"For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate observer, it's an immense pleasure to take up residence in multiplicity, in whatever is seething, moving, evanescent and infinite: you're not at home, but you feel at home everywhere, you're at the centre of everything yet you remain hidden from everybody." Baudelaire
Last week I had the pleasure of presenting a keynote to the Australian Council for Educational Leaders National Conference in Sydney. The presentation was based, in part, on the edited book Future Alternatives for Educational Leadership.
In exploring what leadership looks like now, and what it might look like next, as the book does, I shared some unusual metaphors for leadership, from educational scholarship, that could help to move our thinking beyond normalised paradigms of leadership as largely male, white, and about the individual. These were:
The Cheshire Cat (Netolicky, 2019) representing the deliberately visible-invisible leader who navigates fluidity of role, and intentionally provides others with what they need at any given time.
The punk rock principal (Heffernan, 2019) as the leader who sees themselves as part of a band, and who is willing to consider and potentially resist compliances and expectations.
Network leadership (Azorín, Harris, & Jones, 2021) in which leading is collective, networked, and a social practice.
Leadership as a social movement (Rincón-Gallardo, 2021) in which leaders participate as a learners, craft strategy, forge collective commitment, shape the public narrative, and ignite others to action.
Leading as salvaging (Grice, 2021) as a practice of hope and sustainability that involves collecting, saving, selecting, respecting the value of resources, and repurposing or returning to purpose.
Wayfinding leadership (Netolicky & Golledge, 2021) in which leaders know and reflect on self, know and respond to their environment, navigate roadblocks, use instruments fit for purpose, and balance tensions by simultaneously applying systematisation and intuition, strategy and empathy.
The theme of the conference was ‘inspiring hope, leading our future’, and my takeaways for the audience were that we benefit from:
A focus on leading as a practice for all, rather than the leader as a person or title.
Knowing that context is queen, including knowing our people and honoring tradition while engaging in futures thinking.
Applying reflexive practice by examining self and evaluating impact.
Seeing ourselves, as educators and leaders, as collaborators rather than competitors, working together across stakeholder groups and systems.
Redesigning for diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Considering sustainable practices, for our schools, our staff, ourselves, and the planet.
Creating and feeding the conditions for an ecosystem of high trust, high support, high challenge, and respectful disagreement.
Empowering, building the capacity of, meaningfully inviting the voices of, and co-designing with others.
A core belief of my presentation, and of the conference, was the importance of humanity at the centre of our work as teachers and school leaders.
In education, we often look to the future, while also being told our schools are stuck in the past.
While there are innovative learning spaces in many schools, classrooms may look similar to the onlooker over time—often with a version of desks, chairs, writable and projectable surfaces, and students of the same age learning in the same space—but the learning and teaching that goes on is not the one-size-fits-all chalk-and-talk of old. There is, of course, an important place for teacher knowledge and for explicit instruction. A classroom observer might not see, looking in, what students are doing, and what platforms they are using to learn. They might not see, unless they speak to the students, that the content is being accessed via a ranges of modes and supports such as video instruction, collaborative online spaces, cloud documents, assistive and adaptive technologies, multimodal resources, tiered tasks, student choice, and self-paced learning modules. They are unlikely to see the depth of the teacher’s knowledge of the diverse learning, social and emotional needs of each learner, and the ways in which the teacher is generating a range of data on student learning, and subtly adjusting environment, content, and learning process and product, in order to support the success of each child. They may not observe the layers of student goal-setting, self-reflection, and action on ongoing feedback.
While schools may have moved further in their practice than some commentators would argue, schools exist within the current instability and volatility of the world, along with the rapidly changing nature of work. At a time of systemic exhaustion and tidal uncertainty, it is sometimes challenging to find hope, optimism, and a sense of excitement about the future. The global geopolitical economic outlook is distressing, and plagued by rising inequality, conflict, widening polarisation, pandemics, climate crises, constraints on national resources, and a gender gap predicted to take another 132 years to close.
Organisations around the world are describing future trajectories that blend hazard with opportunity. The CSIRO (Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation), for example, recently identified seven megatrends:
A volatile changing climate with economic and social costs.
An increased focus on cleaner and greener energy sources.
A ‘burning platform’ of escalating health challenges including an ageing population and growing burden of chronic and infectious diseases, and psychological distress.
Geopolitical tensions and uncertainty.
Growing economic digitisation of work and the economy.
An explosion in the use of artificial intelligence (AI).
A strong consumer and citizen push for the need for public trust in governments and governance.
The World Economic Forum has reported that the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated pre-existing inequalities, with gender, socio-economic status, location and ethnicity influencing students’ access to education.
What are educators, schools, and the education system to do, to ensure that students are being prepared for their futures in such times?
The WEF report identifies areas for opportunity in education, including:
Alternative and additional ways of assessing and tracking student learning.
Learning integrated with employers and industry.
Flexible credentialling and development of skills wallets or passports.
Harnessing sophisticated technologies for learning such as AI and other computer-assisted-instruction systems.
Investment in teachers’ learning and time.
Schools are experimenting with many of these things, such as alternative ways to record evidence of student learning, and to track, monitor and build portfolios and ‘learner profiles’ of student success. Content is being offered in increasingly innovative and flexible ways, including microcredentialing and courses focused on wellbeing, social justice, service, character, and learner capabilities, as well as traditional knowledges. As an example, this term in some of the Future Ready courses at my school, Year 6s are designing solutions to a health and wellbeing issue based on immersion in United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 3, Year 7s are designing a future school, Year 8s are writing a ‘Close the Gap’ campaign pledge, Year 9s are engaging in a global gamified sustainability challenge, and Year 10s are completing a self-chosen microcredential as well as a choice between earning their Provide First Aid certification or pitching their ‘side hustle’ business idea in an entrepreneurship course.
Student voices, as well as teacher, parent and community voices, are key as we think about shaping education. Schools are trialling approaches that serve the needs of their communities, such as flexible and alternate timetable arrangements, flexible working arrangements for staff, flexible learning options for students, hybrid teaching and learning environments, flexible pathways through and beyond school, and delivery of courses across schools and organisations.
One of the OECD’s ‘four scenarios for future schooling’ envisions schools as learning hubs that strengthen personalised learning pathways as part of an ecosystem of networked education spaces, with strong partnerships with external institutions, such as museums, libraries, residential centres, and technological hubs. As someone who has worked in independent schools for over 20 years, I see our responsibility as to cultivate a collaborative and networked education world, sharing with one another, and with educators more broadly, the work and innovation in which we engage. Platforms like my blog, books and podcast are attempts to share and collaborate with others in the education space. While the marketing firehose and facilities arms race can position schools as competitors, we will build a better education system if we see one another as partners and networked collaborators. We are better together, for the future of our students and the planet. We can enact the kinds of opportunities, relationships, and voice we would like to see in the world for our students, who are the people who will positively influence the future world.