We often associate uncertainty with indecisiveness and forget the benefits that uncertainty brings. But in an educational age of evidence-informed practices, uncertainty is a welcome friend, encouraging us to consider the caveats, complexities and nuances of what we ‘know’ to be true.
In my career thus far, I’ve had the privilege of working with a number of skilled curriculum and senior leaders and (anecdotally speaking) a clear commonality that has emerged is their continual uncertainty about ‘getting the curriculum right.’ The constant questioning of ‘is this working?’ and ‘is this the right approach for our context and our pupils?’ has enabled them to have more impact in their work.
This isn’t an easy balance for these leaders to strike. On the one hand they derive value in constantly questioning the implementation and impact of their curriculum. And on the other hand, they need to implement with enough certainty to ensure those they lead, in turn, implement with fidelity. If leaders are so uncertain about a given approach, it begs the question ‘why should we do this then?’
The way I consider this balance has changed over time (and will no doubt evolve going forward!) For me, the answer comes back to the culture within a school. Being uncertain can be seen and modelled as:
Or it can be seen and modelled as:
-recognising that an evidence based approach may look different ‘on the ground’ and therefore implementation may need to be tweaked over time
-continual learning for everyone at ALL levels
So what does this mean for school leaders? I argue that there are very real benefits in:
-preempting how an approach might go wrong and mitigating against this
-reviewing implementation regularly as a collective staff to consider ‘how well is this working? What impact is this having (if any and being actively avoidant of the sunk-cost fallacy)?
-creating a culture where nothing is certain and we are operating on ‘best bets’ and a responsive approach to implementation.
-Accepting that there is an area of grey that makes school improvement work both challenging and endlessly rewarding in equal measure.
It’s very difficult, when you have a very set mental model, to welcome the prospect of being uncertain. And as a leader, it can be downright terrifying! But if we fail to recognise the benefits of uncertainty and how it continually stress tests our thinking, approaches to pedagogy and curriculum development, we may become stagnant in our thinking and inadvertently negatively impact pupil outcomes.
Here’s some questions we might ask ourselves about curricular within our individual context:
1. Is our intended curriculum what we see on the ground day to day? If not, why? If yes, how do we take this to the next level?
2. I wonder if our approaches to teaching ‘insert subject here’ are lending themselves to delivering our intended curricular to ensure a change in long-term memory for our pupils?
3. How is the delivery of ‘insert subject here’ being quality assured and how is this feedback actioned to strengthen delivery over time? Are we certain we know what good looks like?
4. Is this the right way to structure our curriculum? Is the architecture of the curriculum rooted in the best bets from cog sci? Are we certain we are accurate in our understanding of these ‘best bets’?
5. Are we clear on what successful end points look like at the end of year ___? How can we exemplify these so there are clear goalposts for teachers and for pupils? Are we certain there is a shared understanding of this?
Simply put, uncertainty has a very bad reputation (particularly for those in leadership positions!) However, in my very humble opinion, I think it plays an important role in curriculum thinking, in the development of our individual professional practice and the evolution of evidence-informed approaches.
Let me put the cards on the table- I’m no leadership expert. In fact, my area of interest is usually curriculum design and development. But recently, the world of educational leadership has caught my attention for a number of reasons.
It seems to be a bit of black box. Yes there’s stuff out there on educational leadership and some of it’s pretty darn good. But it’s sparse and feels in part inaccessible to school leaders on the ground.
My 6 month stint writing materials for the NPQs (National Professional Qualifications) gave me a fascinating insight into being on the ‘other side of the table’. I was no longer the Assistant Head being coached and trained; I was thinking about what middle and senior leaders needed in terms of their training.
I’ve recently become a Head of School and have a personal vested interest in leadership and what we can do to to support leaders in their professional development.
Since educational leadership has piqued my interest I have had extended conversation with many people from across the sector: esteemed academics, great thinkers and expert designers of professional learning, mostly to gain an understanding of what great professional learning looks like for leaders and how I, as a Head of School, could make sure those who I lead have sufficient knowledge, understanding, support and coaching.
