I have spent a good bit of time over the past year or so thinking on democracy in schools and the notion of flattened leadership. I am not an advocate of top-down leadership. I have met too many leaders who see themselves as expert and time-served and I remain sceptical. Building a team of like-minded professionals, invested in our school community, intrinsically motivated because they have a desire to develop as people and as educators has been my mission for the past 5 years since taking up post. Beyond that, how might we engage every family attached to our school community, for, as Steve Constantino says:
If we as educators could successfully teach all children by ourselves, then it seems to me we would have already done so. The fact that we haven’t should be all the motivation or evidence we need that engaging every family in the educational life of his or her child is essential to desired school outcomes.
My interest in this has grown from research I am conducting in school as I complete a doctorate through the University of Manchester. With Bader as the case study school, I am exploring family engagement and home-school boundary spanning partnership. More specifically, I am looking at how better understanding and addressing the concept of relational trust may bring about change in relational power. A new, more equitable state, would harness the combined might of ever developing professional educators and engaged and invested families – all pursuing a co-created and shared vision that embraces community values and desired outcomes that broaden the horizons of and enhance life opportunities for all of our young people.
A couple of definitions might be useful at this point. Bryk and Schneider (2002) offer four discernment criteria for Relational Trust: Respect, Competence, Personal regard for others and Integrity. I have used these criteria as a sensitising framework for research data analysis in working with school’s Parent-Teacher Strategy Group over the past two years. A fifth criterion is Relational Power. Here, I have used a definition provided by Warren and Mapp (2011):
‘If unilateral power involves power “over”, relational power emphasises power “with” others, or building the power to accomplish common aims’.
More detail on my research aims and rationale can be found here http://bader.org.uk/home-school-partnership-research/ I thought it useful that I offer something on where my interest is rooted before sharing my reflections on the amazing learning experience I was privileged to enjoy at the beginning of our summer break.
Wider reading over the past few years has taken me to all sorts of places. One particular source, where leadership is concerned, is the work of Michael Fullan. Fullan refers to the ‘too-tight, too-loose dilemma’. I recognise this tension only too well, for I have struggled with this over the past year. How do you work the balance between learning-leader autonomy and the need for coherence and clarity around agreed learning organisation goals and direction? How do you keep on track without stultifying innovation and slowing momentum through monitoring and accountability regimes? For, those monitoring and accountability regimes may well be measuring the wrong thing anyway, commonly inflexible as they are.
We have focused on nurturing a culture at Bader that welcomes risk taking, learning from mistakes, and collaboration. We have embedded the practice of collaborative inquiry as an organisational norm, employing Jenni Donohoo’s model – see http://bader.org.uk/visiblelearning/
We associate ourselves with the sentiment expressed here by Judith Glaser:
We should focus on what could be, harnessing collective intelligence, breaking old mental models, and then think differently so that we can create outrageous possibilities.
As a learning organisation, I believe we currently rest at a critical juncture – something of a crossroads. Peter Senge refers to ‘creative tension’; the rub between an awareness of what is and a vision of what could be.
In working towards a shared vision (co-created school community vision) how might we remain true as a unit to agreed goals, whilst dealing with ‘emotional tension’ (distractors) along the way? We do have a shared vision at Bader. We have a vibrant, healthy culture. We have a good idea of where we are at. Over the past six months or so we have settled on a number of key ideas and things that we believe will take us forward. Have we the structure and systems in place to ride the creative tension and move on to the next level?
And so to a long awaited and eagerly anticipated visit to Stonefields School in Auckland, New Zealand. Having enjoyed and benefitted from many illuminating conversations on learning and leadership with Sarah Martin, Founding Principle of Stonefields, over the past two years, I had some idea of just how beneficial this would be for me personally, and how my learning might impact on the way I lead and encourage others to lead at Bader. In writing this, I am reminded of a phrase central to an infographic Sarah shared with me some time ago, “culture eats strategy for breakfast”. I liked the infographic so much (and still do) I had it professionally reproduced and mounted on my office wall. I ask you to bear that phrase in mind as we move on.
I think it is fair to say that I had a good idea what to expect so far as learner capabilities (knowledge around learning dispositions and the learning process) is concerned. The Bader school aims we emblazoned large across our main reception wall state:
- All members of our school community are assessment-capable learners
- I know what to do when I don’t know what to do
- I know where I am, how I am doing, and where I am going next
- All members of our school community are self-evaluators
- I know how I am doing, where I am going next, and how I am going to get there
- I see assessment as feedback to me
- All members of our school community are effective collaborators and communicators
- All members of our school community have a growth mindset
Two of my colleagues, Marc Hayes and Samantha King spent two weeks in Stonefields last October (2015). I fully expected to be impressed in the way that Marc and Sam were – see http://bader.org.uk/stonefieldslearning2015/ I knew that I was to witness learning and leading of learning that epitomises the aspirations we hold to and are working on. I did. And I can’t even begin to explain just how impressive the learning environment at Stonesfield is. Designing and causing learning is the game.
