Disruptive collage … and why schools need to be more honest about this radical art

I think I expected something different when I agreed to go to ‘400 years of collage’, an exhibition at the Scottish Modern Art Gallery Two … in fact, embarrassing though it is to admit, I know I had a vague expectation of some pretty pastels and cut up magazines. On reflection, this was not unsurprising, given that this has largely been my (clearly very peripheral) experience so far of collage as taught in schools. There was nothing pretty or pastelly about this exhibition, however; this exhibition was all about disruption – of art, of reality and society. And it really made me wonder how I had never worked this out before.

Containing examples of the earliest collages known, this is an exhibition peppered with a number of Picassos and an Andy Warhol, together with the iconic 1980 anti-war collage by Peter Kennard that merged cruise missiles into Constable’s Hayswain. Collage, we were reminded throughout the rooms displaying the work, is by its nature a disruptive art – which is obvious, if you think about it – and so it makes perfect sense that it should be adopted by artists who sought to challenge the status quo.

The questions that it prompted in me, however, were … how many school students who have done a topic involving collage actually understand the disruptive nature of the art? And does it matter? Given the energetic responses of the young person with whom I visited the exhibitions, I would venture to say that it does, because it suddenly gave a deeper meaning to the art, and answered for her the question of why this is important, with the answer not simply being ‘because the teacher says we should’.

Tasks in school should never be because ‘the teacher says we should’ – time spent in school is, quite simply, too precious for this. If schools and teachers are uncomfortable about the historical role of collage, then that is another question … but if we choose to teach it, at least let us put it in context.

‘Hindsight’ can actually be a gut-wrenching thing …

The chances of you managing to see ‘Hindsight’, the play by Jill Franklin, currently being reprised in Edinburgh by the impressive Fox and Hound Theatre as part of the Festival Fringe, grow slimmer by the day, as its run ends on 24 August, but if you can still get a ticket, do! Be warned, though – it is intensely painful in points in its piercing reflection of the inner life and thoughts of children. While this makes it an absolute must-see for parents, school leaders and teachers … and anyone who has ever had, or who ever will have, anything to do with children (ie, basically, every single one of us) … make sure you go prepared, with an open mind and an open heart.

Hindsight – a play by Jill Franklin

It is the story of Laura, a 12 year old girl who sees the world just a little bit differently, but in ways which her school just doesn’t understand, and which renders her mother at times powerless. It is a story of misperceptions, wrongly founded assumptions, and the utter perplexity and desperate frustration which results when we do not seek to understand the world of a neurodiverse child. Human beings divided by a common language … with awful consequences.

It struck me when I reflected after the play, when the tumult of my emotions had calmed, that one of the most important messages that this play had was that we harm children when we presume to understand their inner world without questioning our assumptions. This was not a play ‘just’ about an autistic girl – in fact, the label was powerfully rejected by her mother: “She’s just LAURA!”. This was a comment about how children’s lives are trammelled by convention and schools, and how the wings of their ambitions, hopes and dreams are savagely clipped when we do not try to understand them, respect them and nurture them for who they are.

There are amazing schools out there – and I believe in the power of schools to make a difference in the world; I know too, however, that we cannot allow our own assumptions about children and their behaviour or their thoughts to go uncritically challenged, and we must always be on our guard for our own unconscious bias. Every child who is born into this world is an amazing gift, with the potential to make the most wonderful contribution to humanity and the planet … for those of us (all of us) who are charged with tending these green shoots, we need to learn really, really to listen to them.

William Blake said that hindsight is a wonderful thing … and he added: “but foresight is better, especially when it comes to saving life, or some pain”.

We need a lot more foresight in our world, in our relationship with our children. Thank you, Jill Franklin, for reminding us of this.

Malorie Blackman and the pathway to social mobility

Unsurprisingly, I really, really enjoy engaging with people who are relentlessly, strongly, determinedly optimistic, and it was therefore a joy to hear the author Malorie Blackman in conversation at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on Sunday. She was talking about her latest book in the Noughts and Crosses series – Crossfire – although she ranged over the rest of her life and career, including why she became an author, how the voices of the characters urge her to write them, and how much pleasure she gains from writing something that matters. (If you haven’t read the Noughts and Crosses series, do – it is a very powerful and incredibly pertinent drama, and I am so pleased that my daughter introduced me to the books.)

