The training course
The training modules
Interactive Seminars
Best practice Microsites
Education Forum
Video presentations
Meetings and archive
The e-Help Book
More about e-Help
e-Help Seminars - Andy Schofield
e-help Seminar 33
World class schools for the 21st Century
Toulouse 8-10 June 2006

At the start of the millennium the Vision 2020 group of UK specialist school headteachers published One World: One School. The ideas in One World: One School were informed by conference discussion with specialist schools nationwide and had a significant impact on national education policy and practice. The Futures Vision group within what is now the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, in conjunction with a similar group of Australian educators, is re-visiting the questions still facing us, taking on board the many changes that have taken place worldwide in the last five years. The Futures Vision network exists to stimulate thinking amongst educators and policy makers through questioning current practice and by presenting thought-provoking calls for innovation from practitioners. We wish to engage in debate with all those in schools facing up to meeting the needs of young people in the 21st century.
As with Vision 2020 the underpinning belief running through the work of Futures Vision is that if we are to build world class schools for the 21st Century then it is not sufficient to tinker with existing structures. We believe we need to transform schooling, the ways in which students learn and the ways in which schools are led and managed – ultimately to the benefit of our present and future communities. To illustrate some of the elements of transformation we have made use of the conceptual framework of innovation and abandonment to emphasise that we need not only to do certain things differently – but that we also need to make a conscious effort to abandon, or cease, certain existing practice.

One World One School recognised the need for a radical re-think of what we mean by ‘a school’, where it is located and what it does. This document addresses similar issues, as well as taking into account the rapid technological progress and some of the other dramatic changes in the world that have affected our lives since the beginning of this century. Our intention is to ask key questions that address the need for transformational, systemic change to meet the needs of current and future learners.

Through its international network, iNET, The Specialist Schools and Academies Trust now debates these issues with educators worldwide. The Futures Vision group is now engaged in developing a publication that reflects current thinking in the UK and Australia around the essential questions in leading the secondary school of the future. The publication has been informed and influenced by debate undertaken at workshops and conferences in the UK during 2005 and 2006. Our aim is to stimulate further debate amongst all schools affiliated to the Trust and iNET across the globe.

The challenge: why change?

“The system we work in today was invented 100 years ago for another time and another mission – the processing of large numbers of students for rote skills and the education of only a few for knowledge work. It was never designed to teach all children to learn to high levels. Caring and dedicated teachers, administrators, and parents work hard every day within this system to educate our children for more ambitious thinking and performance skills - and yet their efforts are often stymied by outmoded institutional structures, most notably the large, impersonal, factory-model school.” (Linda Darling-Hammond, School Redesign Network, Stanford University, California: USA, www.schoolredesign.net)

Much has been written about potential futures for the planet and for education. Whichever one you believe, and some have more likelihood than others, the implications for schools are huge. The only certainty is the future will be different to the present. How will a model of secondary education, rooted for most of us in the past in terms of its rigid subject divisions, its hierarchical structures and its ageing building stock, provide for the divergent needs of all learners in the future? How will we ‘personalise’ learning if we stick with a system that tests students en masse at the same age and time? How can we best create genuine life long learners with the skills and competencies to respond flexibly and cooperatively to the phenomenal changes that face us in the future?

One simple answer is: not by doing what we do now, or by what we always have done in the past – even if it delivers results that please newspaper editors, parents and politicians or meets the narrow requirements of the standards agenda. To equip our young people to thrive in their future life as productive citizens with social responsibility, contributing globally to the wellbeing of the fragile planet we live on, more is required of us.

The moral and professional imperative for change is strong. If we anticipate a world transformed even further by technology, a world that is shrinking daily and becoming increasingly globalised, then we need to meet these challenges in schools through what we teach and how we teach it. If we are to lift the life chances of those most vulnerable in our society so that they can make a worthwhile contribution and enjoy the rewards that come with that, then the way that we are failing them currently needs to change.

What are the other drivers for change? When the students themselves are asked, they invariably say in their own way, that what’s on offer is not coherent. To them it’s a means to an end. Many have a sense of playing the game in order to get the magical paper qualifications to go on and do something more meaningful - others may disengage and disappear. When students enter employment, they often find their qualifications get them through the door, but once in, the skills and competencies they need to function effectively and flexibly within highly competitive global organisations can be sadly lacking. The big question isn’t how we manage and engage with change but, rather, what are the dangers if we don’t?

