School is not for adults

The pre-eminent Professor Viviane Robinson from the University of Auckland delivered the annual Ann D Clark lecture last week.  It was a great honour to have both Viviane and Michael Fullan working with us last week.

Prof. Robinson’s presentation was Five Dimensions of Effective Educational Leadership’ but perhaps I can summarise the key point in one sentence:  school is about students and their learning outcomes not about adults. This is a very power concept I believe since it is evidenced based and substantial.

Her research confirms that it’s not about the tools, technology, class-sizes or classroom configuration – it is simply the quality of the teacher and the strength of the leadership team supporting them. It is about principals leading the learning within and for their learning community and teachers sharing their own practice(s).

Too often the role of principal has been preoccupied with ‘bins, buses and bells’ yet Prof Robinson’s research showed that effective schools have leaders and teachers who are courageous enough to initiate the difficult conversations about learning based on evidence of student achievement and then make the difficult decisions in order to achieve the goal of improving learning outcomes.

What should our response to this evidence be?

17 thoughts on “School is not for adults

  1. Ah Greg now your talking, but a leader without the necessary skills to lead teachers through your experiment will be a recipe for disaster. Leading a school staff takes amazing people, though the leader does not maketh the person, nor the teacher. This has been many schools where leaders are dare I say it not good, yet still have some wonderful, innovative and effective teachers working for them. These teachers are often why we parents stay even though we know the principal is not good at his/her job.
    At the risk of beating a dead horse I say again research, and then research upon that research is a sure way to ensure you are making the right decisions. Guest speakers talking about their school and how wonderful and fun it is does not show us tangible results. Unfortunatey for you we do still have a curriculum and standardized testing. This is not to say that one day you won’t be able to say with conviction that curriculum is dead and there is a new way to teach. Just proove it first and be sure that the rest of the education system is geared up for it as well.

    At the moment there is recent research that points to the fact that smaller class sizes are the way to go. Which has been the reason there has been a commitment to smaller class sizes in the public systemn at a great cost.
    What you seem to have here is a handful of innovative and yes intellectual people trying to fathom their way into what they call 21st century schooling without the relevant data to do so. Some great ideas but stop thinking you are a brave minority. The courageous ones are already at the frontline teaching, working with technology and differing social and moral norms that make up the society we have today. These teachers get up every day and turn your old industrial model into a wonderful learning environment.
    The fact still remains that most educators are in fact gobsmacked when they hear of your plans for the future. Older teachers are amused as they’ve seen it all before. Most think there is massive cost saving somewhere driving the train?
    Its all a bit like the Emporers New Clothes, nothing really new in what you are saying except the size of the classes. As for schools being for adults has it ever been thought of as so? Adults however do need to safeguard childrens rights.

  2. When we listen to the student voices in our schools kids frequently tell us that school is boring and not relevant. Schools are about meeting the needs of students not designing learning and teaching around the expectations/demands of parents.

    This is a clarion call for us as teachers to think about new ways of delivering learning for our kids. If we consider 90 students in a room doing what we have previously done in one traditional classroom with 20 or 30 students then of course it will fail.

    BIG OPEN learning spaces requires us to think differently about the way children are learning and how we deliver it. Well-planned open learning spaces like the one mentioned at Wooranna Park?? provides opportunities for big group learning, small groups, one to one etc. The danger is that teachers and parents continue to think about the learning space from a traditional paradigm (3 classrooms without walls).

    Rethinking the way we design our learning spaces is about finding new ways to make the learning more effective for each school community.

    My experience tells me this lies with the teacher. This requires them to be innovators and designers; to think creatively and courageously.

    When I have seen this working well I have never experienced students so switched on to their learning. The issues of behaviour and engagement in learning are non-issues in these learning spaces.

    Do you need research to tell you when your child is happy and engaged in their learning? If their learning outcomes are improving, isn’t that proof of success?

  3. Thats what we want the research on. Do learning outcomes improve? Thats all we are asking for and we deserve it before such an initiative is undertaken. Proof, as this is not what we are hearing, and certainly not what some teachers and parents are seeing. Lets face it before most organisations make big decisions that will impact on children and their learning outcomes they rely heavily on research, known data and in depth studies.
    Teachers are collaborative by nature and by design ( they often share with each other, accross grades and throughout their school communities, and often with schools and organisations outside their community). It does not take a large room to design a great learning space. It will however be cost effective!
    All this talk and still not enough evidence! I fear for the future of these children, if you are right do it right. Take the time to be sure.

