In the 1960s, a Cambridge educated Canadian at the University of Toronto gained international attention for his studies of the effects of mass media on human thought and behaviour. He coined the phrase, ‘The medium is the message.’
In the most basic sense, it means that the nature of a medium (the channel through which a message is transmitted) is more important than the meaning or content of the message.
Think of a lightbulb. The light bulb is a clear demonstration of the concept: a light bulb does not have content in the way that a newspaper has articles or a television has programs, yet it is a medium that has a social effect; that is, a light bulb enables people to create spaces during nighttime that would otherwise be enveloped by darkness.
I often get emails and phone calls asking about the well-being policies and procedures at Three Bridges. Can I speak at a conference, do a podcast or write an article? Most people looking for advice have made an assumption before they’ve been in touch: that well-being is the product of things we do, or that well-being is a bolt on; continuing to do what we always have but nicer or with a smile. And sometimes – although less frequently – that well being is a sort of diversion or distraction from the fact that they are unhappy with their job. None of these are correct. Actually, they miss the point completely.
Up and down the country school leaders and teachers take issue with Ofsted. The narrow frameworks. The grading. The constantly changing goal posts. The Groundhog Day of data showing that regardless of framework, a school’s outcome is most closely linked to family income. Or the overly simplistic view that somehow a complex school can be judged at a single point in time based heavily on basic data. Yet – while all true – still miss the actual problem. It is not what they do.
My school was last inspected at the end of 2019. We’re a highly disadvantaged school with much higher than average proportions of pupils in every category of disadvantage – EAL, Pupil Premium, FSM, SEND – yet outstanding in every category. I should be singing Ofsted’s praises, registering to be an inspector, hanging banners outside the gates, and saying ‘if my school can do it, any school can.’ But I’m not. And there’s an important, but easily missed, reason why.
Because the medium is the message.
Regardless of the content of the message itself – an outstanding Ofsted grade or lesson observation, positive feedback during performance management, a friendly smile and genuine warmth when hearing the outcomes of your book scrutiny, or perhaps an affirmation or praise for your extensive marking or detailed planning – the problem lies within the medium itself – Observation, monitoring or scrutiny – the media we use to improve and develop our schools and people – all send the same tragic message.
Their message – regardless of content – is that we don’t trust you.
You require monitoring and scrutiny to improve.
You need to be told.
One voice before the collective, individual before community, isolation before collaboration.
They don’t say the right thing about who we are as a school and where we’re going. They also don’t speak to people’s hearts or minds – the human inside us. It is diametrically opposed to why many of us became educators in the first place; a human service.
While we scramble around trying to re-form the broken pieces of flawed approaches and enhance our well-being, we miss entirely the notion that it is the pieces themselves that are the problem. As the late Sir Ken Robinson said: we need a revolution, not reform.
Many ask, what does that revolution look like? If it is not the traditional, often promoted monitoring, scrutiny, regular observation, how do schools, leaders, teachers, pupils improve? How can we be sure that we were getting the best from ourselves and our system?
Our last lesson observation was in 2016. Last book scrutiny was in 2015. Last look at planning was in 2014 along with the last year we mandated marking of any kind. Staff turnover has been virtually 0 for years, and results have been consistent and strong for nearly a decade. A quarter of the staff have studied at the masters level and ten percent at the doctoral stage. Metrics that measure school climate, teacher learning and teacher self-efficacy are consistently high and qualitative data shows that teachers feel challenged, inspired and continuously improving regardless of age and career stage. None of this to say I sit in my office all day hoping things go well – but the formality of process has been replaced by the culture of connectedness. We are all responsible for everyone.
The answer lies within the constructs of the media we use. If we want schools that are alive with collaboration, community, self-direction, enquiry, teamwork, and problem-solving, these must be the tenets of the media we use to promote school improvement, professional development and pupil achievement.
Instead of Lesson Observation/Monitoring Walks/Planning Scrutiny, build your instructional programmes together so that there is a shared understanding, vision and approach to learning throughout the school. Use approaches like Lesson Study or Spirals of Enquiry to review progress and quality, inquisitively and collaboratively, led by the practitioners themselves.
Instead of Performance Management, develop approaches that foster professional growth and enquiry. Our school uses lines of enquiry to challenge and inspire professional at every stage of their career. Look at the work of Dr Carol Campbell and the Teacher Learning & Leadership Program. We know how professionals learn and perform best (and its not through enforcing data targets!).
Instead of Book Scrutiny, collectively design sky-high, realistic expectations for pupil performance with all staff. Review this in smaller groups, often. Show examples of exceptional work and improved pupil learning – and talk about HOW this happened – in community. What were the steps? How are they linked to your instructional programme? Share progress, share improvements, share successes.
There are entire books dedicated to alternatives – and entire schools (like mine) that operate this way. We haven’t had a lesson observation, book scrutiny, learning walk, planning scrutiny, data target, or performance management meeting in years. While it is not possible to make this shift overnight, there is no excuse for not changing direction. Think trim tab. Think rail switch. Small changes that make big differences.
We have barely any staff turnover. We get great pupil outcomes. The books are filled with incredible learning and inquiry (and also look incredible) and the environments for learning are filled with discussion and questions. The teaching is excellent. The children are inquisitive. People are happy, fulfilled, inspired (most of the time!).
Think back to that lightbulb. It has no actual content in the way that a newspaper has articles or a television has programs (or observation has feedback, or book scrutiny has comment, or learning walk has changes to make or performance management has targets), yet it is a medium that has a social effect: a light bulb enables people to create shared, collective, common spaces that would otherwise be enveloped by darkness.
Removing all content – thinking simply of the approach itself – what do your media for change, development and school improvement actually say? Because your medium is your message.