Do teachers and school leaders need to down tools to survive and succeed?

Schools are incredibly complex places. We often use analogies that compare schools, and indeed the classroom, to emergency scenarios. Such language captures the sense of stress and struggle; many times have I felt as though I was languishing in a bunker awaiting the storm of our department’s English GCSE results. I have certainly been guilty of using hoary metaphors when describing the classroom – all blood, guts and chewing gum. Inside and outside the classroom, the whirlwind arrival of Ofsted often ushers in a state of emergency.

Organisational theorist, Karl Weick, provided me with a striking emergency analogy in his work on crisis management. Weick highlighted how, in separate incidents – including Mann Gulch in 1949 and South Canyon in 1994 – many US firefighters died trying to outrun fires. They were weighed down by their heavy equipment, despite instructions to remove them. When analysed, these tragic events unpicked a number of factors about decision making by experienced firefighters and their leaders that led to such an awful loss of life.

Why didn’t the firefighters down their tools and run in the face of raging fires? The scenario throws up many answers. Physical answers, such as not hearing the instructions due to the sound of the fire or the stress of the situation, appear obvious. But Weick goes on to explore the psychological answers; mistrusting their leader in a life-threatening scenario, the paradox that dropping their safety tools would prove to be of greater risk, or, indeed, a potent fear of the failure of running for one’s life.

School leaders obviously do not have the regular threat of actual fires – I don’t want to belittle any real tragedy by suggesting so. Yet, the knowledge gleaned by Karl Weick is instructive; as leaders in schools, we are faced with daily emotional conflicts whose complexity can mirror that of an emergency crisis. We sometimes need to down our tools, learn new methods, consider alternative approaches and adapt our practices with humility. Karl Weick applied these principles here.

Crucially, we should also analyse what tools we could and should throw off to lighten the load, allowing us to respond flexibly to what matters – teaching and learning. Anything that distracts teachers and school leaders from improving teaching and learning are cumbersome tools that serve only to weigh us down.

Consider GCSE interventions. How much time and energy is wasted on endless revision classes when teachers and students are equally exhausted? Endless data analysis, tracking and hulking great achievement plans all threaten to overwhelm us and stifle our capacity to respond with agility and effectiveness to individuals. How many added extras are implemented in school development plans to cure problems that could have been prevented much earlier with an agile and precise focus on teaching quality? As Dylan Wiliam rather paradoxically said, perhaps we should stop doing so many good things.

Could the downing of tools also relate to our obsession with Ofsted? There is a culture of Ofsted-obsessiveness; schools are swayed by the latest instruction or lingering whisper from inspections. Many of us are used to hearing about schools that have adjusted to Ofsted by stuffing lesson planning pro formas with literacy and numeracy requirements and the latest buzzword teaching strategies. Not only that, we have many schools creating their own interminable series of Mocksteds, driving down the confidence and energy levels of staff and erasing trust in the school organisation. Our own teacher development programmes become infiltrated by Ofsted judgements. What crisis would occur if we refused such debilitating labels for teaching and learning and had a solely formative programme of observations for development? I doubt there would be a national emergency at hand.

The obvious problem is that in adding the many intervention tools, we have lumbered teachers with a bureaucratic burden that squashes their ability to put out fires in their classroom. Perhaps as teachers we are guilty of arming ourselves with a tool belt to crack a nut. We can readily complicate our lessons by bunging them full of objectives, starters, potent plenaries, progress points, assessment for learning gimmicks, token literacy and numeracy – the list goes on and on.

The craft of great teaching is founded upon core essentials: relentlessly high standards and expectations of students, flexible and varied teaching strategies and regular, precise feedback. They are the tools we should carry lightly, guided with vigilance by school leaders. In austere times, we must justify expensive tools. Technology may be a useful tool, for example, but any expense on tools must first go through a cost-benefit analysis. Any extraneous tools can move teachers and organisations away from honing their core practice. That cost is too high.

The Mann Gulch Fire, analysed by Weick, proves valuable in finding answers. The leader of the men, foreman Wagner Dodge, survived by challenging conventional wisdom. Dodge dispensed with his weighty belt and intentionally burnt a hole on the hillside, surviving by laying down in the roasting ashes. Could our answers to school improvement be found in downing our many extraneous tools? Could we create an oasis of safety that is our school while the fires rage around us? In my view these are questions that we should be asking.

(This blog post is an edited copy of my Guardian article here)