Woodstock School Principal Dr Jonathan Long

Woodstock School Principal, Dr Jonathan Long, explains why “hedgehogs” are so important for the development of the school.

The philosopher, Isaiah Berlin, once wrote a short story based on an ancient Greek parable entitled The Hedgehog and the Fox. In this tale, Berlin suggested that the whole world is divided into ‘hedgehogs’ and ‘foxes’. The fox is a cunning animal, able to pursue many ends at the same time. Day by day, the fox devises complex strategies to attack the hedgehog.

By contrast, the hedgehogs have one, single unifying idea – a concept which guides everything they do. They waddle along going about their daily tasks, looking for food and taking care of their young. When danger threatens, the hedgehog applies the same single strategy with ruthless success by rolling up into a spiky ball!

Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, a business book which carefully analyses why good companies transform into great companies, uses Berlin’s fable to explain a key element of this success. The hedgehog’s strategy implies the continued sharp focus on what is essential – they understand that the essence of insight is simplicity.

Collins applied this observation to his analysis of great companies. He concludes that those who built the good-to-great companies were, to one degree or another, hedgehogs. They used their commitment to simple and clarifying concepts to overcome complexity.

Woodstock is in a process of transformation – we are moving from fox-like strategy towards hedgehog-mentality. What are some of the “hedgehogs”, or, which are being fed at Woodstock right now?  Let me name a few:

  • Clarifying the fundamentals of our underlying philosophy of education.
  • Raising scholarships to enable us to recruit for student diversity.
  • Adapting schedulestimetables and student residential arrangements to better support our vision for the education of young people.
  • Building a robust and relevant curriculum to support our Desired learning Outcomes.
  • Changing approaches to fee-setting, financial aid and financial management so we can pay decent salaries.
  • Targeting effective recruitment and retention so we can build strength and depth in our community.

I hope we will soon be able to develop a set of Guiding Principles which will inform decision making in all areas of school life.   Together with our strategic plan and vision, these principles will provide a vital reference point in the development of policy and practice.

Some years after writing Good to Great, Jim Collins penned a small monograph entitled, Good to Great and the Social Sectors. In this insightful little book, and based on in-depth research, Collins makes the point that many in the not for profit sector obsess on systemic constraints as reasons for not moving forward.

Here at Woodstock, we have some systemic constraints – but Collins’ thoughtful conclusion cuts to the crux – “greatness is not a function of circumstance. Greatness, it turns out, is largely a matter of conscious choice and discipline.”

We have chosen the “hedgehogs” we are going to care for. Now we need to sustain the discipline and single-mindedness to nurture them to maturity and greatness!

Read Dr Long’s philosophy of education, Eliciting Greatness here