What does an ‘expert institution’ look like?

If you’re reading this, chances are that you’re loosely interested in developing learners in some way. We are in a time in education where a plethora of cognitive research is being released that will, it would appear, impact on education and the processes of education. There are also incredible and dramatic increases in technology and its uses in the classroom, as well as ever-higher standards and expectations of ourselves and of our students (OFSTED’s ‘Satisfactory’ grade being changed to ‘Requires Improvement’ being one of the most obvious, for example).

I suspect that most of us who work in education have some ideological reason for doing what we’re doing, and we also probably have some statement or ethos of how we see education. Mine is: Education is the foundation of future achievements; every student should have access to the same opportunities through learning skills, learning knowledge (the canon) and achieving qualifications. It’s quite a long statement, but includes my justifications for working in state over private; my subject and the relative importance of my subject; and a little nod to the pragmatic necessity of getting a few GCSEs, as I work in Secondary. It also hints at my preference for learning over qualifications, and it’s something I can refer back to when I have a particularly awkward day or lesson or meeting. It’s the ‘rock’ of beliefs and principles that it’s hard to get me away from.

It might be that you’ve never really explicitly thought about your own raison d’être, and you may want to take a moment to do that before we go on – having that in mind will make the question of an ‘expert institution’ more pertinent to yourself as you read.

However, you’ll notice I’ve spent about 300 words writing about myself and my beliefs – very little about the aspirations of organisations, or the role of an objective cognitive theory and that’s the problem. My definition of success in an educational setting needn’t necessarily align with the institution in which I work. Parts do: qualifications and grades, for example – but the relative value I place on learning and future learning over those grades?

I’m not so sure.

In Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, Anders Ericcson makes the argument that it is a ‘mental representation’ that allows experts to appear to be experts. As we develop expertise, we create new ways of understanding the tasks that we once found difficult, and so we are able to process the task much more quickly and powerfully than a novice. This is because we are able to ‘see’ the processes in a different way to the novice.

However, do we have the same explicit, or implicit, mental representation that will support an understanding or appreciation of an expert teacher? Or an ‘expert’ school or college? If cognitive psychology is suggesting we might have made some errors along the way, where are the ‘experts’ from which we learn? How do we identify ‘expert’ schools? Or ‘expert’ practitioners to learn from and copy?

Many schools have a theory – it’s called ‘OFSTED Outstanding’. That’s why schools jump through hoops to satisfy the inspectors. The new Secondary version of ‘expert’ now seems to be called ‘Positive Progress 8’ – many schools are, or are in the process of, creating tracking systems to track the untrackable (P8 can only be measured after the exams in Year 11 – it requires outcomes from all students across the country in their terminal exams – see my post on P8 here). It defies all rational logic that schools know this, yet still insist on buying into expensive systems to track this – and it’s – to my mind – shameful that companies are exploiting schools’ desperation not to fall foul of a new immeasurable measure.

So, in one sense, schools do have a belief that they have a mental representation of success – it’s a box on a spreadsheet. Some might even go so far to say it’s several boxes – the ‘Disadvantaged’ box ticked; the gap between ‘SEND’ and ‘Other’ at, or around 0; no discrepancy between genders and, of course, P8 at or above 0.00. To my mind, that’s great – that could represent the outcome of equality of provision (a vital part of my personal mantra). But, it could also represent five years of exam ‘hot-housing’; a loss of any inherent love for subjects; brutalising and bullying teachers over apparent performance indicators. Without a clear representation of what an expert institution looks like, how do we know what’s the best approach?

Is this even a mental representation of expertise? Well, clearly not. It’s a picture of an outcome. There’s no expertise involved in reading numbers from a spreadsheet. It doesn’t tell us the different skills of experts in facilitating an educational institution that have made that happen – it’s just an outcome of something else. I could sit an exam in English Literature tomorrow and ace it – not because I can imagine the grade (that’s just the outcome), but because of the ‘something else’. And it is this ‘something else’ that schools need to be investigating.

How, then, would we define an ‘expert’ educational institution? That’s a job for my next post.

Comments appreciated.

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