My darling wife has often told me that I spend too much time thinking about things so that I actually miss the opportune time to achieve it. While that advice is sometimes a little harsh, on reflection back on 2013 there is probably some truth to it also.
What really brought it into focus for me was an opportunity earlier this week while visiting a friend’s sheep station south of town. One of our former Year 12s was working in the sheds, along with her parents, with the father one of the lead shearers. While we were standing watching all of the action and trying not to get in the road on the board, he looked up and asked me if I wanted to have a go. Immediately the thought that went through my head was that he was being paid by the shorn sheep, that I would be next to useless, and that I would only be getting in the road – my thought processes told me to say no, and my head shook with a big sheepish grin in response to his offer.
Immediately after, I began kicking myself. This was ‘helped’ by both our mate and my lovely wife telling me how mad I was, and further thoughts running through my head of the opportunity I had just missed and how I really would actually love to have a go; if only for the experience to say that I had shorn a sheep (being a ‘dairy fairy’, woolly-backs are completely unknown quantities for me). I tried to catch his eye again so see if the offer was still there, but unfortunately we had to move on before I had the chance and the opportunity had sailed right past me.
In leadership terms, I’ve always held – and been advised to hold, by some mentors – that there is always time to consider the options and be thoughtful about the way forward. This has sometimes been to the frustration of those I am leading, and sometimes to the detriment of the team as I have missed opportunities through thinking first and asking questions later. However it has also saved the team – and me – from some sticky situations through taking the time to evaluate the path. Particularly as a new Principal, where almost every situation has been a new challenge and unfamiliar, taking the time to stop and evaluate the options and possible outcomes has been the saving grace on more than one occasion.
Maybe it comes with experience, and maybe it is a state of mind; however one of my goals for 2014 is to stop thinking quite so much and to seize the moment a little more often. I am determined to shear a sheep before I leave the South West, and am equally determined to metaphorically shear a few more sheep at work also through being more obliging of the opportunities that come my way. That’s not to say that I will be abandoning a thoughtful approach all together – just trying to use the experience of 2013 to more quickly evaluate opportunities and to not let so much through to the keeper.
I wrote in a tweet today, in response to one of my former MEd. mentors asking whether I was still innovating, that I had spent the last six months doing more learning than innovating because of a new role within my school. On reflection though, this tweet makes it seem as if learning and innovating were mutually exclusive concepts.
Over the past six months as Acting Principal, I have certainly spent more of my efforts on learning my new trade and supporting staff, students and the school in general towards various goals. Learning has been my priority – both for myself, and for others. Though in this learning – on reflection – there has definitely been scope for innovation too.
By looking at the way we do things in different lights, and by learning from either mistakes made or inefficiencies observed, I suppose I have been introducing innovation in my own way. After all; innovating at its definition is about renovating, altering, revolutionising and transforming – all verbs that make assumptions about an existing way of doing things. It would almost be impossible to innovate in the absence of learning, based on that definition.
Yet is it possible to learn without innovating? Potentially. Though as a leader, my learning should be going back into innovation around the way I and we do things. Otherwise, what is the point of learning? If there is to be no action taken from the lessons learnt, then has learning really taken place?
In my response today, I perhaps didn’t take true stock of my last six months. If the question had been “has innovation continued to be your primary focus” then the answer would have been appropriate. To the question of whether I am still innovating, then if learning has taken place – and it most certainly has – yes, I am still innovating.
As I was out for a morning walk with the dogs last week, I was listening to Dan Pink’s Office Hours podcast discussion with Malcolm Gladwell (http://www.danpink.com/office-hours/malcolm-gladwell/), which while not technically about education still makes some really interesting observations on education and parenting themes.
