Archive for the ‘Leading Learning’ 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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mindsets

I’ve finished reading Carol Dweck’s seminal book, Mindsets. Dweck dedicates half of Chapter 7 to exploring what makes a great teacher.  It’s powerful reading because it illustrates how pervasive the messages students receive in classrooms are in reinforcing ‘fixed’ mindsets about intelligence.  Dweck writes “great teachers believe in the growth of intellect and talent, and they are fascinated with the process of learning.”Woody all Tied Up

John Hattie makes reference to Dweck in his work and expands on the notion of mindsets, which should underpin all decision making at schools.  In Visible Learning for Teachers, Hattie presents eight for teachers/leaders.

Dweck admits that teachers who have fixed mindsets create ‘an atmosphere of judging’ – they decide very early on who is worth the effort and who isn’t.  Growth-minded teachers enable students to reach high standards by identifying strategies and giving feedback.  It is a continuous challenge-feedback-learning loop in action.

Dweck astutely captures what great teachers do – they see teaching as a way to learn about themselves, their students, the world.  She concedes that fixed minded teachers see themselves as ‘finished products’ whose role is simply to impart knowledge.  One is focused on learning, the other on teaching.

Hattie expands on this in Mind Frame #3.  He says in relation to professional development, the focus “should be about the impact of our teaching. And while you could argue that this mind frame is a bit strong because of the emphasis I place on learning rather than on teaching – this might suggest we should have learning colleges, not teachers colleges.  I want to get away from debates we have about teaching.  Not because teaching isn’t important – it’s too strong to say it’s not, of course – but it’s wrong for it to be the one and only focus.”

After reading Dweck and Hattie, I am even more convinced that the industrial model of schooling (and teaching) is based on a fixed mindset.  Everything is planned, packaged and pre-judged.  There is no space for just in time learning and or improvised teaching.   Hattie says we adopt this teacher-centred stance because of what we’ve been taught – create a lesson, plan an activity. This model unfortunately perpetuates the fixed mindset about student intelligence and learning.  In theory, a contemporary student-centred model of schooling should be rooted in the growth mindset.  And that requires growth-minded teachers and leaders.

Hattie admits that we don’t ask teachers to come into the profession because they are expert problem solvers or apt at improvising, we ask them to teach because they are ‘willing to adopt a traditional mode of teaching. It requires them to have a particular way of thinking about what their job is, and this perspective can actually diminish improvisation and ingenuity.”

The big question is how do we change teachers’ mindsets?  How do we move from fixed to growth, from sages to activators?

What Dweck’s research shows is that it is possible to think differently and when we think differently about our students, we are in a stronger position to teach differently.  To quote Hattie, “teachers’ beliefs and commitments are the greatest influence on student achievement over which we can have some control.”

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.

Understanding discipline

I observed something interesting recently regarding a question I tweeted.  To provide some context, I read a blog post called the ‘Myth of Motivation‘.  The post contained a quote by Fred Bucy, former president of Texas Instruments who made this point:

What is effective in motivating people at one point in their careers will not be effective in motivating them later.  People’s values change, depending on what is happening in their personal lives as well as their success with their careers.  Therefore, one of the most important things that a leader must do is to continue to study how to be effective.  This takes discipline.  It is much easier to assume that what worked yesterday will work today, and this is simply not true.

As an educational leader, I thought the point about discipline to stay the course was compelling.  So I tweeted:  “is discipline the most important quality for becoming an effective school leader?”

I left out “self” from discipline because I was interested to see the responses.

Screen shot 2013-08-07 at 9.32.49 AM

If you asked a professional athlete, writer or business leader about discipline, it would be evident that self-discipline was what you were referring to.  It’s also a word that probably has positive associations in relation to achieving goals.

And yet, when used in the context of schooling, it more often than not implies something very different.  Discipline is grounded in an industrial model where the norm was to ‘control’ students and ‘manage’ staff.  It probably evokes negative feelings in many of us but it again illustrates the point I was making in the last blog post on the meaning of pedagogy and education.

Michael Fullan in his book ‘Six Secrets of Change‘ reflects on the importance of capacity building over judgmentalism.  It’s the paradigmatic shift from industrial to contemporary from process to people.

Fullan writes “the route to implementing change lies in building the capacity of teachers – their knowledge and their skills.  The opposite – and a big mistake – is if you convey a negative, pejorative tone.  A big mistake is to focus on accountability first and capacity building second.”

Richard Elmore who visited our diocese three years ago shared his long term goal.

