The Struggle with Ourselves and Others – Integration

In this blog post, I want to talk about something a little different. I want to talk about one of the most fundamental challenges which adults face. I want to talk about how this challenge, I believe, underpins difficulties we face in how we view ourselves, the people around us and the responsibilities we have in our daily work and personal life. This challenge is the concept of integration

What do I mean by integration? Integration is accepting the notion that all things in life are deeply connected, no much how deeply disconnected somethings might appear. Joy and suffering are polar opposites, and yet they are inherenitaly linked as one cannot exist without the other. Life and death are deeply integrated through the nutrient cycle. Dark and light are deeply connected, for without night and dark we cannot comprehend day and light.

I would argue that the human identity is deeply integrated. We cannot have the conscientiousness without concern/worry, passion without anger, openness without risk. Traits or ways of being which we admire (the light) and enjoy also come with a supposed ‘dark’ side – a pattern of behaviour or way of being that modern society perhaps considers less admirable, a downside, weakness or Achilles heal. My main thrust of my blog post will focus on this very topic.

(I do need to say from the outset that I have struggled with finding a word for dark – it could undermine what I’m trying to say. It’s a heads up that when I say dark, I don’t mean it as bad but as a metaphor for opposite.)

There are two steps to recognising integration. The first is accepting the surface level concept. Most people do not have a problem accepting that one cannot exisit without the other, such as joy and sadness, is one quite a few would happily accept. It sounds sophisticated and maybe we’ve listened to a few Buddah tapes and realised this sounds good. In summary, very few would deny the reality of integration at the surface. People who worry tend to also be very detailed. People who are care free tend not to think about details etc and etc. People readily accept my argument on the surface level.

But the second step is far harder. That is accepting the consequence and reality that integration brings. That is there cannot be one without the other – that the elemental factors making up one side are the same factors which make up the other.

What does this mean? For a start, it means that the trait you admire in someone and with yourself will come with an expression that might be less admirable. It very much resembles a coin with heads and tails – the sides are different, but they are of the same coin. They are not two separate parts glued together. It is one unified entity, made of of the same element, but with the potential to expressed in totally different ways. Flip heads; you have a completley different impression of the coin than if you flip tails.

Some concrete examples. That conscientious person who you adore for thinking through the details and will always goes out their way for you, might also drive you crazy as they demonstrate worry about making the right impression or how they express their organisation. The person who expressed intensity of joy and wonder will likely express the same intensity of worry and frustration. The person who you enjoy for their spontaneous nature will frustrate you for not showing up on time. The ability to live in the moment and be right there with you and only with you…will also leave you blindsided when they are in another moment and you’re not in their thoughts.

Again, my premise is not that people aren’t ready to accept the concept that these different aspects are integrated. It’s accepting of the consequences that such a a philosophy has on how and who we like and love those around us that most people struggle with. It’s accepting that the person you like or love and things you love and like about them will come with another side – and the more extreme the expression, the more extreme the opposite is true.

This leads me to question: Do we really accept people for who they are? Do we really accept ourselves for who we are? Yes, we can say “everyone has flaws” but that still implies a separation as they are not flaws separate to the self – they are part of the self which, in other contexts and situations, are the aspects which will most admire and love. The consequence of integration is when we show like and love, we might have to love the whole – the light and dark, the conscientious and the worry, the eclectic and the quirky, the relaxed and the laxed. This isn’t to say we should accept all – but perhaps should reflect hard on what this means for ourselves and the connection we have to others and its meaning.

It will mean releasing expectation – expectation that people around us, and indeed ourselves, can just shine on the “light” and scrub away the “dark”. Releasing the expectation that we should scrub away at our own Yang’s, but not acknowledging that will comprimise the ‘Ying’. That we should expect people to love in spite of supposed flaws, and actuall We release ourselves of the expectation to only be in the light by not feeling compelled to justify expressions of fear and sadness or or or quirks and coping strategies as something far greater than just being part of you – to embrace and accept, and to do that for all

People could say “Well, fine, but what about extremes? Extreme anger, aggression etc”. There is of course room for temperance. Extreme worry, extreme aggression, sadness are not good for anyone and that’s when they become clinically relevant. Indeed, we should recognise that extreme happiness is not good for anyone either – we take far greater risks and put ourselves in danger. We talk about balance but balance means of both, not of excluding the other as it just isnt possible to exclude one without costing the other. It means accepting balance to be both.

