Posts Tagged ‘narrative’

Is your school’s culture one in which curiosity and learning from mistakes thrives?

This article is Part III of the Transforming the School Narrative series. In Part I we explored the default narrative we found across a range of schools in conversations we had with teachers and leaders. Hattie in recent times has been pointing to this too and suggested a reboot of schools. We suggested that the reboot could begin with transforming the narrative for leadership within a school.

In Part II we looked at aspects of Daniel Goleman’s around Emotional and Social Intelligence. The intent was for look deeper into what would leadership teams need to explore and manage to create a narrative within the school that empowers learning and leadership. Goleman pointed to the importance of various leadership styles inherent to creating an environment for optimal performance for teachers and students.

In this article we will explore the question – how does student curiosity influence learning and school structures within a school?



“Curiosity has been hailed as the major impetus behind cognitive development, education, and scientific discovery (Loewenstein, 1994). It is the drive that brings learners to knowledge. Curiosity is about being aware and open, checking things out, experimenting, and interacting within one’s surroundings. In a classroom grounded in curiosity, teachers have the unique opportunity of being able to mine students’ deepest held wonder, making their attention natural and effortless, and allowing them to fully engage. Creating the conditions for curiosity in the classroom will allow us to achieve more authentic motivation from both teachers and students, leading to deeper learning.”

Wendy L. Ostroff

Wendy Ostroff in her recent ASCD book, Cultivating Curiosity in K-12 Classrooms, suggested that curiosity may be critical to student (and teacher) success in school. In her introduction she pointed to research that showed:

  • Curiosity jump-starts and sustains intrinsic motivation, allowing deep learning to happen with ease
  • Curiosity releases dopamine, which not only brings pleasure but also improves observation and memory
  • Curious people exhibit enhanced cognitive skills
  • Students’ and teachers’ curiosity can be combined to co-create a curiosity classroom.

If curiosity has so many benefits to learning then you would think that it would be part of every school environment – wouldn’t it?


Barriers to encouraging curiosity

We asked this of teachers at a number of primary schools and many indicted that there were many barriers to encouraging and supporting curiosity. We also encouraged them to come up with potential solutions or actions to enable curiosity to thrive in their classrooms.

Challenges –  what gets in the way of curiosity Potential Solutions and Actions
  • The lack of clear knowledge of mandatory reporting and what is actually required by the State Education Department. This includes a lack of understanding of curriculum content descriptors, achievement standards, and the importance and weighting of the curriculum
  • This leads to teachers feeling the curriculum is crowded and teachers focusing on covering curriculum and assessing everything
  • Timetable limitations
  • Curriculum being put into silos which means a focus on specific content rather than having a more authentic integrated learning experience
  • Poor teacher pedagogy which limits curiosity (some teachers only doing work sheets)
  • Focus on content and not thinking and meta-cognition
  • Assessment that focuses on the product only and doesn’t look at the process and thinking
  • Lack of parental understanding of the latest educational research (and believing their children should focus on content)
  • Dated perceptions about what it means to be successful at school
  • Lack of consistent planning time for teachers to work together, create shared common understandings, and develop their capacity
  • Focus on year level learning and not progress of individuals (i.e. lack of a variety of challenge levels for the wide range of student learning capacity in the class)
  • Fear about the potential loss of control if had a curious class
  • Development for teachers – grow their toolbox of strategies and learning activities that facilitate curiosity
  • Support students / staff / parents to feel safe with this new approach
  • Involve and support parents by educating them:
    • How they can create shared values between home and school
    • How they can best support their children’s learning
    • Understand the changing process we are going through with learners
    • About reporting and what success looks like at school
  • Develop different ways of assessing? Common assessment tasks? Meaningful / valid / not too time consuming
  • Make meaningful connections (interdisciplinary) – between different curriculum areas – streamlining content
  • Revise and improve the school reports to be more aligned with not just content but the whole child and progress (not achievement)
  • Revise timetable, make it more flexible and allow for deeper learning
  • More time for teachers to work together, reflect and develop learning and their professional capacity
  • Improve documentation of learning and teaching so can grow shared thinking, strategies, activities, etc
  • Exploring where curiosity is developed well – other schools / other classrooms and collaborate and share ideas


Encouraging a Culture of Curiosity and Learning

It was interesting to see that the teachers addressed not only their own personal pedagogical and planning development but systemic issues including reporting, parental perceptions, timetables and professional learning. Whilst writers and researchers such as Wendy Ostroff and Kath Murdoch address the pedagogical aspects of developing a culture of curiosity and inquiry it is critical for school leaders to resolve the systemic issues in partnership with teachers. If the systemic issues are not addressed then the learning that occurs within a school will never reach its potential. It is only through aligning the school systems, processes and culture to a powerful school vision that would result in learning and leadership for all.


