Challengers and Champions. Are we ready to listen?

The role of a challenger?
The role of a challenger?


Following all the discussions at the ResearchEd conference last weekend, I’ve been thinking about the balance we need to strike when presented with new ideas or when we’re presenting them ourselves.  We need to be open to the possibility that a strategy might be a good one whilst remaining confident that, as professionals, we’ll be able to discuss the evidence and challenge the idea if necessary.

As I describe in my talk and blog about barriers to effective CPD, the two ends of the spectrum are equally problematic. The hyper-puppy evangelists often put up defenses that are difficult to deal with.  They can take it personally if you burst their bubble of wild enthusiasm with any suggestion that you’re not entirely on-board.  Similarly the jaded eye-rollers of doom can kill the spirit of any number of exploratory initiatives before they’ve had a chance to have any impact.   Somewhere in the middle lies the territory of intelligent, professional discourse.

Champions are important because, without them, we’d be stuck with the status quo for all time.  At some point, someone has to have the courage to take a lead and suggest a new plan of action.  The truth is that, for all the research evidence and theory that we have amassed in any given area, there remains uncertainty about the efficacy of almost any strategy.  People still need to be persuaded that something is worth trying – especially if they have long-held beliefs and practices that are being challenged.   Not only do you need champions to get ideas off the ground, you need them to keep things going for long enough for them to have a chance of working.  It’s all too easy for the doom-mongers to claim victory at the first sign of trouble – when, actually, it may just require some collective perseverance to effect the change needed.

I’ve seen this apply to all kinds of ideas:  approaches to pedagogy or assessment, the profile of issues such as global awareness or health in the curriculum, a whole-school behaviour strategy, adopting a new structure of setting within a subject department… and the list could go on and on.   The more radical the idea and the greater the number of people involved, the stronger the Champion needs to be to overcome the inertia.

However, as well as Champions, we need Challengers.   It depends on the school culture but I’ve known of various situations where teachers and leaders have found it very difficult to challenge ideas. There can be a weird taboo about publicly challenging an idea.  To some extent this is about hierarchies but it is often simply a matter of social awkwardness.   I’ve been at TeachMeets and conferences where someone has said something that I thought was absolute nonsense – dangerously so – but the situation didn’t allow for challenge.  In fact, everyone is usually too busy saying ‘well done’ and giving them a big clap for anyone to dare to say a doubting word.  It seems almost rude.

One of these was a senior leader who went around his school giving out slips praising staff when they were seen using a high effect-size strategy from Hattie’s Visible Learning.  ‘Well done James. You were using Reciprocal Teaching. This has an effect size of 0.67 which makes it an effective strategy….’ . Bonkers. and So Very Wrong!  I was desperate to stand up to offer a challenge but I baulked at the idea of causing a scene and embarrassing the presenter.   When he also said that teaching and learning in his school was 84.62% Good or Better, I nearly had a heart-attack suppressing my itch to challenge.  A friend of mine recently endured a whole-staff presentation by her Assistant Head responsible for teaching and learning who trotted out Daisy C’s Myth 4:  Kids don’t need to know things, they can just google it.  She could barely believe it was happening. There was wide-spread cringing around the room – but no-one stood up to say ‘Er…you do realise that’s total rubbish‘ – or something more polite.

So – my feeling is that we need to do better to create spaces for Challengers to inhabit.  Let’s bring Challenging out of Cynics’ Corner – the murky recesses of the staffroom with the wing-backed chairs.  Let’s give Challengers a role alongside Champions so that we can have proper debates without people’s feelings getting hurt.   It should be normal at a staff meeting or a TeachMeet for someone to offer a bit of challenge.  What’s the evidence? Has any research been done on that? How many other people have found the same results? What examples of student work have you got? Is this just  your hunch, a bit of confirmation bias or do you have something more concrete to base your enthusiasm on?  Wouldn’t it be better to have a discussion like that after any presentation – in a staff meeting, around the SLT table or at a conference – rather than allowing weak or bad ideas to gain traction?  If that became normal, presenters would anticipate the challenge and think more deeply about what they were saying.  Also, if the challenging is all done face-to-face, it allows for an exchange of views within the usual parameters of respect and courtesy.

Perhaps, better still, it should become a routine part of the process of Championing ideas in the first place.  In conversation with Prof Coe at ResearchEd, he suggested that there’s evidence that people with higher IQs are more likely to be persuaded by an idea if they are presented with all the counter-arguments alongside the sales pitch.  That makes sense to me.  Perhaps the lesson there is to build the Challenger role into the thinking of Champions.  Don’t go for the hard-sell; present a balanced case with all the counter arguments.  Give room to the Challengers to voice their reservations.  It may prevent you from making a horrible mistake or it may have the effect of persuading more people that your idea is worth a try.