One particularly interesting observation was around class sizes and the concept of an inverse-U effect, which shows that reducing class sizes from fifty or sixty makes a massive difference to student outcomes very quickly as you go down through the 50s, 40s and into the 30s. Once you get into class sizes of 20ish though, the impact plateaus; meaning that the optimum class size is around 25ish, before student outcomes actually start to get worse. Gladwell cites research that shows what I – and probably most – have probably always subconsciously known but never wanted to admit; once you get into class sizes below 10 or low teens, you actually become less effective. Sure, your behaviour management might be a breeze, however the level of discussion possible is minimal and it only takes one or two students to be away before you start questioning the point of doing an activity. <Continued, next page>
The other interesting point though, was the way that students feel in classes of that size. He went on to cite research about the progression rates of the bottom third of the class at Harvard, versus the top third of a similar course at a less prestigious or successful university. While their intelligence (as loosely measured by their SAT scores, or in our world their OP scores) is similar between the two groups; the bottom third of the class at Harvard will largely drop out and not progress into the field seeing themselves as failures, while the top third of the less-successful Uni will continue.
This is because – Gladwell posits – the way that you compare yourself to your peers has a massive impact on your academic success. Even though you may be brilliant, if you are comparing yourself to people who are slightly more brilliant then you will feel a failure. Similarly, if you are performing averagely but are comparing yourself to those who are performing below average; then you suddenly seem brilliant.
If you bring this back to your classroom setting, small class sizes often mean that there is limited scope to compare yourself, and suddenly if you are the only one struggling with a concept then you must – by comparative definition – be a failure. The challenge that I took out of listening to this discussion is finding ways for teachers to be modelling lifelong learning in their classes. We are blessed – in many ways – by smaller than average class sizes when compared to other High Schools around the state; however this may be creating challenges for some of our students. If we are in classrooms spruiking to be the font of all knowledge, then – it would seem – we may be exacerbating this challenge for some students; whereas if we were to work with students and model lifelong learning through looking things up together, or admitting that we don’t know all of the answers and seeking to find out, perhaps we might help to close this gap somewhat.
I have been mulling over a bit of a theory lately that the words ‘leadership’ and ‘teaching’ can almost be used interchangeably. If you think about it, teachers are actively leading the learning of their students, and good teachers are learners themselves. Similarly, leaders are actively teaching those that they are leading while at the same time being led themselves. It needs further definition, but as a theory I’ll throw it out there.
With that theory in mind, it has been said that a fundamental practice of leadership (read teaching/leadership) is the practice of ‘introspection’ or ‘self reflection’. John Robinson writes in his post ‘Taking Time to reflect as a School Leader: Courageously and Respectfully’ :
“In our busyness of the day, we forget, or fail, to take time to reflect and look within, which is where the core of who we are as leaders comes from. As Pema Chodron, author and Buddhist teacher, suggests, this failure to look at ourselves is a both a “fundamental aggression” and “fundamental harm” to ourselves. I would add that failing to have to courage and respect, for ourselves and others, to examine ourselves a little bit each day causes so many of our own leadership problems. Perhaps what we should call this is “Leadership for the Ignorant 101.”
We remain ignorant of ourselves as leaders when we do not take time throughout the day to reflect with courage about ourselves. In this self-examination, we demonstrate a much-needed respect for ourselves as leaders.”
So often as teachers, as leaders, and as people; we forget to take stock of where we have been and to let that inform where we are going. As the term comes to an end, it is a great time to reflect both courageously and respectfully and to take stock of what we have achieved this term.
This time of the year lends itself to reflection, and to looking at what the job that we are doing should look like when it is being done at its most effective; particularly in relation to what we think great teachers are. I’d posit that everyone who works in schools would be able to name at least one teacher from their experience who is a ‘great’ teacher. The attributes of that person (or people) quite often shape what we see as the benchmark to hold ourselves against.
For me, I have always held an ability to listen to students and to let them have their say and opinion as vital skills of a great teacher. This single skill allows for the difference between having education ‘done’ to students, as opposed to students being lifelong learners and intrinsically involved in their own education. It also allows students to be valued and to feel that they have a say, rather than just being passive consumers or second class citizens who are to be seen and not heard. So much of the 21st Century educational paradigm is reliant on students being active participants in their own education, and being listened to – for me – underpins this active participation.
While it might be an American list, this infographic ‘The anatomy of a great teacher’ is a great starting point for what great teachers might look like. What would your great teacher look like?
