Using words for the first time

I used the phrase ‘paradigm shift’ in my post ‘The lie of the leadership pyramid.’ It was the first time I had ever used the phrase in writing and I caught myself wondering if I really knew what it meant. I used it to mean a complete 180 change of perspective. I think that’s right but as I right this I’m off the gridin North Devon and have no way to check.


I think this happens quite often. I’m pretty sure that I understand something and so I go ahead and talk about it as if I’m 100% sure. As a teacher you get used to speaking with authority about stuff. It’s an authority I can get used to, rely upon or even become downright lazy with. But when it is challenged, I find myself in an interesting predicament. How do you explain what you’re not quite sure about?


Worse if no-one challenges you and you continue making the mistake that you first made.


It reminds me of the story of ‘hirsute’ man – which I’m not sure is urban myth or fact.


Apparently there was this bloke who used the word ‘hirsute’ to mean ‘therefore’. He would say things like “Hirsute, we can solve the problem by…” and “I am becoming rather thirsty, hirsute I will need another cup of coffee.”


Unfortunately ‘hirsute’ doesn’t mean ‘therefore’.


‘Hirsute’ means ‘hairy’.


When, he found this out, the man who was in his 40s was so mortified by his years of erroneous word-use he promptly killed himself.


A tragic tale, but one with a salient point for those of us who are prone to a high degree of barely accurate verbosity.


What film inspired your teaching?

Why Tampopo makes me a better teacher.


For those who don’t know, Tampopo is a Japanese film about a single mother who runs a Noodle bar and has to overcome many trials and tribulations to become the best bar in town. I think of it as a cross between the Food and Drink Show and Monty Python, with a hint of Western and ‘The A Team’ thrown in. Although I am sure that there are many better ways of describing it.


Anyway, here’s why it makes me a better teacher:

  1. It links between food and transcendant experiences with ease – I think being able to rapidly ascend and descend Maslow’s heirarchy is a key to engaging children in education.
  2. Not only do the bullies lose, but they make friends with the lonely child. That’s hope on a stick.
  3. It demonstrates you can learn things from unlikely people.
  4. The experts in it are young, old, male, female, rich and poor – the heart of the unconference.
  5. It shows that the links between people are as important as the actual knowledge they hold.


So what film inspires you?


The lie that we can’t learn new attitudes.

Old dogs, new tricks


‘You can’t teach an old dog new tricks’ is the old line, but there’s a consensus that it isn’t actually true. The actual statement may still stand, but I’m no dog trainer so couldn’t say for sure.


In humans though, it has been shown that a very high percentage of the brain’s ability to learn new things remains far into old age. We refer to adults as life-long learners. We have silver surfers and tweeters (or twits) in their 90s (the oldest died recently aged 104).


Old dogs, old attitudes


Learning is three things – knowledge, skills and attitudes. OK that’s a pretty broad statement, but I think those three words cover most of what we try to do in UK schools. I think we’re happy that new knowledge can be learnt at any age, and the ‘old dogs’ disproval would indicate that we’re also happy that new skills can be learnt at any age. However I think we’re not so assured about attitudes. In other words, old dogs are stuck with their old attitudes.


Unsure about attitudes


In fact if you check your own experience of school, I’m not too sure that we’re really sure how to change. influence or teach attitudes at all. What do we do? – we have a school ethos with some rules attached to it. We punish non-compliance and reward compliance. We may have other strategies such as circle time, but what proportion of the timetable do we really allocate to attitude shifting?


And what attitudes are we really teaching. It seems to me that for the most part, we rely on the educator in front of the children.


And at what age are children most likely to learn positive attitudes to life and learning? And at what age do they stop?


My teaching experience goes up to the age of 11, and I’ve certainly seen attitude change there. This year, a girl who had very little confidence in maths (yet high ability in English) turned it round to become a brilliant problem solver. The change was more down to a change in attitude rather than new skills she learned. I’m sure secondary colleagues also have stories where they have seen students’ attitudes completely change around.


Stuck with adults


I’m sure you’ve heard adults say things like “I can’t draw” or “I’m no good at maths.”


Somewhere along the way, we must get the idea that we’re stuck. We can’t improve our attitudes. We believe things like our intellience is fixed and we’ve reached our limits, or we can’t learn a new language because we just don’t think that way. It’s about the difference with being fixed and being flexible.


And if, as teachers, we pass on a fixed way of thinking to our children then they you will become stuck at some point in the future.


Our behaviour isn’t fixed. We can learn new attitudes.


The lie of the leadership pyramid.

So many people use the word ‘up’ when they talk about leadership. It is so much part of our language that even people who understand what leadership really is, still use the word ‘up’. I still use it, so this post is as much to me as anyone else.


Metaphors like ‘career ladder’ and ‘rat race’ don’t help. They indicate being ahead of other people – higher up than others.


So what do people mean when they say ‘I moved up into leadership’? Is it helpful to refer to leaders with expressions like ‘the great and the good’?


Of course there are some real ‘ups’ in leadership. Pay for one. There is a real financial pyramid – a few people earning incredible amounts at the top of the pyramid with progressively more earning less and less until you reach the bottom of the pyramid where most people earn less than the national average. I’ll write about this more in the lie of averages.


Money, I suspect, is a big factor in why we use the word ‘up’ so much in leadership. It leads us to the pyramid image. In most organisations there are one or two leaders at the top, maybe a few middle managers and then the ‘workers’. But is that the ideal way to be? The pyramid model is limited because a pyramid can’t grow any bigger unless you de- construct it and start again. That can be a lot of hard work, especially if you’re starting with a particularly large pyramid. Even in small pyramids, like my primary school for example, the pyramid can be hard to change if the people who make it up have a fixed concept of how everyone fits together. Change can feel painful, because it feels as though the pyramid is being torn apart and rebuilt each time something new is brought in.


