Archive for the ‘Innovators’ Category

Silverton’s silver lining

Tony Bryant with Silverton PS students.

Tony Bryant with Silverton PS students.

I had a chance to catch up recently with Tony Bryant, principal of Silverton Primary School in Victoria. If you’ve been reading bluyonder for a while you’ll know that I’ve visited Silverton PS over several years.  I believe Tony is one of this country’s most innovative school leaders and as he would tell you, their overnight success story has only taken twenty years of relentless focus.

The first thing you notice when you walk through the doors is that change is happening constantly.  This isn’t change for change sake but change as a result of continuous improvement, feedback and reflection.  There is an obvious passion for learning both at student and teacher level.  The teachers I spoke to tell you that it is an absolute pleasure to come to work each day; to be a part of a collaborative and committed team of professional educators.  This cannot be sustained without strong leadership. Silverton is a partnership between Tony, his staff and their students.

John Hattie talks about visible learning and teaching and that is exactly what is happening at Silverton.  Students take ownership of their learning, they set their own goals and articulate their learning so by the end of the term they can plot where they need to go next.  This does not happen without a high level of trust and respect.

Stephen Heppell always makes the point that when students are engaged in their learning we see how ambitious they can be.  What we sometimes forget is the central role, indeed the responsibility of teachers and of course leaders, to make sure that students are engaged because engagement is an imperative for academic achievement.

Despite the entrenched educational practices and mindsets of a century and more, Tony and his team have turned learning and teaching on its head.  It hasn’t been achieved with bucket loads of money but with a belief in students’ ability, a passion for learning and regular evaluation. Silverton PS isn’t the only school where this is happening and happening well but to see the theory in practice and to see students becoming their own teachers is after all this time still pretty awesome.








All that glitters isn’t gold

The release of the PISA results last year confirm Shanghai’s status as the world’s top ranked education system in Maths, Science and Reading.  All credit to Shanghai and its teachers but are the results the key drivers for quality learning and teaching which China seeks to pursue?  Probably not.

Ian Johnson in the New Yorker magazine reports on the rise of concerns regarding China’s approach to education and possible alternative models of education. Johnson follows the journey of China’s first Waldorf school in Chengdu.  He writes that while Shanghai is widely praised internationally, many Chinese intellectuals see ‘education as among the biggest problems facing the country.’   There is even growing discussion on how to reform China’s public schools as more and more parents look to the West for alternative models of schooling.

Among those quoted in the article, a university student whose recently published book articulates the growing discontent: “In elementary school, they rob us of our independent values; in middle school, they take away our capacity for independent thought; and in university, they take away our dreams and idealism.”

Those who are critical of China’s current education system are concerned that the country won’t be able to compete with an innovative West. Chinese-born academic Yong Zhao admits in his book World Class Learners, “the focus on academic achievement is the continuation of a long Chinese tradition that puts book knowledge above all others.”  Education in the age of globalisation needs to deliver much more than ‘book knowledge’.

After reading the article, I’ve concluded that China is no different to any other nation which views education as an investment in its future.  As in the West, the traditional model of schooling is being challenged albeit for different reasons and although Shanghai students may be ahead of their Western counterparts in international measures, the moral is that sometimes all that glitters isn’t gold.


Innovating workplaces

The slow and steady demise of manufacturing in Australia has sparked interesting debate in recent times over competitiveness in a global economy.   I was interested in the discussion following on from Toyota’s recent announcement and whether workplace arrangements had jeopardised the big car manufacturers presence in Australia.

The need for contemporary practices impacts also on the education sector.  It seems these discussions have always been framed around productivity and performance but I think we are still looking at the problem through the wrong lens.

Daniel Pink proposes an interesting theory of 20th century motivation vs 21st century motivation and the changing nature of work in a knowledge age.  The knowledge economy requires a new mindset and skillset.  Innovation is key and key to innovation is human capital.

I heard Professor Bill Harley from the University of Melbourne talking recently about the need for workplace innovation in Australia.  He said research around the world shows that there are three things that make productive workplaces:

  1. Employees have appropriate skillset (teachers up-skilling and re-skilling)
  2. Approaches that allow people to collaborate and solve problems (de-privatised practice)
  3. Motivated workforce at every level (managing and rewarding performance)

Professor Harley reflected on the fact that a strategic approach to implementing these practices has been absent from Australian workplaces.

