Edutopia: it’s a small world.

My good friend Mark Walker, Principal of Elsternwick Primary School, Melbourne, has one of the most interesting and stimulating blogs on education written from a school leader’s perspective.

It was Mark who alerted me to Edutopia through one of his recent posts on Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s recent speech on educational revolution in Australia.  There was one extract from Rudd’s speech which jumps out at me from across the other side of the world:

I want school principals to have the autonomy to make more staffing and salary decisions at the local level, to tackle local problems like poor literacy and numeracy.

It’s when you read educational perspectives from throughout the world that you begin to realise just how small a place it really is and how the problems, which we sometimes think are unique and insurmountable, are the same problems facing education systems 12,000 miles away.

Aye, it’s small world.

[kml_flashembed movie=”” width=”406″ height=”294″ fvars=” flvPath= ; pPath= “/]


2008 Scottish International Summer School on School Leadership

I was invited to speak at the 2008 Scottish International Summer School on School Leadership being held in Edinburgh this week at  the prestigious Surgeon’s Hall.

The event follows the Harvard model – which I attended last year.

Today’s programme focused upon Leadership for Learning. I was one of a panel of four who presented our own personal insights into how we operate as “Leaders of Learning”. It was a challenge to keep to the ten minute limit so I opted to simply describe how this Learning Log and my School Visits programme have contributed to my own and the authority’s development.

I enjoyed listening to my colleagues on the panel and was particularly intrigued when Karen Prophet(Headteacher at Firrhill High School) described how they have moved away from a punishment/sanction based behaviour management system – it chimed with one of my recent posts

The Summer School is a very worthwhile addition to the Scottish educational landscape and I’m sure it will continue to evolve over the next few years into a learning opportunity with an international reputation.

I’ll be checking out the Summer School Blog to see how the programme unfolds.


Reverse Observation


Some time ago I made an offer to any teacher in East Lothian to observe my practice for a whole day.  The offer was intended to demonstrate my willingness to reciprocate the welcome I’ve had in East Lothian classrooms over the last term observing the teaching process.  I received the following account last week from the observer who has given permission for me to post it here.

I like opportunities.  Opportunities are good.  When I was offered the chance to spend a day shadowing Don Ledingham, Director of Education, I leaped at it.  Don visits schools during most weeks to watch teachers teach; now I was going to watch a director direct.

I met with Don in advance to find out what we each hoped to gain from the exercise.  This meant we could choose a day which not only fitted in with our diaries, but also would provide a structure to fulfil our joint criteria.  I was keen to find out how Don organised his time: how did he manage to cope with emails, reports, phone calls and, at the same time, keep his finger on the pulse and find time for strategic thinking?  I was also interested to see how he ensured he had an integrated understanding and overview of the range of individual nursery, primary and secondary schools in his care, all with their own take on council and national policies.

Consistency is very important to Don: this applies to everything from treating all people with the same respect (as illustrated by the unconditional positive regard which forms part of our teaching and learning policy) to ensuring consistent approach to matters of policy.  He wanted me to check that he was achieving this aim.

Our day began with answering emails, moved on to a head teachers’ executive meeting, took in a visit to a reading festival, followed by a meeting with an EIS rep, a meeting of the QIOs, and a final appointment with some staff from Musselburgh Grammar.  When I went home Don was still beavering away.  Some of the meetings lasted for two hours; others were much shorter.  Don’s diary allowed him short blocks of time in-between for dealing with emails, phone calls etc.  But these weren’t long chunks of time.  So how does he fit it all in?

Efficiency is everything.  Firstly his office is virtually paperless: no filing cabinets, no piles of reports, no mess; admin heaven, basically.  Don stores files electronically where possible and paper is taken away when it’s finished with.  Don’s PA, Mary Horsburgh, manages Don’s diary, types letters and deals with some emails, leaving Don to focus on his job and not be waylaid by admin. My questions about time management were answered.  But when does Don find time to think strategically?  Partly this is achieved at the end of the day when he adds to his learning log, but also, I found, by sometimes standing back at meetings and devoting his time to listening and reflecting.  A silent leader can be a very active one.

