10 Steps for Building Whole School Learning Culture

Last night I watched #4Corners program detailing the jobs of the future and one of the questions the host asked at the beginning was:

What will the jobs of the future look like and are we educating our children for them? @FergusonNews#4Corners #edchat


Most educators out there would have loved the show and the online discussion that was generated around the relevance of much of what ABC highlighted.  Many in school leadership roles around the world have been witnessing many many schools struggling with an adequate response to this question posed by Sarah Ferguson.  I think the short answer is NO many schools are not adequately teaching students for their future and the struggle schools are having is how can they shift?

What resonated with me was the section that focussed on the schools behind the scenes. I think I saw at least two in the show — one of them being the Australian Science and Maths School in South Australia. Both schools looked and sounded like they were committed to whole school change processes, not simply one or a handful of teachers innovating in their classrooms that probably more accurately reflects the many schools I have worked in or visited.  I noticed the huge engagement on the part of the students and the excitement they had about sitting in the driving seat of their learning.

This made me reflect on my school and what I see as the key issues in building such excitement and engagement with students in my school.  Here are some of my thoughts.

10 Factors to help Build Whole School Culture 


The show and comments I read later on social media reinforced to me the idea that if schools are to change their learning culture they MUST:

  1. Be Whole School Focussed and Committed to LEARNING

  2. Have Leadership that MUST resource and drive the learning VISION

  3. Build Learning experiences that are authentic and linked to real world problems

  4. Reinvent their notions of what relevant curriculum is for students

  5. Knock down walls and open up new learning spaces – no more industrial rooms

  6. Engage parents and wider community as “experts” to give feedback on students projects – invite them in to student showcases of work

  7. Commit to training of teachers as coaches and experts in new models of delivery of learning to students

  8. Be Future Focussed as a school learning community on the students future careers

  9. Build TEAMS of students that work on 5 week projects to create a PRODUCT

  10. Be places of continual reinvention and innovation that reflects digital disruption in society


Project Based Learning Curriculum – one way forward

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In San Diego a consortium of schools called New Tech run schools such as High Tech High that has achieved remarkable success by building the entire school culture around a carefully designed project-based curriculum.

Many schools in Australia have discovered this holy grail of building student engagement success.  My learning portal into the future has been heavily influenced by Parramatta Marist High School in outer Western Sydney that as been on a similar journey to High Tech in rebuilding their school and in the process has reinvented one of the oldest schools in Australia into what is arguably now one of the most successful and innovative schools.

Click here to read more about High Tech High, visit: www.hightechhigh.org

PBL Journey at Parramatta Marist High

“In 2007, the school principal (Brother Patrick) visited Napa New Technology High School in the Napa Valley, San Francisco. The school was considered to be part of a small but crucial educational revolution in the United States which focused not solely on the content that students needed to acquire before they left high school, but also on the 21st Century skills that students would need in order to be successful in life. With guidance from an overseeing organization (New Tech Network) and support from the strong underlying model of Project Based Learning, the school was successful and had strong community and parental backing.

On his return, Brother Patrick spoke to staff about the changes he had witnessed in schools overseas and to consider the future direction of Parramatta Marist High School. Several staff intrigued by this PBL model attended a week-long conference in the United States and then on their return, began the task of planning for the implementation of this model at our school, for 2008. Since then, Brother Patrick and the CEO (Parramatta) have shown their belief in the model and their dedication to improving the learning of students by allowing further staff to train in the model, by redeveloping current learning spaces and also encouraging staff to strive and achieve their Train the Trainers Certification. This certification enables staff to provide teacher training in the PBL model, both at our school and overseas.”

Centre for Deeper Learning (CDL)


The ongoing journey of transformation that began in 2007 continues to this day in ever new and exciting ways.  The school has established its own staff training facility called the Centre for Deeper Learning that has trained countless teachers in their PBL method of curriculum delivery.  I have been a visitor many times to this outstanding school and group of educators that lead the vision of PMH.

