Order beneath the chaos
One day I dried the dishes for my mum. I would have been 16 or 17 and, believe it or not, this wasn’t as rare an occurrence as you might think. The reason the occasion stands out in my memory is not because of my act of drying the dishes, but because of what I did with them as soon as I had finished. Rather than putting them neatly away in piles in the cupboard, I left them, absent-mindedly, on the surface in a higgledy-piggledy fashion. I only noticed that I had done so at the end, at which point I felt a great sense of joy at the disorderly scene I had created.
You may be wondering, with good reason, what on earth was going through my head. The key missing piece of information, which will come as no surprise to anyone who has visited my office, is that I have mild obsessive compulsive disorder. I discovered this in my teens, when I because exhausted with my insatiable need for order, pattern and ritual in the most trivial aspects of my life, from my stride length to the depth of my breaths. Eventually I sought help from my GP and spent some sessions with a counsellor, who helped me to make sense of my thoughts and behaviour, accept them as part of myself and manage them. Since that point my pattern-seeking has never bothered me excessively and I have even learned to love it in some ways.
The drying up incident was the point at which I knew I was winning. Until then I would have had to make a conscious and painful effort not to organise the dishes neatly, so when the realisation dawned on me that I had put them down randomly without even thinking about it, it was an extremely happy moment. I described it to my counsellor shortly afterwards, who told me that she felt her work was probably done. An unknowing observer would have looked at the dishes and seen disorder, but I knew that this was only a surface feature. The mess on the kitchen surface testified to a blissful sense of calm and peace in my mind. There was order beneath the chaos, but you would have had to dive deeper to find it.
Surface features and deep structure
This post is not about my mental health, which, thankfully, is very good. Instead, my account of the event from my past is designed to illustrate a point about implementing change in schools. It seems to me that when we do so, we often struggle to distinguish between surface features (the disorderly dishes in the analogy) and the deep structure (my healthier state of mind) of what we are trying to do. Willingham (2010) identifies this as a difference between novice and expert learners, so it feels like we ought to be better at it if we consider ourselves to be leaders with expertise. It matters because we need to be very clear about the ‘active ingredients’ (EEF 2019) when we implement change; they cannot be compromised if we wish the change to have the desired effect. If we identify surface features as the active ingredients, we will insist on compliance with things which are unimportant, while more fundamental aspects may end up falling by the wayside.
The problem often arises when the motivation for our change is accountability rather than improvement. Frequently the pressure comes from Ofsted, and unfortunately it creates the perfect storm, from a staff workload perspective, of senior leaders implementing change without feeling genuinely invested in it. As a result, they take shortcuts and put much of the burden on middle leaders. A typical pattern is for the senior leader with responsibility for the change to lead a session on an INSET day, ask heads of department to do a significant amount of follow-up work and devise a monitoring scheme to check that it has been done to a satisfactory standard. This is a very shallow approach and is highly unlikely to bring about meaningful improvement. It addresses a complicated problem with solutions which are ‘pointable-at’ (Walker 2019) but superficial, allowing us to gather some evidence, tick a box and pretend the bothersome issue has gone away.
I think the process of curriculum review illustrates my point clearly. I know it well from personal experience and it will be familiar to most people likely to read this blog because so much of it is going on in schools at the present time.
Becky Allen and Ben White ask a very perceptive question in their wonderful blog post about the wave of curriculum reform sweeping schools:
This year, when departments complete an evaluation of their curricula, is this an evaluation to support improvement or an evaluation to rationalise and evidence that it is already good/ outstanding? Surely it can’t be both at once? (Allen and White 2019)
I think the honest answer to this question in many schools is that the aim is really to produce evidence to support a predetermined and desirable self-evaluation of the school’s Ofsted grade, rather than to bring about significant and lasting curriculum change. My evidence for this is the proliferation of activities which are likely to produce visible evidence, but address the surface features of the issue only.
Exhibit A: Curriculum intent statements
Since I have written somewhat uncharitably about this before, I should make it clear that I have no problem whatsoever with teachers in a department choosing to write an intent statement to summarise a collective understanding of what they want their curriculum to achieve, as long as it is accompanied by a detailed review of what they teach and when they teach it. However, I get the impression that mostly they are being instructed to write intent statements for the school website or for a senior leader’s file, without necessarily knowing why (apart from ‘because Ofsted’) and without necessarily thinking in depth about whether they teach the best stuff in the best order. In addition to the fact that Ofsted neither requires nor expects such statements and has made it very clear that intent is no more than ‘all the curriculum planning that happens before a teacher teaches’ (Fearn 2019), it seems unlikely to me that this activity will do much to raise curricular standards. In most cases I suspect the statements simply sit atop and retrospectively justify whatever planning was already there. If the active ingredient of the change is to have lots of uniform documents with the school crest as a header, then it will probably succeed, but if we want a better curriculum it will barely scratch the surface. The approach does not go deep enough to do justice to the issue.
