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School Leadership: Being an analogical scavenger and pushing the power of decision making out from the centre

November 20, 2017

When my wife orders from the menu in a restaurant I cannot help sitting back in wonder as the scene unfolds. Invariably, she will select from the menu, yes, but will modify the dish selected - deleting components, substituting with others - to a degree that often makes the named dish unrecognisable. She carries this off in such a composed and deliberate way that the person taking the order receives it without question or hint of trouble. I am still waiting for somebody on a table nearby to pipe up, “I’ll have one of those as well, please!”


Knowledge production so far as educational leadership is concerned is burgeoning, month on month, year on year. Indeed, Professor Helen Gunter of the University of Manchester in the UK has adopted a new label in order to frame and give recognition to intellectual work that is a product of the market, Entrepreneurs and Popularizers. Gunter (2016) says that by ‘entrepreneurs’ she means ‘people who trade knowledge and know-how regarding who leaders are, what they do and how they might do it differently, and in this sense they popularise particular types of knowledge and ways of knowing’ (p. 149).


You can conduct a Google search for each ‘leadership style’, add the word ‘checklist’ and arm yourself with a battery of traits to work on and aspire to own, if you so please. You might begin by searching ‘leadership styles checklist’.


In his work The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right, the acclaimed surgeon and writer, Atul Gawande, details the power of checklists, charting their use in the airline industry, their translation into the medical domain and beyond medicine into other fields, from disaster response to investment banking, skyscraper construction and businesses of all kinds. Gawande gives a fascinating account of his innovative work with the World Health Organisation and a global program aimed at reducing avoidable deaths and harm from surgery. Gawande says that:

It’s ludicrous to suppose that checklists are going to do away with the need for courage, wits, and improvisation. The work of medicine is too intricate and individual for that: good clinicians will not be able to dispense with expert audacity. Yet we should also be ready to accept the virtues of regimentation.

I am particularly intrigued by Gawande’s findings so far as the building industry is concerned. He found that the use of checklists redistributed power, as opposed to what checklists are usually about, dictating instructions to the workers below to ensure they do things the way we want. Gawande describes how, on the particular large-scale building project he was exploring, that when confronted with complex, non-routine problems, the philosophy was to push the power of decision making out to the periphery and away from the centre. You give people the room to adapt, based on their experience and expertise. All you ask is that they talk to one another and take responsibility. That is what works. A democratic strategy.


Professor Tony Bryk and colleagues use ideas from improvement science to show how a process of disciplined inquiry can be combined with the use of networks to identify, adapt, and successfully scale up promising interventions in education. Interestingly, Bryk highlights Gawande’s warning that the use of great components, even evidence-based components, does not ensure that quality outcomes will result. Making all of the pieces fit together is a formidable and quite distinctive improvement task.

I like the fact that the discipline of improvement science directs us to step back before we move forward; before looking to improve the current system, seek to fully understand it first. An improvement culture puts learning to improve at its centre and challenges everyone to put failure to work toward valued goals. This kind of culture encourages people to report when things don’t go according to plan. It makes people feel safe because they know that failure means that their team is testing its theories and bettering the work of the organisation. Part of the genius in the quality improvement logic of starting small and aiming to learn fast is that the costs of early failure are reduced and the dangers of confirmation bias “seeing only what we want to see” also lessened. In this regard starting small eases the path toward subsequent success.

Bryk and colleagues are adamant that rather than implementing fast and learning slow, educators should adopt a more rigorous approach to improvement that allows the field to learn fast to implement well. The authors describe themselves as ‘analogical scavengers’. That, because they are constantly looking to other fields that share a concern about improving practices and that have made some significant progress.

When asked, I struggle to place myself against given educational leadership matrices. I wonder whether the action of locating oneself or working to shift where you judge yourself to be located is ultimately self-limiting and puts us at risk of not seeing the wood for the trees. I like the notion of operating as an ‘analogical scavenger’; a more polymathic approach.


In Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximising Impact on Learning, Professor John Hattie points out how Gawande shows how checklists help to achieve the balance between specialised ability and group collaboration. For me, we are now getting to the heart of what leadership is. If we recognise the importance of taking a relational approach we can build relational trust, deal with asymmetries of power and create a culture where group collaboration is the norm, whilst recognising specialised ability. I see it as the task of the leader to generate and sustain an ever improving level of expertise across the team. Without doing that we are not in a position to push the power of decision making out to the periphery and away from the centre. Taking Gawande’s learning from the building industry, you give people the room to adapt and learn through collaboration, based on their experience and expertise. All you ask is that they talk to one another and take responsibility. A democratic strategy.


I think Bryk is right to home in on Gawande’s line that making all the pieces fit together is a formidable and quite distinctive improvement task. That is the task of leadership, creating the conditions where an absence of fear, an embracing of vulnerability, and good conversations lead to co-creation of checklists (if we must) that are reflective of contextual needs and priorities. A community of learning made up of teacher leaders exercising courage, wit, improvisation and, on occasion, expert audacity. All in the interests of impacting student learning and personal development.

I am going with my wife’s idea that menus are just suggestions. It is incumbent upon leaders to be selective. Scavenge, build teams, build knowledge and push the power of decision making out from the centre.





Bryk, A. S., Gomez, A. M., Grunow, A., LeMahieu, P. G. (2015) Learning To Improve: How America’s Schools Can Get Better at Getting Better. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.


Gawande, A. (2011) The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right. London: Profile Books.


Gunter, H. M. (2016) An Intellectual History of School Leadership and Research. London: Bloomsbury.


Hattie, J. (2012) Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximising Impact on Learning. Abingdon: Routledge.



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