Leaders as readers

In 2012, John Coleman wrote an article in the Harvard Business Review titled ‘For those who want to lead, read’.  Coleman observed that business professionals were reading less despite their being wide-ranging benefits to leadership.  According to Coleman, deep and broad reading habits have been the ‘defining characteristic of our greatest leaders’ catalysing ‘insight, innovation, empathy, and personal effectiveness’. Coleman goes on to say that evidence suggests that when leaders read broadly and apply insight to their organisations, they are more likely to ‘innovate and prosper’. Philosopher AC Grayling also suggests that literature provides us with open windows, which is what education is all about.

I am often surprised when I hear that teachers and leaders don’t have time to read despite expectations that students will themselves develop healthy reading habits.  One of the questions I often ask during interviews is ‘what are you reading and how are you applying it to your work?’ The response is telling because the act of reading reflects an appetite for gaining greater understanding and wisdom. It reflects a curiosity that ideally grows and deepens over time.  As Coleman suggests, reading cultivates the knowledge, habits and skills needed to improve organisations.

As educational leaders, it serves us to read regularly and broadly.  I believe there is a canon of educational books that challenge assumptions, inspire new thinking/practice and promote new research; and, most importantly, stretch our imagination. This canon is not defined by academics alone. It includes anything that enriches our thinking such as Dr Seuss’ Hooray for Diffendoofer Day, Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. There is much to learn from the human experience in these texts and how they shape our approach to learning.

One recently published academic book that will be added to our system’s canon is Stephen Dinham’s recently published, Leading Learning and Teachingleading_learning_and_teaching.  This isn’t a how to guide or blueprint for action so much as  a considered reflection and research on both past and present approaches to improving schooling. Dinham unpacks the major implications for practitioners and the critical challenge of leading learning and teaching.

This book makes no claim of finding the definitive approaches to improving schools. Neither is it a lecture or beating of the drum. What you get is a thorough walk through of the central issues facing educators and schools in today’s world. Most importantly the book shows a deep respect for teachers in its open and accessible prose.

Reading this book reinforced my view that the profession is more than capable of meeting the challenges of transforming schooling if we continue to read widely and as Dinham says become ‘critical consumers of research’ and evidence-based in our practice.







The tug-o-war over the Gonski education funding model continues despite Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham wanting to make changes that are designed to cost taxpayers less but still deliver needs-based funding to schools. Gonski has become a bit of a patchwork quilt with something like 27 separate school funding agreements in place with various states, territories and education sectors.

Naturally Labor and those states and territories that originally signed up are against any changes in part, because the money has already been used to fund new programs and positions in schools.  Negotiations with various education ministers will continue to play out and while no-one appears to be holding their breath on this, the debate seems to be focused on what is sufficient when it comes to educational equity, rather than what is necessary.

The discussion around equity has largely been pinned on funding and who has/deserves the biggest share of the pie. The argument goes something like, the more money a school receives, the better the outcomes.  In fact,  Kevin Donnelly in his recent piece on Gonski quoted researchers Woessmann and Hanushek who conceded that how [educational] money is spent is more important than how much is spent.

Pete Goss from the Grattan Institute reiterated that point when he wrote last month that “our educationolow-78 results will not change if we continue to spend money in the same way…it must be spent effectively so that it has the greatest impact on students”.  We know that one of the greatest impacts on students is teacher quality.  This, in itself, is as Professor Stephen Dinham continues to point out, the biggest (and ever-widening) equity issue we face is ensuring a quality teacher in every classroom. As Stephen says, it’s the variation in teaching and practice, school performance and resourcing is ‘driving the whole educational system down’.

What is clear is that too many invested in education are reading from different pages when it comes to the equity issue in Australian schools. The debate must be centred on how to systematically improve teacher capacity and therefore their effectiveness across all schools and sectors. According to Dylan Wiliam there is already a considerable body of evidence demonstrating how to make teachers significantly more effective (this has to do with their development of classroom formative assessment). The problem however is that these approaches are not easily scaleable.

What is needed is a coherent framework that links sensible educational policy to funding – not the other way around. The debate over equity needs to be data and evidence driven not resource driven if we are to see both teacher and student improvement in every single school.

As the Business Council of Australia’s chief executive, Jennifer Westacott recently said in an address, teacher quality has to be at the top of the agenda.  When it comes to equity, making teachers more effective is the only thing worth giving a Gonski about.

