To wish impossible things

I have been enjoying #classicblogsweek on Twitter over this half term break. The democratic free-for-all selection process has resulted in an eclectic mix of pivotal polemics, personal favourites, and anti-orthodox rhetoric.

What is noticeable is that so many either critique existing school practices or set out how things should be. They are of the critical or wishful variety. Few seek to describe actual good practice, by which I mean real examples of things happening in real schools that we should recognise and celebrate.

I guess that posts which say ‘we’re doing this and it works quite well’ are unlikely to make the shortlist for classic blogs. And those in education that take the time to publish their thoughts are more likely to do so out of the desire for things to change than for small successes to be shared.

But there is another reason that so few set out to describe the good things actually happening in schools and that is that many everyday occurrences are suboptimal and mildly unsatisfactory. We can rarely look around and say we’ve nailed it. Mostly, what we’ve done is at best ‘working quite well’ or ‘better than it was’. We also put up with things that we are unhappy with, either because we’re not sure how to improve it or because we haven’t got the time or energy to make it a priority right now. You may think this assessment is a little downbeat, but I don’t mean it as a critique of schools, just as an observation of how things are.

A couple of years ago I spoke to a senior leader in a school about their approach to assessment. After the removal of National Curriculum levels, they had (like most of us) scrambled around for an alternative and eventually adopted an approach whereby GCSE grades were being used from Year 7 to chart the flight path students were on towards their GCSEs. I had read enough blogs on this to know that this approach was inadvisable on many levels (pardon the pun).

Where should I start? I had to say something. Should I begin by asking whether it was valid to award GCSE grades to students who weren’t studying GCSEs? Or question how the periodic mini-tests which were insisted upon in all subjects could be equated to an arbitrary grade?

But my face expressed my thoughts before I could articulate them. “I know, its utter crap”, the senior leader said, “but that’s the system we’ve got. Parents like it, teachers have spent ages putting tests together, and it gives kids the sense that they are making progress. Besides, the thought of starting again fills me with dread.”

Now, I’ve read enough blogs to know that this stinks of ‘sunk cost fallacy’, the irrational tendency to continue on your present course because you have already invested so much in it. But it is more than that. The fact is that changing reality is so much more difficult than changing your mind. We can imagine how the school might be so much better than it is in an almost limitless range of ways, but enacting the changes required to achieve this golden vision is a different ball game. I felt for this leader, knowledgeable enough to know better but overwhelmed by the task of making reality match up to his ideals. It reminded me of someone I work with who likes to point out things that could be better about our school, and when I agree, says ‘Well, you’re the headteacher. Do something about it.”

Armchair critics (including bloggers with no skin in the game) can irritate. They don’t mean to, it is just that they operate in the realm of ideas and ideals. At the conception stage, change is as easy as redrafting. Like the architect; erase and redraw. But once the structure is built, making amends is nowhere near as straightforward. Reality requires deconstruction as well as construction. It creates a friction between one state and another. There is no friction in changing your mind.

It is for the above reasons that sharing what we do is so much more high stakes than sharing what we think. I suspect this is why most shy away from it. The critics wade in with their analysis. Of course what we do is flawed – everything in reality is. We do not have the luxury of creating the perfect form. In the real world, everything is coloured by what came before. Everything is a compromise. Everything is provisional and imperfect. We have no time for your Platonic palaces.

If you read too much, you might be excused for paralysis. Arguments convince us, as do the counterarguments. Our knowledge and beliefs constantly change, or at least they should, through a dialectical process of reason. This healthy intellectual life weighs on us as we operate in a messier reality. At what point do we leap? If we wait for certainty we will never act, but how do we know when we know enough?

We live with the constant threat of being fundamentally wrong. The lead time for delivering any meaningful change in schools is more than enough than the time needed to come to question your assumptions. The foresight that hindsight will be a harsh critic can be crippling. We are doomed to underdeliver as reality corrupts the promise of once compelling ideas.

But I’m here to say that it’s okay. It is okay to wish for more and to berate bad ideas. It is also okay that what we deliver won’t ever match up to what we might wish to deliver. It is okay for bloggers to write their wishful blogs and anti-orthodox posts, and it is okay to read them or to ignore them.

It is all okay because we are just trying to make schools better, by whatever means we have at our disposal. As an ex-colleague used to say, “I can’t run very fast, but I’m faster than the person sat on the sofa”.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s