Over the last four years, Singapore American School teachers and administrators visited more than 100 of the most forward-thinking and innovative schools across four continents. What began as curiosity and intrigue among early participants soon became a wave of reflection, revelation, research, and change. The schools we visited did things that challenged many of our ideas about what education could and should become.
Our travels took us to public and independent schools, charter schools, religious schools, and international schools, schools serving affluent communities and those in the poorest communities in the world. One of the most affirming discoveries was the almost universal motivation of teachers and schools to do what is best for students.
Through our research, we wanted to discover schools that were both progressive in design and excellent in outcome. We found that innovation alone is not the secret sauce of teaching and learning. In fact, some of the schools, while very innovative, left us searching for high levels of measurable learning. Clear commonalities among standout schools didn’t include bold funding or outrageous facilities or a unique caliber of student. Interestingly, the most successful innovative schools had deliberate structures to ensure that each student learned at high levels in personalized ways. They benchmarked innovation against proven results.
In our school visits, we identified two clear distinctions common among the schools that were both progressive and excellent for learning. First, teachers in these schools:
• took collective responsibility for learning;
• actively collaborated;
• used laser-like learning targets;
• established common expectations for learning;
• provided timely feedback;
• acted on the information from formative assessments to differentiate learning through intervention and acceleration strategies; and
• used varied instructional strategies to meet the needs of all students.
Second, teachers developed partnerships with students in the learning process. Students had a voice in what they learned and could produce an expected plan for their learning that included how they would demonstrate their proficiency. Teachers honored their students’ unique attributes, developed positive relationships focused on each child’s strengths and passions, and provided personalized learning structures.
Given that Singapore American School has been identified as an exemplar Professional Learning Community at Work™ school, we were pleased to see that many of the constructs we hold dear were evident in some of the more progressive and effective schools. But we also saw a difference between our version of a professional learning community and what was happening in these highly effective progressive schools. They increased the measure of each student’s active involvement and partnership in the learning process, pacing, and pathways. In highly effective and transformative schools, students radically owned aspects of the inquiry process.
Lessons from Finland — Nokia
During one of our school visits, we spent an afternoon at a secondary school in Finland. Not just any school in Finland. The number one school in what is often considered the number one country for education.
All too often, we expect the highest-performing schools to settle into status quo as they polish their excellence. And indeed, some successful schools can find it hard to harness the institutional will to change, complacency growing tall and choking out courage. Not at this school. Educators there seemed to push forward with such urgency, it stunned us. Not only was this school excellent when measured against traditional metrics, but also it was committed to giving students a voice and choice throughout their learning journey there. We asked the principal, “Educationally, yours is considered the number one school in this country. How have you stayed this motivated to move from a traditional to an innovative model of education?” His answer made the point. “Oh, you didn’t notice the Nokia headquarters just down the street? Every day we drive past the Nokia offices to get to work. It serves as a strong reminder of what will happen to our school if we don’t change. If we don’t change, what and how our students learn will become like Nokia, a successful company that almost overnight became irrelevant in the 21st century.”
This Finland school and its story have served as a warning to our team at Singapore American School. We are convinced that if we don’t change, we will become irrelevant and inadequately serve our students.
How Disruptive? Continuous Improvement and Disruptive Innovation
In his book The Global Fourth Way, Boston College Professor Andy Hargreaves says schools must “harmonize incremental improvements with disruptive change...to develop innovation within schools while continuously improving them.”1
Our school needed to make a decision. Maybe you do, too. Do we throw off the shackles of tradition and expectation in order to innovate wildly? Do we sacrifice the careful work of continuous improvement for unbounded innovation? It is important for schools to find the balance between these two change processes but also to give educators genuine permission to run in new directions.
However, if disruptive innovation kills our disciplined improvement, we run the risk of having no substance underneath our new veneer. Independent schools need to find ways to create disruptive change and revolutionize education by building upon the key structures that made them great along the way.
We decided to throw off some shackles. Wisely, we also chose to keep some core tenets that serve the present and the future. This includes professional learning communities as our foundational collaborative structure and an institutional commitment: a way to keep us honest about student learning and educator growth.
How to Start, When to Stop
During one of our visits to High Tech High in San Diego, CEO Larry Rosenstock suggested that our number one challenge with the change process was to fight inertia and the tendency to “regress toward the mean.”
Alternatively, John Kotter, Harvard University business professor and best-selling author, suggests that the first step for initiating systemic change is to “establish a sense of urgency.”2 Urgency can be created from outside forces. It can be provoked by circumstances or opportunities, such as our R&D trips. However, the biggest benefit arrives when urgency builds within educators. With internal urgency, new energy and conviction drive our community to make a difference for kids and their learning. This happened when we saw for ourselves what was possible and understood for ourselves why pursuing what is possible was necessary. Not all of us have the reminder of the Nokia headquarters on our commute. We must discover our own Nokia: our own sense of urgency.
And, then there’s love. It might seem out of place here, but it has been a topic coded in our conversations about change leadership. How will we know if we are pushing too hard for change or not hard enough? We must know the people on our team and understand their will, capacity, and appetite for change. We must know their frustration with excuses and stagnation as well. What’s at stake if we change, and what’s at stake if we stay the same? As author and educational researcher Michael Fullan puts it, the first “secret of change” is to “love your employees.”3 The response to love is greater trust, which is a fuel for change like none other.
The following describes the Singapore American School model of change. This is not a formula for success, but it does offer a structure within which educators can dream, plan, build, and revolutionize learning at their schools. These are the steps (minus a thousand more microsteps and missteps) that we took in order to make significant changes in our school.
