Monday, April 18, 2016

The Things That Unsettle Us

When I woke up this morning I had been sent this article from Will Richardson.

It’s the third time in the last week I've been sent or tagged into this blogpost, all by people I completely respect in the field of learning, education and schooling, all by people trying to do something different in schooling, all by people that at times struggle to do this within mainstream education practices.

The posting is centred around the things that unsettle us in schooling. The things that upset us because they are not really talked about but we know that they should be addressed. Reading this article re-inspires in me a fire. 

When I get frustrated at the glacial pace of change in our schools (and I’m talking globally as much as anything closer to home) I am often told by mentors and friends to slow down, that its got to take time and to make any change effective we’ve got to take people with us. While I know all that, while I know and have lived the theories around change management and about effective changes in schools, frankly I’m a little tried of slowing down and waiting. 

The main questions the posting provokes for me?

Why are we still splitting learning into discrete little packages based around ‘subjects?

Who really says what our young people need to learn about? Before you passionately defend the content of the curriculum strands of our curriculum documents how much do you really understand about the history of curriculum development? Who actually made the original decisions that that content is the most important to learn at that age? And why? What was the purpose? Is it still valid?
Why are we giving learners technology, but not letting them utilise its capabilities? Why do we give them technology but not let them study the things that grab them wherever and whenever  they want/can/are able to?

Why are we still splitting learners into manageable little groups of the same-age?
How many high schools still run a separate programs for each year group? And apparently there are still intermediates out there who operate a Year 7 and a Year 8 programme, and even primary schools operating single programmes for each year group. And when Ive asked for justification I get told things like “our camp programme works this way,” or “we can design isolated programmes for each year group that way.” When this is being said by the same schools that say they are responsive to individual students it makes me very worried for schooling in the future.

What is success? In life, not in school as a representation of grades but in real-life? How much of what we do in schools is really feeding into this? How much of what we consider successful is what we really focus in developing programmes in and reporting on? 

Why do so many people knock the efforts of schools, and individual teachers trying to find the answers to some of these questions by doing things significantly differently than the “acceptable norm.” Do these detractors live in such a closed world that they cannot see that although the world has changed in exponential ways and the ways we all live (including them) have changed alongside this, schooling hasn’t really changed much at all? Do these detractors feel the same level of discomfort about the things outlined at all? Or do the detractors acknowledge some of this stuff but give up because its just too hard to effect change on the scale that is needed

When I started working in significantly different ways quite a few years ago now, I remember hosting a parent focus group with a really serious comment from a parent being  “You cant keep doing this…you are making learning too enjoyable and too engaging for our kids and that’s not fair to them when they go to High school. You've raised their expectations about what they think school should be like and they are going to feel let down in the future.” Thankfully this was responded to very well by other parents in the room which saved my incredulous repose from being uttered, However for me the scary thing is this was 14 years ago and the changes we were discussing that had parents scared and worried then, are still the changes we are fighting for in schools today. That really is glacial change. I still find myself having to defend the same kind of learning programmes to parents, to educators, and even to young people who have had their expectations of what school should be like shaped by the system, and lost all the natural curiosity and thirst for learning they have as pre-schoolers.

I am fortunate that for the last five years I was able to teach and lead in a school where we were allowed and encouraged some latitude in meeting needs and responding to some of the questions outlined above.

I am fortunate that I am now working in a new school that is being led by a visionary Board of Trustees and Principal who are committed to continue answering some of these questions and doing things differently in a brand new school from the start. 

Yes, I am fortunate. 

But I am still unsettled by the lack of wider change I see. Unsettled that “changes” I see in schools are really only ‘tweaks.’ The whole Innovative Learning Environment/Collaborative practice/Flexible spaces paradigm in New Zealand schools provides a great platform for significantly changing the way learning and school can look. But in many cases I see schools taking the old paradigms of subjects, and age groupings and  organisation and imposing those over the top of ILE’s.
Schools being responsive to parent demands of ‘the old ways were good enough for us,” but being completely unresponsive to learners individual needs. If we were being really responsive to individuals we wouldn't be pigeonholing them into set age groups to learn within and set ‘packages of learning’ to learn about. I remain concerned that those educators I see really trying to do things differently are those that are often then isolated in schools, who in the end either give up justifying their different programmes and ‘fall back into line’ or give up all together and leave the profession. We need to stand up and stop this happening.

What can we do to help the wider population understand why things need to change dramatically within schools? What can we do to celebrate those schools and educators that are pioneers? Rather than knocking them, how do we highlight them in positive ways? How do we effect system change rather than change on an individual or school-wide basis?

A lot of questions here.Not many answers but I’m going to spend the next couple of weeks of school break time pondering them. 

