'Creative Schools' as Effective 'Learning Communities'
Barry Cocklin and Ken Davis
There are those occasions when, as a visitor, you
enter a school and there is a certain, very subjective, feeling
that things are working. The students and teachers appear comfortable
with their situation, there is a sense of enjoyment, and a feeling
that learning is taking place. Furthermore, there is a strong
sense of 'community' and interaction, and often support derives
from the wider community context. Such were my impressions when
I first came to Rana Primary School in September 1995. Although
the Principal (Ken) and I had worked together at the university
when he was seconded the previous Semester, I had never visited
the school and it was not until September that being allocated
supervision of two practicum students provided me with the necessary
'excuse' to spend some time there. Following the practicum, I
continued to spend time at the school, working with small groups
of students, teaching some lessons to the Upper Division group
(Years 3 - 6), working with some individuals from Lower Division
(Kindergarten - Year 2), and participating in end-of-year school-community
functions such as the fete, where I was asked by parents to play
'Santa', and Concert where the Parents & Citizens (P&C)
presented me with a gift of thanks for my assistance and support
to the school.
It was during this time, also, that we discussed
the possibility of conducting a research project during 1996.
This derived from two aspects. First, was the subjective sense
that things appeared to be working at this school, and so we sought
to establish a description of the existing situation, within a
notion that things can always be developed through a strategy
of working with the people in the school and community. The second
aspect was the consideration of the literature on both Learning
Communities (see Cocklin et al, 1996) and Creative Teachers
(Woods, 1995) which appeared to offer a basis of elaboration of
In conducting the study we have been influenced by
our interpretation derived from this literature. We have done
so in light of the current changes within education in New South
Wales, some of the likely directions these changes may take, and
a concern that many of these developments are being imposed from
outside representing a greater politicisation and control over
education. This is evident in the statements of devolution of
control to the schools, yet coupled with the centralisation of
control within the political realm (see, Bates, 1993). In NSW,
this was clearly evident in the time following the Scott Report
(1990). While Scott proposed to locate greater control in schools,
the results were an increasing bureaucratisation, curriculum control
firmly located within a central body, and the eventual recentralisation
which occurred with the Labor decision to abandon regions, all
underpinned by the managerial approach characterising both Scott's
work and subsequent reform agendas (see, Cocklin, 1992). This
political paradox (see, Hargreaves, 1995) is perhaps seen most
clearly where, while espousing freedom, the directions to Principals
in 1995 stated "Your schools are to reflect the priorities
of the present Labor Government's educational agenda",
and that Principals needed to "understand your political
context; know and implement the Labor Government's priorities;
appreciate your responsibility of ensuring a performance-driven
system; have no doubts of the professionalism required of you
as a Principal within the above context." Within this
there is also a further paradox of terminology. On the
one hand, there are the claims for autonomy and flexibility, for
creating an educational system responsive to the local context,
where equality and quality are promoted. On the other, education
is to become more business-like, more managerial, more efficient
- defined in terms of market responsiveness and market forces.
Increasingly, then, the terminology of education is being couched
in terms of an instrumental, centralised, curriculum, standards
which measure proficiency and allow comparisons between schools,
a mono-cultural approach to content and pedagogy, and a domination
by narrowly defined outcomes which are measurable in terms of
quantity (see, Bates, 1993; Grundy, 1993; Woods, 1995; Retallick,
1994). This drive to managerialism, however, is contradicted
by the bulk of educational research which shows that:
...good schools are those in which principals
are leaders not managers, and in which teachers form a true community
of professionals who talk a lot among themselves about school
related matters. Good schools, contrary to the doctrine, spend
more on education, pay more to teachers, have lower teacher/pupil
rations and have more resources. (Snook,
In other words, the notion of a 'good school' evident
within the research literature places emphasis upon issues of
collegiality, a professional involvement in curricular and pedagogical
development, a secure school culture involving parents and community,
a secure and stable profession and school, school-based professional
development, maximum use of learning time, and continuing resource
allocation (see, Bates, 1993). Furthermore, this 'school' would
be a site of reflection-in-action (Schön, 1983) in which:
Action which follows from planning will be collaborative,
once again with every person encompassed within the field of action
being responsible for the taking of action. Action will not necessarily
be a process of problem-solving, but rather of further problem-posing
which will be fruitful for future critical reflection.
