Posts tagged ‘Richard Elmore’

Enterprising schools

Harvard Professor, Richard Elmore once asked ‘is it possible that schools can continue to operate in the 19th century while the rest of society moves into the 21st century?’ The simple answer is no – although the adversarial position historically adopted by unions suggests otherwise.

NSW and ACT Catholic employers are currently in the process of discussions with staff and the union on a new enterprise agreement that we believe reflects the need to create contemporary working conditions relevant to a twenty first century model of schooling.  This conversation is not limited to teaching profession, it is happening in most professional organisations around the world.  Federal education minister Christopher Pyne recently said that education is one of the last bastions in the working world where length of service is still rewarded.  Length of service in any profession does not guarantee that you are the best you can be.  It simply means you lasted the distance.

We want all teachers no matter what stage of their career to develop high level skills and knowledge in their work.  I know the majority of teachers want greater control of their working lives.  As John Hattie states ‘schools need to collaborate to build a team working together to solve the dilemmas in learning, to collectively share and critique the nature and quality of evidence that shows our impact on student learning, and to cooperate in planning etc.’

This calls for a new professional maturity that provides teachers with greater autonomy but acknowledges the need for all teachers to adopt a rigorous and intellectual approach to improving teacher practice. In 2018, Australia will have a new national teachers standard administered by AITSL.  This is one of the foundations of the new Catholic schools enterprise agreement. The standards are imminent and non-negotiable.

What is negotiable under a new enterprise agreement is how each local school community structures and shapes learning and teaching.  For more than a century the working lives of teachers have been controlled by bells, timetables and externally imposed agenda. Do we continue to defend an industrial model of schooling in the face of the irrefutable and overwhelming impact of a knowledge age or do we embrace the opportunities for teachers to chart new waters?

Enterprise is defined in the dictionary as a ‘readiness to embark on adventures with boldness and energy.’  Educational expert Yong Zhao believes the time has come for schools to be enterprising, for students to be entrepreneurial and for teachers to be bold in re-shaping the educational agenda.  This is what the new enterprise agreement is about.  It challenges teachers to think about new ways of working together to improve the quality of learning and teaching in schools.

We don’t just want teachers to last the distance, we want them to shape their profession and to continually raise the bar of excellence for themselves, the school communities and most of all, the students they teach.

If twenty first century schools are enterprising schools, then we need a contemporary enterprise agreement which reflects a 21st century teaching profession.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The proposal for an enterprise agreement stems from a recognition that a new century requires new ways of working in schools.  It aims to increase collaboration at a local level by supporting leaders but most of all, it aims to bring alignment in the standards

 

 

 

 

Enterprising schools need enterprise agreements.  It’s time for educators to be bold and to lead the way with imagination and initiative on how we want to work.

 

 

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.

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.

Knowledge work

danpinkSeveral years ago I attended a conference where Daniel Pink was one of the keynote speakers.  I had never heard Pink speak before but I remember being impressed by his ideas and thinking.  Not long after that I read ‘A Whole New Mind‘ and to this day it remains one of the books in my professional canon.

It’s hard to believe Pink wrote A Whole New Mind in 2005.  So much in the world has changed in that seemingly short period of time and yet many organisations including schools still seem to operate within an industrial paradigm.  According to Pink (p50):

We’ve progressed from a society of farmers to a society of factory workers to a society of knowledge workers.  And now we’re progressing yet again – to a society of creators and empathizers, of pattern recognizers and meaning makers.

I’ve been reflecting lately on this notion of a knowledge age – are we a knowledge society? Have we really embraced new ways of thinking and working smarter?  If you read job ads for example, it doesn’t look like any significant shifts have been made in the way we recruit, hire and train people.  Using social media to advertise roles that are 20th century in their design is as futile as using iPads to teach a 20th century curriculum.  How many organisations in Australia are redesigning knowledge work but more importantly how many school systems are?  How long before we actually fulfill Pink’s prediction of a conceptual age?

One of the biggest problems as outlined in the article “Redesigning Knowledge Work” is there aren’t enough knowledge workers across the private, public and social sectors.  According to the authors, this is only going to get worse based on research by the McKinsey Global Institute which suggests that by 2020, “the worldwide shortage of highly skilled, college-educated workers could reach 38 million to 40 million.”

The article cites a number of organisations redefining the jobs of experts, transferring lower-skilled work to other people within the organisation.  Reading this article prompted me to think about schools in a knowledge age.  If principals are our most skilled, then what work could they transfer or outsource to enable more time to develop the talent of teachers? Do we see this as the most important task for principals?

