It’s funny. There is much talk of inquiry-based learning in schools, but very little of inquiry-based leadership.
Neither is there much of it in practice.
I pondered, for some time, where to begin this series of posts about the evolution of a school in which innovative, even revolutionary, ideas like Studio 5 could become a realistic possibility.
But, looking back, it is clear that the habit of school leaders perpetually asking questions is the very first ingredient in the soup of change.
Why is it like that?
Could it be like this?
What is the purpose of that?
Do we need to do this?
In 2013, the International School of Ho Chi Minh City leadership team – an entirely new group of nine – had no choice other than to ask questions like these. The school was starting a new era, a clean slate… and it was exciting.
These habits of questioning didn’t fizzle out though. We didn’t rest on our laurels, we didn’t allow practices to fossilize or thinking to congeal. Adrian, our Head of School, just would not accept it. “School is broken” he would say “what are we going to do about that?”
This approach permeated everything we did and, Kurtis, the Primary Principal opened up as many aspects of running the school as possible to debate by adopting an inquiry approach to things that, in many schools, are not even remotely that way. Here are a few examples of what this looks like
Primary leadership meetings
The intention was that these were always thinking meetings, where issues, challenges or opportunities were put on the table and where input was actively sought, captured and acted upon.
The appraisal process
While still jumping through the hoops of a mandated process, teachers were invited to give their feedback about the direction of the school – things they’d like to see changed, implemented or taken away – and these thoughts were documented and referred back to repeatedly in decision-making.
All too often, these are one-way information delivery meetings dominated by the person with the most authority. Our meetings were, as much as possible, the opposite. All subject and grade level coordinators, in weekly 30-40 minute meetings, were frequently invited to help make decisions about the day-to-day running of the school. Ideas, thoughts and questions were gathered, documented and referred back to repeatedly in decision-making.
The Green Hat Room
It was made explicit that the primary office was a place in which “Green Hat Thinking” (de Bono) was both promoted and expected. Anyone who came in with a problem, a dilemma or an idea was invited to be part of the thinking around it. This goes against the limited view that leadership means “you give me your problem and make it my problem”. People struggled with this, at first, but grew into the intention behind it. The office was always busy with the sound of problem-solving and idea-generation.
Trust is an essential ingredient in inquiry, and inquiry is an essential ingredient in trust. To be able to trust someone, we cannot micromanage them. We must be curious about what they might do, what we might learn from them and how they may shift our thinking. This trust is, of course, not blind – there are always those upon whom trust is bestowed more easily than others. However, the intention was that trust was the default.
When you deliberately put students, their needs and their learning first, there can be no definitive answers. Education is a behavioural science, not a formula. When it is clear that students are suffering, or not flourishing, questions must be asked of ourselves, our pedagogy, our environments, our culture and our school. It is in asking those questions, and in how we respond to those questions, that school leaders show themselves to be inquirers, or not.
“Let’s try it”
This is a crucial mentality if there is to be any change in education. While it is a good idea to base your practices on established research when possible, sometimes you are the research. This does not mean leaders glibly saying “yeah… go for it” to every idea under the sun. Quite the opposite. It means encouraging disciplined thinking and planning, data collection and reflection, i.e. inquiry.
There’s a book in this, as well as many consultancy opportunities, so I’d better stop here or Kurtis will kill me!
Please feel free to share your thoughts about what inquiry-based leadership looks like in your your school context, or what you wish it would look like!
There is considerable hype around the Studio 5 model that is currently being piloted at the International School of Ho Chi Minh City… and rightly so. Studio 5 is a brave concept that doesn’t just pay lip-service to the philosophies upon which the IB Primary Years Programme and other student-centred, inquiry-based frameworks are built. It creates the conditions for all of that philosophy to become practice. Very rare.
Don’t be fooled though.
This stuff is not new.
Progressive and innovative educators have been doing some of these ideas for years. Schools have been designed around them. Movements have evolved around them. Books have been written about them.
But, these have either fizzled out, faded away, disappeared or survived as weird exceptions to the rule. Perhaps sustained by wealthy benefactors, enigmatic leaders or a powerful niche market.
