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I focus on how to improve the culture, curriculum and teaching in schools.

 

What can we learn from cognitive and behavioural science?

How can we create great school leadership?

 

How can we create a great student culture?

How can we create great curricula? 

How can we create a great teaching culture?

How can we create great staff culture?

How can we teach English well?

What can we learn from great thinkers?

What can we learn from great schools?

What can we learn from new teachers and supply teachers?

How are teachers using social media?

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12 treasure chests in the golden age of CPD #2: Student Culture

Over the last ten years, teachers and school leaders have led on creating a golden age of professional learning.

The facts suggest we are entering a golden era of CPD.

Research-based CPD has undergone an explosion over the last decade.

  • 20+ Behaviour hubs, growing by 50 in 2022.
  • 20+ subject curriculum research reviews & webinars collated by Ofsted, for free.
  • 37+ Research schools disseminating research evidence.
  • 40+ ResearchEd conferences and books, with several more planned each year.
  • 44+ ResearchEd Home talks, videos shared on Youtube for free.
  • 50+ schools’ SLTs on Teach First’s Leading Together 2-year program, for free.
  • 87 Teaching School Hubs funded at £200,000 per year.
  • 100s of Greenshaw CPD videos, book club videos and video lessons for free online.
  • 100s of podcasts online for free.
  • 100s of participants on the Exemplary Leadership Programme.
  • 100s of edu-books published by John Catt, mostly by teachers.
  • 1000s of trusts working with the Confederation of School Trusts (60% of academies and growing)
  • 1000s of teachers answering questions & seeing answers every day on Teacher Tapp – for free.
  • 1000s of blogposts written by teachers accessible for free online.
  • 10,000 Oak Academy lessons filmed, shared and collated by subject and year – for free.
  • 50,000 Early Careers Teachers training on a Core Content Framework with mentoring.
  • 150,000 National Professional Qualifications for free over the next 3 years with a codified body of knowledge and evidence sequenced into the journey of ITT, ECT, middle leadership, senior leadership, headship and executive headship.

Our time, though, isn’t limitless. There is lots of surface froth hiding the wealth of knowledge jewels amid the enduring currents in the depths.

We must choose selectively what to give our attention to. How can we best place our bets?

Find the treasure troves. 

In this series, I’m sketching treasure maps of where to unearth some of the smallest but most precious hidden gems. We’re looking for CPD that is free, fast and flexible. It should cost nothing (so no paid courses), not take too much time (so no full books), and be accessible anywhere on the planet (so no location-based events).

Treasure Troves to build your staff culture expertise, first.

Treasure Troves to build your student culture expertise, in this blogpost.

Treasure Troves to build your curriculum expertise, next.

Let’s continue with student culture.

Twelve Treasure Troves to build your student culture expertise

1. Science of habits7 keys to classroom habits that stickDavid Thomas, Peps McCrae, Logan Fiorella and the Greenshaw Research school playlist

2. Behavioural science – Harry Fletcher Wood

3. Science of motivation – Peps McCrae’s 6 strategies

4. Research on relationship-building – Harry Fletcher Wood

5. Two discipline systems – Andrew Old on norms & his extraordinary Guide to Scenes from the battleground

6. Routines – Tom Bennett’s behaviour lessons from the best schools & 10 reboot strategies

7. Assemblies – Sam Brown; Bravery & Courage – Ben Newmark & the Jonathan Mountstevens collection

8. Hotspot of Hope: the Charter turnaround collection – Jo Facer, Nat Jones, Kris Boulton, Olivia Dyer

9. Consistency – the inimitable Barry Smith podcast, and on Darren Leslie’s podcast

10. High standards – Amy Forester 

11. Pastoral curricula – Louis Everett on Emily Folorunsho’s pastoral podcasts

12. Personal development curriculum – Charlie Cromerford, a ResearchEd talk & thread

Lastly, here are 12 top, free articles I collated on pupil ethos within a wider collection of 24 blogspots of research, 24 blogspots on curriculum and 12 on staff culture. These include writing by top edu-thinkers Laura McInerney, Doug Lemov, David Didau, Greg Ashman, Steve Lane and Nick Rose.

Teachers and school leaders alike can feel upbeat about the golden age of CPD we are creating together.

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Treasure Troves in the Golden Age of CPD. #1: Staff Culture

Over the last ten years, teachers and school leaders have led on creating a golden age of professional learning.

If knowledge is treasure, in the era of the world wide web, wiki-sites, webinars, social media networks, smartphones, tablets, podcasts and ear-pods, we have greater, faster access to the accumulated and fast-evolving knowledge of humankind, in our pockets and at our fingertips, than ever before in human history. 

A range of facts and stats suggests that we are embarking on a golden epoch of CPD in teaching.

There have been more than 40 teacher-led ResearchEd conferences since 2013, with many talks filmed and available for free.

There are some 40 teacher-led Research Schools disseminating research, largely for free. 

Multi-academy trusts are sharing 100s of CPD videos, book club videos and video lessons for free online.

Some 8,000 teachers a day are answering Teacher Tapp’s call to ask, share and learn together – for free. 

Some 10,000 lessons have been filmed, collated and shared by teachers for free by Oak National Academy – for free.

There are now 150,000 National Professional Qualifications being provided for teachers and school leaders over the next three years, all centred on a codified body of knowledge with the science of learning at its heart – for the first time ever, and for free.

But we are also living in an age of overload, a data deluge, a content tsunami, killer infoglut, seduced by the soft power of invidious weapons of mass distraction, with limitless on-demand entertainment tempting us to binge.

Time is short; options are many. How can we work out what to invest our time into?

Find the treasure troves. 

In this series, I’ll try to sketch three treasure maps of where to unearth some of the smallest but most precious hidden gems. We’re looking for CPD that is free, fast, focused and flexible. It should cost nothing (so no paid courses), not take too much time (not even full books!), and be accessible to teachers anywhere on the planet (so no location-based events).

Three treasure maps.

Treasure Troves to build your staff culture expertise, first.

Treasure Troves to build your student culture expertise, next.

Treasure Troves to build your curriculum expertise, last.

Let’s start with some of the greatest hits and playlists from the brightest spots and brightest sparks in education on staff culture.

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Ten Treasure Troves to build your staff culture expertise

1. Putting staff first and the Mind the Gap playlist – Emma Turner, Jonny Uttley, John Tomsett, Tom Sherrington

2. Developing expertise as school leaders – Ambition Institute, Jen Barker & Tom Rees

3. Thinking & Collaboration – ResearchEd home playlist of 30+ videos – Cat Scutt, Claire Stoneman, Helena Moore, Phillipa Cordingley & Hélène Galdine-O’Shea

4. Culture handbooks – Nick Hart

5. Healthy schools – Dixons Open Source playlist – Luke Sparkes & Jenny Thompson

6. School leadership & CPD: 40 podcasts & webinar bank (& 100 others!) – Kathryn Morgan

7. School Improvement playlist32 video session playlist from the Greenshaw National INSET day, led on by Joe and Izzy Ambrose

8. Coaching book summaries – 7 book reviews in a collection of 40+. Pocket Wisdom by Sam Crome

9. Teacher-led research posters – 30+ beautifully designed posters in an amazing wider collection of quotes, diagrams, sketchnotes, illustrations and organisers and more by Oliver Caviglioli 

10. Talent Architects: schools as great places to work – the latest in a great series of white papers by Leora Cruddas & Steve Rollett at the Confederation of School Trusts

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Last of all, just as a small gem to add those ten treasure chests, I’ll reshare the 12 top, free articles I collated on staff culture within a wider collection of 24 blogspots of research, 24 blogspots on curriculum and 12 on student culture. These include writing by top edu-bloggers Kat Howard, Jo Facer, Carl Hendrik, Greg Ashman, Louis Everett, Harry Fletcher Wood, Matthew Evans and Claire Stoneman.