Malorie Blackman signing one of her books at the Edinburgh Book Festival 2019

Worryingly, Ms Blackman said that she has encountered more racism in the past 3 years than in the past 30, but she is utterly determined in her belief that people can in fact get along with one another, and have to let the past go – this is the woman who is actually grateful to her school careers advisor for refusing to write a university reference for her back in the 1970s (saying – jawdroppingly – that ‘it isn’t for black people’), because this just made her work even harder and commit to never giving up. She became my hero instantly.

Anyway, one of the topics about which Malorie Blackman became very heated was that of libraries. She adored her local libraries (she had 2, equidistant from her home) and, growing up in Clapham, London, in the 60’s and 70’s, she practically lived there. When she had devoured the children’s section, the librarians guided her towards some of the classics, and Jane Eyre remains one of her absolute favourite books to this day. She knows what libraries did for her – giving her a voice, stretching her imagination, teaching her how to express herself and articulate her feelings – and she was crystal clear in her assertion that without libraries, she would not be sitting on stage here in Edinburgh (or anywhere else), and she would not have carved out the career that she has.

Libraries, she insisted, are one of the world’s great equalisers, because they give access to books for all – not just people who can afford to buy them. They enable people to have a voice – a voice that emerges through reading and experiencing the words, thoughts and feelings of others, and learning how to shape words to articulate their own thoughts and feelings. Effective communication is an incredibly important skill for social mobility, and libraries make this possible. On a more sinister note, she mused that cuts to library services – in the guise of general cost-cutting – are in practice taking even more power away from those in society who are already increasingly disenfranchised, as the gap between advantage and disadvantage grows. We should not blithely allow this to happen.

I’m not going to argue with Malorie Blackman – on the contrary, I completely agree with her.

Support your local library.

‘Conscious intuition’: musings on Bridget Riley

If you are in Edinburgh before 22 September 2019, do consider visiting the Bridget Riley exhibition in the Royal Scottish Academy (part of the Royal Scottish Galleries) at the foot of the Mound. Impressive, and beautifully situated across 10 rooms, her work seems to come alive in front of your eyes – a testament to her skill, thought and experimentation with lines, shape and colour. I was mesmerised as I (almost literally) breathed them in.

One particular expression that caught my attention as I perused the descriptions and explanations throughout the exhibition was the phrase that Riley herself used to describe how she came to create her work: ‘conscious intuition’. She would work carefully at each piece, developing her design over time, thinking about, and feeling, the choice of form, structure, colour, tone, tempo and scale. Only when she was sure of its balance and impact would she commit the design to canvas or other medium, using her team of painting assistants to help her, so she could keep her mind on the overall effect and not lose herself in the operational detail. If you look really closely at some of her works in the exhibition, you can see tiny, tiny marks which indicate either where the paint has joined the surface of the work, or where two lines, or discs, or other shapes, have been carefully levelled with one another. These are barely perceptible, but evidence of a careful, thoughtful, utterly attentive artist at work.

The term ‘conscious intuition’ has been playing on my mind since I saw it in this context. It seems to me that we can conceptualise this as a process, not a state, and not limited to the world of the artist … bringing together thought and feeling, drawing on the depths of all the understandings accumulated in the self over years of experience, which have become built into our perspectives on the world, but which we must still interrogate, to rid ourselves, as best we can, of false assumptions, misinterpretations and assumed (but unnecessary) limitations.

In fact, the more I think about it, the more it excites me. I want to practise it, stretch it, extend it, test its limits … if indeed it has limits … Let us see what happens.

Conscious intuition … my words for the day.

Shomie Das, a history in education, and the impact of story-telling

It was an enormous privilege to meet, talk with, and then hear speak, one of the great old Headmasters of our age, Shomie Das, at the World Leading Schools Conference in Prague recently. What a life he has led! And what lessons we can learn from it!

From a highly educated family, steeped in the educational development of the nation – his grandfather founded one of India’s top schools for boys, The Doon School, in 1935 – Shomie did not in fact attend school until he was 11, benefiting from a rigorous and in-depth home education which grounded him in his home language of Bengali as well as in an understanding of the wider world. His subsequent education at The Doon School led him to the University of Cambridge, and thence into a career in teaching, first at Gordonstoun, where he taught Physics to the young Prince Charles, and then back to India, where he was Head of no fewer than 3 schools, and has set up and continues – still, at the grand age of 84 – to set up schools across the Indian subcontinent. He has made a major impact in the world – without any doubt at all.

