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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
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Leading learning: creating high-achieving learning environments

Robyn Collins

Many principals would have woken to the front page of The Australian on 15 August this year and felt an icy chill down their spines. A lead article, titled School payout for boy’s reading failure, reported the fact that a mother had received a confidential payout from a ‘top private school’ for failing to teach her son how to read properly. The article described how, although the school assured the mother that it had the resources to identify her son’s problems, and could fix them, it failed to diagnose his problem correctly. The mother subsequently sued the school for breaching the Trade Practices Act by failing to deliver the service it promised.

A cynical principal might suggest that a simple solution for schools is not to promise what they cannot deliver; however, this denies the fact that our central responsibility is to the children we teach – and this includes making sure, as far as is humanly possible, that students leave our schools literate, numerate and ready to take their place in the community. For principals this means that the most important thing they do in schools is to lead learning.

According to Fullan (2000), it takes three years to achieve successful change in student performance in a primary school, and approximately six years in secondary school. However, long-term positive reform in schools has not at this time translated into wide-school education reform.

Fullan says this is because we have failed to understand that both individual school development and the quality of the surrounding infrastructure are critical for lasting success. We must look at the ‘inside story’ – what we know about how schools change for the better in terms of their internal dynamics; the ‘inside-outside’ story – what effective schools do about the plethora of outside forces impinging on them; and the ‘outside-in’ story – how agencies external to the school accomplish large-scale reform at the school level.

The ‘inside story’ refers to what is actually happening inside the school and how particular school cultures operate to make a difference in how well students do at school. In a 1990–1995 study, Newmann and Wehlage (1995) analysed data from more than 1,500 schools in the United States and conducted field research in 44 schools in 16 states.

They found that some schools with collaborative work cultures did disproportionately well in affecting the performance of students and concluded that the more successful schools had teachers and administrators who (i) formed a professional learning community, (ii) focused on student work (through assessment) and (iii) changed their instructional practice accordingly to get better results. They did all of this on a continuing basis.

Fullan and Hargreaves (1998) draw particular attention to the second of these success factors, describing assessment literacy internal to the school as having two components:

1) the ability of teachers, individually and together, to interpret achievement data on student performance; and

2) teachers’ ability to develop action plans to alter instruction and other factors in order to improve student learning.

They also drew the distinction between ‘restructuring’ schools and ‘re-culturing’, pointing out that restructuring refers to changes in the structure, roles and related formal elements of the school, while re-culturing involves developing professional learning communities that go from ‘limited attention to assessment and pedagogy to a situation in which teachers and others routinely focus on these matters and make associated improvements’.

Stoll et al. (2003) define  an effective professional learning community as one  that ‘has the capacity to promote and sustain the learning of all professionals in the school community with the collective purpose of enhancing pupil learning’ and describes the five key features of an effective community as:

  • Shared values and vision directed towards the learning of all students, and greater reliance on collectivity to reinforce objectives, rather than on individual autonomy;
  • Collective responsibility for student learning, helping to sustain staff commitment, putting peer pressure on those who don’t do their fair share and holding them to account, and easing teachers’ sense of isolation;
  • Reflective professional inquiry as an integral part of work, including ongoing conversations about educational issues; frequent examining of practice with colleagues, mutual observation, joint planning and curriculum development;
  • Collaboration in developmental activities directed towards achieving a shared purpose that generates mutual professional learning, reaching beyond superficial exchanges of help, support or assistance; and
  • Group, as well as individual learning is promoted in that professional learning is more frequently communal rather than solitary, and all teachers are learners with their colleagues.

While the research suggests that schools need to focus on re-culturing so that they become effective professional learning communities, Fullan (2000) argues that this, alone, is not enough.

Because the external context of schools has changed so dramatically, teachers and principals now operate under a microscope in an increasingly complex, turbulent, relentless and uncertain environment where there are increased demands for better performance and greater accountability. In light of this new reality, teachers and principals must reframe their roles and shift their orientations to the ‘inside-outside story’, ‘moving towards the danger’ (ibid.) from outside forces in order to turn them to their advantage.

These powerful external forces are:

  • parents and community;
  • technology;
  • corporate connections;
  • government policy; and
  • the wider teaching profession.

When parents, the community, teachers and students share a rapport, learning occurs. Effective schools use their internal strength as a professional learning community to seek out relationships with parents and wider community. They work with them, seeing them as part of the solution rather than part of the problem and pursue programs and activities that are based on two-way capacity building (Epstein, 1995).

