How do you lead innovation in schools? Step 1: Unlearn some old stuff & Step 2: Learn some new stuff

School leaders – here’s a quick quiz

  • Are you prepared for disruption, mess and opposing viewpoints?
  • Do you think you can successfully challenge the status quo?
  • Can you throw out conventional approaches to leadership?
  • Will you stick to it for the long haul?

Yes? Then read on.

FullSizeRender (1)Making It Mobile is the SCIL signature workshop for educators coming up in a few weeks, held at our school in Sydney. In the practitioner strand the focus is on “teachers as designers”. Alongside this, I am facilitating a parallel workshop for leaders, but I am troubled. What if these amazing passionate teachers are inspired and are keen to innovate in their schools, only to return to the same-old leadership, where innovation needs to fit in a pre-defined box? These teachers will become discouraged and disillusioned. A new leadership paradigm is essential.

On my drive to work this morning I listened to the TEDx talk by Linda Hill: How to manage for collective creativity (Sept 2014). Linda is the professor of business administration at the Harvard Business School. She opened her talk:

FullSizeRenderI have a confession to make. I’m a business professor whose ambition has been to help people to lead. But recently, I’ve discovered that what many of us think of as great leadership does not work when it comes to leading innovation….
If we want to build organisations [schools] that can innovate time and again, we must unlearn our conventional notions of leadership.

These “conventional notions of leadership” are spelt out in the plethora of leadership literature on our actual or virtual bookshelves published over many decades. They tell us that leadership starts with a vision, it rises and falls on the leader to execute strategy and, as many leaders can testify, it is a lonely and stressful business. The prevailing culture is that “the people” look to “the leader” to tell them what to do.

There seems to be two long held beliefs that need to be challenged:

  1. The absolute leader – knows all and tells all
  2. The lowly minion – has no ideas and does what they are told by the absolute leader

Companies like Pixar and Google understand that successful innovation is not about the solo genius, in the same way leading an innovative school or organisation requires a complementary team-based approach. The innovative school needs an innovative leader who creates the environment where:

  • collaboration is the culture
  • problems are opportunities
  • team is the prevailing structure
  • the talents and passions of ‘the many’ can be unleashed
  • diversity and conflict co-exist
  • there is a village or a community

The journey of innovation has an unknown tomorrow, but it starts today with complex and compelling problems that need an answer. To navigate this future the first thing we must do is embark on that journey of unlearning.

The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who can not read or write, but those who can not unlearn, learn and relearn – Alvin Toffler


Making it Mobile – 2 day workshop
30 April – 1 May
Northern Beaches Christian School, Sydney Australia

Onboarding our new staff – Getting the 3Cs right: culture, conventions and connections #onboardNBCS

OnboardWhat happens when I step onboard a plane?

Well, I’m about to *start an adventure. I’m going someplace with a bunch of other people. *There is a team of helpful people on hand to get me where I need to go and help me along the way. I may (or may not) engage with my fellow passengers. I need to understand the conventions and protocols of being on the plane, for my own safety. I know that there is a captain in charge. Once I am onboard, I am both excited and I am literally an ‘insider’.

(*Indulge me with this metaphor)

We are about to start a new school year. That means there are new staff.

How do you ensure that new staff are ready for the year ahead? How do you get them onboard. The term “Induction” feels like something that is done to you, while onboarding is embarking on an adventure with a crew of people for the duration of the journey.

This article from Inc How to build an onboarding plan for a new hire was written a number of years ago. This term that has been used in business for quite a while. There is immense cost in the loss of staff and recruitment of new staff that can be minimised by a well thought through onboarding program.

It is as much about getting your new teacher or admin staff member ready for their role as it is about ensuring that you attract the right person to fill the role in the first place. There should hopefully be no surprises on either side.

Educators have little choice but to hit the ground running. Many sectors, have the luxury of easing in new staff, providing a week’s worth of induction. Teachers start with their students fairly quickly, they meet parents from the outset and need to be able to employ a suite of skills ranging from teaching the curriculum, managing student behaviour to knowing where the toilets are, whilst simultaneously learning the culture of the new work environment. It’s a big ask.

As a result the precious time that is available for preparing new staff needs to strategically address the propriety areas for Day 1, Week 1 and Term 1 and then implement an ongoing program to support the other learning that needs to happen, the things that are less critical at the start.

At NBCS in 2015 we have embraced the concept of onboarding our new staff. The purpose of the program is to:

  • help new staff to feel like an ‘insider’ as soon as possible
  • become intuitive about the culture and expectations
  • feed and maintain excitement about their new job at their new school
  • feel part of the team

There is much that a new employee needs to know. However, bombarding them with information on the first day isn’t the optimal scenario, just like the business of learning we need to unpack, prioritise and strategise, focusing on the learner. We also need to model culture at every opportunity.

