In conversations with Headteachers when I ask ‘How are things?’ I habitually get the same reply ‘We are very busy with some new initiatives!’
I find a few queries at this point are very illuminating. Basically, they are the What, When, How, Why and how will you know that the initiative has met its remit and needs to be stopped.
The last question in particular tends to elicit puzzled looks. Very little attention is usually paid to de-commissioning projects and initiatives, with the unfortunate outcome that teachers are often left chasing a range of initiatives, the methodologies and outcomes of which are often mutually exclusive.
For me, this realisation came from developing a new education technology in the form of an early adopter learning platform. Working with senior leaders who had bought into the potential of the educational technology was a joy, but when it came to developing an implementation plan proved to be a succession of nightmares. I was asked by one school to roll out the transformational new educational technology comprising online learning protocols, teacher assessment software, anywhere/anytime learning and parent liaison into a thirty-minute slot on the last day of term in July’s INSET day. The head believed that this was sufficient training to have the system fully operational for the first day of term in September!
Having noted the sneaky practise of other learning platform vendors of quoting a price for the system and then quoting a daily rate for training in addition, we had factored in a number of days of support, firstly for the technical staff to set the system up on the school system, and then for the training cadre to be developed to provide in-house support and for us to have video conference and tele support, in addition to sorting out any questions, anomalies or supply templates of ‘how to’ videos. This was the level of, not training, but continuous professional development, required to access better learning outcomes for staff and students.
It was the same story when I was managing a hands-on support programme for a large LEA. Interactive whiteboards come to mind as a similar scenario. The new initiative was launched, with the boards installed and the vendor sent a technician to explain what the buttons did. At no point in the development of the initiative was the educational potential of the technology discussed. The IWB was presented to staff as an additional thing to do, not a new tool to shape more engaging and effective learning.
There are structural and cultural reasons why new initiatives seldom meet their potential in schools. Most have their failings can be categorised in terms of what David Hargreaves termed the “Deeps of Learning”. You don’t get the benefits of totally immersive technologies if you are only prepared to partake in a twenty-minute paddle might be one graphical way of putting it.
It is a much-quoted aphorism, attributed to a wide range of people, but it is true nonetheless: “To fail to plan is to plan to fail.”
I’ve heard headteachers quote this in assemblies regularly, particularly in relation to the need for revision. They then contradict themselves in their own initiative planning.
Senior leaders, being hard-pressed for time, tend to instigate initiatives from a standing start from their own perceptions of needs and priorities. To quote another much loved military aphorism that they neglect to execute, ‘Prior preparation prevents poor performance!’ the 5Ps, or in military circles the 6Ps, as a graphic descriptor precedes the word poor!
The key questions here are: Is this the right initiative? Is this the right, or most appropriate time to implement it? How will it impact other demands for time and attention of the teachers?
The head usually makes a subjective call on this. However, the Head often has a different perspective on how much developmental time teachers have to effectively assimilate new perspectives, learning and information. What seems reasonable from the perspective of looking over a comprehensive project plan in the comfort of the Head’s office, quaffing coffee and biscuits, might look very different to the teacher with a demanding timetable and demanding classes.
If this is the right initiative at the right time with the right implementation strategy there are some critical questions still to address regarding the start and finish point of the initiative. The question that I find is most ignored is the one regarding what is the prior expertise already in the school to bring the initiative to a successful conclusion?
I have taught, advised and led in many different capacities in a frightening array of schools. Some were highly effective, others were among the lowest-performing schools across the country. Be they ever so lowly, there is not one where I considered that the expertise and enthusiasm to build sustainable improvements in learning was not present within the staff. The question was: could the expertise recognised and mobilised to the common purpose of learning improvement?
Although I associate the term the ‘Deeps of Learning’ as being associated with David Hargreaves’ seminal work, I appreciate that ‘deep diving’ is now a term in common currency to describe intelligence that informs the development of the learning process.
If deep diving only refers to trawling data, I feel the term is being used superficially. In planning an initiative we need to understand two extra dimensions. The first is the generation of a current state analysis (CSA), which explores what expertise already exists in the school to promote the successful completion of the initiative.
The second document required, which links to the first through the identification of strengths and deficiencies in learning in the organisation is the training needs analysis (TNA).
Generating these two documents can be a time-consuming and costly process. This is because they must produce granular data which can serve as the basis for understanding current expertise levels and for negotiating individuals through a development process that takes them from their current expertise to the required level of effective practitioner in the specific school.
At an informal level these ‘can do’ statements can be generated by a shallow conversation, in which prior experiences of staff can be gleaned from attendance at courses, or known or believed expertise. This is not robust enough. There needs to be a reliable filter to gather and sift this information. I call the filter the specification.
A collaborative approach to what outcomes the project is designed to deliver will generate a series of performance targets. The really clever piece of thinking is to reduce the outcomes to a series of ‘Can Do’ statements which set out the specific things all the teachers who go through the initiative will be able to do at the end of the process.
The specification of the project can be used to combine these documents into a single online questionnaire. This will produce granular information about the distribution of expertise and deficits in learning across the school (the CSA), as well as providing a tailored specific development plan for each individual based on their responses (the TNA). If all the questions are rated against four common expertise criteria from ‘No expertise’ to ‘confident and competent’ from 1 to 4, then you have also identified those who will form your training cadre from the staff with the highest level of responses. The training cadre develop the initial training documents and build a range of delivery mechanisms from online videos to the content of the tutorial programmes.
This means that at the end of the process of continuous professional development, all teachers will not have a certificate that they attended a training session, but will have a new skill and supporting development materials to use in class and share with colleagues. The materials will be shared to the school online CPD gallery as a common development resource.
The CPD routes are not ‘training events’ but a development process based on a range of blended learning processes which may have an awareness session linked to an INSET day, but then comprise online reading and learning, the use of instructional videos, one to one mentoring for some deep support, and tutorials in the development of specific learning for people who are at a similar point in their understanding.
The key to activating the expertise
Such terms are not new, although they are not always applied in an educational setting. What fascinated me when working with architects and builders in the Building Schools for the Future Programme, was their use of a project development language which was designed to deliver a project from conception to planning, to resource management to deliver a final product, the building, which met the brief specified in the conception on time, and on cost. The process management tool I became most familiar with was the Prince 2 project management tool, although there are many other competing products with related software.
It struck me that such a design philosophy could be applied to school development planning. Such elements as ‘scope’ defined the agreed remit of the initiative precisely and also listed the dependencies which dictated the order things were done and the material requirements of each part of the process were directly transferable.
What might be more difficult to grasp in a school setting, unless the school had adopted a distributive management system, was the idea of ‘ownership’ of elements of the execution and delivery of the project in terms of the key performance indicators (KPIs).
This required that the Head gave responsibility, and a degree of autonomy, to individuals to develop and deliver the part of the project they ‘owned’. Of course, the whole project might be jeopardised if an individual element of the project failed.
Therefore an early warning system was built into the process in the form of time, cost or material limits. In regular meetings the person owning particular elements reported progress and, as long as the time, cost and material elements were on schedule, could proceed. If their element of the project was in danger of compromising the scope in these three variables the owner would be required to inform the project leader and a remedial plan put in place to bring that element of the project back into scope. This ensured that responsibility was related to accountability and the project moved forward in the planned incremental stages.