Monday, 12 November 2012

Initiative vs systems, and how the Nelson touch is lost

This will be one for the military history fans - but please don't stop reading there, the 90% - bear with the analogy. I hope it will be revealing.

Several former colleagues at the moment are reflecting on the frankly depressing turn their school has taken. Whether it's the effect of brutal cuts, the Gove-driven nonsense that's causing rigged-down results / unsuitable EBacc pressures / ever-upward pressure on "minimum" standards at GCSE, the pressure (and the cottage industry in how) to get "from Good to Outstanding" or the increasingly defensive behaviour of a Head who's newly discovered that running an Academy means not just freedom but sole legal responsibility too and has become ultra-conservative in response - I seem to be hearing a string of misery from friends old and newer. And after a while it became clear that there is a common root cause of sorts: fixed standardisation, the great evil of a decade ago, seems to be making a full-blooded Slytherin comeback right now.

We'd nearly learnt to slay this dragon. The Blunkett literacy / numeracy era deserved the lauding it received in raising baseline standards; but it topped-out early, plateauing once the (small) number of inadequate or lazy teachers had been pulled into line or moved along elsewhere; beyond this, it was clear by the start of the last decade that a residual block existed that couldn't be improved by more of the same ultra-systematic model of all teachers being required to work from an identikit script. The interested should read Michael Fullan's various writings from early last decade on the importance instead of capacity-building across the system - all teachers needed nuanced understanding, a range of skills, and innovative and responsive mindsets in order to break that plateau barrier.

And it looked for a while as if the supertanker had turned. The revolutionary and liberating message of people like Paul Ginnis (an excellent INSET provider this year at my school) began to gain popular momentum among not just the teachers who had admired him for years, but also the leaders who needed to direct daily change in practice in their schools. Formative assessment, beginning with the famous Black & Williams paper, began to gain widespread interest, and even understanding, in instructing us to assess less frequently but more powerfully, and for the explicit, and usually ungraded, purpose of improvement. We briefly realised that value-added might even need social context as well as raw data for a while. Even Sir Michael Wilshaw, no man for liberal ideals or anything resembling teacher freedoms, recently stated that there is no one model of the outstanding lesson. A kind of hopeful individualism and contextualism began to bloom in schooling.

Yet if experiences I'm hearing about recently are anything to go by, we're witnessing a resurgence of the old bureaucratism, a counter-reformation back to the old standardisations and classroom scripts for "good learning." Much of the current pressure on teachers is phrased in the new language - learning not teaching, formative feedback, differentiation, variety, student-voice or student-led - but is throwback-prescriptive, ultra-dogmatic and often inaccurately or dishonestly abuses recent research breakthroughs, cherry-picking what suits and blankly reversing them where the politics differs: you must mark this way; your lesson must be structured thus; this proforma must only and always be used; all reports will be between X and Y words in length and tone; right down to the words and comment structures you must use not merely in written feedback but in casual oral interchange with students - everywhere the fixed and centrally-dictated script seems to be achieving an ugly resurgence. It's like a horror movie franchise where the beast just won't die.

And so, to mix metaphors, to war. Not literally - just for a better analogy. Let's start with Nelson. Even the historically-disinterested will have a general inkling, courtesy of a large slab of real estate in central London, of the national idolisation we (rightly) give to old Horatio. (We quite literally put the man on a podium. Hats off to him.) He was famed for what has for two centuries been called "the Nelson touch." It meant not merely an ability to inspire faith, loyalty and tremendous endeavour from his men; it meant an uncanny skill of leadership to develop in those under him an incredible capacity to mirror his own genius, to think with equal skill, daring and innovation, and to engage effectively with the task in hand, independently of command or system of instruction, no matter what the time, place or people to hand. He regularly referred to his captains as his band of brothers and not merely did all show remarkable commitment to the cause, but almost all went on to be excellent admirals in turn, such was the calibre of Nelson's leadership. He spent swathes of time discussing tactics, options, scenarios and approaches with them, but these were no delivered lectures; his engagement with them, enhancing them, was on terms approaching social equality for the era: he was interested in their desire to speak freely, their potential to each respond to an emerging situation skilfully, rather than being set on indoctrinating uniform procedures.

