Change one thing, change everything

At this time of year, there is no shortage of advice about making resolutions. The New Year is sold to us as a moment of renewal – a chance to become a slightly better version of ourselves. Most of these resolutions don’t stick because habits, particularly bad ones like not exercising, are hard to break.

As self-help advice goes, the oft-repeated call to change just one thing is probably helpful. We cannot overhaul our lives on a whim, but we stand a reasonable chance of isolating one behaviour and changing it. Perhaps we can commit to consciously complimenting others we interact with, stop drinking a glass of wine with dinner during the week, or picking up three pieces of litter each day we take the dog for a walk.

The more optimistic self-help advocates out there go further by claiming that changing just one thing can have a ripple effect, leading to beneficial changes occurring in other aspects of your life or your social network. By creating positivity in your conversations with others, they may pass this on to others they interact with through the day. Or by picking up litter we may draw others’ attention to the environment and model helpful behaviour. The refrain of this philosophy is ‘Change one thing, change everything’. The notion that small gestures can change the world is perhaps sickly-sweet romanticism, but who would argue against trying to make the world a slightly better place each day?

When it comes to making our schools better places this year, committing to changing specific behaviours is also no bad thing. I’m all for people trying to be a little more positive or adopting better habits. However, in reality we cannot rely on the butterfly effect to deliver improvement. The objects of our change efforts will inevitably be more substantial. However, avoiding changing too much at once is still sage advice.

The problem with a ‘one thing at a time’ strategy is the assumption that the ‘one thing’ can be isolated from everything else. Invariably it can’t. To compound the difficulty, the connections between things are often unknown to us, therefore the consequences of change will often come as a surprise. We might be able to easily imagine a better version of the thing in question but be unable to envision what will happen if we change the organisation in this way.

Take parents evenings as an example. We see parents evenings as ‘a thing’ i.e. a system in and of itself. [Notice that it has been given a name – naming things means we are more likely to see them as an object of our attention. Take ‘retrieval practice’ as an example. Once named, we start to make policy about it.] When we examine the mechanics of parents evenings we notice how they function and deliver their purpose. There will be a process for making appointments so parents get to talk to the right teachers, a means by which parents and teachers come together (online, in classrooms or in the school Hall), and cultural norms about how people interact and what they talk about. We will also notice the flaws in the system. Not all parents get to see all teachers as some teachers teach more students than others, the technology fails, the time allocated is sufficient for some conversations but not others. We might easily imagine a better version of parents evenings, one in which the purposes are better achieved.

At what point do we become motivated to change parents evenings? Well, as Peps Mccrea points out, motivation is the mechanism by which we determine what we pay attention to. There are an almost limitless range of problems which might benefit from our attention in schools, but the capacity of school leaders to attend to these is severely restricted. What draws our attention to this particular problem? Often, it is an enforced change which exacerbates or highlights a dysfunctional aspect of the system which draws our attention. For example, we may attract more Year 7 students than normal and this large year group puts a strain on the system as parents compete for the limited appointment slots.

Once school leaders’ attention is drawn, they will increasingly notice dysfunction and begin to imagine solutions. This will likely result in one of two responses: either incremental change (tinkering) or a substantial redesign (reform). Tinkering is often low risk and unintended consequences are minimal. However, school leaders will be tempted with reform as the act of redesign is appealing – it is a creative process which promises significant improvement. It is just more sexy than tinkering, after all who comes into leadership to tinker?

And so we have the ingredients for the unintended consequences of ‘isolate and fix’, being 1) a system we have named, 2) which comes to the attention of school leaders, 3) which, when examined, is clearly suboptimal, 4) for which we can imagine a ‘better version’ of, 5) but which serves a purpose we don’t fully appreciate, and 6) is connected to other systems in ways we do not fully understand.

