Finding the Story that will change your school

You can teach a old dog new tricks but achieving this can be a unique story for each animal. In our quest to re-design the learning experience at our school, with structural changes focused on the uniqueness of each child, we have found the steepest challenge to be that of helping teachers shift and update their understanding, assumptions and habits. But for me as a school leader my recent approach has been one that appreciates that each teacher requires a different perspective or story to begin to understand and value the idea of that their role has new purpose and priorities that are just as important as anything in the past.

A leaders storybook

As we move away from the model of “today class I would like you all to…”, it makes sense that if we are to ask teachers to develop new classrooms based on each child being able to design and account for their own learning, we have to treat every teacher with the same dignity. We have to help each teacher traverse their own understanding of this change in a way that best suits them. Teachers approach every idea and challenge with a unique set of experiences, assumptions, and even prejudices.

As a school leader, I am developing a library of perspectives, examples, and stories because I find that until you tap into and individuals interest, many perspectives and examples won’t gain traction in shifting what teachers not just understand but value as their role in school. The irony here is that this individualised approach to gaining momentum amongst teachers is exactly what we intend to add to the classroom for every unique child.

A combination of perspectives

By reading and listening to a wide range of materials, I can find very different perspectives and trial them with my colleagues. Sometimes it is a combination of multiple examples and stories that allows a teacher to use parts from each to form their unique understanding of what we’re trying to achieve.

Three example perspectives for school change

I thought I would very briefly cover three perspectives from very different fields that are helping different teachers understand how schools and society are shifting to understand and value each citizen’s unique role in numerous interconnected networks.

1. Nature

img_0010-1Our first story perspective came from Marcus Brown, who explained that although it had been a teacher who had changed his life, it was the fact that this teacher focused on his uniqueness amongst his peers that made the difference. Marcus compare to the development of a manufactured pine forest with that of a natural New Zealand forest. He highlighted that although every pine tree can be cared for and nurtured so as to become a field of identical pine trees, it is the natural symbiotic relationships in a native forest that makes each species uniquely important, while at the same time being better for the planet.

2. Sport

Most of the teachers in our school are currently or have once been a coach of sports teams. In a team, every player is developed to fulfil a unique role on the pitch or court. As a sports coach, your three priorities are developing each player’s sense of importance in their unique role, their communication with the rest of the team, and providing strategies they can use to cope with unpredictable events in the game. I put it to teachers and students that it is being recognised in a unique role, The empowering sense of being a node in a network, and knowing you contain strategies to help you get through is what makes a day of sport tomorrow much more popular than the day of lessons (trust me, I have asked rooms of teenagers).


Classrooms have not traditionally worked as networked teams. Children tend to sit with that two or three friends and spend the year not interacting with the others in any regular basis. Classrooms have tended to ask our students to do the same thing at the same time, denying each individual any sense of unique importance. Classrooms traditionally outline exactly what to do and how to do it, removing the need for general coping strategies as the plan for learning has already been fully mapped out.

In simple terms, we are asking teachers to take the approach they value on the side of the sports field into their classrooms as this, according to the students, would make learning a more popular experience.

3. Neuroscience

img_0009In reading two quite different perspectives on the differing functions of the left and right sides of the brain, it was fascinating to discover such things is why I am right-handed. In both books they highlighted how society in the 20th century had been developed extensively by valuing what the left side of the brain has to offer. We spent the century appreciating logic, detail, analysis, sequence and speed. We always need both left and right sides for everything and it’s not a matter of being one over the other. A simple example being the left side of your brain worries about exactly how to bounce the basketball, while the right-side is the big picture / meaning-maker and worries about what’s happening in the game.

The targets, driven by the left side of the brain created a manufacturing and economic boom that for developed countries has created abundance, just check your local shopping mall for examples of this. Left-side thinking prioritised schools to worry about the individual details within each topic and test students on the recall of seperate topics and elements. Left-side driven priorities led us to develop a logical, stable, linear progression from learning to work to retirement and so the rules of the game and what you needed to know to succeed seemed to be set in stone.

In both books, the premise is that this century, our right-side of the brain will lead the left. Understanding the big picture and networking multi-disciplines will be prioritised over expertise in an individual skill. Einstein called the right side the metaphoric brain. It allows us to compare scenarios to make meaning. The right-side understands the need for the detail and logic of the left-side but the narrow view held by our brain’s left-hemisphere doesn’t understand the need for the right side. To me, this is mimicked by our school system understanding the need for math but not sustainability. Regardless of the UN, WEF, and all news outlets saying action on sustainability will define the next 2 or 3 generations, high school graduates struggle to show a wide understanding of all the environmental impact their lives have.

Our 20th century school system tests and prioritises the division of life into components, subjects, and topics and worries less about a graduate’s ability to make-meaning and general ability to cope in unpredictable situations. Companies have already started to not bother asking for qualifications and request portfolios of experience and evidence of being able to cope in situations similar to the job advertised. Ability to learn, network, and innovate are now the primary requirements in any field but these are all complex multi-disciplinary skills that can’t be departmentalised by our left hemispheres.

Tapping into teachers’ right-hemispheres

Teachers have been conditioned to divide and rank components, be they their topics or their students. The classroom is mostly a manufactured, individual, left-brain environment. I need to continue to find more metaphors and stories that speak to the natural, social, right-brain aspects of each teacher if we are to understand the bigger-picture and move forward together.