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An Education Revolution: Templestowe College Principal Peter Hutton

Posted by Colin Klupiec on May 5, 2016 at 9:19 PM

Peter_Hutton.jpgTemplestowe College principal Peter Hutton is creating real education revolution. He’s introduced radical innovations that some would either welcome or reject. 

Now in its sixth year of its transformation, Templestowe College has gone from being a basket case on the verge of closing, to a thriving school where they have to turn away new student enrolments, and even applications from teachers desperate to get in. 

Why aren’t more schools like this?

I spoke to him during a break in the Improving Initial Teacher Education conference in Melbourne recently. Listen to the conversation on the Learning Capacity podcast. 

Listen to the podcast.

Topics covered

People & organisations mentioned

  1. Templestowe College
  2. Improving Initial Teacher Education Conference 2016
  4. Grattan Institute
  5. PISA - Program for International Student Assessment
  6. Sir Ken Robinson
  7. Victoria Registration & Qualifications Authority (VRQA)
  8. Victoria State Department of Education & Training
  9. NSW Education Department

Resources/books/articles mentioned

  1. Widening Gaps in NAPLAN

Previous podcast episodes on SoundCloud

If you would like to read the complete podcast transcript, here it is:

 Episode 56 of The Learning Capacity Podcast

Innovative principal Peter Hutton creating real education revolution at Templestowe College

Colin Klupiec: Peter, thanks for joining us today.

Peter Hutton: Most welcome, Colin.

Colin: I wanted to get straight into this innovative model that you've got. And I want to try to avoid asking questions that people have perhaps already asked you.

Peter: Certainly.

Colin: That might be difficult given the amount of media coverage that you've had. But let's launch straight in and suggest that there is a principal, or a bunch of teachers, or a board somewhere that has caught your story and thought this is what we need. We need to go here. Now, buy-in is a very important thing for anything to work. And presumably, this transition didn't just happen overnight. I'm assuming that. Now, if I was a principal listening to your story, what are the first steps?

Peter: I guess the first thing that I would encourage is that principal to get in touch with us directly because whilst they could certainly model their plan and their progression based on what we've done, I think that the person could potentially avoid a lot of the pitfalls that we experienced. And we trialled a lot of things. Some of which worked, some of which just didn't work.

And I think making contact so that they could have the benefit of our experience would be the first step in that process.

Colin: I wanted to ask you specifically about that because there would have been some significant roadblocks. Just to give our listeners a very brief overview, correct me if I am wrong here. So this is my interpretation of it. As of 2015, you don't have E levels anymore.

Peter: That is correct.

Colin: Now, I can already hear people panicking. No E levels. What do you mean? I don't have E9 anymore?

Peter: That is correct.

Colin: So, no E levels. But you've got entrants and graduates. And that idea I love, by the way, I like the sound of that. And I particularly like the way your website says, "Those amongst us who plan to finish in a particular year we call graduates." And immediately I can sense that students have an ownership of when they finish, which is an interesting idea. But coming back to these specific roadblocks, let me start with this. Presumably, the teachers didn't see this coming.

"The school was on it's knees"

Peter: I think they did because the school was on its knees. And I think in many cases extreme innovation happens when something when you have nothing to lose when your back is up against the wall. That we were down to 286 local students and 23 year 7s. So we basically had 12 months to turn the school around.

Or otherwise, it would have been closed. So yes, the staff knew that it was basically an all or nothing game. And they had to buy into it, otherwise, they'd be looking for a job somewhere else. That is good motivator for change.

Colin: So anything else that you noticed right up front? As in, you say, "Right. We're going to do this," there would have been a roadblock that came at you really quickly. What was that. 

Peter: There weren't as many as people might imagine because, to be honest, those people with the get up and go had got up and gone largely in terms of our student population. So we had a core of really committed parents and students, but it was a very small core. And really, all the changes that we put forward, there was virtually no opposition to what we were putting forwards.

And from the departmental point of view, because we are state school, my view is that people higher up in the hierarchy pretty much didn't want to have anything to do with us because nobody wanted to be associated with something that was hurtling towards the ground with a rapid rate. So nobody wants to be associated with a basket case. So we didn't actually see many people from the department for many years. And that was how we were able to grow without any constraints.

Colin: So that's quite ironic, really, because being a department school the first thing that people would think of is regulation and control. But you've experienced the reverse of that.

