The former British athletics chief has a message for Scottish teachers
If ever there was a profession in need of a pep talk, you might say that Scottish teachers are it. Facing the final stages of implementing a new curriculum against a backdrop of shrinking resources and a worsening jobs’ crisis, the challenges of the year ahead are obvious.
That might explain the choice of coaching guru Dr Frank Dick OBE as keynote speaker at this year’s Scottish Learning Festival. The man who once led Britain to sporting glory is hoping to send teachers back to their classrooms motivated and ready for change.
Dick’s experience may come more from the world of sport than education but his coaching credentials can’t be argued with. It was under his leadership as director of coaching for athletics in the UK in the ‘80s and ‘90s that athletes like Sebastian Coe, Daley Thompson and Linford Christie reached their heights.
He is currently President of the European Athletics Coaches Association and Chairman of the International Association of Athletics Federations’ Academy. But prior to these roles he was a PE and maths teacher at an independent school in Nottinghamshire and now gives motivational speeches all over the world to business and education audiences, last week to the Learning and Teaching Scotland event. Sport is a metaphor for life, according to Dick so the coaching techniques of the dressing room can work just as effectively in the classroom.
At this juncture in Scottish education, on the brink of the most radical reform in a generation, he believes coaching techniques are more relevant than ever. A Curriculum for Excellence, the new curriculum to be fully implemented by 2010, is “outstanding”, he says but an enormous change for teachers to get to grips with. The changes will see the learner take more control of the learning process and become more active in their learning. That will require a culture change within the teaching profession, but one that must happen, he warns.
There are four stages to teaching, the former coach says. In the first, “you are the light that lights the learner’s path”, in the second, “you teach them how to light the path themselves”, then “you are the mirror that reflects the learner’s light” and finally, “you step out of the light”. If the aims of the new curriculum are to be realised teachers must be prepared to step back and give pupils ownership of the learning process.
“The styles that we adopt are leading towards that conclusion because if not ownership, we’ll never stand out of the light. The first two stages are about giving people the roots to grow; the second two are about giving them the wings to fly. You can’t do the growing for them and you can’t do the flying for them.” The change will not happen overnight, Edinburgh-born Dick admits, and strong leadership will be needed to see it through.
But developing leaders is not something that Scottish education – or UK society in general – is particularly good at. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re looking at Scottish education or anything in the United Kingdom at the moment, it seems to me that what we’ve not been particularly good at is preparing leaders. There is an awful lot of change we want to happen but it needs people to lead that process and I’ve often wondered, do we actually get confused in education, and in any walk of life, in trying to give a sense of open opportunity to people, that you’re all in this together, and in trying to give a sense of equality and parity around that system that we are perhaps somewhere in all of that, [we] don’t really actively encourage people to rise out of it, to take the lead?” This failure to promote leaders was summed up for Dick by a remark by the then Chief Executive of the British Athletics Federation while he was working with the organisation.
He recounts how Peter Radford said of a dispute between Dick, who was responsible for coaching and a colleague Andy Norman, who was responsible for marketing: ‘There is no room in our sport for Mr Bigs’. “I thought that captured the mood of an age,” he says. “If you look at how society runs itself, how often does somebody become strong, their head comes above the parapet and then if it’s not the press and media then it’s common grumbling, that tries to bring that person back down again? There’s not a lot of encouragement to go there.” The same goes for education, he argues. As the sector faces up to a period of dramatic change it must take time to prepare those leading it: “It seems to me that if we are preparing our children for change we must take time to prepare our teachers for change too, especially those who will go further and lead the process and take us on to better things.
“And we must take time to do that, even for the unsavoury stuff. How many teachers are actually given a serious briefing on how to handle the media should there be a serious crisis at the school? That may happen but I’m not aware of it. It certainly should be something we think about. We’re going to go through pretty powerful change now in Scotland with the new curriculum and that being the case, there will be lots of people out there who will find reason to attack those persons in authority, the leadership and so on.
You cannot put an athlete out into the arena if you’ve not prepared them for that arena.” The parallels between education and sport are many in Dick’s mind. But one lesson he would like to see teachers really take from sport is team work. A teacher can no longer be viewed as a solitary professional working in isolation from their colleagues. To achieve the best outcomes for pupils they must share information and work together.
“Why would you want to make your athlete the victim of your limitations? Because we’ve all got them…. It’s possible that I find that I’ve got a child in front of me today that I really can’t work out and I’m not succeeding with.
Does it not make sense that I should be able to ask other teachers and say, ‘can you help me on this one?’ At the same time if you’ve got solutions that you’ve worked out already, would it not make sense to have some kind of a database for that?” Frank believes a database could be developed for Scottish education that logs problems encountered by teachers and possible solutions. He previously worked with Ferrari to develop such software for their company and explains that Canadian GPs use a similar system.
“Now there’s a system that they use in medicine in Canada because of the spread of people all over the country and the size of it. So a GP is sitting there in his surgery and in comes somebody and they’ve got such and such symptoms and the doctor would normally say X, Y and Z and ‘here’s your prescription’ and so on but because life’s moved on and we challenge people to take more ownership, what they’ve done is they’ve created a database where you put in the symptoms, it comes up with the condition and then it gives you all the background information, the various references that relate to that condition and then three possible solutions and you choose or add to it.
“And it just seems to me that we could do that quite simply in education, by subject or whatever and it would be a very unique support service for all teachers in Scotland, especially younger teachers who may not have come across as many problems as some of the more experienced teachers. If we start swapping that kind of information, my goodness, we’ll certainly make ourselves less vulnerable and we’ll also put ourselves in a position where we could offer a far greater contribution to society and to the child.” The new schools’ intranet Glow could potentially facilitate such a system.
But Dick’s overriding message to Scotland’s educators is simple –get comfortable with change because it will never stop. “You can’t always choose or change the circumstances and conditions in your arenas in life but you can always choose or change your attitude.
Nobody can do that for you. We’re in a world of change; let’s shift our attitudes to go with that world of change, to create even greater change.”