I am glad to report that I observed Don being consistent throughout.  However my understanding of his role changed.  I spent a long time trying to think of a suitable metaphor for the way in which Don performs his role.  Driver and engine?  No, that’s too mechanical; the engine simply does as it’s told.  General and army?  No, it too describes a one-way leadership style.  Then I hit on the idea of catalyst which does rather nicely.  A chemical catalyst causes change in other substances.  Don seeks to change thinking, perceptions and attitudes.  The process itself is often not very dramatic but the results can be.  The other feature of the catalyst metaphor which works well, is that the catalyst (unlike the driver and engine) is put in the test-tube along with the other chemicals – they’re all in it together.  Don is certainly more of a lateral leader than a vertical one as shown by his willingness to open his door to me.

Now before you think I’ve been given a back-hander for writing this, there was one other feature of my day which deserves mention.  I became very aware that Don had none of the interruptions I have become used to: children knocking on his door because they’ve been ‘sent down’ by Mrs So-and-So, the janny asking if he can store the paper towels in the corner of the office and an angry parent demanding the immediate release of her offspring’s confiscated Gameboy.  Yes, the short times between Don’s meetings were very peaceful by comparison with school.  But perhaps there’s something to learn from that.  Members of school management are sometimes too ready to deal with the problems which occur each day.  Perhaps there’s a case for covering for each other to allow every person on the team some protected quality time each week.

I enjoyed my day shadowing and learnt a great deal which I am still thinking through.  And to relieve my head teacher’s fears, no I didn’t follow Don when he visited the toilet.


Reading Jotters


I was in Pinkie St Peter’s primary School this afternoon and spent most of my time in the P1 and P1/2 classes.

I came across the idea of “reading jotters” for the first time – I’m sure they are in common use in many schools but as I’ve said on many occasions I’m still learning.

The two teachers – Sharon Dickson and Stephanie MacFadzean – both use a similar system to improve reading skills where they get children to scan texts which have been copied into their jotters to identify key words in context. The children then highlight these words using highlighters.  The next stage is to get children to identify whole phrases and to sequence them in the correct order.  This took me back to the idea of quizzes as used in Accelerated reading – “this is great fun” said one of the children.

A parellel strategy – which Stepanie has introduced – is to get the children to “predict” what might happen next at the conclusion of a text – this isn’t an imaginative exercise but actually requires quite sophisticated decoding skills.  What I found particularly significant was that Stephanie has brought this technique from her recent experience of teaching P7 children – she didn’t consider that it might be too hard for the infants and they have responded superbly.

It’s this kind of tranfer of experience between stages which confirms for me the benefits of an all through primary school . Now if only we could get such a transfer of techniques and personnel between primary and secondary schools!

Learning or checking?

I was in West Barns Primary School yesterday and was speaking to a P6/7 class. One of the boys asked me if I was an inspector and I asked him why he thought that –  “Well you’re wearing suit and watching what we are doing”, was his logical reply.  Euan had never seen an inspector in the school before.  Yet the notion of the “inspector” in our society seems to be deeply ingrained.

I asked him what he thought an inspector’s job was – “They make sure that we are doing the right things” – he replied.  I suppose he managed to capture the traditional  conception of the inspector’s role. But I wonder if that role might be on the verge of evolving into something quite different? – or at least how we replicate that role within schools and local authorities.

Perhaps we need to imagine a time when we could leave the school to judge if they were doing the “right things”.  Such a model would depend upon trust – but more importantly that the school knew what the right things were and  had the capacity – and the information – to make that judgement for themselves and the capacity to do something about it if they judged a gap.

I found this linked well with a discussion we had today at our 3-18 Strategic Learning and Teaching Group about classroom observation where we explored the following: “How do we make sure that classroom observation has a positive impact upon learning and teaching in the school?”

I used my recent post on this issue as a stimulus . What emerged in the course of the discussion was that the output – e.g 75 observations undertaken by management in  a school in a single year, has no correlatiion on the quality of learning and teaching that one might expect to see in that school. Our group – which involved people from all levels in the service agreed that it was more about creating a learning culture or ethos where such observations played a key role in that learning process geared towards improving what we do in the class..

To return to my visit to West Barns I had explored this with the class and it was amazing to listen to how they understood the difference between someone watching and checking and someone watching and learning.