I am now in the privileged position of leading a school community and I like many leaders am constantly looking for a recipe that guarantees school success for each individual.  We are now in the process of committing our school to a vision of building a Project Based Curriculum starting in the Middle Years in 2017.

Why Middle Years PBL?


Most resistance, disengagement, boredom and resistance to learning comes in the teenage years when students, particularly boys, but also girls, get past the point the age of Primary schooling and early High School years of learning to do the ‘right thing’.

Some would say pick Year 7 which is an easier group arguably for a new program to succeed.

Building a PBL Curriculum

So how does/will this look for your typical Year 9 or Year 10 student next year?  My school is currently researching and planning this.  Conversations around where to start and who or what subject areas to start with are in discussion with Leaders of Learning.  Of course we are using Parramatta Marist as our ‘critical friend’ and people such as Kurt Challinor, Director of the Centre for Deeper Learning is helping us in many ways.

Most of the modelling and inservicing behind Parramatta’s success has come from networking as part of the New Tech Network and Buck Institute of Education (BIE) in the United States.

So what are the Core Components of a Project Based Curriculum?

This is a snap shot of our learning so far using language of PBL

  1. Need to Know – what do students need to know?
  2. Driving Question – what is KEY question driving the project for the students?
  3. In-Depth Inquiry – giving students time in their project teams to build deep learning
  4. Voice and Choice – students own their learning (student voice)
  5. Revision and Reflection – time for students to review and reflect on their learning
  6. Public Audience – having students present their project work to ‘real’ audience


So wish us well as begin our journey of transformation like many other schools who want to engage students in their learning and re-imagine learning with the simple desire to improve student outcomes.


Back to Basics

My school is beginning the journey of implementing Project Based Learning as a core method of curriculum delivery in 2017. As we begin this conversation and start planning how our rollout will look next year we have started talking to teachers, investing in our staff visiting in groups Parramatta Marist which is what I believe to be the Gold Standard School of PBL as a school wide pedagogy over several years.

They have trialled and developed their model many times and I firmly believe now they can assist us greatly to evolve learning at our school in our context. It’s not going to be the same journey as PMH but I know there will be enough similarities in the PBL model of curriculum design and team delivery that we would be foolish not to invest significantly in learning from an Australian school that has walked the talk of leading change for over ten years now.

I look forward to leading and being a part of the journey.


I think it is really important as an educator that we are constantly revising our practices and breaking down what we do. For Project Based Learning part of this is going back to the beginning to have a look at how we design projects. This blog post will cover aspects of Project Design for best practice PBL.

Firstly I will consider Gold Standard PBL. Recently, the Buck Institute revised its PBL Model. Take a look –

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The above image shows the old model and below the revised. As a staff we considered why they would change it, leading us to also begin to revise our practices. If the change is coming from the top then we should definitely follow.

We considered the differences in the models and discussed the following:

  • The change from in-depth inquiry to sustained inquiry:
    • We want students to be moving forward in their learning and need…

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The Growth Mindset Teacher

Growth Mindset School is made up of a whole school with teachers aiming to lift the standards for all regardless of where their students are starting with their learning base.

Class Teaching


Tonight’s 15 minute forum was led by geography teacher Hannah Townsend.  Last year, Hannah carried out a small scale ‘Practitioner Research Project’  to explore what it means as a teacher to have a growth mindset?  We often talk about this quite loosely, but what do those teachers who strongly believe in the idea of mindset do, on a day to day basis?  Based on our knowledge of our staff, a sample of teachers who were perceived to be very growth mindset in their approach and, based on their student outcomes, were successful teachers, were observed by Hannah.  Based on Dweck’s research, Hannah was looking for certain features of their teaching that linked to the idea of growth mindset, as outlined below:


Following these observations, Hannah found that these teachers who embrace  the idea of growth mindset in their their teaching, rather than simply agreeing to it in principle, seem to ensure challenge

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On Disneyland and the SAT

Another Disneyland learning experience!

