Knowing your school: conversations worth having

Quality assurance or monitoring is a staple leadership activity but the typical mechanisms for doing so such as lesson observations, work scrutinies and data drops and, as Jonathan Mountstevens describes, can go horribly wrong. Attempting to measure is common:

  • Standardised test scores
  • Percentage test scores
  • Grades or levels
  • Progress measures
  • Grades for quality of teaching
  • Survey results

But we need to be wary of the Tyranny of Metrics:

Matthew Evans wrote recently of a shift in thinking from ‘weighing’ to ‘mapping’:

When we map territory we are interested in gaining a true and accurate picture. We set out with a range of tools, each designed to chart what we observe in particular ways. We know that there is not just one useful map we could draw; mapping comes in various forms, each revealing a different aspect of the environment. Road maps show us how to drive from one place to another, weather maps tell us what conditions we are likely to experience, and topographical maps reveal the physical features we will pass. There is no definitive map, only different ways of viewing a complex reality.

If leaders are to accurately map what is going on in their schools, they need to ask the right questions and have the right conversations. Conversations that yield information that is as reliable as possible and that can be acted upon.

How is children’s happiness and motivation to learn?

An ultimate aim of schooling is happy, motivated children and motivation is the result of feeling successful. Happiness and motivation cannot be whittled down to a number. Leaders could survey children to see how happy and motivated they are then aggregate this information and assign a percentage to it. But this aggregation wouldn’t be useful. Leaders wouldn’t be able to do anything with that information. More useful is to know which children are happy and motivated and which children are not. When leaders know this, they can explore further why some children are motivated and some are not. It is through conversation with children and with adults that know children best that we can find this out, not through collecting data. Using informatrion gathered from children self reporting is unreliable – happiness and motivation will vary and gathering information at one point is likely to be influenced by whatever conditions are prevalent at the time.

Do:

  • Expect adults to know about children’s happiness and motivation
  • Explore the reasons for differences through conversation

How do children behave?

Leaders can easily have a skewed perception of how children behave. Simply being in a classroom or corridor affects what children do. It is therefore important to know how children normally behave and leaders cannot know that themselves. Proxies include the kind of certificates or awards given out; the types of negative behaviour that leaders are called upon to deal with or that are recorded on some central system. The problem is that leaders need teachers to use whatever systems are established in order to have reliable information. Governors might want data on internal exlcusions or suspensions but this is again misleading. Fewer exlcusions or suspensions over time is not necessarily symptomatic of improving behaviour. It could equally be that poor behaviour is now more tolerated.

Perhaps it is more useful then to talk to colleagues about how children behave, particularly those where children might perceive them to have lower status such as supply teachers, teaching assistants or those that work at lunchtime. This of course relies on leaders getting accurate accounts from those colleagues. If colleagues are unsure about leaders’ motives for asking, they may well mask the reality for fear of attention being turned on them.

Maybe then it is worth talking to children about how their peers behave. Surveys or conversations can reveal the kinds of behaviours that are the norm, both positive and negative. But children may not generalise and will have a smal frame of reference due to their lived experience.

There is no one way of finding out how children behave but they are lots of ways of getting unreliable information about it. Leaders might also have a specific focus such as:

  • How do children behave in lessons?
  • How do children behave on the playground?
  • How do children behave in the corridors?
  • How do children behave in the lunch hall?
  • How do children behave in PE / computing / teachers’ PPA?

What’s important is to try to understand why children behave as they do and seek to address those issues. There is rarely, if ever, a simple cause and effect model for why children behave as they do. Their actions will be the result of a number of complex interactions elements of school (and home) life.

Do:

  • Use a variety of sources of information about how children behave
  • Compare that to the vision for how you want childrent to behave
  • Explore the (many) reasons why children behave as they do

What have children learned or not learned?

This is probabaly the most common information that leaders want. Schools’ reputations (and gradings) are dependent on it. The problem is that it is so difficult to tell for sure. What about the work that children produce? Well, yes, but work in a book does not mean that the child still understands days, weeks or months down the line.

What about test scores? Well, yes but tests are not perfect measures of learning. They can only measure a sample of the entire domain and many factors might affect children’s repsonses such as tiredness, the wording of questions or distractions. Standardised tests rarely measure what has actually been taught and although assigning a number like a standardised score might make it possible to compare performance to other children, it doesn’t tell us anything about whatchildren have or haven’t learned.

What about talking to children? Well, yes but this is incredibly time consuming, taking the very time that could be used to keep teaching the curriculum.

The most useful thing for teachers to do is to check that children understand what has been taught. If they do, great. The teacher can develop their understanding with whatever comes next. If they do not, then teachers need to intervene with more time or different explanations etc.

Do:

  • Appreciate the unreliablility of most tests
  • Appreicate the invalidity of inferring learning from what children produce
  • Find out what happens when children don’t understand the content
  • Avoid reducing learning to numbers and grades

How is colleagues’ motivation?