  4. Julie,
    Nowhere in any of these discussions have I heard of any plans to abandon the teaching of basic skills or that explicit teaching will no longer be part of the teacher’s repertoire. I think the wrong questions are being asked – we need to step back and ask – What learning and teaching is required to adequately prepare students for an uncertain and radically different future – one so different from that which we faced as students? Basic skills will always be important, that is not in question, however if we are to do justice to the students in our schools today we need to provide them with every opportunity to develop proficiency in a new set of skills that will prepare them for a future where unfortunately proficiency in basic skills, while necessary, will not be enough. We need to develop in our children:
    Scientific, and Technological Literacies
    Visual and Information Literacy
    Cultural Literacy and Global Awareness
    Adaptability/Managing Complexity and Self-Direction
    Curiosity, Creativity and Risk-taking
    Higher Order Thinking and Sound Reasoning
    Teaming and Collaboration
    Personal and Social Responsibility
    Interactive Communication
    Prioritizing, Planning, and Managing
    If ever we needed a sign that the certainties of the world twe were prepared for no longer ring true – then look no further than the current global economic crisis. I refer you to two recent texts, which give great insight into our changed world and the types of thinking and skills that we need to be cultivating in our students to prepare them for it.
    1: A Whole New Mind – Daniel Pink
    2: Five Minds for the Future – Howard Gardner
    If we agree that we need to re examine learning and teaching in light of the above (and it is difficult not to given the increasing body of literature from educational theorists and business leaders alike), then it follows that one aspect that could impact on all this is the learning environment itself. Not to consider how it may be used differently to help develop these 21st century skills would be foolhardy. While it is easy to argue that basic skills can be taught effectively in a traditional single teacher classroom, it is more difficult to argue that these smaller spaces are the best environment for developing these new skills and understandings. This is not to say it is impossible. I argue however that if and where there is a possibility of a larger learning space then you have more flexibility, more options for creating different functional spaces, more options for effective integration of ICT, for creating spaces that are more conducive to activities that foster curiosity, creativity and risk-taking and that allow for teaming and collaboration. What better way to teach teaming than in a learning environment where the students see their teachers modeling it day in day out?
    The open classrooms of the 70’s and the experience of teachers in them is not a good reference point. These did fail and deserved to. They were a classic case of ‘old wine in new wine skins’. Apart from opening up the space nothing else changed – pedagogy remained basically unaltered. Teachers adopted a model of ‘replication’ & ‘duplication’ – certainly not transformation! Four classes, four teachers, little or no team teaching, no diversifying, none of today’s technologies – doomed from the start really.
    I understand parent and teacher concerns. These mostly stem from what Yoram Harpaz describes as an individuals ‘pedagogical sentiment’. We bring to the learning and teaching discussion a disposition that is predicated on our own education – only natural. However, if we are to give our children the best chance at succeeding in an uncertain future, surely we have to be willing to let go of some of these and open ourselves to the possibilities.
    John Dewey said it best when he said “If we teach today as we taught yesterday…we rob our children of tomorrow”
    Nobody has all the answers – we need to work together, parents and educators alike, we need to be part of the solution, not part of the problem and if larger more adaptable and flexible learning spaces can assist us then we owe it to our kids to explore all options. While I understand the importance of research, can we afford the luxury of waiting for longitudinal research before taking action – I don’t believe we can. The research we need concern ourselves with is the ever growing body clearly stating that if we do not begin to redefine and re-imagine schooling then schools will become irrelevant in the lives of our children and will fail to prepare them for their future – how sad would that be!

  5. What an interesting forum this is, as my children are currently within the Catholic Education System. I like others would like documented evidence this project will work. I am all for positive change not undocumented theory. Is there a dictatorship or a partnership between educators, parents and the church, as I have not yet seen a planned role out of the project? It would appear that we as parents have been blindsided by Mr Whitby and his colleagues.

