This is a presentation given at Innovate 2012 (the biennial E-Schools Network conference). It deals with how school principals can create a culture of innovation in their schools.
I believe that the Industrial Age system of education that has spread around the world in the past 150 years will change dramatically in the coming decades.
The assembly-line progression of grades (first, second, third, etc.) coordinated by a fixed curriculum and headed by teachers in charge of students’ learning has grown increasingly out of touch with the realities of today: the global interconnectedness of economics, politics, and culture; the Internet, which puts more and more information at students’ fingertips; and businesses that need people who can think for themselves and collaborate effectively in teams to solve complex problems.
While mainstream school systems are obsessed with standardized test scores and intense individual competition, education innovators are focused on higher-order skills like systems thinking and creativity in conjunction with basic skills in mathematics and language; personal maturation together with technical knowledge; and learning how to learn together in service of addressing problems that are real in students’ lives.
Do I hear an “Amen”?
Original article here
This image was posted on the Facebook page of a friend of mine. It struck a chord with me as both parent and headmaster. I am unashamedly a “gadget guy” and love the fact that my own children are very comfortable using the technology in our home. However, I also ensure that they have plenty of time to participate in sport, play games outside and enjoy the beauty of our surroundings.
It disturbs me that I have heard of schools in other countries who have removed playground equipment because they fear being sued by parents whose children have injured themselves on it! Good grief – let’s remove pencils from the classroom in case a child is pricked by a sharp lead point! Providing spaces and equipment for physical play is a responsibility for any school which takes the emotional and physical well-being of its pupils seriously. The benefits of exercise to learning and the development of cognitive function are also well-documented and so it is fitting that schools embrace initiatives such as the Discovery Vitality Schools program.
I encourage parents to restrict screen time and play with their children outside whenever possible. I urge school leaders to consider adding physical activities to their school day rather than remove them as inconveniences in the timetable. As for all the added value of sport in a young person’s life and the importance of this activity in school, that’s a topic for another blog post all of its own!
In the meantime, get outside with your kids!
Over the past two months our family has visited two churches close to our home. Having recently moved into the area we have tried to find a church home where three things are present :
1) Strong Bible-based teaching
2) A well-run children’s ministry
3) A sense of connection
The purpose of this post is not to debate church issues but rather to highlight the importance of communication and follow-through. At both churches we were asked to complete visitor cards which would allow the church to follow-up. We indicated to both churches that we desired further information about the church and would welcome feedback. Neither church has done so! However at one church we were given a complimentary coffee and biscuit and at the other we were told there was a visitors’ lounge where we could enjoy a cuppa.
Now, I’m not one to turn my nose up at a cup of coffee, especially if its free! However I would have expected an email at the very least from each church expressing a welcome and giving further information. What they need to know is this : Personal communication (and therefore relationship) is far more important than a free cup of coffee!
This experience had me wondering; what do we do as a school to ensure that community is built, personal connections are built and parents who show an interest in the school are followed up?
A speaker at a conference I attended a few years ago made the comment that schools are the new parishes. I believe this to be true as our society becomes increasingly secular. People need more than ever to feel connected in meaningful relationships, to be part of something bigger than themselves and to know that their contribution matters. Schools can play an important role in making this happen.
In fact, I believe schools should be making this happen. Initiatives such as community outreach in which families are involved, regular and open communication, parent socials and other strategies are important. Connected parents are loyal parents and the school’s retention of families will be higher than in those schools in which parents are merely seen as inconveniences.
The Annie E. Casey Foundation makes these points about parent connection in schools :
- When families are stronger, they are better able to support their children’s success in school.
- Schools are stronger when families are stronger.
- Schools have a distinct opportunity to work in partnership with families in ways that strengthen them.
- Communities benefit and are perceived to be strong when they have strong schools
Our school is fortunate in having a person on staff dedicated to the admissions process. She follows up families who have shown interest in the school, organises campus tours and ensures that the families receive a warm welcome to the school. Once the child is enrolled in the school the responsibility falls to the class teacher, principal and parent representatives to follow-up and ensure the family is connected into the school. This process is very important and I believe should be a priority in every school.
This issue is not simply a school one. Our society is becoming increasingly fragmented and our children are paying the price. Schools have an absolutely critical role to play in helping families (children and parents) find connection through meaningful relationships. This is not something we should only pay lip service to!
What is your school doing to connect with new and existing families? Please share your ideas in the comments.
