Leading Learning: Thinking BIG and small. #SSATNC15

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At the SSAT National Conference this week, the theme of my keynote talk was my sense that, in education, we sometimes go wrong because we don’t think about problems on a scale that is big enough or small enough.  We’re often not ambitious enough for what could be achieved on a large scale and, at the same time, we don’t venture deep enough to explore the fundamental mechanisms or content elements that constitute educational success.  There is also a tension between the need to understand the complexity of a system or a set of ideas and the need for simple goals and simple messages; there is order in chaos.

There are lots of analogies with the physical world, for example in the molecular view of states of water.  Water behaves predictably at a macro level where we can observe its properties and behaviours.  But we need to understand the physics and chemistry at a molecular level to understand things fully. We need both a micro and macro view to get the full picture.  This is true of our understanding of the universe and the extraordinary fact of our existence as explored by Brian Cox in Human Universe.  The behaviour of macro objects in space and of spacetime itself requires an understanding of quantum phenomena.  Medicine is fascinating for its breadth of scale; doctors can make a diagnosis and prescription based on a few questions and a whole-person view or via a microbial or molecular analysis. They think big and small; medically speaking, humans are simultaneously unique and identical.

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In my talk I applied this idea to five areas of educational thinking: Learning, assessment, curriculum, developing teachers and articulating a school vision.   Each of these has been a feature of our agenda at Highbury Grove over the last year.  My hypothesis is that, where we’ve been most successful, it’s been where we’ve succeeded in thinking things through from a bold macro vision down to a detailed implementation strategy – or built things up the other way around: from a deep understanding of the micro issues through to a clear overall macro view to inform the key message or broad strategy.

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The Highbury Grove agenda – thinking Big and small in action.


  1. Learning

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For teachers and students, there’s a need to create big-picture understanding that links ideas together into a cohesive whole: playing the match. But, within that, there’s a need to break learning down into discrete elements that can be modelled, rehearsed and fully mastered: practising the drills.  As leaders of learning, we need to get into that detail alongside teachers and students so that we can provide the necessary support and guidance.  Often leaders operate at a level that is too generic; we focus on attitudes and broad-brush pedagogy when the fundamental issues lie at the level of identifying and sequencing specific elements.  My view is that line managers need to work in and amongst the teachers of the departments they support, developing the skills to support at a deeper level; at the level of micro-pedagogy. Similarly, people who provide additional support for students are more likely to be effective if they can engage at the level of specific learning elements, talking about column addition and verb conjugation instead of ‘working harder in maths and French’.


2. Assessment 

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Slides taken from various blogs on assessment.

I won’t rehearse the whole argument here but essentially I am suggesting that many school leaders have operated at a level of data engagement that has been too shallow leading to a preoccupation with data-manifestions of progress at the expense of understanding the source.  My challenge to leaders is to engage with the detail, to get to know what standards look like at the level of student work in different curriculum areas.  How do you know if a subject teacher is assessing correctly? How does the data for progress correspond to specific improvement in students’ work? These are things leaders of learning should discuss.  I don’t think leaders should set performance targets for students or teachers unless they can articulate the mechanisms by which the setting of a higher target will lead to deeper learning in the classroom.  ‘Do better’ isn’t good enough; you need to be able to say ‘do this instead’ or ‘do this better by doing it more like this’ in the detail.

At the macro scale, I think leaders need to be highly sceptical about the absolute value of any of their performance measures.  Progress 8 and most of the progress figures in RAISE are artificial constructs very far removed from student learning; you have to be very careful not to load meaning onto a data set beyond the limits of validity. At the same time, macro data can indicate some general patterns and trends that raise useful questions; it’s a question of being conscious of the assessment uncertainty principle at all times.

3.  Curriculum

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Here, the small thinking needs to go into the specifics of the content in a  curriculum area. I think school leaders should be more interested in the topics, concepts and questions that are covered in the curriculum.  Too often we leave teachers to their own devices here as if these things are somehow now our business. In review processes and lesson observations, there is a tendency to have non-specialist conversations when, as with learning above, the core issues lie at the level of micro-content.  I want my middle and senior leaders to focus on the same areas of the curriculum over a long period of time so that they develop an ever deeper understanding of the curriculum.  To my mind, a good lesson observation process should include a discussion about the questions that are asked, the concepts being explored and the appropriateness of the sequencing relative to the big picture curriculum.   We need to get better at doing this; at the very least it should be our aim.

The Big thinking is about creating a framework that allows all of the curriculum details to hang together where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. I was delighted to be able to announce the launch of the National Baccalaureate Trust website.  The National Baccalaureate for England is, to my mind, an extremely powerful concept, giving value to the full range of each learner’s educational experience.  Read about it at natbacctrust.org.  I’m optimistic that over the next 10 years the NBfE will grow in status and acceptance across the nation.  It’s now a real thing that any school or college can join.  From September 2016, the piloting process starts in earnest.  Get involved!


4. Developing Teachers

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As I’ve written elsewhere, there are lots of factors in developing great teachers.  As a leader you need to create the big scale culture that permeates all of your processes and systems. This matters a great deal.  At the same time, you do need the systems.  We’ve introduced our built-in CPD model with fortnightly two-hour blocks; we’re serious about CPD as a driver of school improvement.  We’re now in the process of working out how to go to a deeper, more forensic level, linking the CPD much more directly to immediate action in classrooms that secures more tangible improvements in learning outcomes.

I used the platform to pursue my current hobby-horse: the need to end the grading of lessons:

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I won’t go on about it again here. Graders just need to recognise the homeopathic nature of the medicine they’re dishing out and stop.

5. Articulating a School Vision

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Finally, this line of thinking applies to articulating a school vision.  A vision dies without strategies for reaching it and strategies need detailed planning.  As I discuss in a recent post  on Course Correction, you almost always need to change tack. However, in keeping with the image, we need to know where we’re heading: where is our Port Jefferson?  Amid all the complexity, the daily flux of school life and the permanent whirlwind of change, what is the headline message about your school’s mission that everyone holds onto? What is the NUMBER ONE priority? There’s a need for a clear, simple, high-impact message that helps to generate and reinforce the alignment that is so important in securing strong institutional culture and mutually reinforcing attitudes and behaviours.  Currently ours isn’t strong or clear enough: tackling that is my immediate priority as Head.

In practice, all organisations are just collections of loosely aligned individuals: people’s individual beliefs are the micro-reality of ‘ethos’.  The job of leaders is to create macro-alignment.  You can try to enforce it or you can inspire it or you can build it collaboratively – or a bit of all three at different times. That’s the challenge.



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