My Year of Teaching Dangerously

My mom and I just took my two boys, ages 6 and 8, to Disneyland. It was their first trip, and we went excited to experience it through them. It was spring break for us — and, it seemed, for most of the world. Wait times for rides were 30 minutes at the very least, and I dressed the boys in blinding shades so I would not lose them in the oppressive rush of people. The boys like it: they liked Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride; they liked AstroBlasters. The loved the simulated Star Tour through a world of droids and Jedis. After four or five rides a day, though, they were ready to go back to our little suite at the hotel and play Jedi Warriors with their new lightsabers or go swimming in the wildly chlorinated pool. (Yes, we bought them lightsabers. This is important in the actual point…

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Enabling Spontaneous Learning Environments: 5 keys to breaking free of (or within) the 4 walls

Great article on learning and flexibility of space required to be successful

culture | learning | design

Are you comfortable with spontaneity, creating a context for learning that is fluid and able to respond to ideas?

One of the underpinning factors in the design for Manhattan and The City, the newest precinct at Northern Beaches Christian School, has been to enable the creation of spontaneous spaces.

File_000 (5)“We have created a structure whereby any teacher can spontaneously find different space, all the while supported by pervasive wifi and accessible solar powered screen technology, if chosen.” Stephen Harris, Principal at NBCS

The idea of a spontaneous space is nothing new to early years educators. Search “spontaneous learning environment” and you will see numerous entries for early years education, such as:

The Star Fish room provides a stimulating planned and spontaneous learning environment that focuses on children’s interests, strengths and development. littlelearnerschildcare.com.au

IMG_0990I am often curious about how so many of our foundational understandings  about learning seem to shift as…

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10 Ideas to Building Cultures of Thinking, Creativity, Innovation and Leadership in our Schools

View at Medium.com

I recently did a quick test on Twitter that asked me if I was a ‘Connected Educator’. The questions were short and simple and the feedback indicated I had a pretty good handle of ‘Connecting’ with educators across the globe online via various social media platforms. Fair enough.

What does it mean for me? One of my fairly new friends on twitter (old teacher of mine from the 80’s) said to me recently as a new Principal how did I find the time to keep reading and contributing on Twitter?

I simply told him it was essential I keep my professional reading going now even more so than ever. My normal professional networks were now a little further spread geographically (I moved to the country from the city) so I relied upon my PLN’s online more so than ever. F2F conferences were a long way away. Twitter was at hand on my phone whenever I needed it!

So what have I been reading. What is influencing my teaching and learning and leadership?

At present I have pinned as my favourite twitter quote:

If you’re going to change a school it’s not just about ‘give it a go in this particular area’. It’s whole school reform, it’s all teachers”

I cannot remember where it came from when I read the quote it summed up my thoughts on school change and reform at present.

Our job as educators is all about learning and so it is vital that we model for our students what we want them to embrace in our classrooms. Nothing stands still and nor should schools as they approach learning and teaching.

I left school in the mid 80’s and yet in so many ways in Australia the main parts of many schools (I’m generalising from my experiences) are essentially the same as they were for me thirty years ago. One classroom — one teacher model. 9–3 day 5–6 period day. Little connection from class to class. Exams at the end of courses to test our understanding. Success is still measured by the HSC exams and ATAR score at the end of Year 12 which is a more a ‘test’ of how much you know rather than what you have learnt. I was a ‘good’ student without ever being a ‘top’ student. It took me many years to understand the difference.

So what should CHANGE in Schools? (my children’s future)

  1. In brief I would love to get rid of the HSC (end of course exams) or at least modify how so much concentrates on exam assessments for students? We have so many other valid forms of assessments we can use to measure students competencies so why do we still rely on exams for more than 70% of assessments?

2. Modify School curriculum. With such a heavy focus on meeting the ‘outcomes’ or standards for these exams many very good teachers (including myself) focus on getting the best results for our students in these exams. We need to stop and rethink what we are ‘teaching’.

3. Focus on learning. Changing exam focus allows teachers to focus on students and teachers learning and having fun in the process.

4. Get schools to focus on integrating new courses that are critical for our society and economy for our students. These include much greater focus on learning HOW to THINK. These courses have been around since Socrates and Plato were boys and many outstanding schools have introduced thinking and philosophy courses to better provide students with understanding how the brain works.

