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The context of leadership in 21st century schools: constructing the narrative for teachers October 2, 2011

Posted by Editor21C in Directions in Education, Educational Leadership, Engaging Learning Environments, Primary Education, Secondary Education.
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 from Professor Steve Wilson

In his second post on school leadership, Steve Wilson argues that school leaders have a key role: to construct a ‘pedagogical narrative’, or ‘learning story’, for teachers and students in their school.

My recent post on school leadership examined the importance of formal school leaders in building up other teachers as informal leaders in schools, and the skills leaders use to do this. This is part of the context of 21st century schools – to create effective learning communities and leadership participation and engagement among teachers and their students. These learning communities experiment with learning strategies, share successes and failures, and progress the work of the school over time to improve teaching approaches and learning outcomes for all.

A key part of school leadership is to enable teachers to work well by creating for them and with them a compelling pedagogical narrative in the school . This narrative is a story about teaching and learning in their school that is optimistic, clearly and compellingly conveyed by the leadership, and which supports teachers to be clear about what they need to do in their day-to-day work. The 21st century school exists in a complex environment in which most forms of information are now readily available on-line. We are information rich (in terms of quantity and accessibility), but information poor (in terms of quality and reliability). Young people of all ages now have a lot of power in their own time to access and create information, and the role of the teacher and school in this new environment in providing quality ‘learning’ is becoming less clear. The pedagogical narrative or story of the school is important in guiding the work of teachers so they can work with, not against, these new ways of accessing and using information (learning). It is the job of school leaders to create this story for, and with, their teachers. This is the key leadership challenge in the 21st century school and defines the context of 21st century school leadership.

In the 21st century school this narrative needs to firstly explain the nature of 20th century learning, what was good about it, and what was not so good. The story needs to explain how the fundamentals have not changed – learning still needs to be challenging, enjoyable, and meaningful for young people. However, the story also needs to explain how new forms of e-networking and technologies ‘fit’ into the goal of achieving quality learning, and what this means for the ways teachers can work effectively.  This story, well told and shared amongst teachers, provides a powerful basis for clarity of purpose, and for learning transformation, in schools. Here’s how I would construct the narrative.

How should we think about 20th century learning?

We know that, understandably, many schools are still fundamentally situated in 20th century practices. Despite a century of extraordinary innovation in western education in various eras and places, learning in schools is still dominated by: prescriptive, externally driven curricula; pedagogies that are over-dominated by didactic teaching approaches and passive learning; a focusing on lower level knowledge and a lack of ‘deep’ learning; and learning which focuses on whole groups which progress in standard ways, rather than on individual dispositions and needs. These practices generally placed students as passive receivers of the expert knowledge of others. They are captured in my graphic below of the 20th century classroom as the ‘contained classroom’. This graphic conveys the teacher as the dominating force in the classroom, directing all learning, with students learning quite individualistically and disconnected from each other. They are ‘contained’ within the classroom, also disconnected from the outside world, experiencing second-hand learning through textbooks and teacher exposition, and exercising little learning initiative. While this is not an accurate picture of many contemporary classrooms (it is a worst-case picture in some respects), it is a reasonable representation of the student experience in many 20th century classrooms. We know the results of these practices. We experience high levels of disengagement of young people from school learning – even amongst our brightest young people. We find it difficult to motivate young people to want to learn. Many of us are not satisfied with levels of student learning engagement or achievement, and many teachers do not experience the levels of professional satisfaction in their work that they would like.


However, we also know what works from 20th century approaches. Carrington (2006) for example, reviewing decades of research into middle-years schooling, has identified what she calls the ‘signature practices’ of schooling – those things that have been found to work (that is, they engage students, promote ‘deep’ learning, and lead to learning achievement). They include: a focus on higher order, critical and holistic thinking, problem-solving and lifelong learning; learner-centred education; negotiated and cooperative learning; authentic and outcomes-based assessment, and heterogeneous and flexible student groupings. A good pedagogical narrative will draw attention to these ‘signature practices’ of 20th century schooling, suggesting they are a bridge to the new forms of learning that have now begun to evolve and which will eventually characterise the 21st century school.

How is 21st century learning different?

The pedagogical narrative that school leaders construct for and with their teachers should enable teachers to see the new forms of knowledge creation, transfer and networking as opportunities for enhanced learning engagement and learning outcomes. In this optimistic narrative, 21st century learning technologies and networking tools are opportunities for learning, not things to be resisted – the challenge is for teachers to be supported in learning how to work with them. Various thinkers about education (for example Leadbeater, 2008; Miliband, 2006; Williamson & Payton, 2009) argue that these approaches can lead to exciting opportunities for personalised and student-centred learning, in which decisions about learning can be partially driven and influenced by students, thereby enhancing their personal learning motivation and engagement.

21st Networked Learning

My second graphic (above) shows the 21st century classroom as a ‘networked learning community’ – a more fluid and flexible learning environment than that of the 20th century. The teacher is still at the centre, directing and influencing student learning through good planning and targeted explicit teaching, and skills and concept-building. However in this more permeable and connected environment, students are also connected to each other, and to others outside of the classroom, as active learning agents. They use their intelligence and motivation, supported wholeheartedly and guided by their teacher, to engage in activities and projects they have helped to define. They use networking technologies to communicate with, and seek knowledge from, others within the class, and within and outside of the school. They use these learning networks to test and share their own learning and the cognitive and creative products they have generated through their learning. The teacher is still an essential and very significant presence, but no longer the ubiquitous and dominating presence of the 20th century classroom.  The 21st century classroom is an active, participatory learning community, a part of many other learning communities, with students and their teachers as committed and active members of these communities of learners.

Clearly, such a pedagogical narrative is optimistic in its vision and expectations. Yet, it is clearly demonstrated in the both the conceptual and case-study literature on 20th century learning and pedagogy that disengaged students can become quickly and powerfully re-engaged through the creation of motivating learning communities in which they, the students, have a voice and can contribute to learning decisions. It is the job of school leaders to ensure that teachers are aware that such an unashamedly optimistic narrative of learning does exist, and that this optimistic story of student engagement through 21st century pedagogies should drive their practices and their school’s evolution into a 21st century school. It is the capacity of school leaders to develop and sustain just such an optimistic pedagogical narrative for the teachers and students in their school that defines leadership in the 21st century school. It is the necessity for schools to develop such effective pedagogical narratives that provides the key driver and context for school leadership in the 21st century.

References:    Carrington, V. (2006). Rethinking middle years. Early adolescents, schooling and digital culture. St Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin.    Leadbeater, C. (2008). What’s next? 21 ideas for 21st century learning. London: The Innovation Unit.    Miliband, D. (2006). Choice and voice in personalised learning. In Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (Ed.). Personalising education. Paris: OECD.    Williamson, B. and Payton, S. (2009). Curriculum and teaching innovation: Transforming classroom practice and personalisation. London: Futurelab. Online at:  http://archive.futurelab.org.uk/resources/documents/handbooks/curriculum_and_teaching_innovation.pdf

Steve Wilson is Head of the School of Education at the University of Western Sydney, Australia.


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