Whether you are a headteacher, assistant head, subject leader or anyone in between, you will have one or more particular areas of responsibility: it may be that you are in charge of a subject, it may be the entire curriculum, it may be teaching and learning, professional development or behaviour and culture. And if you have such responsibility, at some point you will probably be required to tell someone what you know about it: teachers, another leader, a governor, or an Ofsted inspector, perhaps.
Our Brains Privilege Stories
To be able to present with confidence about your subject, it might help to think about telling a story. In this article, Daniel Willingham says "stories are indeed special" and that "there is something inherent in the story format that makes them easy to understand and remember". He shares 4 Cs which stories contain which make them so cognitively privileged: Causality, Conflict, Complications and Character.
Dan Willingham explains these 4 Cs:
Causality - "events in stories are related because one event causes or initiates another"
Conflict - "in every story, a central character has a goal and obstacles that prevent the goal from being met"
Complications - "the character's efforts to remove the obstacle typically create complications—new problems that she must try to solve"
Character - "strong, interesting characters are essential to good stories"
Using The 4 Cs To Tell The Story of Your Area Of Responsibility
It's not too difficult to see how each of the 4 Cs might become relevant when telling the story of any given area of responsibility. Let's use subject leadership as an example:
Causality - How are all the different 'events' (things that have been done, are being done and are going to be done) in the 'story' of your subject connected, how did one thing lead to another? e.g. you carried out some monitoring and found that teachers didn't feel well-equipped to teach your subject because there was very little guidance in the curriculum.
Conflict - What has prevented you from meeting your goals for your subject so far? What have you had to overcome in order to develop your subject? e.g. the goal of excellent outcomes for pupils wasn't achievable because the curriculum wasn't well-sequenced and didn't have the right coverage.
Complications - What new problems have arisen as you have overcome other barriers? e.g. after writing a new curriculum because the old one wasn't sufficient, you now have the problem of enabling teachers to actually teach it.
Character - You are one of the main characters as a leader, but there is a cast of other characters too: pupils, parents, teachers, other leaders - knowing and explaining how they all fit into the story will bring it to life, connecting the listener to the people involved.
When telling a story about an area of responsibility, such as a curriculum subject, there are 4 useful time periods to think of: past, present, future and future future.
The length of these four time periods will vary depending on what you are talking about.
For example, when talking about the past with regards to an area of responsibility which is newly created, a leader may simply talk about why their role was created along with any initial actions and outcomes they have achieved. Another leader may have plenty to talk about from the past, perhaps if their subject has been taught in the school for years and has gone through many developments. It is true that this time period could be split into something like near past and distant past.
The length of the period of time defined by present may differ too - for an area of responsibility that is a development priority, present may refer to just one week if things are moving fast. For another leader whose area of responsbility isn't being intensively worked on, present may refer to a whole term or year.
These four periods of time are certainly not equal in length, and, as we've seen, may differ in length depending on the area of responsibility. But what about future and future future?
Future and Future Future
Beyond '...and they all lived happily ever after.' we don't normally think of the future when telling a story. But in school improvement the future is a very important part of the narrative.
When you start talking about the future you begin to outline all the things about your area of responsibility that you know need addressing, and begin to tell your listener when you intend to address them. There are some things that are priorities, and that will be addressed soon, in the near future. There are other things that do need looking at, but are not priorities and therefore are going to be done in the future future.
It's essential to know what your next goals and actions are going to be - this tells of your ability to analyse what has gone before and to prioritise that which needs to be done as a matter of first importance. However, in doing this, and not telling the future future part of the story, you risk missing things out. It might be the case that there are 5 things you want to improve in your area of responsibility, but that it is only possible to work on 2 of them in the coming year. If you only talk about the 2, and not about the other 3, then it may come across as if you don't know about the other 3 improvement points.
The future future time period is the backburner - the place where you put things in the meantime whilst more pressing matters are dealt with. It's when you are going to deal with the further 3 improvement points (and any others that arise over time). It's not a bad idea to let your listener know that you have identified those points and intend to address them when the time comes. Knowing and communicating the future future of your area of responsibility ensures that you leave no part of the story out and it gives everything you know a place - it is a storage area for things that need doing but not yet.
Exploring Your Story By Asking Yourself Questions
In order to help leaders at all levels to learn the narrative of their school or subject area with regards to quality of learning I've created a question grid, a section of which you see here:
The whole grid guides leaders through a series of questions which, when considered and answered, will lead to greater clarity about the story they can tell about their school or subject. The grid takes phrases from the Ofsted framework, picks up on key words and frames questions around them. It has a focus both on actions and outcomes, ensuring that leaders think clearly about the difference between the two. It also takes leaders through the 4 time periods mentioned above, helping them to think through an entire narrative. In addition to this, it splits the key words into sections based on Ofsted's 3 'I's - Intent, Implementation and Impact, helping leaders to identify where on their journey they are, and where to focus their energies next.
The question grid can be downloaded here: