Saturday, December 27, 2008

Misconceptions of change management

Two major themes permeate much of change management. The heroic enlightenment of managers and leaders as the proponents of change and the undermining resistance of staff as the opponents of change.

Firstly, management and leadership are two different and disparate functions. Management is largely based on authority associated with a delegated role whereas leadership is usually based on (working) relationships. Few managers are actually leaders because of the likely conflict between role and relationship. Similarly few leaders are actually managers.

So how do those in charge (those with authority) change organisations? The most common approach is to produce a plan and communicate it to staff. The 'short-cut' version of this approach is simply to use direct force, often in the form of changed policies and structures.

Sometimes this approach seems to work, at least in part. Of course, this implies that the plan was, to a certain extent, well thought out and comprehensive, and hence. The manager is, usually to a greater extent, a heroic and insightful leader.

Closer examination will usually show that the outcome differs significantly from the plan. What has emerged is different from what was initially proposed, due to unforeseen circumstances or the resistance of those who are required to implement the plan.

In reality, it is not possible to predict what will emerge from a change initiative. Afterwards, the difference between intensions and outcomes are often readily explainable through 'retrospective coherence'.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Student at the Centre: student as client?

Most organisations tend to identify their clients as those people and groups outside the organisation who use the services or products that the organisation produces.

Student at the Centre is a good example. Paradoxically, Student at the Centre actually places the student outside the Department (and even schools) as shown by the lack of student voice in the everyday conversations from which the Department emerges. This paradox creates a dilemma for schools as reflected in their need to serve (educate), train, manage and report on students. So despite everyone's best hopes and intentions, it is possible that 'Student at the Centre' is like a nicely labelled but empty paper bag.

The client as an external role arises from the almost universal production paradigm that has the organisation as 'factory'. A more aggressive form of the production paradigm might be the organisation as 'army'. In either case command and control are frequently in use.

Minimal examination will show that it is clearly a nonsense to assign a fixed role of 'client' to particular persons , groups or other organisations. It just isn't that simple. In any organization, the best interactions occur within working-learning relationships. Everyone is both a client and a provider and these 'aspects of any working-learning relationship change from moment to moment in everyday interactions. Consider another example: the patient provides the doctor with information that he/she then uses to make a diagnosis and design a response. And this not really a linear process, rather it is an iterative process in which each party moves from provider to recipient on a moment by moment basis. 'Patient' and 'doctor' refer respectively to particular needs and specialist capacity within the working-learning relationship.

Thus client’ is better understood as a momentary ‘role’ within dynamic working-learning relationships. It is not a fixed personal role, the 'client' is simply the next person,… in the process.

Clients and providers may exchange ‘roles’ from moment to moment as in the doctor-patient example above. This iterative movement occurs in everyday conversations in which knowledge, arrangements and actions are constructed. The collaboration of teachers and learners is another prime example. Rather than 'Student at the Centre' we need to make the success of teachers and learners working and learning together the centre of the Department.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Top down approaches

One of my sad experiences this year came from a conversation I overheard in a school. A parent asked about a minor aspect of the school's future arrangements. The senior staff member replied: "We don't know ... the Department hasn't decided yet."

This informal exchange illustrated the extent to which the Tasmanian education system has become a top down system. In earlier times, such minor matters would have been decided by the school as a matter of course.

Few Tasmanian schools are the purposeful creative places they used to be before the system became the client. This latter development is the inevitable outcome of the recent unchallenged top down approaches.

Despite their rhetoric, top down systems do not support leaders at all well. They may talk 'leadership' but the system constraints reduce leadership to management (implementing the system's decisions) and compliance. But there are still leaders in spite of this. And the leaders are paying a very high price in those schools that are trying so hard to be purposeful and creative. Many school leaders are quite exhausted by the competing demands of the Department and governments and the needs of the staff and students. An indicator and outcome is the low and shrinking number of applicants for Principals' positions.

And then there is the paradoxical phenomenon in top down systems that

  • The less well top down interventions work, the more likely they will be applied and increased.
The common flaw in top down approaches is that they treat most things as simple when in reality most are not. See It is not personal and it is not simple below.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

It is not personal and it is not simple

Promoting change from outside a system is fraught with difficulties for at least two main reasons.