Exhibit B: Mock deep dives
Many schools are attempting to replicate features of an Ofsted inspection as part of their curriculum review process, most notably the ‘deep dive’ into the intent, implementation and impact of the delivery of a subject. I think the mimicry of Ofsted’s title is ironic, since it seems unlikely to me that a school relying on such activities is thinking deeply about the curriculum. Of course, it may well be of value for a senior leader to pose some similar questions to a head of department to those which would be asked by an Ofsted inspector, but the purpose and context should be different if we want to secure meaningful change. In order to do the latter, there needs to be an acknowledgement on the part of the school’s leadership that curriculum change is desirable, that it will take a long time and that any discussion of it is non-judgemental. Only then are we likely to get a genuine, introspective response on the part of heads of department, leading to a culture of improvement rather than accountability. If we role play being inspectors and start making judgements about the quality of the curriculum, the stakes will be unhelpfully raised and we will kill any chance of colleagues being open and honest with us.
I will not describe in detail how I have attempted to implement curriculum review at my school, because it is not the point of this post. However, I have listed below (Fig.1) what I consider to be just one of the active ingredients of the process and how I have attempted to ensure fidelity to the spirit of the change, rather than merely the letter, by avoiding certain approaches and selecting others. If you are interested in knowing more about curriculum review at my school, please read my series of posts on the subject.
I readily concede that the outcomes of this process could appear messy to the casual observer. Departments have laid out their subject knowledge outlines in different ways, with some containing lots of detail and others signposting to separate documents. Some have chosen to use knowledge organisers, others SLOP resources and others something different entirely. When I met with each head of department, the only evidence I collected was my own scribbled notes, which would make sense to few people other than me. But these things do not bother me because I am not looking for surface uniformity, but fidelity to the deeper principles of subject-specific curriculum improvement. I know that there is order beneath the chaos.
Taking the plunge
I could give further examples of the tendency for school leaders to address surface features only in the name of accountability, such as teacher observation and monitoring of student progress, but I hope I have made my point already. The whole thing bothers me because it is so damaging when we do not take the time to think deeply and fail to do justice to the change we are implementing. When we ask staff to work on surface features, it results in significant time being spent on tasks which will probably not improve the education of students and which will distract from better alternatives. We also run the risk that a culture of audits, box-ticking and excessive judgements, to which surface features lend themselves, will distress teachers and drive them away, contributing to a recruitment and retention crisis. We can and should dive deeper.
The casual observer of my teenage dish-drying exploits would have concluded that I was simply a messy boy who couldn’t be bothered to put things away properly, but that conclusion would have been utterly wrong. To discover the truth, the observer would have had to gain my trust and listen to me over an extended period of time. Those of us who play a leadership role in schools need to be willing to take a similar approach to change if we are going to avoid doing harm and bring about genuine improvement. We need to understand the change properly, make a meaningful commitment to it, play a central role in bringing it about alongside colleagues rather than doing it to them, and be prepared to be changed ourselves in the process. In short, we need to dive deeper. It’s murky down there and it’s hard to navigate, but it’s the only way we will locate sunken treasure.
Who will join me for a deeper dive?
Allen R and White B (2019) https://rebeccaallen.co.uk/2019/12/04/careering-towards-a-curriculum-crash/ (accessed 131219)
Fearn H (2019) https://educationinspection.blog.gov.uk/2019/07/01/busting-the-intent-myth/ (accessed 141219)
Sharples J et al (2019) Putting Evidence to Work: A School’s Guide to Implementation Education Endowment Foundation
Walker R (2019) https://rosalindwalker.wordpress.com/2019/11/08/the-more-pointable-at-things-arent-always-the-best-things/ (accessed 151219)
Willingham D (2010) Why Don’t Students Like School? San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Image found here: https://www.needpix.com/photo/download/898346/duck-dive-mallard-upside-down-animal-feather-poultry-funny-water and labelled as available for noncommercial reuse.