Tony Gurr

Posts Tagged ‘next practice’


In Educational Leadership, Quality & Institutional Effectiveness, The Paradigm Debate on 01/09/2011 at 11:10 am

Those of you that know allthingslearning reasonably well will know that I often talk of the problems associated with the culture of “alıntı, çalıntı and mış-gibi yapmak” (the Turkish translation for “borrowing, ripping off, and faking-it-till-you-make-it”).


Peter Block tells us that cultures like that of the “alıntı, çalıntı and mış-gibi yapmak” variety are the result of the fact that our world is “answer-orientated”.

I would take this further, we also live in a world that is addicted to the notions of the “quick-fix” or “magic bullets”.


Despite a wealth of theory and research that has clearly demonstrated the power of adopting a “questioning insight” and questioning processes for use at the individual, group and organisational level, our first response to a “challenge” is to search for answers, solutions and best practices. Indeed, when we do ask questions, it is usually to obtain more information, more solutions and more “best practices” – and then try to “out-do” the competition to get “another 15 minutes”.


Don’t get me wrong – I am not suggesting that Best Practices are a waste of time! They can and do:

  • Help us gain insights into techniques, methods or processes that have proven themselves over time
  • Support institutional efforts to maintain quality through “benchmarking”
  • Promote learning


The problem is that while Best Practices are necessary – they are not sufficient! 

Best Practices do not always help us recognise that it is questions that drive the thinking and learning process…and, that this learning is the thing that can lead us to consider different ways of “doing business” or “Next Practice”. 

Sadly, in many organisations and institutions we are taught not to open Pandora’s Box and to avoid challenging conversations or experiences. Some commentators believe this strongly, for example, Boshyk suggests that it is often the case that people are “paid not to ask questions”.

Asking questions, for many, represents an “admission of ignorance” – we all know (especially in education) the “power of knowing” and the consequences of not knowing (or even “appearing not to know”).

This is why we focus on the “answers” others have produced – and call it “benchmarking”!


Block maintains that our answer-orientated world has become obsessed with the question “What works?” and fails to recognise that any important change can only take place through an “inward journey” centred on meaningful learning conversations around “What matters?”.

He begins with a concern about modern life that many of us “feel” all too much – more and more of us are doing more and more about things that mean less and less! 

Sound familiar?


This is a direct consequence of our answer-orientated world and obsession with one form of question that Block describes as “how to pragmatism”. Block notes that most individuals, groups and organisations approach challenges through the question:

  • How do I do this?

When we ask how to do something, suggests Block, the very question expresses our bias for what is practical, concrete, and immediately useful, often at the expense of “what matters”. The very question itself becomes a defence against action.

Furthermore, the question is also frequently used as a “tool” by those who want to “keep their heads down and stick to the rules” – rather than “acting on what matters”.

The question, maintains Block, is further reinforced by the family of other “how-questions” that inevitably follow in its wake:

  • How are other people doing it successfully?
  • How much does this cost?
  • How long will it take?
  • How do you get those people to change?


Block’s ideas are extremely attractive at a common sense level but they raise the question of “what are the right questions”?

Block proposes that meaningful change or transformation can never come from collecting lists of best practices; it comes from asking profound questions that “entail paradox, questions that recognize that every answer creates its own set of problems”.


So what are these questions?

Block offers a range of suggestions that include:

  • Whom are we here to serve?
  • What do we want to create together?
  • How will the world be different tomorrow as a result of what we do today?

As alternatives to the family of other “how-questions”, he suggests:

  • What refusal have we been postponing?
  • What is the price we are willing to pay?
  • What commitment are we willing to make?
  • What is our contribution to the problem we are concerned with?


So, how could we draw on his insights to look deeper at the challenges we face in education?

Educators (and politicians more so in recent years) have been asking questions about our schools and universities for years. Questions like;

  • What “works” in other educational systems?
  • How do we motivate and get students to learn better?
  • How do we improve student performance levels?


These questions have led to the creation of hundreds of thousands of pages of recommendations, policy initiatives and project briefs – as well as a very healthy increase in the number of “educational tourists” flying to Finland, Singapore and now (thanks to PISA) to Shanghai!

If we look closer at such questions and the answers recommended, we start to “sense” how we have imported the quick-fix mentality of Block’s “how to pragmatism” into our schools and universities.


