The Infrastructure of School Improvement

In a previous blog I wrote about the risk of shallow mimicry when it comes to collaboration between schools.  By this I meant the risk that weaker schools replicate successful schools on a surface level, rather than understanding the root cause of their success.  Here I want to explore a deeper and more sustainable approach to school improvement.

Joe Kirby has written an excellent blog about Hornets and Butterflies in which Joe compared non-renewable resources, such as a teacher’s written feedback of a student’s work; with renewable resources, such as ‘knowledge organisers’ for each subject which lay out the core knowledge that students are expected to learn and retain.   Such resources are renewable because once created they support students and teachers for months and years to come.  The same distinction between renewable and non-renewable resources might help us when it comes to whole-school improvement.

Let’s imagine we go to a school where we see 1-hour same-day detentions when a student is late, and zero-tolerance towards mobile phones and uniform infringements.  It would be easy to go back to our own school and introduce each of these policies.  But a better approach might be to question whether there is something deeper than these individual initiatives which we can try to improve.  So in the school described above, I would guess that it has a carefully crafted home-school agreement which explicitly sets out the school’s expectations.  This agreement, reinforced by assemblies and daily consistency, enables the school to tackle mobile phones, punctuality and uniform issues.   If we were trying to learn from this school, we would be much better off investing time and energy in a new home school agreement – a renewable resource which will strengthen so much of what happens in school, rather than trying to borrow individual initiatives.

Similarly, if we see a school in which lessons tend to contain high quality written work, we should resist the urge to return to our own school and insist that all teachers get students to write more.  Instead, we should question whether the lesson planning sheet that teachers use encourages them to focus on a rich central task that allows high quality writing (is it just me who worries that lesson planning proformas often reduce the lesson to a series of fragmented activities?).  We should also question whether each department has a clear enough understanding of what quality academic writing looks like in their subjects, and what teachers can do to support this in lessons (Teach Like a Champion has some great techniques for cultivating rigorous writing).

So the rule for borrowing an initiative should be to question whether there is anything that underpins that initiative, and keep asking that question until we can go no further.  We will then have arrived at the foundational resources that are really worth investing in for long term sustainable growth.  We can think of these foundations as the infrastructure of the school.  Investment in this infrastructure provides a secure base for long term growth.

When Bazalgette designed London’s sewers he was given data on peak rates of sewage flow.  Rather than building sewers to accommodate these rates, he trebled the numbers to ensure that the sewers would serve London for generations to come (a point made in this brilliant Great Lives episode on Bazalgette).  Sure enough we’re still using Bazalgette’s sewers 150 years later.  When it comes to school improvement, we should avoid imitating individual initiatives and focus instead on the infrastructure which will underpin the school for years to come.

Postscript – A short list of renewable school-improvement resources:

  • A school curriculum which provides balance and continuity for students as they progress through the school
  • Learning programmes which set out the key knowledge, skills and understanding in each subject, in each year group – a five year revision plan, to borrow from Joe Kirby again.
  • A home school agreement which commits parents, students and the school to clear standards
  • A lesson planning sheet which prompts teachers to focus on the things that matter in the classroom
  • A training programme for middle leaders, sharing the basics in managing people
  • A consistent framework for line management of departments
  • A balanced school calendar which distributes pressure-points throughout the year
  • An assessment framework which helps teachers identify students in need of support

Learning Together

Two recent events have reminded me that people like to learn together.

The first was E.D. Hirsch’s Policy Exchange lecture.  If someone wanted to understand Hirsch’s ideas, I would argue that they’d have been better-off getting hold of his books, reading summaries of his work on the internet or watching his interviews and lectures on YouTube. Yet a few hundred people happily gathered in a dark school hall to hear from Hirsch himself.  Several of the people I spoke to had endured long train journeys to attend the lecture.  The audio recording and transcript of the event was probably available online by the time they got home.

The second was Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion 2-day workshop, which I was lucky enough to attend last week.  It was a great course – I loved practising Lemov’s techniques with colleagues and other delegates, and it was brilliant to have Doug on hand to settle any queries.  Yet I probably gained a better understanding of Teach Like a Champion from reading Lemov’s updated book over the summer and taking notes on each technique.  The cost of those two days in August was £20 – the cost of the book.  The cost of the two-day course last week was over £500.

A glance towards popular culture would suggest that we like to do things at the same time as others, even when changes in technology allow us to do things in our own time.  14.5 million of us gathered around television sets to watch the Great British Bake Off final last week, even though we could catch-up in our own time on a range of devices over the next month.   It’s the same with sports events, concerts and other big TV shows – we prefer sharing experiences with others in real time, rather than catching up in isolation.

How might this desire for shared experiences play out in schools?

When it comes to CPD for teachers, we should do more to encourage teachers to read the best work that is out there on the areas they lead on.  If we want our Assistant Principals to understand assessment principles, why not buy them a copy of Koretz’s Measuring Up, along with links to blogs and academic papers, rather than sending them on a costly course?  We could spend the money we saved on a staff library for all teachers to enjoy.  Or take growth mindset, for example.  I would be amazed if this £400 course teaches delegates anything that they won’t learn from reading Dweck’s £7.99 book, or from amazing resources like THESE that Larry Ferlazzo and other passionate and generous educators share on the internet for free.

It’s as if we’ve forgotten that educational thinkers collate their best work in books and blogs with the express purpose of sharing their theories.  It’s great to see more schools creating staff libraries and book clubs, such as this one at the school of Shaun Allison and Andy Tharby.

Like their teachers, our students seem to prefer to learn together rather than grapple with challenging concepts in isolation.  Anyone who has worked in schools over the last ten years will have noticed increasing numbers of students attending ‘intervention’ classes on Saturdays, after school and in the holidays.  For the same reason that we tend to get a better workout when we join a gym class than when we jog in isolation in front of the muted evening news on the plasmas, our students seem to enjoy the security of group revision – ‘just bring yourself along and we’ll do the rest’ (much like teachers attending a plush hotel for a day of CPD).

The risks of relying on group learning for students are clear, e.g. (a) it disempowers students, (b) it puts pressure on teachers and (c) there is no group work in exams.  Group learning is also at odds with the fact that true gains in understanding tend to require deliberate, focused, and repeated practice, which I would argue is far more likely to occur in isolation than in groups.

Perhaps sitting in groups in the classroom is another example of the comfort students gain from company, even if this safety-in-numbers eludes them in the exam hall.

One of the schools I work with is trying to tap-in to the benefits of collective learning while maintaining students’ responsibility for their own studies.  They’ve done this through an extended day for Year 11 in which – for the final additional hour of the school day – the whole year group studies in exam desks in the hall.   Teachers can withdraw students who need targeted support (days are allocated for each subject), leaving the remainder of the year group to work in focused and supervised silence in the hall.

At the heart of our desire to learn together is the fact that we are social creatures who like to engage in shared experiences.  Schools can benefit from the shared language and collective accountability that flows from group experiences.   But we also need to recognise that learning and improving practice is tough – for students and for teachers – and we need to be honest about the individual responsibility required for true learning to happen.