I might be fortunate in my individual work but what can I do to help system change rather than accept its glacial pace? 

Thanks to Will Richardson (, and those that have been discussing and sending this posting around over the last week for once again reigniting my fire.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Dreaming Schools...Dreaming Systems...

A post in response to the #edblognz February challenge to write about your dream school.

I’ve really struggled with writing this blog post. Not because I don't have lots of ideas, but in trying to narrow them down for a blogpost that would be easy and make sense to read! So I tried to narrow it down to a few words- freedom, personalisation, engagement, interactive, community-based. And I played around for a week but I wasn't happy with it. And then I realised was that I’m talking about is what I already know is happening- at least in some schools, and these are my current beliefs and practice. Not my dream for the future. So my challenge was- how do I dream into the future?

And then I realised- my dream school isn’t really about a school, it’s about a system. Its about transformational change on a big scale. Because while all those things I listed above, and more, are happening in some schools, they are not happening in all schools.
And then yesterday Kerri tweeted this quote from George Courus: “Kids need to be empowered not engaged.” And I thought to myself that’s the word Ive been looking for.

On all school levels my dream would actually be about empowerment. 

It’s about empowering our learners to know themselves and trusting them that they understand how best to learn. It’s about acknowledging valuing and protecting the natural learning curiosities that learners enter the school system with and empowering these to grow, rather than dampening them with the “must-do’s of our system.

Its about empowering teachers to be able to respond according to each and every learners individual needs. It’s about empowering teachers so they can respond to  individual students and their needs. 

Nathaniel ( blogged about anxiety in classrooms yesterday and linked his daughters blog- which I’ve also linked here. it's well worth a read. My dream school would empower all learners to be able to articulate this level of understanding about themselves, AND it would be about empowering teachers to respond accordingly. My dream school would be mean never having to read another blogpost like this where a learner can articulate their learning needs and show such a clear understanding of themselves, and not be having all these needs met. 

It’s about empowering leaders to give teachers “permission’ to meet individual needs without constant reference to how that end-outcome pass rate might look. Giving them permission to innovate. Its about empowering teachers to have faith that if they get the personal stuff right- that if each learner really gets themselves and knows how and why they learn best, then ultimately learning will flourish and grow, and that is what we are all there for. Its about leaders empowering teachers to understand that they are there to guide and mentor each learner, not be the oracle who knows best and has all the power in the learning equation. Not any more anyway.

And its also about the system empowering leaders to put the learning in their schools first, not the assessments. Its about empowering them to put learners well being before their outward school image of the standards or qualifications achieved. Its about wanting every young learner to be actively healthy and happy with options for their future.

Six or seven years ago I used to be quite happy to sit as a Principal in my own little school content and happy and probably somewhat smug knowing that we were doing this “ground-breaking” stuff.  And although I would get frustrated at the lack of movement in some schools I didn't do much but roll my eyes and moan about it within the confines of our safe environment. And then I realised that professionally wasn’t good enough of me. That I have a responsibility to the wider system. That doing good stuff in one school wasn’t going to have any long term effect  I couldn’t just sit back in my own school and not worry about what’s going on out there.I became much more acutely ware of the system and that we all need to play a part in transformation of the system. That we need to contribute and be bigger than just our current context.

I have had the privilege of setting up one new school in the last six years, and I got to do lots of ‘dream-school stuff. You can read about this throughout my blog.
I now have the exciting opportunity to live ‘dream school’ stuff on a much bigger scale as I work within a team for the year to set up another new school to begin next year. I’m living the talk and thinking around ‘dream-school’ every day as we talk and design what learning at Haeata Community Campus might look like. A dream job- yes. A dream year-sure.

But my ultimate dream is a system dream - where we don't just pay lip service to things like mental health. Where we don't just brush off how students feel-like has happened for our young learner linked above. Where we truly value each and every individual person. Where we truly collaborate as groups of schools to continue to the greater good. A system where we judge success by empowerment and engagement and health and wellbeing as well as and before the bunch of achievement statistics we use to judge schools and teachers and individual learners by presently.And where our whole system supports and subscribes to this.

If our system was empowered to have as its very first priority health and wellbeing, then surely the most amazing learning would be happening as a result. And the effects on society would be tremendous. We all know our young people are entering a very unknown world, and they need some really different skills to exist in this world. We’ve all heard the stories of young people with excellent university education who cant find appropriate employment and end up not working in those fields at all. We know the statistics about health issues facing us. We do know the future is really unknown. We need to empower our young people to be healthy and agile and adaptable as of necessity. And this needs to come first.  This requires some transformational change of expectations and understanding of the purpose of schooling from all sectors of society and at all levels of the system. And it requires us all to get involved.

That is my dream.