A review of the strategic planning tools and quality improvement agendas of most schools and universities reveals an absence of questions that might provoke deeper thought and real change.

We find far too few questions like:

  • What are we here to do for our learners?
  • What really “matters” in an education system?
  • What stops students from learning in our schools and education system?
  • What is wrong with the way we are currently “doing business” in education?

We still find educational stakeholders asking the “weaker” or “less stimulating” questions like:

  • What should we teach?
  • What is “good” teaching?
  • How should we improve the quality of teaching?

In short, rather than the instrumental questions of the culture of “alıntı, çalıntı and mış-gibi yapmak”, such as:

  • How can we differentiate ourselves from other schools and universities?


…we need to be asking questions like:

  • What does it take for a learner to flourish in the complex realities of the 21st century?
  • What can we do to expand and improve the learning of all our students and staff?
  • What can we do to dramatically increase the ability of our schools and our teachers to learn and keep on learning?
  • How do we know this?

It is exactly these types of questions that will ensure we do not just “borrow” someone else’s “solutions” to someone else’s “challenges” (and avoid the trap of “alıntı, çalıntı and mış-gibi yapmak”).

And, hopefully…help us create “Next Practice” that is relevant to our learners, our teachers and our institutions.


Culture, Climate and REAL Quality…

In Uncategorized on 18/06/2011 at 7:58 am

Since we started discussing accreditation and ran the second of our “Çay ve Simit interview” series (with Engin from YU), this post on REAL QUALITY has become very popularso I have decided to re-blog it for those of you that might have missed it.

It raises the issue of whether we can really have a “culture of quality” before we have a “culture of learning”… and I thought it would be a nice reminder of some of the issues we will look at in our final (for now) post on accreditation.


Culture, Climate and REAL Quality… A few weeks ago, I talked about educational institutions getting to grips with the new vision of “next practice” in organisational culture that has been emerging over the past few years. In fact, this post has become the most popular we have put up on allthingslearning – I wonder why? The point with such models is that they are radically different to the type of “culture” many of us “grew up” in – and perhaps radically different to the “climate”Read More

via allthingslearning

Culture, Climate and REAL Quality…

In Educational Leadership, Quality & Institutional Effectiveness on 20/04/2011 at 2:02 pm

A few weeks ago, I talked about educational institutions getting to grips with the new vision of “next practice” in organisational culture that has been emerging over the past few years. In fact, this post has become the most popular we have put up on allthingslearningI wonder why?

The point with such models is that they are radically different to the type of “culture” many of us “grew up” in – and perhaps radically different to the “climate” of organisations that we still work in.

If we ask teachers and educators to review elements of the model, how many of them will seriously “disagree” with the idea that we should have more “trust”, more “transparency” and more “inclusiveness” in our organisation? How many educational managers or supervisors will say that their organisations do NOT want to be values-driven, do NOT want to use a systems perspective, do NOT desire to promote ethical practices?

I would bet none of them!

The challenge is that many teachers and staff within organisations frequently complain that their organisations do not “walk-their-talk” – indeed that many managers and supervisors are reluctant to “take a real look in the mirror”, face reality as it is and then do something about it.

Many schools, colleges and universities have opted to avoid gathering data on their “current climate” (see, the earlier post on GALLUP’s “Magic 12 Questions”).

Others, including some of the best and most prestigious universities in the world, have refused to use surveys that tap into student feedback on the quality of learning and levels of engagement (see, the post that discusses NSSE’s innovative student surveys).

These “centres of excellence” (as they often like to refer to themselves) just fail to recognise that the most important element of more innovative approaches to organisational culture is – LEARNing.

Organisations and institutions that stay with older “our-way-or-the-highway” notions simply miss the fact that LEARNing is the secret to success in this new paradigm of cultural capital and organisational climate. The LEARNing of people and the LEARNing of institutions themselves – and the starting point for this is open, honest reflection:

  • What “business” are we in and how do we want to “do” that business?
  • Where are we right now?
  • What do we want that we don’t have?
  • What do we want that we already have?
  • What don’t we have that we don’t want?
  • What do we have now that we don’t want?
  • What has to change to allow us to “be” what we want to be?
  • How do we know all this?