Firstly, it is NOT NECESSARILY PERSONAL, but those who are responsible for the current situation naturally tend to experience proposals for change as (implied and) personal criticism. Our identity is closely link to what we do especially if we adopt an erroneous assumption that we are in control. Those responsible may be in charge but they are almost certainly not in control. Any situation is very largely the result of its history and prevailing culture. History and culture both enable and constrain what is possible. History includes factors well outside the immediate situation. Culture is reflected in the patterns of 'how we do things around here' and these are not easily changed. They have to be continually constructed and reconstructed. It is much easier to reconstruct the familiar than it is to construct something new.

Secondly, it is NOT SIMPLE. Changing a complex situation is never a simple endeavour. At best, those in charge may be able to moderate the direction in which things are moving. Attempting to just change to a different steady state is unrealistic. Being able to articulate such a state (as policy attempts to do) is not the same as causing the state to exist. When complex ideas are summarised they can sound simple and easy. The truth can be very different. Bureaucrats, proponents and the media have a real dilemma in this regard. They need to get the message across quickly and easily but the key understandings may be complex. and very difficult (perhaps impossible) to articulate briefly in simple terms.

I am involved in a classic example. An article in today's 'The Examiner' (local newspaper) has the headline "Ex-principal slams huge bureaucracy". In a conversation with the journalist I certainly criticised the thinking behind how the bureaucracy currently operates. But this thinking is the result of historical and cultural factors. The thinking is not isolated to the Tasmanian education bureaucracy - indeed it is almost universal. I was not aware that I 'slammed' the size of the bureaucracy. Proposing that a bureaucracy should be larger or smaller is usually a simplistic approach and therefore needs to be considered carefully. For what reasons might the bureaucracy be larger of smaller? What value would such a change add to the effectiveness of schools? At what cost (money, opportunity...)? On the other hand, it is true that the larger the bureaucracy the more officers there are in intervene (for better or worse) in what schools do. "Ex-principal questions bureaucracy" may have been a more valid headline.

And I did not 'slam' the people who work in the bureaucracy. I have worked with a large number of them over many years and I know the majority to be competent dedicated professionals, albeit working in difficult (perhaps impossible) circumstances. They are expected to 'be in control' and they are expected to implement 'simple' responses to the complex situations at hand. Like everyone else, they are caught in the middle. The impossibility of these terms of reference frequently results in simply requiring compliance, regardless of the best interests of those involved. In NSW, professional development for Principals is called 'compliance training'... at least they are explicit!!

The impact of the bureaucracy on the day to day operation of Tasmanian schools is certainly one of my major concerns. The last decade has seen continual intervention in the areas of system structure, curriculum, assessment and reporting. The cost has been huge in terms of time, energy, money, disruption, distraction, dislocation, disaffection, loss of knowledge and loss of social capital... The benefits are far less certain (see change and improvement). And the less certain the outcomes, the more likely the interventions will continue and increase.

Very few people apply for principal positions these days. Could this be a significant indicator of the poor health of the system? If so, then it ‘slams’ the current situation much more powerfully than I could, or would want to. It is important to start with a sound understanding of the current reality (good, bad or indifferent). As one of my mentors used to say, "There is a simple answer to every question and it is usually wrong".

Monday, November 17, 2008

Changing complex systems

It is best to think in terms of aspects of systems rather than systems per se. Indeed systems may not really exist but under certain conditions it is reasonable to think of the situation as being or containing 'systems'. That is, while systems thinking may be valid, systems may really be products of our thinking. That is, we can treat certain aspects of the situation 'as if' they were systems.
In the Cynefin framework, Dave Snowden suggests five types of of 'systems' according to the relationship between cause and effect phenomena occuring in the context.
  • Ordered (predictable)
    • Simple - cause and effect are widely known and understood
    • Complicated - cause and effect are knowable (with expert assistance)
  • Unordered (unpredictable)
    • Complex - retrospective coherence may be discernable
    • Chaotic - no coherence
  • Disordered (or perhaps undifferentiated)
In addition the framework provides guidance as to the appropriate change strategy according to the cause and effect relationships involved.
While most human activity is largely complex or chaotic there are times and places where it may be valid to respond 'as if' the situation is a complicated system or even a simple system. This is largely dependent on the consistency of human activity and interactivity.
Such consistency may emerge in complex systems from two main factors in the situation:
  • attractors such as shared values, purposes.... around which activity and interactivity continue and emerge (change)
  • boundaries such as rules and policies together with knowledge, artefacts...that constrain the activity and interactivity
Attractors and boundaries are sometimes confused or conflicting. Frequently, boundaries are used to control and to extract compliance, while attractors are used to inspire and motivate. Unfortunately, having established a (personal) image of what is to be achieved, it is common for management to see its initiatives as 'leadership' and the situation as an 'ordered system':
  • either simple: "If only people would do as expected..."
  • or perhaps complicated: "The experts know what needs to be done...."
The flaw in such thinking is that people cannot be simply instructed. Rather each one needs to (re)construct their knowledge, activities and arrangements in order to act 'as expected' or to do "what needs to be done". And this endeavour is enabled or constrained by attractors and boundaries both within the situation and elsewhere. They contribute to (enhance/constrain) the capacity of the system.