Shomie Das in conversation with Tony Little at the WLSA conference, 2019

An impressively agile mind, with a sharp intelligence and a gift for telling irreverent stories, Shomie shared honest, genuinely human, insights into his world view, and he described compellingly his fears and understanding of the dangers of a school education which drives inexorably towards the self-imposed, inwardly-focused, goal of ‘school certification’, which is of itself only a certificate to access the next layer of formal education, and which in no way indicates that the holder is able to do anything meaningful or useful in the world, or to have the skills to be able to earn a wage, either now or in the future. This resonates powerfully …

The central message that I heard from Shomie Das, which he communicated through his story, was this: become as educated as you can in the real world, go out and experience the world, making the most of what the world has to offer – don’t be afraid of risk and adventure – and then share this accumulated experience with the next generation, so they can benefit from your learnings. He did, though, pose one central question to us all … ‘can you answer the question of why we are doing what we are doing …?’. If not, then – as educators especially – we need to work out the answer, challenge what we are doing, and readjust our direction. A highly pertinent question for us all …

I was hugely inspired by hearing the life story and insights of one of the world’s Greats … thank you, Shomie Das, for the honour you afforded us.

Unleashing the power of your teaching faculty

It was a huge pleasure this past weekend to chair one of the panels at the World Leading Schools’ Association (WLSA) in Prague, and I want to say an enormous thank you to my wonderful fellow panellists: Teresa Blake (Director of Social and Emotional Learning – Positive Education at Appleby College, Canada), Michelle Quinton (School Director, Korea International School, Pangyo) and Berry Bock (Director of Operations, Montessori Schools, Netherlands) – you were fab!

Our theme was ‘Releasing the Potential of Your Faculty’, and was designed to share stories of some of the forward-looking practices currently employed by schools across the world to empower and develop their teachers; each of us brought a different perspective, but we had a passionate belief in common – that when teachers in schools are invested in, children benefit. We heard about a whole school approach to social and emotional learning, which involved supporting and growing staff first; we listened to a compelling argument for utter clarity in the hiring process when recruiting teachers, to ensure that teachers would be able to thrive in a school which was a good fit, and where from the outset they were encouraged to think about focusing on their legacy in school; and we were impressed by the dedication of teachers who were motivated to spend up to 10 extra hours a week re-learning how to learn, and how this was having an impact on the structure of the whole school programme for students as the work of these teachers challenged the assumptions that underpinned the existing curriculum. Time and again, in the conversation and in the ensuing questions, we recognised that if we are to have truly inspirational schools, then we need to support teachers in learning that is as closely matched to their needs as possible, and it was gratifying to hear on several occasions about the value of coaching – I firmly believe, as you know, in the power of coaching to take teachers and leaders (and, in fact, teachers through the work of leaders) to the next level in their understanding, competency and vision.

Key messages to emerge out of our vigorous conversation (which, incidentally, we could have carried on for hours with the help of the very engaged audience!)? I would summarise these as follows:

  • schools need to spend as much time thinking about the learning of their teachers as the learning of their students … and in fact, the lessons we have learned over the years about what assists effective learning in students apply (unsurprisingly) equally to teachers, so let us employ these;
  • schools will benefit if they are clear about their vision, and therefore what they are looking for in teachers to help create teams who have a shared direction of travel in their professional development as well as the desire to explore their individual pathways;
  • schools should be bold, and make it highly visible in the community that they have an active professional development programme – how else can we make it clear that this is a learning community?

Above all, the clear message to schools and school leaders was – invest in teachers. Just do it. It matters, and it works. And when you do, you are contributing to excellence in the world; because when teachers move on and to different schools, as we hope that they will in time, for their own sakes as well as for the benefit of their future students, they take their learnings with them, and they grow in skill and influence, with the opportunity to make a difference to even more lives, because of the work that you have done with them. Together we can make a difference – and there are many, many schools out there already heeding this message. Thank you!

Celebrating difference: people of determination

For a number of reasons, which would take too long to explain just at the moment, I have recently been researching and learning a lot more about autism in girls, and I have a number of observations.

