Are You a Risk-Thinker?


As a part of my Doctoral programme, we were required to do a course on leading change in education. As is customary in these highly interactive courses, we were required to articulate the words and ideas which we naturally associated with change-management; immediately I coined the term “risk-thinking”. An obvious spin off from the word “risk-taker”, risk-thinking for me is where it all begins. Historically, any significant social or personal change has had to begin in the thoughts or imagination. We have to begin to think that change is possible, see it in our mind’s eye, before we can begin to articulate what that change should look like. Although risk-thinking can be applied to any aspect of our personal or professional lives, it can hold deep significance when applied to the context of education; especially since formal education as we know it, is built on a foundation of rich tradition and institutionalisation.

Risk-thinking is a valuable tool for 21st Century educational leaders, who must begin to conceptualise new ways for constructing a dynamic educational system to better meet the needs of a rapidly evolving society. A leader’s ability to manage change, however, will require the skill of moving messy sometimes chaotic and spontaneous thoughts from an expectant imagination, to a doable action plan. According to Roscorla, (2010) innovative leadership involves a willingness to break rules and traditions, to establish principles, which are capable of buffering change. Change is, therefore, never valueless. Underlying most change processes is a desire to make things better. This desire for development and growth in a context of innovation must, however, be guided by reflective consideration of all the change variables. It must embody a healthy respect for the past and be guided by shared values which articulate why the change is preferred or critical.

Asking ourselves what policies or practices we will completely ditch, merge, modify or re-create, is an important step in the process of moving our risk-thinking to wise action. Engaging all stakeholders in the process is also critical, as leaders who see themselves as lone crusaders or heroes will soon experience the exhaustion that comes with burnout. The creation of organisational buy-in through shared idea-generation, transparency in decision-making, and the implementation of accountability systems are strategic leadership strategies for ensuring sustainable change.

Ultimately, the objective of risk-thinking should not be the creation of an impossible, out of reach “pie-in-the-sky” ideal. Great ideas that lack infrastructural soundness can be counterproductive and may lead to greater organisational frustration. Innovative leadership requires not just the creativity to think great ideas but must include building the organisational capacity to make them happen.

Denise J Charles © 2017


Roscorla, T. (2010). The seven steps to innovative leadership. Converge, Center for DigitalEducation. Retrieved from Innovative-Leadership.html



Caribbean Education: New Wine, Old Wineskins?

“Since the education system in the region was not designed to be inclusive, it is not surprising that in the absence of fundamental reforms, it is proving to be unfit for education provision in a 21st Century context, where the focus is on democratisation of access, inclusiveness, equitable provision of education for all learners and addressing the individual needs of each student. ”

 Dr. Glenford Howe, Senior Programme and Research Officer, University of the West Indies, Open Campus

students_learning_computersThe captioned statement by Dr. Howe can perhaps be considered a telling indictment on the status of educational reform in the Caribbean. We are currently being swept along a global tide to see education transformed; away from the focus on the rote memorisation and tidy rows of homogenous students in the industrial era, to a dynamic, exciting, multi-cultural and student-centred context in the digital age. At least that’s what we want in our heads and on paper. While the demands for equity are being sounded loudly in our ears by international agencies like the UN who are requiring more of us, we are perhaps beginning to question the voracity of the philosophy of exclusivity, which has been foundational to Caribbean education. I am not convinced, therefore, that we are willing to make the drastic changes needed to render our systems fully inclusive and equally accessible.

The socio-cultural history of Caribbean post-slavery societies is one built on educational privilege, elitism and separation of the “sheep from the goats” to use the local parlance of some teachers. Education was about labelling, separating and excluding those who did not fit the preferred profile of academic acuity because it reflected deeply entrenched social divides, emerging from our history. Fast forward to an era where the global collective voice on education as the undergird of national development, is the refrain “each one matters”; this reflects the shared official perspective among nation states, that all deserve access to quality education. Education for All (EFA), the global movement led by UNESCO, has both agitated for and led this move, through its global initiatives to broaden the scope for educational access in the developing world. In Caribbean nations like Barbados, where this access is widespread and guaranteed for children from preschool to Secondary, the question is not just access but the quality of such access.

