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Culture and strategy are two of the most powerful tools that a leader has available to them. They shape the lived experience of every member of a school community. Culture is like your school’s personality, it can be welcoming, supportive and encouraging, it can also be the very opposite. The culture of your school is evident as soon as you enter the front office, it’s there when you walk through the playground, when you go into a classroom or sit in a staffroom. With a sharp focus on meeting a range of performance measures, this critical element of school performance can often be overlooked. It can be a strong multiplier in overall school performance when all members of the school community contribute to a positive school culture.
Unlike a strategy that can be copied and shared across schools contexts, culture is comprised of a wide variety of elements that all need to combine in just the right dosages. Culture is embedded and takes a great deal of effort to shift and get right. It’s a moving target that grows over time in response to how we interact with the varying elements that make it up. It sets the expectation and unifies a school under the one umbrella. A strong successful culture is based on a shared set of beliefs that is supported by structures and strategic decisions that help it flourish. Culture helps guide behaviours and decision making. You often hear “this is the way we do things around here”, that’s your culture outlining the expectations.
In understanding how culture is formed you must recognise that people come into an organisation with certain beliefs and assumptions formed through previous experiences. Recognising these beliefs and assumptions, whether they are true or false is crucial as they form the basis of values and can impact on your culture. Our job is to clearly articulate what it is we stand for. Carefully challenging underlying assumptions to assist in shaping values is critical in developing culture. Our values turn into norms which if guided in a skillful way can develop a shared and acceptable way of behaving. This in turn will become our social norms. The power of social norms can never be understated as people generally conform to the norm. If treating people respectfully and approaching life and learning in a positive manner become our norm, imagine what we can achieve.
With this in mind we need to consider how we induct new people into our schools. How are we socialising them into the setting? What are they seeing as the norms? What are they observing that will shape their beliefs and assumptions? Obvious things like how do people interact with each other? How are conflicts resolved? How do leaders interact with other staff? How do we interact with students and community? These are all clearly observable interactions and send a very clear message on the way the school is developing an environment which is conducive to teaching and learning.
Whilst there is usually a dominant culture within a school there can be subcultures that can be quite powerful and if not monitored can work against your overarching direction. This is where the skilled leader needs to ensure that they consistently support all members of the school community in building a positive culture. It is not enough to have systems, routines and structures in play. The strategic leader takes the opportunity to respectfully challenge negative subcultures outlining why the environment they are working towards is achieving the vision of the school and draws upon positive examples that are assisting in creating it. In many cases where sub cultures have differing views on how things can be achieved, looking at our moral purpose can assist in finding common ground. It’s difficult to argue when decisions are based on positive outcomes for the students we serve.
One of the most important elements and perhaps the one that either reinforces or pulls apart a school culture is relationships. The basis of any solid relationship is trust. Where there is a strong sense of trust across the school and we know we can completely rely on the person next to us, then anything is possible. There is a proven connection between positive relationships and student achievement. A school culture that is focused on and celebrates positive strong relationships where people feel valued, respected and supported will generate whole school success across all domains.
As a leader I firmly believe we need to work on getting the culture right. The ideas below may assist you with your work.
Model a mindset – A positive mindset can go a long way to assisting in maintaining and developing a positive school culture. As a leader modelling a ‘can do’ attitude and demonstrating how hurdles are not barriers but opportunities for growth can set a very powerful example.
First impressions – From the time you walk into the front office there is a feeling associated with a school. Make yours a positive one. First impressions are lasting and set the tone for future interactions.
Challenge opposing forces – Establish sound protocols for challenging ideas respectfully. Negativity can be contagious and can gradually seep into a culture. It’s ok to not agree and for things not to always work out. What’s not ok is to constantly complain about them. Use the energy towards refining, reworking and improving. An environment of continuous improvement is much better to work and learn in than one of ‘I told you so’.
Communicate your message – Think of your message as your brand. It needs to be publicised and communicated. In the world of business advertising sells, why, because smart operators get people to believe in their brand. Build your brand with your school community with positive news stories.
Invest heavily in your staff – A strong focus on professional learning that is focused on classroom practice with a balance of support and accountability empowers staff with skills and knowledge but also sets clear expectations. Supporting this to be transferred into the classroom is pivotal in improving student outcomes. When people feel that there is a real investment in their growth, they are more willing to buy into the culture.
Students first – They have to be the top priority in any decision making across the school community. If we are to truly putting students first they will know. They will be able to see, feel and hear that we are placing them at the centre.
