Curating the canon

What should we consider to be legitimate professional knowledge, and who gets to decide?

These are the questions raised by a stimulating paper released by the Confederation of School Trusts this week titled ‘Communities of Improvement: School Trusts as fields of practice‘. To my mind, the paper is a must read for anyone interested in school improvement. It challenges us to justify the basis upon which we perform our acts of school improvement by bringing what is often a dark art (or perhaps more accurately a murky one) into the light.

I would like to speak in support of this paper but also raise questions about where it leads our thinking. To begin, I shall attempt to briefly summarise some of the points made. This is no replacement for reading the paper itself, which I commend you to do and which will allow you to skip this next section.

Knowers and knowing

The paper firstly makes a case for school improvement as a ‘field of practice’ by drawing on Bourdieu’s work. Bourdieu uses the term ‘field’ to describe social practices such as education ‘each consisting of a range of actors, rules and forms of capital’. Education and, more specifically, school improvement can be classed as fields of practice because they cultivate a particular way of viewing the world, have their own customary rules and behaviours, and mechanisms for conferring status (capital).

This is a valuable concept which helps us to avoid thinking of education as a ‘discipline’, which I would argue it definitely isn’t. I don’t want to get too much into the distinction here other than to say that education draws on various disciplines to help build knowledge but does not have its own knowledge-building customs and ‘discipline’.

So having established that school improvement is usefully thought of as a field of practice (within the broader field of the practice of education), the paper then turns to how those in the field decide on what practices ‘count’ (or have legitimacy). This introduces a power dynamic as the status of particular actors is enhanced if they are able to influence this debate. The theoretical basis for this argument is Maton’s Legitimation Code Theory (LCT), which I admit I am only superficially familiar with. LCT can be applied to determine two types of field of practice: those characterised by ‘knowledge building’ and others by ‘knower building’. The former values theories and concepts which integrate to form specialist knowledge. The latter values the development of particular actors who determine ‘what counts’.

Importantly, a field of practice is contestable i.e. there are ongoing debates over ‘what counts’. This facet means that ‘schools of thought’ (the paper refers to these as ‘logics’ but I will use this more familiar term which I hope conveys essentially the same idea) emerge as means by which actors and groups of actors can influence what are seen as legitimate practices and knowledge. This helps us understand, it is suggested, the various fashions which arise over time. The example is given of the mid-2000s ‘personalisation’ agenda (which leans towards valuing social relations) as opposed to the swing towards the importance of disciplinary knowledge (which leans towards valuing epistemic relations).

Having just published a book on educational fads this is of particular interest to me and I’d like to think further about how this explanation compares to our position on emergent orthodoxies – Next Big Things! The paper states that:

‘By reading these shifts actors within the field are better placed to support, challenge and create change in the underlying form and function of the field, and better able to tell when others are doing the same. In short, if we know the rules of the game we are better able to be in it.’

This is essentially the same conclusion we reach, although framed in our book as ‘complexity awareness’. The proposition is that understanding the process by which the field shifts from one school of thought to another has value if we wish to shape the field in some way. Or put another way, if we seek to influence what counts as legitimate school improvement practice we need to learn to ride the systemic beast.

Then we get to the crux of the argument. The paper proposes that school improvement as a field of practice is perhaps non-hierarchical i.e. the gradual deepening of understanding which occurs by integrating explanatory concepts to better understand the world, as happens in science for instance, is not possible to any great extent. Instead, knowledge is horizontal in structure in that separate knowledges exist which do not integrate and build into deeper insight. Maton suggests that in such fields, ‘knowers’ become important as a means of building hierarchies of knowledge.The schools of thought (‘ways of being, thinking and acting within the field’) are given validity by significant knowers who ‘develop more sophisticated understanding of the objects of the field’.

In horizontal fields, significant knowers will establish ‘a particular way of seeing the field’ by curating a ‘canon of significant works’. This reminds me very much of the work organisations such as Ambition Institute are doing in relation to the field of school leadership (which overlaps significantly with the field of school improvement). The curators of the canon cultivate what Maton calls this ‘gaze’ and in doing so position themselves as significant knowers.

Curators

I hope I have accurately and reasonably summarised the arguments in CSTs paper, whom I invite to correct me if I have not. I would now like to consider the implications of pursuing this thinking to its logical conclusion.

My only point of disagreement with the ideas in the paper is where it attempts to define School Trusts as a field of practice. For me, this doesn’t logically follow. I see individual schools and multi-school trusts as communities of practice rather than fields of practice. Communities of practice are themselves actors within a field, or fields. Such communities of practice will, deliberately or unintentionally, strongly or weakly, hold and evolve a position on school improvement practices (which is the field in question). In other words they will curate.

In my own school (not part of a larger trust), we have what I would consider to be a reasonably clear curation of the canon. Our school improvement methodology is quite explicitly connected to literature and research which is ‘valued’ publically. For example, consultation papers or policy proposals are often referenced to source material which has influenced the propositions. Our curation is undoubtedly influenced by wider schools of thought which are advocated and cultivated by knowers whom we deem to be credible. However, at least among my senior team, I encourage an awareness of the fallibility and transience of the schools of thoughts that we subscribe to – a healthy scepticism about the assumptions upon which the school of thought is based and an appreciation that orthodoxies will evolve and ideas will become dated. The constant questioning and conditional thinking can be tiring. However, my belief is that such curation ensure school improvement becomes less faddish and more cautious.

But there are bigger, more powerful curators than my school. Professional development perhaps relies upon curation a great deal and the large PD providers, such as TDT, Ambition, and Teach First, are super-curators in the fields of school improvement, school management, teacher development and school leadership. At a higher level, the DfE have become more active in curation in their development of the Early Career Framework and relaunched NPQs. Being aware of who in the system is doing the curation is important. The nature of the field means that knower-building is significant. Who gets to curate the canon? This question is political and contentious.

We might also wonder what criteria are used to curate the canon? The advancement of disciplines is an important factor. The rise of cognitive science as ‘valued knowledge’ has a legitimising effect on scientific and rationalistic schools of thought. The discipline also becomes a filter for curation, used by powerful curators to decide what is ruled in or out of the canon. ‘What is your evidence for that?’ we are asked, as this is a defining criteria for determining valid school improvement approaches. Which is fine, except that we do not have enough evidence in many aspects of the field to credibly justify our practices.

If curation of a canon is the Next Big Thing in school improvement, what then? I am drawn to the idea as it invites a considered approach to the craft of improving schools, where so often we see whimsy and haste. In defining school improvement as a field of practice it makes it an object of enquiry and debate. We can come to understand why we rarely deepen our understanding or gain greater insight. We might better appreciate, therefore resist, the allure of fashion or the persuasive rhetoric of powerful knowers. But I also pause to think about Matthew Arnold’s ‘best that has been thought and said’ and how easy it is to come to believe that there is a superior canon of work. This way leads to curation by the elite, not a democratic dialogue about competing schools of thought which are open to scrutiny and contest.

So I commend this paper to you as an important addition to the canon of literature on school improvement, but you must be your own curator and not take my word for it.

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