The curse of my new book

Two legends at the top of their game left us last week and I can’t help feeling that I am in some very small way to blame. I’ve seldom written about them before but both of them appear in my new book and now they are no longer with us. I am beginning to wonder then if the book in question, The Art of Standing Out, is cursed.

I’m sure there’s nothing sinister behind it so I’m simply going to put it down to the unfortunate alignment of some distant celestial constellation. But the sad deaths of Jerome Bruner and Muhammed Ali have affected me deeply.

Chances are, one of them you know a great deal more about than the other. But both of them were heavyweights in their field. It’s actually very hard to write a book about Leadership without quoting Ali, and so predictably I couldn’t resist the lure. That said, without doubt my favourite quote is one that didn’t make the cut. It’s genius lies in its simplicity; the nonchalant way Ali manages to strip down what he does so well to the point of it being almost inconsequential, an afterthought:

“It’s just a job. Grass grows, birds fly, waves pound the sand. I beat people up.”

Jerome Bruner’s job was just as influential and he was equally as genius. Listed at number 28 in the American top 100 of the most influential psychologists of the modern era, Bruner was a legend. He was the forerunner leading the crossover from behaviourism to cognition in the mid-twentieth century. What made him unique was that he was one of the first psychologists to move away from a stage-based theory of cognition to one that basically said that a child can learn anything at any age however complex, providing the conditions are right. It was here that the notion of ‘learning without limits’ was quite likely born and it is to Bruner that we must look to for inspiration when creating our frameworks for assessment.

There’s another reason why I like Jerome Bruner an awful lot and that’s because in some small way he crossed swords with Margaret Thatcher when she was Minister of Education. When he was working at Oxford University in the 1960s he was highly influential in the thinking behind the ground-breaking Plowden Report that reminded our politicians in 1967 that ‘at the heart of the educational process lies the child.’ I know exactly what you are thinking, and yes, I too am going to download a copy of the report and send it to Nicky Morgan as soon as I’ve finished this.

So let’s start with Ali then, arguably the most influential and iconic human being ever to enter a sporting arena. Here’s a brief extract from my new book:

“Muhammed Ali once said that “to be a great champion, you must believe you are the best. If you’re not, pretend you are.” Some would call this blagging it, myself included and I’ve done a fair bit of this in my time. Managing by the seat of your pants might be another way of describing it. You may be aware that there is actually a psychological term for this phenomenon. It’s called ‘autogenic conditioning’ aka ‘fake it till you make it’.

I first came across this idea when I read ‘The Naked Leader’ by David Taylor. I met David whilst I was a headteacher in London when I was tasked by the regional NAHT (of which I was treasurer) to organise their annual conference at the ExCel arena in the Docklands. I managed to convince David to speak and I am forever grateful that he did.

His book is so-called because it aims to strip away the hype and rhetoric that surrounds leadership. At its heart is simplicity. There are seven principles of Naked Leadership, one of which has remained with me ever since, and it’s this:

“Success is whatever you want it to be, by your own definition.”

I want us to re-read this, because it’s so important: Success is whatever you want it to be, by your own definition. Not what Ofsted want, or the local authority, or the devil sitting on your shoulder, but what you want it to be. And this is where the seeds of this book were first sown; the notion that my success and that of my students, teachers, families and community that I serve is in my hands – our hands – and not in that of others.

Regardless, I’ve come to believe that Taylor is right when he says: “What we think about, we are, and when we believe something to be true, we see the world in that way.” Our task then is clear. As authentic leaders, we must strive to convince others that there is truth in what we want to achieve. When it comes to painting pictures, in the end, it all comes down to those three little words. We can, if…”

And on Jerome Bruner and his pioneering approach to learning that dared to cut a parallel with the then untouchable Piaget:

“Please don’t tell me that a particular child is unteachable. Ever. You’d be surprised in my early days in London of the number of teachers that would use this as an excuse and blame the children or their circumstances. To them I would say: ‘You might not be able to teach them because clearly you don’t yet know how to, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be taught by someone who can. Go and improve your teaching.’

Just because a child has a special educational need, or is claiming free school meals, or can’t speak English, or has vile parents, or really finds the work difficult and never seems to get it, or doesn’t do their homework, or is naughty, or appears lazy and disinterested, or is a bully, or has emotional issues, or doesn’t seem to care, or smells, or doesn’t really like you, they can still be taught absolutely anything.

I first came across the work of Jerome Bruner in the final year of my B.Ed. course. He wrote an influential book in 1960 called The Process of Education and his words are etched all over my base camp. This is what he said: “You can teach anything to anyone in an intellectually honest manner by translating it courteously for them.” In a nutshell, this is the art of great teaching. It’s what’s known in the trade as differentiation and it’s as simple as that.

Teachers are very passionate and principled people. We all have deep-seated beliefs about what education stands for and quite rightly so. Nothing – according to Sir Tim Brighouse – quite opens the shut valves of the heart as a passionate teacher and leader. It’s what makes it the most noblest of professions.

We must always believe that we can open these valves. We must always believe that we have the power within us to shine our lights, even in the most difficult of circumstances. We must always believe we can capture hearts and minds in a way that is as empowering as it is bold. If we believe we can, we do…”

The Art of Standing Out: School Transformation to Greatness and Beyond is published by John Catt and is available to pre-order in their bookshop or on Amazon.

Praise for The Art of Standing Out:

‘A beautiful, inspirational book. I hope it flies off the shelves!’ Richard Gerver

‘A memorable, uplifting read. I loved it.’ Geoff Barton 

‘Compelling, moving and practical.’ Russell Hobby

‘An enjoyable read, peppered with accumulated wisdom and amusing anecdotes.’ Professor Rob Coe

‘I love this book. If you want to be a school leader then read it.’ Vic Goddard

‘A hugely entertaining read.’ Dame Alison Peacock

‘A thought-provoking book using deliciously bittersweet moments.’ Ross Morrison McGill

‘A compelling story, refreshingly honest and open.’ Zoe Elder

‘A must-read for all aspiring leaders.’ Sue Williamson

‘A book that will make you laugh, cry and think.’ Stephen Tierney

‘A sweeping tale…Optimistic and heartfelt.’ Ty Goddard

‘A timely powerful book that deserves to be widely read and debated.’ Professor John West-Burnham

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