Leadership Training & Behaviors for the Future in Education

When the current crisis is over and a decision is taken to revive and restart our economies, will we relapse into business-as-usual as it was prior to close-down? Or, will we take up opportunities to think about things differently and to change how we do things?

No matter the prestige of content in (say) a harvard Business Review article or from explored Harvard Business Cases, each of us needs to change how we think and what mantras we keep proselitizing.

The Old Mantras Persist

With grave disappointment in this crisis I see pedlars of university education still trotting out the adage of old: Knowledge is Power!

It never has been “power”, it still is not “power”, and it never will be “power”!

And, in so many ways it’s an insult to Machiavelli from whom it is allegedly derived – go read the original, if you doubt my word for it. But we’ve been fed this mantra for decades.

There is no doubt in my mind that I have sufficient knowledge and problem-solving abilities to “figure out” (learn) how to build a nuclear device. Certainly, there would be some supply chain challenges in obtaining some of the critical componentry and materials needed. Essentially however they are complex simple devices.

For what purpose would I wish to gain this knowledge? Simply to satisfy myself that I know how to do it? Or, to develop a more efficient source of energetic power for peaceful pursuits? Or, to become party to a plot to kill multiple number of humans because I don’t agree with their beliefs or practices?

Power is not in the knowledge. Power is in how we apply it – for good or bad – or, withhold it in game playing!

Yet with this oft repeated mantra which has been embedded in our cultural psyche for decades, we endeavour to coerce people to believe that by getting a piece-of-paper (an award/qualification we call it) it will undoubtedly enhance our career chances and business success. Maybe! But I’ve also seen it fail miserably.

Business as usual

Further, we have fooled our employers into believing this is so. But often, once we have welcomed such awarded people into our organisations (public, private and NFP), we begin teaching them explicitly or subtly about “how we do business around here”. Often making the same old mistakes that have often been made, without serious effort for either continuous or transformational improvement.

Do not misunderstand me. I’m not saying that the synergy of any particular course and a specific individual person will always be a waste of time. However, in my experience it’s been clear that talent that works hard outperforms talent that has sailed through academia unhindered.

Accordingly, students of any age who are studying and tell me that it’s easy; I tell them to work harder. Students who tell me it’s hard are advised to keep on trying and trying until they succeed at mastering the information and how to apply it.

A little bit of history

In the 1970s in Australia, we fostered a “new” type of educational institution called a college of advanced education by combining other education facilities into one new institution to gain economies of scale.

I worked at one such college for seven years. In the teacher education space during that period we lowered the entry requirements (out of high school) by as much as 47% to attract students to some of the courses. Practice teaching in the final year of training didn’t always compensate for the lower quality of entry requirements. Some of the lecturers were there because they had “escaped” from teaching in classrooms. The gender mix changed forever as equality became a battleground in which males couldn’t/wouldn’t come to grips with the respect needed.

We took nurse education out of hospitals and turned it into predominantly an academic pursuit. We did the same with other courses as well. The education factories grew; and, grew in power. Our society swallowed the new pill.

We waste money on study tours

Not so many years ago, I was discussing education with a retired Deputy Director-General of Education. His department had sent him a few years previously on a lengthy world tour to examine education models in other countries. He learned a lot about other ways of encouraging and managing education from the earliest years to the end of secondary schooling. He wrote his report and socialised it within the education sector and its various stakeholders. Nothing changed. Early retirement became a possibility for him, and he took it. Change was not happening in education, despite the myths that persist to this day.

We need to abolish all standardised testing. We need greater connectedness among students, parents and teachers – not all parents are enrolled in a belief about the standard model we perpetuate. We need to consider bringing other models (eg Steiner and Montessori) into the mainstream of our education systems, rather than have them on the fringes of education (tolerated, but truly not embraced).

Parent shock

We as parents can become distracted by the accomplishments of our children in the standard system, even though we see others flourishing in other systems. I had lunch with my son a few weeks after he started work following an exceptional set of performances in his secondary schooling and a double degree at a prestigious university.

He said to me: “Dad, I’m really grateful to you and mum for sending me to …” <the private school> “… but I didn’t learn much! Do you want to know what the two things were from which I learned the most?”

Silence is golden, so I stayed silent and nodded that I’d like to hear his thoughts.

“I learned the most from the leadership courses run with Air Force cadets; and, from all the self-development books that you kept giving to me at every opportunity … birthday, Christmas and every other chance you got to give me a book. Those events and books were from where I learned the most!”

