Learning Life-long : Reflections

Learning on the move and adding value to others learning is clearly defined in the work of Straker Translations – Grant Straker leads a business that everyday adds value to life-long learning around the world. (His business was highlighted in the New Zealand Weekend Herald on May 20 2017 and suddenly I was made aware of how strongly lifelong learning has been accelerated by the power of software and fast fibre interactions.

Straker Translations employs translators and accelerates their work using software that learns to carry out many of the translations and make them ready for the human hand to tidy up and check for accuracy.

As a result they are a world wide business with major headquarters in Auckland and Barcelona.

Grant Straker’s path to Straker Translation sums up what self-managed life long learning is like. The Herald quotes his qualifications as a self-taught computer programmer, certificate in engineering, “school of hard knocks”. His work has included being a British Paratrooper, truck driver, and pub-band guitar player. His hobbies are listed as Welding, building stuff, fishing and mucking around in boats.In other words his learning path was not a tidy linear one and we could suggest this varied and divergent set of experiences have made his life-long learning development a successful process.

Straker’s success seems to be the result of strong desire to be independent and get on with learning and doing. He left school at 15 without any real qualifications but at 19 through his own efforts gained entry to an aircraft apprenticeship – his father gave him a set of books and Straker taught himself to pass the entry test – an experience he says set him up for confident self-managed learning – “just figure it out yourself”

This brief summary of a successful business learning path is not unique and there are many New Zealanders who have followed similar paths.

However I wonder if we are too glib about the skills and ways life-long learning evolves. School goals quite rightly focus on the need for life-long learning but perhaps we are not clear about how individuals develop and maintain learning paths that enhance their own and others lives.

In Straker’s case motivated independent effort and grit must surely have been powerful forces. Recognising opportunities and doing something about pursuing them must have been in his DNA. Not accepting the status quo and grasping the technological accelerators as they became available were built in to his way of being as well. Sharing his vision with many others and engaging them in fruitful translation regardless of their location are of great importance.

These capacities have been applied across three decades as he has aimed high.

How do our educators make a life-long learning habit work? For themselves and as a goal for others?

How well are educators able to apply the accelerators for learning now available?

I have comfortably believed that we educators had life-long learning well under control until the other night I was at an investment seminar where an expert offered his wisdom about our New Zealand economy.

He made the assertion that in New Zealand the productivity of labour (this includes our teachers) is not likely to grow at the rate of many other nations because the drag of central government and local government bureaucracy will not be able to adapt and adjust quickly enough to allow our labour force to get on with the job.

In other words in the case of Life-long Learning the drag effect of central government policy making and adjusting policy and process will keep getting in the road of educators’ life-long learning.

Put simply in our small nation it is very easy for governments to assume and want to control and direct education. I think the investment expert was correct when I consider my own learning experiences.

My experiences followed a typical secondary teacher’s path where the dictates of the system drove my learning.

  • During the first ten years of teaching my focus was very much on learning how to teach in the classroom – course content and ways to impart it being most important.
  • This ten year pattern merged into learning about how to lead other teachers into being more effective in classroom teaching
  • Around year fifteen my learning became more focussed on school systems and organisation and gradually expanded into school vision and strategy combined with empowering teachers to grow beyond classroom teaching.
  • During the nineties despite the “self-managed dream of 1989” I was engaged in school leadership that constantly sought to meet The Education Review Office’s (ERO’s) requirements, adapted to the central demands of New Curriculum and stepped into the centrally directed National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) and its many iterations.
  • Even from teaching year thirty to year forty I was heavily engaged in learning to add technological accelerators to all of the above under the direction and planning of the Ministry of Education.
  • However 2007 with the i-Phone and the explosion of IT accelerators since, has altered the shape and means for life-long learning.  Now retired from the active secondary world I see little sign of teachers being free to engage in learning on the educational things that really matter to them.

During the period 1970-2007 the power of in-service training was embedded in controlled programmes and with the benefit of advisers and outside resources being sent in to “fix and change teaching and learning practice” . Prior to 1989 Ministry of Education Inspectors even directly controlled membership and the focus of in-service courses and programmes – even to the extent of applications needing to be posted in at least three weeks ahead!

