1.5 LEARNING POWER AND LEADERSHIP

Some say, ‘leaders are born not made’. To some extent that is true but many of us find
ourselves in leadership positions because we were particularly proficient at our previous roles and were good team players and team leaders.

As leaders of a school, we now have to become accountable for everything that the school is,and provides. Whether we like it or not, our stakeholders have become judge and jury. They will be concerned for their school’s performance and competitiveness, its curriculum, how it communicates and, above all, seek a recognisable assurance that every child matters and becomes able to make life’s choices and take life’s chances.

So, it is imperative that a school’s leadership team are not only leaders but learners. They cannot possibly have experienced every challenging situation that will now confront them. Indeed, it is the team’s combined Learning Power or ‘power to learn’ that will determine the manner of its’ success. Learning Power is a diagnostic yet dynamic instrument that has been in academic research and operational practice for close on 30 years and has thereby been able to distil Learning Power into 7 critical dimensions.

Dependent upon environment and circumstance, a leader’s Learning Power will require a combination of strengths in Creativity, Critical Curiosity, Meaning Making, Strategic Awareness, Resilience, Learning Relationships and the ability to change our habits and behaviours as we Learn.

We explore these dimensions, or attributes, in more detail both here and in the section on Evaluation that follows Learning Power in Action.

THE SCHOOL AS A LEARNING-POWERED ORGANISATION

Putting ‘learning’ centre-stage such that Learning Power lies at the very heart of a school’s engagement with all of its stakeholders may meet with mixed reaction. However, it is the very driver of community well-being, the caring and sharing that is fundamental to a sustainable future. Beyond the school gates, some will embrace it, others will dismiss and resist it.

The school that genuinely has learning at its heart creates ‘an actionable vision’ that is shared with, and bought into by, every corner of its community. Even today, few schools have a well- (the above may need annotated illustration eg spidergraphic) documented and up-to-date vision of who and what they want to be. They assume that everyone will know but it is rare for that ‘statement of purpose’ to go much beyond a motto and values statement. To be a statement of purpose and direction, the vision has to be a living aim and objective in which everyone, every stakeholder, plays a part.

The purpose of the vision is to detail the school’s future. Not only will it be expected to build confidence and a growing capacity and appetite for learning but demonstrate how it will adapt to changes in its circumstances and overcome obstacles and boundaries.

The vision is ‘a guiding framework’ and adopted as the key driver by all successful organisations. A vision is described as, ‘the expression of desirable direction and the challenging future for the school’. It articulates the way forward by providing a platform for development, capitalising on strengths and opportunities, engaging creativity and confronting perennial challenges, weaknesses and threats. The vision provides the framework for decision-making and problemsolving.

The Vision is a Guiding Framework for Strategic Decision-Making …

  • In every aspect of school life.
  • It encourages the school to look beyond the immediate and routine and work towards the greater good.
  • It is an invaluable reference point for day to day endeavour when actions need to speak louder than words.
  • It provides a consuming focus and energy for learning.
  • It is a constant in meeting the frustrations and challenges associated with the drive for improvement and change.
  • If consistently communicated as the ‘guiding framework’ for school life it brings with it an increasing sense of identity.

Putting ‘learning’ centre-stage such that Learning Power is regarded as central to a school’s engagement of its stakeholders will meet with mixed reaction. Beyond the pupils and students, some will embrace it, others will dismiss and resist it.

Dismissal may take place for a number of understandable reasons …

  • Student grades are already good and league table positioning satisfactory such that it is unchallenged by many stakeholders
  • Performance would appear to indicate that student leaning powers are already more than adequate
  • The school is initiative-weary
  • if it isn’t broke, why fix it?
  • Change is an accepted need but no one knows how
  • The senior team may set out with the best of intentions but they become lost in the day to day pressures of the classroom and other apparently more pressing problems.