This from an academically bright and gifted student. So how much harder for those less talented academically?

The struggling students

His mother welcomed into her school classrooms those less talented academically, home-abused children, disruptive children and the other social outcasts in schools and society (children who very well in the future might reside in jails). You could hear a pin drop in her classrooms as she worked persistently with each student to truly learn. She loved those students and respected each and every one of them. They in turn respected and loved her.

She was taken aback on one occasion where a school executive came into her classroom and spoke very harshly to all her students. She would have said something to him later about it, but she did not need to do so. One of her students stood up and said: “Sir! You shouldn’t speak to us like that! Mrs G wouldn’t disrespect us like that!” That senior executive never behaved like that again in her classroom. And in fact, he came back later and apologized to the class and the teacher.

Most students are trying their best within a model that doesn’t reflect the exigencies of the real world. Or is it that the “real world” is distorted and blinded by that piece of paper called an award – by whatever specific name?

Under-graduates and post-graduates have their problems too

Post-graduate students have sought my advice about how to deal with superiors in challenging exchanges about new ideas. “I’ve been doing this job for 20+ years! What can you teach me about how to do it better?” is the challenge faced by post-graduate adults with some years of full-time worklife behind them. There are ways, but it isn’t always obvious to the less experienced. We talk that through one-on-one or in small groups or lecture room.

Or, the undergraduate who stood and confronted me some years ago in front of the class complaining that I had given them too much work and in my reviews of their group assignments was providing feedback that they were not working hard enough to grasp fundamental concepts.

Student: “It’s your job to get us through this course! We’re paying good money for this course and it’s your job to get us through the course!”

Me:  “If you are not working thoroughly through the material and demonstrating understanding in your group assignment, how do you propose that I should get you through the course?”

Student: “That’s easy!”

Me:  “Enlighten me!”

Student: “You give us the exam paper now. Tell us the answers. We’ll learn them and give back to you want you want in the exam session!”

After being mentally stunned by that hand grenade and picking myself up metaphorically from the floor, I replied.

Me:  “That’s not going to happen. What I want is to see that you have learned the material properly and show me that you understand it. So, I suggest you work harder, as passing the exam is compulsory for successful completion of 45% of this course!”

And, I might add, I despise group assignments (as do most students) because they do not help the concept of working in teams as will be needed in many workplaces. Often such group assignments become battlegrounds rather than collaborative endeavours in which each student pulls their weight. Teams in workplaces often suffer from similar poor dynamics and waste an enormous amount of time and effort … because we are so focused on “teams” without understanding them!

Change is inevitable so let us take the opportunity

We need to change our education systems – or, “education factories” if you will. Yet, in many instances we’ve thrown out our “foreign”students – discarded them to the vagaries of the current COVID-19 environment in their home countries.

Dedicated teachers and academics who work hard to assist their students deserve great praise and I laud them for doing so and their resilience in very great and challenging times – of which the present is but an example.

But there isn’t always one answer – only one way of doing things. So, I despise the glossing over of alternative answers. Such as, the larger scale focus of education authorities on the skillsets “we need now”, which often leads to over-supply and disappointment for individuals who would be really fantastic in those fields but are pushed aside by those who are more academically inclined. Also, some “practical” courses that become tick-n-flick non-learning retention exercises to obtain that “piece of paper”. Undue (and sometimes dangerous) help given to individuals who have come out of the education system and can barely read and write; or simply cannot do so.

We must find ways to foster and encourage people from the earliest of their years to learn truly to think for themselves. Everything they are taught is the opinion of somebody else. There are alternative answers out there or in the person themselves. We have to discover how we as individuals can walk pathways of uncertainty. Sometimes, we need coaches or mentors or teachers to encourage us in learning about those pathways and alternative ways of treading along them. Encouragement, resilience, persistence – not answers.

The medical specialist advice that was given to me at nine years of age was not and is not abhorrent to me. He was simply giving me the standard traditional medical advice of the time. He was not and is not to be deplored for that. Had I listened to him; I would have been dead many decades ago. It is thus unsurprising that when I saw him some 25 years later, he asked me as I came into his consultation rooms whether I was real or a ghost! I survived by going against his traditional advice.

Listen to advice. Listen to opinions. Take them into account. But research thoroughly other alternatives and decide what is best for you, for the people you love and care about … for now and for the future.

What other opportunities are presenting themselves for humanity to change how we do things post-COVID-19?

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