The story of school improvement: A Comedy Wrapped Up In Tragedy.

A progress tracker; a colourful flight-path; differentiated learning outcomes; a curriculum map; a SEAL themed English curriculum; PLTS; a three part lesson; a four part lesson; a five minute lesson plan; lollipop sticks; thinking hats; verbal feedback stamps; dialogic marking.; a graded lesson observation summary.

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If we were to create a museum of Next Big Things in Education, its contents would need considered curation. We would need to explain the stories within which these artefacts once made compelling sense and how they have shifted over time. In writing our book of the same name, conversations between Becky, Matt and I sometimes turned towards these stories. Why do they emerge? What role to they play? Why are they inherently unstable?  

Humans, as Jonathan Gotschall would have it, are ‘storytelling animals‘. Stories allow us to make sense of our place in the world and giving meaning to our individual endeavors. They have a collective function too. Shared stories can foster communities of shared meaning. But they also produce outsiders. This includes people who don’t share our story as well as the ideas grounded in alternative frames of reference. Particularly those that our story portrays in a particularly damning light.  Recently reading Booker’s Seven Basic Plots, I have become particularly interested in the story forms tragedy and comedy.

The stories we tell in education about the last Next Big Thing, the one which has now self-evidently failed, generally take of the form of tragedy. These tales may unite us, as we look back with collective bemusement at our former selves. In contrast, stories told of the incoming Next Big Thing are often told in the as soon to be realised comedies. Chaos and disorder, we are promised, are about to be resolved. The solution is at hand. Both story forms will be explored further below. 

These stories emerge because they serve a function. However, whilst comic resolution provides a satisfying end to a story, complex systems are not amenable to neat and complete fixes. Eventually it becomes apparent that the Next Big Thing is failing to live up to its early promise. Once promising solutions are then reframed as tragic errors and we begin again. Thus, a repeated pattern of boom and bust punctuates the recent history of schooling.  

This story telling process is not always comfortable. Sometimes we become the outsiders, or worse still, are framed as the anti-heroes whose efforts have actually brought about the mess which the latest Next Big Thing now promises to clear up. Whilst these stories are emergent – no single agent controls them- story-tellers are not all equal. Key individuals and organisations, can play a significant role in reshaping the national narrative. Shifts in their position may herald the emergence of the latest Next Big Thing.

The Thing is Dead, Long live the Next Big Thing

In my own teaching career one such moment came in relation to the data revolution which peaked under the previous Ofsted framework and the proliferation of great big spreadsheets which it spawned.  Many of those who had once enthusiastically endorsed the premise that schools should demonstrate their efficacy by carefully monitoring individual students’ (and sub-groups’) progress from term to term changed course, endorsing a new Big Thing and rejecting it’s predecessor.

Data was dethroned. Great big spreadsheets became passé. Those choosing to produce them would now have to answer to Ofsted as to why they thought it was a good idea.  Across the educational landscape, a new story was gaining traction. One which highlighted the absurdity and statistical illiteracy of various practices once deemed vital aspects of good (or outstanding) practice. What should we work on instead? Curriculum.  Whilst this change of tack provides a useful corrective to the excesses of the data era, on closer inspection ‘the curriculum is the progression model’ appears to herald curriculum’s time in the sun, as the latest Next Big Thing.  David Didau explores some of the complexities behind that statement here.

Ancient and Modern Tragedies 

Tragedies typically reach their crescendo when the central figure (or tragic hero – think Oedipus, Macbeth or Lance Armstrong!) meets their demise.  In ancient tragedies this is inevitable.  Oedipus’ final plight is fated and hence inescapable. He exercises his own agency, making choices which precede the story’s climax, but his life course is also shaped by powerful substantial determinants.  

Modern tragedies have a different shape. In EITHER/OR Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard explored the differences between ancient and modern dramatic tragedy.  The biggest distinction hinges on the contrasting ways in which they frame the ‘irreducible contradiction between two qualitatively distinct principles: substantial determinants and individual agency.’ In modern tragedies, this irreducible contradiction is denied. The onus shifts almost entirely to individual agency.  

‘The soft poverty of low aspirations.’ A comedy wrapped up in modern tragedy. 

Nicky Morgan, once Secretary of State for education, told a modern tragedy when she blamed teachers for writing off poor children through the ‘soft bigotry of low expectations’.  In this story, teachers and their leaders are the anti-heroes responsible for bringing the tragic end into being.  It’s a compelling tale in that we can readily infer a solution – raising aspirations. And the agents who need to enact it.   

This story is really just a distilled, and particularly stark, version of a modern tragedy often told within and about schooling.  Past teachers and leaders had the capacity to tackle the disparate outcomes achieved by students within the school system. Unfortunately, through ignorance or error, they have failed to do so.  According to this tale, glaring inadequacies in the status quo are largely the result of errant past actions. It is within our gift to enact a solution. The Next Big Thing 

This implied solution actually represents another ancient story form, comedy. Morgan’s tragic tale had a comedy wrapped up inside it. Comedy, in terms of narrative structure, need not entail to jokes or even humour. In a comedy, confusion and chaos build until the situation appears irresolvable. It is then neatly resolved. Films we might describe as romantic comedies, are actually good examples of this venerable genre. The stories we tell about The Next Big Thing hold out the promise of just such a happy ending. But consistently fail to deliver. 

