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Less Busyness; More Progress #ThursdayThunk

If medicine was run like education there would be many more patients who wouldn’t survive the random, un-evidenced and poorly researched treatments given.  I can look back on a career of maximum effort, huge expenditure of energy, long hours and too little progress. 

Photo Credit: Gian Luigi Perrella via Flickr cc

The difficulty; we are in a system where the speed of reaction, the Busyness Delusion, trumps real progress.  We act with the best of intentions and the worst of thought.  Our collective way of acting, from Secretary of State to classroom teacher, is at the root of the workload problem, chronic lack of retention and an increasing difficulty to recruit new teachers.

A meeting, in the last week, to look at how to evaluate successful SSIF bids helped clarify my thinking and a potential process.  They apply equally to developing practice at a system, school and classroom level.

The process starts by identifying what the problem is; too often in education we end up wrestling with problems that don’t really exist, are not that important or we are not best placed to solve.  Getting hold of data, quantitative and qualitative, to identify the real issue is key.  After disappointing GCSE English results in 2017 across Blackpool; schools made a bee line for their English Department, quick wins were essential.  We didn’t; the problem we believe is pupils’ poor literacy particularly reading and disadvantaged boys.  It’s a different problem with a different solution.

Developing a logic model is relatively easy and quite revealing.  For example, if you want to improve leadership in a school you might propose, “If all middle leaders completed NPQML then standards, in terms of pupils’ attainment and progress, will improve”.  This needs to pass your common sense test; do you actually think this is true?  Then there is the need to look for evidence of the efficacy of the NPQML (National Professional Qualification for Middle Leaders) to support the stated model.  Are there other alternatives, either different training approaches or alternative actions which might improve standards?  This might feel a rather slow and laborious process but schools will improve faster is we stop doing things that have little impact in favour of doing fewer things that have more.  Leaders need to sort the school improvement chafe from the wheat.

Once you’ve decided what might be the best school or classroom improvement strategy you need to think about what success would look like and decide on how you will evidence this.  Too often we don’t even attempt to check whether what we are doing has impact.  It doesn’t have to be complex.  From a class room perspective is there a similar class who can act as a control?  Both classes could sit the end of the topic test before and after teaching; is there any difference?  There are a variety of national references assessment tests and standardised attitudinal surveys that could be used.  It’ll take a bit of time and thought.  From an ethical perspective we need to check a particular approach works before imposing it on all pupils in a school or across the system. 

Showing a causal relationship will probably require larger randomised control tests and professional support.  We could however start in schools to look at correlation between action and effect; it would be a huge step forward.  Finally, the “Bananarama Principle” it’s the way that you do it, that’s what gets results.  When implementing anything, more so when scaling up beyond the initial trial/attempt, there needs to be fidelity to the initial approach.  Without it we invalidate the attempt to link the intervention and effect.  It’s a whole different way of thinking and working; busyness out and real progress in. 

I’m tending towards the belief that there is enough time; we’re just not using it very well as opposed to there isn’t enough time to do everything.  Maybe we need to stop doing everything to successfully address the workload challenge?  Slow, steady, thoughtful and sustainable improvement is possible; marginal gains in action.

Thanks to Stuart Kime (@StuartKime) from Evidence in Education for his thoughtfulness and Professor Robert Coe (@ProfCoe) for his gentle prompting in the discussion.

If you’re interested in finding out more about a changed approach to leadership, the course – The Science of Lazy Leadership may be of interest.

#ThursdayThunk is based on something I’ve been thinking about, discussing, working on or has been topical that week.  The thunk is designed to be bite sized and will deliberately be kept short.  It will take one small issue or an aspect of something much bigger.  The intention is for it to be read in two/three minutes as you’re busy running around at the end of the week or relaxing on your day off.




  1. Pingback: Focus on Getting Better at Getting Better | @LeadingLearner - February 11, 2018

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