I’m not a fan of education metaphors but in the spirit of true hypocrisy, here goes.
In an ecosystem, there are some species that act a keystone. Their role is like a keystone in an arch – if you remove the keystone, the entire arch collapses.
A famous example is the elimination of the Gray Wolf from the Yellowstone National Park. Without these predators, animals began to over-graze, affecting the populations of plants. Wolves also kept animals away from the beaver habitats. Without the wolves, their habitats were also over-grazed. So, the beaver population decreased due to a lack of food. Without beaver dams to slow down water, erosion of river banks occurred. This displaced soil and plants.
When we cut a school initiative, it has the potential to have this same knock-on effect.
Imagine: a school has decided their phonics scheme is not having the desired impact. They decide to change to a different scheme. Because of this change, there is a myriad of effects:
- External providers train staff in how to deliver it. This takes up development time originally planned for other things and requires significant time and money.
- There are new monitoring practices and assessments, which take up a lot of time.
- Leaders adapt the timetable to meet the new scheme’s requirements, affecting the timetabling of other subjects.
- The new scheme requires children to be split into more groups. This takes up more intervention space and affects timetabling of other interventions.
- The increased number of groups requires more staff to lead them, taking staff away from other responsibilities.
- Funding is allocated for new books aligned to the scheme, leaving less funding available elsewhere.
- Sounds now appear in a different order, which affects the learning of those who have already received some phonics instruction, requiring the order of the scheme to be adapted during its initial implementation.
- Results do not improve in the first two years of the scheme’s implementation because the changes are widespread and not embedded.
You may be thinking this sounds a bit extreme, but it is a real example I observed. One change can have multiple, unforeseen effects.
This is where the principle of Chesterton’s fence resonates:
‘The principle that reforms should not be made until the reasoning behind the existing state of affairs is understood’.
In schools, we are quick to enact the changes we want to see. Unfortunately, these changes can be often be driven by ideology rather than evidence, by lethal mutations, or by a sense of universalism (i.e. seeing it work in another school and thinking it will therefore work in our contexts). This can cause us to act without spending the appropriate time to consider the effects of the change.
Thinking about this caused me to reflect on my own practice in leadership.
When I was a novice leader, I always thought about what needed to change and what I was changing it to.
As I became more experienced, I instead thought about why something needed to change and whether it really needed to change, or just needed to be tweaked.
When making changes in schools, let’s think about the impact on the ecosystem.