All in all, it’s a moment for us as teachers and school leaders to celebrate the golden age of CPD we are creating together.

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Implementation as learning: 24 questions to ask

Implementation is everything. Or is it?

True, strategy without implementation doesn’t get done. 

But implementation without good strategy gets the wrong things done. 

No one could blame the soldiers on the Somme for not implementing their mission. They charged the machine guns and barbed wire with staggering courage and heart-wrenching loyalty to their country. But the strategy was totally flawed and doomed to failure, no matter how perfectly they’d executed it. Strategy is crucial. 

Even so, implementation plays a large part in why initiatives succeed or fail. Even the most carefully planned programs can fail if execution isn’t up to scratch. 

What can we learn from research?

Research on implementation

For almost 100 years, McKinsey have been studying implementation performance, factors and practices. In 2015, they surveyed 2,200 leaders from 900 organisations. They found that the most important implementation factor by far was ownership and commitment to change across all levels of the organisation. Most respondents said their organisations struggled to identify issues, root causes and solutions when implementing. Organisations tend to implement well when they have staff ownership, honest feedback and frontline trouble-shooting at the heart of what they do. 

Further research could test whether this hypothesis holds for schools too. Especially because McKinsey seem to have recurring blind spots around domain expertise. Based on experience in schools, a combination of domain knowledge and ownership seems to be a strong hypothesis for better implementation than without them.

How can we create high levels of ownership, along with deepening expertise, when we implement our plans in schools? What do we need to know? 

Two disciplines that take us beyond implementation science and its ‘mechanisms’

Headteacher Matthew Evans signposted me to a mind-shifting research summary by the BMJ that combines three disciplines: implementation science, complexity science and social science. Each has a different logic of change: mechanistic, ecological and social respectively. 

Implementation science developed from evidence-based medicine, and is systematic, sequential and structured, with talk of mechanisms as an ‘engine’. The EEF draw heavily and narrowly on this discipline. 

By contrast, complexity science is ecological. It sees organisations as complex, dynamic and evolving, full of relationships, interactions and uncertainty. It encourages understanding relationships, running experiments, asking questions, exchanging viewpoints, muddling through, developing adaptive capacity in staff by allowing judgments and tinkering, and a participatory culture. 

What is more, social science draws on people’s beliefs, feelings, values, motives, expectations, understanding, norms, customs and interpretations. It tries to understand why people act as they do. It recognises that under conditions of uncertainty, high stakes, group dynamics, and limited time, decisions aren’t always fully rational, but are social and emotional too. 

You can see how complexity science and social science perspectives, for example, complicate the causal web for things like obesity and its discontents.

I’d love to see further research on implementation and causal webs specific to schools, beyond the organisations and hospitals that the two papers above study.

Like strategy, which is actually more than one thing (knowledge-building, prioritising and adapting), and writing too (planning/studying, drafting, editing), implementation is actually several things: knowing our stuff, preparing, planning and reviewing.

We need to know what knowledge to equip ourselves with.

We need to know how to choose whether to run an initiative.

We need to know how to approach planning each initiative.

We need to know how to review our initiative.

Preparing, planning and reviewing well upstream can save massive problems and heartache downstream. All depend heavily on knowing the context and area we are implementing in: whether behaviour, curriculum or CPD.

What if we created and iterated a list of questions to ask ourselves to build our tacit and contextual knowledge at the crucial points before deciding on an initiative, before launching it, and for shortly after?

PREPARING: how to know enough to decide if this is the best thing to do

  1. Team: who will lead on the initiative as project leader, team and wider champions? How deep is their domain expertise – how much credibility do they have?
  2. Capacity: How much capacity do they and the organisation have – how many other initiatives are going on? how much time do the frontline implementers have to bring to what will need to be done?
  3. Time: How much time can we allocate to the knowledge-building, planning and reviewing phases of the new potential initiative? Remember Hofstader’s law- everything takes far, far longer than we think, even using this law.
  4. Comparisons: How confident are we that it’s the very best next initiative? What’s its feasibility and probability of lasting success, based on the research evidence and our domain experience? How high-impact is it for the time invested? What’s the opportunity cost? What are the alternatives? Should we definitely choose this over others?

In short, to prepare well when implementing, know your team, their capacity, the time and the options.

PLANNING: how to increase chances of success

  1. Problem: What’s the precise problem we want to address? what are the causal webs here, based on our experience?
  2. Initiative: What are the vital ingredients that multiple disciplines, research evidence and our experience suggest? What’s our theory of change – how exactly do we think our solution will address the problem and its multiple causes? 
  3. Scope: What scope are we choosing – what are the breadth-depth tradeoffs? 
  4. Quality: What standards will we set as essential, given our expertise – and how can we make them clear?
  5. Alignment: what are our team’s current beliefs, values, feelings, expectations and norms? Where does our theory of change clash with those? Where will it resonate and align with our people’s outlooks and worldviews?
  6. Pilot: How could we run a smaller-scale pilot to evaluate and learn from?
  7. Follow-through: What training activities and rationale will best boost follow-through and deepen domain knowledge?   
  8. Content: What needs to be produced to make the vital ingredients and training activities work?
  9. Risks/Premortem: What will the biggest challenges and risks be? What could best be done to mitigate them? If in a year it hasn’t  worked out, what would the reason be? 
  10. Tasks/Owners: What tasks must be done by when? Who will do what by when? How strong is their expertise in these areas?
  11. Milestones: What milestones and deadlines will we set? How realistic are these deadlines, given everything else we have on?
  12. Preemption: How can we preempt the ‘implementation dip’ by anticipating what is most likely to prove tricky? Could we get internal or external expert feedback on the content we create?
  13. Ownership: How can we create ownership among frontline staff, perhaps through involvement, decision-making and trouble-shooting on this?
  14. Launch: Who’s best placed to launch the initiative to frontline staff and how?
  15. Support: How will comms, reflection/discussion, coaching or other support work best?  
  16. Input: How will feedback, data collection and input-gathering work best to identify issues to resolve? Who will we get input from ahead of the launch, and after?

REVIEWING: how to choose whether to sustain, scale or scrap it 

  1. Adaptations: What side-effects and unintended consequences have we seen? How should we adapt to issues raised in review?
  2. Bright spots: What are the early wins and bright spots we can flag up and learn from?
  3. Sustaining: What is required to sustain this long-term in the culture? What knowledge will most deepen our expertise, and for who?
  4. Scale: Should we stick with the current scope, scrap it or scale the pilot up beyond its scope? If we scale, let’s return to the questions of the preparing phase.  

Do less, better

I didn’t ask these questions of the initiatives I ran in the past. To be honest I did not carve out the time for them. As a result, we came down with recurrent bouts of initiativitis.

Actually, these 24 or so questions make me realise: it would be much better for me to run far fewer initiatives, far better implemented. To do fewer things in greater depth. One CEO of a successful organisation I know ran just 5 big initiatives in 25 years. Many schools run 25 in 5 years. Or more!

If I asked these questions of each initiative I thought about launching as a school leader, it could help a lot.

  • It could create greater ownership in our teams. 
  • It could create greater understanding among our leaders.
  • It could create greater clarity and cohesion.
  • It could reduce confusion, overload, forgetting and burnout. 
  • It could boost morale, productivity and perhaps even happiness and retention. 

And it’s just a few steps.

Better knowledge. 

Better preparation. 

Better planning. 

Better reviewing. 

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With implementation – combining expertise, problem-solving and ownership – there’s lots to ask and loads to learn. 

Time to redouble my efforts!

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The wicked problem of learning

Sometimes we are so deep in an orthodoxy we cannot see it.

In their new book, Becky Allen, Matthew Evans and Ben White give us ways to question how we see and think about our schools. 

