Supersized What?

I’m sitting here in Newark Airpork waiting for my plane to take me back to the West Coast for a couple of days prior to returning to Australia. The invaluable learning experience over the past month will be shared with my colleagues on my return.

Over the past month, I’ve noticed that everything in the United States is supersized. From cars to grand tall buildings, food portions and coffee cups, (in which I had to tell waiters for entree sizes and point to the smallest coffee cups when ordering) and the glamour of show business. Supersized is also in quantity from yellow school buses, yellow cabs, museums (and I’m museumed out) and the number of professional dog walkers throughout the major cities that I’ve visited.

I’ve enjoyed seeing everyone lining up on the streets of New York City for entry into Broadway shows, even when all the seats are designated as though this is taught at school from early years. It seems that lining up is a sport along with baseball, NFL, ice hockey and basketball. The US has it all, or do they?

It was visiting places like Harlem and museums that highlighted the struggle for social justice and equality that brought home the truth about America for me – that is, despite all the supersized, it’s the people like Ida Wells who was a slave and eventually campagined against lynching laws after being dragged from the carriage of a train on the basis of race and colour, or journalist Moses Newson travelling with the Freedom riders back in 1961 when their bus was attack and burnt for similar reasons. No doubt, there have been many more people throughout history who have been part of change but their stories are seldom told as publicly. It was also quite moving on my second last day in Washington DC to visit the Holocast Museum (and viewing horrific photos that reminds us that decisions have consequences), Arlignton Cemetery, Lincoln Memorial and finally ended the day at the memorial of Martin Luther King and the steps of where he gave that great speech.

In a modern world, we need supersized advocates for social justice, freedom, equality and those that strive for peace and tolerance, especially since parts of our world is currently in crisis. Schools have a role to play in developing students with values such as fairness, respect, care, integrity, responsibility and democracy through the provision of student voice, modelling by staff and the display of daily interpersonal relationships by all keystakeholders. As educators, we need to encourage students to speak out against injustice, bullying and any forms of discrimination, as those this is the norm.

Yesterday, I walked into the Charles Sumner School Museum and privately walked through the four floors of exhibitions. It’s one of the less know museums but displayed school photos and portraits from surrounding schools in the last century. It was quite evident in many of the photos that African Americans went to separate schools, whether it was by choice or Government policy. It was advocates with strong values, that could see how the world could be rather than how the world existed that ultimately made change in equality in some of these schools. it was quite noticeable that some of these school photos with graduating years changed in cultural diversity in more recent years.

Everyday in the US, Australia and globally, there are so many wonderful educators working in difficult circumstances. I’ve been fortunate to meet and speak to so many school leaders in the past month and to listen to their world of complexities. Yet, they strive to instil the values of excellence and fairness with their students, despite the circumstances of their context. These educators are truly making a difference, far beyond what is measured and valued by those not involved in schools on a daily basis.

So let’s supersized the Ida Mays and the Moses Newson in our world, and the global educators that continually make a difference to children’s lives, and the social advocates that strives to make a change against the injustice that exist in our world.

Engage the Disengage

I’ve spent a lot of time walking around Manhattan and exploring the various villages, boroughs and communities to gain a real sense of New York City. While many of the tourist sites were fascinating, it’s some of lesser known places that I’ve found more interesting than others. Take for example the Museum of Mathematics  located, just off 5th Avenue in midtown, and  not widely known and certainly not mentioned in any major tourist brochure. This museum was full of interactive problem solving maths activities with descriptions and links to a wide field of learning. Visitors of all ages were drawn to the activities  because they were hands on tasks and the tasks presented some form of challenge.

During my exploration, I’ve noticed daily groups of American children wearing different coloured bright T-shirts engaging in field trips to libraries, museums, playgrounds, shorelines. I have since learnt that these children are taking part in either daily or weekly education camp.

Before making any change at Merrylands East Public School, a fundamental question needed to be asked and that related to what is student engagement and what does it look like? it seems that the children that I’ve seen throughout New York City during my stay have been truly engaged in the various experiences by their inquisitive minds in asking questions, their conversations with each other about a shared interests and taking part in hands on activities. Yet, they were on school vacation.

