My response to “In order to challenge an idea you must have a better one (or make a positive case for maintaining the status quo)” (This is part comment, part rant)

I started reading this post http://headguruteacher.com/2015/02/08/launching-the-college-of-teaching-vision-vs-inertia/ and by halfway through the first paragraph I was cringing. It wasn’t that I disagree with everything he wrote in the piece (although I do disagree with some of it).

Now I like Tom. I think he’s good. I think he’s written a lot of good stuff and I broadly agree with much of what he says.

Also a lot of this post is about me and my experiences rather than him particularly.

One thing that still amazes me is how much, having worked for so long in a bullying environment, certain phrases evoke strong feelings of resentment and anger and the following type of phrase is one of them:

“In order to challenge an idea you must have a better one (or make a positive case for maintaining the status quo)”.

I read that and it provoked an immediate mental and physical reaction.

Why?

Mostly because I’ve seen phrases like that used, in combination with a supposed “open door policy”, to pretend to be willing to listen whilst silencing staff.

I also fundamentally disagree with the notion.

It’s quite possible to know what is wrong with an idea and yet not know how to fix it or how to make it better.

It’s quite possible to know that an idea will not work without having a better idea.

It’s quite possible that a “new” idea has been tried repeatedly before without success.

It’s quite possible that awful though the status quo is the new idea is worse.

It’s quite possible that the new idea isn’t any better than the status quo but will involve more work (and last time I checked “I don’t want to do more work for no discernible benefit” is not generally considered a “positive case”).

For me there are several issues with this position:

  1. Change almost invariably involves extra work (at least initially). People generally do not want to extra work unless the benefits of doing so are obvious. Therefore if you don’t want objections to your shiny new idea then make the benefits obvious.
  2. The people coming up with these new ideas are paid to lead. I am not. Convincing staff of the merits of a new idea is their job. It is not reasonable to demand staff come up with solutions, alternatives or arguments for the status quo in order to challenge an idea because it simply is not their job to do so. I have a demanding job. I don’t have so much free time that I want to be spending any of it doing someone elses job for them. If someone puts a bad idea in front of me I should not have to take time away from teaching related activities in order to come up with some sort of solution/alternative/argument. That seems to me to be a ridiculous waste of my time (not that I won’t do it. It’s in my contrary nature to do exactly that). If you put an unpopular idea to the staff it’s your job to fix it not mine.
  3. In my experience this position is often used as a method of silencing dissent. If people know that they will be expected to come up with solutions, better ideas or a coherent argument in order to challenge a bad idea then they are far less likely to challenge a bad idea.
  4. If people have to come up with a “better” idea then we need to be clear about what we mean by “better”. Better how? Better in whose opinion? If I have to come up with an idea that’s better in your opinion than your own idea then that’s unlikely to happen with many leaders simply because many leaders have been unwilling, in my experience, to accept that there are any flaws in their ideas until the ideas predictably and sometimes disastrously fail.
  5. It’s quite possible to know that something is wrong without knowing the right answer. Peer review in Maths and Science show examples of this all the time. Imagine what would happen if the Maths and Science communities said “You cannot challenge an idea unless you have a better one”. It would not make for good mathematics or science. It would not improve the quality of ideas.

Finally I would like to give a couple of examples of what can happen when leaders take this view:

I have two anecdotes that I believe illustrate the potential problems with this viewpoint. Both of these examples are the same school.

To give a bit of context, the Headteacher there hated being challenged. They also hated being presented with any form of problem to deal with. People that questioned, challenged, referred problems upwards or were not sufficiently enthusiastic about the brilliance of new policies were rarely, if ever, promoted. Many perfectly good teachers were “encouraged” out of the school for these sins.

The rest of this post is part anecdote part rant and to summarise for anyone who does not wish to read a rant:

“In order to challenge an idea you must have a better one (or make a positive case for maintaining the status quo)” is in my experience a position often taken by bullies and poor managers that do not wish to listen to staff. It can result in very poor policies not being challenged. However I wish to be clear that I am NOT saying that everyone who takes this view or says these words is a bully or a poor manager.

On with the ranty anecdotes

1) We were presented with the schools plan for improving attendance. Having looked at the agenda I foolishly thought this would be a plan for getting more kids into the school more of the time. I had already decided to say nothing as I was always the one sticking my head above the parapet.

To summarise, the plan was:

If a pupil attends any lesson or registration in the morning they are marked in for the morning.

If a pupils attends any lesson or registration in the afternoon they are marked in for the afternoon.

This was presented in the most long winded way possible as if it were a radical breakthrough.

When the person telling us about this master plan had finished talking and asked for questions all eyes turned to me and my friend next to me. The silence became slightly uncomfortable. Some people aspiring to leadership roles said it was a great idea. There was then more uncomfortable silence.