Peter: Absolutely. Look, I'm one of relatively few people who have been a principal in both the independent system as well as the state system, and I've actually felt greater, far, far greater freedom intellectually and in practical terms than I experienced when I was a principal in the system principal in the independent system. Because in the independent schools, you're effectively controlled by a board of often parents who are basing their decisions on their own previous educational experience.

English is no longer a compusory subject

And that makes quite a conservative governance structure. Whereas in the department, because everything that we do is largely based on good best practice and research, they were very keen to support us. And I have to say that I've had nothing but support from people all the way up to the secretary and deputy secretary. And whenever, because of some of the moves that we have like abandonment of E levels, even English is now no longer a compulsory subject.

Colin: What? 

Peter: That is right.

Colin: You just sent a shockwave across the desk.

Peter: So there was an article that appeared in the Age which explained that English was no longer a compulsory subject. And that was in the Sunday Age. On the Monday, we had a call from the VRQA, which is the governing body that looks at regulation, saying please explain. And the government, the Education Department actually sent out somebody to support us in responding to their concerns, which we were able to do. So I would have to say that, I would say that they're proud of what we've achieved and that that has been able to be achieved within a state school.

And they're currently working with us, looking at how we can assist other schools who might be in difficult situations to take on board these changes. Because one of the biggest roadblocks to true innovation is that a lot of the schools are doing okay. They're going okay. And so when somebody proposes the sort of radical changes that we're putting forward, staff and students and parents rightly say, "Well, we're not that bad."

Colin: Do I have to do this?

Peter: Yes, why do we do that? We fit within the norm, within the median. So in fact, I think that we're likely to get the most traction in schools that have in some way lost the confidence of their community. And I guarantee, and that's a guarantee that we can restore that faith in education. Because traditional education, the model where education is done to students and they're not actually actively involved in those decisions, that's what's seeing students disengage and families lose trust in the education system because it's irrelevant.

They know it's irrelevant. Okay? All we're doing is actually calling them on it and saying the majority of what you learned in school is irrelevant to your future.

Colin: Well, we hear the students say it all the time.

Peter: Yup. And they're right.

Colin: Now, but let's think about our listeners from a broader perspective. And I want to try and draw them in because some people might be thinking this all sounds great, but I feel really controlled and hemmed in like you were suggesting earlier. To be fair, if you took a helicopter view and zoomed out, could you look at yourself and say I've been lucky?

Peter: I've been lucky in life. I had a great family. Well, it's good upbringing.

Colin: It's a completely unusual situation when you consider it to the norm. And now you're telling me that there haven't been as many roadblocks as you would expect. 

Peter: I think the limitations that we've often experience, and this is true not only of our particular circumstance but life in general, we often put our own limitation of things. We think people would never allow us to do that, I can't do that.

I was doing a presentation in New South Wales recently and I was talking about the things that we were doing at Templestowe. And there were a couple of people sort of rolling their eyes and somebody put up their hand and said, "Well we'd never be allowed to do this in New South Wales."

And one of the most senior people in the department from New South Wales literally jumped from the floor, came up, grabbed the microphone and said, "You can do this. We want you to this. This is the very sort of innovation that we're talking about."

Colin: So I'm kind of struggling with that because I've been in New South Wales in education for, well since 1999. And I haven't heard that.

Peter: And New South Wales is always in my view, sorry New South Wales, but they've always been pretty much the laggards in terms of innovation, etc.

Colin: Let me just say, we're in Melbourne now. So there's a bit of a Melbourne/New South Wales thing happening. But that is okay. We're okay with that.

A new push for innovation in NSW

Peter: But I recently was asked to go up and present in New South Wales, and there's a significant new push for innovation. They've actually contributed a significant amount of funding to it. There's a new video that's been released called The Case For Change. Which to be honest, if I made the video myself, I couldn't have spoken the need for change better. And that we're in ongoing dialogue with some people in the New South Wales Education Department as to how we might contribute to that debate.

And it seems to me that New South Wales has really grabbed the lead on this. And I've alerted some of my colleagues in Victoria to the fact that they've gone from being quite disparaging of some the things that we're doing, they've leapfrogged over into being some of, I would argue, almost the latest in Australia now.

Colin: Can I talk to you about a comment you made on the Drama program on the ABC where you were interviewed about your school and you made the comment about false neuroscience. Now, you didn't have a lot of time to explain that. And I would suspect that many people aren't really that familiar with neuroscience anyway.

