Real innovation in education, or just talk?
Greg Whitby is the Executive Director of Schools for the Catholic Education Diocese of Parramatta where he is responsible for 78 schools.
He is at the leading edge of education reform, and he joined me on the Learning Capacity Podcast to discuss the new St Luke’s College opening in Sydney’s Marsden Park in 2017.
Almost everything is up for a rethink, Greg Whitby said. Starting with how the new Principal Leader is selected, the new school will provide a radical shift from traditional school thinking.
Listen to the podcast.
- School organisation structures
- Managing schools like a business
- Designing schools for the knowledge age
- Innovation in schools
- Out of School Hours Care, OSHC
- Opening schools from 6:00AM to 6:00PM
- Rethinking the nature of the schooling
- School leadership - "Principal Leaders"
People & organisations mentioned
- Peter Hutton, Templestowe College
- Richard Elmore, Harvard Graduate School of Education
- St Luke's College, Marsden Park, Sydney
Previous podcast episodes on SoundCloud
If you would like to read the complete podcast transcript, here it is:
Episode 63 of The Learning Capacity Podcast
Executive Director Greg Whitby on building innovative schools and new models for education
Colin Klupiec: Greg, thanks very much for joining us.
Greg Whitby: It's great to be with you Colin.
Colin: Let's start off with something about climbing the ladder in schools, because something that I hear quite often in common rooms, etc, is that good teachers often gets promoted out of the classroom. When thinking about your concept of bring people in from outside of the normal career progression, is this related to this idea? In other words, do we want to keep the good teachers in the classroom, and then bring good managers in from the outside?
Education is very slow to adapt
Greg: Well, I'd answer the first part, I'm not sure about the second. I'd want to clarify the second part, but I'd say that education is probably the only industry that takes the best of the best, out of the point of contact where you make the most difference, and take them away from the core work. The way you improve kids’ learning, and there are many ways, but we know the best way is to have good teachers teaching them.
So it follows that we need to keep the good teachers there. The structure we've had in schools and for administration of course it’s been very hierarchical. It's a model that has probably had its day as we've moved to a knowledge age, most other organisations seem to work in much flatter, more agile administrative and organisations way, and find ways to exercise leadership in very different ways.
Education has been and continues to be very slow to adapt to that reality. But getting the good managers, it's not a mutually exclusive process here. We do have very good school leaders and principals, whose come up through that structure that I talked about, who can do both, but increasingly as we understand the nature of collaborative and cooperative leadership, it's skill set that you need to put together, and it's very contextual.
So it's not a matter of one size fits all, there is only one way to do it, and that the person that ends up the principal is the expert at everything. We've come through that era of leadership, and it probably is best typified I think in the approach to leadership, in literature at the moment.
But it moved away from talking about leadership and talking about leading. I think that gives a better lens in which to look at this, because it's about, what you do? How you do it? And then building the skill set around you to allow you to do it, because no one person can do everything.
Colin: You were mentioning before the fact that the model that we've been through is quite hierarchical. Now you're talking to me with a voice that sounds like this is all very normal to you. Are you getting a lot of push back from people that you talk to?
Is the present education model appropriate for the knowledge world?
Greg: I have had push back, I've had comments made to me that I'm devaluing our existing leaders, and I've had some people make that personal representation to me. I've had some feedback to say, "Look, it's about time people raise these issues," and it's been a great discussion. It's allowed me to write more about it, I've done so since we've published it.
It obviously touched a nerve in the community, but have certainly has opened up a dialogue about possibilities of what can be. I think the issue for us and these things happen in a background, in a context which I've referred to, but working in a knowledge age, we should question all the structures that we have, are they appropriate in the knowledge world?
Certainly under the industrial model, that schools mostly are all operated from, but most of these still do. You still see that command and control, that it's vested into one person. There are very few organisations that would see it like that at the moment.
So there have been a range of people who've comment on, depending on your range of experience I suppose, and how you see the world. We're clearly saying in the work we're doing, it's about transforming the nature of schooling, and therefore we should take a fresh look at what it means to lead a school community today.
Colin: I'd like to come to that idea of transforming schools a little bit later in the discussion, but something else I hear quite often along the lines of the first argument that I mentioned was that schools are not businesses, you'll hear that in the common room as well, or at least let me qualify that by saying, you'll hear teachers say, "At least they shouldn't be run like businesses."
