Be contrarian
It is time to be contrarian

Best practice education ‘can’ be contrarian. To be frank, maybe it ‘should’ be contrarian.

contrarian is someone who does not conform but rather is perceived to do things differently to what everyone else is doing at the time. For example, the contrarian investor sells what everyone else is buying and buys what everyone else is selling.

“Contrarians do not try to do the opposite of what everyone else is doing, nor do they take a contrary stand just to be different. 
Contrarian leaders try to live in the future while everyone else is focused on living in the present.

Contrarians try to discover what will be most important tomorrow and think “future back.” 
They take a position based on what they see happening in the future, not upon what they believe contemporary thinking suggests is happening now.

The best leaders are at heart contrarians. They see where things are going faster than others because they work backward from the future. “

Greg Parry CEO GSE

An innovator is someone who introduces new methods, ideas, or products in response to a need. Arguably the most successful inventors, designers and leaders found methods that no one else even considered.

If you want to be a great educational leader, you need to choose not to follow the herd but rather to find underappreciated and out-of-the-box ideas and focus your attention and effort there. Sometimes, you need to be contrarian, focusing on outcomes first before the process or pathway.

Conventions are important but convention can also reflect ordinary, standards and average achievement.

Many like to bring attention to the fact that Mark Zuckerburg, Bill Gates and company did not graduate from famous universities. While this is true, what we should recognise more significantly is the fact that they were unconventional. Their pathway to greatness did not require convention but it required flexibility and opportunities to be contrarian. They had no choice but to be contrarian.

I had the good fortune one time to hear and be inspired by Bill Gates’ reply to the question “What did Lakeside School do that most likely helped you succeed.” (Bill Gates attended the Lakeside secondary school in Seattle)

His answer “They basically got out of my way.”

Conventional pathways did not satisfy learners such as Gates and Zuckerburg. A traditional classroom and schedule is an obstacle to unusual learners. Our education pathways need to be contrarian.

Prior to 2020, and the onset of pandemic restrictions, virtual education and alternative pathways were gaining popularity but barriers existed. Some obstacles related to logistics such as access to devices and the internet but some very well accepted beliefs were that it was very difficult or impractical to use virtual learning extensively. “It might happen but we have a long way to go,” was a popular refrain. A 3rd party force accelerated change, unexpectedly, in a different direction.

During the pandemic there were more than 1.2 billion children in 186 countries affected by school closures. Of course many did not use technology to replace their mode of education, however overnight many millions were quickly forced to learn differently. What we know happened was that teachers, children and families were forced to access education in a different way. We all hope this terrible obstacle is something we never face again, but it was both a crisis and a testing opportunity. It was a turning point that required leaders to not only be strong but to “pivot” and be contrarian.

How can we be contrarian?

Make yourself be contrarian

If we want to be contrarian or innovative the most powerful way, is to impose, in reality, or in principle a position that a plan no longer be executed in conventional ways. Only then does our mind open more completely and allow us to see a different plan. We challenge children in such ways but why not do so as leaders?

If you cannot present your traditional end of year report in the same way, what might it look like?

If you were forced to use reduce all staff meetings to just 40 minutes, once each month, how would you effectively deliver all communication and make decisions in other ways? (Teachers might applaud you)

If you were forced to change the titles and job descriptions of all staff members what would you call them and how might their jobs change?

Why does the school day start and finish at the times it currently does? What about term holidays?

If time and money were no obstacle and you were forced to create a new plan, what would that look like?

If students were in charge, and not you, of the physical design of a school, what would the final concept look like?

If you were in a forced lockdown for extended periods over approximately one year, how would you maximise student achievement during that period, then recover learning gaps after. (I guess you know this one already)

We need a paradigm shift. We need to be kids again! Sadly and too often, it is out of a crisis that we are forced to see new visions.

“We need to unshackle ourselves from a history of convention and make ourselves “walk and talk” differently. If you are truly an educational leader you are one who is forever evolving and being contrarian in your thinking. Be the person you want our young people to become, or step aside and work in the back room.”

Greg Parry, CEO

Are we encouraging our leaders to be contrarian?

We are telling our students to be critical, out of the box thinkers. We are rewarding students who design, create and hypothesise new ideas. But some educational leaders are drowning in convention. We need to demonstrate to all stakeholders that there might just be different ways to do things and the greatest leaders will break new ground and forge new pathways.

“I don’t want to be conventional. I also don’t want to be innovative just for the sake of it. I want to have impact and I don’t want my thinking, or yours, to get in the way of that.”

Greg Parry, GSE CEO

Too many schools look exactly the same as they always did. Not only how they look physically, but their behaviours and practices need radical reform and new thinking. This comes from the top and we need to provoke, encourage and foster a new perspective on educational leadership. If Rip Van Winkle woke up tomorrow the first thing he might notice is that churches and schools have never changed. Institutional conventions are killing the natural energy that children have within them to break new ground and have global impact. If we are honest with ourselves, some of us are a significant part of the problem. We must lead in the same way that we want our children to lead. We must embrace change and be contrarian.

