Educational leadership & learning

Black Box Thinking is defined by Matthew Syed in his book of the same title as:

“The willingness and tenacity to investigate the lessons that often exist when we fail, but which we rarely exploit. It is about creating systems and organisations to learn from errors, rather than be threatened by them.”

(Other quotes in this blog are also from this book unless otherwise stated).

Given the policies that have come from the DfE over the past 6 years, it has been increasingly difficult to promote this type of thinking within a school (let alone across a whole education system) in which high stakes success or failure is judged on narrowly focused and often arguably questionable data. Most people within schools (teachers, SLT, governors) feel a sense of uncertainty and threat: that we could be one set of weaker data away from a negative Ofsted judgement or a directive from on high about forced academisation. The paradox is that this competitive, threatening culture does not actually aid what countless politicians for decades have been searching for: higher standards.

Mathew Syed clearly evidences through many examples, including from the aviation industry, famous successful sporting individuals and teams, effective business organisations and business people and a range of entrepeneurs and inventors that:

“If a culture is open and honest about mistakes, the entire system can learn from them. That is the way you gain improvements.”

By defining schools as inadequate, requiring improvement or as coasting in a negative and threatening way. By introducing Performance Related Pay, which research shows is likely to prove divisive and not effective. By announcing that failing schools will be taken over quickly and aggressively. By removing National Curriculum levels but still holding schools (and staff’s careers) accountable for national standards which are not defined before a set of one off high stakes tests are administered. Is the DfE promoting an open and honest culture? Are they truly encouraging a collaborative self-improving system? Or a system where we all try to make sure the data shows the best possible picture of our school for external accountability purposes, whether it is beneficial or not for the learners?

How accurate can all this data, which is becoming more and more the crux of school judgements, truly be?

I know Year 1s who are better readers than others in their class at the time of the phonics test, who struggle more than others to pass the test, because they have learnt and regularly use other strategies and therefore try to make sense of the alien words.

I have worked in both Primary and Junior schools, and know the pressure teachers are under to ensure data for their class is the best it can be. I know that data passed up from Y2 does not always match assessments of teachers in Y3, and with a wife who works in secondary I certainly know the transition issues (in the past?) with Y6 to Y7.

Those working in education know it’s because it’s about short-term strategies to do everything we can to help the children ‘succeed’ in these tests? This is not about long term sustainable learning? Again evidence from universities shows that what students learn to pass their A-levels is not always remembered 6 months later. But as long as schools are judged by these hoops, for the security of our school (and our careers) we have to coach the children to jump through them.

Politicians expect higher standards. The DfE expects higher standards. Parents expect higher standards. Governors and SLT expect higher standards. And test data gives a reassuringly mathematical way of judging this. But one of the rationales for removing National Curriculum levels, was a belief that a mere number or grade did not demonstrate a pupils full attainment or achievements. Also we all know how statistics can be used to sell different stories of spin.

For example during the past 12 months the DfE have proudly stated that more pupils are going to Good or Outstanding schools (they don’t mention in the same statement that pupil numbers have risen). They state that we have the best generation of teachers working in our schools, but don’t want to acknowledge that there is a recruitment and retention crisis (just a challenge). They state that they want to give schools more autonomy, and to ensure we all can benefit from this freedom, they will force academisation upon all schools (regardless of the fact that the vast majority of primary schools (85% judged Good or Outstanding by Ofsted) have had this freedom for the last 6 years and have chosen not to take it. These professionals know their schools, their pupils and their communities: but apparently their professional judgement while effective enough to run a school autonomously is not effective enough to make that decision for themselves).

I am not anti-academies. I know of colleagues who are proud and inspired to work in effective and supportive academy schools. What I am against is politicians with a single-minded ideology picking and choosing evidence and statistics to push their agenda. Matthew Syed has some interesting things to say about Cognitive Dissonance.

“The inner tension we feel when our beliefs are challenged by evidence.”

“The more we have riding on our judgements, the more we are likely to manipulate any new evidence that calls them into question.”

“If we are uncritical we shall always find what we want: we shall look for, and find, confirmations, and we shall look away from, and not see, whatever might be dangerous to our pet theories.” (Karl Popper)

Why is it that Nicky Morgan has in the past few weeks spoken at a Union conference and stated categorically that there is no reverse gear, no going back on the DfE’s drive to force all schools to become academies? What if (more) evidence comes to light in the next couple of years that academisation is not the silver bullet for all schools and the whole system? Will we carry on regardless of the evidence?

Not a day, a week, a term or a year goes by without me making mistakes in my role (particularly as I am relatively new to the role of headteacher). I try to be open about these, learn from them, apologise when I need to: but be a role model for my staff and pupils. I want them to acknowledge mistakes and failures so that they, and we, can learn from them. I am open with my governing body and value their advice and insight about failures: the more perspectives I can gain the more I hope to grow and learn, because my aim is to continue to develop in both the short and long term in my role for the benefit of our pupils, staff and school. However I also ask that we aim for the highest possible standards and the best possible test data as we can, without thinking we have to be perfect and never make an error.

“Create a culture where mistakes are not reframed or suppressed, but wielded as a means of driving progress.”

What we need is not all schools to be academies. But all schools to be given the trust, time and less external pressure to develop and improve by openly admitting and analysing their errors and failures so that they can grow become increasingly more effective and empowering.

 “The problem is when setbacks lead not to learning, but to recrimination and defeatism.”

“When we are dealing with complexity, blaming without proper analysis is one of the most common as well as one of the most perilous things an organisation can do. And it rests on the erroneous belief that toughness and openness are in conflict.”

“That failure is profoundly negative, something to be ashamed of in ourselves, and judgemental about in others – has deep cultural and psychological roots…only by redefining failure will we unleash progress, creativity and resilience.”

“When we see failure without its related stigma, the point is not that we commit to futile tasks, but that we are more capable of meaningful adaption…we progress fastest when we face up to failure – and learn from it.”

For my previous blog on some of Matthew Syed’s thinking please read


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