Spending time listening to those whose ideas change lives is never going to be a waste of time so I was bristling with eager anticipation at the start of TEDxCapeTown last weekend. Having spent many hours being challenged, inspired, entertained and challenged by the many TED videos available online, I was anxious to experience something of the TED experience in-person. I was not disappointed.
Despite an opening by the organisers in which they apologised for what could go wrong before it had (note to conference MCs – never apologise for what has yet to happen; it doesn’t inspire confidence!), the day was extremely well-organised. I tend to be ultra-critical of the small details and there are some aspects of the day which irritated but on the whole, this was an excellent event. There was a tangible sense of excitement and energy in the air as some of Cape Town’s brightest young (and not so young!) minds gathered to share “ideas worth sharing”.
Videos of the talks will be available on the 5th on May so I am not going to expound on each speaker’s input. Rather I would like to share of my learning from a macro-perspective.
I have had almost a week to reflect on the TEDxCapeTown experience and to process the input from the day. There are three major themes which come through for me :
1) People with passion find opportunity to make a difference in their community.
2) People who believe they can, usually do!
3) Hope is alive when ideas are made real.
These three learnings challenged me to think about what I could do differently in both my professional and personal capacities to improve myself and the impact I am making in my sphere of influence.
As leader of a school, I need to apply these learnings to the leadership of my school. How then am I to do this? Here are my thoughts on the application of each “idea challenge” to our school context :
1) People with passion find opportunity to make a difference in their community
Passion is a powerful driving force. It keeps us focused on the task at hand and allows us to persevere through times of struggle. It is also the force which drives us to find solutions for seemingly impossible problems.
Many schools today face serious challenges which threaten their effectiveness and, in some cases, their very existence. These problems range from financial instability, unionised teachers who feel obliged to strike to make a political point, a lack of basic resources to the very real socio-economic problems of pupils who arrive at school under-nourished or frightened by the violence in their home and community.
Passionate school leaders and teachers will not sit back and accept these realities. They will constantly strive to find solutions so that their pupils may have the best possible opportunities at school. They will work with the community to look for ways in which the people of the community can be engaged in improving the status quo. They will seek ideas to bring a new reality to their school and pupils.
The local school is an integral part of its community and a place where the future leaders and difference-makers of the world spend the vast majority of their hours each day. We owe it to our community and our country to be passionate in our leadership of our schools and to give our energies to finding solutions to those problems which threaten the effectiveness of our teaching and the process of learning.
2) People who believe they can, usually do!
The game-changers of society are those who are not distracted by the nay-sayers or those who choose to see the mountain ahead of them instead of the path leading to its summit.
It is true to say that anyone in a leadership position will be open to criticism by others. In a school context it is the school principal who is the embodiment of the school for parents, community member and education officials. It is he/she who has to spearhead the changes needed to move the school into new, exciting and relevant realities. Changes in curriculum, teaching practice, school policy or indeed any other changes will not always be accepted with open arms by those in the school. Armed with the confidence that his/her plans for change are well-researched and in the best interests of the school, the principal needs to have the courage of his/her convictions to press on. There is a fine line between self-confidence and arrogance and the two are sometimes confused by those who choose to criticise instead of engaging in a positive way.
Many schools have for far too long been too comfortable with the status quo, scared of upsetting education boards, parent interest groups and various other factions. The truth is that if our schools are to be true to their mission of providing children with effective education which prepares them for relevancy in the world, they will need leaders who are prepared to swim upstream at times. They will need leaders who have such a strong belief in their mission that they will do whatever it takes to make their schools models of effective, relevant and dynamic education.
3) Hope is alive when ideas are made real
I remember reading a newspaper article some years ago about a rural high school principal in the poverty-stricken Eastern Cape Province of South Africa who walked several kilometers to school each day and transformed his school from one where hardly any pupils passed their school-leaving exams to one where they managed to achieve a 100% pass rate several years in a row. He inspired his teachers to go the extra mile with their pupils by planting an idea in the school that every pupil had the potential to succeed. His teachers brought in desks and chairs from their homes, photocopied (at their own expense) local newspaper articles for language lessons, came in on weekends and in school holidays and began each day on time. The idea that every child could succeed inspired both teachers and pupils and brought hope to a school where there was none before.
The above example is but one of many in the education sector where an individual (not necessarily the principal) has shared an idea which has kept the hopes and dreams of a school and/or community alive. School leaders are in unique position to influence adults (parents, teachers, community members, education department officials) and children with ideas that can really “change the world”. This places a huge responsibility on those of us privilege to lead schools. We get to influence the decision makers of today and tomorrow. In how many other professions is that true?
