Leadership programme

Navigating Modern Challenges in Education: A Response to Valerie Hannon’s Blog on Human Flourishing

Gary Handforth

Independent Consultant & Coach

To address complex global issues effectively, leadership must shift towards a holistic, integrative perspective that values diverse viewpoints and interdisciplinary learning.

Part 1

We live in unprecedented times, facing seismic challenges such as cyber threats, global pandemics, climate change, inequalities, rapid communication, artificial intelligence, mental health issues, global conflicts, and issues with the supply of food, water, and energy around the world. Often this is described as a VUCA world (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) with the ripple effect finding its way to the front door and classrooms of our schools.

Our current education system is ill-equipped to deal with educating our young people to address these challenges. Furthermore our teachers and school leaders suffer from psychological burnout daily, due to high stakes testing and relentless performance metrics. This burnout trickles down.

In his book Psychopolitics, Byung-Chul Han (2017) explores the concept of 'The Achievement Society,' highlighting contemporary societal pressures to constantly strive for productivity and success.

This is played out across all our school systems with the constant drive to optimise performance and productivity, and people pushing themselves (as personal achievement projects) to the brink of exhaustion. Serious mental health problems are on the increase, including depression and anxiety in response to the constant external and internal monitoring.

The Need for a Shift in Educational Purpose

We all agree on the need to provide high-quality education and the best possible futures for our children. It is the manner and strategies that develop a culture of micro-management, excessive scrutiny in forms of top-down accountability models, such as performance management as well as problematic systems of curriculum design and (linear) assessment techniques.

“Strategy Eats Culture for Breakfast”

While the phrase 'culture eats strategy for breakfast' is often attributed to Peter Drucker, reflecting the significance of organisational culture, there's a growing acknowledgment that strategy plays an implicit role in shaping and transforming cultures. This is particularly relevant in the context of educational reform, where strategic initiatives can be seen as playing a significant role in driving cultural shifts.

The world has changed. We have transitioned from the ‘Industrial Age’ into the ’Information Age’ and with this the ‘Age of Attention’ as described by Williams (2018, p.16). Whilst this brings with it incredible advancements in technology, access to information and knowledge, it also carries with it significant dangers. These are particularly significant for our children and young people. The constant barrage of information and the way in which digital platforms are designed to hold attention for as long as possible, can detract from deep learning, critical thinking, and impact negatively on overall well-being. Harris (2016, cited in Williams, 2018) claim that we now have a multi-billion-dollar industry that is focused on a new ‘race to the bottom of the brain stem’. We are all susceptible to this change, but children and young people are especially vulnerable to these forces that impact the ability to concentrate and sustain attention.

“A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention”

According to Simon, as cited in Williams (2018, p. 14), a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention. That this wealth of information means the dearth of something else that this information consumes.

This insight is particularly relevant today, as organisations are saturated with data, which can often lead to impaired decision-making and stress. Drucker was also noted as saying that ‘an organisation is more likely to “die of indigestion than starvation”, reflecting the danger of being overwhelmed by information and data, which can lead to poor decision-making and inefficiencies.

Drucker’s observation emphasises that our current obsession with measurement and data collection can be counterproductive. Organisations need to focus not just on accumulating information, but on effectively filtering and prioritising it to avoid analysis paralysis and maintain a healthy operational balance.

This is critical for leadership. Effective leadership in today's VUCA environment requires the ability to critically sift through vast amounts of information to discern what is truly important. Leaders must prioritise strategic decision-making over mere data accumulation. They should foster an organisational culture that values collaboration, critical thinking, creativity, agility, and clarity amidst this noise.

Whilst the world and the pressures on our children have changed, many schools and school systems have not responded to these changes. Schools within England are encouraged to operate with outdated models reminiscent of the Industrial Age. This can be characterised by standardised testing, rigid schedules, rote learning of knowledge and a focus on memorisation, uniform curriculum, and ‘traditional’ leadership hierarchical structures.

These leadership structures are not equipped to handle the complexities of modern information environments. They are often too rigid and slow to adapt, relying on top-down decision-making processes that can stifle innovation and responsiveness. The current environment demands more dynamic, flexible and collaborative leadership approaches. Leaders must empower their teams, encourage decentralised decision-making, and promote a culture of continuous learning and adaptation. To navigate today's challenges, organisations need to adopt more agile, networked leadership models that facilitate quicker, more informed decision-making processes.

Many existing leadership structures all the hallmarks of a bygone industrial age and create problematic outcomes for teachers, children, and young people alike. These systems prioritise a specific form of efficiency and measurable outcomes over creativity, critical thinking, and adaptability. Attributes that are also essential for every young person to enable them to thrive in today’s interconnected and rapidly changing world.