I love the above quote from Vivienne Robinson because it recognises and acknowledges the many decisions leaders make and how easily we can fall foul to the ‘wrong turns’. The more conversations I had with colleagues, the more clearly a picture was being built in my mind about the different component parts of professional learning for leaders, be it middle leaders, department leaders or senior leaders. It wasn’t JUST about ensuring leaders had knowledge, or JUST about ensuring they knew how to action that knowledge, it was also about ensuring that they had the right support in place to bear the emotional load of the job, to feel safe enough to share their vulnerabilities, to uncover their own blindspots and to be open to self-reflection rather than feeling like they had to be the all-knowing tsar of…well, everything.
All the while, I maintained a few key questions: ‘what would really add value and address some of the persistent challenges I see the leaders I coach deal with day-in, day-out?’
In this blog I share the findings (so far!) of my informal discussions and propose some components of professional learning that I feel would benefit developing school leaders. I intentionally label it ‘developing leaders’ because I think all leaders (regardless of hierarchical status) are constantly in need of developing no matter how strong. In fact, one of the temperature checks when reflecting on these components was ‘what did I/would I/will I I find really useful in supporting my own leadership so I can have a positive impact on the pupils I serve?’ The minute we stop developing, is the minute the complex challenge of school improvement becomes all the more challenging.
This is by no means an exhaustive list- it simply captures the components I’ve uncovered through my own experiences as a leader and through discussion with more knowledgeable colleagues so far. But I feel like it might perhaps form a good starting point in terms of giving those who coach leaders a reference points to consider the holistic offer of professional learning that leaders require and deserve. Quite rightly, we focus on teacher professional learning and this isn’t to detract from the importance of this but I do feel more can be done to support leaders in the very important work they do.
This is a very top-down overview, lacking any real detail but of course, the underlying ‘mechanisms’ of each strand are key. Harry-Fletcher Wood recently authored an excellent blog on the best form of professional development (see here- https://improvingteaching.co.uk/2022/04/17/whats-the-best-form-of-professional-development/) and discusses the importance of the mechanisms by which you deliver any given approach. He writes: ‘If you adopt lesson study – but just pop into the lesson and summarise what you saw afterwards – not much will change. If your discussion includes several mechanisms – feedback, praise, examining models of good practice and planning future lessons, for example – it’s much more likely to have an impact.’ Here he refers to teacher professional development but I would argue the same could be applied for leadership development. Within coaching in the actionable knowledge component for example, feedback would undoubtedly be crucial.
The above isn’t the finished product- nowhere near! However, I hope it offers a starting point, a prompt or the beginnings of a potential framework for a more holistic approach to leadership development that accounts for the many challenges and opportunities for growth that leadership brings.
British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (2021). ‘Supervision within the counselling professions’ Good Practice in Action 043 Research Overview
Deans for Impact (2015). The Science of Learning. Austin, TX: Deans for Impact.
With thanks to colleagues who have generously given me their time, shared their wisdom and are shaping my ever-evolving thinking on educational leadership thus far, captured in this blog
I recently read an excellent blog from Matthew Evans (@head_teach), who wrote about the purpose of monitoring in schools and flipped the traditional narrative of monitoring to ascertain ‘how good is this?’ to a more developmental approach, posing the question ‘what is going on?’ This got me thinking deeply about the decisions we make as leaders around implementation and how we can ensure we are investing our limited time, energy, and resource into the most appropriate course of action, dependant on ‘what’s going on’ here.
In this blog I pay particular attention to the ‘explore’ phase in which one identifies a key priority, explores programmes of practice that could be implemented and examines the fit and feasibility within the school’s context. (EEF 2021). Mostly because my lived experience as a senior leader has taught me this exploration phase is far from simple and if we don’t get it right (which happens!) it of course has implications for the rest of the implementation phases and inevitably leads to the need for de-implementation down the line, which further depletes hard-found time and energy. We also need to lay the cards on the table and accept that although this isn’t ideal, it is a reality and when this situation occurs, as with all errors, the best we can do is approach a ‘lessons learnt’ stance to refine our professional toolkit for future implementation.
Ideally, however, we want to get this exploration phase as right as possible so that we can identify a well-informed ‘best bet’ and pour resource into the right place, maximising our chances of having meaningful impact on pupils in classrooms.
