Mayan sacrifices and school improvement

Let’s say we are leading a Mayan tribe and this year we sacrificed a dog to the gods in exchange for a good harvest. The tribe next door sacrifices a deer. #NoBestWay 

From Wikipedia Adrian Zwegers

The year goes on. We plant the same seeds and water our crops from the same river as our neighbours. The year passes without incident, times are good. The gods have blessed us. 

When the harvest comes we do ok but the tribe next door has a bountiful crop. As tribe leaders we gather together and try to figure out the reason for this difference. We see they use the same water and seeds so we should be doing just as well. We obviously decide our sacrifice was not good enough and it must have been the deer. 

So next year we work hard to get a deer and sacrifice that instead. Getting the deer isn’t easy. We have to organise a hunting party and spend time hunting the deer. We had tons of dogs having spent years building up a supply for out sacrifice. While we are doing that we don’t spend time improving our irrigation or soil, there is an opportunity cost. The next year our crops are basically the same. We scratch our heads and wonder why it didn’t work. We probably blame our priest. Unfortunately we were unable to see some factors, in this case probably soil quality or drainage.

Ignoring the fact that this is probably not the most factually correct representation of the Mayan culture*, what does this story have to do with school improvement?

Often when we look to improve our schools or departments we look to successful schools or departments for inspiration. When we do this we run into a problem. We lack a deep understanding of that school’s context so when we observe we look for the surface differences and often point to the most obvious. Things like curriculum organisation (the number of teachers on a class or route through the years) and accountability systems (like targets, performance management and department organisation) often stick out as they are easy to notice. 

While school pedagogical artifacts, like knowledge organisers, are also witnessed and identified as high impact strategies. 

Other things are often ignored. Things like the ability profile of the intake is ignored because it’s largely out of our control. Yet we know the ability profile of a cohort has a huge impact on the progress measures. Another is curriculum time. If a two school’s curriculum time in a subject differs by 20% is it really safe to assume adopting their topic rotation and essay power hour is really going to make the difference? We find ourselves in a situation of complexity denial and convince ourselves that simple broad changes are the reason for a schools success.

So what should we do? 

When looking towards successful schools for guidance we need to examine strategies with a critical eye. We need to dig deep into the reasons why they chose this strategy and the problems they were looking to solve and then consider if our context has the same problem. We need to recognise that the leaders of those schools might also not recognise all the reasons the school is so successful. They might attribute it to certain decision they have made due recency or confirmation biases.

20 years ago the solution to poor science GCSE results was to switch to the new AQA modular science. Many schools jumped over only to find it delivered similar results than any other course they ran previously. It’s not a new problem and it’s not easy to avoid but we must try our hardest to resist the quick win and focus our time and energy on the hard, fuzzy, things that make a big difference, like improving the culture and teaching in our schools or classrooms.

Further reading:

The Next Big Thing in School Improvement

*Mayans actually sacrificed people but this seemed a little too much for a sunday night blog

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