What’s in the ‘secret sauce’ of an innovative school? The SCIL story

The ZoneNorthern Beaches Christian School (NBCS), on the suburban fringe of Sydney has gained a reputation for innovation. There are many components that make this so, including, engaging learning programs, the physical spaces and places around the school, passionate and engaged students, and motivated and inspiring teachers.

For the many hundreds of educational visitors who come to the school each year these things are clearly evident. They visit NBCS hoping to learn from their experience, keen to implement ideas into their own teaching practice in their own school.

TofflerYet, what they are experiencing on any given day is the result of years of dedication to the vision to reinvent ‘school’ accompanied by a dogged determination to grow the capacity of educators with, as Toffler described the it, the ability to “learn, unlearn and relearn”.

In 2005 the principal at NBCS, Stephen Harris, began to think deeply about the impact of technology on the future of school and learning. The journey of innovation started in a couple of key ways. Firstly, he put the building blocks in place to enable online learning, and secondly,  established Sydney Centre for Innovation in Learning (SCIL), a ‘place’ where teacher innovation and professional learning could have expression. Each of these weren’t just good ideas, but seen as essential parts of the vision of education for the future.

As the vision and culture of NBCS was embedded and the learning spaces transformed, the school started to attract attention from across Australia and around the world. It started with educators who wanted a tour of the school, then the SCIL team shaped the innovation as professional learning packages for other educators. From 2010, SCIL began to broaden its reach, PD programs for teachers and school leaders, international study tours and executive consultations began to be developed.

Innovative teachers often feel the constraints of those who fear change, they may have great ideas but are regularly told, “No, we don’t do that here.” or “No, the government won’t let us”. The original iteration of SCIL provided a place for innovative educators at NBCS to bypass potential discouraging responses and play with their great ideas.

Professional learning can even be fun!The culture at NBCS gives permission for innovation to flourish. This is accompanied by professional learning that empowers teachers to embrace change. It is one thing to cast a big vision, and another to maintain it. On a weekly basis, all staff at NBCS participate in PD, with content and delivery sourced from the wealth of internal capacity. An important part of growing a great staff is their ability to share with and to equip colleagues. The beginning of each new school year time is set aside for whole staff PD – to cast vision and set priorities for the year.

This experience has had the added benefit of enabling the teachers to lift professionally. When visiting groups spend time talking to teachers, it is fascinating to hear them articulate and re-articulate their approaches to learning, how they use the spaces and engage with students. It is second nature for the teachers to use the language of innovation, as they are surrounded by it on a daily basis.

The secret sauce? When educators come to NBCS they often make the comment, “I thought I was coming to see buildings, and now I know it is so much more.


That “much more” is the seemingly intangible element, how the vision for an innovative school is continually cast by the principal and then lived and breathed across the school. Essential to this, however, is continual professional development that is focussed on current and future learning needs of the educators, addressing the identified priorities. The educators at NBCS have the responsibility to equip a generation of young people who are independent, engaged and passionate about making a difference to their world.

A responsibility they do not take lightly.


What does it really mean to have a culture of leadership at your school? It’s just like yoghurt.

Culture is the result of the fermentation process that gives yoghurt its unique texture and flavour. We can’t actually identify this elusive element called ‘culture’, it is just  there, otherwise it wouldn’t be yoghurt. The added fruit or flavourings may enhance, but they aren’t what make it yoghurt.

In the same way, a culture of leadership is something that runs through a school or organisation. It is evident in its “texture and flavour”. Leadership can be added like the  fruit, but it is more effective when it forms part of the whole product.

Blanchard quoteIn the last decade the nature of leadership has shifted to being the intrinsic ‘influence’ of potentially all, rather than an elite program for a few. As one of my favourite writers on leadership, Ken Blanchard once said, “The key to successful leadership today is influence, not authority.” This idea paints a picture of relationship, inspiration, collaboration and empowering. It is a far cry from the notion of “the boss”.

Growing up on a diet of American sitcoms and drama, I learnt from TV what it was to be a ‘boss’. They didn’t talk about leadership back then. The boss was male, old, grouchy, shouted, told people what to do, had a big corner office a female secretary and a view. Back in those days there were just workers and bosses, there weren’t teams, people just did what they were told.

The world was different then, ‘culture’ meant you went to the opera and ‘collaboration’ was just another word for cheating. Fear, blame, command and control drove the “boss” culture and power was vested in the few.

