School change that sticks

On Monday I’m going to a workshop with a number of teachers and school leaders. We’ve been asked to bring along an example of a promising practice that’s been implemented in our schools, something that can be transferred easily to other settings and implemented, tested and evaluated over a 4-6 week period. When told about this, my immediate reaction was to go completely blank. Don’t get me wrong, I work in a school that embraces change and new practices, but I struggled to think of something that could be picked up by somewhere else, implemented straight away and make a meaningful impact. To be honest my gut reaction was to say no, to say that I had nothing to bring, because the idea of expecting teachers to implement something in such a short time frame is completely against everything I believe about school change.

I’ve spent time over the past few days turning this over in my mind and am still torn about what to do. I’ve been fortunate enough to work in schools that actively seek out change and are committed to making that change stick. In my previous school, before implementing a new approach to teaching writing, we spent a term working in cross-stage teams to develop resources, to empower teachers across the school in leading the implementation and to ensure that all teachers understood why we were bringing the approach in and how to utilise it. Once implemented we allocated time in stage meetings to discuss teaching programs, moderate work samples and evaluate and improve resources. Four years later the writing approach is embedded in school practice and continues to have a positive impact in student engagement and achievement.

At my current school we spent a year trialling and gradually implementing a project based learning approach. Teachers saw the impact PBL had in other classes and on community participation and engagement, they explored the possibilities, investigated the practice and developed a deep understanding of what a PBL approach would mean for their teaching. PBL is now implemented across the school and all teachers are able to clearly articulate the approach to colleagues from other schools, parents and other community members.

This year we have implemented play based learning in Kindergarten. Before implementing it, we spent time reading research articles, talking to experts and investigating possible approaches. This first term has been more successful than we could have hoped and we have spent a lot of time as a team discussing how it is working, what we could adapt and building up our understanding of the practice. We’ve had the time and the freedom to really explore the approach, to adjust our teaching practice, to evaluate the learning, to adapt our programming strategies and to respond flexibly to the needs and interests of our students. This wasn’t a silver bullet, one size fits all approach, it wasn’t a direction we were given but a possibility to make the most of.

When I think about promising practices these are the things that spring to mind. These are the changes that stick, the ones that engage teachers in questioning their beliefs, in seeing a new way of teaching, in taking ownership of the change process. These changes take time, but I believe they are worth it because of the fundamental shift that happens, the change in the way teachers perceive their role and the way in which they involve the whole school community.

There are practices I can share on Monday, such as: developing shared success criteria with students; setting effective learning objectives and using essential questions; and using open ended formative assessment strategies. However, for me, these practices are so fundamentally bound up in a shift in pedagogy and philosophy that it is hard to implement them in isolation. For any practice to lead to school change it has to be meaningfully connected to larger pedagogical change in which teachers are invested and of which they have a deep understanding. Otherwise it’s like giving up carbs in an attempt to lose weight, without an understanding of the role of a balanced diet and exercise any diet will not lead to long term weight loss, it’s just following a fad.

My hope for education is that we don’t look for the quick fix, the shiny new strategy but that we spend time investing in our teachers, engaging them in the practice of change and give them the support and the freedom they need to make changes that stick. The group of educators I’m meeting with on Monday are some of the most inspiring I’ve been fortunate enough to work with and I’m sure they are all looking for long lasting change. I look forward to learning from them and developing practices that make a difference for all our students.

If you’ve got any readings around the issue of school change, feel free to send them my way.