The R&D Process
Four years ago, we established a comprehensive research and development process to achieve Singapore American School’s vision to be “a world leader in education, cultivating exceptional thinkers, prepared for the future.” We designed a four-stage process, which was our effort to manage the transformation thoughtfully and systematically and to ensure maximum success and sustainability of new programs. Throughout, we worked to establish and execute a robust community-wide communication plan.
Stage 1 — Research
The research phase gave teachers and administrators an entire year to dive deep into the educational literature and to visit schools on the cutting edge of teaching and learning. We visited more than 100 schools in seven countries. In his article, “Creating the Future of Learning: Singapore American School,” Tom Vander Ark suggests, “[Singapore American School] used school visits to inspire a talented but isolated faculty. Exposure to the best schools in the world and a new group of critical friends resulted in updated student learning expectations. Professional learning communities created collaboration routines that broke down barriers and hosted tough conversations. New tools created new learning opportunities.”4
The primary objective during this stage was simply to learn and reflect upon our learning. As educators, we love learning but sometimes just don’t “get out enough” beyond our own context. We also tend to jump to early conclusions without stepping back to truly reflect on the implications for our practice. It is a disciplined professional who can learn while removing his or her own bias so that he or she can find new enlightenment.
We learned from thought leaders in the field and from schools around the world. We learned from exemplar schools but also from schools yet to begin their change process. Teams reported that their learning from stagnant schools was equally indelible.
The second objective was to create a sense of urgency for teachers and administrators. Seeing the extent to which students can empower their own learning shone a spotlight on traditional practices and left the team feeling dissatisfied with the status quo, hungry for change.
The third objective was to clarify key questions:
• Who do we want to be as a school?
• What kind of learning do we want to provide for our students?
• What do we want to be known for?
At the end of a lot of soul-searching, our school leadership team identified three “cultures” we aspired to embody:
• a culture of excellence;
• a culture of extraordinary care; and
• a culture of possibilities.
Many of the highest-performing schools in the world can claim one or two of these cultures, but only a handful can claim to embrace all three. These have become our “Strategic Anchors.” And it is the cross section of these three elements that we believe embodies the effective school of the future.
The Strategic Anchors uniquely define who we are as a school and were applied in all R&D decision-making, helping shape our road map for the future.
Stage 2 — Development
The development stage gave our teams the second yearlong opportunity —to devise a school reform proposal drawn from our research. We put everything on the table, willing to sacrifice the sacred cows and ask the hard questions: If we were to design a new school today, what would it look like? Given everything that we have read and seen, what can we implement that would positively and dramatically impact student learning in our school? What are our constraints, and how immovable arethey?
Asking and answering these questions was difficult and often emotional, getting at the heart of what we held most dear. Great schools aren’t forged by accident. They are forged because well-intentioned, hard-working, and passionate educators have spent years shaping them to be what they are. Naturally, the threat of deconstructing things is often met with caution, if not outright opposition. People believe in what they have built, and those beliefs need to be considered as a part of the change process.
To navigate these waters successfully, it’s important to develop principles in early conversations that will guide the team’s work. It was easier for our development team members to come to agreement on some big ideas first and then move to more specific implications, which are often controversial. For example, the team agrees that children who can exercise agency over their learning are more successful than students who don’t own their learning. The next step would be to decide how the school is going to give students the opportunity to own their learning process.
Stage 3 — Capacity Building
Once a set of recommendations had been created by the development team and endorsed by school leadership, it was imperative to carve out time so each initiative could be implemented well and teachers could be equipped to lead and participate. The capacity-building stage allowed each team to implement plans with fidelity and excellence. This stage included professional development, pilots and prototypes, new course development, and iterations of programs as we learned more. This is at the heart of continuous improvement.
Stage 4 — Strategic Plan and Implementation
As we built capacity and craved focus, we entered into the strategic plan and implementation phase. This process required us to prioritize the initiatives for rollout over a five-year time frame. We needed to gauge our school’s capacity to implement change, giving consideration to several factors including school-wide alignment, the importance of each initiative, the dangers of “too much change,” and our appetite for serious implementation.
The Strategic Plan
The strategic plan outlines a five-year initiative to move the school from its current iteration to a desired future. Five strategic areas of focus were identified:
1. Professional learning communities;
2. Standards-based approach;
3. High-impact instructional practices;
4. Pastoral care; and
5. Systems supporting learning.
The power of a well-crafted strategic plan is to help the organization focus on the areas of importance, asking what will yield the highest return on a school’s investment. It is the implementation of the plan where the rubber meets the road.
Doing Right by Your Students
Change in schools is complex. It requires foresight, strategy, patience, and above all courage — courage to do what you know is right for the students you serve.
We know more today than ever about how to facilitate learning at high levels and what is truly important for children, but many schools are simply not changing the learning experience. They risk being the Nokia for schools. Our hope is that our journey will spark a sense of urgency and hope in you, give you new reasons to explore change, and provide a simple, research-based and reliable construct to return agency to students, maintain standards for learning, and heighten vision in schools.
1. Andy Hargreaves and Dennis Shirley, The Fourth Way: The Inspiring Future for Educational Change. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, 2009.
2. John P. Kotter, Leading Change. Boston, Mass: Harvard Business School Press, 2012.
3. Michael Fullan, The Six Secrets of Change, Hoboken, NJ: Jossey-Bass, 2011.
4. Tom Vander Ark, Visiting School: Transforming Professional Learning, gettingsmart.com/2016/05/transformative-professional-learning/2016.