I would start off by suggesting that students are already engaged in the world that they live in through their daily social discourse. These interactions are often quite pragmatic and related to needs and wants. Even the students that facebook in class is engaging because of the need to be connected to someone for information sharing, no matter how we as educators may perceive as important or trivial.

Therefore, learners are engaged already but sometimes not necessary in the classroom programs that we offer. Students could be planning their after school or weekend activities, discussing the previous evening’s television shows, daydreaming in class or using social media to connect.

Schools and classrooms are not the sole repository of knowledge and skill anymore. Information once the prize possession of teachers is now in the shared domain on the web with immediate access at anytime and anywhere with a device. Students can learn in any curriculum area globally on line with the rise in massive open online courses (MOOCs), some of which are cost free. Students are not limited to their assigned teacher but to a global connections of teachers, experts and lay people.

Our concept of engagement is often couched in terms of students taking part in our lessons, answering questions and completing the tasks that we set. We’re predetermined in our values and beliefs, and assumptions, that students must be engaged in our lessons otherwise they won’t learn. The C2st, students doesn’t think or work within these paradigms anymore. They learn in any modality and not restricted to the four walls in a classroom and the adult in their presence. This notion is something that educators need to understand before engaging students in our daily program.

So, does that mean giving them a device is the answer to student engagement? There is a lot of global discussion at the moment that technology engages students. It’s as though technology will simply solve the issue of student engagement. Probably one of the biggest errors that I made at Merrylands East (now looking back in hindsight) is making an assumption that installing fixed interactive whiteboards in every classroom would enhance teaching and learning. While fabulous at the time and led to teachers learning new technology skills and devising resources on line, there was the issue that the interactive whiteboards would become the dominant feature in  classroom lessons as though it became more like entertainment rather than a learning tool.

The second common myth is that having a device will increase student engagement. True! It will increase engagement but maybe not what we expect if we don’t have a purpose for their use. Students are so savvy at the moment that they can create, design and connect to each other regardless  of whether we are providing instructions on their use or not. Just a walk through the Museum of Mathematics was a reminder of how the youngest child could use devices to interact with some of the activities. They didn’t have a crash course in the different use of devices but simply worked it out by engaging in the tasks.

My recent classroom observations suggest that student engagement is not related to technology at all but to students’ interests and passion for what they are learning, and the interpersonal skills of the teachers who are scaffolding learning. However, the technology does makes the learning easier for students due to the immediacy of information and the opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge in different processes and products. It is here that teachers and school leaders need to increase our expertise in how technology can be used to engage learners. In other words, engaging the disengage all comes back down to pedagogy and meeting students’ needs.





Failure Only Comes When We Fail to Act

Failure Only Comes When We Fail to Act

Harlem is a culturally diverse community in the uptown (north) area of Manhattan Island with a steeped African-American history, civil rights moment, and the famous Apollo Theatre on 125th Street for famous musicians like James Brown, Quincy Jones and Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder. The ornate buildings adorn the surrounding streets of the theatre with high rises to the east and west.

Yesterday, I took the opportunity to walk the Harlem streets extensively to get a vibe for the area and experience a different side of New York City. In comparison to the downtown (south), where Wall Street and the financial district are located, Harlem is a complete contrast in social inequity and justice, especially since the glamour and riches of 5th Avenue is only a few minutes walk away too.

The more I meandered the streets and saw people trying to do start ups on the streets with any product they could muster, the more heartbreaking it became. I came across a number of schools and churches with signs that they were providing free breakfast and lunch for children. I ventured into one of these buildings, introduced myself as a traveller and asked how many children were fed each day. To my astonishment, over 200 in one place with an explanation that many of the children in the area were fortunate if they received one hot meal a day.

In Australia we have communities with social inequity and generations of  unemployment that have wonderful teachers engaging students daily. We can never underestimate their contribution in the provision of the very best education in difficult circumstances, and quite often unmeasured in the quality of children’s lives.  Public school teachers in these schools are on the same pay scale as those in more affluent public schools with the same number of years experience – something we often forget when we complain about a “difficult day.”

The social support for students can never be underestimated in any school, regardless of educational sector or socio-economic level. Even the most affluent schools can experience social issues. Principals and teachers in the public education system perform a magnificent task each day that is often unrecognised or unrewarded. The voluntary service in coaching teams, organising excursions, rehearsing for a performance and providing professional development for others, is often underpinned by goodwill. Like many other public schools, it’s also not uncommon for Principals and teachers to quietly and discreetly dig deep into their own pockets to pay for the incidental or the experience that students would miss out on due to their family socio-economic circumstance.

When we talk about a measuring a school, we need to look at the “big picture” of a broad range of data – something that is genuinely lacking in some US States. Attendance, student engagement, academic, performing arts, sporting, leadership, student voice, student and parent satisfaction, social support are just to name a few areas to measure within the context of school resources. Not one single measure should be taken into isolation over another.

A key recommendation from the Gonski report was the need to invest in education from philanthropy (and we need the 5th and 6th year from the Federal Government). Sometimes we can overlook these partnerships at the expense of our students. My school has entered into many partnerships with organisations over the past year to help fund our school and students without the feeling that we’ve been taken over. Social Ventures Australia, Club Merrylands, Microsoft Partners in Learning, and University of Sydney are just a few of the current and former partnerships along with local community donations in kind. The invaluable contribution funding from these organisations have and continue to support our school and students. I am thankful for their support. Likewise, I am thankful for my current learning experience from the Public Education Foundation, Harvard Club Australia and Teachers Mutual Bank – wonderful supporters of public education.

While I am sadden to see Harlem school signs that provide free meals to children in a community, I know that fabulous principals, teachers and community members want to truly make a difference by their service. These people are highly successful in their own way through compassion and a sense of moral purpose, not to mention their education provision. When I think of failure in the context of schools, it only occurs when we fail to act and children’s life chances are eroded on a daily basis.




Space – A Place to Dream, Imagine and Learn

Space – A Place to Dream, Imagine and Learn

One of my major learnings over the past couple of years is the importance of space for children to relax and learn in a stimulating environment, especially students from refugee backgrounds that have experienced displacement and trauma from violence. I’m not quite getting space in New York City at the moment, with daily heavy traffic, and crowded streets of people where being bumped on the corner W36th and Park Avenue is the daily norm.

During my time at Harvard, I had the wonderful opportunity of discussing learning and space with so many fabulous school administrators (equivalent to principals and senior leaders) working in very diverse and often highly complexed environments. These administrators were all at Harvard to make changes back in their own school  but quite often hamstrung by external factors. One secondary principal remarked to me that she would love to create learning spaces but concrete walls and a school board are his impediment for change in spaces, while another principal commented that some of her classrooms had tables bolted on the floor and in rows. Somehow, these schools are surviving  and more often than not, doing a fabulous job in educating their students with outstanding leadership and teachers despite their context. I know these cases are not true for all US schools as administrators on twitter often share a different story and the change that they are making in their schools.

Over the past couple of year, Merrylands East has transformed many of their classrooms to become learning spaces and addressed an issue of how and where children learn. An old hall dating back to 1928 has become a shared learning space servicing four traditional classes. Isolated classrooms walls have been removed to join up with adjacent rooms to create larger spaces and new furnishings replaced the old desks of the C20th to promote sharing and collaboration of learning.

In the quest to create learning spaces, we must cautionary and remember to create a pedagogy that allows for C21st skills rather than a model of the C20th. There is no point in having different furnishings if students are going to do worksheets or low order learning. Just like there’s no point in having laptops if students are asked to simply google. You might as well keep the furnishings of the last century and invest school funds into something else. In other word, there needs to be meaningful purpose in making change and it’s not about looking good but rather promoting and enhancing student engagement in learning.

Returning back to Harvard for a moment, one of the school administrators asked me about classroom management in an open learning space and whether it caused disruptive behaviours. Here, I commented about pedagogy and replied that the most crucial aspect of classroom management is student engagement. Sometimes, it is easy to provide “work” to students rather than teach and for students to learn. It’s easy to open a textbook and ask students to complete an exercise where the answers are more often than not in the back or in the middle sections

Merrylands East staff is less reliant on worksheets on a daily basis. Some teachers have barely gone near the photocopier and if so, it’s for the purpose of administration rather than for any teaching and learning purpose. Some stages are paperless. I am forever grateful for my teachers who have boldly created teaching than matches their learning spaces and continue to evolve their pedagogy. It hasn’t been easy but now they are seeing the joy of high student engagement, and highly diverse student processes and products.

Yesterday, I took a boat around the Hudson River to view the Statue of Liberty. It started off well with a humid bright day but descended into pouring rain so that I could barely see an outline shadow of the statue. On return to shore, the US aircraft carrier Intrepid was docked about 50metres away and opened for public viewing along with a submarine that could be entered. This is not a major tourist site and certainly not advertised widely. I took the opportunity to visit the ship and learnt the contrast space by walking in the large open spaces of the air craft carrier and then the confines of a submarine – a place of awkwardness. However, I never imagined the opportunity and surprise to view up close the actual Enterprise Space Shuttle covered in a large marquee on the flight deck with all it’s tiles and design in tack as part of the exhibit – a unplanned bucket list tick off!! Comparison between the three vessels indicated that we don’t need small spaces but large open area where we can dream, imagine and learn.




Are We Futuristic In Our Thinking?

Are We Futuristic In Our Thinking?

Yesterday I had the  privilege of spending a day with Miimili-Anangu School Principal @loukaparry at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. Louka and I have tweeted with each other for a while (he has camels in the back of his school while I have chickens, rabbits and ducks) but only met face to face once in a Social Ventures Thought Gathering in 2013. Louka’s school is predominantly Indigenous students 1200km north west of Adelaide and 450km from Alice Springs. It’s a remote school, full of complexities as you would imagine for a remote rural community. Louka is on his way to Harvard for a short course while I have just left the same place.

The Guggenheim is a famous museum in New York City exhibiting some of the best artworks from around the world. Current exhibit is the Italian Futuristic collections from the period 1909 – 1944. It is important to say that Louka and I don’t subscribe to the Italian futuristic manifesto which glorified war and militarism while at the same time demeaned women and the various institutions of the era, and ultimately led to Italy being involved in WW11.

Louka and I observed artworks that were quite advanced in thought and showed technological advances well beyond the years of the era. Many of the artworks focused on transport and architectural designs of buildings that were quite remote from the era in which they were painted.

Louka is a futuristic thinker and has provided opportunities for his students despite the complexities associated with being in a remote rural schools. In one anecdote, Louka shared how they have driven their students four hours to a main bus stop to catch a greyhound coach (with no certainty) that the bus is on time) to Port Augusta just so that his students can learn about living in a major town, and experienced a beach with waves. While we may not consider this to be futuristic, the processes that Louka undertook to see a need for his students and then making it happen is an example of future thinking – that is, solving a problem for his local community school.

In education, we need futuristic thinkers that can solve problems at all levels, from classrooms to whole school and school areas. We need leaders that can imagine the unimaginable and have the thought processes to make it happen. Each day, it’s quite easy for school leaders, including myself (and quite often) to fall into the trap of consuming most of their time managing a school instead of leading a school. We can be drawn by parents or systemic issues that drag away our time from thinking and making the future become more remote.

Over the past 20 years, I have been involved in writing school plans from year to year with a focus on improving student outcomes with data measures based predominantly on standardised tests. Sometimes, this becomes a hit or miss solution as we devote additional resources to English and Maths coupled with a vast amount of professional development of teachers in a broad range of programs. Despite this, spending tens of thousands on English resources have not produced a consistent major spike as intended (there I said it), nor has spending the equivalent amount on teacher professional development at conferences or workshops. So we need to be more strategic about what we do and reflect on how students learn currently. To do this, we’ve had to unpack assumptions and beliefs that we’ve held as a starting point to recreating and building.

This year, we have been working in partnership with Social Ventures Australia Bright Spots program and invested a vast amount of time imagining what our school would be like in 5 years time. We have drafted our 5 year plan, not predicated on achieving the odd change in NAPLAN scores but focusing on major structural reforms in the way we organise our school to meet the pedagogy and learning of our students, and with an emphasis on C21st skills and student engagement. This is major shift from my own education sector and truly welcomed as we can strategically imagine, create and develop with an element of authority and freedom.

