ResearchED 2022 | Organising our leadership knowledge and using it to make a difference

We all want to make a difference. Some of us live for that moment when children get the grades they deserve after several years of schooling. Some of us prefer the small breakthroughs that might set a child on the path to those grades, whether they are academic, social or something quite different. To make a difference, we strive to be better leaders; to become more expert. And that expertise is the result of what we know and what we do.

Becoming more expert

It is our moral imperative to keep getting better so that we can keep improving our schools. But can we tell when what we’re doing is building our expertise or when we are learning school leadership? Learning is invisible and when it comes to children’s learning, Rob Coe warns us of poor proxies to avoid and better proxies that might be more indicative that learning is actually taking place:

Leadership learning is like any other learning in both how it happens and how difficult it is to see. I’d say that there are some poor proxies of leadership learning:

  • Leaders are busy
  • Leaders produce lots of documentation
  • Colleagues are getting attention, explanations and feedback
  • Colleagues are happy
  • The school is successful (in whatever measure of school success you like)

Although the last three are of course desirable, it does not necessarily mean that we’re getting better as leaders if those conditions are the reality. Better proxies might help us to remain focused on leadership learning and not leadership performance:

  • Leaders gather information about how the persistent problems of school leadership manifest in their school (a descriptive approach rather than observing lessons etc with the intent to evaluate).
  • Leaders seek and discuss formal knowledge of, for example, curriculum design, how school culture develops, the evidence base behind effective teaching, or behaviour.
  • Leaders retrieve what they have been thinking about after days / weeks / months.
  • Leaders debrief decision making with other leaders.

Note that I’m suggesting that these are better proxies, not absolute proxies because leadership learning cannot be directly observed.

The importance of knowledge

Becoming more expert in school leadership involves knowing more; knowing more about key educational issues but also knowing more about our own school – how exactly problems manifest in our unique context.

Most people we talk to do not want to believe that research shows expert performance is mainly a matter of knowledge. They do not necessarily have an alternative explanation ready, but they feel there has to be more to expertise that that.

Surpassing ourselves: An inquiry into the nature and implications of expertise | Bereiter & Scardamalia (1993)

This is a liberating model for getting better at leadership as opposed to conceiving of leadership as styles, personality traits and generic competencies. It is much more straightforward (although by no means easy) to learn more about, for example, how children learn, about what high performing teams do, about safeguarding practices or what makes a great curriculum than it is to learn how to be more inspirational or more dynamic. Of course being able to inspire others is probably important but if we are going inspire others, this will be rooted in our expertise that enables such behaviours and not the behaviours themselves.

Which knowledge?

Because knowledge is important, it makes sense codify it in order to make it easier to learn and understand across the profession.

By identifying and codifying a taxonomy of school leadership knowledge, we are able to give leaders a starting point from which to better understand their work and continue their development. Codified knowledge can also offer a shared language for leaders, and those responsible for their development, to communicate with, and to enter debate.

Expertise, mental models and leadership knowledge | Ambition Institute

One way of codifying leadership knowledge is to separate formal and hidden knowledge.

Formal knowledge

Formal knowledge is easily stated and shared. There is plenty that leaders need to know about curriculum design, what makes great teaching, the intricacies of learning and memory, the statutory requirements in KCSIE or the importance of belonging and psychological safety. But some formal knowledge has many layers to it. For example, ‘Feedback has a significant effect on children’s learning’ might be common formal knowledge but this simple statement masks all sorts of nuance:

  • What kind of feedback?
  • When?
  • How often?
  • Verbal or written?
  • Is it the same for every topic or subject?
  • Is it the same for children with different prior knowledge?
  • Is it the same for children of different ages?

Some formal knowledge might also be contestable as evidence bases develop. There was a time when leaders’ formal knowledge will have included the idea that children learn best when their preferred learning style is catered for but most would reject this now.