Culture over technical skill – It can be far easier to develop technical skills than adjust to a new culture. Our work is relational, technical skill alone will not develop the supportive trust and bonds that underpin a positive school culture. A culture of continuous improvement will allow technical skill to develop in the right environment. As Dylan Wiliam says “If we create a culture where every teacher believes they need to improve, not because they are not good enough but because they can be even better, there is no limit to what we can achieve.”
There are many elements that make up the culture of a school and every interaction you have as a leader will have an impact. As a leader you need to live your culture every day. It needs to be more than just a poster on a wall or a well worded address at a staff meeting or assembly. As the leader you need to live it, breathe it, model it, inconsistencies in this area create doubt and uncertainty. It’s one thing to say you want a great culture; it’s another task altogether to strategically build and maintain it.
I’d like to address the elephant in the classroom. The one that’s standing right in the middle taking up lots of space, crowding the learning environment. Data. Is it taking the fun out of teaching? I guess the answer is yes and ……… no. There is no question that systems, governments and schools needs big data to identify trends, predict patterns of behaviour, allocate resources to emerging and identified areas of need and provide high levels insights. Big data has its place but what about the small data? it can be structured and non-structured, it can be scheduled and randomised and is collected in usable sized chunks that are contextually relevant to a specific setting. Is it possible that using small data can be fun.
Many professionals are getting bogged down in the debate over what seems to be a relentless schedule of data collection. What we tend to overlook in the debate, is the purpose. If our data collection is serving no real purpose other than to complete a spreadsheet and rob us of teaching time then I agree, what is the point? On the other hand if we are using it to sharpen our focus, to specifically target our teaching then it is critical. Useful data connects people with timely, meaningful insights into student areas for growth and achievement and when used purposefully can be an extremely powerful tool that actually puts the fun back into teaching.
Whilst I agree that data walls, visible targets and performance measures have assisted in creating a sharp focus on evidence based practices and demonstration of impact, is it possible that the pendulum has swung too far in our pursuit of individualised accountability? Nothing is more important to the success of our students than high quality teaching. I am in the privileged position to be able to view our teaching staff in action across schools in our system. What I have observed are staff who have high expectations, are able to cater for the wide range of needs of their students and use highly effective techniques that both engage and challenge our students. High quality teachers are always striving for student improvement. They are possibly their harshest critics, analysing their lessons, their delivery, levels of student engagement and the impact of their work on students. They are using small data all day, every day as a way of improving practice.
Small data allows us to provide our own insights into the relationships we have with our students, it allows us to develop achievable bite sized chunks that we can celebrate and this is where the joy comes back in. I spent my last years on class as a kindergarten teacher. By the end of the year my students could read, write, work mathematically in combination with a whole range of social, emotional and communication skills. I did that. I gave a gift that they would have for life. No matter how old they are or where they are in the world I started that learning journey. When we are able to see the improvement, see the skill development, know that we have had an impact, that’s the incredibly powerful and rewarding element of teaching. The question is how do we know and what role can data play?
Data talks, data walls, data walks, assessment schedules, moderating, criteria analysis, individualised, tiered, standardised the list goes on and all play their role. What is more powerful though, is a strong focus on teams of teachers using contextually relevant small data as a powerful vehicle to drive student improvement. Time spent imputing data into a spreadsheet could be better spent in teacher teams working together to observe practice and refine our craft. Our system actually supports this process through the Performance Develop Framework. At its core it underpins the notation that every teacher, in every school will improve, not because they have to but because they can. High performing teams use this system developed process to increase levels of performance, to strive towards personalised goals that impact on student outcomes. How do we know if we have improved? Small data. Colleagues observe and provide immediate contextualised feedback specific to the individual, its formative assessment for teacher colleagues.
Spending time in teacher teams using our collective knowledge of our students and curriculum to design learning draws on a range of small data for a very specific purpose. In NSW Public Education a strong focus on collaborative instruction is driving this approach across schools. We have strong evidence based, system supported teaching strategies that provide high level direction for our schools. Our teacher teams have the ability to contextualise best practice to become relevant practice for their context. It’s the small data that allows teacher teams to contextualise and target the specific needs of their students. Learning sequences designed with the selection of appropriate assessment techniques allow us to identify what it is that will move student learning forward. This is supported by the purposeful collection of a range of small data. Without the small data it’s just another unsubstantiated opinion that offers little direction.
It’s not the quantity of the data it’s the purpose and how we use it. The fun comes back into teaching when we view data as an avenue to investigate ways to unlock student potential. When we take time to reflect on where a student is, where we want them to be and how we are going to get them there in small achievable and measurable segments we target our teaching. Working this way we identify what students can already do and what they need to learn next. When we bring this down to a very specific skill level and provide a definite timeframe for evaluation and refinement it has the potential to bring a sense of accomplishment that can be almost addictive. It’s the small data that allows us to really know our students. Understanding the purpose behind our data collection and using it to target our teaching will help us build a better relationship with the elephant in the classroom.
