Necessary and sufficient?

29754146993_9e7f8f548d_m“If educators are to lead teaching and learning then this is the must-read book” . With an endorsement like that, especially from such a source as John Hattie, how can the ordinary teacher go past such a call? Aren’t we in an educational crisis where we need all the help we can get? We need better teachers with more development and more emphasis on teaching students and improving their results. Teachers are told this from a range of sources including newspapers, blogs, think-tank reports and even organisations as august as the OECD. How much time do we actually spend checking if these “facts” are actually real or artefacts created to provide a situation where a suitable solution can be purchased?

In fairness, this is a massive issue to study and one far beyond one blogpost. So, let’s put this in a bit more context. This chain of thoughts started when I came across two publications – Stephen Dinham’s latest book “Leading Learning and Teaching” and an academic paper by Lewis and Hogan critiquing “fast policy“. The two stand in counterpoint – one suggesting a specific leadership solution, the other describing a spiral towards a perspective that isn’t really there – the idea of ready, fire, aim as a policy direction. There are any number of directions from here but two stand out:

  1. does the book create the leadership expertise it posits i.e. is it both necessary as a way of leading and sufficient in that nothing needs to be added;
  2. are we facing a legitimate crisis or instead a crisis of legitimation?

In tackling this, I assemble my evidence – a critique of both Dinham and Lewis and Hogan, setting both in the milieu of current educational debate as shown through some of the myriad papers released recently by the OECD.

“Whether called instructional, learner-centred or student-centred leadership, there vis a growing consensus that developing the quality and density of such leadership in central to achieving the equity and excellence goals set by many educational systems” (Dinham pp.v)

That’s a fairly clear call for leadership to be seen through one lens. In fairness, the text fleshes out numerous points in its 20 chapters. Divided into 5 parts, the book carefully assembles its argument. The first part looks at the evidence that would support the impact that schools and school leaders have. Dinham moves from the general idea of the schools as part of student achievement to explore some of the fads and fashions that have grown up around it. This aspect alone is worth a paper. Dinham looks at a range of ideas including the notion of “quality teaching” – a term used, but not deconstructed in any detail, but noted to be crucial – through to debunking some myths (like the mis-application of multiple intelligences and the fact that learning styles have not really been proven).  It concludes with an excellent piece on the value of decent feedback. It’s an excellent collection but it is far from proven in each case. From here through to the international studies and international ideas of quality teaching. It’s a good run through the standard ideas that we see in terms of high and low performing nations/systems with the rider that the difference can be seen in terms of quality teaching. Given the robust look at a range of international studies the following chapter on how teachers develop expertise is sparse.  This part considers how we might best train the best teachers with reference (expanded later in the text) to a particular Masters course incidentally run by the author’s university.

Part B looks at the importance of leadership. Previous work, e.g. by Hattie, suggested that Principals made little difference to student outcomes but here Dinham argues that it has a far greater role not so much in terms of student learning but in creating the cultural milieu that allows other teachers to flourish. This model of leadership needs to trickle down into the system to create a range of leaders. Given the central importance of leadership to the book’s thesis, this is a surprisingly short section.

Part C examines professional learning – the idea that all teachers need continual (and effective!) development. Dinham describes some of the major studies he has been involved in or critiqued (e.g. AESOP and Quality Teaching Action Learning). From these, he draws a number of key principles which are then best developed by good leadership. In this instance, good leadership is defined through the lens of the AITSL Standards.

Part D continues to consider how best we can look at improvement and educational change. We have drivers forcing change (economic, social, political etc.) but also their countervailing forces such as resistance, inertia and groupthink. Good leaders overcome this, often by playing a series of roles in specifically shaping the school’s culture. The remainder of this section considers many of the leadership issues found in any good programme- leadership styles and when to use them, gauging effectiveness, and creating great teams. The final part, E addresses this more specifically by considering how the AITSL standards can be used to create a framework for effective leadership and how one programme, at Dinham’s university, addresses this.

In the normal course of events this would be where the review stops. The book is packed with references and ideas, the language is simple and cuts to the point and it is full of those great ideas that used to work and still do like the value of putting a great lesson in front of every student every time. It really is, as Hattie’s quote on the cover says- a must-read text and, indeed, I am very pleased to have been able to read and analyse its contents with every chapter noting something of value. Go out and buy it!

But this is not a normal review, this seeks to put the book in context. The book is not in a vacuum. It has, as it so often says of schools and leaders, a context. What is this context and what does it do to our perceptions if we subject it to the critique the author reserves for leadership? In other words, it promotes instructional leadership as the key skill but is this necessary and if so, sufficient?

Let’s leave Dinham with this point clear in our minds. If this thesis is to stand up, it needs to be examined against the evidence. That’s simple, less simple is finding suitable evidence of the right context. This is where some serendipity comes in. Not only was I alerted to Lewis and Hogan but to a raft of OECD publishing. Usually, there’s not too much from the OECD but in the last few months there’s been steady stream – certainly enough to provide a background to analyse Dinham’s text. This then begs the question – what are we looking for? Luckily, Lewis and Hogan provide a useful discussion point (and powerful critique). We need, as Rob Coe notes, a critical evaluation of evidence (in a paper that really does deserve a wider audience!).  Returning to the paper, the central argument put forward by the authors is deceptively simple:

  • in a globalized, hyper-connected world we have access to a far greater range of ideas and sources of evidence;
  • similar connectivities seem to play out in a 24/7 system where instant results are seen as “better” that slower, carefully thought out ones;
  • by mixing points 1 and 2 above, we get the creation of global solutions for local problems and these are then packaged for the next user. It means that, just like the dominant globalized culture of television and the internet, we end up with increasingly similar solutions for what appear to be similar problems. Need a solution – try this one (or maybe the next – it’s quantity not quality that counts here!).