Thus it is wise to consider the matter of attractors and boundaries carefully in any change process. Simple attractors are potentially very powerful in fostering the emergence of new approaches and greater effectiveness and efficiency. At the same time boundaries may reveal the true purpsoes of the organisation and in so doing completely over-ride the attractors eg, the Tasmanian education's "Student at the Center" (intended attractor) has been annihilated by the Department's focus on structure, curriculum, assessment and reporting policies (actual boundaries).

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Fallout from School Report Cards

It looks like the whole school report card thing will be a fizzer . I certainly hope so.

Nothing in the local paper except for my article. It is so easy to discredit the process as at least one Principal has done. Each school can cite many instances of nonsense from the reports hence the meed for sense making to be applied to the data (see my previous posts). For example, in one school the Staff Attendance was deemed to be "Trend Down" largely as the result of a staff member with cancer. No reasonable person would accept this data accurately reflected a decline in school performance.

My recommendation would be to promote as little interest as possible (at least one other principal has adopted this strategy) . And this is not simply to avoid the difficulties of the School report Cards. Rather it enables the school to devote its energies to the real task... dealing with the everyday things that are impeding the achievement of success and well-being for all. That is, genuinely placing the 'student at the centre'.

The main outcome of the school report cards process is likely to be significant underlying damage to the working relationship between schools and the Department (and Government) . This seems to be part of a very confused notion of 'Learning Services' that has emerged from the current Department structure and arrangements... it combines resourcing, supervision, compliance enforcement and well as professional learning... This complex mix of centrally controlled interactions with schools based on various 'carrots and sticks' is of concern in terms of its impact on
  • the effectiveness of the schools
  • the long term interactions between schools and the Department (and Government) and
  • (psychological) OH&S for Principals (and staff), as reflected in the very small number of applicants for Principal positions
The OH&S issue arises from the fact that Principals frequently try to absorb the tension between
  • the demands of the system / government, and
  • the needs of the school and its people.
This phenomenon has been verified in research across the world. See also my previous posting on 'Schooling is not a service'

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Schooling is NOT a service

In recent years the Tasmanian Department of Education has adopted a 'service' orientation. It has sections such as Learning Services - the section that supports, directs and supervises schools and colleges; and School Performance Services that monitors and reports on various aspects of schools. And then there is Adult and Community Learning Services, and so on.

Providing facilities, staff, other resources associated with education, and even programs, may well be deemed to be services. However this does not mean that education, especially in the form of schooling, is a service for at least two reasons:
  • Firstly, schooling is compulsory whereas in service industries the clients of the service chooses whether or not to receive the service
  • Secondly, education (the aim of schooling) is not simply the result of the services being provided - the 'recipient' is also a major contributor (perhaps the major contributor)
While clean offices and tattoos are frequently produced by service providers with minimal contributions from their clients the same cannot be said for schooling. At its educational best, schooling is a highly complex and collaborative endeavour involving much more that the programs (services) provided by the teacher on the behalf of the teacher's employer.

If this is so, then it is time to revisit the service oriented organisational culture that has been adopted by the Tasmanian Education Deportment. There are huge implications for authority and responsibility, leadership and supervision. change management, policy making, innovation... This means that better working relationships, shared knowledge and understanding schools as purposeful communities are the keys to school improvement.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Improve the improvement process

The recent Tasmanian School Report Cards attempted to accurately communicate school improvement but failed on at least three points

