Why Do I Lead?

Why Do I Lead?

This is probably the single most important question that a school principal must ask themselves – and keep asking themselves. When the answers come back with clarity, then all is pointing in the right direction. When the answers are harder to come by, that’s when the leader needs to look inside to discover what’s out of alignment.

Questions are powerful and educators have long known this. Teachers spend a lot of time asking questions. Modern, effective teachers spend more time helping children to ask great questions, having recognised that this leads to greater quality learning. Likewise, the best school leaders know that asking themselves the right, best questions and reflecting on the answers is a key part of achieving and being successful.

So, this is why I’ve added a new book to my ‘To Read’ list. It’s a new book out through ASCD, from a New Jersey, USA school leader named Baruti Kafele entitled, “The Principal 50:Critical Leadership Questions For Inspiring Schoolwide Excellence”

Here’s a page that carries a brief overview about the book, a short video presentation by the author, and five visuals of the basic 50 questions which are elaborated on in the book. Personally, I don’t intend to wait to get and read the book, but intend to start challenging myself to reflect on some of these questions as I move forward in the coming weeks.

ASCD – Book Overview – The Principal 50

Already, as I studied the 50 questions, the strongest thought running through my mind is that as critical as reflection on the questions is, they are really worth very little and will bring scant benefits within schools unless they are followed up with time committed to communication with others and action. Without performance and action, these questions would be largely a self indulgent exercise in navel gazing.


The Motivated Brain

Sometimes, teachers indicate that it’s a bit bewildering and overwhelming to be faced with all the pressures to change the way they teach; to differentiate, to personalise learning, to take on board all the neuroscience findings, to develop a growth mindset, to support the holistic learning of each child, to take in to account children’s motivation to learn etc.

So, today, I want to share a book that I’ve read recently that does a really good job of putting all this new knowledge in to context and shares a lot of simple ideas for how these would actually look when implemented in the classroom.

It’s ‘The Motivated Brain: Improving Student Attention, Engagement and Perseverance’ by Gayle Gregory and Martha Kaufeldt. You can buy the book online (or the ebook) from the following links:

ASCD – The Motivated Brain
Amazon – The Motivated Brain

A book like this has to go in to some of the hard science of the newer discoveries, but it does a good job of remaining practical, hands on and relevant for teachers. It avoids getting too jargon heavy or technical and is very readable.

Many teachers will ind that it take learning they’ve had exposure to in bits and pieces and bring them together in to a cohesive whole centred around the key needs of the student for motivation and engagement.

Well worth the investment of money and time.

Social and Emotional Learning

When the UNESCO Delors Committee identified the various types of learning that are important during a child’s school life, one that they saw as critical was ‘Learning to Be’. At times it can seem that there’s so much pressure to focus upon ‘Learning to Know’ and ‘Learning to Do’ that this critical area gets squeezed out, or is treated as merely an add-on activity (especially with outliers where there are discernible behavioural challenges which are making the teacher’s job harder.

A few thoughts come to mind. Firstly, if we’re not giving due attention to SEL skills and competencies, can we really say that education today is child-centric or learner-centric? Aren’t we still in a situation where we’re treating the “stuff” to be learned as more important than the learners? Aren’t we then still processing children through and array of knowledge, content and material, testing to see who it stuck to and simply operating an adapted model of the factory based approach to education?

When a young person has low levels of social and emotional skills, how effective can they ever really be as learners? Further, how effective will they be in the wider world after school? If we ‘don’t have time’ to address these needs, are we setting them up for likely failure in pretty much everything else they do? Should we still be debating whether or not it’s appropriate to endeavour to ‘teach the whole child’?

Then, I start to wonder – are there a lot of teachers who shy away from SEL because it’s uncomfortable ground for them personally? Especially when we’re confronted with the kind of evidence highlighted in the headline of the following article – research that suggests SEL skills levels are a better predictor of future success than IQ.

Virgin – Unite – Ashoka – Why Teachers Need Social and Emotional Learning Too

I can understand the reservations of teachers when it’s suggested that the solution to developing higher levels of SEL for pupils is ‘bolt on’ programmes touted by independent companies. I believe that these skills are far better developed through integrated, organically developed efforts within a school, unique to the needs of the pupils, not attempting to administer an add-on programme as another block of learning.

One of the keys, in my view, is teachers who are attuned to the learnable moments for SEL as they arise throughout the school day. When positive or negative incidents and events happen in children’s interrelations the opportunities arise to address them, reflect on them and to capture the learning.

There is much to ponder on …..

(Incidentally, there’s a link in the article that seems to be broken – for The Collaborative for Reaching and Teaching the Whole Child. I found an alternative link here that has some links to videos and other resources:
The Collaborative for Reaching and Teaching the Whole Child

There are also lots of resources in the ASCD ‘Whole Child’ Initiative Section of the ASCD website:
ASCD – Whole Child

MOOC’s for Teachers

For teachers time is a precious commodity. Add to that the fact that teachers and school Heads (if they’re honest) admit that most professional development in schools is pretty ineffective and we must all be open to new ideas and to experimentation. There is a saying that states, “Learning hasn’t taken place until behaviour has changed.” When applied to teacher training, way too much of it consists of teachers engaged either in passive listening, or discussing issues within their comfort zones. The net result is that, even where regular time is committed in schools to teacher PD, it doesn’t bring enough benefit to justify the inputs.

I came across the following article a couple of years ago;

KGED News – Mindshift – MOOCs for Teachers.

For those not familiar, MOOCs are Massive Open Online Courses. These are learning programmes offered over the internet, usually for adults that have been seen to have the potential to revolutionise the way adults learn and how they acquire new qualifications. They haven’t been without their challenges. For example, very high attrition rates during programmes/ low completion rates – it seems generations bred on spoon-fed education where their role was inherently passive struggle to marshal the intrinsic motivation to see such courses through.

I personally don’t believe that MOOCs will ever replace face to face PD for teachers. However, I believe that when the two are combined there are some very interesting possibilities for teachers to demonstrate their credentials as lifelong learners.

Teachers within a school with a particular interest area can pursue a MOOC, either alone or in a small group. Then, they can be given opportunities to carry out action research in their school to test and practice the new knowledge coming out of the course. Then, they are likely to be highly motivated to want to share their findings and experiences with their peers. This takes the MOOC and makes its content relevant and applicable in whatever local environment the teachers are experiencing.

This has a number of advantages. It exposes teachers, wherever in the world they’re based, to the latest cutting edge thinking and the leading thinkers and experts in the field without restraints of geography or cost. It opens up teachers’ minds to what teachers elsewhere are doing and begins to set them on a path towards taking those ideas and bringing them in to action in their own schools.

Already, I’m finding that there are growing numbers of teachers ready to tap in to online resources such as webinars, podcasts, articles and book sale sites to broaden the material they’re exposing themselves to. This can only benefit students over time.

Connectivity as a Force for Change

Nicholas Negroponte is a man who has never seemed afraid of those who were inclined to ridicule him. I well remember the early days of his MIT-based One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) and the massive waves of media and ‘pundit’ cynicism to what he was setting out to do. Even today there are plenty ready to remind him of the sheer size of the targets set for the project early on compared with what was actually achieved. However, to me, this looks like one of those classic cases of “shoot for the stars”. Whilst you don’t necessarily hit the massive goal, you certainly get a lot further out there than with incremental thinking.

Recently, Negroponte was akey note speaker at the ASCD Annual Conference in the US. Here’s a report of his presentation which makes interesting reading:

Nicholas Negroponte at ASCD National Conference

I enjoyed the story he tells about what happened when a set of laptops and a solar panel were dropped on the outskirts of an illiterate village in Ethiopia. Mind boggling and a reminder of the similar kinds of experience Sugata Mishra had in India with his ‘Hole in the Wall’ experiments.

Surely, nobody today can argue with Negroponte about the power of connectivity/ education and the potential for leveling the playing field for mankind through harnessing the access to knowledge that comes with IT and connectivity. When so much is possible it still leaves me marveling why at the other end of the scale carbon copy ‘straight from the box’ schools keep being erected and created on old paradigms and old thinking. Well, of course, the reality is – I know why that’s happening – it’s very profitable and so much less trouble than trying to do real, radical creative work in new education for new times.

The other part of the article on Negroponte’s talk that really got me thinking was the best explanation I’ve seen yet for why coding has a place in schools and should be part of the curriculum, even from quite a young age. That’s one i need to think about some more.

The Qualities of Great Teachers

In many ways the debate about great teaching goes to the very heart of the debate about education’s purpose, objectives and what teachers ought to be held accountable for (and hold themselves accountable for). If we can figure out what it is that great teachers do, or at least do more of, we all hope and believe that we can bring about significant improvement in quality and standards of education for all the children in our schools.

In these days of obsession with data as ways of measuring and defining when good education is or isn’t happening, it’s dangerously possible to forget that there can’t be good education without good teaching. Whilst I’m an advocate of things like Khan Academy, I truly believe that the school and the teachers in school have the ability to support critical learning of 21st Century skills in ways that IT alone cannot (the key is to have teachers harnessing the powers of IT as critical tools in the process).

Over the last few months, I’ve been gathering together some interesting materials that reflect on these issues of what makes a great teacher. One of the things that i found most interesting is the combination of timeless attributes and ‘new’ 21st Century skills.

The first resource is a video presentation by Sir Michael Barber for an education conference in Jamaica. He was one of the presenters in the film “We are the people we’ve been waiting for”, a senior adviser to the Tony Blair government in UK on education and now a thought leader for Pearson’s on education policy and future directions:

Next we have a debate/ exchange of ideas amongst a panel of five prominent educators with some interesting reflections:

NPR-Ed - 5 Great Teachers on What Makes a Great Teacher

The third piece is an ASCD blog post by educational consultant, Elliott Seif who deliberately sets out to discuss 12 qualities that are given less attention, but are nevertheless vitally important. He sets them out as a brief list first and then elaborates in some detail on each of the 12:

ASCD Blog Post - One Dozen Qualities of Great Teachers

I would love to hear what people think. Do you agree with specifics in some of these pieces, or think the writers and presenter are missing the point? Are there some qualities listed here that you really think shouldn't be focused upon? Are the qualities of great teachers culturally specific or do the same qualities hold good in every education system in the world?

If we were to agree that these represent a great foundation for defining great teachers, is it realistic to look for these qualities in all teachers, or is that just too far beyond what's possible?

Educators Sharing Free Resources

There’s a tradition and norm amongst educators of ‘sharing’ knowledge and ideas. IT is offering many new ways for this sharing and here are a couple of examples;

Mindshift Article – Links to Large banks of Free Resources for Educators

ASCD Page Linking to a Teacher Sharing Great Resources through Pinterest

Pinterest – Suzy Brooks shares Resources for Elementary Educators