Problem-solving: Viviane Robinson and the Shoulders of Giants

What can we learn from the life’s work of one of the giants of school improvement research, and over forty years of her studies of school leaders?

Viviane Robinson is to school improvement research what Daniel Willingham is to the science of learning. Viviane provides clarity for school leaders in the way Daniel provides clarity for teachers. Giants, both.

I feel excited by how much her thinking challenges me. And amazed by her consistency and perseverance. Writing and thinking about schools since her 1980 paper on school review in New Zealand, over four decades ago now, after a PhD in psychology in the 1970s from Harvard, she has invested vast, deep time listening to thousands of school leaders’ conversations, and compounded a vast wealth of knowledge about school leadership over 40 years.

Standing on the shoulders of such a giant of research, we might see further.

Central questions to her work are how school leaders think, and what we tend to avoid.

How can we approach the challenges we encounter in schools?

What should school leaders stop avoiding?

Characteristically over-intense and over-obsessive, I’m finding myself drawn to spending hours exploring Viviane’s books, papers and talks, and learning lots.

Here are some of Viviane’s insights that give us a higher, broader view of the terrain of school improvement, from the vantage point of her deep thinking over decades.

Ten insights from forty years of research 

I’ve tried to distill Viviane’s research into ten insights, with short summaries.

1. Reduce change to increase improvement.

‘To lead improvement is to create a better state than before, whereas change might be for the worse.

Change is extremely disruptive and costly. Distinguishing improvement from change increases leaders’ responsibility for developing and communicating how their proposed change will produce the intended improvement, and for asking: is it working? Is it worth it?’

2. Deeply understand the present before designing the future.

‘For improvement to succeed, leaders need to focus as much, if not more, on understanding the practices they wish to change as on designing the alternatives they seek to introduce. The hardest part is the uncertain and complex process of integrating and aligning the new practices with hundreds of existing practices.’

3. Create coherent school improvement with strategic problem-solving expertise.

‘Improving schools were more coherent and tightly coordinated in how they organised teacher learning and strategic leadership and expertise.’

4. Build knowledge and trust to solve problems.

Three capabilities are central to school leadership improvement: 1) using relevant knowledge from research and experience to 2) solve the complex educational problems that stand in the way of achieving improvement goals while 3) building relationships of trust with those involved.’

5. Don’t avoid performance concerns.

‘Effective instructional leadership demands that leaders address the inevitable problems and concerns that exist in any educational organisation. Unfortunately, much evidence suggests that many important concerns, including teacher performance issues, continue to be unaddressed and unresolved. School leaders commonly struggle to have effective conversations about staff performance issues, tending to tolerate, protect, and work around such issues rather than effectively addressing them.’

6. Don’t avoid discussing disagreements, the causes of problems or solutions logic.

‘In 43 conversations studied, leaders tended to avoid and bypass causes, inquiry, belief-testing, truth-seeking, disagreements and solutions-logic.’ 

7. Solve problems by engaging, not bypassing, others’ beliefs.

‘Bypassing results in too little scrutiny, learning and trust.’ 

8. Test beliefs, don’t assume. 

Leaders’ conversations avoid disclosing causal beliefs, avoid negative emotions, and agree solutions misaligned to causal belief

9. Foster internal commitment; listen to and address concerns. 

‘To create internal commitment, leaders build mutual accountability for the choices made, rather than merely seeking compliance. Leaders probe the reasons for doubts and disagreements so they can be understood and resolved, rather than brushed aside. When leaders and teachers become internally committed to a course of action, they follow through and monitor its implementation and outcomes.’

10. Give educational rationales, never managerial.

‘Most leaders are quite capable of giving reasons for their point of view. The challenge comes, not in providing a reason, but in providing one that is educational rather than managerial. Not based on the need for compliance, but rather on the educational rationale that supports their request. When leaders provide managerial rather than educational reasons, the source of their leadership influence, is their authority, rather than their educational expertise. Such influence is unlikely to build trust. Sometimes leaders provide managerial reasons because they do not have sufficient relevant educational knowledge. At other times the educational worth of what is requested is so taken for granted that leaders have difficulty articulating what they do know. It’s important to give relevant educational reasons, and to discover and fill gaps in our ability to provide them.’


Ten of my mistakes – pitfalls I keep falling into

Standing on Viviane’s shoulders, I look back with bemusement at how little I saw before.

Dwarving the few decades I’ve spent in schools, she helps me see the many foibles I’m now abashed to have foisted onto others over the years. 

Some of my (many) mistakes follow.

Mistake #1. I try to change too much all at once.

It’s tempting to take on a lot, to try and keep 20 priorities on the go, but it hasn’t work as well as when I’m more decisive and selective in my priorities, rank-ordering the top 3.

As Viviane’s book title puts it: Reduce change to increase improvement. 

Mistake #2. I rush into making plans without deeply understanding the present.

In my school improvement plans and planning, I keep forgetting to take the time to deeply understand the most important causes of the problems we’re facing, and the greatest obstacles to success.  

Viviane’s remedy: Understand the present before designing the future.

Mistake #3. I underestimate the role of beliefs in improving schools together as a team. 

In all my initiatives, I almost always assuming that explaining the why is enough to convince people about what we’re doing. Often though, it isn’t. Where people’s views diverge strongly, a rational why isn’t sufficient to get fully in sync and move forwards well together.

Viviane suggests: Strategic problem-solving involves beliefs about the problem, causes and solutions logic.

Mistake #4. I didn’t know what I didn’t know (and still don’t)

One of our trustee asked me: why aren’t they attending school? I was a bit stumped. How do i sum that up in a few sentences? It got me thinking: do I know enough about absence and low attendance to really help improve it?

Viviane’s take? Build knowledge and trust.

