How to be strategic.

We often talk to middle leaders about being strategic, but we don’t always explain what we mean.  Perhaps we magically expect them to know what it means to be strategic and in our assumption allow them to fail.  And when things go wrong and we sigh and say, ‘if only that head of department was more strategic’, how much responsibility do we, as senior leaders, take for that failing?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently as I’ve been working with English departments.  I’m lucky. I get to work with English teams in secondary schools up and down the country.  I learn a great deal from this and as I learn, I reflect back on my own effectiveness as a Head of English, and as a senior leader with line management responsibility for English. I don’t know if I ever actually explained what I meant when I asked my Heads of English to be more strategic, so this blog is something of a belated apology. I want to attempt to explain how to be more strategic through two specific examples. Any feedback is very welcome.

Strategic development of your team

We all want our teams to have great professional learning and development opportunities, but how strategic are we in this endeavour? What tends to happen is that we see a gap and try to fill it.  So, Mrs A doesn’t have experience of teaching A Level but she’s got a Year 12 class from September so we better send her on a course.  Or, our kids come in with low reading scores so we’d better ask Mr P, the KS3 co-ordinator, to go on some ‘how to teach reading’ twilights at the local teaching school. The ‘pick from a menu’ approach to CPD is about as far away from strategic as you can get.

Instead of being reactionary, consider taking the people out of the picture for a minute and putting the curriculum front and centre of your thinking. Look at the content, structure and sequencing of your curriculum (which, in itself, might need work – but let’s assume it doesn’t) and consider what expertise is required to ensure that curriculum is taught with appropriate intellectual challenge. Then look at your team; talk to them, find out what they know and don’t know; find out what they specialised in at University; find out what they taught in previous schools; find out what they love. In essence, do a subject knowledge audit (but maybe don’t call it that) and find out who your experts are. You might be surprised.  Then, map that against the requirements of your curriculum and make a strategic decision about who needs more subject-specific training.  That seems to me to be the single most effective way of making sure your curriculum is effective in helping children to learn; the teachers need to know their stuff.  Really well.

You might argue that it should be the other way around.  Find out what expertise your team has and then build your curriculum around that.  That seems to me to be a deficit model that will lead to gradual underperformance. Your curriculum will only ever be as good as the teachers in your team; you’ll effectively be levelling the curriculum down, instead of levelling your teachers up. Why not make the intellectually demanding, content-rich curriculum your way of raising the subject expertise of your team, as well as the way of raising educational outcomes for your students?

Boiling it down to day-to-day practice, a twenty minute discussion on the concepts in a poem will significantly increase a teacher’s confidence to teach it.  How often do we do this? I am genuinely talking about a discussion about the concept of a poem and how that concept is crafted.  I’m not talking about a discussion focused on how to teach it to 15 year olds (although that’s also a good idea), I’m talking about a discussion that is about the poem itself.  But you have to be strategic; you have to make sure you’ve got an expert in the room.  You only need one.  With just one, you level-up the expertise in the room in twenty minutes. That, it seems to me, is a brilliant idea and is just the kind of learning that teachers love, but never get the opportunity to do.

As a small aside, teachers are pretty rubbish at admitting they don’t know stuff.  They would rather feign expertise and stay up all night the night before teaching Hamlet to Year 12 than admit they haven’t ever read it.  Like you can read and understand Hamlet in one night! You might get away with it, but who loses out? Those Year 12 student who deserve an expert… they lose out, but might never realise it.  In fact, and I’m thinking out loud here, I would hazard that underperforming A Level subjects are, more often than not, underperforming due to a conspiracy of silence about the subject knowledge deficits of their teachers.


Strategic planning within the curriculum

I’m writing on the assumption that your KS4 curriculum is suitably interleaved across two years to support long term retention. If it is, that’s a great example of strategic thinking. Well done.

Mind you, even if it is, how are you approaching the teaching of the content on the second, third or fourth time a student encounters it? I’ve seen lots of well-structured, interleaved English curriculum plans.  These are plans that have been created by folk who understand about forgetting, and retrieval, and repeated iterations and who generally are familiar with the Bjorks –  or Bob and Liz as they’re fondly called in one English department I visited recently.  Problem is, they’re going through the motions without really – I mean strategically – defining the level of difficulty inherent in each encounter with say, a text or a poem.

So where you might have built in A Christmas Carol at the start of Year 10, then repeated mid-way through year 10, then assessed in summer of year 10, then addressed again at the start of year 11, and assessed again in December of year 11, then revisited in the run up to the real exams… if you’re not careful, it becomes death by Dickens instead of being a really effective, strategic way of learning.

How does this happen? I see it all the time.  I watch lessons in year 11 where teachers are teaching An Inspector Calls or Love and Relationships poems as if it was the very first time the students have encountered them.  Instead of having faith in the interleaved curriculum and the multiple opportunities students have had to revisit and test their prior knowledge, teachers panic and assume (wrongly) that students have forgotten everything they have ever been taught and teach them from scratch. This explains why, even after three years (true in some schools) even high prior attaining students don’t get beyond a surface-level understanding of a given poem.

If you ask a student if they remember the poem, they’ll always say no. It’s too much of a risk to say yes, because then you’ll ask them a question and they’ll risk being embarrassed in front of their mates.  Don’t forget how powerful this social realm is for teenagers.  Read Nuthall’s Hidden Lives of Learners if you need reminding.

So, what is a strategically-minded Head of English to do? The answer is back in that curriculum. You will have built the content that you expect students to know and remember into the plan.  You will have built the level of understanding you expect students to know and remember into the plan.  You, and your team of experts, will have created this curriculum precisely to include the incremental building of knowledge and understanding.  So use it; use it to level-up your students. Use it to ensure that those high expectations are built in to every lesson.

It’s tough to be strategic.

Sometimes strategic is what we want you to be…. It’s a buzz word in the NPQs for example.  Other times it’s not what we want you to be… ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast.’  It’s tough to be strategic. You’re not sure whether it’s a good or a bad thing, and no-one ever really explains what it means.  Hopefully, in this blog, I’ve given you two examples that may help.  Despite the fact that I’ve used the word ‘level-up’ more times than I care to count (forgive me), I have tried to be specific and to use examples that will be relevant.  There are others, I’m sure and I’d be interested to hear from you if you have any.

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