We all recognise schools as places of learning for children and young people. However, in schools with strong learning cultures, everyone shares an identity as a learner. When staff speak about the learning dispositions they expect to see in their students, they could hold up a mirror and see the same dispositions in themselves.
This paper draws from ongoing research into the leadership of future-focused schools, conducted from November 2018 to January 2019, funded through a Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Fellowship. At the time of writing, I had visited 11 schools – four primary, six secondary and one serving Years 1–13 – across Australia (Victoria, New South Wales) and New Zealand (Christchurch).
Schools in Australia and New Zealand are apt for comparison to those in England. In both countries, state schools follow a national curriculum and, as with English schools, have comparably high levels of autonomy (Ponte et al., 2008). In Australia, students take standardised, national assessments in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9, whereas in New Zealand, reporting against the National Standards was removed from 2018. Many recognisable themes arose in my informal conversations with educators, particularly regarding administrative load, teacher recruitment and retention.
I selected case study schools based on three criteria: they had above average levels of socio-economic disadvantage, had average or above average pupil progress and had self-identified or been profiled as innovative or future-focused. Through semi-structured interviews and informal conversations with leaders and teachers, I explored how staff worked together, and with students, to embed a learning culture in individual classrooms and across their schools. I conducted an iterative thematic analysis to identify commonalities across contexts.
Key features of learning cultures include a climate of mutual trust, inquiry and collegiality (ACER, 2016). I have focused on two aspects of learning cultures: how schools developed mindsets that supported deep learning of students and staff, including supporting mutual trust and academic risk-taking (Dweck et al., 2014), and how structures within the school facilitated and supported collaboration.
Recognising what it means to learn
Yvonne led the maths department at Sunshine College, Victoria, and was a firm believer that every student can master maths – with the help of manipulatives. She showed me a bar chart drawn by one of her students. The first column started around halfway up the page. Like steps, the adjacent columns incrementally grew in height until they hit the top of the page and dropped back down to halfway.
The chart showed the student’s marks in maths tasks. Yvonne noted that in some classrooms the aim is always to get those bars as close as possible to the top of the page. However, if a student is doing that, they’re not getting anything wrong. If they never get anything wrong, what new knowledge are they acquiring? Where is the space for learning?
This chart exemplified a focus on mastery, rather than performance goals (Dweck and Leggett, 1988). We know that when students focus excessively on avoiding failure it can be harmful to their learning (Dweck et al., 2014). Students need to focus on adding to their knowledge rather than proving what they already know.
Making it safe to fail
School leaders in this research deployed a range of strategies to lower the risk of failure for their staff, including modelling risk-taking themselves. Nathan Neilson – Co-Principal, Curran Public School, New South Wales;
“I ask my staff to be experimental in the classroom and to be experimental you need to be prepared to fail… a leader needs to be able to model that themselves first and be very open and transparent about strategies… not saying that this is the answer but this is what our research and our thinking is and we’re going to try it and if it doesn’t work that’s okay. Our intentions were in the right place.”
Diana, a teacher at Silverton Primary, Victoria, explained the culture that had been fostered by several successive principals towards new ideas:
“If you could say why you wanted to do something and then if you had a go at it and even if it didn’t work and you could come back and reflect… what could you change or how could you do it better?”
The Australian curriculum includes design thinking, so staff and students had become familiar with the idea of prototyping and iteration. Creating an early prototype lowers the risk of failure because it is not meant to be a perfect end product. Both students – through use of design thinking – and teachers – through inquiry cycles – applied the cyclical process of trialling an approach, collecting data on what had and hadn’t worked and asking what could be improved for next time.
Viviane Robinson (2018) observes that when staff are asked to try new strategies, they can have underlying beliefs or concerns that prevent them from changing their behaviours, but which they are afraid to voice. For example, a teacher might be concerned about a new teaching strategy affecting behaviour, but doesn’t want to admit to worrying about controlling the class. Thelma, Head of Curriculum at Rooty Hill High School, New South Wales, described a tool used to address this, called the ‘pre-mortem’. When introducing new strategies at the school, Thelma gave staff the opportunity to conduct a pre-mortem, where they explored the things that might go wrong. This opened up a space to voice personal concerns in a way that disassociated them from the individual.
Collaborating to increase learning
At each case study school I asked teachers about the most valuable professional development they had received. Most often, they said it came directly from their colleagues.
