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An Ecological Approach to School Development

Ahead of a Webinar discussion around Curriculum for Excellence, and how this can be reimagined, I have been thinking about our whole approach to curricular and school development. What follows is what I was wishing to talk about, if I hadn't experienced a few technical problems, that threw me and caused me to lose my train of thought. Apologies if you heard it and struggled to make sense! Hopefully, this helps.

I think our approach to curricular and school development/change has always been piecemeal and fragmented. We have tended to view the curriculum as very much the subjects we teach, and the knowledge and skills we wish our learners to develop. This has only recently expanded (for some) to include the pedagogies we deploy to develop this knowledge and those skills. However, what we have consistently done, is to think about these independently of each other, and have been slow to make the connections, and their importance, between them all.

Mark Priestley and others have pointed out that the curriculum of any school or system, is greater than the subjects that are taught. Mark makes the case that anything that happens in schools is part of the curriculum of that establishment, all of which are impacting on learning and attitudes. I have written before about the 'Hidden Curriculum' at play in all schools. This consists of all the actions and interactions taking place daily and over time, and which shape the culture and ethos of the school, and develop the learning culture.

How many times have we had conversations with parents around the 'curriculum' and told them 'its about the subjects we teach'? Do we ever say 'its about everything we do in school that impacts on learning, including the subjects.'?

There are many things that are formally recognised, like assessment, reporting, parental engagement, professional development, planning and so on. But there are many other activities that are also impacting on everything we do.

Traditionally we have tended to focus on all of these individually, and at different times. So one year we may have focused on curriculum, or assessment, or teaching, or reporting, or whatever the school or Local Authority have identified as the priority for a year or more. This often takes the form of professional development or 'support' provided by significant others in the system, including LAs and national organisations. Such inputs tend to be generic in approach, though some providers are getting better at shaping their delivery and input to meet the needs of individual schools or educators.

The overall approach taken is still one of fragmentation, with specialisations being re-enforced at school, local authority and national level. If we look at Education Scotland, as an example, their mission is to deliver on Scottish Government policy. They do this through sections of the organisation having particular remits, and individuals providing expertise, advice, support and challenge in particular areas. Education Scotland's operational procedures are a magnification of what is happening in schools, no surprise given that the majority of those working there formerly worked in schools. The hierarchy of roles, responsibilities and approaches persists, and this is replicated across the system and in individual schools. Schools and Education Scotland keep re-enforcing the status quo.

Therein lies a problem. The system and schools are persistent in maintaining a fragmented approach to school and curricular development, or change.

As a headteacher, I saw the deepest impacts we made were when we saw the connections between everything we were doing, and we used the lens of  Practitioner Enquiry to give us the insight we needed. When myself and teachers began to not only see the connections between all we wanted to do, and how each aspect impacted on the learning outcomes of our learners, was when we began to make sense of the complexity of all we were having to deal with.

If we are to re-imagining Curriculum for Excellence, or any other curriculum, we have to explore a different approach, otherwise we will end up repeating the same exercise 10 or 15 years down the line, as people identify what we are doing as no longer fit for purpose.

My suggestion is to take a more of an ecological and organic approach.

In ecology, it is understood how inter-connected all organisms and their physical environment are. Something having an impact on one organism, or piece of their environment, has impacts for others. When we look at individual eco-systems, we can identify relationships and inter-connectivity which contribute to the wellness of the whole.

If we were to adopt a similar approach in education, we would recognise that everything we do has impacts on the learners, and their learning, and we can't look at, or change, one aspect of our practice without seeing and thinking about impacts in every other area.

When we were looking at Curriculum for Excellence, I made this point by exploring the connectedness between professional learning, school development and support for schools. These could be seen as three disparate aspects of school work, but in reality they are all connected, in multi-tudinal directions, but also in their intention to impact on learning outcomes.

We could look at each as an individual aspect of the work that goes on in school. Or, we could seek out and recognise their inter-connectedness. and build this into our approach to them all.

The first thing that connects them all is that they impact on the learning of all. The next is that they should all be grounded in the professional context of individuals and schools. A generic approach or starting point fails, because each person and each institution starts from a different place and is located in a unique context. All of these need to be 'owned' by the individuals and schools in any system, being part of an organic re-generating system of renewal and growth. Each needs to be embedded in a systematic process of development, and all measured in terms of their ability to improve outcomes for learners.

All of these characteristics have been recognised by many researchers, including Stenhouse, Timperley, Fullan, Hargreaves, Priestly, Biesta and many others, as ones exhibited by the most efficient and impactful for systems and schools.

Taking such an approach can develop critical capacities and dispositions within individuals, whilst building self-improvement and agency into the system. We need an approach that develops sustainability and growth iwithin the system, so that teachers and schools develop over time, reflecting the context, local, national and international, in which they are operating. We are desperate for a self-improving system, and to do that we need self-improving schools and teachers.

In my view, a systematic ecological approach can give us that. It won't be easy, and many orthodoxies need to be challenged. Otherwise, see you again in another 10 years or so, if I am still around.

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