Shane Green talks with ISV partners Flossie Chua, Dave Perkins, and Daniel Wilson from Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education about a signature program that helps principals prepare learners for living, working and playing in a complex world.
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Welcome to this special edition of IsPodcast, ISV's show for schools and the wider community. I'm Natalie Moutafis. Since 2013, principals from a wide range of Victorian Independent schools have benefited from taking part in Leading Learning that Matters, or LLtM, a program initiated by ISV in collaboration with Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Over the course of two years, LLtM principals work together with the team at Project Zero Harvard to plan, test, and implement school innovations that prepare their learners to thrive in the complex world in which they'll live, work, and play. Key findings from this project have now been documented in a new book that draws on case studies from Victorian Independent schools that have taken part in LLtM. Shane Green joins ISV partners and authors Flossie Chua, Dave Perkins, and Daniel Wilson from Project Zero at Harvard University for a round table discussion.
We're delighted to be joined today by three very good friends of Independent Schools Victoria from Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Dave Perkins, Flossie Chua, and Daniel Wilson. Perhaps we can go around the table, so to speak, and ask you all to introduce yourselves to our listeners.
Well, I'm Dave Perkins and it's a pleasure to be here and to participate in this and say something about Leading Learning that Matters. Professionally I'm a professor emeritus and one of the past leaders of this R&D group, Project Zero, and me and my colleagues have enjoyed really, many years of collaboration and friendship, with folks at ISV.
Hi everyone. Thank you for tuning into this podcast. I'm Flossie Chua and I'm a principal investigator at Project Zero. I work on several different projects that are thematically connected by an overarching research question. What do we know about how people think about and experience complex ideas and challenges in different contexts?
And I am Daniel Wilson, the director of Project Zero, co-principal investigator on the Leading Learning that Matters project, and I'm delighted to be with you, Shane.
Well, great to have everyone here, and we're here, of course, to talk about your new book, Leading Learning that Matters, but first let's look at the great partnership between ISV and Project Zero, which, Dave, you touched upon. Can you tell me a little bit more about the partnership?
Sure thing, Shane. This is Daniel. It has been a great partnership. It started back in 2013, and although we'll talk over the Leading Learning that Matters project a bit more today, it's been a remarkable collaboration. I mean, we've been working with ISV and a number of schools within the network for almost a decade across various projects. Projects ranging from how do we understand the role of the arts and the role the arts can play in social change, to how can we better mend the relationships? I think that we're seeing a lot of testing of relationships in communities these days, so how do we repair these kinds of relationships?
All told, I think there's about four projects – research projects – that we've done collaboratively with ISV over the years, each one both intellectually generative from a researcher standpoint, and I think what's made it so great is that the leadership at ISV, but also at the school level, there's a real, I think, commitment to supporting learners today, but also with an eye towards the future. So that's, I think, the combination of really strong questions, like Flossie just mentioned her research, and then the commitment to really make difference in the lives of learners from the ISV schools has been a key ingredient in that relationship.
Moving on, let's hear about your work with Leading Learning that Matters. What's the work about, and how's it different from other ideas and programs about school innovations?
Well, that's a great question, and at the heartbeat of it all is this notion of learning that matters. Now, of course, almost anything we teach in schools matters some, to some people, but learning that matters has a key meaning. It means learning that matters to the lives learners are likely to live. And not everything we teach in school has that quality. We're looking for learning that really speaks to students' lives – in school, in later grades, out of school – that resonates and that they carry forward and put to good use in understanding and getting things done.
One of the curious and important features of this is that that means the focus is on content. Not content that we prescribe, content that individual schools decide on. But an awful lot of work in education has to do with method, how to teach.
This is about what to teach and how to foreground it in ways so that it sticks in learners' lives. And I have to say, when we look around the world today, that's pretty important. Let's face it. It's a messy world. It's complicated, there are global issues, there's the problem of misinformation. Now we have COVID and general issues of health and communication, and just so much. We need a kind of learning that makes better sense of a complex world, and that's what we'd like to help school leaders and teachers reach for.
