Live with complexity, attend to the complicated

The fundamental decision I make each day is around how to direct my attention. As a headteacher, I have more autonomy over how I choose to spend my time than anyone else in the school. It is both a blessing and a curse.

I can choose to fill my days with meetings, observing teaching, doing supervisory duties, wandering the school, making a call, visiting another school or reading the latest DfE guidance. There are, of course, many things I cannot escape from doing; administration, reports to governors or dealing with complaints. However, I have choices.

You may suspect that the difficulty is that there is never enough time to do everything that needs doing. This is true, but it is not the main dilemma. What makes this amount of autonomy problematic is the question of which use of my time will be most beneficial to the organisation I am in charge of. From minute-to-minute, year-to-year, the answer to the question ‘what should I attend to?’ will determine my success or failure. The DNA of a leader is constructed from these decisions.

One binary version of the ‘attention dilemma’ is whether to commit time to school improvement or maintenance. School improvement is much hyped; we evaluate the school’s performance, write improvement plans and monitor the impact of each new initiative. We pay far less attention to maintaining what is already good – does your school have a school maintenance plan? One cost of this is our neglect for the established in our rush towards the novel. A future improvement plan will pick up the pieces of this tendency and try to glue them back together.

To make matters worse, when we attend to improvement we so often fail to secure it. As Vivienne Robinson notes, what we often deliver is change without improvement. The well-intentioned initiatives of leaders are what Ben White describes as ‘perpetual waves of disruption’: ‘solutions’ which never deliver on their promise.

When we, as leaders, attend to improvement over maintenance, we must be sure to direct our attention wisely, else the cliffs which have stood for millennia crash into the sea and the sand is swept away by the destructive waves of change.

In their excellent blog (Careering Towards a Curriculum Crash), Becky Allen and Ben White discuss the inherent complexity of education and the tendency for ‘perfect solutions’ to be offered, which inevitably fail to address what are essentially unsolvable problems. They describe the ‘allure of the perfect solution to a wicked problem’ as plausible solutions present themselves according to the way the problem is defined.

Each definition therefore smuggles within it a solution. The way in which it is framed tends to highlight a root cause. This implicitly points towards a course of action most likely to tackle said cause.

Allen and White illustrate their argument with the example of the various solutions offered for closing attainment gaps for disadvantaged pupils; an ultimately intractable problem. If the problem is defined as students lacking the work ethic to succeed, the answer becomes to change their mindset or incentivise desirable behaviours. Alternatively, if the perceived cause is the failure of teaching to address the needs of these students, the solution lies in more differentiation or responsive teaching.

It is the perspective of school leaders which often dominates how problems within schools are defined, and which get paid any attention. Leaders imagine that the ‘helicopter view’ they possess privileges their insights, enabling them to pinpoint what is ‘going wrong’. The dominance of leader-perspectives in the choice of school improvement strategies is problematic as leaders are not without bias. Remember that leaders make choices about where they direct their attention. If they choose to spend time observing lessons then inevitably they will identify the cause of the school’s problems as arising from the deficits in practice they believe they have observed. If they are present around the school at lesson changeover times and at breaks, they will more likely notice unruly behaviour which appears to be left unchallenged as other staff are not present to address it. The solution falls out easily from the problem definition: require teachers to step outside their classrooms to monitor behaviour. This is the breeding ground for managerialism; leaders’ school improvement strategies which arise ‘obviously’ from their analysis, which in turn is informed by where they choose to look and how they are destined to perceive what they see.

Allen and White also point out that some solutions are also alluring if ‘they appeal to our own imagined range of actions’. In other words, we are likely to define a problem and favour solutions which fit the narrative of our personal influence and job role. If our job title is ‘data manager’ then we will pay attention to the data. Problems will manifest through the prism of data analysis and solutions will be attractive if data might play a significant role. Similarly, pastoral leaders will define problems as being caused by pastoral deficits and seek to identify pastoral solutions. Interpreting our environment in biased ways gives our role meaning – it makes us powerful leaders able to deliver the improvements required by our performance management targets.

The size, roles and remit of the leadership team of a school will largely determine how many problems are identified, how these are defined, and the solutions which will come forth. Pity the teacher subject to these heroic efforts to improve the school.

