I have written previous posts about how we collaborate, prioritise and ‘make and break’ decisions about school and organisational change. The decision-making process and how we seek different influences to inform it continue to fascinate me. There is no one answer or simple prescription that can be followed in these areas, and, consequently, one thing many schools struggle with is how to allocate the very scarce resources that they have. Each school has only a limited amount of ‘discretionary spend’ in financial terms or in the focus, time and attention of the staff. There are a lot of competing things we could focus on for our professional learning or spend our curriculum, property or staffing budgets on. The question is, how do we make sure we are getting the most positive outcomes possible?
When I was a principal, for example, much of the mail that came across my desk was offering deals on this product or that programme, and contained sometimes quite extravagant claims about the results that could be expected for our staff and students. You have to have a well-attuned filter at times. There are plenty of snake oil salesmen out there who will push hard for you to spend sometimes significant amounts of that discretionary spend on their products or services, when they may not align well with your articulated beliefs. So, how do we make the decision about which things are, in fact, the most important and influential levers for positive change in the outcomes for our students?
In the work we do in Learning with Digital Technologies and in CORE’s Professional Learning opportunities, one of the key informers for this decision-making process is what we frame as a ‘Graduate Profile’. In any school, if we have done a really good job with our students for the full time we have had them, all the external and family influences have been overwhelmingly positive, and the child is an enthusiastic and positive learner — what sort of learner and person will they be when they graduate or leave us? What will their academic and non-academic profile look like? This gives us the fundamental purpose of our school or kura — to make sure that all that we do is purposefully and intentionally encouraging the child to be more and more like this ‘ideal’. This also provides an effective filter for any changes or initiatives we are looking to put in place. If the plans will promote or extend the graduate profile competencies, then they are worth considering; if not, we can safely put them aside. I believe a well-understood and socialised graduate profile puts us less at risk of swallowing the snake oil described above.
If we have our purpose clearly articulated and understood, then much of what we do, and the decision-making processes we undertake can be expressed as a series of questions:
WHAT: do the students need to do, be, and understand in order to be able to demonstrate the Graduate Profile?
WHAT: pedagogies and practices do the adults supporting the students need to have? What pedagogical content knowledge is integral to this?
WHAT: stuff is needed to support these practices?
I am a big fan of drawing pictures, and in my head these questions can be expressed slightly differently as a series of concentric circles.
This is, of course, similar to Simon Sinek’s well known why-how-what model.
This model above helps us to be clear about the flow of logic when we are making decisions about initiatives or changes that we are planning as well. Again, we are able to ask ourselves if there is alignment between the proposal and ensuring our students are more and more like the graduate profile. If this is not a purposeful intent, then, I would argue, the initiative — no matter how good it might be, no matter how many others are doing it, or how good the bargain is — should be abandoned.
It also positions teachers, and supports staff knowledge, skills, and abilities fully in the service of student outcomes. If students are not achieving what we hope, then what is it that WE are doing or not doing that is resulting in this outcome. Blame and/or responsibility are not with the child, their family or whānau, intelligence or genetics, or any other external factors. Sure, they matter, but we still have an obligation to make sure all students are achieving and making progress, don’t we?
The other significant thing in this model is that you work from the inside out. This is quite counter to the decision-making processes I have often seen in schools, where things are stalled, or progress is difficult; where a programme or initiative is planned and put in place without clarity about why; where the about what the proposed change is trying to achieve. Just because everyone else has BYOD, a certain phonics programme, GAFE, or any other initiative in place does not mean it will be a good fit for your context and address any need you have. It may well be a good fit, of course, but the implementation will be much more effective and smoother if everyone is on-board with the rationale and what need it is actually filling, and what the intended benefit for the students is.
Inherent in this model, too, is effective self-review. This is the thing that will help you determine where the ‘gaps’ are at each level, and also what the most effective solution might well be. It will also help you determine where your priorities lie; the thing/s that will have the greatest impact on making your students more like your intended graduate profile are the things that you have the obligation to focus on first.
So, as you are implementing change in your context this year:
- Is everyone clear on the why?
- Do all staff have the knowledge, skills, and abilities to implement the change? If not, is the PLD planned going to address this?
- Do you have all the resources you need?
- Will the initiative result in positive progress for students towards a clearly articulated graduate profile?
If the answer to any of these things is no, or you are not sure, then there is value in taking the time to reflect on what is central for you and your students. Make sure you really get to the heart of where the issues you are trying to address really lie. Get appropriate support from outside the school if you need it, and make considered decisions about pre-packaged solutions. Most of all, ensure everyone is really clear about why the change is important and what part they will play in it.
Acknowledgements: Snake oil image by Carol M. Highsmith (in public domain)