Formal knowledge is necessary but not sufficient for school leaders to develop their expertise and make a difference but there’s more to leadership expertise both in terms of content and complexity than just formal educational knowledge.

Hidden knowledge

Hidden knowledge is that which is gained from experience, including knowledge of ourselves as leaders. It includes things that we might have learned in previous roles and settings but crucially, about our school and the people in it; how they interact and what makes them tick.

Categorising knowledge as formal or hidden is one way of differentiating between all the things that are useful for leaders to know but leadership expertise does not come from knowing lots of isolated nuggets of information. Leaders can make good decisions when they have a well connected mental model of school leadership that combines crucial domain specific knowledge with essential contextual knowledge.

Organising our knowledge is important but doing so around formal and hidden knowledge is probably not the most helpful model. Sarah Cottingham writes brilliantly on learning and tells us that schemas determine what we learn because:

  • Schemas determine what we focus on
  • Our brains want to update what we already know
  • Our brains are selective about what we learn

Gaining and organising knowledge

Mental models are more than knowledge. Well organised knowledge in our mental model of school leadership enables us to act and so we need ways of structuring our thinking about what it is that school leaders do that makes a difference.

It makes sense to structure our leadership learning around concepts. But what concepts? One particularly helpful model is Ambition Institutes’ persistent problems of school leadership:

We can use these persistent problems to categorise our formal and hidden knowledge and because these persistent problems are intimately related, the intended outcome is that we develop a well connected mental model of school leadership. The recently published national professional qualifications seek to codify leadership knowledge in a similar way with strands that run through each qualification, for example in the Headteacher standards:

Now of course a single unifying model of school leadership does not exist. We rely on multiple models to refine our understanding and I propose one such model to support our understanding of impact and the complexity of school life.

Domains of impact

We all have the ultimate aim of outcomes for children but we only have an indirect influence over this as leaders because we are not in the classroom with all the children and those with a teaching commitment is often (but not always) minimal.

We have a more (but not fully) direct influence over other domains of impact and these in turn influence the outcomes for children:

Leaders can build their formal knowledge of each domain and inquire further into how each domain manifests in their school to ultimately seek to resolve the school improvement challenges that need addressing.

Systems and processes allow us to influence the outcomes for children at scale. All the categories of leadership knowledge in Ambition’s persistent problems or the NPQs require systems to be set up around them.

Colleagues’ behaviours contribute to those systems.

Colleagues’ knowledge influences how they behave.

Climate underpins all.

But this is not a simple nor even complicated chain reaction. Schools and school leadership is complex.


Each decision that leaders make has innumerable consequences, good and bad, intended and unintended, predictable and unpredictable, short and long term. And while we might make a difference to what colleagues know, how they behave, school systems or processes, climate or outcomes for children, there will be knock on consequences in each of the other domains. Some of these will be more positive and some more negative.

Example | Children in Year 5 behaving better on the transition between lunch time and afternoon lessons might result in:

  • Year 5 colleagues giving more positive attention to children
  • Year 5 colleagues knowing more about what children do and do not understand in subjects taught in the afternoon (because of fewer incidents of low level disruption)
  • Year 5 colleagues feeling less stressed
  • Year 5 colleagues easing off lining up systems

Example | TAs that are more motivated when it comes to supporting children with reading might result in:

  • TAs being more attentive to children when listening to them read
  • TAs knowing more about the decoding / understanding of certain children
  • The system of listening to children reading happens with fewer cancellations
  • Some children missing more of other subjects while they are out reading with a TA

Example | A screening system for social, emotional and mental health concerns might result in:

  • Colleagues know more about the vulnerability of previously ‘invisible’ children
  • Colleagues respond with more empathy to children showing symptoms of poor mental health
  • Colleagues feel more stressed at the times of the survey due to increased workload
  • More children report having someone to talk to when something is bothering them

Example | Colleagues explaining concepts in maths more clearly might result in:

  • Children understanding mathematical concepts better
  • An adaption the system of maths planning to include new pedagogical approaches to explanation
  • Teachers feel more stressed because they are spending longer planning maths than they used to
  • Teachers know more about children’s misconceptions

Example | Reception colleagues knowing more about early mathematical development might result in:

  • Colleagues asking better questions when interacting with children
  • Better activities being set up for children to engage in
  • Reception TAs feeling uncertain about ‘new’ activities
  • Children feeling frustrated in maths sessions (as colleagues push for more in their responses)

When we appreciate that our actions and their consequences have all sorts of additional consequences, when we appreciate that our actions advantage some colleagues and children while disadvantaging other colleagues and children, it can stir different emotions. We might feel a little out of control at one end of a spectrum or we might feel a little reassured at the other end when we come to understand why our best laid plans didn’t work out as we thought. It changes how we think about school leadership.

Taking complexity seriously is an invitation to pay attention differently.

Mowles (2022)

So how might we pay attention differently? Ultimately we can try and notice more about what is happening in school in those five impact domains; to build our knowledge of outcomes for children, climate, systems and processes, colleagues’ behaviours and colleagues’ knowledge as opposed to trying to disentangle cause and effect or make judgements of practice. The reason for building this knowledge is to enable us to make better decisions. If we take time to know more about the problems that we are experiencing, we are better placed to choose a more targeted solution whilst appreciating as many of the possible consequences as we can.

But for me, all of this points towards making sure that we are absolutely clear on our strategic direction or purpose.

Using knowledge

Clarifying our purpose

One mistake I made was to put too much effort and attention into what might be called vision and values or a mission statement – the top half of this school improvement model:

I realised that although it is probably an important, sensible starting point, it is too abstract to be useful for colleagues day in, day out.

The organisation is created from the inside out, not in large airy abstractions but in micro interactions where people are fiercely committed to work out how to go on together.

Mowles (2022)

Instead, it is the clarity of purpose in the bottom half of the school improvement model that is where we really put our knowledge to use. And this is also the point at which collective knowledge across the entire school becomes particularly important, more so than what leaders know and do – it is the foundation to all of Mowles’ ‘micro interactions’. A key part of what leaders do is to create structured interactions that build and utilise collective knowledge and understanding of shared purpose. For me, it is team meetings that are arguably the most important drivers of school improvement:

Mapping the territory of our school

Viviane Robinson makes the use of knowledge clear in her competencies for leading improvement – solving problems.

But before we solve problems, building knowledge is about understanding as fully as possible how problems manifest in our school. As Robinson reminds us, we shouldn’t design the future until we deeply understand the present. Matthew Evans advocates a similar approach of ‘mapping the territory’:

When we map territory we are interested in gaining a true and accurate picture. We set out with a range of tools, each designed to chart what we observe in particular ways. We know that there is not just one useful map we could draw; mapping comes in various forms, each revealing a different aspect of the environment. Road maps show us how to drive from one place to another, weather maps tell us what conditions we are likely to experience, and topographical maps reveal the physical features we will pass. There is no definitive map, only different ways of viewing a complex reality.

Getting the measure of a school | Matthew Evans

And mapping the territory of our school requires having the right conversations – an example of the real work of school leadership and indeed developing our own expertise.

Solving problems

With a clear purpose and having a thorough understanding of the reality of school life, we’re in a position to tackle the problems that we face. A good foundation in purpose and context helps to:

  • choose the right problem
  • select appropriate strategies and
  • direct collective attention to those strategies while also making it clear what we can stop doing to free up necessary attention.

It can insulate us from falling for the lure of fads and the risk of transplanting others’ solutions to their problems into our school.

Collective goals require more than collective knowledge though. They require collective action and the way to coordinate this is through well thought out systems.

You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.

Atomic habits
Clear (2018)

One conception of school leadership then is that it is our job to design effective systems that mobilise collective action that in turn contribute to the different domains of impact. And there’s a whole book on creating a strong culture and a positive climate…

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