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’?.