Tuesday, February 23, 2016

What McKinsey Says are the 4 Most Important Leadership Skills

I have blogged a lot about leadership skills over the years and there is a steady river of books, articles, workshops, and comprehensive programs on the subject. While there are often fresh, creative theories, much of what one comes across are variations on well-established approaches, but using different emphases or combining elements in different measures. Some, like Jim Collins’ works, transform the way organizations and entire sectors operate.
One of the ongoing debates in leadership is how situational leadership models should be – to what degree should specific leadership attributes be constant and unchanging, and to what extend should they mold to the needs of an organization at a certain moment in time? I came across a recent article in the McKinsey Quarterly that shares research on this question and provides an interesting answer. Indeed, this was the most read article of any in 2015 from the McKinsey Quarterly
The researchers (McKinsey staffers) looked at what they found were 20 common leadership traits and tested them in a study involving about 189,000 employees in 81 organizations. They found that the most effective leaders most commonly and most consistently exhibited four traits:

  • Solving problems effectively. The process that precedes decision making is problem solving, when information is gathered, analyzed, and considered. This is deceptively difficult to get right, yet it is a key input into decision making for major issues (such as M&A) as well as daily ones (such as how to handle a team dispute).
  • Operating with a strong results orientation. Leadership is about not only developing and communicating a vision and setting objectives but also following through to achieve results. Leaders with a strong results orientation tend to emphasize the importance of efficiency and productivity and to prioritize the highest-value work.
  • Seeking different perspectives. This trait is conspicuous in managers who monitor trends affecting organizations, grasp changes in the environment, encourage employees to contribute ideas that could improve performance, accurately differentiate between important and unimportant issues, and give the appropriate weight to stakeholder concerns. Leaders who do well on this dimension typically base their decisions on sound analysis and avoid the many biases to which decisions are prone.
  • Supporting others. Leaders who are supportive understand and sense how other people feel. By showing authenticity and a sincere interest in those around them, they build trust and inspire and help colleagues to overcome challenges. They intervene in group work to promote organizational efficiency, allaying unwarranted fears about external threats and preventing the energy of employees from dissipating into internal conflict.
None of these is new nor Earth shattering, but they do reinforce a few things:
1.      Confidence to be open to others’ views – for some it’s counter intuitive that leadership is best illustrated by willingness to change and being comfortable with not always being right. Your willingness to change your views based on listening, recognizing that integrating many views is usually a much better outcome than the views of one (regardless of how smart that person is), and realizing that, at the core, a leader’s greatest achievements and strategies are actually often those of the other team members – these are sometimes hard lessons to learn, but reflect true wisdom.

2.      Soft skills as important as hard skills. As I have blogged about previously, I come from the school of thought that the best answers, the best strategies, and the greatest truths are usually found in the grey rather than the brightest white or the darkest black. Leadership is never about just the hard, analytical, technical, process, skills nor just the soft, interpersonal, creative, intuitive. Great leadership finds both, in balance.

3.      These are all skills – solving problems creatively, operating with a strong results orientation, seeking different perspectives, and supporting others – we develop in Appleby programs. Whether it’s through the curriculum, being on an athletic team or the school play “team”, the Northward Bound experience in Temagami, being part of an international service team, one of our many councils, or through our formal student leadership programs, on a daily basis, I see examples of Appleby students from Grade 7 to 12 learning these kinds of lessons and develop these kinds of perspectives.

They are in that “sweet spot” of attributes that work both for success in education and success for a lifetime. They are perhaps among the most important teachables that we provide.

