Human-scale at Scale: embedding culture by practicing what you preach

Tom Beresford
Oct 24, 2016 · 4 min read
Khan Lab School: time for reflection is valued, for both students and teachers

You only need to log on to twitter to appreciate the relentless noise that surrounds education today. So much of the polarised landscape is a Comms game — lots of soundbites, lots of talk. With schools under increasing accountability measures for rigour and ‘standards’, a coherent narrative with clear messaging is often seen to be a necessity.

Yet, when it comes to translating that narrative into an effective and coherent culture and set of practices that delivers great outcomes, there can often be a level of variability — especially across school chains, networks and jurisdictions.

On my travels, as part of my research — Human-scale at Scale — I’ve come across a number of learner-centred models that are taking this translation of narrative into culture very seriously, and reaping the benefits. A defining feature of these models is that, in one way or another, educators are looking to practice what they preach to their students at every opportunity.

Lindsay USD: mastery-based learning meets mastery-based professional development

One of the most inspiring places on my tour has undoubtedly been the Lindsay Unified School District — a remote, sleepy town in the heart of orange-growing country, California. A few years back, Lindsay USD came to the painful conclusion that they were failing far too many of their kids. Too many students were falling through the cracks of the traditional system — either failing to graduate from high school, or struggling to complete college education. Superintendent Tom Rooney tells a heart-wrenching story of a parent bringing his son in front of the district official and asking him to read the front page of a newspaper — he couldn’t. And this child was supposedly ‘progressing’ through high school.

Through brave leadership and a fervent rejection of any concept of ‘perfection’, the district transformed from a time-bound, traditional system of schooling to one focused on a mastery-based approach to learning. The results are pretty compelling. Bearing in mind that this is a district with a very high poverty rate and English as a second language, they’ve transformed outcomes for their students.

Much of this success can be attributed to a phenomenal culture that embodies the district’s strategic vision at every turn. There is a real belief that their Performance Based System drives rigour in every young person’s learning and ensures that students no longer fall through the cracks of a broken system. So much so, that they are now transforming how they approach professional development in the district. They are in the process of developing a similar mastery-based system that ensures teachers learn as rigorously as their students and that quality is driven up in the same way.

Big Picture Learning: supporting schools on an advisory basis

Big Picture Learning is a personal favourite of mine. The model really goes above and beyond to make learning and schooling work for each individual child. Over the past couple of decades, the folks at Big Picture have been able to spread their ‘one child at a time’ ways across the US (65 schools) and beyond (in Australia, the Netherlands, Italy and Canada).

As I mentioned in a previous blog of mine — Human-scale at Scale: forever a balancing act — The Big Picture Learning Network is committed to supporting each school’s individual journey. As Javier Guzman, Regional Director at PBL put it, “The BPL philosophy is one child at a time. When we think about adoption and scaling, its really about one school at a time.” Co-creating a journey that works for each school, and helping leaders and teachers to identify bright spots, can seed and nurture a culture change that is far more likely to be transformative and long-lasting.

Taking an advisory approach to how they spread Big Picture Learning is also a great way to model how a core tenant of their learner-centred approach works. It helps to bed in a crucial culture in new schools across the network, and goes a way to creating a consistency in how the model is implemented, without falling into the trap of ‘high fidelity roll-out’.

Khan Lab School: reflection time, for students and teachers

Sal Khan — often described as the world’s best known teacher — has turned his trade to bricks and mortar. Having transformed the online learning landscape with his groundbreaking Khan Academy, he is now in the business of transforming schools.

The Khan Lab School is in keeping with Khan’s ‘One World Schoolhouse’ philosophy. It was founded to develop new, personalised practices that centre around the student, and is committed to sharing these with the world. The school’s learning design is really worth a look. I desperately want to go to this school. Children are well and truly at the heart of their learning, and student agency is fostered at every turn.

Having sat down with Orly Friedman — Head of Lower School — it was fascinating to hear that in putting a high value on time for students to reflect on their learning, the school looked to mirror that reflection time for their staff — modelling the learning cycle to apply it to the development and refinement of the practices that they are testing as part of the school model.

Embedding culture by practicing what you preach

To some, these small cultural norms may seem insignificant, or less vital than, say, the levers and mechanisms to grow a practice across a system. But from what I’m seeing, these cultural norms accumulate into a particular rigour that ensures these new ways of working are spreading not just as a name, but as a way of doing things that has an impact on the outcomes of more and more young people’s lives.

For more, follow me on twitter @t_bez12 and #humanscaleatscale.

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