They combine a visit to the museum (a history of school improvement policy waves), research from Teacher Tapp surveys, and the lens of complexity and systems theory, with analysis of the perspectives of economics, sociology, psychology, educationalists, headteachers, school leaders and teachers. They share some powerful concepts (like patch-making, creeping managerialism and shadow boxing), vivid metaphors (waves, maps, patches, miracles, hill-climbing, waltzes, helicopters, foxes and hedgehogs feature) and a rousing call to action.

Here are some of their concepts, questions and insights.

What can’t we fully know? Where are we under the illusion of knowledge?

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Learning is invisible. The human brain is complex.

Can ‘progress’, or even who’s learning what exactly, be fully known?

Can metaphors like ‘schema’ fully capture what’s happening in learning? 

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Prior knowledge differs vastly.

Can ‘the starting point’ of ‘the class’ be fully known?

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People’s pasts, beliefs and habits differ vastly.

Can ‘the staff’, ‘the pupils’ or ‘the school’ be fully known?

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We can’t fully know the learning, progress or knowledge in the school.

What is known in a school is mostly in the minds of others.

How can we explore it? 

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What can we know? In which discrete areas is improvement knowable?

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We have limited time and precious energy. 

There are infinite numbers of ‘opportunities for change’. Most should not be taken. 

What can we best give our attention to?

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Problems in schools, like knowing who’s learned what, repeatedly reemerge.

What waves of solutions (personalisation, data, progression) have been tried?

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Managers have tendencies to want to fix things, ‘do something’, control stuff and monitor people.

Are we labouring under the orthodoxies that leaders act ‘decisively’ to ‘change’ things?

Which diktat and initiatives would have been better if they had never happened?

Might our schools be better places if the initiators had chosen to do nothing on these initiatives?

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Some problems are more fiendish than others.

What problem are we trying to solve? What type of problem? Is it ‘wicked’? or ‘illusory’?

  • Wicked problems resist all attempts to resolve them, like the invisibility of learning, or school improvement
  • Tame problems have tried and tested solutions: like knowing your ten times table.
  • Illusory problems are superficial problems, like certain staff non-compliance, caused by deeper problems, like excessive directives, prescriptive policies and high pressure.
  • Metamorphic problems recur in forms bearing the hallmarks of previous solutions: like the data wave emerging from the crash of the personalisation wave.

How can we better break down wicked problems into tamer problems?

How can we stop shadow boxing (attempting to solve illusory problems)?

How can we better see illusory problems for what they are? 

How can we deeply explore the problems we encounter and achieve shared understanding?

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Causes work not alone but in teams.

What is the causal ‘web’ that influences whether or not an initiative works?

What are the causal ‘mechanisms’ by which knowledge actually develops?

Which disciplines – history, economics, philosophy, sociology, psychology, evolutionary biology, cognitive sciences – can we draw on and learn from?

How can school leaders understand teacher beliefs and study teacher habits?

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All solutions are based on assumptions and justifications.

Ill-fated solutions rest on naive over-simplifications. 

What are the justifications for our initiatives, such as curriculum reviews?

What assumptions underpin them?

What evidence bases are our ‘best bets’ based on?

Where are we overreliant on a single frame of reference, like cognitive science?

How can we put our proposals under scrutiny by people with different expertise and perspectives?

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All solutions to complex problems have unintended consequences. 

How can we avoid the distortions of bolt-on fixes like retrieval practice and organisers?

How can we work out the adverse effects of our solutions?

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One in five teacher-respondents say they cannot raise problems with school leaders.

How can we create better feedback loops? 

How do staff explain each school initiative? How do they see it? How do they respond to it?

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We look to stories to make sense of and give meaning to our endeavours.

How can we tell better stories? that better capture our imagination, harness the energy of pupils and staff and propel us to better action?

How can we find simple, modest ways to improve without simplistic grand gestures?

How can we avoid oversimplifying the problem and overcomplicating the solution?

School leaders are mired deep within the orthodoxies of fixing, intervening, directives, target-setting, prescribing, monitoring, evidencing and scrutinising. 

Becky, Matthew and Ben help us see these orthodoxies for what they are: illusions. 

It’s time to stop shadow boxing. 

Posted in Education | 2 Comments

What was asked at ResearchEd Surrey?

ResearchEd is one of the most exciting developments in teaching in the last ten years. Teachers and school leaders are now asking questions that cut to the core of how we can improve education.

The sharing, passion, generosity and collegiality make for an amazingly vibrant atmosphere. The thinkers we now have in school leadership in England make it feel like the best time in history to be in teaching.

From the six talks I was able to see at ResearchEd Surrey, I’ll share some of the most powerful questions and some of the central insights.

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How can we create a culture of teacher expertise?

Rebecca Lee

How can we develop our expertise and access others’ tacit knowledge?

How can we give teachers great subject feedback whilst avoiding the rubric problem?

What’s the best way to get external challenge?

Rebecca suggests building our knowledge, organised as mental models to guide actions on persistent problems, without falling into the trap of mimicking surface-level features (like copying the way Jonny Wilkinson holds his hands together when kicking rugby penalties, which isn’t a vital factor). 

How can we make today into CPD?

Mark Enser

How can we create great CPD without rushing it?

How can we create better, lasting learning for  all our staff?

How can we evaluate the impact of CPD both for novice and more expert teachers?

Mark argues that we should treat teacher learning more like pupil learning, plan our CPD like a curriculum, and allow plenty of time for discussion, experimentation and reflection.

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How do you build a curriculum from scratch?

Josh Vallance

Where and who does your curriculum come from – is it poached, imported, inherited?

What can we learn from others’ curricula – and get others’ input into ours?

What questions and ideas are most useful to focus curricula conversations on – without shortcuts?

Josh’s message is that conversations are the lifeblood of curriculum: deep subject knowledge and thinking over time, with deliberate selection and sequencing choices, allow us to make each unit in our curriculum build on prior knowledge, and help build future knowledge, to open up worlds for our pupils, to turn prohibition-era shacks into well-built houses. 

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Why do school leaders do daft things?

Becky Allen & Matthew Evans

Why do people overestimate their knowledge of how even simple household appliances work – until they’re asked to explain them exactly in writing?

What does this mean for schools, which are much more complex and fast-changing than household appliances, and for school leaders considering initiatives and interventions to improve them?

How can school leaders deal with complexity, uncertainty and the invisibility of learning, and avoid doing daft things that have harmful effects? 

Becky and Matthew urge us to face up to the limits of our knowledge, to see how ideas rise and fall in education, to notice when we’re in the grip of them, and to be alert to our own unhelpful tendencies as school leaders.

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What can we learn from Ofsted’s subject research reviews?

Heather Fearn

Why think about curriculum at all?

Why should we teach knowledge?

What knowledge should we teach, in what order?

What do teachers need to know? – a question also asked by Pete Foster at ResearchEdSurrey.

Heather suggests: curriculum reconfigures the way we think about teaching; knowledge helps us learn, and it helps us share in society’s conversations. We should teach the most significant knowledge, ordered to build useful schema. Teachers need to know how subject content will help pupils learn future content, and how secure pupils are in what they’re learning.

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What makes good writing?

Daisy Christodoulou

Why do pupils make writing errors in their sentences?

Is it that they know how to write accurate sentences but forget and get overloaded? that they don’t understand what a sentence is? or a combination?

How can we improve pupil understanding of sentence structures?

Based on studying over 500,000 pieces of student writing, and on extensive follow-up diagnostic questions to explore misconceptions, Daisy is testing two main hypotheses: many pupils have a shaky knowledge of what a sentence is, thinking that run-ons, comma splices and fragments are sentences and that short sentences aren’t sentences; sentence-error-correction exercises and multiple-choice questions give pupils lots of examples, practice and feedback to improve their understanding of accurate sentences. Writing ages can help teachers, school leaders, pupils, and parents know where they’re at. 

