The First Thread

This blog follows on from our initial article titled  5 Voices and 5 learnings from COVID-19, which was based on our three Kotahitanga online workshops. It details the direct response to the information gathered in Cognition Education’s first post-lockdown workshops for leaders in education across the country.

Aotearoa moved to complete lockdown quicker than most countries; subsequently, moving out of lockdown before most of the rest of the world. This left us in a unique position globally to examine emerging trends, lessons, and perhaps growth that arose relating directly to distance learning. The intention of the Kotahitanga workshops was to listen, share and gather the voice of educational leaders regarding their experiences. These local voices were then compared with international perspectives in order to find commonalities and/or differences.

Synthesising this information, we noticed there was a small window of opportunity that existed to potentially be a catalyst for thinking differently about education, before the pressures of the immediate forced schools to default to the status quo; relegating the distance learning experience to a historical aberration.

Associated with capturing this information was a desire to present a number of simple and immediate tools that schools, and school leaders could use (or adapt) to aid their review /reflection/change-related decisions. All of these processes link to an inspirational Māori whakatauki: Te ara o tukutuku pūngawerewere.

Translated into English, it means ‘the pathway of the spider’; acknowledging something intricate and complex. Charting and managing any change process is both intricate and complex, but hopefully, after toil (mahi tahi) it will result in something new, improved and beautiful – much like the wonder that is a spider’s web.

We would like to express our deep gratitude to all the educational leaders from Kaitaia to Invercargill who have participated and shared in these workshops. We are thankful for their leadership and the time they shared with us. The work being done in our schools to ensure that our students’ wellbeing and learning needs are met, and is at the forefront of all we do, is certainly nothing short of inspiring.


Mahi Tahi 

In the most recent workshop, participants responded to a quick three-question survey. First, to describe their leadership style with three adjectives. Two traits emerged as being the most often articulated, namely Collaborative and Fair. We mention this as it indicated the group of leaders participating saw themselves as working with, and for, others in their communities. As a group, they believed that school systems and assessments were the two areas of change needed in order to make the biggest gains as we moved forward; 80% of them agreed that there was an immediate need for educational change. Focusing on their communities, this change was probably systemic in nature.

The concept of VUCA leadership, that shapes influence in an uncertain world, was shared with our team. Acknowledging the reality of these complex times, whilst identifying what traits were important in leadership, they investigated the gaps or links between their own leadership and their schools’ needs and desires.

We summarised the key attributes for leaders in this VUCA time:

  • Be reliable in Volatile situations
  • Be trustworthy in Uncertain situations
  • Be direct in Complex situations
  • Be understandable in Ambiguous situations

Having outlined this, we then explored the three overriding findings or themes that had emerged from the synthesis of national and international voices regarding distance learning during lockdown.

These three emerging big ideas were:

  • A concern about wellbeing
  • A desire to develop learner agency
  • The importance of belonging

Unrelenting concerns remained around these three ‘terms’. Do we really understand these phrases? Do we really understand what they look, feel and sound like when they are fully functional in a classroom?


Weaving The Web


Confirming the fact that we exist in a changing and complex world, and that we had identified three areas that required attention, the rest of the workshop explored how we, ‘the spiders’, were going to weave the web to create something complex and intricate and beautiful in response to the disruption.

Paradoxically, leaders in education were mindful to protect their already tired staff from more disruption; finding themselves stuck between the excitement of change and the feeling of exhaustion. The consensus was to use our recent experience as a catalyst for ‘reimagining’ learning just as Micheal Fullan’s report highlighted.

The intent or purpose of any change that was going to improve learner agency inevitably was linked to developing intrinsic motivation within learners. If a student is intrinsically motivated, they are more likely to be inspired to work independently, and be accountable, as they delve deeper into their learning experiences.

Developing learners’ interest to delve deeper, driven by curiosity, was a bi-product noticed by teachers whilst they developed new ways during distance learning. So Fullan’s concept of deep and traditional learning was pertinent here. Not to say that traditional learning is bad, or always bad, but highlighting a need for there to be a balance. Two of the identified positives of distance learning were flexibility and choice, so if for no other reason than this, we need to explore the world of learning that moves away from traditional transmission methods and pedagogies.

