Rethinking MATs – Reimagining School

Rethinking MATs – Reimagining School

The focus of this MAT piece is High Tech High, case study school in “Most Likely to Succeed”. If you have seen the film, you will almost certainly want to read more….

Reimagining school

Before getting started, it is worth stressing one 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 shared design principles

This is quintessentially how High Tech High was formed and 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, with Rob Riordan as Director of Learning (Emperor of Rigour is his official title). Collectively, HTH 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 world’s 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: (i) its collective ambition (non-negotiable success for all students, defined as 100% College and University entrance entitlement);   (ii) the extent of achievement in this ambition, 98%, plus 85% of all free school meal students completing  university degrees; and (iii) its levels of student engagement and teacher learning – if you have watched “MLTS”, you will know what this means.

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 publicly available body of practice – just as happens in medecine.

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 collaborative professional enquiry and 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 cross-disciplinary 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 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 accepts none-HTH participants from San Diego, requiring the induction of 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).

Conclusion

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 are some of the more innovative characteristics of a HTH school, but this article is about the MAT-ness of their work together not pedagogy. 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 informed 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 professional 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 are able to do is to create together a new Free School, informed by their shared design principles and aspirations for future schooling and learning.

This can be a laboratory for MAT learning; a prototype for all the schools; a subject of collective study and activity – a concrete operational illustration of what is possible – such that it begins to inform and inspire developments across the entire MAT.  If anyone is interested, the Innovation Unit would love to help.

Advertisements

“Most Likely To Succeed”

“Most Likely To Succeed”

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: https://vimeo.com/122502930.

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.