Studio 5 is a wonderful example of what is possible. But it is critical that anyone hoping to move their school, or even just a part of it, towards a similar model must understand that Studio 5 didn’t just appear out of nowhere. It comes after four years of smaller, very significant, steps. Shifting mindsets, pedagogies, structures, systems, habits, priorities… incremental changes to these over a sustained period of time cleared pathways, opened doors and generated momentum.
Each change was a question that could only be answered by the next change.
Without this evolution, one in which the Studio 5 model was genuinely a natural progression, it would just be a novelty.
In a series of upcoming posts, I will reveal the milestones in the evolution of a school in which Studio 5 is possible. Perhaps these can provide tangible ways that other schools can begin to consider similar change, but change that is logical and natural in their context.
Innovation, Agency, Empowerment are words that should not be used lightly. As professional educators, we believe with absolute conviction, that we can create the change we wish to see. As a School, we wish to challenge the purpose of report cards. Removing report cards would be an unwise and bold move to do all in one swoop. Therefore, we decided to explore this through a microcosm. To gauge whether our thinking, values and philosophy are in-line with being practical and realistic in terms of, if not report cards, then what?
A smaller and measurable scale needed to be the way forward, a pilot.
In essence the definition of a microcosm is:
A community, place, or situation regarded as encapsulating in miniature the characteristics of something much larger.
We have created a microcosm, a small world where we have brought parents, teachers and students together to pilot a new initiative in PREP from March until June, of this year.
Our own inquiry into: How can we effectively provide meaningful, dynamic and timely feedback that causes thinking and promotes learning and growth together?
We invited parents to Look 4 Learning as an authentic opportunity to see learning in action.
Parents recorded what they heard and saw and then shared their discoveries, questions, concerns and connections. We weren’t telling parents what we do (that’s blind trust) we were showing them what we do everyday and who their child is at school, where they spend most of their day, and young lives.
As a school, we have gone through a grueling process of establishing expectations around report cards and how best to meet the needs of our community as far as a formal document goes. We keep simplifying and seeking ways to satisfy parents in terms of what they know and have experienced in their schooling life.
We explained to parents the ‘input’ (time) vs ‘output’ (impact) aspect of what is involved in the process of writing report cards. They got it. Great! They understood that the time it takes to write report cards, is time taken away from doing all the other things that has a positive impact on learning, without sacrificing the learning conversations, planning, pedagogy, data collection……… Report cards is a static point in time, let’s use dynamic ways (Seesaw) to document learning and provide feedback that encourages and support the learning process.
The idea around what does authentic feedback mean and how feedback should cause thinking become the focus of the conversation. How can we create a solid partnership between parents, teacher and student to develop shared goals where it is valued in the learning process become important too as the discussion evolved.
The power of partnering with parents and teachers led to a deeper understanding of the importance of creating a situation where ‘really’ knowing our students is central to what we hope to achieve everyday. Knowing where they are in their learning and planning for that process of what needs to happen inspires effort and attitudes towards learning which is incredibly motivating for all stakeholders.
Over the next 4 months we are going to put report cards on hold and pilot what we believe to be a more effective and meaningful approach in understanding our students as learners and provide balanced authentic feedback. We have developed six drivers to provide feedback to students and parents that promotes richer and deeper conversations about learning and our learners.
We will review and evaluate the effectiveness of this pilot in June with our parents. Where could this lead? We don’t know and we’re not meant to know just yet. We find that quite liberating and exciting!
Why do we have reports? We have to do and be better. If it is a formality to facilitate the process of a student moving from one school to the next, that’s not good enough. We can work around that. We’re in education! Our parents are with us. They are in with two feet and we’re open to see where this all goes.
We think we have the right balance between being authentic, informative and also ensuring a deep sense of accountability and responsibility in doing these things well.
Where did all this inspiration come from?
From Alan Atkisson and Sam Sherratt. They were the sun providing light and energy in us asking, Why and Who are we?
We accept the challenge to innovate, lead change and transform to impact and ripple out! Out of touch traditions and norms must be challenged and at-least a re-think should occur.
