Every Boy Needs a Hero
Thank you for the kind welcome, Andrew. I cannot possibly live up to that introduction.
Brad Adams and I are honoured to have been asked to represent our organisation, CIRCLE – The Centre for Innovation, Research, Creativity and Leadership in Education, here at the International Boys' School Coalition's 2017 Regional Conference here at St Andrew's College in Grahamstown. We'd like to commend the school and all those who have played a part in bringing all of us here together to engage in what is a powerful ongoing conversation about boys' education here in Africa and indeed throughout the world.
I suppose I should start with a joke. My kids would groan at this point and try to dissuade me; they know too well my shortcomings. The obvious starting point? "A Canadian and an Australian walk into a bar full of South Africans ..." I'm not sure how it finishes but given the mauling my beloved Waratahs usually get when they visit these parts, it can't work out too well. That's right - you heard it first. Someone actually loves the Waratahs.
This love affair with the Waratahs began when I was 13 - it was the start of a long history in the acquisition of resilience and resistance to pain. To tell you about this I need to tell you about my heroes
Every boy needs a hero - I needed many:
I could tell you stories of heroes for a long time. But if I may, I'd like to move to the heart of what I'd like to say without inflicting on you jokes that are as poorly executed as the Australians are trying to implement the Decision Review System in India currently. Or bush yarns from an inveterate story teller that might amuse me but invite polite yawns amongst you.
Really, my heroes when I was young were my teachers. They inspired me then and they do so now.
I think I was always meant to be a teacher. This year marks the 30th year since I walked into my former Ancient History teacher's office as a somewhat overconfident first year university student to tell him that what he'd taught us about Philip II of Macdeon was out of date. I asked him if he'd like some more recent references and without blinking an eye he asked me if I'd like to come and teach the unit instead. His name was Greg Stone and the school was Cranbrook School in Rose Bay, Sydney, one of the leading boys' schools in our part of the world. Mind you, I'd left school not long before swearing black and blue that I'd never set foot in the place again.
I was wrong.
One way or another, I've been teaching History or Latin or reading with boys or coaching cricket, rugby and debating or involved in administration and school leadership since then.
In 2010, I stepped out of my last school and into this organisation CIRCLE which has afforded me the opportunity to work with a team of dedicated professionals to support the work of hundreds of schools internationally and thousands of educators in them, as well as tertiary students through our connection in designing and running a postgraduate program with the University of Tasmania.
So it's my job speak to you tonight as an educator who has the privilege of leading an organisation that's had over three decades of experience at research-driven, evidence-based practice in schools in the Southern Hemisphere (at first) and now more recently truly globally. We choose to work with individual schools by preference over politicking at a systems level because we believe that the closer you are to the chalk face, the more likely it is you can help schools to achieve better outcomes for more learners by building cultures of excellence in leadership and learning through communities of inquiry.
Foremost in our team is Brad Adams, our Director of Education, and a former Executive Director of the IBSC, as well as an educational leader in the secondary and tertiary sectors in Canada. Originally an historian and humanities teacher, he is acknowledged as a thought leader internationally in boys' education. He's long been a mentor of mine and is now my most valued colleague.
Brad’s constant question of "how would you know?" demands attention. It's a pertinent (and sometimes even a little impertinent) reminder that no sacred cow is beyond the scrutiny of evaluation and that nothing we do is beyond measure. Our boys deserve better than any complacency on our part and Brad is deeply committed to the idea that education should be excellent for all of our boys both by intention and design, not just the preserve of a lucky minority who happen to land the good teacher or good coach.
Thus my starting point is that good education for boys is neither incidental nor accidental as a primary means of methodology. By contrast, what we see with schools world wide is that the very best are deliberate, intentional and transparent in what they do. They might appreciate serendipity but are too wise to allow happenstance to govern strategy. They know that good culture doesn't just arise without forethought, direction and commitment to the desired stated ethos – but bad culture often does.