Independent learning still occurred but teachers by and large were treated like a sheep in being directed to learn as the system required. A huge difficulty with this approach lies in the way the New Zealand system is controlled from the centre and educators  were rarely able to flourish in meeting their own school learning needs as individuals or as strengtheners of their school communities.

Even now in 2017 the ease of control from the centre means that the most supported learning for educators must meet the expectations of policy and direction – funding to meet the political targets of the moment being all important in teacher professional learning.

A consequence of this approach means I/we tended to wait for guidance from above in the education system. I can well remember going to a “course” to learn how to use an Overhead Projector – right down to how to make the sheets and store them.

Similarly as each iteration of the New Zealand Curriculum has emerged we have been dutifully led along the new paths they have offered – even when given the opportunity to have local curriculum for our schools we worried that this might not fit with the overall New Zealand way.

The school model of competition and survival of the biggest has a powerful impact on independent teacher learning. If learning will consolidate the roll or even grow it the learning is fine.

I am sure this does not encourage diversity and adaptability in a nation where our smallness means news travels fast and errors and mistakes are too often seen as weakness. Despite the fact that mistakes are powerful forces for learning and essential in school and community growth – it is all too rare for schools to applaud mistakes on their own part or their students part. Our 2500 schools are a very small group so it should be easy to share diversity yet perhaps the opposite is happening.

Does the hierarchical model for professional learning applied across New Zealand Education impact on individual teachers? In my experience it does. Our schools meet the expectation of the direction imposed by government funding and schools are inclined to focus on a style of professional learning where there is a school pattern and not much chance for individuals to explore their passions and needs.

Even the current Communities of Learning (CoLs) retain the hierarchy as the best means to develop and enhance school progress. (The MOE being top of the pyramid.)

If being busy is life-long learning the New Zealand teacher is at the top of the learning class. However all too often policy expectations squeeze the life out of reflection and consequently our of independent thought and learning action. (Thank goodness Twitter acts as a shorthand support for life-long learning!)

I wonder if teachers’ life long learning would be enhanced if another view of leadership were to emerge. Instead of people being seen to be the leaders of teachers’ professional learning we acknowledge what has always been true and is now even more so in the post-2007 era of life-long learning.

The leader of life-long learning in school and out of school, for groups and for individuals is the “shared force of engaged learning”.

This shared learning force is made up from a complex mix of grit and determination, adaptability, co-operation, collaboration and self-belief spread across the school community with students, all staff and whanau playing their part in leading.

A shared learning force in a school or business is found in learning leadership distributed at every level and every corner of the place even when no one is looking! It is the interaction within individual heads and bounces out to the rest of the group and extends anywhere that questions will led learners.

The “shared force of engaged learning” stretches into every possible dimension of human interest – how does it do this? In successful school shows and performances life-long learning habits grow and develop as groups, sometimes made up of dozens of individuals each bring their learning to the stage and then add to it as they engage in the adrenalin charge of joyfully making the show work. Engaged and sustained effort becomes embedded.

New schools often capture this sort of charge as they set out on a blank canvas and this learning for life will stay with many teachers throughout their careers.

Sometimes past students will meet their teachers and reflect about pivotal moments where the teacher altered their view of the world through the “shared force of engaged learning”. A simple example I found out 25 years after the incident where a second year high school student completed a task in the 1970s – I scored her work 11/10 on the grounds she had succeeded beyond the highest level of performance. (She kept that piece of written work and no doubt reflected upon it once or twice as she pursued her life-long learning to become a principal.) Did her life-long get an acceleration through that 10/11? It seems so as she recounted the incident 25 years later.

Life-long Learning does not operate at intense levels all the time. It ebbs and flows and even goes of at a tangent depending on the triggers of acceleration or deceleration. Lets hope our political masters recognise we need diversity of thought and action as our bi-cultural nation grows into its multi-cultural future!

Will we, in future, enjoy life-long learning that fits our personal, school and community needs?

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Kiwi Skills and Attributes for the “Future is Now”

Two weeks ago in New Zealand the Commerce Commission made the ruling that the two largest NZ media companies (that are evolving out of their totally printed page history) were not allowed to merge. This would make in the Commission’s mind an unfair monopoly of media services – presumably mainly in the printed media but maybe in online media too.