It was a credit to their teacher and their school that they were able to actively engage with a stranger in such discussion at such a level and differentiate between these two alternative dimensions.

I know which dimension I would prefer?

Classroom Observation – shifting the focus

We had a very productive discussion this afternoon at the secondary headteachers meeting about classroom observation.

I was delighted to see the range of strategies being implemented in our schools but the overwhelming point which emerged from the discussion was the shift from observation with a focus on judging competence to one where the focus is on learning about the practice in our schools and how we can share and develop what we see.

When formal classroom observation first appeared as part of the school evaluation process it borrowed from the only models that we really knew – the HMIe observed lesson,  and the more pervasive model of the university/teaching college “crit” lesson – where the observer sat in a corner and took notes about the  entire lesson.  Feedback was provided through the “crit” which identified good and weak aspects of the lesson.  As someone who was a teaching tutor for three years at university I know from experience that the feedback provided was so extensive and ranged across so many aspects of practice that it was practically worthless.  The crit therefore became a right of passage which the teacher had to endure but was rarely seen to be a productive aspect of teaching practice.  Now I’m sure (or shoupld that be hope that)  I made some impact over the three years I delivered these crits but I don’t think I actually provided any feedback which was focused enough for teachers to really change them.

As I’ve written about before the current focus of my observations – Learning intention and learning tasks – have opened up a new world for me in terms of what I see and what I learn.  The beneficiary of the process is not the person being oberved – its the oberver! – a direct opposite of the traditional model where the beneficiary is supposed to be the person being observed.

Now if we could just develop this concept and establish a more substantive link between what we observe and how we improve the quality of the  learning and teaching which goes on in a school then I believe we could take the lid off our schools.

So how do we judge if someone isn’t competent? My response here is simple – there are so many other indicators available to us to judge whether someone is doing damage to children’s learning that we need not depend on classroom observation to be the tool of choice. Where such concerns arise the classroom observation process takes on a different slant but is part of a very different process and one which had been clearly set out beforehand – our classroom observation policy actually captures this very well.

Accelerated Readers – or “active” reading

I walked into a class of 11/12 year olds this week and saw something quite special.

It was during my visit to Sanderson’s Wynd Primary School in Tranent where I saw a whole class actively engaged in personal reading.  I know it sounds a bit oxymoronic – but they were definitely actively engaged in reading! – boys as well as girls.

They were all reading different books which they had choosen for themselves and which were obviously pitched at their own level.

So what was the secret? The teacher Lynne Welsh explained that they were using the Accelerated Reader scheme.

Now in my career I’ve come across lots of schemes and software driven systems which make great claims for improving learning – but rarely have I ever seen kids so motivated to read.  The idea is remarkably simple – but that’s probably the secret.  It wroks as follows:

1. Student Reads a Book. Students choose books at their appropriate reading levels and read them at their own pace.
2. Student Takes a Quiz. Accelerated Reader Enterprise offers more than 100,000 quizzes to help you motivate and monitor increased reading practice.
3. You Get Information. You get immediate information feedback on the reading and vocabulary progress of each student.

The system provides a level for every book and by working out the reading level for each child recommends the most appropriate level for each child.  The child then selects a book from that level – reads the book, then takes a quiz to test their comprehension. The teacher can then work out the next level – tying the whole process to the zone of proximal development i.e. stretching the child by an appropriate amount.

Apparently the system is being used in all Tranent Primary schools and the early years of secondary school.  I’m looking forward to finding out more but from what I saw yesterday it certainly seems to work.

Now I suppose the question is why didn’t Im know about this as Head of Education? – well that’s my fault but at least my classroom visits are helping me to learn about such schemes and possibly share that practice across the authority.

Creating a positive dynamic


I visited Sanderson’s Wynd Primary School in Tranent this morning.

In the course of a very enjoyable visit where I observed a number of classes and talked with Headteacher Fiona Waddell and some of her staff about how they create a purposeful learning environment.  The school is not without its challenging pupils but what struck me was the collective impact the staff make and the cumulative effect it has upon children.

