Frame your approach with a theory of action

By looking at the variables, you can determine your route to school improvement. Here we remind ourselves of the origins of this blog and how the approach we adopted in the past can be applied to guide you in the future.

Time really does fly. It’s already been around a year since we launched this blog on the idea that by showing you how we approached school improvement, we could help you better make sense of your own teaching environment. 

Regular readers will have recognised a pattern in our posts, based around advocating you to develop your own theory of action to frame your approach. 

We believe the performance of students in a school for a given period of time improves as a result of a web of interrelated variables, each of which has a unique impact on learning.  Significant amongst these is the degree of the students’ socio-economic disadvantage. Schools, especially in a state  system, have limited control of this variable and of a significant number of others.  The variables which they can influence, include the quality of teaching and learning, the quality of leadership, and management and collaborative learning of those in the organisation. To add to the complexity, the outcomes of a school’s action can also be long-term, such as building resilience. But they can equally be short-term or immediate, and even, in many cases, a one-off, such as passing public examinations. In addition, activity designed to affect one aspect of a school’s improvement can have a knock-on effect on others. As a result, relationships between variables can be established but it can be difficult to attribute the relationship between cause and effect.. 

For many, it is easy to view school improvement as a production line.  Students arrive, they are taught and they leave (figure 2). If we measure their level of knowledge when they arrive and compare it to what they know when they leave, we can determine the value of the education process within a school.  If only it was that simple. 

Extensive research has shown that the personal characteristics of students – the inputs – have a significant impact on their outcomes. Some of these attributes are relatively easy to identify such as gender, ethnicity and degree of social disadvantage and others are less easy to define or attribute; for example the ability to do well in IQ-type tests. Again, while most of these are stable throughout a student’s time in a school, an increasing number are not.  

Whilst at school, students are expected to follow a state-prescribed curriculum. Staff are employed through defined procedures and rewards determined by terms often outside of the school’s control. With school sites often covering extensive areas, health and safety is a priority – an issue that has gained greater significance in the current circumstances. Also, due to funding arrangements and planning laws, the large scale re-design of the learning environment is seldom an option. Though funding can vary, resources between schools within a system tend to be equitably distributed according to student disadvantage. Taking the above into account, it is evident that schools  operate with reasonably tight resources, and within health and safety and legal parameters.  

While students will spend a considerable amount of time at school, they will spend more of their lives away from it, engaged in activities that contribute directly or indirectly to their development. Therefore the engagement of parents and the influence of peers is pivotal to their development. The significance of a parent’s capacity to provide learning opportunities has been highlighted during the pandemic when all students were homeschooled. We have discovered this has resulted in a great disparity in opportunities to learn effectively and thus progress in this period.  

The outputs in all the systems we work with at a secondary level are judged through a state defined public examination system. In primary schools there is no common approach, but measuring students’ performance in some form or other when they enter and leave is universal. Final public examinations judge a student’s knowledge in a number of subjects, key amongst them being literacy and numeracy. 

The results of public examinations are often made public and used to compare the performance of schools, but they are keen to point out  that they are not solely exam factories. They provide moral, emotional and social development, none of which are directly measured in a three-hour examination in a drafty assembly hall. 

Staff in schools know that the results of examinations will determine the direction of the careers of many of their students and will be linked with their life chances from that point onwards. 

School improvement is our aim, but if we were to prioritise the focus of our actions (slide 3),  meeting health and safety standards and ensuring the education we provided met government requirements would come first, followed by maintaining our existing improvements and then, if energy and ambition permitted, further improvement of our performance (Berwick, 2001).  Due to the international health crisis we currently face, meeting health and safety  requirements  has become an overriding priority for the majority of schools. Student learning has also come under the spotlight, with research indicating shortcomings in homeschooling, and catch-up classes have become derigueur. Therefore, school improvement is currently a distant third. 

In addition, particularly in England due in a major part to the work of the Education Endowment Fund, relevant research into school improvement has become far more accessible to the teaching profession and evidence-based actions have become the vogue with an increasingly positive impact on improvement. However, this has led to a  heated debate among academics of the validity of the research methodology used to identify the significant variables. 

Finally, new significant variables have emerged.  Principle among these is the degree of air pollution students are exposed to on their journey to and from, and within, school. This has been shown to have a significant impact on their health and cognitive development. (Mohai, P. et al, 2011, Synyer et al 2015).  In a large urban area such as London, where many schools are situated on busy roads, King’s College London reported that more than 1,000,000 children attend London schools in which air pollution exceeds recommended limits (The Times, May 9, 2019).   This can lead school leaders to the conclusion that in seeking school improvement they should be spending as much of their time on seeking the imposition of traffic reduction measures around their schools as on improving the quality of teaching and learning within it.

Thus, school improvement is an onerous and complex problem-solving exercise in which we need to improve our selection of what we should do next and our ability to carry it out effectively if we are to progress. Over time as we learn from our experience, we can reduce the gap between our intentions and our actions and thus improve.  In order to do this we need to be clear about: 

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We hope you found this introduction to this series of blogs on a theory of action useful. In them we intend to set out the way we have tried to describe our vehicle for capturing our approach to school improvement. We are not writing this as academics but as practitioners. Its validity comes from the fact that the approach we describe has served us and many colleagues well as they grapple with the responsibility of providing for their students an education that reflects the wisdom of the education community. We hope, therefore, that those of you still deep in the action recognise the problem we have described. 

In the next blog we will define the theory of actions we have conceptualised from the work of Chris Argyris and his colleagues. It is our attempt to make explicit our implicit approach. You as the reader are the judge of how successful we have been so we would appreciate any comments you might be willing to make. 

Take care and stay safe 

George

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Berwick, G. T., Building Success- A school’s journey of improvement, 2001

Mohai, P. et al., Air pollution around schools is linked to poorer students health and academic performance, Health Affairs, Vol 30, No5, 2011

Sunyer, J. et al., Association between traffic-related air pollution and cognitive development in primary school children: A prospective cohort study Plos Medicine, 2015