Just as children need to be happy and motivated, so to do colleagues if they are going to get the best out of children. Dan Pink’s work on motivation suggest that the following drivers are important:

Purpose | Leaders need to provide a clear direction and compelling vision of what the team is trying to achieve. Vagueries are unhelpful here. Specifics are better including how children should behave, the best bets for great teaching etc. Find out: What do colleagues think is important to us?

Autonomy | We all need to have control over what we do. Endless non negotiables are the enemy of autonomy. Far better to have principles that draw everyone together in shared understanding and create opportunities to address issues in appropriate ways for each context. Find out: What do colleagues have control over and what do they not have control over?

Mastery | Motivation requires the feeling of success and colleagues need to feel good at their jobs. Find out: What do colleagues feel good at and what do they not feel good at?

Belonging | Everyone need to feel like they are part of a team and that they are cared about. Find out: Which colleagues feel at home here and which do not?

Again, the important bit is to get to the bottom of why colleagues feel as they do. Surveys won’t do that. Conversations will, but only if there is underlying trust.

Do:

  • Take time to get to know what is motivating or demotivating colleagues
  • Reflect on the conditions that are created in school for colleagues

How is colleagues’ subject knowledge?

Subject knowledge is essential for great teaching so if children are not learning what is intended, it might be worth exploring teachers’ subject knowledge. Once again, conversations are the tool. Make time to talk about what is coming up. What might be the likely misconceptions? What is the best way of explaining this? What questions could we ask that check whether children have really understood? It is unrealistic for leaders to do this regularly and so it possibly needs to be baked into joint PPA or department meetings. Leaders can simply drop in and join the conversation rather than adding more meeting time to teachers’ workload.

Do:

  • Become part of routine conversations about what teachers will be teaching and how they will go about it

What do teachers do to help children to understand?

If children are not learning what is intended and teachers seem to have good subject knowledge, it might be worth finding out what happens in the classroom. How do teachers explain? What kinds of tasks are set? How are tasks scaffolded for those that need something extra? Leaders need to get into lessons for this but need to be tactful. Judgements are unreliable and unhelpful so visiting lessons in this way is simply to build shared understanding and look for ways to help childrento better understand.

Importantly, it is worth knowing what teachers do when children do not understand. Are children left behind as the teacher moves on? Do they get more time with another adult? Are things explained again in a different way? Knowing what the norm is will help leaders to meaningfully support colleagues to support children so that they are not left behind.

Do:

  • Accept that we can’t judge the quality of teaching well
  • Seek out how teachers normally model and explain concepts, including seeing it in action as well as talking to colleagues
  • Approach visiting lessons from the perspective of building shared understanding

What do colleagues do to help children to be motivated and behave well?

If children’s behaviour and motivation are falling short of what is desired, it might be worth exploring why and part of this requires understanding more about what colleagues do. Peps Mccrea’s book on motivation provides and excellent framework for understanding the mechanisms for how children experience motivation.

Success | Children need to feel successful in order to be motivated. Find out: What expectations are communicated? What feedback do children get? How are tasks scaffolded?

Routines | Routines help to lighten cognitive load and reinforce expectations. Find out: What routines are in place? How well do children know them?

Norms | All classrooms will have behaviour norms, whether or not teachers design and encourage them. Find out: How are desirable norms communicated? How are they reinforced? What happens when children don’t live up to them?

Build belonging | Children need to feel part of the class, that they have status and are known if they are to flourish. Find out: In what ways do colleagues show that they care? How do colleagues recognise the contributions of all children? In what ways do colleagues make children feel part of the team?

Do:

  • Explore specific details about how expectations of children are communicated and reinforced

All of these questions are probably worth leaders knowing the answer to, with two important conditions:

1. The information is accurate.

2. Leaders act when the reality is different to what is desired.

But even these conditions raise questions of their own. What if the information we have gathered is not accurate? How would we know? What if we act on inaccurate information and make things worse? Who’s to say what leaders desire is any better than what exists?

Faced with such complexity and uncertainty, pragmatism is the order of the day. Leaders need to act quickly if it appears that children are unsafe or unhappy, but if school is calm and purposeful, we need not fall victim to the cargo cult fallacy of the usual monitoring activities. Investing time in meaningful conversations seems a better bet.

One thought on “Knowing your school: conversations worth having

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  1. Glad to see you mentioning Daniel Pink. This is the kind of work that the technocratic models of educational management have ignored for too long. Ironic really, in such a people-centred profession. Reading Dan Pink led me to the work of Mihaly Csikszentminhalyi who has very much more to say about motivation and fulfilment, that makes so much sense to me. Someone else whose work has been widely and I suspect selectively edited out of required reading in the educational sector.

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