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Sparking change in schools

· Innovation,Change leadership,Education

Often when discussing the impetus for educational reform we’re directed to the somewhat nebulous case for ‘21st century skills’ or preparation for jobs that ‘don’t exist yet’. Yet right in front of our eyes, a compelling case has already unfurled.

Forbes listed companies like Ernst & Young and PriceWaterhouseCoopers have removed degree requirements from their recruitment process, stating that the believe there is significant untapped talent outside of the graduate pool. Universities like Curtin now accept admissions based entirely on learning portfolios, suggesting a level of uncertainty in the state of secondary grading and accreditation processes. Students (for as long as higher ed and schools have existed) have bypassed further study to pursue their own entrepreneurial endeavours. And while all this has happened most schools have remained obsessed with giving 8 year olds standardised tests.

For schools to remain relevant and valuable facilitators of learning we need to embrace innovation and look for new ways to support diverse learning pathways for all students. Most importantly, we need to realise that this requires new approaches to change that exist outside the traditional structures of top down leadership, rigid professional development and data driven evaluation.

1. Create Space

Level 5, an agile creative space in Shenzhen, China

There’s huge opportunity for schools to create new physical and digital spaces that provide a platform for creativity, collaboration and range of learning experiences. Most importantly, they’re cheap and easy to implement.

Put castors on existing desks, chairs and couches so they can be rolled around into a range of configurations. Put consumables in cheap IKEA trolleys to make them always accessible. Invest in cheap modular stools that can be stacked out of the way. Try hanging whiteboards vertically seam-to-seam across an entire wall instead of horizontally to provide huge areas for learners to showcase thinking. Most importantly, have clarity around why flexibility is important. Educators need time to explore and discuss both the pedagogical intent and the practical logistics behind leveraging different learning layouts.

You can also look for digital tools that can help de-privatise great teaching and learning and allow your community to share ideas anytime, anywhere. Many schools like Shekou International School, International School of Dongguan and others use a Twitter hashtag to make learning transparent, encourage vertical collaboration and connect students with an authentic audience. Instagram, FaceBook, Yammer and Slack can all provide similar environments and assist in sparking new ideas across your school.

2. Rethink PD

Hackathon running at Saigon South International School

Collectively, our school communities are a fountain of professional knowledge and experience just waiting to be tapped. There’s huge opportunity for us to rethink how they approach traditional professional learning (PL) days and calendared meetings.

Explore PL opportunities that encourage sharing of expertise and experience rather than a leadership driven agenda. Teachmeets and EdCamps are a great way to tap into collective knowledge of your staff. PechaKucha is a fast and fun way to share ideas or initiatives and can easily involve the wider community. And for the truly innovative (like Saigon South International School pictured above), Hackathons are a fantastic way to support bottom up change, boost educator agency and expose new ideas within your school.

Encourage staff to run school PL opportunities and reduce the number of external consultants (preferably to zero) that you bring in. Wherever possible, devolve leadership and have teachers facilitate the sessions. Initially, some educators may be reluctant to share but be persistent. Tap people on the shoulder if you need to. Help them plan, present and share their experience. It won’t be long before a melting pot of passion, expertise and interests emerges that you never knew existed.

Realise there’s also a wealth of experience in your parent community. Developing learning partnerships with parents can be mutually beneficial and will help create a shared and supported vision. Imagine a school where you didn’t need parent evenings because they attended PL alongside teachers and were regularly involved in learning experiences both physically and virtually.

3. Boost agency

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Innovation and change will be stifled if educators are required to do the same thing at the same time under the guise of ‘consistency’. We need to trust in the professionals we’ve hired and provide inspirational leadership and support rather than micro-management of their curriculum and calendars.

Encourage staff to bring new ideas, practices and ways of working to their classes and accept they may need to diverge from the ‘topic’, lesson plan or unit. If someone wants to expose students to algebra via coding then let them. Beats the hell of meta paper based examples any day of the week. Most importantly, provide avenues and mechanisms for educators to share their practice as it evolves. Keep it fluid and allow teachers to love the exploration and sharing of their craft.

The benefits of this type of exploration and occasional deviation from the curriculum far outweigh the potential of inconsistencies across classes when one teacher fails to cover adverbs, igneous intrusions or the causes of World War 1. Encourage risk taking, share the highs and lows, celebrate successes, and focus on the positive outcomes for learners.

4. Capture Sparks

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If something great is happening in a class at your school it shouldn’t be secret to everyone else, particularly the teacher next door. 

Make it a priority to capture and showcase any success you see, however small. Agree on a simple framework whether it’s a tweet, blog post or video snapshot. Rough and ready is fine as long as great teaching and learning is at the forefront. If you’re fortunate enough to have learning coaches in your school leverage them as documentarians as well. This showcase will become a catalyst for open and honest discussions about the teaching and learning occurring in your community. Tie this with an agreed upon Twitter, Facebook or Instagram hashtag and you’ll soon have a visible community of practice not limited by the traditional bounds of curriculum vaults and structured PD sessions.

As the year comes to a close consider codifying the best examples of practice within a video, iBook or similar. UWCSEA nails this by creating subject specific toolboxes filled with discrete examples of practice. What a fantastic way to co-create a tangible learning agreement (also makes for a useful pre-emptive strike to share when recruiting new educators).

5. Immerse in change

Most importantly, as leaders of change we need to immerse ourselves in the change we'd like to see. Only when we’re at the coalface of teaching and learning can we truly have empathy for our students, teachers and parents. Get into classrooms, team-teach, run lessons and contribute to the school Twitter hashtag and you’ll rapidly garner genuine insights into the wellbeing of those engaged in the change process. With these authentic experiences at hand you’ll be in a far better position to support innovation across the school.


If we value these concepts and are persistent in their growth then great ideas will spread like wildfire. With a culture of innovation burgeoning in our schools we’ll be in a stronger position to address the shackles of discrete subjects, rigid timetabling and high-stakes testing and ultimately be empowered to give agency to those who deserve it most, the students.