School Improvement: Beyond Shallow Mimicry

Mimic: To imitate in a servile or unthinking way; to ape.

People love to mimic success.  We dress like our bosses; we make investment decisions based on last year’s market trends; we buy products endorsed by celebrities.  In education, we instinctively sense that if a school is successful then we ought to learn from it.  But how do we avoid our desire to learn from the best becoming shallow mimicry of apparently successful practices that we don’t truly understand, or that might not work in our own context?

The source of our problem is that we have a limited understanding of the ingredients of school success.  As Daisy Christodoulou says in Changing Schools “Measuring exam results, or the ‘outputs’ of education, will only lead to improvements if there is clear understanding of the ‘inputs’ which will cause improvement.  In the case of education, we do not have a clear, system-wide understanding of what causes learning.”

In my experience, some successful schools themselves don’t know why they’re successful.  So instead of being based on deep understanding, school improvement often relies on rules of thumb and fallacies.  One of these is the ‘halo effect’, which in education translates as ‘if a leader appears to lead a good school then they must know what they’re doing; let’s hope they can replicate it elsewhere’.

The features of success that we might notice when we visit a school are often superficial manifestations of deeper, more powerful forces operating below the surface.  We notice a school’s success in getting students to Oxbridge, but we’re ignorant of the work it’s done to win the trust of the middle class professional parents who were previously bussing their kids to schools out of town.  We notice the autonomy given to teachers in Finland, but we ignore the rigid and prescriptive training they receive before they are allowed to start teaching (see this brilliant paper by Tim Oates for more).

It’s difficult to get under the skin of schools so we end up imitating the effects of success, ignorant of the underlying causes.  We notice the what, while the how and the why remain elusive.

So we visit successful schools and then go back to our own schools and try to replicate what we’ve seen.  We introduce silent line-ups before each lesson; we enforce a strict dress-code and a longer day.  We name tutor groups after universities and we ask teachers to display details of the book they’re currently reading on their classroom door.  I happen to advocate some of these things, but we need to be curious about why they might work, rather than engage in shallow mimicry.

We can also avoid shallow mimicry by focusing on the things that really matter.  There are probably five fundamentals to school success: curriculum, teaching, assessment, leadership and behaviour/culture.    These are our building blocks of school improvement and it’s likely that all manifestations of success can – and should – be traced back to one of these fundamentals.

So when we see a successful school lining their students in silence before each lesson we should ponder whether it’s the lining up itself that makes a difference, or whether the lining up works because it serves as a constant reinforcement of established routines.  Or perhaps the line-ups are simply indicative of a strong culture of compliance.  Or maybe the silent line-ups are a red herring, completely irrelevant to the school’s success.

Finally, successful schools themselves can help us by constantly evaluating their work so that when interested parties come to visit they can point them to the things that really matter.  At Burlington Danes Academy I used to host visits from educators interested in the school’s transformation.  I showed them our dedicated teachers, our nurture groups, our inclusion unit, our rank orders, our after-school clubs programme, our curriculum model and our roster of inspirational guest speakers, but I couldn’t honestly tell them which of these features were the most impactful.

It’s not easy to learn from the best schools, but we can do better than shallow mimicry.

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