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  • Writer's pictureRuth Ashbee

Why Templates Tend To Fail, And What We Should Do Instead

Knowledge-building for school leaders

As school leaders we often want to make things better. Better curriculum. Better teaching. Better pastoral conversations. Etc.

There is a list of knowledge-building that we need to do around the areas we are responsible for. We need to build our knowledge around:

  • Ethical and social arguments – e.g. every child is entitled to learn the best of what has been thought and said

  • Scientific research – e.g. cognitive load theory

  • Professional implications of scientific research – e.g. the need for simplicity in schools to free up working memory space for thinking and learning

  • Vocational research – e.g. the techniques gathered from top-performing schools, articulated so well in Teach Like A Champion

  • Vocational practice -- e.g. what great schools are doing*

  • Professional insight – e.g. Bodil Isaksen’s powerful observation that “a lesson is the wrong unit of time”

  • Contextual knowledge about our own school and the community we serve – e.g. “Lots of our families don’t yet value homework”

All of this knowledge informs our strategic thinking: What we want to achieve, Why this is important, How we should go about doing it.

Condensing into templates

So far so good. What happens next though is often where things fall down. Schools are short on time – we need to improve things quickly, we don’t have much allocated staff CPD time, teachers are very busy… etc. So we try to condense down all of our knowledge-building into some kind of mandated template. Here are some examples:

· Write out your curriculum map, showing components, composites, substantive and disciplinary knowledge, and endpoints

· All lessons must have a Do Now, retrieval practice, teacher explanation, independent learning, discussion and assessment for learning

· All detentions should have a conversation following a specified script

The implicit theory here is:

1) These requirements embody what we know about what works to achieve our aims

2) Staff will follow these requirements


3) We will achieve our aims.

I would like to challenge premise 1. Condensed lists cannot accurately embody sophisticated knowledge about education, because they are condensed. My argument is an antireductionist one: the field of education is vast, complex, nuanced and diverse, and attempts to simplify necessarily lose important details and therefore fail. Because condensed lists are reductive, they simultaneously over- and under-specify.


Condensed lists typically tell teachers to do some things that will not be the best practice in some instances. For example, students may need to build stamina in their writing, in which case a single lesson will not have room for other things like assessment for learning or class discussion. A teacher following the lesson requirements given as an example above will not be able to best meet the requirements of his students.


Condensed lists cannot tell us all the detail that makes the difference between effective and ineffective. As a novice science teacher I could ask students questions in order to "meet" the requirement for assessment for learning; only as my specialist knowledge has grown, through engagement with blogs, discussions with colleagues, reading examiners’ reports and so on have I become able to know the best questions to ask in order to really check for deep understanding. Almost every aspect of what we do in education has layers and layers of detail that make the difference between just ticking a box and really excellent practice.

Therefore even if premise 2 is correct, and staff conscientiously try to do what they’ve been asked to do, the following is entailed:

Expert staff complying will often bypass their expertise and deliver weaker practice than they are capable of. For example, a skilled art teacher who might be able to expertly embed retrieval practice of both practical techniques and knowledge, and vocabulary, art history and semiotics throughout her lesson through the content taught and her use of questioning, may not do this since she has started her lesson with five retrieval questions on key terms in art instead.

Novice staff complying will take actions to “meet” each requirement-- but this is insufficient for them to do it really well, since they do not have the knowledge required to think expertly about their practice. For example, a maths teacher may give an explanation of a procedure but will miss an opportunity to warn students about a common misconception because he is unaware of its existence.

The obvious objection to this argument is “But staff must use their professional judgement and know when to ignore these lists (overcoming overspecification) and how to enact them effectively (overcoming underspecification.)” Ok, but there are two big issues here:

1) Where does that professional judgment come from? Who is responsible for its development? How is it defined? What if my professional judgement disagrees with yours?

2) If professional judgement is an afterthought, a presumed implicit assumption that we wheel out to get out of problems with our condensed-template approach, then the de facto reality is that it becomes defined by power rather than expertise. How is an early career teacher supposed to know he should leave out the AfL this lesson and give the time up to building writing stamina? Why should even experienced teachers take a risk and deviate from the script? The implicit rule is: if you use the condensed template you don’t have to justify, but if you do something else, be prepared to explain yourself.

What should we do?

Condensed lists can be very useful, but only if we understand them as reductive abbreviations of a body of knowledge. Once we understand this, we can see that what we should do is:

1) Prioritise knowledge-building for all staff

2) Distinguish between relative expertise and novicehood (See David Didau’s Intelligent Accountability on this)

3) Use condensed lists as abbreviations and aides-memoires and be explicit about their limitations

4) Hold our condensed lists lightly and encourage professional challenge to them

Experts typically need:

· To be supported in ongoing knowledge-building – expertise is never finished! Experts can typically direct their own knowledge-building but they need the time and professional climate to do this.

· Condensed lists shared as principles rather than ticklists

· An expectation that staff critically evaluate condensed lists using their expertise and either commit to realising those principles in a contextualised way for their own area – or challenge the relevance of those principles for their specialist area.

· To have specialist feedback and discourse e.g. through links to specialists from other schools, specialist reviews etc.

Novices typically need:

· To be helped to build their knowledge – novices typically need direction in this, for example to given key readings, have techniques demonstrated, coaching for reflection, joint lesson observations alongside an expert and discussion to follow-up, joint visits to another school with an expert and discussions in response, etc.

· To be given enough structure and simplicity to allow them to properly engage with their new knowledge-building.

· Condensed lists given as aides-memoires to help structure their internalisation of their knowledge-building and support their practice.

To sum up: knowledge-building is key for both leaders and other staff in education. We must prioritise knowledge-building and beware of the dangers of reduction, supporting staff to build and use the expertise which will allow them to do justice to their specialist areas in the vast, complex and diverse field of education.

*It’s important to avoid the trap of surface-feature copying here – we must learn from other schools by talking to them and understanding the components and necessary conditions of what they do, and not just trying to copy the most noticeable features. See the excellent blog by Claire Stoneman on this here

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