Recently I was listening to a paramedic who was discussing the dramatic events that had unfolded in their day. They highlighted the fact that in many cases they are the first on the scene and that it is their vitally important work that saves lives. As a first responder they are assigned the responsibility to assess rapidly and intervene immediately to ensure the long term health of the people they serve. This got me thinking. In education, we have a sharp focus on early intervention. Those tasked with this role really are educations first responders. They are there to help assess, diagnose and provide targeted intervention to those in need.
The primary goal of educations first responders is to address learning needs in a timely manner. The research is undeniable that the longer learning needs are overlooked the wider the gap becomes as the complexity of schooling increases. There is some evidence supporting the theory that not investing in early intervention has long term economic implications on a nation. The importance of early access to specifically designed tiered intervention is being recognised globally and has certainly been highlighted by the NSW Public Education system with programs such as Early Action for Success.
There is a wide variety of early intervention strategies that schools are undertaking delivered via personalised learning in the classroom, small group or individualised instruction or intensive one on one support for our students most at risk. I firmly believe that the current use of syllabus documents with the assistance of literacy and numeracy continuums has placed an emphasis on personalised learning like never before. This current shift is directly supporting a three tiered approach to early intervention and is increasing our ability to effectively target the specific needs of the individual.
The culture of our entire system now has a sharp focus on where the individual student is in their learning and what strategies would be best placed to move them to the next stage of learning. Whilst this has always been at the heart of teaching, it is my opinion that current pedagogy supported by new funding models are enabling this to take place at a much broader level. There has certainly been a move from a focus on whole class to a focus on the needs of the individual student. In my school there has been and continues to be high quality professional learning opportunities that strengthen and deepen understanding about how student learning occurs and how this is effectively tracked and monitored.
Schools have always utilised data to track and monitor student progress. There has always been system based and school based data that has informed the effectiveness of teaching and learning programs. At present the collection and use of a broader range of individualised data is enabling us to provide high quality early intervention in a timely manner. This is vitally important as the window of opportunity for these moments where we can have maximum impact can close rapidly. If we do not have accurate data, that is accessible, reliable and user friendly then we are potentially missing some of our most teachable moments.
Our collection of data is being supported by quarantined time for data talks. Data talks provide opportunities to share and discuss practice and develop a consistency of understanding between teachers. These specifically scheduled occurences are providing teachers with the platform to decide which students need support and what type of intervention is needed based on predetermined expectations or achievement levels. This therefore places a great deal of importance in the understanding of and collection of accurate data. Consistency of understanding is key here. Discrepancies in understanding of expectations can mean that our most vulnerable students miss out on vitally important opportunities. Having highly talented interventionists working shoulder to shoulder with teacher colleagues is helping to reduce the variability in understanding. This method is strengthening the profession by ensuring that professional learning is targeted and contextual, addressing the individual needs of teachers as well as students.
In many areas the specialist skills of our early interventionists is driving high quality professional learning. Their ability to work shoulder to shoulder with colleagues in classrooms is creating a culture where conversations are focusing on successful teaching practice that connect directly to student learning. This method is allowing teachers to give and receive feedback, to hone their craft and refine their lesson delivery. This valuable process has been recognised by the NSW Public Education system who has introduced systems to support its continued success. Initiatives such as the Performance Development Framework and the Quality Teaching, Successful Students initiative are creating opportunities for collaborative mentoring and coaching practices. The PDF allows teachers the opportunity to collaboratively identify specific areas of their own teaching they would like to strengthen and affords opportunities to observe best practice methods. Under QTSS Principals in consultation with their executive staff will now have the flexibility to ensure that opportunities for shoulder to shoulder work continue using evidence based approaches to improve student learning outcomes. Whilst both initiatives support the full spectrum of the teaching profession they are also assisting in the continued development of our early interventionists.
I am very thankful that we have educational first responders, they have a deep understanding of how students learn and an undeniable ability to assess and develop appropriately supported interventions. Like their community counterparts they can be first on the scene and their work can form the basis of the long term outcomes for those with very specific needs. Their work in supporting our students to reach their potential despite the many hurdles that some face with their learning is inspiring. They, like our community first responders know the importance of early intervention. Let’s hope our systems of government at all levels continue to support early intervention. In the formulation of long term plans, strategically investing in early intervention initiatives pays long term dividends.