It is our duty to bring to fruition ideas in our school which can change the present and future of our community. In the midst of political, social and economic turmoil, we need school leaders who keep the hope of a brighter future alive and who inspire others to bring creative, thought-provoking, challenging and game-changing ideas to reality.
I left TEDxCapeTown with the sense that I could do and be so much more. I have been challenged to focus my energy on the idea that our school can become a beacon in the community – a place where young minds are given the space to create and a community of learning which celebrates different modalities of learning in a far greater way than we have done in the past. I am encouraged to develop our staff to think even more deeply about how we teach and how we can further develop the natural curiosity of the young minds we are privileged to work with. I am inspired to develop in our pupils, staff and parents a knowledge of the phenomenal talent present in our country and to celebrate with them the wonderful place we call home.
The next local TED event is in Stellenbosch – I intend to be there and would love to take some of our staff along for the experience! If you are going to be there, please send a tweet to @artpreston so that we can meet up and share our “ideas worth sharing”!
I believe education matters : I believe in education that is relevant to a rapidly evolving world. An education that prepares children for a world where they will change careers multiple times before retirement. An education that gives children the tools to cope with an ever-increasingly connected world. An education which recognises that learning takes place in an organic and connected way. An education which does not rely on a system of grades to indicate whether a pupil is learning or not. An education which teaches the value of emotional intelligence and the importance of respect for one another.
I believe teachers matter : I believe in teachers who foster a life-long love of learning. I believe in teachers who know that in a Google world they can no longer be seen as the source of all knowledge. I believe in teachers who are open to new ideas about the value of grading pupils and about seeing change in their classroom practice. I believe in teachers who are on a journey of self-discovery and personal learning and who are constantly learning how to be better at what they do. I believe in teachers who persevere through difficult circumstances because they believe that what they do really matters. I believe in teachers who choose to teach each day with the same enthusiasm they had on their very first day in the classroom.
I believe parents matter : I believe in parents who understand that the education of their children cannot only happen at school. I believe in parents who choose to work in partnership with their child’s teacher. I believe in parents who realise that teachers have personal responsibilities after 5pm and don’t call them at home or on their mobile phones at night. I believe in parents who support the discipline of the school and don’t undermine teachers by bringing down teachers around the dinner table. I believe in parents who see themselves as part of a team with the staff of the school. I believe in parents who believe in the inherent potential of their child. I believe in parents who choose to invest in their child’s education as a priority in their monthly budget. I believe in parents who are the singularly most important people in their child’s life – providing love, security, boundaries and support.
What do YOU believe in? Send a tweet to @artpreston with the hashtag #headthoughts – in a few week’s time I’ll post the results.
It seems to me that teachers can very quickly become set in their ways. It becomes easy to haul out files of work done in previous years and simply present it again to the current class. Large files are kept ready to be opened when a particular section of work is to be taught and pupils who catch on to the pattern can score high on assessments as they borrow a book from a pupil who had the same test the year before.
A stale teacher is an albatross around the neck of any school, class or pupil. They either need to be helped to improve or helped to leave.
We can choose to blame the education department, financial woes of the school, the changing nature of society, increased class size or poor school leadership but if we fail to address the issue of outdated, tired and repetitive teachers, we are not really tackling the problem.
Ongoing professional development opportunities, peer review mechanisms and a culture of professional accountability are important factors in keeping teachers fresh and “in the game”. I certainly do not want “stale” teachers in my school nor do I wish this for my own children.
Teachers need to be taken back to the day when they walked into their first classroom and reminded of what that felt like. I encourage my staff to remember the feelings of excitement, wonder and enthusiasm as they started their teaching careers and challenge them to remember why they entered the profession in the first place. Our nation faces serious challenges in the education sector. One area we should not have to worry about is teachers who have forgotten their calling to the classroom!
I came across a news article published by the Western Cape Education Department which speaks of their success in rolling out computers to all state schools in the Western Cape through the ambitious Khanya Project. When one considers the vast differences in socio-economic status which bedevil the education system in South Africa, this is indeed a remarkable achievement. However the article states that the installation of these computers will bridge the digital divide and it is with this sentiment that I would argue.
I do not believe that bridging the digital divide is simply putting in banks of computers in schools. The teachers in these schools need to be taught how to use these computers to go beyong the Google research-type project.