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Two themes that ran throughout these talks and others are deep knowledge and deep thinking. Deep knowledge helps pupils learn our subjects, teachers develop their expertise and school leaders understand how better to improve our schools. Deep thinking over time is required to build deep knowledge. 

Like the scientific revolution that underpins it, the knowledge revolution marches on.

The passion and generosity of the speakers and organisers, preparing and sharing their ideas and the weekend, is awe-inspiring.

ResearchEd is the best example out there that shows that we, the teachers, are now leading our profession.

Posted in Education | 1 Comment

Taking feedback well

As school leaders, we need feedback from staff on how things are going; we can’t be present in that many hotspots, CPD sessions, lessons or conversations. But it’s hard for staff to be fully honest when their jobs, livelihoods and promotions depend partly on their relationships with heads and senior leaders.

Getting honest feedback depends hugely on how well we take feedback when it’s given – however unsolicited!

What tried-and-tested ways are there to take feedback well? 

How can we create a culture in our school where we all receive feedback from others really well, so as not to discourage people from sharing it in the future?

Four examples of being given feedback in schools

Let’s take some examples of unexpected feedback that I’ve seen people give and get given in the last 11 years. 

Three heads of department come into a deputy head’s office. Things look heated. 

‘Can we have a word please? The data drop deadlines for Year 7 to 11 and sixth form are all hitting teachers at the same time! Some of our teachers teach all 7 year groups. There’s massive pressure on us right now, and the communication has been really poor, to be frank. There’s a bit of a vacuum of leadership on this.’

A head of year emails SLT about whole-school end-of-break routines, with strong feelings. 

‘To be honest, we haven’t cracked lineups yet. Standards are slipping, and though we ask for silence it isn’t happening. Our expectations are lowering, and we don’t have enough SLT support or presence. There’s sometimes not a single SLT member or duty staff member there at all. It feels chaotic, students ignore us and bundle off loudly and boisterously into corridors, and to tell you the truth, I come into work dreading having to lead them. It would be good to get your thoughts on what we do about this.’

When a VP pops into a subject department office, a long-term cover teacher is in tears.

‘That was a terrible cover lesson. They were so disrespectful. On call didn’t come when I asked. One rubbed my warnings off the board. Another hid the projector remote. I think another went through my bag. It was really intimidating. I felt terrible. totally helpless.’

A middle leader is exasperated that other staff aren’t doing what’s needed, and shares their frustrations with an assistant head. 

‘People aren’t doing their jobs! We always have to pick up the pieces but we don’t have time for it all! If people just did what we asked them to… it doesn’t have to be like this, but they have to start pulling their weight!’

In these moments, it’s human to feel defensive, to defend ourselves or others from criticism, to justify, contextualise or explain. It’s normal and natural to feel a little prickly when our ideas, our close colleagues or our teams come in for criticism. It’s hard not to inadvertently deflect responsibility. 

These are moments of truth for staff in schools. The school leader’s response sends a signal, whether deliberate or not. The response either signals that we are open to listening and welcome upward feedback, or it signals that we are not open to learning and that we don’t want honest feedback. 

To stop me getting defensive in these moments, and to show staff that honest feedback is a good thing, I’ve created a mnemonic to help me remember what’s best to do in these moments. 

Five things to keep in mind to receive feedback well

To receive feedback well, we can try and keep five things in mind, chunked into the mnemonic RESET

Reassure: reassure them that the feedback is taken in the spirit it’s intended.

‘Just to reassure you – I’ll never take feedback badly. It’s valuable: it improves things!’

Enquire: ask to hear more about their view, and other perspectives.

‘What are the impacts of this that you’re seeing?’ 

What else is on your mind on this?’

‘What would you tell me if you were being even more totally honest?!’’

‘What’s the other perspective on this?’

Summarise: summarise the core of the feedback and check it’s been fully understood.

‘What you’re saying is, if I’ve understood it…..     Is that it?’ … ‘What am I missing?’

‘To summarise, here’s the top thing I think we can do better. Is that the one that makes most sense?’’

Encourage: encourage further honest upward feedback in future – or in the moment.

‘Keep sharing your thoughts honestly and directly like this! If we don’t know about it, we can’t address it.’ 

‘Keep letting us know about this sort of stuff! We have blind spots on SLT – we won’t see the things you do unless you help us see what you see!’

Thank: appreciate the giver for taking the time, effort and courage to be up front. 

‘Thanks for letting me know about this and for being honest about how you feel; I appreciate it!’ 

‘Better to let me know than talk about it behind my back – thank you for fronting up!’

‘I appreciate you sharing this, so that we can work out what we can do better.’

To be clear, this isn’t a set sequence: it’s not that you have to go through all five things every time, and it doesn’t have to be in order at all. That’s far too formulaic and doesn’t feel genuine.

It can be light-touch. Here’s an example of how I’ve seen it work in practice.

These five options give us a way to avoid natural but suboptimal defensive reactions. 

Instead of criticising the criticism, in the first instance I might summarise it.

Instead of pushing back and shutting down the conversation, we open up to asking and hearing about the situation, its impact and context more fully. 

Instead of justifying or rationalising a mistake I’ve made, say, I can use the chance to listen and understand, and make my colleague feel understood. 

Instead of leaping to defend myself, discouraging future honesty, I can encourage my colleagues to keep letting me know how inevitable unintended consequences are playing out. 

Instead of putting up barriers between staff and the senior team, I can learn where things aren’t working out that well.   

Instead of ignoring it, I can work out at least one thing we can do better. 

Knowledge and expertise, though, are key. Unless we as school leaders know how best to improve behaviour (cover and lineups in the examples above), curriculum (assessment and data in the examples above), and staff culture (underperformance, staff teamwork and comms in the examples above), reassurance and encouragement will fall flat without actually improving things.   

***

What do we gain from taking feedback well? 

First, staff trust us as school leaders more. 

Reassuring, encouraging and thanking – each takes care of the emotionally risky side to giving upward feedback. Staff worry. They fear they’ll be seen as complainers or moaners. I’ve often heard staff express this feeling when giving honest upward feedback: ‘I don’t want to moan!’ ‘I don’t want to come across like I’m just complaining the whole time!’ We all worry how others perceive us, especially those who control our prospects of career progression; it’s natural. So we on SLT have to work hard to counteract these natural fears.

Second, trust helps the truth flow upwards. 

We see reality better. 

We see our blind spots better. 

We see unintended consequences better.

We get useful disagreement. 

We understand people’s concerns better. 

***

Two ideas I learned from Harvard law profs Stone and Heen are the idea of a second score and the importance of boundaries when taking feedback. 

Five questions for giving ourselves a second score

When receiving feedback, no matter how harsh, we can always choose how we respond to it.

We can always strive to respond well, to build trust and to approach things well.

Even in response to an Ofsted grade, or lower-than-hoped-for GCSE or Alevel results (for a school, department, teacher or kid!), we can give ourselves a second score: a score for how well we respond.

Reassure: How well did we react to the feedback, even parts that weren’t quite right or unhelpful? 

Enquire: How well did we ask for others’ input and thinking? 

Summary: How well did we summarise rather than criticise it, to work out what, if anything, we can learn from it? 

Encourage: How well did we encourage future feedback by acting on it, choosing one top thing to try out from it?

Thank: How well did we make the conversation, or trust-building useful for the future, perhaps by showing appreciation?

***

Drawing boundaries

But we can also get overwhelmed and overloaded by feedback. Especially if we become what Stone and Heen call a ‘gimme-feedback fanatic’, which I have susceptibility to become!

Some feedback isn’t so useful. Especially harsh or bitter criticism, where it’s badly clouded, often says much more about the person giving the feedback than the person it’s about. As a pal of mine puts it, ‘feedback is a gift; but some gifts you take to Oxfam!’ 

Given the volume of input that school leaders get, it’s important to discern and filter out feedback that isn’t useful.  