This kind of thinking is particularly important when you are asking everyone to do the same thing.  As I’ve argued in my post describing Plantation Thinking, it is all too common for a ‘good idea’ to be elevated to the status of an absolute rule for everyone.  Why is it necessary for everyone to do the same thing? I”ve heard strategy X is great; so we’re all doing strategy X. I’d say you need a very good reason with plenty of evidence before you go down that road.  Your inner-challenger should be screaming at you:  Why? On what evidence? – before you go out to champion a universal law.  Far better to suggest: I”ve heard strategy X is great; I’d be interested to find out if it works in our context. Who is interested in engaging with a process to explore the possibilities’?.  






  1. Good points, I also think challenge is useful in refining an idea, making it workable in practice. For examples most of these initiatives add to workload so if that can be minimised then they are more likely to take off. The people who have to put them in place day to day may have useful suggestions about how to do so in a way which is more likely to lead to success. So what may seem cynical is actually supportive.


  2. Great post. My problem with champions is that they are often novices themselves. Just because they are enthusiastic about something doesn’t mean they should be the lead in that area. It’s great that some people support new endeavours and can help muster the team and form action groups to engage in new initiatives, but they still have to then be managed by experienced and trained leaders. Not just fans.
    Regarding challengers, yes. I agree. The model at research conferences in HE is that a researcher will give a quick PPT presentation on his or her work, outlining problem area, research question, research aims and objectives, a quick slide on methods, process and analysis, and then give a bit more time to interesting findings, lessons learned, implications for practice and further work. Questions from the audience will then probe, respectfully, any further details needed to get a more informed picture. People will often get the contact details of the presenter to ask for a copy of the paper.
    I think the teachmeet culture breeds something else entirely: celebrating, in rapid fire, a one hit resource created to deliver on one learning outcome, often with a bit of upbeat delivery and photos of students doing it in class. It’s a practical thing, designed for teachers in attendance to get ideas for practice from. Very different beast.
    Maybe what we need now is a hybrid of the two.


  3. Totally agree. Often challengers are seen as trouble makers or deliberately trying to undermine things. If genuine discussion occurred around challenges then anyone who was trying to do this would get bored as they would find them selves having to spend time and engage when that wasn’t their aim.

    I’m in a new job which makes things easier as I can ask questions with an air of ignorance but I also haven’t learnt who I can openly ( and safely) challenge without being tarred with a troublemaker brush.

    Many leaders have been to conferences/training and listened to others and just accepted what they were told, so when someone in school may challenge it, they do not have the depth of knowledge or evidence backing to respond.

    It’s all about trust and understanding that challengers want high quality practice in schools as well as champions. They just do it in a different way. Leaders that feel threatened by challengers may need to re-balance their beliefs regarding authority in school. Being ‘high up’ and/or paid more does not always mean that we are ‘right’.


  4. As you say it depends on the culture. Some workplace cultures do not allow for dissenting views and “challengers” would only damage their career progression. The idea of a workplace where ideas can be debated with reference to evidence based policy sounds brilliant but can it be a reality? Schools are hierarchical places. How much of a “challenger” were you in your early years of teaching?


    • Hi Dan. I think it can be a reality; it doesn’t have to be adversarial. As a teacher I’ve always been someone to put alternative ideas forward, not just challenge existing ones – eg with whole-school curriculum models or ideas about the science curriculum, I’ve put forward proposals or simply got on with them to show what might work. As a young teacher at Holland Park, staff meetings always had a spot for the union reps to engage the Head in a Q and A. It wasn’t always constructive but there was dialogue. I accept that too many schools stifle challenge – that’s no good for anyone. However, it does also depend on the nature of the dissent – questioning the validity of an initiative is different to simply dragging your feet to preserve the status quo in a conservative fashion.


  5. I enjoyed this. I’ve gone to a lot of teach meets (and even spoken at one) and I did wonder why I don’t get as much out of them as things like ResearchED or the Wellington Festival. I think you might have it. It is always useful to have space to discuss and even criticise ideas, whereas teach meets do tend to be all about encouraging ideas no matter the quality. Whereas this seems fair enough when a relatively inexperienced teacher is speaking for the first time, it does seem absurd when you see a senior manager do a presentation about something that was in fashion 5-10 years ago or when somebody is obviously just selling their App or website. I’m not sure, though, what the best way to tweak the format is. I’d be interested to know how people have got on with “themed” teach meets.


    • Thanks for the comment. I agree – the app sales pitch is always horrible. I guess some people wouldn’t fancy contributing at all if they thought they’d get a grilling afterward but there ought to be a format that allowed some discussion. I’m hoping to run a teachmeet next Spring and I might experiment a bit.


