Why teachers matter

It’s been a busy few months in the Clay household. About 10 weeks ago we learned that a new member of the family will be arriving next March (we don’t know the gender just yet – can reveal in 3 weeks!). Then just a couple of weeks later I left my job as Education Director of The Mind Lab by Unitec. In a way this post has involved me reflecting on the last couple of months and also taking the opportunity to ponder before the nappies begin to fly.

Being part of the start-up and growth of The Mind Lab was awesome for lots of reasons.  However, the experience I value most is working with over 1000 teachers from all over the country. This has allowed me to appreciate the immense diversity of needs across the system.

However, despite this diversity of needs, the narrow range of strategies on the table appears nowhere as varied. Furthermore, we seem to influence each other greatly in the way we make meaning of our situations. An example of this might include the similar themes that often drive our inquiries such as raising standards in literacy or increasing “collaboration”. I realise that this is often a result of the constraints within our systems (standardised assessment, etc) but I often wonder how we might break free of these constraints by letting our minds wander and think more deeply.

Earlier this year I worked with a teacher whose inquiry focus was around improving the writing of the boys in her class. With this in mind, her creativity was being channeled towards developing new approaches to support the development of writing skills. Some critical inquiry between a group of us led to question why the boys in this class struggled to write. “They’re just not confident enough to put the words together” the teacher replied. Instantly this broadened the inquiry and creative possibilities by considering how this teacher might help her students become more confident (and then as a result have an impact on a far greater set of outcomes). Of course increasing confidence isn’t easy, but that’s why we have teachers right? We’re the people who are charged with the challenging task of helping young people reach their potential and this is why teachers matter!

Of course, I’m not the first person to say that teachers matter, but what I’m suggesting here is that they matter because they are in the very important position of making sense of really complex situations. To understand these situations, we rely on all our senses and not just the exploration of numbers on a spreadsheet. We aren’t programmed like robots and this means that we have the potential to continually adapt and learn based on our experiences.

Over the last few decades we’ve seen a global shift towards helping kids develop competencies rather than focusing on content knowledge. Teaching in a way that promotes creativity and helps people to learn to think critically is far less easy to understand. More than ever, we need to be agile and continually learn and inquire. While many herald the rise of online learning, it’s unlikely that computers will be anywhere as agile and adaptive as well as a well functioning human teacher.

When I look around social media or attend international education conferences, teachers seem to be working hard on implementing very similar sets of strategies. The current preferred flavours include design thinking, maker education, game-based learning, entrepreneurial thinking, learning analytics. Of course these ideas have a lot of merit, but I worry that by focussing on the implementation of any specific approach we might reduce the amount of attention we have to deeply learn about our own unique situation. Perhaps we would have a far greater range of ideas and approaches if more people where thinking about innovation rather that implementation?

Over the last 6 months I have found myself wondering more and more about why we aren’t coming up with a greater diversity of ideas. I am sure there are a whole range of reasons affecting different people, but I wonder how professional development impacts this area.

Currently most professional development seems to focus on “shifting teacher practice”. While I’m not saying this is bad or that I don’t try and do this myself, it doesn’t seem well aligned with the idea of developing truly innovative teachers. Surely if we want to develop the capacity for people to innovate, we would develop their ability to deeply understanding the demands of their own local context and create innovations responsive to these needs.

Visions such as those written in the front of our curriculum documents (such as helping young people become confident, connected, lifelong learners in NZ) are epic in terms of complexity. No universal definition of this vision or correct strategy exist. Making progress towards these visions will require the collaborative efforts of millions of teachers and their communities. While we often talk about collaboration, this often relates to the idea of developing shared visions and attempting to get more people to “buy in”. By working towards some kind of consensus on the best way to move forward, I wonder if we are actually restricting our collaborative potential.

My recent readings around the smartest systems and most intelligent groups have made me realise the importance of independence (Davis and Sumara, Gilbert, Snowden, Suroweiecki, etc). When facing complex challenges systems need to activate the creativity of each individual by allowing them to work as independently as possible. This is more likely to activate the creative potential of each individual and maximize the collective intelligence of the system as a whole. This allows the system to benefit from the many different perspectives in which working towards the vision can be viewed and also a greater diversity of ideas will be tested in parallel. This makes processes such as teaching as inquiry even more important but we  need to ensure that the foci of these inquiries are as diverse as the needs of our learners.

Since leaving The Mind Lab I’ve been working as an education consultant with schools, universities, not-for-profits, and even corporates who are trying to deal with the complex challenge of preparing our kids for the future. The one thing I’m taking a lot of care to remember is the fact that I am never likely to understand the situations of my clients as well as they do. My experience and objective perspective is vital to my value, but these leave with me at the end of the day. My ability to support people as they make sense of the needs of their own unique situation and channel creative energy in this direction is far more likely to support ongoing innovation.

The creative potential of teachers is why they matter so much. I think we need to remember this when we think about what our teachers need and how we might help them to improve.  Because the vision we work towards is so broad, we need to provide teachers sufficient agency to allow them to explore many different approaches as they strive for progress. Maybe this should shift our thinking around what constitutes “good teachers” or “good schools”? Rather than looking for outcomes perhaps we should simply seek good reasoning behind practices and robust inquiry processes that constantly put this reasoning to the test?

New Zealand is a small country but still has nearly 50,000 teachers. How can we benefit most from the potential of each of these individuals? How can we help shift the focus of our networks of connected educators towards the creation of practices rather than the implementation of them?


  1. Love this article. We spend so long trying to cater for the diverse needs of our students by fitting into the ‘straight-jacket’of the latest magic wand that will transform our teaching so each child will be ‘At the standard’ by the end of the year.
    All these new ideas have merit but as the person ‘on the spot’ you need to pick and choose the bits that work for you with a particular child or group of children in a particular subject on a particular day.
    Vive la différence between each teacher in each class in each school!

    • admin

      November 3, 2015 at 12:46 pm

      Thanks Hazel!

      The constraints placed on us does restrict our thinking. However, some of these are imagined OR we can find ways to get around them.The biggest challenge is getting us all to think for ourselves and be aware of how we might influence each other. No mean feat!

  2. Sleep last night was almost non-existent – one might think this is not ideal however it happened to be for the best reasons! A lot of these reasons I have just re-read in your post….If I didn’t know any better I would believe it was written after our discussions.

    After last nights class at The Mindlab I have been left inspired and completely shaken up (in a good way). I feel I have been challenged rather than having been told to jump on yet another educational bandwagon and then shown the way to correctly do this with my students.

    So, I thank you for the bags under my eyes today, the need for that extra cup of caffeine before I even left the house and the chocolate I had to *cough* stash in my bag. (I feel the chocolate is particularly essential in the way of assisting these philosophical debates in my head). Despite all of this I have an extra skip in my step and drive to action these thoughts.
    P.s. Watch out Interlead, my poor critical buddy is about to get an inbox full!

    • admin

      November 3, 2015 at 12:43 pm

      This is such a cool reply! Thanks 🙂

      I’m really sorry I hadn’t replied sooner – bloomin plugin wordpress blah!!!

      Let’s put that chocolate and caffeine to good use 🙂

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