Essential questions

• Why is education configured in the way it is? What do we take for granted that we might question and change?
• How can schools justify much of what they do? How do our students develop a sense of identity and belonging?
• Why does the UK curriculum, despite all the reform and innovation, still look very similar to that on offer at the start of the 1900s?
• Why do so many students still leave at the end of compulsory education with so little to show for it?
• If much learning can take place anytime/anywhere, why do schools generally consist of buildings in one place that are usually only open to everyone for learning from 9-3, 190 days a year?
• Is the traditional classroom based single timetabled lesson the best way to organise the majority of our students’ learning?
• Why is so little of what is now known about learning used on a daily basis to plan experiences for students?
• How will the new technologies transform learning?
• Why do we still depend on outmoded, industrial age thinking, when working with complex organisations?
• Where can we find inspiration and examples of change from which we can learn?
• What are the current and future leadership challenges for secondary school leaders?
• Does one school, operating in isolation, have the capacity to transform itself?
• What are the consequences for students in meeting the challenges of the 21st century if we do not transform our current practice?
• What are the consequences for society if our students are unable to meet these challenges?
• How can transformation in education create greater cohesion in our society and globally?
• How can transformation in education create a greater chance of survival for our planet?

Why is education configured in the way it is?

David Hargreaves (2004) has challenged us to question many of the assumptions about education that we take for granted through developing the concept of ‘educational imaginary’. In this context, an imaginary is a set of generally unquestioned assumptions about the way education is configured. Hargreaves contrasts the 20th century educational imaginary, where aims and outcomes were well known and uncontested; intelligence was a fixed innate characteristic, and teachers and student roles were sharply defined, with the 21st century imaginary. Here, identities and destinations are fluid, intelligence is multi-dimensional as well as learnable and the roles of teacher and learner have become blurred. In the 20th century imaginary, schools were designed and organised along factory lines like a production line, with predictable inputs and outputs, coupled with a distinct lack of choice about learning for the student.

The challenge for school leaders today is to reconfigure education so that it is fit for the 21st century. What makes the task significantly more taxing is that the pace of change from one educational imaginary to the other is happening now, in real time. School leaders are currently living with the transition and faced with leading and managing the transformation. Hargreaves sees the personalising learning agenda (for example, Leadbeater 2004, Hargreaves 2005) as the driver to get us from the 20th century imaginary to the 21st century.

Hedley Beare (2001) presents a similar challenge, of moving from factory based, parochial schooling to a new kind of future school. The drivers for this change – which is coming, whether we like it or not – are radical shifts in post-industrial economies, information technology and globalisation. Beare (in Caldwell 2005) has repeated the urgent need for school systems to rid themselves of the military analogies – of power, rank, compliance, and obedience, as well as the still persistent industrial age metaphors of old, and replace them with a new imaginary and new forms of systems thinking. Caldwell calls this ‘new enterprise logic’. The challenge for school leaders is to oversee the transformation of schools, rather than their reform. Simply recycling the same components will not go anything like far enough.

We know that top-down, command and control managements systems have had their day – other than in the army or in prison – so why does hierarchy, status and department or pastoral affiliation still matter so much in teaching? How can professional people end up counting 1265 hours and how many meetings a week they’re attending? Local authority and support staff still get appointed to ‘officer’ grades in the UK. Leadership and management structures in schools have changed relatively little over the years. They remain intensely hierarchical, inflexible and multi-layered, with the relatively recent introduction of some accountability for attention to the core purpose of the school - that is improvements in learning and the social development of the students. The department structure in secondary schools creates units that militate strongly against seeing the student as a whole – and can add to the lack of coherence by having different stances on the school’s values and core purposes.

The new UK legislation around the ‘Every Child Matters’ agenda has the potential to radically shift the focus of secondary schools from teaching subjects to each and every student. It also broadens the range of agencies that schools will have to interact with but unless funded properly risks diverting schools from their core purpose, which is after all, is learning and personal development.

How do schools justify what they do? How do our students develop a sense of identity and belonging?

These are profound and very serious questions for the school of the future. One way of looking at the choice facing us is to decide whether we want value centred or rule bound communities. Value centred communities define what constitutes acceptable attitudes and behaviours from an agreement about the real purpose of the school – from the inside-out as far as the community and the individual are concerned. Attitudes and behaviours which are out of synch, or not congruent with what has been agreed, can be challenged by reference to some deeper moral purpose – rather than from the position of seeking to defend an arbitrarily imposed set of rules. This has the potential for much more powerful engagement with students as the core values of the school become a living, everyday force and some of the detail becomes easier to justify and to some extent more flexible.

Rule bound communities define what’s acceptable in terms of lists of do’s and don’ts – from the outside-in as far as the individual is concerned. This can result in an outbreak of sad teacher mentality, with arcane debates about the number of ear-rings that students are allowed to wear– or the ‘do it because I say so’ mentality that has alienated so many students over the years.

