This is my truth, tell me yours

What brings people together on the weekend in large numbers to listen, talk and reflect on education?

This question was addressed more than once at the ResearchED Brum event I attended yesterday, and the Cymru event the Saturday before. There were various reasons posited, but for me the most compelling is simply the idea that we are interested in ideas.

In schools, we rarely get the space to engage with ideas. When we do, the ideas are politicized, instrumentalized: utilitarian in their deployment. Ideas serve an agenda. In institutions we must convince others that this idea is a ‘good idea’; that it will make something better. Ideas are quickly ‘owned’ and put to use. They are equally quickly dismissed and marginalized.

What an unadulterated joy it is to step out of this febrile environment and just think.

Ideas can be threatening – ask Socrates, Copernicus or Pankhurst. The most humble minds, with the most pure intentions, have suffered for sharing an original or counter-cultural thought. Beware those with skin in the game. Where there is something to lose, new ideas are not welcome.

I was reminded of this earlier in the week by an article in which something I had written was dismissively referenced. I found it quite amusing. The author of the article made a critical statement, then, rather than name the object of his criticism (me, the book he took objection to, or an idea within the book – I’m not sure which was more offensive to him), he just hyperlinked to the Amazon page for my book. Clicking on the link, it popped up with the eye immediately drawn to the five-star rating. There is no such thing as bad publicity!

I reflected on my emotional response to this article. On the one hand, I was just pleased to get a reference in a renowned publication – needy, eh? It is a great feeling to have your work read, praised or referenced. The ego flies, even when the reference is so flippant.

However, better than all this is to have your ideas engaged with. To know that someone has genuinely thought about what you are saying – has come to the table and eaten the meal you have prepared – gives deeper satisfaction than superficial flattery. Even if they are poisoned by the process, I’d rather they threw it back up in my face than just pushed around the food on the plate with their fork, never venturing to try it.

What, therefore, I found disappointing with this particular article was that it pushed the plate away without even tasting the food. You could tell that there was no real engagement in the ideas under attack, just an outright rejection. I am fairly confident that the author hasn’t read my book. It was just a convenient weapon, as were the numerous quotes thrown in from educationalists and leadership ‘experts’. ‘All these people disagree, therefore how can this be right?’, was the underlying message.

I shan’t name the author or reference the article because a) I don’t think it is worthy of a response, and b) I haven’t got time for petty squabbles and turf war.

Instead I will point to some individuals with great intellectual integrity; people who model constructive engagement. First up, Carly Waterman. Carly kindly read and provided a testimonial for my book with the honesty to say where she took issue with my arguments. Her respectful disagreement draws me in – I want to know what she thinks because I am probably wrong about a number of things. She possesses qualities as a school leader that I lack, so her perspective adds value to my world view. Second, Steve Munby. Steve is coming at leadership from quite a different angle to me, but he seems to hone in on where there is a difference of view with a desire to explore why. Steve’s skills in negotiation have positioned him to hold two opposing views in mind and focus on reconciling them. There is much we don’t agree on, but so much more than we have discovered we do. There are many more of these people I have come across, mainly thanks to ResearchED: people willing to engage with the idea and set aside their agenda. These are the people worth spending your time with. They energize the debate.

At this point, I want to highlight a particular difficulty with engagement with ideas around leadership, which is one domain where debate seems to lack purity.

The problem with leadership as a domain of ideas is that it is particularly ill-defined. What is it we are actually talking about? When discussing our ideas about leadership we need an anchor: something to which we tether the debate. It is tempting to anchor the discussion around personal experience, superficially attractive ideas and coinable concepts. Anecdote, diagrams and alliterative lists proliferate. As Tom Rees wryly observes, isn’t it a coincidence that so many features of a great leader begin with the letter ‘C’!

