Posting this blog halfway through January, I feel like I’m a little late to the new years resolution party but that’s okay, this one took time to write. I’m generally not a fan of resolutions, because they’re expressed as a decision to do or not do something. ‘I will go to the gym three times per week’ or ‘I will give 5% of my income to charity’ or ‘…’ Resolutions often fail long term because it’s a win lose thing, if you break it on a given day, you’ve failed. Once you’ve failed, you feel like giving up.
Instead of resolutions, I find it more useful to decide what I want to focus on for the coming year and leave the details to evolve. That way, there’s a little more breathing room for life to happen and the flexibility to seize opportunities as they arise. I’m fortunate to be in a position where I’m able to direct my energies where ever I chose and in my last post, I talked about making a difference being central to what I felt was important in life. With that in mind, my main focus for 2016 is making a bigger difference to the world of education.
It was Nelson Mandela who said that ‘education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world’ and I wholeheartedly agree with him. Having worked with children for my career to date, I see the difference that education can make to a person’s life, particularly in the early stages of development between around three and twelve years old.
That’s not to say you can’t make a difference at any age (you most certainly can) but it’s the age group where I can see the biggest impact to both the individual and society per £ invested in it. It’s at this age that children develop a sense of what things mean in the world, who they are and what their place in it is. It’s quite literally, the foundation for the rest of their lives. Get that right and building a great future on top of it is much easier to do.
Learning Curves – Rocksteady Music School
When I started Rocksteady Music School in 2007, I found that by the time children had reached their teenage years, many already had firm beliefs about whether they were musical or not and what learning an instrument was all about. By focusing on the primary school age group and reimagining what music education could look like, we were able to make sure their early experiences with music were fun and confidence building. We dropped the music reading, exams and formalities and started teaching children as young as four to play in their own bands, choose their own direction and work towards playing gigs from their first lesson. They learned to work as a team and say ‘I can’ when faced with challenges. They learned that music means fun, that they were musicians and that they could contribute, which made a big difference to many areas of their lives.
We also had the good fortune of being a private company with no funding which meant we had to create something of value quickly or we wouldn’t survive. To up the anti, I also allowed customers to cancel our services at any time with no notice, creating a very honest feedback machine that quickly honed our teaching style. Imagine if children were allowed to leave any lesson that didn’t engage them at school! That’s the environment we created for ourselves and it taught us a lot about how to create something special for children in a relatively short amount of time.
We found that at the root of it all children have to be enjoy lessons and make continuous progress to stay engaged. The lessons have to be fun, they have to give the opportunity to play with others and form friendships, they have to be relevant to the students motivations and give them opportunities to have a say in which direction their learning is going. Like all music education, we have to focus on teaching students how to play their instruments but confidence, teamwork and autonomy are also just as important in making a difference long term.
A Company With A Bright Future
All of this is easy to say, especially in retrospect but the know how in delivering it everyday across hundreds of schools and thousands of children turned out to be very hard won. Like all the best things, it is because it has been challenging that it has been so rewarding.
We want Rocksteady to make a difference to as many children as possible, and so in 2015 I hired Scott Monks, a CEO with a track record of scaling organisations to lead the company towards that destination. I also wrote a book for our customers, staff and the world of music education that’s due for release in 2016. It covers the journey so far, why we set out to tackle music education, our teaching methods and how they build confidence and skills for life whilst keeping a healthy dose of fun involved.
We’re currently teaching thousands of children per week to play in bands. Whether that ends up being tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands or millions, we’ll have to see. I’m quite sure the journey will continue to evolve in wonderful ways that none of us can predict just yet, but in any case, it’s growing fast and is in very capable hands.
A New Chapter – From Music Education To Education
And that brings me to my focus for 2016. If we can make a difference to children’s lives by reimagining music lessons in half an hour per week, what sort of difference could we make by reimagining education as a whole?
It represents a big challenge, but as I look around at the current climate, we’re undoubtedly ready to tackle it. I see wonderful teachers making a difference everyday, holding up well under the increasing pressure of a system that isn’t quite working. I see curious children full of promise demotivated and not fulfilling their potential as they struggle to express their individual intelligence through formal exams. I see governments concerned with how to prepare the next generation for an uncertain future, sending their curriculums and the teaching profession scurrying in multiple directions, hoping that what’s worked before will continue to work in future if we push it just a little bit harder.
Rowing harder only helps if we’re going in the right direction and since we’ve been on the roughly the same course now for the last century, it’s perhaps time to take a look at redirecting the boat. The world is ready for it.