Towards an Education Workforce Dedicated to Human Flourishing

In her paper, "Towards an Education Workforce Dedicated to Human Flourishing: What Professional Development Do Our Leaders and Teachers Need?", Valerie Hannon (2024) argues for a new direction in education. From a US perspective, she asserts that education’s purpose needs to shift from one of ‘human capital theory’ (reminiscent of the industrial age), to one of human flourishing to effectively navigate and address today’s significant issues and prepare us for an uncertain future.

Hannon's Vision for Educational Reform

Hannon highlights a critical lack of capacity, skills, and knowledge within the current education workforce, including teachers and leaders. Aligning with calls from the UN, World Economic Forum, UNESCO, and OECD, she advocates for transforming education to prioritise thriving and flourishing. This transformation would integrate adaptability, flexibility, and collaboration. She calls for the professional development of key competencies for a renewed framework for leadership development:

Re-booting Educational Purpose through Narrative: Calling on education leaders to take control and to redefine the purpose of education.

Orchestrating Learning Ecosystems: Promoting strong collaborative relationships and shift from traditional hierarchical systems to interconnected systems.

Championing Equity: Focusing on helping everyone find their purpose through addressing deep systemic inequalities with a holistic approach encompassing equity, diversity, and inclusion.

Systems Thinking: Leaders need to understand dynamic complexity and how complex issues interrelate. They need to balance analytical skills with emotional intelligence to manage complexity effectively.

Leading and Managing Innovation: To move beyond our simple leadership models that rely almost exclusively on evidence and research to ones that encompass ‘disciplined innovation’.

Agency in Self and Others: To create school environments that foster agency. Hannon claims that the experience of school for many children is one of passive compliance. She also points out that the current management hierarchical structures do the same for the workforce. She calls for the sharing of power to cultivate a thriving, innovative, and dynamic organisation.

Examining Current Professional Development Approaches

Whether or not you agree with Hannon’s specific framework for professional development, it seems clear that we need to examine how our current approaches to professional development programs meet the complexity and demands of an increasingly changing world. Our focus on efficiency and effectiveness is too often an over-simplified reductive approach to how organisations work. Schools are high context cultures and demand sophisticated approaches to understanding them.

Some leadership programmes over-simplify the type of knowledge a leader needs and the competencies or skills they must have to operate skilfully. This myopic focus can lead to a standardised, one-size-fits-all model, applying generic solutions without understanding complex, interrelated, issues that can play out differently in different contexts, at both the systems level and the personal/social levels.

To address complex global issues effectively, leadership must shift towards a holistic, integrative perspective that values diverse viewpoints and interdisciplinary learning.

To counter a reductive lens focusing heavily on observable and measurable facts, we need more approaches that incorporate the complexity and nuance of human experiences and relations. By questioning this current dominant framework and embracing diverse perspectives, we can move beyond outdated approaches that limit our ability to address contemporary challenges effectively.

Hannon's framework offers a radical yet achievable vision for educational reform, emphasising the need for systemic change rather than isolated reforms. By focusing on human flourishing and the development of competencies such as creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, and communication, we need to create an education system that responds effectively to contemporary challenges and prepares students for future complexities.

In Part 2, we will delve deeper into practical solutions for transforming education leadership. We will explore the insights from Liz Robinson and Joe Hallgarten’s 2024 paper ‘What else? What next? What if?’ which has parallels with Hannon’s paper also advocating for a holistic approach to leadership encompassing Head, Hand, and Heart. We will also look at leadership programmes such as the ‘Big Education Leadership Programme’, as well as programmes that offer immersive, experiential learning opportunities to develop collaborative leadership and innovative problem-solving skills, practical examples of how we foster pupil agency through the School Citizens Assemblies and examine how a culture of collaboration can create resilient and innovative educational environments to meet the demands of an ever-evolving world.

These innovative ways of thinking and approaches provide hope for the future and connect with some incredible work already underway in some schools. However, rather than the exception, these need to become the norm. We need whole system change that reflects this thinking more widely across education to ensure that all children and young people are equipped to thrive in an increasingly complex and interconnected world. By embracing these transformative approaches, we can build an education system that truly fosters human flourishing, creativity, critical thinking, and adaptability, preparing our students for the challenges and opportunities of the future.

References

Han, B.C., 2017. Psychopolitics: Neoliberalism and new technologies of power. Verso.

Hannon, V., 2023. Towards an Education Workforce Dedicated to Human Flourishing: What Professional Development Do Our Leaders and Teachers Need? OECD.

Robinson, L. and Hallgarten, J., 2024. What else? What next? What if? Fabian Society.

Senge, P.M., 2006. The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization. Doubleday.

Simon, H.A., 1971. Designing Organizations for an Information-Rich World. In: M. Greenberger, ed. Computers, Communications, and the Public Interest. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press.

Williams, J., 2018. Stand Out of Our Light: Freedom and Resistance in the Attention Economy. Cambridge University Press.

Gary Handforth is a former Headteacher, Executive Headteacher and Director of Education. He currently works as an Independent Consultant and Coach.

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