The practices that have prevailed in education over the past century are obstructions to innovation. We need to change our practices by changing culture.  The three points Professor Harley refers to demonstrate the shift from industrial to knowledge, from convention to evidence.

Ironically, Toyota is one of the companies recognised for its innovative culture.  There are numerous case studies on what drives Toyota’s success but it comes down to investment in its people (skillset) and organisational capabilities (problem-solving and intrinsic motivators).

Listening to Professor Harley made me think about education in terms of our manufacturing industry.  Only for us, it will be our students not car manufacturers who will walk away in search of something more relevant and rewarding.

A different level of insight

Following on from last week’s blog post on big data, I had the great pleasure of meeting researcher and educator George Siemens recently.  George is the Associate Director, Technology Enhanced Knowledge Research Institute at Athabasca University in Canada.  He was also one of the first people ever to facilitate the use of MOOCs.

George has been immersed in learning and online networks for such a long time that he presents a different level of insight.  He shared some of his insight when I asked him about the opportunities of big data on education.


World Class Leader

Last week I had the great pleasure of sitting down for a Q&A with Larry Rosenstock.  Larry is the founder and CEO of High Tech High in San Diego and one of the keynote speakers at last week’s PBL World Australia 2013 hosted by one of our high schools, Parramatta Marist in partnership with the Buck Institute of Education.

I had heard of Larry Rosenstock and High Tech High before but it wasn’t until I read Yong Zhao’s World Class Learners that I realised Larry is truly an educational entrepreneur.  He has taken John Dewey’s ‘learning by doing’ as a model of education and made it work successfully in a 21st century environment.

Larry’s an engaging speaker but more importantly, an engaged school leader and I share some of his pearls of wisdom below from our Q&A.

  • The purpose of education is to serve society and create it
  • Education allows people to rise above social disadvantage but schools are the least changed institute
  • Education should be a combination of academic and vocational – the theory and the practice
  • High Tech High’s most important data point is a four year college degree
  • High Tech High is a misnomer – it’s not about technology – it’s about personalised learning through integrated disciplines
  • Every teacher needs to ask themselves how are they bringing the content alive for their students
  • High Tech High teachers work together in teams – there’s a deep respect for the craft of teaching
  • Craft always follows intellectual purpose and the purpose is profound
  • Any change management at school level must be driven by a growth mindset – every child can learn
  • Content standards don’t make sense – process standards do….’how do I think like a mathematician?’
  • Role of a school leader is to make as few decisions as possible – lead from behind because you inspire teachers to want to do better every day
  • Schools are messy organisms; you can’t replicate a school model but you can inspire other teachers/school communities to learn from each other
  • The focus shouldn’t be on competition between students and schools but collaboration – this is a national narrative for 21st century schooling
  • High Tech High is focused on student production not simply student consumption of technology. When you focus on both you see kids’ creativity explode.

I ended our session with the question that if Larry had to start all over again what would he do differently.  He replied that it’s not what you put into a school that counts, it’s what you leave out.  And there is much in many of today’s classrooms that need to be removed. Things like fixed white boards, rows of desk, and teaching times set by timetable requirements, don’t add much value to creating a dynamic learning environment. most importantly he wouldn’t allow teachers to find themselves working in isolated classrooms.

His last point was the one Carol Dweck makes about teacher mindsets.  Larry said we are still inclined to see students as either ‘smart or dumb’.  His advice – ‘don’t continue to mis-predict kids’ ability and intellect’. Larry’s a world class leader overseeing the education of world class learners.

There is little doubt that what Larry and his colleagues shared with us resonated with the conference attandees. What we need to understand from the High Tech High experience is that what they do is not a solution but rather a response to the context and understandings that their learning communities currently have. You cannot just superimpose their solution on your own school. This is a mistake made too often anfd always leads to failure.

High Tech High’s story is one of continuous growth and development and continually learning about how schooling can be better. The live the motto of “learning the work by doing the work.” For me this is the most powerful message, however you have to begin the journey, and the best time is now!

The science of learning

Fortunately we now know a lot more about how people learn from the learning sciences and while there is still more to learn and uncover, it helps us become more effective in our teaching. As a system here in Parramatta Catholic schools, the work of John Bransford and John Hattie has helped shaped our understanding of learning, teaching and most importantly, teacher learning.

