Following the stars

Maori culture is in New Zealand’s heart and I am relishing the opportunity to learn more about it as I spend time here. One aspect of Maori culture that I am increasingly aware of is the importance of narratives and storytelling.

For example, central to the design of Haeata Community Campus, a new school in the east of Christchurch, is the narrative of how children will grow and progress through the school. Each hapori (learning community) has a name reflecting the children’s age and their stage of development:

  1. Years 0-2: Hikuawa (Source of a river)
  2. Years 0-5: Kōmanawa (Spring of water welling up)
  3. Years 3-6: Kaunuku (Steady flowing river)
  4. Years 7-10: Kōrepo (Shallow Swamp)
  5. Years 11-13: Ihutai (Estuary)

For anyone who spends time with teenagers, the notion of Kōrepo will definitely resonate.

Haeata Community Campus, where four school communities have been brought into one

As I visit schools in Christchurch, I’m learning about their individual stories. The 2011 earthquake damaged or destroyed many schools. However, this devastation created an opportunity to re-think the way things had been happening and to re-design new school buildings for a different, 21st century mode of learning.

Re-imagining education isn’t easy and doesn’t come naturally to everyone. Often the journey starts with a core team in the school who see the potential to do something different. They don’t have a perfect strategy to get to the end result, but they want to take their school on that journey.

That’s why I’ve been struck by another narrative that I’ve heard from a number of educators here, including Robin Sutton at Hornby High.

New Zealand was once a set of empty islands, but first the Maori and then the Pākehā came to the Islands by boat. Travelling by sea, they could not travel in a straight line – adverse conditions could force them to change course and all the while they had to respond to the worries and needs of the individuals on their boats. But they always had the stars to guide them.  

In the same way, the leaders who are re-shaping schools in Christchurch do not have a map set out for them. They cannot set a straight course and they know they will face setbacks. However, they can keep making progress as long as they head towards the vision for their school.

When leaders in ‘high performing’ schools are asked to explain how they got their school to its current point, the journey can often sound very linear. When each year of progress is explained in retrospect it’s hard to pick up on the challenges and false starts they will have faced along the way.

In contrast, this narrative – of steering a course by the stars – encapsulates the challenge and unpredictability of change in schools. It’s a powerful reminder that leaders can’t have all the answers. Instead, they can have a clear vision to help them make good decisions and when, quite inevitably, things don’t quite go to plan, to bring the school back on course.

Hornby High is aspiring to be “A Centre of Creative Excellence” with values of commitment, achievement, resilience and respect

A note to readers: I’m only just starting to learn about Maori culture and the history of New Zealand, so if I’ve misrepresented anything in here, please take the opportunity to teach me more and I will correct it. 


What is sustainable change?

Over the past two days I’ve had the honour of joining school leaders from the Bright Spots schools connection at one of their quarterly Thought Leadership Gatherings. The schools at the gathering all serve students from diverse and often deprived backgrounds. They are committed to delivering the best outcomes for them through an ongoing journey of improvement. I’ve learned so much from these leaders in a short space of time and in my next few blogs I plan to share some highlights.

My own research asks how school leaders can be provoked and supported to make their schools more future-focused. So during my workshop I asked the leaders in the room what they would do to trigger sustainable, systemic change.

SVA workshop

Underneath this question is an assumption that we all know what we mean by ‘sustainable’ change. Reflecting on it, I think I originally meant that the change would not be reversible. I was thinking about the idea of ‘sustainable school improvement’ and the contrast to schools where results improve for two years, then the leadership changes and the improvements fall away. I was asking how the leaders would make the changes stick.

But, as with all the best discussions, the response I heard challenged me to think differently. What I heard was this message: sustainable change never ends. Sustainability does not mean stationary. It doesn’t mean moving from the old state to the new and then staying there. Sustainable change never stops asking ‘what’s next?’

As I think about this more deeply, I can connect it with the inquiry cycles that these leaders employ in their schools. They use inquiry, or evaluative cycles, to examine the current state of the school, identify areas where improvement can happen, plan actions, trial them, examine the impact, reflect and improve. As Jess Harris pointed out, the reason these cycles are often called ‘Spirals of Inquiry’ is that they don’t stop. Lessons are taken from the early iterations and the actions and improvements spiral on and on.