Bad culture remains sadly rusted on, especially when it’s dressed up with false and circular arguments that justify the doing of something through the doing of the same thing, all the while both compromising the quality of the education of the boys and convincing them that what they have been delivered is not just acceptable but even noble and worthy of the strongest form of cultural replication – the boy code.
In our work with schools for boys all over the world, we see many wonderful educators plying their trade with earnest application and more than the occasional inspirational moment. We see the results of this work in the strong outcomes achieved by so many. Yet we also know that there is a quiet but persistent mutter in common rooms and administrators’ offices that we could be doing more and quite often that we are not yet doing enough for “the boys in the middle”.
Our observation at CIRCLE is that in boys' schools we are caught between worlds – between the worlds of yesterday, today and tomorrow. We have not yet developed a convincing shared narrative across our sector that mediates between these competing influences to ensure that they genuinely complement each other. To be honest, we have a tendency to cling to the past and allow ourselves to dress up this conservatism with a rhetoric that defends past practice even when it's clear that current context and future demands in education require fresh thinking, different models and rapidly evolving practice.
It becomes dangerous to the school when it has become so entrenched, especially in the affection of the boys and alumni, that perspective becomes lost. Tradition may bind us together, but to what end? And what might be lost when it is the wrong traditions that are perpetuated? What is the consequence for our schools when their practices move from the realm of being quaint eccentricities that define the uniqueness of institutional culture into rituals that perpetuate things which society in general would prefer or even insist were left behind?
In saying this, my critique is not leveled at anyone in particular. It’s a general conclusion (or perhaps provocation) that I believe we are uniquely positioned to make given the breadth of our work across the globe. We see these sorts of things everywhere we go.
Our tendency in boys’ schools to cling to the past like is not helped by communities and societies that are increasingly displacing their older more monolithic models of masculinity with fragmented and uncertain norms and standards for men in the contemporary world. There's a lot of change going on without a clear sense of the destination and that's not great for an industry such as ours that thrives on predictability and order.
Increasingly, in the absence of the influence of other social institutions that might once have filled this space, people turn to the educators and ask them to do more. And our teachers groan! They want the best for our boys yet feel crowded and hurried in what should be a patient craft of growing boys into their manhood. Thus, there is often a clear dissonance between our aspirations for boys' education and the means by which we are pursuing them.
There is a patent parallel disparity between our attitudes towards the innovative phenomena of our times and the educator’s tools of the trade from earlier times. We are consistently presented with a series of dichotomies:
The individual vs the collective
The personalised vs the systematised
The unique vs the replicable
The complex vs the simple
The autonomous vs the hierarchical
The siloed vs the connected
In responding to these choices, many of us yearn for a seemingly simpler, warmer and amateur pathway of former times, but at the same time, if pressed, often acknowledge in our heart of hearts that we have to develop a greater facility with a more contemporary and data-driven professional approach, even though we can feel that it is both colder and inherently flawed because it is tainted by the world of the corporates. Secretly, many hope that if they hang on just long enough, it will either go away or they will be able to retire and leave the work to those who follow.
In other words, we see where the 20th century is no longer adequate, but we have not yet formed a consensus as to how best to approach our own times, let alone those of the future of the boys whom we are teaching. And we have not mobilized ourselves as a profession to this end of ensuring that what we do remains relevant to the needs of students who are graduating into a world that expects them to do things that are different to those of the students of five years ago, let alone those of a previous generation or two.
And we are quite fond of the past – where it suits us and especially so when we see the boys in our charge respond to it with excitement and engagement. Thus, while we want to put the boys at the centre of what we do, we also cannot resist the temptation to insert ourselves into the process. Inherently, therefore, we see value in “teaching”, we love the notion of “creativity” probably more as an abstract concept than as a practical reality and, at the same time, we are either skeptical of that which we do not know, or we embrace it without necessarily thinking through the logistical, emotional and cultural consequences of such willingness to jump into the unknown.
Many of us view the promise of innovation with a wary eye while attesting to the importance of creativity, so long as it is in a comfortable and familiar guise – which (of course) it is not. Technology promises much and delivers both exciting opportunities for those who embrace it and also alienation for those who fear it, while creating new problems of scale and operational effectiveness in pursuit of global goals for education as the preferred structural solution to poverty and social immobility.