Schools are nothing if not stable. Change comes slowly, with each new generation of teachers implementing classroom practices that are influenced far more by their own experiences of the classrooms of their youth, than by the lectures of their training. You see; the greatest problem with education is that everyone is automatically an educational expert having been to a school. As school leaders looking to innovate and lead innovation, our role is often as much about teaching teachers (or un-teaching teachers) as it is about the teaching of children.
So why then are standard-issue staff meetings still rows of chairs, endless barrages of administrivia and steady reinforcement of the status-quo in the classrooms of the teachers sitting in those rows? Wouldn’t it be great if we could ‘be the change you seek’ (to steal some Gandhi wisdom) as school leaders and treat our staff meetings more as our classrooms; the teachers as our students (or co-learners)?
There has been much written about the ‘flipped classroom’ debate of late, with this debate even spilling over to the concept of a ‘flipped staffroom‘ . If this kind of educational thinking – right or wrong – is to be the flavour of high performing classrooms, then surely we do our teachers an disservice by not exposing them to that kind of thinking – both in thought, and in deed. In many cases, this requires us to look deeply at the culture of our schools; at the artefacts, the espoused values and the basic underlying assumptions that make our schools tick. Through challenging and shaping these elements – particularly the espoused values and underlying assumptions – it becomes possible to shape the very core of the school, and to help put contemporary educational thinking at the front and centre of every classroom.
With this in mind, I came across this article from Langwitches Blog that got me thinking – ‘are we there yet?’. The last five years at my current school has been a process of digital discovery, and I’d like to think that we’ve come a long way in terms of the way that teachers view teaching in the 21st Century. However, compared to what’s happening in Silvia’s school; we may have come a long way, but we’ve got a long way to go.
So below is my roadmap for the next steps on the journey; I’d love to hear what you think about it, and how it might work in your school.
Take the first right
Currently, we have one x 1 hour meeting once per week. Every fortnight, this meeting is designated for our three faculties to get together with their Heads of Department and discuss curriculum delivery on a more individual scale; the off meeting is a full staff meeting that often ‘does what it says on the box’ and is a meeting of staff to discuss administrivia.
What I would like to do is to remove the administrivia back into our weekly update (a staff newsletter every Monday morning), with the personal elements of this being delivered through informal staffroom chats during the week. Staff meetings can then become opportunities for staff learning, structured as we would expect our highest performing classrooms to be structured and providing an opportunity to model the underlying assumptions that we would like to further embed. Given the way that faculty meetings are an artefact of our school culture, I’d like to keep them every fortnight – giving HODs an opportunity to model elements of the expectations at a more molecular level. Of the other two meetings; one becomes a full staff learning opportunity focusing on elements of our school’s pedagogical framework and explicit teaching agenda. The meeting should be structured like a class, with explicit outcomes and allowing for teaching strategies to be modelled – particularly from the Symphonies of Teaching and Learning agenda that we have subscribed to over recent times.
The other, would be given over to formalised reflection on a range of things – reactions to the full staff meeting, reflection on things that are happening in classes, sharing of fantastic teaching and learning. I’d like to think this was done via blogs or other social reflection platforms, allowing teachers to experience and be explicitly taught the kind of reflection that we expect students to demonstrate as lifelong learners. However, as with any cultural change, that might be a utopian goal that takes time to work towards. In the short term, any kind of tangible evidence of reflection – even recorded staffroom dialogue – would be sufficient return on the investment of an hour back to teachers.
Slight left at the tree
Once we’ve got teachers blogging, sharing and reflecting for professional growth, how cool would it be to be able to get teachers and students both sharing in direct communication with parents? We started two blogs this year on our school website for the Year Level Coordinators to add news a bit more easily and to help add another communication strategy for parents; but if we have blogging starting to be used as a real medium by teachers, and hopefully within classes as well, it would stand to reason that we would be able to start sharing blog posts of what is happening in classrooms directly with parents.
