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  • Writer's pictureDr Pete Stebbins PhD

Leading High Performance Schools Into The Future: Leadership Shares with Dr David Turner

“The purpose of our school is framed through the lens of the question: ‘Can you name two people at our school who believe that you are going to be successful in life?’” D’Arcy Deacon, Principal, Eagleview Elementary, BC, Canada

In the HPS Leadership Shares series we interview school leaders nominated by their peers as exemplars of excellence in building High Performance Schools.

Over several years many school leaders I met said ‘You really should get in touch with David Turner’, ‘Do you know David Turner?’, ‘I’m sure David would be interested in what you’re doing…’ Sure enough, when I finally made the connection I began to understand the important role this quiet achiever plays in shaping the leadership landscape of Australian Schools.

Dr David Turner is a rarity among school leaders. A seemingly eclectic series of career choices encompassing teaching, entrepreneurship, academia & principalship combines to make him the ‘man of the hour’ in understanding the solutions required to many of the challenges facing Australian schools. Solutions which involve looking beyond the fences and gates of our schools to collaborating with our peers on a regional, national and global level...

What Keeps You Up At Night?

Q: What are the big issues school leaders face in the current state of play and what are the emerging challenges on the horizon?

“It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change” Charles Darwin

Whilst there is no doubt we are making giant strides in raising the quality and consistency of education in Australia, I am still concerned that we may not be ready to face the massive social, cultural and economic changes facing us in the very near future. According to the Committee for Economic Development in Australia (CEDA), technology and automation will make almost 40% of all Australian jobs, including highly skilled roles, redundant in the next 10-15 years.

This means that children we are currently teaching will enter into an adult world relying on their current school education to help them compete for an uncertain and much more restricted range of future jobs. Thus, I worry about the implications this uncertain future has on (1) our current curriculum, (2) teacher capacity for differentiation, and (3) level of support and collaboration for already over-stretched school leaders. Let me expand on each of these issues below:

Australian Curriculum: The Present vs The Future

(1.) The adequacy of the current curriculum we teach compared to the curriculum that is needed to prepare for the jobs of the future...

One thing that concerns me is an apparent mismatch between the direction of schooling in terms of what students will need – the skills and capacities to be successful in a future world – and current policy direction.

“A world of ceaseless change means that a useful education involves not merely the mastery of facts… but also the training of a vigilant instinct.” Joshua Cooper Ramo

The question for me is, “Are we building school cultures that help students become lifelong learners able to deal with a future world we are all unsure about?” or “Are we building school cultures that help students simply out-perform their peers on standardised tests?” I worry that schooling as we maintain it will be blindsided by technological and social change already underway. I feel we need to be looking outward more than we do.

Teacher Capacity: 'All' Students vs 'Each' Student

(2.) The capacity of our teachers to rise to the challenge of truly differentiated learning when they are stretched too thinly by the expectation to enable ‘all students to succeed equally’....

“Everybody is genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a ladder, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid.” Albert Einstein

A policy environment driven by the mantra of “all” students succeeding can lead to some unintended negative consequences, especially if the definition of success is a narrow one. In other countries that outperform Australia, the phrase “each” student succeeding is used. This implies a focus on the individual over the collective. Whilst it may be a matter of semantics, I believe the cultural language we use in the policy space can inadvertently lead to heightened stress levels in teachers who may become over-focused on maximising all students achieving on a narrow band of tests at the cost of genuine differentiation across a broader range of subjects.

I believe that relying on these types of policy levers and accompanying top down accountability to improve schools underestimates teaching as a maturing profession. I’m yet to meet a school teacher or principal who sets out to be ‘average’ in their work performance. We entered this career to make a difference and we work in it at a time when we know more than we ever did in the past about ‘what works’ in schools. Many in the profession are applying this knowledge and making a difference for students. What we need to do now is find better ways to encourage teachers to provide differentiated learning opportunities so that each student can maximise their potential.

School Leadership: Knowns vs Unknowns

(3.)    The level of support and opportunities for genuine collaboration provided to school leaders who face a range of ‘known’ and ‘unknown’ challenges…

“There are known knowns. These things that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say there are things we know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. These are the things we don't know we don't know.” Donald Rumsfeld

I worry about the increasing demands on school leaders. Having spent a lot of my career working as a school principal I know from first hand experience that leading a school is a complex and often stressful job. Professor Gary Martin points out that there is very little difference between being a principal or a CEO, with principals of larger schools responsible for multi-million dollar budgets, overseeing large workforces with a range of specialised functions, and addressing the needs of a diverse group of stakeholders. CEOs have a massive amount of peer support, mentoring and coaching available in well organised professional networks and whilst Principal networks do exist they are more focused on information sharing rather then providing the deeper peer support that is needed. I worry that school leaders are still quite isolated in much of their work and genuine collaboration and deeper levels of peer support are needed to help school leaders navigate the complex tasks and enormous challenges they face on a daily basis.