Unfortunately the prevailing model of schooling, which views discipline pejoratively, is still the dominant model in many schools in many parts of the world.  We’re still looking at education through the lens of control and management.  Take for example, the first year teaching (secondary grades) course being offered by New Teacher Centre on Coursera.  The blurb says “establish and maintain behavioral expectations, implement classroom procedures and routines, and use instructional time effectively.”  I was shocked that the course promotes four low effect size strategies on discipline and only one high effect strategy on student learning.  Is this teaching by accountability or capacity building?

As members of professional teams, we find that our most authentic achievements grow out of a common vision, shared intentions and collaborative practices. We learn with and from each other, and we expect our colleagues to support and, where appropriate, to challenge us.

Often the highest expectations we have to deal with are the ones we place on ourselves.  That’s why it is so important to cultivate a reflective (self) culture where each of us takes the necessary time to stand back and re-balance our agenda so we can focus our energies on what really matters for our students, ourselves and our school communities.

It’s time we all started speaking the language of challenge and self-discipline.

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.

Use by date for schools?

This week I’m in South Africa for the second part of the CSCLeaders conference. While en route to Johannesburg, I had time to think about whether schools have passed their use by date.  And if so, where do we go from here?  I don’t believe the answer lies in dissolving or deconstructing schools but rather morphing them into something smaller, more organic, innovative and community based.  It’s more evolution than this long awaited education revolution.

In 2008, I heard Stephen Heppell talking at the Curriculum Corporation Conference about re-designing schools.  He was in the throes of co-designing a school with students in the Cayman Islands.  Heppell spoke about the need to move away from these industrial factories of 250+ students to small communities of learning with 10 or less students.  He explained how agile learning spaces could be re-configured to meet particular learning needs but what if schools were re-configured to meet students interests?

This is the evolution of schooling.  It is the convergence of personal interests, partnerships and technology (think big data and the ability to personalise learning).  Last week Dan Pink was in Australia at the EduTech conference talking about the rise of specialist schools.  He mentioned something called Big Picture Learning or Big Picture Schools, which have sprung up across America.  Even President Obama has recently announced an initiative that challenges school districts across America to redesign high schools and ‘transform the high school experience’.  The initiative is underpinned by a strong desire to prepare students for a knowledge age and a global economy.

What is interesting about the High School Redesign initiative is a focus on personalised learning and on providing career related experiences or competencies.  This is about taking PBL out of the classroom and into the real-world.  It places greater focus on developing partnerships with community, business and industry to enable students to complete internships and/or mentorships.  This is the evolution of schooling as John Dewey saw it – schools as microcosms of society.  The US Department of Education states, ‘students learn best when they are engaged in complex projects and tasks aligned with their interests.’

This is the foundation of  schools.  As Dan Pink explained these schools configure the entire curriculum around each student’s interests. Pink gives the example of a student who say was interested in martial arts.  One component would involve an internship at a martial arts studio and then the academic component would be learning about the origins of martial arts, the Japanese language and the physics behind the martial art.

I found a podcast of Elliot Washor, co-founder of Big Picture Learning and collaborator Charlie Mojkowski discussing their educational philosophy.  They pose an interesting question – we have expectations of students but what are their expectations of schools?  In addressing these expectations, Washor and Mojkowski believe levels of student engagement will rise.  Rather than developing students interests, schools have traditionally developed skills and knowledge.  Is this radical change or have we must missed something really fundamental – developing a sense of who students are?

The concept of bringing students into the real-world to deepen their learning is why partnerships with business and industry will become critical in the evolution of schooling.  In this model, I envisage schools as conduit between identifying students’ interests and connecting them with their ‘adult-world’ tribes.  In this sense, nothing is fixed.  In an article on Innovation, Washor and Mojkowski reflect that they are:

‘learning what variations of our design contribute to student success and we are adjusting the design and its implementation on the fly in order to realize immediate benefits to students. Big Picture is legitimizing the creation of fundamental alternatives in teaching and learning. That the Big Picture Company, advocating a design that substantially pushes the envelope of what a high school should look like, has been invited to work in so many districts testifies to the potential for true entrepreneurial behavior.

There’s that word again – entrepreneurial.  Perhaps it’s the reason why innovation and entrepreneurial behaviour aren’t the hallmarks of our educational systems.  When we talk about student-centered learning is it in the context of a modernised industrial model or in the context of schools adapting to students?
According to Washor and Mojkowski, if you want to create disruptive innovations rather than merely sustain mediocre ones, you need to have ideas that are ‘crazy enough’ at the edge to make a difference to what happens in the middle.  There is value in looking at the Big Picture model especially in how we create valuable partnerships that bring students into the world and the world into schools.