A phrase a very wise man told me a long time ago was “come as you are”. And I think that’s far easier to say than in practice and this blog post has been about unlocking why that sentence is hard to live by. In my own reflection on writing this,I have two questions:1) How much is this driven by the expectation we have of others and self

And 2) that this isn’t the whole story of understanding ourselves and others. What happens when we are met with trying to comprehend two seemingly polar opposites expressions in ourselves and others – when the Yang doesn’t necessarily align with the Ying. When the extremely calm expressed extreme worry, when the loud and social also seeks quiet and solitude. In essence, when we are met with the eclectic and the, seemingly, irrreconsible opposites. My next post will explore the concept of the eclectic and why it’s so hard for ourselves and others to both manage, comprehend and live by.

The Role of Stories and Narratives in Helping Us Manage Leadership Complexity

There is so much leadership literature which are narratives and stories. Walk into any WHSmith, airport book shop or have a scan through the top sellers on Amazon. The majority of these books are some form of a story. I want to share some thinking about why, I feel, so much of our leadership narrative is dominated by the story – why they can help and hinder, and what this pattern tells us about the challenges leaders’ face.  

I find most stories in leadership are a truth but written or edited in some form to make it easier for the reader to comprehend the main message. They remind me of the sort of screenplays which say they were “inspired by true events” or “based on a true story”. Such screenplays might remove  certain artefacts or parts of the story (See ”The Blind Side”), create composite characters or events which seek to represent the views of many or combine individual narratives (Such as in ”We Are Marshall’) or seek to make minor alterations the order of events (See ”Glory Road”). I call these stories hybrid stories – not fiction, but not fact either.

I often find many books on leadership take this hybrid approach. They sometimes appear as theory – such such a Kotter’s infamous change cycle, which abstracts change in a rational and linear 8 step model. Or books, usually titled ‘leadership’ outline how an individual (usually a sports personality, coach or entrepreneur) personally got from A to B chronologically, and identify key ‘principles’, ‘rules’, ‘steps’ which they secured from their experience. Often, such narratives are peppered with anecdotes or mini-case studies. Finally, you have ‘case studies’. These are often used for teaching – an event captured in time which individuals have tried their best to capture from their perspective, be it first hand or as an observer. Whether it is teaching materials, quick airport reads or attempts to distil ones’ practical knowledge, they are hybrid stories.

These leadership books and materials  are immensely popular. Any quick check on Amazon will confirm this for you. Often, they are critiqued for their accuracy or the contribution they can make to a leaders’ professional learning – can such narratives really be helpful to leaders??

But, from their popularity, I would argue the following; that such hybrid stories on leadership are serving a purpose. An unmet psychological need. And that need is to help us manage the complexity of a world in which leaders are expected to act and take responsibility for. Let me explain.

Are these stories the fullest capture of the entirety of events and situations and circumstances? No. Do they capture everything that they have ever learnt? No. Are they heavy and detailed blow by blow account from every possible perspective and angle? No. But that’s the point. In a hybrid, the editor or writer carefully adjusts the narrative to help keep to the main purpose of the story clear to an external person who has little to no experience of the individual, organisation or situation.

Is such ‘editing’ necessary? Do we need the composite characters? Do we really need the story simplifying? Absolutely. Because of real life is complex, and complexity is overwhelming. Complexity theory tells us that the world can be challenging. Cause and affect is hard to determine. We co-exist in a deeply meshed network, where new things changes the shape of a system in a relatively unpredictable way. Even describing the system can be hard – the act of describing said system changes the system! See here (reading, video) for more information on what complexity is.

And this system is overwhelming because of the research into adult development. Jane Loevinger’s Theory of Adult Ego Development (See here) shows us that adults require a lot of development to get to the sort of stage where handling these features of their environments – and its rare too. And as Kegan (1994) writes, being placed into circumstances and situations which we are not ready to fully  understand or cannot comprehend is a recipe for anxiety, fear, insecurity and inaction.

And yet, in life and leadership, we are expected to make sense of complexity and act accordingly and competently. This is most certainly the case in school leadership. Matthew Evans (@head_teach)  discusses this from a theory to practitioner perspective, and Hawkins and James (2018) paper on school complexity theory supports the notion that schools are complex. Because school leaders hold the responsibility for their organisation (Connolly, James and Fertig, 2017), they are likely to be at a high vantage point: from such positions, exposure to complexity is likely to be even more apparent. How leaders’ comprehend complexity is vital, as it is this comprehension which will drive the decisions they subsequently have to make. 

What have we said so far? That the world is complex and leadership responsibilities in schools force leaders into positions where they are expected to comprehend complexity so as to act.  However, most likely, leaders will struggle to fully comprehend the complexity they are exposed to in their organisations and indeed lead us to feel overwhelmed and unable to act. At the same time, we have an explosion of hybrid literature which shows how leaders, theorists and thinkers have observed or directly navigated organisations from similar vantage points. Is there a link?