This action should be directed towards an emancipatory
praxis, one where:
The question for the educational leader is not
"Am I emancipated and how can I emancipate my staff?"
but, "How can I engage in forms of critical, self-reflective
and collaborative work which will create conditions so that the
people with whom I work can come to control their knowledge and
practice?" (Grundy, 1993:174)
The notions of both learning community and an extended
version to include that of a creative school seem to us most appropriate
in seeking to promote this view of a 'good school'. This assumes
greater importance in light of recent pronouncements by the Department
of School Education (DSE) that all NSW schools are to 'become'
learning communities. The DSE has directed some attention towards
the notion of schools as learning communities as a means of enhancing
the quality of teaching and learning (NSW Department of School
Education, 1995). This approach has been based within the work
of Senge (1990) on learning organisations in USA business organisations
which emphasises a need to develop the capacity of the whole organisation
to learn, rather than focussing on the learning of isolated individuals.
On the other hand, 'based' is the descriptor in that the DSE
terminology has been derived rather than based upon an analysis
and interpretation, with an approach of implement rather than
develop and critique in terms of the school context. Once again,
then, this is a change imposed from without, and one where the
business rhetoric has been 'implanted' without further consideration.
The initial intentions of the research arose from
the first contacts with the school from discussions focussing
primarily on seeking to determine 'what worked and why'. The
study commenced under a general question as to: what is it
that makes the school what it is, and how can this understanding
be better used and translated into more effective learning for
the school and its community? In adopting this, we sought
to start with a description of the culture of the school, then,
through an action orientation use these findings to examine and
reflect upon the situation, effecting strategies and processes
of change and development as a result. The actual strategies
and implementation are described in more detail in another paper
(Cocklin & Davis, 1996).
The research has involved interviews of staff, students,
and some of the parents, as well as extensive observations, by
myself, while Ken has used 'oral history' interviews to focus
what threads exist that are common to the community's
history and the school's development, culture and ethos. What
has happened in the past that has bonded the community and the
school so closely together and how does this affiliation work
to make the school the 'learning community' it seems to be.
While we have engaged in the action orientation in
so far as an ongoing reflection-in-action (Schön, 1983) has
been adopted, we had also intended to implement certain strategies
in Term 2 on the basis of the cultural description derived from
Term 1 data. However, two changes in the situation intervened.
In Term 2, Ms Dean, a fourth year student on internship, took
over the teaching of Upper Division. Although Ms Dean was willing
to participate in the research and in any changes we wished to
implement, it was evident that both her and the students were
adjusting to a new situation as they developed their own new relationships
and practices. It therefore seemed counterproductive to impose
a further dimension on this situation, particularly in view of
the importance of the internship for Ms Dean. Second, the internship
program is designed to allow the released teacher to undertake
a professional development project of their own. Ken had been
asked by a number of the local schools to assist in their development
of computer learning for both staff and students, and consequently
he was away from the school more often than he was present.
With the project continuing, and with further analysis
and reflection ongoing, the intention remains that these processes
of both data collection and action will continue. As a consequence,
we can only report on the initial data gathered, without being
able to reflect upon the changes this has brought about, some
of which are now being initiated in Term 3 as this paper is prepared.
Even though it is located only a few kilometres outside
a major rural centre, the school and community are very much isolated
and independent of their larger neighbour, which reflects both
history and geography. Opened up in the 1930's as a series of
rural blocks, the surrounding district comprises a number of small
farms on the banks of a large river subject to occasional flooding
which precluded denser settlement and has preserved the rural
nature. The initial forty-one settler families , who balloted
for the blocks, arrived in an area covered with weeds, no houses
or roads and no boundaries to the farms. With the Great Depression
in full swing, some of these people were among the unemployed,
and all were pioneers in the sense that they had little more than
the basic tools and a willingness to turn their block into a home
to sustain them. Separated from the town by poor roads and a
lack of transport, they came to rely on each other, and from early
accounts rapidly developed a strong sense of community. Most
occupied their land and lived in tents or shacks for the first
few years while they built a permanent home, they walked to town
for food, drew water from the river, and worked together to get
their land prepared. As the Depression eased, some of the men
obtained work in town, leaving further development of the farm
to their family, and to evening work. Indeed, accounts describe
fencing activities undertaken at night where lanterns were placed
on posts to align them, and 'all the community turned out to help'.
In 1935 Rana Primary School was opened. At the start,
it was a one-teacher school, occupying a temporary classroom for
the first year, although it has been a two-teacher school for
most of its history. At present, the Principal teaches Upper
Division, and Ms Osborne, new to Rana this year, teaches Lower
Division, while there is also a part-time release teacher/librarian,
school secretary and school handy-person. There were 38 students
at the start of the research, 18 (9 girls, 9 boys) in Upper Division,
20 (9 girls, 11 boys ) in Lower Division. Although the majority
of students come from the Rana district, others travel past their
local school to attend Rana Primary.
