Review by Helena Marsh

Executive Principal, Chilford Hundred Education Trust,

2 Dec 2018, 5:00


The Learning Imperative

By Mark Burns and Andy Griffith


Crown House



As a self-confessed educational-leadership-book junkie, I was interested to see how effectively The Learning Imperative, which focuses on a range of workplaces rather than schools
per se, would get to the nub of professional development: learning.

I encourage readers who, like me, might be initially put off by the endorsement of “progressive management”, the lack of capital letters in the cover title, the proliferation of the adjective “outstanding” in relation to the authors’ previous publications, the bite-size structure and the plethora of grids and acronyms within the book to reserve judgment.

It achieves exactly what it promises on the cover; this is a “practical, well-constructed reference book for leaders”. I am confident that both experienced and novice leaders will take some theoretical gems and practical activities from it. It provides useful affirmation of tacit knowledge, helpful summaries of theoretical concepts and a range of strategies for reviewing adults’ learning and performance.

The Learning Imperative delivers substance as well as style. The authors, Mark Burns and Andy Griffith, successfully weave in a digest of relevant research. The book touches upon a significant number of influential thinkers and concepts, including: Kirschner’s theory of instruction; Maslow’s hierarchy of needs; Csikszentmihalyi’s “flow”; Sweller’s cognitive load theory; Covey’s effective habits; Rogers’ unconditional positive regard; Goleman’s emotional intelligence; Hattie’s visible learning; Berger’s ethic of excellence; Syed’s “bounce” and Pink’s theory of motivation, among others (is there a lack of female writers in this field?). It also offers suggested further reading.

Its digestible chunks of contextualised knowledge achieve its ambition to “deliver a highly practical guide to develop performance through effective learning”. It is an easy read, but encourages its readers to engage in consideration and action throughout with its regular reflection questions and case studies.

A strength of the book is its focus on psychological characteristics that underpin professional learning.

It is a leadership manual that I wish I had possessed when I started out as a head of department

I particularly enjoyed the sections on relational trust, processing overload and perception gaps. They helped me to consider my own professional learning limitations and provide a vehicle to examine team dynamics and individual behaviours.

It includes models that are introduced and revisited throughout the chapters to identify, analyse and address potential barriers to professional learning and performance; the learning-performance matrix and Kaplan workload management method are useful. The techniques serve to examine the root causes of negative and resistant responses to professional learning such as complacency, defensiveness, delusion and helplessness.

Sharing scenarios taken from lots of different industry examples, including retail and manufacturing, as well as education, enables the reader to make connections with their own experiences. These useful vignettes help us consider individuals’ responses and potential approaches to untap professional potential, address underperformance and recognise behaviours symptomatic of imposter syndrome or its opposite (the Dunning-Kruger effect) within ourselves and our colleagues.

The Learning Imperative is the equivalent of training delivered by wise, respected and experienced leadership role-models through the medium of skilful coaching and mentoring. The book walks the reader through logical steps to consider, diagnose, plan, deliver and reflect on professional learning. Its rich professional advice, helpful stories, metaphors, images and tools make it memorable; the book exemplifies the very essence of its own subject matter.

It is a leadership manual that I wish I had possessed when I started out as a head of department many years ago. Alongside plentiful nuggets of wisdom, there are takeaway materials that can be used in team meetings. I found myself folding down pages and adding Post-it notes to share sections with colleagues, and I have already made use of several of the models in senior team and staff meetings to prompt discussion.

I recommend this book to anyone responsible for, or aspiring to, lead a team; it is essential reading for those responsible for organising and delivering professional learning.

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