Our school is aiming to be classless, where all learning is personalised and students can learning anytime, anywhere and with anyone to solve local and global issues through project based learning and adventure time. Some might say we’re radical but we don’t see ourselves in that way. Instead, we view what we’re doing is solving a futuristic problematic situation in our school context and being researchers in the process.






Thinking – The Most Important Harvard Lesson

Thinking – The Most Important Harvard Lesson

It’s the final full day of the Harvard Leadership an Evolving Vision course and the whole week has be a massive thought gathering of self reflection and challenges about change in the most ambient and historical learning environments in the world. Along with the wonderful keynotes and workshops, the privilege of being at Harvard and forming global connections with outstanding educators have been memorable highlights.

Today, I was elated to sit in the Harvard Wideners Library and walk through the book stacks that almost goes back 100 year. The Library was built as a memorial by the mother of Harry Widener who died on the Titanic back in 1912. As part of the bequeath, mother stipulated that no brick should ever be removed from the building so consequently extensions over the years have gone underground.  The long tables with their lamps and the complete silence provided the opportunity to reflect on the week about education for the future and what it would look like in concepts such as:

– How we learn?

– When will we learn?

– Where will we learn?

– What will we learn?

– Why will we learn?

Sometimes as school leaders, we get caught up in the daily operations of our schools and spend an onerous amount of time managing rather than demonstrating true leadership. Part of this course has taught me to be a futuristic thinker and go beyond the now to imagine and create the possibilities by evolving my leadership skills. Taking risks is acceptable if we have a true picture of what we value and believe, and provided that we test our assumptions. Staying inactive is not leadership but purely holding the status quo and being a maintenance provider. It’s quite a daunting task when you consider all the variables that are around you including the vast array of political and non political agendas that permeates the workplace each day and the high expectations that we place on ourselves to succeed in the presence of our superiors and colleague.

Earlier in the day, I took a tour of Harvard with a 1st year student and she mentioned that her SAT scores were not the highest in senior years but managed to gain acceptance in Harvard through her essay and interview. No one knows the exact criteria for gaining admission to Harvard but I would say the power to think and follow a passion are high on the list. Not everyone who has completed Harvard ends up to be successful as we would predict. Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard and the Oklahoma Bomber was a graduate.

Harvard professors make people think and ask profound questions about themselves rather than tell them what they should be doing. The power to think has been the true learning throughout the week for me. This sounds self evident but quite often as school leaders we wait until the next curriculum, resource or pedagogy to emerge rather than try and create from our imagination that’s underpinned by our values and beliefs. In addition, the professors have provided self reflection tools of strategies to implement and carry through our vision.

Over the next few weeks, I will be continuing with my travels and reflecting on what I’ve learnt at Harvard. This will be my time  for futuristic thinking and to imagine the education that I would envisage for our students in their preparation for the future world, rather than accept the present social norms as the best possible model.

The Public Education Foundation Harvard Club Teachers Mutual Bank Scholarship has provided me with the opportunity to learn and understand myself as the  construct to be able to be a futuristic thinker. I remember they said that the scholarship will be life changing – so true! Next year, I trust that many of my colleagues will apply and attempt to share the Harvard experience with me.

One and a Half Hands Tied – Perils of Standardised Tests

The release of the OECD PISA results this week into Financial Literacy sent Australian educators into raptures of joy like a Brazilian semi final crowd on Copacabana Beach, Rio de Janeiro.  Australia, being 4th in their league table would often give politicians a self congratulatory pat on the back, but in my case I always question the validity and reliability of the measure and the intrinsic value of what they are trying to measure.

In the same way two days ago, I sat in the Harvard Longfellow Hall for the graveyard shift in the afternoon and spent a couple of hours listening to a session about interim testing. Many of you know my views about testing and standardised testing and their contribution to making a difference. Even researcher John Hattie placed a very low effect size on testing and a higher effect size on feedback.

Having said that, I will be quite provocative in saying that standardised testing is an albatross on many good American school leaders as scores in some states are linked to their accountability, performance appraisal and eventually their salary and career. In extreme cases, school closures take place or takeovers by private enterprises. It’s saddens me to listen to outstanding American colleagues speak about the various differences between US States and within school districts about the regime of standardised testing that follows students from year to year and the impact of time it takes to prepare students for the tasks in lieu of teachers having a greater opportunity to be creative, innovative and researchers in their schools with freedom to fail as part of developing new pedagogies.