Teaching the educators

Jal Mehta, assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education wrote recently that we “have an almost endless list of things that we would like the next generation of schools to do: teach critical thinking, foster collaboration, incorporate technology, become more student-centered and engaging. The more skilled our teachers, the greater our chances of achieving these goals.” Building teacher capacity is both a school and system responsibility.

The role of the teaching educator in our system is similar to what Michael Fullan refers to as coaches.  They are experts in literacy and numeracy who work with the lead teacher to plan, model, observe, reflect and challenge with the intent of improving the learning outcomes of all students.

In the early days the arrival of a TE in schools was often met with resistance and in some cases, their expertise was under utilised.  Over the past few years we have worked tirelessly to articulate and communicate the what, why and how of the TE in schools.  Their role is not to obstruct schools but to build instructional capacity.  The focus shifts from building individual capacity to community capacity.  Once we build community capacity, our schools will be able to link into an ever bigger system of inquiry, learning and knowledge.

We now understand that the most powerful way of building capacity is in situ, in context around the real problems and challenges that arise on a daily basis.  Previous models of withdrawing teachers from their context and transmitting information did little to improve their practice and only served to further frustrate them.  The best approach is to learn the work by doing the work and having someone that you can share and reflect with.  I think teachers respond well to the immediacy and collegiality of this approach.

In 2011, Michael Fullan and Jim Knight wrote an article titled Coaches as System Leaders.  They state that if “teachers are the most significant factor in student success, and principals are second, then coaches are third.  All three, working in coordinated teams, will be required to bring about deep change.”

Some may call it the power of three – we refer to it as the instructional triad (TE, principal and lead teacher) or the teacher-learning triad (teacher, lead teacher and TE).

Our TEs are an important part of our system strategy to improve the learning outcomes of all students and ensure a professionally rewarding working life for teachers.  The how and why of their work represents a shift in education from “I know to we learn” and success for some learners/schools to success for all learners/schools.

Schools of inquiry

In March the NSW Government announced its blueprint for improving schooling.  The action plan includes raising entry requirements for teaching courses at universities and ensuring the quality of initial teacher education is regularly assessed.  This is a positive move.

Attracting the best and the brightest is something that all education systems desire. Yet attracting is one thing, retaining teachers is something else when we continue to operate as Richard Elmore says as a profession without a practice.

I believe the most important work is preparing teachers to teach in today’s world.  The demands on schools are great, the work of teaching is complex and the needs of students are diverse.  Add to this the ubiquitous nature of technology and the need for a rigorous teacher education model is apparent.

Some time ago on bluyonder, I raised the idea of an apprenticeship for teachers.  Students would be able to connect the theory in practice by continuous exposure to models of good teaching in classrooms. Observation, inquiry, reflection, analysis and collaboration become the norm.  As knowledge and skills develop, student teachers under supervision either by a teacher educator or mentor actually learn to teach.

Coincidentally the British Government is promoting ‘higher apprenticeships’ for professions such as law, accounting, engineering and possibly teacher education. British Education Secretary Michael Gove has recently said he was keen to move away from higher education providers determining how teacher education was delivered:   “The best people to teach teachers are teachers.”

The best people to teach teachers are effective teachers.

Kevin Donnelly also reflects that since “former teachers colleges closed and education become the preserve of university-based faculties of education, teacher training has become overly theoretical and divorced from classroom realities.”

Linda Darling Hammond in her excellent paper asserts that schools of education must design programs that “help prospective teachers to understand deeply a wide array of things about learning, social and cultural contexts, and teaching and be able to enact these understandings in complex classrooms serving increasingly diverse students; in addition, if prospective teachers are to succeed at this task, schools of education must design programs that transform the kinds of settings in which novices learn to teach and later become teachers. This means that the enterprise of teacher education must venture out further and further from the university and engage ever more closely with schools in a mutual transformation agenda, with all of the struggle and messiness that implies.”

I can’t help but notice how many educators refer to experts who are either providing ideas or visiting schools. Why aren’t we looking to our teacher colleagues for guidance, support and ideas?  Elmore says you do the work by doing the work not having experts do it for you.  I wonder whether this is a symptom of below par teacher training courses? Are we training teachers they way we want students to be taught as they do at Singapore’s National Institute of Education?

The Australian Institute for Teaching School Leadership (AITSL) is about to begin assessing the quality of instruction at universities to ensure that all graduating students meet common standards. AITSL chairman Tony Mackay has flagged that new national standards for accrediting teaching courses would see a “shake-out” of programs offered by higher education institutes.