Monday, May 25, 2015

The Appleby of the Future

In a recent post, I provided an update on where we are with our strategic planning process. My wife advises that I can sometimes to a bit too process oriented … so, it wouldn’t be surprising if many are saying, “Enough about the planning process and questions, what are your answers?”
First, any truly great school is able to have enduring quality because a team-based approach to leadership. While some of the content comes from me, much stems from the insights of my colleagues on the Leadership Team, and there are significant elements that have been generated from the thoughts of faculty, staff, students, parents and alumni. For some of the most significant elements, there is a broad consensus across the Appleby community, so no one person “owns” creation of the idea, although, once approved, we are responsible for making them reality.
My colleague, our Head of School and Vice Principal Katrina Samson coined a group of four words to describe the essence of Appleby: Excellence, Breadth, Innovation and Caring. The combination of a required breadth of experiences at high quality levels describes the principles underlying the Appleby Diploma and the rigorous programme that our students experience. Our view is that this blend of breadth and excellence, while challenging, is the right preparation for our graduates to excel in the future (as described in these posts.)
Innovation, while describing one of the attributes we hope for in our graduates, is primarily about the nature of Appleby over the last few decades. There are lots of good schools. Appleby is one of the very best in Canada because of a persistent drive to innovate – be that in the integration of technology into the learning experience, our leadership role in global education, the longstanding role of outdoor education, the Grade 8 World Languages course (where all Grade 8s learn the basics of Spanish, German, Arabic and Mandarin), the Centennial Scholars Programme, or other initiatives. We believe that for Appleby to take the next step in our development, we must have a persistent focus on innovation. While the large, school-wide initiatives are what many think of when talking about innovation at Appleby, just as important will be smaller scale initiatives – those that relate to one or a few courses or co-curriculars or units within the school. This is when a culture of innovation – where faculty and staff are encouraged to think and act creatively – becomes more important than the Principal or other leaders been seen as the primary generator of innovative ideas.
Caring is also very much one of those attributes that we both seek to support in our students and graduates, as well as being an essential characteristic of school culture. Especially in schools that are rigorous and high challenge, the importance of school cultural is paramount. I have been in too many conversations where people debate the benefits various curriculi, without recognizing that the nature of how a faculty member delivers an economics course and the dynamic within the course is far more important than the content differences between AP, IB and Ontario economics. Part of great culture is best typified by the credo of a Roxbury Latin. It is a remarkable school in Boston that has long had as its mantra to “know and love” each student. When visiting there in 2000, I was struck by how the receptionist was speaking to us about this commitment as passionately as one of the Deans. Our willingness to know students, to ensure that they feel strong connected with our community, and to support them as they deal with a challenging program must be one of our greatest strengths. Caring is as important as breadth + excellence.
If Breadth + Excellence, Innovation and Caring are the essence of Appleby, then the next key questions was what should our graduates look like. At this stage, we have identified 12 key attributes that we would like each student to possess by the time of graduation. Together and with the first trait of self-awareness as the foundation, they will provide young people with the most important tools to “be major contributors to and valued members of their  … communities”.

·       Self-awareness
·       Collaboration
·       Adaptability/resilience
·       Communication
·       Creativity
·       Integrity
·       Caring
·       Courage
·       Leadership
·       Global outlook
·       Embracing diversity
·       Critical thinking

We believe that the robust, broad, mandatory programme should still be at the core of developing these attributes – including rigorous academics, athletics, arts, service, outdoor education, boarding, and the exploration of spiritual and values.
The draft plan proposes that we build on this strong core with numerous additions and improvements to these activities. A few examples of these include:
  • Introducing a series of additional curricular and co-curricular elements dealing with areas such as design tech, entrepreneurship, initiatives that combine creativity and service, and media marketing
  • Implementing the AP Capstone Course
  • The quantum enhancement of our athletic, arts and all-community programmes by the construction of a new facility that will provide 3 new gyms, arts performance space, a centralize fitness facility, and a proper seated school assembly location, in addition to some specialized space
  • Expanding formal leadership development programnes
  • Enhancing what is already a strong boarding experience with focus on weekend programmes, cross-cultural integration, and life skills development
  • Introducing a wider range of career preparation experiences, especially for older students
  • Looking forward to the outcome of the review of student mental wellness being undertaken by Tom Karcz and a volunteer team of about 50 faculty, and implementing their recommendations. This is one of the great positive waves in education (and society more generally.) In our case, I anticipate this will focus very much on socio-emotional health and the development of student’s understanding of their own learning styles and needs, providing them with tools to assist with their learning, and supporting the specific needs 
Another theme in the draft plan is to build on our leadership position in the areas of global and outdoor education and extend that into being the national  leader in experiential education overall. (Experiential education in one of those popular expressions in the sector. It means learning by doing rather than just studying. Traditionally, outdoor and global education have been the most widespread examples of experiential education.) Some examples of specific strategies include:
  • Making a meaningful international experience a requirement of the Appleby Diploma
  • Enhancing global and national experiences for middle school students
  • Using technology, introducing a wide range of collaborations between specific classes of students from around the world
  • Introducing team-based, multi-disciplinary problem-solving units that require analytical, synthesizing, collaborative, creative, and communication skills
  • Enhance consolidating/reflection activities such as Presentations on Learning (POLs) and Grade 9 ASCENT
  • Fully incorporate experiential elements across the curriculum
  • Continuing to improve and refine our outdoor experiential program at the McLaughlin Outdoor Campus based in Temagami
These are just a few examples of a few dozen strategies and working tactics that we are proposing. If you have thoughts on these or other ideas you think should be incorporated, please send me a note at ivannostrand@appleby.on.ca.
Next up, I will be talking about the role of outstanding people – students, faculty and staff – and resources as the most important commonalities in great education, as well as how they feature in Appleby’s plans.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Gavotting, Manners and Narcissus

