A SISYPHEAN ENDEAVOUR: SCHOOL COMPLEXITY AND THE PROBLEM OF REMOTE LEARNING

“Schools are fascinating and complex places.”

So state Jen Barker and Tom Rees in the opening chapter to The ResearchEd Guide to Leadership (2020, p.23). In the closing chapter, Matthew Evans returns to this idea and describes schools as complex systems that are “constantly evolving,” (p.216) and feature problems that are “interconnected and embedded within bigger problems” (p.217). 

The complexity of schools and education is explored in detail in this blog, which is a transcript of an excellent talk given by Becky Allen and Ben White in 2019. Within it, the writers point to the impossibility of solving the problems thrown up by such complexity, precisely because the interconnectedness and changing nature of the problems makes agreement as to their “essence” unlikely, which in turn leads to multiple solutions appearing plausible to those attempting to solve them, depending on their beliefs and biases.

In “normal” times, the job of school leaders and teachers is complex enough. Nuthall’s work, The Hidden Lives of Learners (2007) provides a detailed analysis of the challenges faced by teachers on a daily basis as they attempt to navigate thirty diverse pupil minds towards a common goal in the face of multiple variables and the unavoidable yet inconvenient truth that the very thing they seek to achieve – learning – is invisible. School leaders face this issue scaled up to institutional proportions, their job being to design effective systems which must take into account the diverse needs of staff as well as pupils, whilst dealing with external disruption stemming from government, local authority or trust policy.

What should school leaders do when faced with such complexity?

Evans argues that a crucial step is to acknowledge and accept the complexity in the first place (2020, p.216). Berliner’s paper, Describing the Behaviour and Documenting the Accomplishments of Expert Teachers (2004) asserts that expert teachers are more “sensitive to the task demands and social situation” than novices (p.2), and that they resultantly take longer to solve problems than their less experienced counterparts. Berliner also argues for taking time to build expertise, citing an Australian study (Turner, 1995) that found exemplary teachers “developed a far more complex view of their working worlds than did the non-exemplary teachers.”

Acknowledging complexity shouldn’t cause leaders to rush towards complicated solutions. That may sound counter-intuitive, but answers are more likely to be found in creating clarity. Where problems are so complex as to be unsolvable, Evans argues we work towards reducing complexity through “structure, stability and simplification” (2020, p.217).

As a teacher, I often had to remind myself: don’t overestimate what pupils know; don’t underestimate what pupils can do.

As a leader I have a new mantra: don’t oversimplify the problems; don’t overcomplicate the response.  

If you haven’t yet had the chance, I strongly recommend any current or aspiring school leader spend some time catching up with Dixons OpenSource – a series of brief, soundbites in the form of YouTube Videos, put together by Dixons Academies Trust in an attempt to codify an area in which they rightly enjoy a reputation for excellence: school culture. As Luke Sparkes and Jenny Thompson talk us through what makes Dixons unique, their message is clear, refreshing, and teaches much about the value of simplicity.

Throughout the videos, they emphasise how leaders are responsible for creating and moreover sustaining school culture, arguing that effective leadership is not about overseeing exciting new initiatives, but rather is a process of reiterating the mundane. Schools aren’t well served by over-complication – you only need to look at the unintended consequences of unwieldy data tracking processes or confusingly multi-layered behaviour policies to see where that leads. Instead, Sparkes and Thompson urge doing a few things exceptionally well.  The essence is that the job of leaders is to play implementation on repeat, every single day.

Demanding the highest of standards and making sure they are there to see it through, day after day, is something I’m proud to say our school leaders at Advantage Schools do brilliantly. But there is no avoiding the fact it is hard work. No wonder Sparkes and Thompson refer to this as a Sisyphean endeavour, alluding to the character from Greek mythology who was tasked by Zeus to roll a boulder uphill for eternity.

What does this look like in a school?

The videos on Dixons OpenSource, as well as the chapter co-authored by Sparkes and Thompson in The ResearchEd Guide to Leadership, provide exemplification of Evans’s “structure, stability and simplification.”  At Advantage Schools we have our own systems in place that work towards this goal – clear, consistent routines that are followed every day: morning line up and a senior leader’s whole school address; structured tutor times that are the same across the whole school; expectations of staff around supervising pupil transition between classrooms; micro-scripts that are followed at the start and end of each lesson; high levels of SLT presence around the school systematised by a rota of lesson wanders and duties.

The daily embedded routines of our schools set out to achieve what Evans describes as the leaders’ duty to create a “positive, productive environment […] where the disorder and unpredictability of children’s lives […] is met with simplicity, order and calm” (2020, p.219).

How does this relate to remote learning?

This brings us to the most recent evolution in schooling: dealing with the challenge of sustaining pupil learning during a time when schools are closed to the majority of pupils. Acknowledging the complexity normally faced by teachers and school leaders, outlined above, the removal of staff and pupils from the familiar classroom environment and routines, in addition to the distancing effect of remote teaching and learning, only serves to further problematise what schools are attempting to achieve. Indeed, Berliner’s work would suggest that the more expertise leaders and teachers possess, the more awareness they will have of the difficulty of transferring that expertise to an online context. Perhaps this explains why so many of us were so frustrated by the narrative non-experts were pushing that to solve the problem of school closures teachers just needed to teach live lessons via Zoom – a good example of an overly simplistic view of a problem leading to an ill-thought out, one-size fits all solution influenced by personal views and biases. 

Accepting the difficulty of measuring the quality of pupil learning during a time of remote education, our school leaders have proceeded with caution and worked, as they would in school, to exert influence and reduce complexity where they can. Their focus has been on what, for the purpose of simple communication, I will call “engagement” – a slippery and unsatisfactory term by which I mean remotely attending to their learning, behaving well, and participating. The work, therefore, of leaders was to build on a culture already established in our schools: partnering with parents, establishing pupil buy-in with regard to the importance of attendance and hard work, implementing systems that would encourage, nudge, insist pupils turn up to the lessons, behave well, and attempt to complete the work set.

Their methods were matched to their in-school approach – create tight routines that are followed and checked every day, ensuring expectations of pupils are clear, consistent and followed up on as necessary.

During the last weeks of term, my conversations with our school principals and senior leadership teams emphasised the staggeringly Sisyphean effort of this work. Most days, I drop into SLT meetings and briefings – this is a system I agreed on with our Principals to save them time in having to update me as it means I am hearing first-hand what our schools are dealing with and how they are responding. Each time I join a meeting I am struck by the dogged perseverance of the leadership teams in our schools, supported by teams of equally determined teachers, pastoral and family support workers and office staff to ensure pupils are in touch and accessing the remote learning provided to them. The systems both our schools put in place relied on the following five principles:

  1. Daily check in

Both schools have a system to check in with pupils remotely every day – Elstow school has chosen to do this through a morning Zoom register, Bedford Free School through a Google form which students should complete each morning. Both systems require pupils to be up, ready and online by a set time each day, sustaining a school routine and expectation of readiness, whilst also enabling pupils or families to flag up if they have any worries and would like someone from school to contact them.  The registers are checked by SLT daily and follow up is immediately agreed for pupils expressing concerns or failing to register.

2. Monitoring lesson attendance

In both schools, class or subject teachers then keep a contact register – if there is a live lesson, a register is taken and pupil attendance logged. If there is work to be submitted, submission is logged as attendance.  If a pupil has not been seen or heard from by mid-morning there will be some form of follow up. This differs by school – at Bedford Free School a text message is sent to parents letting them know their child has not started work yet. If this nudge is unsuccessful, there will be a follow up phone call. At Elstow, depending on the circumstance, the class teacher, a member of the office staff or SLT will contact home.  In both schools, if the calls and texts don’t result in attendance, SLT discuss pupils and identify individual actions – who needs a supportive call, who may need a home visit, who would be better attending on site provision. In each case the most appropriate person is assigned to liaise with the pupil or family.  

