ReSchooling for a Green Revolution

Our education system faces significant challenges. Decision-makers adhere to conventional, linear thinking, focusing on immediate issues instead of strategizing for the disruption that is shaping our future. Outdated beliefs about schooling, rooted in an industrial and colonialist society, limit our vision of what is possible. In this era of hyper-change, our education systems fall short in preparing young people for a different future. The fixation on test scores feels like a parody of Vietnam War body counts, imposing a rigid, conveyor-belt approach that hampers both teacher and student agency.

In 1971, Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society called for a radical transformation in education, arguing that formal schooling perpetuates a harmful and oppressive system that fosters dependency and hinders true learning. Perhaps, rather than “Deschooling Society,” Illich should have titled his work “Reschooling Society” because the concept of “school” still remains highly relevant, but it is quickly transforming. Standalone institutions and rigid attendance patterns are becoming less frequent, as time, space, people, technology, and partnerships are being reconsidered within the educational landscape. However, preserving the social spaces that schools provide is crucial, and the physical space of the school should not be overlooked. As we explore diverse approaches to “doing school,” we should protect the school as a distinct and collective living space where meaningful interactions thrive.

When envisioning schools of the future, it is tempting to imagine gleaming “futuristic” structures filled with cutting-edge technology, virtual reality, and AI-driven personalized programs. While these technological advancements will play a role, what matters most is how schools construct a future where humans can truly thrive. In the book FutureSchool: How Schools Around the World are Applying Learning Design Principles For a New Era, the authors present inspiring examples of reschooling:

  •     Green School in Bali is dedicated to nurturing a new generation of global green leaders and environmentally conscious citizens. The school’s commitment to sustainability is evident in its construction, which utilizes fast-growing and renewable bamboo, showcasing an exceptional example of eco-friendliness. Its vision is to provide students with a holistic and sustainable education, immersing them in a natural, green environment that fosters a deep connection with nature.
  •   Liger Leadership Academy in Cambodia empowers promising youth to rise above a historical backdrop of trauma and emerge as socially conscious and visionary leaders. It offers a residential scholarship program to underprivileged students, granting them access to a comprehensive education enriched with an innovative STEM and entrepreneurship curriculum. The accomplishments of Liger students are remarkable, from becoming international authors and app developers to trailblazing in digital currency, robotics engineering, and award-winning filmmaking – all before the age of 15.Top of Form

The authors, Valerie Hannon and Julie Temperley, argue that profound transformative change is sweeping across all aspects of human life, and the rapid advancement of convergent technologies hold immense promise in shaping a brighter future. While education systems might not fully grasp the gravity and potential of this moment, key school innovators certainly do, deeply understanding that we cannot thrive if our planet does not. We should infuse everything taught and learned with the awareness that humanity stands at a critical juncture, facing the choice between extinction and transformation. Thom Markham writes, Get young people out. Stop sequestering them in rows, in 30 x 60 foot containers. Turn them loose on community issues and show them how to design solutions that matter to well-being, climate, and equality. Tap their innovator spirit and trust they have the genius to create a positive future.”

  •     Copenhagen International School has woven service and sustainability throughout its curriculum. In the primary grades, sustainability is a part of every inquiry-based learning unit. As students progress from grades 6 to 10, they select a United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) of their choice, delve into its implications for the local community, and actively engage in generating innovative solutions, exemplified by projects such as constructing birdhouses and crafting recycled mats for those experiencing homelessness.
  •       The Climate Action Leadership Diploma program at Pearson College UWC in Canada equips students with the skills and knowledge to pursue careers in biotechnology, education, sustainability, and filmmaking, serving as a powerful tool to address the pressing challenges of climate change through early and solution-oriented education.
  •       The International Baccalaureate Organization is launching an innovative pilot program for 16-19 year-olds, featuring a project-oriented curriculum focused on addressing intricate real-world challenges, known as the Systems Transformation Pathway, targeting critical global issues including Biodiversity, Energy, Food Security, and Migration.
  •       In Australia, at Hills Grammar School, students have the opportunity to partake in the Innovation in Complex Systems Program, engaging in a project aimed at devising a comprehensive strategy for their school to attain Net Zero Carbon Emissions.
  •       The UK aims to make sustainability a cornerstone of education by assigning a dedicated sustainability coordinator to every state school by 2030.
  •       The Green School in Bali cares for 14 stray dogs, reminding us of the power of thinking locally and nurturing our immediate community to effect lasting change.

