There are many reasons for this trend. Not least the fact that the world we live in is uncertain. In the Shift Happens video clip on You Tube [] it states that:

‘We are currently preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist…

using technologies that haven’t yet been invented…

in order to solve problems we don’t even know are problems yet.’

Both the pace and depth of change are having far reaching consequences- economically, social and culturally- across the world. Ian Jukes and Anita Dosaj in an article entitled ‘Understanding Digital Kids’

[] show the attached picture from the 300 old Arab market in Singapore. The sights, sounds smells and vibrancy have little changed from 3 centuries ago. The picture shows an 11-year-old Muslim girl sitting on a bolt of cloth patiently waiting while her mother barters for fabrics. In her hand is a palm-sized wireless device she’s using to surf the web. As Jukes and Dosaj say, digital kids ‘can be doing their homework, talking on the phone, listening to music, downloading movies, surfing the Web, and maintaining multiple simultaneous conversations on a chat line. And they’re still bored.’

Little wonder that Government, HMI, Business and a range of educational thinkers within schools and beyond are challenging heads and schools to be innovative risk takers in response to the challenges of the twenty-first century. Yet this language, easily applied to the world of business, where ‘innovate or die’ is the maxim, sits uncomfortably with the world of education where we like to deal with certainties. We don’t gamble with the safety and well being of our children and the whole concept of ‘risk assessment’ in schools is about managing and reducing risk. We like order, structured timetables and predictability. Perhaps if the banking business had applied these ideals we wouldn’t have had the financial crashes of 2008!

Yet creativity and innovation should be at the heart of a Curriculum for Excellence. If we are not trying out new ideas and taking risks, how on earth are we going to achieve our aim of meeting the needs of every child in our care and a curriculum fit for the twenty-first century? New ideas are by definition untried and mistakes will be made. But it is in the making of mistakes that we learn. It is the difference between ‘theatre’ and ‘drama’. ‘Theatre’ is about an end product that has to be right on the night. In ‘drama’ it is about a process of trial and error, where new ideas and approaches are explored and developed in the light of new experiences- good and bad . This should be part and parcel of developing A Curriculum for Excellence.

Roger von Oech, author of ‘A Whack on the Side of the Head’, argues that ‘We learn by trial and error, not by trial and rightness. If we did things correctly every time, we would never have to change course, and we’d end up with more of the same.’ []

The cultural contradictions throughout school often make this sort of change difficult. On the one hand we teach our children that making mistakes is all part of the learning process but on the other hand high marks in tests and exams are the result of not making mistakes. Similarly while HMI are exhorting heads and other school staff to be innovative and risk takers, leadership ‘failure’ in an inspection will result in a very public report outlining deficiencies.

Carol Dweck, author of ‘Mindset: The New Psychology of Success’ found that children for whom success in a task was everything, often gave up easily when faced with a challenge they couldn’t at first overcome.   The threat to their self-image was such that they would rather not learn anything new in case they were seen to fail. However, those children who were praised for their effort in addressing a task, and not rewarded for only getting things right, were more willing to tackle difficult challenges.

To paraphrase Dweck’s groundbreaking work, do head teachers and other school leaders for whom performance is paramount want to look successful even if it means not learning something new in the process? Do we refuse to take chances or try out new ideas in order not to be seen to fail? Sternberg, a past president of the American Psychological Association, argues that if you afraid of making mistakes, you never learn on the job, and your whole approach becomes a defensive ‘I have to make sure I don’t screw up.’ [].

If this is the atmosphere you are working in, you will simply not reach your full potential. At the centre of all the developments around A Curriculum for Excellence is the need to develop each school staff’s confidence in trying out ideas, in being ambitious for their children, of exploring new ideas and not being afraid of mistakes. We need to develop in particular our school leaders self-belief to aim high, without the terrible fears that cause people to act conservatively and in a limited way. At SETT in 2005, Sir Ken Robinson picked up on fear of failure. He said:

“Ask people at a dinner party how creative they are – you will find that they are pretty modest in their answers. Kids are not modest in this regard. Young children have a great self-belief Adults tend to lose it.”

He told the story of a group of 6-year-old children in drawing class. One girl, who normally had poor attention span, spent 20 minutes absorbed in drawing. The teacher, curious, went up to her:

“What are you drawing?”, the teacher said.

“I’m drawing a picture of god,” was the reply.

“But no one knows what god looks like”, said the teacher.

“They will in a minute”, was the girl’s response.

For Robinson this confidence in children that They will in a minute” tends to deteriorate, as people get older. School leaders in particular start to worry about being wrong and making a mistake and appearing foolish. If we become afraid of the consequences of failure – whether criticism, embarrassment or blame – this fear can inhibit our skills and, as Robinson says, we simply “choke”. Either that or we play for safety and take too few risks, which only leads to under-achievement.

A piece of graffiti, allegedly seen on the New York underground, sums up the challenge for school leaders here:

”if you only do what you do you’ll only get what you’ve got”

Not only do we owe it to our children to do more than this , we owe it to ourselves.

Graham Thomson

Director of SCSSA