At NBCS we have applied the design thinking process to the day, starting with the driving question for the new staff member: Where do I fit and how do I contribute?

The first stage of the process over two days, is an active learning program with the Senior Leadership Team. There is no other higher priority for the SLT than to serve and build relationship with the newest member of staff. The program will focus on 3Cs:

Culture: Begin to gain an understanding of “the way we do things around here”.

Conventions: Know the important information that will ensure their safety and the safety of the community

Connections: Build relationships with their team and leaders that will set them up for a win.

We will be using #onboardNBCS to share the fun. I’ll keep you posted!


Designing effective spaces for working and learning: How to avoid the factory, the treadmill and the waiting room

IMG_2599In my international travels I’ve seen many amazing schools, universities and libraries, some that are visually stunning, but often there is something missing. Designing spaces for effective work and learning requires the connection of three distinct ‘spaces’ – cultural, technological and physical – each in harmony. When one is missing you are stuck in…


…a waiting room, a factory or a treadmill.

Cross-pollination is a healthy thing. I look for opportunities to experience new contexts, learn about other sectors and meet people in different professional fields. This broadens the scope of  my experience and challenges mindsets. Over the last 12 months I have enjoyed connecting with James Kemp MD at Amicus Interiors. On the one hand Amicus (which is Latin for ‘friend’) Interiors could be described as a furniture company for office fit-outs, but on the other, and more realistically,

IMG_0016The brand personifies the business and represents the foundation of trust that we place at the centre of our company culture. We are an enthusiastic, friendly team and we love what we do…

We have developed a solid reputation for meticulous care and attention to all our work. This reputation has been built upon an underlying commitment to our clients, to understand, and plan for, the key issues and challenges that surround the delivery of each project.

James visited NBCS and was struck by the similarity of our school and the work of his company, he wrote on the company blog:

Led by the inspirational principal, Stephen Harris, they have created an Activity Based Working (ABW) environment at NBCS for the children to learn, develop and have fun. If you had told me it was possible to have over 180 year 5 & 6 children working effectively (and quietly!!) in one open plan area, I would not have believed you! But when you see it in operation it is truly inspiring.

These children are given the trust, responsibility, the technology and the right support from their facilitators (the ‘teachers’) to excel. Whether they are sitting at desk, on the floor in small work groups, on sofas or beanbags, they are working away with excitement. I loved it. (Read the full blog here.)

I first came across the idea of Activity Based Work (ABW) a couple of years ago after visiting a CBD corporate refit and wrote a few blogs (like this one) about it as I believed that this approach to the work environment had much to inform the educational context, a corollary to James’ inspiration for NBCS informing work spaces.

Amicus InteriorsJames and I caught up last week, to see the transformation of the Amicus Interiors office in Martin Place in Sydney as an Activity Based Work(place). This was my first opportunity to see the new fit out. We talked about how the team are adapting and changing to work in an ABW environment. As with anything that involves people, the shift to change takes them on a journey – no fixed desks, closed and open collaborative meeting areas and close co-location with colleagues.



In our lively discussions about the places of work and learning, James highlighted the three types of spaces that must inform the effective place of work (and learning):

  • Cultural space – the way we do things around here
  • Technological space – the tools that enable
  • Physical space – the surroundings that support the work and relationships

Each of these play a crucial role to encourage innovation and creativity and foster productivity.

What happens if something is missing?

Factory Treadmill Waiting Room

When we are thinking about the redesign, refit and transformation of learning spaces, how do these three elements interplay? In 2015 NBCS ‘Project Barcelona’ will be complete – a space that is open, social and connecting. It involves new ways of thinking about school, spaces and learning for the 21st Century. Right now we are gearing up to look at what is needed to optimise the space and prepare our staff:

  • Cultural space – how will the community shift their thinking about school and then own and embrace the space
  • Technological space – what tools and infrastructure are required for the space to function as intended
  • Physical space – how will the fit out, the zones and the movement meet the dreams and aspirations for connection


Some other posts to check out:

Teacher as “facilitator” cutting through the jargon. Try this quick quiz.

We’ve all heard it teachers are coach, the ‘guide on the side not sage on the stage’ and facilitator. These words are easy to say, but what do they actually mean?