Some Questions for you to think about

  • What are the barriers in your school to fostering a climate of curiosity and learning from mistakes?
  • In what ways must teachers take risks in order to foster curiosity?
  • In what ways can a classroom be structured so that the teachers are curious and learning themselves?
  • In what ways the school systems and processes be redesigned so that the a culture of curiosity thrives?

Are you developing the social intelligence of your leaders and teachers as an access to improving school performance?

In Part I we indicated that our focus this year is on providing the practicalities of creating an empowering narrative for learning and leadership within your school. In this article we explore some of Daniel Goleman’s research behind emotional and social intelligence and what it indicates about shifting the narrative.


Always Learning

I love learning. Last September I had the opportunity to attend one day of the ACEL Educational Leadership Conference in Melbourne. Originally it was purely to support my colleague (Cathryn Stephens) in her presentation on the day but it turned out to be a fabulous insightful learning experience for me. The keynote talks I saw by Daniel Goleman on Focus and Emotional Intelligence in Education and Ben Walden on Inspirational Leadership: Lessons from Henry V were stunning. One for the insights it gave me on a topic I have been building my interest and understanding in and the other for the sheer brilliance and quality of the presenter. Click on the links to experience part of the presentations for yourself.


Emotional Hijack

In his talk Daniel began by highlighting the importance of managing both the cognitive culture AND the emotional culture within a school. A lot of attention is paid to the cognitive culture with a variety of structures and measures but very little to the emotional culture. He points out that managing the emotional culture – motivation, communication, inspiration, etc – can have extraordinary rewards in how well teachers can teach and students can learn.

The brain has not had an upgrade in over 100,000 years and it is designed for survival. Whilst our cognitive – rational – learning aspects stem from our pre-frontal cortex the brain is design (via the amygdala) so that emotional elements can hijack the pre-frontal cortex (which developed much later as we evolved). Some examples in schools which trigger emotional hijacks and “fixate our attention on what we perceive is threatening us” include:

  • Budget cuts to the school
  • Misbehaving or disengaged students in class
  • Lack of control over decisions
  • Overwhelm

The amygdala has a hair trigger response (“better safe than sorry”) and results in an over-emotional response that often you regret later.

Optimal Cognitive Efficiency(c) Daniel Goleman

This feature of the brain is not all bad news. Daniel pointed out though that there is a sweet spot where individuals can operate at the maximum cognitive efficiency.

The more apathy and boredom or conversely angst and anxiousness we feel the worse we do cognitively. When challenges pique our interest our motivation increases and our attention focuses. Peak performance occurs when our belief about our ability matches the task’s difficulty and the demand on us. This is a great insight for teachers and students. The best teachers get their students to be in this optimal state as do the best leaders with their staff.


Leadership and Social Intelligence

How leaders lead and create the pre-dominant narrative and learning and leadership in the school matters to achieving optimal performance. Daniel shared that the human brain is peppered with mirror neurons which pick up what another is doing, feeling, etc. This feature of the brain allows emotions to flow between people instantly and allows for rapport (non-verbal synchronicity or a flow state) between people. We are still essentially social creatures. Daniel pointed out that leaders are senders of emotion and can direct transmissions to others.

Daniel defined a model of the four crucial competencies required be effective as leaders in managing the emotional state. You can read more about it here or see more on this video. What interested me most with Daniel’s argument was what he indicated about the impact of leadership style on the climate within a school.

A leader who is visionary and creates a climate of coaching and development has an enormously positive impact on the climate within a school and will lead to the higher performance. In fact, Daniel pointed out that leaders who exhibit 4 or more of the above styles have schools who produce outstanding results. If leaders only exhibit 1 or 2 then students don’t perform.



