Transforming teachers for organic education

I believe that the transitioning from mechanistic to organic education requires a process of identifying the underlying potential in the system and supporting it to emerge. One of the key areas of either potential or blockage for our education system’s transition is human resources.

In his “Death Valley” talk Robinson talks about the need to ‘individualise’ our education system. He lists three principles on which human life flourishes: diversity, creativity and curiosity. He highlights the fact that no system in better than its teachers: ‘Great teachers mentor, stimulate, provoke and engage. If there is no learning, there is no education going on. Being engaged in the task of teaching is not enough to facilitate learning’. He says that ‘the high performance (education) systems of the world individualise teaching and learning, they attribute high status to teachers and they devolve responsibility to the school level for getting the job done (not politicians, etc). If you remove teachers’ discretion it stops working. Education is about humans/people and not machines’.

A lot of people might argue that people who are teachers in the current mechanistic education system will not be able to adapt to the role of the teacher that both Sir Ken Robinson and I have defined as a fundamental principle for organic education.

It is certainly true that the teaching profession will need to shift as part of the shift to an organic education model, but I do not think that teachers in the current system will necessarily have to leave. I think it is probably true that many subject specialists will find it difficult to stop focusing on teaching the content that they know and allowing processes to unfold, and might wish to leave, but many would embrace the change and find it far easier than trying to force children to learn things that do not interest them.

What an organic system needs in classrooms are generalists who love children and the process of learning, and who are good communicators with children as well as good process managers/classroom managers. That does not mean that all existing teachers are redundant – many existing teachers have entered the teaching profession because it is their calling to teach children, and those will adapt with the system (many of them will feel far more comfortable in a less regimented system anyway – these are the “wildflower seeds” that Robinson is talking about).

Some subject specialists who are passionate about their subject will still have a role as subject experts within an organic schooling system. I met a French teacher who lives in my area and divides her week up across four or five different schools. None of these schools require her expertise full time, but she has a full time job across five schools. This is a potential for teachers who wish to remain subject specialists. Many subject specialists do not enjoy the classroom management aspect of their jobs and might seriously prefer to work in this ‘expert’ way across a number of different schools (maybe each school region needs an ‘expert’ database of resources who can be pulled in when required). Some subject experts will no doubt be happy to be both an expert and a generalist, when each is required.

There will certainly be a process of attrition as some teachers in the mechanistic system find that they cannot or do not want to adapt to an organic system. However, I do not believe that the system will have to start from scratch or abandon everybody to start again. What will be needed is a process of redefining roles and requirements and figuring out what human resources the school already has available and what it still requires. There will also be a transition period as some teachers figure out whether they can adapt or not. This process is no different from the re-engineering processes regularly undertaken in businesses – it will require diplomacy and flexibility and it will not be done overnight. However, with a clear intention and direction it will be achieved eventually.

This brought me to consider the question of recruiting new teachers into the education system. In order to determine who to recruit we have to ask: ‘What makes a good teacher?’

I think this is a very good question that has not been considered very strategically by the existing school system, which has tended to focus on attracting subject specialists into teaching, and has been limited by the salaries that it could afford to pay and who might be willing to work for those salaries.

In my mother’s era teaching was one of the few professions that women were welcome in, and so many very brilliant women went into teaching (my mother being one of them). In my generation, if you were considered ‘intelligent’ you were benignly steered in the direction of one of the more high profile (and better paid) professions like law, medicine, accounting. I know so many unfulfilled business professionals who would make exceptional teachers but were never encouraged to consider teaching as a desirable profession because they were told they could ‘do better’.

I myself have spent 20 years in a wide variety of professional roles (economist, management consultant, entrepreneur) and now I find myself teaching at a small school that I have started. I have realised that I am actually a good teacher – I love being with children, I love watching children think and interact and play, and I love supporting their learning. I am really ideally suited to being an educator in an organic learning environment. Ironically, the experience that I have had outside of teaching makes me even more suited to the role of teacher today. The fact that I am a mother too makes the thought of teaching children even more appealing. I realise that I am the sort of person that schools should be targeting to become teachers, and that there are many more people like me out there who could be attracted into teaching under the right circumstances. The four inhibiting factors at present are:

  • teaching is not considered a high profile or aspirational profession,

  • teaching qualifications are narrowly defined which dissuades many people from considering becoming a teacher,

  • teachers are not given much freedom to decide what and how to teach (they have to follow a long list of rules as determined by everyone from national education departments down to school administration), and

  • teachers are poorly paid.

