Not Drowning but Flying

Not Drowning but Flying

Leading PBL part two


This is the second of two blogs about leading the introduction of PBL in schools.  It is aimed at headteachers and senior leaders, but all the messages are as relevant for everyone involved.  Why?  Because, to succeed, it’s about what those doing the implementing need to be able to ‘ask’ of leaders, the calls that we can make, as much as it is about the leader her or himself.

There are many ways to succeed. In fact, one significant truth about highly successful leadership is that it is often idiosyncratic and unconventional – even what they call in New York ‘renegade leadership’.  So, of course, the propositions in this piece are only one take on success, one selection of wisdoms, drawn from a few of our most astonishingly advanced schools.

Put another way, they are not universal verities. They are, though, drawn from the insights of some leaders from whose practice we should certainly want to learn.


  1. There has to be a genuinely compelling vision (probably framed by design principles) that inspires and unites the whole school community around the work

This is so self-evident that it is embarrassing to lead with it – or at least it should be. However, the truth is that most of our schools have not led with a compelling vision. They have not created a narrative of dissatisfaction with the status quo or openly confronted the realities of present orthodoxy. Nor have they awakened a shared sense of possibility by offering insight into how things can be dramatically different. They have not placed REAL Projects at the heart of their collective strategy for how the experience can be progressively transformed for learners and they have not captured all this in a vision of how things will be radically and dramatically different for their school’s graduates as a result of their shared endeavours.

Where schools are not drowning but flying, they have done this. There is an energy across the entire building about the sense of collective possibility. There is a pervasive optimism that is rooted in transformative intent. Visible manifestations of their aspirations are evident throughout the building. Everyone is clear about the collective agenda for the next six months – and everyone believes that if they can pull it off together, then they will be six steps closer to their ultimate vision.

This, then, is a vision they all contributed towards and bought into; the vision that ennobles their work; the vision that makes sense of the multiple strands of work and varied professional development activities; the vision that will be refined again together in light of that six month-worth of experience.

* David Taylor shares in his video how such a vision can be built together through a process of national and international enquiry followed by collective synthesis and collaborative design – and how it can be fuelled by review and through engagement with students.

  1. PBL cannot be an innovation at the margins. You either believe in it or you don’t. If you do, then it must be positioned to carry the weight of what the school most aspires to do

Most of the schools that we work with have implemented PBL in Year 7 for 20-25% of the time, and are seeking to grow it. They believe in it, but want to start small, to develop a key group of staff, to demonstrate its success before moving into Year 8 and beyond. Few have cracked the challenge of how they can incorporate it into Key Stage 4.

When we met with the visionary, passionate and highly experienced leaders of New Tech Network in the States, they said very simply that they would never work with a school wanting to adopt such an implementation strategy. Their view is that it represents 20% of the curriculum for 20% of the school and therefore is doomed to remain an adjunct to the core business of the school; doomed to be an activity at the margins; doomed not to transform the culture of the school or the belief systems of all the staff; doomed NOT to be the focus of a collective learning journey….

* Oli’s video clip makes this point very effectively.

  1. View the entire implementation process as a leadership learning journey first and foremost, and as an action-enquiry for the whole school second. We learn forward together in a sustained collaborative enquiry.

We have all become so accustomed to rational, planned change strategies that it feels uncomfortable to be faced with uncertainty. The school effectiveness and school improvement movements of the 80s and 90s made fairly universal the notions of ‘school development plans’ and ‘performance management strategies’ and rational planning processes. These presume a relatively stable state world. More recently, a theory and research literature has grown up around organisational learning, action enquiry, adaptive planning, emergence and uncertainty.

The truth is that when seeking innovative and radical alternatives we just don’t know how to do it. There are no precedents or blueprints and, if there were, they probably wouldn’t work ‘here’, in our context. One ‘not drowning but flying’ headteacher, when asked for his school development plan by Ofsted said simply: “We don’t actually have one, because we have an enquiry orientation to growth and development. We have a few images of a preferred future state and then we form enquiry partnerships to enquire our way towards them.”

Another said: “We don’t do a school development plan. You can’t plan the ideas that you’re going to have tomorrow, can you? Let’s be honest, it’s not a bad thing to get some ideas down on paper every now and again, but you wouldn’t want to have to stick to them, would you?”

This is not a glib dismissal of custom and practice. It is an expression of a profound alternative paradigm, one which sees all adults (and students) as professional enquirers; which unites them around discovery learning and experimentation; which shatters traditional notions of ‘rightness’ or ‘authority’ being associated with position; and which places leaders in the roles of translator, synthesiser, question-setter, mobiliser, designer and, most profound of all, fellow traveler and learner.

* Oli’s video contains a powerful expression of this approach at School 21.

* David Taylor’s description of the journey since 2006 at Stanley Park is the description of an evolutionary learning journey.

  1. The supporting organisational features and the enabling conditions are never finished.  They have to flex And change in response to the learning

One of the most fascinating and frustrating features of the schools that we have worked with is the belief that virtually everything operates on an annual cycle; that the timetable, curriculum, staffing, rooming and budgeting processes, for example, occur once and then they are substantially ossified until the next year. That is a mind-set, not a fixed reality.