The challenges facing principals are many and varied. Akin to the Rumsfeld quote, in leading a school we are faced with an overwhelming list of things we know and need to manage on a daily basis, however we also routinely face unexpected ‘unknowns’ where we ‘know’ we need to reach out for help to solve new and unexpected challenges. I worry that we as school leaders are still learning to cooperate across schools, jurisdictions, and countries in sharing “what we know” when we need to urgently be more vulnerable and share “what we don't know” to collaborate on solutions that collectively are within reach. This level of collaboration will be essential if we are to solve the ‘unknown unknowns’ of school leadership challenges that will be arriving in the not too distant future.

Your Brief History of Time...

Q: Can you give us a snapshot of your life journey in becoming a School Leader?

A: I have been privileged to have a number of leadership roles throughout my career in schools and in other contexts. I believe this has offered me a ‘within school’ and ‘industry wide’ perspective. I have also made some detours from education into businesses that provided opportunities for creative endeavours that have taught me valuable life lessons.

After leaving school I studied business and worked in the finance industry for a few years before returning to study at James Cook University in Townsville to complete a Diploma of Teaching. The moral purpose of teaching underpinned the decision to change direction and I think this has remained a driver for my career in education.

“It's the teacher that makes the difference, not the classroom.” Michael Morpurgo

School leadership came very early in my career, being appointed principal in my second year of teaching. This was exciting and highly rewarding but I often reflect on the lack of teaching prowess I had in these early years! Working so closely with small communities, moving around regional Queensland and experiencing a diversity of communities and schools provided great learnings. Collaboration was extremely important and the network provided by my professional association, was essential for early career support and growth.

Early in my career I recognised the increasing complexity of schools and the need to look beyond traditional boundaries to manage the leadership challenges I faced. I still believe solutions to many of our significant problems won’t come from within the discipline of education, just as the threats we face won’t. I decided to undertake a MBA and believe this to be the most significant formal learning I have undertaken. Working alongside CEOs, lawyers, engineers, business owners and the like certainly provided me with a new and broader perspective.

“I believe treating our principals more like CEOs would go a long way to improving our education system.” Prof. Gary Martin

Shortly after this stage of my career I took a sabbatical and pursued my passion in photography as a business. I didn’t find the same level of purpose and within a couple of years returned to education and the principalship. The school I was appointed to provided me great opportunity to innovate and the work there provided a most rewarding period in developing community and professional partnerships. This strong focus on innovation and leadership led to my next role in the university sector as a leader in a school of ‘Learning and Innovation’.

I enjoyed the challenges associated with developing tertiary education programs that were linked to real-world school challenges but again felt the need to return to the coal face and returned to principalship with a renewed focus and energy. After a few years I was appointed to a large Brisbane school that I worked in until 2015 when I was appointed the Director of Professional Learning at QASSP. This role now gives me an opportunity to bring together my experiences and skills as a teacher, principal, academic and service provider.

Advice To My Younger Self…

Q: What were some of your key early career leadership lessons and what advice would you give to your younger self?

A: I think there are four things I would say to my younger self. All have implications for the culture of the organisation. My greatest learning is the primary truth behind the Drucker quote that ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast.’

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Peter Drucker

Firstly, be more confident in your abilities. Develop the skills to articulate to others the work you think is required. To do this, take a balanced approach between the task and relationships. I’m strongly task orientated and love applying the research, but have learned the importance of connection, although I still have more to do in this area.

“People don't care how much you know until they first know how much you care.” Eleanor Roosevelt

Secondly, be grateful to the many colleagues, leaders and friends that contribute to your life’s journey. My career has been enhanced by outstanding leaders and mentors, and important friendships resulted. But I’m not sure I have appropriately expressed the gratitude for these contributions to my life.

Thirdly, recognise that the frustration of the status quo is in fact an opportunity. Throughout my career there have been periods of high levels of frustration and dissatisfaction with how things are – often directed at the larger system. On reflection, my advice would be to find creative ways to influence the agenda, to renew, to contribute to positive change. Use the word ‘and’ more than the word ‘but’.

“Managing your problems can only make you good, whereas building your opportunities is the only way to become great.” Jim Collins

And finally, you won’t ever have all the answers. Collaboration will bring success! Build partnerships, look to mentors and find the person in the room who has the necessary experience or insights.

Improving School Culture & Networks of Inquiry & Innovation...

Q: David, you regularly speak about the critical importance of school culture on student outcomes and the need to improve collaboration among schools to drive sustainable improvement. At a practical level what does this really mean?

The more recent focus of many schooling systems around the world (including Australia) on performance and accountability has been brought about by the link between economic outcomes and a population’s level of education, and this has unnecessarily narrowed the work of teachers and school leaders. The result is a disconnect between the goals of 21st century schooling and the actual day-to-day practices occurring in a lot of schools.