Too often, something happens over the Christmas holidays between the end of Year 7 and start of Year 8 which mean that parents are suddenly not allowed to be involved in school life. Getting parents involved is something that High Schools traditionally struggle with, and while a digital revolution won’t reach every parent – in much the same way as there is a digital divide for some of our students – it allows us another communication medium that might reach some parents that other media do not. Most importantly though, it allows student work and student voice to be directly displayed/communicated to parents and provide a far better insight into what is happening in classrooms – further breaking down some of the generations-old stereotypes that classrooms must be like those that parents of parents once sat in.
While we’re at it, let’s push the paperless agenda yet further by suggesting that classes could have twitter accounts. What better way to teach digital literacy and responsibility than by being actively involved in the management of multiple twitter identities through each Secondary teacher having multiple classes. With the ongoing battle against irresponsible use of social media accounts, and a focus on modelling for teachers what we expect them to do, surely it makes sense that teachers can be modelling expectations for their students; and helping to instil responsible behaviour on social media while they’re at it.
Then straight on ’til morning
Driving change in schools is a process of osmosis; slowly making the extraordinary seem ordinary so that teachers don’t have as far to jump when they cross the classroom threshold. I believe that our job as school leaders is to facilitate this transition from the extraordinary to the ordinary and to demonstrate how the unattainable can become attainable; to turn Neverland into reality. The key really – it seems to me – comes down to remembering that we are teachers first and foremost, and that our role is to teach our teachers through modelling what we expect; through being the change we seek.
Hopefully, by turning our staff meetings into staff learning opportunities, and by providing the gentle nudge teachers need to formalise their reflections and sharing, we can build on the foundations of digital acceptance already in place and really move our school towards being a true learning organisation.
Perhaps one of the most interesting discussions at this afternoon’s Dell Vision session, centred around the ‘Bring Your Own Device/BYOD’ old chestnut. It was interesting both because I found schools who were going down that path, and also to see the response from people who are not. I know it’s a polarising topic, but it never ceases to amaze that the old issues of control are amongst the first to surface.
For those playing at home, BYOD is a debate that has been raging – particularly in the US – around whether or not schools should allow students to bring their own devices and to interact with school networks, rather than be confined to school owned devices. Up until recently (probably this afternoon, to be exact), I’ve been fairly much on the fence; but the conversation this afternoon has pushed me into the pro camp for a few reasons:
- It’s coming regardless – The Horizon report has been flagging BYOD for some time, but it is actually starting to happen with Universities and some schools starting to play in the space, as well as some employers. I know there are issues around security (both data and network), but when the door bell starts ringing we need to at least peek through the peep-hole
- It makes financial sense – In the wake of the eternal ‘bad economy’ rationale, schools are increasingly being asked to do more with less. We don’t necessarily provide pencils to every student (unless they are unable to provide their own, in which case there are options to ensure equity), so why – when technological devices are the 21st Century answer to pencils – should schools be continuing to provide devices that are often less technologically advanced than the devices that the kids have in their pockets or school bags?
- It’s about the pedagogy – This is the most important for me, and the bit of the conversation today that pushed me off the fence. When you don’t have a standardised platform in front of you, you can’t set a PowerPoint presentation as your assessment piece; you can only ask for a presentation and rely on students to express that in the way that best suits the unique combination of task, context and personality. Without the comfort of a standard piece of software, there is the potential that the teacher might not know how to do a particular task in the student’s chosen software package – this also provides the potential for teachers to become learners alongside their students and to teach how to learn. This is surely the utopia that we as edTech pioneers have been searching for – a learning environment where it doesn’t matter what colour your notebook is, so long as you can take the notes; it doesn’t matter what device you use, so long as you complete the task.
There is still a lot of water to go under the bridge before we can do whole-scale BYOD in all classes, and a lot of work to do before we can adequately address the issues around data and network security; but for me, those are the only two issues worth talking about. The majority of the rest of the arguments can be neatly bundled into a bucket labelled ‘fear of lack of control’, which as I’ve discussed previously, we really need to get over.
A great deal of leadership is about ‘getting out of the road’ and ‘letting people get on with it’ – for me, that is one of the biggest differences between management and leadership. Management requires you to be intrinsically involved in the process; the smaller minutia of how ‘stuff’ happens. Leadership, conversely, is what is needed to make management possible; the strategic and forward thinking ‘stuff’ that allows the processes to happen. Clearly, organisations need a good dollop of both to operate effectively in the digital era, and the assembly of a team that encompasses both roles.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not advocating that leadership is all about delegation by any stretch. Effective leaders need to be able to fill both roles. However this article provided some thinking stimulus as I reflect on my new formal leadership role as a Deputy Principal, rather than the specialist IT Department Head role that I have inhabited for the past four years.
Within this new role I am constantly seeking to not only ensure that I am staying out of my successor’s way and allowing him to redefine the role to suit himself, but also beginning to realise that I need to stay out of peoples way more globally to allow them to grow. It is quite easy to fall into the trap of working on the initiatives that are appealing to me and that I have the skillset to achieve quickly in achieving the outcome, rather than working with my team to ensure that others are learning as well as the outcome being achieved. This may mean that sometimes the project takes longer than I could do it myself, but it also means that it may also get done in a range of ways that I had not anticipated or thought of – that’s where the learning happens for both myself and others.
I have always prided myself on being the ‘go to guy’ who gets stuff done quickly and efficiently (for the most part), particularly where technology integration is the go – what I am starting to realise is that a key part of leadership (rather than just management) is the building of capacity in others to ensure that I am surrounded by ‘go to people’, rather than just getting the job done quickly myself in the way I think it should be done. This may seem inefficient in the short term as this capacity is built, but ultimately one person cannot do everything, and unless I have the team capacity around me to help, it’s doomed to medium/long term failure.
If we are to be serious about achieving ‘learning organisations’ rather than just working in schools that organise learning, we need to look at the way staff are developed. In order for staff to develop, they have to be given the opportunity to try and to fail, and then to try again and fail better – after all, is that not what we advocate for students in the classroom? Why are teachers any different? To do that, I need to learn to back away and to bite my tongue in letting others attempt things in their own way and style – even if it is in a field or area that I think I have all the answers.
One of my favourite podcasts is Chris Betcher’s ‘The Virtual Staffroom’, though the downside of living in a town that’s only 5km from side to side is that you don’t really have much of a commute to catch up on podcasts. I finally got a chance to listen to the first part of episode 38 – Student Voice – early in the year, and sketched out a blog based on my reactions to it. Unfortunately, much like the blog itself, my opportunity to finish the rest of the podcast never came. That is, until travelling home from Cunnamulla on Wednesday when conversations allowed me to plug both myself and @mrssamo into the episode in its entirety.
I’ve often reflected on my own classes, and their fear of publishing their thoughts on blogs. The conclusion that I’ve come to – and was clarified by Chris’ podcast – is that the publishing process (or lack thereof) is the hangup. This process has changed; the importance is now on proofreading and publishing thoughts quickly, rather than editing repeatedly and only publishing when the final product is perfect.
I’ve come to realise that we need to change the way that we look at blogging in classes; as highlighted in the podcast, we need to prioritise blogging in the classroom – explicitly teaching the digital literacies involved as you would any other genre. This gives the opportunity to explicitly teach collaboration, the art of commenting and the modern publishing process itself. The podcast gives some excellent ideas on ways to teach commenting – one of my favourites was the idea of ‘one star’ and ‘two star’ comments; one star comments being comments that don’t really add to the conversation (“Great idea!” “Thanks for that.” etc); two star comments being more in depth. By teaching the students how to recognise one star and two star comments, it is modelling what is needed for good comments and also teaching critical literacy skills.
The new publishing process is all about sharing imperfections, and recognising that knowledge is a moveable feast; an evolving discipline. By publishing first, and editing later, we are modelling this for our students and helping them to recognise that it’s ok to make mistakes – just so long as you learn from them and edit them later.
It was great to finally get to the end of the podcast – the discussions with @mrssamo were equally great, highlighting the way that we could use snippets of podcasts such as this as discussion starters with our collective staff. If you haven’t yet logged on to the Virtual Classroom, do yourself a favour this weekend and check it out! Now to find a way to catch up on the backlog that is still waiting for me…
Cross posted from my employer-provided blog; originally posted May 2011, under the same title.