Who are we and who do we want to become?
The Amoeba of Cultural Change should be happening from, and out of, Education. We should be setting the scene for change and leading it. Education has been idle and mainstream for too long. There are some great things happening out there in schools. We need to connect and explore ideas together to reach a tipping point for others to follow, and then lead from the front. Walking the walk, now that is a school I want to be part of. We’re on our way!
Who are you in the Amoeba?
Where do you get your light and energy from to shake education up and try something new?
How do you cultivate change in your school?
What is a mindful School? Let’s narrow that a bit to satisfy our learning context…..
“What does a mindful School do to promote mindfulness?”
This can mean many different things and seeking clarity on defining this would be an inquiry worth exploring together as a School. For the purpose of bringing this even closer to the middle, what does this mean when thinking about prioritizing and synthesizing the things that should matter in School.
In essence, the below points was a process we went through in determining the Time Space Philosophy. What really matters and where should we be putting our intellectual energy?
Being mindful all boils down to having the capacity and wisdom to listen.
Never underestimate the power of listening. Recruiting and harnessing that power of listening has the potential to unlock a cornucopia of ideas, emotion and thinking. This process promotes a lot of soul searching by being introspective and extrospective. It allows us to listen to ourselves and the things (people) around us. We either get caught up in our own internal existence or other external forces…… and a lot of the time – both, depending on the situation.
How can we delineate between our ‘perceptions’ of what we think is happening, against the ‘reality’ of what is happening? And how does this distort our choices and actions in what drives and motivates us to do what is right, fair or ethical, with everyone and everything in mind? How can that mindfulness influence the things that matter or where our attention should be fixed on?
Raw and honest listening, without fear or judgment.
Stumbling over this Philosophy still stands the test of time. These are as true now as they were when first written, all those years ago. Taking the time to connect again and recognizing my own growth (and failings) in these is such an invigorating and timely reminder about being true to our beliefs and values and why it is important to breathe life into them. For us, bringing them into focus again is important. We recognize that importance, so these can once again manifest and transpire in ways that create the best learning environment and conditions for teachers and students to thrive and flourish.
I just shared these with our Primary teachers, asking if anyone is interested in exploring these to examine what, how and why we do what we do. How seeking simplicity will bring us back to our purpose. And coming up with ideas to make these work effectively for our School community. The response was overwhelmingly positive and full of gratitude and appreciation.
This has now led us to use these to guide our own inquiry into how we can be and do better. Working from within, just as we do with students. After our Pi Mai break we are going to do an eight week inquiry into finding ways to take tangible action. Already some ideas are floating around such as having once a month Barbecues at School to socialize and interact…. another idea is that we create the timetable for next year…..and on and on.
We have no idea where this is heading or what the outcome(s) will be. And that is the exciting part. Having teachers feel united and lead an inquiry to plan and prepare for 2018-2019 is incredibly energizing and motivating!
Listening to the things that are important and then working together can only result in one thing. Developing a Culture of trust. A culture where people feel valued and respected to be part of the growing and learning. Being part of the decisions as everything we do ripples. Taking action that empowers us. And having the fortitude and humility to listen to one another, because we know that is where the real power lies – inside all of us to create a mindful School! A School that we co-constructed together as we amplified voice and listened carefully.
How would these ripple out in your School?
What do you think about these as important elements in creating a mindful School?
- The world is increasingly rushed, frantic and discordant. Most schools have become this way too, many of them even worse than the world outside their walls.
- Nothing powerful, creative or innovative ever happens in a rush.
- Allowing teachers and students to focus on “now” rather than always thinking about the next thing.
- Removing as many things as you can from school calendars that have nothing to do withimproving learning.
- Being strong in your beliefs when working with parents.
- Being creative with the timetable – giving yourselves the time to be creative with the timetable – so that time is used effectively.
- Fostering a culture in the school of making explicit connections between time and improving learning.
- Making it unacceptable for school leadership to allow themselves to lose touch with how teachers use their time compared with how they use theirs.
- Looking for opportunities to free up time, not fill up time.
