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On Imaginative Gridlock

The safest place for ships is in the harbour, but that’s not why ships were built. Anonymous

For how long has imaginative gridlock been clouding our inventiveness in the international education sector?

What if the way we have divided up the world in our minds were analagous to thinking that the land mass on our planet is situated entirely above the equator, and that the other planets and stars, not to mention the sun, revolve around the Earth?

What if that were true?

It surely would have profound implications, including (not the least) informing our entire mindset. As much as we prattle on about Carol Dweck’s view of mindset and pat ourselves on the back for ensuring that those students in our charge will be orientated toward a growth mindset, might we ourselves not suffer from a fixed mindset when it comes to how we “do” international education?

We see the growth figures for international schools, and we bog ourselves down in definitions of just what constitutes an ‘international school,’ and so forth. We are anxious about increased competition in the recruitment of teachers, and we wonder rather chronically where they will come from. We wonder about our ‘territory’ (think of this as the six-decades-long-defined region in which you’re located) losing out, due to the growth of another ‘territory.’ We shake our heads and think, “This is an unbelievably messy time.” We allow our anxiety to grow and become septic, and it’s as if we are awaiting some messianic consultant to analyse the data and tell us what to do in terms of technique, rather than rely on our own capacity to make decisions, to see through the mess, and to rise above it. In other words, to evolve.

More learning (data gathering and theoretical application of technique) will not, on its own, change the way people see things or how they perceive them. “There must first be a shift in the emotional processes of that institution [in our case, international education as a sector]. Imagination and curiosity are at root emotional, not cognitive, phenomena. In order to imagine the unimaginable, people must be able to separate themselves from the surrounding emotional processes before they can even begin to see (or hear) things differently. Without this understanding, it becomes impossible to realise how our learning can prevent us from learning more.” (Friedman, A Failure of Nerve, 31). In the event that this doesn’t make sense, consider Galileo, who offered naysayers an opportunity to utilise his telescope to observe the movement of cosmic bodies, to look for themselves. So many naysayers, in those earliest days of his efforts, refused to observe, even when offered the chance. Consider just how much longer it took for things to evolve because their “learning” got in the way of learning, of becoming something more.

Edwin Friedman, author of A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, offers the following: “In any type of institution whatsoever, when a self-directed, imaginative, energetic, or creative member is being consistently  frustrated and sabotaged rather than encouraged and supported, what will turn out to be true one hundred percent of the time, regardless of whether the disrupters are supervisors, subordinates, or peers, is that the person at the very top of that institution is a peace-monger. By that I mean a highly anxious risk-avoider, someone who is more concerned with good feelings than with progress, someone whose life revolves around the axis of consensus, a “middler,” someone who is so incapable of taking well-defined stands that his ‘disability’ seems to be genetic, someone who functions as if she had been filleted of her backbone, someone who treats conflict or anxiety like mustard gas–one whiff, on goes the emotional gas mask, and he flits. Such leaders are ‘nice,’ if not charming” (13).

Behind that sharp commentary is the idea that status quo institutions and individuals will do almost anything to avoid an Adventure, what we might term ‘the unknown.’ However, we know from what we see around us today that ‘the unknown’ is ubiquitous, and even the inevitable new normal (to borrow a trite phrase). Kevin Kelly’s new tome, The Inevitable, provides a meaningful term for this notion of adventure: he calls it “[inevitable] becoming.” Kelly, who writes about technological forces shaping the future, states that “the kind of inevitability I am talking of here […] is the result of momentum. […] Culture can advance or [slow down] the expression, but the underlying forces are universal. […] Not all of this shift will be welcomed. […] The continuation and extension of the trends I outline will […] rattle international borders because it is borderless” (4-5).

Consider that last sentence. Part of our struggle with ‘imaginative gridlock’ is that, even in the culture that is international education, we wrestle with what it might mean to be borderless. As human beings, we are given to thinking of things in categories; one category is the notion of ‘borders.’ To confront and experience a reality that exhibits (growing) signs of borderless-ness is a new and very uncomfortable way of thinking for us.

But what of our ships in the harbour–our schools and our professional selves? Surely they were built not only for reliability, but validity as well? (See Roger Martin’s work on reliability versus validity) Validity is a driver of adventure, of becoming; yet, how well are we prepared for it? We seem to be brilliant at cognitive phenomena, how about things such as imagination and curiosity?

To break through the imaginative gridlock that besets us, and that too often eludes us because we adore our ships in the harbour, we need those pioneers–institutions and individuals–who are committed to being ‘at the frontiers,’ who take validity as seriously as reliability. We need to embrace the process of becoming, which entails leaving the harbour.

How will you commit yourself to “becoming” this year?

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