Yes, I believe so. Why?

Here’s a question. What do we need when faced with a situation which our cognitive architecture struggles to overcome or comprehend? We need a scaffold – a structure for thinking that helps us to get from where we are to getting closer to the situation. 

Cue the role of the story. The hybrid story that can distil things we don’t understand – whether it is a social story to help a child to see how other people might be feeling. Whether it is in the teaching of a moral concept in philosophy or a counsellor using a story to help a client make sense of their circumstance. Or whether it is to navigate a seemingly overly-complex scenario. We reach for stories as they give us a way of navigating something which can overwhelm us into panic or inertia. 

It is for this reason that we see far more hybrid stories about leadership then we do about more technical vocations or applications of theory. Leadership narratives act as a necessary form of complexity management, helping individuals to cope in a role and set of responsibilities that demand individuals  to make sense of complexity so as  to take purposeful action. It is the scaffold, in the shape of these hybrid stories, that helps us to comprehend the complexity which we on ourselves will not only struggle to see, but act within. Stories serve a purpose – they meet a need, and based on sales figures alone, they might a very big and necessary need.

What is the risk of stories? Simple. Oversimplification. The very method used to help individuals to navigate complexity, taken too far, can lead to simplifying the structure of the problem where it becomes misleading. Taken too far, they allude that the structure of the problem is not complex, but simple. Akin to “Saving Mr Banks”, Walt never visits the authors house and subsequently creates a false impression of both his character but the structure of the problem underlying the authors disagreements. Stories can help people navigate, yes. But can also lead people down a path which, upon further engagement with the problem, might only delay confusion and not help people to confront it. 

Furthermore, we know that people only grow when they have to engage with complexity – if we go too far to simplify the context/problem, we also risk taking away the opportunity for growth.

So, stories can be powerful and almost necessary as a mechanism for leaders to handle and act in relation to complexity. But the same tool can also cause harm.  How do we reconcile these two factors?

We are responsible in writing them: Are we aware of the balance between producing narratives and accounts that capture the essence, not just of our action, but of the context in which they resided? Have we thought about how multiple perspectives took to the situation or timeline? Have we recognised the caveats and alternative models of reality that might have occurred? Have we portrayed ourselves as a ‘hero’, in so much that this story is about us and our individual course of action…without recognition of the complexity underneath our actions? Do we take the time to narrate how we thought, not just what we thought? Do we acknowledge the feelings or doubt, dread and isolation that often occur and our central, not peripheral, to our actions? Critically, do we recognise that organisations are complex and write about them in such a way that recognises that we are actively simplifying them into a form that we can comprehend and understand?

We write to support complexity, not to remove it. Do we write stories that help people see and comprehend and little more of the complexity of the real world, or do we seek to remove the complexity and paint an alternative picture? There is a fine line between the managed exposure to complexity, and complexity denial – are we managing the cracks in our limited understanding of the universe, or are we papering over them?

We use stories as a prompt for thinking. Do we invite those who listen to our story the chance to question and engage? To challenge, debate and reflect upon your model of reality – not as a sole account of truth, but as a model of reality that is open for challenge and debate? Do we write stories as a closed loop or as an open loop that models are flawed?

We guide people to which stories might, or might not, be useful for their stage of development. We would not give a 7 year old Paul Blooms “Against Empathy” as a way of understanding human emotion, just as much as we might not give a brand new leader one of Ralph Stacey tombs on Complexity at the get go.  What stories or cases are appropriate given the stage and challenges they face – to help overcome, but not oversimplify what is happening? Are we aware that some exposure will be important, this will be tough but at least asking the question will help.

In this blog post, I have talked about why stories are so common in leadership literature. They are meeting an unmet psychological need for us to manage our exposure to complexity – both cognitively and emotionally.  Whilst a necessary and important tool, such a tool can also be dangerous. We need to think about complexity when we write, engage and recommend stories of leadership.

Pebble Mountains

The last few years, I have worked solely in academia. As I am now spending a fair bit of my time outside of HE, I wanted to share a personal reflection on the role academia can play in an evolving world of practitioner knowledge.

A close colleague and dear friend, Professor Chris James, once shared with me how the building of new knowledge is akin to climbing a mountain of pebbles, of which the purpose is to get to the top and add one more pebble to the mountain. New knowledge i.e. the shaping and crafting of that single pebble, can take years. It requires an awareness of what our pebble of knowledge actually is and what’s come before our own. New knowledge requires an awareness of how to shape the pebble/knowledge – the tools, frameworks and philosophies that underpin how we build models, theories and evidence. Finally, there is knowing the pebbles’ place in the wider network of other pebbles/knowledge: where to place the pebble, and how it compares to other pebbles etc.