Are the pupils learning to utilise social networks in responsible and safe ways? The recent OuToilet saga would seem to indicate that many of our pupils do not have the maturity or online safety awareness to cope with the reality of a networked world where privacy is becoming a very real issue.
Are our schools allowing their students to use their cellphones as part of the learning process? See this for more on cellphones in the classroom – Mobile Phones In The Classroom
Do our curricula incorporate the teaching of IT skills beyond the basic usage of word processing? Are we teaching digital citizenship as a core subject to prepare our pupils for a world in which these skills are no longer an optional extra?
Do our teachers feel competent enough to teach these skills to their pupils or do they feel that they are in fact the ones who need to be taught?
There is so much that can be done at a very basic level with technology in the classroom. The Khanya Project’s investment into WCED schools should mean that the Western Cape should be leading the way in technology integration – but is it? Significant headway has been made and the folks at Khanya should be congratulated on what they have managed to accomplish.
However I would argue that all the investment in hardware and software will eventually come to naught if our teachers are not equipped properly and our principals do not have the vision or knowledge to make it a priority in their schools.
Creator of rhymes and of stories spectacular
Used words both rare and in the venacular.
His name was Suess and the books that he wrote
Told tales of wonder and demand a requote.
For the lessons therein have much to remember
From January all the way through to December.
Both children and adults can learn quite a lot
From the Grinch to the Cat to Horton and Yot.
Each one has a lesson right there at its core
It leads us to read even further and more.
So here is the talk that I gave to our school
On an occasion when the need was there to refuel.
I hope you find it both inspiring and useful
And to old Dr Suess be eternally grateful.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
On the occasion of our school’s 2010 Awards Evening – 30 November.
Good evening parents, Board members, honoured guests and pupils.
I am never quite sure what direction to take my Awards Evening address as there is always so much that can be said when there is a captive audience!
In my first year at this school I spoke mainly about how each one of us is uniquely gifted to make a difference in the world in our own special way. Last year I focused on on the incredible role we have as parents in moulding and shaping the young lives in our care.
This year I would like to start by asking a question of the adults in the audience :
“How many of you can remember reading a Dr Seuss book when you were a child?”
Now let me ask our pupils : “How many of you have read a book by Dr Seuss – the author who wrote “Cat In The Hat”, “Green Eggs And Spam”, “Horton Hears A Who” and “How The Grinch Stole Christmas”?
I have fond memories of enjoying the rhythm and rhyme of the rhyming couplets of these books as a little child as first my parents read them to me and then I too discovered the joy of exploring the words.
Who can resist lines such as –
“Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You.”
“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. Its not.”
or this one which is perhaps appropriate for this time of year,
“And the Grinch, with his Grinch-feet ice cold in the snow, stood puzzling and puzzling, how could it be so? It came without ribbons. It came without tags. It came without packages, boxes or bags. And he puzzled and puzzled ’till his puzzler was sore. Then the Grinch thought of seomthing he hadn’t before. What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store. What if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.”
One of my favourite Dr Seuss books of all time is “Oh The Places You’ll Go”. This books reminds me that no matter what challenges may lie ahead of me, with the right attitude and with the wisdom to make correct choices, I can succeed.
I believe this is an appropriate message for us as a school as we come to the end of a year which has, in many ways, been a challenging one for staff, parents and pupils.
There are 4 lessons which I would like to share with you this evening from “Oh The Places You’ll Go” which have a bearing on the nature of this occasion and on us as a school community:
1) You have all the basic skills needed for you to accomplish your goals.
During times of difficulty it becomes very easy for us to focus on that which we do not have. We start to believe that we cannot achieve because of our wants. Perhaps it is time for a refocus. Perhaps it is time to start looking at what we do have. Our school has had a tough year, particularly on the financial front, and yet we still have a team of dedicated teachers, a growing sports academy, a full and varied cultural and academic program and a supportive parent body. These are the ingredients for future success and I believe that as we focus on what we do have, we will build strength in our school.
2) Be a leader in your niche by being the “best of the best”.
Our school needs confidently to position itself as the best independent English-medium Christian-ethos school in our community. We need to continue to seek new and innovative teaching methods, build strategic partnerships within the community and strengthen our overall educational product.
3) When obstacles arise, be prepared to overcome them through ingenuity. Evaluate the situation and take action.
We have faced several obstacles this year. In each case creative ideas have had to be sought to overcome them. It would have been much easier simply to give up and wallow in self-pity but we have not done so and I believe we have come out the stronger for it. Solutions have been sought and found and we will continue to work at strengthening our school as we move into 2011.