Richard Elmore says, a knowledge based economy requires a knowledge based teaching profession.  The way to get there is to invest heavily in the knowledge and skill of all teachers.  And yet in the past, it has been the norm for lower-skilled people (ie teachers aides) to work with students who need the greatest intervention.  We know now that we need our most skilled teachers working with those students to ensure improved learning outcomes.

Historically, we have often begun with the staff and adopted the strategy rather than looking at what critical skills our strategy requires and identifying the best talent to deliver it within classrooms, schools and across systems.  Why can’t schools look beyond their communities for the most skilled teachers?  Shouldn’t we be deploying the best people to get the best results whether it is around a learning strategy or capacity building?

While most education systems want teachers to become knowledge workers, it is much harder to change industrial processes and cultures.  The authors suggest three points that would underpin new ways of working:

1. Excel at attracting, motivating and retaining specialists
2. Develop mechanisms for cultivating specialists who have the potential to take on leadership roles
3. Capture the knowledge so that others can benefit from it

In some ways, our system is working towards these but change doesn’t happen overnight.  The question many educators and systems need to ask is whether we want teachers to have a working knowledge or do we want teachers to be knowledge workers?  If the answer to the latter is yes, then what are we doing about it? Are we that afraid of the possible answers and the need to redefine what it is to be a teacher in today’s world

‘Sew’ your own success

There is a proverb that says ‘borrowed garments never fit well’.  This is particularly apt for education systems on the journey from good to great.  I believe there are two roads that can be travelled when it comes to school improvement – pay someone to do it for you or ‘sew’ your own success.  One of my favourite quotes is from Richard Elmore and co’s book Instructional Rounds in Education: A Network Approach to Improving Teaching and Learning: We learn to do the work by doing the work, not by telling other people to do the work, not by having done the work at some time in the past, and not by hiring experts who can act as proxies for our knowledge about how to do the work.

Many education systems from around the world look to Singapore, South Korea, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Finland for the answers but if it were as simple as borrowing their models, then educational improvement would literally happen overnight.  Countries such as Finland have taken years if not decades to build a high performing education system.  What we can do is look at what works, learn from their success and weave some of these ideas into our own educational narrative.

As Pasi Sahlberg, author of Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn From Educational Change in Finland? acknowledges that “the Finnish school system cannot be transferred anywhere else in the world.  Many of the successful aspects of Finland’s education system are rooted deep in our culture and values.”  He goes on to say that “what we can do…is take a look and learn from one another.”

Earlier this month Sahlberg was interviewed for the Huffington Post - the responses

were ideas worth thinking about:

  1. Primary school teachers put well-being and happiness of their pupils before measured academic progress
  2. Urge parents to take more responsibility for their children e.g giving more time and attention to them at home
  3. Flexible learning pathways that provide personalised options to study what individuals believe will help them become successful in life
  4. A universal standard for financing schools so that resources are channeled to schools according to real needs
  5. Align the vocational schools curriculum to the standards of academic high schools
  6. Elevate schools as places for social learning and development skills
  7. Celebrate national achievements, rather than high rankings in global education league tables
  8. Ensure a universal standard for teacher preparation that follows standards in other top professions

Systems around the world can learn from each other about what makes the most difference and while each system reflects its own political, economic and social context, the key driver I think, is a relentless focus on quality learning and teaching. This learning recognises the needs and capabilities of every student and the critical importance of good teaching and teacher capacity building.

We will never bring about the changes required in building quality schooling  by continuing to use the stale rhetoric of the school improvement agenda. With its narrow focus on high stakes test scores, programmatic of the shelf solutions , driving achievement through competition and so on, this agenda ignores the experiences that do make a difference.

The Next West Wing

An opportunity to discuss education policy on the eve of a Presidential election.  (Courtesy ~BostonBill~)

Recently I attended a meeting with Marc Tucker and Robert Schwartz, two senior education researchers and US government advisors on education policy. Hosted by the new Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation in the NSW Department of Education, this high level briefing provided an opportunity to discuss education policy in relation to worldwide trends and a broader understanding of the current US state of play on the eve of a Presidential election.

For the last few decades Marc Tucker and Robert Schwartz have been important contributors to this discussion, advising US policy makers including Presidents Clinton and Obama.

