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Dr Sandra Milligan: On the matter of reforming teaching and learning, and the Principalship

Here are four conclusions about the role of the principal in leading reform for Australia. They arise from experience in research partnerships between a range of ‘first mover’ schools, and Melbourne Metrics.

The partnerships aim to reimagine how schools might work better, exploring themes such as agency in learning, standards not standardisation, assessing competence not just content, using profiles to recognise learner success, and moving beyond ATAR. A core idea is that learners should become producers of their own learning, and not just consumers of set content organised and delivered lockstep.

The premise of the work is that tinkering with policy and practice is not enough, and that ‘next generation’ transformation, and a ‘new grammar of schooling’ is needed to reverse falling scores and fix the the current crisis confidence. In schooling


First conclusion: recognising that the principalship is leading real reform. The re-imagining of schooling is not coming from governments, departments, agencies and authorities, reviews and reports for change. With a few remarkable exceptions notwithstanding, the regenerative power is coming from schools with dedicated, capable, innovative, leaders working collaboratively, responding in a practical way to the day-to-day realities of young people and their communities. As the Productivity Commission points out in its analysis of the failure of the previous NSRA, system decisions are too often made ‘remote from the lived experience of principals and teachers’.


Second: promoting systemness not compliance. I am often told that deep reform of the sort we are undertaking is too hard: it might not ‘scale’ to all schools, or some school won’t or can’t manage it. This, in my view, betrays one-size-fits-all thinking, possibly a relic of the grand old days of the big departments, where every school was designed as a carbon copy of the next, with a principal to ensure compliance. But in my experience, successful principals do not comply, and no two schools do things in the same way, or should. They weave new ideas into the school, respecting history, culture and community, and adapting to individual learner needs. They use ideas and objectives, not prescriptions and solutions, to create opportunities for their community over time, creating a unique response for their school. 

This might well explain why schools are famously impervious to systemic levers such as exhortations, guidelines, policy statements, assessment mandates, and professional learning. What really changes schools is concerted, collaborative leadership, working close to and with learners, over time, with strategic intent.


Third: mobilising diversity as strength. Partnership school networks at UniMelb include by design different geographies, demographics, levels of schooling, sectors and jurisdictions, highlighting the paradox that while every school is unique, all schools face common contemporary challenges in supporting young people to thrive. There are no silos: participants learn from trusted colleagues who are on the same wavelength but in different circumstances.


And lastly: promoting trust and agility. We talk much these days about the need to develop students’ agency in learning so they take responsibility for shaping their own learning, and correspondingly teachers change how they teach. Without this, learners can become compliant and dependent, or dogged and bored, or stressed, or resistant and rebellious. So too with the modern school leadership. Similarly, developing thriving school leadership teams requires systems to change, to trust and support school leaders to be responsive, agile, energetic and engaged leaders.


The principle of subsidiarity is relevant here, useful for thinking about allocation of responsibilities and tasks between different levels of governance. This holds that individual members of a large organisation (e.g., schools) should be trusted to make the decisions on issues that affect them, rather than having decisions imposed from the ‘top’ by governments or jurisdictions.


If a generative culture of school-lead innovation was supported in every system, and if governance was based on the subsidiarity principle, perhaps over a 10-year period the principalships would be easier to fill, schooling would be more agile, and more children would thrive at school as confident, capable lifelong learners.

Dr Sandra Milligan, Executive Director of Melbourne Assessment at the University of Melbourne's Faculty of Education, has extensive experience in education research and engagement with the education industry. Originally a teacher, she has held senior roles in government education departments, research organisations, startups, and corporations. Her current research focuses on assessing and credentialing hard-to-measure skills. She directs research partnerships developing learner profiles and co-authored reports on recognising general capabilities. She co-founded the Good Universities Guide series and has commercialised education technologies. She also convenes a MOOC on assessment and 21st century skills for teachers that has reached over 30,000 educators worldwide.

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