Mal Lee and Glenn Finger
The Prime Minister’s proposal to work with the states and territories in providing all Australian schools – State, Independent, and Catholic – with substantial, increased self-management by around 2018 is to be commended. Acknowledgement of local agency in creating educational solutions and fostering initiative should be seen as an opportunity for bipartisan support at the Federal level, and for cooperation between all levels of government.
The move has the potential to position Australia’s schools to provide world class schooling in an increasingly digital, networked world. The National Broadband Network (NBN) needs to be accompanied by an educational approach which capitalises upon the transformational possibilities for learning by Australian students ‘anywhere, anytime’.
Therefore, there are several agendas which self-management of schooling needs to be concurrently linked with strategically. There are signposts provided by successful transformation of businesses that have understood global, technological changes and the potential of these for making the transformations.
While there are examples of the pathfinding, networked digital schools which have already understood 21st Century teaching and learning, most schools still operate as discrete, ‘stand alone’ entities behind the traditional walls, invariably working from a paper base.
Those schools which were formed in an earlier Industrial Age, are often characterised by dated, highly hierarchical, bureaucratic organizational structures that constrain the imagination and efforts of even the most capable school principals, teachers, and committed school communities to move with the times.
The definition of ‘a place called school’ is requiring a more comprehensive understanding of the digital ecosystems within which schools, teachers and their students are now immersed.
Subsequently, attempts to improve schooling will involve a combined understanding of self-management together with the realisation of the impact and potential of digital futures.
There are positive signs that policies and initiatives understand this. The Federal Government’s Digital Strategy for Teachers and School Leaders has the commendable vision “To empower teachers and school leaders to integrate information and communication technology (ICT) in education to improve school effectiveness and provide students with the skills required for the 21st century”.
This cannot be achieved without an accompanying structural and organisational model of distributed leadership in schools where school leaders and teachers have the agency to realise this vision.
The authors’ research reveals that pathfinding schools across the developed world, and throughout Australia have moved from the traditional paper-based operational mode to one that is digital and, more recently, networked.
The pathfinding, digital, networked schools have recognised that their networks and those of their homes allow them to offer a richer, more effective education that extends well beyond the traditional school walls and operating times. Learning for their students actively involves the parents/caregivers, grandparents, and the community in the ‘teaching’. The principals and teachers take advantage of the opportunities being opened up by a networked world, which gives students access to ‘anywhere, anytime’ learning.
Those schools understand that in a networked world students do not always have to be physically in attendance to receive an education. A ‘place called school’ has been reimagined! Local agency, self-directed learning, and learner engagement is evident, rather than authority being centralised, hierarchical, and constraining.
The pathfinding schools – like the leaders of industry – also appreciate to make best use of the increasingly networked world they require an organizational structure and an operational mode that facilitates that usage..
In the organizations of the networked world, as Lipnack and Stamps astutely identified more than 15 years ago, it is vital that they have a clear unifying purpose, and schools express this through their message systems of curriculum, pedagogy and assessment. They also need the independence, flexibility and strategic speed to respond rapidly to their distinct ever- changing contexts. Self-managing schools are best placed to adopt a more collaborative, networked style of operation where they can take best advantage of all the resources, human and material available to them.
We have seen cyclical swings in terms of the centralisation and decentralization of power and control of schooling over time. More recently, the move to national approaches has tended to see Government and school systems centralise control through funding arrangements and compliance.
The MySchool website, for example, has been promoted as providing evidence for parents to choose the school for their child. This reflects a limited view of the importance of the complex, interdependent factors which contribute to learning.
Importantly, that limited view, while promoting transparency, does not value, recognise or promote the importance of the roles played by parents/caregivers, the students, and their communities, in learning partnerships with schools, in shaping their futures.
The move to giving greater autonomy to principals represent the system understanding the limits of previous centralised control and interventions. It aligns more appropriately with a networked world, and with a dynamic understanding of promoting local agency, collaboration and partnerships needed to achieve great learning outcomes.
The Digital Strategy is well positioned to inform and support the renewed movement of leadership power to schools. Specifically, the ICT Innovation Fund (ICTIF), an element of the Digital Strategy will support the development of professional learning in the use of ICT. Projects recently announced hold promise.
This can assist the shift by schools and their leaders to become networked school communities, and to harness the immense, burgeoning digital access and ‘teaching’ capacity of the students’ homes. Research collectively has consistently demonstrated that the quality of teaching and the partnerships being home and school impact positively on student learning.
There are largely untapped digital resources used by students in their personal lives and available in their homes, and largely unrecognised teaching resources provided by parents and communities. More agency through distributed leadership to schools and their communities can enable the creation of effective home-school relationships and networked school communities.
It is no longer adequate to design schooling on the assumption that real education only occurs in a ‘place called school’ defined by timetables and physical buildings, and relying primarily on the instructional technologies of the 19th and 20th Centuries – the pen, paper and teaching board.
Pleasingly, the pathfinding schools across Australia recognise the many potential educational, social, economic, organizational and political benefits of adopting a more networked mode of schooling, of pooling the resources of the home and the school, of creating networked school communities, and of adopting an organizational form that allows the teachers, parents, grandparents and students to work collaboratively.
Fundamental to the shift to the networked mode is the school having the autonomy – the degree of independence flagged by the Gillard Government – required to adopt a model that is appropriate to its situation in a constantly evolving and changing world. Every school community in a networked world is unique, with its own distinct and ever evolving and declining human networks. The contextual challenges of students in a small rural town, or in a coastal beach village, or in a mining community, or in an inner city secondary school will be very different. Each requires the agency and autonomy to shape the solutions needed for the contextual challenges each faces.
Schools need the ability to adopt an organizational structure that will facilitate the desired collaboration, human networking, and inclusiveness at all levels. Strongly hierarchical school structures that markedly disempower the professionalism of most teachers, and highly bureaucratic structures both and outside the school that seek to maintain the status quo most assuredly will not enhance the school’s facility to respond rapidly to an ever evolving world.
It is therefore vital that Government, in providing the desired level of self management to Australia’s schools, also understands that it needs to open the way for all of Australia’s school community’s to adopt a model of networked school communities appropriate for the 21st Century.
The Gillard Government is to be commended for the placing this high on the agenda. However, in the forthcoming shaping of the model, it is imperative to bear in mind the digital, networked world within which self-management is now located. The alignment of visionary policies and initiatives, such as the Digital Strategy for Teachers and school Leaders, the possibilities which the National Broadband Network might have for transforming education, and redefining a “Place called School’ to enable ‘anywhere, anytime’ learning would be useful places to start.
Associate Professor Glenn Finger (Dean – Griffith University) and Mal Lee are the editors of the ACER Press publication Developing a Networked School Community (2010) and are currently preparing a follow up work on Leading a Networked School Community.