  6. Thanks for this, Tom – lots of things to think about.

    When working with aspiring and new heads I always challenge (!) phrases like “cynics’ corner”, because I think there’s an implied dismissive connotation in such terms. ‘They’re cynical/negative so we can discount what they say/think.’ I’d always say that everyone deserves to be heard, and the ‘cynics’ can have very good points to make. As you say, leaders can get it wrong sometimes.

    It all depends how the challenge is done, though. It can be constructive, respectful and positive – you mention offering alternatives rather than just criticising what’s proposed. At times it can be mischievous/provocative – not in a good way – and arrogant. I’ve been in meetings where some of those disagreeing are just rude, and that doesn’t take the debate anywhere.

    Not sure about encouraging challenge at #TeachMeets. I’ve been hugely impressed when teachers of all levels of experience and confidence have stood up to share their ideas and would hate to think of people being put off contributing because there’s a culture of members of the audience perhaps taking them to task afterwards. But certainly other forums, such as ResearchEd events, should ideally always include a slot for Q & A when challengers can respectfully present their views and dialogue can take place.


    • Thanks Jill. I guess I’m referencing specific situations. Cynicism can be toxic; it’s not the same as opposition or challenge. I’m going to run a teachmeet or two this year – I’ll try to find a format that sets a reasonably high bar for sharing ideas. I’ll invite people to present evidence or possible counter-positions when they share their ideas. Something like that. Let’s see if it works.


  7. I enjoyed this post Tom for a number of reasons.

    Firstly I have been that challenging teacher. I usually got what I wanted in a round about way, but I hated that I had to be aggressive and negative to get it. The head pulled me in to tell me off on occasion, and we did have a stand up row once, but I genuinely don’t believe I would have been able to have an influence had I not been quite a forthright about my opinions.

    Secondly, my husband is also that challenger. He’s older than me and has been teaching ten years longer. So at 50 his ideas are not seen as shiny and new, but cynical and backward. I am biased, I think he’s practical. He tells the head exactly what he thinks, but (probably unknown to the head) unlike my previous situation does not stir things up in the staff room. His frustration, like mine, stems from a deep devotion to the outcomes for the young people in the area his school serves, you just need to listen to him talk about how Mohammed and Chelsey got on today in when explaining displacement reactions to know that. I wish this was recognised. John Beighton once said to me that he’d never met a teacher who wanted to *** up a child’s education. Senior leaders should remember this.

    I can understand why teachers like me and my husband are a deep frustration to the leaders of schools. It is a really talented leader who can bring such people onside and I don’t think that many that good exist. However, I am not nearly so as aggressive or challenging at my current school. I don’t need to be. We are listened to, decisions are based on evidence and opinions of all who want to share them. There is no need for conspiring in corners. If I offer an opinion, it is just that, it’s not a challenge, just a different way if seeing things. But we are small. I have direct access to the head. (She comes to the staff room at break time!) I chat to the assistant head as we walk along the corridor to lessons. I see the head of key stage 4 twice a day at the photocopier, the deputy head works in my department. More than that, the students and not the results are at the heart of what we do. I don’t need to fight that, I wouldn’t want to. I am glad I have experienced this school, it makes me hopeful.

    Thirdly, teachmeets. They are an interesting beast. I have been to the one with 5 people and a massive pile of uneaten bourbons. I have been to the one with 200 people packed into a hot school hall. Teachmeets are not created even. After the first one I went to I decided they weren’t really about learning anything. A list of apps, a website that is good for a single geography lesson and an idea about learning objectives didn’t inspire me to change my practice directly. The atmosphere was key, here are people looking into what they do and reflecting on it to a point they want to share. That had a massive impact on me.

    Hopefully it is understandable that I don’t want to give examples of teachmeet presentations that I wished I could have challenged, or at least asked a few questions to get deeper under the skin of what the presenter was doing and why. It is enough to say there are certainly examples. However, I am able to talk to my husband about them and together we can sort the useful from the nonsense. But 2x+10 years of teaching will give you sufficient experience to do that. (I hope). Rather than worry about the specific ideas from teachmeets though, I worry about the culture itself. Self promotion over substance. It’s not what teachmeets were originally about.

    The best ‘teachmeet’ of the year is the York tweet up. There we do ‘challenge’ each other, and more over our responses are honest. We can talk about negatives and drawbacks, we can talk about the limitations of our experiences. We can talk openly about whether the idea is about learning or pleasing ofsted. But it’s a different audience, we’re friends, we’re supporters and we’re not in a room with SLT, we’re not selling anything, certainly not ourselves. There was about 30 of us, we talked for ten minutes and had questions afterwards. It lasted all day with a pooled lunch. Kettle provided by the university of York.

    Good luck in setting your teachmeet up Tom. and good luck in dealing with the challengers in your new school. I hope they can have a constructive impact.


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