21st century learning through courageous leadership

Annemarie Williams

Annemarie Williams is CEO of Odyssey Educational Trust, executive principal at Humberstone Junior Academy, a national leader of education, and a regional leader for WomenEd East Mids. She creates leadership programmes for girls and women.

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Website: www.Humberstonejunioracademy.co.uk Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Images courtesy of author. Images courtesy of author.

We live in age where there is unprecedented pressure on schools and school leaders. The pressure of a challenging and ever-changing Ofsted framework, budgets which are paper-thin, progress measures which force us to compare our pupils with other children nationally, and some of the most academically-stretching testing expectations ever. It’s enough to make the most experienced of school leaders crumble. Set against this context, it is easy to see why many school leaders are turning to formulaic and rigid schemes of work, as well as practises that promise to drive up pupil outcomes and produce the goods in terms of pupil attainment.

And yet, against this backdrop of scrutiny and testing, we know that the world our children will be entering is not only rapidly changing; it may be unrecognisable from the world that many of us started our careers in. It would seem obvious that a forward-thinking mindset and a culture of innovation and creativity will best prepare our children for the future.

The World Economic Forum recently published The Future of Jobs, outlining the skills that will be most needed by 2020, and guess what? Social skills are leading the way. In a world where technology seems to be king and the power of social media is ever-growing, it is our human connectivity and ability to build relationships that will decide who is ready for the new world. “Overall, social skills such as persuasion, emotional intelligence and teaching others will be in higher demand across industries than narrow technical skills.”

Clearly, there is a moral and professional imperative here to make sure that children leave our schools prepared to enter this job market. There is a huge temptation to concentrate on knowledge and rote understanding of process, rather “When the stakes are high, risk-taking is a lot to ask of leaders.” than what is commonly referred to as 21st century learning skills such as communication skills, critical thinking and creativity, which match much more closely what employers are saying they are looking for in their employees. The challenge for leaders is not to succumb to whatever currently fashionable Maths textbooks or phonics schemes are currently being pushed by MATs and LAs, particularly for schools where rapid improvement is needed.

In this climate, we need courageous leadership more than ever. We need leaders who will show up, lead with their values and ensure that they fly the flag for pedagogy, innovation and the craft of teaching and learning. It requires us to take risks, in the name of genuine learning and growth. When the stakes are high, this is a lot to ask of leaders. I understand this pressure. At our school, we set out on a journey towards project-based learning, creative novel study and immersive learning practices nine years ago. We have stood by our belief in 21st century learning skills and a curriculum in which the principles of teacher design, innovation, mobile technology and oracy are our drivers. We were the first stand-alone academy in a Labour stronghold authority. A decision that was made in order to create more freedom and facilitate more curriculum innovation. In 2016, we faced the challenge of explaining this less-than-conventional curriculum to an Ofsted team (and came out with Outstanding). Here are some photos of our immersive environments at Humberstone Junior Academy:

As a result, our children are confident and well-rounded. They articulate their views with clarity, and appreciate that others will not always agree with them.

Through project-based learning, they have wrestled with some challenging questions that I think many adults would struggle with, and have done so articulately and with confidence. What is a refugee? What defines me? Why do we explore space? How does my behaviour affect myself and others? If ever I was unsure of the path we have taken, it only takes a visit to an end-of-project exhibition - often held in art galleries, theatres, libraries, farms, shopping centres and any other authentic location - to reassure me that we have done the right thing for the children. Here are some of the fantastic results from project-based learning at our school:

Brené Brown states in her epic text Rising Strong: “Integrity is choosing courage over comfort; choosing what is right over what is fun, fast, or easy; and choosing to practise our values rather than simply professing them.” If this makes me a disruptor, so be it. Perhaps this is also a 21st century learning attitude to be celebrated.

So what advice would I give to other leaders in the courageous pursuit of their vision?

1. Find your tribe. Somewhere out there will be someone on the same journey as you, perhaps further down the line. Find them and learn from them. Most leaders will be receptive to this conversation and realise that is in the interest of their own development also.

2. Social media is a double-edged sword, but there are golden nuggets of information on Twitter, Pinterest and some blogs that have literally changed my thinking overnight.

3. Take risks. When we first started on our project-based learning journey we made huge mistakes. Projects didn't work and setbacks felt like failures at the time. They weren't failures, however; they were just valuable steps on the path.

4. Challenge your thinking about traditional school structures and timetables. We hold a peer-coaching, project-tuning meeting before school for all teams, which is our key driver in monitoring and shaping projects as they develop. It is a short, sharp, learning-focused coaching session, held when staff are fresh and at their best first thing in the morning.

5. Visiting other schools and reading about others curriculums can be inspiring, but remember that they will need to be carefully shaped and adapted, and may not work with your children. We have many visitors during the year from other schools and leaders, some of whom just want to replicate what we do in their own schools. What I tell people is that our curriculum works because of the deep understanding we have of the pedagogy serving the foundations. It takes time and commitment.

6. Visit the places where you are likely to find inspiration and meet inspiring practitioners. Shows like Bett, research and learning-focused conferences, Microsoft roadshows and, of course, Innovate My School are great places to start.

7. Put innovation into context. What is it that your area has to offer? What will inspire the children in tour context? What great organisations are right on your doorstep?

8. Ask for help from outside of the traditional educational sources, and don’t be afraid to approach the big players. Our children have worked with Microsoft, Apple and John Lewis to name a few!

9. Create opportunities for all those involved to share the great ideas that they have had in the shower that morning! Maybe you have a suggestions box, creative brainstorming meetings, future-thinking planning sessions, or other ways to listen to your teams. Someone in your organisation might have the seed of an idea that will be your next great innovation.

10. Disruptors get a bad press sometimes. Try and remember that the pursuit of change is the pursuit of growth, and channel the energy of your disruptors into creative projects and research that will drive your organisation forward. The world needs disruptors as much as they need those that thrive on order and towing the line!

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