This ruling seems to ignore the fact that Google and Facebook and all their elements already are taking a huge proportion of the advertising dollar and monopolise the public interest and involvement in media both social and information.

In another aspect of the media sports television coverage in New Zealand is dominated by Sky Television – especially for Rugby coverage. Is this any different from a general news coverage monopoly?

As an educator I keep being left wondering whether decisions such as that made by the Commerce Commission are examples of 20th Century rules and policies not keeping up with the compounding impact of the way all of our lives are being changed by the “internet of everything”. Policies and rules that were fine for the 19th and 20th Century are now barriers and obstructions to life moving forward in the “future that is now”.

Reading Thank You For Being Late by Thomas L Friedman provides some interesting triggers to educational action. Its sub-title An Optomist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations reminds us that the world’s human and physical systems are in acceleration mode and our future is dependent on we humans adapting our social, cultural and other human ways for the good of both the world’s physical and human systems.

Following the argument that the technology of things and the future is now means that we are in the midst of the greatest revolution mankind has ever faced. The “compounding impact of technologies” allowing communication and interaction to spread so easily across international boundaries leave us gasping when we are told that it is only a decade since the advent of the i-phone in 2007 and the explosion in internet speed and accessibility using fibre optics and wi-fi.

Complexity has been removed from many issues and interactions – take a simple one. I can now with a few bits of text tapped into my phone map out my daily walk, get the time to walk it and know the distance it will be – all in a few seconds. When I return from my walk my Fitbit has dutifully recorded my exercise, plus heart rate, stairs climbed etc. Then gives me a 7 day summary and a record back to last Christmas when I got the Fitbit. I no longer need to make my own exercise diary and get readily informed if I have been too sedentary over the past hour.

This gathering of big data goes on all day everyday in all sorts of human endeavours – powerful forces upon which to build new decisions and actions. Electricity distribution and use is being changed rapidly to maximise generation capacity and take advantage of the myriad of ways that savings can be made through new ways to make electricity and save it in individual buildings.

Enough said “what about education?”

Adapt we must Friedman suggests “..at a minimum, our educational systems must be retooled to maximise these needed skills and attributes: strong fundamentals in writing, reading, coding, and math;creativity, critical thinking, communication, and collaboration; grit, self-motivation, and lifelong learning habits; and entrepreneurship and improvisation at every level.”

Although I have no disagreement with Friedman on any of these I find it difficult to accept that our politically driven education systems in OECD countries will be able to re-tool rapidly enough and accept that this accelerated change in world business and social interaction is not going to slow down.

In New Zealand we are bogged down by the surface data on the fundamentals of reading and writing and maths then trumpet about improvement in National Certificate of Educational Achievement results.

Yet our biggest issues are centred around the cultural power houses of grit, self-motivation, and lifelong learning habits. Despite the data being dutifully collected everyday in our schools attendance suggests that we do little with it other than state the bald figures of absenteeism are too high. This ignores those who attend school but are not there in a mental and focussed sense. Consideration of motivation and grit are not explored anywhere near enough.

Where is the big data on joy and happiness in learning? Where is the big data on the joy of being a Kiwi delighting in creativity through music, art and design? Where is the big data on the thrill of team achievement in sport, Stage Challenge and Kapa Haka? Where is the big data on improvisation and adaptation schools are making so their students regardless of their place of residence can access learning opportunities via Google classroom, video conferencing, …All of these things happen in schools but how well are we sharing the experiences students and teachers are having – Twitter and online sharing is making some progress but I doubt that teachers and students have enough reflection time to really engage with and get injections from these exciting happenings.

The gathering of big data by internet giants like Facebook and Google, and big business like Amazon is opening their minds to customer needs and possibilities. Can education do the same?

Time and again we recognise “grit” and “self-motivation” as being the means to build capability. However I doubt there are many schools gathering powerful data on these two essentials for success in a world of run away opportunities. Build on them and our Kiwi population will become even more well known for being the “world’s greatest travellers” – not just in our acceptance of travel and connection being essential elements of life but that we can be great at developing entrepreneurial paths and life-long learning as well.