When we engage with the perspectives of young people on addressing climate change, their common response tends to revolve around the concept of ‘recycling.’ However, it’s worth considering whether our greater moral imperative lies in equipping the youth we educate with a commitment to infiltrate the ranks of the eleven corporations accountable for 85% of the world’s emissions, an approach that would yield a far more impactful change towards combating the climate crisis. To achieve a green revolution that safeguards our environment, sustains life on Earth, and fosters a profound shift in our relationship with other species, we must prioritize the development of institutions explicitly aimed at cultivating new humans. Schools and new ways of schooling are vital to enabling us to thrive in a transforming world.

My Editorial for ACEL’s Vic newsletter July 2023

In July, the ACEL Victoria Patron’s Oration marked a momentous occasion—the celebration of ACEL’s 50th Anniversary. Dr. Frank Crowther, ACEL National Patron, eloquently traced ACEL’s remarkable journey, acknowledging the undeniable influence Victorians have had on its growth from the very beginning. This milestone event offered ACEL members a unique opportunity to connect across generations with inspirational educators like Frank, whose pioneering efforts paved the way for the present and future.

ACEL has seen remarkable growth, with around 80,000 members since inception. Throughout its history, prominent figures have left indelible impacts and invaluable lessons. William Walker’s pivotal leadership played a significant role in propelling ACEA (now ACEL) beyond bureaucratic barriers, fostering mutual respect among three education systems, and encouraging sustained growth.

One of ACEL’s core strengths lies in promoting adaptability and openness to change among educational leaders, a principle strongly advocated by the late Hedley Beare. His image, as vividly painted by Frank, with outstretched arms in his Harvard crimson gown, continues to inspire ACEL members. In the context of our rapidly transforming educational landscape, one can’t help but wonder what Hedley Beare would have thought of Chat GPT—an educational transformation of unparalleled scale and speed. It is likely that he would have appreciated the potential of personalised learning and the extraordinary possibilities arising from the fusion of AI’s strengths with the unique contributions of human teachers. His focus, no doubt, would have been on empowering people to thrive amidst the exponential changes reshaping our world.

Another influential figure in ACEL’s history is Brian Caldwell, a proponent of distributed leadership, with an exceptional ability to mobilise ideas. As highlighted by Frank, Brian’s capacity to bring people with different perspectives together, encouraging constructive conversations, is just what is required to bridge the current literacy wars; the fusion of critical and mainstream thinking is what is needed to propel educational progress. Brian’s higher-order leadership skills—enabling a multifaceted understanding of complex issues—remain indispensable in today’s uncertain and volatile world.

The Patron’s Oration served as a powerful reminder of the need for agile leadership in education, capable of navigating a constantly shifting landscape. ACEL’s historical experience shows that leaders thrive in complexity, embracing uncertainty, ambiguity, and messiness, with a ‘learner’ rather than an ‘expert’ mindset. Effective education leaders approach their work with patience, foster respectful and trusting relationships, and engage in genuine conversations rather than relying on formulaic approaches. Intellectual curiosity, the ability to make people feel seen and heard, and inviting them into the process of change rather than dictating it are essential traits of impactful education leaders.

Throughout its existence, ACEL has remained committed to facilitating discussions by the profession and for the profession. By participating in ACEL, individuals open themselves up to opportunities and connections with the broader world. ACEL Victoria has been a driving force in the organisation, consistently spearheading positive change. As Dr. Frank Crowther aptly stated, “We have power and influence. We have shaped the world for 50 years,” and “Our heritage is one of great achievement and great pride.” Here’s to another 50 years of progress and empowerment under ACEL’s guidance!

