Flogging Dead Horses

Flogging Dead Horses

The system needs new school models.

Those who have now seen “Most Likely to Succeed”, or read the blog post about it here, will understand the dramatic tone of the title to this post.

The bottom line is THIS:

Our model of schooling is more than 100 years old and has barely changed in that time…

The rest of society – our industrial practices, technology, the media we use, our leisure activities, the global scope of our world, communication systems – has undergone a revolution…

There has been a similar revolution of opportunities for and modalities of adult education.  Since the 1960s, the Open University has demonstrated that virtually every adult is capable of degree level study, given the right modalities of learning and modes of assessment.  More than 3 million people, most failed by their schooling have passed OU degrees…

The original purpose of school – designed to sort and sift; to separate sheep and goats – is now redundant.  We need 100% of students to be skilled and capable citizens able to contribute positive agency to both their economic and social world…

Our UK government (and others around the world) are flogging the dead horse of the out of date school model, when it is patently incapable of responding to the challenges set out above.

So what is wrong with this particular dead horse? 

How much space do you have?

The worst of it is that there are some arguably redundant, or even debilitating features that just don’t get questioned. So let’s ask just 10 of those questions.

  1. Why, for example, do we still have age-cohorting?  It certainly isn’t because we believe that all students mature and progress at the same rates.  Watch rehearsals for a school production or a concert if you wonder about mixed-age learning
  2. Why have we retained so exclusively the subject-based curriculum, when no tasks in the real world segregate knowledge or its applications in that way?
  3. Why are schools designed into corridors and classroom spaces – such that it makes teaching the most isolated and un-stimulating professional practice?
  4. Why do we assess all students at the same time, rather when they are ready to demonstrate mastery (think music grades, or driving test, or sports coaching awards, or Open University modules, or PhD dissertations)?
  5. Why do schools set homework, when they already have students in school for 35 hours a week – and when the world outside school is rich in opportunities for self-initiated learning?
  6. Why do most schools have 25 one-hour lessons – when nobody believes that it is a unit that is enabling of deep or applied learning?
  7. Why is the assessment outcome that matters still an exam written on pen and paper and marked by anonymous paid markers – when teachers know students and their capabilities from five years of engagement with them?
  8. Does speaking matter?  Do so-called hard skills matter? Do so-called soft skills? Does making and doing matter?  If so, why are none of these things given high currency?
  9. Why do we persist with the corrosive language and practice of ‘ability’ groupings.  Schools are the only places where it is deemed appropriate to name people ‘low ability or ‘less able’.
  10. A contentious one.  Given that schools are centres of learning, why are the adult learning norms  and practices in most of our school so abysmally poor?

You don’t have to agree with everything

Of course, a few of these questions may confront expectations.  There may be some that seem outrageous – although they don’t, of course, to me!  However, there is a simple truth.  We know that capability is multi-faceted and that human potential is such that virtually all adults are capable of high-level learning and complex task accomplishment.  We also know that the existing model of school has consistently failed to enable all students to be successful, or to close the equity gap between those from advantaged backgrounds and those who are not.

And it isn’t the fault of the students (many of whom go on in adulthood to achieve remarkably beyond their schools’ predictions).  It is the fault of the model of schooling – and no amount of Ofsted inspection, or examination rigour, or teacher performance management, or academisation can make a model that is out-of-date fit for our times.

It is flogging a dead horse.

So, what seems to be desperately needed in our system is an innovation strategy that will encourage the design and establishment of some new school models.  They have had this in the States since the New American Schools initiative in the early 1990s, as described here (and as represented in Grant Lichtman and Jolina Clément’s graphic that heads up this post).  Where is the UK’s new school model innovation strategy?


Designing New Schools

Designing New Schools

Recent blog posts have been marking out some stepping stones towards new school designs:

  • How might Innovation Unit build a movement around innovation in school design – using ‘Most Likely to Succeed’ as a springboard?
  • What can we learn from the best school-to-school collaboratives internationally that might inform the design of ambitious MATs?
  • Why does a healthy education system require an intentional innovation strategy focused on new models of schooling and learning?
  • Might our seemingly unpropitious times be exactly the right time for such innovation?

This post introduces two further more practical pieces of the jigsaw:

  1. The launch of a School Design Lab intended to support new schools to create designs to fit their ambitions and purposes.  Or for existing schools to transform themselves through intentional redesign.
  2. An account of an interview with Rob Riordan, co-author of “The New Urban High School”, and co-designer with Larry Rosenstock of High Tech High.