You can take different paths up the pebble mountain.

Sometimes, the starting point of new knowledge takes place in the lab or the desk and then tested in the ‘real world’. This deductive approach can tell us whether an idea is now knowledge – a model or attempt to explain and describe ‘reality’.

Other times, it is the accumulation of years of experience and professional practice whereby a practitioner crafts an idea for what could be knowledge. Everyday, school leaders and teachers make hundreds of decisions which, over time, facilitates a new understanding. Upon further reading, they develop this idea further and think about some principles which embody their discovery. This ‘inductive’ approach achieves the same purpose, the attempt to explain or describe what the real world – our classrooms, schools and communities are all about and how they tick.

Other times, it gets all a bit meta. People who accumulate ideas from practice and theory and create a new narrative from their collection. This approach is neither deductive or inductive but involves accumulating and stitching together of different sources to either stress a point or to say something new from their analysis. And it’s not recycled, or reborn or relabelled theories – it’s scholarship and important for knowledge to have impact.

All different ways of climbing the pebble mountain. But all valid.

What is so exciting about Edutwitter, ResearchEd, New Voices, BrewEds, CPD in schools* (*Yes this really does all happen outside of Twitter too!) Teaching School Hubs and more is that practitioners are getting the opportunity to share their attempts to build knowledge through all of these ways in a manner that is accessible, real, robust and impactful.

I have watched people like @ModernCassie and Nick Hart build from their experience and, through robust study of their environment, develop principles for those who need it most. Practitioner’s are building from theoretical narratives such as complexity theory like Matthew Evans and different leadership narratives like Jen Barker, Tom Rees and Liz Robinson and using them to ask deep questions about how we run schools, conceptualisations of school leadership and more. I have seen others like Emma Turner, Peps McCrea, Lekha Sharma, Claire Hill, Kat Howard, and dozens more compile theories and ideas from across practitioners, practice and theory to bring new knowledge on curriculum, behaviour, teaching practice and school leadership. And there are those that work across these areas and ask deep questions and generate knowledge dissemination, like Kathryn Morgan, Emma McCrea, Jon Hutchinson, Hélène Galdin-O’Shea and far more beyond. And they are brilliant. And all of enviable quality.

This approach is not a threat to traditional paths, such as those within the career trajectory of academia. Instead, it’s an incredible opportunity for academia within this social science arena to evolve into a truly civic practice. To facilitate, enable and engage with those generating these pebbles of knowledge in their (practitioners) way and work across platforms to make a difference. The generation of knowledge in an academic space is different and it’s important – peer review, journal articles and the typical formal routes for knowledge generation and dissemination should be valued for what they have to offer.

But I believe that, if we only have one way traffic – were formal knowledge systems are applied to practice without any room for those in practice to create the knowledge from their own experience, reading and analysis, that we are missing out on so much intelligent and worthy thought. The traditional routes are simply not open or accessible to most people. If they were, edutwitter and ResearchEd wouldnt exisit. Such platforms were born because there are large groups of people who wanted to contribute to the endeavour of building knowledge that makes a difference to what we do and how we think. To not just be included on a panel or advisory group, but to shape their own progess and make contributions in of themselves. Practitioner friendly editions of journals or TeachMeets at ‘academic’ conferences, whilst well meaning, are just extensions of a very scary space – it’s not one that practitoners own and, I feel, do not go far enough to enable all practitioners to contribute.

So we in academia need to listen to this evolution. Listen to how practitioners in this movement feel and build with them – not on top, but acknowledge and listen to this explosion of high quality knowledge being born. And start to see just how much of these pebbles are geninue gold that has so much potential. How can those of us that hold academic positions both support this new wave of knowledge generation, respecting the place the genuine value this knowledge should have in shaping practice and a system, whilst also seeing such generation as the pebbles which, with support guidance and challenge, can become mounds and mountains and boulders in of themselves?

I know many will disagree with me. But I believe academics exist to serve society and the individuals within it. What if a part of our role in the system to find these gems and to:

a) Respect that knowledge generation that takes place outside our formal systems is valuable, not just to their own individual classrooms or settings, but as knowledge which should be disseminated and has meaning.

b) Positively Amplify. Ignore those that say academics have no power – we do. Dr, Prof, Lecturer…they are titles of significance and give a formal voice before weve even opened our mouths and those that dont see that need to take a long look in the mirror. We should be using such power to positively amplify those doing good things and trying to make a difference . It is not our role to publicly disparage practitioners because we don’t agree – I have seen behaviour from academics slating individual practitioners from sharing their knowledge or saying “was it peer reviewed” as if our version of peer review in the social sciences is the gold standard (it really isn’t, it’s important but we all know there are flaws in this system). It’s nonsense and comes from fear – and I’m going to return to this point about fear later on. Just because knowledge has been generated outside our systems doesn’t mean it isn’t worthy.