If the work of teachers is to be continually re-evaluated and shaped in response to the needs of learners and a changing world, then so must teacher training courses.  It is absolutely essential that the next generation of teachers are proficient practitioners; good clinicians and diagnosticians.

We must move away from a commonly held view that anyone can teach fairly well.  Teaching is highly specialised and complex work. As Darling Hammond says teacher training programs must help teachers “develop the disposition to continue to seek answers to difficult problems of teaching and learning and the skills to learn from practice (and from their colleagues) as well as to learn for practice. These expectations for teacher knowledge mean that programs need not only to provide teachers access to more knowledge, considered more deeply, but also to help teachers learn how to continually access knowledge and inquire into their work.”

In a previous blog I reflected on leadership from the inside out.  This is another example where this maxim applies. We have never needed better teachers than we do now.

In moving towards a culture of wide-spread excellence, perhaps we need to stop referring to schools of education and start referring to them as schools of inquiry.  Afterall, isn’t this what learning and teaching is about?

Learning leaders

As I’ve mentioned previously, our focus as a system this year is on good teaching and good teacher practice.  We know what the research tells us about good teachers and student learning outcomes.  This of course is based on a very important assumption – the quality of leadership. Michael Fullan calls the principal the “nerve centre of school improvement” and while they may not have a direct impact on student learning outcomes, what they do is critical to large scale and lasting improvement.

Schools without quality leadership are like orchestras without conductors.  Sure teachers can teach but an effective leader knows the research, develops the knowledge and collaborates with others to bring it all together.  Clive Gillinson writing in the Guardian in 2009 reflects on the role of the conductor:

Any player who has worked with great conductors knows that what they bring to their performances is the difference between competence and inspiration. It diminishes and completely misunderstands great music-making not to think there is any difference between the two.

Sometimes when we talk about effective teachers, we assume that we already have effective leadership at the helm.  This is not always the case.  Fullan in his paper Quality Leadership, Quality Learning states that reviews of research literature on school improvement highlights the “key role of the principal, for better or worse, i.e there are no examples of school-wide success without school leadership; all examples of school failure include weak or ineffective leadership.”

How do principals account for a lack of school wide success?  How do we deal with this as a system?  Past attempts to improve leadership have been ad hoc or too focused on individual attributes.

Over the weekend I began reading Leading with Inquiry and Action by Matthew Militello, Sharon Rallis and Ellen Goldring.  The foreward was written by Richard Elmore.  I have always respected Elmore’s grounded approach – a good mix of common sense and encouragement.  In reflecting on the American education system, he says this:

Every generation of American educational leaders, from the end of the 19th century onward, promises that it will be the generation to transform the practice of leadership into the practice of instructional improvement, and so far, every succeeding generation has failed at that fundamental task.  The leadership of instructional practice has been consistently and systematically displaced, generation after generation, by the bureaucratic demands of “running” schools and the by the “real-world” demands of school bureaucracy.

This summation could equally apply to education systems in other parts of the world.  Why?  Elmore says the answer lies in the observation that “education is a profession without a practice” or more accurately, “an occupation aspiring to be a profession that has not yet discovered its practice”.

He goes on:

We do not, as a field, define a set of practices that everyone who enters the sector has to master as a condition of being able to practice, nor do we insist that people who practice in the field continue to learn their practice at ever-increasing levels of competence and expertise over time.

I agree with Elmore’s observations.   Systems have failed because there has been little investment in school leadership.  We have focused our resources and efforts on the periphery without seeking to change the culture and structure of schools.  We haven’t insisted or enabled leaders continue to learn their practice.  Building system leadership capacity leads to greater accountability.

In addressing the core issue of leading schooling too often we start from the outside and work in. Right on the edge, we usually find things like judging school leaders using blunt instruments like student performance, data and rankings. Further in you find things like “taking things off” leaders to allow them to do their job. This may free up time but it does little to address the inherent problem. Such approaches only serve to demean the complexity of the leadership challenge.

A more constructive approach is to start from the inside out. This means a sharp focus on the core requirements for leading a contemporary school. The research and data show us that the key responsibility of leading has to be around the work of teachers, how they teach, how we know they are effective and how we can continue to build their capacity. If the leader doesn’t know how to do this then they have to be taught how. It requires leaders to be effective practitioners with a deep understanding of learners and pedagogy.

Last year our system focus was learning by inquiry.  Inquiry is critical to how we understand our learners and their contexts in what and how we teach.  Yet there is little point in learning by inquiry if we don’t apply it.  Leaders need to be inquiry minded AND action oriented. This is how we become a profession with a practice.

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