School Reborn 2020: Part 10 – teething problems

There has been quite a number of weeks since my last post on our school’s progress in developing a new learning approach to better prepare young people for the world as it is, not as it was. The reason for this is that we have just gone through and understandable lull in proceedings, while the teachers started a new school year and got there existing courses for 2019 underway.

We have 16 teams developing integrated and/or project-based units that each combine three of the existing high school departments. We have allocated two or three staff meetings to these teams this term so that they can make a start on writing integrated learning units for 2020. The school offered every team of 6 teachers (a pair from each of the three subjects) the option to book half a day off to make some real headway with their planning. By the sixth week of the new year, we started to see the teams book their time and come away quite satisfied and often excited about the possibilities they are planning for their students next year.

Teething problems – issues to address

I am still very optimistic for us achieving the majority of our goals, at least then making a great start in 2020 and then making improvements from then on. But during this six week lull, I have recently been considering teething problems that are coming up and thought I could list them here as a sort of general warning to other schools who want to attempt this kind of schoolwide change.

1. ‘Ownership’ of space

Like everything in life, it’s always a matter of balance. One teething problem is the balancing of teacher comfort so that they can remain energetic and positive towards the change, while at the same time ensuring that sticking to those comforts doesn’t impede on the success of the changes being made. One example of this might seem small to some but to many teachers, ‘owning’ and not sharing your classroom with another teacher is a serious issue. In many respects this makes sense. People quite rightly argue that someone that owns a space will be accountable for it and look after it. Shared spaces require shared beliefs, roles and understandings, which I would say have been difficult to achieve in conventional high schools with isolated siloed departments all behaving under different priorities.

2. Are we running before we can walk?

A team of 10 staff have signed up for an online course by Modern Learners called the 10 principles of modern learning. This course has highlighted fundamental gaps in our approach, most importantly having a community discussion around what learning actually looks like. I agree with this and think building these foundations are very important but I’m still left considering our many ‘chicken and egg’ scenarios that have surfaced in the last 12 months. We had much philosophical discussion last year but the biggest concerns still remained predominantly logistic. No matter how philosophical or worldwide the discussion, teachers were still quick to rush to questions around what it would actually look like and where would students go at any time in the day and how would they know what to work on. While much of society have been sold the idea that school as just a stepping stone to better things, they are more concerned about getting to the end launchpad (University or job) than what the school experience necessarily contains itself. Although people like myself and those at the Modern Learners organisation do like to talk in-depth about the purpose of school, we have to face the fact that most people have other things to worry about. Saying that, I would advise other schools to hold more community open forum discussion around the purpose of school as I am concerned that regardless of how many newsletters and webpage updates have included our proposed changes, the next nine months might be more difficult when more and more parents actually engage with what is happening at the school. We have the first trickle of parents’ queries coming in now.

3. The balance between disposition and knowledge

This is generally the biggest on-going debate where conservatives and progressives tend to but heads. Although we launch a new approach in 2020 that looks to readdress the balance between developing long term dispositions in the students while also acquiring knowledge, we appreciate that the teachers have to transition away from habits and structures that were solely focused on the knowledge. This is a big issue as it means letting go of things that you may have done for decades. We have found that readdressing priorities is best done through middle management, for example our heads of departments. This is an issue I was late to realise as middle leaders are the people who work directly with the teachers and can reassure them that they have permission to drop some of those old priorities. For most teachers, being given this permission, knowing they will no longer be held accountable for those items being dropped is enough and only a small number hold on religiously to all the old priorities. For this reason it is important to spend more time with middle management early on developing an understanding around the purpose of school in the 21st-century and the direction we are heading.

in week seven this term, we invited middle management to an extra day of training in integrated curriculum and philosophy. For a number of the participants this was useful.

4. Assume communication wont succeed as you might hope

Communication is a tricky beast. In busy high school communities, getting the messages to all community members is easy enough but ensuring they all read and engage is almost impossible. Then add in the multiple misinterpretations and a resulting Facebook rumour mill and I’m left thinking you can only do your best. Work hard to ensure teachers and thus their students have a clear picture of what’s going on. One tip is to make double sure the current high achievers (and their parents) understand the details of any planning as they are served well by the status quo and thus are the most threatened by any changes.

Next steps

As we now start a two week vacation, we will feed out more informative and inspirational videos and readings for the staff to engage with in their own time. I hope in the next post to add some example beginnings of draft units of our new integrated learning program.