But then when you say a false neuroscience, and then you said something along the lines of the fact that there's a belief that core education needs to happen before 25, and then it's all too late. Can you talk us through that?

Peter: Yeah, so my understanding, and I've had this confirmed by neuroscientists and psychologists and psychiatrists, up until comparatively recently there was a view that the brain continued to develop up until approximately the age of 25. And from there it was a slow decline to drool and gruel, as I say. And it was based around some evidence that a lot of mathematicians' best work was produced pre-25, even though they went on to become university professors in mathematics.

When people looked at the key contributions that they've made, it was generally around that younger period of time. And that was before FMRI and other sorts of brain imaging technologies that can look at a brain as it's actually functioning.

And when those techniques came about, then they were able to see that the brain was actually quite...the plasticity of the brain and the fact that we could continue learning. And of course, it actually didn't make any sense anyway if we're perfectly honest. Because we know that you can teach an old dog new tricks. It just takes a little bit more repetition. So if I can to teach my mother how to program her mobile phone, or use her mobile phone effectively, I think that's a case in point.

So clearly, you can continue to learn well into your 80s and 90s, etc. And because we know that, I think it's certainly been a game changer. Because there was a perception amongst a lot of teachers out there, I think, that some kids had missed the boat. And there was almost an acceptance that you could write those students off, that they were somehow not the full quid, so to speak, and they could only reach a certain point of academic attainment.

Colin: So how has this understanding of neuroscience impacted your decision-making now and into the near to medium term future for students who are much younger than 25?

Peter: Yeah, I guess it's an interesting question. I'm always really cautious when we talk neuroscience because when we talk to neuroscientists, they're often scathing of the claims that they hear being made about neuroscience because they would be the first to acknowledge that they actually don't know a hell of a lot. It's still an area that really does require a lot more research.

Colin: It's an emerging science.

Each brain is unique

Peter: It is. Very much so. And like every emerging science, we hold on to theories. And then those theories are only there until somebody else comes up with a theory that better explains our observations, etc. I think for me, and it's probably occurred only in the last two years, possibly as we are now well and truly on our feet, we've got a good model, etc, that's enabled me to reflect on this.

But I guess rather than classifying students into groupings in any way, be they E levels or 15-year olds, or boys, or girls, or with all sorts of other diversities, each brain is actually quite unique. My daughter is, I'm dyslexic myself. One of my daughters is 16 and she's dyslexic. Spelling is a major, major issue for her. And yet when she studies German language, her spelling is perfect.

Colin: Wow, that's interesting.

Peter: Because my understanding is that second language, as opposed to being bilingual, is actually learned in a separate area of the brain. It's actually a different neurological area is my understanding.

Colin: Well that's fascinating because I actually teach German. I come from a German household. And something I have found myself experiencing, and I haven't been teaching German for a long time because it wasn't where I started in education, I just found myself there.

But what I find so interesting, and this is where I think the literacy argument becomes even more important, is that I find that I can teach students so much more about English by teaching them German because I'm actually teaching them the language by understanding their own language. So what it's telling me...

Peter: A second language.

Colin: Yeah. It doesn't actually surprise me that much. And particularly because German is such a rules-based language.

Peter: Correct. And it doesn't have a lot of the crazy exceptions that English has.

Colin: Yeah, not too many. When you do get an exception, you go wait a second. That doesn't fit the rule. Things get really difficult. So, let's flip that over then. Conversely, if you believe that there's a false notion of neuroscience out there that is easy to talk about.

Peter: And I think that's been well and truly disproven now, that false knowledge. It just that it hasn't seeped through to the rest of the wider community. Like the idea of plasticity, I haven't heard any neuroscientists stand up and dispute that. So I think it's done and proven, or as close as possibly could be proven at a scientific level, I think that the implications of that haven't yet filtered down to education.

Educational neuroscience - different ways of teaching

Colin: So flipping it around, how can we then make best use of emerging neuroscience in the way of educational neuroscience? If can use that tagline.

Peter: I guess it's symptomatic of where we're going as a community that we need like I think what the neuroscience says is there's no disorders of the mind. There are only different minds. There literally are only different minds. I'm excusing acquired brain injury and those sorts of things.