And I think there seems to be a fear amongst teachers that when...If I can use air quotes here, "Managers get involved." Things go wrong, because managers don't understand education or the learning process or what it's like to be in the school. How do we start the dialogue between these new entrepreneurial-styled managers, and the teachers for whom this will be very new and perhaps somewhat confronting?
Greg: Can I tackle global warming first?
Colin: Please do.
Schools are complex organisations run on business processes
Greg: This is at the heart of the matter. And I really agree with your proposition, if you just put managers in to manage it and turn it into a business, you'll miss the whole purpose of schooling. The socialisation process of schooling, learning and teaching is a highly relational process. So that you need a skill-set that understands that.
On the other side of the coin, even the smallest school, our smallest school in our system, 150 students, several staff, is over a million dollars a year business. It is a business, it runs on business practices and business processes. We have accountability requirements and compliance requirements that we have to meet, and we do so and do that very well.
So to say that they're not businesses is not to understand the complexity of running schools, and let's not conflate the two. In the hierarchical model and in the industrial model, there was the one person who was responsible for everything, from opening the gates, unlocking the toilets, to leading the learning and reporting to parents, building the building, cutting the grass, emptying, etc, etc.
Quite clearly in a knowledge age, I come back to that, that is not sustainable. It's not sustainable for two reasons, one is the complexity of the work in running schools. They're becoming increasingly more complex, as governments continue to legislate in both federal and state acts of parliament, the requirements to run schools. Plus the expectation of the school community in terms of their compliance and safeguarding of their children. That one person can't do everything.
We need transformation not tweaking existing education models
So, that takes us again into this area of saying, "Well, how do we build a team that will allow us to meet both ends?" And it's not going to be by saying, "Well, we're not a business," or," We're only a school, and all we have to do is make people feel cared, looked after, and that we've answered the situation." That's why I think we need to approach this from transformation, not just tweaking the existing models.
Colin: So, getting involved with the teachers though, perhaps we should suggest to teacher education institutions, that they start to introduce more a business-like subjects into the curriculum, so that teachers can perhaps start to think more from an organisational perspective, rather than just from what's going on in the classroom. Do you see that as a valid idea.
Teachers are the most powerful influence on improving a student's learning
Greg: Again, I wouldn't rule it out, but let's go back to what I would call first principles. The literature, the theory, the practice and the evidence is clear, that the teacher outside of any of the school influences, say your parents, etc, and your postcode, the teacher has the most powerful influence on improving a student's learning.
So what follows from that, the more you can promote that engagement and reflection on learning and involvement in that process, the higher will be the outcome for the student and the improvement. If that now takes a lot more time, how do you then get them to do a range of the other things?
So if I say about compliance and those sorts of things and understanding that, we have ways now that we've put in schools, we've provided online access, we provide 24/7 capability for you to make those sort of things. We're using technologies for teachers to be able to capture some of the administrative things they do, even like marking the rolls and those sort of things.
MBAs (Masters of Business Administration) in education
Is it perfect? No it's not. It's a work in progress, but to assume, and I'm aware that some people even run MBAs in education, to assume that you need a financial skill set, to every teacher to run schools is quite unclear.
However, having a principal and a leader or a teacher who aspires to those things, it could be very good to do those sort of things. In fact I'm one of those, I do have a business career, and I've actually taught in the business school, as well as coming from education background. And I didn't do it for career prospects, I did it for sort of enhancing my understanding in the work that we were doing.
Colin: So do you see a conflict potentially between asking more business-minded, entrepreneurially-minded people to come into the school? Which is a system that is by nature, conservative and over the last few decades institutionalised. In other words, do you think that the people that you're looking for will be able to cope?
Greg: Yes I do, and we have several of them, but the way I put it, entrepreneurial can be seen to be a pejorative in one sense. We understand now, I think, that it's around building robust partnerships. You can't stay in isolation, even if you're a standalone school, you have to interact and intersect and connect, locally and globally.