Contrarian leadership

The only thing we can be truly certain of is change

Sometimes the pace of change can be overwhelming.  Michael Simmons explores this concept in a recent Article. Simmons studied the reasons why futurists predictions in the 20th century were incorrect. He concluded that competition, or something called the red queen effect leads to species constantly adapting, evolving, and proliferating in order to survive while “pitted against ever-evolving opposing species.” The world is much smaller now. We have access to a larger and much smarter society with inordinate ideas. These ideas accelerate innovation, and the red queen effect takes over. 

“20 years from now, the rate of change will be 4x what it is now. Things will keep accelerating from there, and in 40 years, it will be 16x”

Michael Simmons

There is no question that the pace of change will accelerate, so we also need to challenge ourselves to lead faster. In effect we need to approach change and leadership from a completely different paradigm.

Contrarian in education
GSE wants to be known as being contrarian in education

What conventions must we fight to keep?

Some conventions are very important. We need to fight for them because they have meaning, they have function and they make our schools better.

Traditions and Cultural Artefacts

Traditions are a touch stone for values and beliefs we treasure. They often reflect respect. They connect us with past achievements and bring a sense of security as we come to rely on certain rituals and events that unify us and bring back memories of the past. The graduating students that ring a bell for the last time as they exit the school on their last day. The tiles and pavers with students names engraved, representing funds raised, time contributed and a place to revisit in years to come. Art work completed by a small child that makes a grandparent cry. Sports trophies. Old photos. Quotes and school songs. You cannot artificially create traditions and cultural artefacts by artificial means. They are meaningful because they have meaning.

Proven practices supported by research

Marzano proved what were high yield strategies, in contrast to the gimmicks or strategies that experienced educators describe as just “flavour of the month.” He highlighted best practice that many educators already knew, backed up by research and evidence. Evidence-based teaching strategies work. John Hattie proved which teacher qualities have the greatest impact. His concepts around visible learning recognised the power of teachers learning from and talking to each other. Collaborative planning and being purposeful is something we always knew worked but he proved it. Michael Fullan has shown what really makes a difference for educational reform and change. We all nodded our heads when he spoke about large scale reforms that failed and in contrast, the major changes that proved to be sustainable. Andy Hargreaves and many more sing the same songs that long standing teachers and educational leaders have professed for many decades but could not put it so eloquently or reference it with research. The proven practices must be retained and expanded. We need to fight for the basics.

A Focus On Academics

Schools are aimed at educating children in the core subjects of English, Maths, Science, Social Studies , the Arts, PE and many other core content that we know are the key foundation of knowledge. While we should attend to unique elective areas and special niche topics we know that students need to get into university with a set of knowledge that is a foundation for all other learning. The curriculum is frequently cluttered and teachers are distracted by new directions that do not have positive impact on their own roles or student achievement. Core business should be core academic pursuits.

A Focus On Things Other Than Just Academics

be contrarian
The Rip Van Winkle effect is real – be contrarian

If schools were only important for academic pursuits we would not develop well-rounded change makers. Children must develop interpersonal skills, problem solving and critical thinking skills. They must have fun and know how to make both themselves and others happy. They need a sense of community to shape them and to foster skills that they will later share in other larger circles of influence. Children need to be interesting and not the product of an education factory, or for that matter controlling adults. We legitimised the arts by expanding STEM to STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering Arts and Mathematics) but engagement and celebration of culture and the arts was always valuable, as is sport. We must develop leaders who contribute to communities, charity and have a selfless concern for making the world better. Children who will make a difference are happy, balanced, interesting and engaging human beings.

The Rip Van Winkle effect is real. The future is now, given that we are already planning for a world that is changing so rapidly that you can’t even begin to be ready for it.. The only way to stay ahead of this tendency is to plan carefully, then carry through with the plan. Basically, that means that you will have to be proactive in your life to have a life with a variety of exciting outcomes at the end of it.

As Oscar Wilde proclaimed “The contrarian dogma is simple and easy to understand: “Whatever is popular is wrong.”

Let’s not aim to be popular. Let’s have impact and make a difference.

When you genuinely have impact then you are likely to be popular anyway so why not be contrarian and leave a lasting legacy.

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CEO and Education Expert Greg Parry

Greg Parry

Internationally renowned for his expertise in education leadership, Greg Parry’s vast experience includes leadership of projects for edu-cation institutions throughout Australia, the Middle East, the United States, India, Indonesia, Malaysia and China. Recognised for his numerous contributions in the education arena, Greg has received the Ministers Award for Excellence in School Leadership based on improvements in school performance and a range of successful principal training and leadership development programs, as well as the School of Excellence Award for Industry/School Partnerships and the School of Excellence Award for Technology Innovation. His company GSE (Global Services in Education) has been recognised as having the Best Global Brand in International Education in 2015 and 2016.

Considered one of the premier experts in his profession, Greg has trained teachers and principals throughout the world in areas such as critical thinking, language development and leadership. His expertise in school start up projects, leadership and curriculum development, has made him a sought after authority in these disciplines.

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