School Reborn 2020: Part 14 – Premature birth ?

I haven’t blogged for 7 months. 2020 has been crazy on all fronts.

I have a very good friend who works in a nicu unit (neonatal intensive care) who is amazingly upbeat about her challenging job. It’s incredible that children born after just 20 weeks have a very high expectancy of a normal life. I hope that this is also true when trying to give birth to a new school approach. For two years, I blogged a journey of developing an integrated curriculum approach for all students and how proud I was of the work that 120 teachers had put into developing a learning programme in cross-curricular teams. We all knew there would be problems and there would be new habits to develop, but in the end after 6 very challenging months, a thorough review took place and it was agreed to pause the new approach and relaunch a more manageable version in 2021.

Challenges

It would be convenient to blame Covid19 lockdown for causing too much disruption to the launch of a new learning approach, but this would be unfair as this only played a minor part in what was already proving to be very challenging due to the gap between planning and design and implementation in practice.

Things looked pretty good on paper and all staff understood there would be a need to review and tweak the new approach multiple times in a year if needed (it was nice to see people talking about being agile in our approach), but in the end it proved that as a staff we had too many challenges and the leadership team (including myself) had pushed too hard and fast and were too optimistic about the readiness of staff, students, and the community to take on such an approach to learning as a school. Along with preparedness and skills, there were also structural issues, where students made choices that meant they were timetabled into other options they were not keen on. A minority but significant number of parents became understandably concerned and a large review was conducted with parent interviews and staff and student surveys. The key negative findings were:

  1. The new structure worked out too complicated as a whole school timetable
  2. Staff were struggling to stay on top of the larger cohorts (25 at a time but 75 overall)
  3. The planned integration was not carried out smoothly or consistently by all staff
  4. Some staff didn’t seemed sold on the idea (we knew this but were surprised by its level of impact)
  5. Ako time (learning mentoring) needed more support and structure
  6. Mai time (personal project time) needed more support and structure
  7. Around the world, Covid lockdown vastly increased parent scrutiny about school learning in general.
  8. Some teachers struggled with team teaching (we knew this and it proved a minor issue.

Positives

There were some real positives from our experience which need to be noted. In student surveys students reported enjoying looking at bigger issues and referring to school and NZ curriculum values like innovation and diversity, rather than just subject names. Some found having more teachers team teaching preferable “cos you’re not stuck with one teacher all year.” Some students did very well in Mai time, booking facilities and teachers to help, while producing tech projects of their own or writing over 20,000 words of their first novel. Many students reported that where teachers were working well together, the new integrated approach made much more sense, we just needed to get more staff onboard and up-skilled. It was also a very important step to introduce agile thinking into a secondary school, which are normally fixed entities for at least a year, if not a decade.

Where to from now (2021)

Although it’s been a hard year for numerous reasons and I would like to say Covid19 killed our relaunch, I was happy to take a major part of the blame for not having all our ‘ducks in a line’ and was pleased that we paused to give the teachers and students some time to reflect and plan for a slower and easier approaching 2021. The review actually showed that although some parents had not been happy with our implementation, they were still supportive of integrating subjects together, Ako time, and Mai time. The consensus was …

“We can see and agree with what you are trying to do but go slower and restructure it to allow time to develop new approaches in practice”

The review brought up ideas such as:

  1. A smaller form of integration in 2021 (maybe as a component within a conventional programme of subjects)
  2. Ako time with form tutor (structured and maybe just one block a week)
  3. Mai time for those ready to run projects – possibly an option on the regular timetable

The experience has shown we need to continue development in:

  1. Inquiry learning
  2. Progress tracking against levels
  3. Team-teaching
  4. New pedagogies.

We just went too fast and the excitement by myself and others was never going to be enough to pull it through. Much more empathy as to the reality for the staff and student’s situation is needed as we plan for and launch our much smaller component that integrates subject silos in 2021.

I’ll keep you posted and in my next post go through the specific leadership mistakes I made personally.