Meaning Guide

Being clear and distinct: Further adventures in embodied cognition

Fuzzy edges impede shared meaning

Last week I talked about how numbering related concepts makes them feel more real than just listing them.  When you hear about a list of “four elements of strategy”, or “four domains of excellence”, or “four company priorities”, you understand that there are four distinct yet similar ‘things’, just as if, in the real world, you encountered four distinct things. Like this, four juicy oranges with nice clear edges:

The trouble is, while the number of discrete things in the physical world is usually pretty clear, in the rarefied worlds of policy, strategy and academia it seldom is.  Which is a shame.  Reading a policy document can often feel like biting oranges and tasting apples.

Here’s a real life example.  I was involved last month in a Head Teacher recruitment process, through which I came into contact with the UK’s National Standards of Excellence for Headteachers. Here’s an extract:

What does a “domain” look like?  Well let’s take the metaphor seriously.  A domain is a territory that someone or something owns.  If you’re going to slice up a piece of land and give different bits to different people, then each domain is going to have edges.  If the edges are fuzzy or have big areas of overlap, then fights are going to erupt.

Similarly, if you’re going to divide a set of National Standards into four domains, then you’re implicitly claiming that the concept under which each set of standards is listed is reasonably clear and distinct.  But look at the list above.  “Knowledge” is in domain 1 and “pupils and staff” are in domain 2, so where should “knowledge about pupils and staff” go?  Where would you put systems and processes that are about self-improvement – domain 3 or 4?

It’s interesting that the metaphor people use to describe their chunks of content is often a reflection of how loose the groupings are:  If it’s the four “components”, or “elements”, or “pillars”, then the compilers usually feel the chunking is pretty clear and distinct, whereas four “areas”, or “domains”, or “fields” bodes ill.

If you’re not sure about your own categorisation, then there’s a simple test:  Do different people put the same concepts in the same categories?  Have a go yourself.

Here are a few examples of the actual Head Teacher standards, each of which appears under one of the domains above.  So, for each one, do you think it pertains to (1) qualities and knowledge, (2) pupils and staff, (3) systems and processes, or (4) the self-improving school system?  I’ve picked one from each domain.  Pay attention to how you feel while doing this, then bear that feeling in mind the next time you’re slicing up your own content.

  • “Shape the current and future quality of the teaching profession through high quality training and sustained professional development for all staff”
  • “Provide a safe, calm and well-ordered environment for all pupils and staff, focused on safeguarding pupils and developing their exemplary behaviour in school and in the wider society”
  • “Communicate compellingly the school’s vision and drive the strategic leadership, empowering all pupils and staff to excel”
  • “Establish an educational culture of ‘open classrooms’ as a basis for sharing best practice within and between schools, drawing on and conducting relevant research and robust data analysis.”

The answers are in this footnote1. I think there’s a good argument for most of them to belong in all four domains.  To be clear, I think the list of 24 attributes is great.  They’re all admirable qualities of a Head Teacher.  But the brain works by chunking information, so it doesn’t matter how good the list is, it’s how intuitively it’s categorised that determines how consistently people are going to engage with it.

Does this matter?  Well yes it does.  A typical scenario would be that a school Governing Body uses this set of criteria as a template for scoring Head Teacher applicants.  When they try to have a meaningful conversation about which domain is more significant in the context of their school, and therefore which candidate should advance, they find that because everyone’s interpreted the categories in different ways, the scoring is undermined and the conversation is less meaningful.  I know this is just one example, but in these kinds of abstract, conceptual strategic and policy documents, this happens all the time.

How could you do it better?  I’ll explain some practical suggestions next week.  For now, the simple point is that the more clearly and distinctly content is sliced up, the easier it will be for people to understand and use it, and you can tell how clear and distinct the categorisation is by the extent to which people intuitively put the same concepts in the same categories.

Imagine how long it would take to harvest an orchard if an indeterminate number of oranges were actually apples in disguise, and half of the apples were actually pears and so on.  Think about that the next you wonder why it’s taking so long for your strategy or policy document to be implemented.

  1. Answers: 4, 3, 1, 2

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