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Testing Our Sacred Cows

Rules- we live by them. They keep us safe and secure in 'knowing' that things are inplace. Every one can go back to the rules and be clear on the expectations, the boundaries, the line, the truth.  

Except when they don't make sense, or the thing we are facing doesn't play within thelines. Or they are outdated, or they don't take into account some pretty important contextual issues that blur the clarity. Or they are just plain stupid.

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Nuance, grey, ambiguity is the place whereleaders and educators dance in the complex world of the 21st Century. It's the paradox of the Ferocious Warmthleadership - we need to be able to have clarity and calmness, yet thrive in thechaos of every day life. In manyinstances, we are required to push against our ingrained desire for neat boxes to put our decisions into.  

Dr Lesley Murrihy, who with Dr Barbara Watterson contributed the Foreword to my latest book 'Ferocious Warmth' offered thefollowing reflection within her words:  

'It seems to me that there is nothing more important for our world right now than moving beyond Piaget’s formal reasoning which includes binary logic and analytical thinking. This has been the dominant way of thinking of the 20th century and has led to the great scientific and technological achievements of the industrial society –achievements that have contributed so much to the evolution of human civilization. But it is no longer serving us well and it has to become a global educational priority today for those in education to evolve their ability tothink, but also to lay the foundations for an education that ensures our children and young people develop as both/and, integrative thinkers. Einstein said, “The significant problems we have, cannot be solved at the same level of thinking with which we have created them.” We need a new way of thinking.’  

An example of shift for many schools in approach and getting out of binary and 'the way we have always done it' is in authentically building student voice and agency. How can we make sure we are notputting in strategies and approaches that simply get teachers to do different things, rather than putting the time into testing out the beliefs that sit beneath those actions. When beliefs shift, so do behaviours.  

When my son was in Year 11, he along with his mates got into the longer hairlook. They wanted to put their hair into a neat hair bun when at school but it 'went against policy'. The girls could, but not the boys. (As a mum I can tell you it looked a heap better in a little bun than the wide and woolly hair all over the place).

The boys continually butted heads with authority at the school as the leaders refused to even entertain a discussion about buns due to the policy that stated that girls could have a bun, but not boys. They would put their hand up to go to the next in line's office so theycould take their plea higher to see if it got traction. It was a classic case a policy being used as a handball for taking responsibility when things are not working.  

How were the boys seen? Trouble makers, pushing the status quo, upsetting the safety of an old, out of date policy. The only 'voice' the students had was one seen as defiance rather than discussion. It was to control, not to co-create a possible way forward in partnership. It was truly a lost opportunity. They were testing a figurative 'sacred cow' - something considered immune from question or criticism.   

If we are to open up authentic agency for students in our schools, are we open enough to see that the first thing to investigate and shift are our beliefs? Beliefs about our role as the adults, teachers and partners in education, rather than the holders of rules that have no flexibility, no inquiry and testing of assumptions or contemporary application, simply because it's always been that way?  

Moving to greater student and learner agency is just one of challenges we face everyday in education. It is a time of great shift and possibility. What tree are you wanting to shake in your context? What 'sacred cows' could do with a good looking at?  

Adam Grant, psychologist, professor at Wharton and writer of the fabulous book 'Think Again - The Power of Knowing What You Don't Know' names three tools we cling to:  




His approach is to think 'like a scientist.' Don't start with answers or solutions, but lead with questions and puzzles. Dare to disagree with our own arguments. Search for reasons we might be wrong.

Research shows that the more expert we are, the bigger our blindspot about our own bias. ('Cognitive Sophistication Does Not Attenuate the Bias Blind Spot' and 'The Bias Blind Spot: Perceptions of Bias in Self versus Others')  

HERE ARE A FEW IDEAS I use with schools who are up for testing their binary thinking, assumptions, 'rules' or simply exploring their undying beliefs:   

Take the issue/initiative/strategy/approach you want to test and BEFORE you go towards any solution:  

- As individuals and in groups, write up at least 30 questions about that topic. It is amazing what lateral thinking will come up with to take you deeper.  

- Be specific about naming the assumptions that currently sit under the topic. Lift the 'rule' about having to name things that are 'true'. Assumptions are fundamentally untested biases. Be provocative. Start with your own assumptions before anyone else’s. 

- What beliefs do we have that drive our actions around this topic? What do we believe to be true? This links closely to assumptions. 

- Ask some deliberately provocative questions to test your thinking. eg. Where could we be wrong about this? What haven't we asked? What are we not saying about this? What could we let go of? What is keeping us comfortable? Who do we need to hear from to test our thinking? What would happen if we did twice as much of this? Half as much? How could this look different? What if the opposite were true?  

Or some good Cartesian logic questions: 

What would happen if we did this? 

What wouldn't happen if we did this? 

What would happen if we didn't do this? 

What wouldn't happen if we didn't do this?  

They can do your head in, but they are great at getting the brain looking at things differently.

For some more thinking about thinking:  

Check out Chapter 14 in Ferocious Warmth - Leading Transformation. I interviewed Peter Hutton, FutureSchools Alliance and former Principal of Templestowe College (a HundrEDawarded school) in Ferocious Warmth. He's got some great ideas for pushing the status quo).  

Oh - and a PS - my son's school did change the policy - quietly and with no discussion with the students over the summer break. Another lost opportunity to celebrate what voice and advocacy can achieve - even it it had to be in line with the timeline that suited the school. What antiquated sacred cows are you holding on to in your patch? 

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New Review of Ferocious Warmth from Tim Howarth, Career Start Area Manager DETVic. Thank you Tim for your wonderful words.  

Those who know me, know I love to read. I devour books & am often asked by leaders in schools I work with what I am currently reading or if I can recommend something to them (so much so that Ihave included my current personal and professional reading choices on my email signature block for over a year now).

I have also known Tracey for some time now, having been the Assistant Principal at the primary school her kids went to. I inherited the ferocious warmth culture of Principal Hans Keuffer (who this book is dedicated to) and although I never met him, his legacy was everywhere in the school.   

I read with a smile on my face the stories of AnthonySimone & JustineMackey in the book - having had the privilege of working alongside them both at their amazing schools. Reading the stories of other school and industry leaders warmed my heart as I read.   

I also found myself pausing throughout the book & reflecting on myself as a leader and privileging the time to do so. I spent longer reading this book deeply than I have any other professional book in years. Having just completed reading Ferocious Warmth I cannot recommend it highly enough. Loved reading about all the mentors Tracey looks to for guidance, support, challenge & provoking innovative thinking. Kudos Tracey - it’s a gem! #FerociousWarmth

Thanks Tim for your thoughts.