I then put my hand up and asked some questions (I can’t help myself sometimes). The conversation went something like this:

  • Me: Are registrations and lessons now optional?
  • Him: Of course not. Why would you think that?
  • Me: Are you not suggesting that pupils be marked present whether or not they are actually present? Provided of course they have attended at some point during the half day?
  • Him: Yes but that doesn’t mean they don’t have to go.
  • Me: So what is the school going to do about it if a pupil doesn’t attend a lesson or registration (besides marking them in ofc)
  • Him: I don’t know.
  • Me: This might improve our statistical attendance. Have we given up on actually improving the attendance? If not then what’s the plan for that?
  • Him: That’s not what we’re discussing today.

Now I had no wish to argue for the status quo (large scale internal and external truancy and generally poor attendance figures). I didn’t have any “better” ideas. I was not on the pastoral team. I’m not an ESW or an EWO. It was not my job to know about how to improve attendance and I’m not hugely interested in attendance figures beyond the impact they have on my ability to do my job. Does that mean I should allow nonsense to pass unchallenged?

This policy was introduced. When the reports came out and pupils that truanted regularly had good attendance figures the rate of internal and external truancy increased significantly. While the figures showed improved attendance the actual attendance to lessons dropped precipitously (particularly the lessons of teachers that insisted on work and good behaviour).

The second anecdote relates to plans in the same school to deal with a sharp decline in the standards of behaviour in the school that happened one year.

This is a summary of what they did (in this context “academic” means “has a chance of getting 5A*-C”):

  • Poorly behaved pupils that were not “academic” divided their time between “Learn to learn”, statutory subjects and college. “Learn to learn” was a class full of the worst behaved pupils in a year group. It was generally “taught” by someone the HT did not like if the timetable allowed for that and someone with slack in their timetable if it did not. Pupils were supposed to learn study skills, how to revise, how to not behave like a total muppet and other “important” life skills. What quickly became very clear was that people were not being chosen to teach those classes on the basis of their ability to manage behaviour. Thus what the pupils learned was very little. So many pupils wanted to go to college that they decided to only send the worst behaved pupils AND THEY ACTUALLY TOLD THE PUPILS THAT THIS WAS THE CRITERIA FOR DECIDING WHO GOES TO COLLEGE with predictably disastrous effects.
  • Poorly behaved pupils that were “academic” did a normal timetable apart from they miss some lessons to be involved in a variety of mentoring/counselling programs. “Sports mentoring” was so in demand with the pupils that they could only let the worst behaved do it. Pupils in my tutor group apologised in advance for their poor behaviour when they discovered this and told me they were going to make sure they were “naughty enough” to get in. It was painful to watch. The school counsellor was an attractive young woman. Lots of the sillier boys competed to be the most “troubled” so they would be referred to her. While I wouldn’t suggest for a second that attractive women should not be employed in that role I think that the school, once informed that this was happening, should have considered who they referred and why a little more carefully. Most of the mentoring programs suffered from similar problems.
  • The school rewards policy had significant rewards for “improvement” but did not specify that the behaviour or work had to in any way be acceptable. Thus if a pupils behaviour moved from intolerable or unteachable to merely awful then we were expected to give them an achievement point. This led to some of the worst behaved pupils in the school winning laptops, vouchers etc and pupils that were well behaved all the time winning nothing. This did not go unnoticed by some of our pupils whose behaviour had previously been acceptable.

The issue was that every stage of the implementation of this plan the staff were informed of the plan. Staff were informed of proposed changes and tweaks to the plan. At every stage most staff were quite happy and able to rip the plans to shreds down the pub or in the staff room. However when given the opportunity to comment or ask questions very few people said anything other than how brilliant it all was. Those of us that did point out the fairly obvious flaws in the plan were told that we shouldn’t criticise the plan if we didn’t have solutions or a better idea. Now I could have defended the status quo as opposed to the impending disaster but I had no wish to defend the status quo because the behaviour in the school was pretty awful. However the proposed changes were worse than the systems already in place. I also had no wish to come up with a better behaviour policy for 2 reasons:

  1. I didn’t have the time to waste on doing so because I was working 60 hours per week teaching 26 lessons per week.
  2. I knew the leadership team well enough to know that once they presented an idea to staff they were pretty much wedded to the idea and the only way to get rid of a bad idea at that point was to let it fail eventually (pointing out that it was failing all the while). While the policy was dying on its arse the SLT member we nicknamed “Stalin’s minister for agriculture” would extoll the brilliant strides forward the school was making as a result of the policy. Nobody recognised the school he was talking about.
  3. It was not my job to write a functional behaviour policy.