Just to underscore what Dave said, this idea that content is a opportunity for transformation is worth meditating on. I mean, as Dave said, there's a lot of really, really good work out there around methods and assessment, but we shouldn't neglect content. And the very question of what is it that we're asking students to learn and why is that important is something that can be answered at a community level.
And I think that's what we've noticed with the schools in ISV is that the conversations that happen around well, what is it that we're learning, and why does that matter can open up a lot of pathways to changing the relationships between students and students, relationships between teachers and families, and hopefully the relationships that the communities have with other communities. So that's one, I think, important side of the coin of the project.
The other side of the coin is around leadership. Leading Learning that Matters, and as Dave said, the learning that matters is really important. And then what does the leading look like? And of course here, what we don't want to be confused is that leading is only what the leader of the school does. It's an important aspect, of course, but this idea that leadership is throughout the whole network – it's a systems quality.
So when we're looking at how are the various relationships happening within a school, between students, between teachers and students, between teachers, students, and administrators, between the various folks at school and the families and other stakeholders in the community. All of these are relationships and they have the potential to influence one another.
And when we look at leadership, we're looking at how do those various relationships influence one another in a way that's shaping the learning that matters. So while we're working with principals and leaders at the school to understand that problem, we invite them to consider the various practices that are involved in really organising leadership throughout their systems.
Through several years of study of the principals and other headmasters at a number of schools at ISV, we documented what they were doing, and after looking at the literature, we put a stake in the ground around four leadership practices that support the learning that matters in these schools.
One is creating a shared vision. How does that happen? Is it just something that the leader in this case would prescribe? No, actually it's something that emerges, and it's among these conversations of influence emerging, talking with students, talking with family members, et cetera, that's how answers to what learning that matters often arise.
It's through collaborative structures. And having conversations is one kind of collaborative structure. It's also looking at the different ways decisions get made within the school. Not every decision needs input from different stakeholders, but there are a lot of decisions – particularly around the future of learning – in which we not only need input, but we also need to think about who's actually closer to practice and who's closer to the practice usually should be empowered to make decisions.
And I think that goes all the way down to the student level, when we think about what students are doing, how much decision-making power are we giving them? Shared vision, collaborative structures, and then supporting development throughout the system.
So how is it that we're identifying the skills, the dispositions, the needs of people. So if we pick a direction for a kind of learning that matters, we're going to need to think about how we get there. And that's going to involve a lot of frank conversations about what we both have in terms of strength, but also where we need to grow. So the practice of thinking of how do we support teachers? How do we support administrators? How are we supporting the families and caregivers of our students to grow those necessary skills to support the learning that matters.
And finally, institutionalisation, that's a practice onto itself. I mean, how do we create these visions, how do we create these structures so that they cannot just sustain themselves over time, but they can be adapted over time. So oftentimes if we look at the littered world of school change and reform, Shane, I think you would know, there's a lot of things that come and go. Leading Learning that Matters is not a fad, it's more of a value, and how do we sustain and institutionalise that commitment, knowing that answers will continually shift throughout the decades?
So let me weigh in to say a little bit about what the Leading Learning that Matters program or initiative is all about. So, in collaboration with ISV, we designed the program to be a flexibly structured process that invites participating school leaders and their communities to engage in a reflective process of rethinking some aspects of what's taught in their schools and how that's taught. So the program encourages participating principals to construct a vision of the learning that matters for their context, and to make that vision a daily reality in classrooms throughout the school.
We use a cohort structure to establish and to sustain a vibrant learning community of experienced principals who work with us to explore what 21st century learning and leadership looks like and how those ideas may speak well beyond the boundaries of ISV and to inspire schools around the world. So far, we've worked with three cohorts of school principals, and their reflections and experiences have been instrumental in helping us identify the four key leadership practices that Daniel mentioned earlier, which were found really necessary for planning and implementing school innovations for 21st century learning,
Talking to the principals who have taken part, and looking at what it's meant to them and their schools, this is often a very personal experience for principals. What's been your sense of their experience, Dave?
