Saturday, May 14, 2011

Educational change and leadership - bottom up!

All too often in recent decades schools are dictated to by the political whim of politicians with their eyes firmly fixed on popular approval - this is certainly the case with the imposition of National Standards which have gained little education support or international success. What is required is for schools to begin to share their beliefs about teaching and learning by building on the innate strengths of their students, their teachers, the school principal and finally groups of schools to develop a vision that all can work with in diverse ways.

Recently at a local school the Education Review team asked the principal how he was ‘growing’ his teachers –I think the inference was that the teachers were not being given enough ‘voice’ in the school. All pretty ironic as it is the ERO office and Ministry compliance requirements that limit the ‘voice’ of all involved in schools. Compliance and conformity to imposed expectations, not creativity, is the order of the day. One only has to think of the imposition of the populist and politically inspired National Standards.

It is the Ministry (and their thought police ERO) that are not providing the conditions to grow principal leadership in our schools.

It may be better to start in creative classrooms and work up?

A visit to any classroom will soon illustrate that in every class there are students who bring with them the leadership qualities as expressed in the vision of the New Zealand Curriculum , students who are ‘confident , connected, active life-long learners’. The introduction of this curriculum was the last real leadership shown by the Ministry but with the change of government it has unfortunately been sidelined as school are now distracted by the ambiguous challenges the National Standards.

The teachers’ role is to develop the leadership qualities in all his, or her, students through a focus on developing every learner’s unique passions, gifts and talents. By this means teachers develop their classroom as learning communities.

Similarly in every school there are teachers who equally exhibit their own special leadership talents. Like the class teacher the principal’s role is to ensure such gifts are affirmed and shared with other teachers. The principal’s role is to create the conditions for the expertise of teachers to be shared and to develop an overarching vision and agreed teaching beliefs for all to hold themselves accountable. A with a creative class teacher the principal’s job is to ensure all teachers do not move away from what they have agreed to – that is unless new ideas are developed that need to be included. A vision, or the implementation of it, ought to be a living thing.

Principals who follow this organic approach do not have to be hero like leaders – they just have to listen and help all involved develop a shared sense of purpose. This is far preferable to principals always responding to curriculum initiatives from distant ‘experts’.

At the centre of such creative leadership are relationships. Principals have a vital role to provide continuity of experience for the school and to ensure all staff gets all the help they need to appreciate the actions required to achieve the school vision or purpose; that all staff are able to contribute to the community of teachers. Where there is a genuine community based on an agreed vision, values and teaching beliefs all teachers become fully involved in the affairs of the school – shared leadership.

Creative principals are concerned with influencing positive changes within the school. Once again personal mutual relationship and trust between all are vital. To be able to influence others the staff must see the principal as part of the working community not isolated worrying about achievement data. In this respect a successful principal is not unlike a sensitive class teacher.

Ensuring a positive learning community is the ultimate role of the principal-a community where all take responsibility for helping those in need. This is the essence of democracy – a concept that seems foreign to Ministry technocrats.

To achieve this shared sense of direction, and the freedom to try out new ideas, requires the need for personal group discussions where all can share their concerns and ideas openly. Through such dialogue develops a shared language and sense of community – a true professional learning culture. Such discussions allow every member to examine feelings and share insights.

It is only through such a process that the principal is able to evolve, or crystallize, an overall vision, teaching beliefs, and leadership, that all buy into.

The beliefs of each principal will determine how successful this process is. Successful principals will appreciate that the importance to value, as with each teacher and their students, the uniqueness and individuality of each teacher. This is the opposite of the current press for uniformity and consistency. A degree of consistency is obviously important (as in a class) but so is valuing individual teacher creativity. Both teachers and principals should be focusing on ‘growth points’ to develop learning capacity.

The final stage of leadership growth is for groups of school principals to work together to provide inters school affirmation and assistance - and mutual protection. Such inter-school collaboration is a weak but growing area. There clusters of school (some using the Internet) already developing such supportive groups.

All schools need to belong to their own supportive learning communities. Such groups, if geographically close, can find means (a website) to share their gifts and needs. In this way schools can take advantage of teacher leadership in a range of fields making creative teachers the most important source of ideas rather that the end of the line for top down initiatives.

This approach to leadership at all levels develops, what Carol Dweck calls, a ‘growth mindset’ –a mindset always open to new learning. A mindset based on trust and teacher professionalism. This mindset is the opposite of the ‘command and control’ compliance mentality culture that reaches down from the Ministry to every classroom teacher destroying creativity in the process.

If this process were developed we would develop a creative leadership culture rather than the current surveillance culture which forces principals and teachers to be managers and not leaders.

PS In the time before Tomorrows Schools stand alone and competitive approach there was almost such a sharing system in place.

Local Education Department School Inspectors identified potential school leaders and brought principals together to share the ideas of school leaders with other schools. Inspectors also were also available to identify certain teachers worth visiting by teachers from other schools.

