No Going Back: The Changing Landscape of Schools

All the research shows that if you want kids to develop as literate, articulate, persistent, curious, creative learners, freedom is an absolute requirement. Will Richardson

When it comes to developing creativity and resilience in students, athletic coaches can sometimes offer the purest analogy to what great teachers do. Occasionally, however, even the greatest coaches and teachers can be left behind when the rules of the game change. There is no doubt that, in schools these days, technology is the big game changer. Yet, I am reminded of a recent time when the tendency to look back, instead of forward, provided a crucial lesson that can easily be applied to education today.

This week, my homeland, the Republic of Ireland, defeated World Cup champions, Germany, to claim a first major soccer win since 2001. There is a learning story in everything.

The Relentless Pursuit of Results at All Costs
At the 1990 World Cup, Ireland, unexpectedly made it to the quarter-finals of the competition. Coach, Jack Charlton, expounded a simple philosophy – shut down the opposition and avoid the risky temptation to be creative. If you don’t make a mistake, he asserted, you can’t lose. Heading into the ‘94 World Cup, Ireland were ranked 6th in the world, but things were destined to go badly wrong. To use the analogy of the PISA or standardised testing context of schools, Ireland appeared to be a success story. However Charlton’s philosophy masked a profoundly troubling reality. It was ultimately an unforeseen game-changer that would transform everything and see the team drop 50 places in the world rankings.

Left Behind in a Changing World
Football’s world governing body, FIFA, examined Ireland’s “success story” very closely. It was obvious that much of the cautious, combative Irish game was based on an exploitation of the back pass rule: any Irish player in possession of the ball could legitimately return the ball to the goalkeeper who was permitted to pick it up and slow the tempo of proceedings, thereby effectively killing the game. To break this pattern and force a greater spirit of ambition and creativity for all, FIFA banned the back pass in order to reward more adventurous, literally, forward-looking teams. Bereft of creative freedom and the planned, intentional experience of confronting the unknown, Ireland was ultimately bypassed by radical changes in the game to which it could not respond. The rules of the game had changed for good. There was no going back.

Schools Are About More Than Results
Schools, too, are about more than just results – all talented teachers live by this conviction. Still, educators face the daunting task of needing to produce successful results while also preparing students to become learners for life. Without a long-term strategy to address the unexpected and a degree of trained resilience that goes beyond simply getting into college or securing employment, we are not adequately preparing our students for their futures, futures that will feature inevitable game-changing aspects. The rules of the teaching and learning game have been transformed radically, too. The greatest skills we can nurture and instill in our students are things like creativity, resilience, agility and innovation and each of these in the context of a constantly evolving, digital landscape. Since the Charlton era, Irish soccer teams have qualified for tournaments, but with poor outcomes marked by a failure to compete; many students have gained entrance to university with similar outcomes. The focus on results can be at odds with the bigger goal of achieving or sustaining subsequent fulfilment.

Removing the Shackles
The way forward will need to be as transformative as the landscape before us, and it will require incremental advances, acknowledging the words of a colleague who recently observed that: “We all have finite amounts of energy, and … the question always comes down to being mindful about the most effective ways to invest that energy so that our students get the best education possible in the long run, which means we need to make sure that our teaching practices are sustainable.” I would contend that it is only by removing the shackles of teacher control of the learning process – giving the players in the game the creative freedom to express themselves – that both our teachers and our students will flourish. To achieve this, we may need to consider the wisdom of Antoine de Saint-Exupery: “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” Our schools continue to be pervaded by things we need to eliminate if we are to create a culture of innovation and creativity. The game has already changed.

Unfortunately, the traditional mandate that has been historically (and, in many instances, currently) placed upon teachers, to cover the content, meet the standards, and get the results at all costs, has resulted in a situation where they understandably feel little room or space to be creative. This is particularly true of teachers who are faced with the judgment of external examinations and the growing horror of the college admissions process. Still, the reality must surely be that if we empower students with the qualities of innovators, thinkers, problem-solvers, and socially-aware, digitally connected learners, the external pressures will prove not to be incompatible with the real needs of our learners in every aspect, including some of the obligations that can initially appear as constraints.

Freedom is an Absolute Requirement
More than two decades since the game changed for Irish football, the small island managed this week to stun the world champions. They did so by daring to take risks, by embracing creativity against the odds, though passion, purpose, and resilience, determination, and hard work … the very things we want for our learners. There are many similarities between the challenges that face athletes confronted with daunting odds and our learners today. There is no value to being in the game if one lacks the innovative potential to creatively navigate the unpredictable challenges ahead. Tony Wagner’s groundbreaking work, Creating Innovators, sums up the key message of self-belief and conviction that lies at the very heart of what schools increasingly need to be about. We reside in a digital landscape, with an obligation to prepare young people for an innovation-driven economy. Freedom is an absolute requirement. Empowerment is the key:

You are going to fail—and likely more than once. If you don’t fail, then you are probably playing it too safe…. You need to … believe in yourself and your vision. It is especially hard to maintain that self-confidence in the face of failure. But without the inner certainty in the rightness of what you are trying to accomplish, you cannot persist. Some people may confuse your confidence with arrogance, and they will often tell you that you are just plain wrong. Don’t listen to that kind of static.

There really is no going back.