Parents evenings are an interesting case study because so many schools have recently substantially reformed them by moving them online as a result of the pandemic. This change has been widely regarded as a keeper, with many questioning why we didn’t do it sooner. Online parents evenings fix problems which we hadn’t really worried about too much before. They eliminate the ‘trapped time’ between the end of the school day and the start of the event, where teachers were required to stay at school. They help teachers who need to pick up and feed their children after school. They limit appointment times so one talkative parent or teacher doesn’t throw the timings for the evening.

However, like all aspects of a highly integrated and relational system, parents evenings in their old form served purposes which we did not fully appreciate. A Head of Year recently pointed out to me that he could now feasibly go years without meeting his year groups’ parents. In-person parents evenings afforded him a valuable opportunity to meet parents informally and establish a personal connection. This, he pointed out, would make a tangible difference if relations became strained between the school and a parent, or when calling a parent to have a difficult conversation about their child. The opportunity to build relationships through casual interaction also applies to senior leaders and parents, to teachers from different departments who strike up a conversation between appointments, or between parents as they meet each other for the first time. These interactions were never the explicit purpose of parents evenings, but they did serve that purpose none-the-less. When we imagine a better version of parents evenings we presume to know the functions they fulfil, arrogantly assuming that the purposes of the system are ours to define.

Unintended consequences scale up exponentially when the object of our attention is more integrated into everyday operations. For example, informal assessment practices are ‘a thing’ which we might seek to influence i.e. classroom practice around making regular and low-stakes assessments of pupils’ understanding. We might imagine what ‘better’ informal assessment looks like. Perhaps this involves teachers using a wider range of techniques, employing tools like mini-whiteboards or quizzing technologies, writing hinge questions, changing the types of questions they ask, or introducing self-assessment.

Our purpose may be to ensure teachers are better informed about whether pupils are learning the curriculum. But informal assessment serves a much broader range of purposes within the system, for example:

  • Functional purposes. Assessment may be used as a settling method to gain students’ attention and direct their effort. It may be the basis for judgements made when reporting to parents or moving pupils between sets. Teachers may be mindful of accountability pressures such as the need to show the progress of their classes at a later point.
  • Learning effects. Assessment will indicate to pupils what is deemed to be valuable knowledge. It will affect how much attention they pay and how motivated they are towards certain ends. Assessment will itself impact on learning – both on what is learnt and how it is learnt. The method of assessment will emphasise one form of knowledge over another.
  • Feedback. Assessment makes gaps in knowledge visible, both to pupils, their peers and the teacher. It informs teaching, both in the short and long term. Assessments affects how teacher and pupil interact.
  • Signalling effects. Assessment signals, rightly or wrongly, aptitude and ability. It suggests future attainment in formal tests. It determines how the teacher views the pupil and how they subsequently behave towards them. Assessment is used to identify where intervention is required. In aggregate, it informs which groups are performing to a satisfactory level. It helps teachers determine who is ahead and who is behind.

Navigating our way through changing assessment practice is fraught with risk because the thing we are trying to change is so integrated into the functioning of daily life. The purposes of assessment, by design or evolution, are multiple. The causal links are often ambiguous and hidden. We may set out to change A to affect B, but inadvertently disrupt C, D and E. This feels much close to the sentiment of ‘Change one thing, change everything’.

How should we operate in such environments? Being mindful of the problems with ‘isolate and fix’ strategies is a good start. Very few things in schools serve a single purpose and the subtle ways the system functions are often hidden to us until we disrupt them. Questioning why things are as they are and what purposes a feature of the system serves (remembering that these purposes aren’t always those we intend or would prefer) mitigates naive attempts to re-design. However, we won’t often know the effects of our change efforts until they start to happen. Therefore, a hypothesis is better than a blueprint. Implementation is more about evolution than engineering.

So, if you want to change one thing this year in your approach to school improvement, my suggestion is to spend just a little more time thinking through your grand plans. We won’t avoid unintended consequences entirely, but we should learn to expect them.

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