We have to draw boundaries. We have to be able to say: ‘I don’t want feedback on that subject, not right now.’ Or: ‘I don’t (think we) have the headspace to act on that at the moment, but thank you for letting me know about it.’ There’s always masses to work on. Change is taxing; overloading ourselves doesn’t help. External feedback may not be the very best next step to take and focus on. We can decline the offer of overloading feedback firmly, appreciatively, explaining why and redirecting feedback to where and when it’s most welcome. 

Some forms of feedback can start to become toxic.

If the feedback is unrelentingly hostile.

If the feedback always involves you having to change, and never any change from the giver. 

If your views and feelings aren’t a legitimate part of the relationship.

Then the feedback may be turning toxic.

That’s when drawing boundaries – or, ultimately, if boundaries are ignored, moving on – are important.

***

In summary

Feedback is, for the most part, a path towards learning and improving. It’s hard to perceive ourselves fully, and the impact we have on others. Seeking plenty of feedback can often propel our development. 

To create a culture of receiving feedback really well, we can share these three challenges and ideas with staff. 

How to respond to tough feedback in the moment: RESET.

Reassure, Enquire, Summarise, Encourage, Thank.

How to keep improving how we accept feedback: second score.

Give ourselves a second score for how we responded to the feedback, rating or grade given.

How to clarify to feedback givers when it gets overloading: boundaries.

Explain gently but firmly: ‘I don’t feel able to act on feedback on that, not right now.’

***

These ideas help us lead by example in moments of truth, when it’s most difficult.

Seeking feedback is vital for school leaders; so is taking it well. 

Let’s look in the next post at how we as school staff can best give feedback. 

Posted in Education | 3 Comments

Honest upward feedback

Staff don’t often tell school leaders what they truly think about what matters most..

Why does seeking honest upward feedback from staff matter?

Being ignored is demotivating.

We want staff to be able to share their struggles and mistakes without hiding them. 

If you feel unable to be honest, you tend to feel bad. 

If you’re able to be honest, you tend to feel happier. 

Happy staff are more likely to stay in the school.

Unhappy staff are more likely to leave the school.

Students prefer to be taught by experts who are happy, and who stay in the school.

But expertise is hard to build in a staff with lots of churn, turnover and attrition. 

Russell Hobby has spent more than a decade working with, listening to and learning from hundreds of headteachers and school leaders. I’ve learned lots from listening to him, from his humility and from trying to understand the wisdom he has accumulated about leading staff in schools. In an extraordinary article, he distils his insights on power, perception and distortion:

“One painful revelation for me was that the more senior my role, the more distorted my view of the reality of my organisation. 

The more power you are perceived to wield, rightly or wrongly, the more effort people put into managing you. Their careers depend upon it.

People are less likely to bring you bad news. They are more likely to agree with you. They are less likely to tell you that you are being an idiot. People are more reluctant to interrupt you with helpful observations. They may assume you have wise reasons for your outwardly baffling decisions. And they are more likely to behave well in front of you.

The distortion of the prism is correlated with the power gradient inside your organisation. You need power – quite a lot of power – to be effective in your role. But there are two types. There is earned authority based on wisdom, perspective and good judgement, with a minimal hint of just sanction in the distant background. And there is the power to hurt and humiliate. Right and might, if you will. You want to maximise the first and minimise the second. People will talk to you with relative candour in the former. They will avoid you as far as possible in the latter, and lie to you without a second thought.

There’s usually someone who can be relied upon to tell you the truth. Usually at the least convenient moment and in the most unpalatable way. Treasure your responsible mavericks. And if you ever punish anyone who gives you a difficult message you’re probably done for.

You wield power over people’s welfare and it shapes their behaviour. You need that power to do the good in the world that you want to do but you need to use it in a way that doesn’t provoke people to coddle or misdirect you in return. There is nothing more pitiful than a grandiose leader who is merely cocooned by their court in a prism of delusion.

Your perspective is inevitably distorted by your power. And the more visible your power, the greater the distortion.”

After 10 years working closely with some of the most extraordinary (and outlandish!) school leaders in education, including Katharine Birbalsingh, Barry Smith, David Thomas and Summer Turner, visiting and studying some of the highest-performing schools in the country, led by Sally Coates, Max Haimendorf, Luke Sparkes, Darren Hollingsworth and Izzy Ambrose, and listening and sharing ideas with longstanding headteachers like Tom Rees and Amit Hathi (all of which I’d like to do much more of!), there’s a set of beliefs, habits and practices for inviting honest staff feedback that I’m testing out. I’d like to share it with the edusphere and invite critique. 

The challenge of encouraging honest staff input and involvement is only one small part of school leadership, but it is a vital part, and very hard to do well in schools, which are quite hierarchical.

Headteachers and school leaders wield power over staff livelihoods, salaries, promotions, pay progression, opportunities, timetables, classes, duties, feedback, capability and daily experiences. 

It’s hard for staff to be fully honest with anyone on or close to the senior team.

So we have to work hard to encourage that honesty.

Which beliefs do I try to hold true to that help me with my reality distortion field?

Reality is hard to see.

We all have blind spots. Especially in leadership.

Truth doesn’t flow to the top. 

We tend to confuse what we want to be true with what is actually true.

Burying our heads in the sand like ostriches, avoiding problems – doesn’t help.

No involvement, no commitment. 

If people don’t weigh in, they can’t buy in.

One of my most vital decisions is who to ask questions of. 

Which messages do I share with my colleagues and team mates and keep returning to?

Share what’s hardest to share. 

Don’t criticise people behind their back without giving them the chance to act on it! 

Tell them, not someone else without them knowing.

If I don’t know about it, how can I fix it?

Depriving me of feedback denies me the chance to improve. 

It’s hard to see my shortcomings, so I rely on your input! 

What habits do I try hard to practise for seeking staff feedback and input?

I ask staff for honest, forthright feedback, suggestions, ideas, criticisms and input.

I devote lots of time to talking and listening to people and asking them lots of good questions.

I learn something from everyone (and any school). Including, sometimes, what not to do!

I think carefully about who to ask questions of, thinking: who do I know who might help with this?

I invest lots of time to get teammates in sync; I don’t leave important conflicts unresolved. 

I work hard to see others’ viewpoints. ‘You see it differently! Help me see what you see!’

I summarise crucial opposing views to mine and check whether I’ve fully understood it.

I make staff feel completely backed. I insist they tell me if they ever feel undermined.

I instil confidence in my colleagues by developing my expertise, competence and reliability.

I surface disagreements to try to resolve them. 

I do not avoid, repress or deny conflict but see it as an opportunity for greater trust, teamwork, unity and alignment long-term through an open, honest and transparent conflict resolution.

I share dilemmas with people, especially those I trust most, and involve them in the problem so we can work out solutions together.

I share my mistakes to work out the most vital lessons learned – and work hard to apply them.

I never blame anyone, including myself! I take full responsibility for my choices instead, by working out what I could and should have done differently, sharing that and asking to be held to it.

I share my struggles, failures, and areas of low (or no!) expertise openly, so as to encourage others to do the same.

I recognise that everyone has things that stand in the way of success: I work these out, starting with myself, and try and address them.

I work out what my persistent shortcomings are and what my blind spots tend to be.

I make decisions – when they involve and affect others – considering not just the outcome but process, involvement and procedural justice. 

Plenty to work on there!

Which questions am I trying to ask myself more?

Where am I contributing to people’s thinking and impact?

Who am I overlooking?

Where am I getting in my own way?

Where am I getting in others’ way, hindering more than I’m helping?

Which questions am I trying to ask others more?

‘What would better enable you to do your best work? that’s within our control?!’

‘What are you doing that you want to do less of?’

‘What are you not doing that you most want to do?’

‘What’s (been) most helpful for you?’ 

‘What could we do differently?’

‘If you were going to be totally, brutally honest, what would you say?’ 

