Following on from the excellent plenary at this year’s Whole Education Conference, I attended two one-hour presentations from Finland and Canada. The Finnish presentation was from Anna-Mari Jaatinen from the Siltamaki Primary School in North Helsinki, and concerned the journey that the school had made in creativity and a holistic approach to learning and to its school’s learning and communication culture. They had worked for several years to build a culture of school that was oriented towards the future and yet that was thoroughly collaborative, involving all their staff together for the improvement of learning amongst their 240 children in the 7-12 age range. These 240 children have 17 teachers (we would have 8 or 9 for the same amount) and this year, through a musical production involving many different people in the school, showed what they were able to achieve through the culture they have carefully built up.
I am not going to tell the story of the musical work here, but in between Anna-Mari’s presentation were some important lessons for schools seeking to work around their values and who feel they have a distinct and worthwhile culture. Underlying their success, they feel, are professional school structures and a commitment to collaboration – this is the leadership ethos, if you will, that underpins their direction. The resourcing that supports this includes high quality leadership, articulated values, a creative approach to curriculum and a serious investment in educational technology. However, these came with a warning that it can take years for a school to make sure that all these elements are in place to provide the capacity for such a school culture. Anna-Mari had been head of her school for 10 years and had been a teacher in Siltamaki for a while before that.
The collaborative commitment showed itself in the way that teams were generated to cover different areas of the school – the outward actions of the school, the need for innovation across the school (including the progressive ways of using ICT), the contacts with other European schools, and the very specific commitment to student welfare – this latter occupied a large part of the management week, by design, with meetings with psychologists and counsellors at its heart. It is a very different way of doing a leadership team from what we do at Christ the Sower, and is much more geared to the actual learning needs of the school.
The values of the school are also a challenge to us. They have evolved the following values:
- respect of and for one another
- commitment to work together rather than alone
- collaboration at the heart of their work – to work with and for other people
- humanity – to govern all their interactions with politeness and kindness
- transmission – of traditional culture and an orientation to the future
In leadership, Anna-Mari challenged us “how can we see both close up and see far enough away to see the top of the mountain?” (I am sure that this works better in Finnish). We needed to engage in enriching the pedagogy and the level of teacher interaction as key leadership roles. And then she asked “how can we inspire each other to light a fire together?” Leaders need to take responsibility for helping teachers be comfortable in working together to light a fire! So for their vision of shared leadership, there is an expectation that pupils as well as teachers will take on aspects of leadership in projects, and that that will be respected by all in the school.
From the presentation, I tried to summarise the learning for us as a school:
- a need for deeper teacher trust and collaboration
- an exploration of using smart technology much more effectively, and a determination not to allow the new computing curriculum to get in the way of the effective artistic use of ICT
- the powerful role of a whole school collaborative project – could we do that with 440 children? Would it be fun to write a musical together, with the expertise we already have?
- I needed to get a much more visionary approach to leadership, to demonstrate the end from the beginning and encourage people to think of “what if?”; to imagine a staff on fire…
And so to Canada, where the seminar was on narrowing the gap in primary schools in Alberta. This presentation, hosted by David Crossley, was centred around interviews from Edmonton (with Jim Parsons, professor of education in the University of Alberta and a former director of AISI – the Alberta initiative for school improvement) and from Calgary Airport in a car (with Phil McRae, former director of AISI, with snow-blowers and ploughs visible through the passenger window over his left shoulder…).
First a word about AISI. This was a long term (14 years +) commitment by the provincial government in Edmonton to transform Alberta education through teacher interaction, research and mutual learning, both between teachers in a school and between schools and even between education divisions. It was heavily invested ($129 per student per year – over a billion dollars of investment – so now you know where the oil revenues go), widely supported by leaders and by the teaching associations (Phil McRae is from the Alberta teachers Association and was simultaneously that and the director of AISI). In many ways, it had a dream start, most notable of which is the lack of animosity between school leaders and teachers, which is not unique in Canada but not the norm either. The AISI projects were principally 3 years long, designed, carried out and evaluated by teachers. It stemmed from a conviction that a focus on student achievement was the wrong angle. It should be on teacher engagement, using the simple logic that when teachers were engaged, so were students, and when students were engaged, their test scores improved. The Albertan curriculum, based very much on enquiry and problem solving, was sound and up the job of providing a basis for improvement.
The AISI website has some great resources and reports on it – this page, summarising the research and the lessons learned, is perhaps the best place to start. Beyond that it is interesting to read how AISI has been fundamental in the way that the province views its educational future.
Jim Parsons, reflecting on some of the morning’s debate, said that AISI was looking for a level of coherence, rather than a random, over-trusting approach to teacher leadership. A “hard shell outside, with a soft gooey inside” was how he put it; a mixture of hard and soft measures, with teachers writing reports at theheart of the recording and evaluation process. Forcing teachers to present written reports to leadership on the progress of their work and the impact on their children – this is an excellent way forward for us, and may be the first ways in to some deeper more serious collaboration, of the sort seen in Siltamaki. In Canada, the reports and their level of authorship responsibilities helped teachers to self-define as leaders in a system, in a school or even in a district or division. People came to believe they could make a difference in their schools.
From his car at Calgary Airpoty, Phil McRae had further insights. A billion dollars had been spent on AISI and that would be a difference to any system. Teaching is a very tightly defined profession in Alberta – the job is obvious and you don’t “get out much”. AISI released energy into the system because it opened up both temporal and cognitive space – to be, to think, to reflect and to meet other practictioners. In terms of achievement, it helped make the whole education system in Alberta more resilient, but it also helped teachers and the system learn about themselves.Becuase of the influx of migrants, many teachers looked together at the impact of English language learning techniques, and improved them. Government always wants a balck box soluteion – money in, results out. It doens’t work like that and never will. But what helped AISI stay fresh for as long as it did, and then n ot have its gains thrown away, was the ability of all involved to keep learning as the process went along, in an adaptive and resilient way, facing down setbacks and focussing on collaboration.
Most of AISI’s success was in primary schools, because a cross-curricular and collaborative process was often part of the original culture. Secondary schools had to face more tricky issues of behaviour and discipline, as well as the ghettoisation of the curriculum. In the first cycle, there was a very diverse number of projects. In cycle 2 (years 4-6 of the program) there was some coalescing of programs, and this is where the work was at its strongest, Phil felt. Cycles 3 and 4 tended toward the unwieldy, with too many teachers and schools involved and the work getting diluted as a result. The sweet spot was where teachers would say “this is important” and share it with 4 or 5 other schools. Working towards an effective and collaborative, “owned” partnership is where we need to get to.
The funding was important. It buys time to think and to work together. The effectivness was generally seen at a district level, but it was the grass-roots teachers who drove the change, the jurisdiction supporting it, and these two linked by a school-improvement coordinator. AISI thus worked best where there was a collegiate approach from the school leadership. It was worst when top-down leadership told people what to do, so they had no buy-in to its success. The next steps for Alberta education (this from Jim Parsons) is in the area of teacher efficacy. Educators are probably more powerful than they believe, and the corporate reflection which we now engage in, through co-coaching and conferencing, should have an impact on the political space.