Tuesday, 2 June 2015

The gap between thinking and doing

Interview with Professor Caroline Whalley CBE 

SUE: What are you working on now?

CAROLINE: I’m thinking about our national education system. I am concerned that there is a significant gap between those who decide how our education system should be and those whose job it is to implement their plans. I suppose I’m worrying about how ideas become reality.

We really need a systemic approach at cross-party, policy level. We need to create phased plans that are not interrupted by changes in government. Start from the point of whole system improvement, and the question becomes,  “What are we collectively trying to achieve?” And if you are going to create “this”, then what do we need to know or do first. Also, we need to think more about risks and how they can be mitigated before we take action; rather than always reacting to risk after the event.

Hypothesising is one way to do this.  You can create thought experiments and start to explore any unintended consequences right at the beginning of policy work; before the implementation has begun.

Take teaching school alliances as an example… It is quite easy to hypothesise issues that were not necessarily considered before the policy was rolled out:

  • Geographical challenges e.g. postcode lottery and outlying areas such as Cornwall or Norfolk where excellent schools are often many miles apart
  • Quality control - what happens if you train in a ‘good’ school that subsequently fails or a teaching school that subsequently gets its status removed? Where is the individual teacher regarding their training reputation?

Using different perspectives and points of view.

Stepping into the perspective of different individuals and groups can also help. Combining this with hypothesis gives further insight.

Free School Policy can look very different depending on your perspective. From the point of view of a local authority it has created a fragmented system. At the same time parents may consider it a freedom but worry about standards. Questions imagined on behalf of children as users could include, “Does the curriculum flow and can I opt from a free school to a state school?”  Taken together these create a complex layering that should be considered before you start work on implementation.

SUE: That sounds complicated.

CAROLINE: Well, any change to a large system invariably is.  Just look at the NHS… And that’s before we add the problems of language itself. 
I’m convinced more than ever that you have to constantly watch the language you are using because language creates reality. If you take a phrase like, “The trouble with failing schools…,” which is quite common in the system today.  These five words create their own realities and complexities:
  • Can good teachers or good students exist in failing schools?
  •  How long will they continue to be good if their schools are labelled as failing?
  • Is it the school’s fault or the system’s fault that it has ‘failed’?
  • If you hold onto a deficit model where does your aspiration come from?
And at the risk of making this even more complicated that’s before we think about the importance of what is not said…

SUE: And people’s understanding of what a word or phrase means isn’t always the same

CAROLINE: Exactly. For example, Hargreaves is cited as the ‘father of the school-led system’. But Hargreaves didn’t create the system. He merely described a system, a possible future. An exploration of that possible future; what a successful education system might act and be like, should then have followed. Unfortunately policy-makers do not worry about implementation in their silos.  A policy dream is their end point.

SUE: That comes back to a really important point about language. ‘Assessment without levels’ is case in point. Many Headteachers believe that it’s silly to assume there will be nothing like levels in future. There will always be ‘levels’; they will just be called something different. However, what does a parent understand about ‘assessment without levels’? They might have a completely different idea of how their children’s attainment and progress is to be measured. So rather than assume understanding, we should explain and ensure that the language used is understood by its audience.

CAROLINE: Therefore we need to consider ‘complex equivalence’ which is a term used to describe the meaning words hold for individuals. For any word there may be a difference in what one person sees as meaning and what another sees as meaning, recognising this difference is finding that equivalence. What does a “successful teacher” mean? It’s one thing in one school and might be something different in another. All parties, researchers, policy-makers and implementers need to reach across knowledge bases towards a common understanding when using words and knowledge from a different discipline.

SUE: Are there any examples you can suggest to illustrate your point?

CAROLINE: Using language such as Academy ‘chain’ is to liken schools to retail chains like Carphone Warehouse or Asda. We use that language unthinkingly.  No-one stops to ask what is meant by using the word ‘chain’ instead of a more pertinent word? This is a language issue that generates a reality.

I worry that the education profession kow-tows before business.  That is not to say that education cannot learn anything from successful businesses, clearly it can.  But education professionals aren’t business professionals and they don’t always challenge terms they don’t understand.

By accepting the term ‘academy chains’ we have tacitly accepted that a top-down, centralised, follow-the-script model is the way to go.  All of this is implicit for business people in the use of the word, ‘chain’.  But the vast majority of education professionals will tell you that this is absurd. Education is incredibly context sensitive.  There is no single solution to all problems. Anyone who tells you there is is probably selling you something.  But, as a profession, we didn’t realise that we were accepting all this baggage when we started using the word ‘chain’.

As a profession we should say louder and stronger “this is not the correct term.” “ This damages rather than builds on our work.”  As a profession, we don’t tend to question but repeat and use the same language.

SUE I think that’s partly due to a lack of time to reflect and a lack of time to question. I wonder if there is a generation of leaders that haven’t been encouraged to reflect and lead change but to respond to the needs of system accountability and are afraid to experiment? So language is not discussed. I also think it’s about taking the safe route when choosing language such as the use of ‘Ofstedese’ for example so that documentation is aligned with what we think will be wanted. In other words it becomes the only discourse.

CAROLINE I don’t think it’s a lost generation in that way I think it is a method of learning that we don’t get exposed to. Questioning meaning, tutors and teachers being as much a part of the system and learning as the pupils.

Take ‘context’ which I talked about earlier. Every time a head changes and/or a member of staff changes, then the context of that school changes. What could have been a positive or negative environment may change – it is not the same school, therefore not the same system.  It makes no sense that one of the single most used strategies for improving a school is changing the head. A head could have been successful in a previous school but they aren’t necessarily going to be so in their next one.

SUE: And that of course is why so many system leadership experiments fail because someone who is successful as leader of a single school or in a particular context isn’t necessarily able to transfer that to leading as an executive head in another context. A head who thrives for example in a special measures school doesn’t necessarily want to be in a school which someone else has made outstanding or can adapt to the different leadership requirements.

CAROLINE: I think the single most important thing heads need to know is that if a strategy works in one place it doesn’t necessarily work in another, because of the change in context, language use and meaning. Any system using language cannot presume stability.
A head of a teaching school who is promoted leaves behind a different school. As it is no longer the same school, the relationships are no longer the same relationships, the future interactions and priorities will be different.

I think we need to have a way of regularly punctuating our leadership - a stop and think - so that we look at our schools and our practice with refreshed eyes, from a different point of view.

SUE: In doing so we can consider language and its impact on understanding. Perhaps we should consider how we engage non-educational professionals in our communication?

CAROLINE: We’ve heard again and again ‘Oh we’ve tried to engage parents/governors and that won’t work but actually the easiest thing would be to go to those individuals and ask what would work?

One of the most salutary things I learnt along the way was a young man who said, 

‘I’m not hard to reach. Where did this hard to reach thing come from? I’m not hard to reach, just nobody tries to reach me.’

I think the politicians and mandarins who should be our national thinkers and thought leaders holding in their heart the best interests of the system and our futures, are too often driven by individual interests and career paths, coupled with electioneering and short termism.

There is a lack of humility, not recognising that “not knowing” is a strength.

SUE:  It’s just not in the interests of politicians to tell the whole truth because retaining the status quo or unpopular change doesn’t get votes

Do people question enough?

CAROLINE: Possibly, twitter and Facebook brings inquisition to the foreground but it’s largely superficial. There is now an inherent need to spend time knowing more about an individual’s day-to-day life than there is to enter debates that are about direction and control of policy

So where I’m coming from now is that it’s important to me to use a mirror to shine straight back into eyes and to really startle. I haven’t yet decided the best way of doing that and I have to be quite focussed because over the last 2-3 years of setting up The Elliot Foundation it’s been very hard. If I’d known how difficult it was going to be with the politicians and officials I may well have not started the journey.

SUE: I think there are a lot of children and their parents who are glad that you did start the journey and how the Elliot Foundation has created a safe place for children to learn and to thrive

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