If the goal is to create an empowering narrative for learning and leadership then schools need to go to work on changing the “inner algorithms” by which people operate and also the global system (culture) within which they operate. Addressing the global culture is important because our brains can have system blindness. Our perceptions and beliefs are – be default – tuned to the very localized and micro systems (thus the rise of opinions over evidence).

At the level of individuals distinguishing the current leadership styles (or “inner algorithms” for leadership) being used within the school is the first step. The next step is to align the thinking, planning and actions of school leaders (and then teachers) so they exhibit the four most positive leadership styles. Whilst the development of individuals is occurring it is important to explore how the systems and processes within the school are limiting leadership and optimal cognitive performance.

This is the heart of our middle leadership program that we have been offering to schools. We not only distinguish the current perceptions about leadership but lead participants through a process of strategic visionary thinking and planning that sets up a developmental structure for leaders and teachers.


Some Questions for you to think about

  • What leadership style(s) would each member of the senior and middle leadership team identify they use?
  • What about the teachers in their classrooms and with each other?
  • How could you go about developing the structures and systems so that a visionary and coaching leadership style is the pre-dominant approach used in your school?

Is your school’s narrative leading to the practices, structures and the results you want?

The Research on What Works

By now we have no doubt that you and your school’s practices would have influenced by John Hattie’s synthesis and analysis of what works (and what doesn’t) in educational research. His intent was solely to provide some basis for teachers, schools and educational systems to compare the actual research evidence on learning.

Figure 1: Top Variables as of September 2016

Whether one agrees with the “rankings”, the value of the “effect size” or not, they do give an indication of the relative effect that an approach is likely to have on student learning. You’ll notice that most of these variables in the table above are teacher-driven – which reflects the significant impact we know that teachers have on student learning experiences and outcomes.

Yet where are teachers currently driving learning? What could be influencing the embedding of great evidence based practice?


The Current Narrative

As part of workshops we ran throughout 2016 we spent quite a bit of time with teachers and school leaders unpacking the current perceived status or narratives within their schools. It is a nice exercise which can be quite revealing as it draws out the pre-dominant conversations within the school.

There were two clear narrative trends we noticed across most schools:

  • A perceived lack of strategic thinking and planning across the school
  • A perceived lack of clear communication and leadership across the school

Think about what this may be like for a moment. You are a teacher who is – day in and day out – interacting with a wide variety of students of varying capacity with the goal of supporting them to grow and progress in their learning and understanding. You try to improve your teaching each day and you occasionally go to external professional learning sessions and are lucky to embed one good idea you learnt from them. You don’t get the time you feel you need to interact professionally with your colleagues and often the meetings you do have devolve into administrivia and sometimes people disagreeing with one another. Curriculum days, if you have them, are either at the end of the year, start of the year or spent doing things that are not linked to curriculum but covering required well-being or other aspects (e.g. anaphylaxis, first aid, etc). The school leadership is working on embedding evidence based practice within the school but it is mostly a top down approach and the goal posts seem to be always moving depending on the latest “research”. The last time you really developed your capacity to be an effective teacher in a rigorous manner was when you were working on your teaching degree or when you did your Masters.

It is not surprising that the impact of these pre-dominant narratives often resulted in teachers and middle leaders feeling disenchanted, overworked and at the effect of constant change and initiatives. Furthermore, the systems within the school – those structures / practices / policies that create the work-ability within the school – are designed to keep the current paradigm in place. The result is glacial improvement or consistent mediocrity since the system is working against improvement.


Transforming the Narrative

Improvement or transformation comes with shifting the narrative within the school and aligning the school vision, systems, practices, processes and policies to achieve the common goals.

  • It requires harnessing the school community to “all be rowing in the same direction” and making the goals and progress towards them explicit and visible (rather than owned by a few)
  • It requires long term strategic thinking and planning and distributed leadership.
  • It requires a shift in who people believe is responsible for learning and leadership within the school.
  • It requires clear and constant communication and sharing

This is not easy and takes significant time but it has become more important as schools exist in a constantly changing societal and technological landscape. Hattie, in a recent presentation Shifting away from distractions to improve Australia’s schools: Time for a Reboot, suggest schools reboot themselves. We agree. If you re-look at the highest effect size data in the table above you will notice that they are pointing directly to the importance of teachers developing a shared common understanding and working together for a common goal.