Let’s start by thinking about the PURPOSE of the explore phase. Inspired by Frayer’s model, let us begin by looking at what the purpose IS NOT. It is not to:
-place blame or poke holes in practice
-solely pick out problems
-to inform a well-written document that will be sent to various stakeholders to affirm confidence in the leader’s perceived expertise
-to be seen to be ‘exploring’ the state of play for a decision already made by senior leaders
The purpose of the explore phase is to engage in a school-wide, collaborative consideration of an element of practice, with the shared goal of developing an accurate picture of where practice currently sits and what can be done to support improvement in this area, both at a surface-level (addressing the visible by-products) and the root causes (the systems, structures, and approaches underling these.)
I place emphasis on this distinction between the by-products and root causes because quite often, the former overpowers the latter. For example, if reading progress isn’t where it needs to be (the visible by-product), there are multiple potential root causes of this. The ‘explore’ phase allows us to gather evidence of what the root cause is most likely to be so that we can choose a course of action that will in-fact address the issue at hand.
A WORD OF WARNING HERE- hierarchical ‘I’m big you’re small’ Trunchbull-style assessments of ‘what is good and what is bad’ in this explore phase is most likely to further compound the situation. If collective improvement is to be seen, collective understanding needs to be developed. I’m not contesting that subject-specialists or senior leaders should not lead this body of work, but I am very aware that often, this explore phase can become a ‘mini-Ofsted style assessment’ of practice, which damages the foundations of school improvement- a continuous culture of improvement. Damaging this is not the way to go. Engaging in conversation with teachers and support staff on the ground, collating and corroborating perspectives, evidence and sources of information is the best way to build an ACCURATE view of both the priority that needs to be addressed and what is leading to the challenges in this area in the first place.
One without the other is inconsequential. Knowing you have a problem without understanding the root cause isn’t going to resolve the problem and understanding the root cause without knowing what it leads to renders us unable to measure whether our theory of change is having tangible impact when addressed.
In ‘The Perils of Perception’ by Bobby Duffy, a key recommendation put forth for managing our misconceptions is ‘we need to tell the story’. He writes:
‘Although facts are important, they are not sufficient given how our brains work. We need to be aware of how people hear and use the, turning them into stories, that might not always lead to the right conclusions. There is no contradiction between facts and stories; you don’t need to choose only one to make your point. The power of stories over us means we need to engage people with both.’
I love this quote from the book because it highlights the co-existence of both qualitative and quantitative information in crafting an accurate picture of the state of play of something in question.
One last thing that I feel crucial to consider when exploring? A recognition that no matter who we are and what level of ‘expertise’ we hold, ‘you don’t know what you don’t know’ (she says sheepishly writing this blog!) Adam Grant writes about this extensively in his book ‘Think Again’. The below visual summarises it nicely. We mitigate against this one in the same way we mitigate against damaging culture within schools- collaboration over competition, development over judgement and an unrelenting sense of purpose…the pupils we serve.
I had the privilege of speaking with Alex Pethick recently about all things primary curriculum and it really got me reflecting on the many nuances of a connected curriculum. Talk about curriculum coherence is commonplace within the current discourse and refers to organising parts of the curriculum so they lay the foundations for cumulative knowledge building over time. But connectedness, is less discussed due to the contention associated with how the primary curriculum ‘should’ be structured and debates surrounding ‘topic-based learning’ vs discrete subject disciplines. But does it have to be one or the other? Can we reconcile these two constructs to maximise pupil learning? If we really drill down to why connectedness matters in the primary curriculum a few arguments can be made:
-Cognitive principles underpinning how we best learn suggest that our knowledge and understanding develop best when ‘pinned’ to our existing and prior knowledge (Deans of Impact 2015)
-By connecting different areas of the curriculum we give our pupils the opportunity to deepen understanding of individual concepts and ideas and transition between inflexible knowledge (the state that knowledge exists in when initially acquired) to flexible knowledge (the state that knowledge exists in when it has been developed in sufficient depth and can be understood in multiple concepts) (Willingham 2002)
-A connected curriculum offers ample opportunity for pupils to retrieve and therefore strengthen their knowledge, meaning it’s remembered and they can use it. (Karpicke, J. D., & Roediger, H. L. 2008)
This makes the work of curriculum design in primary a complex business involving intentional choices being made around how best to select knowledge (the content of the curriculum) and create meaningful connections both within and across subjects (the connectedness of the curriculum.)