C) To use our knowledge of the wider pebble mountain to support, encourage and to be friends – to pick up the phone and offer sponsorship, counsel and guidance. To facilitate how practitioners could further build these pebbles of knowledge and grow them into new mounds or mountains of their own. To reflect on our work and attempts to theorise and research and treat them as any other attempt to generate knowledge deductively, inductively or ‘meta’ly.

Are we doing all we can to help? This is my only question.

In summary, the boom in practitioner led knowledge dissemination and generation is an added string to our bow. Not a threat. We should be trying to help, not hold back. To facilitate and support, not surpress. To talent scout for the next generation of true academic/practitioner hybrids. To raise a toast to those facilitating the safe spaces where teachers can share their knowledge (which we struggled to create), not criticise them for not using traditional and scary places of knowledge dissemination. To see potential and joy and pride in teachers engaging so proactively in generating new ideas.

We are here to make a difference. Let’s help practitoners, in their way, to make the pebbles that will become the boulders and mountains of the future.

Ed Leadership Theory for a pandemic – emotions, organisations and development.

Over the last few weeks, I have been wondering what knowledge or research might be interesting to those working in schools to help them understand what is going on right now.

I do believe knowledge of threshold concepts can help us review and revisit what we see in our environments. However, only when they don’t provide the quick wins or the answers. If youre looking for the silver bullets of leadership, turn away now. None of these provide answers.

But what they will provide is strong knowledge – well written, considerable bodies of theory that will help you to look at these perspectives a new.

Why not quick wins? Because I’m not a headteacher. I’m an academic. I’m not serving schools right now. You are. No one has the answers right now outside of generalised statements akin to “be more this and be more that”. Plus, I believe the profession is sick of quick wins – they want the meat, not the gristle. They are slowly recognising that the reality of schools as having wicked problems means solutions cannot just be transplanted from one place to another. They require undergoing a process of comprehension.

It is here where I hope to help. What I feel I can do, rather than make concrete suggestions from my lofty ivory tower, is to point you to theoretical positions and ideas that might just give you some solid lenses from which to review re comprehend the problems a new.

Question 1: How can we advance our understanding of emotion in schools.
Schools have, and always will be, hotbeds of feelings, moods and emotion. Megan Crawfords work in this is particularly insightful. As is this paper from 2018 which does a great job of explaining the differences between these often confused concepts. Both these pieces of work are excellent places to start if you want to increase your understanding of emotion and it’s relevance in schools.

Critically we all have to protect ourselves. A common addage is, at this time, we must empathise deeply with those around us. Paul Bloom argues that a more appropriate construct might be rational compassion in his book “Against Empathy”. It will transform how we think of others and how we manage when we have so many stories, emotions and perspective to take into account.

Question 2: Why is this all happening and how can I plan in light of this?
Folks, if you haven’t discovered complexity theory, it’s time to jump on the bandwagon. As a heuristic (thinking device) it can help us to re conceptualise our environment. Matt Evans is rapidly becoming one of my favourite bloggers on this and provides a great starting road into the domain. When youre ready, Hawkins and James is the next point of call. It’s a wonderful paper, but you’ll need to read it a few times (not because it’s bad, but because complexity theory takes a few goes before you get it), as is this tomb by Ralph Stacey.

Jean Boulton also then offers a more theory to practice approach which embodies complexity theory guide. But don’t skip to this. Read the theory first. You’ll get more out of the praxis guides if you do.

Question 3: Turning COVID in a developmental opportunity.
There is a lot of talk of using COVID as an individual and collective opportunity to reimagine a new way of working. To look at things afresh and to start again.

Before I go into how we might do this, I wish to share a word a word of caution about why such statements makes me nervous. There is a common misconception that is perpetuated in self help or self improvement workshops: that is, that you need to go through trauma or bad experiences in order to have fundamental growth opportunities and fundamentally shift how you view the world. For more information on what I mean by world view, see my research paper on adult ego development here.

The truth is that, whilst trauma and negative experiences do force us to question how we make sense of the world, they are a risky and dangerous mechanism for growth. For example, this paper demonstrated how life events such as divorce can lead to adult growth. However, this was only individuals with certain baseline psychological characteristics. Indeed, we forget that trauma can go wrong – it is unpredictable and can leave a whole host of complicated psychological structures severely impacted. I have no doubt that there are some individuals that come out of the back of atraumatic experiences [including yours truly] who feel that they are perhaps better for having gone through them. However, many do not. And for those that do to get the “growth” part, they have to recover from the fall out first.

So, first of all – turbulence and negative experiences do not on their own breed moments for growth.

What can support growth, however, is structure boundaries and safety. Whether or not you are looking to turn turbulence into a moment of reflection or growth, or just looking to help staff to continue to learn and grow, we need to provide safety. Providing secure, safe environments will allow individuals to explore this turbulent time as an opportunity to learn.

This means thinking about our environments and what we need them to be. A good starting point is understanding adult learning. Eleanor Drago-Severson offers a great guide to adult learning frameworks for schools and educators. I have also recently reread this paper around the concept of psychological safety and it’s relevance for school leadership and this might be useful, as is Kahn’s (2001) paper. Kahn provides an interesting read on the role of holding environments in combating this. Finally, understanding how our self systems can be compromised so readily by stress and pressure (I talk about this in a recent podcast).

So, what have I provided here? I suppose its just an elaborate reading list. Again, I make no apology for the lack of silver bullets. I do this out of respect for you and your roles in schools. And if any of this knowledge is useful, let me know.

Keep reading!

Absolute Trust in the Teaching Profession – The Real Adult Developmental Barrier.

I wanted to write a brief comment about the concept of Trust in the teaching profession. This is  a personal reflection, but has some links to Adult Development and Critical Realism too 😊

The concept of trust makes the round on edutwitter once every other week – that there should be greater trust in  teachers to make decisions for their classroom, or that headteachers should be trusted to make decisions for their schools.

It’s a very popular thing to say and a lot of commentators, professionals and academics all call for it.

The problem with trust – or what I will call “absolute trust”, that is requires you divorce yourself from arguments of the “what” and focus on the “how”.

Adult Developmental Psychologist Robert Kegan talks about the difference between content over structure:

  • content being the content of thought i.e. what you think – what you do, the decision you make
  • Structure being the reasoning behind it….the cognitive work, logic, reasoning, intent or moral and philosophical position that underpins the decision you have made.

Separating structure from content is an extremely challenging adult skills: one that does not occur until later stages of development. It ultimately requires one to recognise that (for most aspects) the structure of thought and content of thought are not a one to one correspondence. This is fancy adult development way of saying – you can come from the same place (structure) but have totally different ideas on how to get there (content).

Absolute trust is not about content – its about trusting that the underlying  structures behind the content of thought is to mean well.  We can have completely different decisions, yet have the same ‘structure’ behind them i.e. we can all want the best for children (structure) yet have different ideas behind the decision. Whether this is rules based or humanistic behaviour management; LEA or Academy trust; Knowledge or Skills.

I see many demand trust/ argue for trust and teacher/school autonomy. However, we need to recognise that, to achieve this, we need to be willing to trust the structure behind those we disagree with. We need to be extend their trust to where they are coming from (i.e. structure) ….despite having totally different ideas on what the content should be. We need to avoid stating the need to  “trust teachers” but criticise the content of peoples/groups thoughts on the assumption they have some different structure behind their decision. It is incompatible, in my view, to  criticise groups for their methods and imply there are some alternative agenda…dodgy links….inconspicuous means i.e. there is an structure behind the content that is dubious or morally/ethically questionable., and also argue to “trust teachers”. In fact, it undermines any attempt to build trust in the profession in the first place – if we cannot trust ourselves within the profession and those that carry the label of education, or teaching, why should we ask others to do the same?

Am I saying which should not be prepared to critique and question the content of thought? Absolutely not.  Am I saying that we shouldn’t be prepared to have pretty firm views on content? Again, as long as they are grounded, then go ahead. We should be prepared to challenge and debate content. This is a critical realist view on the world – knowledge is a model for an attempt to capture an external reality, and thus we should always be prepared to question our preferred model in light of new evidence or alternative models. But we will have to work exceptionally hard to ensure that this doesn’t bleed into crticising the other persons’ structure of thought – their values, their intent, their modus operandi.

We will need to recognise that just because a different decision is made, it is does not reflect on any differences in the underlying structure behind the decision. What I’m trying to say is…..we need to start with the position that, as a fellow within this profession, that they too have the best interest of the child and family at heart.