So, in opening up that school environment, you'll open up into a new world. So, that's how I think that we will do that and that's how we see things working. Inviting people in to show new ways of working. It's not a matter of bringing entrepreneurs in and say, entrepreneurs know how to do that, they know the bottom line, they know the triple bottom line. They know how to get the best bang for the buck, they've got great investment strategies and all those sorts of things.
Put our focus on innovation
Which are one end of the entrepreneurial spectrum I agree. What we want is people who can think and imagine and be given the opportunity to innovate, and where we put our focus is on the nature of innovation. So, we don't want to look in rear vision mirror and say, "Well this is how we've done schools." And if you take the example of the existing schools, I did not want to put an advertisement in and said, "We are looking for an experienced principal only."
I am interested in experience as one indicator, because I'd like to see somebody who has the respect of the community they've served, but I don't need an expert in how schools have been built in the past. I'm looking for somebody who is open minded and say, "Well we do need to change, and this is how we will try and do this and we will work with you." So, in that sense, I'd talk about entrepreneurs, not in terms of the business school model and those sorts of things.
Colin: So how well do you get these people involved in the designing of the way the school functions? In terms of its day-to-day operations.
Greg: Okay, that's a very good question. And again, as everything, there are two parts to this question. We used to, in my experience, and certainly in the independent sector. In the government sector it's much more imposed, because the government just builds the schools and you occupy it. We actually work with the local community first up.
Organise students in different ways, not necessarily in classes
But we need to make very clear that we have our system standards if you like. So, we've made the commitment that our schools will replace and enhance kids' learning, have teachers teaching. Where we personalise the learning for the individual, that means that young people need to be organised in different ways, to just necessarily classes or cohort groups.
We need to have schools where teachers work collaboratively and design and participate in the design of the learning frameworks. And that we provide agile, open opportunities for them to use space and technology as they see fit, as a tool to help them improve the kids' learning, so that's how we set the parameters. Then we invite and target the leaders to come and work within that framework.
In the past, what has happened has been you appoint a principal, and the principal goes off and designs the school halls, the community theme, they design the uniform, and then they just roll out a cookie-cutter type classroom for the main block and those sort of things.
We believe that that's no longer appropriate for providing schools in that contemporary age, and with the skill-sets that we require now both for our teachers, our leaders and our students. So, our existing school, the one that we did the advertisement for, it took us over three months in the process to identify a candidate. It was after very rigorous process, went through several stages, which was a very new way of doing it, and I can comment on that later if you like, but just to finish the other part of it.
Plus we have a governor...an internal governance group that maintains the standards, make sure that we do the demographics and the finances, all that sort of thing. And then that leader is now working, has started working with us part-time. He'll come full-time in the next week, and now will work with us till the rest of the year, on the operational side of things.
Then the buildings will start. We have a buildings team that will help do those sort of things, but his prime responsibility will to be, start the planning of the school community, and the first up task, which takes you right back to your beginning question was, identifying the leadership construct that he needs to support him and the school community in their work.
Principal Leader, not Principal
So, we will be having a very different structure than you would see in the principal, deputy principal, etc. He carries the title, Principal Leader, and we'll be working with and already working through the process of what we think, and how we believe he can build that sort of team.
Colin: You mentioned before the move towards flatter structures. I'm thinking about younger teachers or just teachers who are already in the system who aspire to leadership, or want to be part of this new vision for schooling. Will they be able to have access to that Principal Leader?
Need models to satisfy teachers's aspirations and give them access to more pay
Greg: Definitely, and going back to, I forget which question it was, I remember we talked about teachers in the classroom. This whole issue is so problematic, because of probably, and I'm going out on a limb here and saying the inflexible attitude of various sections to change. So that at the moment, the only way to pay teachers more and offer a career path, is by taking them away from the face-to-face teaching. We need to find models that can satisfy both the career aspirations and give them access to more salary.
Colin: Some people might argue that good principals still teach, and are actively involved in the classroom. This is something I wanted to really try and get your opinion on here, because bringing CEOs in from industry presents a bit of a problem with this idea, because of things like qualification and teacher registration.
Colin: Do you see a potential problem with these new school leaders being one step removed from the learning environment? If I can put it that way.
All teachers including Principal Leader must teach
Greg: You've hit the nub and I keep repeating, it's the nub of the problem. When I take you back to what I said, what adds value to improve the kids' learning is having good teachers teaching them. We know that teachers learn to be better teachers by working with each other. That's why we insist on collaborative opportunities.