During my time at Harvard, I have met so many wonderful public school principals who are serving in what is called Title 1 schools, where students come from low socio-economic levels and in public eduction. Title 1 school status means they are given federal government funding via the state and eventually the District Boards under the “No Child left Behind” policy. The funding is tied to the schools making Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) based on statewide standardised tests and determined by the states. Schools that failed to achieve AYP in two consecutive years are placed on the “in need of improvement” category and must offer transfer to their students and families to other schools as their first measure and  eventually tutoring. By the fourth year, if AYP hasn’t been achieved, then staff can be dismissed, the school day and year can be extended and  the curriculum replaced. However, the situation becomes more draconian if AYP is not achieved beyond four years with plans for the possible takeover of the public school by charter or outside entity and the replacement of all staff including the principal.

The No child left behind policy is having a major effect by placing immense pressure on school principals and their staff to reach the AYP on standardised tests that have questionable values about their reliability and validity. In Australia, our experience is that it takes time to turn around a school with layers of complexities and that it cannot be solely measured on a standardised test.

Successful schools are not measured by a student standardised test scores but by the level of community confidence and the level of student engagement on a daily basis. This doesn’t mean that schools are free from data. Instead, data can come from, a range of sources but predominantly school generated through consistency of teacher judgement and the collaborative nature of teachers in programming, assessment and evaluation in team situations. School improvement is manifested in the moral imperative by school principals and teachers to provide the inspiration for students to achieve their aspirations.

The level of success is dependent on the complexity of schools. In America, there seems to be no credit provided to principals or teachers in overcoming some the challenge of poverty and in some cases, a community culture of high homelessness, violence, drug addiction and generations of unemployment. It is here that principals and teachers become the most resilient and provide the very best education possible within their available resources. However, the task is made even more difficult through standardised testing that doesn’t take into account all the complexities of schools.

In global education at the moment, there seems to be juxtaposed ideologies in teaching students knowledge and skills for living and working in the C21st compared to what many standardised tests actually measures. No standardised tests at the moment measures students skills in creating and designing, solving authentic local and global problems, collaboration and being self regulated learners who can access information using technology.

A key issue in Australia is that through globalisation, many jobs are now being off shored or automated. This is happening in the United States as well as I have seen many abandon buildings that were once thriving businesses.

From my travels, I have learnt that the producers of the standardised tests are also the marketers and in some cases the authors of preparation material and teaching programs associated with the tests themselves. In other words, companies stand to gain a financial reward in these tests – a conflict of interest. In 2011-12, $US1.5B was spent on standardised tests to 2011-2012 of $US3.6B. This funding could certainly be better utilised to address the resourcing of schools at a local level rather than profit the publishers.

To complicate the matter in the US, many District Boards set the policies and directions of schools, allocate and approve budgets and hire the superintendent to oversee the progress of schools. These boards are often comprised of lay people who more often than not, have experiences and qualifications outside the school education field, and quite distant from the school themselves. Underneath the Boards, some districts have layers of bureaucracies. In other words, the principal is accountable to a board of lay people and very little scope for authority and autonomy in making decisions associated with the daily teaching and learning depending on their school district. Some school boards require schools in their district to conduct standardised tests every 6 weeks in preparation for the state standardised tests.

Yesterday, I sat and had lunch with a young West Coast elementary public school school principal and he had taken out insurance just in case of litigation. He can be sued if something goes wrong rather than the state. However the teachers in his school are covered by the union. Another elementary principal told me  how she commits and spends her budget each year quickly for fear of the district school board requesting funding back and her funding was cut back dramatically for students with disabilities.

I cannot fathom any other professional field that has such a structure where external people set the directions for students. It demeans the Principal and teachers as the education expertise and reduces their authority and autonomy to make decisions based on contextualised needs.  American school leaders have told me that no other profession have similar boards made up of lay people.

