Thinking deeply: Matthew Evans and the Shoulders of Jedi

Every so often, a writer deepens your thinking permanently and unalterably. 

Such a writer is headteacher Matthew Evans. 

A thorny problem for school leaders is the learning-time constraint. There’s lots to learn in school leadership, but there’s limited time to learn it all. 

What should we read?

Who should we read?

What should we spend our time thinking about?

Who should we invest our scarce, precious and limited time thinking with?

Charlatans, mystics, preachers, evangelists, zealots, acolytes, fanatics, apostles, tribalists, cultists, crusaders, hierophants, demonisers, censors, snake oil salesmen, partisans, polemicists, pontificators (myself included), leech doctors, swindlers, scammers and hawkers abound in education. 


Our heroes at Athena are the teachers, the school leaders, the headteachers, the staff in schools on the frontlines, the writers, the edubloggers, the sharers, the dreamers, the renegades, the heterodox, the heretics, the trailblazers, the freedom fighters.

Love them.

One such is Obi-Wan Evans, who combines all of these heroics in one thinker.

The headteachers’ headteacher, guide and inspiration of skywalkers. 


What can we learn from a headteacher of 10 years, with over 30 years of experience in teaching and schools, and 24 years in school leadership, and writing about education for 10 years?

Matthew’s thinking can inspire, teach, mentor, guide, startle and provoke us, and challenge and deepen our thoughts.  

Just like in The Odyssey, when a character named Mentor – actually the goddess of wisdom, Athena, in disguise – instructs Odyssesus’ son, Telemachus, that he must stand up against his adversaries and search for knowledge, similarly, Matthew’s tutelage tutors us to grow in knowledge, courage and wisdom.

I have spent lots of time reading every one of the 100+ blogposts and 2 books (and counting) that Matthew has written over the last 10 or so years, to try to absorb his teaching, perspectives and thinking. I find his writing helps me see my blind spots. 

Simplistic planning in a messy world is prone to misfire.

With hundreds of his blogposts and books out there, where to start to get to know Matthew’s thinking, and what is best to revisit to deepen our own? 

As a mad-busy school leader, strapped for time, what are the best bets to begin with from the Blog and the Book of Matthew?

Matthew’s ideas and insights that have deepened my thinking 

Five well-holes to avoid falling down

1. Orthodoxy: don’t get trapped into fuzzy generic leadership thinking.

Leadership is not vision, change, service, traits, virtue and transferable skills; instead, leadership is knowledge.

Expertise is our greatest resource’.

‘Spend more time thinking through your grand plans. expect unintended consequences’.

2. Naive solutionism: don’t oversimplify the problem into a simple solution.

Resolutions, not solutions.

3. Arrogant diminishment: don’t diminish complex realities into reassuring but overly-simplistic rubrics.

“Underpinning many dubious practices now happening in schools, there is a tendency to *diminish* what teachers do down to a set of operational actions, which can be observed and corrected. There is a degree of arrogance whereby those in charge seem quite certain that they know what effective teaching is, or at least they know better than those they lead.”

4. Creeping managerialism: don’t set up controlling, sprawling bureaucracy. 

when first we seek to control. Instead, we should be mapping, not weighing. 

‘The greatest barrier is fear: fear that results will drop, fear that Ofsted will deem us weak, or the middle of the night fear that we can’t solve this by working even harder.’

5. Bandwagonism: don’t jump unthinkingly onto bandwagons.

On the curriculum and development waves- “when good ideas encounter reality they are at most risk of corruption. Proceed with caution.”

Five rabbit holes to explore

1. Community: education must be about our community, not just the individual.

‘Unfettered, a student-centred ideology in schools feeds the cult of the individual. Consider instead a community-centred approach. Growing up means understanding that you are not the centre of the universe. It means appreciating that your value as a human is in what you can do for others.’

2. Complexity: understand complex persistent problems deeply.

we are yet to even ask the right questions. We are battling a shape-shifter, but we can learn to recognise its incarnations and what might work to tame the beast in whatever form it might take. Understanding complexity has lifted the fog and reduced the feeling of disorientation..’ 

