying these people are “evil Sith Lords” (but see Peter’s quote below). Many of them work hard, many of them have the interests of students close to their hearts, many of them care deeply about moving from “good” to “great”.

The issue is that their worldviews have developed in an “unconscious manner” and they also believe that they are “walking-their-talk” – indeed, most of them are. The challenge is that these worldviews, like the cultures that created them, are the sum of solutions to yesterday’s problems.

And, we need to talk more about “tomorrow”!

Most “walk-your-talk” educational leaders “hear” this message. Many have listened to the great advice of Stephen Covey and other organisational thinkers – a large number of them are great listeners themselves, great motivators and great “care-givers”.

But, are they all effective?


Walking-your-talk implies that you know your talk, you are conscious of it – and, more importantly that you “live” it.

We all know that it is not cool for a teacher to walk around advocating constructivist ideas and humanistic approaches to learning – but rely on “serial drilling” and screams for “order, discipline and respect” behind closed classroom doors.

For educational leaders, it’s no good saying “I believe in collaborative decision-making” and then repeatedly go against the conventional wisdom of your “followers” (I do not like this word but needed to use it here – you get it, right?)…


There is a very thin line between “walk-your-talk” educational leaders and “my-way-or-the-highway” educational leaders.

We often forget this.

Now, you know why I love Star Wars so much…


The biggest problem in looking at these two perspectives in absolute terms is that both the “walk-the-talk” and the “my-way-or-the-highway” school of thought believe their own talk and that their way is “right”.

However, just because we believe we are “right” – does not “right” make. Human beings are social animals – we live, breathe and grow together. However, the rate at which we grow differs – and this means even ideas that appear “right” cannot (and should not) be “forced” on others.

As Mevlana reminds us, “ne kadar bilirsen bil, söylediklerin karşındakinin anlayabildiği kadardır” – now, you are going to ask for a translation of this, aren’t you?


Furthermore, even if you are a graduate of the “walk-your-talk” school of leadership, you also have to be prepared to LEARN, change your talk and walk a different walk from time to time.

The question remains, however, if we are racing into the 21st Century and if this century requires a new paradigm of cultural capital and a new breed of educational leader – which school of thought is better equipped to deliver?

I’m going to put my money on “Jedi Master Schein” when he tells us we all need to “activate the learning gene in the DNA of organisational culture”.


So, if you are an educational leader or aspire to be one:

  • REMEMBER leaders are responsible for their organisations, their teams and the culture these teams live and breathe each day. Leaders cannot blame others, cannot blame the past – they have to assume responsibility to create a “new future”.


  • KNOW THYSELF and how far your “shadow” reaches

The best advice is to:

  • TREAD softly and bear in mind that stomping on the dreams of educators is the best way to harm student learning – and your learning results
  • REFLECT and look in the “mirror” every day before you go work
  • LEARN and re-create yourself every day


My thanks to my “muse”, the best “natural counsellor” I have ever had the pleasure to be married to. I am also deeply indebted to Peter Koestenbaum – a man who gave a “stranger” 2 hours on his 80th birthday just to “chat” on Skype – showed that stranger that he was walking the “right path” and led me to one of his quotes:

“To destroy the dignity of a human being is evil. To be indifferent to the feelings of others is evil. Not to support people’s sense of self-respect is evil”.


And, who can forget George Lucaswho taught me all about “good and evil”!