Those endorsing sweeping solutions to the challenges we face in schools are prone to frame them as the final act of a comedy. Each is presented as capable of fixing our problems once and for all. These comedies continue to emphasise individual responsibility and discrete, scalable (and often saleable) solutions and to divert attention away from intrinsic problems (the substantial determinants) beyond teachers and leaders’ reach. The most blatant examples of the genre plague our inboxes and pigeonholes and are often called out by experienced teachers and leaders as ‘silver bullets.’ Some gain widespread endorsement. Such momentum may elevate a particularly compelling and timely solution to becoming the Next Big Thing. 

Why do these stories appeal? 

Tragedies may appeal because they align with our tendency to ascribe individual agency to phenomena in the social world. We tend to assume that things go well or badly because someone is doing a good or bad job. They also appeal because of what they serve to protect or divert our attention from. They have an existential benefit! The attainment gap, and the reality that many students appear to lose out in our current school system is hard to ignore. It is also troubling to contemplate such inequality. Framing the problem to date as a modern tragedy and holding out the prospect of a final fix protects individual agency and sidesteps the complexity and contradictions of modern schooling.  

Clearly, policy makers have a vested interest in framing problems in this way. It is amenable to identifying solutions which involve individual improvement and innovation rather than calling for disruptive system-wide reform. It is also more politically palatable than accepting the need for compromise and working with, rather than solving, the complexity of our school system.  

These stories also appeal to those of us entering and progressing through the education system. The tragic individual failures of past leaders, teacher and policy makers (even if these past figures include ourselves!) can actually provide the foundations of an alluring story. This affords us the prospect that outcomes can be radically transformed by us, now, if we can only avoid the errors and deficiencies of those who came before. 

In The Next Big Thing, we consider the consequences of complexity denial. Which we define there as  

‘Assuming the system is more known, more predictable, and more controllable than it truly is. This denial may be due to an inability to comprehend this complexity, or it may be an adaptive response as it is expedient to avoid countenancing this complexity.‘ 

Leonoardo Lisi, reflecting on Kierkegaard’s analysis of modern tragedy wrote of a similar dynamic 

The project of modern tragedy, as that of modernity more generally, is doomed to failure since it contradicts the truth of our condition, according to which we are always subject to substantial determinants of some kind. By imputing all events to the specific agent, the dream of god-like autonomy not only introduces evil and despair, but also becomes comic [absurd] when it turns out that this in fact cannot be done.’  

Because simplistic stories, comedies and tragedies, deny ‘the truth of our condition’ they merely sow the seeds for the next episode in education’s ongoing serial. Eventually, the hype around a ‘Next Big Thing’ becomes self-evidently flawed. The solutions and heroes from each era risk becoming the errors and anti-heroes of the next. 

So what?  

We’re not arguing for a return to ancient tragedy. Whilst it is clear that factors other than individual agency drive much of what happens in our schools, these regularities are not the same as the ancient fates. Many are malleable. Schooling can and does change over time. We may also benefit from looking beyond schools’ walls for factors contributing to the inequality evident within them.  

It is the act of presenting now, this moment in the history of schooling, as the final act of a tragedy, and/or the penultimate moment in a comedy which is in itself problematic. Our tendency to do so is understandable, we all want to be able to tell ourselves a satisfying self-narrative about our professional lives. But this tendency stops us from learning more deeply from history. It fosters complexity denial, sustaining the conceit that we’re on the cusp of solving a problem which we’re really only capable of reshaping.  

To learn to live with the inevitability of the Next Big Thing, we propose, at least occasionally, stepping back and taking a longer, broader view. Whilst it is tempting to rely on a narrative arc which aligns with our own careers, we would do well to look further back – at the succession of Next Big Things, and further forwards- at the inevitable continuation of schooling long after we have exited stage left! This longer-term view, akin perhaps to cathedral thinking, can allow us to locate our actions within a bigger story without the ego, or hubris of the assumption that the story of schooling begins and/or ends with our own small part!  

A broader view can also be fostered by adopting a range of explanatory perspectives. In The Next Big Thing, we consider the phenomenon of ‘explanatory monopolisation’ whereby one story dominates the way educational problems are framed. Such an impoverished perspective inevitably privileges only one way of framing a complex problem and this affords us with only a narrow field plausible actions. We do well do consider alternative analyses. Even Kierkegaard’s narrative criticism may have something to contribute!  

By taking time to contemplate complexity we can be better placed in our decision making and savvier in our responses to The Next Big Thing. Simple actions are not the problem. Complexity denial and the simplistic solutions that it fosters are. As Supreme Court Judge Oliver Wendall Holmes once said.  

‘For the simplicity on this side of complexity, I wouldn’t give you a fig. But for the simplicity on the other side of complexity, for that I would give you anything I have.’


The Next Big Thing In School Improvement, by Becky Allan, Matthew Evans and Ben White is available for pre-order now and will be published on October 22nd.

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