Visiting schools in NW Arkansas this week has been an enlightening experience. The focus of the visits has been on observing the changes in approach that have been made in each school as a result of the tour that the principals and some teachers made of NZ schools towards the end of 2017.
It has been exciting to see the things that have been worked on, inspired by what was observed and discussed in NZ, but interpreted to meet the local context and conditions. During the week I have observed some excellent examples of personalised learning, learner agency, teacher collective efficacy and the intentional organisation and use of learning spaces to match pedagogical intent.
Today I used my experience of having spent four days paddling a waka on the Hokianga Harbour as a metaphor for what I regard as the key themes underpinning the transformation efforts in the schools I’ve visited. For me the waka experience illustrates two things. Firstly, the need for everyone on board to be paddling in the same direction, but more than that, to be paddling ‘in synch’ with each other and with the call of the leader. This prime example of collective efficacy demonstrates that when this is achieved, the waka will travel more smoothly, speedily and without deviating off course.
The second thing is that, when paddling on the waka, we gained even more speed and certainly a lot more accuracy in terms of staying on course, when we (as paddlers) had our eyes fixed on a point on the horizon, the place we were aiming to get to, rather than fixing our gaze on the floor of the waka and focusing on how hard we were paddling. So often we can become so focused on the tyranny of the urgent, and the pressure of meeting the short term demands that confront us, that we forget to look up and focus on our destination (our vision). When we do this we are truly paddling ‘in synch’ with each other.
In the schools I have been visiting the image of the waka came to mind as I considered three things that have impressed me as I have reflected on how such transformational changes has been achieved, those being:
Clarity of vision underpins all transformation. The vision isn’t something dreamed up in isolation, nor ‘borrowed’ from elsewhere. It reflects the beliefs and values of the school and its community. The importance of ensuring there is a commitment to a shared set of beliefs about schooling, teaching and learning cannot be emphasised enough. From this stems the mission and values of the school – and these underpin every aspect of what happens in terms of the design of the school curriculum and approaches to teaching and learning. Key here is the participation of all staff, students and community in the process of exposing these beliefs and in developing the vision, mission and values. The extent of transformation observed is in direct proportion to the extent of there being a well articulated and collectively owned vision for the school.
The context of schools in the US differs considerably from what I am familiar with in NZ. Schools lack the same degree of autonomy that NZ schools enjoy, with school leaders having to accommodate many more state and district level initiatives and regulations that may not always ‘fit’ with the vision of the school, or more particularly, with the strategies agreed on to enable them to drive toward the vision. This is where strong and courageous leadership is required. Again, the relationship between the extent of transformation achieved is a direct reflection of the qualities of courageous and innovative leadership exhibited by the principal and senior staff.
Innovative approaches in schools can lead to a ‘thousand flowers blooming’, with many pockets of great practice but without a strong sense of logical and consistent application of the ‘things that work’ for the learners across the entire school. There are many reasons for this, not least of which is a lack of clear vision, and the lack of strong leadership (see above). Coherence sits as my third factor as it is in the schools where there was consistent use of pedagogical approaches and frameworks that the transformations appeared most successful and well developed. As Quinn and Fullan explain in their book titled Coherence, “If initiative overload and fragmentation are keeping your best plans from becoming reality, it’s time to start leading differently.” It may be useful at the start of the process to allow members of staff to pursue their own innovative practices and pursue the approaches that appeal to them as individuals, but if meaningful, sustainable transformation is to be achieved then a more coherent approach is essential – particularly when you think of it from the perspective of the learner and what they are experiencing.