Effective schools also use technology to their advantage, seeing it not as a threat to their work, but realising that the more powerful technology becomes, the more indispensable good teachers are (Hargreaves and Fullan, 1998). Technology generates a glut of information, but cannot teach children how to construct their own meaning for deep understanding to occur. This means that teachers must become experts in pedagogical design and use of technology in the classroom.

In effective learning communities corporate partnerships are viewed as opportunities to form productive alliances to improve student outcomes. By collaborating with business and local community organisations, schools turn a possible external threat to their advantage and the advantage of their students.

Government policy is another external driver that has the potential to put good teaching and learning under threat. Government policy on accountability and assessment makes it critical that teachers become experts on external standards that are now inside the school. Schools must move towards the danger posed by standardised assessment by participating in the debate about the uses and misuses of achievement results. Effective schools use standards to ‘clarify, integrate, and raise their own expectations, and they want to know how well they are doing so that they can celebrate their successes or work to get better’ (Fullan, 2000).

Finally, the current preoccupation with teaching standards brings another set of external forces into schools. Internal school professional development can do much to enhance teacher effectiveness, but school improvement will never occur on a wide scale until the majority of teachers see themselves as part of the wider teaching profession and create conditions for continuous learning for their own members.

While external forces on schools seem to be an amalgam of relentless demands, these forces are not going to go away. Schools can choose to work against them, or they can deal with the outside, ‘partly to take on negative forces, partly to ferret out resources, and partly to learn from the outside’ (ibid.).

The final story – the ‘outside-in’– refers to the ‘outside’ of school districts, whole states or sets of intermediate agencies. Bryk et al. (1998) identify four main elements of the external reform infrastructure of large districts: policies focusing on decentralisation, local capacity building, rigorous external accountability and stimulation of innovation.

While decentralisation policies do not refer directly to independent schools because these schools, by definition, are decentralised, the other three elements do affect school and student success.

Local capacity building, for example, means investment in policies, training, professional development, ongoing support and so on in order to develop the capacity of schools, communities and districts. It includes such things as training school teams and school boards, building leadership capacity, redesigning pre-service education and adopting a variety of activities to prepare teachers, principals, parents and others to function as members of professional learning communities inside and outside the school.

Rigorous external accountability is another element of the ‘outside-in’ story that affects school effectiveness. The external accountability system must have a capacity-building philosophy. Its aim should be to generate data and procedures that help schools focus on standards and performance and build a capacity in schools for teachers to use ‘assessment for learning’.

Finally, the ‘outside-in’ story must stimulate innovation. Investments must be made in research, development, innovative networks and so on, so that education responds to new learning and uses research to inform policy and practice.

Fullan (2000) argues that sustained change is not possible without strong connections between individual school development and the quality of the surrounding infrastructure. He asserts that the three stories must coalesce so there is fusion between the spiritual, the political and the intellectual. If the spiritual (or moral) purpose of schools is to make a positive difference in the lives of students, then the political capacity should be to overcome obstacles that stand in the way of improved educational outcomes, and the intellectual must be to make more accessible to schools good ideas that increase their capacity to find out about, select, integrate and use new ideas effectively.

Schools can never guarantee that they will not fail, nor can they always meet the expectations of every parent or every child. They can, however, build strong professional learning communities and make effective connections with their immediate school communities, and the wider society, to make a positive difference in the lives of students. Perhaps this is the least we can do.

This article was written by Robyn Collins and edited by Dr John Roulston. It originally appeared in Independent Schools Queensland Briefings, Volume 10 Issue 7, August 2006. Copyright Independent Schools Queensland 2006. Republished with permission.


Bryk, A et al. 1998, Charting Chicago School Reform, Westview Press, Boulder, Colorado.

Epstein, J 1995, “School/Family/Community Partnerships”, Phi Delta Kappan, June.

Fullan, M 2000, “The Three Stories of Education Reform”, Phi Delta Kappan, vol 81, no 8.

Hargreaves, A and Fullan, M 1998, What’s Worth Fighting  for Out There, Teachers College Press, New York.

Newmann, F and Wehlage, G 1995, Successful School Restructuring, Center on Organization and Restructuring of Schools, University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Stoll, L, Wallace, M, Bolam, R et al. 2003, Creating and Sustaining Effective Professional Learning Communities, epic research project, Research Brief, RBX12–03.


Subject Headings

Educational accountability
Education aims and objectives
Education policy