Posts Tagged ‘school leadership’

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?

I have realised over the past 6 months how few schools are actually clear about what their long term vision is. Part of the impact of this lack of vision and disciplined building of this vision is that schools can quite often be focussed on things that disperse their power and ability. They become like a thirsty person wandering in the desert – going from one mirage to the next. Teachers become inured to change and morale can suffer.

In an increasingly competitive educational and financial environment, and as part of the paradigm shift occurring as we move further into the Information Age, it has become critical for schools to be clear and focused in their vision and actions. Even more so is to develop a culture of disciplined people, disciplined thoughts, and disciplined actions.

There are a number of steps to this process including

  • Empowering Level 5 Leadership (as Jim Collins speaks of in “Good to Great”)
  • Getting the right people on the bus – getting a strong core group of leaders within the school who will be the team who will take responsibility to create and build the vision within the school community
  • Creating a hedgehog concept for the school
  • Creating clearly what it means, what it feels like, what it looks like when that hedgehog concept is accomplished
  • Creating the non-negotiables as you move forward
  • Confronting what is actually the current state of the school – what is working, what is not against the vision, mission statement, or hedgehog concept.
  • And so on

What I want to share about this blog is how we worked with a leadership team at a school to create the hedgehog concept and began the process of uncovering their collective meaning, vision and actions to deliver on that vision.

A Hedgehog concept is idea that Jim Collins shares about in his book “Good to Great”. The idea comes from the story that the hedgehog succeeds because is only good at one thing – it rolls itself up into a ball with its spines outwards and it is protected against any dangers (such as foxes who have to come up with many strategies to succeed but rarely ever do). What Jim Collins found is that the most consistently successful organisations follow this concept as well. They adhere fanatically to their vision (Hedgehog Concept) and ignore taking on anything not consistent with it. This gives them an ability to remain focussed and able to develop consistent structures, approaches and culture.

There are three elements to the hedgehog concept:

  • What can you be the best in the world at?

•      Understand what you can and cannot be the best at

•      Let your abilities, not egos, determine what you attempt

  • What drives your economic engine?

•      What has the greatest impact on your economics (reputation for a school)?

  • What are you deeply passionate about?

•      Great organisations focus on those activities that ignite their passion

You can see in the diagram below the result of doing this work with a school.

Some of the discussion that raged as the leadership team created the 3 elements was fascinating

  • In distinguishing what they were deeply passionate about the team really cottoned on that this was not just a statement for students or learning but their bigger vision for all people. They wanted everyone (teachers, students, parents, etc) involved with the school to be exceptional, inspired and passionate. We toyed with the idea of “the best they can be” but distinguished this was limiting. How do we even know what people’s best is? We toyed with extraordinary but that is a quite oft used word that has lost its meaning for many. This led to exceptional – an exception to the norm.
  • The team wanted to be the best in the world at building learning communities. I confronted the group this week to define what that actually meant. In the first few minutes of discussion it was interesting to note that different people had different conceptions about what that meant or looked like. WE spent most of the session doing the work to be really clear about what that meant. Here is what they created:

Groups of people with a common goal / vision

Working collaboratively (learning from and together)

Removing mediocrity

Developing 21st century social competencies

Inspiring passionate and exceptional people

  • The leadership team had to define some not-negotiable items in the shifting of the school to deliver its vision. These included:

o   Working collaboratively

o   Removing mediocrity

o   Passion and Professionalism

o   High levels of literacy and numeracy

o   Making informed decisions on student learning

o   Developing 21st century social competencies

o   Every child matters

o   All aboard or not on board

In the whole process it became clear that as questions and ideas arose it pointed to that certain structures, systems and thinking had to be embedded in the staff (including having the staff plan for delivering social competencies first and then strategically looking at the content to be covered and discussing how the content be used to develop the competencies).

The homework the leadership team is now working upon is to become clear about what each aspect of the hedgehog concept means and what it looks like. They will also share with another staff member who they consider to be a leader within the staff community. The purpose of this is to start enrolling the staff in a future being created and to ignite feedback and leadership. Finally, against the future and vision they have created, they will outline where they are now in that journey. This will allow us to plan the steps to achieve that future.

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