They made the point that the educational agenda over this period has been largely driven by policies to:

  1. evaluate teachers on a narrow set of criteria to identify and remove the bottom 10 per cent of under-performing teachers
  2. introduce Charter Schools giving parents greater choice and to harness business capital to help fund schooling
  3. set narrow educational standards through basic skills testing

Tucker and Schwarz believe this has been a process of reform by attacking the system. Interestingly, the evidence shows that despite a 270% increase in expenditure on education in real terms under the last two presidential administrations, US schools have gone backwards on all indicators.

Clearly this agenda doesn’t work.

When they went looking for what did work, they found high performing countries (including Australia) had policies that were almost opposite to those in the US.

These countries shared similar characteristics which they identified as a:

  1. strong instructional core, rigorous processes and diversity around assessment of student performance
  2. robust curriculum framework and related standards identifying what students should be able to know and do
  3. focus on building teacher capacity

It was refreshing to hear the discussion go beyond the limited comparisons that are so often made in relation to PISA and the usual top four performing systems in the world. Schwartz and Tucker highlighted Ontario, Canada as one of the best examples of a sustainable approach to education policy around these three areas, particularly in their focus on building teacher capacity. They also found evidence within these successful systems of what Richard Elmore calls ‘reciprocity of accountability for capacity’.

‘Accountability must be a reciprocal process. For every increment of performance I demand from you, I have an equal responsibility to provide you with the capacity to meet that expectation. Likewise, for every investment you make in my skill and knowledge, I have a reciprocal responsibility to demonstrate some new increment in performance.’ (Elmore, 2002).

For the last 20 years Australia has been responding to the changing world predominantly through the expansion and integration of technology into schooling  – the Digital Revolution. What the US experience shows us is that the real drivers of change are not tool driven, but rely on a deeper understanding of the nature of people and how they learn; a worldview that informs learning and teaching; a strong foundation of theory and evidence; and finally an investment in building human capital.

Rather than attacking the system (teachers, curriculum, and so on) or making changes at the fringes, we need to look within the profession to build the capacity of our teachers and leaders for successful education reform.

Building Professional Capital

Recently, YouTube in partnership with the Khan Academy put the call out for educational content creators to train and mentor a growing online learning audience. In many parts of America, mandated participation in online courses as part of students’ K-12 schooling is on the rise. Massive online open courses (MOOCs) are emerging in the higher education sector, challenging traditional approaches to tertiary education, which is evidenced by declining enrolments in some tertiary courses. Senator Stephen Conroy last week challenged Australian universities to rethink their business models to incorporate MOOCs or risk becoming irrelevant. This raises alarm bells for me about the quality of instruction and students’ engagement in learning.

If we agree that teachers make the biggest difference to student learning outcomes, we need to ensure online learning models are not harnessed in such a way as to reduce education to a self-serve product.

While the proliferation of online educational content certainly provides an opportunity to influence the delivery and engagement of contemporary learning and teaching, we cannot lose sight of the important role that teachers play in engaging students in deep learning. We know the relationship between the teacher and the student in the presence of content (Elmore, 2009) – the instructional core – is paramount to the learning and teaching process. If technology supplants teachers and students become learners in isolation, this is not only detrimental to the development of critical thinking skills, but also for their capacity for deeper learning and understanding.

Andy Hargreaves and myself at the 2012 ADC lecture.

The focus for education, then, needs to be in building teachers’ capabilities: individually and collectively. We were privileged to have Andy Hargreaves deliver Catholic Education’s annual Ann D Clark lecture recently to over 300 educators. He warned of the increasing prevalence of the ‘business capital’ approach to education i.e. short-term investment (e.g. online delivery models) for quick return, saying the education sector had become a lucrative market for investors.

‘When we begin to move the whole profession of education to serve the short-term interests of business capital, it comes at an immense price and carries dangerous assumptions about the nature of the teacher and whether or not this is even a profession,’ (Hargreaves, 2012)

In their book Professional Capital: Transforming Teaching in Every School, Hargreaves and Fullan (2012) identify three components of ‘professional capital’ – human, social and decisional – which he says, when developed in concert, will build the teaching profession.

  • ‘Human capital’ refers to highly qualified teachers having the content knowledge and an understanding of child psychology, individual pre-service training and preparation, emotional intelligence and capability in relationships
  • ‘Social capital’ refers to trust, collaboration, collective responsibility, peer pressure and support, mutual assistance and networks
  • ‘Decisional capital’ (a term coined by Fullan and Hargreaves) refers to the teacher’s judgement, in case experience and lots of practice, in a teacher’s ability to reflect alone and together on their practice and to adjust their practice to improve students’ learning accordingly.

Building professional capital needs to take place throughout a teacher’s career in various ways at various stages because Hargreaves suggests it takes around eight years or 10,000 hours to develop expertise in the profession of teaching through practice and concerted effort.

Hargreaves says quality teachers need to:

  • understand that teaching is technically difficult
  • know cognitive science
  • understand a range of special education abilities
  • know about differentiated instruction
  • be able to assess in a sophisticated, diagnostic way
  • have massive emotional intelligence
  • have high levels of education and long periods of rigorous training
  • be able to use judgement, wisdom and discernment to know what’s in the spreadsheet of data to connect it to the students and to the knowledge they’re trying to acquire.

Teaching is not an individual task, but is something that is done collectively with other people as a community that takes time, investment, conditions and support. These human capabilities and the collaborative aspect of teaching (social capital) cannot be substituted with an online learning system alone.

I was pleased to read Khan Academy founder, Salman Khan, tackle the concern that the Khan Academy was a way to replace teachers:

‘Human teachers will become far more valuable in the future because [the classroom] will be a more interactive place and they are going to be doing the things computers cannot do, which is form bonds, motivate, mentor, diagnose,’ (Salman Khan, 2012).

I couldn’t agree more. There is, and always will be, a role for teachers.

The science of learning

The work of cognitive scientists is becoming increasingly important to the work of teachers as we seek more effective ways to engage learners.  This week, I’ve started reading John Medina’s book Brain Rules.  Medina writes in the introduction that if you want to ‘create an education environment that was directly opposed to what the brain was good at doing, you probably would design something like a classroom.’  It speaks volumes about the historical chasm between brain science and teacher practice.  While we are moving towards understanding how people learn, we still see as Hattie says the essential nature of our profession in terms of autonomy – teaching they way we know best, choosing resources and methods we think will work etc.

One of the most illuminating chapters is on exploration.  Medina explains why understanding how babies learn gives us insight into understanding how humans learn at any age.  Babies and young children are naturally curious about their world and they learn through a process of  observation, hypotheses, experiment and conclusion.  As he says if children are allowed to retain their natural curiosity about the world around them, they can ‘deploy their natural tendencies to discover and explore until they are 101.’

The problem is our traditional model of schooling often breaks this cycle of curiosity.  Sir Ken Robinson believes this model of schooling dislocates people from their natural talents. Medina supports this by adding that by the time children get to school they understand that they can acquire knowledge about the world around them not because it’s ‘interesting, but because it can get them something.’  The ‘something’ is a higher grade or test score.

The good news is that many people retain their curiosity and remain life-long learners.  The challenge is how we cultivate this in workplaces and schools. Medina actually proposes a ‘learning laboratory’ where brain scientists and education scientists would investigate learning in real-world situations.

This lab would be similar to a medical school in that it would have a teaching facility, research program and staff who work in the field as well as teach. It’s probably no coincidence that Richard Elmore et al has taken the instructional rounds from the medical rounds model. This is the process of  observing, analysing, discussing and concluding.  For Elmore et al, this process is designed to bridge the ‘knowledge gap between educators and their practice’ in order to improve student learning.

What I found interesting about this idea is that teachers would be learning about brain science in learning spaces. They would be learning from cognitive scientists, applying it in real world settings and then working with researchers on what works and why.

In many respects, this idea reflects the early work of John Dewey who established a school for educational experimentation at the University of Chicago in the late 1890s.  Dewey’s lab was an opportunity to learn more about ‘the process of education and ways of improving the conditions of teaching and learning.’  It is a goal we are still committed to perhaps more so in a knowledge age where we have the tools and the opportunities to ensure learning is personalised, relevant and engaging for every learner.

I think Brain Rules re-confirms why it is critical that the art of teaching be informed by the science of learning.

Lessons learned

Monday’s Sydney Morning Herald featured an article on the learning spaces at one of our schools, St Monica’s Primary, North Parramatta.  Our approach as a system of schools is to to ensure the provision of a relevant and contemporary learning experience for every child, and to create a professionally rewarding professional life for all our staff.  To do this, means developing the capabilities of all teachers by introducing structures and processes that will encourage critical reflection of practice and reflective dialogue and analysis of data, since we know good teachers improve student learning.