The pressure to balance high stakes testing against individualised education is mounting. I recently read a blog outlining the strengths of high stakes testing. To be fair the blogger addressed issues of why they believed high stakes testing is here to stay and to a point I agree.
Systems and governments will always need accountability measures to be able to justify expenditure and policy decisions. Governments and systems know that they cannot show improvement if they do not have a performance measure. Monitoring and reviewing academic outcomes allows the identification of best practices and areas for development. It also provides data that schools can be held accountable for. I don’t think that any educator has an issue with the theory behind the premise. However high stakes testing has gained such momentum that it is creating pressure cooker environments that run the risk of undermining the accuracy and validity of the data being collected.
High stakes testing is designed to improve student learning, however they are generally held so infrequently that they provide little ongoing advice to support individual student learning needs. I believe that this lack of timely feedback reduces the impact and intended purpose of high stakes testing. Whilst results gained provide data that may indicate particular trends over time, the most significant improvements are found at individual item analysis where improvement has been driven by teaching and learning programs that focus on test specific questioning. This in my opinion raises the question of teaching to the test, a practice that educators know happens. I believe that this practice has the potential to narrow the curriculum focus at the expense of other subject areas. When schools and systems are driven by high stakes testing results, the data analysis and pressure to succeed can consume a schools timetable. Systems are littered with stories of weekly testing regimes that aim to prepare students for an upcoming examination period. This is usually done at the expense of subjects in the arts and humanities. I am sure that many schools have tried to predict an upcoming writing examination and have worked towards preparing students at the expense of writing for a broad range of purposes. It’s just basic mathematics, if we are spending more time focusing on test preparation then something has to go. What I believe this demonstrates is that the pressure of such tests can erode their validity and integrity, as educators continue to refine systems and routines that focus on improving test scores. The ability to rehearse and learn testing skills has spawned big business. Many publishing companies have entered this market developing textbooks, programs and professional learning aimed at increasing a student’s ability to succeed at standardised tests. I am sure educators would agree that high stakes testing will never define nor encompass a well-rounded broad education.
The challenge I see for education systems is to ensure that the pressure from high stakes testing does not drive us away from our curriculum. In NSW Public Education we certainly have high states testing but we are also using learning continuums to plot student achievement and identify the next level of skills and knowledge needed. These continuums target aspects that have been identified as critical to ongoing literacy and numeracy achievement. They allow teachers to make ongoing judgements about student achievement in literacy and numeracy based on a range of assessment information. This helps us navigate a clearer learning path rather than a point in time destination. Tracking student achievement every 5 weeks helps teachers identify students who are risk of not meeting pre-determined benchmarks. Identifying these students allows for the design of targeted interventions at very specific levels. System based high stakes testing provides feedback, but months after the event. Using our learning continuums and PLAN data students are tracked on a system designed database that enables the extraction of results for real time reporting to our system and government, thus serving the accountability purpose of high stake testing without the cost or the pressure. Every term this data can be analysed for areas of strength and areas for improvement at a school and system level. This enables both individual school and system level resource flexibility and responsiveness.
Improving student achievement requires targeted professional learning based on evidence. We must use this evidence to build teacher capacity and focus teaching efforts to identify and specifically design individualised instruction. This move in NSW Public Education, particularly supported by the Early Action for Success initiative, has increased teacher confidence informing learning intentions and using specific language for instruction. Every teaching moment is intentional with teachers becoming more confident in prioritising time to specifically target what matters for the individual student. Having benchmarks that identify where students should be on the continuum helps gives teachers a goal to work towards. This method of tracking learning provides very immediate feedback and feed forward for both teachers and students. In short it is a tight and systematic method of tracking student achievement. When we have access to immediate data we can make a shift tomorrow not next month. The continuum allows us to maintain high expectations but provides an explicit scaffold for how to get there.
Students in NSW Public Education are now more than ever before clearer about their responsibility in their own learning; they know where they are and where they need to go. They are now developing sound skills in monitoring their own progress. This goal oriented and self-regulated learning is building students’ awareness of the learning process, a lifelong skill that will enable them to make informed decisions about their learning journey. On my recent trip to Harvard Graduate School of Education lecturer Jon Mundorf said the following “formative assessment never closes.” He went on to explain that point in time testing is like a store with opening hours, it operates during a specified timeframe. In NSW Public Education our learning continuums are always open, they are like the 24/7 convenience store always there, always open and ready for business. I am certainly not advocating for a choose your own adventure style of teaching, this is targeted, it’s intentional and it’s driven by curriculum achievement. Will high stakes testing ever disappear? Does it have a place? I guess these questions will continue to be asked, studied, researched and debated. What I do know however is that while it is here the pressure to balance it against individualised education will continue.