Before We Pull The Big Lever: 3 Steps To Re-Imagine Before We Re-Invent

By Tom March

In the last article of this series, it was suggested that true innovation had yet to transform schools and that one way to help this happen is to ‘pull the big lever’ and change tests: the de facto reality of what matters in schools.

Ready, Aim, Hang on there one minute…

Instead of racing to what these tests could look like and how to get started today, this article will be used as an often-missing moment of pause, to engage readers in educational analysis to get at an understanding that must change if innovation (not the churn of new bandwagons and buzzwords) is to replace the status quo with an improved and irrevocable reality. In short, educators must confront the last great innovation – the mass production model of schooling and its codified curriculum – and dismantle the old technologies that underpin it: rigid management of time, entrenched and unquestioned routines and the disjointed and artificial dissection and delivery of learning.

Step 1: From Motherhood to What Really Matters

The author has previously argued the importance of a school’s clear vision for student learning and cited the work of Michael Fullan, school change expert, who champions a shared moral imperative as the most important tool for managing positive change in schools. Capturing a common purpose of this above all else affects how people see their jobs and makes them willingly contribute to the team effort. As Fullan (2002) writes, “There is no greater motivator than internal accountability to oneself and one’s peers.”

Analysis: Vision Statements

Most schools have a vision statement and, as unique as each school is, it is amazing how similar vision statements tend to be. A non-scientific but thorough review of more than 100 school mission statements highlights this fact. At the risk of appearing cynical or critical, a fairly representative school vision could be created by looking for common aspects:

Main Categories Actual Descriptors
Students as unique each, personal, individual, respected, their potential
The ‘whole child’ academic, physical, emotional, social, personal growth
Character traits ethical, respect, faith, leadership, committed, pursue excellence
Responsibility global citizens, stewards of the world, serve their communities, own learning
Learning lifelong, styles, personalised, community, unique, continuous

Exercise: From Big Goals to Busy Schools

As an exercise, readers can see how their own school’s vision statement compares to the above or includes any of the above aspects. Such a review may create some disquiet or sense of rebellion in some, “Okay, so maybe ours is a lot like other schools, but we really are different.” After the substantial investment in querying its community to create its particular vision statement, it can be frustrating to see how essentially similar one school’s statement may be to others. But rather than a flaw, this highlights a strength in that everyone shares a concern for the growth and well-being of the young. However, the reason many people become cynical about such visions is they rarely move beyond the motherhood statements, about which no one will argue. To be reasonable, who is going to champion the contrary: ‘to prepare students for the past’ or ‘discourage lifelong learning’? Yet a common conversation with schools involves how some staff, maybe even most, ‘get it’, but still go back to habits of teacher-directed, calendar-based and content-driven, one-size-fits-all classroom practices. Some teachers have shifted from these constraints, but few schools have.

So the articulation of what is really meant by these goals is critical. What does preparation for their future look like in Year 3 or Year 10 history? What does encourage lifelong learning look like in Year 6 mathematics or Year 12 English? More accurately, what do these look like on a progression from none to emerging to expanding to exemplary to exceeding, regardless of year level? After all, how old a student is does not equate with his or her performance.

Drawing from the list of descriptors above, the following sample vision could be constructed for students:

At _____________, we nurture each individual student to achieve excellence and his/her own personal growth, to become a lifelong learner ready for his/her future and to act with leadership and engage as a citizen of the world.

How do the motherhood statements stack up against the current model of schooling? If the vision is broken down into goals, how might the way they are addressed in a typical school be described?

Goal Descriptors from a Typical School
nurture = teach?
each individual student = classes? year groups? houses?
achieve excellence = within course expectations? against marking guides?
personal growth = co-curricular? health class? should parents do this?
become lifelong learners = besides ATAR? Umm… university? trade? career?
ready for their futures ignore this since no one knows…
act with leadership = head boy/girl? prefects? sports captains? get them into clubs?
engage as citizens of the world = register with the Australian Electoral Commission? vote? (is that not compulsory?)

Okay, so this is a bit of fun and perhaps a little mean-spirited, but the point is fair. Educators say they want to do these great things (and they do), but habit, busyness and urgent tasks keep them doing what they have always done (correction: been doing only since mass production of education began). How do educators make this leap from the big picture to daily practice? The answer could be to pull the big lever and change tests, but the point of this article is to prompt reflection to fully understand why by the time readers get to how.

Step 2: Getting Specific about Criteria

The link between sincere big-picture goals and how they are addressed and achieved in schools comes down to unpacking and articulation. In other words, greater precision in describing what educators want is needed so that it is clear to all students, teachers and parents, so that schools move from motherhood statements to a moral imperative. The criteria, the main aspects, the key factors and so on are needed so that, when taken as a whole, they capture a more detailed picture of the school’s goals for students.

Some schools have engaged in a community exercise of finding the exact right words to capture this articulated and vibrant vision. This experience in itself – which grows moral imperative – is more important than the specific words chosen. However, at the end of such efforts, what one school comes up with looks a lot like the terminology that many other schools might choose, which makes sense. Like the commonalities in vision statements, their further articulation will yield roughly similar criteria, so do not spend so much time choosing the words as fully discussing, unpacking and bringing them to life.

So what words might be used? Everyone can recite the litany: problem solving, critical thinking, interpersonal skills, creativity, resilience, motivation and so on. They are often referred to as 21st century skills or non-cognitive skills and, as off-putting as both phrases might be, these skills and characteristics are actually quite good. Here is a starter list that might help brainstorming.

A Criteria Sampler

problem solving critical thinking interpersonal skills creativity
resilience innovation self-initiative curiosity
collaborating communication ethical leadership
character lifelong learner respectful optimistic
outward-looking persistence self-control wellness


Exercise: Choose the Wording

Begin by sending an open invitation across the school community, including teachers, parents, current and former students, local businesses, non-profits and so on – any stakeholders valued by the school. To be respectful of everyone’s time, this first group’s job is simply to generate a list of key criteria that, taken together, would be the critical factors that describe students’ success at achieving the school’s vision. Depending on the level of interest, the school could hold meetings or create a collaborative online document to give everyone a voice and ability to contribute.

Next, in a similarly transparent and open process, whittle the full list down to a manageable number that is probably more than five, but less than a dozen. Consider using a ranking tool such as PollDaddy or any online survey to make the task simple. Notice that besides choosing the criteria, this is really getting the word out, beginning the popularisation process that will lead to group buy-in and a shared moral imperative.

Once the list is generated, make it part of the school community by using existing means or inventing new communication and collaboration methods: consider professional learning communities, online polls, parent and graduate surveys, newsletters, school assemblies, speech nights and so on. The desired outcome is a set of headings or skills that can be used to start building rubrics or matrices of criteria. This process rallies all attention to defining a shared and articulated vision, making sure the criteria capture the main things everyone thinks are important.

Step 3: Teacher-led Revival to Build a Richer Curriculum or… NEW TESTS

For years, the author has counselled the need to design a richer curriculum, one created by teachers sitting together to develop a continuum of engaging, authentic challenges that students could pursue at individual paces, driven by individual choices, but working within a shared curricular framework. This is still a good option, but few schools find the time required to engage in this work. So, if there is no appetite for redesigning the curriculum, a quicker approach to the same end can be to pull the big lever. What really drives teacher and student behaviour? What has to be done, not what teachers or students want to do or what they know would be good for them. When things are busy – and there are few busier places than a school – both teachers and students make sure they do what counts. “Will this be on the test?” asks the perceptive student. “I have to finish writing these reports,” says the tired teacher at 11:00pm .

So what if (the trigger phrase for innovation), instead of trying to shift schools, teacher practice or student appreciation, educators changed the test? REALLY changed the test? What does this look like in practice? How can it be done at the classroom, school and system levels? In the next article in this series, we pull the big lever with richer tests that use the school vision’s criteria to help achieve what really matters most.

For a full list of references, email

Tom March is the Director of Innovation K-12 at Hobsons Edumate and is a long-time contributor of strategies for making learning more real, rich and relevant. He can be contacted via email or