I had set myself specific areas of focus. A focus I was able to pursue because of the generosity of spirit afforded me by Sarah and the Stonefields Team. I wanted to understand how leadership works at Stonefields; how it is layered, the nature of teacher leader interactions, and what defines contact time itself. Also, what does coaching and mentoring look like at Stonefields?
You don’t need me to tell you just what a privilege that is. I will forever be grateful to Sarah and colleagues for allowing me to be present at senior leadership meetings, leader of learning meetings, professional learning sessions, and learning hub meetings. That, and the significant amount of time Sarah afforded me on a 1:1 basis, whilst carrying out the day job.
Things started to fall in place after early conversations had with Sarah. For all that culture – ‘the way we do things around here’ – is valued, nurtured and protected at Stonefields, you would be wrong to see the place of strategy anywhere other than alongside culture, and definitely not on the plate at breakfast. At Stonefields, strategy is very clearly articulated. Strategic goals are a living, breathing thing. Sarah, as principal, brooks no deviation from those goals, warding off anything that distracts. Indeed, sees herself as guardian of those agreed goals. We had a truly fascinating discussion on just how strategy is formulated and how systems have been developed and refined over Stonefields’ growth years.
On culture, it immediately became apparent to me that Stonefields is a place defined by relational trust, scoring high on all four counts (Bryk and Schneider’s criteria – see above). Also, where relational power is seen as important, and a key driver. Not the least because Wellbeing is a current strategic goal, encouraged through attention to mindfulness. Staff are actively encouraged to share anxieties at all meetings. Should there be the slightest hint of reticence, then a senior leader would step forward to share a personal anxiety. I was beginning to understand the Stonefields proclaimed aim that staff be comfortable with feeling uncomfortable. I sat in on several meetings, never once sensing that things were left unsaid or that things said were received by all present with anything other than respect, empathy, and dealt with; elephant time on the agenda.
A crystal clear sense of collective responsibility runs through the organisation. Collection and interrogation of data is a collective enterprise. Successes are celebrated, concerns are addressed as a team. I sat in on a team meeting where newly identified target learners were considered and appropriate interventions identified and discussed. This included the identification of ‘anxious’ learners and what might be done to alleviate their anxieties. Lengthy discussions were had on strategies. Contributions were offered from left and right, more experienced and less experienced teachers. I was put in mind of Lipman’s ‘Norms for collaboration’: Equity of voice, Active listening, Respect for all perspectives. At the same meeting, discussion was had on alignment of teacher effectiveness goals to match learner needs. This was not the first and certainly not the last time I heard groups of teachers discussing with colleagues their own effectiveness and how that related to learner outcomes. They very much see themselves as change agents.
A key thing to note is the high level of focus upheld throughout all teacher contact time. Time for social interaction is prized, with all staff congregating for morning tea at 11 a.m., allowing time for staff briefing and keeping in touch. The room rings with laughter, the sharing of anecdotes and, not uncommonly, song. Team contact time, however, is serious business. As Michael Fullan would say (Secret 4 of 6), ‘Learning is the work’. I couldn’t help thinking of the number of meetings I have attended – still do attend – that degenerate into unproductive noise, skirting around issues rather than dealing with them. Senior leader meetings at Stonefields are governed by agenda, with the next meeting’s agenda addressed and set through its course. Efficiency and clarity underscore all interactions.
Something that has given me cause for much thought is the role Leader of Learning. I discussed this with Sarah. Given the centrality of pedagogical understanding and meta-cognition to all that Stonefields does in ‘designing’ and ‘causing’ learning, it makes perfect sense that ‘middle leaders’ in school should be designated as Leaders of Learning. Sarah shared with me the very impressive and meticulous work and thinking that has gone into the Leader of Learning and senior leader recruitment process. Something that will most certainly inform future recruitment policy at Bader. Like so many other schools, no doubt, in the UK, our staffing structure is largely framed around curriculum areas. Sarah told me that staff do carry with them curriculum area strengths and expertise, and this is factored in, but this is shared as a matter of course. Understanding how learners learn and how to make shift happen is the thing.
I had many fantastic conversations with young learners at Stonefields. I could detail many. I will focus on three. In one learning hub they were preparing for a showcase event, with all parents invited. Groups of 7 and 8-year olds were enthusiastically engaged, beavering away on a number of projects. I asked one boy when the event was. “Week 5, Tuesday”, he said, and then promptly showed me on his electronic device that he had it blocked out in his personal calendar. Something they were all working towards. By this, I mean something the young learners were working towards, rather than being driven towards by adults in the room. Another boy was creating a movie on ‘Making good choices’. I complemented the boy and expressed regret that I wouldn’t be able to attend the event to see the finished product. “No worries,” he declared, “Give me your email address and I will send you a link to the movie.” Later in the week, in discussion with Year 8s on upcoming transition to secondary school, another boy expressed nervousness about this but said that he felt ready for the move, that he was prepared. I had a discussion with Chris Bradbeer (Associate Principle) about this. We mused on our own school experience and both failed in trying to identify exactly when it was that we began to remotely resemble self-regulating learners. Furthermore, if we had benefitted from a school environment that had prepared us in the way that the three aforementioned young learners have been, what difference might that have made?