Slide14Last week we had a great group from Melbourne come to NBCS for an Immersion Day. These are opportunities beyond Edu-tourism, to drill down, gain clarity in priorities and identify next steps. I really enjoy working with these groups. Facilitating is not telling people what they should do, but providing the conditions for the group to learn through input – knowledge and experience – and then provide time and space for them to process and develop their own outcomes, for their own school.

facilitate (v) to make easy
1610s, from Fr. faciliter “to render easy”

There are a few key elements of effective facilitation:

  • Leading people through a process of agreed objectives
  • Encouraging participation, ownership and productivity
  • Creating conditions where participants feel safe
  • Ensuring that the group is the star
  • Achieving their outcomes

Probably, the most important point is that a facilitator recognises that the answer is ‘within’ the individual or group, they have the capacity to find a solution. The facilitator guides the process and allows the group to draw their own conclusions. They empower the group and then step back.

The art of facilitating has four priorities:

Clarity of the task: what needs to be completed

Facilitator, know thyself: impact of the facilitator on the process

Empower the group or individual: Channeling the energy and understanding the group dynamics

Enable the process:  Create the right environment to get the work done

2013-09-05 04.19.01Allowing for the process doesn’t mean operating without structure. The best facilitators implement a structure that feels organic and fluid to the participant, yet it is well-thought through and meticulously planned. It is much easier to be a controlling content knowledge specialist than an effective facilitator. Facilitators work in-the-moment – they are ‘present’ with the group. This is their highest priority as a practitioner.

It’s not always easy to take that step back and allow the group to own the process and outcomes. Human nature wants to take control. When we consider teachers as facilitators the responsibility for learning is the students’.

Here’s the paradox: Facilitator is a leadership role where the power resides in the group.

Teacher as facilitator: What does it mean?

Being substantively neutral
Not the only source of knowledge and expertise

Create a climate of collaboration
Not command and control

Provide a range of tools and resources to help the group find their answers
Not one way is the only way

Being a content knowledge expert is challenging in the era of teacher as facilitator. Where once you were a teacher because of what you knew, now, the role is more about what the student needs to know to achieve their own learning goals. Handing over the responsibility of learning to the student is not abandoning the job of the teacher. Content matters. As with the group from Melbourne coming to our school. I presented input and knowledge from our experience, but then provided the conditions for them to set priorities and next steps.

Try this quick quiz. Do you:

  1. Need to be the focus of every session with your students?
  2. Know what it means to be ‘present’?
  3. Embrace the notion of making the way for learning *easy?
  4. Have a toolkit of ideas and resources to employ as needed?
  5. Commit to seeking the needs of the group or individual, not your own?
  6. Believe that collaboration plays a significant role in learning today?
  7. Allow the students to plan and drive their learning?

This is what a facilitator does.


* easy is a challenging word here. It is not used in the sense that there is no rigour, but that the teacher’s role makes the path clearer.

Leadership again: “I’ve opened the space for learning, now what?” #thingsyoushouldneversay

Imagine if the story of the stork delivering the baby was true.

When I was young, kids’ TV shows didn’t dare mention, or even allude to, the real method of conception and delivery. Instead, we saw the image of a stork delivering a baby, perhaps unsuspectingly, to the happy couple.

The Stork

“The baby’s here, now what?” Imagine that.

Prior to the arrival of our first-born, by the conventional method of course, there was much preparation for this newest family member. We made initial plans and preparation for the responsibilities ahead – bought supplies, furniture and the enormous amount of equipment that the small person apparently required.

When he arrived we muddled our way through. As time went on we adjusted our plans and expectations, however, the months of preparation were essential. This baby was going to change our lives. It definitely wasn’t a matter of ‘business as usual’ once he arrived.

Open Space Learning: From conception to inceptionPArklands

Like any great idea, plan or endeavour there is a point of conception, when the idea was first formed. I have heard anecdotal accounts of teachers arriving for the new school year, finding walls down and shared learning spaces created. It didn’t end well.

Just like prior to the arrival of a baby, there are significant preparations to be made. The role of the team/school leader is to simultaneously listen and respond to concerns and to reinforce vision and direction.

At Northern Beaches Christian School shared spaces for learning are constantly being developed. In 2008 it started with Year 7 in the Global Learning Village, 2010 with The Zone for Stage 3 and Year 8 Quest for an integration of Science and Geography. Over the past few years the idea has spread across primary, to maths, design, technology and music.Rhythm & Blues

The development of each of these spaces requires constant attention, prior to staff and students using the open space, and then continued development, even after occupancy:

From conception – the germ of the idea

1. Reinforce a positive mindset, while considering every concern

If you truly believe that opening and sharing learning spaces are the right thing, then stick with it. Listen to concerns, respond to them, be empathic and supportive, while simultaneously resolute about the decision.

