• The Fear and why we should fear it

    by  • July 23, 2012 • Schools and Communities • 0 Comments

    Opening Pandora’s box: fear can be a motivator to achieve. But is the fear of the right things that’s driving us? Is it driving us to the right place?

    Opening Pandora’s box: fear can be a motivator to achieve. But is it fear of the right things that’s driving us? Is it driving us to the right place? Is it contributing to school success?

    I spoke with a few of my friends and colleagues this week who are all leaders in Education. We were talking about some of the challenges schools meet today and possible way of answering them. I discussed with them some of the ideas we are working on (briefly discussed in this post), their viability and checking that we’re not being naiive about their simplicity. We do, after all, have a very simplistic approach to contributing to school success.

    My friends and colleagues agreed with our analysis of the landscape. They agreed that there is a need for the solutions we are offering. They also agreed that the solutions are simple. What they all aired as a potential issue, however, is the likelihood of schools realising that they need this solution.

    When I enquired a bit further, I realised I had opened the Pandora’s box of education leaders. I knew what the contents of the box would be, I didn’t realise how paralysing or far-reaching their effect was. Rummaging through this box reminded me of three things: an article I read on the Harvard Business Review, the private sector’s battle with the same issues and Lily Allen.


    An article on the Harvard Business Review

    I know that many people in education feel very little kinship with the private sector, but I do beg you to bear with me. This article was published in the Jan/Feb 2012 issue of HBR (you can find a preview and an interview with one of the co-authors here). Stripping it to its bare essentials, the article presents the following reasoning:

    • There is an evolutionary biological principle called “Runaway Selection” (Wikipedia entry here).
    • Example of runaway selection: the peacock’s tails have grown in length and size over the years because peahens prefer males with longer tails as it is a sign of health. However, over time, the tails have become so long and heavy they slow the bird down, making it a more viable prey. Thus, what used to be desirable trait that has been sought after by mates for survival, has become detrimental to the species.
    • In the article, the writers over the years, companies have become obsessed with measurable and performance indicators (which are an elaborate grading system) that are the indicators of them being successful.
    • Much like the peacocks, say the writers, the obsession with chasing the grades detached companies with what is making them successful, which is providing innovative products at competitive prices. (Rather than the grades that are an indication of success).


    So what’s this to do with schools? That’s where our conversation struck a chord. My friends mentioned that a lot of schools, although they may want to provide the best possible programme for their students the want to first make sure that their grades remain up and that their Ofsted inspection has passed with flying colours.

    One of my colleagues, who is an Ofsted inspector (who used to be a head teacher for many years), said she is quite alarmed at how frantic school staff is when they are due an inspection.

    I know not all schools are like that. But having worked with education leaders for a while, I know how deeply engrained grades and Ofsted reports are in their operational being. They are the indicators of success.


    What the private sector battles

    The private sector realises there is an issue. Some of the private sector is being dragged kicking and screaming into that reality: the financial sector is convinced it’s fine, but it was their runaway financial thinking that put us in the mess we have been in over the past few years. Regulators are will be forcing it to move beyond the indicators of success, towards what success actually is.

    One of the problems the “Runaway” effect and the obsession with indicators created in the private sector is silos. There is the marketing department, and sales department, there is operations, accounts, legal – they each have their own indicators to report on. These indicators tell the people at the top those departments are healthy. (Or so they thought).

    I’m sure as educators you are familiar with these silos: there’s the literacy silo, and the numeracy silo; there is the sciences silo and the humanities silo; etc. Usually, they work separately to one another, each ensuring they meet their own indicators.

    The private sector is fast moving towards breaking those silos down and creating organisations where different aspects of the company freely share information and resources for the common good of the company.

    Another big shift in the private sector is growing investment into developing skills within the company (or “building capability”). It does stop there: some organisations are working towards multi-skilling their staff and giving them more “functional” skills for today’s challenges and economic environment.

    I’m sure that some sceptics are thinking “but we are not private sector. We are educators!” and I agree. I would ask you sceptics to think back to when you were a driven, ideological teacher, back to when you thought teaching isn’t a vocation, it’s a calling.

    While businesses are the building blocks of the economy that we live and breathe, schools are where people learn about all the different kinds of building blocks there are and how they all work together. School is where we teach the next generation how to build a better society, a better economy and a better life. Wouldn’t you consider that a similar outcome?


    Lily Allen

    While having these conversations this week, Allen’s song, The Fear, faded in and out of the back of my consciousness a lot. There are a few lines in the song that amalgamate how life has fallen into a “runaway” state. How we have all been chasing the wrong things: “Life’s about film stars and less about mothers” and “I am a weapon of massive consumption / and it’s not my fault it’s how I’m programmed to function”.

    I find The Fear – whatever it may be to each of us – can drive us to do things we may not consider healthy. There is even quite a bit of bio-science about it. When we are in a state of fear, we make fewer choices using the cognitive part of our brain (the prefrontal cortex) and revert to memory based “fight or flight” instincts (based in the amygdala).

    So it’s not surprising that in her song, she sings: “I don’t know what’s right and what’s real anymore / and I don’t know how I’m meant to feel anymore / and when do you think it will all become clear? / ‘Cuz I’m being taken over by the Fear”.


    The Fear of failing Ofsted or our grades dropping is great. But are we fearing the right things by fearing their decline? Do we need to consider the indicators of school success and what school success is?

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