The School Design Lab can be researched further from the web site using the link above.  It has been developed with schools and projects in New York, Sierra Leone and the UK – and is prototyping a school of the future for the Qatar Foundation.  Its core purpose, though, is to support new schools and existing schools in the UK to reimagine both school design and student learning.  As stated in the last post in this series:

Our model of schooling is more than 100 years old and way, way, way out of date.  It’s a model that has failed to achieve equitable outcomes, or to address socio-economic disadvantage, or to engage the potentially disengaged learner (or to engage most learners, for that matter). Nor has it provided teachers with an intellectually challenging profession, or excited and involved parents about the experience of their children.  Effectively, this means that innovation has become limited to new ways of delivering the 60 minute subject-based lesson!

So that’s the first part.  Really short.

The second piece is longer and well worth reading.  Richard Donnelly has pioneered REAL Projects work at UCL Academy in London and was recently awarded a Churchill Fellowship to visit and study innovative new school models in the States. As a component of that visit, he has interviewed Rob Riordan and written about it here as one in a series of illuminating  posts describing the schools and his learning along the way.  Richard has given permission to feature that interview here – and it is A PROFOUND READ.


Richard Donnelly @travelgeordie

Rob Riordan is co-founder of High Tech High, San Diego and President Emeritus of HTH Graduate School of Education.

Me: As a teacher who wants to practice project based learning, how can you make it work under the constraints of exams?

Rob: One way that I look at it is that when we’re in a class that is focused on important content, our aim ought to be, in my view, for students to in some way transform the content.  That it not be simply transmitted as inert knowledge, because if it’s inert it’s going to disappear pretty quickly.  I mean within a couple of weeks after the exam.

So if we’re interested in retention of important pieces of the content or significant meanings from the content, then it needs to be transformed in some way.

Alfred North Whitehead wrote about this 100 years ago.  He said that inert knowledge is not enough, and he also said, along the lines of the ancients, we should educate for the development of dispositions in the 20th century. Sadly, we have been reduced to teaching subjects.  So, the question for someone who is on an exam course is that those courses are about content but they should also be about the development of dispositions.  It’s a question about how do we balance the two. How do we ensure that our students are developing and growing around those dispositions of critical thinking, problem-solving and collaboration and so forth?

Me: Where there is high accountability, it is easier for a teacher to teach to the test, how do we overcome this?  

Rob: It’s a leap of faith in a way to say: ‘I can be more effective and my students will do better on exams if I engage in a pedagogy that is more likely to result in retention.’  I would also say that we are also under some of the same kind of constraints in this country (USA) around this testing mania that we’ve been living with for last 20 years or so and, ultimately, at some point the pressure calls for resistance.  It can be possible to at least explore ways in which to engage in a pedagogy that leads to transformation, even with exams and so forth.  But, tellingly, the reverse side of the question is: where is the evidence that our current pedagogy is the most effective way of preparing kids for the exams and more than the exams?  

Me: I have seen some wonderful work at HTH and Big Picture – the internship programme for example.

Rob: Larry Rosenstock and I worked in Cambridge, Mass for many years and I was his internship guy.  So we did internships with the kids and I would go out on sites and teach humanities with the kids.  It was basically a writing based exploration of their experience in the internship.  But internship stuff is really powerful stuff, life changing for kids.

MeWhat would you say are the 3 most important ‘must dos’ of designing a new school?  

Rob: I think it’s important to begin with is a conversation about teaching and learning and what is really significant about it, and how our new school might, in its faculty (staff) and its programmes, be a place where significant learning is happening all the time.  One can do that with a planning group simply by asking people to reflect on a period in which people really learned something in their own school experience or outside school and share those accounts, then extract from those accounts the elements of significant learning.  Then say: what kind of programme will we need to for it to be like this most of the time? The programme would probably involve things that talk about having the new school be a place where students have access to important audiences for their work; a place where students are engaged in work that connects with the community; a place where students are known well by faculty (staff) – which certainly would have implications for the timetable; and a place where everyone has standing, students and teachers, as members of the community.  Those are elements of significant learning and you can begin the design from there.

So, number one would be to engage in conversations about learning and the kind of learning environment we want to have.  When we opened HTH this led us to insist that we would not separate out kids by perceived ability and that we were going to have an untracked (un-setted) learning environment for all our kids.  A second outcome is that it becomes really important to have a robust learning environment for the adults. So how is that going to happen? The way that happens here is that our teachers arrive at school an hour before the kids every day and engage in learning activities together.

Me: I’m blown away by the level of social capital there is at HTH. I attended a tuning and noticed a whole community of practice. 

Rob: That was one of our design principles from the very beginning.

Me: I can see many benefits of your flat structure but what are the drawbacks?  

Rob: That is a good question. I tend to think more of the benefits and think of the drawbacks being in traditional hierarchical arrangement.  One drawback might be that sometimes it might be hard to know where authority rests and so it becomes an organisational task to figure out how decisions are both arrived at and implemented.  It is really important to figure out how informally and formally we are going to engage in governance, how we decide and, once we have decided to do something, who is going to do it. That needs a lot of attention because the hierarchy isn’t going to decide it for you.  On the other hand there are so many benefits. The big benefit of being horizontal is that everyone has standing.