Great schools are much more than the number of students performing at the top bands of an annual standardised test. In British Columbia (BC), Canada (which is touted as the highest performing English speaking jurisdiction in the world), their work is driven by a purpose inclusive of, yet far greater than comparative test performance. Schools participating in the BC Networks of Inquiry and Innovation (NOII) jointly developed their core purpose which is stated in three goals: (1) Every learner crossing the stage with dignity, purpose and options, (2) all learners leaving our settings more curious than when they arrive, and (3) every learner with an understanding of, and respect for, Aboriginal culture, history and ways of knowing. There are over 200 schools in this network benefitting from this very powerful and clear shared sense of purpose.

the Networks of Inquiry and Innovation (NOII) Schools jointly developed their core purpose which is stated in three goals: (1) Every learner crossing the stage with dignity, purpose and options, (2) all learners leaving our settings more curious than when they arrive, and (3) every learner with an understanding of, and respect for, Aboriginal culture, history and ways of knowing.

For me if you get purpose and culture right, the outcomes will look after themselves. It’s often subtle but the questions we typically ask of students – “What are you learning?” “How do you know if you are successful?” – are enhanced by the question, “Can you name two people in the school that know you are going to be successful in life?” Such a question requires a higher purpose and again comes from the work of NOII.

“When what you are deeply passionate about, what you can be best in the world at and what drives your resource engine come together, not only does your work move toward greatness, but so does your life.” Jim Collins

I’m also interested in the contribution of the system’s ‘meso’, or middle level in school improvement. This is the activity that happens between individual schools and the system or policy environment. In my current role I have the privilege of seeing some outstanding work across the state and see great opportunity of connecting others to this work. In a way the planets have aligned for me again. I find myself working at this at a time world authorities on system improvement are saying the work in the middle is important and untapped. I agree with Michael Fullan who recently said that we need to find ways to better engage principal associations in this work and our collaboration with colleagues in British Columbia’s Networks of Inquiry and Innovation leverages the power of principal associations across the globe!

Australia & British Columbia: Similarities & Differences...

Q: You’ve recently returned from a study tour of BC – what were some of the school culture lessons you learned that are applicable to Australian schools?

A: Yes, I’m thrilled to have recently organised and led QASSP’s first international study tour. In many ways what we experienced in British Columbia (BC) challenged us. There were many similarities but the differences between our systems offer learning opportunities. I suspect more learning will follow as the comparisons are processed by those on the tour in the months ahead.

The language used in schools was noticeably inclusive. We heard from a number of people in different locations that they deliberately moved their terminology from ‘all students’ to ‘each student’ to focus on the individual. Acknowledgement of the importance of the First Nations and embedding of indigenous perspectives in the curriculum and in teaching was impressive. Again there was a higher moral purpose to this work. Also the use of ‘learners’ was inclusive of students, teachers and school leaders. There was a sense everybody needed to be learning to deal with the complexity of a changing world.

“By teaching we learn.” Seneca

There was also a rotation cycle for principals in terms of their appointments to schools. Every 4-5 years principals would change schools within a district. Certainly the industrial conditions are different, but I wonder if this requires a different style of leadership in schools there – one that is more custodial of the school and concerned with collective performance. There was no sense of competition between school leaders or schools.

In contrast to Australian trends, principals and indeed districts in BC, did not appear to be overly data focused, with data playing a minimal role in wider school performance conversations. This raised many questions for us given much work being done in Australia in relation to the use of data. While there were Provincial tests, and these were monitored and discussed at the district level, student data was generated and considered at the classroom level.

The Australian system would appear to be more coherent and our principals certainly have greater responsibility around budget, resource allocations, data monitoring as well as expectation of improvement initiatives. This adds to the complexity for Australian school leaders who I would say are more like CEOs then their BC counterparts. This likely requires a different approach to supporting and growing Australian school leaders compared to school leaders in BC.

Sliding Doors – Into The Future...

Q: Fast-forward 20 years from now – what will be the keys to success or failure of the education system?

A: Let’s be optimistic and look at the success of our schools. In twenty years Queensland will be the high performing system others look to.

Our schools will be clearly focused on a higher moral purpose related to ensuring our students are thriving and ready for a changing world. The measure of school success will be inclusive of, yet so much broader than the NAPLAN results. The notion of a gap between indigenous and non-indigenous students will be historical.

We will have a ‘mature profession’ that motivates those who are members to achieve outstanding outcomes for each student. As Daniel Pink says, we are motivated by purpose, autonomy and mastery, not rewards and punishments. School cultures will be built around this and the system will create the policy environment to allow them to thrive.

“Living a satisfying life requires more than simply meeting the demands of those in control. Yet in our offices and our classrooms we have way too much compliance and way too little engagement. The former might get you through the day, but the latter will get you through the night.” Daniel Pink

There will be a more collegial and supportive environment for school leaders too. They will be supported in the complex work they do by extensive preparation and induction. New practices to support their ongoing development will be in place and membership of local leadership networks akin to the CEO and Entrepreneur Networks will be an essential support strategy for all school leaders. Collaboration and inquiry will be strong across schools, sectors, and regional and district boundaries. Queensland’s Networks of Inquiry and Innovation will be 20 years old and the schooling system will be much stronger for the work done ‘in the middle'.

Thank you Dr David Turner!

Dr Pete Stebbins PhD

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