    I have worked collaboratively with my school as my son has a personality disorder whilst this has been challenging it has also been rewarding to see the progress that he has made not only with his grades and sporting ability, but his coping skills within an environment larger than the family home. This has been a progressive change and the close relationship he and I have built with his teachers has made the difference. As he is aware that we communicate with any occurrence and he is unable to play one off the other. As we support each other, I fear that relationships such as these will be lost, as the game of Chinese Whispers will interfere. Any regression will go unnoticed leaving him unable to cope with himself let alone the many challenges everyday life throws at him stifling any opportunity he and the many other children in his situation have of achieving their full potential.

    On that note I am sure that you have researched other such experiments on our children, and can provide solutions as I do not believe that you would want to replicate the implementation of the open plan learning concept of the 1950’s – 1970’s with the intent to provide large, open, flexible spaces adaptable to team teaching that were supposed to offer children more educational opportunities, Teachers soon complained of noise and visual distractions and the lack of time to plan together , another said reason for failure was lack of professional training as stated in the Sage book of educational leadership (page 513) if hundreds of educational research studies back then failed to validate open plan learning without inconclusive and controversial results what have you done that is so different to validate your project?

    Consider this Mr Whitby, at home we provide an unstructured environment for our children full of creative and innovative adventures. Perhaps what we want most out of you is structure, so that they can move through their journey in life ready for the structure they will need to conform to life in high school and the workforce. I do not get paid to sit and do what I want at work. There are certain things I must do to achieve my outcome, which is to get paid. Your ideas sound like a wonderful preschool environment all be it a very large one. If this is the legacy that the Catholic Education System is going to give to my children then sadly we will leave along with the many other families that have indicated the same. Further more Mr Whitby why not invite all parents in the Parramatta diocese via school newsletters to blog on this site they deserve the option not the secrecy.

  6. Gary some great points. And I assure you that teachers are aware of the new pedagogies and this different world we live in. As parents we understand the need for some change within classrooms, but radical change that involves combining classrooms is not what we want for our children.

    Most educators don’t feel its the answer either and I have discussed this with a lot. If this is so good, why doesn’t Greg put it out there for a real open debate? It seems to be an idea from just a handful of people with a vision, driving a small pocket in the west.

    How is it that we the parents have found out about it through the back door? And don’t you think if this reform is so necessary, it would be looked at on a larger scale, you would need to change the whole system. Public education is moving in the opposite direction, smaller rooms though covering all your categories that we need in society today and then some. No-none but your leader has indicated radical change such as curriculum is dead. Basic skills are an issue if every child does’t learn as we have had reports of. All we ask for is proof given the failures in the 70’s. We are more time constrained these days, how will your teachers find the time to plan together properly?

  7. Rachael, I commend you on the commitment you have to your child’s education and the efforts you have made working together with the school and teachers and for taking time to contribute to this forum. I do think however that emotive language such as ‘dictatorship’ and being ‘blindsided’ tend to distract rather than add to the constructive dialogue that this forum is about. I am a little confused about your comment re Chinese whispers?? Teachers are professionals and any of them that I have encountered involved in team teaching environments know ALL their students and have well developed processes in place for tracking all aspects of their education, including pastoral care. They also enter into regular professional dialogue about student learning. This seems counter to the ‘Chinese whisper’ situation you fear. In reality you have two or more teachers who know your child and his needs intimately – surely that can only be a good thing. In relation to what happened in the 1970’s please see my earlier post – they were doomed to fail and cannot be used as a valid comparison to these current discussions.
    I know of no school where structure is abandoned (if you do please let us know), in fact flexible and contemporary learning environments utilizing larger spaces, providing for a range of learning and teaching activities requires significant structures in place to be effective. Conformity; that is another issue. If your child is to succeed in what can only be described as an uncertain future, where over half the jobs in which he is likely to find employment have not yet been invented, then he will need much more than the traditional education that you wish for him. This is not scare mongering – it is a growing reality. If you are not convinced then I encourage you to read both or either of the books in my previous post along with “The World is Flat” by Thomas Friedman.
    It concerns me that you connect open learning environments with the concept of ‘a thousand flowers bloom’ – an unstructured free for all, children ‘sitting and doing what they want’. If this is your personal experience then you need to discuss this with your school as it is CERTAINLY not what contemporary learning and teaching looks like. I would hate to think that any parent, especially someone who seems as passionate about their child’s holistic education as you are, would leave everything that Catholic education offers through misinformation, misconceptions and a few Chinese whispers.