  • The community read the reports as being measures of performance (see the previous posting), and thus
  • Excellent performance was hidden by results of "Trend Downward' when a performance indicator had declined slightly (a fraction of a percent)
  • And the reports focused on 'measurable' items without fully explaining
    • That the improvements were based on measures of different cohorts, eg, this year's Kinder group is different from last year's, however
    • That the different cohorts were presumably assumed to be equivalent (which is highly unlikely in small cohorts such a staff (Staff Attendance) and Kinder (School Readiness)
    • The statistical limitations arising from small samples sizes in many schools, particularly in small schools
    • Why the measures were individually and collectively valid for inclusion in the school report card (staff attendance?)
    • Why the things measured were sufficiently significant to be included (staff attendance?)
    • The quality (how current, comprehensive, and complete) of the data and the limitations on the data available
      • Staff attendance was measured as a percentage of total staff attendance in only two successive years.
      • Presumably a single staff member with a emerging chronic health problem could 'cause' a significant decrease in staff attendance.
    • The highly specific (narrow) nature of the data used in some measures.
      • Readiness for school was only measured for late Kinder students whereas readiness for school is an ongoing and daily for issue in relation to some students
    • The interaction of most of the indicators
      • attendance, retention, literacy, numeracy, student satisfaction, parent satisfaction and readiness for school all interact with each reinforcing the positive or negative effects that emerge for individual students.
    • What other measures were not included (and perhaps why)
      • The Report Cards did not include any information on the schools' (improving?) provision for students with special needs, disabilities, disorders... in the cohorts being reported.
      • Similarly they did not include the school's provision for students with behaviours of concern and for families in distress (thus requiring support) were not reported yet these are some of the major constraints on schools and on student and staff success and well-being.
      • The need to deal with problematic student behaviour is such that it determines aspects of the actual organisation of many schools. It may also consume a large proportion of the resources available ... resources that could be used to provide higher quality education.
      • Certainly problematic student behaviour is far more significant than staff attendance in every school with which I am familiar. And some limited data is available in this area. Why as it not included?
      • The report cards did not contain any contextual information related to, say, the percentages of students with additional needs (behavioural or special needs)
Since the School Report Cards will become the direct focus of initiatives to achieve real improvements, it is important that the data reported is comprehensive, valid and useful in relation to the overall success of the school, its students, staff and community. With questions over the current form (language, content...) of the Report Cards and the possibility that key data has been omitted, the next step must be to learn from this experience and act quickly on what that learning reveals.

There is clearly a need to improve the improvement process. By doing so, the system will model the very actions and strategies that it is hoping to promote in its schools. If it fails to do so, it runs the risk of alienating the very people upon whom it is dependent for achieving the improvements it desires.

Useful starting points for improving the improvement process might include
  • Collating, summarising and reporting the same data at various departmental levels: cluster; learning service, whole of system
  • Inviting schools to respond by reporting how, and to what extent, they make sense of their own report cards. As one recent corespondent wrote:

    "We spent some time y'day on our school report, personally I don't think they're going to be a big deal. It's too hard to draw worthwhile conclusion about your own school from them, let alone any real comparisons with other schools."

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The performance- improvement trap

The Tasmanian School Report Cards strategy may have fallen into the performance - improvement trap in several ways.
The message communicated is always the message received. The Department/Government has attempted to report on school improvement but the School Report cards have been widely received as reporting on school performance. This makes sense, since student 'report cards have always reported student performance (albeit with some comments on improvement or otherwise).
The relationship between performance and improvement is an interesting one. While performance and improvement are directly related there are some subtleties requiring attention:
  • measures of performance are used to to calculate improvement (or otherwise)
  • measures of improvement do not indicate actual performance
  • isolated measures of performance do not indicate improvement
  • similar levels of performance may be part of very different degrees of improvement
  • similar degrees of improvement may be part of very different levels of improvement
  • the ease of improvement is (generally) inversely proportional to the level of performance
  • too few measures of performance may not provide valid indications of improvement
  • improvement is usually less likely (and more difficult) with better performances
  • a perfect performance will result in either no improvement or deterioration
  • poor performances are often very easy to improve
  • to understand performance and improvement one first needs to understand variation
    • there is always some variation in any system
    • some variation is a result of the system
    • some variation comes from outside the system
    • variation in performance may not be an indication of improvement or deterioration at all... just variation
  • one also needs to understand both change and improvement
Reporting performance is personal for those involved. In the book "The Greening of America" the author suggested that to 'assess another person is an act of violence'. Misreporting or misrepresenting performance is even more an 'act of violence'. The damage may be done to individuals, their confidence in themselves and each other and to their relationships.

The current School Report Cards strategy has already done considerable 'violence' in some schools. In its present form the costs involved are likely to greatly exceed the value added.

