Time to turn schools upside-down and inside-out

Malcolm Groves and John West-Burnham, authors of Flipping Schools, offer a radical re-think on traditional approaches to school improvement, focusing on the education of the most vulnerable, disadvantaged and often overlooked children in society. Their evidence-based strategies aim to empower schools to ‘flip’ their thinking and address the wider external factors at play when it comes to children’s learning outcomes, with a focus on personal, social and economic factors

We believe that a school improvement initiative which fails to align with a strategy for community engagement is now unfit for purpose. A school improvement initiative based on flawed numerical measures which fails to take into account broader factors, such as personal/social development and wellbeing, can become dangerous and damaging. A school improvement initiative which fails to understand the difference between organisation and community cannot take us to the levels of excellence and equity we need.

We hope you will be convinced of this by the arguments in our book, Flipping Schools, published by John Catt Educational.

The children and young people we are educating today face an unprecedented level of challenge – on personal, societal and global fronts – greater than any of us in developed countries have, to date, experienced; it may well be unprecedented in scale in recorded history. This combination of climate, environmental, societal and technological change has the capacity to destroy both the species and the planet.

We certainly appear to be losing the race, and need to embrace change if we are to turn it around.  In two recent blogs Canadian author, speaker and educational consultant Michael Fullan draws on the work of evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson to argue it is we – educators and school leaders – who hold the key to success.

According to Sloan Wilson, ‘Most evolutionary theory tells us that goodness can evolve, but only when special conditions are met. That’s why we must become wise managers of evolutionary processes. Otherwise evolution takes us where we don’t want to go’. (p.13-14) He argues that evolution occurs both within a population of individuals and also within a population of groups. Within both of these populations there is variation in their propensity for good or evil; neither is intrinsically good. Moreover, tribalism, where the needs of leaders drive choices, makes people do bad things, or at least not commit to do good things for humanity as a whole. For good to flourish, the special conditions which can allow this to happen are crucial.

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He goes on to say, ‘If you’re not surrounded by nurturing others, who know you by your actions, then it will not be possible to thrive as an individual. We must consciously seek to create small groups that benefit individuals as well as society as a whole’. This is, in essence, what we call, in Flipping Schools, a village-like approach to school leadership. In his blogs, Fullan argues that it is only educators who are well-positioned to bring about the change that is now needed. We agree.

Political action is required to address climate change and the many other issues that we face.  It is education, however, that enables us to learn about the world and work with our students to change it for the better. It’s true to say that schools, and the people who work within them today, may hold the future of our species in their hands. It’s vitally important that we all make a start.

For this to happen, we need to shift towards seeing the school as a community rather than as, primarily, an organisation. We must move away from school-centric thinking towards a community-centred, learner-focused mindset. This is about understanding the need for schools to help build social capital – the networks of relationships among people who live and work in a particular society, enabling that society to function effectively.

Four key components help make this possible. Firstly, the outward-facing school is a place of trust and mutual respect, modelling a community inside that can radiate outwards. Secondly, through the curriculum, schools provide a base of value and values. Thirdly, schools provide an engine for engagement and participation and, finally, schools create a hub of networks and support for learning. It is the interaction of these four elements that generates the social and cultural capital essential for building and developing community.

We do not underestimate the task. But this is why flipping schools, in the ways our book demonstrates – clearly rooted in human values, and eminently possible in practice – is now such a flipping urgent and vital need.

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