There are many other questions institutions and their senior leadership teams can ask (see, this post for some other critical questions) – BUT…you’d be surprised how few organisations ask themselves these questions (and still have a well-worded mission statement hanging on the wall or a detailed strategic plan gathering dust on a shelf somewhere).

Another tool (that I love – for its “simplicity”) was developed by Connor and Clawson (2004) and encourages institutions to reflect on whether they have a “Pro-Learning” or “Anti-Learning” Culture.

One way to use this tool is to ask both the senior leadership team of an institution and the teaching/staff body to rate the organisation (using a scale: 5 – Very True, 4 – True, 3 – Somewhat True, 2 – Not True, 1 – Not True At All) and then compare the two data sets.

The items they suggest can be very quickly adapted to an educational context:

Pro-learning culture
Anti-learning culture
People at all levels ask questions and share stories about successes, failures, and what they have learned. Managers share information on a need-to-know basis. People keep secrets and don’t describe how events really happened.
Everyone creates, keeps, and propagates stories of individuals who have improved their own processes. Everyone believes they know what to do, and they proceed on this assumption.
People take at least some time to reflect on what has happened and what may happen. Little time or attention is given to understanding lessons learned from projects.
People are treated as complex individuals. People are treated like objects or resources without attention to their individuality.
Managers encourage continuous experimentation. Employees proceed with work only when they feel certain of the outcome.
People are hired and promoted on the basis of their capacity for learning and adapting to new situations. People are hired and promoted on the basis of their technical expertise as demonstrated by credentials.
Performance reviews include and pay attention to what people have learned. Performance reviews focus almost exclusively on what people have done.
Senior managers participate in training programs designed for new or high-potential employees. Senior managers appear only to “kick off” management training programs.
Senior managers are willing to explore their underlying values, assumptions, beliefs, and expectations. Senior managers are defensive and unwilling to explore their underlying values, assumptions, beliefs, and expectations.
Conversations in management meetings constantly explore the values, assumptions, beliefs, and expectations underlying proposals and problems. Conversations tend to move quickly to blaming and scapegoating with little attention to the process that led to a problem or how to avoid it in the future.
Customer feedback is solicited, actively examined, and included in the next operational or planning cycle. Customer feedback is not solicited and is often ignored when it comes in over the transom.
Managers presume that energy comes in large part from learning and growing. Managers presume that energy comes from “corporate success,” meaning profits and senior management bonuses.
Managers think about their learning quotient, that is, their interest in and capacity for learning new things, and the learning quotient of their employees. Managers think that they know all they need to know and that their employees do not have the capacity to learn much.
Total for pro-learning culture   Total for anti-learning culture  

To be honest, it is not the data sets themselves that are important – but rather the nature of the discussion on “what the results mean”, “why they might differ” and “what can be done” between different people in the organisation.

Of course, there are very few “our-way-or-the-highway” institutions that would be “brave enough” to carry out such an exercise – and it is this, perhaps, that shows the true nature of the learning culture that exists in an organisation.

Perhaps, the main issue here is not about the quality of an organisation’s culture or climate – but rather how that organisation conceptualises “what exactly quality is.

As we have seen in earlier posts –

Quality is not just about simply having a “QA system” and stacks of documentation

Quality is a means, not an end:

  • Quality is about improvement
  • Quality is about a transformational mindset or culture
  • Quality is an on-going process of building and sustaining relationships

This is not just Tony having another “rant” – cutting-edge research (Harvey and Newton, 2007 and 2009) has deconstructed the dominant approaches to QA and reconstructed an alternative, research-informed approach that is based on a shift from “externally imposed procedures” to “internally generated creativity”.

Conventional wisdom in educational quality issues (finally) is now calling for approaches to quality evaluation grounded on “self-regulation”, an improvement-led approach and “transformation” (and this has accreditation bodies and their consultants very worried).

What is perhaps more important, however, is that this approach to “REAL Quality” is based on (1) institutions “getting real” with their own quality initiatives, and (2) increased attention to issues of culture and the convergence of 3 overlapping “cultures”:

  • The Organisational Culture we need for the 21st Century
  • The Culture of Learning organisations need to survive in the 21st Century
  • The Culture of Quality that needs to accompany all our initiatives in the 21st Century

But, more on these later…