Generous Orthodoxy
“Generous Orthodoxy” by mrkrndvs is licensed under CC BY-SA

In Episode 9 of Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast Revisionist History, he looks into the concept of ‘generous orthodoxy’. The term comes from theologian Hans Fry, who said,

Orthodoxy without generosity leads to blindness, while generosity without orthodoxy is shallow and empty.

The challenge is finding balance between the orthodoxy of the past and a generosity to the world of the present. Putting this differently, you need to respect the body you are trying to heal. To illustrate this Gladwell uses the example of a Mennonite pastor, Chester Wenger, who had to give up his position in the church to wed his gay son, but also move the orthodoxy forward. The question that needs to be considered is what you might give up or recognise to bring about a change in orthodoxy?

You do not have to look very far online to find arguments why education is broken. Although change is always needed within any organisation, the danger of the ‘broken’ myth is that it portrays everything in every school as being wrong. This call for transformation maybe passionate, but it denies the reality of the past and in some ways the present. Subsequently, when the conversation moves to developing education there are many who are off-side. Although one solution seems to be starting a school from scratch, this does not seem realistic or sustainable. Another solution is to start by celebrating the strengths that already exist within education and working from there. Some recent examples of this are the various interviews on the Modern Learners podcast, with people like Pam Moran and Art Fessler, as well as Richard Wells’ book A Learner’s Paradise. 

Coming at the problem of ‘generous orthodoxy’ in his own way, Ewan McIntosh talks about the ideas of ‘rocks and whirlpools’. Borrowing from Leicester, Bloomer, Stewart and Ewing’s book on Transformative Innovation in Education, McIntosh talks about the dangers of being pulled too far either way.

If you spend all your time protecting the Rocks of the status quo in Horizon One then you risk becoming a dinosaur, isolated as the world sails by. But spend all your time thrashing about in the Whirlpools of Third Horizon innovations then people might perceive you and your ideas a little bit like Scotland’s national animal, the Unicorn – magical, mysterious but leaving people never quite sure whether the ideas become reality, never quite sure whether they can take you seriously. A balance between the two is where innovation lies: creative ideas that borrow from the heritage of the organisation’s founding values. (How to Come Up with Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen)

The challenge is finding a balance between creativity and the status quo, something that is unique to each context.

When I think about my experiences of education, there are many factors which contribute to change, including technology, student action, relationships, passion, pedagogy, learning, trust and empathy. Each aspect involves finding balance. For example,

  • Integrating technology is even better if you reconsider how and what you teach, but that does not mean that students no longer use pen and paper for some tasks.
  • Agency and autonomy is even better when it is not reliant on control and punishment, but that does not mean there are no collective values and expectations.
  • Open planned classrooms work even better if such spaces are adjusted to fit the needs and purpose of the learning at hand, but that does not mean throwing away all sense of order and structure.
  • Relationships with students are stronger when teachers give something of themselves, but that does not mean they lay out their whole life story.

The challenge with many of these aspects is that they take time. Students do not become autonomous because there are no more detentions and open planned spaces do not become functional spaces because the rows of tables are scrapped. Joel Speranza captures this dilemma explaining that we can do things fast, but unless we outlay the appropriate capital to back this, it will not be right. If you are going to do something, you need to do it right and doing it right usually takes time and commitment.

So what about you? What does change look like to you? Does it involve balance? As always, comments welcome.


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flickr photo shared by mrkrndvs under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC-SA ) license

There are a lot of people who argue that the answer when it comes to transforming education is to start again. For some this is revolution, while for others it means starting again by building something new. Often the reason given is the opportunity to work with like-minded educators. The problem with this is that starting a new school is an exception to the case while revolutions are very rarely glorious. Another issue with this approach is that it often blames teachers for the state of education. If only we had the right people in the positions then everything would be ok, right?

This focus on the teacher could be construed as an influence of the work of John Hattie. For as Ivan Snook, John O’Neill, John Clark, Anne-Marie O’Neill and Roger Openshaw share in their analysis of Visible Learning:

There are; in fact, two different types of research on ‘school effects’. One compares the relative contribution made by social variables on the one hand and school variables on the other. The former includes social status, parental education, home resources and the like; the latter includes all variables within the school: curriculum, principal, buildings and the work of teachers. These studies typically find that most of the variance comes from the social variables and only a small part from the school (including the teachers).

As Snook and co explain, Hattie largely chooses to ignore socio-economic status and home background. This choice therefore places teachers front and centre.

So short of starting again with a bunch of like-minded teachers, here are five ideas for developing education without the blood and violence:

  • Student Action: So often people give credence to student voice, but as Nick Jackson explains that this is not enough, we need to be advocating for student action. For Jackson this comes in the form of the Digital Leaders movement, for Cameron Paterson it is involving students within faculty meetings.
  • Community Engagement: If a part of success is what happens at home, then one answer in regards to developing students is actually developing the whole community. Many schools offer literacy sessions to support migrant families, while others simply offer the means of gathering, therefore developing the school into a community hub.
  • Strong North Star: In many of the supposed innovative schools that I have either visited or read about, there is usually a strong vision that goes beyond the ‘learnification‘ of education. Grant Lichtman talks about having a strong North Star to drive change. This often starts with leadership, but goes beyond senior leadership to involve the whole staff school.
  • Distributed Leadership: A part of involving voices across the board is actually giving them some sort of autonomy. One model or method which does this is distributed leadership. This is not where menial tasks are delegated throughout the team, but rather where all members are given the chance to lead. This opportunity is as much about process and interaction as it is about formal titles.
  • Develop Capacity: To often I feel teachers stagnate because they neither know where to go next nor do they have the tools to get there. Fine we have standards to guide use, but they have their limits. They often lack context and nuance. It is for this reason that the Modern Learning Canvas is so interesting as it not only starts with a teacher’s own situation, but it also breaks teaching down into clear parts that can be developed further. Coupled with coaching, these the canvas allows for self-determined teaching.

Although working with an awesome group of like-minded teachers might seem like the best answer to fix our woes if this is not coupled with a clear understanding of the purposes associated with education them what is actually gained? In Good Education in an Age of Measurement, Gert Biesta explains how our focus on measurements has limited the conversation. As he states,

One effect of this redefinition process has been the depoliticization of the relationship between schools/teachers and parents/students, in that their interaction focuses primarily on questions about the “quality” of the provision (e.g., compared to other providers; an effect of league tables) and individual value for money (“Is my child getting the best out of this school?”), rather than on questions about the common educational good (“What is it that we want to achieve as a community for the community?”).

What is clear is that we are in a time of change and disruption with recent events only compounding this. So what about you? What steps are you taking? What dreams are you giving birth to? As always, comments welcome.


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