We must begin to question the extent to which edicts like “each one matters” is being reflected enough in educational policy changes. In several regions, we retain a secondary school entrance exam that is grounded in a “pecking order” of schools which is suggestive of superiority and inferiority among school types. This is one critical developmental roadblock as it breeds school climate, student behaviour and academic achievement issues. We tout differentiated instruction at our teacher training colleges but maintain in our schools and universities an excessively slavish loyalty to traditional paper pencil tests, even in areas like Fine Arts and Theatre. It is as if each subject discipline must be validated by the essay, because unless you can write a thematic essay, there is no evidence to the traditionalists, that learning has, in fact, occurred.

We welcome droves of technological equipment from funding agencies but at the organisational level, our educational leaders remain suspicious and afraid of technological use that will employ student cellular phones and or tablets in the classroom. These critical issues cause us involved in educational research and commentary, to wonder what it will really take for Caribbean territories to re-imagine educational systems in the 21st Century.

I think that truly creating congruence between the aims of the digital age and the aims of current education in the region, is critical. We are already living in a digital, globalised environment where the internet and easy technological access has changed the power brokerage in education. Students and teachers can be easily empowered to craft their own learning and teaching journeys and the educational system, as one which promotes formal assessments, must catch up with this reality. It must show how it is willing to adapt to fit what isn’t going away in a hurry- the digital economy- if it is going to improve its relevance. This will have implications for educational funding, resource allocation, teacher pedagogical practices and on-going professional development.

Maximising the potential inherent in education in the digital age and the need for policy innovations, will require a significant amount of risk-thinking which is always preceded by discomfort with the familiar. Its akin to the need to put new wine into new wine skins since the old ones will definitely be inadequate. Admittedly, new policy development is often dogged by political bureaucracy and the malaise which this brings. Educational and classroom leaders willing to seize the very real moments of creative and incremental change, which lies within the ambit of their professional power, can nonetheless provide tangible hope for a new educational day.

Author: Denise J Charles © 2017

Higher Education: Branding Our Way Into the Digital Future

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Whether it’s their physical image, where they live, the gadgets they use or what they drive, Millennials have quickly learnt the value of a good brand.   Branding represents the process involved in creating a unique name and image for a product in the consumer’s mind, through utilizing themes, visuals, ideas and associations in advertising. Branding seeks to distinguish and differentiate what ever is being promoted, as it attempts to foster customer loyalty. So what does branding have to do with the future of Higher Education?

The digital age in which we live is admittedly dynamic, competitive, edgy and a tad unpredictable. As soon as we think we have mastered the latest technological gizmo or gadget, we are quickly introduced to an even faster or more efficient one. At the same time, market demands for knowledge and digital competence and the easy accessibility of such, means that today’s educational consumer is a far different animal from those in the past. Millennials

Widespread access to knowledge through the Internet, our propensity to always be “on line” and the pervasive use of social media, have effectively redefined life as we knew it. Social media and personal branding allows anyone to tout himself/herself as an expert in any given field. “Googling” and “YouTubing” have today become the “go to” behaviours of 21st Century digital natives who are quick to trade stuffy textbooks for Internet expertise, and the real-time experiences of live streaming. This has given much power or at least a sense of power and ownership to today’s learner or educational consumer. Educational institutions at any level must, therefore, “up their game” if they hope to maintain the attention of individuals who are now self-directed, empowered knowledge-learners because they already bring so much to the table. How then can Higher Education institutions maintain their competitive edge in this unpredictable, disruptive but exciting digital world?

Educational leaders and stakeholders must seek to actively engage in rebranding their institutions, in order to change the way these institutions are perceived by potential consumers. Are our institutions actively engaged with the digital world? Is this engagement reflected in our programme design and delivery, communication systems, or by our programmes’ openness, accessibility and global reach? Are our institutions comfortable with maximizing the benefits of social media, since this is the new normal in relationship building and social engagement? Institutions which are able to successfully market these attributes in their recruitment drives and programming, will perhaps emerge as those of choice in the digital era.

While attracting quality, competent students will always be an important factor in Higher Education sustainability, the extent to which institutions and their leaders are current and active participants in the digital world, will to some degree, also determine institutional relevance in the 21st Century. Institutional relevance is as much about leveraging a digital presence, as it is about shifting the institution’s raison d’etre to one, which is in sync with the disruptive innovation of today’s digital era and all that that entails. How institutions choose to navigate the digital world through both programming and presence on the digital landscape is, in itself, a critical component of building a successful brand.

Author: Denise J Charles © 2016