  8. How exciting it would be to be forty years younger experiencing an open classroom environment. My worst memories of school where stimulus hunger and the inflexibility that didn’t allow me to explore exciting interesting or challenging ideas.
    In a one teacher classroom there is no respite between a clash of personality with teacher and student, they’re both human after all
    My two primary school daughters excel with interesting experienced teachers whilst they sometimes tread water with newer teachers who could use more mentoring and 15yrs experience or old tired methods admired by so many parents.
    A multi teacher classroom would seem to allow experience and mentoring mixed with fresh enthusiasm and new ideas which gets even better when you add children to the mix.
    How could you be bored in this exciting rich environment?
    A classroom that allows noise, art experience and passion in a structure of learning will do more to generate confident, competent individuals then some suspect scoring method that rewards parrot like behavior and encourages disinterest.

  9. Garry, I have heard from parents with children in these classrooms already that their children are not doing well at all as their learning is going backwards and they are distressed. You seem to forget that parents talk to each other and the CEO have been implementing these classrooms in different pockets throughout the diocese for the past year, you are clearly not well informed as to how the parents and children are coping with these changes. I do feel that us as parents have been blindsided by your approach as this topic was raised at a school meeting and we were bluntly told that it would not be occurring at our school in the near future, we were in fact lied to as the school seems to be gearing up for it now and I have found out about it through this web site and other concerned parents.

    If this project is not to be compared to the 1970’s all I ask is what processes have been changed to ensure this, my concern is that the environment you are describing would require an enormous amount of structure to be effective and the fact that one year my son was given a choice to sit on a special mat in the corner if he did not wish to participate in class activities, then the following year participation was not much better. Both of these teachers were young and clearly did not have the experience to cope, this behaviour was modified the following year with thanks to one incredible teacher and amazingly continued, my concern still remains as to how these not so experienced teachers will cope in these situations.

    Hopefully Mr Whitby will make the effort to come to the school and clarify what you describe as misinformation to the people that are after all paying for this education.

  10. As a parent of a child working an an open learning environment I have had the opportunity to see the data first hand. My daughter has not only excelled academically in a classroom that is exciting, vibrant, creative and full of technology but she has become an independent learner… able to direct her own learning at her own pace, facilitated by excellent teachers who trust their students implicitly. It is not the environment that has had the greatest impact on her learning, but the opportunity to have caring and motivating teachers who are at any given moment able to address an individual need and provide explicit instruction as required. This classroom also encourages students to lead the learning by sharing their own knowledge and skills with others, not just in the clasroom but globally. I am constantly provided with feedback regarding her achievements and successes, both from her and from her teachers. Parents are encouraged to become a part of the learning community via open classroom opportunities and the class blog. I, for one, am extremely happy that my child is experiencing success in a classroom were different learning styles and abilities are catered for on a regular basis.

  11. 21st century schooling without the relevant data is certainly a smoke and mirrors job! It is wrong of systems or leaders to impose new directions without strong consultation, and slower processes of change that facilitate deep understanding by teachers and parents. We are responsible to parents for providing the schooling that they want. We are responsible for providing the action-based research alongside the changes we make. I have yet to see any evidence emerging from the Parramatta schools that verifies the directions being put into place. I am passionate about 21st century learning, but passionate also that it be genuine. Teachers involved should be sharing their learnings with the broader educational community. Systems involved should be doing the same…that is how real change is brought about in an effective and democratic way. It is exciting to see change happening in schools – it’s true. It would be more exciting if the evidence was clearer and shared more broadly – anecdotally, via research, and with qualitative and quantitative evidence so that teachers, leaders and systems can be guided away from the hype and more into real change. I’m still waiting to see Parramatta Diocese teachers and leaders engaged in the global dialogue. There are a few…… I’ve given up holding my breath waiting for the flood of innovators to emerge.

  12. Greg
    Thanks for the You tube posting of one of Viviane’s main points in her address on school leadership and what works – I can use that clip at one of the leadership meetings instead of a shared reading. I have heard Viviane speak twice on instructional leadership in schools and each time I deepened my understanding about our role. With Viviane’s permission I posted her presentation on my blog [] under the title – no cup of team leadership here please – June 2.