Professor Richard Elmore wrote in The Age in 2007, “Teaching, as a profession, is undergoing a dramatic transformation, from isolated work in self-contained classrooms to collaborative work designed around challenging problems of student learning, from simple routine tasks that require continuous monitoring of how students learn, from the profoundly anti-intellectual, anti-professional culture of schooling represented by (Christopher) Bantick to one characterised by respect for the knowledge of educators.”

The move towards agile learning spaces is not some sort of quasi social experiment neither is it a short-term fix; it is a response to the transformation happening in knowledge societies and in the profession itself as teachers and students develop high levels of knowledge and technological skills.

I am often surprised at the defensive position taken when attempts are made at improving learning for children.  While I understand some of the shortsighted and silly attempts made in the past to supposedly improve schools should never have been entertained let alone implemented, too often we use the past experience to shape the future and doom ourselves to the same mistakes. We seem to value conformity at the expense of placing teachers in environments that will encourage and empower them to work collaboratively, to learn and plan together and to build their skills base.

The move towards agile learning spaces is driven by the goal to improve learning – student learning and teacher learning.  The 1970s experiment of pulling down the walls in classrooms was doomed to failure because teacher learning was missing from the equation!  The classroom may have been around for thousands of years but we need to ask ourselves whether the traditional classrooms are actually providing the kind of learning and learning experiences today’s students deserve?

John Dewey wrote in The School and Society:

Some few years ago I was looking about the school supply stores in the city, trying to find desks and chairs which seemed thoroughly suitable from all points of view – artistic, hygienic and educational – to the needs of the children.  We had a great deal of difficulty in finding what we needed, and finally one dealer, more intelligent than the rest, made this remark: “I am afraid we have not what you want.  You want something at which the children may work; these are all for listening”.  That tells the story of the traditional education.  There is very little place in the traditional schoolroom for the child to work.  The workshop, the laboratory, the materials, the tools with which the child may construct, create and actively inquire, and even the requisite space, have been for the most part lacking.

We know that lower class sizes don’t necessarily guarantee better learning outcomes yet somehow we equate this with good teacher practice.  Good practice is teachers getting to know each student as individuals and employing flexible teaching strategies that respond to these differences. Traditional classrooms make it difficult to change the space in order to create a multitude of learning activities (group, one on one, independent learning etc).

Agile learning spaces are the response to not the reason for.  We know from the research that good teachers have a positive influence on student learning outcomes.  Building the skills of all teachers requires a courageous cultural shift.  It is about understanding the nature of the world today and the nature of learning.

If we are to learn lessons from the past, then we need to realise that not every child had the kind of learning experience they deserved and we have to be honest about that.  We can no longer rely on the ideological vending machine to deliver quality learning and teaching.  We look to contemporary theory, research and best practice to guide us in our work, we rely on good teachers to deliver quality learning and teaching and we design learning environments that will enhance it.

The replacement for the ideological vending machine is I think, developing trusting relationships with teachers and their school leadership teams.This recognises that as professionals they will take responsibility for their own professional growth which has at its very centre a deep commitment to improving teacher practices that are evidence based, reflective in nature, collaborative by choice and innovative by preference.

In my experience most teachers either do this now or yearn to do it, so let’s all back them.

What I know

I consider myself an informed system leader who understands the complex issues of providing relevant schooling in today’s world for all students.  Over the past few years I have used this blog as a way of expressing my views about learning and teaching and some ideas around a way forward.

A few days ago an idea popped into my head uninvited, which has really intrigued me. I was thinking of my next blog post when I thought “why do I think the way I do about schooling and when did I learn the things I know about 21st century schooling?”  I naturally assumed that I had always known these things but I realised that wasn’t the case.  Everything I know is being updated, challenged, enriched and stretched on a daily basis.  Your expertise changes every day as the connections strengthen.

On Friday evening, I saw the most remarkable and uplifting performance at the Seymour Centre in Sydney by over 30 young secondary students from our Captivate program.

It was an improvised dance performance work-shopped over three years in partnership with the talented Shaun Parker and his team of collaborators who brought to life the very best of what we can expect from young people when they are taught well.

How often are we brought back to earth by such experiences!  We can easily assume that we know everything there is about schooling and just when we think we do, our teachers and students challenge our thinking (again).

The performance on Friday night was Richard Elmore’s instructional core in action – the relationship between student and teacher in the presence of content. It was a powerful learning experience for the student, teacher and the audience. As Elmore says ‘if you can’t see it in the core, it’s not there.’  It’s what I saw and what I know.


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