Schools are highly complex adaptive systems, (Garmston & Wellman, 2013). Being highly complex, there is rarely a simple solution to any problem that arises within a school. In this lengthy blog, I propose a list of 10 indicators to guide you as you respond to complex education problems in your organisation. The indicators are listed in suggested chronological order and I advise that they are considered as such.
In order to illustrate what I mean, let’s take a problem commonly experienced in schools in the UK: a reading gap that exists between children from low socio-economic families and those from middle and higher socio-economic families.
In almost every school that I visit, in my consultant role, there is an attainment gap in reading that widens as children get older. This is a complex problem, not only for individual schools but also for school boards, governors, authorities and national administrations.
Administrations in Europe and the USA have responded predictably by prioritising decoding strategies such as phonics and close reading (DFE, 2015; Motijunaite, 2015; Snow & O’Connor, 2014) whilst ignoring the conclusions drawn from a broad range of research (Kintsch, 1998; Willingham, (No Date); Motiejunaite et al., 2014; McNamara [ed.], 2007) and studies into parental engagement with school-based literacy programmes. Meanwhile, the reading gap continues to widen and we find ourselves no closer to a solution to the problem.
Not for one minute do I assume to know the solution to this very complex issue, yet it is clear that the response described above is not an adequate solution.
The following research based responsive indicators are designed to assist you in approaching the most complex of problems in a structured, responsive way. The model incorporates strategies common to a number of leadership theories including authentic, transformational, path-goal theory and servant leadership, (Northouse, 2013).
Having successfully applied the following indicators to a range of scenarios, I am now happy to share it with you for further refinement and testing.
- Definition of the problem and related problems
- Shared values and vision
- Research informed solutions
- Effective structures for collaboration and decision making
- Political influence: opportunities and constraints
- Community Alignment
- Planning for measurable impact
- Innovation and change management
- Action, support and collective accountability
- Redefinition of the problem
1. Defining the problem and related problems
What precisely is the problem and what are the related problems? To what extent do these problems exist and what are the causes? What might happen if the problem is not solved?
Establishing the current reality through structured data analysis should enable you to understand the nature of the problem and its causes more fully.
Gathering the views of a range of stakeholders must be part of this process as it allows you to view the problem through a range of lenses. Both complex and dynamic problems require an explorative interaction with the problem situation to generate the information needed to solve the problem, (Wirth & Klieme, 2003).
The use of data is integral to the process of defining the problem but this should be approached in a structured fashion. Murray, (2014) warns that ‘current attempts to use data have lacked depth and have been too focused on accountability and meeting state and federal requirements than on systematically investigating the factors that support and hinder the teaching and learning process.’
2. Shared values and vision
Has a clear vision been articulated in relation to the problem? Does this vision contribute to the overall vision for the school? Are there a set of values that are shared in relation to the problem?
Sinek, (2009) stresses the importance of establishing clarity about what an organisation believes in as it establishes why it does what it does. In our earlier example: closing the reading gap, we might agree that ‘we believe that all children should be able to read to a high standard so that they can comprehend fully and articulate responses to others’ ideas.’
The importance of the vision being a collective one is symptomatic of authentic leadership. Steffens et. al., (2016) discovered that ‘a leader who advances the interests of a collective is (a) perceived as offering more authentic leadership and (b) more likely to inspire followership.’ and ‘findings suggest that leaders are regarded as more authentic to the extent that they are true to the collective identity of the group that they lead’ [ibid].
3. Research informed solutions
Does sufficient knowledge and expertise exist within the organisation to be able to propose a range of solutions to the problem? Is this knowledge research informed?
Where possible, leadership responsiveness should be informed by research as this is most likely to lead to effective solutions to education problems.
Decisions will need to be taken locally as to whether meta-analysis tools (such as the Teaching and Learning Toolkit) should be used or organisations should employ their own researchers. Research capacity will most likely vary across organisations which may impact on the quality of the research accepted and the solutions proposed in response to findings.
4. Effective protocols for collaboration and decision making
Do group members collaborate effectively? Do they pose questions to each other to reveal and extend thinking? Do they listen actively and deeply, paraphrasing to summarise? Do they provide data to structure conversations? Do they put ideas on the table, modify them and remove them if appropriate? Do they pay attention to themselves and others in order to adjust their way of working in the group? Do they presume positive intentions in a non-judgemental way? Do they pause to allow time for thought?
Collaborating in a group requires both skill and authentic purpose. The 7 norms of collaboration identified in the above list of questions, when used alongside structured processes for facilitating groups, lead to effective group outcomes. This is vital as potential solutions are tabled and discussed. Reaching excellent decisions about which solutions to prioritise will require effective collaboration.
5. Political Influence
Politics within and beyond the organisation will certainly have an influence on the solutions that you are able to implement in response to your education problem.
National education policy may impose certain restrictions on you as may other national legislation and local school policies. It is important to become aware of potential barriers to your proposed solutions at this stage to avoid time and resources being wasted.
6. Community Alignment
In order to be culturally responsive, it is important to align the school and its community. This could be through sharing the vision, communicating the solutions and actions to involving stakeholders in the decision making and recruiting parents to support initiatives.
(Wilson et. al., 2007) stresses the importance of two-way communication using accessible communication channels. Opening up these channels of communication using technology that is accessed by even the poorest stakeholders in the school community would encourage effective communication where all stakeholders are informed and have a voice.
7. Planning for measurable impact
Fullan, (2007) ascribes to the idea that action is more important than planning. Therefore, short-term (6 week plans) are likely to be more effective than long term plans in inspiring action.
Consider how the success of each action point on the plan will be measured and ensure that targets are SMART.
Much has been written about effective planning and there is little more that I feel I need to add at this time.
8. Innovation and change management
An important step toward achieving success is managing change successfully through a positive approach. In order to achieve this, I suggest using the 8 step change model developed by Kotter, (Mind Tools, 2011) as a structure for change. Clement, (2014) is extremely positive in her case study as she finds that ‘it is possible for mandated change to be managed in positive ways’ through ‘taking charge of the change’ in innovative ways. Empowering teams and individuals to be innovative about how they respond to change appears to be an influential factor in change management.
Appreciative leadership helps to build a culture in which innovation and transformation can be supported (Orr & Cleveland-Innes, 2015). This indicator is included in response to this premise and is used to measure the extent to which individuals are given the autonomy to be creative within the parameters of the solution provided.
9. Action, support and collective accountability
Collective accountability reinforces the shared responsibility and commitment to solving complex education problems that underpins this model. Individual accountability is considered to be counter-productive to achieving collective goals and democratic decision making, (Jacobsen and Young, 2013).
The effectiveness of servant leadership is tested by Grisaffe et. al., (2016). The conclusions drawn establish the hierarchical conceptualization of servant leadership in relation to other forms of leadership. The concept of servant leadership remains a key aspect of this indicator which has been extended to include action and collective accountability. Action is included in response to Fullan, (2007) who suggests that action is as important as planning.
Support encompasses all aspects of coaching, training, emotional support and individualized consideration.
10. Redefinition of the problem
Fullan, (2007) warns against a preoccupation with measurement results that are too complex, highly subjective, or miss important elements of performance. Therefore, the review should employ structured conversations about data, (Garmston & Wellman, 2013).
I decided on using a leadership indicator here which avoids the preoccupation with subjective measurement for individual accountability. Therefore, I decided to focus on ‘redefining the problem’ at this point. Avoiding a blame culture and maintaining a solution focused culture is central to this collective accountability model and this new indicator supports this idea.
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