    Your post has certainly stirred the possum – so to speak – about the value of research in schools although the “Open Spaces” debate seems to be on a little off tangent from Viviane’s presentation.

    I am currently building “flexible spaces” so that students needs might better be catered for – in different size groupings. There is lots of OECD [PISA] information to suggest that Australia has a small between school difference when looking at student outcomes. What the infomation suggests we do have is a larger between class difference in the same school. Therefore our work as leaders, as Viviane suggests is to improve teachers instructional capacities.

    Flexible spaces brings teachers understandings and in some cases misunderstandings about various instructional strategies out into the open and allows us the chance to build capacity in an atmosphere of trust and respect. Improving teachers instructional capacity improves student results.

    Thanks again for the reminder about the work of instructional leaders in schools.

  13. Great to see the discussion looking at flexible learning spaces and how teachers teach in these spaces.

    It seems that when we talk about open spaces, our focus can be on the wrong thing- people seem to think the driving force behind opening our learning spaces is the physical room. This is not how it should be. Instead the focus – and the conversation- should be about students’ learning and the most effective way to teach for that learning. The research is conclusive – it is what teachers do in learning spaces that will have the most significant positive impact on student learning( Hattie,2003; Robinson, 2007; Ludwig & Gore, 2003)

    When we talk about buildings and open spaces, we obviously do not have a shared language – some reasons for this could be too many memories of “open plan” classrooms in the 70’s that were unsuccessful, or fear of the unknown and trying to imagine what these open spaces may in fact be like – which then can lead some to visions of cavernous unstructured spaces, housing large numbers of students rather than rich learning spaces with purposeful and dedicated areas that allow students to engage meaningfully with each other, appropriate resources and their teachers. It might be that opening up our classroom spaces is challenging to staff who are used to a traditional culture of schools that rewarded teachers who were satisfied with working alone. We must develop a shared understanding of deprivatisation so that we can engage in a meaningful dialogue.

    Staff working in shared learning spaces ie spaces where more than one teacher is responsible for the learning, are building and sharing their professional capacity and expertise so that they are better able to meet the needs of the diversity of students who are in their class. Individual students in these spaces can have their needs better met because they have access to more than one teacher and one teacher’s thinking about the learning that is happening in this space The students benefit from more than one style and approach to learning and from the individual and collective expertise of the teacher/s in this space.

    Co teaching, the practice of having two or more educators in a learning space delivering or assisting in the daily lesson, is becoming more common in our schools where teachers are always striving to find the best ways to deliver instruction and meet the needs of a larger variety of students. Co-teaching can be done in several ways, and can range from a second teacher simply visiting the classroom to see what instruction is going on, and to assist anyone who seems to need a little extra help, to team teaching, in which both teachers plan, deliver and assess the student’s work.

    There are other advantages for students of the co teaching model. For instance, with the current government requirement to report on student learning against an E-A scale, teachers work collaboratively to unpack curriculum outcomes, critically reflect on teaching and learning experiences and identify appropriate and equitable assessment strategies. The logical step next is for teachers to work together in the learning spaces to implement the differentiated learning opportunities that best meet the identified needs of children across a grade or stage. When teachers work together to actually deliver the learning programme we can ensure that the programme for the entire group of students is cohesive and of the best quality.

    When our conversation shifts to be about the best way to meet the needs of all students, we are on the right track. Our conversation will then be about the flexible teaching arrangements that you speak of Mark, flexible student groupings and utilising the skills of our teachers and expert specialists to address the students’ learning needs exactly where they sit along the learning continuum. We will be able to have a substantial conversation about the things that really matter, based on the findings we have about the best ways for our students to learn and the best ways for we teachers to teach.

  14. We know that you cannot impose change from above and no one has sought to do this. We have begun a discussion around what learning can look like for kids in today’s world. This has opened up a range of possibilities in many of our schools. There have been great examples of dynamic and innovative practice. Many schools in Parramatta over the last decade have been examplars of great practice. It is about sharpening the focus to ensure a relevant schooling experience. In August, our system leaders gathered to share different approaches to meeting the challenges of schooling today. This was their response as a learning community.

    What was evident is that schools are engaged in a journey together committed to de-privatising practice, increasing collaboration and celebrating this innovation. One of the really exciting things emerging is the peer to peer learning in schools which I have been able to share over the last year.

    I expect we’ll see greater innovation over the coming years. Our focus still remains though supporting good teachers and building capacity to ensure we deliver on our strategic intent.

  15. I think that your title for this post Greg, says a great deal. Schools are not for adults – they are for children. Yet as adults we need to reassess our place in the education setting. The points discussed above are pertinent to the development of teachers and their capacity as educators. They are also important for leaders within schools to consider and act upon in the development of strategic goals within the school but also in the accountability of the leadership team and then, in turn, the teachers.

    Leadership: strong effective leadership from people who are experienced in classrooms is essential. The leaders need to be at the ‘coal face’. They need to be with the children – not as a token gesture but in a meaningful teaching capacity from day to day. This enables for effective and genuine goals to be set for the school that will improve student outcomes.

    Improvement of student outcomes can be monitored in many different forms and it is the responsibility of the leadership within the school to ensure that teachers have the tools and management systems that provide a means for effective assessment and monitoring of student outcomes which enable for the planning and implementation of meaningful learning experiences.

    Relationships: Integral to the operation of any school are effective, trusting and informed relationships between all stakeholders of the school. This includes parents, students and the wider school community. A school community is built on trust where questions can be asked and answers given; where the ability to care for one another’s development, understanding and social adjustment is nurtured; and where communication is viewed as an essential component of the operations within the school.

    Communication of student achievement is paramount in ensuring that the children know their work and effort is valued and appreciated. This in turn allows parents to celebrate the work of their children and to acknowledge, with the assistance of the teacher, where the next step lies for their child.

    Student Engagement: I have seen positive changes in student engagement within my own school due to the independence given to the children – particularly in the upper primary years. Students want to learn. They are interested in the world around them. The pedagogy with which they are involved within the classroom is the key component to effective student engagement. If the students are motivated through projects which involve differing degrees of independent responsibility along with explicit teaching (of the basic facts) within a structured learning environment there will be very few opportunities for disengagement. It also allows students to value the contributions made by their peers therefore having a positive effect on student-student relationships.

    Learning Spaces: The space is important – it always has been! In an environment that values learning; monitors student progress; is structured and planned; has clear guidelines and limits for the students; and is well resourced (again the responsibility of the leadership within the school) students will succeed.

    Much of what is discussed within the comments on this post is dependent upon the leadership within schools. I believe that the system is working toward developing leaders who are able to develop effective and current pedagogies whilst considering the very nature of their own school communities and learning environments. This is about putting the children first – and developing the capacity of teachers to ensure that effective teaching that has depth and credibility is the priority of the professional learning within the school.

    This is no easy task. And as an educational leader perhaps it would be easy to fall into the habit of ‘old’ and just manage the school – but that is not why I became a teacher and is certainly not why I have chosen the leadership path I have taken. My job is my vocation and I certainly would not muck around with the very foundations of my beliefs about learning and teaching if I did not see the merit and effectiveness that I have been fortunate enough to witness in my own school around engaging, trusting and structured pedagogies.

  16. Ah, 21st century schooling without the relevant data is certainly a smoke and mirrors job. Yes indeed. But you’ll find no greater smoke and mirrors job than data itself. There’s the rub. I guess we need leaders that are considering that level of depth and really looking into how to analyse the data itself. Greg’s looking into that, and letting us know. See what he’s reading.

    I’ve been lucky to see Prof Robinson’s leadership talk too. It’s on the money. Apparently effective schools have leaders and teachers who are courageous enough to initiate the difficult conversations about learning based on evidence. I’m glad Greg is modeling such conversations in an open forum. Seems like a good way for a principal to lead the learning within and for their learning community to encourage teachers to share their own practice just as openly.

    I personally am no longer waiting to see a Parramatta Diocese leader engaged in the global dialogue. Here’s one Greg prepared earlier. What better way to encourage teachers and leaders to do the same?

    Can’t wait to see it.

    Fingers crossed eh.

  17. In my point of view, we should not just focus on the principal but we need to consider both the principal and his team. This is all about teamwork. One can’t get its goal if they are not working together.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.