It’s a tempting mistake to make…

Schools can be so busy, right?

But what if policy and actions, designed to help, are detrimental to the time available?

Theoretical simplicity – easy to understand, fast to apply and generates rapid and catchy headlines. However, the potential for serious problems also exists. Making the wrong decision can lead to countless more hours and lost opportunities (Alton-Lee, 2009). Schools can and should still learn from research, but sophistication and a sensitivity to context is required.

Among a range of methodological problems, a key issue is the danger of generalisations born of structuralist intrepretations. Such ‘grand themes’ can be very influential.

Take Zimbardo’s famous prison experiment 1971 conducted at Standford University, where people took on the roles of prison guards and prisoners with far too much zeal. Often used as evidence that we are merely products of ‘the system’,  Zimbardo follows in Milgram’s 1963 footsteps of how otherwise ‘good’ people could be ordered to administer electric shocks to other people, even at a supposedly lethal dose. Although surprising at the time, these studies have come to shape our views and actions ever since (Reicher et al., 2014).

It now appears that there have been some serious over-simplifications (Russell, 2014). Methodological flaws, selection biases, publication bias and selective reporting have led to over stating the role of structural factors (Carnahan and McFarland, 2007) – the same sort that shape our actions and policies in school. A repeated and more complex look, shifts the focus on a more nuanced interaction between the research subject and their context (Russell, 2014; Haslam and Reicher, 2014).

In ontological terms, the question is – are we nothing more than an expression of large structures, shaping our very lives and communities?  Is there actually such a thing as personal agency?  This is not just a theoretical question. This matters in schools as we debate issues of equity, access and learning for all. Even the structure of the curriculum – is this something done to, or with pupils?  Just how much should we engage their families?

Consider how many times you might hear well meaning colleagues say “she’s just not that bright”,  or “he comes from a broken family”.  What about the times you will hear pupils say “girls are much better at coursework and boys are better at maths”? Finally, think about the times when you catch yourself saying “I just haven’t got time… I’ve got to get through the syllabus”

What if we are making a rod for our own backs?  Indeed we might be.  Too busy for ‘group bonding’ in your science class? Think how social isolation can lead pupils to caring less about making more mistakes and the knock on for teacher workload and stress. Are girls worse at maths? … consider how easy it is for girls to give up early, simply because that’s the way things are! Expectations matter (Berdik, 2012), and by not combating this gender stereotype, how many more lunch time help sessions will be needed? Indeed, how many more meetings with concerned parents. Ultimately, how much class time will be lost to disruption, learning delays and worse?

Consider whose responsibility is it to teach all those ‘strategies’ and cross curricular issues that seem to accumulate:  ‘learning to learn’, eLearning, numeracy, literacy etc etc…  But what if teaching pupils how their brains acquire and retain knowledge leads to better revision and study skills?  Or taking time on eLearning makes pupils more discerning, thus gaining a ‘deeper’ more synoptic knowledge. Obviously taking time to learn how to digest a text book has immediate benefits.

This is not to say that context and structural factors are unimportant. Indeed they are very influential. For example, adverse childhood effects between the ages of zero and two do disadvantage children; however it is not immutable (Tough, 2013). Context matters.  Advertisers have understood this for a long time … effective advertising is very contextual. Worried about many failed campaigns to prevent roadside littering, Texas state commissioned “Don’t Mess With Texas” targeting 18 to 35 year old males. Fronted by well known and similar Texans, this appealed to Texan identity:  rugged, independent and proud. (Heath and Heath, 2007). That roadside litter fell by 72% speaks to the importance of understanding the context.

Returning to consider Milgram’s work, a closer examination of  shows that much greater complexity is required to explain how people are influenced, and why people did what they did (Russell, 2014; Reicher et al., 2014). Lessons from this are two fold;  be wary of sweeping generalisations and be cautious of research methodologies.

Schools need to take more time to understand delve in to research, and question research methodologies and contexts. Through a thorough analysis,  aka ‘a learning process’,  policies and pedagogy can be made more effective, improve learning and in the long run, save time.

To say “change requires buy in”,  is surely self evident.  As Hallinger and Kantamara (2006) show, people find all manner of ways to subvert ‘orders’. Generating successful change requires systems thinking and a focus on learning for all (Senge, 2006;  MacBeath and Dempster, 2009). This must involve staff, students, parents and leadership. The five principles of Leadership for Learning offer clear direction:

  1. A focus on learning
  2. An environment for learning
  3. A learning dialogue
  4. Shared leadership
  5. Shared accountability

In the face of a high stakes environment and ever increasing pressures, one thing is for certain – schools don’t have the time to NOT do it.


Alton-Lee, A. (2009). Foreword.  In School Leadership and Student Outcomes: Identifying what works and why, p 33. Wellington NZ, Ministry of Education.

Berdik, C. (2012). Mind Over Mind: the surprising power of expectations. New York: Penguin.

Carnahan, T. and McFarland, S. (2007). “Revisiting the Stanford prison experiment: could participant self-selection have led to the cruelty?” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 33 (5): 603–14.

Hallinger, P. and Kantamara, P. (2006). Understanding and contributing to school improvement in Thailand: a research and development project. In Wallace, M. and Poulson, L. (eds). Learning to read critically in educational leadership and management. London: Sage.

Haslam, S. A., and Reicher, S. D. (2014). Just obeying orders? Rethinking obedience and atrocity. New Scientist, 2986: 28-31.

Heath, C. and Heath, D. (2007). Made to Stick. London: Random House.

MacBeath, J. and Dempster, N. (Eds). (2009). Connecting Leadership and Learning. Abingdon Oxon: Routledge.

Reicher, S. D., Haslam, S. A. and Miller, A. G. (2014), What Makes a Person a Perpetrator? The Intellectual, Moral, and Methodological Arguments for Revisiting Milgram’s Research on the Influence of Authority. Journal of Social Issues, 70: 393–408. doi: 10.1111/josi.12067

Russell, N. (2014), The Emergence of Milgram’s Bureaucratic Machine. Journal of Social Issues, 70: 409–423.

Tough, P. (2013). How children succeed: Grit, curiosity, and the hidden power of character. London: Random House.


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