As one of the last places in the world for human migrations to reach we Kiwis must all have genetic codes that accept that risk, unknown consequences, the need to adapt and be self-reliant are hot wired to our ways of being. Our Polynesian ancestors dared to reach out for “the land of the long white cloud” – Aotearoa. Our European ancestors endured a journey for months to get here. These sea-faring migrants truly risked everything.

As a result our nation with its bi-cultural heritage (Maori and European) struggled and grew through the 19th and 20th Centuries – daring to apply the Treaty of Waitangi as a founding document and endeavouring to right some of the colonial wrongs imposed in the past. Maori and a growing number of pakeha have shown the girt and determination to adapt and change as a result.

In the latter part of the 20th Century and the first two decades of the 21st Century we have enjoyed steady migration flows from a broader and broader mix of cultures so now we Kiwis are growing our bi-cultural heritage into a multi-cultural future. Re-shaping our ways of being and interacting over our multi-cultural future makes New Zealand an exciting place to be but there will be many bumps in the road that will need huge amounts of grit and determination to smooth out.

Not surprisingly our “future is now” as we welcome the changes and pressures of our networked world and loudly express our wish for a trading world where we can gain and retain a reputation for quality and innovation.

Success as a “Our future is now” country will grow if we can loosen the straitjackets imposed on formal education so students and teachers control their own destinies. This will require huge amounts of trust though and our politicians do not seem ready to accept that we at the whanau and community level can grow the capacity of our people to meet the challenges of the “future is now”.

Perhaps our ancestors who gazed at the stars as they sailed across the Pacific knew that they had the skills, daring and grit to make Aotearoa a great place to live and learn in regardless of any of life’s obstacles.

The “future is now” has delivered us the accelerators for learning and trading at speeds never contemplated before in human history.

What will the 4.6 million Kiwis make of now?

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Communities of Learning Networks

Communities of Learning (CoLs) as Networks

These generalisations about networks for learning are mine as a New Zealand educator and may not necessarily reflect the views of educational groups I am associated with.

Here are some thoughts that underpin the essence of why and how Communities of Learning are being developed in New Zealand and other OECD countries.

  • Why have CoLs? – because we have complex (and stubborn) issues that need to be resolved in NZ Education. THESE STUBBORN ISSUES CAN ONLY BE WORKED THROUGH IF WE EMBRACE NETWORKING TO MAXIMISE OUR COMPLEX PROBLEM SOLVING CAPACITIES. THIS NETWORKING IS PART OF THE INEXORABLE PATH AWAY FROM FACTORY MODEL EDUCATION INTO A LEARNING WORLD OF INCREASING COMPLEXITY AND A FUTURE THAT LOOKS AS THOUGH IT WILL BE EXTREMELY DIFFERENT ECONOMICALLY, SOCIALLY AND CULTURALLY.
  • Keeping in mind our focus on complex issues networked leadership has a better chance to have success. Layers of leadership can effectively interact at nodes without as much reference to rank and position. This means those in the network can link to all others in the network without the need for flows up and down a hierarchy as all have their own nodes and interactions. Individuals can share and interact with those they see as being the most useful or even the most different from themselves.
  •  Built into professional practice networks we need to give all individuals THE TIME TO THINK, TIME TO SHARE, TIME TO TRUST – inherent in this complex issue/problem solving is the need for transparency, co-operation and collaboration.
  • Getting to effective networks takes time and networks keep changing and evolving – we will be in “perpetual beta” for ever as our interactive systems keep growing new wings. Follow this link – enjoy Harold’s thinking and observation from the last 15 years. Explore the Perpetual Beta world with Harold Jarche
  • Interestingly the tools at our disposal offer the chance to include the qualities of what in the past was seen as village or tribal life where everyone could know about everyone else. Once an idea has emerged fresh and open to linkage to learning action it is not surprising it bumps into other similar ideas. A Twitter feed provided What’s the Next Big Idea? Micro-school networks. Tom Vander Ark and Megan Mead have provided a clear description of what I called the Franklin club in Education Should be Fun.
  • Educational leaders at all levels will always be active out there in the COMPLEX issues and problems area where we need the expertise of the network to ensure we can bring coherence and more certainty to our actions and decisions. Complex issues and problems by their nature need all the expertise we can harness to help take the leadership action needed – individuals and even whole schools can-not operate alone any more.

