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Schools Know More Than They Use

This post is by Mel Ainscow.

My work with schools over many years convinces me that they usually have a greater capacity to improve themselves than is currently being mobilized. Put simply, schools know more than they use. It follows that the best starting point for improving schools is with the practices that already exist. For me, everything else follows from this assumption.

Making better use of existing expertise is particularly important if we are to address the challenge of equity. In order to develop schools that make sure that all young people get a fair chance, we have to make available school practices that break down the barriers that prevent the participation and learning of some of our students. We also have to develop organizational conditions that encourage teachers to work together in experimenting with such practices.

Inquiry-based approaches to professional learning are a powerful way of encouraging such developments. Specifically, this involves teams of teachers collecting and engaging with various forms of evidence regarding the experiences of learners in their schools, particularly those who miss out within existing arrangements. Usually, the starting point is statistical data that draws attention to students whose progress is a cause for concern. However, understanding why these learners are missing out requires closer analysis of different forms of evidence. Here, opportunities for teachers to observe one another's classes are an essential strategy. Even more powerful is hearing the views of learners themselves.

Evidence collecting in these forms creates interruptions during the busy day of teachers that stimulate self-questioning, creativity, and action. This can draw attention to overlooked possibilities for making lessons more inclusive. Where this works it enables teacher partnerships to mature in ways that encourage mutual learning. It can also generate a language of practice through which new approaches can be devised.

A helpful way of introducing this approach is through the idea of lesson study, a systematic procedure for the development of teaching that is well established in Japan and several other Asian countries. It involves teachers working in small groups to strengthen teaching and learning. Each group chooses and plans one lesson--known as the research lesson--that they will each teach. The aim is to share expertise as to how to involve all members of the class. As each member of the group teaches the lesson, their colleagues observe the process, focusing specifically on the way students respond. After each lesson the teachers plan ways of improving the lesson before it is taught again.

There is another level of collaboration that can promote equity-building partnerships across schools. In my chapter in the book Leading Educational Change I discuss how, within a city-wide improvement project in England, we created "families of schools." The strength of this approach is that it grouped together schools that serve similar populations whilst, at the same time, encouraging partnerships amongst schools that are not in direct competition with one another because they do not serve the same neighborhoods.

I also describe smaller, more intensive partnerships, within which successful schools supported schools facing challenging circumstances in ways that benefited all the participating schools. This implies that by helping others, you help yourself. This is an encouraging finding that has the potential to provide support for schools in difficulty, while at the same time contributing to the overall improvement of a school system.

None of this is simple, of course, and certainly it does not happen by chance. Effective coordination and leadership are key factors. In the English context, this is increasingly provided by successful school principals who are invited to take on the role of system leaders.

The implication, then, is that efforts to foster greater equity within education systems must start with the sharing of expertise, within and between schools. The question is, why is this not happening more widely? What are the barriers that are preventing the creation of self-improving education systems?

Mel Ainscow is professor of education at the University of Manchester, United Kingdom.
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