Influencing a Learning Culture

The theme of the recent PDN Principals conference was Influence and it aimed to provide a rich and rewarding exchange of ideas and possibilities; arousing intellectual curiosity with world class researchers and speakers that included Emeritus Professor Christopher Day,  Dr John Edwards, and Andrew Griffiths.

In keeping with the theme, the title of my keynote was Influencing a Learning Culture. I shared the five things that I believe have the biggest impact on influencing a learning culture. In summary,

1. Create a shared vision.

In creating a vision I’m not talking about a generic vision statement here, not something that looks exactly like every other school in the world that says something about innovation, differentiation, personalized learning and independent learners, I’m talking about a collaboratively constructed, shared vision for the future of learning.

2. Shift from passive to active.

Shift the notion that professional learning is something that is done to you as opposed to something that you do for yourself. Implement the concept of a learning project.

3. Provide permission.

People need to know that innovation isn’t about devaluaing anyone’s work. Innovation isn’t necessarily a deficit statement. Being innovative however requires us to step outside of the normal and suspend our biases. Suspending our biases allows us to develop a capacity to disassociate from the way things have always been done. By developing this capacity we give ourselves permission to innovate.

4. Make your default “yes”.

As a leader make your default answer “yes.” Say “yes” to everything. Encourage all ideas. Even the ridiculous ones. If you really want to create an environment that allows for innovation, big innovation is right on the edge of ridiculous ideas. That means you support every single idea that comes to you from your teaching staff – ask them to try their ideas, to evaluate it, to refine it and then to share it widely.

5. Tell people they’re awesome.

Teachers have one of the most important jobs in the world and many if not all of them work so hard, day in day out, often working late into the night every night, trying to create the most memorable learning experiences that they can for kids.
To positively influence a learning culture you need to constantly thank people for their work. Leave handwritten notes on their desks. Share their work widely. Celebrate successes loudly no matter how small they may be.

I love sharing at conferences like this one. Of course, what works in one context may not work in another, but I believe these five things are the building blocks for creating a thriving teaching and learning culture in any school.

Get in touch if you would like to find out more!

Leadership Lessons

Being a leader isn’t easy. There is no playbook. Everything is contextual. You have to figure out on your own what you need to do. You have to find ways to adapt, overcome and be innovative – but the foundation of everything is culture. Work on culture first and everything else starts falling into place.

To be a leader is to be always learning. These are the lessons I have learnt:

1) Work relentlessly on culture.
2) Schools are never exactly how you want them to be.
3) Relationships are important.
4) Don’t talk. Listen.
5) You are never going to have all the resources you think you need.
6) No amount of professional development is ever going to help anyone.
7) Evangelize learning by doing.
8) Communicate your thinking. Even if you think you are being repetitive.
9) People are always going to criticize – no matter what you do – so do what you think is right and stay true to your vision.
10) You will make mistakes. Get used to it. Own up to them, acknowledge them and then move on.
11) Get feedback. But ultimately you decide how much weight to give it and what to do with it.
12) If you don’t feel uncomfortable you are probably playing it safe.

What else would you add?


A successful friend and entrepreneur, who I respect and admire, asked me today how I lead within a large educational organization. What was my philosophy?

I responded that it was an incredibly nuanced and contextual approach. Whilst I was a devout student of Kotter, I’d like to think my style incorporated an awareness of my own shortcomings as a leader and that I try and address these on a daily basis. At the same time, I recognize that I can’t be all things to all people, so in that sense I just try and be myself. The importance of having others around you that compliment your own skill set can not be underestimated. This is the essence of a highly functional team. To lead is to really cultivate this team, to grow and encourage those around you to ensure a diverse and skillful group of people.

I also have a relentless focus on the core business of a formal place of learning; learning. Not politics, not policy and not other perceived pressures, but constantly asking others around you “what’s the most important thing that we need to focus on?” That’s the non-negotiable. Learning. It should be the crux of all conversations and decision making within an educational organization. It definitely helps to have a co-constructed vision and to enable Departments within your setting to engage in co-visioning.

In the busyness of school it requires a sustained focus to maintain this vision, and the foundation of this focus has to be the people within your organization. Trying to physically show that you value everybody’s work isn’t always easy when driving change, but it is necessary.

Relationships allow you to achieve your goal of focusing on your core business. Learning.