I thought I’d try engaging with the consultation process this time rather than simply pointing out the flaws in the plan. I joined the behaviour working party. I discovered that it was full of aspiring leaders who seemed to want to compete for who could be most enthusiastic about the policy as it stood. They certainly didn’t want to suggest an improvement as that would be taken as criticism. They had no intention of doing anything to jeopardise their meteoric rises into jobs often well beyond their levels of competence. Thus any concerns raised were immediately shot down and anyone raising issues was labelled “negative”, “not a team player” or it was implied that they only had concerns because behaviour management was not a strength of theirs. The behaviour working party reported back to SLT that the proposed policy was fully awesome in every way.

The one good thing that came of my time on the behaviour working party was that one of the deputy heads let slip that the purpose of the policy was “to reduce exclusions and referrals” rather than “to improve pupil behaviour”. I pointed out that reducing exclusions and referrals was not the same thing as improving behaviour because you could reduce exclusions and referrals simply by deterring staff from referring pupils to their line managers, which didn’t go down very well. I also pointed out that the school already had an unofficial policy for reducing exclusions and referrals. It was offering “support” to people who referred too many pupils. This “support” generally entailed observing them, telling them they were useless, implying that they should manage behaviour using appeasement and selective ignoring and then observing them again if they did so and telling them they had improved (if the number of referrals had decreased in the interim). It was blaming the teacher whenever an incident happened in a lesson that led to a pupil being excluded. Saying that led to bollocking number 18472 from the HT.

This behaviour policy lasted a year in which the behaviour in the school was the worst I have ever seen and the results took a nose dive as a result. Thus the following year a shiny new behaviour policy was presented to staff in September…

Those are two examples I picked out of hundreds I could have chosen from my time at that school. Every time the story was the same. A silly idea was put forward. Nobody had bothered to think through any sort of contingency plan. Nobody considered what would happen if pupils or staff did not co-operate. The policy was doomed from the outside due to negligence on the part of those people coming up with the plan. They tried to pre-emptively silence dissent with ridiculous posturing and making out that anyone critical of their ill conceived nonsense should keep their thoughts to themselves unless they could come up with something “better”. Coming up with something that I and/or the staff thought was better was not at all difficult. Coming up with something that they would accept as better would have taxed the intellects of the finest minds that ever lived.

I’m not saying that everyone who utters or writes the words “In order to challenge an idea you must have a better one (or make a positive case for maintaining the status quo)” or similar is a bad person, a bad manager or as awful as the ones I worked with. I’m sure many people who believe that have good intentions.  I’m sure many of them are competent.

I still cringe whenever I hear that sort of thing (or anything similar) said though and I probably always will. Most colleagues I know who are as well travelled as I am do too. In my experience it’s indicative of an attitude of not listening to staff.

If you are someone in a leadership role who says that sort of thing then just reflect for a moment on whether your staff might be silenced by that position and whether or not that is something you actually want.

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2 thoughts on “My response to “In order to challenge an idea you must have a better one (or make a positive case for maintaining the status quo)” (This is part comment, part rant)

  1. thequirkyteacher

    Loved this post. Coming from The Real world, I sometimes find myself rather shocked by the calibre of managers in state education. In the private sector, in general, middle managers would be selected from the best of the front line staff and they would also have a good rapport with all they came into contact with. It’s a very tricky line to tread when you are responsible for large groups of people: you are the eyes and ears of the upper management and sometimes you also have to deliver bad news in a diplomatic way. The boss trusts you because the profitability of the company, the reputation of the brand, and potentially the livelihoods of all concerned rely upon your honesty and pragmatism. Now, why would a head honcho hire someone who only ever says, “Yes, this is a wonderful idea?” A good leader will choose his/her counsel wisely. A good leader should expect to hear, every now and then, about how a policy is not working well (and with the evidence to support rather than some emotional anecdote) because anyone with an ounce of common sense would know that they were only human, therefore all their ideas would not necessarily be good ideas.

    Why is it that those teachers who have failed (couldn’t cope, had great ideas but couldn’t deliver, highly emotional, not pragmatic) are then more likely to be promoted? Is the system toxic because, for once, the lack of profit motive and threat to livelihoods is not there to keep people on task and doing the right thing? Perhaps the people at the top feel threatened by the prospect of being exposed as incompetent. Far easier to hire the sorts of middle managers you describe. Far easier to blame the teachers.

    One caveat: I have noticed that there is a vast difference between the morale of front line staff in the public sector compared to the private sector. It seems that the lack of autonomy and trust in the public sector has a detrimental effect on the mental health of front line staff that you just do not see in the private sector. In the private sector, front line staff might be under a lot of pressure, but at the end of the day they are not micromanaged in the way that public sector staff are. There is an almost unique air of despondency that results from this. (FTR I am comparing Finance/IT to State education and Adult community learning). Because of this, managers may become de-sensitised to what they perceive as ‘moaning’, and then, in an effort to preserve themselves, simply take a bullish attitude to the implementation of new protocols. Perhaps the whole system is toxic.

    Reply

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