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Fragments II: micro stories about the learning business

When Will Schools Start to Sing the Song of Significance?

Most of us who work in schools have got used to the idea of an industrial-age factory model of education. It's shorthand for a way of schooling dominated by textbooks and rote learning, originally designed to create a workforce that was both standardised and efficient.

And while there are few today who claim to be advocates of this outdated mode of student learning, Seth Godin's new book, The Song of Significance: A New Manifesto for Teams, provides a timely reminder that schools (along with many other post-industrial institutions) may still have some work to do when it comes to extrapolating themselves from this antiquated way of doing things. The problem, he suggests, lies not so much in what we believe about student learning, as the experience that we offer to our own employees.

Godin's thesis hangs on the idea that organisations, companies, and other places of employment, including schools, have reached a fork in the road; that, today, what we are yearning for -  far more than money, status or power - is the opportunity to do work that matters

It's creating a difference, being part of something, and doing work we're proud of.

This is the song of significance.

This is what motivates people to do the work that can't be automated, mechanized, or outsourced.

And this is the song that humans yearn to sing together.

And yet, he suggests, time and again we find ourselves reverting to an industrialist model of employment that alienates us from the significance that we so desperately crave.

Photograph of a choir song sheet

The irony of our situation, as educators, is hard to ignore; for while we declare our allegiance to pedagogies that have been carefully designed to prepare our students for a new, post-industrial world, our best efforts at organising ourselves remain deeply tied to the very industrial model that we say has lost its relevance.

So what are some of the signs that we should be looking out for? Throughout the 144 principles of this modern Manifesto, there are so many rich insights that it should be compulsory reading for anyone looking to lead a school community forward at the beginning of 2024. But, to get the conversation started, here are four short provocations, rooted in Godin's principles, that might just help us orient ourselves in the right direction.

  1. Humans are no longer resources. According to an industrialised model, good managers are those who can squeeze high levels of productivity and efficiency out of their employees. But, says Godin, "We've reached a point where we're shifting from How do I get my employees to do what I want? to How do I create the conditions where the team can make the impact it desires? A good starting point might therefore be to reflect on whether our school's current priorities or strategic objectives are in any way rooted in the notion of extracting more for less, doing what we did yesterday a little faster and a little cheaper. "It's time to change this," Godin explains. "We can create value, cause change, and make a difference by leading with humans instead of treating them as cogs in a soulless machine." 

  2. Beware false proxies. Another symptom of working within an industrialised model relates less to the way in which employees are treated as an expendable commodity, but refers instead to the way in which we tend to make "an ongoing and compounded series of errors of judgement" due to what Godin calls false proxies. In a recent podcast, Godin explains this notion with reference to ketchup and product labelling. When faced with multiple choices of ketchup at the supermarket, we tend to rely on labelling to guide us. We might, for example, choose Heinz ketchup because this label acts as a label of quality assurance for the contents hidden within the bottle. But, in the industrial model, he says, we have become used to relying on false proxies, which ultimately fail to deliver. For example, he says, we assume that leaders that attended certain universities or present in a certain way are going to be more successful than their counterparts. But, experience tells us, time and time again, even in schools, that just because someone "looks" like a leader doesn't necessarily make them the best person for the job.

  3. Tension is not the same as stress. The third principle that is worth highlighting is the idea that all of us need tension to achieve something significant in our lives. Tension, says Godin, "always accompanies change… The tension is good. It's a sign we're onto something." If you like, tension is the anticipation of what might be. But tension is not the same as stress. "When we're stressed, our brains undermine our well-being and we're unlikely to find flow, joy, or significance." Stress is the position we find ourselves in, as industrial workers, when we want to leave but have to stay. Stress is the trauma that is associated with being dehumanised, unseen, unheard, or misunderstood. Stress is the result of being part of a system that is rooted in surveillance and compliance. In the end, says Godin, "Great work creates more value than compliant work."

  4. Scale is not the point. A final principle is also the shortest to describe. In Godin's own words, "adding more employees doesn't make you more effective… Bigger isn't the goal, better is." School leaders and their boards the world over have been lured into thinking that more is always more, despite so much evidence to the contrary.

So, as we enter a new calendar year, here are four questions that might just be worth reflecting upon as we consider the future experience of our schools:

In what ways can we rebuild the strategic direction of our school on the idea that each one of us is here to do something worthwhile and significant?

How can we become better at avoiding the false proxies that continue to prevent good people from getting the jobs that they most certainly deserve?

How do we, as school leaders, create environments that are filled with creative tension but are resistant to demotivating and dehumanising levels of stress?

When will we have the courage to give up on the industrial-age idea that a bigger school is always better?

Answer these questions and we might just find that the song of significance is discernibly louder in our schools and we are one step closer - not just for our students, but equally for each one of the employees in our school - towards creating the critical conditions for growth, community and humanity; where, in Godin's words, each one of us finally feels like we are making a difference, are part of something, and doing work that we can be truly proud of.

Photo by David Beale on Unsplash



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