‘In conditions of uncertainty, the ‘know-it-all’ leader will do significant harm. We need leaders with a deep knowledge and light touch.’ Live with complexity

‘Understand problems from multiple perspectives. Two forms of expertise – over the complicated and the complex – navigating the ship, not calming the seas. Unite specialist and generalist perspectives.

3. Knowledge: know the right problems; know your school and contexts deeply.

‘Acting without knowledge is foolhardy… damaging… even dangerous.’

‘Failing to understand the context within which you work will lead to ineffectiveness.’

‘School leaders must acquire and act in accordance with a deep knowledge of the social context within which they work. Without a firm grasp of several domains of knowledge, leadership actions will likely be flawed.’

Curate a canon

4. Debate, Dissent & Perspectives: see from many angles, many disciplines.

Test our assumptions; set out our beliefs for others to scrutinise.

Which disciplines offer most to education knowledge-building? 

What should I spend time thinking about?

  1. What questions do we most want answers to?
  2. Which disciplines are most likely to answer these questions?

‘It does matter what we spend time thinking about collectively. The questions we ask and the way we go about answering them determine whether we become wiser or more deceived.’

Dissent is valuable.

Raise the bar for school improvement. for evidence. Curation. Discourse. Debate. Action. Impact. Scrutiny

Anti-fragile: ‘Good policy is shaped by exposure to stressors – mini acts of sabotage and rebellion.”

5. Rules of thumb: don’t overcomplicate things.

Effective school leaders, Matthew suggests:

  • Know their school and the people within it
  • Build trust through problem solving conversations
  • Come to terms with complex, persistent problems
  • Understand these problems deeply before acting
  • Make bets on what it is worth doing
  • Think of school improvement as an exercise in hypothesis testing
  • Walk the school and keep their finger on the pulse.

Three of Matthew’s rules of thumb:

  • Find out how other people see things.
  • Be visible. 
  • Keep everything open for review.

I asked Matthew how he develops his SLT. I loved his answer:

1. Push them to think deeply about problems.

2. Use meetings to expose their ideas and assumptions to scrutiny.

3. Give them space and time

4. Give them stuff to read.


Ten of my Blunders and Bungles

Standing on Matthew’s shoulders, I can see now, from his vantage point of long-standing headship, what I didn’t see before.

Blunder #1: Orthodoxy

I am still mired in the leadership orthodoxy: seeing school leadership as generic vision, change, traits, skills, communication, motivation and ethics, rather than as deeply tied to knowledge and expertise.

Don’t get trapped into fuzzy generic leadership thinking.

Blunder #2: Naive solutionism

My mind keeps getting drawn to simple solutions that I keep coming up with. Improve schools? Sort leadership! Improve school culture and results? Just sort behaviour! Simples.

Don’t oversimplify the problem into a simple solution.

Blunder #3: Arrogant diminishment

I diminish teaching to simplistic frameworks, formulae and rubrics. This meets a need of mine to feel and bring things under control in a complex and confusing arena under time pressure to act, and act fast. But risks oversimplifying and distorting teachers’ subject passion and subject teaching.

Don’t diminish complex realities into reassuring but overly-simplistic rubrics.

Blunder #4: Creeping managerialism

I get drawn into creating lots and lots of trackers to try and make priorities and things managerially visible. Huge time gets taken up on these. I fall into god/saviour complex (any coincidence I chose the name of the goddess Athena for our trust?!). 

Don’t set up controlling, sprawling bureaucracy. 

Blunder #5: Bandwagonism

I jump, joyously, jauntily and merrily on the curriculum and development bandwagons, sniping away heartily at the data and quality assurance bandwagons trundling behind.

Don’t jump unthinkingly onto bandwagons.

Blunder #6: Community

I amplify selfish-centredness, self-absorption and self-indulgence by talking too much about students’ individual ambitions, exams, grades, results, jobs and futures, and not enough about their community, contributions, interactions, compassion, kind-heartedness and generosity towards others.