In the 21stC leadership can be everywhere. Leaders are in the mix and making things happen. They create the texture and flavour for change to occur. Rather than identifying a few, the opportunity to lead is available to the many, if not all.

Instead of command-and-control, what are the elements necessary for leadership today? In a survey of CEOs around the world by IBM asked about the key traits needed for success today and into the future, the top four were:

  • collaboration

  • communication

  • creativity

  • flexibility

Future Forecast, McCrindle 2014. Source: ABS

Future Forecast, McCrindle 2014. Source: ABS

These areas were identified as essential skills that CEOs actively sought in recruiting new staff. If we then recognise that our students, and our younger teachers will morph and change throughout their careers, how are we providing opportunities for them to develop these skills.

In the highly regulated school environment, with external pressures that often feel like command-and-control this can be a challenge. Nevertheless, we will not serve the rising generation unless we give them opportunities to acquire these essential skills.

We need to provide opportunities to grow leaders who are equipped for:

Purposeful collaboration: Working together as a team to achieve shared goals

Effective communication: Sharing information through whatever means necessary to inspire, encourage and effect change

Creativity in practice: Where a new and valuable idea is developed for aesthetics, for simplicity or to solve problems

Flexibility in execution: Allowing for a range of appropriate responses to a given situation

The way we design schools and then structure the learning activities directly impacts the effectiveness of a leadership culture, through:

  • Openness both in the physical space and to new ideas
  • Freedom of movement and expression
  • Teams collaborating on meaningful projects

It is important that leadership is in the mix with the culture of a school and is available to anybody. Through the opportunities that technology brings and the potential of global connectedness, young people have the ability to lead and influence like never before. Schools then, need to be the place where their leadership has the space to be nurtured and grown.


PISA-badge-of-honour or lifelong-learner-skills: Which do we value more?

IMG_0118There was such a flurry of edu-activity this week, headlines like these shouted from the pages of newspapers, or the modern-day media news equivalent:

“China’s poorest students outperform <insert modern developed nation>’s wealthiest in international maths test”

For example…

UK: TES and The Independent

Canada’s: The Globe and Mail

As I was driving home one afternoon this week, the news radio host was discussing how the children of Shanghai’s waste removal managers (garbos) apparently achieved higher score than our own dear Australian children. Now that Finland has slipped off the edu-radar, now the edu-bureaucrats are beating a path to Shanghai.

The (UK) Independent: Education Minister to travel to Shanghai to find out secrets behind maths scores

Well, actually Shanghai have been doing so for the past few years. When Finland was on top of the PISA tree I attended a briefing session from the Finnish Board of Education in Helsinki. It was noted in the presentation that South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai had spent considerable time and resources sending teams to do the same. The PISA-engine spawns an entire industry.

There are the high stakes in this high stakes testing. International test comparisons create an unhealthy competition to be at the top of the rankings. As a result, learning becomes disconnected from a meaningful reality. The testing regime fuels the fear of parents and grows the coaching industry. Recently a colleague was telling me about a senior high school student who had accepted a place at a selective high school. Once enrolled, the student was required to reassure them that she would attend classes. Apparently, many students in selective high schools don’t regularly attend school,  their main focus is after school coaching, school is irrelevant.

To provide a reality check on the situation in Shanghai, The Guardian/The Observer painted a different picture: Nine hour tests and lots of pressure: Welcome to the Chinese school system – From the article:

Chinese parents and educators see their own system as corrupt, dehumanising, pressurised and unfair.

Many parents consider the gruelling nine-hour test [college admission exam] a sorting mechanism that will determine the trajectory of their children’s lives.

As long as China’s education system remains vast but resource-constrained its schools will default to testing as a reliable indicator of competence.

Nearly half of Shanghai’s school-age children belong to migrant families and were effectively barred from taking the test

Although students from 12 provinces took the test in 2009, the government only shared Shanghai’s scores.

One recently retired teacher at a Beijing middle school said she earns extra money by teaching an after-school cramming course called maths olympiad

If we look only to scores in international tests, we are ignoring the breadth of learning and the reason for education and the important contribution that schools play in raising and equipping the next generation. As Lao Kaisheng, a professor in the education department of Beijing Normal University stated:

“The education system here puts a heavy emphasis on rote memorisation, which is great for students’ test-taking ability but not for their problem-solving and leadership abilities or their interpersonal skills,” he said. “Chinese schools just ignore these things.”

