BLC06: Sustainable Learning Communities

Dr. Andy Hargraves is presenting the second keynote, titled Sustainable Learning Communities. Wow, he doesn’t pull any punches. His introduction was essentially a comparrison of the current American educational system versus the direction that the rest of the world is moving in. Every other major country in the world is moving away from nationwide standardization in favor of other more diverse models. He calls the US the captain and lone attendee of a sinking ship.

He asks the audience, what is sustainability? My definition was “A system that can maintain itself despite sociological and economical changes. His definition, “Sustainability does not simply mean whether something can last. It addresses how particular intiatives can be developed without compromising the development of others in the surrounding environment, now and in the future.” It is about endurance, renewal, and such, but it is also about social justice. Your improvements do not prosper at the expense of other schools or other systems around you.

That’s a really great point. If you are a principal and move to a different school and bring all your best teachers with you, it is an unsustainable system.

Unsustainability: Imposed short-term targets (or adequate yearly progress) transfress every principle of sustainable leadership and learning. Sound familiar? He says that it is completely unsustainable. England has had it for years. Government arbitrarily sets targets that schools need to reach so within X number of years, the majority of students would be exceptionally above level. It has been a universal failure. Where there has appeared to be improvement, it has really been deliberately ‘rigged’ so that students are guaranteed to achieve highly (teaching to the test, having low performing students be absent on testing days, etc).

“If you’re a governement, you can’t change things if they’re succeeding. You can only change things if they’re failing.” So in Australia, they had to prove that Literacy programs were failing so they could make changes, inspite of the fact that research was proving otherwise. Fascinating. Never heard about that. Gotta read more about that research.

What makes you an “Enron” of educational change? If you spend the majority of time focusing on the bubble kids to make it seem that you are generating more achievement than you really are. If your reading scores are going up, but less people outside of school are actually spending time reading. If you are a principal and see immigrant students coming into your school and you immediately think about finding a new job before failures through testing show up forcing you to lose your job. Scary thought.

So what can we do that is more sustainable in an age of post-standardization?
Depth, learning comes before achievement and before testing. Endurance, it lasts beyond the short term, the immediate target, improvement doesn’t disappear when the charasmatic leader leaves. Breadth, it is a shared responsbility across a community, teachers, principals, students and parents. Justice, we cannot bring about improvement in any one area without thought to the other areas around us, one district is also impacted by the surrounding districts. Diversity, standardization does not suit diverse system. Resourcefulness, how do we renew our sources of energy, conserving expenditure. Conservation, honors the past in creating the future, innovating into the future by bulding selectively on the best of the past, rather than bastardizing the past to take credit for future success.

Depth: Learning comes before achievement, which comes before testing. Not the other way around. Data driven instruciton is a misnomer. The data should not be the drivers, the practitioners, the instructors and teachers should be. Data is like Mapquest, it helps you find your way, but it is just an aid. If you make one wrong turn, you’re hopelessly lost forever. You need to combine that with your own eyes, experiences and thinking to get you correctly from point A to point B. Evidence guides you, but so does your own experience and intuition. This is radical stuff. Putting learning first, rather than testing and data.

Endurance: Sustainable leadership lasts. It goes beyond a single principal or superintendent. All leaders eventually go away, so systems have to exist beyond the specific person at the forefront of the change. We will all eventually die. A sustainable learning environment won’t go away with the leader. The positive leader will have taken actions to ensure that the principles, practices and people will endure after they have left. The best leaders ensure that their legacy continues long after they have moved on. Saying goodbye and then lamenting that, “They hired the wrong person to continue my work” is more of a reflection on yourself than anybody else. If the principal is hit by a bus tomorrow, will the things the principal stands for endure?

Breadth: It’s about distributed leadership and shared leadership. On average, 30% of teachers entering teaching leave within the first 3 years. Some schools try to focus on veteren teachers and give them all the leadreship positions. Younger teachers get frustrated quickly. They don’t have opportunities to take leadership responsibilities early on, and instead they wound up moving on to other professions where they have those opportunities. Other schools try to focus on novice teachers and rely on their enthusiasm and energy to sustain the culture of the school. Unfortunately, the constant turnover means they are constantly making the same mistakes. Which is not sustainable either. The key is to have a blended culture, with leadership opportunities across all age and experience levels. Create an environment of mentoring and reciprocal learning.

In some countries, there’s a major emphasis on “Lateral Leadership”. If your school is doing well, they provide tremendous incentives for sharing your strategies and leadership with other schools around you, spreading your success as far as possible. Focusing on the successful schools, instead of focusing on the failing schools. Novel concept.

In the UK, Australia and Canada there is an emphasis on networking schools for peer support and peer pressure to improve all schools.

It is time to put learning before achievement, before testing. Testing will wind up improving because of it. It’s a matter of focus an emphasis. Not of charismatic leaders, but of creating sustainable change regardless of the leader in front of the podium.

I don’t often go to Keynote followups, but this presentation is sort of tickling my brain and I feel like there are some ideas bouncing around that I want to try to explore a bit before moving on to another topic. So this blog post now continues in another room with a smaller setting.