Today I was flying to Texas for a symposium as well as a task force meeting of a group of North American heads and administrators looking at more aggressively marketing boarding programs. During the first leg of the journey, an early morning flight from Toronto to Houston, I was stuck thinking about Carly Simon and her most famous song You’re So Vain (and lyrics.)There remains a great deal of speculation about the subject of the song and Simon remains coy – was it Warren Beatty, David Geffen, a hybrid of three? Perhaps appropriately, Beatty is reported to have said “Of course it’s about me.”

I shouldn’t have been surprised that the flight was jam-packed, the seats seemed smaller than I am used to (or maybe that’s more a question of perspective), and the plane’s video entertainment system was out of action. None of that was too bothersome compared to the young woman who sat down next to me right before takeoff. She was one of a group of about five who were all seated in middle seats spread over about six rows. I would guess that they are in their mid-20s, and they were en route to Cancun. As soon as she sat down, she started talking loudly (arguably yelling) to her compatriots in the other rows, filming them on her iPhone as well as the two dozen other passengers in the vicinity. She kept reaching across the elderly man sitting in the aisle seat next to her, almost knocking him, without a word of excuse me or apology or even recognition of what happened. In short, she was oblivious to everyone around her and her friends. She never once looked at me over the 4 hours sitting next to each other. Even when I asked to go by her for the washroom, she didn’t move but swung her feet onto the seat of the man on the other side.

She was wearing a fedora-like hat (you guessed it – strategically dipped below one eye), but no apricot scarf.

The kicker was a period of at least five minutes at the start of the flight when she was taking photos and videos of herself … over and over. Throughout the five minutes, she was adjusting her hat, her cleavage, her facial expression, and hand gestures while the elderly man on the other side of her and I looked on incredulously as she clicked away. I get a selfie or two as you head off on a fun vacation with friends, but five full minutes of focused posing while sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with strangers?

Now don’t get me wrong, I fully appreciate, and may even have direct personal experience with the exuberance of heading down south for a week of fun with buddies. But having a good time and having respect for others need not be mutually exclusive. And I don’t subscribe to the absolutism of the shared mottos of Winchester College and New College, Oxford – “Manners Makyth Man” (manners make the man.) However, they can sure provide some strong hints.

Manners in the narrowest definition relate to conventions of behaviour – protocols, ways of acting, and traditions. And they can look very different from culture to culture. Undoubtedly, your ability to operate within these conventions can be a helpful way of fitting in, connecting in a credible way with others, and presenting yourself as polite, professional and refined. There are many absolutely wonderful, talented people whose challenges with manners have led others to misread and underestimate them. But in this case, I think the issue wasn’t knowledge of appropriate protocols, but rather a shocking lack of awareness of those around her – let alone empathy – and in its place an unhealthy fixation on herself and how attractive she could make herself. I hope she doesn’t spend too much time looking at herself in pools of water.

Now perhaps I am being a grumpy old man and would fit in a bit too easily in the theatre balcony with those two Muppets? Maybe I need to lighten up?

But when I think of what we hope for in Appleby students and graduates, among the most important attributes are awareness of self and those around you, and respect for the same. Those core character traits – empathy and respect – are essential for strong citizenship and leadership.

For better or worse, there is a higher bar for students from schools like Appleby. In speaking with my colleagues from other G20 schools, it is clear that one our shared worries is ensuring that our students manage to strike the right balance between humility and confidence. Those young people from successful families and those young people who are highly talented can be at greater risk for getting the balance wrong - being too focused on self rather than others. This is the greatest fear of many parents. And sadly, there is an unfair perception held by many in the broader community that independent school grads can be too self-centred. That is not what I see, but it does magnify the need for us to focus on empathy and respect.