Evident in battle after battle throughout his career, this obsession with building capacity and freedom of action is best evidenced at the Battle of Aboukir Bay in 1798, with the utter destruction of a larger French fleet. Anchored alongside the shore to force the more veteran British fleet to engage on one side only, the leading French captain had left just a little too large a gap inshore of his ship. Without instruction - and in abject defiance of "play it safe" usual naval practice - Captain Foley of the Goliath, seeing the narrow gap, decided to seize the opportunity and take the risk. He found the line, cut under the French vanguard, and swung sharply to attack the second ship in line; the following captains showed equal independence of judgement and followed him - again without a word from Nelson - to undercut too and engage the first and fourth French ships. From a central command perspective, chaos ensued, as each individual British ship spontaneously selected and aggressively pursued an opportunity to approach their focus with excellence and complete freedom of manoeuvre. Nelson essentially gave no commands, and no system was followed - in fact systemic thinking was roundly ignored by all the British captains - and complete surprise and success followed. The following British ships swung to port early to engage the opposite side of the French line and even the later ships, recognising that the front of the French line was now trapped and overwhelmed, again independently decided to make best use of themselves further down the French battle-line: the battered Bellerophon valiantly placed itself, massively outgunned, against the French flagship and another battleship, in order to delay or prevent the involvement of the French centre before the front of their fleet could be reduced. From an apparent chaos of independent action emerged compelling evidence of the power of giving your subordinates freedom to think and act independently.

Consider for a moment the implications in terms of leadership, action and capacity this required, and what this might mean for leaders of teachers in schools. You would not merely have to ensure your staff were fully motivated to participate entirely in all things at all costs. You would have to have any and all of them willing to take risks, make decisions without reference, often in exploratory ways counter to easiest or most common practice. You would need them each individually to make the choice they thought was best in every situation, not the one suggested by a written document or theory of best practice; you would spurn formal, especially written, policy or the idea of suiting Admiralty / inspectorate theorists sat in distant armchairs. You would need to encourage people to embrace certain kinds of chaos which offer the chance to overwhelm plodding system-driven thinkers like the anchored French line. You would measure your success as a leader by how little you needed to instruct, not by how clear your instructions were; you would measure your team's success by how many different routes of action they were capable of, and spontaneously chose and used well, not how standardised and "consistent" their practice was. You would value those who unquestioningly took on difficult tasks unlikely to succeed, in the best interests of the whole, rather than criticising their performance in the face of impossibility. You would foster the ability of those band of brothers like they were your heirs, not your staff or servants. And so effectively did Nelson do this all the time that at Trafalgar, his last, great, mortal, victory, he explictly decided to challenge the massively numerically superior combined French and Spanish fleet by sailing - in direct contravention of theory, orthodoxy and authorised naval practice - straight into the allied flank, because when this caused the disintegration of the enemy's fleet order, his far more skilful and independently-minded captains would thrive in the resultant free-for-all. He knew that by shaking things up, and developing independent action in all your subordinates you can defeat any odds: how's that for a moral for schools? Someone ought to write that on a badge somewhere in Latin. Try picturing as a head what that would mean in your school - or as a teacher in your classroom.

The naval analogy isn't done, I'm afraid, because the comparative story, a century later, is the great lost opportunity of the Battle of Jutland, at which the British Grand Fleet could have sunk the majority of the German High Seas Fleet and possibly hastened the end of World War One dramatically - but let this prize slip through their fingers as a result of total lack of initiative and rigid centralisation of command which discouraged all innovation or initiative: in a well-intentioned but woefully-misguided desire to (impossibly) codify the Nelson touch into universal practice, the Royal Navy killed the goose that laid the golden egg. So keen were they to mimic a handful of Nelson's tactical choices that over the intervening century they had written it all up in gospel instruction books of best practice that all captains were to follow at all costs, centralising decisions and standardising all professional practice. (The observant will notice without further detail the risks to teaching. This is the terrible temptation of all schools trying to move from Good to Outstanding - "if only we all did things a little bit more to one model that once worked somewhere else, with everyone doing the same thing, we'd triumph.") To cut a long story short, Jutland was a story of the larger British fleet cornering the Germans and trying to cut them off from home. Twice they nearly succeeded - twice in the dark and fog the Germans managed to turn away. The British Admiral Jellicoe, accurately second-guessing his opponent's line of escape, manoeuvred to the south and east of the German fleet - and successfully cut them off from home once and for all. And here is where it the futility starts.

