A young man schooled here in Zimbabwe went overseas and took a temporary job as a waiter in a restaurant. He was allocated duties to certain tables and accepted them readily. One evening, when the restaurant was quiet, he had no tables to look after so when he saw another table needing tidying after the diners had left, he went across and began to clear the dishes and to clean the table. Another of the waiters who was sitting down at another table asked the young man what he was doing. “I don’t have any tables to clear so I thought I would help out as I saw the diners had finished.” His accuser then told him off as that was his table, even though he was not clearing it. Instead of being thanked and praised for helping his colleague, the young man was criticised and rebuked for doing something positive and helpful.
We can no doubt take pride and delight in the fact that the young Zimbabwean was showing admirable qualities elsewhere in the world, that his education had taught him positive attitudes. He was above all, showing initiative. In contrast, the other waiter had the mentality that he would work to the letter of the law (not the spirit). He had the mindset of being union minded, of working to rule, of only doing what he was what told, nothing more. All credit to our Zimbabwean youngster!
The problem is, though, that while it is said that initiative is desired and applauded, it is not always encouraged even here — there is often little to no incentive for anyone to show initiative.
It does not go unnoticed that pupils are marked down in grade seven exams for using their own words when giving the answer in English comprehension (in so doing, showing a full and correct understanding of what is being asked) instead of copying and pasting words directly from the passage (which is easy, lazy, requires little thought and allows completely for a total guess, even with no understanding). The pupil who shows initiative in putting it into his own words is penalised — and yet we say that initiative is one of the Learner Exit Profile qualities!
On the sports field, coaches shout at players who show their initiative because they do not conform to the tactics or the system, but that only leads the players to want to give up the very game in which they excel, all because a coach wants everyone to do it his way. If the initiative proves to be unwise, then they can be so advised but they will have learned more from doing so.
People have been tired of the potholes in their roads and have taken to repairing them themselves, as those whose responsibility it is to look after the roads do not do so. They have shown initiative. Yet we read that certain councils have forbidden such behaviour and threatened punishment.
Consider also the world of education. As there is an enormous shortage of schools in this country, investors have long been encouraged to build private schools, which is entirely reasonable and commendable, yet what incentive is there for them to do that? They are deemed independent and are treated as such, in that they receive no financial assistance of any nature from government (be it for pupils, staff, or resources and facilities). Yet all the while, initiative is being reined in as permission has to be gained for many activities, direction has to be received, often taking months or even years (if at all), all to comply with an inadequate and inappropriate one-size-fits-all approach. The initiative is consequently stifled, suffocated and ultimately snuffed out. Where is their incentive? Existing schools in this country have in recent years also been encouraged to become more self-reliant, to show their initiative by raising money themselves by growing crops, starting industries, yet they too are constrained by regulations. Are we also being ridiculed, criticised or rebuked?
Ken Robinson tells the story of a young girl in a class of Primary children who were invited to draw what ever they wanted. The teacher saw one particular young girl’s drawing and asked her what she was drawing. The girl immediately and confidently replied that “I’m drawing God.” The teacher paused a moment and then gently told the girl that “No-one knows what God looks like”. Unphased, without a moment’s hesitation, the young girl replied, “Well, they will when I have finished”! That is the type of youngster we want to develop, someone whose enthusiasm, initiative and love is not squashed by the system. There must be incentive for initiative. Then we will all know.
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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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