Leadership series: balancing formal and informal knowledge


“Dear Manjit, We regret to inform you that although you showed many strengths across the two days you have not been successful on this occasion...”

The feedback from my first (and only) interview for headship was a hugely formative experience. I’d recently received some 360-degree feedback from my colleagues that said I was a ‘good communicator’ who was ‘constantly positive’ and ‘passionate about his work’. Although kind, these adjectives did little to prepare me for my interview, and any subsequent headship I might have embarked upon.

I didn’t need to wait for the lead recruiter to provide me with feedback to know where the gaps in my performance lay. The interview process had revealed my lack of knowledge in several areas that are so specific and essential to headship. The interview questions about HR legislation and balancing a whole school budget were cases in point. I discovered in the starkest way possible that I can’t communicate well about things I have no knowledge about.

This led to a period of self-reflection about the very notion of school leadership and my relationship with it. The outcome of this thinking was twofold. Firstly, it led me to the work of headteacher Matthew Evans, whose book, ‘Leaders with Substance: An Antidote to Leadership Genericism in Schools’, convincingly highlights the importance of domain-specific knowledge.

Secondly, I was told about a professional development opportunity at Reach Academy Feltham for aspiring headteachers, which would provide me with an exhaustive guide to running a school based on the core principles guiding it. This training was clear: it would provide the domain-specific knowledge needed for headship.

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It is the combination of both formal and informal knowledge that leads to “expert common sense” (1). In my pursuit of this elusive goal, I thought it would be sensible to start with the gaps that had been identified in my formal knowledge a year earlier – in finance, employment law and specific areas of government policy.

I was also given intense training in the school’s specific area of expertise, instructional coaching. Under this model, a coach and teacher meet every week to identify an area for development or action step, practise it together and follow up with a low-stakes 'observation.’ This cycle of low-stakes, incremental improvement creates a culture where everyone is trying to improve. Assistant Headteacher, Jon Hutchinson, told me on my arrival that everyone from the headteacher to our trainee teachers have the same experience when it comes to CPD; there are no superhero teachers here.

However, this knowledge, although critically important, would not on its own provide me with the level of expertise required for headship. This is where formal knowledge meets informal knowledge.

My time at the school would need to be spent teasing out and decoding what Bereiter and Scardamalia describe as “the hidden knowledge of experts”. Conversations with school leaders at Reach have provided an opportunity for experts to reflect on their experiences and codify what makes their practice so effective. A number of these conversations have focused on the positive relationships staff have with their students.

What I have attempted to tease out of these conversations is how to codify the mental scripts that are in place to form relationships through everyday interactions. The formal knowledge at play is underpinned by John Bowlby’s attachment theory (2), but the challenge has been getting staff to articulate how positive relationships are formed in the classroom, beyond just ‘getting to know them’.

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There is much more formal and informal knowledge at play here. Through talking to staff, my aim has been to find out about the relationship between the two: what is the research guiding teachers’ approaches to these interactions, and what tacit knowledge underpins each micro-decision that makes up each interaction?

I’m now using my findings to create a handbook that makes clear the hidden knowledge of experts on how we form trusting and caring relationships with students. I’ve begun by writing up scripts that focus on ‘how we do things around here’. Here are some examples:

  • How do we challenge anything that doesn't fit in with our ethos?
  • How do we greet students?
  • How do we effectively praise students?
  • How do we communicate effectively with parents?
  • How do we talk to students about realising their aspirations?

This knowledge has allowed our CPD programme to be led by practice. We practice what we know works. Furthermore, it has allowed me to really think about what how any potential school I may lead in the future behaves. It has allowed me to literally visualise what the school would look like.

Of course, what works is so often context specific. I have been learning about what works in this school, not just any school, and so the usefulness of any findings need to be viewed through that lens. However, I hope they shed some light on how to harness meaningful relationships in order to support young people to live lives of choice and opportunity.

References

Hyle, A.E., Ivory, G. and McClellan, R.L. (2010). Hidden Expert Knowledge: The Knowledge That Counts for the Small School-District Superintendent. Journal of Research on Leadership Education, 5(4), pp.154–178.

Bowlby, J. (1978). Attachment theory and its therapeutic implications. Adolescent Psychiatry, 6, 5–33.

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