Blue sky thinking − even schools cannot escape this management cliché! But there is a nugget of value to be found within this particular style of brainstorming, especially when it comes to professional and personal learning. With this in mind, we explore how to make it work in schools

Practical tips

Blue sky thinking
It is a truly horrendous management cliché, but ‘blue sky thinking’, the type of brainstorming which acknowledges no limits in ideals and no preconceptions, can actually help to determine what might nudge professional development further towards the standards you are aspiring to.

When there is an atmosphere of mutual respect and trust within a school it is far easier to gather frank opinions from staff about their professional development and goals for the future. If we’re serious as a profession about raising standards, we need to enable staff to confidently take the risks necessary to extend themselves beyond their current comfort zones.

While some schools arrange periodic blue sky thinking exercises − sometimes just a board in the staffroom is enough to gather ideas − others will develop the kind of atmosphere in which ideas can be put forward at any time and discussed in an optimistic spirit.

If you want to encourage blue sky thinking in your school to enhance professional learning, these ideas may help:

  • Dream the dreams of those undeterred by practicalities such as time and funding constraints. You need to know what the ideals are, not what compromise may be.
  • Never assume that something is impossible. You never know, there may be a way and every suggestion and request deserves consideration.
  • It’s natural for teachers to sell themselves short, even in their blue sky thinking. But it’s important to blast through that; this may be the public sector, but without pushing boundaries, standards will never rise.
  • Encourage blue sky thinking to be an opportunity to challenge. Without that, learning is at best limited.
  • Banish pessimism in blue sky thinking. It serves no purpose.
  • Work through the arcane (and inane) with patience, as the truly valuable suggestions are likely to flow towards the end of the exercise (however you are executing it).
  • Encourage people to think in terms of the individual and the institutional. One needs to be balanced by the other at all times.
  • Use blue sky thinking to reach agreement on what will build trust in your school, particularly when it comes to professional learning.
  • Aim to determine the school’s most compelling ideal and vision for learning. Is this shared by all staff?

Encourage all staff to be equally involved in any blue sky thinking exercises you develop. Those at the start of their careers and those nearing retirement tend to be most positive while those in their so-called ‘mid-career’ may need more motivation to get into this kind of thinking.

How might teachers become collaborative partners in their professional learning? Where does this feature in your blue sky thinking? If it doesn’t, is there a reason for that? How might it be encouraged?

Remember to reiterate the fact that the ability to thrive at work should drive these kinds of exercises. It’s through this kind of well-being in the workplace that progress can be made in the least draining way. Career satisfaction counts for a lot!

The reality is that the sky is far from blue for many of us on some − most − days, even in the summer, and we simply have to adjust our ideals accordingly. But without ambition and direction we cannot even hope to aspire to raising standards.

Find out more…

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Issues and Information

The Children’s Charter
At a conference on celebrating innovative approaches to learning, held at the National College for school leadership in Nottingham, a Children’s Charter for the curriculum was produced from the contributions of 150 pupils from 17 primary schools across the country.

The Children’s Charter says: “We want…

  • to learn about real things, things which matter to us
  • to break down barriers between subjects into real live topics
  • to learn from experts who inspire us, eg artists, musicians, writers, mathematicians, scientists
  • to learn more about the world, world events and where we live
  • to be involved in choosing what we learn − what interests and inspires us
  • more opportunities to work in teams, to learn from one another and to work with different age groups
  • more time to learn, more time to research and more time to finish
  • to learn by doing and making
  • to learn with our parents and other adults
  • to communicate our learning through the technologies we use
  • to communicate and learn with children in other countries
  • to learn more by being outside the classroom and outside school
  • to be listened to.”

    These views will be fed into the review of the primary curriculum that Sir Jim Rose is undertaking.

Find out more…

This e-bulletin issue was first published in June 2008

About the author: Elizabeth Holmes qualified as a teacher at the Institute of Education, London and is the author of several books specialising in the areas of professional development and teacher well-being