5. Project Based Teams. PBL or Project Based Learning again is not a new method of teaching and learning. Adopted by medical schools in the USA in the 1960’s it is a methodology that requires students to work in teams in response to answering a deep question of inquiry put before them. PBL has been adopted anew by many school systems over the past decade and is having very positive results engaging students in their learning.

6. Building Cultures of Creativity.

This is challenging! Schools are about learning which means they should be promoting all these words above: IMAGINATION. INNOVATION. IDEAS. The GREAT learning organisations of course do this every day which makes them so great. They AIM to be creative from the outset of every learning project or idea introduced.

7. Change the space. Maybe half the learning is about the space or environment students enter into. Do they come in ready to engage and learn or sit back and sleep and switch off?

Do your learning spaces engage?

8. Take students out into the World. Technology allows so much interactivity that was simply not possible before. Throw away the textbook and get the students to create their own. Students need to understand the aim of an education is not a place at TAFE, Uni or even getting a job. The real aim is about living IN the world. The more schools connect their students learning to the REAL world the more successful and powerful the learning outcomes. Many schools are getting parents and professionals to come in to assess students projects at the end of a 5 week learning cycle.

9. Promoting Student Voice is crucial in the modern learning organisation. Giving ALL students a pathway to access LEADERSHIP programs is vital and will ultimately promote the positive aspects of your school. You want all students to be leaders or at least demonstrate as many qualities of leadership as is possible.

10. Teacher Leaders will help build and model the type of learning organisation you desire. INVEST in your teachers. No Business Manager gets this one. A Teacher Professional growth mindset will move your whole organisation forward. Spend lots of money on internal and external professional learning that takes your teachers to the well — show them how the future of their school could look! This takes time and every cent spent is an investment in the future Staff-Student Wellbeing of your school.

At the end of the day every ed Leader needs to ask themselves what type ofstudents do they want to grow and nurture in their school?

Good luck!

I just spent a week learning with 11 year 7 students… and it was brilliant!

Another schools adventure and teacher’s story pushing the boundaries of contemporary learning as Project Based Learning is embraced.

Bianca Hewes

Last week I facilitated a week-long project with a small group of year 7 students, and it was an experience that really reaffirmed my commitment to a project-based learning environment for all students. After having watching the documentary Most Likely to Succeed in the lead-up to the Future Schools conference a couple of weeks ago, I was beginning to get despondent about my current attempts to introduce PBL into my new school. I worked really hard last year to try to give my students authentic learning experiences using PBL as my methodology, but despite my best efforts I found myself dealing with frustrated students who did not enjoy these experiences, complained about the lack of teacher direction, the amount of work, the accountability, and the fact that they felt they weren’t spending enough time focused on high-stakes assessments. There were, of course, some wins in there – some great moments where…

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Outcomes Not Processes

Universal theme here. Changing the way you think often changes the outcomes too. So why is it so hard for schools to change?

One of the common themes across schools worldwide is the lack of time to focus on improvement.  It’s not that system leaders don’t agree with the research but that for many systems resources are spent in resourcing the system rather than resourcing teachers at the coalface of teaching and learning in schools.

The result. Great research that is presented but due to the lack of time schools provide to all teachers to improve their teaching and learning then things take longer than they should to get better.

One of the significant points underpinning top performing school systems is that Face to Face teaching time is reduced to allow for the obvious factor of increasing teacher professional learning time.  By increasing the time teachers have to learn, mostly from each other during the school day rather than after school or in their own time which is still the common model for many schools.

Having new modern collaborative school environments with old industrial models where students spend all day at school with teachers teaching them most of the day every day doesn’t make any sense anymore.

Time to rethink things and find new models to improve the learning outcomes for students and teachers!

What changes lie ahead for the education sector in England and Wales? If the core business of education is teaching and learning, we now have a green light to get on with it. No more lesson gradings. And now, no more judgment in OfSTED inspections.

Source: Outcomes Not Processes