Before getting into the details, it’s worth taking some time to consider the bigger picture of where we want to take education over the coming decades. What does the destination look like and what do we want from the journey? This year, I’ll start by focusing on the following areas:
- What could we do to level the playing field and make education equally accessible and enjoyable for all children, with all of the wonderful variations in learning preferences and behaviors they bring? Furthermore, could we identify and truly unlock the individual potential in every child?
- What could we do to to send all children out into society happy and confident, standing on their own two feet and ready to contribute to the world? What will we need to do to prepare them for a future where over half of the jobs that they will be doing haven’t been invented yet?
- What could we do to significantly reduce the friction that happens between government and teachers, between teachers and children and children and their learning?
From the insight gained through listening to schools, parents, teachers and those who employ school leavers over the last decade, I believe that these areas are not only the highest leverage in terms of making a difference, but they’re also the things that the people involved in education care the most about.
There are large numbers of children not being reached through traditional methods of education. We owe it to them to make improvements in this area.
Our current system is aimed at producing standards when we should be aiming at helping each child fill their unique potential and give their specific gifts to society. Every child is an individual, Einsteins quote that
‘everyone is a genius, but if you judge a fish by it’s ability to climb a tree, it will live it’s whole life believing it is stupid’
is often referenced but it’s time that we actually did something about it at the systemic level.
The rate of change in the world is a challenge that has got many of us scratching our heads over what we should be teaching children exactly. Some are forecasting that 65% of children starting school today will be graduating into jobs that haven’t been invented yet. Will the skills we’re currently teaching, retained knowledge, memory and quick arithmetic still be relevant and to what extent? Which new areas that we don’t currently teach will become important? Which core skills will stand the test of time? Movements are being made towards teaching more character based skills such as resilience and persistence which is a great start, but we’re only just scratching the surface.
And finally, there’s the friction between the various moving parts of the system. Disengaged children misbehaving, teachers bowing under the stress of results, head teachers under resourced and dealing with an ever challenging set of requirements. Politicians under pressure to provide a world class education to contribute a global level when none of us are really sure what that means exactly. What are the underlying causes of friction in the system? There are many who do a fantastic job of dealing with it, but what would be possible for the next generation if we smoothed out the sailing and started rowing in the same direction?
A Big Opportunity To Make A Difference
I believe that education represents one of the biggest opportunities we have to shape the future as we want it to be. I believe everything we’re discussing here is possible. I believe it’s possible in a big, world changing sort of way. I believe we can take some bold steps towards making much of it happen in the near future and make a significant difference to the next generation in doing so.
Most sectors of the working world are heading for major disruption. Technology, the internet and an increasingly connected world have sent the rate of change into overdrive and it’s not looking like it’ll slow down any time soon. Like the worlds of business, health and government, education will also undergo a big change. This is our opportunity to make sure it’s disrupted in favor of children, the teaching profession and society at large.
Listening, Understanding and Making Things Happen
Like many things worth doing, it won’t come easily. There’s a lot of work to be done and a lot of stones to upturn. We’ll need to take a long hard look at what the needs of children are in 2016 and just as importantly, what they’re likely to be several generations down the line. We’ll need to look at the journey of the child through school and find out where needs are similar between children and where they differ. We’ll need to look at what’s working in current school systems around the world and what isn’t. We’ll need to look closely at the school environment, what’s on the curriculum, the role of technology and the role of the teacher.
We’ll need to carefully consider which traditions to preserve and where we want to create new ones. We’ll need to deal with conflicting views, change, fear and tension. We’ll need to bring people together; politicians, teachers, leaders, experts, employers, parents and children. We’ll need to listen carefully to what all of these people are telling us, understand things from many angles and find new ways of doing things. Above all, we’ll need to do the hard work of making things happen, not just once but in a long term, sustainable way.
It’s About The Children
How will we do all of these things? I’ll be the first to admit I don’t have all of the answers but I’m confident that with the right people and then enough determination we can find them. I also know there are people already doing great work in these areas and I’m very glad to be joining them.
The wonderful thing about working in education is that the great majority of people involved are in it because they care. They care deeply about helping each child grow and develop into the best versions of themselves. They face the challenges with the energy and resolve to make a difference. And I’ve never yet met a child who doesn’t want to do their best. They may have difficulties with achieving it and may behave in ways we don’t understand at times, but their intentions are always in the right place deep down. We owe it to them to bring out the best in each and every one.
I wish everyone a successful 2016 and I hope your focus energises you and makes a difference in some way. Whatever you do, I hope it brings you happiness and fulfilment. Here’s to digging in and making it count.