The previous Australian Prime Minister wanted to link reform of the school funding system to student performance in international tests, setting the goal for Australia of being among the top five nations in reading, maths and science by 2025.

I believe this aspiration is at the cost of developing problem-solving and leadership abilities or their interpersonal skills, the skills our young people need for success in a changing world, those skills that are essential for bringing solutions to big problems our world faces.

In this one area, I take an either/or position, I’m fairly certain that we either build a generation of innovative, creative leaders, or help them pass tests, so that we can wear the PISA-badge-of-honour.


The story of a (probably) ‘naughty’ boy: Seek first to understand


It’s not a term I use. The word ‘naughty’ doesn’t solve anything or help anyone. It has become one of those general descriptors, a label. Back when I completed my Masters of Education I specialised in behaviour. I have always found the way that humans act and respond to circumstances as fascinating. At the time I concluded that every behaviour displayed is usually there for a reason. Our job as educators is to find that out.

2ofusOn the weekend I read yet another story of a young person who found that he didn’t seem to fit at school*. ‘2 of Us’ is a regular column in my newspaper’s Saturday supplement. Will and his mother, Barbara, told their story. I was particularly interested in Will’s story, a young person with unique talent that didn’t seem to fit at school.

Barbara was raising her three children on her own. From her own description of him, Will seemed very challenging:

Will was definitely not the teacher’s pet. He spent a lot of time standing outside the classroom door or headmaster’s office – just for trivial things, nothing serious… I drove him to school every day of his life  - otherwise he would never have been there on time.

His early life was dogged by poor eyesight that was undetected until he put on a pair of magnifiers and then his whole world changed.

Will’s remarkable talent for music began to show. Not only a remarkable guitarist, but he was a master at Guitar Hero, in a music shop she discovered:

He was able to play the guitar faster and faster, without missing a note and ended up with a whole group of people watching.

Will showed a talent for music and technology. At one stage he also became an under-12 rollerblading champion. It was around this time that Barbara saw his disconnection from school:

A teacher at [his] High School told me that it was a shame Will didn’t apply himself to his schoolwork because he could do anything he wanted to.

The irony of the situation is that he was doing what he wanted, and music and technology was the spark that started his remarkable career. He changed to another school, but left before completing his final year. However, he had been visiting music clubs and taken it upon himself to arrange lessons.

Today Will is an extraordinary music producer. He is producing tracks for some of the most famous people in the industry. Recently he toured 30 American cities and made a seven week tour of Europe with his music.

My dream is that school is a place for all young people to thrive. That instead of Will, and young people like him, seeking his inspiration outside of school, they would be inspired and excited to be at school. The learning, the physical environment and the style of teaching should converge to create the perfect storm for learning – with the capacity of meeting the interests and learning styles of all students.

Perhaps then we may see those described as ‘naughty’ as engaged, inspired and able to pursue their passion. And school would be a place with the tools, technology and flexibility to make it happen.


*I know that there are always other perspectives to a story, but I’m just going with what I read in this article.

The Article: 2 of us 

A story of a young girl’s dream. How do we help our kids to reach for the stars?

Driving to work the other morning I was streaming a BBC Radio 4 series Loose Ends, I started listening to the program as host, Clive Anderson was introducing his next guest. Her story captivated me.

Maggie struggled at school, she was dyslexic, reading and writing was a challenge. She described her experiences at school,  “I was up the back of the class with the safety scissors and the glitter. I was very disenfranchised”. Maggie went to 13 different schools.

Image‘Maggie’ is Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock MBE, Research fellow University College London and a space scientist, building satellites that go up in space, and a science communicator, translating the complexities of science into a simple format for everybody to understand. Her degree was in physics and PhD in mechanical engineering, the perfect match for making satellites.

Today, Maggie is the host of the BBC TV program The Sky at Night, one of BBC’s longest running programs. She has recently taken over as host since the death of the long-standing and much-respected host, Dr Patrick Moore.

As a young child Maggie had always wanted to go into space, after watching the children’s program The Clangers. Despite her learning difficulties, she always had a dream about science and space.

