If schools were gardens, what seeds would you be sowing?
There’s time for everything except the things worth doing … (George Orwell)
Seasonal thoughts …
At this time of the year, teachers’ and leaders’ thoughts may turn to their gardens during the lighter evenings. We all want to have a ‘good’ garden ready for the summer. We head off to the garden centre, we buy some plants which look good, construct some cheap garden furniture and fire up the lawnmower!
We may even succeed in having a good garden for a few days in the summer. But what happens after those few days?
The flowers die, the furniture rusts, the weeds start to grow and the lawnmower packs in. All good gardeners know, that gardening is a process; the preparation for this season’s garden is done in the previous year.
Is this Gardener’s World or @TeacherToolkit I hear you cry?
Garden preparation …
In the same way that gardeners would like a ‘good’ garden, school leaders may want a ‘good’ school too.
This is often the starting point of discussions around school improvement priorities. In the same way, some gardeners throw shiny new plants into unprepared soils, the temptation is to take the latest ideas and place them directly into schools.
The new Ofsted framework is full of evidence-based strategies for school improvement – they are many and varied – including cognitive load theory, Rosenshine’s principles of instruction, spacing, interleaving and retrieval practice.
Implementation is key and the EEF implementation guide is essential reading.
Thinking about implementation as a process comes with consequences. It means there is a limit to how much implementation you can do at any time. This can feel very risky, especially if a school is in a poor Ofsted category.
Defining the problem is something teachers find hardest. It requires choosing priorities that are important, specific and have knock-on effects. A bad example of establishing priorities may be derived from something like this:
“Our internal data suggests that our pupil premium pupils have low literacy levels.”
There are two main issues with identifying problems in this way:
- Identifying PP students as a homogenous group with the same needs and issues.
- The use of literacy is too wide in this example. We need to be more specific about which aspects of reading are the problem in order to start to be able to find out an appropriate solution.
Identifying clear solutions requires us to ask good questions.
This is where research evidence often comes into its own. Why wouldn’t you look at what people have done before? Key places to look include the EEF’s guidance reports and resources.
Next? The most important challenge is considering the fit and feasibility of other ideas for your school. The challenge is to avoid jumping into the solution first!
I am a regular visitor to garden shows. As a biologist, seeing plants thrive magnificently, the temptation to invest and transfer them to my developing garden is overwhelming! Teachers and leaders should carefully check that any idea can fit into their context, and address the problem at hand. A 6-foot palm tree may look great in a large park, but slightly out of place in a 10 by 5 plot, affecting the growth of other plants …
Growth is a process
In school (and in our gardening analogy), defining the problem and identifying solutions requires the correct implementation. In gardening, it is vital to care for plants as they grow to maintain and nourish them into the next season. Without this, fast forward to the summer and the whole process has to start again – another trip to the garden centre; more shiny flowers and furniture purchased.
Poor implementation is expensive and demoralising!
The collateral damage of poorly implemented initiatives can be severe. In schools, implementing priorities as a process is a result of three conditions.
- Capability: knowledge and skills
- Opportunity: time and space and social acceptability
- Motivation: mechanisms that encourage or inhibit behaviours
Remember, any good idea implemented badly will undermine a teacher’s confidence.
Correct identification of priorities will ensure buy-in and consequent motivation from teachers and pupils. The culture of ‘doing less’ with incremental improvements will ensure higher levels of trust.
My gardening plan relies on my small amount of knowledge, yet my motivation increases from small, incremental priorities. Creating a clear implementation plan with the practicalities of delivering it supports sustained improvements.
Rather than chasing a good garden or a good Ofsted grading, we need to treat improvement and implementation as processes, dedicating time carefully exploring and defining a priority that need addressing.
Now, about that palm tree …
- The behaviour change wheel (Michie, Van Stralen and West, 2011)
- Putting evidence to work (EEF, 2019)