Ingela Netz, Principal, Igelsta School, Södertälje, Sweden
Leading a new school to become “something else”.
Swedish schools are, as probably schools in many countries, in many ways stuck in tradition. Decision-makers on structural levels (politicians and leaders) are often in the age of a parent or a grandparent, expecting school to look like it did when they were young. Separate subjects, ”boxy” schedules, teachers used to a year long plan on how to teach and with what, the ”GERM” (Global Education Reform Movement) spreading also through the Swedish system with national tests and short term efforts to make good results in PISA. It is a great paradox that we actually know through national and international research, and experience from those who have tried, what really works when it comes to learning, but we still, on a structural level, keep doing all those ”wrongs” and at the same time try to push in also the ”rights” in our educational systems.
I have had the opportunity to take part in the early planning of a brand new public primary and lower secondary school in Södertälje, Sweden. A year ago (December 2013), we started the process by discussing the purpose of a school. Why school? Who do we want our students to be when they leave Igelsta school after nine or ten years of studies? What competences and abilities do they need? The discussions resulted in a very specific idea:
Igelsta school is a future-creating school; GLOBAL, VERBAL, DIGITAL.
To be honest, the first version said ”a school for the future”, but reflecting on the question about who we wanted our students to become, we realised it is not enough to prepare them to “meet the future”; we need to prepare them to create the future! The core and idea of Igelsta school; global, verbal, digital, helped us to focus, again, on who we wanted our students to be.
A young person becoming global has to have knowledge, abilities and “heart”, to act in ways that are good in a global perspective. It also means that sustainability is more than ecological food and garbage sorting. We have to give our students pride and self-esteem enough to act, to see things that are not good in the world, local or global or both, and change them! Sometimes in ways that our grownup generation cannot foresee, which really challenge the teachers to let go of the old traditional teacher authority that comes from knowing all the right answers.
A young person becoming verbal also needs to have many, many occasions to discover and practice his or her ways of expressing. We believe learning is a result of a social constructional act, and the conversation, the discussion, the reflection, the expression, are all crucial to the growth and learning of our students. And of our teachers!
The Swedish curriculum is very clear in its expectations: schools are responsible to teach in ways that show and explain a cohesive world. But still one of the most difficult traditions or cultures to break in school is to get teachers to cooperate for real.
By deciding to work in a “rhythm” where subject integrated core-courses lead up to action-based projects, we push the teachers in a direction where they plan, teach and evaluate together. The abilities pointed at in the curriculum, also known as “EU key competences” are to be found in many subjects knowledge standards. It will actually make the teaching easier from a time perspective; teachers contribute to the common theme with their specific subject knowledge, and many teachers can get the information about the students learning from the same task or account.
Also handing over the responsibility for planning and setting the schedule to a teacher team is a strategic way to “force” teachers to put the learning first; the teachers at Igelsta school are after less than one semester extremely flexible, they take common responsibility for the students learning and change their schedules to meet the challenges and needs in the student groups.
A young person becoming digital might seem to be just a fact nowadays. Even if many of our students are from poor environments (compared to a Swedish national context) most of them are still digital; they have smartphones and computers. But being digital in connection to the other two cores in our idea; global and verbal, might put other perspectives in the forefront. The digital devices are tools to open doors to the world! They are tools to create and act in many ways of expression, and using the tools to show in public what the students do and learn, is a way of making school ”real”.
We do not just talk about society, we act and interact with society, with the purpose of making it better!
Being a digital school also challenges the teachers to learn together with their students. Kids are quick with new devices and techniques, and teachers have knowledge about source criticism, language development and about formative teaching and learning. The combination of these two is a key to success!
Doing this, leading a school to become “something else”, is like being on a journey! No one has the right answers, we need to find them ourselves while doing our job.
When we recruited teachers for the new school, this was one of the main discussions. As a teacher, you need to be brave enough to be on that learning journey together with your colleagues. It takes a lot of energy and it takes a lot of time. We need to make sure that we have “time spots” where we reflect, discuss, evaluate and decide about the next step. Those spots need to be totally free from all other kinds of questions that come with a growing public organisation. Administration, economy, standard evaluations…
Our choice to ensure this is to work in an action research project during the school’s first year. We cooperate with a researcher; a critical friend, who is helping us by asking the right questions, letting us keep our eyes on the long-term goals and ideas.
It is hard work, but it is also a pure joy of everyday learning for all of us, and we have no doubts that our students at Igelsta School will create the future!