But there are different minds and what we need to do is acknowledge that they are different. They're not defective; they're just different. And what we need are accommodations and different ways of perhaps teaching. And in some cases, it will be trial and error.

Like us humans, we love to classify because it reduces something that's incredibly complex down to something that we might have a vague notion of being able to understand. If we look at the DSM-4 and ONF-5, and all the different disorders and those sorts of things, I guess if you extrapolated that into the future there would be a DSM million that had every unique human brain in it.

Teaching metacognition - learning about learning

Because we are all unique and one of the best things you can do is to teach metacognition, which is how literally how students learn. Learning about their own learning I think is where the future holds. If I might just talk, sort of jumping back a little bit in terms of no E levels, there's a lot of research, and this is I would say indisputable that if you take off the top 10% of students, so the 2 or 3 out of every class of sort of 25 to 30 and the lowest performing 10%, there's approximately a five-year academic range in a non-strained class.

Why do all students need 6 years of secondary education?

So how then is it possible to think that all students need six years of secondary school? If some are literally two and a half, three years, four years ahead, and some are a similar amount behind, why does it take all students the same cooking time for them to complete their secondary education?

And I guess that's the frustration that I have. Surely some of them are smart enough to complete it in four years, five years, and some would benefit from a year 13 and perhaps 14. And they might actually still reach those milestones.

Colin: Well I'm glad you mentioned that actually because there is research coming out. In fact, I interviewed just yesterday over at Grattan Institute, one of the researchers, who just recently released a report called Widening Gaps in NAPLAN. I don't know whether you've come across it just yet. But he makes the same claim.

If you do take the top 10% and the bottom 10% there, they can be, according to his research based on NAPLAN data, the figure is closer to seven years.

Peter: Yeah, and it would be seven whole years I'm assuming, rather than after you take the outliers of the top 10.

Colin: Yeah, that's right. So you're looking at a seven-year spread and my comment straight back was, well that's longer than high school. So really we do actually need to be doing something about it. And that is exactly what you're trying to do. So I guess when we start to understand the uniqueness of brains, coming back to neuroscience now if I may, the imperative then is for us to actually take this research and actually do something about it.

Which is I guess why I asked you right at the beginning, surely there must have been some roadblocks. And I'm thinking wow, now that you've told me that there's actually more freedom, well why aren't we doing something about this. 

Peter: I literally believe it's because we are just, we think that there are roadblocks. I was always waiting every time we released a new initiative, I was sort of cowering, waiting for the slap to come from above to tell me to pull my head in and stop doing what I was doing. And it just never came.

And you only have to experience that so many times before you become more bold and you keep reaching waiting for all of this. And it's never come. I have only been positive affirmation for the innovations that we've come up with.

Colin: I like this theme that's come out here about taking a scientific view of this. You're five years down the track now, roughly?

Peter: Yeah, six really.

Colin: Six years.

Peter: Yeah.

Colin: Thinking scientifically, people love to look at numbers, and particularly when it comes to things like NAPLAN gain scores. Which is why the report coming out from Grattan was so interesting because they talk about equivalent years of progress rather than just a number. I'm curious. Are you collecting any sort of qualitative data out of this?

Empowering students to take control of their own learning

Peter: I've got to say that we're not. I would really, I don't want to be flattered with Ph.D. applications, thank you. But what I would like, one school does not a study make. What we need to do...the claim that I would make is we've discovered something that we think might be the future of education. And I'm not only talking in Victoria, I'm not only talking in Australia.

Empowering students to take control of their own learning is the future of education. And the difficulty that we have is trying to get somebody, be it the department of education in Victoria or New Zealand or Tasmania or whoever it might be to go, you know what?

This is promising enough to trial it in 10 schools. And I think that would give us the sort of robust data that was independent of the nature of the leader or the nature of the school environment or the socioeconomic background of the kids or any of that sort of thing. And it gives us the sort of sample size that would then go, you know what? This is looking promising. Let's do it on a large scale and see what the data is.

Colin: Well, thinking about large scale, you were talking about inundations from Ph.D. applications. I can understand the hesitancy there.

Peter: We get a lot of them daily.

Many teachers want to work at Templestowe

Colin: I'm sure you do. But let me ask you this question then. Do you get inundated every day by teachers wanting to work for you. 

Peter: Yes.

Colin: Is that right?

