Tag Archives: Educational leadership

Developing Digital Skills for Citizenship⤴

from @ andrewjmclaughlin

I recently read Stepping into a Virtual Reality Classroom for Teacher Training (columbia.edu) and I was intrigued to see the situation in Myanmar pre-pandemic described in very similar terms to how I have previously described the situation here in Scotland today: 

...teachers often lack not only digital skills themselves, but also the pedagogical breadth to meaningfully engage students in inquiry-based activities that make the most of access to technology

The Myanmar: Connect to Learn project site details the issues faced by their schools when it came to developing digital pedagogies:

It was clear that knowledge, skills and infrastructure were all lacking. The same concerns raised in Scotland. Having just supported an authority with upskilling teaching staff and deploying thousands of devices into the hands of staff and students alike, I feel I have a good understanding of how these three factors impact on education here.

The ongoing work being undertaken by a number of organisations, not least council education departments and the Scottish Government's Digital Citizenship Unit, all focus on equity of access and equity of opportunity. The pandemic brought under the spotlight the negative impact caused by poverty when it came to citizens accessing information (health information, financial services, education).

In both countries, lots has been done. During Covid we saw WiFi provision for the poorest students prioritised, devices deployed and upskilling supported. In schools, we saw teachers engage head-on with developing the digital skills they needed to continue to support their learners, at least in so far as managing a work flow solution to pass work back and forth. But on return to in-person learning, the momentum was lost and many practitioners returned to their tried and trusted ways, eschewing the new digital tools.

Perhaps, most surprising though was the range of solutions proposed. While we recently upgraded the network connectivity of every school, Myanmar was deploying 3G and 4G enabled devices. They, like us, were introducing a development programs both for teaching staff focusing on the use of ICT in the classroom. And while we deliver inputs on SAMR and digital skills, and planned to develop curricular pathways around Computing Science, Cyber Resilience and Internet Safety, the Myanmar project was building a Virtual Reality sandbox where teachers could "gain additional confidence to integrate the use of advanced mobile technologies in the classroom".

  • Are we doing enough in Scotland to build teachers' skills, knowledge and confidence around digital to help them better prepare our young people for the world around us? 

  • Are our young people (and their communities) being provided with the tools they require to be successful learners, confident individuals, effective contributors and responsible citizens in an increasingly digital world?

If the answer to either of these questions is no, then who is responsible for making Digital a national education priority?

We are in the midst of a mammoth review of all things Scottish Education, perhaps now is time to put pressure on ministers to renew their ambition to provide devices for every learner (and, subsequently, ensure a device in the home of much of our population). With Education Scotland and the SQA under the spotlight, perhaps we can also seek opportunities to enhance the digital landscape across the nation, build our own digital sandbox, create safe spaces to share, collaborate and question. Extricate our schools from the digital fiefdoms where big tech companies have rieved them and cut them off.

Using Digital Intentionally⤴

from @ andrewjmclaughlin

Since first appearing here, this post has since been posted on the Education Scotland PLL blog.

In my last blog, I asked leaders to think about how they might liberate the minds of their staff teams. To adopt “intention” instead of “instruction” based leadership strategies. The notion of ‘intentionality’ has been at the fore of my thoughts for some time. Whilst discussing the benefits of digital tools, and training staff and students to maximise those benefits, I have been in the habit of asking leaders and teachers about their intended use of digital as part of wider school improvement ambitions.

Often, the responses have outlined a drive to integrate digital tools into classroom activity or develop digital literacy amongst staff and students. Recently, though, I was told “I want to see the devices used in every lesson”. It may seem counter intuitive, but I reacted negatively to such all-encompassing digital goals.

In another conversation, an early career teacher rightly asked me about the long-term effects of digital tool usage on younger children. The same question was often raised during the remote learning of 2020, when people rightly worried about the negative impacts of too much screen time during Covid lockdown.

Both of these conversations were revealing about how important it is to discuss intention when planning the use of digital tools and technologies. To both, I responded in a similar way:

Our classroom teachers are professionals. They know our children and know how best to provide engaging, meaningful learning opportunities for them. Classroom teachers will look to provide a variety of experiences, some of which might be digital, most of which will be analogue. Indeed, you wouldn’t ask your students to write all day every day, or walk around with a bean bag on their head for hours on end. Everything in moderation allows for skills to be honed without negative side effects. The use of digital is no different.

