Archive for the ‘Leadership’ Category

Pygmy in the land of giants

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.

Good practice shapes theory

Michael Fullan has said that good practice often shapes theory not the converse.  A theoretical understanding is necessary but theories don’t always translate into effective classroom practice. Theories don’t provide teachers with the ‘how to’ and although most teachers recognise the need to continually reflect on their practice in order to improve, there is an assumption that they know what needs to be changed.  Too many teachers don’t know what they don’t know; this was highlighted recently in Revolution School on ABC TV.

Not all teachers are created equal and this is partly because not all teacher education programs are equal. One of the criticisms especially in the US and UK is that there is a heavy focus on theory and not enough of practice. We would have a cadre of academics preparing beginning teachers for classrooms who have not been in classrooms for years if not decades.  As John Hattie aptly points out, none of our institutions have ever had to prove their impact. Ironic considering that these institutions send teachers into classrooms where they are now expected to continually evaluate their impact as teachers.

We are moving now from seeing teachers as practitioners to seeing teachers as clinicians. This is not to suggest that the relationship between teacher and student is clinical. Rather, the relationship between a teacher and their practice needs to be.  According to Hattie, clinical teaching is the ability of every teacher to “diagnose, intervene and evaluate.” It is similar to how world-class athletes improve technique and performance and why Shanghai teachers are assigned mentors throughout their teaching careers.

The simplistic assumption that a “teacher is a teacher….” with the same skill sets and capabilities flies in the face of reality. Even suggesting this will raise the ire of many and be viewed as trendy teacher bashing. The end result must be ensuring each child in each school has the best teacher.  We need to build the capacity of all teachers by focusing more on skills than theory. Expertise has to be learned through practice.

teacher collaboration

Learning and leading

There’s been discussion recently regarding the increasing demands placed on school leaders and teachers. We live in a world that demands greater accountability, transparency, productivity and performance. Education is not immune.

We also have the research outlining qualities of high achieving/effective schools and the ‘high expectations’ on student and teacher performance. Parents expect their children will achieve quality educational outcomes.  Governments and the community expect teachers and schools to consistently deliver those outcomes.

High but realistic expectations are an essential part of the educational narrative in today’s world.  As part of a professional learning community, we find that our achievements, including how we deal with the highs and lows of our work, grow out of shared respect and collaborative practices. We expect our colleagues to support, and where appropriate, to challenge us.

This is why it’s critical to cultivate a culture where we take the necessary time to stand back, to re-balance our professional agendas and eliminate unhelpful accretions so we can focus on what really matters for our students, ourselves and our communities.

Externally driven narratives or codes on how we manage ourselves or our school communities de-skills those responsible for the work. Principals and teachers are best placed to decide on what is best for themselves and their learners.

The role of governments, professional bodies and even systems is to support the work of schools not mandate it. We will never learn how to deal with the complexities of schooling in today’s world unless we take the lead.

As Richard Elmore says, we learn the work by doing the work.









Funding a bold vision

It’s often said that the devil is in the detail but this election seems to be long on rhetoric and short on innovation.  We won’t become an innovative nation by looking in the rear view mirror.  Everyone recognises the need for innovation, for doing things differently including education but we lack clear examples and the drivers to deliver something different and better for the future.

How do we build, as a nation, innovation?  Why aren’t we seeing greater engagement and dialogue across industry, sectors and the unions?  Money counts but it is wasted when artificial and short-term accountability measures are rolled out under the banner of educational reform and innovation.

What is lacking is innovative thinking from our politicians and policy-makers; thinking outside the box rather than merely ticking the boxes. Funding-linked reform is doing things we’ve always done and getting the same results.  Where are the visionaries who can see beyond election cycles to creating an innovative learning nation?

I’ve yet to hear any political party talk about the early years of learning either in terms of social, economic or even health outcomes.  Let’s build innovation from the bottom up – let’s start with the early years of learning. PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) found that benefits to the GDP for children receiving a quality early education program would be up to $10.3 billion cumulative to 2050, and the benefits to GDP of increased participation of vulnerable children would be $13.3 billion cumulative to 2050.

Our Prime Minister said it himself, the big shift around innovation is a cultural one.  We need to be creating environments that stimulate not stifle innovation and that means governments working collaboratively with educators, unions and industry.

Inquiry and evidence-based policy underpins innovation not aspiration. It’s time to fund a bold vision not banal policy.



What’s wrong with Aussie schools?

I wonder how many times we need to hear the OECD and Grattan Institute tell us that our education system needs to be performing over and above and not under and below international benchmarks!  The link between our declining performance on PISA and teacher quality has been the subject of commentary from educational experts for more than a decade.

Speaking recently in Dubai, OECD’s education chief, Andreas Schleicher warned that without sufficient investment in the teaching profession and a fundamental rethink of the role of teachers in today’s world, we risk slipping further down the international ladder.

