Putting on the Black Hat: Why Being Negative is Essential for Positive Change

Years ago I was the sports coordinator for a small primary school. On Friday afternoons our Stage 2 and 3 students would play sport. A small percentage played on our representative softball, netball and soccer teams, competing against other schools. The remaining students would participate in activities back at school.

For reasons, which I no longer recall, we wanted to increase the range of options available to those students who didn’t make it into the representative teams. With the full support of my principal and colleagues, I set about contacting local organisations. Soon, I’d arranged for tennis and golf lessons, orienteering, rock climbing and ten pin bowling in addition to our regular school based sport.

It was a popular move. The feedback from parents was enthusiastic and our students were excited about the new options. It was only after they’d signed up for their activities that I realised my mistake. Only four students enrolled in the in-school option. In my planning I hadn’t considered that we would need a minimum number of students to run an effective in-school program, and I hadn’t considered the impact on those families who couldn’t afford choice. I was so focused on developing the off-site opportunities that I’d given no thought to how our in-school offering would work and in the process managed to decimate it.

I don’t recall how we managed the situation. What I do recall is the lesson that I learned: that no matter how small the change project, it’s impact has to be considered not just in terms of how it well it might achieve its aims, but in how it impacts everything and everyone around it. Every change project creates expanding ripples which can have effects well beyond the original scope.

I worry about the increasing emphasis on change and innovation in education. We rush towards our goals, so inspired and excited by our vision and ideas. Do we take the time to consider broader impacts?

Think about the rapid increase of private schools in Australia, many of which provide incredible programs for their students. While those students benefit, the impact on our broader society is not so positive. Residualisation of public education is  a reality for some communities where the flight from public schools has resulted in huge concentrations of disadvantage. I do wonder how desirable it is for society  to be creating what are effectively gated communities for students, separated into groups based on religion or wealth, or both. We wouldn’t tolerate this in our classrooms, but as a society, it seems that’s what we are doing.

Concerns about broader impact started to nag at me when I attended the EduChange conference back in August. Don’t get me wrong, it was a terrific event which I blogged about here. But there was so much talk about solution oriented change, with no opportunity to examine whether the solutions would create even greater problems of their own.

In education circles, it  seems to me that this type of thinking is sometimes misunderstood as being negative and undesirable. I’ve been shut down and have witnessed others being shut down after questioning or pointing out potential problems ideas shared during education Twitter chats. I’ve participated in design thinking sessions where ample time is provided to generate ideas in brainstorming,  but extremely limited and sometimes no time provided to critique them. We’re told, “all ideas are good ideas, we’re here to be positive”.

However black hat thinking is essential for innovators. If we don’t take time to consider what could go wrong,  we risk creating greater problems and limit our effectiveness. We must to be willing to examine negatives if we are to genuinely create positive outcomes

Any good school change project should include a risk assessment. We need to consider the ripple effect and ask ourselves how our project might impact on every stakeholder group, not just those targeted within the project. This does not mean we  abandon projects when we foresee undesirable consequences. It means we weigh up our options.

Just like any other risk assessment, we follow a process. We determine if we can eliminate or minimise those risks, and if we can’t we then need to decide if the benefits of the change are worth the costs.


The Duality of Leadership and the Importance of Trust

Jon Andrews wrote a very thought-provoking article last weekend about the tension he faces  between the type of leader he wants to be, and the type he sometimes finds himself being.

I also struggle between being the  leader I want to be and the leader I sometimes have to be.

I want to be a leader who empowers and supports teachers, who listens and consults, who doesn’t impose directions, but builds a collective vision that teachers buy in to and have ownership of. I want to support teachers, help them to develop professionally, pursue their passions and reach their goals.

But sometimes I have to be the leader who tells. Sometimes times I have to say “no” or  make unpopular decisions that people may not understand. Sometimes I have to hold teachers to account and tell them to lift their game. Sometimes I need to impose deadlines or require paperwork that for me is essential but can appear to others as “administrivia”.

Leadership is like that. There are times when I have to make the hard calls. There are times when I get it wrong. There are times when I can’t be open and transparent because I am protecting someone’s privacy or dignity or both.

The only way I can navigate this tension in my workplace is by being  the kind of person people can put their trust in. My integrity and values need to be on display for all to see: my willingness to receive honest feedback, my commitment to the wellbeing of both students and staff, to high quality learning,  to excellence in teaching, to staff development and ongoing professional learning, to building strong, collaborative and respectful relationships.

I can’t demand trust from others, but if I act with consistency, to the point where people feel they are able to trust me, they’re more likely to support me in those times when I’ve had to make a call they don’t much like.

I’ll leave you with this TED talk by Onora Oneil on the subject of trust. We often want to demand trust from others, but as O’Neil points out, trust can’t be demanded, it has to be given.

It Takes a Village

gold-268640_1280I used to work at  school that refused to nominate teachers for any of the awards governments and other organisations provided to acknowledge the work of teachers.  This was a collective decision by the staff.

Our reasoning was simple: we believed that none of us could, as individuals, take credit for the success of our work. We were a team and our successes were a product of many people working together.

Last year, part of my role included support for students who were not meeting expected outcomes in English or mathematics. I’d work with specific students three times per week. Someof the students made incredible gains.

If we were to give an award for that success, who should receive it?

Surely I’d deserve recognition, after all, I’d been the one working closely with those children?

Then again, I wasn’t their only teacher. Their classroom teachers worked with them most of the day, five days a week. There were also  the teachers who’d taught them the year before, identified their specific weakness in learning, and actually started the remediation process?

What about the parents, who were also supporting the learning in their own way at home?

And where does the school P&C fit in? Perhaps they should receive the award as they were the ones who funded the program that allowed me to work with these needy students.