Peter: Yeah, and we get lots of applications. And some of them are incredibly heartfelt stories of people feeling like they've been teaching for the last 10 years with a foot on the back of their neck. Them wanting to trial new and innovative things, but the administration of the school basically not allowing them to do that. So we get a lot of people, even people who have left the profession disfranchised and disillusioned, who have come across our story and want to come back.

Colin: They want to come back?

Peter: Yeah, absolutely. So, this is, like the listeners wouldn't know, but we're actually at a conference at the moment talking about pre-service teacher education. Our problem is not pre-service education. Currently, only one in ten people who apply and start a teaching degree are still in the profession five years later. 

Colin: Only five years later, we've lost 90%

Peter: Yes, 1 in 10. So half of them don't even complete their teacher training. But by that stage, those that actually start, what my understanding is it's one in five who are still there five years later. Now, why is that? It's not because it's too hard. A lot of those people are leaving because they're disillusioned.

They've gone into education wanting to help and make a positive difference. And they've gone into schools, sometimes because that was the only job that they could take, and they're not helping kids. They're actually doing the opposite. They're often damaging students.

And so they leave because they're disillusioned. It's quite clear. You know, we look at our PISA data because it seems like the sort of simplistic thing that politicians can sort of superficially gaze at and get an idea of where we're going.

Nobody can show me the research that says that declining PISA results leads to financial ruin or economic disadvantage. Like America, one of the poorest performing PISA nations, and yet they still continue to be an economic powerhouse. And if you look at some of those nations, particularly some of those from the Asian regions who are leapfrogging and jumping to the top of PISA, when you look at the data around the students' quality of life, it's falling through the floor. 

Colin: Because they're under the pump...

Not necessarily a link between doing well in PISA and doing well in life

Peter: Because they're under the pump. Their level of competition is just insane. And there's not necessarily a positive link between doing well in PISA and doing well in life. We need students to leave education actually having had a really positive experience, where they look back on their time at school and they go, "You know what? That was pretty good. And when I want to learn something, I'm actually good at it."

And I don't mean just the top performing students. I'm talking about the student that has the learning disability but has learned that when I apply myself, I'm really good at practical things. Or I'm really good at talking with people, or nurturing and nursing people, etc. We need every student...you know, Australia's population is I think 26 million.

And yet, I went to India recently and had a look at their population. Half of their population is under the age of 25 and they've got 1.3 billion people. We do not have the luxury in this country with the size of population that we do to have any student leaving education feeling like a failure. Because if that happens, there will be continued...not only the personal impact of leaving, feeling like a human failure, someone who is not worthy of going on but they will be a continual drain of the social welfare of the country.

They will have worse medical outcomes and the associated costs of that. And end up potentially in the judicial system and that sort of thing. It's shameful.

Colin: Yeah, and what you are saying rings true with someone else whom you've mentioned, Sir Ken Robinson. In terms of fact, Ken Robinson has said that what we're experiencing is a process of academic inflation. And what I'm hearing from you is that you're seeing that in this intense competition. And we really should be concerned about how students are progressing, how they're learning, and what sort of a positive experience they can have from their schooling.

So I know that time's getting away. So let me finish with this one. You don't want Ph.D. applications, you're turning teacher applications away because obviously not everyone can work at Templestowe College.

Peter: And student applications. So we have three students applying for every position that we have.

Colin: Okay. So everyone wants in. Because the conference here today is about improving teacher education, let's imagine there are thousands of teachers listening, and there will be, what does a typical TC teacher look like? If they can't work with you, how can they mould themselves around this idea and take it with them somewhere else?

Principals need to be the big game changer

Peter: Look, the real difficulty is like I want teachers to make a difference in their classroom by empowering the students to have more of a say in their education. But the real people that we need to come on board are the principals. Like the reality is a teacher can do their best to implement student empowerment within their classroom and I applaud that.

But if we're actually going to make the big game changer, we actually need principals to come on board. Because without their support and their endorsement, really, you're fighting an uphill battle. So my message is to the teachers out there, encourage, force, cajole your principal into making contact with us.

And we would love to work with whole schools, whole systems, in turning them around. Because it's not as if there is doubt that our current education system is broken. It serves about a third of students. One-third do average. And one-third it's complete failure for. That paradigm has to change. And we feel that we've got a solution to it.

Colin: Peter, it's been an absolute inspiration. Thanks so much for your time.

Peter: Most welcome.

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