Emerging voices post lockdown identified many positives, not only student choice and flexibility but also the positive development of responsive, one on one relationships with teachers. The irony is that this development of personalisation took place in a physically distanced environment; leading to the possibility that the main learning from the lockdown experience has little to do with technology. Increased personalisation and not increased automation is the key. This leads to some provocative questions about what we need to do in our schools to enhance personalisation: What in our school or leadership styles helps or hinders the personalisation? What enables the enhancement of wellbeing? How do we develop agency and ability to go deep?


Working From The Inside Outwards


To facilitate all of these questions, we developed a number of simple tools that leaders and schools can use to get a quick temperature gauge of where they are currently and how to move forward.

The first two tools were a simple gradient model for leaders to identify where they were as leaders and where their respective schools were at (from their perspective), based on a series of determiners that related to traditional and deep learning.

Participants simply put a mark on the line that related to them and their school. What was interesting about this activity was that whilst most participants placed themselves toward the right-hand side in their leadership, they saw their schools as holding a more traditional line. Exploring where the gaps are that leaders need to bridge leading change in challenging times seemed to indicate that leaders are tending towards the agentic. The school, however, in the eyes of the participants, is more traditional.

After this observation, we invited participating leaders to choose from a provided list which qualities of leadership they saw as important right now in our VUCA state e.g. empathetic, future-focused, collaborative. In the comfort of smaller breakout groups, they then selected one or more of these qualities to unpack the intent of that attribute in leading a school. This allowed them to examine how that quality could develop the main drivers from the voices collected in Kotahitanga: wellbeing, agency, belonging and flexibility. Again, this tool would be useful for all leadership teams to examine the purpose of specific qualities to match the needs of learner’s post lockdown.

It was the intention that these tools could be taken away and used as part of a school’s reflection and review process, which Fullan explained was so important in the disruption phase in order to lead to growth.

The fourth tool also took the key idea of wellbeing, agency, belonging and flexibility to measure the school’s current vision and positioning against an aspirational possibility. To examine where gaps occur, as well as identifying areas of strength and weakness, will be an important part of the ‘reimagining’ process. It is also an opportunity to assess the school’s vision against the immediate (and possibly changing) needs of the school community, in light of our current circumstances.

The next group of tools were designed to enable schools and school leaders to delve a little deeper into the details around their school leadership and readiness to embrace a change process. The purpose was to ensure that all of the tools provided remained simple, easy to use and easy to analyse. They deal with the following questions;

  •  How effective are leaders currently in leading in a VUCA world?
  • How do current systems help or hinder a school’s response to the need to review and implement change?
  • How is the school placed on addressing the need to develop identified key, transferable skills?

Lastly, the participants had the chance to reflect on the workshop and we did this via a simple ‘Red Light, Green Light’ activity which asked what participants would stop or do less of and what they would start or do more of.

During this tantalising prospect of change, these same leaders described their firefighting skills during the pandemic; censoring waves of information that have been bombarding them from all directions. These transmitters had good intentions, everyone wanted to help, but with such a tide of desire and support cascading over them, no wonder they were feeling exhausted. It was important for leaders to reflect on this intensity and do something for their own wellbeing.

Getting to G.O.L.D, as Hattie and Hamilton report, is the challenge of selecting and implementing the best approach. These tools might be helpful in allowing leaders to identify and reflect on the education issues within their communities which might be worth fixing.

We look forward to catching up with these athletic and agile leaders in Term 3 to see if they have found their preferred methodology into implementing change, or answered the key question left by this pandemic, ‘what are we trying to make better?’

Good luck!


Please feel free to contact us regarding using any of the tools shown or described above. We ask that if you use these tools, please acknowledge Cognition Education, and as always, if you require any assistance in navigating your own or your school’s reflection/ review and web weaving, please don’t hesitate to contact Cognition Education for support and guidance.