Let Go!

It’s all too easy to sound like a broken record when you land on a good idea, especially if few others seem to be noticing it. Reading a recent blog brought my mind back to one of the enduring ideas that I have read about in recent years, namely Obliquity. Experiencetomeaning is suggesting here that consciously trying too hard to achieve something can have the opposite effect. In my experience, he is right.

Two other pieces I read in the last few days also seemed to be touching on Obliquity – but nobody seems to have noticed it for what it is. I would recommend John Kay’s book on the subject to all who work in education, for its simple core idea: very often the things we most want are least-well achieved by wanting them all the more. In other words, Obliquity is the Art of Letting Go.

I have never met John Tomsett, though people I know who have attest to his utter decency and dedication. His was also the first edublog I encountered. Some weeks ago, he made a passing comment about being able to hold contradictory views simultaneously, for example by placing faith in randomised control studies while also putting in place seemingly unscientific courses on Happiness. He bemoans the loss of rigour in English Literature courses, while simultaneously accepting that he is probably part of Gove’s Blob, and his writings over a period of years seem to confirm this schizophrenia between deeply humane values and management-itis (sorry John).

We will set aside the problems caused lower down command chains by senior managers who send contradictory messages (which is not to deny the honesty in confessing to such dilemmas), but I wonder whether Tomsett has considered that his espousal of Blob philosophies might actually be the cause of those diluted standards. In many cases, is it the traditionalists whom the Blob has dismissed for decades who have actually tried to uphold academic quality, whereas all the full-on progressives with their radical new ideas seem to have achieved is – yes – those lower standards.

I also wonder what Tomsett hopes to achieve by teaching happiness. I can imagine the groans from his year 10’s in September, and the gradual decline of that course to the pupil-status of Citizenship and PSHE. Personally, I think I would take great exception at someone presuming to teach me to be happy. Not that Tomsett isn’t in good company of course, because Wellington College under Anthony Seldon has taught this course for a number of years. A look at Seldon’s work with Richard Layard might even convince that there is something in it, and for a long time, I would have agreed.(In fact, I still do, it’s just how you go about it).

A piece reported on Radio Four this morning linked to comments by Tony Little, the headmaster of Eton, saying that our education system is too exam-orientated, and that it is narrowing the experiences that children have. The DfE naturally responded, saying that there is no tension between a strong exam focus and a broad education. Well, I beg to differ. The link is indirect, in that exam accountability narrows teachers’ focuses and this has a knock-on effect. I can see this in my own school, where over the past two decades, a number of communal events have fallen by the wayside as the school grew and the emphasis shifted to bums-on-seats exam cramming. Likewise, the willingness of many teachers to participate in wider school activities seems to have lessened, and teachers’ own lives and practices seem to have become ever more focussed on exam-cram teaching. So while there may be no direct ‘tension’, for my money, the effect is still there.

Finally, the ever-perceptive missdcox commented recently in her blog about teaching addiction – the way in which school consumes people’s entire lives, such that they feel any time not spent on school work is somehow a mark of deficiency on their part. She is all too right: it seems that many teachers just don’t know how to switch off.

The common theme between the above anecdotes is ‘trying too hard’. In each case, the aim is sound: to provide children with the best education that we can. But they all make the same mistake of assuming that the way to do this is to increase the pressure and manage the process ever more closely. They assume a direct relationship between inputs and outputs, and this is the fundamental flaw of managerial culture.

Instead, we need to accept that much of what happens in this world is not directly controllable; that much of what we want is at best a desirable by-product of our actions, and that aiming directly at often-intangible aspirations may simply result in failure. It’s not surprising that accountable managers don’t get this – when you are responsible, the thought of letting go must be petrifying. But we need to learn how to do it.

The reason I am no longer in favour of teaching happiness is that you simply cannot teach (read ’manage’) it. The responsibility for finding happiness lies ultimately with each and every one of us. While this is not to say that one cannot study happiness in an academic sense, this is not the same as achieving it, and identifying happiness-causing factors may simply make people go chasing them in the same way that they chase wealth. And just as with wealth, happiness can only be achieved as a by-product of other, more productive activities. We would be much better simply creating happy schools than teaching happiness – it is an ethos, not a subject. And to do this, we may need to let go of many of the things we do that create unhappiness, whether for staff or pupils. After all, the two are linked.

This is also the flaw with the Growth Mindset: again, it cannot be taught – it is another thing that needs to be in the atmosphere, part of the ethos, and actively foisting it on people (as Tomsett was also intending to do) may again be counter-productive. In order to achieve both happiness and a growth mindset, we need to let go, and stop trying too hard to achieve them. Give them space, create a wholesome ethos – and they will happen.

This is the reason that Tony Little is correct too: excessive exam-emphasis is counter productive. Cultivating wide educational experiences does not come at the expense of rigour: it encourages it, but the DfE’s exam accountability has an indirect effect. Again it is a matter of ethos – a quality that might be said to be the most oblique, indirect educational variable of all. Over-pressurised, discontented teachers will pass those feelings onto children; exam-factory lessons will not cultivate a love of learning. We need to let go and allow school communities to breathe.

And it is why missdcox speaks such good sense when she worries about teachers who are addicted to their job. It is one thing to be conscientious and another never to know when to stop. It will not do their work any good never to have a break. They too need to let go.

It is also why my posts have become fewer over the holiday, and why I have decided not to take Old Andrew’s advice to start tweeting (yes, I was the unknown guy at the Brick Lane curry…).  I hope my ideas are useful to people, but I need to let go too – and I do not wish to become a slave to edu-Twitter. If you like my ideas, please follow them up – and spread the word!

If you have not read Obliquity, I strongly recommend that you do.


3 thoughts on “Let Go!

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