As with all curriculum choices there are as Alex eloquently described ‘opportunity costs’- we have to be able to make the hard decisions about both content and connections and a key part of this is the collective sense making process that underpins curriculum design work. By making this process as collaborative and rigorous as possible, we can ensure decisions are made with the right mix of subject expertise (derived from subject specialists and curriculum designers) and craft expertise (derived from teachers who actively deliver the curriculum day to day). One need not come at the cost of the other!
Maintaining a close link between the two ensures that the top-level curriculum design is rooted in the realities of the classroom and how knowledge will be actively mobilised. If divorced, curriculum design becomes a shiny paper exercise that captures an idealistic intended curriculum that never comes to pass and offers minimal benefit for pupils, no matter how structurally sound.
All of the above is not easy work, but connection seems to be a recurring theme and perhaps that’s a good place to start.
-Connection in our curriculum subject.
-Connection between the evidence base and the curriculum design.
-Connection between curriculum design and delivery.
-Connection between curriculum delivery and curriculum refinement.
‘Eventually everything connects- peoples, ideas, objects. The quality of connection is the key to quality per se’ Charles Eames
‘That’s what a comeback is. You have a starting point, and you build strength and momentum from there. Stay the course…remain patient. Focus on small steps that are constantly forward’ Kara Goucher, Long Distance Olympic Runner.
I use the phrase ‘comeback’ slightly loosely here knowing that many leaders will spend some, if not, a large proportion of their summer break laying the foundations for a strong start in September. Having said this I sincerely hope this isn’t the case and that they are also taking the time to power down and regroup after what has been a testing and trying academic year for school leaders worldwide.
This time of year, a few years back, I wrote a blog for NQT’s about things I’d wish I’d known before embarking on my career as a teacher. https://teacherfeature2.com/2019/08/14/my-top-5-tips-for-nqts-what-i-wish-someone-had-told-me/ This year, I thought I’d try my hand at sharing some leadership musings to support those new to leadership or perhaps prompt some thinking for more experienced colleagues. Why? Because there’s no handbook on how to make a comeback from the ‘new normal’ to the ‘new, new normal’ (not quite sure what version we’re on now). I, by no means claim to have the answers but here’s a few things you may wish to consider as you make your comeback into the world of school leadership. I hope that at the very least, that this prompts thinking and reflection on your leadership practice for the academic year ahead. Why? (The purpose of asking why multiple times will become apparent later in the blog) Because leadership is such a key lever in school improvement and ultimately in the quality of education our pupils receive ‘on the ground’; it is therefore a moral imperative that we take the time to try and get it right.
Making a strong start…routines and rituals
A common focus for teachers in September of a new academic year is getting the routines and rituals right in their classroom and setting the tone in terms of expectations and norms of behaviour. I would argue the same is true of school culture amongst staff. Making a strong start in terms of ‘setting out your stall’ and clarifying collective, shared purpose, norms of behaviour and establishing routines for the year to come ensures that strong foundations are in place before you begin to ‘build’ on these. If Professional Development is a key part of your strategic plan for the year as a leader, make this known by communicating this explicitly but also by ‘doing the do’ and ensuring that teachers are equipped with the knowledge and skills to enact your vision from the very beginning. It certainly isn’t feasible to cram this all into a few INSET days but offering a piece of professional development that can be immediately and practically applied to the classroom on Day 1 is a useful endeavour that can form that initial association in for teachers about the bridge between evidence and classroom practice. The fallacy of ‘don’t smile until Christmas’ is an extreme extrapolation of what I think began as a simple premise- the early days matter.
2. The 4 C’s of change management- (consult, communicate, collaborate, cement craft)
The academic year ahead may signal change for your school in your individual context and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing but as a senior leader who has got this *very* wrong in the past, learnt from it and then gone on to refine my own leadership practice, I’m here to offer some ‘lessons learnt’. Change management has always fascinated me because to grow, by its very nature, requires change of some sort. In organisations where change is mismanaged, ANY change becomes associated with stress, negativity, and general non-compliance. So, getting it right, is rather key. The 4 C’s of change management can offer a useful framework when considering change, be it small or large.