‘What haven’t I asked about that’s important?’ 

What practices am I trying out for encouraging honest upward feedback from staff to SLT?

#1. Chats

Walking around the school, taking time to chat, ask, listen and hear what’s on people’s minds. 

#2. Polls

Creating surveys to gather staff perspectives, ideas and suggestions. 

#3. 360s

Running annual 360 degree reviews – surveys seeking developmental feedback – to help me overcome my self-serving biases and misperceptions; to stop, start and keep up the right things! 

#4. Drafts

For irreversible, high-impact decisions, creating drafts of the tradeoffs and options to share with staff to invite their thinking, to overcome option blindness, and to improve the iterations. 

#5. Dragonfly-eye

Synthesising different views into clear-sighted summaries. Dragonflies see in 360 degrees!

There are downsides to this set of beliefs, messages, habits and practices. If not combined with strong values and steadfast resolve on principle, priorities and decisively saying no, they risk overstretch. They backfire in the wrong circumstances. And they must be combined with the multiple other dimensions to school leadership, such as clarity, cohesion, instilling confidence, safety, rapport and learning.

There are many other aspects to staff culture beyond upward feedback, such as difficult conversations about lapses in standards, misplaced priorities, persistent underperformance or misaligned values. There are team conversations, delegation conversations and coaching conversations within pastoral or curriculum areas. There’s thinking to be done on how best to give feedback and how best to accept feedback. But those are beyond the scope of this blogpost and for another time. 

A big part of creating a culture of honest upward feedback is receiving it really well. Let’s look at how to take feedback in the next post.

Posted in Education | 3 Comments

How can school leaders create great staff culture? 

‘I wouldn’t want to work anywhere else in the world. This culture, this staff, this school… being part of a team like this is what keeps me going’.

What is staff culture in a school? 

Staff culture is the mass of habits and beliefs among staff in the school. 

It’s what’s normal, rather than what leaders see.

It’s the lived reality: what staff say when they talk with each other, with friends or family about what it feels like to be a part of the place. 

It’s varied, too. It differs for subject departments, for office staff, for catering staff, for site staff. There are schools within schools. Some tend to be more neglected by us as school leaders than others. 

Why does it matter?

It matters for retention: it can reduce attrition and preserve vital tacit knowledge for the school. 

It matters for learning: chronic attrition harms student achievement.

In schools, nothing is more important than our people. 

How might school leaders understand staff culture? 

If school improvement is knowledge building, what do we as school leaders most need to know about staff culture?

Tom Rees, Ambition Institute’s Executive Director, signposted me to some of the research.

One synthesis of two decades of school research suggests that staff culture affects retention, and that a staff climate of trust, teamwork and learning produces positive staff culture and school outcomes.

Another review of four decades of school climate research finds that climate includes norms and relationships that support people feeling socially, emotionally and physically safe and contributing. 

Researchers Johnson, Kraft and Papy also find that school climate matters for teachers staying, improving, and succeeding. They ask: what elements of the school environment matter most? They find that a supportive organisational culture, the headteacher’s leadership, colleague relationships and collegial interactions matter more than facilities and resources. 

School leadership researchers Sebastian, Allensworth and Huang find that empowering staff to wield greater influence over school policy and school learning climate can be effective. Teacher involvement can help.

How might school leaders influence staff culture?

How can we bring the best out of each other? How can we develop ourselves to build trust whilst also challenging each other? especially as in schools, often, the truth doesn’t rise to the top? How can we all build great team spirit together? How can we learn from mistakes, setbacks and failures? How can school leaders develop trusting relationships while facing up to difficulties in their school and helping staff to do the same? 

Reflecting on summaries of multiple decades of research and on observations from multiple decades of studying, working in and visiting some of the best schools in the country, school leaders who have positive, lasting impacts on staff culture seem to me to share these practices:

They involve all staff in thinking about how best to improve the school, inviting honest upward feedback.

They create clarity, cohesion and congruence among staff (including office, site and catering staff) on the school’s top priorities and habits, partly by overcommunicating, keeping banging the drum, and getting to critical mass!

They create psychological safety for staff to share and admit struggles, mistakes and knowledge gaps, leading by example.

They have direct conversations to understand more about concerns they sense, and resolve shared ways forward swiftly. 

They create esprit de corps, bringing people together through shared, heart-warming moments like meals and celebrations. 

To be honest, I have not yet managed to do all of these in my own leadership!

To test these out, here are six sets of questions to try asking of ourselves as school leaders.

Congruence 

How can we help all staff to understand the school’s top priorities and key behaviours?

How can we unify staff on our core beliefs, perhaps by choosing deliberate mantras to keep returning to?

Involvement

How can we best involve staff in the school’s quest to improve?

How can we invite and encourage honest upward feedback and admit and share SLT blind spots?

How can we shield ourselves from nonsense and get rid of low-impact workload?

Safety 

How can we show bravery, honesty and openness in team talks to show others it’s ok to be honest, brave and vulnerable too? How can we share our mistakes, struggles, failures, foibles and areas of low (or no!) expertise?

How can we make everyone feel psychologically safe enough to be honest and direct in challenging what needs to be challenged and giving each other feedback?

Conversations 

How can we ensure our vital decisions and interactions live up to our values?

How can we get better at having direct conversations with honesty, clarity, kindness and openness?

Rapport

How can we develop esprit de corps through staff celebrations and meals?

How can we cultivate trust, encouragement, appreciation, affirmation and support?

Learning

How can we best learn from and with each other?

How can we organise the sharing of the most useful examples of excellence and positive impact? 

***

One frontier for us as a teaching profession is working out what knowledge matters most.

What do school leaders most need to know about staff culture? 

Testing out these concepts may be a start.

Congruence: get all staff clear on exactly what to focus on.

Involvement: invest all staff in improving the school.

Safety: create psychological safety.

Conversations: model and teach staff how to have better conversations.

Rapport: create esprit de corps!

Learning: help staff learn the best stuff from each other.

Ultimately though, staff culture is interconnected with other challenges school leaders face: how best to think about school improvement, pupil behaviour, curriculum and CPD.

Still, knowing more about which core concepts count most within and across these areas is a promising avenue for improving our school leadership.

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Knowledge-led strategy

How can we think better about school improvement? 

Schools are prone to overstretch

We need a way forward that doesn’t overload us as school leaders. 

But we should also beware of oversimplifying and boxing ourselves in to templates. 

The history of strategy can help. Out of hundreds of concepts developed over the centuries, which are most useful for school improvement? 

I’m trying out organising the concepts I’ve found most helpful into a schema of three sets: 

  • knowledge-building
  • prioritising
  • adapting

Concepts help us conceive things differently, notice and think the previously unthinkable.

I’m testing out and sharing here the schema, concepts and questions I’ve found most useful to keep returning to when thinking about school improvement planning.

Six concepts for knowing our domains, contexts and challenges.

‘Know yourself, and know your challenges, and you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.’ Sun Tzu

1. Knowledge

Study the best available literature, research and evidence on the crux problems for schools: pupil behaviour, attendance, motivation; curriculum, subjects, teaching, vocabulary, reading, homework; staff recruitment, development, management and retention. Each domain has its own body of hidden knowledge and several disciplines that have studied it such as psychology, history and ethics. 

What can we learn from the literature and research? What do we most need to know? What are we least certain about?

2. Benchmarking 

Study the best schools and departments. Visit. Ask lots. Benchmark against their best approaches to raise the bar. Study their curriculum and development selection and sequences. Learn from the best examples.

What are the best schools, departments (or even other professions) out there doing?

What are the possibilities for what we could do better, deliberately worse, not at all and differently?

3. Enquiry

Evaluate our current depth of knowledge and expertise.

Work out our strengths and challenges.

What are the strengths, areas of expertise, constraints and development areas for us internally?

What are the best questions to ask, given where we are at right now?

