In 2017, Ray Trotter, the principal of Wooranna Park Primary School in North Dandenong, allowed me to survey the school’s curriculum documents.
At the time, Ray was writing about the reforms taking place in the school for an acclaimed international journal. I was curious to observe how telling the ‘school story’ supported curriculum reforms. I asked that I might be allowed to explore how he and the school leadership team were benefiting from their writings.
School stories are on-going.
What I witnessed at Wooranna Park Primary School, I believe, was how its principal remained focused on the core vision of a child-centre school for over twenty years. The paper that Ray was in the process of writing was, in fact, the most complete version of a recurring theme. In a nutshell, it told how a conventional government school went about transforming itself from the mid-1990s for the benefits of its students. In the process, it outlined its ‘reason for being’ and the burning principles that drove the changes in classrooms and how the staff took up the challenge of proactively engaging in school-based reforms.
It portrayed a complex account of how pedagogies arise from embracing a vast educational world of ideas into the minutiae of everyday classroom practices. How were ‘big ideas’ translated into practices that saw the students becoming more responsible and autonomous learners? How was the school preparing students to live democratically, ethically and joyously? What messages were emanating in each classroom about student agency and social coherence?
In an interview I conducted with Ray (September 2018), he acknowledged that “once you, a child, or an adult believes, ‘I can’t learn this’, you cannot learn. You’ve switched off the brain’s ability to learn. I was lucky enough to have a mentor at university who never answered any question I asked. He always referred me to a book. I liked that. Yeah, because there are times when, you know, I think as a teacher it’s good to put some onus on the person to read and learn by themselves. On the other hand, sometimes you can cut through a lot of extra work by just giving an insight. And, yep, I think it was Piaget that said, “Once you teach a child you to take away the opportunity for that child to ever fully understand something.”
The value of an on-going school narrative is vitally produced by the principal. As we embrace the potential of digital leadership, what characterises a ‘school story solution’ that bares fruit to strategically manage
- The development of a personalised curriculum;
- Communicating with the whole school community; and
- Resolutely embracing pedagogies that enable student agency.
Doing an education content audit
Leaders can now provide stakeholders with relevant information in real-time through a variety of devices. No longer do static, one-way methods such as newsletters and websites suffice. Important information can be communicated through various free social media tools and simple implementation strategies in order to meet stakeholders where they are in the digital age. Digital leadership is about engaging all stakeholders in two-way communication.Eric Sheninger (2017) Digital Leadership: Changing Paradigms for Changing Times
Over the last twenty years, principals have been asked to take on business-like features into their school organisation through accountability mechanisms, particularly in the area of data collection. The gallantry of principals like Ray Trotter at WPPS to consistently pursue a reforming educational agenda often puts him a odds with official data collection policies, most importantly NAPLAN.
Even before beginning my regular visits to the school in February 2018, the truth of this approach became clear to me through a ‘content audit’ of the school. It started, in fact, in a week-long perusal of content created by and about the school’s educational approach. The results were impressive.
Managing a sea of content!
I surveyed over 150 substantial texts created between 1998 to 2017, all focused on describing WPPS pursuit of a new paradigm. I accessed
- Debra Bateman’s 2009 thesis, Transforming teachers’ temporality: futures in curriculum practices and Esme Capp’s 2013 thesis Collective Inquiry: Using cultural-historical theory as a methodology for educational reform;
- Chapter 9 of Suzie Boss’s (2017) All together now: how to engage your stakeholders in reimagining school;
- Chapter 8 of Claire McLachlan, Marilyn Fleer and Susan Edwards (2013) Early childhood curriculum: planning, assessment and implementation; and
- 30+ newspaper articles by local, state and national newspapers such as The Age, Herald Sun and Dandenong Star
I also found 78 articles in professional journals such as Architecture Australia, Prime Numbers, ACSA Australia, Australian Primary Mathematics Classroom, The Royal Society of Victoria, Edutopia, Progressive Educators Network, CERES Sustainability Hub, Australia Asia Foundation and SteemEDU.
As a result, I launched into an ‘educational content audit’ to record all the different ways the school told its pedagogical story online. What I discovered at WPPS was so much more – in over 150 substantial texts, created between 1998 to 2017, all focused on describing its pursuit of a new education paradigm. I accessed theses, book chapters; over 30 newspaper articles by local, state and national newspapers and 78 articles in professional journals.
Other documents about the school were found on local, state and federal members of parliament websites, state and national Departments of Education (most notably ACARA’s My School website) and various ‘good school guides’ that rank the school in comparison to other Australian schools.
Furthermore, these text documents (found online as printable PDFs) sat beside nearly 1000 videos demonstrating various aspects of WPPS’s pedagogy, photographs on Google Images, a Twitter feed for the school, classroom-based blogs through Seesaw, and Google for Education apps.
I was also able to bring together principal Ray’s documentation of the changes that occurred over the twenty-plus years. This included academic articles, purpose-made videos, website notices, official policy documents and a significant number of photographs around school events.
What message must schools communicate
The benefits of such documents in building the school’s reputation and status are not difficult to imagine. However, more measurable benefits, say, how news and publicity impacts on school enrolments or how it affects the evenness of classroom practices across the school may be harder to estimate.
I was also able to bring together Ray’s documentation of the changes over the twenty years. This included other academic articles, purpose-made videos, website notices, official policy documents and a significant number of photographs around significant school events. Ray also welcomed local, national and international visitors on a regular basis who confirmed WPPS’s reputation as an educational innovative school.
My purpose for interacting with Ray’s story was not to advertise, brand or market WPPS! With the right budget, schools have been utilising aspects of the Advertising Industry long before digital technologies.
I was at WPPS to propose something different. As digital technologies were now enabling all authors to self-publish, had the principal’s ability to create and manage educational content also gained importance? In fact, could ‘school stories’ solve how schools sustained the implementation of a great learning environment.
A vital question for me was how should such a treasure-house of valuable content be used to grow the school’s relationship with its community? The marketing term used for such work is branding, but somehow it doesn’t do justice to the value of a school’s reputation and its links to its principles of learning.
We know, for instance, that parents look to buy homes in areas where they can enrol children in a ‘good school’. But we also know that in an egalitarian society every child has the right to a ‘good education’. So it’s understandable that school leaders dismiss simplistic notions of marketing schools when compared to the pedagogical complexities in which they operate.
As WPPS shows, however, the good news is that school leaders have at their disposal a lot of content and resources through which they can communicate the effectiveness of their work. Furthermore, the knowledge of how to achieve ‘digital leadership’ is becoming widespread thanks to principals and scholars like Eric Sheninger and Trish Rubin, who write in BrandED how a school’s brand can improve school culture, expand school performance and increase school resourcing (Sheninger and Rubin, 2017, p.8).
Having been convinced by Naomi Klein’s No Logo back in 1999, I don’t have quite the same enthusiasm for branding as Sheninger and Rubin. Nonetheless, I remain confident that school leaders have the capacity to draw on useful communication strategies from an eclectic source of opinions to showcase teaching and learning in their schools.
I am also encouraged by the fact that the digital disruption of the advertising and marketing industries has produced a profound shift towards learning principles to engage with and retain clients. School leaders may be surprised to read, therefore, that the digital marketing platform Hubspot has as its company mission the creation of a platform that unites “software, education, and community to help businesses grow better every day.”