Obsessed, in the century since Nelson, with the importance of no-one making a mistake, every British captain was programmed with a long list of how not to exercise initiative, and permitted only limited space for decision-making - the exact opposite of Nelson's approach - as the Royal Navy became more fearful of defeat than keen for victory (Churchill famously warned of the danger that only the navy could "lose the war in a day".) But fear is paralysing, and faith - so evident in Nelson's approach - harder. In the same way, schools - even those Good or better, or newly-converted academies suddenly with no backstop or external support - seem more obsessed with the risk of inspectors or lawyers finding fault than with the possibility of unleashing potential and exploring change and opportunity.

And so it was at Jutland that the German fleet escaped. Jellicoe's guess about the enemy's likely route home was accurate; and the Germans were forced to cut sharply across the line of small ships at the rear of the Grand Fleet to try to break through; but although the British destroyers exchanged fire with the German capital ships and responded as individual units exactly as required by policy, not one of them took the initiative of notifying the rest of the fleet or showed leadership in developing a new, localised, response to the developing situation. The British battleships, superior in number and firepower, sought vainly ahead of them to locate the enemy that was simuateously passing through the rear of their line undetected. It is an abject lesson in what happens when you remove all capacity for independent action and insist on blind policy and a fixed line of battle with commands emanating only ever from a flagship far distant from the real action. Jutland is a study in wasted opportunity - where fear of defeat meant missing victory for mediocrity. It is impossible to imagine Nelson's adventurous subordinates making such an error, given the freedom, trust and right to experiment which he permitted them.

My protest - in case anyone's missed the hammering unsubtlety of my analogy so far - is that most, good, teachers, should be left alone to explore, rather than be forced to work like others (or worse yet, to a shared, nonsensical mean teaching style which suits almost no-one.) But this is not the protest of some downtrodden union rep seeking relief. This is about excelling. I don't think teachers should be left alone because it would be nice for them, but because it works better in educational terms. Encourage teachers to share, to collaborate and innovate, to explore. Classes and teachers and schools and students are all different and the formula needs tinkering all the time - and no-one is better positioned to do that than those in that classroom all the time - certainly not those more distant. Review how exploration and liberalism helps standards after the fact. Don't regiment before it or you kill progress.

I maintain that there are broadly two types of teacher and school-leader - those who build capacity, with all the risky trust and appearance of chaos that can require - and those who command by dictat; and the long-term superiority of the former is clear. The lessons of industry, military history and artistic innovation - let alone educational research - do not suggest that rigid central policy (by government of schools, by school leaders to their staff, or by teachers to students) is effective in the long-term. We need more of the Nelson touch and less of the Jellicoe; we need more faith in possibility and less fear of failure. We need to celebrate classrooms' incredible differences and experiments, not their standardisation and tedious consistency. This is a human industry, not a machine-tooling one, and it responds to human desires to explore, vary, and connect, not to precision-gauge systems of measurement. It is difficult to imagine an industry less well-suited to Henry Fordesque production line automation. And yet in many schools, it is hard to imagine how we could create a more clear-cut contradiction between the values we proclaim - of individuality, differentiation, excitement and variety - and the monotone cookie-cutter systems we put in place. We preach potential and then pack the lid down on the sardines - with teachers even more than students. It is mind-boggling to understand how a profession as well-educated as this can be more simplistic or outdated in our organisational choices, our management styles and our use of unnecessary documentation. Jutland-like, we continue to sail through the dark and fog, crossing the battle lines in blind robotic order and missing crying opportunities to engage since we feel "unauthorised" to adopt new ideas. The risk-taking dynamism, freedom of manoeuvre and resultant devastating, incredible success of Aboukir is not merely missing from most of our schools - it has been purged, and we are the worse for it. If you're a school leader, try sitting down today and listing three things you could eliminate to aid this building of capacity - and three things, or people, you ought to trust more, and encourage to experiment. Hover on the moment Nelson must have felt watching Foley swing unexpectedly to starboard, on his own initiative, to the dangerous line inside the anchored French ships, rather than the regulation line on the seaward side; you can't help feeling he had a wry grin of approval at the daring and intelligence of his subordinate. You doubt Nelson had asked him to write a detailed lesson plan first on a shared official proforma.