There were also some events in recent history which
have exerted an effect upon the data gathered. In particular,
Semester One of 1995 saw Ken teaching at the University and a
relief Principal take over the school. As some of the data illustrated
this provided a context where both students and parents reflected
upon the situation and made evaluations based upon a judgement
of difference between this and the 'norm'.
RANA PRIMARY: THE DATA
From the data gathered and analysed to this point,
certain factors have emerged as central to an understanding of
the culture of the school. Again, these are in the process of
further analysis and data gathering, as well as underpinning current
reflections and developments within the school.
It was apparent that some of the current situations
within, and perceptions of, the school reflected the historical
context of both school and district, which, as Ken suggested,
should serve to remind us that:
The school has 'reaped the rewards' from the historical development of the community and will continue to do so as long as it remembers its origins and 'feeds' the needs of the community to be involved.
This, we suggest, reflects a point of difference
from the notion of continuous improvement derived from the corporate
sphere (see, Senge, 1990) which underpins much of the change rhetoric
at present. Rather, within educational contexts there are elements
of the school we may wish, upon critical reflection, to preserve
From the oral history interviews, certain characteristics
of the school, and school-community relationships, emerged. One
of the dominant themes was that of 'pride', as a past-pupil from
It went from one generation to the other and that
went down through the school. But you took a pride in your school.
Because we went to the Rana School and I suppose because we were
all so close we took pride in the school so much so that even
when we grew up, the ones that didn't shift away from Rana you
still continued that same effort that your parents had.
This ongoing contact with the school reflects both
an allegiance and ownership which continues to be a particular
feature of the context. At various school functions, sporting
carnivals, fete, and concerts, members of the local community,
and past pupils, are regularly in attendance. Furthermore, during
the research a number of past students have 'dropped in' when
they have a day off from their secondary school. Not only do
they come to the school, but there have been occasions where they
have sat in on the classes, taken part in the lessons, and offered
assistance to the teacher and students. This ownership and relationship
with the school continues, as one parent commented about her older
children who had left Rana:
Even with the bigger girls now, they pretty much
think of Rana as 'their' school. I've got to tell them about
it because they want to know what's going on - anything that's
got to do with Rana they just help. It's their school.
The sense of community and togetherness which underpins
this ownership and allegiance owes aspects to the relationships
among the first settlers where "Everyone helped one another."
This was also apparent in that it was community action which
saw the school started and then involved the community in fencing
the school grounds, planting trees and sinking a well for water.
This community sense was also seen in terms of an
extended family of relationships:
All grew up like one big family - real close ties
- all the generations of children [from the original settlers]
went to Rana School.
Such generational ties continue, with one parent
with two children at the school noting:
I went through the school, my mother went through
the school, and my grandmother got the school going.
The notion of 'family' also extended to others, including
the children from the Boy's Home which occupied the original homestead
for a period of time:
The kids who went to the school were like your
children even though there were a lot of children from the Boy's
Home. Well, I know I, and I'm sure the rest of them did, that
they sort of became part of your family too. You would walk into
the school and they would all run up to you and say 'how are you
going?' and make such a fuss. It made you feel good to be going
and doing things for them.
The continuity of relationships extends to involvement
with the school, certainly amongst a core who have returned as
parents in the P&C and general support for the school, but
also just in general from among the local community:
The community looks on the school like it's our
school, I know I do, sort of take pride in it and like if I drive
past and see a light on I'll come in and see what the light's
While this has presented but a slice from the history,
certain aspects do emerge as 'themes' which help to elaborate
the relationship. There has, then, been a sense of pride, involvement,
allegiance to and ownership of the school from the early days,
all of which continue to be demonstrated in the current context
of both perceptions and relationships between school and community.
From the initial settlement, and the experiences of the settlers
who sought to develop their land and environment for the good
of all residents, derives the perception that 'what we do is
for the kids'. The strong community-school relationship was
evident in the way in which the community sought to have the school
built, the fencing of the grounds, the planting of trees, and
the continued close relationships between the community and the
school. The issue of involvement has included not only the relationships
outside school, but also in the way in which those generations
of past pupils and parents, as well as those within the community,
maintain their links with the school. These aspects have contributed
to a sense of 'stability' which was recounted during these interviews
as a strength of the school and community, and which continues
particularly from the relationships between the school and the
original families and their descendants.
THE CURRENT CONTEXT
The views of their culture from the current generation
indicate that there are a broad range of factors which contribute
to the schooling experience, which we have grouped under some
tentative 'themes' before further analysis.