4. Obstacles 

Identify the crux obstacles for our school or team. Know them well.

What are the decisive obstacles – and what are their weak points?

5. Tradeoffs 

Work out what’s in tension. In curriculum and CPD,  there are always breadth-depth tradeoffs. In school decision-making, there are sometimes also tensions between what’s best for students and what’s best for staff. There may be 1,000 students and 100 staff, but staff happiness has a massive impact on retention, relationships, teamwork and student happiness.

What are the opposing options, and what are the advantages and disadvantages of each?

How could we combine the advantages of each whilst mitigating the disadvantages of both? 

6. Assumptions 

Imagine scenarios, risks and opportunities for our school or team.

Clarify our hidden beliefs and test them. Turn assumptions into testable hypotheses.

What are we assuming? How could we work out if we’re wrong?

What futures might we need to consider and plan for? 

Three concepts for prioritising curriculum and culture

‘Choose your battles. There are roads not to take. There are terrains not to contest. Know when to fight and when not to fight.’ Sun Tzu

1. Focus 

Focus on the critical few curriculum and culture initiatives. Select the high impact, high sustainability.

What could we pursue that would have the highest impact without being unsustainable?

2. Filters 

Pick our battles. Pick what not to do. Filter the essential from the desirable. Filter out what’s least important. Remember: there’s an opportunity cost to every yes. Yes means saying no to everything else we could do with that time.

What is desirable but not essential? What should we say no to? 

3. Anchor 

Craft a one-phrase guiding principle for culture and curriculum, with the heat of the school fray in mind.

What one thing or ‘anchor’ should all of us keep in mind at all times when making decisions?

Examples:

We keep asking: will it improve our learning, without overloading us?

We help students and staff love school, and love learning our subjects.

Three concepts for adapting as things change 

‘No strategy survives first contact with reality.’ Carl von Clausewitz

1. Dialogue

Make time to walk round, see classrooms, breaks and assemblies; have conversations; listen; chat! Invest heavily in our own and our colleagues’ educational expertise and subject knowledge with discussions in CPD and line-management conversations. 

How can we carve out the time and space and create the conditions for great conversations to happen?

2. Involvement

Involve and invest teachers and staff in thinking about school improvement. Ask lots of good questions to gather perspectives.

Who should we involve? how and when? 

3. Iterations 

Reappraise the school dynamics and keep drafting multiple iterations of school improvement planning and whole-school strategies on curriculum, staff development, pupil culture, feedback, vocabulary, reading, homework, staff development, and others, so as to keep improving in the light of unintended consequences. 

How – and how often – will we iterate?

We might improve our school improvement planning with expert strategic thinking if we keep:

  • deepening our knowledge of the school, team and educational context and challenges.
  • prioritising the critical curriculum and culture initiatives. 
  • adapting, reviewing and iterating our strategic planning to school complexity and education’s fast-changing reality. 

Not to be used as a template or checklist, these concepts and questions are best applied as ways of thinking and noticing to hone our expertise over a long timespan.

Improving our expertise across 20 subjects and many more topics is daunting.

I’ve found it useful to select some crux concepts and questions, captured in a single snapshot, like the one above; that way, I can revisit it at a glance to jog the memory when under time pressure in school.

A next step is to delve down a level of granularity into the specific problems facing school leaders: curriculum, staff culture and pupil culture. There’s still masses more to consider about school culture and curriculum at a much finer-grain level of detail. We need to know much more about them, and about the most useful underpinning concepts for each.

Strategic thinking for school improvement is best built on firm foundations of deep knowledge.  

Posted in Education, Staff Culture | 1 Comment

Strategy: a 2,500 year-old history

In 10 years in schools, I’ve always been prone to frazzling overstretch. I think we as school leaders often are: it’s tough to know what and how to prioritise. I reckon the history of strategy can help us out. 

I’ll try and distill 10 years of studying strategy for school leadership into 10 minutes or so! A fool’s errand! 

What’s out there on strategy for school leaders at the moment? 

Let’s explore two examples, one from the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), and one from the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL). 

Both have revenues of well into millions of pounds a year; both act as authorities in the school system. Headteachers, governors, school leaders and teachers look to their publications for the best available guidance. So I hope they’ll forgive me as a teacher providing a little healthy scrutiny and constructive review. 

In 2020, ASCL, the NAHT and the National Governance Association together created a guide for school leaders and governors called Being Strategic. It has a four-step annual cycle: 

(A) Good governance 

(B) Creating the strategy 

(C) Monitoring the strategy 

(D) Reviewing the strategy. 

It recommends a mission, values, a three-to-five-year vision and ideally no more than six improvement priorities annually. It recommends a termly progress report with triangulated data and an annual review with time to discuss culture and evidence of outcomes, such as progress, wellbeing, careers, resources and stakeholder engagement. 

The EEF have likewise created a 5-step school improvement cycle.

Step 1: Decide what you want to achieve

Step 2: Identify possible solutions using the EEF Teaching and Learning toolkit

Step 3: Give it the best chance of success with the EEF implementation guide 

Step 4: Evaluate impact

Step 5: Secure and spread change

What do these have in common?

Their strengths are the focus on follow through. They simplify things for school leaders under intense time pressure. They focus us on a limited number of priorities, recognising the overload that school leaders find themselves under. 

They also show how deep thinking is tough under tight time constraints.

They turn complex, dynamic planning for a complex, uncertain reality into a step-by-step template. That may be what governors need! For school leaders though, it may not. 

To see why, let’s look beyond scientific research evidence for a bit, to consider a different, equally longstanding discipline: history. 

What can we learn from the history of strategy for thinking about school improvement?

The history of strategy suggests that step-by-step approaches are flawed in how they guide our understanding, decision-making and adapting to the complexity of our ever-evolving reality.

An ultra-concise history of strategy might start with three of its greatest thinkers.

Sun Tzu, Chinese strategist

2,500 years ago in China, Sun Tzu was thinking long and hard about strategy. His thoughts have stood the test of time. 

‘Know yourself, and know your challenges, and you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.’

‘Choose your battles. There are roads not to take. There are terrains not to contest. Know when to fight and when not to fight.’

‘Be ready for the unexpected. Know how to create and sustain morale. The well prepared are relaxed and fresh.’ 

In short – knowledge. priorities. adaptability. 

Carl von Clausewitz, Prussian strategist

Some two thousand years later, and two centuries ago, Carl von Clausewitz wrote another of the now-classic books on strategy.

‘No one ought to start anything without first being clear on what is intended to be achieved and how.’ 

‘Identify the decisive point and concentrate on it, ignoring lesser objectives. Pursue decisive aims with determination.’ 

‘No strategy ever survives first contact with reality. We need a philosophy of strategy that contains the seeds of its constant rejuvenation — a way to chart strategy in an unstable environment.’

In short – knowing your top priorities and adapting to evolving contexts. 

Adaptability is a crucial and recurring theme in the history of strategy. After all, what happened to our school improvement plans during a global pandemic that few expected? Partly due to a lack of Tzuian readiness for the unexpected and Clausewitzian adaptivity, few survived contact with a choppy reality.

Richard Rumelt, American strategist

Over the last 50 years, Richard Rumelt has diagnosed the problems with bad strategy. To paraphrase the four problems he sees:

1. Avoidance: we don’t identify or define the crux obstacles, so we can’t assess or improve our strategies.

2. Fuzz: we set a big goal, a long list of aims or a handful of buzzwords without setting out a clear plan for tackling the obstacles. 

3. Indecisiveness: we don’t do the really hard work to set aside good goals in favour of the best. It’s hard to forgo certain interests. 

4. Boxiness: we fill in templates for mission, values, vision and goals, step-by-step, without taking the time to diagnose the truly decisive insights, or having the agility to think beyond the linear.

Result: our strategies don’t work as well as they could. 

Bad strategy is avoidant. fuzzy. indecisive. boxy. 

