Knowledge has PR problem. Knowledge is seen as difficult, complex, and sometimes, impractical. Theories of knowledge can leave people confused, therefore people often steer away from delving deep into them, as they appear too abstract.

For example, from my time at university, where I studied a few units of philosophy, I came across the idea of epistemology, the study of the theory of knowledge. I remember that knowledge is generally broken down by philosophers into three categories: personal, procedural, and propositional. A quick read around through other books on my bookshelf for categories of knowledge throws up: explicit, implicit, and tacit. These are discussing a different part of the process of understanding knowledge, but the truth is, there is no real consensus on what knowledge is. However, there is a general idea of what we mean by it, allowing us to codify it for conversations. What this does do is bring to the fore one of the main problems with codifying knowledge, the curse of categories.

By creating categories, we make things easy to sort, store and analyse. Indeed, we do this with knowledge to ensure we can examine its constructs further. However, whenever multiple categories are applied to a domain, an increased level of knowledge of the domain is needed to begin discussions of it.

An issue that knowledge has is that it can become difficult to access. Knowledge, we lap up as students within the classroom, can suddenly become a problem when we are adults.

So, what has happened here? Have we over intellectualised knowledge? Have we applied reason and logic to a point where knowledge, which is already hard to define and discuss, has become too big and an abstract a beast for people who to access unless they dedicate a significant period of time to think about?

I’d argue that this is the point; knowledge is constantly being refreshed and renewed. Knowledge within many domains is contestable, and we should be discussing it often to ensure we have it right, that it reflects lived experiences, and that it can help to impact our practices within the domain.

But have we made knowledge too cold, where we consider knowledge to be facts and facts alone? Can we only be taught knowledge and not find new knowledge?

Knowledge is not just facts. Knowledge can also be about how facts are defined, how we find new facts or how we stitch facts together into a new action or process. Knowledge can also be a form of expert common sense which can be derived from lived experiences, knowledge of the people we work with, how they work best, and how we work best. Knowledge can also be knowing about different contexts, scenarios, and situations that arrive within a domain. It can also be knowledge of the problems that occur, and knowledge of potential solutions to them. This demonstrates the breadth of what we mean by knowledge, and why we go about codifying it.

Much of this post has come from my thoughts and reflections on the role of knowledge in leadership. I’d argue that knowledge, in the broad sense of what has been discussed above, is crucial in leadership. When discussing this with some of the leaders I have worked with, I have been asked the following questions:

What about experience? Doesn’t that play a key role in leadership?

Yes, yes it does! For me, wat is gained from experience as a school leader, falls into knowledge e.g. that expert common sense, such as knowing when the right time to review the curriculum would be, knowing the right time to calendar a parents evening, or breaking down the process for how they set high standards within their classrooms.  

What about context? Is the same knowledge is relevant for leadership everywhere?

When considering the context, we need knowledge of it to understand it, and know what works best with where we are right now. Consider a simple, and not wholly accurate, model where school improvement is driven through three channels:

  • Safeguarding, Behaviour and Inclusion (SBI)
  • Teaching and Learning, and CPD (TLCPD)
  • Curriculum and Assessment (CA)

Different contexts will be in different positions and have different needs in each of these areas. Different contexts will have different resources available in each of these areas. Does that affect the knowledge needed to lead in those areas? Maybe, but there is a knowledge that is required to find out what it is that you don’t know, and what you need to know more about.

If the context of a school was such that there were large gaps in SBI, but their knowledge of TLCPD and CA was only okay, it would make sense that they build their knowledge within the SBI domain.

However, once improvement happened within the SBI domain, TLCPD and CA would quickly become the focus. It is therefore important that there is a baseline knowledge of across all three. Also, the context has changed, what was previously an issue in SBI may have now been resolved, and therefore a different body of knowledge within the domain is required.

The example below shows a school with a different context, where knowledge gaps are different within leadership. This is a simple model and does not contain all domain that may affect context.

I don’t believe this is a perfect argument to solve the problems leaders and staff have with our relationship with knowledge. However, it has for me and for many of the people with whom I have worked, helped us to understand that knowing more is the answer to many problems, no matter the context, as grasping the context is knowing more too. While we need knowledge of what to put into action, we also need knowledge of how to put it into action, alongside knowledge of why it will matter to, and how it will affect, people. Leaders need to know how to take knowledge from a piece of paper, a policy, or a plan, and put it into action in their rich, context filled settings, that they know so much about. There will always be things that we don’t know, as we can only know so much, and some things as stated already are incredibly difficult to grasp. However, due to the importance that knowledge has to school improvement, through its breadth of uses, it is always worth knowing more than you did the day before.

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