What does it mean to know your school?

Perhaps you survey students and ask them whether they feel safe at school. The vast majority say they do. Some don’t. What now?

Perhaps you ask a different question: where do you feel unsafe at school? They tell you. You act.

I once wrote this as a piece of advice to school leaders:

“Be a student of your school. Come to know its people, ethos, foibles, peculiarities, cultural norms, hidden places, dark secrets, harboured dreams, storage cupboards, social dynamics, potted history, defining moments, reputation, uniqueness and dullness. Let your leadership grow in the rich soil of the school.”

It gets quoted a lot because it is an appealing sentiment. But we shouldn’t pretend that all knowledge is equal. Some knowledge informs wise action whilst some takes us nowhere. The questions we ask are important.

There are three big questions for school leaders: where things are, how things are, and why things are. These questions help leaders build a four-dimensional model of their school.

The question of where things are may at first appear superficial. We need to know where to go to get our photocopying done or to make a cup of coffee. It is a two-dimensional question. But that doesn’t mean that geographical knowledge serves no meaningful purpose in school improvement. The example we opened with illustrates that location-knowledge can be powerful. We can affect whether a child feels safe by knowing where they do not feel safe.

Similarly, school leaders should know where to find the expertise, advice or honest feedback that they need. They should know where they will find best practice occurring. They need to know the trouble spots where their presence is most needed. Leaders can seriously undermine their effectiveness by simply being in the wrong place.

Next, school leaders need to know how things are. This is a question about the quality of things, but not in a narrow sense. The term quality has a managerial role in schools, stripping the word of its aesthetic and spatial meaning and focussing instead on a cold functionalism – ugly terms like quality assurance. We can think about quality in terms of the value-added: the contribution something (or someone) makes to the overall performance of the institution. But this will only provide a fixed and simplistic view of true quality. It is more insightful to learn the qualities of something: how it sits within its space and relates to the environment around it. We get hung up on intrinsic virtue and fail to pay attention to how it is empowered, liberated or constrained by its connections to the wider entity of the school. Measuring the virtue of something is dead-end knowledge, whereas setting aside judgement to appreciate how things truly are creates actionable ideas.

And bravely we move into the fourth-dimension, that of temporal knowledge: why things are. This is the most dangerous field of knowledge as we are prone to making wild assumptions about how we have arrived at our present moment. We are primed to fall toward mechanical metaphors to make causal inferences as mechanics was the driving force of the age we are leaving behind. In mechanisms, chains of cause and effect are fixed and inevitable. One thing leads to another. But complex systems do not behave in this way. Causes are likely to be manifold and difficult to pin down. We project forward out simplistic assumptions too, believing that if we do A, then B and C will follow. The brutal logic of implementation science shuts down our understanding and inhibits our ability to act wisely on our temporal knowledge. We fail to acknowledge our uncertainty and in doing so become, ironically, less sure-footed.

Being a student of your school is good advice, but how do we come to know it? Knowledge only has value to school leaders if it helps them act wisely and achieve valuable change. Not all knowledge is equal in this regard.

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