As part of their evidence, Lewis and Hogan analyse 3 sources – OECD, Pearson, the global edu-business whose publications, The Learning Curve, are a key part of the study, and the New South Wales’ Dept of Education Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation (in particular their own Learning Curve publications). The subsequent analysis looks at the publications, their words, references and general format, concluding that: “Our analyses show how fast policy sensibilities – and particular valued forms of evidence, expertise and influence – have seemingly influenced policy actors across geographically, politically and socially diverse policy spaces. We are not in any way suggesting this reflects a strict convergence of the policies …and would instead emphasise what might be described as a convergence of policy method.(pp13).

So, for Lewis and Hogan, we find ideas and policies lifted from one system and put into another without necessary assuming they will work but arguing that, under the intensification of disparate policy spaces, a one-size-fits-all, over-simplified, decontextualised answer will provide the solution so desperately needed.

The third part of this analysis moves to the OECD, to see what they have suggested. 4 texts are most useful here:

  • In Leadership for the C21st the OECD argues that leadership should be about teaching but also the creation of learning communities. This is complex but needs schools to bring in partners from a range of settings to deal with the complexities of the world. There’s a call to create strategy and also to be able to understand how to deal with emergent properties – you cannot design practice but you can theorise how it might be designed. This last point seems paradoxical at best – a book suggesting a solution that argues that it can’t be created!;
  • In Governing in a Complex World, the OECD takes another move towards understanding the emergent properties of systems. Here, we need accountability, largely to evaluate the range of ideas coming forth. A leader needs to be able to build capacity, be adept at policy design, experimentation and risk-taking and building trust;
  • We turn to What makes a school a learning organisation and find that the call is not just for instructional leadership but one with far more in the leadership bag than a good lesson plan! A change agent, culturally aware, collaborative but understanding of the multi-dimensional situation. On their web page, a note that “this paper should be seen as an attempt to work towards a common understanding of the school as learning organisation concept that is both solidly founded in the literature and is recognisable to all parties involved, i.e. educators, policy makers, parents and others alike.” should stir memories of fast policy, above;
  • Finally, Schooling Redesigned is the OECD’s look at the principles behind the future of learning rather than leadership. It’s 7+3 system of principles and dimensions offer a new look at some of the reform ideas of the mid to late C20th. Here leadership is only one aspect, it’s far more important to see how you can design new system, create vision, innovate and open up partnerships.

At this stage, the evidence has been assembled and it is time to return to the original question but also expand upon its initial thrust. Given the increasing clamour for change in modern systems, is Dinham’s book both necessary and sufficient?

Taking the key point – Dinham argues that all that is needed is for instructional leadership. He makes a convincing case in the book. The OECD, whom he cites regularly, would appear, at first sight, to agree. However, as the OECD develops its ideas in the books, it becomes clear that a good school leader needs a far greater range of skills. Key amongst these is a serious understanding of theory and evaluation, a research focus and an ability to manage staff, not subjects. You need to be able to teach and help others develop their work, but that’s only a portion of the work. We need leaders who can think and act far more like business leaders. Perhaps it’s only in education where we expect our leaders to be able to do the base job – I’ve never heard of the car manufacturer demand its CEO builds a car or a bank president work on the tills. Rather than worry about what leaders can do we should focus on what leaders we need. To this end, Dinham is necessary but clearly not sufficient. Read the book (it’s a great read) but don’t believe it’s the only way (or even close to it).

 However, as the analysis proceeded, another point became prominent – to what extent is this a real situation? Questioning this is like arguing against virtue – we must need it because everyone says we do! If we take yet another close look at all these papers, we find evidence that supports a different thesis – one that the “crisis” we face is not as all-encompassing as at first imagined.

Looking at the references from all these texts one is struck by the similarity – it’s as if they picked largely from the same resource pool. This raises the notion of the situation being propped up by authors citing each others’ work. If work is legitimized by citations (as is normal for academic work), this could be seen as a circularity of legitimation where each cites the other as “proof”. Taking this further, texts seem to share a common lexicon to describe these issues suggesting, again, that there is only one way of seeing this crisis. Further, if, as the OECD’s Leadership for C21st learning is correct, even if instructional leadership is needed and the crisis is real, then the problem still exists because complex systems create emergent properties where only reaction is possible because you cannot plan or train for something which has yet to exist! Given these three arguments, it suggests that the solutions proposed might not help even if the system planned for does come into being.

Right from the beginning, I returned to an earlier idea that refused to go away, so I’ll end this post by posing a different question. In the early 1970s a controversial book hit the stands. Called Folk Devils and Moral Panics it was a critique of the youth-culture groups in the UK of Mods and Rockers. Its central argument was that these groups were being demonized by the press for their behaviour which was nowhere near as bad as suggested. Following all these texts it is not reasonable to suggest we are in another moral panic and that the folk devils are those trying to question current educational change directions? In future posts, I hope to return to this theme to see how this situation has arisen.

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