It is so fundamentally personal and so much a matter of the particular institution. And we encourage this. When somebody asks, "Okay, so what learning that matters should I teach?" We say, "Figure it out. Think about your school, think about its traditions, think about the parents and the kids and where they might be going. Create something that makes sense in your context, and there's absolutely no reason why it should be like that school over there." And I have to say, the principals, other school leaders, the teachers have been wonderfully responsive to that. Wonderfully. Flossie, maybe you can say a word about that?
Yeah, I thought maybe a way in about some of the principals that we have worked with. So the LLtM journey has often challenged the principals to reflect on and rethink their assumptions about learning. And that becomes a really personal experience for them because everyone has strongly held ideas about what matters to learning.
And this is a story that I want to share about Greg Schneider, who leads the Good Shepherd Lutheran Primary School. Early in his LLtM journey Greg had convened formal meetings and created informal opportunities for his staff to explore and articulate their collective vision of the learning that mattered for their students. Initially, Greg had in mind the phrase 'rich learning' to describe the kind of deep and engaged learning that he wanted it to see in his students.
But when he invited his staff to come up with adjectives to describe the learning that mattered to them, no one came up with 'rich learning'. And that was a bit of a surprise for him, and naturally that created a bit of an emotional confusion. "Don't people think that what I think is important is important?" But as he listened to the staff, he began to warm to the idea of 'dynamic learning' as an organising concept for the learning in the school, because it began to suggest to him that learning that was relevant can be relevant in a very organic way, in a way that was growing and developing and not just plain energetic and enthusiastic.
And in the end, that became the framing vision of learning that the school adopted. And I can still remember how proud Greg was that that particular description of the learning that mattered came not from the leadership team, but from the teachers.
Thanks very much, Flossie. At this point, let's listen to Tony Sheumack from Beaconhills College about his experience of taking part in the program.
The project has been significant in the way I have led the college since joining the Leading Learning that Matters team. It also significantly underpins the way that we have developed our curriculum and the learning programs for all of the children. Being part of the project has really informed the way I've led Beaconhills since joining the Leading Learning that Matters project.
I have joined some amazing principals, been involved with Project Zero team, have been informed by amazing practice and have been able to lead a very different learning program at Beaconhills College. Initially, the project enabled us to workshop a range of different ideas that then developed into a very loose set of Leading Learning that Matters concepts – what we call pillars of learning. They were then refined and developed over a period of time, and of course, with support of so many, very, very talented people.
We were fortunate to be able to workshop the original ideas and develop six main areas of holistic learning. Those six areas, being the learning, the traditional learning model, the wellbeing of students being part and important aspect, the environment, and course the service and citizenship part that was so strong in our college, in addition to the character development needed to be, and then looking through the international side, the global perspectives. So the six pillars were developed around those concepts. The impact on student learning has been significant. We now use the window and frame, and our window being those six pillars to look into every aspect of learning. And every aspect of learning is now underpinned by those six pillars of learning at Beaconhills College.
This book gives a very good insight into the work that we did, the tools that we have used, the theory and practices that were employed in developing a wonderful program of learning that matters. And I would be recommending this book as the basis for all principals to then start their own journey of what matters in their own schools. Learning that matters is for the students of today. Contemporary learning has to have relevance to the individuals that you teach, the young people that you influence, in the environment that you live. So learning that matters is very much for your school, for my school, for my students, at this time. Contemporary learning for all students.
Tony's talking about some profound changes.
It was such a joy for us to work with Tony and his team, and to learn from the LLtM experience. Those six pillars that he talked about that now guide learning at Beaconhills are a great example of the importance of framing a vision in language that feels inspiring, accessible, and meaningful to everyone in the community. At the same time, that vision has to be open to personalization for the staff so that they can feel ownership of it and be able to communicate it clearly to others.
That takes time. And the Beaconhills leadership team took two years to arrive at the current elegant vision that articulated the learning that mattered for the college, and that effectively helped them build momentum for the LLTM initiative, and that won school-wide support, because while it started as the principal's project, it's now firmly established in the school as the Beaconhills project.