Mistake #5. I tend to avoid performance concerns.

For years, I avoided talking about underperformance. It’s not easy to work out what underperformance is, where it starts or where the bar for ‘adequate’ performance is. To be honest, I’m still pretty hazy for many roles. Not being that clear on where the minimalism requirements are, it’s then easier to avoid dealing with it. It’s hard to bring others clarity when I’m not that clear myself. But I do notice this avoidance takes a toll on others, because mediocrity (my own, in this area!) crushes morale.

Viviane says: Don’t avoid performance concerns. 

Mistake #6. I miss chances to discuss differences.

Although divergences can we deep, they are tricky to surface and resolve. Often I just leave them. Festering! If a colleague thinks it’s students first, always, and I believe in putting staff first, then in moments of tension, we will come into conflict.

Viviane says: Don’t avoid discussing disagreements.

Mistake #7. I bypass others’ beliefs. 

Beliefs matter, but I don’t ask enough: ‘What’s your take? Why, how come? What experiences are you drawing on- what are your grounds on this?’ It would help me see when my own beliefs are on shakier ground. 

Viviane recommends: Don’t bypass, but engage others’ beliefs. 

Mistake #8. I don’t test my assumptions.

I miss the chance to ask: ‘What if my assumptions aren’t valid? What would it take for me to change my mind on this? What would it take for me to be wrong on this?’

Viviane suggests: Test beliefs, don’t assume.

Mistake #9. I don’t invest enough time listening to the most valuable concerns and dissent.

A pesky nuisance, dissent! From my (short-sighted) viewpoint. It takes time, which is short. But it can provide valuable information, if nothing else into others’ beliefs, views and values. Understanding those helps me to see what I’m not seeing, and to better influence others too.

Viviane says: Foster internal commitment; listen to and address concerns. 

Mistake #10. I don’t bring enough clarity on why we’re taking an approach.

I try to always give two: first, for staff. second, for students. For example: we’ll stop marking and replace it with modelling and two-way, instant, constant feedback every task. Why? first, so that we as staff have time to invest in better teaching, planning and our own learning; second, for our students: so that we teach our students take responsibility for their own learning, self-checking and self-correcting. It later turns out, I hear, that some staff say the reason we’re doing that is because the head says so, the trust says so. 

Viviane urges us: Give educational rationales, never managerial.

With hindsight and a bit of foresight, I can see what I once didn’t: that I’ll keep falling into these traps unless I’m honest enough with myself to get to grips with them. I don’t feel daunted by this; I feel excited by it. Viviane’s research challenges my own views and beliefs, in a healthy way, helpfully, bracingly! It helps me to be fearlessly, searingly honest with myself. 


A new viewpoint: thinking about the challenge of disruption in lessons

Let’s take one example of a challenge and see how we might apply Viviane’s vantage points.

Disruption in lessons bedevils teachers up and down the country and around the world. 

We want to resolve the problem of low-level disruption, student distraction and inattention in lessons, and improve our inconsistencies in dealing with it, so that teachers can all teach and students can all learn free of disruption that prevents learning.

How could we apply Viviane’s research insights to our leadership practice? 

What questions can we ask ourselves from our new viewpoint?

1. Don’t lead ‘change’; lead improvement in student attention.

What will do most to genuinely, lastingly improve students’ attention in lessons?

2. Understand student attention in the present before designing the future.

What is student attention like in lessons? Why? What are the biggest causes of disruption and inattention? Norms? Habits? Beliefs? Mindsets? Values? Inconsistencies? Past experiences? 

3. Improve student attention with strategic problem-solving expertise.

What do the world’s best schools and teachers do to achieve sustained student attention on subject learning? How do their solutions connect with the causes of the problem?

4. Build knowledge and trust to solve problematic disruption and inattention.

What do we all most need to know to stop disrupting and distracting? 

What do teachers and students most need to trust to make this happen?

5. Don’t avoid performance concerns.

Where are there leadership performance gaps between where we need to be and where we are? Where are there teaching performance gaps? Where are the greatest behavioural and belief gaps between where students are and where we want them to be? What CPD, guidance, resources, communications, support, can we provide and seek feedback on? 

6. Don’t avoid discussing disagreements, the causes of problems or solutions logic.

Where do leaders, teachers and key support staff disagree in how they see the problem, causes or solutions playing out? How can we discuss this so that we get multiple vantage points on the emerging problems, the barriers and our approaches to them?

7. Solve problems by engaging, not bypassing, others’ beliefs.

Which teachers and students are struggling most? How can we best support them in conversations with them?

8. Test beliefs, don’t assume.

What are the beliefs I’m most certain about? Which beliefs impact most here? How could I test out these beliefs by asking for scrutiny from the people and experts I trust and admire most and learn most from?

9. Foster internal commitment; listen to and address concerns. 

Whose concerns should I most listen to and take on? Who’s most believable in having led and improved schools really well, from similar starting points to ours? 

10. Give educational rationales, never managerial.

How can I hold myself to ONLY giving reasons for improvements that positively, sustainably, lastingly, replicably, scalably and ethically improve education for staff and students? And never because of Ofsted, inspectors, governors, local authorities, parents/families, trust bods?

Asking ourselves these questions could help improve how we think about problems in schools.


The great time constraint 

The greatest challenge I find with applying Viviane’s life work is the time it takes to ask these questions. My sense is that it’s time well invested upstream to save time and heartache downstream.

A simple way to start might be to ask just a few honest questions of myself: 

What am I most avoiding, that’s most holding me back?

How can I approach this avoidance?

Viviane can help.

About Joe Kirby

School leader, education writer, Director of Education and co-founder, Athena Learning Trust, Deputy head and co-founder, Michaela Community School, English teacher
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