Some of the students reported the history of the
school as an important factor which they would tell a new person
about, as David noted: "First, I'd probably give you
its history. Well, Rana has a very good history about how it
came to be". There was also a strong sense of pride
in the buildings, particularly the older block which now forms
the classrooms, which some felt had been spoilt by a new library
in front closer to the main road:
I'd move the library out the back of the school
because it, like, blocks off the actual school. It's, like, jammed
out and the rest of the school looks dull. I'd like the library
around the back so you can see the actual school.
Neither David nor Petra have the connections through
the original families, yet evidently saw this history as an important
The students spoke of a strong sense of pride in
'their' school, stating that this was the best school, also reflected
in the point that there were no major changes suggested, as Kat
remarked "I don't really want to change the school".
The sense of ownership also came through strongly, expressed
in terms of 'our' school and their loyalty to it, for instance
when asked to sell his school to me, David said:
To make you come here I'd tell you how great we
are. .... Well, I've been to two other schools. The first
one was really good, the second was a bit down in the dumps, and
this one is great.
For those from outside Rana district, it was evident
that they had selected the school after either experiences from
or considerations of alternatives:
Mainly because it was a small environment. Because
everywhere we went there wasn't much different than what you would
get around Sydney - they were concrete jungles just like around
Sydney. .... How big was the school - that was the first question
- how many kids. Then, the teacher/child ratio, and resources.
.... And how Ken was over the phone. When I rang [their
closest school] the Principal up there - at the time - didn't
sound very good. Then we rang Ken and you just had that good
feeling - just the way he sounded and the way he talked to you.
The bases of such selections reflected a variety
of factors, including:
Being a split [multiple
grades] class situation, it allows them to expand, and progress
and grow, as they feel comfortable, and I guess a lot of that
stems back to the ability of the teachers. .... He has come
home and said 'I've got Year 6 homework'. He complained a bit
and I told him he should be proud of himself because it was a
great effort. Now if he was in a structured school he wouldn't
have that flexibility and that's where I believe that our kids
are fortunate.... .
Perhaps indicating the attitude towards school, particularly
by the students, were remarks Ms Osborne made during Term 1 upon
the unusual situation at Rana where 'you have to kick the kids,
and some of their parents, out at the end of the day'. In
this, she was reflecting on the fact that at the end of each day
there are always some students still in the classroom playing
on the computers, talking with each other, or with the teachers,
or playing around the grounds. Often, too, the parents stay after
school, talking with each other or with the teachers. As Ms Osborne
noted, in all her prior experiences, students were always in a
rush to leave the school, and few if any parents entered the school
grounds other than on formal visits. This enthusiasm for school
was noted by parents as well:
The best thing my children have learnt is the
fact that they like school and it's not a common thing for children
to like school. .... It's rare that we have had to drag them
out of bed. Most morning's David's up and dressed by 7.15, ready
to go. He would walk out the door there and then.
Certain features emerge from such comments, in particular
the notions of size and relationships, including those involving
For the students, the issue of size included a number
of positive benefits, such as space provided by the large area
and small number of students, relationships in terms of making
friends, and the contributions made to the teaching/learning situation,
as Nicole comments:
There's not much people - I just always like to
go to schools with not much people so there's not much bullying.
That we all get to learn a lot more because there's not many
of us and we get to learn more because the teacher has more time
to teach us. Most of us get along very well. And there's not
much people so you could have more chance of getting friends in
other classes. You just get to know other people in higher grades
who know more.
The interaction effects of size, and their contribution
to both relationships and learning featured prominently in parent
comments as well:
I took them up to [nearby
school] for a week and the kids nearly died. They didn't like
it. It was too big, too much of a shock for them, I think. They
were used to having, not only me, but other parents. They were
really used to having that 'closeness' with everybody else and
they just didn't like it. Then I brought them down here and that
was the end of it.
It was evident throughout the data that the small
size contributed to the formation of a particular set of relationships,
between students, with teachers, and with the wider community.
On the other hand, we would be loathe to suggest that size is
the determining factor, rather that perhaps the aspect of pupil:teacher
ratio needs to be given consideration in larger schools, as well
as relationships and community involvement.
With the students, friendships were an important
facet of their lived experiences at school. While it was evident
that bullying was not found to the same extent as in larger schools,
this is not to suggest that we have an idyllic setting at Rana
Primary. For instance, the end of Term 2 saw three boys move
to another school, partly due to their creating a number of problems
for other children. Yet even there, the allegiance to Rana becomes
evident, as they came back at the end of their first day at the
new school to tell students and teachers all about the new location.
In other words, they still felt they could return.
