Is memory preferable to vision?

In plotting a way out of our current confinement our ultimate ambition is normality. There are some who call for a ‘new normal’, or urge us to grasp the opportunity to reinvent ourselves and our institutions, but most of us would be happy with how it was, at least as a first step.

For schools, this desire is no different. We just want to be able to go back to school, a sentiment Adam Boxer captures here.

Schools might as well take down the vision statement from the website, bin their improvement plan and shred their self-evaluation documents. In their place, a new mission: the way things were.

Is this a vision or a memory? For those grasping at a re-imagining of schooling, grand visions might be in order. For those who would settle for a little bit of what we had, we don’t need imagination, only recollection. What we want is how we remember it was. Over time, we will become sentimental about this past: develop false memories, altered images. But for now we remember it warts and all, and yet would still welcome its return. How we long to be rudely spoken to by a surly teenager, to do a windy break duty, or to go all day without having time to visit the toilet. Vision gives us utopia; memory provides something real and achievable.

For my money, memory is a better bet than vision when it comes to improving schools. If we have experience of a better way of doing things our mental model will be far more secure – more detailed and specific – than anything our imagination can dream up.

A wise headteacher of a struggling school once said to me that his main problem was that the vast majority of teachers in his school didn’t know what a good school felt like; what it was to be part of something of quality. The issue was not a lack of ambition, a paucity of training, or insufficient effort to improve. The problem was memory. Most of the teachers had never worked anywhere else, or anywhere better than this school. They had no shared understanding around which they could unite; no collective conception formed through concrete experience. Uniting around a vision is so much less effective than uniting around a shared experience. It is the difference between dreaming of what it must be like to be an elite athlete and knowing what it was like to be one. Dreams might provide ambition, but memory gives us so much more.

But how do we become better when we haven’t experienced what it is like to be better? Catch 22. To resolve this, it might help to call memory something else – expertise. Expertise is no more than memory: it is the residue of our lived experience; the internalised tacit knowledge of years of trial and error. Expertise isn’t achieved by fantasising over grand goals or bold futures. It grows slowly as we experience what it feels like to be just a little bit more effective. We remember these successes and form expert memories which guide future action.

Some have commented that there is little we can draw upon to guide us as school leaders in these unprecedented times. Not true. Others have encouraged us to draw on our courage, optimism, resilience and well-honed leadership skills to guide us through uncertainty. Whilst the possession of these would be comforting, they cannot be our handrail. I will be guided by my memory: a memory of what I want to get back to, a memory of what it looks like to deliver a quality education, and a memory of what you do when you don’t know what to do. Expertise is our greatest resource.

The environment within which we make our plans is more uncertain than it has ever been. Plotting a linear path to our end goal is not going to be possible. Every time I make a tentative plan, new information forces a rethink. I have believed for some time that the orthodox management planning model – vision, strategy, detailed plans, execution – was deeply flawed, based as it is on a denial of complexity. Now more than ever, I believe this orthodoxy will fail us. What we must rely on is our expert intuition so that we continue to take tentative steps forward, ready to change course often and suddenly. Experts hold their plans lightly. Once it is colour-printed, laminated and circulated, we will feel bound by it and forego our right to rip it up and start again. If we want to communicate something useful, make clear your values and priorities, not your ten-steps to recovery. Acknowledge uncertainty and ambiguity – in fact, embrace them. They aren’t your friends, but you can make them work for you.

When we get back to some kind of normal, I hope not much has changed. Mostly, I liked it the way I remember it: imperfect, messy, real. That’s how I see things – call it a vision if you will.



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