 

AI in Education Conference

Informa AI in Education Panel

  • David de Carvalho, CEO, ACARA
  • Cameron Paterson, Director of Learning, Wesley College
  • Mark Grant, Chief Executive Officer, Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL)
  • Dr Catherine McClellan, Deputy CEO, Research and Assessment, Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER)
  • Moderator: Dr Jane Hunter, Associate Professor Professional Learning, University of Technology Sydney

My comments –

The dance of love and fear – teachers love that our reports now write themselves and fear that students won’t submit their own work. Things are changing so fast we can’t keep up. And we need to be comfortable with that. When I’m uncertain, I ask the kids. I’m always blown aware by their insight and awareness.

Earlier this year a Harvard edtech professor ran an experiment with their class. Unbeknownst to the students, half received their feedback from the professor and tutors, while the other half received AI-generated feedback from ChatGPT. At the end of the course the students who had received the AI feedback performed better and rated their enjoyment of the class higher. One student who had received AI feedback without knowing it, stated that while the class was a little boring, receiving personalised feedback was the highlight.

The use of ChatGPT to generate essays and homework is rife and I don’t know that the take-home essay will survive. We will see more in-class writing and the rise of a new breed of oral assessments – TED talks meet the viva voce.

As a history teacher, AI can take my students to any point in time, from any perspective. Ask ChatGPT to be a German immigrant arriving in New York City in 1885 and describe the sights, sounds, and emotions. Prepare for an extraordinary conversation. (But perhaps don’t try asking it to take on the perspective of an indigenous Australian on the shores of Sydney Cove in 1788 and describe the First Fleet sailed in. It might use the word “excited”, an appropriate caution for us). But, we can talk to John Curtain, talk with the sheep-shearers in Banjo Paterson’s The Man from Snowy River, and even talk to the Murray River. Try it. Plato, Rousseau, and Dewey can tell me what they think of our College strategic plan.

AI means better teaching and less work. It can design exceptional lesson plans with:

  • check-ins
  • role plays
  • low-stakes quizzes
  • exit cards

It can provide scaffolds (for those who require support)

And challenge (for those who need to be extended)

AI provides faster and more accurate feedback and it can collate written feedback from a student’s essays over time into one neat report comment.

Artist-scientist Michelle Huang created a time portal to her childhood by training AI on her childhood journal entries, allowing her to converse with her younger self. Envision a future in which, instead of childhood journals, the corpus is learning reflections gathered throughout schooling, allowing students to have conversations about their learning experiences that help them gain insights into their own thinking.

Influencer Caryn Marjorie has created an AI clone to monetise her persona. She reckons it can make her one million dollars a month. What are the implications for teaching?

Remember that this is the worst version of AI our students will see for the rest of their lives. It will get exponentially better from here. It is only a matter of time until AI can:

  • analyse student discussions
  • create visual representations of learning moments
  • coach students to ask better questions

Just as previous generations learned to work with different cultures and genders, the next generation will learn to work with AI and robots. It is going to be tricky while we learn to be AI compatible and rely on backup memory. Young people will lead the charge in developing innovative ways to utilise it.

In the longer term, our view of what it means to be human is going to have to change and we don’t have mental models for such a shift.

IB Global Conference Adelaide 2023

Keynote highlights were Dr Helen Street on wellbeing, mental health, diversity, discrimination, belonging, autonomy, agency – “the pursuit of wellbeing in schools is not working”.

Michael McQueen on the future of education and his comments on Virtual Reality and the Metaverse – “Best practice doesn’t stay best practice for long.”

There was an excellent student voice panel on the importance of curricula decolonisation, connection, open-mindedness, respect of pronouns, and belonging. “Young people must be taught open mindedness, to resist echo chambers and to listen to the voices outside those echo chambers.” (Char Palmer, Woodleigh School student).

I attended a couple of MYP workshops facilitated by Nat Erbes. Tension between structure and flexibility has swung too far towards structure, need to make the curriculum work for us, the MYP is a flexible framework, learner experience at the centre, encourage innovation, incorporate pedagogical/adolescent development research, from a single model to a framework that supports multiple approaches, moving from service learning to community engagement, design for coherence.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My favourite workshop was with Ted Cowan and Rebecca Smith from UWC Singapore on Approaches to Wellbeing. They spoke about belonging and shared vision, psychological culture and relationship culture. I particularly appreciated their reference to engaging and enhancing student voice and hearing about the relationship mapping project with Harvard’s Making Caring Common.

Olli Pekka-Heinonen, IB Director General closed the conference stating, “We are in-between worlds. The practices and mental models of the old world create an existential crisis. We don’t have the words for it or see it properly yet.”

Ways to Teach with AI

 This will be the simplest hack you can possibly think of! The simplest ideas are often the best.

My starting point is that learning is a consequence of thinking. I am curious about how AI might help make students better thinkers. Most classes have behaviour management routines, so it makes sense to also develop routines around thinking, we can automate the approaches to thinking we would like to see more frequently. Many of you will be familiar with some of the thinking routines developed by Harvard’s Project Zero. Thinking routines are prompting tools, scaffolds for thinking, they are patterns of behaviour. They help nudge the model beyond teacher delivers, students receives.

Most teachers are familiar with the Think-Pair-Share approach, where students consider a question, discuss their answers with a classmate, and then share their thinking with the class. It helps to generate knowledge and to promote collaboration.

Credit to Sarah Dillard for this insight. One of the biggest tech-enabled leaps in pedagogy could simply be Think-Pair-ChatGPT-Pair-Share. ChatGPT adds an additional source of thought and perspective.

Take a thinking routine and add in generative AI as another step.

Here’s another one – Question Starts could become Prompt Starts

We know that when students ask more generative and constructive questions, and less procedural and review questions, learning improves. Prompt engineering for Generative AI can help us teach how to ask better questions and think more deeply. The better the prompt, the better the output.

Other tweaks to try might be adding an AI step into Give One, Get One or Plus One Notemaking.

Thinking routines are not static, they are designed to be adaptable.

Don’t reinvent the wheel, incorporate AI into existing teaching practice.

Teaching is a creative act.

I hope I have got you thinking.

 

 

 

 

 

Letter to The Age

Young people are entering a highly unpredictable world and the skills required to thrive in this environment are not captured in a ranking (Principals urge education authorities to scrap ATAR, 10 Feb). The ATAR score is a narrow and inadequate representation of a student’s 13-year journey, and it does not reflect their myriad individual strengths or talents. The excessive emphasis on the ATAR as a marker of academic proficiency has become overwhelming. Australia is the only country that employs such a system. It is essential that we create new metrics that are more than just academic, so that each student leaves school feeling confident, capable, empowered, and prepared for life-long learning in an AI world.

Teaching for Democracy

This is my speech for the book launch of Empowering Teachers and Democratising Schools

In her book Teacher, Gabbie Stroud beautifully encapsulates what is happening by stealth to the teaching profession:

“Good teaching comes from teachers who know their students, who build relationships, who meet learners at their point of need and who recognize that there’s nothing standard about the journey of learning. We cannot forget the art of teaching – without it, schools become factories, students become products and teachers: nothing more than machinery.”

I had the privilege of writing a chapter with Meredith Gavrin, a school founder in the US with expertise in Facing History and Ourselves, an organisation that uses lessons of history to challenge teachers to stand up to bigotry and hate. It helps me to find my voice when I write with colleagues. The central argument of our chapter is that teachers’ professional freedom and creativity are essential to democracy’s survival, yet schools are increasingly threatened by controlling bureaucracies and driven by performative measures.