While the lack of bullying did receive mention, the
central focus for the students was on the benefits of the type
of relationship formed at Rana as the following comments by Taylor
It's got good kids. Some [bad] behaviour - well, some of them - but there's no bullies. Because everyone cooperates. Yeah, like a family thing. Some fight but not as much. We sort it out.
I: Who 'sorts it out' - teachers or students?
This notion of 'family' came through in the majority
of discussions, with parents, students, and teachers. The students
talked in terms of 'these are my friends', and the changes in
such groups over the time of the study, and also reported situations
which appeared most akin to a form of sibling rivalry. This is
not to discount that there were contrary opinions. During parent
interviews at the end of Term 2, there were comments made that
this rivalry had perhaps become more intense and was being seen
as a problem. In one such interview, when I asked for 'a word'
to describe the relationships at the school, the parent laughed
You want me to say 'family', don't you! Well,
it's not - there's been a lot of fighting and my daughter has
suffered because of it. But, it is sorted out now.
This indicates that all is not peace and harmony,
but also reflects the unsettled nature of Term 2 with a different
teacher, a very long term, and we also have to consider the extent
to which changes in student personnel may have contributed. As
Ken suggested at the start of Term 3, there was at least some
sense in which a rivalry for position as the 'top dog' in the
school did contribute. On the other hand, there remains the point
that such things reflect the dynamic nature of any culture, and
that changes in relationships are only to be expected. Overall,
however the general point was made that:
It [school] seems to bring out that protective 'big brother' attitude to the little kids. I think it's taught them a lot about relationships. Because they've got all the kids, they've got the teachers, then they've got the parents, then the community - everybody is so involved, and there's so many different personalities involved - it gives them a good grounding.
I: Getting on with a 'range of people'?
Yeah. I mean, like because there's all that such
intense emotional involvement with everybody interacting with
each other - it is like a family. I mean, the girls [daughters]
will fight amongst themselves, but heaven help anyone else
who steps in and tries to fight. The kids [at the school]
are very much like that, too - stick someone else in there
that tries to start a fight with one of the other kids - doesn't
matter who they are - and the kids form a group. Just the same
as a family.
The students made similar comments, reflecting their
loyalty to the group, and also noting that this was conferred
by membership of the school. Both parents and past and present
students also noted that this group allegiance continues after
the students leave Rana and go to secondary school, with a suggestion
that it perhaps continues for adults in the community as well.
While difficult to ascertain, from general observations
there does seem to be a strong sense of community identity and
membership derived through the school as the 'source'. I suggest
this as this identity seems to apply equally to at least most
of those who are outside the Rana district, although the notion
of insiders and outsiders was raised:
I've enjoyed it [being
'involved' in the school]. I think it's helped me fit in a
bit better. As I've become more involved. I know that some of
them have felt like they were outsiders - they were told during
the first few days that they would always be the 'outsider'.
But I didn't find that at all.
As far as these parents were concerned, the difference
was due to this involvement, with both the father and mother being
involved in such school organisations as the School Council, P&C,
Canteen, and Reading tutors. From the available data, the only
comments regarding the outsider situation were those by one parent
who remarked that her and her daughter had 'little in common'
and didn't share the same interests as the Rana community, especially
those of horses and 'country' pursuits such as line-dancing.
This is not to suggest that involvement, or personality, is the
determining factor in this insider/outsider situation, rather
that considerably more data would be required.
A further feature of the relationships which exist
are those primarily associated with learning. From the outset
of the study, it was clearly evident that a very supportive relationship
existed in both the classroom contexts. Here, students worked
together, helping each other, and providing a 'learning support'
network. This existed across the various age grades, which again
was seen as a strong benefit of the situation:
Instead of working on your own, if you've got
a problem you've got another person next to you to ask to help
you out with it. It's just like one big class instead of just
1,2,3.... It's better to be all together.
Certainly, the teacher/student relationships at Rana
are very 'close'. Partly, this can be attributed to the size
factor, as both teachers have said 'in a small school you're
never off duty'. However, it seems to have more to do with
an attitude of involvement, as David commented: "It's
them [teachers] being with the children all the time.
I think it's great".
At both Recess and Lunch, the teachers are out in
the playground, often joining in games and participating in activities.
In the classroom there is very much an ethos of 'working with'
students in a collaborative learning style. Throughout, parents
and students placed particular emphasis upon these close, personal,
relationships as one of the defining characteristics of Rana Primary.
Teachers, Teaching and Learning
As a parent noted:
If they've [children] got a problem they're perfectly comfortable going to the teachers with it. They see, like Ken and that, as being part of the 'family' too.