Why is leadership so prone to simplistic, communicable constructs? My instinct is that it is something to do with complexity. When faced with the unknown, the ambiguous and the changeable, the human mind seeks a handrail – something to hold on to which stops the feeling of vertigo. This feels particularly true in schools, but perhaps in other industries things are more clear cut? This could explain why importing leadership constructs from commercial settings doesn’t always feel valid and true. I am not arguing that the business environment is predictable, but the uncertainties are of a different nature and order. This difference limits transferability, but does not discount it.

Certainty, stability and simplicity are features of environments where ‘coping’ is easier. Where these features are in short supply, we invent conceptual constructs which compensate. This is the space where the leadership debate takes place.

Gravity is letting us down in the debate about leadership ideas – too much ‘blue sky thinking’ and not enough grounded contention. This is at the heart of the potentially polarized debate around ‘generic’ and ‘domain specific’, which I have played my part in stoking! But to argue that we should anchor to something more substantial is not to reject the notion that we should look beyond education and our own school for inspiration and ideas which will help us make sense of the challenges we face. Of course we should engage with ideas outside of our domain; this is how understanding evolves. However, what we must guard against is mistaking inspiration for empirical evidence, and vice versa. We should be cautious about snatching ideas from the ether without critical engagement and a deep knowledge of our context.

I have been reminded about being cautious of ideas recently in the reading I have undertaken about the field of complexity theory (the topic of my talk at ResearchED). Most of the empirical evidence in this field is in domains such as biology, computing and physics. There is very little (as yet) which allows us to claim with much scientific confidence that the complexity of the education system, the school, or the classroom affects how these systems behave. However, this does not mean we cannot gain insight from applying what is shown to be true in these other domains to an educational context. It is valid to ‘borrow’ ideas to help us think about our contexts in new and original ways as long as we do not claim more certainty than is defendable. This process is about ‘sense making’, and this is a form of truth, albeit a personal rather than scientific truth. For example, a complex biological system may provide an appropriate metaphor for the complexity of a school; a metaphor which will enable us to understand our context in new ways. Where we can map the features of two complex systems and claim some ‘similarity’ in important aspects of each domain, we may even venture into analogous comparisons and predictions: claims that the objects of comparison may well behave in similar ways because they are enough alike for this claim to be valid. The point is that we should be truthful with ourselves about where we are on a scale which has ‘inspiration’ at one end, ‘insight’ in the middle, and ‘proof’ at the other.

Heck, I can draw inspiration about school leadership from how birds flock together, but I would be a fool to base my whole leadership philosophy on such whimsy.

So, to return to the question of the transferability of ideas from one domain to the other, no-one would discourage looking outside of our own domain for ideas. But we should be clear whether it is legitimate to draw inspiration, insight or evidence of what will work in our context. Respect for the domain is all about legitimacy of claim and should not be mistaken for navel gazing.

To further our thinking in the field of leadership, as for any domain, we need unsullied debate. However, no-one really comes to the table without motive or truly pure of heart. There is a whole industry which has built up around leadership: consultants, handbooks, brands. This is problematic as financial vested interests mean that ideas become moneterized. This should not exclude those with shares in the status quo from the debate, but makes ‘full disclosure’ all the more important.

I’ll start in the hope that others may follow.

I have skin in the game. My motives start close to home. It is my job to lead, therefore working out how best to do this is clearly personally and professionally advantageous. I also have family in the game – my kids are at school and I want their school to be led well. Extending this altruism, I have a moral desire for the education system to be the best it can be. I believe we fall far short of what is possible regarding ‘good’ leadership, and this bugs me. These are drivers in my engagement with the ideas around leadership in schools.

I have less pure motives. I am a contrary bugger who enjoys a disagreement. I find the cut and thrust of argument enlivens me. That, and when I physically take on a mountain, are the times I feel furthest from existential dread.

Lastly, I like to get closer to the truth. This truth may be empirical (I have a bent towards scientific rationality which I’m trying to shake off), or personal (making sense of the world brings a rather pleasing sense of well-being). I’ve always found ideas more interesting than people, so contemplative thinking provides the kind of buzz that I imagine an extrovert gets at a party.

If you are going to engage in this debate, declare your motive. This is my truth, tell me yours.

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