2. Design the space to achieve the vision The Zone

A sledgehammer to the walls is only the first step. Unless the physical environment is carefully crafted the space will more than likely default to a modified single cell use. Name and define zones within the open space.

3. Constantly communicate the desired culture (behaviour)

Be clear on how the space will be used. Communicate it and communicate it again. Share stories and paint pictures. Spark excitement and enthusiasm. The more that the leader talks about the changes the better.

To inception – the starting point

4. Be fluid and flexible Design Studio

Once staff and students start using the space adjustments will be made. This is normal. The vision remains clear, but execution needs to be tweaked. As a leader, be involved in all these discussions. It is important to keep the vision clear.

5. Take action to ensure that behaviours don’t default to old ways

Without reinforcing the vision, culture and desired behaviours old habits can creep in. Cupboards and bookcases can become walls spaces become delineated instead of fluid zones. Communicate vision and communicate it again

Opening spaces for learning is definitely not a ‘business as usual’ activity. Like the passing of time between conception and delivery of a baby, preparations for this ‘baby’ needs to commence as early as possible. School leaders not only need to fully own the decision, but give teachers the support and encouragement for the idea to grow and mature.




Leadership Culture 201: Two steps to transforming your school

CompassTwo steps to transforming your school:

Step 1: Find your true north

Step 2: Do everything that will make Step 1 happen

Many of us agree that the historical model of school is broken and not serving the future, or even the present. Often the factory analogy of separation is used to describe the education that many of us received:oldschool

  • Separated rooms

  • Separated teachers

  • Separated classes

  • Separated furniture

  • Separated preparation and planning

This model has led to teachers as the driver, represents dependence and independence (not interdependence), one size fits all, confrontation, control and the relational tensions that often arise. Students usually become either compliant and passive vessels, or defiant and active resistors.

Many educators know that transformation is essential, collaboration is necessary and rethinking student success an imperative. We also know that it’s not a simple thing to transform a school, but perhaps distilling the magnitude of change to a few key priorities can help.

PDOur team at SCIL, the innovation centre at NBCS in Sydney, works with educators to kick-start or facilitate one or a few priorities on the journey of change. When edu-visitors come to the school I often sense they are overwhelmed by the possibilities and sometimes have difficulty articulating the impact of the experience. We notice that there can be two main responses:

  • I want to do everything

  • I can’t do anything

Over time we have refined our process and program for the day to help visitors interpret the experience and begin to articulate their next steps. Essential to this is the concept of navigating the journey and finding their own ‘true north’. What they are seeing when they come to NBCS is almost 10 years of development. It didn’t happen overnight, but under Stephen Harris’ leadership this ship is navigating toward ‘true north’.

Step 1: Find your ‘true north’

Authentic leadership requires a compass to guide and map the path ahead. Mariners know that locating true north is essential for accurate navigation. Magnetic north varies from place to place over time. To find true north it is necessary to know, but not follow, local magnetic variations. Finding your true north, rather than the magnetic north, will mean that you aren’t meandering but focussed on where you are going.

What is ‘true north’ for your students? It may be something like: To create learning culture that gives every student every opportunity to succeed.

What is ‘true north’ for your staff? It may be something like: To support and challenge educators to grow and stretch as they provide students every opportunity to succeed.

What is ‘true north’ for yourself? It may be something like: To be the leader that my team/school needs me to be for their success.

Do everything that will make Step 1 happenplectrum

Once true north is identified and success is articulated, then what? Perhaps it is gaining alignment of your community across a few important areas:

  • empowering students

  • growing staff

  • renewing parent and community mindsets

And then setting your priorities and milestones that will break down the ‘separated’ mindset:

  • Articulating the desired culture for learning, relating and leadership

  • Rethinking pedagogy that empowers the learner

  • Questioning everything that has been traditionally associated with ‘school’

  • Establishing shared language

  • Ensuring collaboration on all levels

  • Creating the physical and virtual environment to support

GatewayWhen the teams leave NBCS after their day we hope they have been given the time and space to process and develop at least one ‘next step’. Transforming the concept of school, something that is so embedded in our society, is not for the faint-hearted.

But we feel, at least, that as we grow a tribe of like-minded and committed educators we all know we are part of something very important, life-changing.


To visit Northern Beaches Christian School and find out more about what we do at SCIL visit our website 



Let’s change the way teachers learn, so we can change the way teachers teach #mim14

We’ve just concluded our fifth Making it Mobile workshop, held at Northern Beaches Christian School. Excited and passionate educators arrived from Queensland, Victoria, ACT, UK, NZ  and Sydney.