Repairing the damage done will not be simple. First impressions tend to last and some of the information contained in the Report Cards is clearly invalid or simply not relevant for particular students and their families. For example, I understand that a Kinder student who cannot stand on one leg for 10 seconds is deemed not ready for school. Does this mean that a student with cerebral palsy will never be ready for school? A school with significant improvement in an area may be rated Excellent while performing much less well than another school whose performance in the same area has declined slightly hence being rated as Trend.Down. The impression given by the Report Card contradict its intent. The gold medal goes to the athlete who wins the race not the one who achieves their personal best.

But simply correcting or discrediting the School Reports is a low level response strategy. It will be important to raise the level of the conversation around this matter. Quality data that is comprehensive, current, accurate and valid will be required but it will not be sufficient. And it is not yet clear that the data in the recent School Improvement Reports meets these criteria.

Fundamentally, it is about constructive, collaborative change management in order to achieve ongoing and sustainable improvement. Now there's a challenge!!

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

School performance - everyone's responsibility (no bystanders)

The recent Tasmanian School Improvement Report Cards are definitely about school performance. They were published online by the School Performance Services unit of the Department of Education.

And they were effectively league tables. The report cards were published in local newspapers as tables that facilitated comparisons between schools. This immediately confirmed the fears of many people involved with schools and contradicted the Minister's claims that the publishing the report cards would not result in league tables.

School improvement means improved school performance. But 'school performance' is actually the performance of all those involved: staff, students, their families, the community, the related professions, academia, the Department and the Government. It takes everyone working (and learning) together to make a school great.

Great schools help those involved to meet many of their needs, especially needs related to learning and being members of a community. In this sense, schools are best understood as purposeful communities in their own right. They are not 'numeracy and literacy factories' even though literacy and numeracy are very important.

In purposeful communities,

  • members interact on the basis of shared purposes (derived from shared values)
  • the community includes all those involved
  • roles provide some useful structure
  • everyday working relationships are the foundation for achievement
  • members contribute according to their respective capacities
  • responsibility and authority are dynamic
  • the community is connected beyond its immediate locality

I find the ideas implied by the School Improvement Reports somewhat confusing. In fact, I have been trying to analyse how 'schools' are being understood in this context. Who or what is a school? Is it a 'factory'? An institution? Is it the school staff? Is it the Department in a particular locality?

Measures such as staff, student, and parent satisfaction and staff attendance included in the School Improvement Report may imply that ‘the school’ is the Principal. But this is inconsistent with other measures such as student attendance, early school readiness and reporting to parents. School readiness and attendance are primarily outcomes of the family and reporting is highly prescribed by governments. I wonder if this inconsistency could be contributing to the current low levels of interest in principal positions?

The major educational initiatives in recent years have been focused on the structure of the Department, the curriculum, and assessment and reporting. It has been a long time (last century, in fact) since in-depth consideration was given to the nature of schools. This is not surprising given the current dominance of psychological thinking in both education and management. The nature and performance of schools also need to be considered in sociological terms - something sadly lacking in the current context.

What next? Clarifying the above issues will be a major challenge and a genuine opportunity for real gains. Failing to accept the challenge is likely to result in even greater polarisation of positions.

It would be easy to overlook the implications of using data extensively. Using data can be a double edged sword. Data does not have any meaning in its own right. The task is to construct useful knowledge from valid data and this means:

  • checking concepts and assumptions (see above)
  • understanding the current cultural and historical context in relation to the data
  • using these to making sense of the data in order to construct the knowledge required for
  • developing responses (actions and arrangements) that are likely to achieve sustainable improvements

And there are no guarantees. The task of improving school performance is not an engineering task – cause and effect are not often consistent over time and place. Similarly solutions may not be directly connected to the causes of problems. Contrary to everyday thinking, what works well in one school may not be all that useful in another. School Report Cards may be dramatically different but it is not always clear which school deserves the greater recognition for its actual achievements ('performance').

School improvement can only be achieved one school at a time and it takes everyone involved, working together to see that it happens. No-one can be a bystander.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Butterflies and storms

One of the key ideas of chaos theory is that small changes (a butterfly flapping its wings in the Amazon) can have a big impact (a storm in New York).

In a school with which I am associated, there has been a total turnover of staff in the office area (edge of chaos?) and several small but significant changes have occurred quite rapidly. The office now opens at 8.30,

Previously some office/admin people had been arriving earlier and the office had been informally open prior to 8.30 and they dealt with early bird parents (and other visitors) and students, and teaching staff who need to be in their classrooms by 8.30.... On any day, there were only a few of these early-bird 'customers' and for some of them the new arrangement can be 'catastrophic'.