On reflection, these conversations revealed more about competency than attitude. Just as would be done for outward-bound trips, planning is essential for a positive digital learning experience. Moreover, a robust Risk/Benefit Analysis is required to ensure any risks are mitigated where possible and worthwhile where not. In my experience, the best RBAs for trips are done by people who visit the site first, are clear about the learning goals and fully understand the activities which are planned, and are knowledgeable of the measures in place to keep children safe: outdoor education instructors have a depth of experience and expertise within that field that the average classroom teacher simply hasn’t and as such, the RBAs of teachers who work collaboratively with the instructors to plan the excursion are generally far more detailed than those written in the classroom. (Indeed, never mind analysing the risks, some dedicated teachers can struggle more than the pupils with the treetop ropes course or abseiling off a tower!)

One challenge with digital then, is that relatively few teachers have yet to build-up sufficient professional expertise and experience of digital tools to feel confident in planning meaningful experience, identifying the risks or providing digital safety. Central teams then, whether at local authority level or the @DigiLearnScot team at Education Scotland, are charged with providing scaffolding and training across a range of topics and platforms, stretching their capacity and resources to the limits without really getting the chance to collaborate with the classroom teacher.

Some help may be at hand. In his book, DigitalMinimalism, Cal Newport writes, “I am glad that we are worried about digital wellness but I think we have to go beyond small tweaks and hacks, and start thinking seriously about ‘What is the role of technology in our modern notion of the good life?’

And so I ask you, ‘What is the role of technology in our modern notion of good learning and teaching?’

By identifying the goal, we may avoid much of the risk. Either by reducing the potential for over-use or by avoiding the potential for misuse.

The idea of planning deliberate use of digital tools and technology might seem obvious, but when speaking to teachers across the country, I am regularly amazed by how many focus either on digital learning as the end result without fully considering why digital is the best medium for the planned learning activity (like the earlier conversation, the use is in itself the achievement). Almost as common are those who see the use of digital as little more than a threat to discipline or learning (without contemplating the opportunities to leverage rich learning experiences through strategic use of digital technology).

To those who simply view digital tool use as the ambition, I urge caution. As Newport remarked, “Simply put humans are not wired to be constantly wired”. If you are asking your young people to plug in, be sure to have a clear rationale for why.

To those, who see digital tools as little more than a distraction, disruption or hazard, I urge you to look for the benefits but embrace the principles of Digital Minimalism.

Digital minimalists see new technologies as tools to be used to support things they deeply value—not as sources of value themselves. They don’t accept the idea that offering some small benefit is justification for allowing an attention-gobbling service into their lives, and are instead interested in applying new technology in highly selective and intentional ways that yield big wins. Just as important: they’re comfortable missing out on everything else.

~ Newport, Digital Minimalism (2019) 

I was given pause for thought during the HarvardX Leaders of Learning course, when educator and PBS commentator David Thornburg’s observed, “We use to ask the question, 'What can I do with technology?' as opposed to 'What can I do now that I have technology?'"

There is no denying that digital tools can have a negative impact on focus. We see this every day in our classrooms as children and young people struggle to focus without checking their phones for a dopamine hit. Countering the lure of the phone may be one of our greatest challenges and one of our core responsibilities going forward. By embracing digital minimalism we do not reject the innovations of the internet age, but instead reject the way so many of us currently engage with these tools. In some ways, the tools themselves might even help us mitigate this addictive behaviour, through careful use of assistive technologies built-in to cut out distracting notifications or app usage. The deployment of centrally managed devices, like in Glasgow, the Borders and Edinburgh, might also stem the constant distraction by enabling tougher stances on unmanaged device use within schools (including phones). On breaking our reliance on attention-seeking tech, Newport has written extensively, illustrating how we might go about (re)building focus, training our brain: it starts with 20 minutes of avoiding distraction. Warning: It's not as easy as it sounds.

Beyond competing with social media, we must open learning experiences that have never been available before to enrich curricular and non-curricular offerings. Fundamentally, schools and councils will have to provide teachers with greater opportunities to develop their understanding of digital pedagogies and to explore the positive benefits of digital technologies.