The rearview mirror

It was media theorist Marshall McLuhan who famously said we look at the present through a rearview mirror.  This is what I am doing at the momenrear-view-mirrort as I reflect on the last 498 posts on bluyonder.  There have been some posts that were well-received, others critiqued and many that have been ignored. The blog was never
going to be a lone catalyst for educational transformation but it joins the thousands of educational blogs around the world creating a critical mass for change.

In all the bluyonder musings, the biggest challenge seems to be ‘why is it so difficult for teachers to change?’ For the most part we are stuck in the liminal space between the vast experience of the past and the unimaginable possibilities for doing the valuable work of schooling differently.  This isn’t the responsibility of the teaching profession alone (although the profession needs to drive the agenda) – it is one that society shares. Teachers need the support of the local school communities. These communities need the support of coherent education policies that reflect an understanding of the challenges in providing a first class contemporary schooling experience.

Unfortunately what I continue to see is a vicious cycle where teachers don’t trust the administration when improvement is advocated, where governments want students to be creative and innovative but continue to support high stakes testing and where parents want more engaging learning experiences without schools daring to be innovative in teacher practice and school design. All these come together in the perfect storm alongside publication of  international test rankings and federal and state elections. If we want contemporary practice, innovative solutions, continuous improvement and the like as the norm for all schools, some things have to change. A good start would be for communities to talk up the work of their schools. This requires a stronger and deeper engagement than currently exists.

However the most important change we need is to turn the schooling model on its head. Most schooling is still defined and designed around “the Curriculum” and the delivery of this curriculum through the timetable construct. It is not the curriculum that should shape the learning and teaching but the students themselves. In other words the kids are the curriculum. The question of why it so difficult to start with the child rather than the curriculum isn’t new thinking (John Dewey) but it seems we have become increasingly fearful of failure as compliant servants of an industrial system (Ken Robinson). Yet failure is at the heart of learning, teaching and ultimately improvement (Dylan Wiliam) and it is this that keeps me fixed on the bluyonder while occasionally pausing to see where we’ve come through the rearview mirror.



In response to the above question, the answer from most politicians is yes.  In NSW for example, the politics of standards has led to the Board of Studies, Teaching and Educational Standards (BOSTES) being renamed and given greater powers. The newly announced NSW Education Standards Authority will be charged with ‘lifting’ school compliance and teacher quality in an effort to improve students’ results. NSW Education Minister Piccoli stated that the [new] authority ‘ought to make teachers nervous around teaching standards’.

Any potential for this new entity to enact change is immediately called in to question by its very name. A ‘Standards Authority’ sounds very much like a 19th century, carrot and stick approach to school improvement. As John Hattie points out, we love talking about standards and results (usually associated with PISA and TIMMS rankings) but not about building the collaborative expertise of teachers or student performance.

Michael Fullan suggests the all too common focus on standards is a focus on the wrong drivers and it rarely leads to whole of system success. In his 2011 paper (using Australia’s reform efforts as an example),  Michael Fullan points out that accountability depends on standards and punishment. And these have been the core drivers for educational ‘improvement’ despite growing evidence that educational transformation is driven from within.

Like Hattie, Fullan strongly believes capacity building needs to be championed over accountability and standards. When teachers are strongly motivated and are continually improving their knowledge skills, student outcomes continue to improve. And the fastest route to de-motivating teachers is to undermine their professional confidence and capabilities by effectively suggesting they are on notice. The big brother approach to improving schooling only ever leads to short-term gains. A collaborative and internally driven approach to transforming schooling will help to ensure long-term success.

According to Hattie what works best is ‘recognising, valuing and enhancing the teachers and school leaders with high levels of expertise.’ But he goes on to say we risk this if ‘the politics of distraction command the limelight.’

The most effective teachers and systems aren’t the ones motivated by carrots, they are the ones motivated by continuously improving their own learning, their students’ learning and the profession as a whole.




In 2013, a 7.2 magnitude earthquake devastated the island province of Bohol in the Philippines, killing hundreds and flattening communities. It was the worst earthquake to hit the Philippines in 23 years.

Recently, a group of our teachers and students travelled to Bohol as part of an immersion program aimed at putting the principles of Catholic social justice into action.

Our group had the opportunity to work alongside local school communities on identified projects, some of which included repairing damaged infrastructure and providing professional development for local teachers. This had been 3 years in the planning and a wonderful example of cross-cultural collaboration.

