Saturday, 4 February 2017

The school research lead and telling good advice from bad.

One of the challenges facing a school research lead is trying to discern what is good advice? Advice can come from many sources be it research, peers or even Twitter and blogs.   However (Argyris, 2000) argues that most  advice is fundamentally flawed and it is neither valid or actionable.  So the rest of this post will consider the following:
  • What is effective advice?
  • What are the tests for the validity of advice?
  • What are the tests for the actionability of advice?
  • The implications of the above for school research leads
What is effective advice?

Argyris states Actions is effective to the extent to which it leads to the consequences intended in ways that persevere - but without generating ... unintended consequences that undermine the beneficial outcomes.  Advice is effective to the extent that it is valid and actionable - that is, leads to effective action. p7

What are the tests for the validity of advice?

Argyris states : If implemented correctly, it (the advice) leads to the consequences that it predicts will occur; its effectiveness persists so long as no unforseen circumstances interfere; and it can be implemented and tested in the world of everyday practice.  p7-8

What are the tests for the actionability of advice?

Argyris states : It specifies the detailed, concrete behaviours required to achieve the intended consequences; it must be crafted in the form of designs that contain causal statements; people must have, or be able to be taught, the concepts and the skills required to implement those causal statements; and the context in which it is to be implemented does not prevents its implementation.  p8

What are the implications of Argyris's 'advice' for school research leads

First, when working with colleagues and giving them advice, it may be worthwhile prior to the meeting or discussion, to think through whether the advice your are giving meets the criteria for valid and actionable advice.  Is it absolutely clear what colleagues need to do?  Is there a clear theory of action - if you do X then Y will happen?  Do your colleagues have the skills necessary to act on your advice, and if not, how can you help them get those skills.  Finally, advice needs to be tailored for context - there is no point suggesting something if there are no resources available to make it happen (with this particularly applying to the use of information technology in classrooms)

Second, Brown (2017) provides extremely useful guidance as to the elements of a theory of action, which should include descriptions of :
  • Context
  • Problem
  • Innovation - what are you going to do different
  • Learning - what skills and knowledge are you going to have to acquire
  • Expected changes in behaviours (yours and others) 
  • Expected changes in outcomes - be it pupil or staff learning
So the first question you should ask anyone who seeks to give you advice - for example an external consultant - is : Do you have a theory of acton ? If your external consultant cannot answer at least the last four bullet points, in a way which reflects your needs and context, then I suggest you've probably employed the wrong consultant.

Third, constantly practice developing your own theories of action.  So with that in mind, here is my attempt at a theory of action as to why we currently need leaders to engage in evidence-based school leadership
  • Context – increased autonomy for schools or groups of schools requires school leaders to have an extended range of skills, knowledge and expertise re the leadership and management of schools
  • Problem – rapid rate of knowledge depreciation in areas of existing expertise, along with inexperience in newly aspects of schooling now being delegated to schools and MATs
  • Innovation – school leaders need to access and engage with multiple sources of evidence (including research) to inform decision-making
  • Learning – school leaders will have increased awareness of innovation and what works, for whom, to what extent, why and for how long.  Also greater awareness of how innovations can be implemented 
  • Changes in behaviour – will lead to an increase in the  adoption of evidence-informed practices and a decrease in the use of less effective practices
  • Changes in outcomes – improved pupil learning and outcomes.  Increases in the viability  of the ‘school’ as a  vibrant learning community  for pupils, staff and other stakeholders
And some final words

Remember one of your most important tasks as a school research is to help other build their skills and knowledge as evidence-based practitioners.  To do this you need to provide effective, valid and actionable advice.  Hopefully this post has given you some insight in how to make your advice more useful to colleagues.


ARGYRIS, C. 2000. Flawed advice and the management trap: How managers can know when they're getting good advice and when they're not, Oxford University Press.
BROWN, C. 2017 Measuring impact and the scale-up of educational innovations: a working paper UCL Centre for Knowledge Exchange and Impact in Education, UCL Institute of Education 

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