This year many of our newsletters, articles, and workshops will be focused on what we see are the practicalities of rebooting your school and creating a narrative within the school that empowers learning and leadership. Our aim is to provide new contexts, new thinking and practical examples so you begin the journey of creating the school culture you have always wanted.

Some Questions for you to think about

  • What are the current narratives or perceptions of teachers, middle leaders and students within the school?
  • What do they say are the causes of these perceptions / narratives within the school?
  • What is the future you would like to see for learning / school culture?

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In Step 1 Designing Middle Leader Vision Statements we explored the first element of how middle leaders can plan to lead their team effectively. Once the middle leader has, in partnership with their team, created an inspiring but simple vision statement for their team, the next step is to create a Case for Action.make things happen

In modern schools change is always occurring. Whether it is pedagogical, curricula, well-being, or any other area, there is change occurring. It is a constant feature of our education system. One of the core roles of Middle Leaders is to lead this change. They work with their team of teachers to enact the requested change. Unless the teachers and middle leaders are connected to WHY this change is occurring and have bought into it then the change is not likely to occur with any depth or sustainability.

Middle leaders can establish a sense of urgency through a Case for Action Narrative. This narrative

  • aims for the heart (not only the head)
  • is driven by a belief in a noble vision or goal
  • inspires determination to act and win now

The case for action addresses the need for change and paints a realistic, convincing and attractive picture of what the future could look like when the vision is realised. It highlights the difference it would make to tackle the desired area and also the ineffectiveness of not taking action.


Designing Case for Action Narratives

There are three parts to a Case for Action narrative:

  1. Describe the reality in the area – the things that are working, the challenges, and the gaps
  2. Describe the predictable future if no action was taken in this area
  3. Describe what could be possible if action, based on the vision, was taken

Part 1

The case for action begins with identifying the current reality in the area. You can flesh out the picture of the current reality by answering questions such as:

  • What are the aspects of the area that are working?
  • What are the aspects that are not currently working?
  • What are the current gaps or challenges in the area?
  • What are the effects on students, teachers and the school of this current reality?

Don’t pull any punches as you answer the above questions. Make sure you identify both the great things as well as the challenges. The intent is to create an authentic picture of how things are now in the area. You could also use actual data to prove your points. Remember though that the purpose of the first part of the Case for Action is to highlight the current reality.

Part 2

The second part of a case for action narrative describes the predictable future if no action was taken. This paints a vivid picture of why staying with the status quo is a problem. If we are going to create urgency then the case for action narrative needs to show that action is critical NOW.

When brainstorming what to write for this part imagine what the PREDICTABLE future would be. Mostly it is more of the same. You will continue to operate as you have always done and you will continue to have the same results and challenges. In an ever-changing world this is a big problem not only for schools but also for parents and students. Education is increasingly a competitive market and staying stationary is no longer an option if the school is going to survive. Parents and their children are more likely to leave a school if their child’s needs are not being met.

By continuing to do the same thing with the same results has an impact on students, teachers and the school over time – what could that be? Your description should paint a compelling picture that aims for the heart.

Part 3

The final part of a case for action narrative describes what would be possible if action was taken. The actions that would be taken would be aligned with the vision statement created previously. What would be the impact on students, teachers, learning, the school culture, and the long term future of the school? Again create a compelling and vivid picture. Describe it in such a way that when people hear what is possible they want to be part of that vision. It should draw them in and inspire or breathe life into them. When people hear what is possible they can see how they can contribute to having it happen. It compels action.