For the rest of the school, it appears to be business as usual, except for the disruptive consequences of what might flow from the new arrangements.

Thus this small change (the butterfly) results in

(a) No consequences for most members of the school community

(b) Minor inconvenience for some, but...

(c) Very difficult situations for some individuals and some activities, and

(d) Occasionally, large scale disruption in terms of being catastrophic for all concerned and organisation as a whole.

On a small scale, the organisation is often rescued from the above by individuals and small groups (communities of practice) who absorb, contain and/or develop workarounds to deal with the disruptions and overcome the dysfunctions.

Not opening the school office until 8.30 is the butterfly that causes some storms (problems) for some people in other places and at other times . It is true that many of the problems arising are simply minor disruptions and/or some dysfunctions in other parts of the school throughout the school day. Many are hardly noticed. And there are also resultant storms in other places well beyond the school. Examples include: parents are late for work; misunderstanding occur; important matters not addressed because of the lack of an opportunity to communicate;...etc.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Whose performance?

Increasingly, education systems worldwide are reporting public school performance based on measures of student performance. In some countries this practice includes serious consequences for under-performance, e.g, closures, mergers, staff sackings...*
Most of the discussion on 'school performance' misses the main point. It is the government's responsibility to provide good quality public education for all its communities. Schools simply act on behalf of the government. Individual schools are directly guided and constrained by the government's policies and practices. Individual 'school performance' is actually government performance in that locality. In releasing the data, the government is actually reporting on the effectiveness of its own policies and practices. Viewed in this was the data is always interesting.
(*) One can only presume that these consequences are intended to imply the existence of strong committed leadership by those with responsible. But that begs the question: If those leading the system are so committed and strong, how is it possible for schools in the system to under-achieve?

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

More Emperor's New Clothes

Australian state and federal governments are keen to publish performance comparisons between like schools. But one has to wonder...

"Why are parents so concerned about comparing their own school with like schools?"

Of course they are not!! When was the last time anyone heard a parent wanting to compare like schools? .
The approach is widely understood as an attempt by governments to put all schools under pressure to improve by publicly identifying those that are 'under performing'. Publishing the results is based on a rationale of 'transparency'. But the rationale of transparency is patently false in a number ways :
  • The approach actually hides the limited ability on the part of the education systems to promote and manage school change and improvement in more effective and constructive ways
  • By focusing on 'school performance' the approach also hides the damaging effect of governments and education systems as they continually tamper with schools through demonstrable policy change rather than by supporting sustainable school improvement
  • The approach also hides the differences between unlike schools, many of which are critical. And many of the root causes of these differences are beyond the capacity of the school to redress (in the short term): material resources, facilities, social capital and levels of crime, domestic violence, mental illness....
Most parents are not interested in comparisons of like schools at all. They do want to know how good their school is because they simply want a good education for their children. For example, when parents move their children from one school to another they don't search for like schools... they simply look for a good or better school in a manageable location.

To publish actual differences between all schools and the related contextual factors is almost certainly too problematic for any government and/or school system. The distribution of (dis)advantage and the difficulties of addressing the inherent injustices represent an (as yet) unmanageable challenge and a political powder keg.

That is, publishing league tables is a simplistic, low level approach to school improvement. Structuring the tables around 'like schools' is a deceptive and issue-avoiding approach that is likely to be ineffective and counter-productive. And this is a pity when there are a number of complexity-based approaches that offer genuine possibilities for rapid and sustainable gains through making sense of what is currently happening and identifying realistic opportunities for improvement.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Risking experts

Based on a current Tasmania initiative to improve student literacy rates it seems that experts generally propose a four part strategy::
  1. Assess the performance of the subjects (in this case, students)
  2. Respond by developing and applying resources (usually based on programs with which the expert has been deemed successful)
  3. Provide training for staff (in order to ensure compliance)
  4. Prove that the strategy works by running pilot studies (the easy part)
But as Myron Tribus says, "There is a simple answer to every question, and it is usually wrong". For example, such proposals generally involve serious 'misinformation', especially for the clients. Common misinformation includes
  • The expert's recommendations are innovative and somehow 'visionary' (rare in education)
  • The recommended practices are not currently in use (they usually are to a greater ot lesser extent)
  • The strategy will solve the problem (education is a complex endeavour and does not have simple solutions)
  • If it fails the blame should go to those who failed to implement the strategy properly (however, managers are responsible for the effectiveness of the system).
When staff accept this misinformation as valid, there are likely to be serious OH&S issues around stress and and mental health.

Perhaps as a result of the 'feel-good' vibes of the strategy, those charged with stewardship of the system generally fail to give careful consideration to the possible dangers involved, including
  • grossly misrepresenting the current practices
  • repeating previous practices in the hope of achieving different outcomes
  • alienating those responsible for achieving the intended outcomes
  • damaging the credibility of those responsible for achieving the intended outcomes
  • making it harder for parties (in this case, schools, families and communities) to work together
  • grossly over estimating the transferability of 'best practices'
Most pilot studies are usually quite successful, not so much because they demonstrate the veracity of a strategy but because of the Hawthorne effect.

The intentions may be right, the 'experts' may make their very best contributions. However, such strategies are fundamentally flawed if they are not based on a sound understanding of the current reality, the history of the local situation, and initiatives that nurture the emergence of more effective and sustainable local actions and arrangements.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Signals and use of data

Some parties would like education to be 'data driven', which is OK if one has a good understanding of data, and the complexity of the phenomena represented by the data.

But there are dangers in taking a simplistic approach to the use of data including

  • the critical factors are often unknown and even unknowable (Deming)
  • cause and effect are frequently separated in place and time
  • we naturally give more attention to strong signals and than weak signals
  • most recorded data relates only to strong signals
  • clues for achieving progress are very often hidden in weak signals

For example, there are three useful signs of progress in relation to problematic student behaviour. In the usual order of progress, they are

  • incidents are becoming less frequent
  • recovery time is being shorter
  • incidents are becoming less severe

All of these signals are weaker than specific incidents themselves. thus we continue to record incidents, and while we may observe incidents becoming less frequent, we are less inclined to actually record these kinds of observations. Of these three, most significant and the weakest indicator (signal) of progress is the second one: incidents are resolved more easily and quickly.

Unfortunately this sign of progress is frequently obscured by subsequent incidents, particularly because they may be as serious are earlier incidents. And this tends to imply 'no progress at all'. Worth considering? I think so.

Check out the Support Planner website for more on Signals.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Schools are for people

What if this was really true?  What would if take for this to be true for your school?

I know you want your school to be for its people: students, staff, families, the local community. But I also know that the official version (teachers teaching students in class) is really quite simplistic and often naive. The real stories tell something more.

Would you like to take part in a blog experiment? Instead of using the Comments to debate my attempts to make sense of schools maybe you could make a brief comment and then illustrate it with a story from your own (recent) activity and experience - good, bad or indifferent.

Let's start by gathering the range of things that people like you do in connection with schools.

What is one of the things that you have done recently that needs to be better and more widely understood?

As the themes become clearer we can focus on particular aspects and learn together.

Worth a try? I think so... it seems to me that the present orthodoxies are not serving anyone very well.

Looking forward to learning with/from you and your stories.

Thursday, September 18, 2008


I have long used the working definition that
  • Something is only implemented when it becomes part of the organisational culture.
That is, it has become part of 'the way we do things around here to achieve our core purposes'. The advantage of such an approach is that, once achieved, it requires minimal support and direction... it is genuinely sustainable at minimal cost ($, time, disruption... Such an approach also links the implementation directly to purposes (actual values) and everyday practices.
One key indicator of whether something has been implemented (or not) is the existence of a related organisation-wide on-going conversation.
This means that getting something operational is only an early stage in the implementation: devices are deployed, policies are published, people are trained, compliance processes are in place... and so on.
Implementation requires the continuing construction and reconstruction of purposes, knowledge, arrangements and actions... and these can only occur in conversations between those involved. As these conversations mature, patterns of thought and activity emerge such that they become part of the culture... 'the way we do things around here'.
Most organisations are littered with things that were operational but never fully implemented.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Systems - components, links & applications

Effective systems are not built simply by acquiring or creating components - the components and their uses have to be linked in the most productive ways.  That is, in ways that enhance people's activities (easier, better...).  And the linking occurs in everyday conversations between those involved. In these conversations the knowledge, activities and arrangements are continually constructed and reconstructed.
What about plans and policies? They can help or hinder these constructive conversations.  At worst they result in barriers that divide attention (and systems) and make activities and arrangements episodic. At best they enhance sense making and provide high level attractors that stimulate and inform the conversations that are at the heart of most healthy (and some unhealthy) purposeful endeavours.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

