Friday 20 July 2018

The school research lead, 'factfulness' and 10 reasons why we may be getting things wrong

Over the last few weeks I have been fortunate enough to see both Geoff Barton @RealGeoffBarton and Jill Berry @jillberry speak at conferences.  A theme common to both presentations was the need for school leaders, despite concerns about funding, teacher retention and recruitment to remain optimistic.  And although there are huge pressures of accountability within English schools, school leaders should remember to focus on the joy of teaching young people and the positive change that they can bring to young peoples’ lives.

Now it just so happens that I’m reading the late Hans Rosling’s recently published book: Factfulness: Ten reasons we’re wrong about the world – and why things are better than you think. Rosling argues that when asked simple questions about global trends in the world, people systematically get the answers wrong.  However, the world despite all the challenges we are facing, would appear to be in a much better state than we think.  Unfortunately, we have a tendency to worry about everything all of the time, rather than adopting a world view based on facts.  As a result, we lose our ability to focus on those things that matter most.  Instead, we should adopt a stance of factfulness which involves the stress reducing habit of only carrying opinions for which you have strong supporting facts. 

To help us to adopt a stance of factfulness – Rosling suggests that we adopt 10 rules of thumb

  • Gap – recognizing that when a story talks about a gap – this paints a picture of two separate groups, with a gap in between.  The reality is often not polarised – usually the majority are in the middle – just where the gap is supposed
  • Negativity – recognizing when we get negative news, remembering that information about bad events is much more likely to reach us – when things are getting better we don’t often hear about them
  • Straight line – recognizing the assumptions that a line will just continue straight – and that such lines are rare in reality
  • Fear – remember that frightening things get our attention – and recognising that these things are not necessarily the most risky
  • Size – recognizing when a lonely number seems impressive (small or large) and remembering you could get the opposite impressions if it were compared with or divided by some other relevant number
  • Generalization – recognizing when a category is being used an explanation, and remembering that categories can be divided into sub-categories
  • Destiny – recognizing that many things (including people, religions, cultures, countries) appear to be constant just because change is happening slowly
  • Single – recognizing that a single perspective can limit your imagination
  • Blame – recognizing when a scapegoat is being used and remembering that blaming an individual often steals the focus from other plausible explanations
  • Urgency – recognizing when a decision feels urgent and remembering that it rarely is
So what does this mean for those involved in the leadership of schools?

Rosling et al argue the most important thing that we should be teaching our children is humility and curiosity, and which for me are equally important for school leaders. 

For Rosling et al being humble is all about recognising how difficult it is for your instincts to get out of the way of the ‘facts’. It requires you to be realistic about what you know and don’t know.  It’s about asking yourself the questions – what evidence or new facts would it take to change my mind.  Rosling et al argues this is a far more relaxing stance to take – as you no longer have to be right about everything all of the time.  It’s ok to say, I don’t know, so let’s find out together.

Rosling et al argue being curious means being open to new information, facts, ideas and perspectives.  It demands that you allow new information to challenge your existing ideas, preconceptions and perspectives.  It  requires you to say – you know what, I got that wrong – let’s see what we can learn from this.  But it also requires you to recognise that what you have learnt in the past – be it at university, in teacher-training  or through experience – may well be outdated.  What’s right at the start of your career, and may, 10 or 20 years later be out of date or just plain wrong.

And finally

Please don't think I'm saying all is rosy in English schools and the important trends are all heading in an upward direction.  Rather I'm just asking that you understand how the grounds on claims are being made, the nature of the claim, the warrant for the claims, whether than warrant has strong backing, whether qualifications to the claim, and whether there any rebuttals.


Rosling, H., Rosling, O. and Rosling Ronnlund, A. (2018). Factfulness: Ten Reasons We're Wrong About the World - and Why Things Are Better Than You Think. London. Sceptre.

Saturday 14 July 2018

Models of organisational development - What type of culture does your school or college have?

Earlier this week I came across this headline - which although describing further education colleges - I also get the impression that many teachers in schools would recognise similar 'Soviet' style cultures.

So in this post I’m going to write about Patterson, Nolan, et al. (2011) and two models of organisational development - perform or perish and responsive and relational  which were developed from research undertaken in the health sector and which are described in Table 1.

Table 1 Two models of organisational development – Perform or Perish -  Responsive and Relational

Perform or perish
Responsive and relational
Pace: Quick fix, short term, process driven, pushing and fixing

Relational and responsive Complexity: Longer term, focus on
people and perceptions, brokering

External: Top down agenda, local context largely overlooked, off-the- shelf, one-size fits all approaches applied

Locally contextual factors fully acknowledged and addressed, solutions tailored to situation, existing models modified accordingly

Select few determine goals and direction of change
All groups including users/carers involved in deciding goals and direction of change

Punitive and transactional leadership style from top, little unit level leadership

Empowering, inspiring and transformational leadership style at all levels, especially unit

Metrics matter: Superficial, often quantitative targets for success, e.g. patient flow

Meaning matters, relational, dynamic qualitative ‘indicators’ of success, peoples’ experiences


Impoverished change environment results and the ‘senses’ are reduced

Enriched change environment results and the ‘senses’ are enhanced

What’s the relevance for school leadership and management?

Whilst both of these models are ‘idealised’ extreme cases they do provide a useful way for thinking about different approaches to organisational development.  Although for use in the health-care setting; the various dimensions;  be it focus – short-term vs long-term; external demands vs internal context; scale of engagement – the few vs the many; impoverished vs enriched may ring a few alarm bells for colleagues working in schools.  Especially if my Twitter timeline is as anything to go by.  So what are the implications for teachers and school-leaders who wish to bring about evidence-based/informed/enriched schools.

