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.


One thought on “Not Drowning but Flying

  1. Thanks for this blog David. I found the Venn Diagram illustrations resonated with my own view that there is a middle ground to navigate between DFE requirements & a sustainable curriculum that meets needs of pupils. #pragmaticians teach mastery and mystery! Also love the idea that successful leadership is idiosyncratic & unconventional! ☺

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