My interest in the idea of sharing pedagogical purposes comes directly with the contact I have had with the Project for Enhancing Effective Learning at Monash University in Australia. Now each of these teachers were very active in establishing learning agendas with their classes. The impact they were having was inspiring. Each classroom tool can have a purpose beyond delivering content, and this needs to be shared.
I suppose the purpose of this website is collate, crystalise and open dialogues about how to increase this within classrooms. As the quote from Carl Bereiter illustrates this classroom methodology can empower our students.

Monday, 23 September 2013

Potential start points on the road to excellence.

I think we have all been inspired by the approach of Expeditionary Learning Schools and the vision of Ron Berger, who communicates his passion and the role projects play in helping developing a school culture were excellence is the norm. Ron does make it clear that projects are only part of the culture in which excellence can prevail and where some of the difficulties lie.

 "Because the origin of standards is poorly understood, I believe schools spend a great deal of time saying they want high standards while doing a great deal to undermine them." Ron Berger.

So how does a school go about embedding an ethic of excellence in their institution?

Here are some initial thoughts.

Define and be strategic

The first step is to define and agree what your institution means by excellence in the areas you want to see it. Although, putting some of the facets of in place will have an impact, I believe a systematic approach is imperative, leaving no stone unturned.  Entwined in this believe is the acknowledgement that culture comes from community, so being inclusive and  strategic with no shortage of foresight are highly desirable from the off. It is definitely worth checking out EL Schools Core Practices to see how they have meticulously defined what excellence is in all aspects of their schools. Projects are part of it, but not the whole answer.


My initial thoughts about creating a school wide culture of excellence erroneously turned to the analogy of a stopping and turning around an oil tanker. Unless you are starting a new school, you are not starting from zero, and there will be (many) parts of your culture that already demonstrate excellence. So, a more appropriate analogy may be that of the baby and the bath water. Be sure to identify and hold onto what you excel in.

The Sigmoid Curve model, used by Derek Wise in developing Cramlington Learning Village, may also be a useful mental model. This YouTube clip, I hope, makes it clear how transitions between systems/ modes of working can be planned. Applying this will be useful in identifying what may be needed in developing a new stronger school community where excellence can flourish even if you are coming from a successful past.

Everything the leadership of a school says and does is directly setting the tone for that culture, you're always on. An Ethic of Excellence must extend to the little things, as these are the things add up and become the culture.

Attend even the little things.
MIT Professor Edgar Schein, describes three levels of cognitive organisational  culture. The first is ARTIFACTS, the things that can sensed by a visitor. So things like the dress code, how each person interacts with each other and visitors to slogans and furniture. This shows the breadth of the challenge in creating the culture that you want.
Secondly are the VALUES the organisation declares are important, these become ingrained in how the organisation works and thinks, for this to happen consistency is key. Final and most difficult tare the TACIT ASSUMPTIONS or unspoken rules, these are seen as often subconcious, but often drive decision making. The failure to align these with the first two is often attributed to failure when an organisation is trying to make a change. This is why I think establishing what you are looking for clearly and succinctly is the first step.

Less is more.
As an addition to this, I am also a big believer that simple plans beget complex results, so the succinctness and clarity where you want to head are vital. I cannot  say it any more elegantly that John Tomsett. So I won't.

Identify Professional development opportunities. 

Training is a key way of transforming the culture, and the breadth of potential reveal the extent that an ethic of excellence can/should permeate. If "Training" seems excessive then "conversations to have as an institution" could be useful.

For example.

1. What would the curriculum of your need to be like?
2. How can we develop staff to staff dialogue to embed an ethic of excellence?
3.How can we develop staff to student dialogue to embed an ethic of excellence?
4.How can we develop student  to student dialogue to embed an ethic of excellence?
5.How can we build a classroom community?
6.How can we develop our schools role in the (local) community.
7. How can we develop models of student work to communicate what quality looks like?
8. How can we use display to promote an ethic of excellence?
9. How can we develop the school community?
10.What would assessment and reporting need to be like to develop an ethic of excellence?
11. How might Carol Dweck's Open Mind set be useful in developing an ethic of excellence?
12. Planning Projects.
13. Running Critique.
14. Running exhibitions and curating student work.
15. Running presentation of learning.
16. Metacognitive strategies and ways of debriefing learning.

They will be more and not all of these are will be needed, but they are worth trying to answer. The permeating quality of excellence is clear from this list.

This video of Sammamish High School charts their journey in creating their school culture. There are many things to like in this video, and few things I would query. However, it's worthy to note the role professional development plays, and the use of project and enquiry based learning models adopted by this school.

"There's no magic bullet towards excellence , it's all cultural, and by building a culture within the our schools where our kids feel pressured to do good work and be good people, we succeed." Ron Berger

Use Projects across the curriculum.

Project Based Learning , is a vessel for this all, making the building of this culture  "easier", as students will have an audience, purpose and protocols. The need to produce quality work is evident, but how you get their may not be quality. A classic sporting example is Jose Mourinho, who has won countless trophies playing the most awful style of Catenaccio, stifling creativity, individualism and entertainment ( a cardinal sin in football).  In essence this is where the league table "KULTCHA" has brought us.

"Accountability stops being on page 32 of a text book and becomes about the kind of quality of the work that your kids are doing, and the kind of people that they are AND their test scores." Ron Berger

What an ethic of excellence suggests is that there is a different way, a more Pep Guardiola or Juup Heynecks way. Where the manner of how we succeed and the way our students engage with their world matter. Learning and schooling that is memorable, joyous and successful.