Keeping learning at the heart of the school’s agenda is challenging for the senior team because unless their actions and activities are a constant reminder of the school’s learning purpose, the very concept of Learning Power and the strategic vision will become a distant memory. They must therefore:

  • Keep a close eye on how progress is unfolding
  • Visit classrooms regularly to maintain a high profile
  • Talk to teachers frequently about how they are weaving new ideas and more constructive learning processes into their teaching practice and beginning to exchange ‘chalk and talk’ for learning relationships with their pupils
  • Share new innovative practices where they are making a difference
  • Celebrate progress and support those that are losing, or have lost, their way.

Enquiry and a consuming passion for the introduction of new ideas and innovations is integral to a school’s demonstration to its stakeholders that it both listens and learns. Nonetheless, whilst enthusiasm for experimentation and change will have its adopters, it will also meet with resistance. The need for patience, and for senior managers to find new ways of working, cannot be over-emphasised.

It is here that the informed use of the professional development curriculum for the teaching staff comes into play. CPD or Continuous Personal Development is much more than going out of school to become a better teacher of a subject, it is also about opening the mind to new ways of working that will encourage such as creativity and curiosity. The more that professional development opportunities are contextualised and used to demonstrate their contribution to underpinning the school’s strategies for change, the more the school will embrace a LearningPowered culture founded on a relentless search for improvement.

The habits of teachers as learners will necessarily become integral to the changing school culture: how they approach change as well as the changes they are aiming to bring about. In other words, staff learning has to undergo similar shifts to those of student learning. So, the school will need to approach professional development not only in terms of ‘what’ has to be learned but also ‘how’ it might be learned, asking the questions that lead to thought-provoking ideas that bring about new directions for teaching practice.

A few ideas:

  • Regular ‘learning’ reviews
  • Teacher learning communities or Professional Learning Teams
  • Coaching partnerships
  • Small-scale learning enquiry activities
  • Appreciative enquiry
  • Classroom observation and personal review
  • Visiting and sharing with other schools.

Professional Learning Teams enable the deepening and sustaining of productive dialogue and not only empower staff but also give them the confidence to experiment, create and share their own solutions. Such teams are found, if they meet on a regular basis, to develop a spirit of openness and enquiry that increasingly pervades the school. They deepen understanding, champion innovation and the sharing of data, encourage reflection, allow learning from mistakes, and overcome the reticence of the less confident.

It is the development of the teaching staff through Professional Learning Teams that has proved to be the most successful engine of change.

Teachers and Teaching Assistants, working in a culture of enquiry, trust and openness are found to become increasingly confident and willing to take the risks necessary to the delivery of the school’s strategic vision. Nonetheless, this cannot become a ‘free-for-all’: the quality of learning both in classrooms and throughout the school has to be kept under regular review. Teachers need to become used to being observed regularly and to trust such observations to be in the spirit of learning support rather than part of a process of judgement or appraisal.

Staff need to come to regard classroom observation as fundamental to the development of a dynamic, reflective and personal development process embedded at all levels across the school. Indeed, as the new culture of openness and enquiry beds in, everyone connected with the school’s performance will become interested in watching out for, and recording, changes both in learning practice and in the manner of change in student behaviour, motivation and achievement.

Classrooms must become rich learning environments for teachers as well as students. Observing teaching and learning practice and exploring the experience afterwards is perhaps the most highly effective tool as we seek to develop the craft of teaching. Continuous professional development is the platform upon which the confidence to participate is built.

Ensuring that teachers welcome classroom observation is rarely an easy task and kindling its acceptance may mean reiterating its purpose.

The ‘AS’, ‘FOR’ and ‘OF applied to Continuous Personal Development (CPD) holds an important message for those who regard observation as intrusion.

  • To help stimulate and initiate new teaching and learning practice (observation AS the driver of professional development) … in other words ‘we are watching one another to prompt new thoughts, new ideas concerning teaching practice’
  • To develop current teaching and learning practice (observation FOR personal and professional development) … in other words ‘we are working with one another to come up with answers to problems’
  • To assure standards of practice are not only maintained but enhanced (observation OF development) … in other words ‘this is not about ticking off an Ofsted checklist and being seen to do a good job, in many ways quite the reverse. If done well, it is collaborative and viewed as essential to the development of best practice with ideas and innovations shared.

