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Why learning stand-up comedy is no joke

Blog Editor, IOE Digital16 October 2013

Louise Stoll
Have you heard the one about the professor who did a stand-up comedy course? Well, if you haven’t before, you have now. And if you’re thinking, “why would anyone in their right mind do that?” that’s just what I was wondering after the first two weeks of my seven-week course earlier this year.
Why take on this challenge? Am I about to leave the ivory tower for a life in the comedy clubs? Anyone who saw me perform my final showcase will be overjoyed to hear that’s not my motivation. I just became increasingly concerned that when accountability stakes are high, or educational policies steer educators towards prescriptive teaching programmes, like a specific literacy approach, many teachers respond by playing it safe and relying on others to tell them what to do.
Around the world, many governments recognize that it’s essential for children graduating from school to be creative and adaptable. But, if teachers don’t have the opportunity to be creative, how can anyone expect them to light that spark in their students?
That’s why my colleagues and I started working on creative leadership with teams of school leaders. We explored and studied different ways the leaders could support their colleagues in coming up with and trying out new strategies to tackle difficult problems inside and outside the classroom. We learned that this involves taking risks, for them and for the teachers, as they were pushed out of their comfort zones. Some of the leaders and teachers resisted making changes to the way they carried out their work, finding every excuse to leave things the way they were. The risk just seemed too great.
That’s where the comedy course came in. I wanted to feel what it was like to try something totally different, something that didn’t feel “same old, same old”, that would seriously challenge me. It was really hard. Those comedians who make it all look so easy when they make us laugh actually put a huge amount of time and effort into practising and refining their jokes. My classmates (a retired police officer, an airport driver, a solicitor, a waiter, a documentary film maker, and a prison officer, among others) and I spent hours between the sessions thinking up and developing material, trying it out on willing – and sometimes less willing – friends and family members, then tweaking it or if necessary, ditching it and coming up with something new. Turning up the next week without having put in the effort just wasn’t an option if we wanted to stand up in front of our tutor and peers without feeling completely foolish. Luckily, being in this together, we quickly became a supportive group.
Experts take practising extremely seriously – all 10,000 hours of it, as Anders Ericsson reminded us. In The Expert Learner, to be published at the start of 2014, my colleague Gordon Stobart argues that we can learn many lessons from experts like Mozart, David Beckham and the Williams sisters. He argues that we should be applying this to learning in schools – both students’ learning and teachers’. Practise needs to be more purposeful, focusing on specific elements. He’s not saying that every one of them will become experts, but that learners, however old we are, can improve.
Being a better teacher, leader, parent, policy maker isn’t something that just happens. You have to be open to new ideas and try experiences that push you and challenge your thinking. And you need to practise new skills and keep refining them.
When did you last seriously challenge yourself learning something new for the benefit of children and young people? How did it feel? Did you practise it?
OK – time to confess. This is my first blog. Here I am pushing myself out of my comfort zone again, totally unsure of how you’ll react to this. I’d welcome feedback. Of course, I’ll also need to practise, and you know what they say about practise . . .
This post first appeared at http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/international_perspectives/

Schools play a critical role in helping young people find their sense of place

Blog Editor, IOE Digital17 May 2013

Kathryn Riley
Our young people inhabit a planet of increasing diversity and complexity. In a world of ongoing transformation, they need to find their place. Place is a powerful notion: the place where I am from, the place where I live, the place where I would like to be. Place is about being an insider or an outsider. Schools have a critical role to play in helping – or hindering – young people to find their sense of place.
Last week, I met with young people from four London schools: Mulberry School for Girls, St. Paul’s Way Trust School, Central Foundation Girls’ School in Tower Hamlets and the Ursuline School, Wimbledon. I wanted to know what they thought about my new book Leadership of Place: Stories from the US, UK & South Africa (K. Riley, 2013: Bloomsbury).
My book looks at how a school’s location, and the stories of the individual students in the school community, affects the way heads and teachers think about their work. At the heart of the book are three locality studies: Brooklyn, New York, London’s East End and Nkonkobe in the Eastern Cape of South Africa.
Wherever I went I asked young people the same two questions: “What’s it like living around here?” and “What’s it like being in this school?”
• For children at “Downtown School” in Brooklyn, New York, the neighbourhood is “a world of highways, underpasses and overpasses”. The school building is industrial and unwelcoming; yet, for many, “school becomes the only stable place they know”, the principal told me.
• Staff at “Annie Besant” school in Tower Hamlets said they were shocked at the depth of poverty and overcrowding their students lived in, but the girls, mainly of Bengali origin, did not think they were deprived.
• In South Africa’s Eastern Cape, where schools may lack running water and electricity, one boy told me: “The good thing about this place is being loyal and the most important thing is love. It’s a good family, good friends, education, sport… And there are bad things that don’t make me feel good… drugs alcohol, HIV, unemployment.”
The young people I met with in London told me more about the complexities of life in the city. One young woman summed up the importance of school as a place for her in the following terms: “You have to be who you are in school, otherwise how are you going to be able to deal with the difficult things that come your way?”
They spoke about their leadership. They discussed the legacy they hoped to leave for other young people when they left school.
They certainly challenged the view of old Etonian MP, Jesse Norman, a newly appointed political adviser to David Cameron, that Eton is one of the few schools where students “think that there’s the possibility of making change through their own actions” (Observer, 28th April, 2013).
Perhaps Mr Norman might like to visit one of these London schools?
Professor Kathryn Riley, London Centre for Leadership in Learning, Institute of Education London.