I: What are the 'characteristics' of teachers who are like that?
Attitude. I think most parents - they don't see
the need for their child to be 'the top' but they do want their
child to feel comfortable and intelligent - and they want their
child to be working to the best of their ability. So, just in
my experience, some teachers haven't got that attitude - they
are there to 'teach at' the kids - they are not there to work
with the kids. .... It's a different sort of attitude - ....
they've [the 'good ones'] got a lot
of enjoyment, a lot of thought, into what they do for the kids
- the kids are actually learning because they are enjoying it
and they're interested in what they're learning. And nobody is
left out - whether they're an 'A' student or 'bottom of the line'
student. They've [teachers] got a little bit more time, a little
bit more thought, about ways in which to approach that child to
get them to want to learn. ..... But, I think, instead of seeing
the classroom as 20 or 30 kids that you've got to teach this thing,
I think the attitude is 'there's such and such over there, and
they're not really good at this, but they're really good at that'.
They see it more as an individual thing. It's 20 individuals,
rather than '20 kids' or 'a class'.
For the students, there was a sense in which they
reported being in control of the pace of their learning:
Most of all I learn things about something I wanted
to learn about. If the project is really boring I'm not really
interested and I don't feel like doing it and I don't really want
to learn much. (Nicole)
As her parents commented:
Everyone gets a go .... encouraged to participate.
It's 'participation' rather than competition.
In the classroom, this has been accompanied by a
strong emphasis upon responsibility for their own learning:
Sometimes Mr D helps me, but usually I do it myself.
Learning by myself is important. So, you learn more things instead
of the teacher telling you things. I like working on my own.
This is also reflected in an acceptance of the student-as-teacher,
noticeable in the group work situation but also in terms of the
computer where Ken tells the students to 'play around', make the
'mistakes' and learn from them, and then to share their 'discoveries'
with both himself and their peers. It is also evident in the
general approach in the school encouraging independence and responsibility
to 'stand up for yourself'. When reflecting upon her experiences,
Ms Dean remarked upon the strong sense of independence and willingness
to speak up for themselves, negotiating and contesting, amongst
the Rana students, a facet she had not experienced in other schools.
And, for the students, this learning was ongoing
with most suggesting that their schooling and personal experiences
had produced a view that:
Yeah, you learn something new all the time, you
never stop learning. (Colin)
Finally, it was also evident that the students held
strong views on teachers, aspects of which were based on a comparison
between current staff and the situation from Semester 1, 1995:
Last year, when we had [Mrs
X] - she was shocking. Because she would boss everyone around,
and she gave detention and there wasn't any detention at the school
- because nearly everyone was good. [She] came in and
everything went down. (Ned)
Comments from another student reflected the perceptions
between a 'good' and 'bad' teacher, which were again based upon
this comparision between 'now' and 1995:
I didn't like [Mrs X]
or [Mrs Y]. They were both slack. They thought they
were just 'it'. ... And the school, like, just changed, but when
Mr D came back we all just, like, came back together again. ....
Um, bad teachers just give you stuff you can't do, stuff that's
just too hard for you. You can't understand and they say 'too
bad, you've got to do it yourself'. .... [A good teacher]
they help you. They tell you how to do things. You seem
to work together better. (Petra)
The 'good teacher' was also seen as one with whom
a trust and rapport was possible, as Gabrielle remarked:
If you've got pressure at home, like, they can
sit down and talk it through with you and stuff. They understand
things you're trying to say to them. They try and explain, like,
things they are talking about.
Certainly, the current teachers received considerable
support and appreciation, as David comments:
I'd tell them [visitors
or new pupils] about how good the teachers are. They make
everyone learn. .... You're always learning here. .... Well,
a good teacher pays a lot of attention to you - a bad teacher
just walks around. A good teacher teaches you, a bad teacher
tells you off for everything. .... And, if you are going to
speak to students who are going to be teachers, one bit of advice
I'd tell them is that we can tell a good teacher and a bad teacher
in about 5 minutes.
For both students and parents, these views were also
reflected in general comments that both would like a greater 'control'
over the teachers appointed to the school in the future. This
was not a critique of the current staff, rather a reflection on
past events and concern that the important characteristics of
the school be retained in the future. As one parent commented:
I: What happens in the situation where the parents aren't overly 'impressed' with the teacher?
I think, mostly, the parents aren't too quick
to act. Not everybody is the same - everybody is different.
Somebody might like something, someone else dislike that. In
the case - I think it's a big thing if you get the case of a teacher
that nobody liked. I think that teacher would be 'required' to
leave. If the community all didn't like the teacher, they would
try and find ways.