A considerable amount of work has been undertaken by Julia Atkin (1996) with schools in Australia and New Zealand around value centred practice and principles, but much of it has yet to reach the UK. Tallangatta High School in rural Victoria has transformed staff-student relationships through just such an approach, whereas far too many schools in The UK are implacably wedded to the rules and regulations model of mass schooling for purposes of control, rather than learning. This should come as no real surprise as The UK is the world leader in this respect, providing the public school system and the trappings of school life such as uniforms, to many parts of the world during the colonial era. Why are homework and uniforms still seen as a test of how strong a school is on standards?

A rule bound culture is ultimately disempowering for both the students and the staff – as authority is externally imposed and relates to lists of regulations which someone else, at some time, thought were a good idea. Virtuous attitudes and behaviours should arise from – and be congruent with - an agreed set of core values that the whole community has played its part in shaping. Students’ behaviour can then be defined and debated within a framework that has real veracity, not by an imposed set of rules that may have little credibility in the eyes of the students themselves – or just as importantly with the staff whose task it is to impose them. For a profession supposedly so committed to values and student centred education, why are so many of our schools bound together by externally imposed (to the individual) rule driven cultures?

These questions go right to the heart of how we want our students to develop a sense of identity and belonging – and these are crucial issues in an era when identities are being formed in new, multiple ways that are no longer under the control of the school or indeed the family. Furthermore, in a profession that has a reputation for shortening one’s life expectancy the longer one works in it, how we motivate, engage with and retain the teachers and staff of the future also seems crucial. Why does the actual job of teaching burn people out? How can educators retain the passion and desire that they had to make a difference throughout their working lives? See Schofield (2004) for an analysis of Julia Atkin’s work applied to UK school and staff leadership.

Schools which react to societal changes by trying to increasingly control what students learn and do within a continued model of mass provision will find themselves facing great difficulty appealing to students, who identities are constructed within an expectation that they have individual rights – often as consumers, and that services will be personalised to their individual needs. The school system is now faced with increasing numbers of students who are challenging accepted norms, are alienated or disengaged, or in The UK, have been lost to the system by 16. A producer dominated model of education, which tells students what to do en masse, is inappropriate for the world in which we now live. It causes massive stresses in the system for those that work or study there, as well as a massive wastage of talent.

More practically, how does the layout of the average secondary school encourage socialisation and civilised behaviour? If we expect students to develop a sense of belonging and identity then why do we mass them together in enormous year groups and expect them to eat in and make use of other facilities that are sub-standard. Is it any surprise that secondary school students can easily feel a sense of alienation and isolation when they have no place or workspace to call their own, live a nomadic life going from classroom to classroom, and make use of tiny canteens and grotty toilets? Botany Downs, a newly opened purpose built secondary school near Auckland, New Zealand, has been designed around social units called Whanau Houses (in Maori meaning communities), which develop the concept of the ‘school within a school’ and a ‘home away from home’. In the USA, the home of enormous state schools, there is now a movement, backed up by research, towards smaller schools (McKinney et al, 2002) - aimed at reducing a sense of alienation and isolation. The Small Schools Network actively promotes and researches smaller secondary schools in the USA.

The academic-pastoral divide in secondary schools is also notorious, with countless teaches with pastoral responsibilities getting the blame for, and left to feel guilty about, the failings of classroom teachers, their departments or the school itself to effectively engage with students. Maybe the recent workforce reforms in the UK will change some of this but pastoral systems in themselves are not especially efficient or effective, and it could be argued that they touch only the minority. Some schools, such as Peacehaven Community School in East Sussex, have been designed without the one-size-fits all 1:30 ratio of form tutor to form group – replacing it with individual tutoring or mentoring. Some schools have opted for vertical tutor groups, as opposed to all members being from the same year group. This can enable cross-age mentoring or be designed to re-create the family atmosphere that some of our students are now said to miss at home. In the USA, the small schools network promotes the replacement of mass produced tutoring systems with ‘advisories’, which have smaller ratios of staff to students and utilise adults other than teachers in providing guidance.

Why does the UK curriculum, despite all the reform and innovation, still look very similar to that on offer at the start of the 1900s?

The traditional curriculum in the UK is very similar to the list of subjects that was prescribed at the start of the last century – with a few options thrown in at key stage four. The UK national curriculum enshrined much of this tradition in law and guidance. So much of what we put into place is from the perspective of those who have succeeded with traditional, academic education. There are signs, however, that this type of old-fashioned subject based curriculum is being questioned and replaced. In Australia, the New Basics in Queensland, Essential Learnings in Tasmania and the Victorian Blueprint are state wide reforms which look to significantly transform secondary education. The RSA Opening Minds curriculum in the UK is a similar attempt to define essential learning experiences for students around skills and competencies, rather than subject knowledge per se. These reforms question the pre-eminence of the subject based nature of secondary curricula and attempt to define an essential core of skills and competencies that will result in more independent, emotionally resilient learners. They also inevitably raise questions about broadening the range of adults that interact with students as well as getting to the heart of how we can ensure that our students choose to learn.