In summary, too often in the case of boys' schools, it is our personal preferences, supported by anecdotes that flow from our own experience (with all of their attendant methodological frailties of perceived agency and impact), and an accompanying traditional narrative whose aesthetic appeals to us that dominate our suggested solutions. We retreat to that which we know, even when we acknowledge that past performance is no predictor of future success in a time of significant paradigmatic transformation of society locally, nationally and globally.
Does this mean we should abandon everything and start again? No – but we need to ensure that we routinely and rigorously test the efficacy and relevance of what we do, if we are going to remain fit for purpose in 21C. When change is necessary, then we need to do more than just grudgingly concede defeat. Yet we must be careful that we adopt a strategic approach. Change works best in education, especially in boys’ schools, when it’s logical, systematic and incremental. It’s got to be accompanied, if not foreshadowed, by a clear and compelling rationale that explains how and why a community might move forward without disrespecting its own past. Selling this to a community is an act of persuasive leadership that becomes in many ways the defining role of a school leader.
And so, we need to think again about what lies ahead for our boys and build an approach that pays respect to those integrated competencies of knowledge, understanding, skills and character which are both timeless in nature and also pragmatic in their relevance to what lies ahead for us and our children in a world where social building blocks such as family, identity, gender, work, employment, recreation and nationality are shifting into new and unclear formats.
Our work at CIRCLE Education, drawing on both international research and the by-product of our own research and consulting practice, suggests a starting point of a framework for education that is based on the following guiding questions and concepts:
1. Who Am I? Learning Values That Equip
Hope: Inspiring learners by mandating and maintaining a positive tone and attitude
Care: Displaying an enthusiasm for excellence by striving for better outcomes for more learners
Research: Cultivating a disposition for investigation by identifying and responding to evidence
Review: Seeking continuous improvement of outcomes and process by focusing on outputs, evaluating rich data and honing in on what works – impact
Creativity: Promoting innovation by harnessing perspective, conceptual thinking, iteration and attention to detail
2. Where Do I Fit In? A Curriculum of Empowerment
Language: Developing shared culture and practice with a consistent vocabulary for learning
Structure: Aligning ends, means and intentions through backwards design of learning
Flexibility: Progressing learners through clear, logical and adaptable curriculum structures and matrices
Evaluation: Recognising how and when to give feedback within assessment for learning, assessment of learning, and assessment through learning
Challenge: Challenging learners to grow by coaching for achievement and success
3. How Can I Best Serve Others? A Pedagogy of Engagement
Context: Teaching learners as they present in the right environment
Motivation: Encouraging discipline and commitment by boosting mastery, autonomy and purpose
Personalisation: Enhancing individuals by respecting and responding to difference
Inquiry: Consolidating meaning by asking the right questions and providing the right tools to answer them
Capability: Building confidence and competence by strengthening knowledge, capacity, understanding and process
In seeking to embed such a framework of thinking behind contemporary and future education for boys, we must first seek to create the leadership and governance that both understand and nurture the challenge of the new, build systems and processes that develop the capability of people to derive educational solutions based on predicted future needs for boys’ education, and then build cultures of excellence in learning in communities of inquiry that balance evidence with wisdom to create better outcomes for more learners.
The starting point for this is, of course, to think about the boys. It sounds so simple and for many of us it’s a mantra that we recite weekly, if not daily. And while I love cricket and rugby and debating and reading programs and house systems and so much of the traditional paraphernalia associated with and promoted by boys’ schools, the message that we want to bring is that education for boys in 21C is not about these things per se. They may be part of the future for our boys or they may not. At the end of the day, practices such as these must be tested against the rationale that they are supposed to serve, not retain an untouchable status. If they do what they're supposed to, then they will be fine. If not, then they should go the way of blackboards, homophobia, corporal punishment, fagging, boys who don’t cry and any number of other outdated practices that have gone by the wayside. Or at least were supposed to have gone by now ...