How would we make the network(s) for CoLs work?

Networks need to provide educational leaders at all levels with TIME TO THINK, TIME TO SHARE AND CO-OPERATE AND TIME TO TRUST.

  •  CoLs need all teachers (and students) to become expert communicators across all the networks they use
  • CoLs need focus on and opportunities for leadership at all levels to actively share and co-operate across networks at all levels (In other words use a curriculum of leadership to structure the networking and help break down the present silos of knowledge in and between schools. Use networking approaches that encourage self-managed learning and interaction by all teachers (not just the designated leaders)
  • CoLs need relatively simple online networking opportunities – common across NZ – with conversation opportunities, shared learning, strategy development and co-operation and collaboration deliberately focusing on complex and gritty problems. (This would mean working on complex problems would be the basis for conversation and shared learning strategies – this complex problems curriculum being applied on the go not taught as the starting point.)
  • I suspect we will never arrive at full and clear solutions to our complex gritty problems. Rather we will work on parts of them and there will be progress that is pleasing but there will be this “rolling maul of issues” that keep confronting us. New issues will keep on emerging as our future expands upon us while we drop others off through resolution.
  • We will however develop the view that it is enjoyable and even fun for all in the community to share in work on the “rolling maul”.

Further Reflections

The shape and operation of CoLs needs to fit the world of tomorrow and today – steady movement away from reliance on the models of 19th & 20th Century of leadership

Excellence in leadership across the CoL network will be the key to complex problem solving in schools. This means Cols will need to challenge and empower all in their teaching and or student roles to actively lead to solve or resolve these complex issues;

  • Inequities in educational achievement
  • Inherent suspicion and even disregard for formal education by too many (as seen in attendance rates and lack of enthusiasm for learning).
  • The grind and joylessness of teaching and learning that is driven by too much data and testing
  • Educating for future places in society – where “perpetual beta” is the norm so agility of thought and action will also be the norms in behaviour.

“Workers need more trusted relationships to share complex knowledge. But these take time to devel­op. Sharing knowledge in trusted networks does not happen overnight. Complex problems cannot be solved alone. They require the sharing of tacit knowledge, which cannot easily be put into a manual. Tacit knowledge flows best in trusted networks.” Harold Jarche 2015 Seeking Perpetual Beta

A parting thought – Communities of Learning are already very diverse with each of us belonging to a variety. Even within education we interact readily with many others in both formal and informal ways. Perhaps the best thing about learning is that we can interact with many and find solutions or part answers in many different places. As the populations of OECD countries age the best interactions could arise from tapping into the wisdom of our older citizens.

 

 

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School Should be Fun

For many years I have wondered why we educators have not made sure that learning at school is fun.

School goals and purpose all to often seem to be too grandiose and defined in educational terminology – “students achieving their potential” “transformational approaches”, achieving above the national standard”.

What would we do differently in school if the school plan was for “learning to be fun”?

Starting with teachers learning it is not hard to think of “in-service learning that has been dead boring and irrelevant” or staff meetings that were of little value. However what happens when teachers are able to pursue their educational passion and lead their own learning? Teachers usually love learning but all too often face time squeezes that restrict their time for self and reflection is almost non-existent during the school term. Time-tables drive schools and teachers long with pre-defined purpose and action to meet the goals of this years plan. Time to explore the by-ways of learning is not seen as very useful. In the early years of principals having computers on their desks there were a significant number in New Zealand who were reluctant to use them during the school day as this was seen as a wasteful use of time – distractions from the real business of driving the school.In fact some saw it as enjoyable and opening up of possibilities! Save computer time till after school when others would not see you in action!

This reference to Benjamin Franklin opens up an interesting thought about teachers having fun learning. Why Constant Learners All Embrace the Five Hour Rule (Michael Simmons co-founder of Empact) – thank you Michael for sharing this.

