What was down the rabbit hole?

“You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.” Morpheus, The Matrix (1999)

In 2015, I swallowed a red pill and accepted the uncomfortable truth that learning is invisible. I wrote about it here in one of my first blog posts. I’ve been down the rabbit hole and am ready to report back. Just how deep does this labyrinth go?

The thing about swallowing red pills is that reality can be far more grim than the comfortable illusion of living in a fantasy. For senior leaders in schools, certainty is reassuring. Believing that you can see learning happen means you can tell if teaching is effective and that students are making progress; you know that everything will turn out well. It felt scary to swallow the red pill, as I pointed out back then…

Accepting that we probably can’t tell if learning is taking place is tantamount to the factory manager admitting that he can’t judge the quality of the firm’s product, or the football manager telling his players that he doesn’t know how well they played. The blue pill takes us to a world in which leaders lead with confidence, clarity and certainty. That’s a comfortable world for everyone, not just the leader.

I don’t recall which parts of the illusion started to crumble away first, but I think graded lesson observations disintegrated pretty quickly. Once you accept that learning is something which happens inside our heads over long periods of time, it is a short intuitive leap to the realisation that you won’t be able to judge an individual lesson as ‘effective’, or otherwise. All you are able to witness are the echos of the instruction, like a bat’s sonic call bouncing off the obstacle in its path.

The false-god of Progress was probably the next to fall, along with the certainty that truth lay within a spreadsheet. Learning is not just invisible, but it is messy. It happens in non-linear ways. We might wish to draw a flight path because then we can extrapolate a destination, but glimpsing learning is more akin to the brief flashes on the radar screen of a thousand aircraft.

The excruciating process of witnessing Ofsted draw their inferences from randomly sampled exercise books, sure that the evidence of learning could be found within, swept aside all remains of trust in the authority of that institution. So dosed up on blue pills, it was like being inspected by Smurfs. Papa Smurf seemed so assured, so arrogantly confident that he had found truth within the pages filled with scribbled notes and the occasional red-penned comments.

One by one, the certainties disappeared. No more could we say that 80% of lessons were ‘good or better’, that 90% of students were making ‘expected progress’, that almost all our teachers should receive a pay rise as they had ‘met the progress targets for their classes’. We couldn’t say for certain that the gaps were closing, or that next year’s results would show an improvement in the school’s value added position. We were left deep in the labyrinth, wondering what we knew for sure other than that we were still here, searching for a way out.

I can’t tell you what lies at the bottom of that rabbit hole because it was dark; pitch black. But we weren’t alone down there. The demon they call Mr Inspectorate joined us, tempting us to take the blue pill. That comforting illusion will all come back, he promised. We refused, and he left us there to rot.

We sat and waited for our eyes to adjust. When this didn’t happen we started to feel around. A glimmer of light drew us forward.

***

It has been a year since all vestiges of that previous world finally disappeared. We are finding new certainties to replace the old. The curriculum has been a solid foundation on which to build; concrete knowledge. Valid assessments help us begin to understand again whether what we are teaching is sticking, is retained. Rather than looking at what teachers do, we are interested in their intentions, their expertise and their reflections.

Although I miss the certainties, I value the authenticity of our school’s practice now. We have integrity, even if we don’t have all the answers. I wonder if we took the wrong pill, and what things would be like if we had made a different choice. I wish it didn’t feel quite so dark and quiet down here in the rabbit hole. Is anyone there?

 

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