Red Teaming For Schools

The definition of “red teaming” varies depending on the organization doing it, but basically it consists of forming a group to find holes in the strategy or plan that’s under discussion. The idea comes from military strategies that involve thinking like the enemy and trying to work out a way to defeat one’s own army. Some companies have adopted red teaming strategies in an attempt to gain a competive advantage. Over recent years, the idea has spread to business where a group will take on the persona of a competitor and investigate ways in which the orgnanization is likely to lose customers.

So how does this apply to schools? After all, it’s not a case of schools competing against each other. Or at least, that isn’t their main driving force. Ideas from business often translate poorly to an educational environment where the language of profit and customers can alienate many who feel that such things have no place in the noble pursuit of educating young minds.

However, there is a definite place for red teaming in schools. One of the great things about red teaming is that it forces an organization to challenge its assumptions and, even if it eventually concludes that it’s basic concepts are correct, the process of looking of challenging what “everybody knows” can often reveal that not everybody knows what “everybody knows”.

Take a question as simple as: “Is education important?” A group of teachers will almost certainly say yes. Delve a little deeper and you’ll probably find that by “education” that their definition of education will centre around what students do at school. On the other hand, various other groups may define education much more widely.  The students, for example, may not all agree that what they’re doing at school is all that important when compared to all the other things going on in their lives. Some simple red teaming can challenge the groupthink of  people who have spent a large part of their lives in an educational setting and make them aware of some of the assumptions they’re making when designing the experience for students.

If a school is going to attempt to do some red teaming, there are two important decisions to be made before you start looking at strategies. Who should do it, and what should be looked at?

Who Should Do It?

One of the things about being a teacher is that one is used to plenty of negative feedback. When Jason complains that Friday afternoon’s lesson is boring, the average teacher doesn’t immediately think, “I must take this on board and attempt to create a more interesting class for next week!” No, he or she is more likely to tell Jason to suck it up and get on with the work. Similarly, by the time one has reached a leadership position, one has a tendency to view many of the complaints in a similar manner.  When Helen complains that the Year 12 English teachers need some sort of special allowance for all their correction, it’s easy for an administrator to simply regard Helen as a whinger. After all, we’ve all got too much work and wasn’t Helen the one complaining about photocopiers last week; she’s never happy. In order for a red team to be taken seriously, it needs to have someone that the leadership team will listen to without prejudice. However, if the person leading the red team is too important within the school, then they may have too great a stake in the decisions that have been made to see them objectively. You want the leader to neither be someone easily dismissed as negative, nor someone who’ll simply decide that they were part of the team that decided to introduce the new system so let’s not waste too much time discussing this. It may even be a good idea to bring in an outside person, either by hiring a consultant or simply swapping a teacher with another school where both can lead discussion in a team where they have no personal baggage.

As for members of the team, there should be enough to ensure a wide range of potential viewpoints from different areas and levels of experience, but not so many that it doesn’t allow all members to feel as though their input is necessary.

What Should A Red Team Look At?

There are many decisions that don’t have much impact on the students’ learning experience. It would probably be a waste of everyone’s time for a red team to examine a decision to change the school uniform to allow black or white socks to be worn in winter. Red teaming should be reserved for decisions that may have lead to a significant change in the way things are done. For example, “What if we simply decided to ignore the various tests that governments use judge our success and concentrate on giving students the best education we can?” A decision like this has a lot of factors and, at least in some schools, it would be just dismissed as too risky. Nevertheless, the act of red teaming a question like that may throw up a number of things that are worth investigating further which would never happen when the idea is rejected straight away.

How To Go About Red Teaming

There are all sorts of strategies you can use and there’s no definite right or wrong thing to do. The whole idea is to make sure that you have considered what you are doing rather than just simply concluding that it’s the best way of doing things because it’s the way you do things and, well, you certainly wouldn’t be doing it that way if it wasn’t the best, would you?

This isn’t a comprehensive list, but these are some good starting points if you want to try some red teaming:

  1. Pick Your Persona. A good place to start may be to decide that you are taking on the attitude of a particular group. For example, you may decide to red team from the point of view of a group of bureacrats searching for a way to close the school. Or you could decide to be a group trying to begin a new school in the area and attempting to poach some of your school’s best students. You could even decide to simply be a group of students. The idea of adopting different personas isn’t to reach some sort of great dramatic moment; it simply frees you up and forces you to think outside the box. You may even realise that there was no box in the first place.
  2. Make a list of assumptions. Go on. List the assumptions. Particularly the ones that are true. You know, the ones you don’t need to list. Then examine them. Ask the team to rank how sure they are of each assumption on a scale of one to five. Alternatively, give your team a number of sticky dots and tell them that each dot is a bet of $100, ask them to put their dots where they’re most confident that they’d win the bet. They may put all their dots on the one or they may spread them equally. If you give them two less dots than the number of assumptions, you should find that some assumptions aren’t as certain as others.  Are there any that would have major implications if you were wrong?
  3. Pre-mortem. You all know what a post-portem is. They’re easy. Here’s the body and we can try to find out what killed it. A pre-mortem is just the same, except you ignore your optimism bias and pretend that the initiative failed. What killed it? Is there anything that should have been done to ensure that this didn’t happen?
  4. The Destroyer. Instead of trying to make things work, image that you have a plan to destroy whatever it is that you are discussing. For example, imagine the school is trying to ensure that students engagement improves. In this case, the red team would look at how to ensure that student engagement gets worse. Ask the team to consider how they’d do this as individuals, then get them to share with each other. When you have a comprehensive list, discuss how many of these that you or anybody else already does. Discouraging or removing these may be a good place to start.

If you’re interested in learning more about Red Teaming, you might like to read Bryce Hoffman’s “Red Teaming” or go to the Red Teaming Journal website.

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