Tallangatta Secondary College, Victoria, Australia, has had a vertical modular curriculum since 1979, incorporating a very strong vocational component. The school has an enterprise centre on site which includes motor cycle maintenance and horticulture, as well as a mobile hospitality and catering unit called ‘food on wheels’. Mitchell Secondary College in Wodonga, Victoria, Australia, planned and implemented a modular, vertical curriculum from year 8-10 in a single year during 2002-3. There are modules targeted at switching boys onto reading fiction in English as well as the usual mix of subject based and vocationally inspired modules to create coherent programmes of learning. The school has a fully equipped high-tech motor vehicle maintenance block, and their vision is ‘everyone included, everyone challenged and everyone successful’.

The Leigh City Technology College in Dartford, Kent, UK embarked on a similarly ambitious project to restructure the curriculum during 2004-5 for implementation at the start of the following academic year, demonstrating that quite radical change can be introduced quickly if done skilfully. Leigh have designed a vertical curriculum from 8-13, where it is not compulsory that students of the same age have to be taught together. There are also many schools in the UK now breaking away from the traditional 3+2 key stage three and four model during the compulsory secondary years – and even incorporating key stage five into the plans, as Leigh have done. Hargreaves (2005) provides other examples of UK schools that have broken the mould in this way.

Research done in the UK into ‘assessment for learning’ has produced evidence of the success of personalising assessment (Black et al, 2003) and revealed the limitations of one-size-fits-all summative assessment. Summative assessment at given ages will need to be replaced by students travelling through their learning programmes and being assessed as and when they are ready, maybe with mixtures of ages in each class reflecting a really individualised approach to progress. Embedding formative assessment for learning will help students to track their own progress through learning programmes which can be rigorously moderated by teachers or the range of other adults supporting their learning. In the USA, the Coalition of Essential Schools promotes assessment through multiple forms of evidence, including demonstration of mastery at an exhibition in front of family and community members.

Why do so many students still leave after 1500 hours of compulsory education with so little to show for it?

Despite the claimed success of so many educational reforms over the years, in the UK we still seem to think it is inevitable that 20% or so of students leave compulsory education with nothing, many being lost to education and training, sometimes for good. This is a shameful record – and one of the worst of any post-industrial nation. The continued predominance of the so-called ‘academic’ subjects, tied to a heavy dose of key stage three testing is enough to switch off many of those for whom learning is not a priority. When schools fail to engage or provide worthwhile learning activities or courses, some students have usually voted with their feet by the end of year 11 - many others are still present, but their minds are elsewhere. Others choose to avoid work and disrupt. Even the ones who succeed may not be true independent learners, often relying on a diet of spoon feeding justified by the testing and assessment regime.

What do we do with students in The UK who are not ready to learn, or find learning really hard? In years gone by students who found learning difficult were punished or forgotten about. Nowadays, we readily accept that students have learning difficulties and most schools have learnt to help those who find learning hard. However, the non-compliant or the students who present with a range of emotional or social issues in the classroom are now the ones targeted for punishment and exclusion. In the school of the future, maybe it will be as unthinkable to punish a student for exhibiting distressing signs of behaviour, as it used to be to punish those who found learning hard. If the UK education system is so successful, why are there so many exclusions, why is challenging behaviour on so many agendas and why have schools so blatantly failed to adapt to the changing nature of the students that now require educating? Excluding more and more students is not the answer – either for the individual school or society as a whole.

Collingwood College in Melbourne, Australia, have three sub-schools (junior, middle and senior) plus three further annexes: The Island, Richmond No1 and the Alternative School. They are also unique in having a dual curriculum, with a Steiner stream running up to year 10, which students and their parents opt into. This provides a range of schools, with different styles, as well as a school within a school – the exact opposite of the one size fits all industrial model. The college has a huge commitment to inclusion and to all their students always leaving with qualifications. This provision is based on a vision of working class education that has existed for over twenty years. ‘The Island’ is the work education and training unit for the college, based in a converted factory, where teaching is to 60 students a day, aged 15+, up to apprenticeship standards. All who attend have disconnected from other schools. 95% of these students go into paid employment.

If much learning can take place anytime/anywhere, why do schools generally consist of buildings in one place that are usually only open to everyone for learning from 9-3, 190 days a year?

Despite the need to get beyond the school as the basic unit to work with and focus on the individual learner, many educators still have a n emotional attachment to the buildings and grounds of the traditional school campus. Learning is assumed to take place only when students are physically present on the school site between prescribed times. Extra-curricular activities are just that – extras, not part of the core provision. Why isn’t the service being provided the focus of attention, rather than the location or the time it’s on offer? Schools might come to the conclusion that it’s actually impossible or undesirable to provide everything on one site. It is common for older secondary students to study at other locations, such as college or in the workplace, but is this just scratching the surface? First day educational provision for excluded students, now required in some Behaviour Improvement Partnerships, certainly concentrates the mind in this respect.

