Why do schools find it so difficult to learn?

Schools are often chronically amnesiac, repeating the same mistakes. The answer, says Kester Brewin, is to give teachers space to think

Red string knotted around finger

A couple of weeks ago, I arrived in school early one Monday morning, switched on my laptop, and was presented with over 170 pages of policies to read. 

Forced to signal agreement to them before I could do anything else, I crumpled for two reasons. Firstly, there was no way I was going to be able to read and properly digest all of these pages – pages that did seem genuinely important – and, secondly, we’d been through all this last year. 

Why was this happening again, when staff had met with senior leadership and agreed together that this wasn’t the best way to get policy assent? It was all there in black and white in the minutes of that meeting…but, between one September and the next, it had all been forgotten.

I fear that this will be sadly familiar: schools are meant to be centres of learning but are too often chronically amnesiac.

Learning nothing

We roll through each academic year, come round again to that pinch-point in the report-writing cycle, that question over timings of parents’ evenings, that commitment we’d made to change the way we do open evenings, and find that – despite extracting promises and assurances that we’d definitely change it this time – we seem to have learned nothing.

The poet and philosopher George Santayana noted: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” 

There’s something instructive in his choice of words: this kind of forgetful repetition is a form of condemnation: a burden on our conscience. It is not the blissful ignorance of the goldfish, endlessly surprised at each circuit of the bowl, but the frustration of being conscious of the foolishness of the place we are now at only when we come upon it again, and feeling the burden of not having learned from our previous mistakes.

How does this happen, and what might we do about it? To return to the computer-based policies, the person responsible was quickly (and very genuinely) apologetic, and promised to make sure it didn’t happen again. 

When he admitted that “it just got lost under the tide of everything else”, my thoughts turned to the laptop in front of me, and the message that had frowned at me the week before: “Your computer is low on memory.” In other words, in trying to do too much, it wasn’t able to cope. Sound familiar?

Amnesiac institutions

When organisations get over-busy, they become forgetful. Pushed to work harder and deliver more, time and space to be able to reflect on what they are doing diminishes. As we increase our speed, our perspective on the future shortens, leaving us less able to process information about what is ahead of us. 

When everything becomes a blur, we lose any grasp of detail, and simply respond reflexively to the next thing rushing towards us.

Is it any wonder then that schools can be amnesiac institutions that – despite being places of learning – find it difficult to learn? 

I have huge sympathy for leadership teams. Just trying to keep your head above water in the constant stream of new demands is an almost impossible task. One might even say that it’s Sisyphean: each September, the rock rolls down to the bottom of the hill and we have to toil to push it up again; a fresh batch of children to elevate.

So the core issue here is about resources. If this government wants schools to innovate – to intelligently evolve what they do – then it absolutely must find time for this to happen. 

Learning requires reflection on past practice, and space to remember. To the accountant (or school business manager) this will look worryingly like waste: it will be time that is not being used “usefully”. It will feel like an inefficiency, space that ought to be used up. 

Space to think

But having space to think is the only way that teachers will become better. And having time to reflect is the only way that managers will get the perspective required to lead strategically rather than reactively.

We can but hope for more resources. In the meantime (and, yes, partly as a function of age), I am trying to be more deliberate about improving the corporate memory of the school I work in. 

This academic year, I have started a document that I am updating each time something crops up that I feel we ought to have learned from last year.

As a head of department, I make sure that each meeting begins with a review of the actions we said we’d take last time we met, and the progress we have (or haven’t) made. All of this is done in a spirit of empathy and compassion – an appreciation that none of us is a computer. We’re people – people who have imperfect memories. People who don’t always learn quite as efficiently as we might hope. 

Yet the simplest thing we can do to sustain corporate memory is to retain staff, and for staff to stop each day and talk to one another. In a vibrant, busy staffroom, in the bustle of chit-chat, important stuff gets remembered. Taking a break might just help us stop being condemned to repeat the same errors eternally.

Kester Brewin teaches maths in south-east London. While working as a teacher, he has been a consultant for BBC Education, and is the author of a number of books on culture and religion. He tweets @kesterbrewin

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