Search for answers inside yourself
Characterising schools as 'learning organisations' has been much in vogue over the last few years. MacGilchrist, Myers and Reed have attempted to expand this idea in their conception of the intelligent school. This is a readable and practical book, but one which claims to be moving onto new ground. Indeed, the authors have gone to some lengths to provide a match of theory and practice that will both appeal to practitioners and also capture their imagination. All three authors have been teachers and worked together at the London Institute of Education's School Effectiveness and Improvement Centre.
They draw heavily on the most recent ideas about the workings of organisations and schools, much of it north American. Michael McMaster, Roland Barth and Peter Senge among others, have all written about the apparently unpredictable, disorderly nature of organisations and the forces running through them. What they have in common is an analysis which eschews linear and mechanistic prescriptions and a search for new concepts and meanings in the way organisations operate.
Michael Fullan's work on change and leadership also stresses the importance of self-development from within an organisation, rather than that imposed from without. This is the over-riding message of the book. Schools have it within themselves to operate in a more intelligent way. This is not about gimmicks or quick fixes but about a serious, thoughtful commitment to work in a particular manner across the whole area of the school's operation. At the centre is a focus on learning and effective teaching, with teacher learning taken as seriously as that of pupils.
There are two particularly excellent chapters: summarising new theories on learning and intelligence and how teachers might use what they know about these theories to improve their teaching. There is also a very practical chapter on maximising pupils' progress and achievement that provides a wealth of good examples of the business of assessment as a tool to improve learning and teaching, as well as some good ideas on monitoring achievement across the school. The underlying theme is to maintain a focus within the school on learning and effective teaching.
The concluding chapter tries to apply Howard Gardner's idea of multiple intelligences to the school. The authors identify nine intelligences: contextual, strategic, academic, reflective, pedagogical, collegial, emotional, spiritual and ethical - likening them to the fuel, water and oil needed in a car to make it work. These intelligences, working simultaneously, enable the school to put together the threads running through the rest of the book. The multiple intelligences are a bit like the circus act with the spinning plates: You must keep them all in the air at once for the whole thing to be a success. Whether or not this happens is heavily dependent on the headteacher and senior management, which may in itself not be a great deal of comfort to an overworked classroom teacher.
This chapter seems an afterthought, not least because the authors state quite baldly that their "original intention in writing this book was to argue that knowledge about the combined characteristics of effective schools, improvement efforts, learning and teaching would strengthen a school's capacity to raise standards and enhance pupils' progress and achievement. We know that this knowledge is still not enough in itself."
They go on to explain that it is the school's ability to apply the knowledge and skills it has to maximum effect that marks out whether it is intelligent or not. This seems a fitting end to a book whose message is that continuous learning for everyone, including in this case the authors, is central to the notion of the intelligent school.
* The writer is deputy headteacher of Varndean School, Brighton.