A short post about rules-of-thumb

One of the best pieces of advice I have received within any particular domain of practice relates to chess. The advice was to ‘dominate the centre of the board’. This advice immediately changed my game and success rate. As a rule-of-thumb, it is neither profound, perfect, optimal, or universally helpful. But it is a heuristic which is simple to understand, relatively easy to put into practice and memorable. And it works.

On the surface, it appears to be quite generic advice. However, it is actually specific to the domain of chess and trying to apply the same rule-of-thumb in another domain is unlikely to be helpful. Even of you substitute ‘board’ for another noun (say ‘pitch’), and apply it to a different game (say hockey), I suspect the advice is not as useful. Perhaps dominating the centre of the pitch in hockey is good advice… you tell me. At least chess and hockey are both games played within a geometrically regular shaped area with a prescribed number of pieces/players. But my instinct is that the more different the domain is from that of chess, the less likely it is that the rule-of-thumb will prove helpful. For instance, I can’t imagine that advising a teacher to dominate the centre of the class would be the most useful advice you could give them.

Anyway, my meandering thoughts on the topic got me thinking about whether there are similarly useful heuristics when it comes to teaching or running a school. If there are, it might be useful to identify them. The point is not that either of these complex tasks can be reduced to a simple set of guidelines, rules or procedures. Rather I wonder if there are rules-of-thumb that are simple to understand, relatively easy to put into practice, and memorable, but which can be applied to immediately improve the odds of success.

With regards to running a successful school, I will suggest three:

  1. Find out how other people see things. Invariably, you will discover that other people see things differently to you. I think it is really useful to know that. It helps you challenge your assumptions and build empathy. Another version of this heuristic is to ‘maximise opportunities to interact with others’, but it is important to remind ourselves that the point of talking to people is to understand what they think, not always to make them understand what you think.
  2. Be visible. Being seen is powerful for many reasons if you run a school. It is reassuring and calming (at least it should be). It is a signal of availability. It enables the conversations that support heuristic 1. It helps you see the organisation as it is rather than how you imagine it to be. And your presence sets the emotional tone; being visible is particularly important in times of trouble.
  3. Keep everything open for review. Fixating on an approach, an idea, or a belief means the abandonment of curiosity and scepticism. You have to make a bet on a way forward at some point, but when the facts change (as the economist Keynes said), we must be open to change our mind. The passing of time may increase our confidence and certainty, but at least in the short term, be cautious and prepared to rethink.

These rules-of-thumb may be valid outside of schools, but they feel particularly pertinent to the school system to me. Schools are, after all, complex social organisations with contested purposes and means. Perceptual differences matter. Interaction matters. Learning matters. If there are heuristics which help us play the game, it feels right that they emphasise the provisional and contested nature of what we do. No rules-of-thumb will make you a grand master, but they may reduce the likelihood of defeat.

What would your advice be?

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