And we know that they'll collaborate better when they have leaders who can work with them, who understand what it is to be a teacher in a contemporary world. So by definition, in our system, we insist that all teachers teach. Now, at the moment that's done through very traditional...and also the appointee of this school is a very traditional, an undergraduate degree and master's degree in education.
Do you have need to have been a teacher only in a school? Well, I'm not so sure of that. I'd be open to exploring people, if it could demonstrate that I understand good learning and teaching. When I said to you that we have our system standard if you like, we insist that our leaders understand that....all the learning theory talks about context, connections and metacognition.
That is not necessarily just to preserve our people who have gone to university, and come out and started teaching. We do know that there are a lot of teachers who are not good at teaching, even though they have the qualification. So that the reverse is true, but the issue is how you build a complimentary skill set within the school that can help that happen.
We have had the examples in the past of power professionals.They've gone on to become teachers. So it's not as black and white as it's an either/or. Now, am I therefore saying at the risk before I get taken out and tarred and feathered, it doesn't matter. You don't have to have been a teacher to lead a school, quite clearly, I'm not saying that. You need to understand the theory, the practice and the evidence, and how that applies in the context of a very dynamic learning community which we call our schools.
If I go back and finish off the other point I was making about the teachers and the career path.
Greg: There is then the opportunity for people to access, leading a community and a career path, that is a combination of both, to stay in a classroom longer, or in fact not being as present in the classroom as they might have been in the past. To allow that to happen, we break it into two parts.
Principal Leaders need an enterprise capability, as well as the core learning & teaching role
The core work in school is the learning and teaching, and that's the focus of everybody in that community, but on the other side, they need an enterprise capability, they need identity management, they need system standards, they need technologies, they need an environment and all that sort of thing, and we need to find people who can help do those sorts of things.
The way the school would operate and the way the leaders need to operate is the intersection of those two things. Of the learning with the enterprise, because to run any school today, and we have most of our secondary schools are over 1,000...a thousand to 1,100 students. They are massive enterprises, where we employ several hundred staff, and the department of education is a lot bigger than we are, and have a similar sort of challenge, but our approach is in that intersection of the enterprise and the system, and then that shared leadership.
Colin: Let's talk about some practical issues, like the 9:00 to 3:00 day and organising students into year levels. I had a conversation, one of the guests on our program a few weeks ago, was Peter Hutton from Templestowe College in Victoria, and at that school they're already somewhere down the path in that regard.
Not exactly sure about how they structure their day, but I know it's not a standard day, but they certainly don't have students in year levels. Will this be implemented in the new school you're building at Marsden Park I believe?
Out of school hours care and early learning
Greg: Yes, yeah, it's currently under discussion and negotiation. I'll give you a good example of the thinking. The biggest growth industry we have in our schools at the moment, surprise-surprise, is Out of School Hours Care, OSHC, and that's a big problem here in Western Sydney. It's been a big problem around the world.
The second part of that is that the second biggest pressure is on early learning, okay? So if you think of how we handle OSHC at the moment is, so school has to start from 9:00 till 3:00. So they drop their kids off at 6:00 a.m. in a care that's usually done in...Well, it's always done in a school building. School starts at 9:00, finishes at 3:00, and then they go into care again till 6:00. What if we said our school would be open from 6:00 to 6:00?
Colin: Well, you'd certainly get a lot more use out of your school buildings, wouldn't you?
The new Marsden Park school will cost $70 million
Greg: Yeah, and you don't need to attend an OSHC, because we would look after you within the context of a school day. Now that would mean new structures, new way of working, staffing implications, but immediately it brings...takes away a whole other layer of organisation, administration, and other things that parents not only...They have kids at the OSHC at this school, and then they attend another school.
You would have a seamless experience. So, we're asking these sorts of questions. Quite clearly, and this school will probably cost when it's completed about $70 million. There is no way that you can continue providing that sort of investment in the fabric of any community, and run it for 6 hours a day, 40 weeks a year, 5 days a week, for 40 weeks in a year.
