Two More Professional Development Opportunities 2/2

My last post was about a recent professional development event with Sir John Jones and this one is about my attendance at the Aberdeen Learning Festival to hear from and work with Alma Harris. I found both of these speakers inspiring but for different reasons. 

Alma is the Professorr of Educational Leadership at the Institute of Education, London. She is currently working at the Univerity of Malaya, Malaysia, where she is Professor and Director of the Institute of Educational Leadership. She is currently undertaking and leading a major research project looking at 7 different education systems worldwide. She has been in Scotland a number of times recently and was the keynote speaker at the Scottish Learning Festival, held in September in Glasgow. She was in Aberdeen to give a keynote at their learning festival, and then to have a 'closed door' session for future leaders which I was helping to facilitate on behalf of the Scottish College for Educational Leadership. (SCEL)

In her keynote entitled 'Leading Futures', she returned to a theme she had explored when in Glasgow, that was around PISA, the reliability of its findings and the importance of context when looking at any data. She cautioned that we could not underestimate the importance of context, and how crucial this was when considering data, such as that presented by PISA. She started by setting out two important aims for all schools and education systems. These were equity and excellence. We should aim for equity of opportunity, whatever barriers our learners may be facing, but this equity must not be at the cost of excellence. We need to aim for excellence for all our learners, not just some or the most privileged in terms of background. In order to do this we needed to engage and learn globally, but then to act locally and in ways that which fit the local context. This was a theme that had also been explored at the ICSEI conference held recently been held in Cincinnati and which Alma was president of.

Alma posed, what Sir John Jones would term a 'brilliant question'. This was, how do we secure success for every child in every setting? Firstly, we should recognise that poverty has a direct link to attainment and achievement. In too many systems the most disadvantaged in society are the ones who are falling further and further behind, not because of ability, but because they are disadvantaged. We need to break this link and the most powerful tool for achieving this is education and our schools.

So what do we need to do? We need to ensure that we focus on the learner first. It seems obvious, but how often do we have the learner at the forefront of our thoughts when considering school and system change and development. I know from my own experience that at the moment in Scotland there are too many conversations starting with financial issues rather than learning issues as we explore change. Next, we need to invest in our teachers and our staff to produce professional growth and develop more trust in the system. I have been to a number of events recently where speakers have been returning to the theme of building trust and the importance of relationships in developing our schools and systems. We have to commit to investing in our people. By doing this we will also be addressing the next issue which is to create leadership capacity at all levels within the system. Leadership should not reside within one individual but should be seen as a professional responsibility of all. I have always argued that many of the qualities that reside in the most effective leaders are also found in the most effective teachers. We need to nurture and promote this. In addition school leaders should embrace system leadership practices and contribute to system self-regulation and growth as part of what they do. We also need to use equity of opportunity as a driver for excellence. If we are aiming for excellence, we are aiming for excellence for all not just some. Finally our focus needs to be on every classroom and the learning experiences and practice of every teacher. 

Alma then turned to a closer look at PISA and what it did and didn't do. She revisited a lot of her messages from the Scottish Learning Festival and you can see film of this on the Education Scotland website. She posed another question which was, so what can we learn from Finland and its system of Education? We know that they have equity and excellence as key drivers for the system and all schools. There is a high premium put on professional standards and there is a high degree of trust in the system. But, as with many systems they have got some things right but others have presented more challenges. What we do recognise, is that it is wrong to think you can transpose practices and procedures from Finland to another country and expect the same results. History, culture and context are key everywhere. She notes that Scotland are showing up well in the PISA performance indicators but cautioned against using these as drivers for system change and improvement. She noted the growth of the Global Educational Reform Movement (GERM) that had emerged out of the focus on PISA data, and how this has lead to some undesirable outcomes, such as high pressure accountability, forced autonomy and soul-destroying standardised testing. Does this sound familiar? Alma pointed out that Michael Fullan talks about 'right and wrong' drivers and that he would say that accountability is not a bad thing, but it is when it's the driver for the system.

She went on to caution Scotland against going down the GERM road and for us to recognise the faults inherent in the PISA data. It does not compare like with like and the data can be used selectively and to fit certain agendas. Some of it is just completely ignored. She spoke about Hong Kong and Korea as examples of the PISA data seeming to give one picture, but that when you looked closer there were other ignored factors and consequences at play. She recommended 'The Smartest Kids In The World' by Amanda Ripley as a good text to explore further some of these issues. PISA fails to consider or mention key factors, such as diversity, special educational needs, higher education, student voice, distributed leadership and public education, which many of us would see as key elements of our system.

She began to bring her keynote to an end with some important messages for individuals and for the Scottish education system.

She stated that 'education is not about results but about young people and their futures.' So what do we need to do to deliver on this? We need to make the quality of teaching, by every teacher and in every classroom, a key focus. We also need to look at leadership at all levels and recognise that this makes a huge difference to what we can achieve. Leadership matters and they type that matters the most is that which is collaborative and promotes learning in every classroom every day. She recognised that there could be a dark side to leadership. Leadership can facilitate and promote innovation and growth or it could do the opposite. It can be a force for good or bad, and we need to get this right for individuals and the system.

She talked of the 'paradox of organisational success' which she identified as 'what got you there won't keep you there.' So even the most successful schools and systems need to change and continue growing and it would be inappropriate for them to just keep doing the things that made them successful in the first place. This is why some of the most successful systems as identified by PISA are looking to remodel there whole curriculum, and many of them are looking to the Scottich model. Time in school is precious and so we don't want to be distracted by the latest fads and trends, but rather on what research says really makes a difference. To do this we need to continue to collaborate and build networks.

So, let's focus on the right things, not the latest things. Think globally but act contextually. Always remember who education is for and keep putting the children first. She showed a picture of a note that Alex Salmond had give to a senior pupil which said 'Be ambitious about you future' This is what we and our learners need to be every day and what we need to focus on in classrooms, as we understand
what makes a difference.

Her last message was to us all in Scotland, and in particular our politicians. This was that we need to hold our nerve with Curriculum for Excellence. Yes, we understand the issues and the tensions that exist, in fact they are there in all significant change. But, our direction of travel is one which is being looked at from across the world as significant and the right one. We need the confidence to keep going, address the issues, learn globally, but be true to our traditions and local context. Scotland has led the way before for many and it could well be that we are doing the same at the moment.

So, two different experiences. Two differing approaches. But, for me, two inspiring and informative professional development opportunities that I was pleased to be privy to. If that were only always the case!

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