At School 21 (*as Oli says in his presentation) there have been multiple iterations of the curriculum and the staffing, the timetable and the rooming, as their work has evolved. This is rare, but not unique. In Kunskapsskolan schools, the timetable is re-created every six weeks. In Big Picture schools there is no ’timetable’ – learning arrangements are designed as work and the passions of students emerge and evolve. It’s a mind-set issue.

Put more pragmatically, the organisational arrangements of a school, in the widest sense, should be in service of the school’s big picture vision. At a more particular level, they should be capable of evolution and flex to meet the emergent learning from the staff’s enquiry into the work and changing views about needs.

If leaders can’t do that, then they are a part of the problem and not an active enabler of the solution. Our ‘not drowning’ leaders saw this responsiveness and flex as an integral part of their stewardship and creative leadership.

  1. There need to be a set of design principles that bring coherence and rigour to the work and which make manifest the application of the vision

This perhaps should have been the first point made, because it is such a ubiquitous finding, both from our own ‘flying’ schools and from enquiries around the world. In a way it goes without saying that if you are aspiring to redesign the model of school to some extent, then you need to have a set of design principles around which the work can coalesce.

These design principles serve a unifying purpose. They make it clear what the school stands for. They translate the vision into practical strands of activity. They create an aspirational and energising point of reciprocal and peer accountability. They enshrine our values. They give us threads for the learning enquiry.  When Larry Rosenstock in his Edutopia video says that one of High Tech High’s four design principles is “no student tracking” (no grouping by perceived notions of ‘ability’) he is enshrining the school’s profound belief that all students can succeed in learning regardless of socio-economic circumstance, or their prior learning histories. He is also speaking to his teachers’ values and passions.

To illustrate this, part of a large international system leadership programme, the Global Education Leadership Partnership, the IU published a book on system transformation for education systems[1]. The relevance here is the opportunity it offers to illustrate how design principles can become an architecture around which systems (and schools) can coalesce to design action enquiries, innovate, create prototypes, structure professional learning, create joint work groups, exchange codified materials, evaluate pogress – and get excited together about the manifestations of their mission.[2]

GELP Design Pinciples

At the school level, the school leader is the guardian and custodian of these design principles as applied and interpreted for their school context. The six dimensions below represent the most common ‘theme’ areas for school design principles. 

Design Principles



  1. PBL requires a flatter structure within which peer relationships are key – peer support, peer critique, peer accountability

It is strange that we call teaching a profession yet we structure it into hierarchical tiers. These may be appropriate to some of the management functions of school, but they get in the way of collaborative work norms.   *This is a point that is well made by Oli in his presentation. As he says, the implementation and evolution of REAL Projects requires lateral not vertical relationships. They are the norms of shared responsibility, mutual learning, collaboration, peer critique and coaching, collective accountability – much the same as the learning culture norms we want within our classrooms for REAL Projects.

Of course, School 21 is a relatively new Free School, which means that they do not have decades of historical ‘positioning’ to dismantle or practices to ‘unlearn’. And it is easy to make that an excuse. However, there were schools within our programme where school leaders were able to create ‘twin structures’ within their school – functions and practices where position, role, responsibility and accountability resided, alongside fields of operation where staff were not acting out positions. In these arrangements, school leaders can be junior members of REAL Projects teams (rightly – as they are often the ones with most unlearning to do) and co-enquirers.  In this way roles and responsibilities are flexible, non-positional, more like the ‘bobbing cork’ leadership we experience in sports teams.

Leaders who are flying are able to foster and broker such twin cultures and to model them through their own behaviours. *David Taylor talks of relationships being key in his presentation. That works for staff relationships as well as those with students.

  1. The school leader has to be steadfast about outcomes but open up the process work to all, because positional leaders don’t have all the answers.

This is a great way (*taken from Oli’s video) of capturing many of the previous points in an insight that embraces the conditions for action enquiry, the guiding rigour of the design principles, the openness of the necessary cultural conditions and the place of the ‘flying leader’ in holding everyone (including him or herself) to account for vision and outcomes whilst removing the positional authority about ‘answers’ that so many schools assume in their structures.

As one leader within the programme said:

‘I had to be teaching for ten years before I was allowed to have a good idea. I don’t want our school to be like that. If we are going to re-invent schooling and learning, and transform achievement, we just can’t afford to do that. We need everyone’s creativity and passion.’ 

  1. Teaching in isolation from others is not an option. Team teaching and collaborative design, planning and reflection are essential.

The works of Donald Schon – for example, the idea of reflective practice and ‘the reflective practitioner’ – has become widely incorporated into teacher preparation and development programmes. It makes sense, of course, because it is at the heart of sustained adult learning. However, the design of schools has never really facilitated any of the key components of reflection. For many teachers – preparing lessons late at night, teaching in isolation, attending staff meetings at the end of the day driven by ‘agendas’ filled with topics related to administration and accountability concerns – the conditions for reflection are a long way from their working reality.

An even more pervasive barrier arises from the practice norms that we have developed, where teachers teach ‘lessons’ in ‘classrooms’ isolated from their peers. The ideal form of professional reflection has three components:

  • Reflection for practice (designing and planning together)
  • Reflection in practice (enbled by collaborative teaching contexts)
  • Reflection on practice (review with colleagues who have had a shared experience)

What this requires is opportunity for collaborative design of pedagogy (reflection for), a shared teaching context and experience (reflection in) and sustained peer engagement about past practice as a part of the design of future learning (reflection on).

