“In the varied topography of professional practice, there is a high, hard ground overlooking a swamp. On the high ground, manageable problems lend themselves to solution through application of research-based theory and technique. In the swampy lowland, messy, confusing problems defy technical solution.” 
from ‘Educating the Reflective Practitioner’ by Donald Schonn

The irony

Schön goes on to say:

The irony of this situation is that the problems of the high ground tend to be relatively unimportant to individuals or society at large, however their technical interest may be, while in the swamp lie the problems of greatest human concern. The practitioner must choose. Shall he remain on the high ground where he can solve relatively unimportant problems according to prevailing standards of rigor or shall he descend to the wamp of important problems and nonrigorous inquiry.

from Educating the reflective practitioner, Donald Schön, 1987

The professional’s dilemma

For an engineer, for example, designing a bridge is a technical problem with technical solutions. There are constraints that make this bridge different from any other bridge and the engineer will have to choose the best trade-off between various design options. But these are still technical problems with technical solutions.

However, there are other problems associated with the bridge that do not lend themselves to technical solutions. Does the best technical solution cause the most social disruption? For instance does it require the greatest number of homes to be acquired? What about noise considerations for those living nearby? Does the bridge encroach on a sensitive and important environmental area?

These are problems that engineers face once during each design process. It is similar for other professionals.

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An everyday issue for educators

Educators, however, face these messy problems every day. Not only is there not one universally agreed way to set up the best learning environment for a particular topic, but every student comes with a unique history and prior knowledge. What about the student whose parents are going through an acrimonious separation? Do I as a teacher, even know about. How about the student who arrives at school having had no breakfast and inadequate sleep? The student suffering trauma from physical, sexual or psychological abuse?

Another level of complexity for school leaders

The problem for school leaders is compounded by another layer of complexity.

Not only are leaders vitally aware of the enormous variety of student issues the school is expected to address but they have to deal with a group of teachers with needs and experiences just as varied.

  • There are teachers who have been teaching the same subject the same way for the last 30 years and, if they were honest with themselves, they would admit they were bored and lacked the motivation to adapt to new knowledge and experience around pedagogy.
  • There is the group which has formed itself as the “permanent opposition.” It doesn’t matter what leadership decides, they are agin it.
  • Then there are those who just “fell into” teaching and everyone wishes they had fallen into something else.

Add to that government and social pressure to provide a panacea for all the social and economic ills of the country and it’s no wonder being a school leader is one of the most stressful occupations. (I haven’t even mentioned aggressive parents).

Courageous School Leadership

That’s why I developed Courageous School Leadership. You, as a leader, simply can’t do all this on your own. I can’t do it all for you either. But I can help you maintain your compass bearing in the face of all these issues.

I that interests you, please browse the rest of this site to see some of the detail of what I do. And, more importantly, what you are really capable of. And together we can hold a vision of developing the best schools in the world.