It’s not just the economic imperative that we won’t be globally competitive that should compel our profession to change, but the moral imperative of giving every student in every school a world-class education.

One of the problems according to Schleicher is that we continue to see teaching as number of hours spent in front of students as though it’s the only half of the whole when in fact the other critical half is professional learning and teacher collaboration.

I agree wholeheartedly with Schleicher that we must move away from seeing teachers as deliverers of a curriculum to teachers as ‘owners of professional standards.’  This view is evident in Finland where it is widely accepted that educators are ‘the ultimate authorities on education, not bureaucrats…’

The profession has been compliant for too long in the face of imposed educational reforms and mandates dictating the nature of teachers’ work.  Our education system is too valuable to be a political and ideological target for short-sighted policies.  I’m not naive enough to suggest that we are close to partisan politics in Australia but the time for a coherent pre to post schooling framework was a decade ago.

It’s striking that the OECD’s education chief has expressed concerned about the future of our education system. It is even more striking though that our politicians have failed to listen and our profession has failed to take the lead.


Leading by doing

Search on Twitter or in a bookstore and you’ll find a plethora of material on the leadership phenomenon.  According to a study cited in Joshua Rothman‘s piece in the New Yorker, Americans spend $14 billion per annum on leadership training seminars.  This is a growth industry on steroids and unfortunately, like regular use of steroids, most of it is deleterious.

I recently came across a tweet by the well known CEO of ‘Lead from Within’, Lolly Daskal on the seven elements of leadership. These leadership traits come from a sound base but they aren’t new. Trait theory has been around for more than a century and is at the forefront of the great man theory of leadership. It basically says that men (not usually women) are either born with the characteristics to be a leader or not.  So if you don’t have these inherent personality traits, then you can’t be a leader.

On the other side, process theory suggests that leadership is something that can be learned.  According to Rothman, the process model acknowledges that ‘being a leader’ is not someone you are, it’s something you do.

Over the past fifty years, new theories have been advanced that have given rise to a kaleidoscope of views on leadership and what makes a good leader. Authors have studied ‘charismatic’ leaders in an attempt to offer the rest of us a blueprint to effective leadership. Most material is really a variation of the same theme.

I am not so sure that you can easily deconstruct or distill leadership into its component parts, which is my issue with the “seven elements of leadership”.  Leadership is never straightforward and yet we are often presented with an idealised view of it. In his piece, Rothman refers to Jeffrey Pfeffer’s book Leadership BS in which Pfeffer argues that the five universal leadership traits commonly espoused are often ignored by real-world leaders.

The argument is that there is a difference between being a leader and doing leadership. Rather than linking leadership to a set of traits, I prefer to think of leadership as the art of leading  in terms of seven norms:

  1. Being open to learning
  2. Willingness to exchange ideas
  3. Being reflective
  4. Building a shared purpose
  5. Enabling shared responsibility
  6. Being outcomes-focused
  7. Celebrating success

It is my experience it’s what people do that attracts followers and perhaps the only way to explain the outliers who have passed as great leaders in history. I recently asked our new school leaders who they admired most.  The usual suspects like Mandela, Martin Luther King and Mother Teresa were named. Not one mentioned a colleague principal, teacher or staff member.

It seems to me that we interact with outstanding leaders every day but we often don’t recognise them.  These people should be our models. As Mark Twain wrote: “Thunder is good, thunder is impressive, but it is lightning that does the work.”  Let’s look for the lightning rods who are doing great work in and for our schools.


Business failing education?

urbansprawlA recent survey of small to medium businesses said the education system isn’t providing the skills students need to be ‘entrepreneurial and innovative‘.  Is education failing business or is business failing education?

I attended the Western Sydney Business Connection State of the Region Address by the Hon. Mike Baird MP, Premier of NSW this week.

Around 600 local businesses and organisations were there to hear the Premier outline the government’s bold new initiatives around infrastructure.  It is a massive investment and undertaking which will impact significantly on western Sydney.

The key message is that local business is the driver of innovation and growth.  What I didn’t hear was the role of education in this work.  We are in the business of schooling 42,000 students across western Sydney along with the Department of Education’s schools. Collectively, we are the biggest business in western Sydney but don’t have a seat at the table when it comes to planning for the future.

I saw the plans for the provision of new government schools in western Sydney. Sadly they look like modern versions of the factory school. Where is the innovation and growth and the support from the business sector to develop new models?   We could easily argue that business is failing education.

The best outcome would be for both sectors (school and business) to work collaboratively but this can only happen when education is seen as an important stakeholder in the planning and design process.

Local schools serve local communities and it’s time the education sector were seen as a key player. We have a lot to contribute especially if we want the state of this region to be state of the art.