In the interview she said,

Then I started doing science classes and I remember distinctly when the teacher asked a question, I put up my hand, I looked around the class and no one else had put up their hand, so I put mine down because I was the dumb one. “Then I thought, no, give it a try” and I got the answer right. If you have a dream or desire, it can carry you through and make you determined to succeed.

At school, Maggie didn’t feel encouraged to pursue her dream to be a scientist.

That’s one of my arguments with teaching. I think we should get people to aspire, to reach the stars, to aim very high. I think sometimes they fear that and say, oh no, well Maggie, why don’t you go into nursing? Nursing is a wonderful profession but I don’t think that was what I was cut out for. So I think we should get kids to aspire and have dreams. To overcome the hurdles and I think if you have a dream you can do that.

Maggie knew how to work the system:

The last school I went to the teachers asked me “what stream should you be in, the upper stream or the lower stream?” I said, “Yeah, definitely the upper stream,” because it is so much easier to get transferred down, than it is to get transferred up. So I just blagged my way in, really, an opportunist.

How do we help to make school the place that gives oxygen to the dreams and aspirations that every child . Maggie had a strong sense determination, she knew what she wanted to do. Her circumstances (13 schools) probably meant she didn’t have that one teacher that could share the journey and nurture and encourage her dreams, but she did it anyway.

Can we counter Maggie’s argument with teaching:

  • Know our students
  • Listen to the things that make their eyes sparkle when they talk
  • Provide opportunities for them to pursue their dreams
  • Make the path smooth

And most importantly, let’s make school the place where dreams can flourish.



Bio information

BBC Radio 4: Loose Ends, broadcast Saturday 8 February

I am an ocean swimmer: 6 key things I learnt about myself along the way

I am an ocean swimmer.The Course

When I started on this journey about three months ago I faced a couple of mountains – raising $1250 for cancer research and swimming 1km in the North Bondi Classic. The first mountain was quickly climbed, through the generosity of many, together we raised more than $1700. The second mountain was well and truly conquered today.

Back in November, I could barely swim 200m as I stopped and puffed along the way. For the last couple of weeks, leading up to this event I wanted to over-train and swim 1.5km.

How did that happen?

It’s been an interesting journey. I knew that this was a mental and emotional challenge, as much as a physical one. At the start I set myself three words: challenge, persevere and complete. I know myself well, these three concepts address the key areas of growth I needed:

Take up a challenge. Undertake an activity that you know is a mountain.

Persevere along the way and even enjoy it.

And complete. Today I reached this and it feels great. Pre-race coach briefing

What have I learnt about myself?

1. I like feeling fit: I am now looking at what I am going to do next, as the water gets cold, heading into autumn and winter. Having a fitness goal also has an impact on other aspects of life – diet, sleep and priorities. I have also found that fitness gives mental clarity.

2. I am motivated by a big goal: The idea of swimming 1km was very scary. But I tackled it with perseverance and setting achievable sub goals. I wanted to be able to swim 600m by Christmas, 800m by new year and 1km by Australia Day (26 Jan). After that  I stepped it up and I can now swim 1.5km.

3. I respond to accountability: The wonderful people who supported me financially by contributing to cancer research were never far from my mind. There were times I didn’t want to go to training, or felt like stopping short during a session, but I remembered what they had done. It wasn’t about me.

4. I don’t have to win to succeed: I have a tendency to choose to do things where I know I can succeed. In this challenge my focus has been on achieving my best and realising that success isn’t necessarily being at the front of the pack.

5. I am determined: Once I hit a rhythm with my swimming a new sense of determination set in. It was probably around the 800m mark in my goal-achieving that I realised 1km was achievable. When I went back to work after the summer vacation, we were up and at the harbour beach near us before the sun was actually up and then off to work.

6. I can win the mental game: This was one of the biggest challenges I overcame. I began to actually enjoy the headspace of swimming. It took a while to get over the moaning “when will this finish” to finding it motivating. Even this week, as I had a particularly challenging day at work, my swim was a helpful place to process. I wanted to get to the place where I became lost in my thoughts as I swam, and I did.

Team Knock
So a big thank you to all my friends, sponsors and encouragers who kept me going on the journey. Especially grateful to my wonderful husband, alongside me all the way.


Starting the year at NBCS: Putting the F.U.N in PD to build a positive culture of collaboration and connection.