School education is becoming a much more bureaucratised system, asking more of teachers, and getting less in return. It has become harder to exercise pedagogical freedom, which has been consumed by standardisation. Overpowering bureaucracies impose stifling regulations. Teachers are losing control of professional decisions as their tacit knowledge and experience is diminished. Tacit knowledge is the subtle nuance that is invisible to the untrained eye; even the best teachers find it hard to explain. In Alex Wharton’s chapter, he calls it the “unquantifiable, invisible work that teachers do”.

Our educational tensions are well known: punitive accountability, a climate of competition, over-reliance on numeric data, the negative effects of over-testing, and an epidemic of anxiety. The student rite of passage of shovelling a mass of content, cramming syllabus dot points, and being drilled to answer exam-style questions seems rather pointless in today’s fluid, connected world. Schools are largely driven by performative measures. The inspiring Melbourne Declaration and the more recent Mparntwe Declaration have been totally overshadowed by NAPLAN. Teacher colleague Deb Netolicky writes, “Teaching should not be a profession without accountabilities, but education is not an algorithm”. Quality assessment is more a conversation, than a number.

Thank you, Keith and Steve for the honour of being a part of this compelling book. It has been inspiring to witness a TeachMeet morph into a book. Teachers can thrive within democratic structures, but this is difficult while we work within layers of hierarchy and administration. Thank you as well for your acknowledgement of the Flip the System book that I was lucky to edit with Deb Netolicky and Jon Andrews. I appreciate the way that you skilfully build on the theme of teachers talking to teachers about teaching – such a deceptively obvious approach. We learn more in the staff room, the carpark, and the pub than in any mandated professional development session.

Teaching is an extraordinarily rewarding career. It is an art, not a delivery system. Every day is exciting. One of the allures is that there are no absolutes, no clear-cut answers. It is not our job to prevent risks, it is our job to make it safe to take them. The goal is always to make kids independent learners for life.

At the Woodford Folk Festival a few weeks ago, Anthony Albanese warned that democracies are under threat from “corrosive, insidious forces”. Democracy is something we have to fight for. Schools play a central role in any robust democracy. This needs to be relentlessly reiterated amidst the noise of high-velocity capitalism. Democracy only works when citizens are aware of their own role in protecting democratic principles. For democracy to thrive, a well-informed and thinking citizenry must thrive as well. Teaching is a creative, political, human act.

Thank you

To save democracy, we need to flip the system

In her book Teacher, Gabbie Stroud beautifully encapsulates what is happening by stealth to the teaching profession:

“Good teaching …comes from teachers who know their students, who build relationships, who meet learners at their point of need and who recognize that there’s nothing standard about the journey of learning. We cannot forget the art of teaching – without it, schools become factories, students become products and teachers: nothing more than machinery.”

Yet schools are becoming factories, students are becoming products, and teachers are becoming machinery right in front of our eyes.

A flourishing democracy requires educated people, able to think critically. Schooling has transformed the course of Australian history. A democracy cannot thrive without empowering schools to keep democratic values at the centre.

Teachers’ professional freedom and creativity are essential to democracy’s survival. This includes teachers’ abilities to make informed, independent decisions based on their observations and understanding of their students. While other institutions leach trust, schools remain trusted pillars of the community, yet schools are increasingly threatened by controlling bureaucracies and driven by performative measures.

Social media and digital communication have made us poor listeners and learners. Certainty is favoured over nuanced debate. Education is a space to hold complex and different points of view. Unfortunately, fixed positions and strict boundaries are increasingly the dominant forces in schools, where teachers often feel unable to set the agenda. The humanity and complexity of teaching is being threatened by political and commercial influences. Teachers are hampered by reckless education policies, rising workloads and robotic accountabilities.

School education is becoming a much more bureaucratised system, asking more of teachers and getting less in return. It has become harder to exercise pedagogical freedom, which has been consumed by standardisation. Overwhelming bureaucracies impose stifling regulations. Teachers are losing control of professional decisions as their tacit knowledge and experience is diminished. Tacit knowledge is the subtle nuance that is invisible to the untrained eye; even the best teachers find it hard to explain.