Of course,  let’s not forget the principal who provided the vision, time, resources and professional learning that enabled us to support these students.

I think if any one of us were to receive an award, we’d feel a little uncomfortable.  We know we aren’t working alone.  It would be unfair to place the contribution of one team member above the contributions of the rest.

It’s important to celebrate success, but I’m not convinced that teacher awards are the best way to do that. They suggest that teaching is a solo endeavour and it’s not, it never has been.

As terrific blogger and deep thinking Twitter colleague (whom I recommend you follow) Aaron Davis says so frequently,  “it takes a village”.

School Leadership: Professional Autonomy vs Prescription

The nature of teaching has evolved considerably over the 20+ years I’ve been in the profession. When I began teaching, it was a private gig. Each of us, in our classrooms,  with doors closed. Our responsibility was to teach the curriculum, as effectively as we could – but our methods were our own. It was up to each of us to make informed, professional judgements regarding pedagogy.  So long as we could show through our programs that we were covering the outcomes, and through our students that standards were being met, we were able to teach however we liked. It was 100% professional autonomy.

Since then,  the expectations of us as professionals have increased. We have higher qualifications (back when I trained we only needed a diploma). We  have to maintain accreditation against professional teaching standards, there is an expectation that we will engage in ongoing professional learning. We have far greater accountability and I think we rightly, regard ourselves as far more professional than we did back then.

Yet while teacher professionalism has increased, there seems to be a decline in professional autonomy. Part of this is due to the changing expectations of teachers, the curriculum, and of the goals of education itself, and it occurs in the most progressive of schools.

A simple example: if as  a school, we agree that our students need to learn collaborative skills, then there is an obligation on every teacher to provide opportunities for students to learn those skills. Opportunities for group work MUST be incorporated – it is no longer up to the individual teacher to decide if group work should be a part of their pedagogy. The work of teaching is not only about the core academic curriculum, but the not-so-hidden curriculum of skills for 21st Century learners.

As a school leader, I find this challenging. I want the teachers I work with to have space to make their own decisions about how to teach, to trust and use their professional judgment, just as I could when I began teaching all those years ago. However, at the same time, there are practices that we’ve found we need to mandate, and others we’ve had to insist be abandoned.

I’ve had to intrude more than I’d like into some of the teaching decisions of my colleagues.  We’ve insisted that certain practices occur around assessment, the teaching of reading, spelling and mathematics and homework. We’ve also insisted that some practices no longer occur, most recently disallowing textbooks in our school for mathematics. And of course, while most teachers buy in and support these policies, there are always those who disagree and no doubt feel frustrated and restricted.

It’s quite a balancing act to provide room for professional autonomy while at the time, mandating practices.  Some schools and systems go to the  extreme end of the continuum,  trying to guarantee quality by being highly prescriptive, to the point of scripting lessons and even dictating what the wall displays should include. Others go to the other extreme, letting every teacher do their own thing, with the learning experience for students, and perhaps their outcomes  looking very different in every room,

I suppose if I was to map where we are on a continuum, I’d place us here:

Professional Autonomy (1)

So how do we strike the right balance?

I believe it’s about having a set of agreed principles that teachers must adhere to, but allowing teachers the freedom to decide HOW to apply them. (There is a whole process involved in developing those agreed principals with staff, which deserves a post of its own).

I observed a great example of this type of leadership when I visited Mount Pritchard East Public School in late 2014. Under the wonderful leadership of Natalie Mansour and Rebecca Urry, the school had spent two years developing practices around formative assessment.

Their model included some non-negotiables:

  • No hands up
  • Learning Intentions and Success Criteria (LISC)
  • Feedback that is regular, related to student goals and moves students forward
  • Learning goals for students which the children could articulate and know when they’d been achieved.

These practices had to be visible in every classroom.

Putting it to the test, I toured each room of the school. As I visited each one,  I was able to see learning intentions and success criteria for the current lessons clearly displayed on the board. I could also see each student’s learning goals:  what each student  had achieved and what they were working towards. The students themselves were my tour guides and were able to tell me all about their learning.

However, while this was clearly evident in every classroom, the way each teacher chose to implement those non-negotiables was different. No two classrooms were the same. No two practices were the same. It was an excellent model of professional autonomy being able to bloom, while still adhering to common principles.

It called to mind what I learned at the NoTosh Masterclass I attended in during the  EduTech 2014 National Congress and Expo. Creativity requires design constraints. It’s no use putting a group of architects together and asking them to design something wonderful. We need to add constraints, like design a wonderful school, or home, or treehouse. The design has to suit its purpose, and the purpose is what inspires vision and creativity.

In schools, the curriculum, the agreed values, principals and directions become our design constraints. Within these, good teaching and professional autonomy can flourish.

Building a School that Thrives


It’s January 1st,  a time to start setting intentions for the coming year. My intention is to build a school that thrives. It’s a long term goal, I know – but how amazing it would be to work in a school where everyone truly thrives.

Thinking about thriving  inspires  us to aim higher and dig deeper.  When teaching my students mathematics, I not only ask, “Are my students learning, and meeting the expected outcomes”, but are they thriving in maths? This means I start wondering how engaged they are, how challenged they are, how connected they feel to the subject, how confident they are to use mathematics.

I also apply that word to my team,  the group of teachers I am responsible for leading and supporting. Are they thriving in their work or are they feeling worn down? Do they have a sense of efficacy and meaning in what they are doing? What conditions are necessary so that my teachers can thrive?

And what about me? Am I thriving in my role. What do I need so that I can thrive? What do I need to do or change to create the right conditions for myself?

And what about you? Are you thriving?

What would it take for everyone in your school to thrive?