Examples of Case for Action Narratives


  • Currently in Maths
    • The teachers are streaming children for maths to some extent. They have been doing point of need teaching via a clustering approach but are now expected to move to handle various abilities in the one class
    • Teachers don’t feel as if they are doing justice for the kids. The capable kids needs are not being met nor those who struggle with Maths
    • The year 6 team is struggling with the rationale from the Year Level Coordinator in moving to the PYP approach which is requiring Numeracy be tied into the everyday classrooms
    • Some students feel they are not good at maths and give up


  • If no action is taken then predictably
    • The situation in Maths classes won’t change
    • Teachers will feel they aren’t doing a good job
    • Students will develop a fixed mindset about their ability in Maths
    • Maths results will stagnate or go backward


  • If we acted on systemically differentiating maths for all ability groups then:
    • Students will see the value of Maths
    • Teachers would feel more confident that they are reaching the upper and lower group of students
    • Student results would improve
    • Classes would be more engaging for students
    • Student learning confidence and competence would improve



  • Currently in religious studies
    • certain topic, areas and biblical stories are re-hashed each year
    • due to external pressures on the school it seems like religious studies is the first to go when the curriculum needs to be covered
    • Christian ethos is present but not authentic religious studies. It deserves to be taught / learnt well since we are a religious school
    • Some teachers appear to be doing well
    • Most of the teachers are accredited to deliver religious studies
    • I have been sending out emails asking if teachers need any support but not getting much response
    • The overall scope and sequence has been developed for religious studies


  • If no action is taken then predictably
    • Religious studies will continue to be sidelined and not valued
    • There is a danger the school could become a secular school in practicality and lose its point of difference
    • Teachers will do whatever they want to do without oversight
    • Students will become bored with doing the same topics every year


  • If we acted on the vision of guiding young people with small steps and successes so they grow profoundly as learners and realise their potential in the area of their religious studies then:
    • Students will see the value of religious studies in their lives
    • Students would be engaged in the classes and in exploring their spirituality because it matters to them
    • They will see how they can use what they have learnt and explored in religious studies in making life decisions and contributing to others
    • We would be designing engaging curriculum that authentically addresses issues pertinent to the students.
    • The school would value religious studies and that it is a powerful point of difference for parents and potential students.


School Culture

  • Currently in the junior school
    • Quite a negative environment amongst the staff
    • There appears to be a lot of clique groups. The general perception is that the “in clique” are treated differently
    • Some staff experience being in the outer and can feel isolated and alone
    • Ran a Relationship Building session at the start of the year and held 2 workshops over the pupil free days. During Term 1 did lot of stuff to show that I valued the staff and this was received well.
    • Some original “clique” teachers experienced being burnt and now starting to turn to me
    • Lot of people genuinely happy to have a voice now from what I have been doing


  • If no action is taken then predictably
    • The negative environment will continue and some staff will continue to feel isolated, alone and on the outer. They will then go through the motions in working in the school rather than being innovative or creative.
    • Over time some staff will leave because they aren’t being valued and appreciated since they aren’t part of the clique group


  • If we acted to have staff realise the power of positive relationships in empowering learning and leadership then
    • Processes and protocols would be established that would lead to a positive environment
    • Staff would feel valued and appreciated
    • Staff would feel heard and that they have a voice
    • Learning would improve within the school because people would be willing to innovate and be creative
    • A positive work environment would arise
    • People will want to work harder and contribute to the learning community because they are fulfilled by being part of the community.


Context for doing this

In John Kotter’s 8-step process for leading change he identifies that the first step in leading change is to convince others of the importance of acting immediately. He points out that “Leaders may underestimate how hard it is to drive people out of their comfort zones, or overestimate how successfully they have already done so, or simply lack the patience necessary to develop appropriate urgency”. School structures are inherently resistant to change as they, in many ways, rely on consistency and the status quo to be successful.

One of the greatest enemies to developing great schools is being good (e.g. “we are doing a good job”, “we are a good school”, “I am a good teacher”). Being “good” is a conversation from the comfort zone. Greatness requires constantly examining where one is against your goals working to having your vision become reality. Over time “good” tends to devolve into “good enough” and then mediocrity.

If people are to be compelled and encouraged into urgent action then they need to know WHY. They need to know the criticality of taking action now.  Kotter pointed out that usually the urge is to skip to the doing rather than spend the required time it takes to get a significant number of team members urgent. This is not about getting people to work harder or be busier it is about getting people clearly focused on making real progress towards the vision every single day. Leaders who know what they are doing will “aim for the heart.” They will connect to the deepest values of their people and inspire them to greatness. They will make the case for action come alive with human experience, engage the senses, create messages that are simple and imaginative, and call people to aspire. The case for action narrative is the first step to creating urgency.



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