The formality trap

The formality trapDownload a printable copy of this article (PDF 481KB)

  • Make a point of considering informal implications of your decisions.
  • Remember the impact of the Formality Trap.
  • Consider whether your improvements are viewed as one more thing to do.
  • Think about where your culture is revealed.
  • Look for explicit ways to empower rather than  control.

You’ve no doubt heard observations about measurement and data such as, what matters gets measured, and what we measure is what ends up mattering. This succinct statement serves as a reminder that the most effective path to success isn’t always the easiest to quantify.

Formal assessments and evaluations such as NAPLAN data, strategic plans and staffing formulae have a significant role to play. However, we all intuitively know that it’s the informal and intangible elements such as teacher-student relationships, pedagogical method and team dynamic that will ultimately determine whether your strategicobjectives are met.

“Is your school’s improvement being restricted by formality?”

Yet schools, perhaps like no other institutions, are experts in formality. Leaders leap to the formal end of the continuum whenever confronted with a difficulty and when setting a goal. At best you are robbing yourselves of half of your capabilities when you neglect to work on some counter-intuitive informal focus.

Here’s how it plays out:

Informal focus Formal focus Formality Trap
Practice Policy We build policy and stated intentions that are not reflected in the classroom where they are most visible and most accountable.
Approach Program We plug programs in, such as anti-bullying programs on Wednesday afternoons. These have no chance of impacting culture – and are viewed by staff as additional workload.
Ethos Mission We make grandiose statements about what we stand for but which are incongruent with what we tolerate and reward.
Culture Structure We spend more leadership conversation time on logistics such as timetables than addressing teacher improvement.
Approach Program We plug programs in, such as anti-bullying programs on Wednesday afternoons. These have no chance of impacting culture – and are viewed by staff as additional workload.
Character Strategy We strategise for improvement without consideration of the conditions/climate in which we seek to improve.
Process Outcome We focus on what we want to achieve rather than how we are intending to achieve.
Dialogue Meeting We arrange lecture style information sessions when conversation designed to synthesise and make meaning would be more effective.
Partnership Event We book one-off professional learning events when ongoing support for teachers is essential.
Bottom-up Top-down We prefer heavily controlled change and improvement agendas, eliminating opportunities for staff to create, explore and develop.

It is only through an explicit and stated determination on the informal aspects of school leadership that you can demonstrably impact school culture. After all, the culture of your school will be reflected in very informal contexts – waiting rooms, dinner tables, school car parks and at weekend sporting events. Influencing the nature of these shared narratives will require far more than an extra meeting, a tweak to the wording of your annual plan or a well-crafted introduction to your Annual Report.

When you decide that the informal aspects of School Leadership matter … you decide there’s a new level to which your school can aspire.

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