What if we have very clear evidence to the contrary – not conspiracy theory, not implied suggestion, but genuine hard fact and proof that structure (intention, moral value etc) is different from the intended aim? Fill your boots. Good luck finding it though. Structure is difficult to pick out. I’d argue most of the time…its likely you are probably operating on some assumption, or some attempt to imply structure from the content of their thought.

Absolute trust is exceptionally hard to grant and hard to maintain. As I said, we are talking about a hard adult skill to recognise, let alone achieve.  So we need to think before we say “Trust Teachers” and “Trust Leaders”: it means trusting that, as a profession, regardless of method, we are trying to operate from the same hymn sheet. And this will require hard work. Hard reflection. Hard thinking. Honesty and Humility to admit when we slip up (PS Yes I have done this too! And to those I have done this to, I am really, exceptionally sorry). Yes, content will differ – methods will differ – if we award trust on content alone, that’s when debates about content will be lost and the field will not advance…when one bleeds into the other, we go down the rabbit hole and forget to have a rationale conversation about content.

It means being prepared to extend the hand of trust, even if you are not sure. It means some really hard looking in the mirror to ask yourself “why am I challenging that group, or that person?”.

In short, trust in teachers in an easy line to trot out. Its a far harder one to see through to completion and to live by consistently.


Powerful Knowledge in the Teaching of Educational Leadership

I’m an academic that  has the privilege of both teaching and researching educational leadership. This blog is a reflection on the last 3 years teaching and designing modules in Educational Leadership at MA Level. It  has been, in part, inspired by taking on my own message that I regularly drill into my PGCE students and through the discussions with the likes of Tom Rees, Matt Evans, Claire Stoneman , Kathryn Morgan and more. That is, we should regularly stop to think about the decisions we make  about what we choose to teach, how we choose to teach it and why.

The blogs and thinking mentioned above has prompted me to reflect on what I teach and why. The what we teach and how we teach it, for me, are as important as each other. In this blog, I will focus on what knowledge I think is particularly transformative for leaders in schools.

The reason for this is because I believe great theory and knowledge is powerful. I believe this for two reasons. First, that powerful knowledge can transform a leaders approach to leadership. Second, that knowledge can promote the criticality our educational leaders need to navigate the field of educational leadership and to make it relevant for their setting.

  1. Powerful knowledge can transform leaders approach to leadership: I believe that, when taught at the right level of criticality and embedded within a developmental andragogical framework, there are theories of understanding people and organisations which can disrupt how we construct a leaders’ understanding of the world around them. Any Science Teacher trained in CASE (Cognitive Acceleration through Science Education) knows the power of threshold concepts to transform how students see Science, and how it can induce conflict into current schema. The idea is no different – powerful knowledge, in the right framework, can transform how we act and therefore how we lead our institutions and the individuals within them.
  2. To develop critical leaders, we need knowledgeable leaders. This knowledge can facilitate individuals to become active in how they consume educational leadership theory. There are some helpful educational leadership theories out there – stretching from the mainstays of Transformational, Distributed and Instructional Leadership models, to newer models such as Woods and Roberts’ Collaborative Leadership. Yet, I believe that contrasting one educational leadership theory against another is  not enough. If we really want our educational leaders to think about what it is to lead a school, we need them to work across the disciplines and think hard about their contexts. Contrasting how in educational leadership theory implicitly discusses the state of organizations, or assumes how people make decisions, gives us a different angle on the underlying theory and its nuts and bolts. Therefore, I believe a rich understanding of individuals and organisations can facilitate individuals to ask deeper, more fundamental questions behind the inherent assumptions within educational leadership theory. This promotes the critical consumption of educational leadership – not as a prescription to be followed, but as a model that needs constant review and development.

So, What is This “Powerful Knowledge”?

In asking this question, we first need to consider what leadership and management is. Leadership is about influence and management about taking responsibility. I argue that, if a leader is to have influence, they need to consider 3 aspects :

  • Individuals: how they come to make decisions and how they interpret the world around them
  • Organisations: funny things happen to people and incidents when they are in an organisational context.
  • I also believe, as Tom Rees stressed,  that we need to think more about EDUCATIONAL leadership -what is it to lead in an educational setting and what knowledge will be powerful to those who lead in schools.

Here are three relevant theories or threshold concepts that, I propose, could form part of a school leader’s powerful knowledge base. In this section,

NB Please note, that by excluding things, I am not saying that other knowledge domains aren’t important. It is just what I choose to prioritise based on my understanding of leadership and school organisations.