First, there really is an inequality in how autism is understood in girls when compared to how it is understood in boys. One of the most common frustrations that parents of girls with autism report is how their daughters can easily be dismissed as not being autistic simply because they can look others in the eye and/or demonstrate empathy. Even medical professionals can be guilty of the assumption that ‘eye contact = not autistic’; no wonder vastly fewer girls than boys are diagnosed, if they fall at the first hurdle of referral. A little learning can be a dangerous thing in this respect … a couple of PowerPoint slides at a training day can give people (including, it must be said, teachers) the apparent confidence that they understand autism, but this certainty is most likely misplaced.

Secondly – ‘masking’ (when a child hides her feelings) can appear on the surface (no pun intended, here) to be one of the best things that an autistic child can do, because it allows them to ‘fit in’ and do what is ‘normal’ or ‘expected’, but in the long term (and often even in the short term) it can actually be one of the worst. This is because (a) it means that the uninitiated or unaware (teachers, relatives etc) remain oblivious to the real feelings and perceptions that the autistic child is experiencing; (b) the mask cannot last forever, and at some point these feelings will explode, often with trusted adults at home, who then have to bear the burden of this; and (c) when the masked feelings do emerge in other company, it can lead to utter perplexity and ‘shut down’ responses from the adults around (eg ‘you can’t behave like that’) which further alienate the autistic child. This latter point is particularly exacerbated in responses to girls who have meltdowns because, still, ‘girls aren’t supposed to behave like that’. Sigh.

Thirdly – and this is really important – practically everything I read about autism represents autism as a deficit life situation. I have even seen it described as ‘life-limiting’ or ‘limiting life chances’. Given that we are (finally) coming as a society round to a better expression of tolerance for others in a much, much broader sense, then why are we stuck in a negative rut when it comes to neuro-diverse children (or adults, for that matter) … especially when (to my still relatively untutored eye) it seems as though practically every autistic person I meet or hear about is uniquely special, just as every child is? Creativity, focus, insightfulness, honesty, straightforwardness … take your pick! I sometimes wonder whether the world might actually be a better place if neurodiversity was actually more common than being neurotypical …

As I ponder this, I reckon we still have a long way to go before we can actually dismantle the bastion of fairness and discrimination that has been erected around autism – in girls, especially. This means that in the meantime, autistic children and adults are going to be bearing the brunt of having to work harder to carve out the roles in the world which they deserve.

I recall being in Abu Dhabi earlier this year, at the same time as the Special Olympic Games, which were branded the Games for People of Determination… ‘Meet the Determined’ was the slogan on all the posters. This is part of a wider strategy in the UAE to support difference, and it was incredibly heartening to see signs around that linked a traditional ‘disabled’ wheelchair sign with the concept of determination. How refreshing!!

Somehow we all have to grow up a bit in our understanding of what autism is, and what ‘difference’ means … after all, if we are all different, what is ‘normal’? And if ‘normal’ is so hard to define, why do we keep expecting people to be it? Let us embrace diversity, recognise that different people have different needs, and genuinely help one another to find ways in which we can live together more equally.

And a good start would be to challenge our negative assumptions about autism in girls …

Swimming With Men

If you have followed this blog over a number of years, then you will know that my movie-watching habits are limited to occasions when I travel on long haul flights. I cannot claim, therefore, to be anywhere approaching a seasoned critic or an aficionado, but I do usually find one or more films which make me reflect on important issues in the real world, and when I do, I like to share these thoughts. This is exactly what happened when I recently flew out to Asia, and I stumbled across ‘Swimming With Men’.

Starring Rob Brydon, amongst other recognisable actors – Rupert Graves and Downton Abbey’s Jim Carter, for example – this is the story of a disaffected accountant who stumbles across (and joins) a male synchronised swimming team. It is a humorous and honest reflection of the joys and tribulations of genuine male friendship, and was a light, enjoyable (and heart-warming) watch – well, I enjoyed it, anyway!

What I found particularly refreshing was the fact that this film just allows men to be men – not pitted against, or compared with, women; not denigrating women or trying to be better than women. If anything, it pokes fun at the ridiculous expectations that society makes of women – in one scene, for example, the men are relieved that they aren’t expected to wear the glossy makeup and smile of their female counterparts. And their (competitive and highly effective) coach is a woman who really knows her stuff. It was just so nice to watch something that was, quite frankly, normal.