Finally, I have  total admiration for my American school principal leaders who have an immense level of knowledge, talent and resilience to work in an atmosphere of  standardised testing, not by their doing, while managing the daily complexities of their school. It is here that my learning throughout the week has been enriched by the global connections that I have made, and by knowing there’s so many good school leaders out there making a fundamental difference to the lives of students each day despite having one and a half hands tied behind their back and the extraordinary lengths and programs that they implement to ensure students receive the

For all the shortcomings of our own Australian Standardised test called the National Assessment Program in Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN), I am pleased that NSW public school principals have the authority to make curriculum and budgetary decisions based on the needs of the students without the same standardised testing being an albatross, and that we are not encouraged to teach to the test each year.




School Culture: Can I Stuff it Up?

School Culture: Can I Stuff it Up?

I’ve often walked into a school and within minutes formulated a perception that it has an invigorating, innovative and creative culture where there’s a high degree of focus on student engagement and collaboration, and the majority of staff talk with enthusiasm about curriculum and learning. On the other hand, I’ve visited schools where staff tend to work in isolation with no sense of vision and purpose, and teacher talk is often couched about the interpersonal relationships about each other, and the difficulties in teaching due to the nature of students and the school environment.

Why do some schools have an inspiring school culture from the moment you walk through the front gate with an expectation that students and staff want to be there as a centre of learning? This morning, I sat in the Longfellow Hall and participated in an amazing workshop by Dr Ebony Bridwell-Mitchell that examined a shared definition of culture and how members of a school influence and shape it for better or worse. She commenced the session with a shared definition:

“The culture of an organization is the shared pattern of beliefs and assumptions held by organization members. It is their characteristic way of perceiving and producing the organization’s values, norms, behaviors, artifacts and environment.”

At Merrylands East Public School, we hold the fundamental belief and assumption that every student can achieve  outcomes beyond their years but not necessarily in a linear pattern of progression due to disruptive schooling. We know that our  students can engage in learning each day, regardless of time, and use technology to solve authentic problems, design and create products in a collaborative learning environment. We hold the assumption that students can learn in open and shared spaces with teachers working collaboratively together and that standardised test scores are no measure of the achievements of success.

Our beliefs and assumptions shape the way that we work each day and create the values that we hold in our school.  The values of teamwork, collaboration, sharing and  learning together is permeated on on a daily basis (not always successfully) and have now become shared social norms in the way we operate and structure our school. Sharing learning spaces, for example, is now a given at Merrylands East and it includes students not having their own desk or chair and a non existing principal’s office.

So why do some school cultures seem ‘good’ while others seem ‘bad’. After three hours into the session, Dr Bridwell-Mitchell paused longer than usual with stunned silence in the room as she gathered her thoughts for a moment in front of a lecturn. The whole room could tell that she felt slightly unease by what she was going to say next. A few participants in the packed Longfellow Hall yelled out politely, ‘just say it”, in which she replied, “it’s you!” The response was greeted with affirmation as we all knew the answer and now it was splattered in one of the Harvard Halls to over 200 school leaders from around the world. Principals have a major role in shaping their school culture through the beliefs and assumptions that they bring into a school about student learning, pedagogy and organisation structure through the way they act. These translate into the values for the school and create social norms and boundaries in how staff and students learn each day and interact for better or worse with each other. School culture becomes highly visible in the environment and draws people either in or out.

By the end of the three hour session, it was one of the most stimulating process that I’ve undertaken to truly understand the importance of principalship in creating a vibrant school culture.

Efficiency vs Inclusivity

The second day of  Harvard involved a field trip (excursion) of the 200 participants from all around the world to Project Adventure, Beverly. In groups, we were put through a series of activities, including a high rope course that involved climbing up a ladder and tree and walking across a log about 30 feet in the air while being belayed by other members of  my group.

The challenge of climbing is not foreign to me as I spend a lot of time with the NSW State Emergency Service on roofs after storm damage and past experiences in rock climbing. While all new challenges post new adventures, the greatest learnings for me came  on the ground through helping others achieve their goals.

On the day, one activity stood out more than others. It involved our group of 10 participants dividing into two teams of 5 participants and standing in a circle each and a third circle with 30 numbered discs. The aim of the task was for one person at a time to come out of their circle and as a group to touch all 30 discs in consecutive numerical order in the fastest time. After we formed the two groups, one person in my group asked whether we could all do it together. In other words, while the task looked like it was set up to be a competition, there were no rules to stipulate that the task couldn’t be a collaborative exercise with all 10 participants.