My former colleagues in the Empowered Learning team at Edinburgh might provide an initial step for this. Their #SAMRTuesday girds on Twitter support the intentional use of digital tools with clear planned purposes and worked-examples of using the SAMR (Substitution, Augmentation, Modification, Reimagination) framework (created by Dr. Ruben Puentedura) to show how digital can enhance and even transform many aspects of learning and teaching.

Leveraging the power of digital in the classroom can improve outcomes for all our young people. But with great power comes greater risk, don’t run with those digital scissors in your hand. Embrace digital minimalism. Use it sparingly, build your competencies and wield your digital pedagogies intentionally.

Leading Intentionally, Teaching Deliberately⤴

from @ andrewjmclaughlin

Originally posted on Education Scotland's PLL blog

On finishing reading Matt Haig’s “The Midnight Library” as part of a staff book club, I re-read Walden. It features heavily in Haig’s bestseller and I was keen to remind myself of why I had adored it as a student, and why so many people continue to list it in their Top 10 books.

It didn’t take long to remember why it was so universally appealing. Despite being 170 years old, the messages are as pertinent today as they were when Thoreau sat by the lake in his cabin writing it.

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

~ Henry David Thoreau, Walden (1854)

I have written previously on this blog about the never-ending plate spinning that we, as educators and school leaders, must undertake. Thoreau, then, describes precisely what we all dream of: the stripping back of our day-to-day struggles and to front only the essential tasks of teaching.

Teaching: the very business with which we all fell in love, before the great Sisyphean boulder of administration and bureaucracy threatened to crush us under its momentum.

As leaders, how do we support our staff to teach deliberately and help them feel valued as professionals? How do we help them take a step to the side and allow the great boulder to hurtle past, without crushing others with additional workload or assumed responsibility? Perhaps, it is by taking a step backwards ourselves. Identify the key objectives, but don’t overdo the management of the process.

In his book, Turn This Ship Around, L. David Marquet quickly gets to the core of this,

 "The problem with specifying the method along with the goal is one of diminished control. Provide your people with the objective and let them figure out the method."

At a recent lecture at the University of Oslo, Dr. Pamela Grossman (Dean of the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania) discussed the importance of “a common language for teaching”. In her lecture, she explained that in order to measure something, we must first be able to name it. We must identify the components of practice that we might want to target for improvement, to look at intentionally and over time to better understand what we are doing.

Both Marquet and Grossman point to an informed, engaged and emancipated workforce. A staff which is encouraged to use their brains to think their own way to improved outcomes, ready to enquire and test, to throw in novel ideas, to challenge the status quo. Marquet never relinquished control of his submarine, but he did reverse the flow of information from top down to bottom up. In doing so, he freed up his crew to make decisions based on the evidence in front of them, he asked them to tell him what they intended to do. He then, with the safety of the ship and crew at the fore, could oversee and focus his energies where they were most needed. In a school using the power of the Hive to develop and improve, where every mind is focussed on the end result, how might you better use your energies?

As leaders, it is assumed that we will make the strategic decisions necessary to safely steer our schools on their course to success. Unfortunately, this can sometimes mean we allow school policy and improvement agendas to interfere with the intentions of our professional staff. The issue with that is it diminishes opportunities to listen to the ideas of our staff. Every school enjoys a staff team comprising a wealth of skills, life experiences and ideas, how many fully liberate those minds to make decisions, to think, and to steer? Again, Marquet is direct with his analysis, “If you want people to think, give them intent, not instruction.”

Are you ready to give your staff intent rather than instruction? Are you doing all you can to let your staff to teach deliberately?

Capture, Cleanse and Weave⤴

from @ andrewjmclaughlin

Originally posted on Education Scotland's PLL blog

With Tartan Day celebrated on 6th April, the news was awash with stories of Brand Scotland being celebrated and promoted internationally. With Social Media timelines jammed with digital shortbread tins and heartfelt pleas to those in charge of American business budgets, it was all feeling a bit like Brigadoon had set up home in the Metaverse.

One story caught my eye though, that of Moray-based tartan textile specialists Great Scot. The firm have created a new 'