Judgement without action is thinking without doing

John Pearce

John Pearce, creator of The iAbacus model for school improvement, is an inspirational, practical and sensitive freelance consultant and writer. Equally effective working with individuals...., or in a conferences setting, John provides high quality support for leaders and aspiring leaders who want to clarify their purpose, plan and evaluate for impact and build the capacity of colleagues. After a successful teaching and advisory career, including headship, John became Deputy Chief Inspector in Nottinghamshire and was one of the first Ofsted Inspectors to be trained. He started JP Consultancy in 1998 building a reputation working alongside colleagues in challenging schools and Children’s Services across the UK. His sense of humour and an enthusiasm for a healthy, work-life balance are strengthened by wider interests including blacksmithing and mountain climbing.

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It’s May 2014, and the education world continues to atomise into a bewildering complexity of mini systems, school types and quasi-commercial support. As we begin another run up to a too-close-to-call general election, we education professionals must gird up for the inevitable hectoring. The wind tunnel of derision will blizzard the usual stuff about standards, quality and behaviour at us – it must not blow us off track.

Looking back to 2009, there were LEAs, state schools, Regions, Every Child Mattered and it was a much simpler time. Hey, I'm not saying better – I'm saying very different, very different indeed. Now, there are fewer places of shelter, the paths lead in a spread-shot of directions and the signposts seem less distinct. But, like all the best treks I've been on - it’s invigorating and a bit frightening at the same time. I want to argue that we need to find our own way, our moral compass in all this, whilst looking for trusty friends to accompany us.

The judgement of more powerful others

I’d like to take one recent issue, the most important ever: how we judge the quality of teaching and learning, to use as a leitmotif, a pristine exemplification of a dangerous recurring syndrome I see all around me. It's a deadly fixation on judgement, to the detriment of action. It's as though too many ‘in education’ seemed stuck in a bog of dependency on the judgement of others. So, as you read on I want you to ask yourself, “Who is making judgements about me and my work, and what, if anything, are they doing about it?” You see, in my view, there is far too much judgement and walking away going on – too much hectoring, opining and not enough support, repairing, learning.

Stumbling blocks or stepping stones?

I found much of the “to grade, or not to grade individual lessons” debate defeatist. It was assumed, by far too many of my colleagues, that inspectors grade and teachers accept or challenge; that teachers assess and students accept; that heads decide performance related pay; that Secretaries of State decide... and we all follow. Are you getting the general application here?

Well I and some trusty friends think we ought to be travelling in a different direction: promoting a professional development, or capacity building model, where the learner (be they student, teacher, head, or governor... okay, I’ll leave you to hammer out these comparisons), where "s/he who wishes to learn" is given the respect to speak first, to self-evaluate, make and justify a judgement about their work, and then the “more powerful other” validates the self-evaluation and, goes on to ask, “So, what do we do now? What direction are we heading for and how can we work together to get there?”

Why do I argue for this? Because as student, teacher, head, adviser and, yes, even inspector, I always found we really learn about progress. In the best of these emotionally-intelligent dialogues, we (that is, "both sides" to the confrontational reader) come to understand and negotiate the twin stumbling blocks of criteria and evidence. We can then set out across the less secure stepping stones of progress in a shared professional endeavour. To be realistic, for some, this may mean finding and setting the stepping stones. It does not help to shout, “You should be over there” (or worse, “over here”) and walking away.

This is not easy

I want to add something important here - this is not easy. It's tough being self-reliant and even tougher allowing others to be so. Namby-pamby, trendy-lefty and airy-fairy it isn't. I'll tell you what it is; it's good practice, good learning, led by outstanding teaching. It's also great leadership because we learn from the best leaders. Professional development dialogues build the skills of the individual, and team of learners, by underlining their personal responsibility for their own success. It’s obvious isn't it? For educationalists to use any other method would be hypocritical.

Our fixation with judgement

So, can we please move on from our Ofsted-fuelled (some will claim led) fixation with judgement? Can more of us take back responsibility for success making and challenge the assumption that describing one point in time is all there is to judging learning and school improvement? It’s like describing one rest stop on a trek as the journey itself. Jack Nicholson’s character in the film As Good As It Gets captures the syndrome perfectly: “I'm drowning here, and you're describing the water!”

It's more about verbs than the adjectives

Good teachers and leaders know that learning, improvement, and progress only start with the easy questions, “Where are we now?” or “How well are we doing?” The most successful are able to move on and answer the crucial crushers "So, what are we going to do....first?" I am suggesting we would do well, more often, to slow down, take stock, analyse why things are as they are and then act to maintain, sustain or make progress over time. It's not the judgement, it’s the action that flows from it that matters. Actions speak louder than words. Teaching and learning, School improvement - just a minute - ALL improvement is more about the verbs than the adjectives.

A challenge

So, what is your answer to my question, “Who is making judgements about me and my work and what, if anything, are they doing about it?” My hypothesis is that those of you who answered, "Me, and I'm taking action" are professionally strong and likely to be motivated (even if tired and hard-working). Whereas those of you who have veered towards... "Others, and I have no idea" are probably professionally depressed, even oppressed. In later pieces I will be describing the important distinction between these two and, in the spirit of this argument, how we might act to move colleagues from professional depression, even oppression, into a more hopeful state. In the meantime, I’ll leave a last paragraph as a firm, first stepping stone...

Gird up and do

Regular readers of my work will be able to chant chunks of this past paragraph without reading it. The answer? “It’s about looking at what we do, with a view to doing it better next time, as part of our work” and keeping the longer view in sight. It's about becoming and being self reliant, developing a sure confidence and working interdependently. It's about keeping it simple because it’s going to get complicated anyway. It's about creating the permitting circumstances for a, "Yes, we can!" culture. It's why we need an improvement process that links judgement, through analysis, to action and collaboration. Why we need professional development that builds the capacity and confidence of colleagues before it's too late.

Do you ever find yourself wondering whether or not to act with regards to the running of your school / classroom? Let us know below.

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