In most families, we can be least respectful to those with whom we are closest, and we are at our most impolite at home. The same thing applies to schools. Despite that, I am generally very impressed with our students and how they interact with each other. Consistently, our younger and new students tell me how well they are treated by then older and longer-tenured students. Moreover, each term I receive a impressive number of compliments from representatives of community organizations and colleagues at other schools about how well our students represent themselves and the school. While that may relate to them knowing when to say thank you or hold a door open or the difference between the salad fork and the entrĂ©e fork, I think it is more a reflection of empathy and respect for others. And that – that is what makes me immensely proud.

In the draft of our next strategic plan, we are placing an even greater focus on the development of self-awareness and being a respectful teammate. Fifty years from now, those will be at least as important as they are today, so we are “doubling down” our own commitment.

And if we do our job, no one will say about an Appleby grad, You had one eye on the mirror as you watched yourself gavotte.”

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Maps as a Window in Us: Plotting Our Competitive Advantage

A few months ago there was a flurry of online traffic about maps. For some, there is nothing more mundane and boring than a map. But not me. I love maps and the stories they tell – call me a map nerd. Anyone who has been in our home may have seen a few dozen historic maps (mainly Canadian) they paint an intriguing picture of our evolving understanding what we now call Central Canada. That perspective has changed a lot. Maps provide a window on how we see each other and how we see the Earth. This who have read The Map that Changed the World also understand how maps can even change our understanding of humanity, religion and where we came from. (Even for those in the “maps are as exciting as bricks” camp, the story tells a great tale of creativity, tragedy and the power of persistence – I recommend it.)

Perhaps my interest in maps came from my university years studying geological engineering. Honestly though, I think the spark was lit and fanned in my years at summer camp, doing outdoor education at school and in scouts where on canoe trips and hikes your skills in understanding where you were and where you were going was based on understanding maps. The ability to relate a two-dimensional sheet of paper with topographical lines, different colours indicating terrain, and strange symbols to your three-dimensional field of vision was challenging, often ambiguous, and, if you got it wrong, there could be significant consequences for your party. These abilities can be shockingly variable across a group and seem to have very little correlation to intelligence.

One of the best of the “maps that change the way you think” groups was sent to me by a friend, but it originating with The Washington Post“40 Maps that Explain the World”.  Take a look at them and I think you’ll perhaps develop a new or updated insight the position of Canada in the world. In particular, take a look at maps 2, 4, 8, 9, 10, 16, 19, 21 and 22.

About 10 years ago, I met Eric Lubbock who, during the Second World War, was in Canada as a “war guest” – the young people who were sent by their families from England to attend school and escape the danger of the Blitz. Lubbock is now 86 years-old and since 1971 has been 4th Baron Avebury. Lord Avebury is a most fascinating individual. Over a couple of lunches with him in the Parliament Buildings on the banks of the Thames, I heard of his time in the Welsh Guards; his business success as an engineer; his conversion to Buddhism; his election, service then defeat as a Liberal MP (which gave birth to his wonderful line "In 1962 the wise, far-seeing people of Orpington elected me as their Member; in 1970 the fools threw me out"); and then his service since 1971 in the House of Lords. He has made a name for himself as a tireless advocate for the oppressed in many parts of the world and a voice of compassion.

The last time I saw Lord Avebury (about five years ago) he was asking me about multiculturalism and what Canada does differently. He was lamenting the challenges the UK has been facing with worrisome societal conflict based on race and ethnicity, the lack of positive social dialogue between different new immigrant groups, longstanding Brits, religious faction and different ethnicities. And for all the issues Britain has been facing for a few decades, compared to many other European countries and other regions of the world, they seem more like mild tensions. Many countries face devastating inter-ethnic problems, in some cases tearing their countries apart. Since my lunch with him, while the state of the world has generally become better, concern around race, ethnic and religiously-based violence has spread. For many, it our greatest problem. Lord Averbury asked how Canada gets it right? Of course, we also have challenges. We are far from perfect, but the nine maps I mention paint a picture of what Avebury was talking about with respect to Canada and some of the other Washington Post maps help make his point about the issue around the globe.

When I travel (most recently in Turkey, China, the Northeastern US, and the UK with heads from other G20 schools), I like to ask people what they think of Canada and Canadians. I find that for families of students thinking about independent schools, they tend to pick the country before the school. And the common themes I hear about Canada are safe, welcoming, diverse, happy, big, beautiful & clean space, stable and boring. Not such a bad mix.