The Education Department and Education Boards were dismantled along with a range of subject advisers and schools were 'returned to their communities'. Some cynic, at the time, wrote that the big Wellington Dragon has been killed and in its place will arise thousands of small dragons all dedicated to looking after themselves. This has come to pass. And unfortunately many of these little dragons are ineffectual , timid, overly compliant and easily slayed by the ERO Jesuits. And the Ministry and Ero ironically now determine far more of what goes in schools than in the early days.

A lot has been lost.

Just before the demise of the old system our local Senior Inspector set up a system where all schools contributed their areas of strengths and needs ( on one A4 page)and this collated and sent to all schools to help with the sharing process.

All too late.

With the power of the Internet, and the development of a local website, this could easily be replicated. There might be no need to even develop a system of collaboration as outlined in the blog - all schools could take it upon themselves to put their energy into implementing the vision of the 2007 New Zealand Curriculum. All sorts of links and , more importantly, local resources ( mainly teachers with expertise) could be included on such a website. Such a site could also express collaborative position papers on such things as National Standards and also link with similar sites.

Such an idea would depend on some individuals with real leadership to see beyond their own schools to start the ball rolling.


Alison said...

Nothing I can add to that really. Well said. I liked the sentence - "Principals always responding to curriculum initiatives from distant 'experts'." Well, I don't know if 'like' is the word, but it certainly brought on a wry smile! So true, so true!

Bruce Hammonds said...

Hi Alison

I think my blog points to the only way out of the compliance culture schools have been captured by but I don't hold out much hope.

Possibly most principals see little wrong with what passes for education - too few who really appreciate the implications of ensuring all students are 'seekers , users, and creators of their own knowledge' as the NZC says.

But ,as ever, I live in hope.

Rod MacKinnon said...

Hope isn't going to cut it. The way out of the 'compliance culture' might be found by creating stronger parent/teacher relationships in our communities. Parents and teachers are joint stakeholders in their individual commitment to creating the very best outcomes for the children in their care. By working together, talking and listening it should be possible to arrive at mutually agreed goals and processes to achieve them. These can be mandated by the parents and facilitated by the teacher.
The locus of decision-making with regard to what and how teaching and learning should take place has shifted away from those most competent to make them, parents and teachers, and taken over by those least qualified, bureaucrats an administrators . Strong, active parent/teacher organisations stepping up and directing the direction of education will cause some arguments but then, isn't that the sign of a healthy democracy?

Allan Alach said...

Very thoughtful post, Bruce. Sadly I think there's a lot of truth in your comment "Possibly most principals see little wrong with what passes for education - too few who really appreciate the implications of ensuring all students are 'seekers , users, and creators of their own knowledge' as the NZC says."

School staff are so busy adapting to the rapidly introduction of new demands that they don't have the head space to look at the big picture and the agenda that is driving this. The unquestioning use of meaningless jargon, such as 'improving student outcomes', 'raising achievement' and 'informing best practice', is a clear indication of this. It doesn't take too much reflection to realise that this jargon has no objective meaning at all, and therefore has no value.

We have a long history of valuable classroom practice. It is tragic to see this set aside because of politically imposed views of education, not supported by any evidence at all, as a top down, knowledge delivery process where teachers teach and children learn and that this can be measured. The increasing tendency to defer to the researchers who are trying to segmentise classroom practice, to isolate what works, also is having a major and detrimental effect. I see that NZCER have joined this party as well. More and more, we are heading back into the 'education by numbers' approach of the 1990s, in spite of the glorious freedom offered by the New Zealand Curriculum.

Why are we allowing this to happen?

Alison said...

I do believe that lots of teachers can see the big picture, but we certainly aren't in a position to, well, basically be disobedient I guess. If the meaningless jargon is questioned then one is seen as someone who resists change. It's difficult!

Bruce Hammonds said...

Thanks for the comments.

Rod I think you are right it must involve the parents and school communities as well. In my experience parents want their children to be positive learners but all too often get forced into populist yes or no to National Standards - like who doesn't want high standards? Standards are not the issue - the real issue is the purpose of education for a very uncertain but potentially exciting future.

And you are right it is an issue of democracy - it seems we have let others in all areas of life make all the decisions on our behalf.

And Allan I agree with you about many principals .It is like the saying 'if you are up to your backside in alligators it is hard to remember you came to drain the swamp'. Such principals have lost their sense of purpose or have unwittingly accepted the agenda from on high and have become part of the problem seeing their role as 'delivering' what so called experts think is correct.

You are right too many schools cannot resist the pull of a measurable past not appreciating that many important things cannot be measured. Einstein, I think, said this.

And Alison I feel for those creative teachers who know all the current pseudo scientific measurement nonsense is wrong but in this age cannot do much about it. Pseudo science because science a heart is being comfortable with the unknown and dedicated to continue exploring - to 'seek , use and create their own knowledge ' as the sidelined NZC says.