Some of our honorable traditions, therefore, may be part of the solutions that we co-create, and I do hope that cricket is one of them. But at the end of the day, if we think that the unthinking habituation of specific received rituals and practices that we ourselves like is the way we build the men of tomorrow, then we need to think again.
What we would advocate is an approach that demands of us the same as all good educational practice: a backwards-mapping of outcomes to strategy to practice to values. In other words what we do must flow from why we want to do it. The dog must wag the tail, not the tail wag the dog, as my Constitutional Law professor once said. I have to admit, it took a while for me to work out what he meant. But it’s now clear to me that unless we align what we do with our mission, values, ethos and strategy – in other words, unless we have good culture – then we run the risk that it is the arcane ephemera on the periphery which will end up characterising and even corrupting what we do, not the principles at the core.
So, based on what we are seeing in hundreds of schools around the world, what might be five things that we think that boys need to be equipped with by the time their complete their secondary education? And what might be five ways for us to think about how to reconstruct schools to meet these needs? We’ve mapped the following potential solutions to CIRCLE’s
Five Domains for School Improvement, as well as to the key competencies that might define the graduate of a 21C school for boys, drawn as they are from our review of the literature that dominates thinking about good education around the world, especially for boys.
We want boys to be equipped with the competencies to design and do what they need to do really well in a world that's not really sure what it wants from them yet but knows that it expects a lot – possibly more than has been expected of any generation before it.
And how can we can promote 21C achievement for boys? Through an evidence based and aligned framework for high performance education that encourages boys to stretch their understanding of personal achievement, broaden their horizons, find their talents, create and co-create meaningful learning processes and attain excellence individually and in teams.
We need to be mindful too that excellence is a rare and precious thing. Good is not great - we need to understand that we do not walk in the presence of greatness daily.
This domain of achievement is linked especially to the key competencies of critical thinking and creative thinking. Critical thinkers effectively analyze and evaluate evidence, arguments, claims, beliefs and alternative viewpoints. They are problem-solvers, tackling different kinds of unfamiliar problems in conventional and innovative ways, asking significant questions that lead to better solutions. They engage in inquiry; develop and refine questions; gather, interpret, and synthesize information and evidence; and draw reasoned conclusions. They forge connections across disciplines, and discern how parts of a whole interact in complex systems. Critical thinking draws on many character strengths, including tenacity, resilience, tolerance for ambiguity, and optimism. Critical thinkers value collaboration. They continuously reflect on their thinking processes in order to improve them.
The creative thinker generates new ideas and concepts that have value, and develops these from thought to reality. A creative mindset includes dispositions such as: inquisitiveness (questioning, exploring, and challenging assumptions);perseverance (sticking with difficulty, tolerating uncertainty) imagination (playing with possibilities, making connection, and using intuition). It also involves discipline, focus and hard work (developing expertise, reflecting critically, crafting and improving practice). Creative thinking is often linked to entrepreneurship, defined as the process of creating and implementing innovative ideas to address opportunities or problems. The creative process is woven through all domains of knowledge.
We want boys to emerge from their schooling with the capacity to collaborate meaningfully and productively with others with care, creativity and critical thinking.
We can best support 21C learning for boys through high quality relational structures, systems and processes. In short, we can provide boys with a combination of both responsive and also deliberately programmed pastoral care that supports their social and emotional development while demanding from them a growing appreciation of the need to contribute generously and to earn respect for their efforts and outcomes.
In this domain of relationships, the key competency is that of collaboration. Collaboration is the expertise to work effectively, responsibly and respectfully within diverse teams towards the accomplishment of a goal. Collaborative leaders inspire, direct and influence others to achieve a shared purpose, build up the capabilities of the team, and exercise conflict resolution and negotiation. Recently there is an increasing emphasis on the ability to collaborate digitally and globally across different settings and cultures. Collaboration draws upon character strengths such as empathy, respect for and sensitivity to personal and cultural differences, and the ability to shift roles and to see things from many perspectives.