Effective professional development frequently includes opportunities to work with colleagues to apply new learning and problem-solve challenges (Higgins et al., 2015). However, the comments from these staff alluded to more than the collegiate application of learning. The teachers worked side-by-side on a day-to-day basis, so they could continually observe their colleagues’ practice and receive immediate, contextualised feedback about their own.
At Campbelltown Performing Arts High School, New South Wales, Years 7 and 8 followed an integrated curriculum, bringing together curriculum aims from multiple subjects within real-world projects. In order to deliver integrated learning, teams of three subject specialists were connected to a ‘village’ of 60 students, working together to plan their lessons throughout the year. This resulted in ‘really powerful collaboration between teachers’ (Stacey Quince, Principal). At Campbelltown, the same design principles were applied to students’ and teachers’ learning; it was personal, focused on things the students and teachers cared about, co-created and connected to the wider world, and integrated across subjects.
In the most effective professional learning, leaders are actively involved in the learning process alongside their colleagues (Timperley, 2008). When integrated learning was first proposed at Campbelltown, teachers opted into trialling this learning model, and Stacey worked alongside them to plan modules that would meet curriculum requirements:
“I lead the professional learning with my teams. I take really seriously my remit as a lead learner in the school so I’m always learning.”
Stacey worked and learned alongside her staff, trialling out approaches and refining them over time. Eventually, the team developed an efficient lesson-planning process that took two hours, reduced down from two days.
Stacey also established processes that ensured that all staff members were involved in planning and in giving and receiving feedback:
“We have lots of processes to ensure everyone’s voice is heard… let’s all put our ideas on the table… let’s provide mechanisms for feedback and critique on every single activity in every single lesson so everyone’s been part of the process.”
Although a less collaborative process might feel more efficient, staff in case study schools emphasised the value of working together. At Rooty Hill High School, teacher Yasodai Selvakumaran explained what the team learned when they had trialled providing ready-made lesson plans for beginning teachers, thinking that it would make things easier for them:
“…it didn’t develop our teachers at all, so we realised that was actually decreasing the capacity of our beginners because they weren’t part of that programming process… you don’t learn by having somebody else do the work for you.”
Having learned from this early approach, all teachers were now involved in developing programmes and students were asked to provide their feedback on the lessons as well:
“We’ve seen the best results when we have teams of teachers working on the development of each programme and getting feedback from students.”
Schools can struggle to foster collaboration for multiple reasons, including time constraints (Kraft et al., 2015; Vangrieken et al., 2015), but in the schools I visited, the design of the timetable, of learning and of physical spaces pre-disposed teams to collaboration.
Hornby High School, Christchurch, was part-way through being re-built, with open learning areas alongside more traditional classroom spaces. The creative arts area was placed at the heart of the new buildings to reflect the value that the school placed on creativity. In this space, science and technology labs sat around a central learning space for art and textiles. Although there was an office space for teachers, many gravitated towards the central learning space to do their planning. Consequently, their thinking naturally collided. Robin Sutton, the principal, observed how teachers from different specialisms were, without prompting, starting to discuss what they would be covering with a year group and then making cross-curricular links in their planning.
This article describes the practical steps taken by teachers and leaders to foster two aspects of a learning culture: a trusting environment that supports risk-taking, and a collaborative environment for staff and students.
In the case study schools, if a certain mindset or behaviour was considered valuable for students, it was seen as equally valuable for staff, and it was supported by systems and structures within classrooms and across the school. The narratives elicit questions for teachers and leaders aspiring to create a similar culture in their context:
- How do I frame learning in my classroom or school? Is it more important to be 100 per cent correct or to have tried something with potential to fail?
- What processes and frameworks have I established for trialling new ideas? What opportunities are there to fail, reflect, learn and improve?
- How do I create low-risk opportunities for students or colleagues to talk about concerns when learning something new?
- How are opportunities created for students and colleagues to share feedback and learn from one another?
- How do timetables, processes and physical spaces facilitate or inhibit collaboration?
Too often, initiatives are introduced into schools with insufficient consideration of their fit with the existing systems or culture. However, initiatives cannot be viewed in isolation; their effectiveness depends on their coherence with the wider educational environment (e.g. Godfrey, 2016; Yeager and Walton, 2011). This results in a final two questions for teachers and leaders who want to embed a strong learning culture:
- How well do I model the mindsets and behaviours that I expect of my students or colleagues?
- How coherent are these expectations with the systems and structures in my classroom or school?
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