First, the perform or perish model of organisational development seems culturally at odds with developing and evidence-based school.  Punitive and transactional leadership is not going to create the conditions of trust necessary for teachers and schools leaders to challenge existing ways of working.

Second, to develop and evidence-based school will take time, it’s not a quick fix, and will require a recognition of the complexity of the issues to be addressed. It will require multiple iterations of what we think might work to come up with ways of working which are tailored to the particular requirements of a school.

Third, the evidence-based school is not just about teachers accessing, reading and implementing the latest reports of the Education Endowment Foundation.  Just as important, if not more so, is to engage in genuine and meaningful partnerships with pupils, parents and the community.  Their views and perceptions are an integral part of the evidence-based use to help make decisions.

Fourth, no one action or group of actions will lead to a school becoming responsive and relational, it will require a combination of interventions and challenges across the whole-range of the school’s activities, in order to ensure such an approach is part of the organisational DNA of the school.

And finally  

This model and way of thinking about organisational development may be particularly relevant for those in involved in the senior leadership and management of multi-academy trusts and help those leaders avoid the pitfalls of a perform or perish organisational culture.


Andrews, N., Gabbay, J., Le May, A., Miller, E., O'Neill, M. and Petch, A. (2015). Developing Evidence Enriched Practice in Health and Social Care with Older People.

Patterson, M., Nolan, M., Rick, J., Brown, J., Adams, R. and Musson, G. (2011). From Metrics to Meaning: Culture Change and Quality of Acute Hospital Care for Older People. Report for National Intsitue for Health Research Service Delivery and Oranisation programme.

Saturday 7 July 2018

The school research lead and critical thinking

Attending conferences and critically appraising what you hear, see and read is on its own not enough to make better decisions about teaching, learning and the leadership and management of schools.  What you see and hear needs to be linked to your own expertise, but also the context your school and the needs and preferences of pupils, teacher, parents, governing bodies and other stakeholders.  Drawing upon the work of Jenicek, Croskerry, et al. (2011) in health-care I am going to adopt their argument, that critical thinking and decision-making can be seen as the means for making that link.

Critical thinking

Jenicek et al use a definition of critical thinking which was developed by a range of experts in critical thinking from a number of subject, fields and disciplines and which states that it should be defined as “purposeful self-regulatory judgment which results in interpretation, analysis, evaluation and inferences, as well as the explanation of the evidential, conceptual, methodological, criteriological, or contextual considerations upon which that judgment is based.’ (p 12-14).

However, Jenicek at al argue that what’s even more useful than a definition of critical thinking are the skills and abilities which underpin critical thinking in practice.  Table 1 provides a list of the specific abilities underlying critical thinking in medical practice, which should be equally applicable to schools and other educational settings

Table 1 Specific abilities underlying critical thinking in medical practice
  • Understand the principles of argumentation
  • Knowing and understandings dual Systems 1 and System 2 thinking processes and their interactions
  • Awareness and understanding of evolutionary influences on decision-making
  • Recognizing distracting stimuli, propaganda, bias and irrelevance
  • Identifying, analysing, and challenging assumptions in arguments
  • Awareness and understandings of the impact of the cognitive fallacies and poor reasoning
  • Awareness and understanding of the major impact of the cognitive and affective biases on thinking
  • Recognizing deception, deliberate or otherwise
  • Capacity for assessing credibility of information
  • Understanding the needs for monitoring and control of one’s own thought processes
  • Understanding the importance of monitoring and control of one’s own affective states
  • Awareness of the critical impact of fatigue and sleep deprivation on decision-makings
  • Imagining and exploring alternatives
  • Capacity for effectively thinking through problems
  • Understanding the importance of the context in which decisions are made
  • Systematic and effective decision-making
  • Understanding the dynamics and properties of individual vs group decision-making
  • Capacity for anticipating the consequences of decisions

Jenicek et al p14

What are the implications of this model of critical thinking for teachers, school research champions, and senior school leaders?

First, it would be wrong to assume that all staff have the same level of critical thinking skills. Both new and existing educators will need to be trained in critical thinking – so as to help them become more able in integrating different sources of evidence into a coherent decision and plan of action.

Second, teachers, school research champions and senior school leaders may wish to engage in some form of reflection about their current level of expertise in critical thinking.  A couple of useful places to start would be to ask yourself – what do I know about both argumentation and the ladder of inference?  If the answer is nothing, then exploring both these concepts will all likelihood be rewarded with improved critical thinking and decision-making.

Third, the opportunities for developing critical thinking can be easily found throughout, the school day, week or year.  School leaders can use conversations in staff rooms to help understanding the underlying principles of both their own and other peoples’ perspectives.  Departmental meetings may be used to challenge the assumptions of how certain subjects and topics are taught.  Journal clubs may provide opportunities for developing critical thinking, although it should be emphasised that critical thinking is not limited to critically appraising research

Four, new interventions and existing programmes should be subject to critical review to help understand whether there are cognitive biases or affective states which have had an inadvertent negative impact on decisions and associated outcomes.

And finally

Future posts will explore in more detail the principles of argumentation and in doing so will be looking at the Toulmin model of arguments and will look at the work of Kvernbekk (2013, Kvernbekk (2016) in how this model can be applied in educational contexts.


Jenicek, M., Croskerry, P. and Hitchcock, D. L. (2011). Evidence and Its Uses in Health Care and Research: The Role of Critical Thinking. Medical science monitor: international medical journal of experimental and clinical research. 17. 1. RA12.
Kvernbekk, T. (2013). Evidence-Based Practice: On the Function of Evidence in Practical Reasoning. Studier i Pædagogisk Filosofi. 2. 2. 19-33.
Kvernbekk, T. (2016). Evidence-Based Practice in Education: Functions of Evidence and Causal Presuppositions. London. Routledge.