A reliable indicator of the cultural health of an organisation is the extent to which staff feel able to openly admit to making mistakes and errors of judgement. Matthew Syed writes extensively about this in Black Box Thinking, where he explores different responses to failure through a number of wide-ranging case studies. Where school improvement is concerned, the conclusion (broadly speaking) that he makes is particularly relevant: feedback from failure is vital for progression.
The desire we all feel to deflect blame or to ignore our own shortcomings is entirely natural – it’s a sort of default setting – resulting from a number of attributional biases that we succumb to as we go about our daily lives. However, the natural desire to deflect and to ignore is amplified in school cultures where accountability is synonymous with culpability. In these cultures, mistakes and errors of judgement are often hidden and destined to be repeated. And understandably so. After all, why would you admit to being wrong about something or to having a particular weakness if you felt that questions would immediately be raised about your competency?
I’ve worked in schools long enough to have made my fair share of blunders. Some of them have been relatively insignificant – a botched lesson on Macbeth involving a hot-seating activity on a Friday afternoon in bleak midwinter – but others I’ve made have had more of a detrimental impact. For example, for a number of years during my stint as a head of department, I marginalised the study of GCSE English Literature in favour of focusing narrowly on GCSE English Language. And I did so for (what I believed at the time) were the very best of reasons. The point I’m trying to make, albeit clumsily, is that we’re all fallible. There are times when the decisions we make and the actions we take are misguided and, where this is the case, we need to be able to meaningfully reflect.
For this to happen, teachers need to feel that they can be honest with each other. With this in mind, what follows isn’t an exhaustive analysis of how senior leaders can help to define and maintain the right conditions to build what Syed calls an open-loop culture; instead, to finish the post, I just want to put forward two simple suggestions that I think, as a starting point, help encourage the right sorts of conversations to take place…
Firstly, I believe that senior leaders – where possible – should teach across the key stages, including at least one exam class and one class that contains a relatively high number of students who are challenging in terms of their behaviour and educational needs. And secondly, linked to this, I believe that senior leaders should have an open-door policy and actively invite colleagues to observe and discuss their lessons.
Ultimately, if senior leaders don’t challenge themselves and encourage scrutiny from others – beginning with the gnarly business of teaching and learning – I don’t think that it’s really possible for them to gain genuine openness from other stakeholders. All those awkward conversations and uncomfortable truths, far from being ignored or side-lined, should be embraced by everyone – starting with those at the very top.
Thanks for reading –