From the very beginning we also knew that we didn’t want to isolate new teachers from veteran teachers in the way that many schools do.  We want new teachers to be engaged with veteran teachers on the dilemmas of practice that they all face, and those dilemmas for us are triggered by our commitment to equity and diversity.  We embrace this problem as opposed to when you separate them out, and the pernicious effect of separating kids out by perceived ability – which often is a mis-perception of ability.

Me: What would you say to a traditional senior leader with fixed values on disciplinary knowledge? How do you mitigate the mentality of teachers who have ingrained values on the transmission of knowledge?  

Rob: The teacher selection process is vitally important, so raises the question as to what you are looking for.  Changing ones leadership approach is a very difficult process and requires a couple of different things.  One is to try to engineer a change in context so that people can see things in a new way. This can be done through simulations or through initial meetings where the leadership is distributed or rotated.  Meetings where there are group norms (or protocols) around how the group operates, ones which include equal sharing of the air and stuff like that also helps.  It’s a long process.  It involves deep conversations about what we want as a school. If we’re after significant learning that may imply a change in practice and what does that imply for teachers, and then how as a leader might one foster such a robust learning community.

You can’t mandate an adult learning community; you have to build it through consensual processes and processes of dialogue.  Dialogical leadership is what we need to aspire to. How we get there is a challenge, though, especially from a background where it is seen as critical and effective to assume a hierarchical position.  There are lots of leaders who could not function at HTH but who are very good leaders in other contexts.  It’s a matter of matching as well, you wouldn’t want to bring in a good hierarchical, charismatic guy and ask him to shift the way he deals with things and lead us at HTH, it’s not going to work.

Me: So the second part of the question for example was about a teacher having a passion about their subject, e.g. History, and feeling students need to have certain aspects of Historical knowledge.  

Rob: What follows is kind of a joke, in a way, so it’s not serious – but it is.

Every year we ask our directors in a meeting to think about their own teachers and to rank them on a four point scale:  4 is someone who is indispensable; 3 is someone who is a really solid contributor; a 2 is someone who is growing; and a 1 is someone who the place would be better off without.  No names, nothing like that, but what does your staff look like, how many 3s do you have and so forth.  In one meeting, as a joke, I said: “Well in terms of the History teachers, if you’re a 4 your students are making History, if you’re a 3 your students are doing History, in other words being Historians, if you’re a 2 your students are learning History, if you’re a 1 you are History.”

Someone who is really passionate about content, that’s a really good quality that can lead us to interesting projects with kids because kids can get swept along with teacher passion. If the passion is only about the content and not about the process of doing History then we get into trouble a bit.  We want teachers who are interested in engaging students as Historians, doing oral History etc.  There is another way of looking at it.  When we bring in candidates for a position, they teach demonstration lessons.  What I’m looking for is someone who wants to know what and how kids think, as opposed to someone who has some content that he/she wants to transmit. The lesson with a bit of content and a bit of a quiz or test at the end, that teacher is not going to work well at HTH.  If we find a teacher who engages kids in conversation, maybe doesn’t have a lot of classroom management skills, whatever, we hire for attitude and train for skills.

Secondly, for building a new school, it’s critical for the adults to work together well in order to create a healthy environment and also to model that for kids.  When we are hiring, we will bring in 40 teachers on a day and at the end of the day put them in groups of four around tables.  We give them a provocative text to read and say: “Your job as a small group here is to understand the text more deeply and share the air.”  We rotate into the empty chairs and listen to the conversations. It is really important for us for our teachers to be good collaborators.  We have had some competent teachers but with little relationship skill or agency with colleagues, who were disruptive early on in the school. They were not rehired.


MeWhat does your title mean, emperor of rigour?  And what does rigour look like in PBL?

Rob: I had a position here before I became Dean of the Graduate School of Education. I was a roving critical friend.  I taught for 25 years.  I was in classrooms all the time, talking about what I saw and then doing video and that kind of work to take to the directors to raise questions – not just about how we teach but also how we talk about teaching. So, as a roving critical friend nobody reported to me, I didn’t report to anybody, and at one point some conversation said ‘well what is your title?’ So I said ‘Emperor of Rigour’, Emperor because it’s kind of an eyebrow raiser around the notion that people have around hierarchy.  We are very flat so if it’s hierarchy you’re expecting then I’m the emperor.  It was just a joke in a way.  I wanted to engage people in discussions about rigour and that rigour is not about complexity of content, or volume of content.  It’s about the decisions students make moment to moment, to go deeper.  It’s a process issue, not a content issue.  My rules for rigour are:

  • No rigour without engagement
  • No rigour without ownership
  • No rigour without exemplars
  • No rigour without audiences
  • No rigour without purpose
  • No rigour without dreams
  • No rigour without courage
  • No rigour without fun.

