Translating theory into practice in schools

There are a number of imperatives in education that it would be difficult to argue against: any good school should be looking into them. Central ones would have to include:

  • Assessment (the art of pedagogic feedback, scaffolding and strategies for effective learning)
  • Student wellbeing (resilience, mindfulness, character education, health)
  • Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Justice (at the levels of the student, staff and parent experience, syllabus choices, school culture)
  • Sustainability (in the way the school operates and the extent to which regenerative modes of life are taught and ritualised)
  • Education for peace (learning to live together, conflict resolution, communication norms, listening skills, the code of conduct, restorative practices)  
  • Competence-based learning (how to develop lifelong learning, self agency, types of interaction, working with systems and technology, ways of empowering and stimulating original and expansive thinking)

The difficulty is less in articulating what these themes are (despite the invariable taxonomical complications that come with presenting them in a coherent and powerful manner) and much more, of course, in implementing them. This is for three core reasons:

  1. Prioritisation. How do we fit these themes into a heavily packed subject-dominated curriculum with multiple exigencies at the levels of academic performance, externally mandated credit systems, compulsory units of study and only so many hours in the day? What gives to make way for what must be? Where to find the time?
  2. Making it stick. How do schools avoid initiative overload where a “flavour of the month” approach to strategic imperatives comes and goes with different leaders, bandwagons, curricula reforms and change management efforts? 
  3. Culture. How do school leaders create conditions where everybody – or at least most people – are ready to engage with a strategy, to adopt it and run with it? More precisely, what can be done to ensure that adoption is sincere, deep and effective?

There is no shortage of literature on this: change management theories, speakers and books with formulas, stories of success that might be transferred across contexts and sectors abound. Analogies are rife: school leadership is compared to managing football or basketball teams, conducting an orchestra, running a startup company, planting trees (I’ve even heard it compared to planting vegetables!), and so on.

If there was a silver bullet we would know about it and all use it, and it is true that some management theories seem to work across different sectors, but I would argue that schools are unique in that they deal with three variables that other sectors simply do not have to contend with:

  1. Children going through different phases of development
  2. Parents, who entrust the school with their children but are also educational partners in the journey, not mere “clients”
  3. A curriculum that is taught but the effects of which can only be measured very approximately (this is not a world of “productivity” but of learning, full of stops and starts, uncontrolled variables and individual influences)

In my experience, having tried different approaches to the operationalisation of strategy, from “snowballing” (steady incremental change) to “big bang” approaches (a bold vision with steps to follow), I’ve found that some things shift the culture and create a real influence on student learning, others do not. 

If there are two principles only by which we should abide in order to translate theory into practice, I would say they are whole system alignment and integration rather than addition.

Whole system alignment

Using the congruence model approach (which recognises interdependencies as interlocking parts), the reform should run from an unambiguous costed strategy with an implementation roadmap through training of everybody involved, to targets and expectations and at the levels of student learning (the curriculum and school events), communications, feedback loops, systems reform and partnerships. When, for example, we set about to design our Universal Learning Programme curriculum framework at the International School of Geneva’s La Grande Boissière campus, a three year plan was published along with a teacher training programme, student project schedule and intended outcomes, while our official partner, UNESCO-IBE helped set targets through annual reviews of progress made. Through constant feedback loops, the framework was improved and continues to evolve. Communicating what the programme was, was an essential exercise as it reinforced the cogency of the reform, allowing people to understand it better. Student, teacher and parent voices were listened to in a strategy group that followed the progress made at these interdependent levels. Much of this is ongoing as the work needs constant refinement and checking in. As I write this, teachers are releasing short films on how they teach the programme and these are sent to their colleagues and our parents.

Integration rather than addition  

As long as we conceptualise themes as substitutive or additive, meaning that something has to be taken away for them to work, or that we have to add them to a catalogue of existing features, any reform is bound to struggle. If you are asking “where do I find the time?”, it means that the approach is not integrative. Rather than consider an extra module, course or unit to add, the whole approach needs to be rethought: it requires an ontological shift. In other words, rather than trying to look at questions of DEIJ or critical thinking in stand-alone courses, the whole curriculum should be decolonized and made more critical; rather than concentrating on some sort of advisory course as the only possible avenue to drive student wellbeing, the tenets of wellbeing should run through staff and student interactions, messaging, teaching style and discussions focussed on learning within and across subjects. For example, when at the International School of Geneva we developed our Learner Passport, the idea was to start with the student experience and to describe what was already there, not to add anything.  As such, the passport integrates the arts, physical education, social impact work, interpersonal skills and academics, into a whole description of the profile of the graduate. It is making visible that which is rather than creating what is not yet. This makes the reform powerful and sustainable. The passport is not about more work, it requires, instead, a shift in thinking: the way that universities view student learning, the way that students conceptualise their own education and the manner in which teachers recognise student talents. 

Education is a complex network of curriculum, instruction, families, human growth and systems and processes.  A major challenge facing school systems is operationalising strategy. There is no silver bullet but perhaps these two principles are useful to keep in mind: whole system alignment and integration.  At the end of the day, however, the real challenge is for the community to embrace reform, to own it. That requires more than strategy, it requires time, dedication, concessions and that mysterious X factor which, I believe, is specific to each school’s culture.

One thought on “Translating theory into practice in schools

  1. Plenty of pragmatic wisdom and sound advice here from Conrad a practising teacher, educational leader, and scholar. He puts his writing into practice, invites feedback and is prepared to adjust and change in the light of experience.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *