“’It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards’, the Queen remarked.”
Through The Looking-Glass – Lewis Carroll
In my last blog post I tentatively explored the need, as I see it, for a greater emphasis on the ‘what’ rather than the ‘how’ in senior leadership. I’m still umming and ahhing over what I think could or should be included in senior leadership courses to make them any good. I have never done the NPQSL or NPQH; the ones I’ve asked to see information about have been sorely lacking and, again, seem to push the narrative of tub-thumping leadership ‘personality’: that everything about a school is the elliptical orbit around the head teacher’s personality, and everything and everyone is held in position by that. Or, conversely, there is often a treacle-wading emphasis on reflection; so much so that inertia seems to be the only course of action. And this still seems to be focusing on the leader’s perceived charisma and personality rather than what a senior leader might need to know. Carl Hendrick wrote a tweet yesterday that I thought was excellent: “…a charismatic leader is one who IS knowledgeable.” I’m still exploring what it is that would be useful for senior leaders, especially new senior leaders, to know. Almost what a senior leadership ‘curriculum’ would look like, and also how this meshes with the dispositions we might see as useful for effective leaders. But, as Carl says, perhaps the charisma is an outcome of the knowledge.
So you could say that I’m arguing in favour of an overhaul of the content of senior leadership courses. I guess I am. But I’m not sure senior leadership courses are necessary. As you can see, my thinking is still developing. I don’t, though, necessarily see senior leadership curriculum content as separate from the ‘pedagogy’ of leadership. I do think that too great an emphasis on how we lead rather than what we lead in our schools (e.g. the leadership of curriculum or what people thought was the leadership of curriculum) has been problematic in the last ten – fifteen years or so. I’m pretty sure the what of senior leadership isn’t seen to be as ‘sexy’ as the how of personality types, leadership styles or the ubiquitous trotting out of vision statements.
I don’t think that the what and the how are mutually exclusive though. The senior leadership curriculum has to be great, but the strategies used to ensure that this is learnt and practised are also important. Because, after all, new senior leaders and new head teachers are novices.
The last twenty four hours has got me thinking about this again, because I was fortunate enough to attend the Learning Scientists conference in Bedford, generously run by Advantage Schools. I went with my deputy head hat on: I lead curriculum, and I line manage the assistant head teacher for teaching and learning, so the conference was bound to be useful. Although it did help me reflect on what we do at my own school to ensure teaching is most effective for our pupils, I didn’t expect my thinking to wander down the path of learning for other novices: new senior leaders, and the pedagogy that might be most effective for their learning.
After my train odyssey from Birmingham to Bedford, I arrived late and at the first break, so after being fuelled with substantially strong coffee (thanks Bedford School!) I took up my pew in the gods of the Quarry Theatre. The Learning Scientists were talking about the importance of elaboration, and elaborative interrogation in particular. They talked about novices asking ‘how?’ or ‘why?’ questions, and then trying to answer those questions, compared to passive re-reading. Interestingly, they said that elaborative interrogation may work better when knowledge is high (Woloshyn et al., 1992). I found this fascinating. When I was a new senior leader, I asked a lot of ‘how?’ and ‘why?’ questions, and discussed them with the other, equally inexperienced assistant head teacher, but with little guidance or input of knowledge from the head teacher. This was useful in some ways, but not particularly effective; we still made errors and we didn’t learn and execute as well as we could have done; our knowledge wasn’t yet high enough.
In a Q&A session, Tom Rees asked an excellent question about when elaboration goes wrong: when pupils may be explaining to each other but the content and explanations are incorrect. This made me think about novice senior leaders and the importance of both a senior leadership curriculum and pedagogy and where this has gone wrong in the past: too much elaboration between novice senior leaders on the fluff and rhetoric of perceived ‘leadership’ and not enough on knowledge and substance. The Learning Scientists were clear about elaboration: be as explicit as possible to novices about what a good example is and get them to explain why. Something useful, I think, for experienced senior leaders and head teachers to bear in mind when working with novice senior leaders or novice head teachers.
The Learning Scientists also talked about novices needing concrete examples. I loved this. And I’m talking about personal preference here, but that this was a proven strategy shared by the Learning Scientists made me smile! I am an experienced deputy head teacher, and I’m tentatively, through my own reading, writing and discussions with colleagues, exploring the knowledge and dispositions that may be needed to lead a school as a head teacher. I often talk to colleagues and friends who are head teachers, and who generously give of their time, experience and knowledge. But when another school leader talks to me, for example, about the “…love we have in our school” or the “…sense of family in the MAT”, this is unhelpful for me as it’s too nebulous and abstract. Concrete examples, as the Learning Scientists point out, are easier to remember. So often, when talking to head teachers, I like to know exactly what something looked like or what was done that made it effective – the concrete, the absolute. And if it’s a difficult idea or concept, more examples make it easier for me to understand; again, something else the Learning Scientists explained when talking about novices learning well. I remembered that this was something I need to do more of for new senior leader and middle leader colleagues.
I wrote in my last blog post about how I like to listen to others, which is my default position more than talking. I do like to listen, and I like to learn stuff and know stuff. Once I’ve got the hang of an idea, I like to question and compare – perhaps that’s elaborative interrogation in action and I didn’t realise. I also sometimes feel like there are so many interesting and useful things to know about education that I’m never going to know everything. The awe-inspiring encyclopaedic knowledge of the Learning Scientists brought this into sharp focus. But it also helped to reinforce the point that providing multiple examples helps the novice. As does providing worked examples, so the novice can extract the underlying structure of the problem. This made me realise that this is often what colleagues and friends who are head teachers do with me. That, and quality feedback; something else the Learning Scientists emphasised was crucial. And I’ve realised that, after listening and questioning and feedback and thinking, I am moving to solving more whole school problems and challenges on my own.
There’s much more to consider here, particularly in relation to the following:
1. How senior leadership knowledge is revisited and concepts and problems are reactivated over time for the novice senior leader or novice head teacher.
2. That effective learning strategies for any novice will work in the long term, but that there are no magic bullet short term solutions.
3. That practising application of knowledge is hard, and that gut feeling cannot necessarily be trusted: something that senior leaders and head teachers have fallen into the trap of in the past.
So again, I don’t really have any solutions or answers. Sorry. Learning is hard, and sometimes learning is boring, and all of this is important for any novice to understand. And now I’m thinking deeply about my new knowledge from the Learning Scientists, I can happily say that the application of it is hard, but rewardingly hard.