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2023 Schools - Spider's webs or building blocks?

By Steve Saville

‘When spider webs unite, they can tie up a lion.’

-African Proverb

This blog introduces an idea that school structures and way of being can assist or hinder pedagogical and educational change.

Essentially what we are suggesting is that most schools develop around a ‘building block’ structure - an approach which may be restrictive. What we see as a viable alternative is to structure school as a nonlinear interconnected circular web of interdependence. More organic and more natural.

Traditionally schools are organized according to one or more hierarchies. Not necessarily because schools believe that rigid hierarchies are the best way of developing young minds, more because schools are developed and exist within, what are basically, European norms and these tend towards the hierarchical.

So, the overall education hierarchy that individual schools sit within has, at the top, the national governing body - the Ministry of Education. Despite their often-stated desire to develop the autonomy of schools they are still the puppet masters, they largely oversee the setting of curriculum, funding, physical building, assessment, change, reviews etc. Their role is to provide big picture direction, they exist outside and above individual schools.

At individual school level the next tier is occupied by the principal and, at times, the Board of Trustees. Although, to be fair, the Board of Trustees are primarily concerned with governance issues rather than operational aspects of the school and so they tend to be one step removed from the daily functioning and learning experiences that take place in a school.

The principal is the educational leader of the school, below them sit the staff who are the implementers. Their role is to implement the decisions made by the two tiers that sit above them and turn initiatives and directives into fulfilling and magical learning experiences. Again, to be fair the vast majority of teachers are given and use considerable freedom and as a result genuinely create magic within the confines of the hierarchical system. The problem is that all too often they are creative against the machine and not because of it.

Below them are the students who are the receivers. They are the reason schools exist, but they have very little input into what and how they learn. There is a very strong argument to be made that they ‘don’t know what they don’t know’ and that the job of a school is to feed them the knowledge form which they can make decisions and choices, but for the most part they are vessels that need to be filled before they can play an active role in actual decision making of any significance. If we subscribe to this, then we need to stop talking about learner agency and power sharing until at least the senior secondary school years.

Almost below them are the community that the school sits within, also largely external to the daily operation of a school, their input is often sought but their ability to directly influence is minimal or difficult to realise.

This is the structure that can be observed in the majority of schools, and in many situations, it functions very well and has done for decades. When it does function well so does the school, but it can also be very restrictive in its rigidity. This is especially evident when it is operating in conjunction with a departmentalised, fragmented approach to curriculum delivery which is the norm in most secondary schools. This ‘silo’ effect breaks learning into separate entities, and it is not always easy for educators, or students, to find and build on the connections between these silos. It could be argued that the very way timetables are administered in secondary schools actively hinders making connections across learning disciplines.

So, in its most brutal manifestation what you have is two hierarchies, one vertical and one horizontal that don’t naturally weave together and this means that the school is fragmented and often quite rigidly inflexible. The system's ability to operate and function is dependent on the strength of the individual strands.

Again, it works until it doesn't. I would argue that the rigidity of a hierarchical system is being challenged by the demands of what skills and knowledge our future generations need and the impact of this age of disruption.

Increasingly we are seeing and approaching learners as holistic beings. Increasingly we are seeing them through the eyes of models like Te Whare Tapa Wha and Te Whare Mauri Ora. The reality is that a student is a complex entity that functions well if the various component parts of the Whare are protected, nurtured and work in harmony. If a student has a strong positive mindset, good health, is surrounded by respectful relationships and a strong sense of belonging then they tend to be more settled, attend school regularly and achieve better outcomes (social and academic). They are not fragmented, rigid components, but an organic interdependent being. We realise this but in these complex and demanding times it sometimes feels that the machine that is supposed to nurture them is actually part of the problem.

It may be that some of the problems we are encountering with engagement and accountability in our schools may have something to do with an organic student trying to fit into a rigid, compartmentalized system.

So, what is the alternative?

The Spider's Web

What would happen if we started seeing and organizing our schools as if they were an ecosystem? Sir Ken Robinson talked about this, so it is hardly a new concept. Instead of a hierarchy, what would happen if we saw school as an interdependent circle, less linear and more circular. A living biological ecosystem where each part is interdependent on the other components like a garden, or pond, or spider's web.

We tend to put curriculum in its own box as if it was a separate building block, the same with assessment, pedagogy, school environment, pedagogy etc. We tend to see them as building blocks that can be looked at almost in isolation (I am simplifying for effect here) and that we build learning at a school when we put these blocks together rather than seeing and exploring their interconnectedness from the outset. For example, we are currently going through a significant NCEA review. NCEA is an assessment system, that is all it is, surely we should be looking at a learning review that looks first at what learning is, how we learn, pedagogy etc. before we make decisions about how we assess learning. Again, I simplify for effect here.

The purpose of a spider's web is to obtain food, facilitate movement, and protect. The strength comes from the design, shake, or disturb one part and the whole web feels it. The connecting individual strands provide strength, but it is also flexible (and indeed fragile).

Think of the purpose of a school, that is to provide learning opportunities and personal development for those that attend, to prepare them and educate them. Think of this as connected learning, connected to people, the past and the future, connections across and within disciplines, learning connected to the reality of everyone.

Now think of how we compartmentalize learning, we tend to see content, almost as self-contained. Relationships, wellbeing etc. as being able to be timetabled to be dealt with in a half hour session on a Wednesday morning. Pedagogy, the school environment, we tend to isolate these as well.

To be fair at this point we are making significant progress in many areas. Modern school design seriously attempts to introduce flexible learning spaces into the mix and programmes such as PB4L are significant initiatives in looking at whole child approaches but the way we staff and fund schools remains rooted in what is rapidly becoming an archaic view of learning and school based education.

Now what would it look like if schools weren't so concerned about the rigidity of systems and processes but explored the connections between them? If every time a decision was made in the curriculum area it led to a realisation that we were also going to have to address the resulting effect on pedagogy, school environments, and relationships. You can't talk about introducing a blended or integrated programme as if it was simply content based. It must create ripples in the web relating to how, where and when we teach, how and what we assess etc. and these need to be addressed as interconnected rather than separate entities.

A spider's web view of a school merely asks us to reposition to see connections and strands that exist in a school rather than the walls and barriers. The biggest challenge presented though is a questioning of existing power dynamics within schools and, even more challenging, how we work in a collaborative manner within our webs. All of this requires considerable personal and professional development, this might seem daunting but not nearly as daunting as doing nothing and hoping for the best, now that is scary!

(Want help spinning your own spider's web on your next teacher only day? This tool Pathway of The Spider will certainly help)

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