All too often in schools classroom behaviour is seen to be the responsibility of the individual teacher, and there is no doubt that individual teachers do set the tone and do have significant impact upon their own class’s behaviour. However, when we talk about the standard of behaviour in an entire school it’s a much more complex affair.

The reality is that an individual teacher can have little effect upon behaviour across a school, nor can a headteacher impose discipline if they have to do it all themselves.  However, where all the staff come together and realise the collective impact that they have upon children then the results can be quite exceptional.  It’s in circumstances such as these that the critical mass takes on a life of its own (see – tipping point)

In my recent posts about being user (customer) facing it might have been possible for people to think that I was suggesting that we roll over when confronted by kids who want their own way on all matters – especially where their behaviour is concerned. I actually think we do a great disservice when this happens as in my experience they need clear parameters and boundaries against which they can rub up against – but which provide clear and unabiguous guidance. Our commitment to treating learners with unconditional positive regard demands that we set such standards.

The problem occurs in schools when these expectations and behaviours are not consistently upheld by all teachers or the management of the school.  What I saw today was a very impressive collective effort which will create a very positive dynamic over the next few years (I should have said that the school has just been created through amalgamation with two other schools).

Last point – in times of challenge -such as these – it’s vital that we retain our sense of “fun”. The staff – despite the challenges they face are prepared and encouraged to relax and have fun with pupils and the wider school community at regular intervals. It’s this careful balance between high expectations and clear boundaries, and relaxation and fun which go towards making a positive, effective and rewarding  learning environment – for both children and adults.

Active Learning – for 17 year olds

The active learning banner is sometimes seen to be the sole preserve of the those who teach in early years of primary school – and it’s true that I have seen many very exciting examples of active learning in such contexts during my school visits.

However, in the course of a wonderful visit to North Berwiuck High School this afternoon I saw learning taking place which would rival many groups of five year olds for enthusiasm, determination to learn and sheer sense of fun.

It was in  Modern Languages Higher French class where the teacher had students working in small groups discussing, working out, and exploring three different personal letters. The students were confident enough to work things out together with  the teacher moving round encouraging, stimulating and supporting their learning. But it wasn’t so much this lesson which caught my attention but the mention of a lesson which had taken place the week before in the same class.

The students had prepared for and participated in a debate “A woman’s place is in the home”.  They had worked out their arguments in groups and the teacher had helped them with vocabulary. Apparently the whole thing took off once they entered into the discussion where they had to use the language in a much more confrontational and natural manner by responding to and challenging the opposition.

I took five minutes at the end of the lesson to chat with the class and asked them if they needed such learning experiences as senior students “surely you just need the the information provided to help you pass the exam?” – I asked provocatively.

They didn’t hold back and made it quite clear that regardless of age they needed and demanded a variety of learning experiences provided by their teacher if they were to learn – but more importantly consolidate their learning in different contexts. 

This was crucial lesson for me and confirmed my growing belief that learners are learners regardless of age and that techiniques and approaches which work well in an infant class can be translated effectively, with suitable modification, into classroom practice for much older children , and vice versa – the barriers only exist in our own minds.

We have so much to learn from each other.

Learning from each other – overcoming our reticence


I visited Dunbar Primary School this afternoon and observed a nursery class and two P3 classes. I was particularly interested in the planning process for nursery classes as I’d sat in on a session during yesterday’s In-Service at Preston Lodge where a group of nursery teachers had been discussing how they lan their work over the session, term, week and day.  I was fascinated to learn how they manage to weave the huge variety of experiences into a meaningful and coherent whole – mind maps played an important part. Contact Cockenzie Primary School for more info’.

When I followed this up this afternoon I saw co-creation of the curriculum in action when Rachel Muray showed me how they involve the children in the planning process – three year olds!!! – brilliant stuff.

I also heard how there might be need to extend the range of staff development opportunities for our early years staff. The range of courses on offer is relatively limited and once you have attended them there is nothing left in our brochure as these tend to repeat from year to year – perhaps a solution might be to ask teachers and nursery nurses to offer to lead a short session on an area they are developing . From what I’ve seen over the last few weeks we have a huge range of exciting things going on in our nursery classes which would be well worth sharing with colleagues – the problem is that many people don’t want to ‘”push” themselves forward as being anything special. If only we could overcome this “Scottish” trait!