Do only what matters

At the best of times education is an inherently low-validity domain.

The dizzying range of moving parts in schools and the interactions between them, combined with huge variability between and within cohorts make them bad laboratories for just about everything. Research in education is tricky and working out what impact something has had when there’s a lot of other stuff going on at the same time is even trickier.  

Did results decline because we changed the specification? Or was it because the second in English went on paternity leave? Or was it because it turns out Growth Mindset is a bit more complicated than we thought? All of these things? One of them? None? Something else we haven’t thought of?

We just don’t know for sure and getting certainty is hard because all the evidence comes from contexts different – often very different – to our own.

The uncertainty can be overwhelming. It is quite understandable some schools  give up trying to work it out. Indeed, in an unplanned unofficial way my hunch this is quite a common approach of schools where pupils get strong results –if everything together seems to be working then working out the degree different components have contributed doesn’t seem that important or urgent. After all, if it isn’t broken then why fix it? – especially if there is a risk your repair might make things worse.

Struggling schools find themselves in a much more unenviable position.

When it is clear things aren’t working, finding out what and why becomes very important, but no less difficult. For most in circumstances like this inaction is not an option. Standing still is going backwards and people who go backwards don’t last long in education.

Much better to roll up sleeves and get tstuck in to something regardless of whether or not this thing is actually a thing that needs to be done. The point can easily become to be seen to be working hard – displaying a Stakhanovitic work ethic that means if things improve you take the credit and if things go badly you can’t be blamed, or even better, give the impression were it not for you results would have been even worse.

This is a deeply risk averse and defensive position to take, and makes genuine improvement hard because wrapped up in it is the assumption real improvement isn’t possible. It is short-term survivalist thinking, which casts eyes down on underfoot trip hazards and makes it impossible to see better routes.

Most of those taking this approach are of course not deliberately and purposefully cynical, but it is fair to point out never experiencing meaningful improvement and lacking the time and space to find out what does work elsewhere can mean alternative approaches aren’t obvious.

Why this post? Why now?

Education has never been a less valid domain than it is now and will be when pupils return to our schools. The infinite variability that existed before is even more infinite. There is so, so much we do not know and are making assumptions about.

In all this uncertainty that it’s going to continue to be hard is probably a reasonable bet.

So is the understanding on the whole pupils will know less than they would have had there never been a pandemic, and how significant this gap will be will vary wildly and be broadly stratified by advantage.

It is going to be difficult and we face new challenges at time when as a profession we are all tired, and some of us exhausted. There is no surplus energy in the system. We cannot waste what we have on pointless displacement activity. We need to be honest about what we’ve tried and what has and hasn’t worked free of ego and fear of punishment for not being visibly busy enough. We must avoid rewarding ourselves and others for work we’ve done for any other reason than it helps children learn and while we can never have certainty our bets are the right ones we should be making them consciously and basing them on the best evidence we can find.

This is very obvious. We know this, but despite us all knowing this defensive make-work has been going on for years and so we must be extra vigilant for it. We must make the space to identify what works best and then execute this well rather than throwing ourselves into things on instinct and out of a desire to appear energetic. To make matters even more complex novel ways of working during this pandemic have created whole new ways of doing things and many new methods have obvious non-pandemic utility; the temptation may be to layer these on to what we traditionally do without removing anything to compensate. There is a danger that the moral urgency of ‘catching up’ on lost learning will lead to such acute moral urgency that nothing feels like an unreasonable expectation.

Like Boxer we may work ourselves into glue, with the point the glue rather than the work.

If this happens we will have squandered an opportunity presented by rare clarity on the extent of the struggle we face and how much what we do matters.

There is no slack in the system and we have neither the time nor the energy to spend impressing others for the sake of it or to hide a fear we don’t know what we should do. We must recognise this as a national – even international – problem and frame it as a collective endeavour. 


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