3. Monitoring behaviour

SLT also discuss behaviour, which teachers are asked to always flag, for example by adding a comment to their SIMs register.  SLT discuss all behaviour issues raised in the last 24 hours, such as a pupil deliberately failing to mute their microphone, inappropriate use of the chat function, or not participating/submitting work. Every incident is discussed, with members of SLT adding phone calls home to the list of shared out work to complete that afternoon. Again, where measures to address these problems are ineffective, it may be decided a pupil would be better off attending on site provision.

4. Pastoral and IT support

This is in addition to the pastoral teams who spend most of their days calling families, providing remote support and responding to safeguarding concerns, and the office staff, who have worked tirelessly to prepare and distribute paper packs and laptops to families in need, and provide ongoing IT support (which of course is the bedrock of the effectiveness or our daily check ins). At Bedford Free School, requests for help can be communicated by families using the Google register, and at Elstow School not only do SLT follow up if pupils have not accessed the morning register, teachers also run a Zoom story time for pupils at the end of each day followed by a 15 minute open forum for parents to ask any questions they may have or ask for support. Of course, pupils and families can also email or call if they need to.

5. And Repeat

The next day, the leadership teams come together again to repeat the whole process.

I am in awe of our own and other school leaders who are doggedly repeating such processes each and every day. I have no doubt it is exhausting and feels relentless, sometimes even thankless. I also have no doubt their persistence is rooted in their belief that the work they do is important, and that at a time where the unpredictability in children’s lives is so pronounced they will do all they can to re-create a familiar school world of simple, consistent expectations.

And the pupils are responding. Over time, the number of pupils not attending has reduced. At Bedford Free School 100% of pupils are engaged in remote learning on some level, although the leadership team continue to working intensively with 1% of pupils to sustain persistent engagement. At Elstow School the leadership team are working determinedly with 2%.

Where do we go from here?

I know plenty of other schools are doing what ours are doing – in fact the point is none of this is rocket science. But I also know not all schools are. I recently attended some training that suggested all kinds of initiatives to promote engagement – competitions, WOW days, challenges, passports,  celebrations – all lovely things that have value in their own right, but are likely to appeal most to the pupils motivated or supported enough to be engaging with school work already (in fact, I’d argue that, for some, these activities may even be a distraction from the core learning schools want pupils to prioritise). Too many parents are not finding out until parents’ evening that their children are not doing any work – and what about the children of parents who can’t or don’t attend parents’ evening?

I also know many schools are likely to be doing different but equally effective things to sustain attendance, and I would love to hear what they are. But moreover, hopefully with school returning in the near future, we will find ourselves facing up to the complexity of supporting pupils whose experiences of home learning will have varied significantly. School leaders must resist a rush to simplify the problems and initiate complicated solutions. Rather we must return to our mission, acknowledge the complexity of the problems we face, collaborate effectively, and make our best bets to reduce complexity and establish calm, safe and largely predictable schools where children can thrive.

That means turning up tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that, and continuing to roll that boulder up that hill.

References

Allen, R. and White, B. (2019) ‘Careering Towards a Curriculum Crash?” Becky Allen: Musings on Education Policy Online Blog dated 4th December 2019 accessed 17/02/21  https://rebeccaallen.co.uk/2019/12/04/careering-towards-a-curriculum-crash/

Barker, J. and Rees, T. (2020) ‘What is school leadership?’ in Lock, S. (ed.) The ResearchEd Guide to Leadership. Woodbridge: John Catt Educational

Berliner, D. C. (2004) ‘Describing the Behaviour and Documenting the Accomplishments of Expert Teachers’, Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society, 24(3), pp. 200–212. doi: 10.1177/0270467604265535.

Evans, M (2002) ‘Surviving and thriving in uncertainty’ in Lock, S. (ed.) The ResearchEd Guide to Leadership. Woodbridge: John Catt Educational

Nuthall, G. (2007) The Hidden Lives of Learners. Wellington: NZCER Press.

Sparkes, L and Thompson, J. (2020) ‘School culture’ in Lock, S. (ed.) The ResearchEd Guide to Leadership. Woodbridge: John Catt Educational

Dixons OpenSource videos can be accessed on YouTube here

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