It is important to ensure that staff are constantly reminded that classroom observation is ultimately about developing their students as better learners. It is not about what observation is looking for but HOW observation and teaching practice are working together to create sustainable improvement. Thus, the focus should always be on:

  • Observation AS development, a voyage of discovery … the development of good coaching habits, student collaboration and problem-solving
  • Observation FOR development, total continuous improvement … are students learning effectively from group work? Are students’ questioning skills as productive as they could be? Are our approaches to problem-solving having the desired effect?

Teachers and Teaching Assistants, working in a culture of enquiry, trust and openness are found to become increasingly confident and willing to take the risks necessary to the delivery of the school’s strategic vision. Nonetheless, this cannot become a ‘free-for-all’: the quality of learning both in classrooms and throughout the school has to be kept under regular review. Teachers need to become used to being observed regularly and to trust such observations to be in the spirit of learning support rather than part of a process of judgement or appraisal.

Staff need to come to regard classroom observation as fundamental to the development of a dynamic, reflective and personal development process embedded at all levels across the school. Indeed, as the new culture of openness and enquiry beds in, everyone connected with the school’s performance will become interested in watching out for, and recording, changes both in learning practice and in the manner of change in student behaviour, motivation and achievement.

Classrooms must become rich learning environments for teachers as well as students. Observing teaching and learning practice and exploring the experience afterwards is perhaps the most highly effective tool as we seek to develop the craft of teaching. Continuous professional development is the platform upon which the confidence to participate is built.

Ensuring that teachers welcome classroom observation is rarely an easy task and kindling its acceptance may mean reiterating its purpose.

The ‘AS’, ‘FOR’ and ‘OF applied to Continuous Personal Development (CPD) holds an important message for those who regard observation as intrusion.

  • To help stimulate and initiate new teaching and learning practice (observation AS the driver of professional development) … in other words ‘we are watching one another to prompt new thoughts, new ideas concerning teaching practice’
  • To develop current teaching and learning practice (observation FOR personal and professional development) … in other words ‘we are working with one another to come up with answers to problems’
  • To assure standards of practice are not only maintained but enhanced (observation OF development) … in other words ‘this is not about ticking off an Ofsted checklist and being seen to do a good job, in many ways quite the reverse. If done well, it is collaborative and viewed as essential to the development of best practice with ideas and innovations shared.

It is important to ensure that staff are constantly reminded that classroom observation is ultimately about developing their students as better learners. It is not about what observation is looking for but HOW observation and teaching practice are working together to create sustainable improvement. Thus, the focus should always be on:

  • Observation AS development, a voyage of discovery … the development of good coaching habits, student collaboration and problem-solving
  • Observation FOR development, total continuous improvement … are students learning effectively from group work? Are students’ questioning skills as productive as they could be? Are our approaches to problem-solving having the desired effect?

If learning and Learning Power or the power to learn are to become integral to the school’s strategic focus it will be essential to keep an eye on, and recognise, student progression as their learning behaviours begin to improve. Praise and celebration are then critical to total continuous improvement because:

  • Continued effort to confront difficulties and weaknesses is the direct result of the motivation that encouragement brings
  • Progress fuels a quest for greater understanding and enables discussion
  • Teachers themselves will begin to realise that some of their approaches to the improvement of learning behaviours are effective and others need more thought and discussion with colleagues
  • Increasingly, information gathered concerning individual students or classes, will encourage teachers to share and discuss their observations and allow them to work together to guide learning development collaboratively and thereby, more precisely and effectively
  • It validates the progress made by students in terms of the requirements of conventional attainment measures.

Leaders are the ultimate observers, driven by their monitoring of progress towards the attainment of the strategic vision. Neither teaching or classroom practice nor student learning habits will change overnight. Indeed, it is important that they are built throughout a student’s life with the school and such that they become so deeply embedded that they are carried with them for life.

Successful schools are working with those organisations to which their students graduate, be it other formal educational institutions or employers, to determine whether learning habits and behaviours are being carried forward. This has made an enormous contribution to on-going research into Learning Power and its role in the management of Lifelong Learning.