We recently ran a curriculum digital uplift exercise dubbed the Inspired Learning Initiative and we have championed the importance of inspiring teachers. It’s made me wonder what the word “inspiring” really means. It’s one of those words that sounds good. Perhaps one knows inspiration when one feels it.

The internet dictionaries provide definitions. The meaning revolves around the idea of one person or thing influencing another to strive to do great deeds. When someone is described as inspiring, one imagines them as charismatic, or perhaps they are magical like a muse, or captivating like an epic tale. But I think there is something much simpler occurring that should be explicitly called out.

I think inspiration is all about one of the greatest forces in human nature and that is mimicry, alignment, or emulation. When this is combined with the natural drive to achieve, this translates into following in the footsteps of great leaders, aiming to live up to past expectations, and build beyond them. But it really all boils down to copying.

Humans are inherently social creatures. Being part of the pack is vitally important. One establishes oneself in a group by aligning one’s own behaviour with one’s peers, and achieving things that the group values.

The force of copying has interesting consequences. It can be powerful in amplifying performance when individuals focus and intensify their efforts to meet the expectations of the leader or the team. The opposite can also happen under bad leadership.

At universities emulating greatness is a key concept. Universities welcome new students every year and the students strive to align with the expectations set by their lecturers, who are themselves emulating their own academic heroes. We have a diverse set of students, and having a diverse set of lecturers helps students identify with their teachers and strive to be like them.

Individual teachers can be inspiring by excelling in different ways: by being experts in their disciplines, by creating great learning activities or resources, publishing textbooks, making teaching a performance art, standing out by communicating their discipline in the public domain, or by doing great research in the discipline. Being accessible, warm, caring, and human also helps as it sets the teacher up as a life role model as well as a disciplinary specific expert.

Copying also has important geographical effects. People who grow up in a particular area emulate the things they see around them. Others move to be in areas with particular reputations. One sees things like Silicon Valley, the Manchester music scene, or Melbourne’s biotech ecosystem evolve. In Sydney there is one crossroad that seems to have a Lebanese restaurant on every corner, and elsewhere a street that apparently has nothing but furniture shops. At first, I wondered whether each enterprise would worry about competition from local peers, but overall it looks like the critical mass provides visibility and people flock to destinations noted for their specialties.

The power of clustering is extraordinary so identifying and building on strengths is usually a good management strategy. In the absence of accurate information on real strengths, management becomes vulnerable to adopting fads and fashions. Because copying is so appealing and powerful fads – even in strategic plans – are a major and ever-present threat that can only be held at bay by expert knowledge.

If you are an academic at the coal face you perhaps feel your head of school is susceptible to fads, heads will worry about their deans, Deans their vice-chancellors, and VCs worry that government ministers are falling prey to fashions that are not based on good information. Good information and extensive communication networks are necessary to minimise the impacts of negative inspiration in the form of wild goose chases.

The big problem, of course, is that in some areas definitive information is hard to find. The answers in mathematics are usually more widely accepted than those in economics, and in medicine more than in educational theory. When it comes to predicting the future, good information is always in short supply so future planning, because of the endless probabilities available, is often wrong and fads often carry the day and lead to waste. Now that we have the internet, and even before, outrageous claims and promises (either positive or negative) attract more attention and spread more readily, than sober calming arguments and calls for patience and caution before making commitments.

As usual, careful attention to knowledge and its critical assessment is the answer.

Universities have a key role in this as they are structurally designed to carefully weigh and assess knowledge. Their combined expertise is capable of countering group-think fallacies and crowd mentalities. During the pandemic the calm voice of clinical academics has guided Australia well and has protected us from many panics and over-reactions. But the equilibrium required to sustain a civilisation has always been precarious and always will be.

All the more reason to keep inspiring the next generation of rational thinkers in our classrooms today.

Professor Merlin Crossley

Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic and Student Life



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