Rumelt suggests that strategy tells us what not to do.

***

Three Pitfalls

Let’s now revisit the ASCL/NAHT & EEF approaches to school improvement in the light of what we know about the history of strategy.

Both approaches – the 5-step EEF school improvement cycles and the 4-step ASCL ‘Being Strategic’ cycle – try to be concise. Both, though, fall into the template trap, reducing strategy to following a step-by-step process. Neither mentions domain knowledge or expertise. Yet! Perhaps in future iterations..!

Here are three pitfalls for us in our school improvement planning.

First pitfall: we might oversimplify our planning into step-by-step templates that risk a reductive ‘just-follow-the-steps’ approach. The three main steps in the ASCL/NAHT guidance on ‘Being strategic’ are (a) creating (b) monitoring and (c) reviewing strategy. Each has a series of sub-steps. For instance, under creating your strategy document, the first sub-step is: ‘1. start with your vision.’

A ‘follow-the-steps’ approach is a pitfall for us as school leaders, although the simplicity might be handy for governors. If we think what we need to do is complete an annual ‘create-monitor-review’ cycle with a series of sub-steps to follow, we lose out. Starting a one-off, once-a-year school improvement plan with a vision might inhibit us from taking the time to really deeply study and understand our contexts. Taking the shortcut of ‘start with a vision’, we might miss out precious chances to listen, ask, discuss, think and seek to learn about underlying areas like student and staff cultures and subject curricula. We might miss opportunities to draft our priorities, share them, seek challenge, rethink, redraft, reshare and iterate. We miss out on messy but vital thinking and insight. 

Second pitfall: we might overload ourselves with jargon like mission, vision, and metacognition, ideas that become buzzwords

The EEF toolkit, for instance, bundles the ideas of metacognition and self-regulation together as having ‘consistently high levels of impact’: +7 months of additional student progress. One of the top two interventions based on ‘the international evidence’, apparently. The EEF then unbundles self-regulated learning into three supposedly ‘essential components’: cognition, metacognition and motivation that are ‘usually more effective when taught in collaborative groups’. There is lots of abstraction here and not much clarity. 

ASCL and the NAHT say, ‘try not to have more than six improvement priorities in the same document’. Why so many, isn’t clear.

Buzzwords like mission and vision risk becoming fuzzy, abstract, overloading and unmemorable phrases for websites and brochures that mean little to our children, teachers and other staff. 

Third pitfall: we might underestimate the importance of domain knowledge in making good decisions. Neither the ASCL/NAHT report nor the EEF mention knowledge even once. Likewise, we might imagine, from lofty heights on SLT, trust, governing board, union or national level and beyond, that knowledge is lower-order and doesn’t matter very much, and that our generic strategic thinking skills apply nicely across all areas of the school, regardless of whether we know very much or very little about the specific area or context in particular. But a school leader who doesn’t really know their stuff loses their credibility with teachers and subject leaders. 

The risk is, we as SLT might overreach and distort subjects by imposing generic strategy on them. 

We might fall into this pitfall as school leaders if we rush school improvement plans without first considering the gaps in our own knowledge. If we’re honest, there is always too much for any individual or team to know. SLT won’t be experts in every one of the 15 or so subjects that school teaches. 

So we also need to know when and how to draw on expertise from outside our existing teams in order to make better decisions. For instance, secondary teachers and school leaders rarely have in-depth knowledge of decoding, phonics, bereavement or child criminal exploitation. We can usefully draw on external expertise in certain arenas to make better decisions when prioritising curriculum tuition and pastoral strategy. 

In summary, we’ve seen three pitfalls to watch out for.

We might end up oversimplifying our planning into step-by-step templates.

We might end up overloading ourselves with too many abstract buzzwords.

We might end up underestimating the hidden knowledge that’s useful for effective decision-making, perhaps overestimating our expertise or overreaching.

How can we avoid these pitfalls of oversimplifying, overloading and underestimating the importance of knowledge?

Expert knowledge

We can develop our expertise by building underpinning knowledge in the crux domains of schools, such as curriculum, behaviour and staff culture.

Research on experts suggests that expertise is highly specific: that complex skills are tied to specific knowledge of a specific subject arena or domain. Expert chess players aren’t necessarily great bridge players. World-class tennis players won’t be as good at badminton. Expert pianists won’t be as good at electric guitar. Near transfer between domains that are closer may be easier than far transfer between domains that are further apart – but even transfer of knowledge to new problems within subject domains seems to be quite tricky for novices.

When we as senior and middle leaders create strategy, that isn’t all it is – it’s a school improvement strategy, a subject curriculum strategy, a subject department strategy, a behaviour strategy, a student recruitment strategy, a staff retention strategy, a vocabulary strategy, a homework strategy or a reading strategy, say.  

Expertise is domain-dependent. It’s best to know a lot about vocabulary or reading if you want to create a really good strategy on either. If you know more, you see more; you see differently. Over time, you see better, learn more and decide better.

One example: one of my many mistakes

Three years ago as Vice Principal for Curriculum, I brought in a ‘research-based’ start-of-lesson strategy of written subject recaps to begin all lessons in the school, aiming to focus us as teachers on what cognitive science suggested was important for lasting learning – knowledge, memory, practice, revisiting, retrieval and subject thinking – rather than the jazzy, whizzy, flashy, entertaining starters that took us as teachers ages to prepare. Written recaps, when selected and designed by subject experts with deep, broad, oceanic knowledge of their subject curriculum and student struggles in the subject, might work well for writing subjects. 

But I now think that imposing an always-written start distorted subject knowledge in languages (where conversing, listening and choral repetition are central), drama, art (both visual and performing), music, design technology, physical education and other creative subjects. 

Now, I would allow subject leaders to choose the format of subject recaps at the start of lessons. Knowing more about structures of subject knowledge in these disciplines has helped me see things in a different light, decide better and, hopefully, distort less. Knowing more than I did before, I see things differently. Underpinning knowledge can improve overarching decision-making. 

We can improve the thinking and decisions in our school improvement plans, our curriculum strategies, our behaviour and attendance strategies and CPD strategies if we remember the research evidence that suggests expertise is solving precise problems using specific knowledge sets to see hidden issues and lurking pitfalls.

When we create school improvement strategy, or any other strategy in the school, psychological research into expertise suggests that to make effective decisions, one of the best things we can do is to build our own and our team’s knowledge in that area.

Drawing on the best current research base, Tom Rees and Jen Barker at Ambition Institute offer us a deep yet decisive view of school leadership development as building knowledge and mental models on persistent school problems while building trust. Knowing more helps us decide better.

Drawing on the best current research base,  Leona Cruddas and Ian Baukham at the Confederation of School Trusts (CST) likewise offer us a similarly deep yet decisive view of school improvement as deliberate and intentional knowledge-building. If we as school leaders can wisely build our knowledge of curriculum, student and staff culture, we may improve our thinking, make better decisions, create better strategy and achieve better outcomes.] 

***

Questions gleaned from the history of strategy can help us see and evade classic pitfalls in school improvement plans. 

To avoid the pitfall of overload and to deprioritise better, we can ask:

where can we be more decisive on what not to do – on what to say no to?

To avoid the pitfall of oversimplifying and to embrace complexity, we can ask:

where can we better stay adaptable and not box ourselves in to templates? 

To avoid underestimating knowledge and to know our school better, we can keep asking: 

where can we deepen our knowledge of the crux domains of curriculum and school culture?

These questions can start to challenge our thinking and broaden our conversations. 

Ultimately, though, questions and discussions alone won’t fully address the challenges facing school leaders.

Knowing our subject curricula and school culture really well, knowing the best available research evidence and knowing how to use the best mental models from broader subject disciplines like the history of strategy, help us to make better decisions on what’s best to do and what’s best not to do for our school. 

There is no shortcut to effective school improvement. It depends on deep expertise. 

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