Psychology dictates that as humans, we have needs that if unmet, result in undesirable feelings which in turn can result in undesirable behaviours. The link between our emotions, our thinking and our behaviour is well-established in the field of Psychology, and we need only to look at the work of Maslow and his ‘hierarchy of needs’ to get an understanding of the various meets that we have as humans and the relative importance of these. Fisher and Royster (2016) carried out research with Mathematics teachers on their ideas about teacher stress and retention and used these to develop a hierarchy of needs, resembling that of Maslow’s. A summary of their findings is shown below:
Although this was not a large-scale study and focused on the views of four mathematics teachers, the purpose was not to produce results that were generalisable but to build on the work of Maslow in the wider context of the Teaching profession. One discussion point from the above is of particular interest:
‘Security: Teachers should also be able to work in a place that Maslow  describes as ‘predictable’ and ‘orderly.’[23,p.377] Although the teaching profession is rarely predictable, it should be orderly. Many schools are lacking in this aspect of the hierarchy, which, in turn, affects how students learn. Feelings such as ‘injustice, unfairness, or inconsistency’ can make the teacher feel anxious and insecure. [23, p.377] Those feelings increase the stress levels of teachers and produce dissatisfactory feelings about their school, colleagues, and, ultimately, the profession.’
As leaders, if we can spend time reflecting on this, perhaps we can ensure that our strategic plans are underpinned by as much predictability and psychological safety as possible so that we can best support teachers in enacting these plans.
Change is inevitable and this is a fact or life, not just in our schools. Communicating change clearly, however, can dissolve some of the natural anxieties, tension, concerns, or apprehensions that arise for individuals. We are, after all, creatures of habit. Some questions to reflect upon when considering change and communicating about change:
–How am I going to communicate this?
-Why is the change required?
-What tangible impact will this have on pupils?
-What does this change mean for individuals at EVERY level?
-How will this affect the day-to-day?
-What challenges might colleagues come up against and how can we avoid/manage these?
Once change has been implemented, collaboration is crucial for ongoing evaluation and continuous improvement. Teachers and support staff ‘on the ground’ will have the best understanding of how this theoretical idea that’s been formed in your mind, plays out in action. Without collaboration and ongoing dialogue there’s a real danger that initiatives will go stale, mutate, or even have outcomes that are counter to your original intention.
Once an initiative is well-understood, has been evaluated appropriately and is on the right trajectory in terms of impact it’s time to cement the craft. This is all about embedding practice. But what does that look like in action?
-Capturing great practice, disseminating, and exemplifying it
-Candidly discussing challenges and barriers and coming up with mutually agreed solutions on mitigating against these
-Codifying and sharing the ‘finished product’
-Further evaluation and continuous improvement followed by renewing shared understanding
The 4 C’s Caveat-
Before implementing any change it’s crucial to consider WHY we are making the change in the first place. Using strategies such as ‘the 5 why’ technique (asking yourself the question why five times to drill down to the root concern) can help us to establish the root cause of the issue so that the ‘intervention’ we choose is in fact addressing the underlying issue and not simply a consequential offshoot of the actual ‘problem’.
3. Building (and sustaining!) Momentum
As a leader, seeing a project or initiative picking up momentum is a great feeling. Quite often this is a marker of sound planning and secure early implementation. I’ve always found that keeping the conversation going is a great way of building and sustaining momentum. Having a key focus and ‘going all in’ on this, as opposed to flitting between varying foci, is often a better bet in terms of sustaining momentum. Momentum is closely linked to motivation, which can be a real challenge during particularly testing times. Motivation looks different for different people and relationships and knowledge of those we lead is at the very heart of getting this right.
We can also look to the work of Dan Pink here, who asserts that intrinsic motivation requires:
As leaders, how can we ensure that these are woven into the fabric of our school’s journey at the more strategic level but also in the day-to-day happenings of school life?
I hope these anecdotal lessons learnt from my own experiences as a leader, snippets of research and reflective prompts prove useful to you as you make your comeback this coming September. Until then, have a wonderful and well-deserved summer break!
Turner, Emma. Be More Toddler : A Leadership Education from Our Little Learners. Melton, Woodbridge, 2019. Print.
Fisher, Molly H, and Royster, David. “Mathematics Teachers’ Support and Retention: Using Maslow’s Hierarchy to Understand Teachers’ Needs.” International Journal of Mathematical Education in Science and Technology 47.7 (2016): 993-1008. Web.
Pink, Daniel H. Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. , 2009. Print.