“What does ‘good’ look like?” This is a question I am often asked in my work in schools and kura across the country. In any change or improvement initiative, it is getting your head around what it is that is being asked, for that is often the biggest barrier for staff to engaging in the change process. This desire to understand the vision for good and effective is one of the key things that drives the enthusiasm for wanting to go and see ‘it in action’ in other settings. It has teachers and leaders hopping across cities, provinces, the country, and even the globe to visit schools who are perceived to be thought leaders and have the reputation for doing things well.
Visiting others is hugely valuable! One of the real challenges of visiting other settings, though, is that anything you see is always simply a thin slice of the reality. You miss a huge amount just walking around and looking. Even if you get to talk to leaders, teachers, and students you will still only scratch the surface. There is the metaphor of the tip of the iceberg, and the image is often shared of the iceberg with the visible stuff like buildings, routines, policies, etc., being ‘above the water’ and all the other factors like school culture, relationships, etc., being below the surface.
The challenge is how to get a sense of all the things that have had an influence on where a school is today but may not be immediately visible in a one-off visit. Things like:
- History — everything will be as it is for a reason. Events in the past will have influenced the trajectory and pace of change towards the current state. In order to understand where things are now you need to know where they have come from and what has influenced why they look like they do now.
- Tangata Whenua — who are and have been the significant influencers of the change processes and directions? They may well have been those in formal positions of responsibility and leadership, but they may equally well be those who exerted informal and more ad-hoc leadership.
- External people — who have been the ones who have influenced the influencers? Those who people have met, listened to, read or read about, or visited themselves. Also, those who the same people have been deliberately trying not to follow. Those who formed the negative examples.
- Influencing voices — family and whānau, student, and community voices are all often overtly gathered and inform change.
- Physical realities — things like budgets, buildings, and even which direction the prevailing wind is from, or natural disasters, can hugely influence what a school reality is like in its present form.
The list above could go on and on. The challenge is how to get a sense of these factors and the influence they have had on the reality you see before you, as you step into, and walk around, any educational context. I think of all the things that have influenced me in my career as an educator:
- thinkers and authors like Sergiovanni, Peter Senge, and Michael Fullan
- colleagues — both leaders and educators
- bodies of thought and educational movements like Reggio and Waldorf/Steiner
- all the settings I have taught in and led, and even my own classroom and other educational experiences.
One thing that has helped me make sense of all these different and competing things are graphic frameworks and models for how systems work. I really like pictures, and largely follow the mantra that if you can’t draw a picture of a system or idea then you don’t understand it well enough yet. Diagrams and models help me make sense of the complexity of ideas and are particularly helpful in explaining things to other people. If I am looking at any new ideas, I am particularly looking for ones that are supported by clear and concise graphics.
In the past few years I have become quite deeply involved in the New Pedagogies for Deep Learning programme led by Michael Fullan. One of the things that attracted me to this programme initially was the cohesive structure and concise diagrammatic outline of what ‘good’ looks like and the key components of effectiveness it describes.
For me, and schools I am working with in the programme, the NPDL framework captures key elements of good practice and provides a structure for identifying what both next step and long-term improvement focuses could be. The tools and rubrics also give lenses for examining practices you observe in your own context as well as others you may be visiting. The experience and thinking of the NPDL Global Team, including Michael Fullan, means that there is also tremendous intellectual and practical rigour in the learning and change design processes NPDL uses. A key component is also being able to customise and personalise the NPDL experience to each context and having the ability to moderate and share practice in local, nation, and international forums.
In your context, and as you consider your change initiatives over time, here are some key questions to reflect on:
- How do YOU ensure that you are getting beyond the ‘tip of the iceberg’ in understanding your setting and its history, people, etc?
- How do YOU get a collective picture of ‘good’ and ‘effective’ you can move towards?
- How do YOU measure and manage improvement and change in your setting?
- How do YOU scale up what you find does work?
- Can YOU draw a picture of what you are aiming to achieve?
To find out more about how the NPDL programme can support you do these things (and more) get in touch with one of the team.
- Iceberg: By AWeith [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons
- NPDL diagramme from CORE blog