Westbourne Grammar

Learning that Matters

I was recently fortunate enough to take part in a study tour organised by Independent Schools Victoria in partnership with Harvard University‘s Educational Faculty. I have been working with colleagues from several diverse independent schools on a three year project called ‘Leading Learning That Matters’, led by Professor David Perkins and Dr Daniel Wilson from Harvard and Karin Morrison Director of the Development Centre at ISV. The project is still in its first year but has yielded some very interesting and compelling findings about learning that matters.

Educational research underpins my practice as a Principal and the practice of teachers at Westbourne Grammar. Recent educational research has led us to introduce continuous online reporting (major thinking from Mark Treadwell’s work) , curriculum mapping (Influenced by the work of Heidi Hayes-Jacob, and Understanding by Design (architects Jay Mctighe and Grant Wiggins), mixed ability groupings rather than isolated ‘streaming’ (compelling work about ‘Mindsets’ by Carol Dweck, and Prof Frank Crowther on the subject of differences within schools), changing teacher practice (several influences here including John Hattie, Michael Fullan, Andy Hargreaves) and whole school improvement (Jim Collins, Sir Ken Robinson, Brian Caldwell).

My recent study tour provided an experience rich with learning from sources as diverse as Silicon Valley and its innovative companies such as Apple and IDEO, Kaggle and Square, to the formalities surrounding Fort Leavenworth Military Academy for Leadership, and schools such as the KED schools and Experiential Schools in the USA and Scandinavia, alongside the research stimulus provided by the Harvard Educational Faculty. Despite the seeming polarity of, for example, a military academy and IDEO (a design firm and innovation consultancy) and the plethora of stimulus, several trends emerged which, when combined with the innovation already being undertaken at Westbourne, confirmed the learning skills I firmly believe our children will need to have to enable them to take a place in the rapid evolution that is the 21st century. These skills are:

  • Solid foundations in literacy and numeracy.
  • Capacity to think creatively and problem solve as a habit of mind.
  • Courage to consider and challenge established protocols and routines.
  • Development of a deep understanding about collaborative work. A key demand of high functioning work in all spheres.
  • Ability to work comfortably within diverse cultural communities.
  • Addressing and growing mindfulness to enable leadership of self and others

Space does not allow me to focus on all these things however, I would like to emphasise my findings around the notion of teamwork. Without exception every high performing company or institution had collaboration at their heart, closely followed by creative problem solving and the courage to innovate.

Organisations who wish to achieve great outcomes for their company achieve this by recognising that individual high achievement is of little or no account if an individual cannot connect with a diverse range of co-workers, or co-learners. The success, for example, for a cohort of students in VCE depends on how they work together during the course of a year. Everyone experiences an increase in their learning capacity (even our so called high achievers). In 2012 the Year 12 cohort experienced an overall rise in ATAR scores compared with previous years. Their median score rose by a remarkable 5 points. Anecdotal evidence confirmed our understanding that the uplift occurred because students collaborated in study groups, supporting and encouraging one another irrespective of achievement levels.

Similarly, Collins’ research into great companies indicates that they know how to use their range of people talent extensively and rely heavily on the emotional intelligence of their staff to work together for the good of the whole. Few companies, says Collins, thrive, where a high achieving leader attempts to work alone and ‘take the glory’.

In the education setting we can see, for example, the artificiality of streaming and selection which fails to achieve the outcomes for so called bright students, let alone the sense of defeat for those not selected. (What happens to the students who “just miss out?”) Streaming, based on individual attainment, creates an artificial and dangerous sense of entitlement which is not underpinned by any other behavioural or social requirement. It comes as a serious shock for students when entering university that they are required to study and present in groups and that the group will receive a final grade, not the individual. Students with developed collegial and social capacity will thrive, as will their teams, whereas high achieving students who have focussed on individual outcomes fail to understand the model and experience a profound sense of failure, because the world is not quite as they thought.

Most exceptional companies look for more than simply a grade result in their recruits. All these companies understand that the complexity of the problems facing the world require a great deal of collaborative horsepower from a diverse range of people and talent.

My studies so far have reinforced the notion that all people will thrive in an environment which expects great things of them. A school which assumes that extension and intellectual stretch is within the reach of all its students and that working collaboratively alongside one another in a truly diverse community will be a school that yields exceptional results for all. None are deprived, all are enriched.

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