We all knew it was coming.  It's a building site

At the end of 2013, as the school year was finishing, the construction (and demolition) crews were coming into NBCS. Project Barcelona, the much awaited development of transforming the physical space of ‘school’ into a whole new model was underway. The brief that principal Stephen Harris gave to the architect was to create a new heart of the school that provided a space for learning, connection and social interaction.

When the staff returned a week before the school year started they would see the
Barcelona Airport
significant disruption that Project Barcelona would potentially bring to their routines, the construction site is of significant proportions in the middle of the school campus:

Project Barcelona will define the heart and spine of the school campus and lead the way in new innovative learning. (WMK, Architect)

The inspiration came from Barcelona Airport, with its large canopy overarching the activity within. 

Under these conditions it is essential that staff commence the year with a positive frame of mind and then model and reinforce this to their students. It was going to be a challenging year and a half, but the outcome will be worth it.

What are the challenges facing the school’s community?

  • The hoarding erected around the perimeter of the site creates an inner ring of corridors, interspersed with viewing windows.

  • There are only two ways to get around from one side of the school to the other… the long way or the long way.

  • Perceived loss of gathering spaces (and toilets) for students

  • Significant rooming changes due to demolished buildings

  • The knowledge that this project won’t be completed until the second half of 2015

  • Noise, trucks, workers, dust.

This is not a scenario for the faint-hearted! It was important to be clear of the outcomes of the beginning of year staff PD Days:

  • Set a positive attitude for the year ahead

  • Staff to model this positive/can do approach to students

  • Staff are still able teach innovatively and collaboratively

  • Build the culture that we are all in this together

Stephen Harris devised a series of collaborative activities that would build community, get people working together, know their way around the school, make a contribution to enhancing the physical environment, tackle the pressing issues and, most importantly, have fun.

Each year at NBCS the week before school commences has a series of first gatherings

Day 1: Senior Leadership Team (SLT)

Day 2: Senior Leadership Team and School Executive Team (SET) – Learning Leaders and Stage/Grade Leaders

Day 3: All staff together.

This process began with the SLT. Stephen led the tour around the school, making note of toilet changes, learning space changes and the impact that these will have on the leadership of the school. And then the fun began.

The day before, he had created the first mural to brighten up the hoarding. It was an outline of himself. Then the SLT were placed in groups to devise a pitch that would build on this lonely figure to create something fun. Each group were to pitch their idea, Dragons Den style to the others. When the project was selected the SLT become the project team to make it a reality. This activity set the tone for creating a mural along the hoarding, but also put the SLT together within a collaborative project, working together on assigned roles and owning the outcome.

SLT Collaborative Project

The finished artwork

When SET arrived the next day the culture of fun and collaboration was underway. This larger group, together with SLT, about 40 people was set a different challenge for collaboration. Stephen presented a moderate budgetary allowance, to fund a way to encourage staff and build morale. Using the Dragon’s Den method of pitching an idea, combined with the Athenian method of casting votes with broken pieces of a clay pot, each group set to work. The composition of the groups were random, an important element of building community across the school. The winning group’s idea was selected after the old pots were smashed and each of us voted using a piece of clay.

On the third day of the series, the fun really began. Within a 90 minute time frame mixed groups of primary, secondary, admin and SLT were presented with the challenge:

Choose at least 3 of these activities and complete within 1.5 hour timeframe

Physical challenge: determine the fastest way your team can go on a lap of the short stay car park. Timed as a relay circuit. I'm pretty good at riding that chair

Art challenge: comedic / fun interpretation of some aspect of school life on a construction panel

Artists at work

Lego challenge: create a representation of a building at NBCS

Working with Lego

Photo challenge: photograph your team in an outrageous location or activity on site

The photo challenge

Film challenge: create a 60 second video advertising any aspect of the NBCS site as a holiday destination. Watch Steve Collis’ NBCS Caving Adventure on YouTube

The creativity that came out of the activity was amazing. The fun laughter and energy around the school was contagious, as people gathered art materials, film props, snuck into construction vehicles for photos and raced around the carpark. Along the way people learn new skills from their colleagues.

The initial outcomes were definitely achieved, but the greatest outcome was an incredible sense of community and connection amongst the staff. The newest teachers immediately felt like part of the community and we all had new and shared experiences that we could laugh about. In addition to these, there were team-based activities directly related to the work for the year.

Once the students arrived there was an atmosphere of excitement for what lay ahead.

How did the staff at your school year start?

How are you reinforcing your culture of community and collaboration?