For those who don’t know me, I’m rather tall (over 2 metres) so when we arrived in the Philippines, everyone greeted me as the ‘giant’. I had my photo taken on many occasions that often felt at times like Gulliver’s Travels!

During our time in Bohol, we worked with teachers who by any standards have very little by way of resources but give so much of themselves and their time to ensure all students have access to quality schooling. Their commitment to education and belief in its transformative effects is extraordinary. Nothing is taken for granted here. There are no demands for more funding or debates over class sizes. Schooling is an investment in the individual as well as the community.

It isn’t an over-statement to say that we learned much more from them than they did from us. It brings into light just how fortunate we are here and how the opportunities we are afforded can never be taken for granted.

We often stress that education’s focus should be on the whole person: body, mind, spirit, character and imagination. This was certainly a wholistic learning experience for us and one in which I saw myself as a pygmy in the land of giants.

You may have seen recently that the Tasmanian Government has proposed lowering the starting age of schooling (from 2021) to four and a half years as well as opening up the possibility for parents to enrol students as young as 3 and a half (from 2020). Predictably this announcement has divided community opinion with a range of concerns raised from toileting to formal learning.

While we don’t have much detail yet on what this will look like, the rationale is certainly an honest attempt at providing access to quality early learning especially for children from disadvantaged backgrounds.  In Australia, as in other western countries, the range of options for parents is limited, often costly and ranges from day-care to ‘Einstein’ academies. The idea is to give all students a solid start rather than playing progressive catch up each school year.  I applaud that.

Last year my comments on extending the early learning years sparked debate because we think that sending a 3 and a half year old to ‘school’ is about inflicting the current (rigid, one size fits all) experience of schooling on them. Unfortunately this limits the discussion around what possibilities exist for those important early years.

Lowering the school age challenges us to look beyond the here and now.  Life-long learning is not a short-term endeavour, it has to be viewed as long-term. This means schooling has to operate along a continuum in which play-based learning  is at one end and inquiry based learning is at the other.  The continuum of schooling requires a rethink at every level from the nature of the curriculum and pedagogy to the built environment.

We also need to rethink the minimum qualifications and salaries of early childhood teachers. At present, you do not have to be a trained teacher to work in an early learning setting. Formal qualifications are needed.

Teacher Tim Walker wrote a great piece in the Atlantic last year on what the rest of us can learn from Finland’s approach to the early years of learning.  No surprise that ‘joy’ is emphasised in the country’s pre-primary curriculum as well as the declaration that play is actually an efficient way of learning for children.

This leaves us to ask an obvious question – why doesn’t play-based learning and joy extend beyond the early years?









School of getting stuck

There is a goldmine of educational treasure on the Internet if you have the time to dig for it.  One of the great discoveries recently has been Dylan Wiliam’s reflections on learning and assessment. Wiliam began his career as a teacher and moved into academic research. He is probably best known for his insightful analysis with Paul Black on classroom assessment titled Inside the Black Box. As one colleague said recently, Dylan Wiliam has a gift of making the very complex, very simple – there’s absolutely no BS.

According to Wiliam what needs to be clear to all teachers is that students need to be clear about where they are going and how they will get support to move from point A in the learning trajectory to point B. Wiliam admits the purpose of schooling is not to get things right otherwise what’s the point of coming every day. The purpose is being able to achieve things you couldn’t do before. He says school is about the struggle, not about being right.

Wiliam recounts seeing a poster in a teacher’s classroom which basically said if you’re stuck, then it was worth coming to school today.  The point being that if students aren’t getting stuck, they’re not learning.  The danger zone is that teachers either recognise this too late or are unable to implement strategies that successfully scaffold learning for the 20 or 30 students in a class.

There is consonance between Wiliam’s thinking and one of our country’s most respected educational leaders, Professor Patrick Griffin. In his keynote delivered last year, Patrick spoke about the need to find the area of learning where every child is between what they can do and what they can’t do.  This is Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development (ZPD) and as Patrick explained, we need to better ascertain the precise point at which student learning begins to break down in order to intervene through peer/teacher or mentor support.

Regardless of age or year group, this kind of social learning intervention should move every student in the classroom to the next level and the next. Patrick believes that we have the technology to be able to plot the ZPD across teachers and schools to see the impact of every teacher on student learning.

Every learner has a zone of proximal development and getting stuck is a good thing if we can intervene at the right time and with the right level of support.  If we are not reminding ourselves and our students of this every day, then we have misunderstood the purpose of learning.