The benefit of tinkering…

I recently read this piece by Alex Quigley, of the Education Endowment Fund, in tes magazine: ‘Try tinkering, rather than making bold changes’.  Alex explores the research around the wisdom of making small, moderate, sustainable changes, rather than attempting sweeping transformation.  He cites the work of US researcher Mary Kennedy, from Michigan State University, and says:

“Kennedy praises the value of “tinkering”. Although it may be dismissed by energetic new school leaders – seeming to some to be meek and unduly cautious – tinkering is a pragmatic approach that offers a greater likelihood of sustained success.”

I tweeted extracts from the article, as is my weekend wont, and fellow tweeter Catherine Wilkinson commented:

Tinker tweet 1

which led into a short exchange:

Tinker tweet 2

So here I am, Cath, with a little more time and space to explore this!  I think it’s a particularly pertinent issue to consider at the moment, as we are faced with unparalleled challenge as a result of coronavirus, lockdown including school closure, remote learning and the debates about when/how schools might reopen safely.  There are concerns about mental health and well-being – of pupils, staff and parents – in addition to the anxiety around continuity of learning, especially for disadvantaged students, those about to transfer from primary to secondary schools, and those who are part way through their GCSE and A level courses.   With external examinations cancelled, and GCSE and A level grades being generated by those in schools rather than examination boards, there is further pressure, affecting school leavers, students about to transfer to employment, training or new courses at 16, and those who teach them.  Clearly, change is happening on a grand scale, whether we choose it or not.

What agency do we have, here?  How can we control the pace and nature of change, and how might ‘tinkering’ help us – within our own virtual classrooms, within our departmental and pastoral teams, within our schools and across groups of schools?

Firstly, to pick up Cath’s point, I would say that collaboration is key.  It has been clear in the last few weeks how much generous and productive sharing is taking place, on and off online networks.  Educators are pooling their resources (figurative and literal) and supporting each other, exchanging ideas and opinions and material.  I have been hugely proud of the education community and how they have stepped up to this challenge in the most difficult circumstances.  However, I have also been aware of how overwhelming this has been – there is so much material, and so many ideas, that some individuals, and some schools, have found themselves being reactive, responding to the urgency of the situation and desperately trying to find their way through the morass of information suddenly readily available to find what might work best for them in their specific context.

I see schools that have been trying to do too much, too quickly, exerting unreasonable pressure on their staff, their students (and their families), trying to be so structured and rigorous in their demands that this has clearly been unsustainable in many homes.  I understand that this comes from a good place: a desire to support learning and to ensure that pupils have a sense of purpose and continue to make progress, but in their determination to do enough, they have tried to do too much, and this has increased pressure and stress rather than helped to alleviate it.

I have seen schools rapidly introducing online platforms with which their communities are unfamiliar, and which cannot be adequately supported – both in terms of technology and with respect to staff professional learning and development.  Some schools and their leaders seem to have been flailing around as they try to find the answer to remote learning success.

My advice to everyone as we came up to the Easter break was to take a breath.  Do some thinking, and gather views from staff, from pupils and their parents.  What has worked?  What hasn’t?  What should we do more of?  What should we stop?  How can we strike the right balance between providing a framework within which productive learning can take place, and risking overloading and overwhelming so learners just give up and opt out?  And how, amidst all this, do we properly support the health and well-being of all those within our school communities, including those who are leading them?

This brings me back to the benefits of tinkering.  When I was a head, I inherited the leadership of a school where there was constant evaluation.  After every school event, and every fresh challenge, we always encouraged a period of reflection and asked: What did we do well there (and how do we know we did it well)?  What might we consider changing next time?  What did we learn and how can that learning benefit us as we move forward?  We gave ourselves time to think, and to discuss and share perspectives and insights.  And we recorded what came out of this discussion, and we kept these records.  If this was a routine school occasion, we brought out those records the following year as we moved into the planning phase, and we ensured we reminded staff of what we were going to do differently, or do more of, in response to their suggestions the previous year.

I mentioned Appreciative Inquiry in my Twitter exchange with Cath.  The idea behind this is that, often, we spend too much time fixating on what is broken, and how we can fix it.  The suggestion is that we would get further if we gave more time and attention to what is working, and how can we do more of it.  Where are the bright spots?  What are we proud of?  What can we learn from that – why was it successful?  How can we use that learning to achieve even more in the future?

This, to me, is all about tinkering, tweaking, making small, manageable but positive changes which, cumulatively, can make a significant difference.  I would say there has been much positive practice, many bright spots and a good deal to feel proud of in how education has stepped up to the challenge of these extraordinary times.  Other things have worked less well and have increased the tension rather than worked to resolve it.  There are no answers and no quick fixes, but we need to give ourselves space and time to think, to process our learning, to talk it through, share across individual practitioners, across groups of staff within schools and colleges, across schools, and across groups of schools.  Let’s consolidate the positive and rethink the strategies that have been less effective.  Let’s dial it back a bit, slow down and be more measured, balanced and considered in our approach, despite the urgency and, dare I say, the panic that may be lurking in the wings.

To go back to Alex’s article, sweeping changes may not be in our best interests.  Taking careful note of what staff, pupils and their families can cope with, let’s reassure and support, build on small successes and move in the right direction, even if it seems that our initial steps are small.  Let’s look for positive evolution in these difficult times.  It may be more manageable, sustainable and effective.

Thank you to Alex and to Cath.  Best wishes to you all as you face your challenges.

Photo credit: Alan Cleaver





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