I think these are the pre-conditions for rigorous work.  That’s why I call myself ‘emperor of rigour’, because I want to engage people in what it means.

MeIn the UK our students have an exercise book where all their notes are written.  Some teachers will spend an inordinate amount of time marking and giving feedback, www’s ebi’s etc.  Students might then be expected to ‘follow up’ on the feedback with a green pen.  How do you think students should write and how should feedback be given?  

Rob:  I certainly think that students should have thorough and thoughtful feedback on their work. I think also that we are trying to develop self-directed learners, reflective learners.  We are trying to enhance students’ metacognitive capacities and that comes about through practice.  If we’re doing learning 2.0, why would we want to assess it using the means of assessment 1.0 and what would assessment 2.0 look like?  It’s about reflection and dialogue.  It doesn’t mean kids never write essays, but when we talk about our learning environment and the learning kids are doing, its important to us that we engage in dialogical assessment.

I encourage people to let the assessment start with a statement by the student and to let the assessment not only include the performance of the student but also the context in which that performance took place.   The first item on the assessment sheet, a student led comment, should be ‘What in this experience worked well for you and what didn’t work well?  And then tell us about your performance, what was your best work, what your strengths were, what your needs are etc’.  Students write that up and then the teacher responds and agrees, disagrees, adds other comments that the student hadn’t considered. In some cases here, that document goes to parents, through google.docs and the parents are invited to comment.  It’s a cycle of dialogue that is initiated by the student.  That’s my thought on how we might get to thorough and thoughtful feedback but in a dialogical mode that fosters self-direction.

Me: Along your journey of starting HTH would there be anything you would have done differently or any mistakes you have made?

I think of it less in terms of mistakes and more in choices and roads taken which meant that other roads were not taken.  One choice we made early on in the interests of an equitable environment was that we would do age grading.  I taught for many years in which we did not group kids in that way and I would have 9th and 12th graders in the same classroom and could not have imagined teaching in another way.  Sometimes I’d have 9th graders who were quicker or more experienced in some respects than some of the 12th graders.  We did age grading here but one way to get rid of this is to have an elective system where students choose courses.  However, we felt that if students chose courses then they would self-segregate and that males would take courses in mainly tech etc.  We decided we were going to have Humanities 1,2,3,4 and all the students were going to take them.  We would move choice inside the courses.  What it meant was that we didn’t do as much as we might have around cross-age learning.

I’m happy with our choice around all of our students doing internships in 11th grade.  We chose this because, especially for students whose parents had not gone to university, it is in the internship that they realise that they want to and need to go to college.  Working alongside a mentor they realise they need to go to college to achieve that position. When the mentor says it, that’s when it sinks in.  Internships are better college prep than college prep.  Plus, for first generation kids it is at this age that they are beginning to form their adult world networks that more affluent kids already have.  The internship is a way for those kids to form connections. Their mentor will write recommendations for them into university, they are going to connect them to other job possibilities and so on.  The decision to do internships was the right decision, but we did not structure them in the way we might have.  It took us a long time. We originally did it two afternoons a week and the kids were not coming back saying their lives had been changed.  If they went on a two-week trip to Ecuador, they would come back and tell us about it.  We were not getting that kind of testimony and we realised, about 7 years in, we needed to make the internships an immersion.  So we changed it to 3 weeks or 4 weeks where the kid goes to the workplace and doesn’t come to school.  Now we are getting that testimony because the kids are there, experiencing it. We hold mentor luncheons about work and life in the adult world and how to align with the kind of questions we ask them.  Students also create a project and expectation of some serious and significant work out of the internship and also have a 1-1 mentor.


Why the UK Needs New School Models

Why the UK Needs New School Models

The United States has more than 100,000 schools, so it’s not surprising that it has some of the worst and the best school practices in the world.  A key point, though, is that the best are best by design.  Let’s emphasise that.  The best of the American schools are by a mile some of the most interesting in the world.  They are worth learning from – and this is not surprising, because they were designed for this purpose.

There is a recent innovation history in the States of supporting new school designs.

In 1984 the Coalition of Essential Schools was set up following publication of Ted Sizer’s book ‘Horace’s Compromise’.  It began as a network of 12 schools and as of 2016 had more than 600, connecting under the banner of ‘common principles for uncommon schools’. Basically, it represented the start of the US whole school reform or redesign movement, with each model tending to be based upon a set of shared design principles. As an example, the Coalition’s principles include:

  • Less is more – depth over coverage 
  • Personalisation – built on profound knowledge of learners
  • Student-as-worker, teacher-as-coach
  • Assessment based on demonstration of mastery and real tasks. 