A few years ago, I posted about the four kinds of learning – learning to learn, learning to make a living, learning to live and work with people of different backgrounds and perspectives, and learning to be – defining your purpose/reason for being. Of course they are all important. But the third one seems to be growing in importance for the world. And the more I travel the world, the more I appreciate that this is one of Canada’s more striking competitive advantages. It is also what our students, especially those from outside our borders, remember most of all about their years at Appleby, be it in the blend of students at the school or their Appleby experiences internationally.

As we confirm our priorities for the future, we plan to “double-down” in this area. Increasingly, the ability of young people to have a global outlook, intercultural literacy, and acceptance of different perspectives will be a harbinger of their own success in life. Just as important, it is one of the golden keys to addressing some of the world’s most dangerous threats … and indeed making the maps of the future better than those of those of today.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Locking in Our Bearing for the Future

First things first … apologies for not being more diligent on postings. Lots of ideas, but few put to paper. I now have a few in my cache, so stay tuned.

I have written about the development of Appleby’s strategic plan a few times on this blog and we are (I hope) getting close to finalizing it. In a couple of weeks’ time, we will be having the fourth Board of Governors retreat where we focus on our future priorities, which I hope will be the final conversation before seeking approval later this spring. In addition, we have been having a series of meetings for faculty, staff, alumni and parents relating to the development of the campus master plan and the creation of Appleby’s strategic plan. There have been great suggestions and feedback, which, together with the results of dozens of student lunch conversations and the 2014 stakeholder surveys (students, parents, alumni and employees,) provide a strong sense of the views of the Appleby community – broadly defined – about what is good and not-so-good about Appleby today and where we should head.

But many of you may be saying, “So typical of education … endless talking. How about some action?” Yes, it has been a while in development. I am increasingly of the view, however, that the process is as much about building a sense of understanding and support as it is about the content. No, that is not saying that the content isn’t important, but rather that it is only one of the four platforms of great school strategy.

They are:
  1. Clarity of why or purpose. At the end of the day, what is the most important outcome of what we do day-to-day and year-to-year?
  2. The specific content of the plan – are the strategies and tactics that have been identified as priorities the right ones? Will they differentiate the school in the niche in which we operate? Are they sufficiently ambitious and innovative, but at the same time feasible? Has the right balance been struck between respecting current strengths and traditions versus innovation? And do the priorities speak directly and ambitiously to the answer from question 1?
  3. Is there broad-based support for the priorities? The implementation of the strategic plan is usually dependent on: the faculty and staff who have to make it happen, the alumni and parents whose philanthropic support provide the resources, and the (current and prospective) students and parents whose enrollment and enthusiastic participation in the school is paramount. Having these groups on-board with the direction (having consensus on all the details is impossible,) or at least getting them to that position is a highly desirable pre-requisite for making it happen.
  4. Execution – John Thompson a great Canadian business leader (before his retirement, he served for many years as the number two guy at IBM in NY and recently stepped down as the Chair of the TD Bank Group) brought home to me the understanding that execution on strategy is far more differentiating than the creation of the strategy. His view (I am paraphrasing him here and there is a great deal of strategy writing that supports it) is that in most sectors there is no shortage of great, creative ideas. (Indeed many leading organizations’ reputations are most notably linked to the innovation or quality of their offering – How amazing is that new product?) However, at the end of the day, the sector leaders usually got to that position because of rigour and effectiveness of implementation compared to the other players in the industry. There is great truth to that view, including in education.

So, where are we now? Amongst the Appleby Board and Leadership team, there is strong consensus on the answer to the first question. I have written about it in this blog – our mission remains completely on point. (Our mission: To educate and enable young men and women to become leaders of character, major contributors to, and valued representatives of their local, national and international communities.) It harkens back to the founding of the school by Sir Edmund Walker and John Guest, and it compels us to think boldly in terms of why Appleby exists, what we expect of our graduates and, therefore, what we expect of ourselves in terms of an extraordinary student experience.
I am also delighted that, based on the many conversations, surveys and meetings with students, parents, faculty and staff, alumni and friends of Appleby, there is a remarkable coalescing of opinion about where Appleby should focus our effort over the next few years.
Last night, we held another of these consultation meetings with a group of alumni and parents. Their comments and questions were much appreciated as we refine our draft plan before final approval. The next one, which is open to all parents, alumni and friends, will be taking place on April 22 on campus in the LEC at 7 pm - all are welcome.
Around that time, we will also be posting the draft version of the plan. Any thoughts and feedback would also be welcome. In the interim, over the next few weeks, I will be outlining many of the elements of the draft plan – and why these are important for us.