In his talk and the photographs he shows, *David Taylor sets out his commitment to this. Stanley Park’s Studios and break-out spaces for up to 90 students, 3 teachers and other adult supports is an ideal environment – and the extended learning units (up to half-days) offer a great opportunity to support it. Similarly *Oli’s presentation tackles this issue head on.

They are two leaders matching their vision for the work both by creating enabling operational conditions and also through the behaviours they model.

[1] Redesigning Education: Shaping Learning Systems Around the Globe, Innovation Unit, 2013.

[2] In the model, there are four core ‘design principles’ supported by two ‘enabling principles’ related to teacher collaboration/learning and the enabling utilisation of technology.


The Struggle to Lead – leading PBL part one

The Struggle to Lead – leading PBL part one

I want to put on record that transformation of student learning does not happen in schools where the headteacher is preoccupied with raising attainment scores or meeting the expectations of Ofsted as goals in themselves. Rather, transformed attainment and outstanding Ofsted judgments are bi-products of a school culture in which students and teachers are passionate about their work, are excited, engaged and empowered by their learning, and where they (both staff and students) profoundly believe that their role is to liberate the learning potential of each and every learner.

Because the embedded implementation of REAL Projects takes 3-5 years, the task requires leaders who create the conditions for this long-term development work; who engage with the work themselves; who learn alongside their teachers; and who model and use the PBL processes in school-wide adult learning.

Leaders with a PBL mind-set understand that focusing on achievement and scores comes with a low ceiling – and that ‘getting an Ofsted outstanding’ is not a compelling vision. Instead, they realize that growth potential lies in transforming students’ learning experiences through trusting teachers and equipping them with the tools that allow collective critique and refinement of their craft. Leaders have to inspire about what is possible, set a context for success, and then to let go and empower their teachers, in the same way that teachers have to do that for their students in the REAL Projects classrooms.          

(Adapted and developed from a Drew Perkins 2015 blog post.)


In 2008 the Paul Hamlyn Foundation partnered with Innovation Unit to launch what was to be a four-year programme entitled Learning Futures. It drew inspiration from a predecessor PHF innovation, Musical Futures, which has demonstrated that radically alternative approaches to pedagogy – ones that emphasise student engagement, collaborative working, peer tutoring, real-world relevance, student agency, project orientation, valuing learning both within and beyond school and minimally invasive teaching – can have transformative effect on both achievement and participation in music learning. The task in 2008 was to embark upon a systemic enquiry, with a group of schools inspired by these features, to develop ‘grounded theory’ about what learning might look like across the curriculum if it had similar features. What might be the implications for the design of schools and the design of pedagogy?

That all now seems a long time ago.[2] It is so long ago that Project-Based Learning (PBL) was for many of us still viewed as an approach that had been extensively tried and found wanting in the seventies and the eighties. So long ago that few of us had at that point heard of High Tech High, or Expeditionary Learning, or New Tech Network, or Big Picture Schools, or of their school designs, or their approach to pedagogy, or their astonishing evidence of success.

More to the point, it is worth saying two further things. The first is that we never set out in 2008 to introduce PBL into schools or to develop REAL Projects. We set out to find models of schooling and learning that would profoundly engage all students and that could liberate the potential and the achievement of all learners.   Put simply, we believed then (and know now) that all learners can be successful, but we also knew that could never happen within the existing paradigm. We set out to find alternative paradigms.

As that suggests, we also couldn’t in 2008 have known (but might have guessed) that there would be significant implications for the design of school, and the learning of teachers, and the role of parents, and the involvement of community. We certainly couldn’t have then known that evolving the new models of practice, or supporting the work well, or developing new materials, or finding practitioners eager to make the changes would be only small parts of our challenge.

The real challenge was finding schools and school leaders with what proved to be a unique combination of features – ambition for the work, an evolving vision of how it could be achieved, the courage to make big changes in the face of what feel to be hostile external accountabilities, and the leadership capabilities to fashion and steward and inspire and advocate for the work as it evolved.

In the pogrammes we have supported since 2008 we have partnered with more than 70 schools eager to undertake this work – all of which were up for it and, we believe, have drawn benefit from the experience. Of these, however, we would classify fewer than 50% as being more than marginally (a word chosen carefully) successful, and about 10% as becoming (or on the road to becoming) outstandingly successful – potential exemplars for the system.

The main variable has probably been headteacher leadership.

So, this is the first of two posts that focus specifically on leadership. There will be two think-pieces:

  1. The first, The Struggle to Lead looks at what lessons we have learned from the relative failure and frustrations of so many of the schools to achieve and to sustain what they set out to achieve.
  2. The second is a provocation drawn from the leadership perspectives of some of our most successful school leaders. These materials are supported by video conversations which can be accessed on the Leadership Case Studies section of the REAL Projects site.


Let’s be clear, it isn’t headteachers who are critical to the design of great projects, or to the leadership of PBL teams, or to the capacity-building of teaching teams, or to igniting student passions and producing exhilarating exhibitions. That is what PBL Leads and their teams of teachers do.

However, what is consistently evident from our work with REAL Projects in UK schools over the last half dozen years is that the active advocacy, stewardship and enablement of the headteacher – and other senior leaders – is critical to success.

This reflective piece has arisen from those leadership struggles and learnings. It derives from the experiences and insights of four Leadership Coaches who worked in schools across the country supporting school leaders to support the work. Most struggled.  `This piece answers the question: What do we now know about how school leaders can best support REAL Projects implementation in their schools?