The role of neuroscience in learning and teaching was the theme of this year’s ACER research conference in Melbourne.  By all accounts it was outstanding particularly John Hattie’s keynote.  There is no denying the significance of contemporary theory and research on the work we do. For too long we have accepted personal preference and experience instead of intellectual rigour. The science of learning needs to influence the practice of teaching.

For a psychometrician, Hattie’s work is easily digestible and after listening to a vodcast of his ACER keynote, I was inspired to re-read Chapters 7 and 9 in Visible Learning for Teachers.  I felt compelled to re-calibrate my educational compass.

Hattie’s makes the compelling point that we don’t go to school to learn what we know but what we don’t know. So why then are we teaching kids 60% of the things they already know?  It comes back to knowing where each student is and being able as teachers to identify where they need to be.  We’re not good at this because as Hattie says we make erroneous assumptions about students and their learning.

In fact, he believes we are novices when it comes to continually monitoring learning in progress.  This the power of feedback and it needs to be seen as a necessary disruption.  Why? Because it forces students to slow down, to process and think.  Slow thinking is stressful for students especially those who are struggling.  The message we have to impart is it is OK to stop, to think and to take risks.  Our schools are risk averse environments – we don’t often know when to hit the pause button and ask students to stop and think about what they are doing.

This is why Singapore’s approach to learning has merit. The goal when Singapore adopted a minimalist curriculum was as the then Minister of Education Tharman Shanmugaratnam said in The Flat World and Education to “give students themselves the room to exercise initiative and to shape their own learning.” The goal for Singaporean teachers is to get students to accept that it is OK working with unanswered questions.  It calls for a slow thinking movement in schooling.

Door to skyWhat Hattie found in his Visible Learning work was that we are stunningly good at predicting outcomes therefore students set low benchmarks. Our job according to Hattie is to ‘create schools that help kids exceed their own potential’.  We will never imbue confidence unless we make every child believe they can do better than they are already doing.  This is why feedback is so critical because it “aims to reduce the gap between where the student ‘is’ and where he or she is ‘meant to be’ – that is, between prior or current achievement and the success criteria.” (VLFT Chapter 7).

One of the most powerful statements in Hattie’s Visible Learning for Teachers is the notion that feedback thrives on error but

error should not be considered the privilege of lower-achieving students.  All students (as all teachers) do not always succeed first time, nor do they always know what to do next. This is not a deficit, or deficit thinking, or concentrating on the negative; rather, it is the opposite in that acknowledging errors allows for opportunities.  Error is the difference between what we know and can do, and what we aim to know and do – and this applies to all (struggling and talented: students and teachers).  Know this error is fundamental to moving towards success.  This is the purpose of feedback.

I should write this on my office window along with we go to school to learn what we don’t know.  We have underestimated the power of feedback in helping every student to identify where they go next; in moving them up the ladder of learning and success.  Our job as Hattie explains is to be able to give good feedback and to teach kids how to receive it and articulate back to teachers what and how they are learning.  This is why instructional walks are centred on the students and not the teacher.  We gauge the effectiveness of teaching through the eyes of students.  Hattie’s mantra is know thy learner….know thy impact.

As we begin to consider our system focus in 2014 and beyond, I am drawn to the point Hattie makes in Chapter 9 about losing interest in discussions about teaching.  He says it’s not because teaching isn’t important but it often ‘prevents important discussions about learning.”

I’m convinced that learning has to be the profession’s new narrative.

‘Connected’ learning

Canadian principal George Couros spent last week sharing his  ‘connected’ learning with our teachers and leaders.  Several school leaders said they felt ‘inspired’ after hearing George talk so passionately about his students, profession and his professional learning.

The workshops with George and our Principals Masterclass may look like ‘stand-alone’ or ‘one-off’ events but they are actually part of a learning continuum that began seven years ago.  The mere fact that our leaders have an opportunity to collectively engage in deep conversations on learning is powerful learning.

At the start of the 2012 school year, we set our collective focus to ‘learning by inquiring’ – how we could engage in the inquiry and knowledge building cycle within schools and across the system.  It builds on the work of Helen Timperley by responding to the emerging needs of ‘our class’ – whether it be school leaders, teachers or learners.  It requires a commitment to engage in continuous learning through collective problem solving and data analysis to improve the learning outcomes for each student.