I look forward to being completely confident with the answers to Strategy Elements 1, 2 and 3 (outlined above) and bearing down on implementation.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Voice from the Past

A couple of weeks ago, our Head of School Katrina Samson, my wife Alison and I attended the annual meeting of Heads and Board Chairs from the Canadian Accredited Independent Schools (CAIS – the association of independent schools, which also has responsibility for accreditation.)

With the explosion of private schools in Canada over the last 20 years (there are now close to 2000), there is a huge risk factor for parents deciding where to turn. I have spoken to many families from outside Canada who have made some unfortunate decisions because they didn’t know any better and were seduced by some sophisticated marketing. CAIS accreditation provides a very strong quality indicator of the school and all major independent schools are members/accredited.

Most of the sessions at the annual conference provided lots of insight into trends and issues in education today. One morning, however, the day started with R.H. Thomson playing the role of the late great author and academic Robertson Davies. Thomson was reading Davies speech to the Headmasters of the forerunner of CAIS at its annual dinner in 1971 at TCS. At that time, most of the member schools were all-boys (the all-girls schools had a separate association of Headmistresses) and a few co-ed institutions. (When he gave this speech, I was in Grade 2 at Brown Public School on Avenue Road in Toronto about to move to a CAIS school. I know – I don’t look that old!)

I found the comments fascinating, especially as my mind went quickly to the zone of assessing what has changed and what has stayed the same. Some of his ideas (and how he presents them) have fallen out of favour, but others are still very relevant 43 years later.

Here is what Davies said in 1971:

“One of your great weapons in keeping anarchy at bay in your schools is the system, devised by Dr. Arnold of Rugby and still in existence though much altered, of a chain of command. You had a form of student government before the state schools had dreamed of such a thing. Your pupils, therefore, have a chance to learn the invaluable, realistic lesson that nothing is for nothing and that power is inextricably bound up with responsibility.


It is astonishing how many your people reach the University without having mastered this simple lesson – that power is a weary burden as well as a satisfaction, and that the use of power has to be learned gradually….


Your first great strength is your strength of choice. You are not obliged to take all comers. I know you are under pressure to take all kinds of boys for all kinds of reasons, and some of your greatest successes have been with unpromising stuff. But at least you have freedom to back your own hunches and though you use the power with caution, you do have the power to get rid of boys who may be, for one reason or another, disruptive nuisances. The power this gives you to keep you own path is incalculable. If you make too many wrong guesses, you will lose your job. But then this too, is part of the system within which your schools operate; a system of realism which may sometimes be harsh in its decrees, but which never becomes flabby.


“Guard the keys,” said Arthur Woodhouse, “and you won’t go far wrong.” And I say it to you.


One of your keys is a golden one. The sanction of gold, my friends, is another of your great strengths. The parents whose boys you accept are paying handsomely for their sons’ education. They want something in return and you have to deliver the goods. This is good for you, and good for the boys.


Not long ago, a young man at the university where I teach, told me about meeting a girl – a very intense, young, student-politician – who asked him where he went to High School. He answered (one of the well known boys schools of the day). She became more than ordinarily intense. “But did you really enjoy that school?” she asked. She thought the question important. I am glad to say that he did not. This notion that school must provide, before everything else, enjoyment – meaning a constant nervous stimulation, continual discussion and shallow cerebration which is not thought or feeling or intuition, and a quick abandonment of whatever seems to call for laborious preparation and submission to often vexatious discipline – is widespread.


The real challenge of education, of course, if something very different. It is the challenge of discovering whether you can bend your proud neck to the yoke and work hard enough and long enough to get ready for very much greater challenges, which will come when school is left behind. School is often dull, because it teaches us many elementary techniques without which no achievement is possible. Real professionalism is achieved by years of necessary dull work.


A school, of course, should teach many sorts of professionalism. Greatest of all, it should teach a professional approach to life, and by that I mean an understanding of what can be achieved and the price achievement will cost in the hard coin of time, skill and personal devotion. Even geniuses have to know this. Indeed, a great part of being a genius consists of knowing these things without being taught them.


Keep your advantage. Don’t worry about your critics. Teach as professional teachers dealing with professional learners. All the real advantages in education, with which go all the big risks, are on your side.”