Of course, the reason why this film is worth remarking upon is that it is unusual. The results of the Bechdel test regularly reveal that ordinary, fun female friendship continues to be un-represented in film. Sigh. Still so much to do in this world. Still, if Swimming With Men can be a success, then there is perhaps hope for us all.

Onboarding coaching – a vital part of a transition to a new international leadership role

I recently picked up a secondhand copy of Padraig O’Sullivan’s book on coaching for expat leaders – ‘Foreigner in Charge’ – and although he wasn’t writing specifically about international school leaders, he might as well have been; his insights into the process that leaders go through when they move to new roles in new countries were deeply insightful. For a school leader who chooses to move overseas for the first time, or who moves from one international role to another, there are multiple transitions to navigate, and O’Sullivan’s very practical book lays these bare in a very user-friendly fashion.

A key factor into successful transition into a new role, however, as I have learned over the course of my career first as a school leader, and now as a consultant, is really good coaching. It often surprises me that while boards are happy to invest in the recruitment process for a new role, recognising the value of the expertise that executive search processes bring to ensuring the right ‘fit’, they are far less aware of the value of coaching for the new incumbent in the role. Sometimes this is because they think that they as a board are best able to help the leader settle into role, forgetting that they cannot provide the confidential space for leaders to explore and develop their leadership; sometimes they just assume that once the right appointment has been made, everything will just fall into place.

In actual fact, from the moment the appointment is made to the moment the leader takes up her or his new role – which in the case of international school leaders can often be several months – both the leader and the organisation will be shifting and changing, and without careful reflection and direction, this can lead to an unnoticed divergence of paths and perspectives. Add into the equation the fact that the leader will be faced with the need to learn and understand cultural norms and assumptions on top of all the interpersonal and structural norms and assumptions in the organisation, failure in any one of which could easily result in stormy waters, or even failure, with the significant financial costs and organisational disruption that this entails, then the engagement of a coach for the leader suddenly seems like a very good investment indeed.

I have been absolutely won over by the power of coaching to make a difference in the transitions that people make in their careers. I have experienced the huge positives myself as a coachee, and I can see exactly where I would have benefited in moving into other roles. I also see every week, with the leaders I coach personally, how transformative it can be for both the leader and the organisation to challenge, ask the right questions and set goals (and hold people to account for the actions needed to meet these).

Of course, when coaching works, ie when leaders are in happier places, and organisations work more harmoniously, everyone assumes it was always going to be this way … Little do they know!

Amazing libraries of the world!

I spent time last week in a brilliant library – Double Bay Library in Woollahra, Sydney, and the experience was too good not to share. I had to find somewhere to dial into a board meeting in Hong Kong, and so I was on the hunt for good WiFi in the area – which indeed I found, but with so much more on top. I often say that I think schools should be at the heart of communities – well, so should libraries, and this one most definitely was. I have no idea how it was funded, nor what wasn’t built so that it could be built, nor how it compares to other libraries in the district or city (apart from the NSW State Library, which is fab) … I just want to celebrate what I found, and let others experience a bit of my delight!

Photo taken in Double Bay Library, Woollahra, Sydney

Opened in 2016, the library is spread over 3 floors and is marked by its hanging greenery, the multitude of different work spaces (including a stepped area which does dual duty as an auditorium), and what looked to my eagerly browsing eye like excellent children’s and adult fiction sections (I didn’t have time to look at the non-fiction section – this was at the very top of the building in the quiet zone). There was also an indoor slide for children … who would have thought that? The architects’ website describes it better than I ever could – with pictures – so check this out here – bvn website. They must have done something clever with the sound absorption too, because somehow, despite people talking and the fact that there were a lot of people using it, it seemed calm, yet warmly welcoming – a very facilitating place.

Anyway, what I really, really liked about this library was precisely the fact that it was being used! People were returning books, borrowing books, reading books, working on their laptops, researching on the many computers and iPads that were available, playing games in the Tech zone, and – essentially – engaging in lots and lots of learning. What a marvellous experience! Surrounded by and immersed in learning!

Abraham Lincoln is quoted as saying ‘All I have learned, I learned from books’. Today’s books are more than paper and ink (although nothing quite replaces the touch and feel of the physical object …) and civilised societies, which is what we surely aspire to be, are learning societies; societies which invest in learning and in libraries are wise.

Wouldn’t it be great if all our decision-makers had the same vision …?