  1. The leader locates PBL (REAL Projects) and the work at the centre of the future vision for the school
  • The leader is eloquent in articulating a case for change and a compelling future vision to the entire staff and community.

This happens, of course, in multiple ways, but common features tend to be about aspirations for students’ success that far transcend historical achievement patterns. Compelling visions tend to have a social justice element – a belief that all students can succeed and that historical approaches to learning and assessment have patently failed to liberate this potential for all students. The vision is likely to involve progressively re-designing ‘school’ so that it is more relevant and appropriate to the second decade of the 21st Century. It will embrace a curriculum and pedagogy that can better prepare learners for their lives as citizens, workers and family members in the modern world. In the most successful schools, this is a vision that is co-constructed with the entire community, so that all staff, students, parents and community members are invited to share the commitment and the sense of optimism and possibility it creates – and can find their ways to contribute. Whilst all this might seem to be stating the obvious, an inspiring and inclusive vision that located REAL Projects for all staff was not something that we were able to take for granted.

  • The leader is steadfast about the future place of the work within the school’s curriculum and the wider system – they see the long game; they hold the line.

Working alongside our schools over the last few years, we have seen initial visions for the work buffeted and blown away by the pressures of Ofsted and examinations. The kind of vision described in point one is both a moral imperative and a long-term task. It represents a leadership mission. The school leader is the one who has to hold this ground, to see the long game, to embody the belief.

  • The leader creates safe space for experimentation and risk – establishes a culture that nurtures the work, that is optimistic and celebratory.

The team developing REAL Projects knows that this work is not without risk. Not only is it new to the school and pedagogically different, but it also involves significant unlearning and re-learning for staff. They need to have confidence that their headteacher is ‘holding’ the risk on their behalf and that her/his advocacy is both secure and informed. When the pressure is on, whether from parents and community, governors, or external accountability demands, it is the headteacher who has to communicate confidence, authority and stability.

  1. The leader is proactive about enablement, problem-solving and empowering the team by actively sponsoring work.
  • The leader chooses the team wisely and appoints a charismatic, dynamic and optimistic adult learner to lead the work.

The introduction of REAL Projects represents both an expression of belief in a pedagogical model that can transform student engagement and achievement, and also a view about how school should be re-designed if it is also to be a creative environment for adult learning. When High Tech High say that ‘teacher as designer’ is one of their four founding design principles, they are saying that designing great pedagogy together is the essence of what teachers as professionals should do. In this way, the set-up phase involves identifying a passionate PBL Lead who can help grow others, and recruiting (not conscripting) an enthusiastic and committed team.

  • The leader ensures the REAL Projects team receives planning time, timetable prioritization, resources and funding to support the work.

Collaborative time for planning and reflection is not an optional extra, it is a foundational commitment of the work. When the REAL Projects team asks for longer learning units to allow for deep learning, that is not a marginal request – it is core to what is required for success. It also means the leadership team needs to be proactive in finding spaces that allow for collaborative and creative learning and making the timetable enabling, not restricting. While schools are always struggling with finances, it is important that the PBL team receive funding that is at minimum equal to that of departments within the school and that they have autonomy about its use. They also need resources to bring in external experts to the school to work alongside the students.

  • The leader empowers the PBL team and actively sponsors and promotes the work – communicating success, spreading optimism; offering challenge; seeking out opportunities for celebration and endorsement

Such active sponsorship derives both from the leader’s belief in the work and from close involvement. Leaders become celebrators and pollinators; affirmers and questioners. Through so doing they both validate the work on the ground and they learn alongside their teachers. Teachers have a right to see that their leaders value this core work; that they understand it.  Teachers and students are affirmed when the head is inspired by what they are doing.

  1. The leader mediates and mitigates external accountability pressures and constraints – they offer stewardship and guardianship by regularly engaging with the work.
  • The leader develops a strong narrative to work alongside Ofsted to help it understand the work and its place in the school.

Many heads passport pressures from external accountability onto their staff, but this is destructive for REAL Projects. All our evidence shows that Ofsted inspectors can recognise the value of student engagement. They are inspired by the use of real work and authentic tasks. They applaud the incorporation of real-world audience and they value exhibition and authentic assessment. They love student portfolios and the confidence of students in talking about them. (At one school the lead inspector hugged a student after her exhibition presentation!) Peer critique and multiple drafting have brought consistent praise from Ofsted inspectors, as have student-led conferences. In our most successful schools, the leaders fill the REAL Projects team with confidence about their work and celebrate it with external visitors. When students and teachers know that their heads care about and are inspired by the work; when heads model the relational approach with students; when they demonstrate comfort in the devolved learning environments of REAL Projects sessions – it ignites their work and draws yet further discretionary effort.

  • The leader visibly and regularly engages with REAL Projects – he/she leads by example

This is a real discriminator. There is no getting away from it that the leaders who most inspire and support their REAL Projects teams are those who engage actively with the work. This can be anything from practical involvement as a team member through to regularly visiting and celebrating project sessions, or being active at exhibition time and with parents in student-led conferences. It is also from such engagement that other leadership functions are informed. By getting close to the work, it is possible to be proactive about enabling, problem-solving and celebrating.