At Making it Mobile we present a professional learning experience that gives meaningful and helpful input as well as providing teams with the time and the space to play with the ideas and create something they can implement with their students in the following week. The  professional learning is presented in a physical learning environment that recreates the open spaces at NBCS. IMG_1214

The workshop is held over two days. The first day has input from our SCIL team. A keynote from Stephen Harris sets the scene for rethinking the paradigm of school, then we commence the rolling workshops, practical, hand-on input to get started or perhaps grow as practitioners. IMG_1228

Our workshops are led by teachers who have been using these ideas and practices with their own students. We want participants to be able to implement new approaches to learning, that are collaborative and engaging no matter where they are. There is a process to the workshops across the first day:

101: Blooms Gardners Matrix – how engage students and provide choice with minimum resources and low tech

201: Personalise Learning – how can you use technology/apps to create exciting learning opportunitiesIMG_1230

301: Project-Based Learning – getting started in with PBL

All the while, participants are reminded of the theme for the following day:

What will you build?

The next day teacher-teams have the time and space to play with their ideas, a very rare luxury. The participants get to work, with the NBCS team who are on hand to provide on-the-shoulder help. As I walk around I am reminded of the phrase, “learning is hard fun”, eavesdropping on deep conversations about learning.

IMG_1220 IMG_1229


The day concludes with each team providing a quick visual summary of their learning, then participating in a gallery walk as ideas are shared and critiqued.

As I spoke to one of the excited participants, she passionately described what she had learnt and the ideas she will implement into her teaching and learning program on Monday.

It is very satisfying to see educators work through the process of anticipation, excitement, struggling with idea, engaging in deep conversations and emerging with real and tangible ideas.





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.


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?


Silence is golden? Perhaps it’s measure of good-old-fashioned teaching. But is it the measure of great learning?

This headline caught my eye: “Australia’s classrooms among world’s noisiest”

As I talk to educators and school leaders about rethinking the way we contextualise education the question of noise regularly rears its head. There is a generation of educators and parents who are under the impression that a good education (teacher-centred) can only occur in an environment of silence. I believe that great learning (student centred) requires noise.

An international study* has found 43 per cent of Australian students reported ”noise and disorder” as factors in their classrooms. One-third said they had to ”wait a long time for the students to quiet down” and 38 per cent said students ”don’t listen to what their teacher has to say”. (SMH: 8 December 2013) *Study not cited.

I believe that these are factors of teacher capacity and school culture, rather than a problem of noise. However, later in the article, the voice of reason:

But Michael Anderson, associate professor in education and social work at the University of Sydney said it was important for teachers to distinguish between productive noise and distracting noise. ”Noise can be productive when it comes out of collaborative learning opportunities that the kids are involved in,” he said.

oldschoolThe idea of working in silence, and by inference, individually, is an industrial-era paradigm of productivity. During my own teaching career, I would relish those moments when I looked around the room to see and hear the buzz of productivity as students explored, you could almost hear the learning happening. I would joke with my colleagues that we would schedule a handwriting lesson for a little bit of structured quiet – no communication, heads down.

Great learning needs connection, conversation and ‘aha’ moments.

As we walk around the open learning spaces at NBCS we ‘see’ learning accompanied by noise and productivity – yet the question from visiting educators is almost always one who asks about noise levels. They tell me about teachers’ headaches and unruly students. We need to ask ourselves, is this fear and trepidation concerning noise a question of teaching or learning?

There are two important points to make:

  • Noise levels should be planned for and managed – From an acoustic management perspective, there are ways to  manage the sound in a room. The beauty of open spaces is that there are less walls for reverberation, yet lack of attention to this and low ceilings can exacerbate the problem. (In this short video I am talking about the importance of acoustic management.)

  • Educators need to become comfortable with noise as a condition for learning – When education was teacher-centric, there would be silence for the words of the oracle to heard and digested. But today, when students are exploring and challenging concepts, when they are developing passion projects noise is necessary

SCIL Building20 years ago I wanted a classroom that buzzed with learning and exploration, but it took time to reach this. As students and teachers take time to adapt to the new culture it can be tempting to give up before this goal is reached.

In the first two years of The Zone at NBCS there was a traffic light noise system, to remind the students when the voices were too loud. As the culture of respectful and productive noise became the norm, the traffic lights were no longer necessary.

Here are my conclusions:

  • Finding the right levels of noise for learning takes time and strategy for the right culture to take hold.
  • Teachers  need to become comfortable with the idea that deep learning happens in a noisy context of many-to-many, not one-to-many
  • Learning space design requires attention to the key factors that will make noise levels positive and productive.