In 1991 the New American Schools initiative was launched.  Its intention was to stimulate the development and implementation of transformative whole school designs.  It was intended to break free of a paradigm that simply improves the existing model, or that bolts onto it new programmes.  It supported school design teams (educators, business people, researchers) to create potentially transformative new school designs with the scope to be scaled.  Of course, not all were successful, but some proved to be seminally influential – such as Expeditionary Learning, Co-NECT Schools, ATLAS Schools or Roots and Wings.  Even more successful was the establishment of the precedent of new school design and the practice of individual and collective evaluation of designs.

Fast forward to 2000 and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation had a big idea about how to fix the problems of American education. They resolved to break up large high schools and turn them into ‘small schools’ – small learning communities of 400 or fewer students. They believed that small high schools would lift graduation rates and student achievement, especially among minority students, because the strong relationships between students and teachers would ensure that learners were profoundly well known.

The foundation spent $2 billion promoting the dissolution of large high schools and the creation of small schools across the nation. Some 2,600 new small high schools opened in 45 states. New York City alone now has more than 200 such schools, with high schools devoted to such themes as leadership, the sports professions, technology, health professions, the media, diversity, peace and social justice.  By 2005, Bill Gates had told the National Governors Association that ‘America’s high schools are obsolete’; that small schools made everything ‘relevant’, through hands-on activities and new pedagogical approaches.

Were all these schools successful?  Of course they weren’t.  However, the small-high-schools programme funded the growth of the Big Picture high schools, founded by Dennis Littky and Elliot Washor (now 65+ Big Picture high schools in 18 states and more around the world). These small, personalised high schools, started for drop-out learners, graduate 92 percent of their students on time. Amazing.

Gates also funded the EdVisions network of schools, (getting on for 50 high schools in 12 states). SAT average composite scores for EdVisions schools far exceed the composite average; and over 82% of EdVisions graduates progress to degree programs.  This speaks for itself.

New Tech Network  now has in excess of 150 schools and is a leading design partner for comprehensive school change and innovative learning environments.  They achieve 72% college enrolment and 84% college persistence – and this with a model that transforms existing schools, not just start-ups.  Truly impressive.

The foundation also funded the growth of High Tech High (HTH), now 13 high schools in the San Diego area. 98% of HTH’s graduates have been admitted to college or university, with approximately 80% admitted to four-year programs. About 35% of HTH graduates are first-generation college students, and 85% of their free school meals students complete degrees.  Astonishing.

The high schools in these four school design networks work.  Students in these schools all consistently outperform teenagers in conventionally sized, conventionally structured high schools with comparable demographics.  The system is learning to learn from them and the work has spawned other diffusion organisations – the Buck Institute supports robust models of project-based learning to spread; Bob Pearlman (formerly of NTN) curates a school reform and innovation web space.

There are also some common design features across all these models:

  • All include project-based learning, an engaging and empowering pedagogical model, which requires teachers to collaborative as designers of learning
  • All focus on the centrality of relationships – have ‘advisory’ (where advisory is the soul of the school, symbolising support of students before teaching curriculum)
  • All have powerful and sustained adult learning norms
  • All have pervasive cultural identity and school-level ownership of what matters, including what is assessed and how and by whom it is assessed.

For the UK, the point of this range of US examples is simple.  Healthy systems have to have innovation capacity – a self conscious attempt to design, implement and evaluate potentially paradigm-shifting new models of practice.  Yes, there are real schooling problems in many US States and cities, but the system is healthy and will be fine because it knows where it is heading.  It has great icons from which it can learn – as evidenced in two very current reform movements:  XQ America and Education Reimagined. They build from these iconic innovatory school designs with the intention of fostering a  transformation movement.

We do not (yet) have this tradition in the UK.  And not to have it simply means that we constantly focus on striving to improve the existing school model.  This is a model that is more than 100 years old and way, way, way out of date.  At is a model that has failed to achieve equitable outcomes, or to address socio-economic challenge, or to engage the potentially disengaged learner (or to engage most learners, for that matter).  Nor has it provided teachers with an intellectually challenging profession, or excited and involved parents around the experience of their children.  Effectively, this means that innovation becomes limited to new ways of delivering the 60 minute subject-based lesson!

