Putting on the Black Hat: Why Being Negative is Essential for Positive Change

Years ago I was the sports coordinator for a small primary school. On Friday afternoons our Stage 2 and 3 students would play sport. A small percentage played on our representative softball, netball and soccer teams, competing against other schools. The remaining students would participate in activities back at school.

For reasons, which I no longer recall, we wanted to increase the range of options available to those students who didn’t make it into the representative teams. With the full support of my principal and colleagues, I set about contacting local organisations. Soon, I’d arranged for tennis and golf lessons, orienteering, rock climbing and ten pin bowling in addition to our regular school based sport.

It was a popular move. The feedback from parents was enthusiastic and our students were excited about the new options. It was only after they’d signed up for their activities that I realised my mistake. Only four students enrolled in the in-school option. In my planning I hadn’t considered that we would need a minimum number of students to run an effective in-school program, and I hadn’t considered the impact on those families who couldn’t afford choice. I was so focused on developing the off-site opportunities that I’d given no thought to how our in-school offering would work and in the process managed to decimate it.

I don’t recall how we managed the situation. What I do recall is the lesson that I learned: that no matter how small the change project, it’s impact has to be considered not just in terms of how it well it might achieve its aims, but in how it impacts everything and everyone around it. Every change project creates expanding ripples which can have effects well beyond the original scope.

I worry about the increasing emphasis on change and innovation in education. We rush towards our goals, so inspired and excited by our vision and ideas. Do we take the time to consider broader impacts?

Think about the rapid increase of private schools in Australia, many of which provide incredible programs for their students. While those students benefit, the impact on our broader society is not so positive. Residualisation of public education is  a reality for some communities where the flight from public schools has resulted in huge concentrations of disadvantage. I do wonder how desirable it is for society  to be creating what are effectively gated communities for students, separated into groups based on religion or wealth, or both. We wouldn’t tolerate this in our classrooms, but as a society, it seems that’s what we are doing.

Concerns about broader impact started to nag at me when I attended the EduChange conference back in August. Don’t get me wrong, it was a terrific event which I blogged about here. But there was so much talk about solution oriented change, with no opportunity to examine whether the solutions would create even greater problems of their own.

In education circles, it  seems to me that this type of thinking is sometimes misunderstood as being negative and undesirable. I’ve been shut down and have witnessed others being shut down after questioning or pointing out potential problems ideas shared during education Twitter chats. I’ve participated in design thinking sessions where ample time is provided to generate ideas in brainstorming,  but extremely limited and sometimes no time provided to critique them. We’re told, “all ideas are good ideas, we’re here to be positive”.

However black hat thinking is essential for innovators. If we don’t take time to consider what could go wrong,  we risk creating greater problems and limit our effectiveness. We must to be willing to examine negatives if we are to genuinely create positive outcomes

Any good school change project should include a risk assessment. We need to consider the ripple effect and ask ourselves how our project might impact on every stakeholder group, not just those targeted within the project. This does not mean we  abandon projects when we foresee undesirable consequences. It means we weigh up our options.

Just like any other risk assessment, we follow a process. We determine if we can eliminate or minimise those risks, and if we can’t we then need to decide if the benefits of the change are worth the costs.

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5 thoughts on “Putting on the Black Hat: Why Being Negative is Essential for Positive Change

  1. Great post Corinne. A few years ago our teachers were given a small budget to ‘modernise’ their classrooms to suit the ’21st Century’ style of learning. Now, in hindsight, some of us are wondering about the impact of these beanbags and toadstools on students posture and whether we will be ‘in trouble’ for causing back problems due to poorly designed furniture. There was a reason for the specially designed moulded plastic chairs that were the right height for our students and their desks. They may not look as pretty but they have their purpose.

    • That’s a really interesting example Anne. And you’re right about the ergonomic design of the standard furniture provided to schools. The soft furnishings do solve some issues, but perhaps create others. I don’t think it necessarily means people should get rid of them, but perhaps consider their use carefully, with that in mind.

  2. So important to think things through. My job title is Director of Learning and Innovation…but I don’t feel a need to flip things around for the sake of innovation.We need to stay focused on the learning and how we best achieve support abd growth of our students…and teachers. Thanks Corinne for your willingness to ask questions and explore trains of thought that may push against the tide…a great post.

  3. damian says:

    Spot on Corrinne. Sadly many of us are victims of this, trying to look at the pitfalls of proposed “improvements”. Some people are very good at analysing situations and assessing the risks. All too often the positive ones jump in head first and the critical ones then come through to clean up the mess.

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