Tuesday, January 30, 2018

I won't should on you if you don't should on me!

Jim Collins famously states: "Good is the enemy of great" and "Few people attain great lives, in large parts as it is just so easy to settle for a good life". In this blog post I would like to explore that it might not be just 'good' that is the enemy here, but that 'should' is equally capable of getting in the way of great. Let me explain...

On Saturday night my husband and I saw "The Darkest Hour' - a brilliant movie and one I wholeheartedly recommend. Being careful not to spoil the film for those who have yet to see it, it is safe to say that it tells the story of the time between Churchill becoming Prime Minister and his famous 'we shall fight them on the beaches' speech. What occurred in this space was the battle in the war cabinet about whether the right thing to do was to enter into peace talks with Hitler, (we should do this to save the lives of our men trapped at Dunkirk) or continuing to fight to save Britain's nationhood, (we could fight Hitler and think of a different way to save the troops). Interestingly Churchill only decided on his course of action when he stopped listening to the loud and demanding voices of his war cabinet and sought the voice of the people whom he served.

As the credits rolled I began to think about the place of 'should' and 'could' in our society today.

Looking back over education's recent past I see times when 'should' has definitely overshadowed the 'could'. When NCEA was first conceived I don't think it was ever the intent of the creators that the assessment tasks would become the prescription for what teachers should teach. My secondary colleagues have told me that the assessment tasks were originally conceived to support the many things that students could learn. But the reality of accountability measures left most schools too afraid to do anything but to use the assessment tasks as the dictate of what they should teach.

I also don't believe that those who introduced National Standards set out to remove the joy and wonder of teaching and learning; however in shifting the expectation of the system to one where teachers should focus heavily on numeracy and literacy for our at-risk learners, instead of what teachers could do to engage these students in meaningful learning experiences they did just that.

I am guessing that bowing down to 'should' doesn't just happens in education. Why is it that humans find following other people's 'shoulds' so much easier than advocating for their own 'coulds'? In my experience it is the fear of what might happen if I don't follow the loud and commanding voices of 'should' that motivates me to ignore my internal voice of possibility and come into line with the 'should' majority. Our society has become a place where 'should' is way easier to do than could. But is that what we really want?

Obviously there are aspects of our lives when we should come into line' - there is a reason for traffic laws, and for keeping food in the fridge; but the 'shoulds' that I am talking about are to do with the things that get in the way of the passions each of us hold. We are given passion for a reason and it is my belief that when you live out your passion you discover your purpose in life; and more often than not your passion and purpose are the very reason that you should not settle for anything less than what you could do.

Coming back to The Darkest Hour, Churchill found his 'could' when he went back to the people he served. How often do we go back to those whom we serve and find out what it is that they want or in many cases need us to be? As teachers how often do we go back to our students, as nurses to our patients, as retailers to our customers, as consultants to our clients? Our 'coulds' are fuelled by truly understanding the needs of those we serve.

Someone once said to me: "I won't should on you if you don't should me"! As we begin our new working year let's not should on each other nor on ourselves; instead let's take the time to explore each other's 'coulds' as well as bravely standing up for our own, and in doing so create a much better world in which we all live. As Collins reminds us it is 'just so easy to settle for a good life'; I'm not sure about you but I want to settle for nothing less than great!


  1. A great piece of writing Carolyn - and a great film.

    Considering the openness of our curriculum, we could do anything we wished, literally, but it is easier to do what we should, as then we have an out of blaming another for the outcome if the outcome does not go well. We are quite possibly basking in the beginning of a long summer of 'could', but this will take bravery on behalf of every educator (Churchill) as not everyone's could works out as well as the should, but that is the weight that every could should bear. Otherwise, there would be no cost, and without cost, our could was probably always a should! So how many are will trust their could? Mark Treadwell (mark@work.co.nz)

    1. Agreed. Fighting for our 'could' takes courage and the best place for teachers to find this is in the eyes of the students they teach;and leaders find it in their teams. Courage is fueled by passion and passion leads to purpose.

  2. Thanks for provoking thought Caroline - enjoyed your thinking

  3. Our shoulds come from outside of us; our coulds come from within us. Shoulds are often easier, because we already know others agree with them. Coulds can be risky! Coulds have to be tested before we will know the outcome. I agree with you that coulds take courage, especially when they don’t match with the shoulds. However, our schools need more people who are willing to test their coulds for the sake of our children! Shoulds should not matter when it comes to doing what is best for kids!