Monday, November 3, 2014

The First C and the Quest for the Open Mind

The last 10 days have provided a whole range of big events and sparked some fascinating issues. Those of us in the Toronto area (and frankly many other parts of the world) finally witnessed the Toronto mayoralty election and the end (at least temporarily) of the gong show that has surrounded Rob Ford. The week before last, much of Canada was seized by the murders of the W.O. Daniel Vincent and Cpl. Nathan Cirillo, and what appeared for a while to be an organized attack on our Parliament Buildings. Last week, the formerly much-beloved CBC personality and musician Jian Gomeshi began a journey that will at very least remove his cute, smooth, boyish aura, and at worst will reveal some very dark, illegal and cruel behaviours – time will tell.

What is common about these three stories are: a) they spark very strong emotional responses, and b) time unveils new perspectives and truths about each one. In each case, what appears to be or what we assume to be solid fact changes dramatically as more comes to light. The reactions from observers evolves to places that had been previously unimagined. The way many of us feel about the broader issues continues to morph with this ever-changing understanding.

Three years ago, who could predicted the Fords’ journey? Even six months ago, who could have prophesized that Doug Ford would have lost that Mayoral election by a relatively small margin while Rob returned to the City Hall as a Councilor? The day after Jian Gomeshi aggressively got out in front his dismissal, a scan of the online commentary, letters to the editors, and call-in shows’ commentaries were dominated by outrage that the CBC could have taken such a step – all just weeks after the Ray Rice case blew up.

Our Head of School Katrina Samson talks about the 4 Cs of most important outcomes for education, to which I like to add a fifth: critical thinking, creativity, communication, collaboration and character. When I think of my own children, I am far less concerned about their subject-specific skills/performance than am I interested in their abilities in these five areas. Our contention is that these attributes will continue to take on more importance for broadly defined success in the years ahead.

Generally speaking, the first of these – critical thinking – is the one that traditional education has done fairly well at. However, watching these issues unfold and a recent piece in the NY Times have raised the question for me about how well we promote thoughtful, rationale, analytical thinking. The NY Times piece by David Brooks raises the prospect that American society is becoming increasingly polarized and defined by political doctrine … to the extent that thoughtful, open-minded, critical thinking is forced into the background. I haven’t seen any studies on the subject but fear that this may indeed be the case and, to a lesser extent, in Canada as well.

The issues of our communities, our nation, and the world require leaders who will bring thoughtful critical thinking skills, which must include the ability to understand and appreciate a diversity of perspectives and backgrounds. At our Friday chapel, I was pleased to hear students from Russia and Germany reflect on their countries’ long and painful histories with each other, and students from Hong Long and Mainland China reflect on differences and similarities. Both of these are powerful messages in the times of Putin and Hong Kong democracy activism. Our future will be most successful if these kinds of conversations are regularly taking place in as many schools as possible.

These last couple of weeks provide a horn of plenty for exploring difficult issues with young people and asking them to struggle with challenging subjects with critical thinking skills. Here are some interesting questions for you to raise at the dining room table – and try to revel in the dialogue the discussion than worrying too much about the answers:

  • Despite all the scandal and controversy surrounding the Ford brothers, Doug Ford lost to John Tory by only 7% of the vote. A scan of results by ward shows that Tory won 21, Ford won 20 and Chow only 3. And the map of the wards is shockingly polarized. What does the map mean? In light of all of the happenings of the last couple of years, what should we conclude from the fact that more than a third of voters supported the continuation of ‘Ford Nation’ in the Mayor’s Chair? What should Tory do to address this situation?
  • Were the deaths of Daniel Vincent and Nathan Cirillo more about the danger of terrorism from fundamentalist Islam or mental illness in Canada? Should these attacks prompt Canada to readjust the balance between individual freedoms and greater security powers? Or should the identification and treatment of mental illness become a higher public policy priority? Should government have the right to hold Canadians who have committed no crime but who may very well pose a grave threat for committing one in the future?
  • Should employers have the right (and responsibility) to discipline or fire people who may not have been charged with a crime but who seem to have done bad things? Should some members of society (e.g. media personalities, professional athletes, politicians, CEOs and community leaders) be held to a higher bar than the average citizen and be punished for non-illegal acts (or at least those which have not yet gone through legal process?) Does the State have any business in the bedrooms of the country?