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 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.
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 moment 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.
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.
From 2018, every teacher working in NSW schools will have to understand and apply the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers to their work. The Standards go towards helping to clarify and articulate what good learning and teaching looks like; what is consistently expected of all teachers and what it takes to become an exceptional teacher.
Like other sectors, the Standards are designed to enhance the profession both internally and externally. While we can’t ignore the Standards, I wonder if they have been developed on an industrial set of assumptions? When we negotiate with teacher unions, we always start from the same premise of linking salary to years of service. Whenever we talk about professional competency, we assume all teachers are the same at the same year of experience, just as we once assumed all learners were.
If there is evidence suggesting the personal qualities of teachers are extremely important and no two teachers are alike, then where does that take us? What are the new assumptions and what would be at stake?
Schools and teachers are operating not only in a new age but in a new world order in which entrepreneurs and philanthropists are venturing into the business of schooling. Look no further than inventor of SpaceX, PayPal, and Tesla Motors, Elon Musk who has set up an alternative school for his children after describing his own schooling experience as uninspiring and basically obsolete. Then there is Sal Khan, founder of Khan Academy who has no formal teaching qualifications but created free online access to educational content. Khan has just opened a physical lab school to ‘pioneer new models of learning’. Note that ‘teaching’ is missing from its vision statement. The new assumption at least for Khan is that teachers will play a supporting role now not a leading one.
In this new world where disintermediation is disrupting just about everything, are we moving towards an uber teaching profession? The real question is not whether Musk and Khan can deliver more relevant models of schooling and higher levels of student achievement but whether we can still assume a teacher is a teacher.
Revolution School ABC TV
Revolution School is a four part documentary series that began on ABC TV recently. It captures the turn-around journey of a Victorian high school ranked in the lowest 10% of the state. In a sea of navel gazing and feel-good solutions to improving schooling, it is refreshing to see honesty and shared responsibility on the table.
What has stood out each week is the use of theory and research to inform good practice. Kambrya College didn’t look in the rear view mirror for solutions that could be repackaged and rolled out nor did they try and emulate competitors who drive educational change through a mix of externally imposed accountabilities and fear. And they didn’t expect to be rescued by superman.
Educational change had to come from within and from applying the research in relation to improving learning outcomes for all students. The approach was based on Hattie’s mantra: know thy impact on student learning.
Kambrya’s journey is uplifting and should be applauded and admired but there are thousands of schools around Australia in the same boat. We’d like to see all of them take the same approach but as we have seen change is easy to suggest but much harder to implement and sustain.
With a federal election less than a month away, education has been the platform for both parties. Rather than promising big bucks to fix the problem, a better solution would be a commitment from politicians to make the Kambrya experience the norm for all struggling schools.
This requires an end to the shameless finger pointing and blame game but rather encourage schools to become critics of their own practice by being honest and open and sharing and collaborating so that we are all on a proper learning journey.
As Professor John Hattie said the fact 1 in 5 children are failing to complete high school is the “biggest crime in Australia”. It’s time we focussed on what counts otherwise we will continue to count the cost.
Australia has its Sport Hall of Fame, the US has its Rock and Roll Hall of Fame but where are the Education Halls of Fame? We can name the great teachers that have touched our lives but what about the great school leaders? There are a plethora of books on educational leaders and educational leadership but who do we hold up within the educational community as exemplars of school leadership in today’s world?
These are some of the questions we’ve been reflecting on as we prepare to open a new school in outer Western Sydney next year. The proposed St Luke’s at Marsden Park will be ‘next generation’ – an innovative learning community built from the ground up through partnerships with Stephen Heppell, industry and the wider community.
This school will challenge the industrial constructs by embracing a pre to post schooling model not a K-6, 7-12 one. It’s collaboration not isolation, it’s integration not segregation and it’s personalised not programmatic. We want learning to be adaptable to the changing needs of learners and the changing times in which we live.
We are looking for a next generation school leader who can lead a culture of change and innovation. Someone that demonstrates 21st century skills like creativity, curiosity, adaptability, problem-solving and collaboration. Next generation leadership is entrepreneurial – looking beyond the next five years; seeing the infinite possibilities and making it happen. This is about being able to lead by example, to lead by doing, to lead by knowing and ultimately, to leave a legacy for future generations locally and globally.
Could it be you?
Marketer and entrepreneur, Seth Godin recently wrote a blog on pattern recognition versus pattern matching. Godin writes that “Some people have erroneously concluded that the way to succeed is to slavishly follow what’s come before. Pattern matching is for amateurs… pattern recognition is a priceless skill that comes with practice, with the experience of noticing. The art is to see patterns, [and] to use them to do something new.”
We spend a lot of time pattern matching in education when we could be pattern recognising. A case in point was last month when I co-presented at the International Congress for School Effectiveness and Improvement (ICSEI) in Scotland. ICSEI is a professional learning community of practitioners, policy makers and researchers who meet to share and spread best practice across education systems around the world.
As I listened to presentation after presentation at ICSEI, I realised that no-one was talking about educational transformation. This was a sophisticated exercise in pattern matching. While conferences like ICSEI are great opportunities for building collegiality, we have to move beyond the concept of school improvement.
School improvement limits our collective imaginations because we don’t have to do anything new. The industrial model continues to prevail because it is so easy to replicate what’s come before.
Education now needs game-changers not add-ons. This can’t happen if we are still engaged in discussions that are narrowly focussed on improvement and effectiveness. Let’s use conferences and professional learning networks to create something new rather than slavishly improve the old.