  1. The leader is informed and connected to the wider international knowledge-base and models that for the rest of the school

Just as the school is becoming rich in knowledge, tools and materials in support of REAL Projects, connecting with the practices of teachers across both UK schools and internationally, so the school leader should model this by connecting the school with national and international practice and the evidence from research. There is a growing body of practice in successful PBL design and delivery, and there is equally a growing range of school design models and features that are facilitative of engaged and impassioned learning. By connecting the school with advanced practices – and contributing to them – the leader is living out on a larger canvas the values that will help internal learning to thrive.

This is part one of a two part article….

[2] Some great publications exist from that work that can be found here and both Musical Futures and Language Futures, two subject-based manifestations of the work have thrived and have their own websites.

[3] Redesigning Education: Shaping Learning Systems Around the Globe, Innovation Unit, 2013.

[4] In the model, there are four core ‘design principles’ supported by two ‘enabling principles’ related to teacher collaboration/learning and the enabling utilization of technology.

Most Likely to Succeed – the movie!

Most Likely to Succeed – the movie!

Innovation Unit has recently hosted a number of screenings of the documentary film “Most Likely to Succeed”. It is impossible to overstate the profound impact that it has had on each audience.  You can watch a trailer here:

It is worth sharing some of the concept and content of the film.

Over 120 years ago, education underwent a dramatic transformation as the iconic one-room schoolhouse evolved into an effective universal system that produced an unmatched workforce tailored for the demands of the 20th Century. Astonishingly, despite seismic changes to society, including changes to employment patterns, the world economy, and information systems, education remains substantially the same – classrooms, lessons, subjects, age-cohorts, age-related tests, etc etc.  As traditional white-collar jobs begin to disappear, the film suggests that this same system is potentially producing chronic levels of unemployment among graduates in the 21st Century.  It has failed to tackle the 21st Century equity challenge and it has failed to adapt to the dramatically transformed life and work needs of today’s young people.

The film follows students into the classrooms of High Tech High, an innovative all-age group of 13 schools in San Diego which has evolved a dramatically different model of schooling and learning. There, over the course of a school year, two groups of ninth graders are followed taking on ambitious, project-based learning challenges that develop a range of personal and applied skills as well as offering access to deep content knowledge. “Most Likely to Succeed” points to a transformation in learning that may hold a key to success for millions of young people – and our nation – as we grapple with the ramifications of rapid advances in technology, automation and growing levels of economic inequality.  More profoundly, it powerfully reveals the transformative potential of this project-based approach to the lives and self-image of the students and to the professional efficacy of the staff.

After the viewings, the people who attended engage in informal conversation or workshop activity – dependent on the nature of the event.  And here’s the thing.  No-one wants to depart or to end the conversation.  There is, time after time, a level of animation and involvement and energy and passion for action that is utterly unique (in my experience).  It isn’t that everyone agrees with all aspects of the film.  They don’t.  In fact, some of the film’s propositions are extremely challenging – depth of learning not breadth of coverage; none-interventionist teaching; projects that endure for months; interdisciplinary rather than subject-based approaches; teachers free to teach whatever they wish, inspired by their passions….and many more.  However, the drift of the film, its central proposition, its compelling message, seems to be universally accepted.

That compelling message is that the model of schooling needs to change, and change dramatically, if we are to serve young people well for the future and if we are to tackle the equity and achievement gap (which, despite more than 100 years of trying, the current model has patently failed to do).

This second theme, the one about equity and social justice,  matters – and it matters in the UK even more than is exposed in ‘MLTS’.  School remains the only entity in our modern world that has institutionalised the notion of ‘ability’.  We talk about ‘able’ and ‘less able’ children in a way that would be utterly unacceptable in the adult world.  We even group learning by spurious notions of ‘ability’ – notions which are, in effect, little more than socio-economic pre-determinants.  But ones which then go on to become determinants!

High Tech High only has one grade – grade A.  They expect every learner to achieve an A, and it is the responsibility of every other student to support them to get it. Their ‘classrooms’ are interdependent communities of learners.  If this sounds glib, the principle success indicator they set themselves 12 years ago when the first school opened (with the same fully comprehensive intake they still have) is that every student – that is 100% of student, regardless of background or prior achievement history – should be able to progress to college and university.  A dozen years later 98% of their students fulfil this – and 85% of their free school meals students complete degrees.

By any standard these are astonishing results – and they don’t even begin to represent the breadth and depth of achievement of students at High Tech High.  But they will give some insight into why there is such energy at the end of each showing.  People agree with the proposition: our models of schooling and learning need to change, and they were awed by the evidence of what has already been achieved at High Tech High.

This, then, is both the scale of the challenge and the essence of a solution.  School has to change and we have clear evidence that this is possible – possible, even, beyond our UK imaginings. We are locked into a time warp, with a mental model of ‘school’ that is debilitating, but we can also do something about it.  We can redesign ‘school’.  And the ‘we’ starts with the people in the room minded to do so after each showing, and then the people that they gather on the way afterwards.

As Margaret Mead so tellingly said: Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.

So, Innovation Unit is endeavouring to build some energy across our system around these ideas.  And if you are reading this and are enthused, then you can contact us to host a screening, together with a workshop or debate.  Afterwards, all you then have to do is join with some other thoughtful and committed enthusiasts, and we might together change the school experience for our young people.