If we re-frame change so it’s no longer a ‘From > To’ process and instead becomes a journey, then it loses so much of the risk that can be attached to it. We don’t need an answer, we just need a hunch. We don’t need a fully structured five year plan, we just need a clear sense of vision and direction and a first step. We don’t fall back into the old way of doing things because we never stop moving forward.

It’s interesting how the same words can hold different meanings depending on your context. The more I think about it, the more I want to shift my thinking and embrace a new definition of sustainable change.

What’s a future-focused school? (3)

Part 3: Backward mapping a future-focused school

In my last two posts I explained all the things that I don’t believe define a future-focused school.

I don’t think these schools can be identified wholly through national frameworks and I don’t think they are defined by their use of technology or pedagogy. I also stand by the idea that all schools, no matter how future-focused, still need to ensure their pupils know things. So what’s left?

My starting assumption is that future-focused schools must be responsive to their context. By that I mean their global context, but also the national and the local.

How do I think their leaders will do that? By a process which Elmore (1979) terms ‘backward mapping’. This process starts with the end in mind, asking which outcomes we want to achieve, and therefore what each actor needs to do in order for them to be delivered. Dimmock and Goh (see Dimmock et al., 2013) provide an excellent overview of how this process can work for schools.

Dimmock Goh
Leadership for 21st Century Learning, OECD (2013).

For my project, I am looking for schools where the leaders and teachers have actively engaged in this backward-mapping process. I have identified schools through case studies, networks and contacts where I believe the teachers and leaders are trying to address the question: how can we prepare our pupils to thrive in the modern world?

If the leaders and teachers at a school have actively and intentionally defined the skills, knowledge and competencies they believe their pupils will need; if they have selected their curriculum and pedagogy to develop them; and if they have evidence that pupils are benefiting, then that’s what I call a future-focused school.

Trusting children to learn

Today I visited Silverton Primary, a school with 500 pupils age 5 to 11 on the outskirts of Melbourne. Seventy-five per cent of pupils have English as an additional language and 28% come from the lowest quartile of socioeconomic status backgrounds.

I visited for two reasons. First, the school has focused intentionally on leadership development. Second, learning at Silverton happens in three learning centres, where pupils and staff work collaboratively in an open plan setting.

Seeing this learning in action was inspiring and, amongst the wealth of reflections I’ve taken away, I want to highlight three things:

  1. Children respond to responsibility

The behaviour at Silverton was amazing. I spent much of my morning walking around classrooms where the children were engaged in self-selected, self-directed projects. They were on task and working cooperatively and effectively, whether in groups or individually. Most of them didn’t even notice I was there.

Thinking about the demographic of the school, there are plenty who would say that these children could only stay focused on their work with strict discipline and tight structures. What I saw at Silverton showed me that this isn’t the case.

When they join the school, the children are trained in planning techniques. They learn how to work through a cycle where they identify a learning aim, design their project, carry it out and reflect on the outcomes. With that support, the children are trusted to lead their own learning.


Walking through classes at Silverton, it was clear to me that when children are trusted with responsibility, they will live up to expectations.

  1. Teachers develop through collaboration

I asked teachers at Silverton to tell me about the best development they receive. Their response epitomised descriptions of professional development seen in high performing systems. They told me that being in classrooms every day with fellow teachers gave them constant opportunities to learn.

Since each learning space at Silverton holds two year groups of 125 children, there are teams of teachers working together. As the Principal, Amanda, told me, “no one here plans alone”. Teams of teachers are responsible for all the children’s learning, and at any time their colleagues can see exactly what they’re doing. This allows them to see colleagues’ strengths and explore how their approach has supported great learning, and to share feedback and ideas for improvement.


The research report ‘Beyond PD’ describes how “schools operating in high-performing systems cultivate an open-door culture”. At Silverton, where colleagues work in learning spaces as a team, they don’t even have to open a door.

