What leaders need to know about impact

Leaders need to know the difference between the actions that they take and the result of those actions. This can sometimes be blurred, particularly because our ultimate goal – outcomes for children – can often take some time to manifest at scale. Leaders must seek to influence other realms that will in turn lead to outcomes for children.

Realms of impact

Reading this model from right to left, a vital prerequisite for improving outcomes for children is for leaders to have a positive influence on school climate – how children feel and how adults feel on a day to day basis in their class, in their team / department or in the school more generally.

For all children to feel good about school and to learn what’s intended, and for staff to feel confident, motivated and part of the team, there needs to be systems in place.

Systems can only be established once individual adults start to do something differently or better and fundamentally, adults can’t do something differently or better unless they know more.

This model represents realms where leaders can make a difference in the lead up to securing better outcomes for children. Let’s look in more detail at each.

Affecting adults’ mental models

A mental model is organised knowledge that enables action and we all have them. We just need to make sure that they keep improving. We can support our staff to improve by specifying the kind of things that they need to know, as in the image above. For example, if staff do not have a sufficient understanding of the school vision, we’re less likely to have aligned action to realise it. If teachers don’t have sufficient understanding of effective pedagogy and the essentials of cognitive science, their teaching activities may not be as effective as they could be. If staff do not know what drives student motivation, their choices to run their room may not be as effective. These exemplifications represent formal knowledge but there is more to knowledge than that.

Great teachers know when to adapt what they’re doing because of what unfolds before them. A teacher might be starting a unit of work on fractions but knows that the class before them reacted with fear previously because they struggled to understand. This impressionistic knowledge of the children is important in deciding how to approach this unit of work.

A mental model consists of different types of knowledge and, crucially, they guide actions so that next realm of impact for leaders to consider is the difference that we can make to what adults in our schools do:

Some of these things might be brand new behaviours. For example, taking on a school where personal CPD is simply not something that anyone does will need to be addressed. If leaders can manage to shift individuals to pursue knowledge, that’s a great difference to make. Even if staff were originally doing that, directing them to better sources is also a great difference to make. In the middle example in the image above, it may be that some adults see their job as to ‘just teach’ and that leading behaviour, running the room or developing relationships is not their job. If leaders can influence someone like that to build and maintain relationships, that’s impact. If we can support our staff to become more efficient at the things that we spend most time doing such as planning lessons, that’s impact.

Systems – collective mental models

Once leaders have begun to influence the mental models of individuals, the next level of impact that we can have is to make those mental models collective – to make knowledge and behaviours systematic across the school so that every child benefits from them, not just the lucky ones who happen to be in the right classroom.

If leaders can create a system that was not there before, that’s impact. If leaders can refine a systems that already existed, that’s also impact. Systems are at staff level and can be in different walks of school life such as how staff learn and develop, what they teach, how they teach it, how they manage behaviour, how they plan lessons and how they provide feedback.

How it feels to work and study in this school

If we have great systems in place, they’ll affect everyone in the school. All leaders will want children to thrive and flourish and schools should be set up for this to happen. What we cannot neglect though is that for children to flourish, staff need to flourish.

Staff need to have autonomy over their working practices. This is a challenge for leaders because there also needs to be an element of consistency because otherwise, children in different classes may get a different quality of education. The trick is to be consistent to principles and active ingredients of strategies but allow autonomy in how those are enacted.

Staff need to experience success through mastering the craft of teaching. Their purpose needs to align with the school’s and they need to feel that they belong to the team and the community.

The ultimate impact – children’s outcomes

If leaders have made a difference in all the previous realms, they’ll hopefully being to see a difference in the outcomes for children.

Outcomes are more than test results at the end of key stages and progress measures. If children flourish in a physical or creative domain, that’s wonderful too. If they develop socially and emotionally, brilliant. If behaviour and attendance improves, that’s impact. Perhaps the most important is that they feel successful, they feel that they belong and they enjoy school.

A theory of change

An interesting inverse relationship exists with this model because as leaders we need to plan backwards from what difference we want to make to the children in our school, working back through the climate that we want to create through the systems that we want to develop. To establish those we need to plan for the behaviours and knowledge that our staff need.

Executing this plan is the opposite directions though. We need to carry out our leadership activities left to right, affecting mental models first, making them collective to form systems before we can see an impact on climate and outcomes.

How will we know the difference made?

We’re in the business of having to demonstrate the impact of our actions and it is important for leaders to know how they can plan for and collect that information.

Measuring the impact of our leadership work is more than test results and progress measures. We can capture improved mental models through surveys, scaling, case studies and discussions. We can see what’s systematic through walking the school and talking to everyone. Measuring climate can be done through surveys and discussions. As for children’s outcomes, there’s a wide range of sources that are far more valuable than test scores at telling us the difference that we’ve made.

2 thoughts on “What leaders need to know about impact

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  1. This just serves to remind me of the vast chasm between being a school “leader” and being a proper teacher. They are not at all the same job, and their mindset is very different. I wouldn’t for a moment wish to suggest that school managers are not needed – but I wish they would stick to running the schools rather than trying to manipulate the mindsets of their personnel. Over a quite long career, I can safely say that close to nothing managers ever did in this way made the remotest difference to me as a teacher – except when they managed to hack me off. By far and away my strongest motivation to teach, and teach to the best of my ability, came from my internal motivation, something that my managers mostly never seemed even to begin to comprehend. Those people whom I found inspirational as leaders were not even always in those roles (though sometimes they were). But their main quality was to be decent human beings, who understood the need to practise what they preached, while giving intelligent professionals the space and autonomy to develop in the ways *they* needed to, without imposing theoretical templates on them. On the other hand, many of the so-called ‘leaders’ I encountered hadn’t a clue about such things; they were mostly preoccupied with demonstrating their supposed management prowess. I wish those in control would just get on with running places – which does include creating a benign overall culture – and forget trying to brainwash and/or micromanage other people.

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