Friday, 6 January 2017

The school research lead : Do you work in a 'stupid' school?

The school research lead and do you work in a ‘stupid’ school?

Schools are full of bright people.  Unfortunately, many of our schools have become vehicles for stupidity.  Bright teachers stop thinking and start doing really stupid things, such as they stop asking challenging questions.  Now, this might make perfect sense for the individual teacher and make the school a tolerable working environment, though in the long-term will be a complete disaster for both the individual teacher and the school.  So in this post we will look at the work of (Alvesson and Spicer, 2016) and examine what is meant by the term ‘functional stupidity’.  We will then briefly go onto examine how functional stupidity comes about.  Finally, we will consider what you as an evidence-based school leader can do to counter the development of functional stupidity within your school.

What do we mean by functional stupidity?

(Alvesson and Spicer, 2016) states:

Functional stupidity is the inclination to reduce one’s scope of thinking and focus only on the narrow technical aspects of the job.  You do the job correctly, but without reflecting on the purpose or the wider context.  Functional stupidity is an organised attempt to stop people thinking seriously about what they do at work.  When people are seized by functional stupidity, they remain capable of doing the job, but they stop asking searching questions about their work.  In place of rigorous reflection, they become obsessed with superficial appearances.  Instead of asking questions, they start to obey commands.  Rather than thinking about outcomes, they focus on techniques for getting things done.  And the thing to be done is to create the right impression.  Someone in the thrall of functional stupidity is great at doing things that looks good (p8-9)

So what functional stupidity looks like in schools.  Well it can take many forms: 
  • Introducing written marking policies which are knowingly inconsistent with best evidence.
  • Introducing school policies which focus on ‘appearances’ rather than teaching and learning.
  • Being relentlessly positive about the impact of information technology on pupil learning.
  • Not engaging with research evidence as it would ‘rock-the-boat’ about the quality of existing practices
So how does this happen?

(Alvesson and Spicer, 2016) argue that functional stupidity can happen for a number of reasons.   Organisations – including schools –  hire bright well qualified people and then discourage them from using their ‘smarts’.  New recruits would try and work things for themselves and ask questions about why certain policies or practices were in place.  However, this would then be met with a ‘wall of resistance’ with new recruits being encouraged just to get on with the job.  The identification of problems would be discouraged, with the emphasis being placed on identifying solutions to yet to be identified problems.  In other words, don’t’ ask too many questions, because if you do so, you'll upset your colleagues or alienate members of the management cadre, be it middle or senior management. So in order to manage their relationships with colleagues, new recruits stop asking questions, and just get on with the job.

(Alvesson and Spicer, 2016) argue  for the individual member of staff, stopping asking questions can have many benefits.   It prevents long and painful meetings where issues are flagged but are soon dismissed as being not relevant to how we do things around here and where 'the hours are wasted but the minutes are kept.'  Instead to trying to come up with exciting and interesting solutions to problems, individuals decide to save time and ‘mental bandwidth’ by continuing to ‘do things right,' although it may be ‘the wrong thing’.   Indeed, it may serious benefits in terms of the career and professional development of the individual, as by being to be seen to be a team player, can lead to professional development opportunities and career advancement.    And, I’m sure you can provide plenty of your own school relevant examples of this type of behaviour.

So what are you to do to help restrict the growth of functional stupidity within your school?

(Alvesson and Spicer, 2016) suggest the starting point in countering functional stupidity is to cut-out the myth of relentless positivity.  While focussing on the positive can have many benefits, the risk is that some very real problems that get in the way of organisational progress are not addressed.  As such, Alvesson and Spicier argue that is necessary to development negative capabilities – by having the willingness and ability to think critically, to ask questions, to be reflective, to challenge assumptions, to ask why this is important.   (You could argue that key to this to develop the skills associated with Socratic thinking – a topic I may explore in a subsequent blog post).

In order to be a critical thinker (Alvesson and Spicer, 2016) argue individuals need to observe, interpret, and question by undertaking the following actions.  First, critical thinkers need to observe, asking the question: ‘What is going on here?’   What are the problems of practice, that we are currently experiencing?   Second, once you have identified what is going on – and this needs to include the less than obvious – these observations need to be interpreted.  This involves finding out what other people think is going on.  In the context, of evidence-based school leadership obtaining evidence from a range of stakeholders.    Third, the critical thinker now needs to take stock – see below the surface – and ask: ‘What the hell is happening here?’  This involves articulating and challenging your underpinning assumptions – what are you taking for granted.  What are other people taking for granted, It involves asking the question – Why on earth are we doing what we are currently doing?

Routines to help you counter-functional stupidity with your school?

(Alvesson and Spicer, 2016) go onto identify a number of processes which can help individuals engage in reflection and critical thinking, some of which are outlined below.

Reflective routines – develop a schedule of reflective practices within the work of the school.  Once a week, or month or term – ask others to ask you the questions – what have you done in this role, what evidence do you have it’s made a difference, why is it important.  Alternatively, you could arrange a programme of visiting speakers, whose expertise may be tangential to the school, but may provoke an alternative way of thinking about issues.

Devil’s Advocates – Give people permission to ask the awkward question what is going on, to provide alternative view points – to ask how else could we be looking at this issue.  What other solutions may be available.

Post-mortems –  work out why something failed.  You may wish to a look at how you maximise your learning from failure  Alternatively, you could engage in a process of After-Action-Review

Pre-mortems – work out why a project ‘failed’ before you even start the project.  See for more details

Newcomers find ways of taking advantage of the perspective of new members of staff and their ‘beginners mind.’  Ask them: What seems strange or confusing? What’s different? What could be done differently?

Outsiders – get others to come into your school and tell you what they think? Alternatively, go out to other schools and find out what they are doing, so that can give you a different perspective on your own setting.

Engage your critics – there maybe staff, parents, employers who are critical about the work that you do – engages with them to find out their perspective


ALVESSON, M. & SPICER, A. 2016. The stupidity paradox: The power and pitfalls of functional stupidity at work.


  1. Found this really interesting, Gary! Thanks for sharing.

    Haven't read A & S yet, but just thinking about this: "(Alvesson and Spicer, 2016) argue that the starting point in countering functional stupidity is to cut-out the myth of relentless positivity" - I'm a fan of Appreciative Enquiry, but would you (& A & S?) say that there's a danger of a focus on AE leading to functional stupidity?

    1. I think it's down to balance - and I think the words of James Stockdale a US POW in Vietnam sums it up better than I ever can

      When asked who did not make it out of Vietnam, Stockdale replied

      Oh, that's easy, the optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, 'We're going to be out by Christmas.' And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they'd say, 'We're going to be out by Easter.' And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.[1

      Stockdale then added:

      This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be

  2. I love the Stockdale paradox and often quote it, Gary! Really like the idea that you have to look the facts squarely in the face, not dodge the really tough stuff, but STILL have faith that you can succeed if you don't give up. I'm a huge 'Good to Great' fan.

    Have you done much reading about AE? I only came across it when I was reading for my doctorate, but I quote it frequently now, and recommend Chip and Dan Heath's 'Switch' and the principle of making the most of the 'bright spots'. The quotation from Alvesson and Spicer did give me pause for thought, though.

    Thanks for responding.