Grow Your Own

This post is not a general “pop” at education consultants (or any past or present employer) but rather a word of caution on the perils of trying to take short-cuts to organisational change.

Lost in Translation

I have witnessed, and listened to many accounts of attempts to introduce new ways of working in schools where the original well-meaning intent of an intervention has been lost on the staff who are on the receiving end of it. Often at the root of these failures is a lack of understanding or consideration of the pervading school culture.

There are many reasons why the intent may be lost in translation. It could be as a result of the adoption of poorly-researched quick-fix approaches by those in leadership at school, district or governing authority level. It could be the result of top-down approaches in general and the imposition of new ways of working. This top-down approach might be a result of a perceived need for an urgent response to a particular issue or due to a lack of trust within the organisation. It may also be a symptom of a lack of opportunity for open collegiate dialogue at classroom teacher level. Do teachers have the opportunity to question and engage with the evidence? Are they given the opportunity to wrestle with the cognitive dissonance caused at the interface of their perception of the current reality and that being presented as the rationale for change?

In all of these cases, the most important missing ingredients are time and dialogue with those expected to adopt the new ways of working.

In many cases, research-informed interventions have been identified which have been shown to bring about organisational change and impact positively on student learning. There may have been a significant amount of reading, researching, discussing, consulting and, most importantly, learning at a leadership level resulting in a high level of commitment to change within that group.

The big question however, is how do we give wider staff the opportunity to be part of this learning process? How do we get them up to the same level of understanding as those leading the initiative? This is not to say that we would want to take all staff “behind the scenes” of a new proposal but we must find authentic ways of engaging them in dialogue about the proposed changes to their ways of working and make a compelling case for change if they are to even tentatively come on board.

Another response from some school leaders or those higher up is to bring in external consultants, often at great expense, to provide the organisational learning. The very best of these are careful to take account of the context into which they are stepping and to provide opportunities for the school to adapt the learning to suit their needs. The worst, and there are undoubtedly some, provide a “complete solution” ready-made to be plugged-in to any context. They could argue that it is up to the school to contextualise the new learning and adapt to suit their needs but there can be a perception from those paying for the consultancy or training that this will just happen, or worse, that everyone will miraculously change their long-held working habits now that they’ve been “PD’d”.

Push and Pull

Traditional transmission type PD and consultant visits can be used to challenge our thinking and push new ideas. The key is what happens next when we return to our respective schools or the consultant leaves.

Another way of looking at things is to pull the necessary professional learning to you in response to a particular need within your context. This approach, I would argue, has a much greater chance of resulting in sustained change over time.

A version of Timperley’s Inquiry and Knowledge-building Cycle provides another way of looking at how we initiate professional learning.

Adapted Leader Inquiry Cycle

Context is Key

I have given these issues careful consideration during the development of our coaching model. Those who know me, and my school’s journey, know that I willingly endorse particular PD providers and consultants with whom we have formed a successful learning partnership. I would judge the success of this partnership in terms of return on investment. This return can be seen in the work done when the learning of the participants is taken back into the school context and applied within the constraints and peculiarities of their organisation. And it doesn’t stop there. How is the learning applied? How does it impact on the working of the wider school? Implementation of new ways of working doesn’t just happen because a model is developed or a policy written. It requires engagement of wider staff in a cyclical and dialogic process as shown in Timperley’s model, whilst not losing touch with the original intent of the project. This takes time! This message also comes through loud and clear in the recent Teacher Development Trust report Developing Great Teaching:

TDT Slide

Buy-in, transplant, or grow your own?

The two slides below were originally part of a recent conference presentation but were cut out in order to focus on other messages. I think that they sum-up what I’m trying to say here. (Horticulturists may wish to correct the stages of my metaphor!)



External and internal forms of PD could be pulled in at the seeding stage; to encourage germination; to nurture and strengthen new growth; or even to tackle growth inhibiting pests. Careful consideration of the site, soil and growing conditions, as well as taking steps to optimise these, will save much heart-ache and wasted effort in the long-run.

I’d welcome your thoughts on this post.

Thanks to Jon Andrews and Corinne Campbell for adding some perspective and further links to this post.



  1. Great post Chris.
    I was meaning to comment on your last post in regards to confusing the role of management and coaching. Just never happened :/
    I wrote something about bringing in consultants last year ( However, I must admit, I have come to eat my own words. The consultant who was brought in was the best thing not only for the school, but for my own development. He brought in a perspective that was completely different to anything we were doing ( I have come to decide that if those consultants who come from the outside need to be bringing some sort of innovation, for if it is more of the same then growing your own surely is the most empowering strategy.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for your comment Aaron. I’ll have a look back at your post. I remember our conversations at that time. I think it comes down to a combination of clarity of intent and engagement in context. Of course, the latter requires someone with the capacity to build relationships. A big ask for an outsider!


  3. Your post captures the heart of many professional conversations I’ve had over the years, and I’ll be sure to utilize it as a resource in those continuing conversations going forward! It reminded me of Steven Johnson’s ‘The Genius of the Tinkerer’ essay in the Wall Street Journal in 2010 – especially the opening bit about baby incubators:

    As an instructional coach, I find myself helping people navigate the messy parts of “where the rubber hits the road” on the implementation of ideas. Our school district does a pretty solid job with allowing ideas from the outside to take a ‘homegrown’ path, and backing it up with robust professional learning opportunities. Despite that, I have run into pockets of people who almost feel subversive when they’ve modified ideas brought to us from the outside. We had one of our best sharing events on a School Improvement Day when we collected ‘Custom’ or ‘Modified’ versions of strategies we had been trained on – when people had the opportunity to share their ‘Custom’ versions and explain their thinking and the evolution of the idea, we experienced far wider and more effective adoption.

    Thanks, again for the thoughtful post.


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