Networks of Schools: Some things we know

Networks of Schools: Some things we know

Learning from the past

There is a history of school-to-school networks, both domestically and internationally – back to Education Action Zones and Networked Learning Communities in the UK and the work of the Bay Area School Reform Collaborative and the Coalition of Essential Schools in the States.

That history tells us something, and in the stampede towards Multi-Academy Trusts there is a danger that we forget to take note. That isn’t to say that the past was an unmitigated success. But it is to say that we should be humble enough to build from the foundations of what is known.

Five things known with certainty

These five statements arise from an evidence-base that is consistent across multiple programmes and research studies. They are as close as you’ll get in education to self-evident truths.

  1. Voluntarism is an important foundation for success – not least because so much that is involved in school-to-school collaboration requires both discretionary effort and high levels of trust. Without these you are building on sand. Does this mean that forcing a school to be in, say, a multi-academy trust can’t work? Not absolutely. It does means, though, that it is unlikely to work, or that it will not work well.
  2. Shared values and aspirations, compelling reasons for working together, are crucial to success – a self-evident truth, but one often ignored. For example, it can be assumed that schools within a locality might form a natural collegial arrangement – which they can. But they might just as easily have poor collaborative histories and low trust relationships. Success for all children in a locality is a great collaborative aspiration, but it won’t happen without a collective aspiration.
  3. A shared moral purpose offers a strong bond for collaboration – there are few things more compelling than working together to eradicate social injustice or to overcome historical barriers to achievement. This is different from ‘improving test scores’ and is more in the realm of changing lives together – a moral quest.
  4. Networks, well run, expand access to good ideas – they facilitate knowledge-sharing, collegial learning, joint work groups and practice sharing between and across member schools
  5. Networks, well run, extend the sphere of professional influence – they allow teachers to learn together, to have progression opportunities and innovate ‘on behalf of’ the wider professional community


Ten insights – 10 things you can bet are true

Beyond these five ‘universal truths’, we proposed in 2006 a further ten things that emerged from research and evaluation activity in the Networked Learning Communities programme.

  1. Learning in a collegial context (‘on behalf of’ the network; the profession) invokes passion & moral purpose – this is the secret power of school networks. The bottom line is that there is a transaction cost to the collaborative process and it draws on discretionary effort. The pay-off for teachers is the congruence of this work to their public service values. Teachers are in the changing lives business – and not just the lives of children in their own school.
  2. Networks grow leadershipschool networks spread leadership influence and distribute leadership laterally. Even more importantly, they liberate new ‘types’ of leaders, those with generous and collegial dispositions – system leaders.
  1. Reciprocity & generosity are surfaced in learning networks – this is at the core of a healthy collaborative professional culture and it is highly motivational for professionals.
  1. Trust is an important issue for networks – BUT, it is as much an outcome of high quality network activity as it is a precondition. Simple mantra: quality cross-school joint work activities build trust relationships.
  1. Rigour is an important feature of network activity – and it comes from working together around an explicit approach to learning – a shared mental model and a commitment to building a collective body of practice.
  1. Networks are new ‘units of engagement’ –particularly with regard to new ways of working with external agencies – engaging with ten schools for an external partner or a community organization is challenging. Engaging with one network makes sense.
  1. ‘Liberation from context’ is a motivational feature of school networks – offering teachers a larger cultural and operational canvas. Put simply, many teachers feel constrained by their school, and connection with a more diverse set of schools and a wider professional reference group is highly motivational.  True for students, too.
  1. High challenge schools can be very effectively supported through peer evaluation & peer support strategies – there are some excellent models and materials to support this proposition and some robust evidence that it works – much better, too, than more instrumental interventionist strategies. 
  1. Achievement gains are a key outcome of effective school networks – given that this is the ultimate objective of schools, it is helpful to know that the approaches with highest gains for students are almost always collaborative school contexts.
  1. Developing and sustaining effective school networks is hard because in school networks, new ways of working together emerge with difficulty and at high early ‘transaction cost’. Collaboration across schools runs ‘against the historical grain’ and requires new ways of working.


Ten things we know a bit less about

The statements below have the status of propositions – ‘findings’ bearing the warranty of practical experience rather than hard evidence. Some, like the second, are true, but are features that can still be understood better. Others hint at issues for further study. Some are statements that have a ‘truth beyond evidence’ but which, at the time of writing, are still without sufficient research behind them.

1 Issues of causality and attribution are extremely problematic when trying to assess the impact of networks.

2 Whilst voluntarism is crucial, it can also be orchestrated. It can be ‘brokered’ or mediated within early formulation processes.

3 Networks expose the limits of traditional communication and involvement strategies. Without a deep commitment to extensive and inclusive communication, widespread engagement cannot be achieved.

4 The active involvement and advocacy of headteachers is consistently crucial to success. Networks in which some heads resist active commitment experience differential growth of network functions (and access for some staff and pupils is denied).

5 Networks require as much unlearning as new learning. Those in positional roles enshrining institutional power – particularly headteachers – have the most challenging unlearning agendas for school network success.

6 ‘Transfer of practice’ is far too naïve a concept to describe knowledge exchange processes in networks. Collective problem-solving, joint work projects, collaborative enquiry – a range of mutual learning and knowledge-creation activities better describe the learning processes specific to network contexts.

7 The ideal size for a school-to-school network is 5 – 12 schools. This can vary of course, and the ‘best’ size is whatever makes sense for the member schools and the context. The larger the network, the more significant a challenge ‘size’ becomes. (Arguments for larger networks tend to be made around cost-efficiencies rather than optimal size of professional community.)

