May 2022 edition: Knowledge-building for School Improvement: Exploring the roles of School Trusts and the School Trust community

Knowledge-building for School Improvement: Exploring the roles of School Trusts and the School Trust community

In his paper Communities of Improvement: School Trusts as Fields of Practice, Steve Rollett notes that:

"We can see the field of English education more generally, and the discourse of school improvement within it, has subsequently shifted towards a greater emphasis on specialised knowledge.” [1]

This shift is both exciting and promising. Excellence in schools and School Trusts is fed by specialist knowledge of different types and from different sources, and in some schools and Trusts, practitioners and leaders are building this knowledge and its application to practice "at the chalkface.” There are also, as Rollett observes, some more institutional efforts to establish the link between specialist knowledge and practice in schools, such as the Early Career Framework.

Yet we are very much at the beginning of this journey. There is typically a gap between much of the specialist knowledge available and widespread understanding and practice in many schools. The specialist knowledge that is available is not exhaustive – in many areas there is significant need for further knowledge-building. And as a profession we do not have a fully established set of approval mechanisms – we have a long history of jumping uncritically on "The Next Big Thing” [2] School Trusts and the School Trust community can play a significant role in closing these gaps.

In applying our intellect, knowledge and creativity we can hope to bring new and impactful models and understanding to the sector.

Ruth Ashbee

What knowledge?

Because schools and School Trusts are multi-disciplinary, practical enterprises, there is a vast range of specialist knowledge that is relevant to our practice. It can be useful to categorise these areas of knowledge, so that we can think clearly about how we can seek out this knowledge, contribute ourselves to its building, and critically evaluate it before adopting.

Below is one way in which we might categorise the specialist knowledge relevant to schools and School Trusts:

Knowledge

Examples

Where is it developed?

Evaluation criteria

Theoretical knowledge

Cognitive Load Theory

Behavioural Science

Assessment theory

Business psychology

Subject knowledge and subject pedagogical knowledge

Universities

Professional organisations

Government bodies

Subject associations and grassroots movements

Effective research design

Coherent theories and mechanisms

Practical knowledge

Effective teaching techniques

Effective strategies to increase attendance

Effective approaches to workload and staff wellbeing

Effective and meaningful approaches to reporting to parents/carers

Schools

School trusts

Education researchers e.g. Doug Lemov

Professional organisations

Government bodies

Outcomes

Consistency with theoretical knowledge

Contextual knowledge

Knowledge of the history of a school or trust

Knowledge about staff members

Knowledge about students

Knowledge about the local community

In schools and school Trusts

Consistency with other contextual knowledge from elsewhere;

Consistency with theoretical knowledge

 

Evaluation criteria are a crucial part of this picture. It’s not enough to simply look to universities, successful schools and our own experience to find the best specialist theoretical, practical and contextual knowledge respectively. The production of ideas, particularly in complex areas such as these, is subject to biases, interests, and confounding factors. Peer review is often simply a case of people approving papers that say things they like, rather than robustly evaluating the quality of a study design. Successful schools may attribute their accomplishments to one factor when in reality they are down to another. And in our own conceptions of our contexts, we are liable to cognitive biases, assumptions and persistent myths. Evaluation criteria can’t prevent these issues entirely, but they can strengthen our defences and reduce the number of spurious ideas we adopt. We can further inoculate ourselves against weak ideas by committing to holding our ideas lightly, seeking ongoing evaluation and being prepared to reject previously embraced ideas in the light of new evidence or argument.

The role of School Trusts and the School Trust community

What does all of this have to do with School Trusts and the School Trust community? There is a multi-directional relationship, and it is vital for the ongoing development of the profession.

First of all, specialist knowledge is valuable to professionals working in School Trusts, seeking to do the best job for our students and employees. We draw on theoretical, practical and contextual knowledge to inform our strategic leadership of school improvement, seeking the best bets for achieving our aims.

In addition, we have a significant role to play as disseminators of specialist knowledge – training and developing our staff in these specialist areas, closing the gap between the knowledge that is available and the knowledge that is shared and used by school staff.

We also have the potential to contribute to the generation of new specialist knowledge, particularly in the practical strand, (although there is also scope for effective collaboration with researchers, and contextual knowledge already being largely the domain of those working in schools and School Trusts). In applying our intellect, knowledge and creativity we can hope to bring new and impactful models and understanding to the sector. This happens at two scales: the local, where we develop something good for use in our own context, and the broader discourse, where we put forward our thinking for others to evaluate and potentially incorporate into their own practice. The structures that facilitate this sharing are vital – CST has played a valuable role in this so far and, I hope, will continue to do so.

Finally, our reflections and voices as critical evaluators will be an essential ingredient to the ongoing increasing professionalisation of the sector and the development of a refined and robust body of specialist knowledge at the heart of the profession. Again, our actions are important at two scales: local practice and the wider discourse. Through discerning adoption and rejection of ideas in our own contexts, we can hope to improve education in our own areas. Through voicing these discernments and discussing with colleagues across the sector, we can contribute to habits of critical evaluation further afield and help to build the intellectual strength and the quality of prevailing ideas across the sector. Again, the role of CST in providing a platform for these discussions to take place will be crucial.

No aspect of human society is in a static state. No institution is handed down from on high – these things are forged, refined, evolved and revolutionised over time by real people applying their thinking, acting, discussing and questioning. Education is no different – we are at the beginning of a new age of specialist knowledge in the sector. How the journey plays out will be down to what we do: how we engage with thinking and research, how we develop and build our own knowledge, how we share and discuss our thinking and critically evaluate ideas.

References:

[1] Communities of Improvement: School Trusts as Fields of Practice, Steve Rollett, p. 8

[2] The Next Big Thing in School Improvement, Allen et al.