These four things will have to change if the system hopes to attract the right sort of people as teachers going forwards.

It is imperative to get society to value teachers more – not easy but imperative. Instead of saying that it is impossible to pay teachers more on existing budgets, the education system needs to start exploring how this might be possible if budgets could be re-prioritised. That being said, money is not the biggest motivator in many people’s lives. As Daniel Pink explains in his book ‘Drive – The surprising truth about what motivates us’ (From – What Motivates?), our traditional understanding of motivation is – if you reward what you want then you’ll get more of that, and if you punish what you don’t want then you’ll get less of that. However, he explains that ‘The carrot and stick model is greatly successful to motivate people during routine tasks, but miserable for motivating people to do creative, conceptual tasks. Large rewards lead to poor performance – creative work needs more human and less material incentives’.

Pink describes the non-material incentives that motivate in the knowledge economy:

1. People need to be paid enough so that they don’t have to think about money.

2. Acknowledge the 3 driving forces for creativity at work:

  • Autonomy (self-directed engagement)

  • Mastery (we have the intrinsic need to get better at stuff)

  • Purpose (more and more people seem to need a transcendent purpose in life)

Pink says: “Human beings are purpose maximisers, not profit maximisers”

What drives employees?

  • We want to be self-directed

  • We care about mastery very very deeply

I believe that this is true of would-be good teachers too. I know it is very true of myself – I currently work for free because I am so focused on purpose maximising over profit maximising. This is not to say that I would not prefer to have an income than not to have one – merely it highlights that an income is less important to me than the feeling that I am doing something meaningful to me. The education system needs to work out what ‘enough’ is for would-be teachers, and to figure out how to pay this.

Another thing that the system needs to do is to accept that people from other professional backgrounds could make good teachers. The system needs to define the characteristics of a good teacher and to seek these over teaching qualifications. Almost every teacher I know says that their teachers’ diploma was just common sense and it could have been taught to them in far less time than the year that is usually allocated for this. I think the education system needs to start accepting people who have qualified in other professions as potentially excellent teachers – and suitable experience should not just include previous teaching experience, but should also consider life experience and character. We need to define a process for identifying people with the right abilities and interests to become teachers.

Finland is one country where teachers are well respected and well paid and where the best and brightest are therefore attracted into teaching. (From The Finland Phenomenon: Inside the World’s Most Surprising School System (film by Robert Compton), quoted by Sir Ken Robinson) In Finland only the top 10% of students are recruited from university to become teachers. Qualifying to become a teacher in Finland is difficult. Teachers are well-trained, well-supported and given time to reflect about what they are doing, including during the school day. The system includes no tests and no inspectorate – it trusts people to be accountable for themselves. There is no huge set of national curriculum standards either, just a small collection of broadly defined standards that allow for local interpretation and implementation. It would be worth studying the Finnish system further to figure out how other countries might emulate it, not just when it comes to teachers. I will discuss it further at a later stage.

Sir Ken Robinson says that ‘a system is just a set of organising principles and the human resources to put it in place’. He argues that we need to think differently about the challenge of education – we need to recruit good teachers, we need to trust them, and we need to allow diversity of approaches and outcomes. I agree with him entirely.

Thom Markham (from says ‘Assess and develop the core personality strengths necessary for inquiry-based educators: flexibility, resilience, open-mindedness, divergent thinking. Incorporate/integrate heart-based teaching styles, socio-emotional learning and communication and collaboration skills into daily routines in the classroom. This translates into deeper learning’.

Markham also comments on the fact that teachers need to act more like coaches and practise the ‘art of ruthless compassion’ with children: ‘In a traditional classroom human variation is muted by rows, a standardised lesson, and the teacher’s ability to keep an eye on every student. In project-based learning personalities bloom, tendencies (good or disruptive) emerge and students often confuse the freedom to inquire with the licence to mess around. Messiness can be cured only by coaching individual students to perform better – speaking to their strengths, helping them see their challenges – returning at all times to the standards and norms for top performance – the art of ruthless compassion: give every student maximum support and require every student to perform at their best’.

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