Crown House Publishing
5 May 2020
A host of engaging case studies are lost in a fog of truthiness and mixed messages, says Carly Waterman
My school, Lodge Park Academy, is known affectionately as LPA, so I really wanted this book to be my blueprint for the future. How serendipitous would it be for LPA to adopt the Learning-Powered Approach to school improvement? But I’m afraid it’s not to be.
Don’t get me wrong: I want to “power up” my school. I really do. And I will take any help and guidance I can get, so I read this book with interest, an open mind and a willingness to learn. It’s really a fieldbook of all the examples where the Learning Powered Approach (LPA) has been applied successfully in schools. It includes detailed case studies and examples from a range of schools across the world.
Powering Up Your School opens with a disclaimer that it’s not for everyone, that it’s unlike the shelffuls of other educational leadership books, and that unless you’re a leader with a heartfelt sense of moral purpose, you ought not to waste your time and money. Are there any leaders who would say they don’t have a heartfelt sense of moral purpose?
The LPA is pitched a “middle way” between the extremes of “traditional” and “progressive” teaching. I’m a notorious fence-sitter, so this appeals to me. Unfortunately, it seems to misrepresent traditionalism as primarily focused on grades/outcomes and to be unduly dismissive of knowledge-rich curricula. Neither will sit well with trads I know.
I don’t know why the authors don’t just say outright that this book is in the progressive camp
I don’t really know why the authors (there are a lot of them) don’t just say outright that this book is firmly in the progressive camp. I would still read it, as would many others. When you’re talking about “learning muscles” and asking me whether I’m a “water thinker” or a “rock thinker”, it’s pretty obvious which paradigm you’re rooted in – and that’s OK with me. Own it. Trying to be all things to all readers is just confusing, and weird.
And herein lies my issue with this book: it confuses me. It claims to be “a compendium of detailed advice” but it also says it’s not a “recipe”. It claims to be a “philosophy” but also a “set of frameworks” (so, like a recipe, then?). It tells me to think “garden” not “model aeroplane”, but there are pages of grids, ladders, triangles, maps, diagrams and numbered lists.
Its central claim is that the LPA is a philosophy, but it’s one that seems to me to be based on a lot of “truthiness”. Its supposed scientific rationale adds up to a range of references to researchers from the same (progressive) school of thought – Resnick, Dweck, Berger, Fullan, Duckworth.
And is this a book about developing character and dispositions, independent learners or a school culture? Is this a book about leadership or classroom practice? There is simply too much here to provide any clarity.
Looking past the fogginess of the message and the contortions involved in denying one’s own bias, there was much about Powering Up Your School that I enjoyed. I’m partial to a bit of truthiness. I feel inspired by analogies, metaphors and allusions. And I do want to develop the young people in my school into resilient, questioning, compassionate adults with fulfilling and satisfying lives – of course I do.
So more than anything else, the case studies were a pure pleasure to read and really gave me a window into what other school leaders were doing to “power up” their schools. The experiences of leaders, teachers and students in these schools leapt off the page, and I also appreciated chapters on stakeholders, school culture, the language of learning, pedagogy, sustainability and measuring progress. There was much I disagreed with, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t come away enriched.
In the end though, Powering Up Your School made me feel foggy. A non-threatening and fairly enjoyable foggy feeling, but foggy nonetheless. After reading eight million DfE updates this year, I’m sure I won’t be alone in wanting more clarity – and honesty.