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.