And that's why, I've already mentioned this, your partnerships about innovation, and we need to rethink the nature of the schooling. We have plans for multiple pathways, not just in the latter years of the schooling experience. We're in negotiations with tertiary institutions, to blend the learning and the time that they're in operation. So, we will be rebuilding something that will be able to cater to the changing needs, and provide opportunities that we do not have.
Colin: Sorry, I was just thinking that if your school is going to be open from 6:00 till 6:00, is it possible then the students could actually finish their schooling sooner? Because the courses are divided into indicative hours, but if you've got more hours that you can be there, could you just do it faster?
Greg: Well, you can do those sorts of things, but you can also do a lot more of the social things. If I take the OSHC for example, the reason and the problem that parents face here in Western Sydney, and not only here in Western, but the majority of them are, they're dropping them off at 6:00, picking them up after 6:00.
When they get home, they have less time for socialisation, running around, all those sorts of things, all those things could be done within the scope of an extended school day if you like, which would be a value add for the parents.
Teams of kids working with teams of teachers
So it's not necessarily just doing more work and acceleration, but obviously when you have multiple pathways, and the school will not be organised in cohort groups and class groups, they will be organised in teams of kids working with teams of teachers. You provide a whole range of both extending and meeting the needs of the kids that have specialist learning needs.
Colin: There is a comment in the article about...the article that was published about this concept in the Sydney Morning Herald, about the difference between improvement and transformation, and I just want to come back to this transformation idea that we mentioned earlier. You're quoted as saying, "We've been trying to improve schools for 50 years, the issue is we need a new model."
Colin: Are we talking about a massive trial and error project here?
The new model is not experimenting with kids learning
Greg: No. The number one...and I'm glad you asked this Colin, it's the number one point I'd like people to take out is, we are not about experimenting with kids. Everything I've just said to you I can defend on the basis of excellent learning theory, excellent practice and evidence, and I've already mentioned the learning theory, I won't go deeper into all the other theory about it.
We need to ask ourselves, what flows in the 21st Century from that? Just as the same they did in the 19th Century, before people had trains and cars, they asked that question and they designed buildings that way. We're now in a very different space. So it is not an experiment at all, that is to do such a disservice to the hard work, it's actually hard work.
Teaching is much more complex than rocket science
Richard Elmore, the great American educator was asked this question, somebody once said to him, "Look, teaching is not rocket science, anybody can do it." He said, "You're right, it's not rocket science, it's much more complex." And that's true, being a knowledge worker in schools today is so different now.
Our schools are failing and we need to improve schools
If I'd just come to the improvement process. I'll take last weekend. In the Sydney Daily Telegraph, the front page of the Telegraph is, it's called, " Literacy for Dummies." The New South Wales minister has launched a booklet to go to schools, that's got the basics of English grammar and starts with, what is a sentence? What is a noun? What's a pronoun? He's done that, because our schools are failing and we need to improve schools.
You cannot go a week without being told that schools need to improve. Politicians use it. The federal government, the Liberal side, they said ,"We'll give you $1.2 billion, but it's all tied to more testing in schools, so it's about improvement, improvement, improvement. We've squeezed the improvement agenda.
We had a time where there were no tests across our school years. Then we got the schools to it, the high schools to it, then we got basic skill assess, then we got in our NAPLAN test. And that plan was in year three and five, we now have it in three, five, seven and nine. If the federal government get in, they'll want it in year 1,3,5,7,9 and 12.
And we face the ridiculous thing in New South Wales of having the kids tested in year 12, after all their schooling experience, to see whether they're literate, numerate. Do you get the after bit? Then they can go to university and do...Start their teaching degree, and they'll be tested at university in their first year for their literacy and numeracy skills. So, improvement gets you nowhere. We need to transform the way we think about this whole business and the whole process.
Message to students at the new Marsden Park School
Colin: Let's finish with two quick questions. What's your message to students facing this new reality that you're building there?
Greg: You are going to have an absolutely extraordinary learning experience. You will not want to stay at home, you will not want school holidays, the place where you will want to be is in this vibrant learning community.
Message to principals
Colin: And what's your message to other principals listening to this conversation?
Greg: Look, just to be open to it, and think about this in terms of today's world, not the world that you grew up in.
Colin: Greg, it sounds like you're building an amazing place for next year, thanks so much for your time.
Greg: My pleasure, thanks Colin.