Remember that the root of this problem is complexity. Complexity means that it is impossible to determine what causes the current state of being or what might be the effects of any actions taken to improve things. Complex problems cannot be solved (I wrote about this here), and attempts to impose simplistic solutions will undoubtedly lead to unintended consequences (which is essentially the notion of ‘leadership genericism’, which is the central theme of my recent book). These consequences are the ‘perpetual waves of destruction’ cited by White. Applying this idea to the recent trend towards curriculum reform, Allen and White describe it thus:

…disrupting a complex system means disrupting a set of habits, beliefs, resources and practices. If these are not fully understood you will inevitably underestimate the scale of the challenge and so curriculum reform will fail because it doesn’t change much. Or worse, it will fail and in doing so will make a stable, though very imperfect, curriculum into a highly unstable and chaotic one.

The ‘attention dilemma’ for leaders (the question of what leaders should attend to) feels fairly weighty now! In conditions of uncertainty, leaders seem destined to blunder in any attempt to improve a school. How should we proceed?

Firstly, we might find ways to live with complexity. For our own psychological wellness, accepting the limits of our control is important (I wrote about this here). We might even come to revel in some degree of chaos (a philosophical perspective on this can be found here). Where simplistic solutions to complex problems are imposed on us from above, Allen and White advocate resistance or, at least, to find minimally disruptive ways to satisfy coercive pressure. I have found myself doing just that (although not always successfully) when faced with the requirement to draw up a Pupil Premium strategy, prove to Ofsted that we ‘monitor teaching standards’ or challenged by governors to set exam outcome targets – all utter nonsense but hard to refuse outright.

Once we have found ways to live with complexity, Allen and White advocate turning our attention to the problems which we can hope to solve – the complicated ones.

Complicated problems can be elaborate but, unlike complex problems, we can identify and make useful changes to their constituent parts because we understand the pathways and mechanisms that are contained within them.

They, like Vivianne Robinson in her critique of the common mistakes school leaders make, caution us to take time to understand these problems fully before tackling them. This does not mean understanding them merely from the perspective of the leader, but from various perspectives, such that a shared definition (as far as possible) is reached as to the root causes of the problem. Robinson challenges leaders to establish the ‘theories of action’ which sit behind the observed behaviours and not to leap to conclusions about why people do as they do. She points to the tendency of leaders to implement change which addresses the superficial behaviours rather than the beliefs and values or those who you seek to influence, thereby ensuring that the desired changes are never achieved. If leaders pay more attention to how others perceive the organisation, the solutions which present themselves will be more agreeable, and therefore more consistently acted upon by those who will deliver the desired improvement.

If the fundamental leadership question is ‘Where should I direct my attention?’ then a good answer might be ‘Start by attending to the problem’.

Where I think I differ from Allen and White’s analysis of complexity is in the divide they appear to make between complex and complicated problems, and their suggestion that we turn our back so resolutely on complexity. In my mind, the complicated problems are nested in complexity and there is value in paying attention to both. Whilst I agree that attempting to ‘solve’ complex problems is a fools errand, it may be that considering such intractable problems will help identify and define the complicated problems which are worth tackling.

I will try to illustrate this with example.

One persistent problem in schools is student behaviour. This has all the hallmarks of a ‘wicked’ problem; one for which there is no perfect solution. However, acknowledging this, we will still wish to make in-roads into improving conduct. To do so, we will need to identify narrow, manageable and solvable problems which offer us a fair chance of success. But how do we identify which complicated problems are worth solving? We could tackle the way students move around the school, ‘low level’ poor behaviour in lessons, the small group of persistently disruptive students, uniform transgressions, bad language, littering… the list is almost endless. All these problems are nested in the complex and time spent considering the complexity of the problem will, I believe, help us identify which of these specific problems to prioritise. Examining various perspectives on the complex problem will encourage consideration of the school’s culture, parental expectations, research evidence, ideological positions and coercive pressures. Rather than attempt to solve every complicated problem, time spent attending to the complex should point us towards the priorities and preferences for further action.

Keeping children safe; improving exam outcomes; raising standards of teaching – these are all complex problems. Nested within each are complicated problems that we have some chance of solving. How you identify and perceive these solvable problems depends on your perspective on the complex problem. Leaders must learn to live with complexity and attend to the complicated; expertise requires both.

Given the above, how can leaders direct their attention in ways which will lead to school improvement?

  • Do not neglect the things that are already good – it is easier to maintain than to fix.
  • Make an honest appraisal of the ‘perpetual waves of disruption’ that have swept over your school in the past and resolve to calm the seas.
  • Be wary of perception bias in how problems are defined and what solutions are implemented.
  • Don’t allow leader-perspectives to dominate.
  • Learn to live with complexity and moderate externally imposed ‘perfect solutions’.
  • Start by attending to the problem; understand it fully from multiple perspectives.

Thank you for your attention.

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