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We Need To Change Our Minds Before We Change Our Practice

I have been talking to various audiences of groups and individuals recently about my investigation as part the fellowship programme for the Scottish College for Educational Leadership. As part of this investigation I am considering some of the obstacles that are preventing more schools from adopting a practitioner, or professional, enquiry approach to teacher, leadership and school development. Various and varied evidence exists from the work of Helen Timperley, Marilyn Blatchford Smith and others that demonstrates the effectiveness of such enquiry approaches in developing teachers and schools. My own experience over the last four years has given more positive evidence as to the effectiveness of an enquiry based approach. So, my question is, what is stopping others from adopting enquiry based approaches when there is such a large body of evidence that demonstrates it works.

When I meet with teachers and headteachers, surprisingly enough, they are all very very busy. Being so busy they immediately question whether they have the time at the moment to consider another new 'thing' to implement or try. 'Perhaps next year when we have finished what we are doing at the moment,' is an oft repeated response when I ask them to consider adopting enquiry based approaches to development. This betrays a lot of things about mindsets and how such school leaders see school development, and their role in facilitating this and being responsible for it happening. It certainly betrays a lack of understanding about what such a practitioner enquiry approach to school and personal development entails.

It is very difficult when you are a busy school and a busy Headteacher to take the decision to step off the perpetual hamster wheel of busyness, to step back and look at the impact of all that busyness. Is everything you are doing delivering everything you want it to? I know how difficult this is to do, because I was exactly the same myself during my first years in headship. Boy was I busy? We did lots of  'things' all with good intentions. We achieved quite a lot, we thought, and were very innovative before we moved on to the next development. Our SIP was bursting with new ideas and developments. Visitors commented on how they always looked forward to visiting our school because there would always be something new going on and to see.

However, there was a worm of dissatisfaction beginning to gnaw away at my confidence in what we were doing. We had been busy for a number of years but what we were seeing was that the things we had been busy with had only brought about change for a short period of time, often only till we had moved on to the next development. This was no good. Where was evidence of sustainable and embedded change in practice, and sustained improvements for learners? The dispiriting realisation was that there was pretty little such evidence. Something had to change!

The first thing that had to change was our thinking about what successful school development needed to look like. We realised that it needed to be more focused on long-term sustainable and embedded change. No longer would we be prepared to consider short term gains and fixes. Our mantra became ' If it isn't embedded, it hasn't happened' and added to that was the thought that perhaps we had wasted time, or we needed to devote more time to allow change to become embedded in practice. This brought about big changes in our attitudes to self-evaluation and school improvement planning and plans. These became a lot more focused and our expectations became more based in our own reality and not that of others. A big step.

We began to realise that we had to take true ownership of our school development, based on our own self-evaluation. We determined that we understood the school better than anyone else and therefore we were the ones that needed to identify our priorities. We wished to have a progression and a connection in our developments. Last year's actions would determine this year's. We needed to slow down, do less and achieve more. Quality not quantity was key. We thought again about our values and what we identified as our priorities and this helped us make decisions about what we would do and, perhaps more importantly, what we wouldn't do. We decided that we would base our actions on sound evidence and not somebody else's latest fad or hobby horse. In short, we took real control of what we wanted to do.

When I look back I see now how crucial it was that we took the time to stop, reflect and change our thinking as a result. In the schools I now lead we have built on this approach and it is this that has allowed us to embrace the complexity of practitioner enquiry and achieve the results we have.

To really do something different and introduce innovative changes in your practice, you may first have to do the same with your thinking.

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