Education must be about our community, not just the individual.

Blunder #7: Complexity

I see and still keep seeing problems as silos. Stuck in the shallows, I see attendance as separate to behaviour, separate to safeguarding and separate to personal development and community spirit, when they are all interlinked and intertwined in the depths.

Understand complex persistent problems deeply.

Blunder #8: Knowledge

I get tempted to rush ahead into action, action, action before really, deeply, truly knowing my stuff.

Know the right problems; know your school and contexts deeply.

Blunder #9 Debate, Dissent & Perspectives

I don’t take enough time to seek debate, disconfirmation, dissent and other perspectives. I overrate uniformity and underrate scrutiny.

See from many angles, many disciplines.

Blunder #10: Rules of thumb

I lack visibility and presence and don’t walk the school enough to understand how things are, how people are, and keep on the pulse. 

Don’t overcomplicate things.

Matthew’s thinking helpfully disrupts and interrupts my most cheerfully naive thinking.

“Be mindful of your thoughts, they betray you.” Jedi mind tricks

Thinking about the challenge of consequences in schools

What can Matthew’s viewpoint help us to ask and see, when considering the challenge of how to make consequences (for disrupting teaching or others’ learning) work really well in schools, for example?

1. Orthodoxy: don’t get trapped into fuzzy, generic leadership thinking.

If leadership is knowledge and expert problem-solving, let’s ask: what do we all most need to know to succeed in eliminating disruption from lessons? What are the problems we most need to resolve?

2. Naive solutionism: don’t oversimplify the problem into a simple solution.

If simplistic solutions are naive, let’s ask: what are the deepest causes of the problem? lack of knowledge? prioritisation? communication? clarity? overcommunication? consistency? aligned beliefs? values? 

3. Arrogant diminishment: don’t diminish complex realities into reassuring but overly-simplistic rubrics.

If rubrics and diminishment distort, let’s ask: how can we best develop deeper staff and leader knowledge and expertise through teaching, examples, thinking, discussion, sense-making, time, practice and revisiting?

4. Creeping managerialism: don’t set up controlling, sprawling bureaucracy. 

If bureaucratic paperwork and logging sprawls and warps our thinking, let’s ask: how can we get out of the controlling mindset, bravely let go of our darkest fears and get rid of clutter that takes up our scarce time?

5. Bandwagonism: don’t jump unthinkingly onto bandwagons.

If bandwagons risk careering off into a crash, let’s ask: how can we stay alert to groupthink developing and put our ideas under scrutiny from others who disagree with us?

6. Community: education must be about our community, not just the individual.

If community is at the heart of what schools do, let’s ask: who we are and how our consequences work, how do we encourage students to consider what they can do for the school community?

7. Complexity: understand complex persistent problems deeply. 

If schools’ consequence systems with their myriad students, staff, families, governors, communities and interactions are complex human places, let’s ask: how can we ask better questions and take the time to deeply understand how these interactions are truly playing out?

8. Knowledge: know the right problems; know your school and contexts deeply.

If several domains of knowledge help, let’s ask: which disciplines and concepts help us most when it comes to consequence? What should our behaviour CPD curriculum for staff involve?

9. Debate, Dissent & Perspectives: see from many angles, many disciplines.

If we should test our assumptions, let’s ask: what are they? And how can we best test them out, drawing on others’ perspectives? 

10. Rules of thumb: don’t overcomplicate things.

How can we get to know how things are? How do staff explain each school initiative? How do they see it? How do they respond to it?


One thing I love in Matthew’s thinking is the unorthodox blend of deeply understanding the complex and sharply prioritising foundations first.

Time to redouble my efforts, in two ways at least:

Don’t be naive. 

Focus on what matters most.

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
This entry was posted in Education. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Thinking deeply: Matthew Evans and the Shoulders of Jedi

  1. Well this gladdened my heart. Would endorse all that you say. Matthew is a leader and a person of the very highest quality. Deserves every plaudit that comes his way. Thanks for articulating it so brilliantly – as you always do.

Leave a Reply