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Inspiration not inspection


We may all recall that X plays a big part in education though in different ways. X in Mathematics is the variable that indicates an unknown value to find; it is also the sign that states multiplication. X however will also be used to indicate the answer is wrong. In other circles, X is the much-desired symbol of love (at least in the days before emoji hearts) while in literature we read that X marks the spot of hidden treasure. Beyond all that, X is what we use to indicate the candidate that we have chosen to be elected to represent us.

There is one other situation where we find the symbol X — the X Factor, that special, noteworthy quality which is deemed to be essential for people to succeed. We all know about the X Factor but what is it and who has it? Do we have it in education? What indeed is the X Factor in education?

Sadly, all too often, the X factor that we find most in education is the negative, destructive, critical symbol of that which is wrong. The dreaded X in the margin spells misery for so many youngsters. In effect, X in this context is the symbol of inspection, which sadly all too often is simply petty, pedantic, bureaucratic, small-minded, nit-picking attention to find fault in whatever is being presented. It looks for the tiniest of faults and goes by the letter of the law. It demands correction and uniformity. It sucks the life out of those involved. It highlights all that is wrong, rarely giving any thought or indication of the solution. Everyone can see what is wrong but few can suggest a positive solution or alternative. Inspection furthermore is taken to be a means of showing who is in control, who knows better, who determines what is right and wrong. It rarely offers solutions.

In very simple but blunt terms, we do not need inspection — we need inspiration. Instead of sucking the life out of education we need to be breathing life into it (as the literal meaning of ‘inspiration’ underlines). Inspirers will be full of ideas and opportunities and originality. They do not just allow creativity but encourage and motivate it; they give credit for initiative; they provide hope and excitement. The X factor we need to see in education is the X that which stands for multiplication, for love (of learning, life and people), for buried treasure that will change the lives of the children.

Four XXXXs might well indicate four errors or mistakes (though some will no doubt see it as a means of hiding a swearword) while we might read it phonetically to say the much-wanted and sought-after ‘forex’! However, four Xs will help us understand the positive side of education as they will reveal what really inspires youngsters.

The first X that will inspire those in education is eXample. The best way to teach people is to show them, to make people see what is possible and powerful. It will be rooted in humility (not arrogance), in love (not judgment). The second X is eXplanation. When there are no reasons given (or no acceptable, valid reasons) then there is no inspiration. We do not simply point out what is wrong but explain why it is wrong and how it can be corrected. The third X is eXcitement. Inspection without that explanation is lifeless, dead, fruitless. The fourth X which will inspire is eXcellence.

Inspiration is about giving; inspection is about taking. The education that we offer must give responsibility, freedom, praise, release, opportunity, feedback, flexibility, reasons, respect. Conversely, sadly, inspection takes control, takes away dignity, freedom, originality, respect.

We have noted previously that education must be different. Far too often our education system is too caught up in inspection that it misses out entirely on the truly positive and effective quality of inspiration. We need school inspirers, not school inspectors; we need to breathe life not fire; we need to breathe life into, not suck life out of, our children and our teachers. We need people to inspire our youngsters and schools, not people who will find fault in the small detail. Education must be all about inspiring youngsters. Brad Henry, a US politician, summed it up succinctly: “A good teacher can inspire hope, ignite the imagination, and instil a love of learning.” So too must the education system. When it does that, then we can mark our X beside it and find valuable treasure.

  • Tim Middleton is the executive director of the Association of Trust Schools [ATS]. The views expressed in this article, however, are solely those of the author in his private capacity and do not necessarily represent the views of the ATS. 
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