Franklin’s learning time consisted of:

  • Waking up early to read and write
  • Setting personal-growth goals (i.e., virtues list) and tracking the results
  • Creating a club for “like-minded aspiring artisans and tradesmen who hoped to improve themselves while they improved their community”
  • Turning his ideas into experiments
  • Having morning and evening reflection questions

Every time that Franklin took time out of his busy day to follow his five-hour rule and spend at least an hour learning, he accomplished less on that day. However, in the long run, it was arguably the best investment of his time he could have made.

Although this seems a disciplined approach to learning its open ended path offers great chances for fun and diversity of learning. I particularly like the experiments and reflection – he must have been one of the great questioners.

I wonder how many teachers have the freedom to do a Benjamin Franklin and have fun pursuing their educational passion then sharing that with other educators – the investment of one hour a day for each week day sounds a big investment and a potential loss of time for teacher business.

However what happens if the hour is a directly tied to aspects of education and achievement and is therefore embedded in the school day and could in fact be shared in a “Franklin” type club where the like-minded artisans are students or teachers who hoped to improve themselves while they improved their community. What say these “artisans” asked questions that seemed to have no easy answers? In other words the bold ones – the ones New Zealanders should have been grappling with for decades;

  • How can we tap into and use the genetic coding that brought all of us to Aotearoa? (During the past 1500 years New Zealand (Aotearoa) has been populated by those who dared to travel thousands of kilometres to get here be they Maori, Pasifika, European, Asian and many others. I feel certain this boldness, creativity and independence is somehow encoded in our genetics. No other nation’s peoples have collectively travelled so far.
  • How can compulsory schooling become fun filled achievement for everyone?
  • How can we build on the creativity and adaptability of our multi-cultural nation?

What if the 70,000 educators in New Zealand applied even TWO hours a week on aspects related to questions like these? 140,000 hours a week must have possibilities.

The Franklin type club offers the chance to interact with other learners across all ages in the school community – I’ll return to this in my next reflection.

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Our Unique Value as Educators

George Couros has opened up a line of thinking that needs encouragement in our New Zealand setting – in his Being a Void that is Felt he stresses the need for each individual teacher to view themselves as uniquely valuable and so if they leave there will be a void where they once were in the school setting.

This void is strongly centred around their personal qualities and cultural input to school relationships and interactions – however each staff member can bring their own cultural inputs that in themselves give the school strength.These qualities add value to their teaching and sharing of learning and make them unique members of a school staff.

In our Aotearoa bi-cultural setting with its multi-cultural future everyone who teaches needs to be creating their own valuable cultural impact and adding value to the richness of people as they grow through schooling.The void Couros indicates can be in New Zealand schools the loss created when a trusted teacher moves on so their capacity to grow success for Maori succeeding as Maori goes with them. The void can be built around a teacher having the personal and cultural qualities to ensure all students and other teachers they are interacting with know that teacher appreciates and honours them for who they are and offers them the belief that innovation and personal growth will be noticed and important to that teacher.

Perhaps all too often the real value of a teacher’s impact on students is best understood through their ability to tap into the potential of each student. This ability being built on a certainty of relationship and trust as well as insight to the individual student needs as ways of being. e.g. The Impact of Teachers: A Story of Indelible Memories and Self-Esteem by Robert Brooks explores the value and richness of teacher actions and relationships with students. The caring adult in these situations will be remembered for many years and there can be a void left when that teacher connection is broken at the end of a year or when they leave.

Contribute to Your School with More than Teaching by Jordan Catapano opens the door on how teachers build their contribution and in fact how when they leave create a void. Expanding contribution beyond the standard classroom curriculum is an obvious thing to do but am I right in saying that the OECD demand on teachers time for assessment and reporting is shrinking the time and energy available for these contributions to the school community? I can remember the teachers who coached me in a range of sports and their impact on me has spread through many years but I fail to remember a single mathematics lesson of consequence.Perhaps the obsession with data and competing with other nations is actually eroding our schooling impact.

There is a void where once the widely contributing teacher stood!!

