The tipping point?

I think we may have reached a tipping point. We’re falling in love with ideas with dangerous rapidity. Want a book on retrieval practice? Here you go, there’s loads more too. Fancy reading something on curriculum? Mais oui, knock yourself out on these bad boys. Want something on the edu-activity du jour, instructional coaching? Gorge yourself silly on these, or these, or these. There’s masses of stuff, tonnes. Our heads are turned by the next slickly packaged book/programme/thread that’s lobbed our way. Ooooh let’s put that in the CPD library! I *love* instructional coaching! Icons! And look – it comes with a QR code!

I’m not complaining. I’m really not. The first 15 years or so of my career were a wasteland of lack of thought, a dearth of intellectual stimulation. The worst part of it was that I hadn’t realised how arid my thinking was. Thought, in my experience, wasn’t encouraged. Many of us were shackled to lack of thought by a confetti of desiccated artefacts and quick fix school improvement practices. We didn’t know enough to question. And so I’m grateful for the proliferation of knowledge and thought that has exploded in the past few years. It’s a good thing.

But I’m worried. I’m sceptical. Desiccated artefacts still abound. They’re just different. They’re not school leadership dog cards (though these still exist, the horror), they’re not sabre-rattling School Improvement Partners with their clipboards and insistence. Now they’re slicker, subtler, prettified, more convincing. Need to improve your school’s teaching and learning? Buy this package, it comes with PowerPoints! Need everyone to get on the right track with curriculum? Ask these questions and BAM! you’re sorted. Behaviour an issue? Nah, it’s not addressing ‘behaviour’ per se, duh, it’s behaviour curriculum stuff you need, obvs! And what about leadership? How about that book, and that one – and that one too. It’s courageous leadership, it’s ethical leadership, it’s brave leadership and, do you know what, it’s some sort of leadership to do with football or rugby or maybe even horses. Pass me that book and let me wallow in confirmation bias. I knew I was right. Horse school leadership training – that’ll fix it. (And if you think I’m being facetious I’m absolutely not. It’s actually, really A Thing. Such have we lost our way.)

It’s novelty bias and we’re in deep. And especially if someone says something convincing in a bitesize thread with a course to sell, or puts it on a pretty poster, or yokes it to ‘leadership’ or ‘curriculum’ or ‘instructional coaching’, we’re yanked in deeper. Our attention is divided, our heads are turned. We’re in an ideas-saturated world and head teachers especially, I think, need to be wary of what we attend to. We have so much to attend to, so much, that it’s tempting to think that slickly packaged programme will work, or that book is the answer, or that horse leadership course is useful (hot take, folks – it’s not). In the words of Maryanne Wolf, we’ve lost our cognitive patience. We want things that will work and ways through because school leadership is hard. It’s complex. It’s not neat. It’s messy and interlinked and events are enmeshed in a network of causes. But school improvement doesn’t happen because of ill-defined ‘curriculum’, ‘leadership’, ‘pedagogy’, ‘retrieval practice’ or even, my friends, ‘instructional coaching’. I mean, it might if we’re clear on what we mean. But we’re not. We’re slipping and sliding on different definitions, tripping up on lethal mutations, skidding over new persuasive semantics of truth and myth, and getting caught in the net of doing what we think is something helpful when it might be a waste of precious time. But often as we’re drawn off the path and our attention is pulled to the newest book, the newest course, the most persuasive thread, we don’t know how to get back on the path, or whether we were even on the right path in the first place. And as Adam Boxer reminds us, with second, third and even fourth-hand readings of original and complex texts via new documents and summaries and posters, sometimes we don’t even fully understand. We stumble along, prodding in the dark, clutching the newest book in one hand and hope in the other.

If you’d like to hear some more of my thoughts on this, come along to researchED Cymru on 4th March where I’m talking about Why school leaders fall in love too easily and why it’s a problem

Work referenced:

Reader, Come Home – Maryanne Wolf (2019)