Climbing The Hill

Category: Leadership Learning

Leading With Soul In The Game

A colleague reminded me recently that children did actually learn to read before phonics schemes were invented.  It was a well aimed jab at the education strategists who reduce school improvement to check lists, cause and effect action plans and quick fixes.  By contrast, authentic school improvement is multi-dimensional, complex and woven across the fabric of community.  This is what Nicholas Nassim Taleb refers to as ‘soul in the game’.

A one dimensional approach to school improvement has darkened our classrooms for a generation and continues to bring more shade than light to schools.  Teachers lament “we can’t possibly do that” or “we won’t be allowed to..." but, revolutions start in classrooms, not in ministerial offices.  The shadow of accountability continues to dictate the tempo and narrative.  It creates fear and reduces confidence to take risks.  The most perverse manifestation of this paralysis is our limp acceptance of assessment reforms that have reduced children to labels of ‘pass’ or ‘fail’.  When key stage two test scores are made public in July, our eleven year olds will be judged not by their potential or worth as citizens; their capacity to make a bigger difference, but instead by whether they have met ‘expected’ standards or not.  It is a binary model - the metrics for success are set to pass or fail - a gloomy world view which values only the performance, rather than the journey of learning. 

Artisan leaders have a very different approach to what they determine as success.  They lead with soul not efficiency.  For them, every detail matters.  They don’t cut corners, they value the necessity of struggle and deliberately avoid the unethical practices of meddling in the dark arts of gaming results - the strategy.  For the artisan, the journey of his craft displaces the final finished piece in significance. 

In education, we have taken the opposite approach.  Reform has largely been focused on tightening accountability, centred on ‘big data’ measures - test based rather than trust-based accountability.  Policy has been designed to self-justify and reinforce political preference, reducing pupils to the outcome of a test.  Schools have obsessed with data reporting for external accountability instead of focussing on how quality formative assessment can be used to maximise learning.  Setting national or local education targets based purely on attainment in a limited number of subjects, defies everything we know about expansive assessment practice.  It creates a fixed mind-set about what constitutes success and ignores the broader skills family employers are desperate for our young people to demonstrate. 

We need to champion a new kind of learning which champions teamwork, creativity and critical thinking.  Rank position and league tables are inappropriate and often unreliable as a true measure of a school’s worth.  They can be influenced by quite small differences in cohort scores, providing misleading information.  A binary assessment model, has done nothing to empower teachers to use their own judgement to identify pupils’ real next steps.  Across the globe, we are beginning to question whether assessment accountability has worked for all students and whether it has in fact become a barrier to meeting the inclusive needs of all pupils.

Big data school leadership is headline grabbing; identifies patterns and trends between student outcomes and strives to provide answers for school leaders and policy makers in evaluating performance.  The problem is, it fails to provides answers to the causes - pupil level information about improving teaching and learning, student motivations, relationships between staff and pupils.  As the likes of Dylan Wiliam have argued for a long time, investment in formative assessment is more likely to improve the quality of education than standardised tests.  It strengthens collective autonomy, by giving teachers more independence to interpret school based evidence and empowers pupils by involving them in the process of reflection and evaluating learning.  Our obsession with test scores has guided us away from our North Star. 

Dr Stuart Kime (Director of Education, Evidence Based Education) argues:

“How can anyone hope to become skilled in the craft of great assessment when its role in education is so mercurial and politicised, and deep understanding of it so thin on the ground by virtue of such limited high-quality training and long-term support?  Assessment has become synonymous with marking, and marking has become a proxy for effective teaching. The potential power of classroom assessment has been diminished the more it has shape-shifted its way between being a learning tool and an accountability instrument. Without recalibrating our expectations of what these valuable tools can – and cannot do – we stand little chance of harnessing assessment’s true power to enhance learning.”

Ethical leaders are authentic because they believe what they do carries a noble prize, where everyone succeeds.  They create followers who share common values and they identify with the communities they lead because they see the whole person rather than a test score.  They understand the importance of relationships.  The unquestioned pressure of accountability has challenged the resolve of our most diligent school leaders to hold firm to these beliefs.  The risk is, we grow blind to what is hardest to measure:  values, educational principles, culture and climate.  These are the true determining factors of great, inclusive schools, providing an expansive education - this is soul in the game.

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