Thinking within The Pirate Paradigm

         In an ideal world, every lesson in every subject would incorporate Thinking Skills as part of its daily routine (Gardner, 2011; OECD, 2018). Given the pressures to teach to the test, which focuses on lower-level thinking (Kohn, 2000), the pedagogical beliefs of most teachers, who still emphasis didactic instruction instead of constructivist instruction where thinking is more likely to flourish (Stipek, 2004), and teachers themselves ill-prepared to teach aspects of Thinking like Creative Thinking (DeZutter, 2011), a Thinking Programme has to forgo the ideals and work within the realms of practicality. When I first attempted the implementation of a Thinking Programme in my school in Singapore in 2009, every phase of it was textbook: intensive training, development of resources, showcasing lesson ideas, multiple workshops to generate ideas for implementation and deepen knowledge, buy-in from management, etc. However, during the review in 2012, using an analysis of teaching practices, curriculum resource design and student interviews, I realised that the habits, sunk costs, strength of tradition, politics, and established worldviews all maintained the status quo (Heracleous, et al., 2019). The realities in the classroom still manifested the deficiencies of the education system: the absence of Thinking, low-engagement pedagogy and the focus on short-term test performance over the learner’s long-term holistic development. Transforming a large, successful organisation such as mine proved to be a much more difficult one than expected, and my school’s leaders and I decided to explore an innovative solution to effect change in the classroom.

         In the 1980’s, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) encountered the same predicament of having a successful organisation too steeped in its own traditions to adopt innovation. In response, in 1986 the then-flight director Eugene Kranz created an agile innovation unit, known as the Pirates, in order to effect change in the practices of NASA. The result was a great success (Heracleous, et al., 2019), with significant technological development emerging and a lasting change in the culture and practices of the organisation. Using this concept of an agile innovation unit and adopting the same paradigms as the Pirates (see principles below), we carved out a 60-minute teaching slot each fortnight, known as the Thinking Lesson, where the students got to explore different aspects of Thinking aligned with either their existing curriculum, areas of interest, or issues in society affecting them. Customisation of the curriculum to the needs and interests of the student was at the forefront, and feedback and focus group interviews were held regularly to determine the quality, relevance and impact of each lesson. Every ten weeks, students got to vote on a topic for exploration, which the instructor and the curriculum designer had to then develop and conduct. Like NASA, we did not begin by overhauling the entire structure of the organisation, but we began with only one grade level in 2013 to test the effectiveness with only one instructor/designer. As of 2019, we have already implemented the curriculum fully across four of the six levels in my school and are piloting it at another level, with eight instructors/designers of varying subject specialisations and every single instructor/designer buying in to the Pirates Paradigm. Lessons that have been developed range from the field of psychology where students experiment with multitasking; economics where students explore game theory; science and environmental education where students learn to create an instant biodegradable water bottle; social sciences and civics education where students learn about gaming addiction through a Pokemon Go challenge; languages and mathematics where students learn to write code, programme a robot and make a movie starring the robot; and history where students critically examine the relationship between the rule of Tsars and the Communist Revolution through stories. While these lessons may appear to be innovative and impressive, what makes it even more so is that all these are taking place in an elementary school setting where there is high engagement, deep understanding and strong curriculum links to the core subjects. Innovation, engagement, customizstion, rigour, Thinking and curriculum requirements are not mutually exclusive entities, and never should be. This programme is evidence that with force of will and the Pirate Paradigm, the aforementioned principles can and should merge in order to create the best possible learning experience for the students.

The Pirate Paradigm (adapted for Education)

Motto: "build a little, test a little, fix a little

Challenge everything, and steel yourself for the inevitable cynicism and opposition.

Break the rules, not the law.

Take risks as a rule, not as the exception.

Cut out unnecessary timelines, schedules, processes, reviews, and bureaucracy.

Just get started; fix problems as you go along.

Build a lesson, not an organisation.

Don’t wait to be told to do something; figure it out for yourself.

Use regular short-cycle milestones to encourage continuous improvement and experimentation.

Results orientation: Students First, and Students Only.

Encourage personal accountability and responsibility.

Challenge convention, while operating in a large, rule-bound hierarchy.