However a paradigm shift can ease the pain.


What if we turn the pyramid upside down? Then it’s kind of like a bucket. Admittedly it’s a rather square cornered impractical bucket, and not one that would be very useful in my garden, but one that will serve as a metaphor for this paradigm shift I’m talking about.


Now we’ve got an upside down pyramid we can make it bigger. We can add a new layer to the top of it and presto it can hold more stuff. We can build capacity with ease just because we can think about it differently. I blogged about practical ways of building capacity here.


The job of the leader is key now. She/he is at the bottom of the upside-down pyramid – at the bottom of the bucket if you like. This leader has to hold all the links together. Foster a supportive network, encourage and motivate, spot the potential for new links, develop new leaders or ‘bucket builders’.


If anyone has any better metaphors for describing this ‘bucket’, please do leg me know.


The lie that you shouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel.

“There’s no need to reinvent the wheel.” Have you ever said that? Or heard it said? While I agree with the sentiment behind it, I’m going to argue that to learn stuff, you do need to reinvent the wheel. Or at least refine it considerably.

The sentiment

I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment. What people mean when they say “there’s no need to reinvent the wheel” is “there’s no point in working harder than you need to.” The wheel analogy is the wrong one for this sentiment

The actual wheel

The wheel itself, in its primitive form of logs rolling canoes down go the river, or indeed the giant stone monoliths to places like Stonehenge, was invented and reinvented at different times and different place across the globe.

It has been reinvented many times since: for chariots, carts, carriages, cars; as cogs, gears, cams, brakes, measuring devices, energy storage, recording media; it’s a symbol of life in Buddhism; it’s even a military manoeuvre.

The metaphorical wheel

The most frequent occasion that I hear the line ‘there’s no need to reinvent the wheel’ is in reference to planning. Planning is the lifeblood of good teaching, but teachers are desperate not to have to work too hard at it. I think there’s a whole raft of reasons for this, not least that nobody should have to work too hard at anything. Working too hard is the enemy of productivity. It is demotivating. There are other reasons too, such as the culture behind the planning – does it just tick boxes and ensure coverage, or does it serve the needs of the children and the teachers?

While planning should not be onerous or time-consuming to produce, it does need to be reinvented. This is because in order to take ownership over the planning, we need to re-categorise it into ways that make it meaningful for us. My planning will take on a different from from anyone reading this post, because we all think differently. Even if you are continuing the same classes, you’ll still need to reinvent parts, to make it more relevant, to keep up to date with new technology or merely to stop it from becoming tedious.

This is not to say we have to start from scratch – it is good to build on previous successes – and it is good to reinvent. It helps us innovate, create and develop.

So the next time I have a huge amount of planning to do, I will say to myself: “It is good to reinvent the wheel.”

Off the Grid

I’ve been writing many posts recently ‘off the grid’. Disconnected from both wifi and mobile signal at Lee Abbey in Devon. Apparently, if I walked to the top of the hill I could pick up a faint signal, but it would be a lot of effort for not much gain.* There seem to be both advantages and disadvantages to this.




There is a certain clarity of thought gained through being here. And I think that is partly down to cutting down distractions – such as not being able to access e-mail, Twitter, text and the like. Since becoming a GCT, my e-mails have rocketed and even though many of them aren’t relevant to me, it still takes a certain amount of effort to process the information.


Another reason for the clarity of thought is the place itself. It is beautiful. The curves of the tree lines on the hills, the slope down to the bay and the arc of the bay itself. I’m sure there’s something on Maslow’s heirarchy about that.




I am used to checking things that I’m not too sure of, and my favourite method is Google. For example, when I referred to Maslow’s Heirarchy in the previous paragraph, I would have liked to check that my guess was correct and maybe provide some helpful image to explain what I meant. But Maslow’s Heirarchy is one of those things that I’m not completely sure about.


Another downside is being disconnected from my PLN. My PLN, particularly on Twitter, has become increasingly inspiring over recent months – not because of any radical changes to personnel, but more because I’ve become a better listener. Posts and tweets from my PLN have inspired me to think new thoughts and write new stuff. Probably 75% of what I blog about is inspired directly by other people’s posts.




How will I post this post? It’s written now. Will I hit the e-mail button so if gets posted as soon as I get back in range? Or will I wait until I get home, check out the Maslow’s heirarchy thing, add a few appropriate images of the bay I talked about? What’s more important to me, the process or the product? How many times should I re-draft a blog post?


*that’s a joke for electrical engineers.

Luke Skywalker and the Rebel pilots.

There’s that scene in Star Wars, A New Hope when Luke Skywalker and the other Rebel pilots are being briefed in the plans for attacking the Death Star. It looks like an impossible task. The Death Star is as big as a small moon and is bristling with defences. The Rebel pilots have tiny x-wing fighters, a bit like attacking a rhinocerous with butterflies.


To make matters worse, when the Rebel pilots have evaded the enemy tie fighters and the Death Star’s defences, they must fly into a narrow trench and hit a 2m wide target.


One of them points out that it is impossible.


But Luke Skywalker isn’t locked into the spiral of negative thought. He remembers his own abilities and experiences, declaring; “it’s no bigger than hitting a womp rat back home.” his confidence changes the mood and inspires hope. And guess what – they do it, they destroy the Death Star. Someone should make a film about it.


So the next time you’re weighed down by negativity and overwhelmed by the cynicism of others, when the task seems impossible and it looks like everyone is about to give in, remember your abilities and experience and be the one that speaks hope into the situation. You never know, you may just change something.


They may even make a film about it.

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