This past week of visiting a range of schools has reinforced my perception about the critical importance of structures and non-negotiables in creating a powerful learning and working environment.
In everything we do as individuals we have habitual ways of operating, thinking, and organising ourselves. They are so habitual that we are unconscious to them. In fact, it is just part of how our brains operate efficiently – making the habitual practices we have unconscious. You don’t have to think about walking, you just do. You don’t have to think about speaking, you just speak (unless you are speaking in a language that you are new to and then you are often thinking about each word).
This is exactly the same in schools. The way a school operates is through systemic habitual practices. From what topic is covered when, to “bells” or “music” to signify the beginning or end of lunch or recess, to the habitual practices teachers have as they teach, to the way that staff and students interact. In fact, there are many programs and ideas that have been designed to create habitual practices in the classroom to improve learning: DeBono’s 6 Hats, Thinkers Keys, You Can Do It Program, Habits of the Mind, Bloom’s Taxonomy, using graphic organisers, etc.
Consider that systemic habitual practices are EVERYWHERE and that they are so unnoticed that you wouldn’t even think about it as something you do … “it is just the way that it is”. Consider that a number of those systemic practices have arisen, not because of any thought out strategy, but perhaps because they have always been there or someone thought it was a good idea.
Inside a commitment to creating an exceptional learning environment, extraordinary deep thinking is required to examine and challenge old habits, and implement systemic habitual practices that actually (with evidence and research) provide the learning environment you are out to build.
One school that I visited this week has been on this journey for the past 7 years. The primary (elementary) school lies in an area with generational poverty, sometimes up to 3 generations. Around 7 years ago the principal and the staff decided that it was insufficient for them to continue on as they had. While the results were OK nothing was shifting in the community and the students would end up caught in the cycle of poverty. The team created the vision for learning of “breaking the poverty cycle in the community”. A daunting goal, but one that the staff believed was worth their time and effort. This thinking aligns with creating a Level 5 Tribe as defined within the work of Logan, King and Fischer-Wright in Tribal Leadership.
The principal and staff looked at everything based in evidence. They began investing in a range of systems to be able to examine the student learning data. They started asking “WHY?” to everything they had done. They started looking at the progress of students through the school and what was missing. They looked at their habitual practices for professional development and paying replacement teachers (when out on PD). They looked at how teachers developed themselves. They started looking at every aspect of the child’s learning experience growing up in generational poverty. They then created what it could look like / feel like / sound like and started exploring the HOW. They created specific school-wide focuses and non-negotiables.
Here are some of their structures and the thinking.
- Literacy and Numeracy are key focuses in the school. Research shows that by the time children from lower socio-economic families attend school they have heard only 10 million words of lower order thinking and language structure. This is compared to 40 million in higher socio-economic families. Actions?
- Some children use Fast ForWord to support the development of auditory processing abilities and linguistic development
- The use of a range of literacy programs from Prep – Grade 6 to build up all dimensions of literacy (THRASS, SWST, QuickSmart, etc)
- Focus on the language the every teacher and student uses in every interaction (built upon Ruby Payne’s work on the differing language between economic classes)
- In the lower grades, students have take-home readers but they only take them home after they have been read in class 4 times by the teacher. The repetition builds the decoding ability of children such that when they read them with their parents at home (some who struggle with these books) they can continue to build and grow.
- Awards are based on students taking ground in Literacy and Numeracy and they are given books as prizes. This builds up the library within the home – something these families can’t afford.
- The Principal has sourced getting black and white versions of books such that the children can take them home to keep. Again building the library at home. By the end of being at the school the child will have well over 100 books that are theirs.
- If the data shows that the children in grade 4 are struggling with a particular area in literacy or numeracy, then it is not solely a grade 4 issue. It is a whole school issue. The senior staff will go back and look through the data for the whole school and design a whole school action plan to eliminate the “missing” that all teachers will implement.
- The “bells” in the school are replaced with a musical version of the timetables which rotates through up to 12 times table. This has arisen because the school has the belief that learning is ALWAYS occurring!
- Staff structures. Quite often the Principal and staff have to deal with many competing demands that have very little to do with the learning within the school. The Principal, Assistant Principal, and two Learning coaches (Literacy and Numeracy) share SAMs (Staff Administrative Managers) who handle most of the administrative day-to-day tasks thus freeing them up to focus on learning. The senior management are crystal clear that they are there to focus on the learning and development of each and every child. Inside of this, the professional development budget is rarely used to send staff out to PD but to fund in-house development. The Replacement Teacher budget is used to fund another position within the school to have extra teachers available all the time. Each staff must hand in an action plan by 9am Monday for how they are “value-adding’ to each of the students in their class.
- Culture. It was critical that there was a consistent and coherent culture being built for the students and the staff. The staff are clear that their focus is student learning – all the time. This is not about covering certain material and ticking boxes, this is about whether the students have learnt what they need to learn to move forward. There are teacher rubrics that explicitly outline what the differing levels of the journey to a “great” teacher looks like / feels like / sounds like including room setup, how lessons run, building self-esteem, work displays, etc. The teachers are coached from these rubrics and supported in their development to achieve. Observational coaching and the viewing of other teachers are encouraged. The teachers are expected to develop mastery in consistently using the Covey “Leader in Me”, Habits of the Mind, De Bono’s 6 Hats, Thinkers Keys, Visible Learning in every interaction.
We could go on with a range of aspects but the point is that this school has done and continues to do the thinking to WHY and HOW they can achieve their goal. It hasn’t been an easy journey. The Principal is constantly looking for funding. The school receives visits from 200 schools per year. There were back-lashes and upset staff at the beginning. The staff does work longer hours than the norm. Yet … they are inspired, passionate, challenged, and fulfilled each and every day.
As you finish reading this I invite you to ask yourself some questions:
- Is the school crystal clear about what its vision and focus (at most one or two areas) is?
- Has the school identified, examined and challenged (WHY?) all the systemic habitual practices and measured them against the question “do these practices deliver, with researched evidence, the future that we are building”
- Has the school identified, explored and implemented HOW they are moving towards the vision and fulfilment of the focuses?
- Is there a high performance learning culture being built? How?
- How is the school address the 3 major stakeholders in a child’s learning – student, staff and community (parents quite often)?
I promise you, if you begin to do this thinking and address these areas … your school will produce exceptional learners.
NOTE: if you want to see more examples, videos, audio files, etc they will be uploaded on the website (www.intuyuconsulting.com.au) soon!