In their 2011 book, Gardens of Democracy, Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer argue for a change in mindset to the US economy, its democratic processes and thus its civic life. They suggest that this is best done by shifting from what they call the machinebrain to a gardenbrain in our thinking. The fundamental difference is in how we exert influence: a machinebrain sets up a system and then allows that system to function, more or less effectively, but is unwilling to interfere with the system that it has set up because it attributes certain power to the machine (and therefore, presumably, authority) and hence accepts its unchanging role in society, the economy or government. It thinks in terms of self-regulation, and believes that “the markets” or “the democratic system” will sort themselves out because they are the systems we have set up.

The gardenbrain, on the other hand, sees everything as open to being tended. It accepts stewardship rather than self-regulation, and therefore sees that gardeners, rather than a system, have the controlling hand. It accepts complexity rather than simplification of economic and political models, and sees things as interrelated in that complexity. It accepts a large ecosystem with a wide number of “players” rather than a model where everyone has to fit their lives, thinking, work, etc. around a self-regulating system.

I came across their work through reading Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st Century Economist, which in turn I discovered through George Monbiot’s review of it in the Guardian in April. Raworth has written one of the most exciting books I have read since I discovered Wendell Berry and I have read her work with a growing sense of alarm, joy, deep stimulation and relief. Apart from anything else she restores the importance of the household economy to its proper place. She applies the gardenbrain metaphor of Liu and Hanauer to a concept of economic gardening which accepts that we are tending an evolving, interconnected economic society which is on such a global scale that

“gives added importance to novel initiatives, from new business models to complementary currencies and open-source design. Far from being mere fringe activities, these experiments are at the cutting edge – or rather, the evolving edge – of economic transformation towards the distributive and regenerative dynamics that we need” (p158)

This is not the place to review Kate Raworth’s book, and I will need to read it again before I even absorb the power of what she is proposing (it is reviewed here and here and here, besides George Monbiot’s review mentioned above), but I am grateful to her for referencing Liu and Hanauer’s work because it has begun to spark in me a complete review about the work I do as a headteacher.

They write:

To be a gardener is not to let nature take its course; it is to tend….Gardeners don’t make plants grow but they do create conditions where plants can thrive and they do make judgments about what should and shouldn’t be in the garden. (Gardens of Democracy, Sasquatch Books, 2011, p11, p87)

Humans, it is said, originated in a garden. Perhaps that is why we understand so intuitively what it takes to become great gardeners. Find the right ground and cast the seed. Fertilize, water and weed. Know the difference between blight and bounty. Adapt to changing weather and seasons. Turn the soil. That is how a fruitful economy grows. (The Machine and the Garden, NY Times, July 2012)

There is much here to contemplate in my own leading of a school, and as I do, regret also arises, for missed opportunities, for lack of clarity of purpose in my own work, and in a concern that a failure to lead by example, above all, in missed opportunities to take the courage to teach, has led to plants – children and teachers – not growing in the way that I intended. I have exalted autonomy for teachers as a public good for the school without tending to their needs more carefully. I have tried to maximise teacher’s impact without giving careful thought to my own.

All that is about to change, and I will begin some sort of extended meditation over the coming months on my role, how I deploy myself, what I spend time on, and how I nurture – and intervene (a posh word for interfere, sorry) where necessary – with teachers and children. It will mean being more public in school and less public with colleagues. Kate Raworth says that “economic gardeners must get stuck in, nurturing, selecting, repotting, grafting, pruning and weeding the plants as they grow and mature.” (p158) All of these lovely present participles have got direct application to the work that is coming up at Christ the Sower.

Before Easter, I signed myself off work for three days because of the accumulation of stress, exhaustion, bad sleep patterns and over work. It was always going to happen, given the way I have gone about things, but it took me by surprise even so. I tried to come back on days 4 and 5, but failed both times. In 36 years of work I have never been away from work for more than a day at a time. What finally really worried me was that I was getting bad/slow at decision making and needed to get out of the way so that those who needed to make the decisions could get on and do so. A number of things about the future were sorted out in my mind during those three days, and in subsequent conversations with those who looked to support me, I began to evaluate some of what my personal impact has been and where I have actually made a difference when I have been at my best.

We are thinking and musing as a leadership team about our annual gathering of teaching staff and governors that is taking place a week on Friday (26th May). We have a model for how we will deepen our work – in fact depth will be a key concept in what we talk about – and there is an excitement about us as we approach it. However, a rootedness in who we are and what we can realistically achieve has underpinned all our discussions. It means finding ourselves as a school in God again, looking at the new uncertainty of the educational landscape, with assessment, funding, governance models all under scrutiny and pressure, and knowing that He is able to lead us and protect us. It means taking on His yoke, I suspect, and walking at His pace as we tend to one another. It also means being rightly yoked together as leaders who lead, but who share that work more equably – in this matter I have probably failed my co-leaders this year by not taking my fair share of the load – so that those who follow grow in confidence to be the leaders that they in turn are called to be to their children.

More to follow, doubtless.



About Huw Humphreys

I am a headteacher by profession, now working as an educational researcher, in the city of Milton Keynes, where I have been since April 2011. My work looks to make education effective for the whole child and keeps a distant relationship with the powers that be and their narrowing approach to education... but most of all I am looking to find out what it means to be both a follower of Jesus Christ and a passionate educator in the midst of an unsettled community. I am also a part time musician, amateur printmaker, part time linguist and lover of history and literature...committed both to freedom to learn and depth of learning for children. The views on this blog are all my own.

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