The media often provides polarising perspectives of the teaching profession. It is quite typical to turn the TV on in the evening and see commentators dissecting teaching as a profession. Many adults feel empowered to weigh in with opinions about schooling based on having once attended school themselves. Teacher voices are rarely sought.

As the popular global Flip the System movement has shown, our educational tensions are well known: punitive accountability, a climate of competition, over-reliance on numeric data, the negative effects of over-testing, and an epidemic of anxiety. The student rite of passage of shovelling a mass of content, cramming syllabus dot points, and being drilled to answer exam-style questions seems rather pointless in today’s fluid, connected world. Schools are largely driven by performative measures. The inspiring Melbourne Declaration and the more recent Alice Spring (Mparntwe) Declaration have been totally overshadowed by the dominance of NAPLAN.

Booming commercial investment surrounds education. Mass assessment, obsession with quantitative data, and technological innovations are ubiquitous. Teacher colleague Deb Netolicky often writes, “Teaching should not be a profession without accountabilities, but education is not an algorithm”. Quality assessment is more a conversation, than a number.

Teachers need the autonomy and agency to make informed judgments based on their classroom observations and their knowledge of their students. However, in today’s accountability regimes, teacher learning is too often compelled towards compliance, rather than development. Fostering a community in which deep discussions about teaching and learning are an essential part of teacher practice provides the basis for cultivating students’ thinking and learning. Collaborative structures help to decrease teacher isolation, codify and share successful teaching practices, increase staff morale, and open the door to experimentation and increased collective efficacy. High levels of collaboration are likely to exist when the leadership marks it as a priority, when common time and physical space are set aside for collaboration, and when teaching and learning are seen as a team responsibility, rather than an individual responsibility.

If teachers are supported to grow, question, and reflect, they will generate the same environments for their students. Thinking is a social endeavour. Learning happens when students engage with ideas and when they ask questions. Students learn from the people around them and their engagement with them. It is deeply important that they are able to converse with others, play with ideas, and collectively create knowledge.

Teaching is an extraordinarily rewarding career. It is an art, not a delivery system. Every day is exciting. One of the allures is that there are no absolutes, no clear-cut answers. It is not our job to prevent risks, it is our job to make it safe to take them. The goal is always to make kids independent learners for life.lip

At the Woodford Folk Festival a few weeks ago, Anthony Albanese warned that democracies are under threat from “corrosive, insidious forces”. Schools play a central role in any robust democracy. This needs to be relentlessly reiterated amidst the noise of high-velocity capitalism. Democracy only works when citizens are aware of their own role in protecting democratic principles. For democracy to thrive, a well-informed and thinking citizenry must thrive as well. Teaching is a creative, political, human act. Democracy can’t be automated.

Education Leadership in Complex Times

The modern education system requires agile leadership that is capable of responding to an ever-changing landscape. Leaders must be able to build an adaptive, learning culture, build relationships and trust; create an inclusive and collaborative environment; and set a clear vision. This blogpost explores the qualities of successful education leaders in complex times.

Adaptive Leadership

While it used to be adequate for people to do as they were told, today people are needed who understand themselves and their world at a qualitatively higher level of mental complexity. The confusing, changing demands of modern life are developmentally inappropriate for most adults. The bar has been raised so high, so fast that the level of awareness and self-motivation expected today is far greater than anything required of previous generations. We no longer live in a world where we have the right to expect authorities to know the answers.

Complex, adaptive problems are solved with emergent practices, not ready to implement technical solutions. Leaders who thrive in complexity tolerate more uncertainty, ambiguity, and messiness. As the rate of change cycles at faster and faster rates, it requires more of a ‘learner’ and less of an ‘expert’ mindset. Adaptive leadership is about pointing people at the problem and mobilising them to do the work rather than being the one with all the answers. The people with the problem own the problem and the problem solving needs to be transferred to them.

