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Leading a 21st century learning community

– Joe Lumsden, secondary school principal, Stonehill International School

Every school needs to balance three conflicting demands from the world and the community that it serves. First, there is the ‘economic’ demand for high scores and excellent university placements that promise financial returns for parents. Secondly, there is the ‘social’ demand for graduates that will have a positive impact on the planet and the society that they live in. Finally, there is the ‘personal’ demand for schools to provide opportunities for each child to grow in their own way and to fulfill their unique potential. School leaders need to pay attention to all three demands as they make decisions on a daily basis.

In present times, with countless new ideas in education battling for attention and the evidence base flimsy, contested, and often politically biased in all areas, we need to rely on a clear vision of what it takes to lead an educational community in the twenty-first century. As we move forward through a landscape of rapid social, economic and technological changes, these, I believe, are the five tenets that school leaders need to hold on to: 

1. You have to believe that relationships come first and that people are always more important than the system. 

Any system that you set up is not going to be equitable or work for all the stakeholders. Systems need to bend, and when they do, everybody needs to understand the difference between what is ‘fair’ and what is ‘equal’. 

Relationships based on trust and support have to be built throughout the whole learning community. You cannot run cooperative learning experiences if students are more interested in competing with each other and if it is in anyone’s interest to ‘beat’ anybody else. You also can’t expect any student to be courageous enough to present their work in front of others, share their ideas comfortably in a group, or risk failure by attempting a more challenging task if there isn’t the safety net of a supportive community of students, teachers, parents and administrators protecting them.

2. We have to believe that our task is to prepare students for the future, not just for the university career. 

If we are willing to shoot for a more noble goal, then we can justify spending time on getting students involved in real-world learning activities, wading into the murky waters of interdisciplinary challenges, getting out of the school building to work with local organisations and businesses, and helping them connect their learning to the kind of things they’ll probably be doing after academia.

Ofcourse, students need to be prepared for university entrance exams, but not at the expense of ‘getting an education’.

3. You have to believe in a more democratic sharing of power, both in the school and in the classroom. 

We need to understand that not only is “my way” (the teacher’s methodology) appropriate for many students, but that there is also a “highway” (presumably for the more gifted students in the subject), and there is even a large number of alternative routes that will get students to a variety of desired destinations. This may manifest itself in increased student voice in the curricular decisions made in the classroom, differentiated instruction and assessment, mixed grade levels, an approach to ‘inclusion’ that is more push-in than pull-out in a school, and flexible scheduling with students determining how to spend their time. Teachers and administrators need to be okay with the mess that such an approach inevitably results in.

At the school level, administrators have to also be comfortable with allowing teachers to experiment and to run their classes in their own style, a style that will hopefully allow them to remain true to their own personalities rather than being sucked into a standardised system of instructional practice.

4. You have to believe that students, when or if they want to, are quite capable of learning whatever is necessary without your assistance. 

If you hold on to the belief that students must succeed in your course/discipline, then you are constantly going to be resisting so many of the initiatives that hold so much potential. If students are spending time completing projects connected to their passions, or if they are given the choice of what to read, or if they are given time for self-directed learning, they are inevitably not always spending time doing what you think they need to do in your course.

You may argue that there are things they need to know to do well in your course, but we need to have faith that, given the resources and clear expectations, students are quite capable of learning such things by themselves. They will do so when they need to, not necessarily when you want them to.

5. You have to believe that it is ‘growth’ that matters, not ‘achievement’, and that learning cannot be easily quantified. 

The battle that administrators face is to make sure everybody knows that high average scores in external exams are not necessarily an indicator of success for the school. The easiest way to ensure high scores is to control admissions and limit the number of students taking such tests. Put qualifying criteria in place and you are safe.

Administrators have to focus on ‘growth’ — on showing the community the things that students learned due to their enrolment in the school, on the progress against academic indicators with reference to where they started from, on the things they tried for the first time, on the reflection that they engaged in during challenging learning experiences, on how they were able to meet their goals and, perhaps, take steps towards living their dreams.

That’s much more challenging than putting up a bar graph to show the performance of the graduating class in the recent board exam. Administrators need to believe that it is worth the effort.

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