Innovation Unit has worked with many of those cited above, extensively with High Tech High.  Richly, too, with Big Picture, Expeditionary Learning and New Tech Network, and has learned much from Buck Institute and Bob Pearlman.  We believe it is time to start just such a movement in the UK.  There are four ways we are striving to do this:

  1. In partnership with others (such as School 21 Trust, Eos, Hartsholme Academy, XP School and others) we will celebrate and amplify the few existing models of new practice in the UK
  2. We will seek to infuse the airways with thought-leadership material – generate energy around the ideas, the evidence and the images of practice that mark out a direction of travel.  Valerie Hannon’s recently published book, “Thrive”, provides a compelling rationale and imperative and the IU’s twitter feed, David Price’s and my own will link to relevant materials
  3. Innovation Unit has established a School Design Lab to provide tools, processes and extended support for design of new school models and redesign of existing ones
  4. Innovation Unit is establishing a multi-academy trust (Extraordinary Learning Trust) of innovative new school designs, which will mean three things:
    1. Creating a different kind of MAT – a MAT that builds on the best that is known about school-to-school collaboration (e.g. HTH as a MAT or A Different Kind of MAT Story)
    2. Recruiting a diverse group of start-up primary schools that are already exceptional in relation to a shared set set of design principles – think of the Coalition’s “common principles for uncommon schools” and who will progressively influence the design of the Trust’s new secondary schools
    3. Building a coalition of members, trustees and partners around the work who are eager to support and enable its success.

With regard to the common principles, we believe that these might be the areas around which principles should form:

Slide 1

And our first take on what exactly these principles might be is below.  However, they will be further adapted in partnership with the founding schools and trustees.  The language may change, but the essence will remain – bold and ambitious statements that can distinguish ExL Trust’s diverse school models from those of the past.

If you have journeyed this far, thanks for reading and do make contact with us if you are excited about the proposition.

Slide 2

A Different Kind of MAT Story

A Different Kind of MAT Story

This blog is extracted from a book chapter about New York’s iZone – in particular iZone360, a school redesign programme initiated in 2010.  (The book is “Sustainable school transformation”, edited by David Crossley, Bloomsbury, 2013.)  The UK’s Innovation Unit was design partner to this programme for three years. 


By Spring 2010, New York’s Chancellor Joel Klein, and his Deputy Chancellor for Innovation, John White, had come to believe that the ‘industrial model’ of schooling was exhausted and could not deliver either college and career readiness for all students, or more equitable outcomes (both key performance indicators in the States). He also recognised the energy, ingenuity and commitment that was present in some ‘renegade’ schools who broke the rules and achieved beyond expectations.  Believing that new models of practice were required from which the system could learn, the New York City Department of Education launched one of the world’s most ambitious and intentional education innovation programmes. The rationale was simple:

“New York’s schooling system perceives a need for its young people to be enabled to achieve 21st century  standards that prepare them for post-secondary success by emphasising higher-order critical thinking, real-world application, and collaboration that will necessitate developing instructional capacity that our schools do not currently have.”

The ultimate aim of the strategy was to transform learning for the 1 million students in NYC’s 1,700 public schools through replacing the ‘industrial model’.  The ambition was to build schools round the needs, interests and motivations of individual students. Students enter schools as individuals, often now tech-savvy, with a diverse set of needs, capabilities and prior learning histories. Therefore, the new logic went, schools must reorient themselves to treat students as individual learners, where every child owns a unique education plan with his or her own path to personal and academic success.

The goal was to make personalisation the central approach to educating students, where learning would be about each student mastering skills and capabilities in her own way, at her own pace – much as is habitually modelled in music learning or with gaming technologies. Personalised approaches and mastery based assessment were the new foundation stones. In iZone360 schools, it would no longer be about advancing students through grade levels and tests based on age and time spent in class, but about supporting them to build the skills, knowledge, and dispositions needed to be successful in the world:

“We are committed to engage every child in a personalized, rigorous, and engaging learning plan that develops the skills they will need to succeed in the complex real-world situations they will face in college and career. It will motivate them by connecting their learning to real-world contexts and empowering them to define and manage their own academic progress.”

There was also a belief that this transition couldn’t happen without an incubation strategy for pioneer schools such as that provided by iZone – as shown in the diagram below.


During the 2010-11 school year this high-level vision for ‘personalised mastery learning’ was articulated one level further, identifying four pillars or principles:

  1. Personalised learning plans and progress
  2. Flexible and real world learning environments (multiple learning modalities, learning anytime, anywhere, on- and off-line, project-based)
  3. What was called ‘next generation’ curriculum and assessment
  4. New student and staff roles (advisor, tutor, mentor, designer, facilitator, peer-tutor).

The ambition for iZone – which already had a history and body of work in technology innovation (iLearn) and school component innovation (Innovate NYC) – was expanded to include a third component, iZone360, with the following brief:

iZone 360 – a community of practice of schools committed to whole school redesign through the integration of components and practices into whole new schooling models of highly successful 21st Century personalised learning – on behalf of the whole system.

It is this emphasis on whole school redesign and its wider system implications that offers interesting possibilities for the UK system. 

iZone360 – a system transformation strategy

From its outset two things created energy for this bold work. The first was an utterly irrefutable case for change supported by a strong mandate, an impatience for innovation, from the Chancellor, Joel Klein.  He was convinced by his own life-experience as a poor New Yorker, profoundly believing that education could, and should, do the same for the current generation’s poor – those who have consistently been failed by the schooling system – as it did for him.