Alas, all too soon, my time in Stonefields came to an end. I have disturbed a good number of old mind frames along the way. I feel that I gained insight into something of enormous value. I am a prodigious reader on education and leadership. I have attended many events and listened to acknowledged heavyweights in our field: John Hattie, Guy Claxton, Michael Fullan, Andy Hargreaves, Dylan Wilam, David Hopkins, Carol Dweck, to name a few. We talk about learning from others and, indeed, ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’. It has been my good fortune to stand shoulder to shoulder with a true giant in the world of education; somebody who is doing it. Sarah will not thank me for expressing such sentiment, for as well as being incredibly good at what she does, she is refreshingly humble and modest, too. Great learning organisations don’t just form, based on a number of key principles. Great leadership is required. I have somebody and something to aspire to, and I have seen it for myself, and had it shared with me.
I will no doubt return time and again to old favourites such as Senge’s work on learning organisations, and Fullan’s and Hargreave’s on leadership. Inspired by Bryk’s work, through the Carnegie Foundation, on lessons we can learn from the field of improvement science, I find that I am spreading my net wider. Becoming what Bryk terms an ‘analogical scavenger’. Patrick Hollingworth’s gem of a book The Light and Fast Organisation being a case in point. Patrick says that the North Face of the Eiger provides the perfect metaphor for the world we live in today, through the lens of an Alpinist approach to mountaineering. He says that although business and mountaineering share many parallels, they have never before been explored in the business context beyond superficial colloqualisms about ‘dreaming big’ and ‘never giving up’. I was intrigued to hear, then, that a number of school principals in Auckland are working with captains of industry in both Australia and New Zealand; being coached on the art of strategic planning.
The thing with Stonefields is that strategic goals focus on learning and learner outcomes. Strategy focuses on how best to bring that about. The Stonefields Team work incredibly hard at knowing their impact and how to bring about shift in learner outcomes. Collective responsibility around that is ever tangible. Leadership at every level is artful, creative and serious business. Most of all, the Stonesfield stick of rock has ‘teacher effectiveness’ running through it. Professional development is the individual responsibility of every teacher, with a clear expectation that every teacher will embrace that tenet. The support network (coaching and mentoring) that cradles this is very evident. Aside from the contact time mentioned above, I witnessed many groups of teachers, and pairs (senior leader + teacher) huddled together, engrossed in learning conversations. I was invited by one learning hub team to join them up the road at the Coffee Club, where the conversation was no less serious.
If this is all beginning to sound a little intense then now might be a good time to factor in a couple more things. I was warmly welcomed at the Kapa Haka on the Wednesday morning. I felt that I was somewhere near the soul of the community. A community that actively embraces the richness of local heritage and tradition. There was a really quite wonderful, respectful, warm, spiritual air present as the Kapa Haka group danced and sang together. And then, to finish the week on the Friday afternoon, the whole school joyfully singing together, with young learners invited up to dance on the stage, as they pleased. They filed out of the hall, singing all the way back to their hubs.
Stonefields is everything I expected it to be, and so very much more. Immersing myself in this environment allowed me to place and think on book learning and research, in a community other than my own school. What is more, in an advanced, truly World Class learning organisation. A couple of final examples to illustrate further.
I have recently been drawn to Judith Glaser’s work on Conversational Intelligence. I enjoyed a fascinating hour long conversation with Judith, via Skype, a couple of months ago. Judith talks of three levels of conversation, with Level 3 (see below) being the richest when looking to co-create as a team. Level 3 conversations are endemic in Stonefields.
A second example: Put simply, Stonefields offers a gold standard so far as John Hattie’s teacher mind frames in action is concerned. What is more, having had the conversation with John, I know he would agree with that conclusion.
I will finish now. The purpose of this exercise was to reflect on my learning at Stonefields. I will continue to reflect, feedback to colleagues at Bader and we will use the learning I have been privileged to garner in this very special place as we move forward as a learning organisation. I will return to this in time to record how we have digested and used the learning. I think it is safe to say that my next post will feature something on strategy, something on teacher effectiveness, something on contact time and professional learning, and conversation on how learning meets curriculum and what that means for school staffing structure.
I owe so much to Sarah Martin, Chris Bradbeer and the Stonefields Team. I cannot begin to name all I am indebted to because I would run through the whole team, for everyone opened themselves up to honest and good conversation. A team that very much includes the wonderful Ellie (school administrator) and the enigmatic Brian (caretaker), and hundreds of interested and interesting young learners. The Stonefields Family. Thank you for letting me into your special place. To coin a phrase, You are awesome!!