We want boys to graduate with the reflectiveness, sensitivity and strength to lead in a way that brings out the best in others and enhances the future for all of us.
How we can construct a context for the exercise of these 21C capabilities? We can do so with an authentic experience of leadership that helps boys to shape culture for the future with a respect for the past that does not leave them as unthinking prisoners of tradition.
This occurs especially through the key competency of communication. Competent communicatorsexpress themselves clearly and accurately, and in appropriate ways for different audiences and purposes. They listen effectively to decipher meaning, including knowledge, values, attitudes, and intentions. They use languages and symbols to produce texts of all kinds: written, spoken, and visual; informative and imaginative; informal and formal; mathematical, scientific, and technological. Modern communicators skillfully access, understand and use digital information for learning and knowledge creation. Good communicators critically evaluate the bias of various media, and use their own communication skills for ethical and responsible purposes.
We want our young men to acquire an abiding sense of their responsibility to contribute to local, national and international context through being part of enterprise, business, joint ventures, service entities, government, and not-for-profit organizations.
To this end, we can provide a range of projects and initiatives that bridge the worlds of schools with the communities they serve. This can result in a genuine rehearsal for both local and global citizenship that places boys with the opportunity to serve and succeed in a range of diverse communities.
Initiatives maps comfortably to the key competency of citizenship. Civic competency begins in social responsibility and community-mindedness, and in an appreciation of the social, cultural, economic and environmental interconnectedness within and across local, national and global communities. In an increasingly complex world, effective contribution to the well-faring of others requires the knowledge, skills and character strengths associated with global competence. This includes “the acquisition of in-depth knowledge and understanding of global and intercultural issues,” the ability to “communicate appropriately and effectively with people from other cultures or countries”; and an attitude of “respect for cultural otherness” (OECD). The engaged citizen is an ethical citizen who builds relationships based on fairness, respect and compassion. The development of this competency may benefit from interdisciplinary curriculum and project-based and inquiry-based pedagogy.
We want boys to become men with the strength of character to navigate our world with kindness, empathy and consideration.
We can help boys to become men of substance and performance who earn an enduring reputation accordingly most particularly in a school for boys through a comprehensive, measurable program for 21C character education that models for them the types of men that we want them to become and gives them the ongoing challenge toplace others before themselves.
In the domain of reputation, “character competency” involves the cultivation and practice of those values, dispositions and attitudes associated with “moral character” and “performance character”. Its heart is a sense of personal purpose that propels an inner “drive” and gives meaning. Those who exemplify moral character act on high ethical standards, and exercise sound, courageous ethical judgment. Character strengths that contribute to self-efficacy and well-being include personal awareness, self-regulation and agency; perseverance, resilience and resourcefulness overcome obstacles and setbacks. These latter qualities might be termed “performance character” and form a special place at the heart of the work of a school. We develop character competency not in isolation but in community and relationship with others. All domains of the extended school curriculum should intentionally nurture this character competency.
Implicit in all of these 21C competencies are two further strands that relate to the need to adopt a change mindset and engage in continuous learning and unlearning. In other words, what drives all of these competencies is the capability of the learner to approach situations with an open and agile mind, to evaluate quickly and decisively the need for solutions based on a combination of past practice, current experience and the anticipation of future needs. Change competency, therefore, requires a balance of yesterday, today and tomorrow, blending evidence with appropriate risk taking, judicious methodology and inspiration, incremental improvement and imaginative leaps.
And if this is what we want for our boys as they grow into their manhood, then we need to make sure that in our schools, we encourage and model this very quality, and in fact all of the key competencies, for the boys in everything we do.
Thank you for your forbearance tonight. The job of a provocateur (or perhaps the court jester) to be a little cheeky and to stir things up a bit. Of course, you'd never expect an Australian to be like that. So many of you are doing the hard work of this cultural change right now and probably need more encouragement than challenge. We're humbled by the dedication and diligence of so many of our colleagues. We appreciate what you do and would ask you to keep going, for the sake of all of our sons.
Good night and God bless.
Gala Dinner Speech - Friday 10 March: