Transforming Schools

Gullivers travels

In‘Transforming Schools’1, authors Michael Anderson and Miranda Jefferson2 make a wonderful comparison between Gulliver who is tied down on the island of Lilliput and schools where learning seems to be tied down as well3. Both Gulliver and school learning should be liberated. In their book, the authors describe the ways in which this can be achieved for schools. Their method I would like to implement in schools in the Netherlands. In this blog I will give an overview of the work Anderson and Jefferson are doing in Sydney, in order to give Dutch schools an idea of their method.

Over and over again in our work in schools we see teachers and students discovering confidence, knowledge and power through communication (Anderson & Jefferson)”

Why should we liberate learning?

het leren bevrijdenThere is a wide gap between society’s demands and the skills that schools are teaching their students. Schools still aim to attain their best results by offering a large number of tests (a big mistake). Apparently ranking high in the international lists is more important than ensuring that students enjoy learning. There is a major mismatch between research outcomes and public policy. In the Netherlands, for instance, we know that we need higher quality (academic) teacher training, but the availability of these type of trainings is limited. We know that early-level selection for twelve year-olds increases segregation, but we do fail to alter this situation.

In a world where diversity, chaos and complexity are increasingly prominent, it is important that students are able to come up with creative solutions, that they are able to collaborate, to apply their knowledge, to make the right choices and to reflect on their own actions. The current educational system contains several elements (the ropes) that impede this way of learning. Genuine changes are obstructed by the system and a curriculum that is focused on performance. It is hard to cut the ropes if one does not know where to begin, and it is the same way for schools. Just like Gulliver eventually manages to cut the ropes by convincing the local population of his sincerity, schools should start out with confidence and persuasion while transforming into schools focused on learning at every possible level.

The authors of `Transforming Schools’ present us with a model that can help schools transform their organization into a learning environment in which students are challenged to be enterprising and active. Hence the term `learning by being enterprising’(the authors use the term 4C learning: communication, critical reflection and creativity). Anderson and Jefferson coach teams consisting of teachers and school leaders in their quest to organize education in an alternative way. They support schools in cutting the ropes. Their method is different from that of other organizations that I have seen: Their objective is to realize a real change in curriculum and teaching methods. Everything is geared towards changing education as it is right now. I would like to implement the authors’ method in Dutch schools and to this end, I have sought their cooperation.

Tilting education

The term Transforming Schools I translated into Het verkantelen van het onderwijs (tilting education – courtesy of my colleague Rob de Gier4). My aim is to apply the same method in Dutch schools as Jefferson and Anderson are using in Australia. To this end, I am looking for schools that want to join our expanding network organization De verkanteling van het onderwijs.
It is important that a participating school has an expert team – consisting of teachers and a school leader – that is eager to organize education in a different way. They are supported in developing the school’s vision, management, year plans, departmental plans, accountability and implementation of the plans. Making progress, even if it is minor, achieving consistency, reaching concrete agreements, and, most of all, doing, is most effective in my and the authors’ experience. Along the way, there are genuine changes in the curriculum, in the team of teachers, in leadership and in student learning. Moreover, results improve, as is evidenced by various Sydney-based schools.

An example of gradual changes in one of the Sydney schools:
“In a school we heard a student say, ‘When I was researching the Renaissance I noticed something … we are, in a way, creating a remake of the Renaissance because we are changing the way we learn.’ We knew then that transformation in the school, although a struggle, was beginning to be reborn through a reimagining of what learning constitutes” (p.49).

Learning by being enterprising

Ondernemend leren“There is no place for ugly mathematics and in schools learning should be a thing of beauty” (G.P. Hardy).

One of the greatest challenges for schools is to change the curriculum in such a way that it challenges students to be enterprising and active. The current standard curricula appear to hinder a `deeper’ way of learning. The material is offered in a superficial manner, which means that it is not absorbed very well. A change towards a different way of learning, which promotes better absorption, requires change at all school levels.

Probably, many schools have the ambition to offer education in a new way, while they find it difficult to change the classroom lessons. There is a giant gap between our ambition and that what is being offered in the classroom. Imposing change is easier than convincing schools to change. The question of change at fist sight does not seem very complicated, but in reality it is. It is the most complicated question I have encountered in education. And a first important step in the process of tilting is asking questions. Why do we do the things the way we do them, what do we want to investigate, and where do we start?

This method has four key elements:

  • Creativity
  • Reflection
  • Communication
  • Collaboration

By giving these elements a central place within the organization, educational change can start to run its course. For students, school management as well as teachers these skills should be central in order to achieve change within the classroom. In the following text, I have attempted to expand on these elements that cannot be considered in isolation. I can recommend reading the book, which gives more details and practical examples.

School leader

SchoolleiderAs a principal it’s really exciting to walk into each and every classroom and see something new and exciting is happening (Principal of Casula Public School)”5

To change a school can sometimes feel like making the Titanic turn around. Changing course starts with the school leader. When he/she is not open towards a new working method, transformation is complicated. This demands a type of school leader who is strong in content, who can see the bigger picture, and who at the same time has the `human’ touch. In short, resilience is needed.

A school leader is part of the team, and every team member has his or her own role. One is not more or less important than the other, school leaders should be aware of this fact. If teachers are forced to take measures that they consider useless, they fail to implement these measures in the classroom. However logical this may sound, in my experience the opposite often occurs.

The school leader is the person who allocates time for collaboration, who asks the right questions about vision, who allocates time for developing the curriculum and who personally supports this process or who organizes support. When the school leader performs this role acting on the basis of trust, is open towards learning him of herself, is able to create consistency at every stage of the process and is able to make knowledge explicit, all will be well. Transformation requires time and a large amount of perseverance. It is unavoidable that mistakes will be made, but this will be a learning experience for everybody involved. The school leader, too, is bound to make mistakes. My advice to him or her would be: admit to those mistakes, however bad they may be. Many mistakes, however, can be avoided by attentively listening and observing the situation in the work place. Hear what teachers, parents and students have to say, observe what is going on in the classroom, in the school yard and in the corridors. Know for which aspects you are accountable: the space in between is your playing field. In my experience, this playing field can be quite substantial.

The school leader is the person who starts the school’s transformation in order to match its education with our current time. He or she is the person who ensures that the four elements creativity, critical reflection, communication and collaboration are central within the organization. This will lead to a drastic change in education and student learning.


creativiteitFailure has been my best friend” (Zusak).

In this case, creativity is a certain way of learning; finding creative solutions and the ability to analyse a problem from various perspectives. For creative learning discipline is needed, as well as collaboration, resilience and perseverance. Writing a story is a good example. At first, students do not have a clue what to write about. By using their imagination, collaborating with others, and starting over and over again, they are finally able to create a story they are proud of.

A fine example of student creativity (quote from book):

In the playing with possibility process at Robinson Primary School, the students used their imaginations and shared their possibilities with each other for how they would communicate their findings to their audiences. One student suggested building a museum to house all the data they had collected and present their findings. Another group shared their designs for robots that would speak to each member of the audience individually and project findings from a robotic projector head against a nearby wall (p.99)” .

When learning to think creatively, one has to accept that things can go wrong. `Disciplined resilience’, in the authors’ words. This means that students are taught in a playful manner that it is all right to make mistakes, that one has to keep going even when something does not work out at first, that one has to keep trying until a good result is reached. This process strengthens our resilience.
Creativity means making learning authentic and `embodied’. Learning does not happen only in the head, but in the entire body. In primary school, for example, this can be done by learning the multiplication tables while stamping on the floor. In secondary schools there are wonderful examples of embodied learning, such as the use of virtual worlds or of theatre.

The creative learning process usually takes the following course:

  1. Studying the subject: what are we talking about, what is the subject, what is being asked, what is my opinion?
  2. Asking the `why’ questions. Learning to ask complex, coherent questions.
  3. Investigating various possibilities/perspectives.
  4. And finally, selection and evaluation of information leads to making choices. How shall I complete this module, what do I wish to show the audience, etc. Giving and receiving feedback is a crucial element in the creative learning process.

Research in this book shows that applying these questions to student learning has major positive effects. Students are better motivated, their level of academic preparation is higher and they are eager to learn academically. They enjoy school more, and homework tasks are carried out in a better way. Another, very valuable effect, is that students experience more self-confidence and more satisfaction in life. Also during their school career, they develop a better view of what they want to do later on in life. The following quote by a teacher indicates what the difference can look like:

Their classroom teacher Raya reflected: Most of the kids in this class, probably 18 out of 30, were failing science, now theres one.Theyre doing science through theatre, through games, through play rather than books and writing and there has been a monumental improvement in results (p.91).

Critical reflection

kritische reflectieThe authors start the chapter about critical reflection with the example of a 15-year old boy who went on a shooting spree at his high school. This is a shocking example. They then link this incident with increasing evidence that schools do not fulfill young people’s social and emotional learning needs. This is the reason why young people are unable to feel connected with society. This results in feelings of loneliness and wrong decisions. Some students have limited social and emotional skills, they do not develop those in school nor in their home situation. However, the development of those skills is the basis of wisdom, resilience and compassion.

Critical reflection involves students taking a step back in order to see which choices have been made for which reason. This allows for a kind of meta-understanding of learning in which you do not focus on how you worked and what went wrong. Reflection is closely connected to critical learning. Asking critical question is what reflection is. This helps students to analyze and critically consider knowledge and to contextualize learning. In this way, students learn that knowledge is complex and dynamic, and that every individual evaluates knowledge in a different way. Students should learn to recognize how their own assumptions can influence their view of the world?

All school subjects should be related to students’ social and emotional learning. A wonderful example is King Lear as a school play, performed by students. Lear struggles with his relationship with his daughters, which results in a tragedy. The play illustrates how power can destroy families, and also how families jointly can destroy one person’s power. The play has a wide range of themes: love, hate, jealousy, rivalry – themes that familiar ground for adolescents. Teachers can use the play to connect critical reflection with literary analysis. This example also shows that students do not learn in isolation but together with class mates, teachers and supported by their parents.

Critical reflection is an important change in the classroom, but it requires a completely different way of teaching.


Communication in the case of students involves being able to ask the right question, to negotiate (which probably is a bit superfluous for Dutch youth), debating and standing up for their own rights and opinions. Using the method of dialogue means that there is a focus on one own’s identity in relation to the other person. When a school pays particular attention to communication, this has an important impact on students’ self-perception and identity development. Communication defines the culture in the school and in the classroom. Communication often is hindered by time pressure, people fail to take the time to express what they mean to convey.

Teachers’ communication with students is crucial for student learning. From my experience with my own children I know that they are willing to learn when there is a connection with their teacher. When there is no connection, I have to make a real effort to make them study the material at home. In class lessons everybody should have the opportunity to express their thoughts and to be open towards their peers.


samenwerkenCollaboration is needed for learning and learning is needed to collaborate.

Collaboration gives lots of pleasure, it is crucial for good education. Many students and teachers do not know how to collaborate. People often assume that everybody has the ability to collaborate. Genuine collaboration takes place at both cognitive and social levels. Through joint learning, one can reach a higher level, for everybody has his or her personal abilities. The authors in this respect use the term `Scaffolded learning’, which involves teaching just above the students’ level. Here, collaboration is an important element, as it is possible to reach a higher level when working together. It is great to witness student realizing that they may not be able to carry out a task on their own, but that together, they can do it. In the collaboration process everybody has his or her own role, and confidence is essential. It should at all times be clear why collaboration is required. In collaboration, of course, communication, creativity and asking the right questions are crucial. This means that teaching no longer is an individual process.

In short, Sydney shows that schools applying the model for learning by being enterprising/4C Learning, were increasingly challenged to involve their students in all their activities. Gradually, teachers and students became education partners sharing the same goal: learning. They realized that this can be done in many different ways. When students see the fun and use of learning, the same thing unfailingly is true for teachers and school leaders. This working method gives energy, confidence and hope, as is shown in the entire book. It would be wonderful if schools in the Netherlands want to join us in our effort to match education with the needs of our time. I conclude with a quote by Therese Corben, principal of The Connells Point Public School.

4Cs learning is a major focus of our School Plan 2018-2020. The learning has been shared with all staff, and teachers. Collaborative classroom visits have occurred in all classrooms and as one teacher commented: ‘ I am no longer the sole facilitator of learning within my classroom’.  There has been a measureable impact on both our teachers and our students. Students feel more empowered and teachers are observing greater engagement from all. Students have commented that:’ 4Cs learning makes us think harder, listen more to the opinions of others, share our ideas and look outside the square”. Our communication and collaboration within and across classrooms and the community has resulted in a clear purpose and direction for our school.

For information on this blog post or my working method, please contact:

Minke Knol



1 Anderson, M. & Jefferson, M. Transforming Schools. Bloomsbury academic (2017)
2 Michael Anderson & Miranda Jefferson zijn beiden werkzaam op de afdeling educatie aan de Universiteit van Sydney. Van daaruit ondersteunen zij scholen.

3 Afbeelding: Gulliver op het eiland Lilliput.

4 Voor meer informatie over Rob:
5 Bekijk het hele verhaal van deze rector op: