Wednesday, April 28, 2010

School Improvement - a conversation

Earlier this year the University of Tasmania advertised several 'New Stars' positions in various disciplines, including one for the Faculty of Education specialising in School Improvement. They couldn't recruit anyone suitable in School Improvement. This would indicate that the lack of expertise in School Improvement may be a much wider issue.
Goldratt has identified a change management strategy based on three simple questions
  1. What to change?
  2. What to change to?
  3. How to cause the change? That is, "By what method?"
Most people are confident about their expertise in relation to Questions 1 & 2, especially in relation to specific changes. The world is full of experts, who know what's wrong and how things should be.
But a gaping void exists in relation to Question 3. This usually leads to attempts to drive school improvement by
  • focusing on outcomes (MySchool, Tasmania Tomorrow...) and/or
  • mandating changes to teacher practices (often based on notions of 'best practice')
 [The continual search for best practices is based on the largely unexamined assumption that 'best practices' are universally best, and are also readily transferrable] 
These approaches tend to make school improvement initiatives
  • disparate
  • episodic
  • inefficient
  • ineffective ('after the horse has bolted')
  • lacking in overall coherence
  • often mutually disruptive: most schools struggle to meet the demands placed upon them
On the other hand, there are a whole range of proven improvement strategies available. However, they seem have little or no traction in the field of Education. Tasmania is ideally situated  to redress this situation.
 Change management strategies worth considering include
  • Action Learning* (Revans,...)
  • Activity Theory (Engestrom,...)
  • Complexity Theory (Snowden,...)
  • Theory of Constraints (Goldratt)
  • Continuous improvement (Deming,...)
  • Sense Making (Weick, Snowden)
  • Solution Focus (McKergow,...)
  • Communities of Practice (Wenger,...)
  • Knowledge Management (combines with complexity theory and sense making)
  • Key Factors (Webb)
  • and even SWPBS (Sugai,...) - as per my recent email
  • ...

The latter two strategies are currently understood to be specific to particular school contexts: the implementation of ICT and student behaviour respectively. In fact,  both have the potential to be generalised in such a way that they become applicable  and useful in improving most aspects of the life and work of the school.
Interestingly, all of these strategies are constructivist and they boil down to being Action Learning in one form or another - not really surprising!!
Thus, there is an urgent and important conversation to be had around the question
  • School Improvement -  by what method?
 And the conversation needs to be fostered at all levels and with all stakeholders.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

A Positive Future for Tasmanian Schools

Deming led the redevelopment of Japan after WWII and was a founding contributor to the quality movement. When people made great claims about about their future achievements ("No child will live in poverty", "No Child Left behind"...) he would ask the question: "By what method?".

He was not asking "What are you going to do?". He was asking "How are those involved going to achieve this desirable thing?".

One way to achieve a positive future for Tasmanian schools would be to adopt, adapt, appropriate and extend the main principles of SWPBS (School-wide Positive Behaviour Support) to address the various aspects of the life and work of the school; not just student behaviour.

What would this mean?  It means that is areas such as teaching & learning, behaviour, organisations, community & families... Schools would be purposeful, capable and successful.  

That is, in a positive future Tasmanian Schools would
  • be focused on success and well-being for all (staff, students, families, communities...) in a range of contexts
  • have clear widely shared hopes and expectations for all 
  • know what was happening 
  • have data to confirm or challenge their knowledge of what was happening
  • use this data to inform their decision making and responses
  • continually work towards achieving and improving outcomes consistent with their hopes and expectations
  • adopt and/or develop evidence-based practices that enable the outcomes to be achieved
  • apply these practices to provide a continuum of support according to the needs of those involved
  • develop systems that enable data to be acquired, processed and used in a timely manner,and for practices to be effective, efficient....
  • focus on improvement, rather than change, and thus
  • become inclusive (and restorative) communities in their own right
Using SWPBS as a 'platform' would be strategic in that, to a greater or less extent, most schools have some knowledge and experience of PBS.  For those schools that already implementing SWPBS well, the extension would be simple and natural. And it would further strengthen the good work they are already doing in SWPBS.

    Thursday, April 22, 2010

    The Immediate Future of Tasmanian Education

    Understanding the current window of opportunity
    We are in a period of rapid transition and the critical changes are not being chosen, managed or designed or even predictable - they are simply emerging. So an understanding of complexity will prove to be critical.
    The old idea of a system as Input-Process-Output is very much alive but not at all well.  That is, this notion is working less and less well as our world becomes more complex, interactive, uncertain and unpredictable.
    Many aspects of our daily experience have elements that are at the 'edge of chaos'. While some people may be in charge, no-one is really in control of literacy, numeracy, retention, behaviour... and other critical matters. Still we have to respond and how we respond to these conditions determines our ongoing success or otherwise.
    Some key emerging concepts to consider
    • A system is network of people, tools, policies, facilities, arrangements... that interact with some coherence
    • And what is basic (literacy, numeracy...) is often not simple.
    • In complex situations consistency is more meaningful that uniformity
    • Knowledge, actions and arrangements are continually constructed and reconstructed in everyday interactions (mainly conversations)
    So many of the Tasmania education initiatives of recent years have proven to be disruptive and counter productive. While the thinking behind the individual initiatives has often be sound, their effect has been disruptive to other initiatives and thus reduced the overall coherence within the system. Consider the following examples:
    • SARIS fatally disrupted the ELs and all local reporting arrangements - the ELs were no longer coherent in the light of the SARIS
    • By defining the outputs (in effect, selecting the inputs) SARIS has also made significant curriculum development and implementation since the ELs virtually impossible
    • The national curriculum is very likely continue this process
    • The MySchool website is having similar effects
    • And many experienced Tasmania Tomorrow as very much less than coherent, especially in terms of its stated aims (retention) and the basis for its structure.
    It is interesting that SARIS, the National Curriculum, MySchool... are all strategies based on Input-Process-Output assumptions and they also assume that that uniformity is possible and meaningful.
    Increasingly leadership will require very different thinking, starting now. The "edge of chaos" phenomenon is not always bad. It can represent a condition in which significant system change can be achieved very easily and quickly. Thus, a new government and new Minister represent a window of opportunity that will be open for at least the immediate future. The responses made may keep the window open or slam it shut.