How mistakes are made

There are numerous serious mistakes currently being made in relation to schools. As these prove ineffective the pressure for measurement and compliance will increase and more errors will be made. Some of the common mistakes are included in the following list
  • Lack of attention to one's underlying assumptions
  • An emphasis on problem solving and change (rather than on solutions and improvement)
  • A preference for simple 'reasonable' responses in the face of a complex and uncertain day-to day reality
  • Poor and confused use of language, e.g., failure to distinguish between 'teaching' and 'learning', 'schooling' and 'education'
  • A lack of attention to the nature of schools by academics (the dominance of psychology over sociology)
  • A lack of attention to the nature of schools by governments and administrations resulting in
  • The belief that those who attempt to explain the complexity of problems are being 'defensive'
  • The use of a 'production' discourse for the management of schooling
  • Treating education as if it was a 'scratch race'
  • Assuming cultural differences and cultural change are not of major significance
Typical errors that result
  • An almost 'autistic' obsession with teachers as the starting point for all change management initiatives
  • Performance management systems for (senior) staff that focus on tampering with the performance of others
  • Attempting to create a schooling mono-culture for a pluralistic society
  • Treating parents as the clients (thus reducing children into objects to be processed)
  • Unrealistic expectations of plans and policies in the light of recent unsuccedssful experiences
  • ...

So how to proceed?
The most reliable method is to focus on (achieving) local solutions - the things that will help those involved to achieve success and well-being. And to understand these as emerging from patterns of interaction in everyday conversations around shared purposes, rather than simplistic mechanisms based on direction and compliance.

There are numerous approaches that (properly managed) can avoid the kinds of mistakes listed above . The challenge is that they are often counter intuitive and contrary to much of contemporary 'heroic' organisational thinking.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Rudd's paradox

Prime Minister Rudd's strategy for achieving his 21st century 'education revolution' is clearly based on Pavlov's 19th century insight to do with animals, stimuli and responses. In doing so he has created a paradox for those involved: the strategy (stimulus and response) is inconsistent with the intended outcomes (high level skill building and sense making).

Since Pavlov's initial work focused on eliciting primitive responses from animals the strategy may not be as successful when 'applied' to communities of committed, principled and intelligent professionals. On the other hand, Mr Rudd is clearly hoping to have unionists seen as making primitive self interested responses.

This approach conflicts with some principles for achieving improvements with people
  • Change occurs more easily if both the change strategy and intended outcomes are able to function as 'attractors' for those involved, however, the strategy focuses on establishing severe boundaries (sacking Principals of 'under performing schools'
  • As complex adaptive systems, people adopt patterns modeled by others much more readily than information and instructions provided by others
  • Thus, initiatives need to be consistent with (and model) the outcomes they are intended to achieve.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Most genuine solutions are 'inschool solutions'

The reason for this is very simple:

  • Solutions are about improving success and well-being for all concerned and thus act as attractors for those involved
  • Inschool because there is nowhere else that solutions can be constructed. Useful ideas and resources may come from elsewhere
In social situations such as schools the relationship between cause and effect is inconsistent: unlike engineering contexts, it is not readily possible to work backwards from the problem to its cause. Even when we can, the cause of the problem is likely to be elsewhere, at another time and too difficult for the school address, eg, parent drug addiction or mental illness.

The alternative is to search for what works in the here and now: a solution. Thus, despite our love of ‘problem solving’ it is usually much more productive to focus on solutions than on problems.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Common erroneous assumptions

Many schools and school systems are being badly damaged by systemic change initiatives. Such initiatives are based on erroneous notions of cause and effect as they relate to all organisations and to schools in particular.

Change initiatives generally assume that
(1) Some expert knows about the changes required and how to achieve them
(2) There are few or no current constraints on the school's capacity to solve problems and change
(3) The relationships between cause and effect in the phenomena involved are consistent over time and place
(4) The outcomes of the change initiatives are predictable
(5) Solutions are close (and deliverable) to where the problem manifest itself
(6) There are problems because schools don't know what is happening
(7) Schools don't know what they are doing (or need to do)
(8) Change in schools can be achieved by directing the actions of teachers, and hence,
(9) If the outcomes are not achieved then the school (staff) is somehow responsible
(10) Doing something (about the problem) is better than doing nothing
(11) Those in charge of the situation are also responsible for it
(12) Those in charge are in control