- Working continuously with school boards to help them see the difference between positive andnegative approaches to time.
- Honesty about the role time plays in putting peer-to-peer relationships under strain.
- Practical ways to remove administrative tasks that don’t improve learning.
- Creative strategies to encourage a general sense of “slowing down”.
- Recognising and celebrating mindfulness and its impact on behavior and learning.
As a School we are committed to bringing specialists in to drive professional learning forward. Our philosophy is clear. We value the importances of learning and growing together. The only way to impact culture and engage in meaningful dialogue is when we are all affected by a learning force bigger than ourselves.
This year has been a challenging year in terms of teaming, collaborating and connecting with one another. We needed an outside force to bring ‘play’ and ‘imagination’ and the power of ‘story telling’ back to the centre of Who we are.
Enter Neil Farrelly. An experienced performing arts teacher who has predominately worked in International Schools. He is also an author and moves around the International School circuit to lead all sorts of workshops.
Our teachers were exposed to situations where they were thrown into expressing themselves, being spontaneous and creative and most of all laughing with each other. And didn’t we do just that! Laugh. We also needed to leave our egos, inhibitions and grudges at the door as Neil pushed, nudged and encouraged us to put our selves out there and be vulnerable again.
Learning how to deepen trust and collaborate has been a focal point for us as a Primary School. Everyone had a voice during the week and there were so many lessons to dissect for different reasons.
How we ‘set up’ the conditions for learning creates the tone and climate for Who we want to become as a caring and connected community. Neil was constantly setting it up for us and together we responded in ways that energized us and illuminated the importance of people, pedagogy and place.
Conversations were elevated and the scope for being part of an audience was just as important as the presenter on the black box. This challenged our thinking in the way we value our audience and how we listen and respect one another. Knowing our audience improves interactions and promotes positive intensions. Listening with our ears does not mean we’re effective listeners. We learnt to listen with our mind, eyes and heart.
One of the things we shared with teachers is that the ‘loudest’ person in the room or the one to be ‘on’ the black box does not always equate to leadership. We stated the opposite is true. We are all leaders and this can take many forms. As long as you are part of the learning and contributing in positive ways to impact ourselves and one another, then that is leadership too.
We often hear teachers talk about ‘looking through different lenses.’ Our professional learning week was all about Who we are when it comes to collaboration and Who we want to become using performing arts as the ultimate lens to look through.
This experience put our teachers in the shoes of our students. The ideas and connections went into overdrive from there. We were constantly ‘connecting up’ and the learning felt real and raw as we shared together.
We could have easily run a workshop on collaboration and why it is important… yada yada yada. This time we were listening to our audience and decided to go a very different direction to shake it up – and it worked brilliantly!
Neil is already coming back in May.
Although meetings are a context for collaboration, they are not collaboration itself. It is totally possible for collaboration to exist without meetings, and it is also totally possible for meetings to exist without collaboration.
True collaboration becomes part of a school culture when educators are inclined to be collaborative. Not because they have been told to collaborate, but because they can see the value in it for learning.
This inclination to be collaborative involves a number of habits. Here’s my take on what 7 of them might be…
- Friendliness – Highly collaborative educators are basically friendly. They enjoy chatting with people, and this opens up a myriad of possibilities to enrich learning. Because they are friendly, other teachers like hanging out with them and this makes it much easier to work together. Pretty simple really.
- Being curious – Highly collaborative educators are naturally curious, always asking questions and always interested in what is going around them. This curiosity is infectious and invites other teachers and students to get involved. Curious people are more likely to stick their head into other classrooms, more likely to probe in order to find out what people really mean and more likely to take an interest in what other people think. They are learners and are highly aware of how much there is to learn from their colleagues, students and community.*
- Looking and listening for connections – Highly collaborative educators want to be collaborative and are, consciously or subconsciously, alert and actively seeking out connections and relationships with ideas, knowledge, talents, skills, thoughts, places and people. Because of this natural connectivity inclination, highly collaborative people become more receptive to coincidence, serendipity and good fortune that can make learning rich, complex and real.
- Continuing the thinking – Highly collaborative educators don’t switch their brains off when they leave the school campus and back on again when they arrive the next day. They’re still thinking late into the night, jotting down notes, sharing ideas on social media, reading blogs, contacting other educators and collaborating with a wide variety of networks. In addition, they generally like to share what they’ve learned with their colleagues over coffee the next day and don’t feel ashamed about “talking shop”!
- Putting learning first – Highly collaborative educators automatically generate more work for themselves by putting learning first, they can’t help themselves! When you put learning first, you remain open to all possibilities and are always keen to explore them further to see if they will have an impact on learning, and these possibilities frequently involve collaborating with other people.
- Making time – Highly collaborative educators do not allow themselves to use time as an excuse not to collaborate. If there’s an idea they want to share with a colleague, they make the time to talk to them. If someone needs or wants to talk with them, they make time to listen generously. If an idea demands more time to become fully developed, they make the time to work on it. Most importantly, they don’t wait to be told what time they can collaborate, they just do it instinctively.
- Making thinking visible – Highly collaborative people invite others to join them by putting their thinking “out there”. They are honest about what they think, they make crazy suggestions, they verbalise possibilities, they expose their vulnerabilities, they take public notes and draw visuals in meetings, they offer to help, they leave their doors open (or remove them), they stick post-its on the wall, they display quotes, they write, they share. Far from being about attention-seeking or self-promotion, these tendencies are all about looking for like minds, allies and the desire to be better educators.
Would you add more to this list?
Thanks to Chye de Ryckel for asking the question that prompted me to write this blog post!
*Thanks to Alison Francis for adding more to the Being curious habit.
Artwork: Totem Pole by Ken Vieth
I have found that, in general, educators don’t like talking about assessment. This could be for any of a variety of reasons:
- It may be because of standardised testing.
- It may be because it is confused with archaic habits like marking.
- It may be because of its relationship with reporting.
- It may be because it often has little or no effect on learning.
- It may be because it often remains hidden from students.
- It may be because methods are unsophisticated and/or don’t represent the types of learning valued by modern educators.
- It may be because it is subjective, biased or even prejudiced.
- It may be because it can be time-consuming.
- It may be because it gets used against teachers, and even students.
The problem is that, as we reject all of the forms of assessment that seem devoid of purpose, value and ethics, we risk not replacing them with forms of assessment that do have a purpose, that do have value and that are ethical. It is very easy to reject things, but it is hard work to design better alternatives. Often, the void that is left behind by the rejection of something can be just as harmful as the thing itself.
Sadly, the origin of the word is not helpful. Originally associated with calculating how much tax people had to pay, assessment has come to signify “the act of making a judgment”. Neither of these have any place in education.
No wonder it doesn’t feel right!
So, why are we still using the word?
I’m not going to pretend to suggest a better word. Lots of people have already done that. But, assessment lives on and may – either present or absent – be damaging learning.
Instead, I’d like to put forward some suggestions, and here they are:
- I suggest that educators take the time, put in the thought and make the effort to define why students are learning what they are learning, how they may be learning and what they may be doing when they are learning.
- I suggest that educators design effective tools and strategies that will illustrate learning to their students, guide students as they seek to make progress, help them become aware of their achievements and identify next steps.
- I suggest that educators make these tools and strategies highly visible to students, co-create them with their students when possible, and make reference to them and reflection through them a regular routine.
- I suggest that educators seeks ways to involve parents in these processes, helping them understand how their children learn and how they can be part of it.
- I suggest that schools seek ways to communicate, share and celebrate what is revealed by these approaches as they are likely to be much more accurate representations of learning, and of growth, than other forms of assessment have been for years.
- I suggest that we commit to doing these things with a genuine sense of urgency as traditional forms of assessment, or nothing in their place, are continuing to hold us all back.
It all sounds quite obvious, really, but this is how we represent, value and promote growth. We don’t do those things through judgment, but neither do we do them by saying “its all in my head”. For a start, thats not true. But also, if its in your head then your students can’t see it, and they deserve to see it.
It is, after all, their learning.