James Dalziel

November 19 2020


I have the pleasure once a week of teaching a theory of knowledge class to a highly energetic group of grade 11 students. The course itself focuses on how various disciplines, or areas of knowledge, generate new knowledge in unique and systematic ways. During a recent conversation involving our examination of the scientific method, a student asked me if medical professionals use the same methodology to generate knowledge within the field of medicine. The question caused me to pause, as medicine would definitely be traditionally seen as a subset under a broader scientific umbrella; but medicine itself has a unique methodology involved in the development of knowledge when focusing on individual patients. Broadly speaking, medical training involves developing a sophisticated and detailed understanding of what a healthy body looks like, acts like, and feels like. It then takes a series of measurements and compares the measurements of the sick person to their understanding of measurements of an ideally healthy person, makes a diagnosis, and prescribes a response to move those numbers from disease back towards health. This medical model caused me to compare, and ultimately question, what methodology educational leaders employ when trying to serve the best interest of our schools. I believe that there is potential within a modified medical model that may help school leaders define the qualities of an “ideal” healthy school, identify ways to diagnose and measure those qualities in their current school, and prescribe a course of action to move the school or organization in the right direction to achieve the desired results. It is a model that, to my knowledge, has not been offered or suggested within the educational community as an alternative way of thinking or organizing our thoughts and actions. This may also help us focus on one of the most difficult aspect of any educational change: having the discipline to do the work.

The first stage of any medical training involves highly detailed and often specialized knowledge of the human body and its intricate systems, usually lasting for years of intense study, practice and examination. The aim here in the first instance is not to understand illness but to understand wellness; the establishment of a healthy zone for body systems so that future doctors may have a benchmark to compare an ill patients’ condition to that of someone who was ideally well. Having this well-established sense of what it is to be well allows us to diagnose any particular case of dis-ease (the condition of not being at ease). I’m not sure that this is a question or challenge that has been adequately asked of educational leaders. Have we taken the time or invested the energy to consider what an effective school really is? Have we thought carefully about the conditions that need to be in place for an organization to achieve our desired outcomes? If we aim to be a learning focus school, such that our school has clearly defined learning objectives, have we developed a comprehensive and holistic understanding of the organizational qualities or structural elements which may need to be in place to achieve those goals? I would suggest that much of our current educational leadership training fails to make the connection between the how the elements of an effective school inevitably achieve the desired educational outcomes.

That is not to say that as educational leaders we lack access to educational organizational theories. The bookshelves of many Principals and Directors are teeming with the most up-to-date readings and articles of current best practice. Distributed leadership, effective school culture, creating change in schools, servant leadership, level V leaders, use of big data, how technology should revolutionize education, and suggestions for effective meeting structures are in overabundance and easily accessible to any school leader. However, what I fail to hear on a consistent basis is a school leader’s ability to take one of these desired elements and attempt to make a rational connection between its successful implementation in the achievement of increased learning objectives for students. Granted, many of these aspects are several levels removed, and as such, difficult to quantifiably measure in terms of a direct impact on student learning. I would argue that as educational leaders we need to avoid superficial, shallow, ill-informed, and all too often overly simplistic adherence to the latest flavour of the day in educational leadership theory. If we are going to use these aspects of educational organizations as a potential benchmark of health, we need to have a sophisticated, deep, well-informed, and ideally well referenced professional understanding of how they were operate within the actual context of a complex, living, breathing school.

With our newly formed and well-considered model of a healthy school now well established, we can begin to measure our own organization against this ideal. It is important for us to be clear that this step – we are not measuring the programme or the tool, we are measuring the impact of these actions. In the same way that a dieter would measure the actual weight lost as the ultimate measure of success (and not simply measuring the calories), school leaders need to measure the learning gains for students (and not the number of times a teacher may have attended another conference). So much of what we chose to do in schools actually works against our attempts to gather learning data and compare it to our vision of a healthy ideal. Conversations between school leadership teams can be rife with confirmation bias, non-objective considerations, and incomplete and inaccurate data. As with many schools claiming to be learning focused, all too often the language changes but the practices do not. Making an honest diagnosis of our situation an be an incredibly difficult task for school leaders and teachers, but this step must be in place if we are to move our organizations towards a healthy ideal and ultimately achieve our learning objectives for students.

As with many things, the final part, is the hard part. Once we have a well-established a deep understanding of what a healthy school does, and determined what metrics we might use to measure our current schools health against this ideal, we then have to come up with a plan to move us from where we are now to where we want to be in the future. I mentioned that this is the hard part for two reasons.

The first, and less difficult, involves creating strategies and plans to actually move the organization towards our healthy ideal. Returning to our dieting example. We have created an image in our mind of how we want to look and feel, and have measured our current state in terms of our weight or body measurements, Now we are faced with the task of coming up with a plan to transform our physical selves today toward our target archetype of tomorrow. So we ask friends for advice, read books, or surf the web looking for an easy, pain free strategy that helps us achieve our goals. Schools, like dieters, seem to be enamoured with the “quick fix” – the simple five-step plan to better leadership, or the rubric that suddenly solves all of our teacher supervision issues, or the cultural diagnostic tool that identifies precisely your school’s shortcomings are the organizational equivalent to the five-hour body, the “20 days to a new you”, for the couch potatoes guide to physical fitness. Shortcuts and half measures may, at best, provide some short-term improvements, but are rarely, if ever, offer structures that develop new habits for long-term and sustained improvements. Even when we do adopt a viable plan to better our organization we are often left with the second, and arguably most daunting, challenge in this entire process.

As I write this post, the start of the New Year is a short 16 days away. Many of my friends and colleagues will already be considering their New Year’s resolutions, the vast majority involving an overly optimistic and excessively ambitious weight-loss plan that, were it to have any remote possibility of success, would demand a dramatic shift in lifestyle choices and belief systems. They are doomed to fail almost before they begin. I would argue that this is not a result of a lack of desire; it is instead, an unwillingness to actually do the work. The easy part is making a plan – the hard part is doing the work: hour-by-hour, day-by-day, week-by-week, and month-by-month. And here is what often differentiates educational leaders who will can make a difference from those who will not. Anyone can diagnose an issue and create a plan – but it is unfortunately rare to find a school administrator who is willing to do the long-term work needed to make that plan a reality.

There is a misconception that educational programmes are temporary – simply a way to get us from where we are to where you want to be. The fallacy that once we adopt our programme the problem is solved, without actually measuring the impact on student learning. We think that being on a diet is the same as actually losing the weight. We also believe that we can drop the strategy and go back to her usual way of working once it has been applied. No surprise then that the dieter puts the weight back on and the school deals with the same issues again, and again, and again. Meaningful change demands a commitment, hard work and time. These are deep changes that reshape the culture, beliefs, values and reference systems of the organisation. We all have the desire to be better – that’s the easy part, focusing on the actual impact on student learning and the willingness to endure the discomfort of the work is often what ultimately creates great schools.