  1. Sense-Making

One of the most powerful knowledge bases for educational leaders, l believe, is sense-making. Sensemaking is a whole body of literature that considers how individuals actively construct their understanding of the world when situations are complex. Recent research from myself, Chris James and Sam Carr suggests that headteachers can go about this in fundamentally different ways .  The likes of Karl Weick, and well as adult developmental psychologists such as Kegan, Drago-Severson and Loevinger, and my own research in this area have acted as influential sources in understanding this process.

Understanding Sensemaking is critical for school leaders to understand. Schools themselves are complex places, which are full of wicked problems (See my paper above for greater detail on this). It is in such situations/problems where individuals have to try to comprehend the situation i.e. to Sense-make. Therefore, if leaders are going to work in places such as schools, and they wish to have influence, having knowledge of the process could be an advantage to enhancing their comprehension of others, and thus potential to influence those around them. For example:

  • Understanding sense-making means to embrace the idea that *not everyone comes to understand the world in the same way*. We know from the adult development literature,  that is it is really hard for adults to hold onto this notion!
  • It can also help adults navigate more practical aspects of influence:
    • It can support leaders in consider how their communication to others might be read,
    • how to navigate miscommunication.
    • how it is likely that collectives will try to come to understand the situation.

For example, if you are in a meeting with colleagues trying to comprehend a situation that has just happened. Disagreements over the nature of the problem, the cause and the solution will no doubt appear. Sense-making literature can explain why this is the case, how individuals come to problems differently, and how to resolve it in a way that takes advantage of the different ways of working.

Therefore, theories of sense-making  (what it is, how people engage in it) can provide a useful bank of knowledge to support leaders in both remembering the simple fact that the world is not seen universally, but also provide practical reflections on how to influence such a broad portfolio of experience.

2.Emotions within Decision Making.

Emotion does not receive enough attention. Emotion is critical for how we make decisions. Megan Crawford, Izhar Oplatka and Chris James make an excellent case for focusing on emotion here. Please note, this is not me calling for Emotional Intelligence. Far from it. I am talking about …

  • Supporting leaders to distinguish the difference between Mood (Long term), Feeling (short term) and Emotion (how we process).
  • How emotion can drive cognition. We can easily fall into the trap that our thoughts generate feelings. Yet, anyone with any understanding of CBT knows that emotion and cognition exist in a loop. Understanding emotion puts a spanner in the works of that thought is a simple linear arrow to feeling. It forces leaders to stop, reflect and think about how those around them are likely to be wor king on a response.

Why do I stress emotion for educational leaders? Because, as Megan Crawford  makes the case ,  schools present particular challenges in emotion. For example, schools are guardians of the future and the act of teaching itself can require bountiful amounts of emotional labour. Emotion isn’t a side-affect of how we think – it can drive how we think. Emotion is thus rife in school organisations and will therefore provide a key driver in how/why people do what they want to do. Through this understanding, I believe, leaders could respond more appropriately to this around them – and its in schools where this is exceptionally relevant.

For a practical situation, imagine a leader fluent in the understanding of emotion. How might they interpret or handle a situation? A parent dispute say, or a disagreement with a Head of Department over how to improve the Key Stage 3 Curriculum? Could the knowledge of emotion help leaders to empathise and, thus, communicate in a way that helps them to engage with the other person on a deeper level. I believe this could be so, at least over time and in the right framework.

3.Complexity Theory

Another powerful group of knowledge is that of organisational theory. In particular, the power of Complexity Theory. In my experience, most educational leadership theorists start with how to change organizations. However , how can we do this if we don’t question how organisations work in the first place?

This is where complexity theory is so powerful – it captures cause and effect, the formation of practice, events and ideas and fundamental principles for organisational life. Understanding and appreciating complexity can disrupt the rational, logical and linear way of thinking that underpinned so many attempts of change and how most adults come to understand the world around them. Matt Evans blog does a great job at applying this to schools and is giving great insight into how this theory can be practically applied to understand schools and can transform how they can be viewed in a totally different way (I will leave practical examples to his blog as it really is a treat!). Hawkins and James’s paper, as well as Keith Morrison’s work, are theoretical attempts to demonstrate its relevance as well.


I hope I have started to make the case for, what I consider to be, powerful knowledge in educational leadership and the role of good theory. I don’t believe we think hard enough about what theoretical knowledge can be powerful in disrupting the practices of the leaders on our programmes. I hope this little contribution is the start of a conversation.

To summarise, I believe there are many nuggets in psychology and organisational theory which can provide a strong, robust platform for shaping the mind, and therefore actions, of school leaders. However, identifying these theories need to come from a genuine understanding of what schools are like as organisations

  • the tasks and challenges that school leaders are likely to face
  • the inherent nature of education itself
  • and the nature of the people that work within them.

Thank you for your attention.