There might be a rich variety of community and home based learning opportunities that may be much more in tune with a student’s aspirations and learning style that are being denied to them at the moment. In addition, schools have to develop skills in teamwork and co-operation that are so evident in activities children take part in outside of school such as sports and productions. Often extra curricular activities have been tacked on to an overcrowded, content dominated curriculum rather than placed at the centre of a competency based curriculum that focuses on skills acquired rather than information remembered.

The pattern of the traditional school year is historic, as the summer break was originally needed to release labour for the harvest period. Current patterns of schooling have as much to do with providing childcare in an effort to cope with working patterns as they do with provision that might lead to the most effective learning. Why do public schools and Oxbridge have much shorter terms than state secondaries? Are their standards of learning worse as a result? Do all students need to be on the school site from 9-3, 190 days a year? – and if not, how might we reconfigure schooling so that the structures fit the learning, rather than the other way round?

Collingwood College, in Melbourne, Australia provides education on five sites, including ‘The Island’, which is a vocational unit, as well as an alternative school for disaffected students, which they might attend for five years or just a week. Many schools in Australia also have more than one campus, with students engaged in residential education for part of the year, in a location some distance from the main school.

Is the traditional classroom based single timetabled ‘lesson’, of round about an hour in length, the best way of organising students’ learning?

In most UK secondary schools the dominant mode of learning is more or less the same as it was throughout most of the last century, with one teacher in a room with about thirty students, more often than not unsupported by new technologies. At its worst, the teacher is the transmitter of knowledge and the student the passive recipient. Even the presence of large numbers of interactive whiteboards or laptops won’t necessarily guarantee more enlightened types of learning. These modes of learning remain part of the old factory, producer dominated, model of education – and then we wonder why students are increasingly disengaged or unimpressed by what is on offer. The Coalition for Essential Schools movement in the USA has as one of its core principles a limit on the number of students any one teacher should be teaching at any one time in an effort to personalise teaching and learning.

Given the emotional attachment (largely by teachers and parents) to the ‘lesson’ and regular movement during the day, is it surprising that schools generally consist of long corridors and a series of similar looking classrooms? Why do most secondary classrooms consist of 15 double desks, often in rows, and 30 uncomfortable plastic chairs? Has an adult ever tried sitting in one of those chairs for five hours? What would a school built around learning actually look like? Why are the vast majority of students required to be in ‘lessons’ all the time? Will the UK Building Schools for the Future programme simply give us more of the same old tired designs or will we genuinely see schools built around student learning and personal development?

Unlimited Paenga Tawhiti – a state secondary school in Christchurch, New Zealand - opened in 2003 with 400 students on roll in a shopping centre in the centre of the city. Unlimited has very few of the conventional trappings that would mark it out as a school – yet it is an inspiring place to work and learn. It has no fenced off site, relatively few conventional lessons and no typical classrooms. Every student has an individual education plan which maps out their learning around core time and ‘glide time’ when attendance is voluntary but by prior agreement. Their feeder primary (called Discovery 1) has a similar unconventional location and a refreshingly thoughtful approach to learning. In the same city, Christchurch College of Computing was set up to provide a high quality alternative to the traditional sixth form education – in an office environment, more akin to the sort of thing we might expect a private language college in the UK to look like. However, the college was set up and owned by Burnside High School, which in other respects is a conventional state secondary school.

Woodbridge High School in Tasmania, Australia has used the impetus of the new state curriculum framework, known as Essential Learnings, to provide longer learning periods, alongside trying to combine the needs of learners with different types of spaces. The school has based these developments on experience of what worked, informed by their own and others research. In a conventional secondary school timetable, most teachers meet so many students in a week that they can’t possibly know each of their minds well, assess their work properly or personalise anything. So much of the work that is set for students, either in class or for homework, is to keep them busy and to get to the end of the lesson.

The Australian School of Science and Mathematics (in UK terms a sixth form college), constructed on the campus of Flinders University in Adelaide, South Australia, is a unique educational environment, with a number of highly innovative features. There are no conventional classrooms, with some teaching taking place in ‘learning commons’, which are adaptable open-plan ICT rich learning spaces.

It would not be too far-fetched to suggest that the whole culture of schooling could move toward one of active learning centres where the day is flexible and built around learning needs with extra curricular activities as part of the package of opportunities and choices that build up the portfolio of competence that will profile achievement throughout school life.

Why is so little of what is now known about learning used on a daily basis to plan experiences for students? If schools are experts in learning, why are they not better at teaching students how to actually learn?

Twenty years or so ago, relatively little was known about how humans actually learned and how the brain worked. Through the use of magnetic resonance imaging neurologists investigating brain activity now know much more about how learning happens. This work has given weight to theories of learning such as Howard Gardner’s ideas regarding multiple intelligence; David Kolb’s cycle of experiential learning that requires a shift ‘towards teaching how to do something’; Daniel Goleman’s seminal work on the impact of Emotional Intelligence on learning and Black and William’s research on the impact of Assessment for Learning as an alternative to summative assessment.. All of these have profound implications for the development of ‘learning’ in our schools.

Now we know that intelligence is not fixed and it is multi-faceted. We know that the brain is plastic and that it can be taught to learn, even if some of the connections inside it that many of us take for granted have not been made in the years soon after birth. We also know that there is no such thing as a low or high ability student but many of us still use the language. Being a good learner is not about being ‘able’ or ‘bright’. In fact all students have the potential to learn – and it’s the school’s job to find the answer, not to take part in a self-fulfilling prophecy of doing what we’ve always done and then blaming or labelling the students as ‘special’ or ‘EBD’ when it doesn’t succeed. Learning more, in relation to one’s own previous best or level of performance, is all we should really be interested in.

We know that there is a strong link between the quality of learning and the level of cognitive and metacognitive activity taking place. We also know that actually learning about learning has more impact than teaching something like study skills and those classrooms which operate as ‘communities of inquiry’ produce better learning, thinking and communication. Although there are different views about learning in different situations, learning in classrooms is often a social activity, with the individual student involved with the teacher or other students in the co-construction of understanding. We also know that student engagement and interest increases when the context for learning is a real-life problem or issue. The metaphor of ‘work’ for activity in the classroom is dangerous, as it can avoid asking deeper questions about the level of engagement of students and especially about the degree of cognitive and metacognitive activity taking place. And finally, we also know that assessment to support learning (known in the UK as ‘assessment for learning’) is more successful than the old ideas about testing and examinations with age related formal assessment, regardless of the learner’s readiness.

In other words, some classroom experiences are consistently more successful in enabling students to learn. What these experiences are and why they work should be at the centre of every school’s professional development programme – and indeed be a stimulus to work across schools as well. The analogy with the medical profession is a good one – where professionals research, share and create new knowledge about how they can be more effective in their practice. Where learning is concerned, teachers and schools should be the experts – but they so seldom are. The former UK Minister for School Standards, David Miliband, commissioned Demos to set up a learning working group to produce a report on the implications of this type of thinking in 2004. The resulting report About Learning, whilst having some interesting observations to make about learning in general, also advocated the need for regular summaries of research on the brain, learning and thinking to be made available to schools and for teachers to be engaged in developing and sharing this increased understanding.

Students (and indeed adults) are all different - are motivated to learn in different ways and have different learning, thinking and working styles, in turn deriving from individual aptitudes, needs, likes and personalities (Prashnig, 2004). Some Primary schools in quite challenging circumstances, such as Moulsecoomb in Brighton, UK and Katikati, North Island, NZ, have transformed themselves and the engagement of their children by systematically applying these principles in every classroom. The challenge of doing something similar at secondary level is much greater and as yet, largely undeveloped, although Cramlington School, a 13-19 upper secondary in Northumberland, UK has integrated some of these ideas within their year 9 learning to learn course, as well as having developed blueprints for teachers’ lesson planning across the curriculum.

The education system has traditionally been one dimensional, rewarding those who were good at remembering and sitting still. This is no longer good enough, as knowledge is changing fast, is more accessible to all and we do not know what our students will need to know in the future. It has been argued (Claxton, 2002) that what we should be doing is teaching students to develop supple and nimble minds, so that they will be able to learn whatever and whenever they need to in the future. A focus on how to learn would include students developing an understanding of their own learning profile and how to use it to raise achievement and develop their full potential. Students could use this knowledge to develop transferable skills especially in literacy, numeracy, communication and self-management in order to become emotionally intelligent, flexible and resourceful learners in the future.

In response to the failure of much of what is taught in the early secondary years to produce resilient, independent learners who have flexible skills and competencies, and who can work well in teams, while also being able to lead themselves and others, schools have been searching for alternative ways of organising learning. More widely, there is a growing desire to find out just what we need to change in our education system that will make the difference between producing students who simply pass (or fail) exams and producing independent lifelong learners who have the potential to thrive in the knowledge based economy of the 21st century. In the UK the RSA Opening Minds curriculum is an alternative model being used in the early secondary years with very interesting outcomes, including improved levels of literacy, improved behaviour and independence in learning. The curriculum is taught through projects that are mapped against the requirements of the national curriculum, and include many cross curricular links such as citizenship, ICT and literacy. It also has an important part to play in improving transition from primary to secondary school as the projects are taught by one teacher, so decreasing the tendency to fragment learning with students having to meet numerous teachers in a week. The nature of the early secondary years can lead to disengagement by year 8 and disaffection for many by year 9. A competency based curriculum model, scaffolded by a ‘learning to learn’ approach can develop an academic curiosity and independence in learning that allows students to take more responsibility for their own learning and hence dramatically improve engagement and motivation, especially when combined with a focus on an active student voice programme that encourages a sense of ownership, enterprise and responsibility. Opening Minds enables aspects of emotional intelligence such as persistence, optimism and self management to be explicitly modelled and taught across the curriculum. Within this context, lessons taught in brain friendly ways are those where active participation, variety and challenge combine to make learning exciting but demanding.

Why do we still depend on outmoded, industrial age thinking, when working with complex organisations?

Why do we still rely on traditional rational planning systems and policies in helping us determine how to act? Why has some of the latest thinking on complexity theory failed to permeate schools? Traditional strategic planning, and the policy and action planning that goes with it, are problematic because schools are unpredictable, human organisations. This is an uneasy, messy message, as there is a degree of familiarity and security with a folder of policies, the conventional development plan and its grids of actions and success criteria. However, there is a developing body of work which has exposed the myth of reducing complex problems to separate, rationally manageable component parts – as in traditional modes of planning and thinking (see for example: Brooke-Smith 2003 and Chapman 2004).

A well known analogy is to compare the results of throwing a rock and a live bird. Both actions are governed by the laws physics but such laws are hopeless for predicting where the bird will end up. Systems thinking treats schools in the same way, as complex, adaptive systems and is in direct conflict with the command and control mentality of the industrial age. This is also a major challenge to government and their unremitting production of good ideas for the school system as a whole, coupled with modes of thinking from a by-gone era, such as target setting coupled with pressure and support.

Complexity theory says that the best way to improve performance is to take a range of actions, evaluate the results and learn what works best, rather than simply specifying policies, targets or success criteria to be met. What works best would be for teachers, students and parents to judge, not just the senior management team. This type of approach requires a degree of innovation and creativity, as well as an evaluative, reflective style of thinking in relation to professional practice. School leaders will need a new mindset which allows for a degree of uncertainty, is not too eager to control the details of change and which nurtures deep and powerful learning across the school – much of this being dependent on the quality of interactions between the staff. The optimum condition for the school is known as the creative state, a condition on a continuum between rigidity at one extreme, where everything is controlled and nobody takes risks - and anarchy at the other, where everyone does as they please. There are similarities in this thinking with the concept of distributed leadership and the different types proposed by Hargreaves & Fink (2006). Based on empirical studies of schools in Canada, they propose a continuum from autocracy to anarchy, with the most well developed form of leadership, which they call ‘assertive distribution’, only one step away from anarchy.

Optimistically, complexity theory also tells us that in the creative state, small changes (known as those with high leverage) can lead to major transformations. Using these ideas, school leaders can consciously work towards the development of the optimum creative state, which may takes time depending on where you’re starting from, but also seek out those high-leverage initiatives that may result in transformation. Ultimately complexity theory gives the leader of the school of the future a hopeful, positive model within which one can be more at ease with innovation, risk and a degree of uncertainty.

At a system wide level in the UK, there has been an intellectual acceptance within government that transformation of secondary schooling won’t happen through centrally determined, prescriptive policies. Such a realisation doesn’t, however, automatically translate into the everyday policy announcements and the latest good idea that politicians seems so keen on. The tension felt in schools between the desire to transform schooling, alongside league tables of examination results and multiple accountabilities is a very real one and is not conducive to creativity, risk and innovation.

Levers for transformation, innovation and abandonment

“We are operating in the wrong frame of reference and as a consequence our lives will continue to become more busy, more exhausting, less humanly productive or satisfying and increasingly devoid of meaning. Alternative frameworks exist that are likely to serve our human needs more profoundly and more engagingly: it would be foolish to ignore them.” (Michael Fielding, Sussex University, UK, 2001)

Key issue Levers for transformation Abandonment

Language of the19th century educational imaginary Re-evaluate metaphors and language used; cease using those that convey out-moded or inappropriate messages; choices over learning: content, style and location Military metaphors and industrial age concepts: officers, rank, hierarchy, command, control, obedience, compliance, orders, mindless rules, delivery, line management, rigid job demarcation, teacher as complete expert, student as complete novice. One size fits all systems

School buildings, sites, opening times and where learning takes place Virtual learning environments; redesigned classrooms; community and home based learning; extended independent learning assignments; first day educational provision for excluded students; regular residential programmes; specialist vocational provision; specialist additional needs provision; blurring boundary with extra-curricular; shift times for different cohorts 9-3, 190 day a year working patterns – for students; provision on one site; distinction between curricular and extra-curricular; traditional piecemeal homework timetables; uncomfortable plastic chairs; traditional lunch times

Values and purposes; students and staff commitment; how students form their identities; how students develop a sense of belonging Revised values, attitudes and behaviours statement; the ‘school within a school’; smaller units; redesigned social facilities, canteens and locker areas; supervised, civilised, toilets; peer to peer, smaller tutor groups or 1:1 mentoring; student ownership of desks, learning and social space; teaching and building emotional intelligence capacity; advisories and small group tutoring Rule bound communities; behaviour modification programmes which fail to address teachers’ core values and beliefs; detailed, arbitrarily created lists of rules; corridors with lino and lockers; traditional grotty toilets; poor quality food; uncivilised canteens; punishment regimes and scapegoating of students who are disturbed; classifying students by behaviour type; 1:30 tutoring ratios

Learning and the brain Metacognition; activities which challenge and stretch beyond the comfort zone; assessment for learning; reflective diaries; ‘learning to learn’ integrated within teaching; co-construction of understanding; learning styles that impact on emotions; classroom based development and research; staff research groups and publications; availability of water; linking diet, exercise and learning; learning styles; development of emotional intelligence and habits of mind to include persistence, self-awareness, self management, optimism and deferred gratification to produce resilient learners Fixed intelligence and the language of low and high ability; attainment rather than achievement; conventional models of professional development; divide between research and practice evidence; teacher as know-all expert; controlling rather than motivating classrooms; copying; exclusive use of summative assessment data

Early 20th century curriculum and pedagogy Define absolute standard/outcomes, then work backwards from 100%; achievement measured against own personal best; competency and skill based learning programmes, which explicitly address emotional intelligence; competency based curriculum; portfolio of achievements; longer periods of learning; student evaluations of learning; integrating discrete subjects; individual educational plans; choice over what, where and how students learn; real life, authentic contexts for learning; integrate subjects; assessment by exhibition; mixed age teaching; choice in early secondary years; accreditation for extra-curricular and community based learning; extended work related learning and internships; rigorous use of data to track students and combat underachievement; diplomas; learning styles Incremental models of judging success (eg 55% 5+A*-C to 65%); language of being busy and doing ‘your work’; fragmented daily timetables with lots of movement; the classroom, lesson, teacher, timetable or school that puts any of these units of organisation before the individual student; teacher as worker, student as passive recipient; compulsion over what, where and how students learn; traditional key stage three and four division; traditional age related cohort learning and testing; key stage three testing for all at the end of year 9; work experience lasting a week; targeting only certain borderline or high profile groups; teaching to the test; passive, teacher dominated learning; lecturing; spoon feeding; random hourly slots for ICT, PSHE and Citizenship; exclusive focus on ‘standards’; vocational education as second class

Transition from primary to secondary Transfer when ready; phased transition; teachers that can teach in primary and secondary schools; competency based curriculum in year 7; two year key stage three; teachers teaching across a range of subjects; all through schools Transfer when 11; primary/secondary divide; transition in September primary and secondary teaching qualifications which exclude the ability to teach in each phase; 10+ teachers a week in year 7; three year key stage three; groupings based on age

New technologies Designing learning on the basis that technology influences young people’s identity; accreditation for group and team work; placing proficiencies within the wider context of how technology impacts upon ourselves and the world; openly debating the morality of new technologies and digital texts; seeing childhood and adulthood as more closely linked to behaviours and attitudes; finding out what our students want and need and then engaging with the developers Over-confidence in technology solutions; the idea of technology as merely peripheral equipment; discretely taught ICT; ICT labs; proficiencies-led learning about technology; stringent views of ‘the taboo’ and unhelpful age-bound distinctions between child and adult;
Styles of leadership, command and control Distributed and broader leadership; leadership defined by accountability, competence and impact; student researchers; student associate governors; student surveys – including quality of learning; an ethos of creativity; networks, clusters and federations; engaging with other agencies, professionals and stakeholders Know-all, heroic leader, macho management; selfish, inward looking, self-serving, self congratulatory styles of management; competitive school practice, which lacks responsibility for whole system; job descriptions which list tasks; management by telling people what to do; complex, multi-level systems of organisation, control and accountability; cultures of permission and excuse; individual schools competing or working in isolation; the concept that educators know best and have to do everything

Complexity theory and rational planning Systems thinking; achieving the ‘creative state’; relaxing rigid systems; tightening anarchic systems; networking, learning from and connecting with others; international benchmarking Rational models of planning; linear thinking, traditional strategic and development planning; complex, detailed development plans with tables of targets and success criteria; simplistic definitions of success, such as 5+A*-C

Contribute further to the seminar at


Spartacus Learning Online MacGregor is History Historia Siglo 20 Historical Association International School History Sintermeertencollege InnovativeICT.net

This website is maintained by Richard Jones-Nerzic
Contact email