And in fact, when we last visited Beaconhills, we were hearing the phrase ‘learning that matters’ from the leadership team, from the teachers, and from the students. It's really become a broad aspirational idea for thinking about where they want to go and a critical lens for examining whether what they're doing will get them there. And I remember Tony saying that the learning that matters as an aspiration and a lens not only drove change in the school, it legitimised it. It's now firmly embedded in the culture, the ethos, and the identity of Beaconhills, and any new initiative now has to be incorporated into the learning that matters. I think what's so motivating and inspiring for our team is that for Beaconhills, LLTM is no longer a project done at ISV and Harvard. It's now just what Beaconhills is and does.
Now to the book, how would you say this book is different from other ideas and programs about school innovations?
Shane, let me first offer a preview of the arc of the book. The book is divided into three parts. In part one, there are five narrative case studies from the schools that have undertaken LLtM. These pictures of practice sketch the visions that the schools pursued and how the process of doing that unfolded.
In part two, we outlined key aspects of organising and leading the LLtM process, what LLtM visions are like, and how to construct them, what the four key leadership practices to support LLtM are, how to get started on the LLtM journey, and what are some broad principles for sustaining collaboration and maintaining momentum.
In part three, you will find two sections of tools and tips for school leaders and their staff, and Daniel and Dave will say more about the tips and tools that you'll find in our book.
Well, let me say a word about the tools. One of our concerns with Leading Learning that Matters is not to leave people hanging with just general advice. So, we try to construct some tools that don't tell people what to do, but provide kind of a guide. There are five tools, for instance, that help teachers and school leaders think about what learning might matter in my context. I'll just say a word about a couple to give a feel.
One of the favourite tools is called 'beyonding education', and it's just a six-way summary of several directions in which various schools around the world have pushed education beyond business as usual. So for instance, there's beyond content, beyond topics, beyond discreet disciplines, beyond traditional disciplines, beyond local, and beyond academic engagement. A word about a couple just to make clearer what the game is there.
For instance, beyond traditional disciplines, as you might imagine, this includes ways of extending the disciplines and including materials and ideas that aren't so often addressed.
Let's say philosophy, even in elementary school, or sociology, which one rarely hears a word about. That kind of thing. Or here's a favourite beyond academic engagement. That looks to fostering personal significance, commitment, and passion in learners.
Yes, some students are plenty excited by the traditional academic curriculum, but there's also room for special interests, special enthusiasms, or within a conventional discipline, picking a chunk of it that is especially meaningful to you, and carrying it somewhere.
So that's one tool. Another tool that people really like, and it's a personal favourite, is called 'opportunity story'. Opportunity story, ask the question if you think you have a good topic for learning that matters, learning that reaches into students' lives and is going to matter to them, how can you test it out quickly and casually?
Well, can you tell yourself a story about how that theme is going to live on in students' lives? When might it come up in their lives? Would it come up with reasonable significance? And what about frequency? Is it going to come up often enough to matter much?
Those are powerful questions. And if I have this topic in mind or theme in mind, and I can tell a good story about how it might come up. Well, that's very encouraging. On the other hand, if I hem and haw for five minutes and can't seem to put together a plausible story, not a good sign. That doesn't mean necessarily throw away the topic, but I might ask myself, how can I stretch it? How can I reframe it? How can I make more of it? Or, hey, maybe I flip to a related topic about which I can tell a better story. We'd love to see thinking along those lines. Daniel, do you want to say a word about some of the leadership tools?
Another way the book is different, I think, Shane is that as Dave mentioned, it doesn't just assume this is something we can write about you can just do. I mean, yes, there are tools. Dave mentioned a few. I can mention a few others. But it really does take a different kind of view that change has to emerge, and the best we can do is offer folks these stories, case studies that Flossie has mentioned, stories like Greg and Tony, and offer words of advice, but these are not blueprints.
These are real practices people have done, and these are lessons and wisdom for others to adapt in their own context. So some of tools for leaders are to think about, say, the systems of influence in their current context. So if they think about the learning that matters, where are the pockets of influence? Do they reside with students, do they reside with teachers? Do they reside with perhaps the state or national government?
I mean, there are lots of things influencing answers to learning that matters. So we need to map those out and think carefully about if we're going to go a different route, we might have to create some new relationships so that there are new influence patterns that can emerge in our social systems.
Are there tools which ask folks to think about the different roles that need to be in place for change, so it's not just, of course, a top-down approach. What are the different kinds of roles that we're going to put in place so that we're supporting the development of skills, say?
Do we have these kinds of mentoring roles? What are the different roles we'll put in place so that we can protect and allow people to experiment and try and fail, but also get feedback in safe ways. So tools that really help us think through, based on some of the examples in the book about how to do this in a way that could lead to the learning that matters in different communities.
But let me end though, Shane, by saying that perhaps what's most important for, at least my view, about this book, is it encourages others who pick up the book to not go it alone. I mean, in many ways the stories in the book are almost entirely about the collective and cooperative learning that's happening in schools.
So groups of teachers coming together with administrators, groups of administrators coming together with families, really to have the conversations, to try different experiments in the classroom, or even outside of school that could open up ideas for learning that matters, but also it's schools learning from other schools. Flossie mentioned at the beginning, this is a cohort model.
What I find most provocative, and I think what separates this book from other initiatives is that the stories in the book are emblematic of the larger process to engage in this work. So people shouldn't pick up this book and try it alone. In fact, it's designed to be picked up and used with others, and it's only through the community of learners that we'll really achieve not just learning that matter goals, but probably all sorts of other goals that we have for the learners for the years to come. So I think that separates it.
Daniel raises a wonderful point that the cohort structure, with several principals working together starting at the same time and so forth is wonderfully productive. We don't think it always has to be a formal structure like that. There are all sorts of ways that principals might get into this. If your conditions are right, you and your school leadership might be able to do it alone, just in your institution, or you might be able to form an alliance with another school across town, and there's some good crosstalk as the process unfolds. Or a couple of schools across town.
Or these days, some kind of two or three settings that are just digitally connected. Hey, that's where the world is going. So we're a big believer in the flexibility of the model. Put something together, give it a go, see what you can accomplish. We love that entrepreneurship and carrying forward Leading Learning that Matters.
And I'll have to add to what Daniel has just said. One of the things that we really found with the LLtM project is that the cohort structure worked really well because principals were there to give encouragement when someone was struggling, to offer feedback when someone was uncertain, and to push each other's thinking when it was most needed.
I like to quote Tony Sheumack, who we heard from earlier, because he said this about the cohort structure. He said, "You have to be able to bounce ideas off good ideas to be able to challenge yourself and your thinking with peers, who are as invested in thinking about what's next as you are. The best part of being in a cohort is the collegial development of good ideas. Good ideas become much better with good people weighing in. And it's been amazing to be with people who share the same singular and important focus on wanting to improve student learning."
You're just reminding me that the folks who study innovation, never mind in the sector of education, but we look at innovation, innovation is largely thought about in two dimensions. One is a technological element. So we're creating something new. Think of an Apple iPhone or something. And it's putting pieces together in new ways that are going to lead to some kind of new thing. But that's just one dimension.
The other dimension is social. It's putting people in connection in different ways. And it's when you have both of those things, the technological and the social coming together, that's where we see these really profound shifts which scholars deem innovation. And I think the challenge for us in this project, and I think the challenge for a lot of leaders, is how not to just treat innovation as an idea, but to look through that idea and understand the relational change that needs to happen; that is putting students and educators, educators and educators, families and administrators in new kinds of relationships.
Well Dave, Flossie, and Daniel, it's been a fascinating discussion about what I think is a groundbreaking program. Thanks for joining us on IsPodcast.
You can purchase the book from Amazon by searching for Leading Learning that Matters. We'll also provide a direct link to it in the show notes. You can listen to IsPodcast wherever you get your podcasts from. IsPodcast is brought to you by Independent Schools Victoria. It's produced and recorded by Greg Lawrence and Duncan MacLean, and presented by Michael Broadstock, Shane Green, and me, Natalie Moutafis. Our podcast theme was composed and performed by Duncan MacLane. You can find transcripts of our shows with links to what we've discussed at podcast.iseducation.com.au