Brian Cook, Social Studies Department Head at Dana Hall School, Boston says, “It’s about nurturing an eco-system rather than sticking to script. It takes time and it is messy and that is part of the process. You have to be OK with making mistakes.”

Psychological Safety

When a team operates in a culture of psychological safety, staff are energised to speak up when they see something going wrong. Leaders model that it is OK to make mistakes and acknowledge that they are likely to miss things. They are intentionally curious about people they disagree with in order to understand them. Differences generate conflict and creativity and help shape new perspectives. Instead of seeing resisters, leaders see people of potential. We can influence people by asking challenging questions and really listening to their answers. Where do they feel that little niggling feeling? What question are they asking that this might be the answer to? What do they want their learners to be like?

Jeff Evancho, Assistant Superintendent Secondary Education at South Fayette School District, Pennsylvania says, “I look for my toughest critics and start to build relationships. You have to be genuine. The art of listening. I set up in the library for a day, emailed all staff and invited them to come and challenge or critique me, whatever they wanted.”

Informal Leadership

80% of learning is informal and we must recognize our dependence on informal networks. Teachers learn more in the staff room, the carpark, and the pub than in any professional development session. They find out how to teach through informal learning: talking, observing others, trial-and-error, and working with experienced mentors. Leaders can identify the “seed carriers”, internal networkers and middle leaders who know how to get people talking to one another and how to build informal communities.

Brian Cook, Social Studies Department Head at Dana Hall School, Boston says, “Most enduring change comes about from middle managers. Every school has the teachers who have been there long enough to cultivate those informal relationships.”

Leadership Stance

Leading complex pedagogical change in schools requires patience for the slow and messy nature of the work, respectful and trusting relationships with people, listening with curiosity and authenticity, and respect for context and history. It isn’t about applying a formula; it is about engaging in a conversation. Effective leaders are intellectually curious, make people feel seen and heard, and invite people into change instead of telling them what they need to change. Too much education leadership focuses on procedural change and does not get to the deep change in teachers’ beliefs required for effective school improvement. Teachers are professionals with agency and teaching is a collaborative enterprise that requires constant reflection, examination, and inquiry.

Our leadership stance determines how we frame problems, see opportunities, and direct our energies. The quotes below are from three transformational education leaders. What can you infer about their collective leadership stance, and their views on learning and education?

“Instilling the same dispositions in the teachers and leadership as you hope to instil in students is one way to ensure that change has legs. It’s so powerful to invite people into change instead of telling them what they need to change.” – Kristen Kullberg, Making and Design Initiatives Coordinator at Washington International School

“If you are doing systemic large-scale change, you have to be focused on the adult learners first, not the children. The biggest mistake is not viewing adults as learners as well. If you don’t treat adults as professionals, you are [in a difficult situation].” – Elise Heil, Principal at Sacred Heart School, Washington DC.

“Have a genuine desire to listen and learn, to see your role as not the authority. Be truly curious about your learners, really care. Desire to listen and connect in an authentic way. See education as truly part of a civic effort. It is beyond passing a test; it’s about creating humans; it is more lifelong. When someone sees you as a human, that is really empowering as learner.” – Nathalie Ryan, Senior Educator at US National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

Positive Leadership

Leaders question the status quo. In order to do something, we have to be able to imagine it. Becoming clear about our personal and collective purpose, is how we become leaders. When we know and document our values, and ask others to hold us accountable to them, it draws talented and motivated people to us. Clarifying your unique purpose and writing, distilling, and frequently revising that purpose can be transformational. Try providing your colleagues with a copy of your personal purpose, and ask them to call you on it if they see you not supporting those values.

People and organizations flourish when positive practices are given greater emphasis than negative practices. Ensure that after people interact with you, they have more energy. Three particularly important activities for promoting a positive climate include fostering compassion, forgiveness, and gratitude among employees. Leaders should be a source of life-giving or positive energy.

Erik Lindemann, 3rd Grade Teacher and Facilitator/Leader at Osborne Elementary in Michigan says, “Spend time with people who are the sparklers, the energisers, Spend time with the plusses. The ‘Yes, And…?’ people.”