In Communities of Learning (CoLs) the contributions across the CoL seem to require teachers to be full and rich contributors to more then just their school. Are communities built on the value added by community members? If so how can we find the energy and commitment to our CoLs?

Perhaps we need to give priority to such things and stop doing some of the other things that keep teachers too busy.

Time for shared reflection on things that worked well could be a simple start. How do you…? Why do you…?  Shared reflections using on line media could be powerful in opening up our minds to the thinking and actions of colleagues in other schools. Short and regular connection interspersed with some face to face interaction may well open up the flow of possibilities.

Are we beset with formal planned interaction or do we encourage informal and more spontaneous connections across many levels of the schools involved. In big schools do we have a history of interaction across the staff or do we tend to have many islands of interaction? Do we actively drive the responsibility for shared learning so all at all levels are interacting? All meaning all staff and all students.

Teacher impact in our schools will leave an interaction void when a teacher leaves but this should be quickly filled by others engaging in communication flows – these flows not being the same but will contribute to the growth of the educational community.

In other words the widely contributing teacher and student should not be an exception in schools where time is deliberately set aside for thinking and sharing reflections.

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Questions When School Leaders are Exploring

In my last post about persisting with questions I focussed on problems and negative things.

What about exploring questions and actions to grow school capacity and thinking about change? As a leader are you being told what you want to hear or are you getting into the real world of your school’s interactions.

As a school leader use questions and inquiry to discover what the silent ones are thinking and doing. Across the staff there will be some who never say much during public forums and debates about issues. How do you get to learn more about their thinking and action?

Maintaining an open door policy as a school leader is all very well but there are likely to be inhibitions imposed on teachers, students and parents when they try to express their opinion and views in your office. Especially if those views differ from yours.

Assuming you are a great listener would you try this? Deliberately seek out teachers on their territory at times they are likely to be able to give you a few gems of understanding. Go to their classrooms after school and have a conversation where they set the agenda – this does not need to be formalised and if you engage in this regularly their agendas will produce new and interesting views of problems and possibilities. Simply asking for them to tell you about what is on top for them may well give you insights you did not expect. Once staff get to know you are exploring when visiting their territory their confidence in speaking up about issues of importance or even express criticism of you is likely to be enhanced – you are then into the rich veins of gold called “what do we really think around here?”

Visiting others on their territory can of course be a regular and quite casual process – if you regularly move around the school both adults and students will impart useful comments. This does of course depend on you the leader providing clear evidence you want to hear all sorts of view points and the good with the bad.

How would you start this process? Why not make the first visit to the teacher who in your opinion has the worst classroom (in terms of its physical quality)? May be they have never been visited before? (I had a principal who in 11 years never visited my classroom at any time I was there!) Maybe they will be very pleased you know the conditions they work under when it is too cold or too hot etc.

Why not visit the teacher who is always reluctant to accept new plans and direction? Really listening to her/him may well open your understanding of their educational values. Have you ever listened without interruption for three minutes or longer? You may be surprised what you hear!

Why not go round the school on the first wet and cold day of the year? Students and teachers alike will be happy to tell you about their learning and being in school conditions. Puddles and cold winds perhaps sharpen the mind!

Why not welcome complaints and criticism from anyone? Listening in-depth to the concerns can often grow your working relationships and over time that can lead to educational growth outcomes. Thanking someone for complaining alters the whole way they respond – the chances are they become less steamed up about the issues and then find it easier to explain what matters to them. In my experience parental and community complaints are a rich source of possibilities – they will have thought about complaining many times before making contact with a principal and may well have told others before they tell you. Welcoming that complaint and thoughtfully responding to it will help in the long run – perhaps you will gain a parent who starts to spread good news stories around and tells you first when he/she thinks things have gone wrong.

This photo gallery from Uncommon Schools in New York State captures many of the reflections I have noted above.

Exploring questions with an accompanying listening and open mind are leaders’ greatest assets!

George Couros, Four Questions to Lay the Foundation for a Culture of Innovation, helps sharpen our minds about the power of questions and how we ask them.

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Questions when doubtful?

