Monday, December 19, 2016

The end of the lone nut?



In 2014, I opened the first #edchatNZ conference with the above talk from Derek Sivers about how to start a movement. I declared that I was a lone nut. Personally, I found the lone nut metaphor really useful, as more often than not, I found myself in schools where I was considered a bit weird, eccentric. I was an outlier, the one person dancing alone in a field. Being a bit weird and not fitting with the status quo can be isolating. However, through Twitter and #edchatNZ, I found there were others dancing with me. I was less of a lone nut, and part of a movement.

Two years down the track and there are many important lessons that I have learnt since first declaring myself a lone nut. In particular, lately, I have questioned whether it is time for a new metaphor? Perhaps the lone nut is past its used by date? Let me explain...


For many of us outliers, the lone nut metaphor is useful to make sense of our feelings as being other, of being different. We can take solace in it, when we feel like we are dancing alone in our schools, when we know our cause is worthy yet nobody seems to be listening. One of the most common themes that stand out from moderating #edchatNZ for four years now, is how often educators across the country, feel and think that they can see a better way forward for students or staff in their context, but that their thoughts and feelings are ignored. There are numerous educators in countless contexts who are eager to see improvements in everything from priority learners, student engagement, staff or student wellbeing or better preparing students for our changing world. Frequently, these same educators feel alone, that they are the only ones championing these critical causes. To return to the metaphor of the video above, many of these educators feel like they are dancing wacky in a field, but National Standards and Qualifications, senior and middle leaders, other staff and parent communities are telling them to sit down.

It seems however, that there is something we lone nuts sometimes forget, perhaps even conveniently ignore: "The first follower is what transforms a lone nut into a leader." Without the followers, you remain a nut. Being a leader is not as simple as dancing wacky. It is not enough to shout our vision at the top of our lungs, regardless of how important, ethical or critical it might be. Our ability to build a community is key. More important than our wacky dance moves, is our ability to make connections, to listen, to show empathy, to build trust, to talk with rather than at. Standing on a soap box professing your view only helps those who are already converted to your world view feel important, it does not necessarily bring anyone new to the cause. Dancing like a whack-a-doodle, does not a leader maker. If we really believe in the causes that we champion, then we must build trust, we must build a community. It is our ability to build a community, a following, a movement, that will transform us from lone nut to leader, not the dance moves alone. We must strive to become less lone nut and more mixed nuts.

There is also a further reality that some of us lone nuts need to contend with: not all dance moves are created equal. Some dance moves are just the flavour of the moment, they might be the 'juju on that beat' of the moment (here's the link if you're not up with the latest move). Just because you have read a whole bunch of blogs and a few books about something does not elevate it from the Harlem Shake (yet another wacky dance move you may have missed) to the moon walk, it does not elevate it from the Macarena to a pirouette.

Perhaps it is time to evaluate the merit of your dance moves? Are student inquiries, design thinking, personalised learning and bring your own device just the flavour of the moment? How would you know? Are they just ambulances at the bottom of the cliff and there are bigger problems to contend with and explore? Why should your moves be prioritised over that of others who are also dancing?


As useful as the lone nut metaphor is, like all models and representations, it has its limits. Perhaps it is time that we invest more of our own efforts into these limitations. For those of us who are eager to see change in our education systems, perhaps it is time we start focussing on how we build our movements, and whether the new paradigms we are suggesting are powerful enough to withstand genuine critique and existing momentum.

It is high time we examine the limitations of the lone nut, and challenge ourselves to look and act beyond the metaphors we identify with the most. If we don't, we are doomed to remain lone nuts, and our students will most likely be worse off for it.