The second was a compelling vision of an alternative pedagogical paradigm and the re-design principles around which new school models should emerge.  This was well-defined in theory, but also intentionally open to multiple interpretations in practice. (New York has never set out to create a definitive new model. Pluralism, multiple models, choice possibilities all better describe the case. The consistency lies in fidelity to the design principles.)  The five point theory of action was straightforward enough:

  1. identify principals of ambitious and potentially ‘renegade’ schools willing to engage in radical school re-design within a strong community of practice (think a MAT arrangement), working on behalf of the entire system
  2. build the design around a clear diffusion strategy – animate that wider system around the work and connect it such that the foundations of a diffusion strategy are present from the outset
  3. create new forums wherein the emergent strategy and implementation challenges can be collectively shared and problem-solved by all key actors
  4. incubate the schools by utilising resources flexibly, including service design expertise, multiple professional learning approaches, support from expert ‘model design partners’, use of innovation disciplines, provision of innovation coaches and a range of other supports – including relevant deregulation
  5. learn from the work, codifying practices in ways that support diffusion and scale across the system.

In addition, the ambition was always to co-design the evolution of this strategy with participant principals, such that the DOE personnel and school leaders could learn the way forward together – much in the spirit of a ‘systemic action enquiry strategy’. The significance of this (in theory) is obvious: on the one hand, in the short-term creating radically new school models requires de-regulation and safe space – systemically enabling conditions; new policy and practice enablers. Longer-term, scaling of these models would involve all system actors learning alongside one another how to adapt expectations, supports and accountabilities to new schooling and learning approaches.

Simple examples of what is implied by this might be that in new school designs the State’s ‘seat-time’ (school attendance) regulations may become anachronistic; teachers’ working conditions might need to change; universal assessment dates (grade-level testing) may become counter-productive; age-cohorting students might be redundant; attendance in learning may be more valuable than attendance in school; the regulation school calendar may be inhibiting. The shared learning ambitions were designed in part to wrestle with such emergent issues of experimentation, unlearning and abandonment.

This co-design intent and its underpinning trust-based commitment, the community of practice approach, the ‘on behalf of the system’ moral purpose of the work – and the total belief that professionals have it within their power to be the school and system redesigners given appropriate license and supports, made iZone360 an archetypically progressive policy strategy.  Jurisdictions can learn from this alone – it isn’t policy-makers best equipped to effect change; it is practice leaders.

iZone 360 – a whole school redesign story

iZone360 was initially a cohort of 26 schools (later 50 schools) deliberately drawn from across the geography of New York City.  Some were the most highly developed schools such as City As School, iSchool, NYC Lab School for Collaborative Studies or WHEELS. Others were ‘regular schools’ wanting to become profoundly less regular. Yet another group were new schools still at the design stage (think Free Schools).  What this diverse group had in common was the desire to redesign around the core principles below – and to help one another with that ambition.


Each school chose an external school design partner to work with them (such as Big Picture, Apple or New Tech Network).  The idea was not for the schools to adopt the design partner’s model, but to draw from their expertise in creating a distinctive ‘next generation’ NYC model. Beyond this, ‘component partners’ were also commissioned to bring expertise in key elements of the work, which could be anything from technology systems to advisories; simulations to project-based learning; scheduling to community mobilisation.  They meant business.

Each school also established their own Design Team – guided by protocols – which was to include the principal, a team leader and a cohort of staff who together had the potency to transform the school. As a community, the schools committed to a six-day design process spread across the year, together with school-based support in-between.  This approach involved the progressive introduction of robust and disciplined methods to design, prototype, evaluate, and support the scaling of new school models – a component led by the Innovation Unit.

In addition, affinity groups were established around common themes and issues; school-to-school peer support and challenge figured prominently; and the principals formed a leadership council to take ownership of the ambition together with senior DOEn personnel.

What has all this to do with UK MATs?

It may be a surprise that his blog is not about New York, nor about the iZone.  It is about an innovation strategy with the ambition and the power to begin to effect system transformation.  It is about the potency and variety of school-to-school collaboration designs.  An earlier blog post featured High Tech High – viewed through the lens of a MAT. This post attempts to do the same for iZone360, by viewing it as a MAT specifically designed to build a body of practice of value to the system.