8 Networks of schools offer promising possibilities for the implementation of local ecosystem approaches and the integration of wider services and partners.

9 We only have subjective data in the area of ‘cost-benefit analysis’. The ‘opportunity cost’ and ‘transaction cost’ of network activity has to be offset by increased gain for children across the network’s schools. Evidence is emergent.

10 Governance models that work for both the collective and for the individual school are important for sustained success. The truth is, though, that we know less about governance than almost any other feature of school networks.

Best Multi-Academy Trust in the World?

Best Multi-Academy Trust in the World?

Key point summary

1. High Tech High is remarkable, both as a set of educational practices, and as a means of organising a group of schools analogous to a MAT. We should learn from it.
2. MATs are essentially a structural innovation and can readily be purposed to advance new and better forms of education as much as for enhancing conventional models.
3. New schools might be key to UK MATs being able to do something profoundly different and better across all their schools.

It’s pretty unique what is happening in the UK regarding governmental intervention in the education system (structural reforms, curriculum reforms, assessment reforms, accountability reforms, teacher preparation reforms, governance reforms, teacher remuneration reforms, funding formula reforms….). However, amidst all this turbulence, it is worth remembering that there are international exemplars in some of these areas from which we can learn.

For example, we have become preoccupied by an emergent model of Multi-Academy Trust in which large providers accumulate and incorporate schools into a prescribed model of schooling – often with an accompanying change in leadership. Ark, or Harris Academies would be two of the best-known examples. These are high reliability MATs, to be respected for their achievements, not least because many of the schools they incorporate have had troubled histories – and they raise student achievement levels.  However, there are others, such as Aldridge Foundation, Aspirations Academy Trust or Enquire Learning Trust – that are pioneering different types of school and different ways of collaborating.

However, whatever your MAT approach of choice, there are international examples that are even more successful, and which use their collaborative potential to apply enlightened values and design principles, towards a different vision for education.

The focus of this piece is High Tech High, our MAT of choice, described below.

Starting with a transformative design principles

Before doing that, it is probably worth dwelling on a key way in which all the highly successful, collectively governed ‘new school model’ groups in the States differ profoundly from the prevalent UK MAT models. (Accepting that they are not technically MATs at all!) It is that they all began with an ambitious and successful new school design – a serious attempt to realise in practice an aspirational set of design principles; to create a model of school different from the past and suitable for the current century; to major on learner engagement, passion and agency; to aspire to beautiful work, learning of service to the world; to have as a non-negotiable focus success for all students.

Then they grew the ‘MAT’ and created a community of practice around their model – a professional learning community of schools, adults and young people united by values, aspirations and purposes based on their design principles

This is quintessentially how High Tech High grew.

High Tech High viewed as a MAT

So, High Tech High in San Diego is our MAT of choice – even though ‘MAT’ is not at all how it perceives itself. It is currently a coalition of 13 small charter schools (think academies or free schools) in San Diego administered under one governance arrangement, led by a Chief Executive, one of the co-founders, Larry Rosenstock. Collectively, it offers a K-12 (all-through) locality provision, completely comprehensive of San Diego. This is how it describes itself:

High Tech High operates thirteen schools in San Diego County: four elementary schools, four middle schools, and five high schools. All of these schools serve a diverse, lottery-selected student population; all embody the High Tech High design principles:

  • Personalization
  • Adult world connection
  • Common intellectual mission
  • Teacher as designer.

It is the best MAT not because of its measurable outcomes (which are astonishing), but for the depth and originality and consistency of its practices. However, to make the point, three measurable features would be: its collective ambition (non-negotiable success for all students, defined as 100% College and University entrance entitlement); its levels of achievement in this ambition, 99%, plus 85% of all free school meals students completing university degrees; its levels of student engagement and teacher learning.

There are a number of central architectural features (things that hold all 13 schools together) that are each significant in their own right, but which are even more powerful in combination. They are grouped below in a relatively arbitrary but hopefully helpful way.

Shared beliefs and expectations

HTH schools are all bound together by the four design principles – which act as a common cultural and organisational architecture and as a shared form of mutual accountability. There is much that could be written about each of these, but this is not the place.

Staff across the 13 schools buy in to what they call a ‘shared intellectual mission’. Think of this as a MAT-wide sustained action enquiry: a collective commitment to learning their way forward towards success with their school design and with the achievement of equitable outcomes for all students. This shared intellectual mission is a collaborative, challenging and sustained endeavour, and it leads to the accumulation and refinement of a body of practice.

They have a framework of non-negotiable values. For example, no ’tracking’ (grouping by presumptions of ability) is one example. Others would be: ‘teaching is a team sport’; build from teacher and student passions; leadership comes from the classroom; expect everyone to be exceptional, and have processes that enable everyone to be exceptional.

They take collective responsibility for the success of all students – and are collectively accountable for the totality of the MAT’s achievements.  They pool outcomes across the schools, for example – 13 schools, but one High Tech High data set.

A community of teachers working together as a community of practice

One of the features oh High Tech High schools is that they share common adult learning time. School begins at 9.00 am for students but 8.00 am for staff. That hour before school is dedicated to collaborative planning, the study of lessons, critique of work and professional learning of a variety of forms.