Somebody just raised a great question. How do we try to make change, widespread radical change, while still acknowledging and accomadating the current system. His solution is to find schools that are succeeding and network them with schools that aren’t, and have them share their strategies for change. Building on the successes some schools are experiencing. Since the results are trasnapearant (all the results are available publicly), if a school is failing it needs to implement practical changes that are currently being implemented by successful schools. Practice learning from practice.

If it is clear who is succeeding and who is failing, but many of the succeeding schools appear to be successful because they have figured out how to ‘work the system’ and success is defined based on faulty criteria, what is the criteria that schools SHOULD use to identify success and who they should look to for leadership. How do you quantify or qualify it?

Successful schools promote stimulating conversations that are also committed conversations, that translate into some kind of action over time. It’s not enough to discuss the ideas, they need to influence actionable decisions that transform the school community.

Professional learning communities, what passes for professional learning communities is often teachers thrown together to look at test score data in math and literacy. It’s rhetoric. And it’s definitely not a learning community. Professional learning communities are about more than just throwing groups of teachers together after school to look at achievement data and figure out quick ways to raise their scores. It’s about challenging each other to move ahead.

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By | 2006-07-19T21:49:40+00:00 July 19th, 2006|BLC|8 Comments

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  1. Dean Shareski 7/20/2006 at Jul 20, 06 | 11:26 am


    Our school division has been exploring LC’s for quite some time now (6 years in some form or another). We’ve changed them and adapted them several times and recently with a number of new schools joining the fold with little or no experience, we’ve tried to move them more towards simply looking at data. I’ve been somewhat opposed to that model but am glad to see someone speaking out against it.

    I did a bit of a search on Hargraves but couldn’t find much. If you have some links to his ideas, perhaps you could list them.

  2. […] Steve Dembo’s post on Dr. Andy Hargraves keynote has caught my attention. I’ve been involved in supporting teachers establish and build professional learning communities for the past several years. I would be the first to admit that it hasn’t always been smooth. The issues that have been most difficult to deal with has been time and focus. […]

  3. Miguel Guhlin 7/25/2006 at Jul 25, 06 | 6:59 pm

    Steve, thank you for sharing this information! As I read this, I’m reminded of the movie, “We Were Soldiers Once…and Young.” One of my favorite parts is what happens when, during training, all the officers are wiped out. The lesson to learn was, “What do you do next? How do you take command if your leader is wiped out and continue the mission?”

    This sums up sustainability for me and is as true in education as in a combat zone.
    A bit more appears here…

    Take care,
    Miguel Guhlin

  4. Penny Small 7/27/2006 at Jul 27, 06 | 2:59 am

    I was fortunate enough to listen to Andy speak on sustainable leadership last month here in Australia. What a “ta da” moment-again Andy has analysed and articulately unpacked the core of how schools tick and what directions we can take to provide lifelong learning that is not held to ransom by a political agenda.
    His comments about literacy in particular blew me away. Why do we focus so much time money and resources on literacy when we get such great results? We know how to teach literacy really well down here. Therefore how do we equalise our learning system to encompass the gifts of each child and provide a successful, enjoyable educational experience for them -so they continue to learn, contribute and succeed through out their lives?
    If you combine the work of Lane Clark-authentic learning /authentic assessment and Barbara Prashnig -learning styles( The Power of Diversity) -with Andy’s framework for sustainable leadership there is the potential to create a school/system that truly does cater for the learning needs of all kids and foster that love that comes from success.
    At my school I am using Andy’s work as the blueprint for change. We have begun with the environment and are ensuring that the elements of a NSW Quality teaching Dimension: Quality Learning Environment reflects-Breadth, Depth, Justice, Diversity, Resourcefulness, and Conservation.
    In NSW we administer standardised literacy and numeracy tests in yrs 3 and 5. They occur next week and will influence funding-so what? It’s a hoop jumping exercise that I, as Principal, will adhere to-however it will not dictate a ‘teach to test’ or ‘death by black line master’ culture. We’ll keep integrating authentic, engaging learning, rich tasks and real projects combined with ICT and the “f” word-fun!
    Each day I see change-for the better and real relationships being built on belonging, trust, mutual respect and a love of learning-by my teachers, my students and the wider community.
    Do yourself a favour-buy the book, attend the conference in November.

  5. Walter 7/27/2006 at Jul 27, 06 | 4:42 pm

    My Small Learning Community at the Queens High School of Teaching in NYC just read “Whats Worth Fighting for in Our Schools”, by Hargreaves and Fullen we have an open disscusion on the book and school reform at

  6. Don Lapre Lover 11/21/2006 at Nov 21, 06 | 1:19 pm

    SLC is an important topic to educate everybody about, this includes the educators, parents, board members and the community. Each must be a part of it if it is to become a successful reality and I have to reiterate, our country needs it and some states more than others. Thanks for the post.

    Don Lapre Lover

  7. Educational Change is Hard | junior youth 8/18/2008 at Aug 18, 08 | 4:40 am

    […] another full punch comes from Dr Andy Hargraves when, from quite a different perspective he says in “Sustainable learing communities”: If you’re a governement, you can’t change things if they’re succeeding. You can only change […]

  8. David Truss 8/21/2008 at Aug 21, 08 | 11:56 am

    Andy Hargraves is going to work with our district. Here is Steve @teach42 ‘s post about him: This is great news!

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