PMC-98For me, the principals masterclass was a high point in this journey to improve learning and build capacity.  When we started we relied heavily on outside experts but last week we had our own leaders sharing their learning.  Although the context of the school communities may be different, there is a shared vision that transcends physical and virtual borders.

As I listened to the keynotes, three things became clear.   The first is we are beginning to get the language right – we are crafting a new narrative shaped by the best of what we know when it comes to improving learning and teaching.  The second is we are developing greater precision around the work by getting rid of the ‘noise in the background’.  We are focusing on the things that make a difference – the high effect strategies to drive change where it counts most.  Thirdly after listening to our school leaders, we are now seeing tangible evidence of building teacher capacity and its impact on student engagement and learning.  It’s starting to make a difference.

All of this leads into new areas for discussion and new ways of working but we are doing this together.  In the past we’ve “intellectualised” the process of improvement but ignored the implementation process.   Competing narratives haven’t led to sustainable change – the discussion was broad and shallow.  Yet what I saw and heard last week was a significant shift at the point of delivery – system leaders working with school leaders working with teachers – everyone as George said ‘elbows deep in learning.’

If there is one thing that resonated with me when listening to George it was the importance of modelling the what, how and why of what we do.  It challenges us to lead in the way we ask our leaders to, teach in the way we ask our teachers to and learn in the way we ask our students to.

Green Bronx Machine

I’d never heard of the Green Bronx Machine or Stephen Ritz before last week.  A colleague who attended PBL World in Napa, California sent me the link below and told me that Stephen was simply inspirational.

This is what education is all about.  Jamie Oliver and Yong Zhao would be proud.

Big data buzz

A few months ago I came across an ad for IBM in the Harvard Business Review.  The title was “The more we know, the more we want to change everything.”  Ads don’t normally capture my attention but this one did.  As I’ve written before, there are many things that schools can learn from business.  We share the desire to continually improve our product (learning and teaching) and to use technology in smarter ways to understand our students (clients) in order to deliver a better experience. The ad says:

Across the world, a distinct group of leaders is emerging who possess both a wealth of data and an acuity of analytical insight that that their predecessors never had.  So they feel freer to act – with a calculated boldness – to lead the big shifts that are reverberating through their organisations. They are making bold decisions and advancing them on the basis of rich evidence; they are anticipating events, not merely reacting to them; and they are toppling the conventions that stand in the way of thinking and working smarter.

The adage is knowledge is power but data is knowledge. The more we know, the more we can do and in this age of personalisation, big data is big business.  I think however its impact on education is yet to be fully realised. We’ve always known that data is critical to our work but it’s been the case of what to do with it and how to use it effectively to anticipate [learning needs] rather than merely react to them.

There is obviously a buzz in education now around big data or learning analytics.  The 2013 K-12 Horizon report includes learning analytics as one of its mid term trends.  According to the report, “learning analytics leverages student data to build better pedagogies, target at-risk student populations, and assess whether programs designed to improve retention have been effective and should be sustained.”

This is taking personalised learning to a whole new level.  As more and more schools move to online learning, this will make it so much easier for teachers to examine students’ progress in real time and to respond accordingly.

symbol1The Khan Academy is one organisation that has been developing its metrics in order to understand learners’ progress and performance.  Two years ago I met Ramona Pierson who used her own extraordinary journey to develop tools for blind people, which then segued into education.  Ramona is now the CEO of Pierson Labs, which is developing tools to help teachers create more personalised lesson for students that combines learning analytics and social networking platforms.

Learning analytics will not only significantly impact on students’ learning but also on teacher learning.  Imagine as Ramona says mapping the learning progression of teachers against the needs of students – this means being one step ahead instead of five years behind.

As Lyn Sharratt and Michael Fullan write in Putting Faces to the Data, effective teachers combine emotion and cognition in equal measure.  Teaching is a balance between art and science, data and humanity.  The proliferation of learning analytics will enable every teacher to make decisions based on rich evidence not assumptions.

I’d like to think that the more teachers know about their students, the more they want to change everything. These teachers don’t see artificial divides between performance data and student well being, they see it as a symbiotic relationship that gets richer the deeper you dive. The test is how feedback is given and it’s used to improve our core business – learning and teaching.

A global village

I’ve just returned from the UK where I had been invited to participate in the CSCLeaders conference.  CSC is an annual global conference that brings together about 100 leaders from across the Commonwealth.  The conference is run in partnership between Common Purpose and HRH The Duke of Edinburgh’s Commonwealth Study Conference which began in 1956.

Aside from being a great privilege to participate, the conference was very much PBL for leaders. Here were 100 culturally diverse leaders from all sectors including government, military, police, education, banking and finance, not for profits, religious groups, activists and the arts coming together to tackle a global challenge. This year, the challenge set for participants was how do you get disparate communities spread across the world to become bridge makers in the global networks of the future?

The conference spanned eight days and was structured in three parts.  The first three days we had input from prominent speakers on the political, social, economic, cultural and environmental challenges of the 21st century.  This was followed by discussion within our groups.  The next three days included site visits to one of five cities in the UK which contextualised the challenge by giving us an opportunity to see how local communities were tackling the challenge of becoming ‘bridge-makers’.  Groups were able to then meet with local community, educational, business and faith leaders.  I was fortunate to have spent my study tour in the London borough of Tower Hamlets because Hargreaves and Shirley include it in their book The Fourth Way as a turned-around district for its schools.

Tower Hamlets is one of the most culturally diverse boroughs of London and a stone’s throw away from the financial and media district of Canary Wharf.  There is a huge population of Bangladeshi migrants – the largest community in the UK.  It also has the highest rate of child poverty in London but as Hargreaves and Shirley state the schools in TH were able to dramatically turn around in a decade from one of the worst performing to performing above the national average.  The reason for this dramatic turnaround was the community coming together to create and build new capacity.

According to Hargreaves and Shirley, the schools improved because services were integrated, school leaders were visionary; they were able to attract high performing teachers who stayed and positive partnerships have been developed between schools, business, community and religious organisations. The Tower Hamlets schools became responsible for each other by setting their own ambitious targets for students.  One of the directors quoted in the Fourth Way said “poverty is not an excuse for poor outcomes.”

I spoke to the Mayor of Tower Hamlets, Lutfur Rahman and the head teacher at Swanlea School, Brenda Landers. Swanlea has 1000 students enrolled and was judged by OFSTED to be ‘outstanding in all areas’.  Brenda attributes the school’s success to a sharp focus on the data and an investment in building the capacity of teachers.

The final three days were spent in Oxford where groups shared their reflections of the study tours.  We synthesized ideas and data then tried to identify innovative practices that the Commonwealth nations might adopt to build leadership capacity at local and global level.  We also reflected on how we could collectively try and tackle some of these 21st century challenges.

A major element of the conference was networking opportunities which included lunch and dinner engagements with HRH The Duke of Edinburgh and HRH Princess Royal and business leaders.  These networks aside from creating the opportunity to bring more people into an ever expanding network of critical thinkers, problem-solvers and exceptional leaders will hopefully sustain the work in years to come.  The next part of the conference takes us to Mumbai or Johannesburg in June where we get to explore the challenge in the context of a vastly different city.

In reflecting on this experience, two important things struck me that were neither obvious or explicitly stated.  The first is that CSCLeaders brings together culturally diverse people who share a common purpose of leading  organisations into the 21st century.  Despite the diversity, there are common threads uniting us all. These threads include a passion for the work we do, a drive to seek new ways and solutions to challenges and the recognition that in this century you cannot do this alone, interdependence demands collaboration at every level.

The second is that depending on which nation of the Commonwealth you were born in, your perception of the world is vastly different.  Members from developing nations are looking for the recognition that they have something valuable to contribute. They do not seek “a leg up” but want to be active citizens in building better societies.

The above made me think about how we go about the work we are doing with our school communities here in Parramatta and raised so many questions for me. Have we have tapped into the rich diversity of our school communities and started from where they are rather then where they should be?  Are we stifling innovation or failing to nurture it? What are the new models we need to explore to build leaders capacities and so on.

This conference taught me many things but key was the value of multiple data sets and the evidence it draws as well as the critical need to interrogate the data from several different points of view. Listening to other leaders and hearing what the data and evidence says to them was a real eye-opener and often altered my own understanding.

For me the most important message I can share is that no matter your experience or expertise base, there is always something to learn.  Living in a global village demands that I need to be a life-long learner as well.


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