  1. A good leader opens up decision making

One of the challenges for leaders progressing to a new level of leadership is that suddenly they can face a whole new set of responsibilities. We often hear new headteachers say how difficult it is to engage with school finances, having never gone near them before.

It was striking to me that at Silverton, Amanda makes an active effort to make decisions as transparent as possible. When major decisions are taken she will lay out the factors affecting them: the budget, resourcing, staff skills. She gives her leadership team the time to discuss the options with the wider staff before a decision is taken. The result is not just stronger support for the decision, but an understanding of how that choice was made. It sets her staff in good stead to develop into future leadership roles.

However, I can’t write about decision-making at Silverton without a final note. There was one point which every staff member I spoke to made consistently. That at Silverton, decisions aren’t taken by putting staff first, or budgets, or politics. Decisions are always taken with a focus on the children.

What’s a future-focused school? (2)

Part 2: What it’s not

The term ‘future-focused’ can be polarising. It has become associated with some far-fetched claims, which don’t have strong evidence to support them. In this post I hope to explain why I don’t think ‘future-focused education’ has to be a polarising concept, by explaining what I don’t think this term should stand for.

A future focused school is not…

…Just about technology: It’s hard to disentangle the impact of technological change from our broader view of the future. It’s clear that advances in technology are massively affecting the way we live our lives and that the impact is only set to grow. Some schools are embracing technology to elicit a fundamental change in the way that teaching and learning happens. They’re delivering exciting results and I won’t lie, they look and feel pretty future-focused. But importantly, I don’t think technology defines a future-focused school. That‘s because it’s possible to develop many of the competencies defined by the OECD and in Australia, New Zealand and Singapore, without stepping anywhere near a digital device. Technology can help facilitate innovation and collaboration, but you can also definitely develop them without a wireless connection.

…About a specific pedagogy: Governments and the OECD have begun defining 21st century competencies because there is a general sense that these competencies aren’t being consistently developed in education at the moment. This suggests that our education systems need to change. As Einstein said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.”

There are some pedagogical approaches – such as project-based learning, inquiry learning and flipped learning – which are commonly associated with future-focused schooling (e.g. Dimmock et al., 2013). Some high profile schools have embraced these pedagogies and are held up as exemplars of innovation (Behrend et al., 2014; Innovation Unit, 2013). However, when we look closer, teachers in these schools are often blending constructivist pedagogies with more traditional direct instruction. As I’ll explain below, developing competencies such as critical thinking or problem-solving can’t come at the expense of acquisition of knowledge and as far as I’m aware, the evidence still shows that the most efficient way for novice learners to acquire new knowledge is direct instruction (Kirschner, Sweller, & Clark, 2006).

My assumption going into this research is that there isn’t a single pedagogical approach which defines or enables future-focused schooling; most likely a blend is needed. I am interested in the pedagogical preferences of the schools I visit, but going into this project, I am, for want of a better description, pedagogically agnostic.

…About a knowledge free curriculum: There’s a classic claim made about the information age: that with the internet at our fingertips we no longer need to focus on remembering information, but on making use of it. While it’s true that information is more readily available than ever, it is definitively wrong to say this means we don’t need to internalise it. There are numerous studies which show that as we learn about topics, the way we think about them changes (Chi, Feltovich, & Glaser, 1981; Kirschner et al., 2006). Others show that learners are only good at navigating unstructured information, like that found on the internet, if they already have a good level of basic knowledge about a topic (Chen, Fan, & Macredie, 2006).

Technological advances do not remove the need for knowledge, but they do change the type of knowledge and skills we need. Humans used to be better than machines simply because we knew things. Now, we have to being able to do new and innovative things with our knowledge. In the future, the hardest jobs for machines to replace will be ones that involve non-routine, non-automatable activities. Adults will need to be capable not just of recalling information and reproducing outputs, but of mobilising and applying their knowledge in new contexts and circumstances (OECD, 2018a).

A future-focused school has to be one that doesn’t just equip a young person with knowledge, but also with the power to use it.