In discussing the 1995 situation, this parent noted
I think , to start off with, the parents were
perfectly willing to be friendly, welcoming, helpful. But I think
it was made quite clear to them from the start that they weren't
welcome at the school. In fact, the further away they stayed
the better. .... The kids were basically told right from the
start that they...knew nothing. .... The kids weren't academically
brilliant, but they loved going to school. .... But, even the
brightest of them, the kids that really enjoyed learning - they
were turned off. There was no homework done, they had totally
no interest in school. They weren't interested in anything -
they were becoming disruptive. .... It took all their self-confidence
Such was the concern with this situation, that a
number of parents reported having considered withdrawing their
children from the school. This, then, provided a point of contrast
for both parents and students, which has influenced their comments
regarding the present context of the school. It is not being
held as indicative of the superiority of one group of teachers
over another, but as an illustration of the importance of school-community
relationships, particularly in situations where the community
has a sense of ownership and involvement in the school:
I think it was a pretty conscious exercise to
get the parents away. And that's when, I think, they're going
to have the problems. Because of the way the school is, because
it's a family/community school, and all of a sudden the parents
felt like the door was slammed in their faces.
There is a strong sense of school/community interaction
at Rana Primary. Parents are involved in and with the school
across a variety of in-school and out-of-school activities. It
is also very evident that parents feel comfortable about coming
to the school, even coming in just for a look during the day:
To everybody it is their school. They'll donate
their time, they'll donate their energy, they'll donate their
money. Everybody looks out for everybody else, too, other people's
For some, the size of the school, as well as the
approachability of staff contributed:
Again, just to have some sort of a say - because
it's a small school - you can really have a say - make a contribution.
The guy we've got there promotes that type of thing.
This size also appeared a factor in the relationships
within the formal context:
...that's been a big thing, particularly with
the School Council because you get to see how the school runs,
you get involved in policy sort of issues, discipline codes, this
sort of thing. So, you really get an idea of how the school runs...
.... I think it was easier to do that because of the school
- the size of the school. I suppose, as well as it being not
so big and threatening for the kids, it's probably worked out
for us as well.
Overall, there were general expressions that the
school was 'open' to the parents, that they were encouraged to
come in and participate. The basic approach, then, is one of
'partnership' between community and school:
It's good. I mean, if you're having problems
with the kids - or the kids are having problems - whatever is
going on, I have always felt perfectly comfortable with coming
in. The teachers will help you. It's a two-way street...working
with the parent. .... And the parents coming in and actually
helping with the kids. Not only that, but parents are very interested
in education and the educational processes. I've seen programs
developed in Lower Division where they have actually gone back
to the Department which originated from parent ideas - then tossing
it back and forward with the teachers and working it out like
that. .... I think it's got to be a partnership to work.
While some attribute the strength of the current
situation to the current teachers, others recount the history
and note that the school has generally had 'good' teachers who
have possessed similar characteristics:
I think in one way we have been very, very lucky
for the teachers we've had at Rana School. There were perhaps
a couple who weren't so good, but on the average.
I think it does make a difference, too, when the parents - I
think probably with the teachers too, though, it depends a lot
on how the parents are trying to help the teachers. That does
make a difference, too.
Throughout, the notion of a partnership in learning
A teacher is an authority figure to the child,
and so is the parent. So, if those two combine and it's sort
of like a run-on from home to school - and they've got a good
working partnership. I mean, they won't always have a 'good'
partnership - they will disagree and that - but, if they feel
comfortable to disagree and that - and work it out like that.
I think that's the most effective way.
This partnership also extends to the situation of
parent involvement in teaching:
As much as having my children at school I probably
even get more pleasure out of helping out there; the kids that
need .... when I help kids like Duane that is probably a really
great thing and that's when I grow. When I see a child like Duane
or one of the others suddenly take off I really think I had a
bit to do with it.
From the student point of view, they appreciated
this school/community linkage, and the 'extended family' situation
which existed both outside and inside the school, as indicated
in this conversation with David:
The community, how it is involved in the school. We just have days when the community comes in and walks through - they always know something about Rana School. ....
I: So, you feel there is a fairly strong sense of community?
I: Do you see that as something which is important?
Yes, very important.
Well, a lot of parents often don't know anything about their school [in other schools]. It helps a lot with the students as well. The parents know the teachers, and they work in the school with reading and things like that.
I: Those things are important - to you as a pupil?
Yes, very important.
They also, however, were in some cases quite emphatic
that it was 'their' school and while help was appreciated there
was a need for parents to also acknowledge that ownership was
the responsibility and perhaps right of the current students:
I: So, you think there is a need for people to listen to the kids more?