After a first attempt at the tasks where both groups alternate in touching the odd and even numbers, we collectively strategised to look for a better solution. We discussed at one point of the two fastest runners completing the tasks while others just on looked. Here lies another leadership dilemma: do we as leaders value efficiency over inclusivity with our staff? How often is it easy to ask the same staff members to undertake certain tasks in our school because we have full confidence that it will be done   well and or quickly at the expense of developing other staff members skills. In other words, do we practice distributive leadership in our organisation and share tasks in order to build up each other skill set?

In a school where so much complexity occurs and time management is critical in achieving tasks, it is important to remember what we value in our schools. I’m not saying that inclusivity is more important than efficiency as it’s dependent on the issue at hand. A burst leaking pipe that is spraying water across a playground or a seriously injured child may need a quick response rather than saying to a staff member, here is a new task that I want you to solve. However, we can still be inclusive through the debrief situation and sharing the processes that a leader undertook to solve the task so that if a similar incident occurred, then more people are knowledgeable in the process.

A second learning that came from project Adventure that resonated with me is the importance of helping others to achieve their goals. During the day, we all saw the person that may have scaled new heights by climbing ladders and trees and walking across logs and wires but it was actually the people on the ground that supported the people in the air that really matter. Safety for the person in the air was dependent on the teamwork on the ground. Quite often we only notice highly visible leadership (in this case the climber) and fail to recognise those that a performing the hidden leadership skills (those on the round belaying climbers). In a school context, we have many leaders that are often unrecognised because we fail to take the time to acknowledge their commitment to the goals of the school.

Therefore, a second learning from Day 2 is that we need to make time each day to acknowledge the contribution of staff in their leadership of students on a daily basis. This doesn’t mean a grand announcement but maybe positive reassurance or taking time to actively listen to staff achievements.




Test the Assumptions!

imageOver the past 2 days in the Leadership: An Evolving Vision Course at the Harvard Gradate School of Education, I’ve met some amazing  educators who have the motivation, passion and desire to be the catalyst of change within their school for the improvement of student outcomes.

Day 1 was extremely challenging as over 200 educators from all around the world sat in the magnificent Longfellow Hall for almost 4 hours undertaking a workshop in change by Professor Robert Kegan. The session commenced with all the participants identifying a personal area that we would like to change in our school  and to set an improvement goal. We often associate change with other people and can easily become frustrated as to why change doesn’t happen. Kegan threw the issue back on our leadership style through a series of steps that looked at our inner immune system and conflicts, and what we value as the cause of what motivates and drives us to make change in a school.

After setting an improvement goal, the area that we truly wanted to make change in schools, Kegan asked us to write down why it was important and the consequences for not making the change. As I continued with the workshop, I came to the realisation  that what I valued as a school leader in my improvement goal for change also permeated into my commitments for not doing anything and maintaining the status quo. By mid afternoon on a beautiful Boston summer afternoon, I truly realised that I had an inner conflicting dilemma, and often strong values that co-existed for both making and not making change change.

Kegan in his gentle manner, continued to be provocative and challenged us to why we want to make a particular change, and whether our values were based on assumptions that have been tested. It is here that we often fail ourselves by  having personal underlying beliefs that if  we make a particular change in our school, then a negative consequence would occur on a personal level or some form of cataclysmic disaster would take place.

Throughout the whole workshop, Kegan indicated that we need to move from our values in our unconsciously immune system to our consciously immune, that underneath our subconscious concerns about change also drives our willingness and eventually our commitment to making the change happens. We have to recognise that competing values work within ourselves.

Kegan in his final step suggested that we establish SMART experiments to challenge our assumptions in making change: (Safe, Modest, Actionable, Research, Test). We need to test the assumptions in any transformational organisational change to see whether our underlying values we hold are realistic. We need to set actionable plans that keep on testing our values and assumptions in order for change to occur.

By late Sunday afternoon, I felt emotionally drained and it was only day 1 of Harvard. However, working through Kegan’s process, I could now understand why change is so difficult in a school due to my own values and beliefs. It time for me to test even more assumptions.