I don’t think experts in education are dangerous. We need expertise and people willing to commit their lives and work to making sense of and making better the world of education and learning. But in a world where teachers and school leaders are busy racing on the mouse wheels of their own performative pressures, we need to figure out ways to support and facilitate sceptical and critical engagement with research. Even those who are highly influential and highly admired need to have their work engaged with closely and critically. The danger comes when experts become so guru-fied that the words they use become part of an unthinking professional vernacular, used by educators who haven’t looked behind the curtain or beneath the book cover.
So this post is designed to complement Deborah's work by identifying the things to look out when you look behind the curtain or beneath the book cover so you can critically engage with the ideas of gurus. To help us do this we will draw upon the work of (Miller et al., 2004) who identify eight common characteristics which management fads - often associated with gurus - seem to have, and which if a number of are present should lead to school leaders being sceptical of the claims being made. So what should school leaders look out for when looking 'beneath the book cover' and engaging with the work of gurus and their ideas?
- Simple, straightforward. A fad’s ideas are easy to communicate, comprehend, and reduce to a small number of factors, dimensions, or characteristics. Clear-cut distinctions, perfect contrasts, and ideal types are proposed. Simple solutions are suggested.
- Promising results. Fad auteurs are confidently didactic. There is no false humility or hedging. Fads promise results such as greater control and efficiency, more motivated and productive workers, more satisfied customers, or some other valued result.
- Universal. Fads propose solutions for everyone. Imparted truths are said to apply to almost all organizations, functions, tasks, individuals, or cultures. Fads claim enormous generality and universal relevance.
- Step-down capability. Fads have the capacity to be implemented in ritualistic and superficial ways. Recommendations can be implemented quickly and easily, often without having much effect on organizational practices. Recommendations involving large expenditures of resources or substantial redistributions of power can be avoided.
- In tune with zeitgeist .Fads resonate with the major trends or business problems of the day. They respond to challenges that are broadly felt and openly discussed. These might result from deficiencies in current administrative practices, technology changes, or shifts in economic or social conditions. Solutions are in tune with prevailing values.
- Novel, not radical. Fads are novel, not radical. They question existing assumptions, criticize widespread practices, and point to fresh new ways of doing things. However, this novelty is not so much a new discovery as a rediscovery and repackaging of older ideas, values, and approaches.
- Legitimacy via gurus and star examples. Fads are supported by tales of excellent companies and the status and prestige of gurus, not by solid empirical evidence. Stories of corporate heroes and organizational successes provide role models and suggest star examples prestigious adherents, lending an aura of legitimacy to the ideas being espoused.
- Lively, entertaining Fads are almost always presented in a way that can be described as concrete, articulate, bold, memorable and up-beat. They are filled with labels and buzzwords, lists and acronyms. Interesting anecdotes and corporate war stories abound. Descriptions are vivid and extreme, making fads fun to read about and listen to.(Miller et al., 2004) p11.
(Miller et al., 2004) state when critically examining whether to implement change or changes, put forward by a guru, school leaders, could usefully ask themselves the following questions.
- What evidence is there that the new approach can provide productive results. Are arguments based on solid evidence from lots of schools followed over time?
- Has the approach worked in schools similar to our own that face similar challenges?
- Is the approach relevant to the priorities and strategies relevant to our school?
- Is the advice specific enough to be implemented? Do we have enough information about implementation challenges and how to meet them?
- Is the advice practical for our school given our capabilities and resources?
- Can we reasonably assess the costs and prospective rewards (Amended from (Miller et al., 2004) pp 14-15
If the answers to these questions suggest positive outcomes, it may well be that school may have identified a change which has ‘legs’. The key is not to embrace or reject the work of gurus, but rather engage in a critical analysis of what is right for the school, its pupils and staff.
MILLER, D., HARTWICK, J. & LE BRETON-MILLER, I. 2004. How to detect a management fad—and distinguish it from a classic. Business Horizons, 47, 7-16.