Colin: Yes! Not parents being able to rule the
While evident within the classroom where responsibility
was encouraged, the students also expressed the hope that parents
would allow them greater responsibility particularly at joint
school-community events: Like, some parents are pains. They,
like when they do something - like, you know the fair we had -
well, they wouldn't let us do anything. (Kat)
TOWARDS A 'LEARNING COMMUNITY'
We are not suggesting that Rana Primary is a paradigm
of a learning community or creative school (see, Cocklin, et
al, 1996), but rather that there is strong community involvement
and perception that it is a successful school. This, we see,
then provides the foundations for the ongoing reflection-in-action
and professional development of all members of the community as
they seek to 'become' a learning community. Furthermore, it needs
to be noted that 'becoming' a learning community is a process
and not a product, it is ongoing and developmental.
From the data, we consider that at least in some part the five characteristics Johnson (1995) identifies as characteristics of schools as Learning Communities are evident in the Rana context:
1. All members are committed to life-long learning.
2. Learning is seen as the central activity of both individuals and the school as a whole.
3. Collaboration is the major plank in the school's culture.
4. Continuous improvement is built into the very fabric of the school.
5. Leadership is distributed and shared.
The challenge is, then, to possess all these characteristics
in combination, but in particular in such a way as suits the specific
school, and then to integrate them across school and community,
system and society. The next step, then, in the Rana context
is to undergo reflection-in-action as we draw from the cultural
description to establish both directions and processes whereby
this combination can be enhanced.
The basis for this action, we suggest, is apparent
in four central aspects noted in this description of the current
culture: history; ownership; relationships, and; empowerment.
From the history, emerges the point not that this
particular history is a necessary condition, but that in developing
a learning community the point of departure is the antecedents
of the present situation. In this sense, then, any process of
reculturation (see, Hargreaves, 1995) must start from a
consideration of the present. Emerging from the history of Rana
it is evident that there is a strong collaborative ethos, which
in turn provides a basis which should then enable us to build
on existing expertise and resources, while providing support and
a medium for reflective dialogue.
Clearly evident throughout the data has been the
strong sense of ownership of the school by the community, students,
parents, and staff. This has historical bases, and also current
factors which continue to contribute. In particular, we have
noted the allegiance to the school, the notion that it is their
school shared by all, the pride, and the extension of all of these
to the learning and content. As Woods (1995:3) notes, this creative
learning is where "pupils have control over their own
learning processes, and ownership of the knowledge produced, which
is relevant to their concerns".
The third aspect concerns the particular relationships
which exist within the school. Here, the notion of family has
been used by staff, students, and parents to describe the ways
in which relationships have developed. While this does have some
negative consequences, primarily this has produced a situation
where the self-concept of the individual is enhanced, and where
involvement in teaching and learning is encouraged through collaboration
by all members of the community. Certainly, it is evident that
the teachers, at least presently and most likely in the past,
in the main exhibit many of the characteristics Woods (1995) has
elaborated under the notion of creative teachers. In particular,
we note the sense in which there is an approach of adaptability
and working with students accompanied by a willingness to experiment
and engage in reflection-in-action. As such, this again provides
a foundation rather than an end point. It is in this sense that
we have sought to expand the notion to one of Creative Schools
as sites where these attributes are seen as desirable for all
members of the community.
The overall outcome of these three prior aspects,
we suggest, is a sense of empowerment. The community feel that
it is their school, that they have both a right and an obligation
to participate in the school, and in the educative processes.
Similarly, the students have the perception that in their school
they can exert influence, that they are given responsibility,
and that they are valued in terms of their opinions and person.
This is further enhanced by an approach which focuses on teaching
and learning with all members of the community underpinned
by collaboration and negotiation.
At Rana Primary, we suggest that there is a sense
In a community of learners, everyone is about
the business of learning, questioning, investigating, and seeking
solutions. The basis for human interaction is no longer a hierarchy
of who knows more than someone else, but rather the need for everyone
to contribute to the process of asking questions and investigating
solutions. (Kleine-Kracht, 1993:392)
In conclusion, then, we are suggesting that the notions
of creative teachers, and our broader view of creative schools
apply, at least to some extent, to the Rana context. While we
have only initial data at this point, we would also suggest that
for a school to become a learning community involves a process
of development from within the particular culture directed towards
empowerment and involvement of all members of the school
community. At Rana, then, we have the start of the long journey
towards a learning community, a process of collaborative action,
which at times may be contested, seeking to support 'what works'
and 'change what doesn't'.
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