4) Don’t allow fear to keep you from moving toward your goal.
Fear paralyzes us and keeps us from achieving what we are capable of and as parents giving into our fears may mean denying our children opportunities. Fear of failure, feare of ridicule, fear of what our friends might think, fear of the unknown, fear of the consequences of our mistakes, fear of repeating the mistakes our parents made and fear of our own insecurities can and do prevent us from reaching the goals we have set for ourselves and our children.
We cannot allow fear to be our reality. We need to grasp our reality with both hands, be grateful for what we have and use the opportunities we have been given to their potential. Only then can we achieve the goals ahead of us.
In the book “Oh The Places You’ll Go” we are told,
“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose.”
Boys and girls, as we celebrate the achievements of fellow-pupils this evening, I want to remind you that each of you has a bright future ahead. You will face challenges – physical challenges, academic challenges, family challenges. No matter the obstacle you face you will have a choice as to how to deal with it. I hope and pray that you will make the right choice and that you will face your obstacles with faith, strong character and a determination to succeed.
Well done to those who receive awards this evening. You have learnt these lessons and are leading the way in showing your peers how to face challenges and grasp the opportunities given to you.
I would like to read the last few pages of “Oh The Places You’ll Go” as a message to all of us tonight – let’s listen then to the wisdom of Dr Seuss:
Whether you like it or not,
Alone will be something
You’ll be quite a lot.
And when you’re alone, there’s a very good chance
You’ll meet things that scare you right out of your pants.
There are some, down the road between hither and yon,
That can scare you so much you won’t want to go on.
But on you will go
Though the weather be foul
On you will go
Though your enemies prowl.
On you will go
Though the Hakken-Kraks howl,
Onward up many a frightening creek,
Though your arms may get sore and your sneakers may leak.
On and on you will hike
And I know you’ll hike far and face up to your problems whatever they are.
You’ll get mixed up of course, as you already know,
You’ll get mixed up with many strange birds as you go.
So be sure when you step. Step with care and great tact and remember that Life’s a Great Balancing Act.
Just never forget to be dextrous and deft. And never mix up your right foot with your left.
And will you succeed?
Yes! You will indeed!
(98 and ¾ per cent guaranteed.)
KID, YOU’LL MOVE MOUNTAINS!
Be your name Buxbaum or Bixby or Bray
Or Mordecai Ali Van Allen O’Shea,
You’re off to Great Places!
Today is your day!
Your mountain is waiting.
So … get on your way!
(excerpt from “Oh The Places You’ll Go”, Dr Seuss, Collins, 1990; orig. 1957)
Click on the cover to buy the book.
There is something deep within me that balks at the idea that we can rate children’s academic progress on the basis of either continuous assessment or formal examinations (although I believe the former to be more realistic than the latter). Over the past number of months I have noticed an increasing number of people in my Twitter network who are writing about the same dissatisfaction with this mode of assessing learning. There even appears to be a group of teachers who have signed on to a grading moratorium.
I am torn between wanting to see the children in our school develop competencies that cannot always be assessed in the traditional way and the need to provide quantitative results for parents who want measureable results. Therein lies the conundrum – the desire to provide a more realistic and relevant assessment system and also speak the assessment language known to parents so that they can be assured that their child is actually learning something!
When I began my teaching career I noticed that at parent-teacher meetings I would very seldom refer to the school report or grades. I would instead focus my comments to parents on their child’s attitude to learning, his/her social skills, the ability to focus on tasks during class and offer comment on how they could assist their child in improving the learning experience. I would also ensure that I listened carefully to their comments so that I would know how to reach that child better. This approach was also well-received by parents who understood that their child’s education was so much more that symbols on a page. I also learnt early in my career that I intuitively knew more about the child’s skills and competencies than a simple test could tell me. This intuition was my guide in the comments I wrote on reports and most times guided my assessment of children’s competencies. I still firmly believe that good teachers should more often than not follow their gut feel about a pupil more than they should rely on assessments.
A very intentional and strategic re-education needs to happen in our schools so that we can find a middle ground on this topic without alienating our parents, frightening our teachers and without compromising the complete education of our children. As Alvin Toffler said,
“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”
We cannot afford to have our classrooms filled by teachers unwilling to unlearn old paradigms and too scared of relearning how to assess pupils in world which is constantly reinventing itself.
As always I would love to read your comments on this topic – write away!