Innovation is a gradual process

When the success of Ravens Wood school led to an exodus of staff for more senior positions elsewhere, the school’s leadership found itself adopting a novel approach to cope with inexperience among the remaining teachers.

Matt Ridley has for a number of years written extensively about innovation.  In his latest book, ‘How innovation works and why it flourishes in freedom’ (HarperCollins, New York, 2020), he devotes a chapter to distilling the essentials of innovation as he perceives them. These essentials are illustrated below.  Inspired by these ‘essentials’ we will, over a series of blog posts, use them to describe the innovative nature of our work.  We will address each essential in turn and conclude, if appropriate, by identifying the lessons we have learnt.

Innovation is gradual – Riley writes that innovations generally follow a similar gradual pattern of development. Innovation is evolutionary, as opposed to a one-off.  He says: Eureka moments are rare, possibly non-existent and where they are celebrated it is with a big dollop of hindsight…  This is a recurrent theme of Riley’s. Thus, as he sees it, identifying ownership is difficult and the identification of a starting point nigh impossible. So it is true of our work.  

However, though the development of our theory of action has been evolutionary and taken a considerable amount of time, there are moments when significant change can be linked with changes in circumstances, the critical input of individuals and an old concept being given new interpretations. We have chosen an example to illustrate each of these points. 

Changes in circumstances

In 1998, Ravens Wood School received an ‘outstanding’ rating from Ofsted. Part of our success could be attributed to a stable staff who were willing to learn together to improve their practice.  The average experience of this group of staff was eight years. Within one year, this changed dramatically. With the school’s enhanced reputation to draw upon, the two deputies left for headships and six Advanced Skilled Teachers (teachers accredited by the government for their subject expertise) along with a significant number of other valuable staff followed them out of the door.  

By the time we had caught our breath and with our succession planning now in shreds, the average experience of the staff had plummeted to four years and a number of posts remained vacant. Though we continued to try to recruit our way out of the situation, we quickly realised that with a national staff shortage we were fighting a losing battle. So we decided to see if we could grow our way out of it by looking internally for the solution.  

The problems we needed to resolve were: 

We started our problem solving by agreeing a set of clear criteria for each post. We then audited the professional characteristics and performance of the staff.  Finally, we used this to place the staff in the post they might reach if we realised their potential. At the end of this journey of discovery we found that we had the capacity to more than meet our needs. In fact, with only a few steps in knowledge sharing and rationalising out of who learnt what from whom and who sought new knowledge, we could make significant immediate improvements. 

For professional characteristics we looked at five traits  – experience, talent, effort, ability to learn and ability to share learning with others. For experience we were interested to know the characteristics  of students they had taught, gender, age, socio-economic background and in what type of school in terms of its Ofsted grade. From this, we decided whether their knowledge and experience enhanced our own.  During our fledgling experience of creating a collaborative learning community we had concluded that talent alone was not enough.  In fact, experience had taught us that for these able staff it was often a hindrance, because it appeared to inhibit their learning and they struggled to share as they seemed to find it difficult to explain to others something they did intuitively.  So as well as experience and talent, staff had to be willing to make the effort to learn how to do their tasks better and to share their knowledge with their peers. 

 

For professional performance, we audited three areas – teaching and learning, leadership and management and collaborative learning – each with sub areas.  Teaching and learning was subdivided into three – subject knowledge, student outcomes and observed classroom practice. For subject knowledge we reviewed the staff’s subject academic record from secondary school to PhD. We adopted the criteria provided by Ofsted which used a scale from unsatisfactory to outstanding for the other areas. 

For leadership and management we again included subject knowledge. We referenced the staff’s academic qualifications in this area and their successful participation in appropriate nationally accredited courses such as NPQH.  For the post they had held we referenced the number of staff, students and resources they had led and managed.  Finally, we recorded their success in their role by using Ofsted criteria to judge the impact on their student and staff outcomes.

We had already started to use coaching and mentoring as a key method for mutual staff learning.  The seeds had been sown when in 1992 the school, along with a number of others locally, had established a SCITT scheme to train teachers. In this programme, the trainees were allocated an expert coach who worked with them. From this, we quickly realised that not only did the trainees improve but the coaches, by reflecting and articulating their practice, improved their craft as well. In addition, a common language to describe teaching and learning emerged which made it easier to transfer knowledge across the system. As a result in the area of collaborative learning, we reference their social skill set – coach, mentor, capacity to learn with others, networker, role model and what roles they had successfully coached.

The process became an open debate which helped us refine the outcome. As we progressed we discovered hidden depths and ambition in a number of staff which up to then had gone unnoticed. On completion of the potential audit, we found that we did have the potential to bridge the gap which left us with the question: how would we have the capacity to bridge it through collaborative learning? To do this, we identified and built upon the best practice we already had. Examples of which are illustrated throughout these blogs. 

Five years later, as the Ofsted regime at that time required, we had our next Ofsted and we achieved ‘outstanding’ again. In the preceding year, our results had dipped briefly as our own  newly-trained and promoted staff set about bridging their gap in experience by learning their trade.  However, after this temporary setback, student performance further improved both in attainment and more importantly in achievement – that is students with the same characteristics such as socio-economic background attained more than similar students who had gone before. 

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It is impossible to say if we would have reached the same point in our development if we could have carried on as usual and recruited our way out of the problem.  However, circumstances made this impossible so we had to switch our way of thinking and so a subtext of our working practice became the focal point.  From then on, we recognised that our capacity to improve was inextricably linked to our capacity to learn how to do our jobs better. We set about formalising by establishing a second meritocracy – one in which we reward staff who contributed effectively to staff learning the same as we did for those who produced excellent student outcomes. This formulation kick-started a whole new stage in the evolution of our innovation.  

Take care and stay safe

 

George