Leadership: The centre cannot hold

I’ve been thinking a lot about thinking. Or at least trying to, because as Willingham reminds us, “we are not naturally good thinkers.” Willingham is very clear: our brains are not designed for thought, but for the avoidance of thought. Instead, we rely on memory. Now this has huge potential for good as school leaders, but boy is it also responsible for some swirling sands of nonsense too.

You see, “when we can get away with it, we don’t think”, says Willingham. We rely on memory. Most of the perceived and actual problems that crop up day to day as school leaders we have solved before, so most of the time we do what we’ve always done. Our memory systems kick in and provide the answer, because our memory systems are much more reliable than thinking.

But what on earth is a senior leader to do in this shifting educational landscape? Surely we’ve done these things before? Memory would be the easy, effortless answer. But without the fertile nourishment of thought, the landscape withers. It becomes a landscape where the shadows of indignant desert birds reel. And they will reel and swoop as the senior leader teeters on that ever-widening gyre, if she grabs and leaps for easy solutions and leadership kits and a curriculum-by-numbers salve. It’s hard to resist the easy lure of memory, but she must carve out time to think. Things are different now.

And Willingham reminds us: we remember what we think about. So what have we been thinking about? We’ve spent a long time thinking about generic leadership dispositions: an unhelpful and poorly lit labyrinthine path that often led us back to Ego on his gold-plated throne, flanked by his cousins, Hubris and Narcissus. But we may have moved away from this and started edging towards domain-specific leadership knowledge that’s needed in our schools. Good. But what are we actually thinking about now?

Our senior leader knows things are different, that the landscape has tilted. She’s trying to think. And so dodging the reeling desert birds, she’s netted what she sees as helpful and important: knowledge organisers, knowledge booklets, line ups, warm/strict, freshly painted inspirational quotes shining benevolently from walls. She’s also managed to grab what she sees as helpful language: The (insert name of her school) Way, #Team(insert name of her school), lovely sayings, a royal flush of adverbs (unashamedly, unabashedly, unapologetically) and she makes a note that it’s important to say she will make no apology for academia. She’s also stumbled upon scholarship and academic language on the new landscape; she’s bagged them too and lobbed them in with the rest and Bob’s your uncle #dreamteam.

But in this landscape, sometimes the falcon cannot hear the falconer. Many of these tools are brilliant. They can work fantastically. But when a senior leader leaps for a perceived ‘solution’, and when a HT or a CEO make Ofsted the cattle prod for that leap, that’s when things start to warp and bend and contort. Because if you make that the driver, you sustain a culture that’s wrong on so many levels. Do this, HTs and CEOs, and you’re trying to game the system. And if that’s not clear to you, it’s probably a good indication of your sterility of thought. If you buy a ‘curriculum kit’ or make your subject leads attend a course that tells them ‘How to approach deep dives’, you hack at subject specificity; you carve out the beating heart of the subject and leave it dripping on the slab. And #deepdive and try and wrap it as a gift in the silken strands of system-led improvement or whatever: do this and you do damage. Heed the words of Christine Counsell at researchED Birmingham last Saturday: if you know more, you see more. And thousands of our teachers and middle leaders and senior leaders know more. They see the beating heart of their subject on the slab and weep, and they know poor leadership. Curriculum dies in the shadow of those reeling indignant desert birds; they tear and rip at its heart. Thought breathes its last and memory rises like Lazarus; we’re back to option blocks as curriculum and GCSE questions at KS3. Our middle leaders become automatons with no agency, reeling off scripted responses to deep dive questions and deep dive becomes curriculum and the gaze as blank and pitiless as the sun blinds us all.

And lack of thought can be subtle and nuanced. Remember our senior leader who netted the tools and language of what she saw as improvement? Of course they can all be excellent tools. But the schools who use these tools brilliantly, the experts who paved the way for the rest of us, invested in deep thought beforehand and deliberate intention of craft. These tools – and tools they are, both literal and linguistic – are the product of careful leadership thought. They are not the first step. Leap to them without careful thought and the nag nervously nudges the cart ahead that’s slowly sinking into the sand.

It’s understandable that we might be drawn to tools like those listed above. They provide an apparently simple solution to complex problems. Complexity in leadership is explored elegantly by Matthew Evans here. And many of us are novices in this new educational landscape. As Weinstein & Sumeracki remind us, novices often notice surface features before underlying structures. The knowledge booklet the surface feature but the depth of thought about content and coherence and sequencing of curriculum the underlying structure. Centralised detentions the surface feature but the depth of thought about culture and compassion with specificity of system design the underlying structure. For without thought, these tools are scaffolds that wobble and fall, leaving leadership tottering on vertiginous stilts. Ego and Hubris have no safety net, no rescue mat; Narcissus is gazing elsewhere. The indignant desert birds reel. Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.


All references are from the following:

Weinstein, Y. & Sumeracki, M. (2019). Understanding How We Learn

Willingham, D.T. (2009). Why Don’t Students Like School?