Education leaders in complex times face a unique set of challenges. They must be open to change, embrace ambiguity, foster relationships, and cultivate a culture of psychological safety. They must also recognize the power of informal learning, understand the importance of a positive leadership stance, and sparkle with energy.

*Quotes in this blogpost are from my Churchill Fellowship.

Becoming Who You Really Are

The following summary is based on the Becoming Who You Really Are executive education course at Michigan Ross.

What is the one thing that is keeping you from becoming a great leader, and what are you doing about it? Leadership is developed through discovery and deliberate practice. Even Gandhi moved from being awkward and ineffective to an expert leader who could change paradigms and behaviours. In order to do something, we have to be able to imagine it. Because Gandhi had spent time with the lower classes, he was able to articulate what was real and important to Indians: salt and bread, basic needs. What is the bread and salt of your school?

Becoming clear about our personal and collective purpose, is how we become leaders. If we know our values, document those values, and allow others to hold us accountable to them, this creates a power that attracts talented and inspired individuals. “I would like you to hold me accountable for these.” What are your deepest beliefs? Do people around you know who you really are and what matters most to you? Exposing who you really are moves people.

Clarifying your unique purpose and writing, refining, updating, and constantly reviewing that purpose can be transformational. Understanding your life’s mission can increase your positive thoughts, help you perform better, and improve your ability to impact the performance of others. Why don’t you give each of your direct reports a copy of your deeply held values and personal highest purpose, and then instruct them that if they ever witness you acting in a way that doesn’t reflect those values, they are to call you on it?

As we become purpose-driven, we begin to use personal stories to convey the higher purpose of the school. These personal stories deliver a level of authenticity that can motivate other members of the team. When we show ourselves to be vulnerable, and speak with authenticity, we build trust and commitment in our teams. Telling authentic stories from our own life can be a source of power.

When purpose is clarified, some people will realise that they don’t belong at your school. This is a good thing. As you replace these individuals, you will be able to attract talented people whose purpose is aligned with the organisation. As a leader, your goal should be to connect your team to the higher purpose that drives the school as a whole. Could you take your strategy and translate it into a few pictures? This helps to convey the school vision in a way that allows everyone in the school to contribute to success. A school doesn’t truly have a purpose until it is clear to everyone.

We can empower people by encouraging them to think about the question, “what result do you want to create?” rather than handing them a solution to a problem. There is tremendous pressure on leaders to be the expert, to have the answers and solve all the problems. Stepping out of the expert role is necessary if team members are to be empowered to think and act for themselves. Leaders should try to act as though they are the dumbest person in the room. You should go into every meeting genuinely trying to learn from the people there. Let others be the experts. Be vulnerable and authentic. Make it possible for other people to grow.

Leaders challenge the status quo. School culture stifles risk-taking. If every year you don’t risk your job, you aren’t doing your job. Schools must choose between deep change or slow death. Leaders must work against the natural school biases toward stability, structure and bureaucracy. School resistance to change is deeply held. As pressure to change builds within a school, the initial reaction is denial. Leaders must expect and confront denial.

Instead of seeing resisters, see people of potential. “Failures” of people are really failures of leadership. When people don’t follow, it’s the leader who is the problem. The best way to create an environment of trust is to listen and be empathetic to those around you. When these things are done effectively, leaders are often amazed by the energy and performance of their teams. In order to convince people that they can do what they know they cannot do, a leader must have their complete trust. A leader helps people do what they think is impossible. We can influence people by asking challenging questions and then truly listening to their answers. Challenging questions can help people to think and to become self-empowered.

Are you willing to invite feedback from others? Have you been explicit about your desire to receive feedback? Have you created an environment that makes it easy for others to approach you and offer this feedback? Feedback is essential to learning. Unfortunately, most people don’t feel comfortable giving or getting feedback. In order to grow, we have to open ourselves to feedback from others.