“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” – Heraclitus

This is about a philosophical thinking problem, and the messages that emerge for teachers and school leaders. If you know your philosophy, you can skip to the second half. If you don’t, read on…

A philosophical dilemma: the Ship of Theseus

Plutarch highlighted this problem and it has been developed and debated for centuries. In the dilemma, the ship of Theseus returns after a long period of voyaging (aided by the youth of Athens, he slew the Minotaur). When his voyage ends his ship is maintained for posterity, so when any part of it decays it is replaced. In the fullness of time, none of the original ship is left, but it still looks exactly like the ship of Theseus. This raises a question: is it still the same ship?

There are various riffs on this dilemma. A popular one is Washington’s axe, but you can also use Trigger’s broom. Washington’s axe resides in a museum, but the handle becomes rotten and is replaced. Then the blade becomes rusted, so it is also replaced. Same axe? Not the same axe? Personally I prefer Trigger’s broom (from Only Fools and Horses). Trigger wins an award for using the same broom for twenty years. He then reveals he’s changed the head seventeen times and the handle fourteen times. If you ask Trigger though, it’s the same broom – it looks the same and does the same job. No doubt he would agree that it’s the same axe wielded by George Washington.

You may be unconvinced by the ship, and the axe/broom examples seem trite. But how about Shinto temples? Their wood is replaced every 20 years. In one temple, the wood always comes from the same nearby forest because the trees are held to be sacred. Is this still the same temple?

And finally – to really mess with your mind – no cell in the human body lives longer than seven years. If you’ve done the ten year challenge, then consider this: not a single physical shred of that person exists anymore. Is it the same ship/axe/broom/temple/you?

What does this mean for teachers?

“Human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished.” – Daniel Gilbert, Harvard psychologist

Education has never been, nor ever will be, static. Pedagogy changes, policy changes, culture changes – children change. We can never stay still as we constantly need to be up to speed with our professional practice. However, we all know people who teach exactly the same way in 2019 that they did back in 2009. They think they’ve cracked teaching and that what they do ‘works’, but how do we define what ‘works’ and how can teachers know if their practice is effective? Something to consider is that we have learned a great deal from cognitive psychology in the last decade. The quest for a better understanding about how we learn and how our memories work will take decades yet. Teaching will change in line with our collective knowledge.

I accept that lessons I taught that I thought were great a decade ago won’t pass muster now. I accept this, and I welcome it as a challenge of my job. My father decided to quit teaching (at age 71, incidentally) when he felt he had run his course in the classroom. He probably hadn’t, but he I admire him for having such self-awareness and being so honest with himself. It’s what we now call being a reflective practitioner, and good teachers have always done this. Therefore what we do can change, but there is also consistency in what it is to be a true professional.

This is where meaningful professional learning comes in. We, as teachers, need to stay current in our practice the same way that medics need to keep on top of new developments in treatment and pharmacology. Evidence is key. Here are three things that I’ve changed about my craft that came after serious reflection and engagement with educational research:

  • Marking: I loved (and I choose that word deliberately) forensic marking. It made me feel that I was doing my job well, and that my pupils respected me for my work ethic and commitment to them. It gave me lots of lovely data and – I mistakenly believed – made them better at what they do. Now I have read more, I realise that written feedback is limited and my lessons could have been better if I’d planned (and read) more, rather than dedicating too much of my time to marking. I now follow Dylan Wiliam’s ‘four quarters marking’ regime and everyone is better off for it.
  • Feedback: related to the above, my feedback came mainly through my pen. I was fast at turning around essays (always back the next lesson) but I now see that live feedback is much better. I am seeing more tangible learning gains by oral feedback on the spot than I am from my trusty red pen. Whole class feedback has been a revelation to me and I strongly recommend it.
  • Peer and self-assessment: again, related to the above, I was always distrustful of these practices as I thought they were for show and were actually treated with disdain by pupils. That’s probably true if they are done badly (as always happens when you do things in a tokenistic way). However, training pupils to be discerning critics of their work can come through practice of evaluating their peers’ work. Done well, it can lead to greater insight and progress than having yet another piece of work marked by me. Without it, four quarters marking falls down.

So am I the same teacher? I certainly hope not. I also hope I won’t be doing things the same way in ten years’ time. Great teaching is about evolving your practice. It terrifies me to think that teachers plateau after only three years, as David Weston’s work with the Teacher Development Trust shows. Don’t let that happen to you.

What does this mean for school leaders?

Change is an ever-present word in leadership conversations. In fact, the Standards for Leadership and Management in Scottish education put change right at the heart of it:

“Leadership is central to educational quality. Leadership is the ability to: develop a vision for change, which leads to improvements in outcomes for learners and is based on shared values and robust evaluation of evidence of current practice and outcomes; mobilise, enable and support others to develop and follow through on strategies for achieving that change; Management is the operational implementation and maintenance of the practices and systems required to achieve this change.”

Therefore the same golden rule applies to schools as well as teachers: change comes from knowing that we can always be better, and must move in that direction. Bill Clinton once said that you can have good politics, or good policy, but without both you can’t have good government. The same is true for school leaders. What you do and how you do it are equally important.

Some key points:

  1. Accept that change is inevitable, but aim to control the extent, pace and timing. Too little leads to stagnation, too much leads to chaos. You will see things that you need to change, but you will probably also have to change things that you like too. The key is to recognise the need, choose the moment, and don’t break the speed limit.
  2. Develop a culture of professional learning that embraces change. The teachers in your school need a mindset where they recognise that their practice needs to evolve. The Wiliam mantra is invaluable: improvement doesn’t come from inadequacy, but from the certain knowledge that we can always be better at what we do. So be very careful about how you use the word ‘improvement’ – never make your staff feel that it is motivated by a feeling that they are not good enough.
  3. Are you still the same teacher? I hope not – but how do you know? Do you remember what it’s like to teach a full timetable? If you’re asking teachers to mark a lot of books, ask yourself when you last marked a set of books? I have yet to come across a teacher who didn’t value a senior leader who led by example. What example are you setting?

So is it still the same ship?

The ship has changed in its constituent parts, but its core purpose and overall identity are the same. This is how I view teachers and schools. Throughout their lifespan, a teacher and a school will have the same overarching purpose. Yet how they achieve this will be in a state of constant evolution, and at times it may need revolution. Change fatigue is a serious issue for teachers, but so too is stagnation. Deng Xiaoping tried to bring order to China after the ideological upheaval of Mao’s long tenure, and his maxim was “it doesn’t matter if the cat is black or white, as long as it catches the mouse.” I don’t mind what the answer is to the Ship of Theseus dilemma, but if it still sails well then I’m fine with that.

Further reading

Five great books on school leadership:

One thought on “The Ship of Theseus: the Nature of Change in Schools

  1. Well said Robin! Something for us and our leadership to think about and unpack carefully! I hope you’re well 👍🏼

    Like

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