This focus point jumped at me as I read the Business Section of the New Zealand Herald on Friday 3 February;

Kate Jorgensen, Kiwi Rail CFO – “my real lesson is that you get an answer and something in your gut tells you it is not right, always follow through, always keep going until you’ve got the right answer.”
Quoted in Herald Business 3 Feb 2017 – Kate Jorgensen was commenting on a lesson she learned soon after she graduated from university. She was interviewing elderly victims of a fraudster and found many had asked the fraudster questions about doubtful looking transactions. However the fraudster never replied to the questions. The victims all gave up asking again! Until it was too late!
This brings to mind the examples of inappropriate or illegal actions by staff of New Zealand schools.
One example involved an IT technician in the early days of school IT networks, making sure he could use the school server for his own nefarious actions. He set up new locks on the room and space where the server was using the excuse that only he needed access as others could mess up the system. The principal asked about these and accepted the answer but was left uneasy.
Still questioning in his mind three of four months later the principal attended a session about school IT safeguards and was told by the police that the most important thing to do was to know what your IT experts are up to. Be suspicious of locks being changed, access to servers only being the role of the one expert and the expert “doing work on the server at all hours of the day or night”. The police also insisted on persistent questioning – all the “dumb questions you can think of”
The principal looked at his BOT Chairman who was also there and said, “We have a technician who is doing all those thing!”
They discussed things with the police and that night broke into the server room and the police forensics team had a field day uncovering use of the school system as part of an internet porn ring.
The principal had got the answer.
Every year in New Zealand a few teachers have inappropriate relationships with students. All too often these cases occur over quite long periods of time and on reflection other teachers in the school can say, “I thought that Teacher X was being unprofessional and it was not appropriate but when I mentioned my view X brushed off my concern.”
One instance involved a teacher ingratiating his way into the minds of teenage girls in his form class and consequently isolating them and touching them inappropriately.
We in the school were concerned enough to warn the Principal that things did not seem to be as they should – after an investigation the Principal said there was nothing to be concerned about. We accepted this – despite the teacher taking photos of the students in his class for a database of his making, using a darkroom with students, having special counselling sessions with female students.
Fortunately our guidance counsellor kept on questioning – until finally a student confirmed she had been touched inappropriately by the male teacher. The Guidance Counsellor’s persistent questioning and joining up of the different pieces of information led to instant dismissal and a prison sentence for the teacher.
School finances can lead to similar need for strong persistent questioning. A classic example involved the Principal using a school bank account as his own personal money source. He had an imprest (petty cash) account set up and controlled the use of this account even to the extent of ensuring it was regularly topped up. Members of his Board of Trustees asked about this account and were told “it was not their business to confirm how this money was spent.”
After several years the Principal left and the new Principal confirmed in no uncertain terms the BOT had been “taken for a ride”  – following investigations the previous principal was found to have carried out similar fraudulent actions with community groups he acted as Treasurer for.
In this instance it is really hard for community members of a BOT to keep asking the dumb questions when things seem wrong. However we should applaud each time such questions are repeated.
Kate Jorgensen will not be surprised to think of her persistent questioning being one of the most powerful tools when dealing with bullying by students or teachers. Small signs can when added together over a series of questions and answers provide the picture to uncover bullying and injustice. Yet all too often we as teachers do not want to believe bullying actions are occurring or that other teachers are being deliberately unjust in their treatment of some students.
Sometimes we think that if we have passed on our concern about something we have done our bit and the Principal or Deputy Principal will handle it from here. (All too often these concerns can get lost in the busy flow of their daily work and may not get dealt with for weeks!)
Perhaps we all need a “warning light” question list when becoming aware of situations that cause us to be uneasy;
  •  why do I instinctively feel that is not right?
  • why has that student changed in the last month or so?
  • What am I not being told?
  • Why did I get the brush off in that answer?
  • Why did the teacher not look at me as he answered?
  • What other questions could I ask to widen the scope of my checking?
  • Who else might be able to cast some light on this situation?
  • Why is only one staff member in charge or involved wirh this? (money, activity, group)
  • Who else needs to know about my concerns?
  • How can I remember to re-visit this concern shortly? (In a week or month no more.)

These are all negatives – I wonder what happens when you keep on questioning as a leader in search of “great ideas and things going on around here”?

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