Put another way, what this post says is this:

  • It would be distinctly possible to establish a MAT of schools committed to designing and creating new school models, as iZone 360 did
  • It would be equally possible to agree the set of ambitious design principles around which each school would then express its own radical purposes and originality.  iZone360’s are above; try these as a UK starting point:



  • Such a MAT could also agree and monitor the most rigorous success indicators and ambitions for student learning – far beyond the limited range of test results that currently constrain educational imagination – and evaluate its collective and component success against these measures
  • Such a MAT would function also as both a collaborative community and a community of practice (COP) – a group of schools committed to each other’s success and to building a collective body of knowledge to inform new practices – like iZone360
  • As a group of, say, 20 schools striving towards ambitious new designs, the COP would be well placed to utilise international links with groups of schools like Big Picture Learning, ConnectEd California, Edvision Schools, Envision Education, Expeditionary Learning, High Tech High, New Tech Network and others, as well as with some of the major pedagogical developments such as the Deeper Learning movement – just as iZone 360 was able to do
  • A MAT of innovative schools could generate energy in the system – much as Eos is beginning to do for primary schools across the UK and as iZone360 did in the States. It could use its people, its practice and its connections to build associates and progressively a movement around the work
  • The MAT might include some existing established schools wishing to further redesign and reinvent themselves.  It could also incorporate Free Schools wanting to use the capacity of the schools within the MAT to create and implement new school designs – just as iZone360 did
  • It is hard to imagine, too, that it wouldn’t be possible to draw into this compelling vision some significant system players who might act as supporters and advocates – individuals, organisations, philanthropic entities.

So that is the pitch.  Two blog posts, each describing the kind of MAT that could act as icons for a new kind of schooling and learning.

Interested?  Feel free to comment.


Making Virtue Out Of A Crisis

Making Virtue Out Of A Crisis

Sometimes, especially in the notoriously risk-averse world of education, a looming crisis can turn out to be a very good thing.

A while ago, I presented at a conference in Leeds for Bradford’s headteachers. A week later I was involved in conversations with early years providers in Corby.

They were completely different sectors of the service, but they had something in common. Both were considering radically new local arrangements stimulated by the precipitous feeling of standing on a burning platform. In such situations you can dig in and retrench (put your head in the sand, or fight the cuts) or you can turn and face the danger – see it as an energy source and imperative for change, and design new sets of possibilities.

The latter is what, in different ways, each of these were doing.  In Bradford, secondary heads had been working together to create a shared vision statement and agreed values (supported by the still visionary Tim Brighouse) with a view to creating a formal coalition across all the schools. The thinking, which was before the world of Academy Trusts and MATs, was that they might form a Trust or a Collegiate or Co-operative Academy. At the time we met, there was a journey still to be travelled. However, the intention was to design together a trust which could:

  • agree aspects of policy and strategy
  • deploy expertise across the schools
  • differentiate resources and personnel to places of most need
  • enable practice to transfer more readily between schools.

In a phrase, heads would commit together to taking collective responsibility for the success of all students, and they would provide educational leadership across the city (rather than ‘institutional leadership’, which had often been as much competitive as collegiate).

Even then, there was nothing much new in pursuing school-to-school collaboration. What was different was its formalization at such a scale. A Trust (or an Academy Collegiate) represented a breakthrough for two reasons. One was the sustainability of the arrangements – governance endures beyond the more ephemeral influence or will of leaders passionate about the idea. Leaders move on; governance endures. The other is that a Trust provides a single voice to engage with external partners – whether they are Trust partners, school improvement agencies, community groups, or the Local Authority. The schools were able to speak together, with one voice – and to have that voice be a significant voice.

In Corby there were four Children’s Centres, all facing huge budget cuts. Early years work in Corby was well developed, and professionals were confident enough to know that they had done some great work in a town desperately in need of the regenerative contribution of early years.  But that wasn’t seen as being nearly good enough. They were still not reaching most of those most in need. Cuts to the existing service would set Corby back years.

Their proposal (an outcome of the Innovation Unit’s Radical Efficiency programme) was to create a fifth ‘virtual Children’s Centre’, owned and run by parents. This would be town-wide, so spanning the four existing centres, embracing them, incorporating them. It would have no formal home, but would use community-based facilities (municipal, private and domestic) and would use trained parent (and grandparent) volunteers as a field force to mobilise involvement and to design provision: “to enhance intelligence gathering and provision of appropriate support in areas where disengaged and disillusioned families ‘hang out’”.

The idea was that power to commission and decommission services could be placed in the hands of parents by devolving some of the combined early years budget to this parent-led cooperative or mutual (the virtual ‘fifth’ children’s centre) to support and empower both the parent-led service model and its commissioning from existing centres.

I’ll be honest.  I have my doubts about whether these ambitious ideas will by now have come to full realisation.  The volatilities that impede system change like this are multiple and, at that time, the ‘burning platform’ may not have seemed life threatening enough. However, both were virtuous and ambitious and public spirited – and should have happened.  Yet neither would have occurred, never mind happened, without the threat of cuts and the disruptive instability that national policies were creating in the Local Authorities.

Both had the potential to be radically different, much lower cost and significantly better. That’s radically efficient public sector innovation.  And the reason it seems so relevant today is because all the background issues, the imperatives for change, are even more obvious and pressing – and that is an opportunity to reimagine together.

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.