Teachers teach colloboratively (50+ students shared between two teachers) because ‘teaching is a team sport’, and this happens in collaborative settings (spaces that facilitate fluidity of movement). They plan in their pairs and all projects are additionally reviewed and critiqued collaboratively by a wider group of staff. This is very powerful and serves multiple functions. For example, it quality assures all project designs; it adds value by drawing on the ideas of a wider group of staff; it makes the designs explicit and shared more widely.

All staff have their own digital portfolio, and are expected to make their project designs and resources visible and open source, so ideas and practices travel – both within the HTH community of schools and also more widely with the profession at large. Professional knowledge and artefacts at HTH are also public materials.

The teachers develop and apply common learning protocols to their work, both in their own learning and in their teaching. These learning protocols are founded on the assumption that quality learning does not happen by accident, but that it has to be scaffolded by defined processes and behaviours. They support collaborative work, create shared learning expectations, ensure parity of contribution and act as a form of mutual accountability. Across the MAT, teachers would all be familiar with the use of these protocols.

HTH within the wider local ecosystem

The language associated with learning at HTH would include aspirations to be ‘authentic’, to source ‘real-world’ applications and to give students ‘agency’ in the world. It is unsurprising, therefore that it is deeply integrated into (and permeable to) its local community in multiple ways. Larry Rosenstock has long railed against school as ‘the citadel on the hill’. This permeability works two ways:

  • Incoming – they use external expertise to critique and refine their practice; they are wide open to researchers and documentary film-makers; parents are active partners and attend all exhibitions and student learning conferences; the projects students do usually involve community experts, both in the process and the assessment of the exhibitions
  • Outgoing – from an early age, the projects that students undertake are designed to make contributions to the wider San Diego community – campaigns to increase blood donorship; exhibitions in public spaces; published environmental studies of the local coastline; campaigns to improve local amenities; studies of immigration patterns – always with a civic audience and purpose. Students also undertake extensive internships (which is community located learning, not work experience).

As indicated above, the MAT is highly permeable to learning from outside. They have more than 2,000 visitors a year coming in to critique their work – visitors are expected to do so. They make the network of HTH schools a site of study in multiple ways. They deploy their staff to work in places from which they will learn, both within the States and internationally. (Innovation Unit has had six HTH staff secondees working on programmes in UK schools, including two new schools: School 21 and XP School.)

Features that can only be achieved as a MAT

The 13 schools create a large canvas for teacher learning – one large professional learning community; one community of practice.  HTH also moves or deploys teachers between schools – utilising capability and expertise in the collective interests of all students, rather than the narrow interests of the individual school.

They have publication streams, celebrating and sharing across the MAT, but also for use within their programmes (they run MOOCs, for example) and in service of their commitment to making professional knowledge public. ‘Unboxed’ is a professional journal that ‘reifies’ the practices of teachers from across the schools.

Leadership is deployed similarly. You cannot be the principal of a HTH school unless you have been a teacher there.  They grow their own leadership capability and manage their own leadership succession.  

High Tech High has established a Graduate School of Education – the only school-based graduate school in the States, and something that would simply not be feasible without the scale of the operation. It can deliver both beginning teacher credentials (managing their own supply of philosophically committed recruits) and their own Masters degrees, for which teachers engage in action research on behalf of the MAT community.  The Grad school also acts as a knowledge management hub because:

  • It enables their practices to be codified within teacher learning and leadership development programmes for adult learning purposes
  • It allows them to train and induct and quality assure most of their own beginning teachers
  • By encouraging all their staff to undertake action research Masters there, they ensure reconnection with the knowledge base; they constantly interrogate their practices through research activity; and they are constantly adding to the MATs leadership quotient
  • Action research as part of these Masters programmes feeds back into the collective knowledge-base
  • The graduate school accept none-HTH participants from San Diego, requiring them to induct new people (a key feature of COP theory) and to be externally challenged by them (a key feature of HTH’s commitment to peer critique).


Three thoughts. The first is that not very much here has been made of some of the distinctive features of pedagogical practice and student learning at HTH – interdisciplinary learning; project-based designs; public exhibition of work; peer critique and multiple drafting; digital portfolios; internships; student-led conferences. These will be some of the more innovative characteristics of a HTH school, but this article is about the MAT-ness of their work together. Another set of MAT schools, implementing most of the MAT features above, could focus on a different set of pedagogical practices.

The second is this. Hopefully, this article might be of interest to those whose mental model of MAT has been constrained by the dominant prevailing orthodoxies, yet who have more progressive aspirations. If that sounds a bit patronising, what is meant is that the current debate has locked us into a perception of MATs as a structural innovation. This short piece is making the point that progressive school-to-school collaboration is a process thing; a design-led thing; an ambition thing; a learning thing. Above and beyond anything else, a MAT can be a potential context for collaborative learning around high ambitions.

The third is potentially even more exciting. Few can (except in rare cases) build up a MAT from a single new school model as HTH did. School 21 can. XP School can. Most of us, though, have to start with our already established schools. However, this government has committed to 500 new Free Schools during this parliament. What ambitious MATs can do is to create together a new Free School, informed by their shared design principles and aspirations for future schooling and learning. It can be a laboratory for MAT learning; a prototype for all the schools; a subject of collective study and activity – what is called in learning theory a concrete operational illustration of what is possible, such that it begins to inform and inspire developments across the entire MAT.