What’s a future-focused school? (1)

Part 1: A global view

The term ‘future-focused’ means different things to different people, and can raise hackles for some. So across three posts, I’ll explain how I’m defining future-focused schools. Education systems in plenty of countries have already engaged in this debate, articulating the gap between the competencies that pupils need to develop in order to thrive in the modern world, and the ones that have traditionally been fostered in their education systems. So I’ll start by exploring the global view.

A useful overview of competency frameworks from multiple agencies and jurisdictions was produced by Ontario’s Ministry of Education in 2015 (MoE, 2015). The review includes 25 frameworks covering 30 competencies. Some competencies feature in almost every framework: collaboration and teamwork; communication; creativity/innovation; critical thinking; problem solving, and technological and digital fluency. All the competencies fall into three buckets: cognitive, interpersonal and intrapersonal. However, it is hard to overlook the subtle differences between frameworks, which reflect the different purposes and contexts for which they were created.

Since this overview was published, the OECD has shared, as work in progress, a set of global competencies they believe all young people need to develop in order to participate in the modern world (OECD, 2018b).

The vision underpinning the OECD’s frameworks is:

“… helping every learner develop as a whole person, fulfil his or her potential and help shape a shared future built on the well-being of individuals, communities and the planet.”

Perhaps the most notable aspect of this vision is that it does not treat education purely as an economic good; it views it as the means by which the next generation will be equipped to address the world’s social and environmental challenges. The OECD expects learners will need to become competent at deploying a range knowledge, skills, attitudes and values to meet these challenges, as illustrated in the Learning Framework 2030.

OECD 2030

Each of the states and countries I have chosen to visit has its own framework for future-focused education. The Australian curriculum, which is translated by individual states, incorporates general capabilities for the 21st Century; New Zealand has defined five key competencies – capabilities for living and lifelong learning; Singapore has a Framework for 21st Century Competencies and Student Outcomes.

In contrast, the sole requirement in England (for secondary schools) is that their curriculum “promotes the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of pupils at the school and of society, and prepares pupils at the school for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of later life.” Defining what that means in practice is left to the individual school, or school group, and its leaders.

Since each of the countries I’m visiting has defined a set of competencies, I could just adopt their definitions. But there’s a small problem: the definitions are different. Each of these countries has defined different competencies.

This suggests that context has an important role in determining which competencies young people are going to need. If that’s the case, I don’t think context can stop at the national level. I think it has to account for the local context of the school and the individual context of the learner. That’s why I’m adopting a ‘backward mapping’ approach, which I’ll explain in my third post. But before that I want to address some misconceptions.

Why does education need to change?

There is a question echoing through education systems across the world: are we doing enough to prepare young people for the future?

So far, the evidence suggests the answer is no. In 2016, an international survey of large employers found that 52% expected jobs to have a growing demand for cognitive skills like creativity, logical reasoning and problem sensitivity – skills that the authors argue traditional education systems are not set up to provide (Leopold, Ratcheva, & Zahidi, 2016). In the UK, the annual Pearson/CBI employers survey (CBI/Pearson, 2017) shows that more than half of employers are dissatisfied with young people’s analytical skills; 48% are not satisfied with their attitudes and behaviours; 46% are not satisfied with their communication skills; and 40% are not satisfied with their problem solving.

Large employers are increasingly using their own assessments to recruit entry-level employees, rather than relying on exam grades or degree classifications (Huffington Post, 2015; Penguin Random House, 2016). Another signal that success in the education system no longer predicts success in the adult world.

The gap extends beyond the workplace, to fundamental capabilities such as digital literacy. Recent research shows that young people with high academic attainment still lack the skills to identify so called ‘fake news’ (Wineburg, McGrew, Breakstone, & Ortega, 2016) and that younger people are also more likely to refer to unreliable sources when researching health information (Deursen, 2012). These skills are increasingly important in a world where anyone can distribute content, without quality controls.

Plenty of research explores how curriculum and pedagogy could or should change so that pupils are better prepared for the modern world. However, much less research examines the role of school leaders in this process.

That’s why I’m setting off on a three-month trip to investigate how school leaders in Australia, New Zealand and Singapore are leading a process of school re-design to make sure their pupils are ready for the 21st century.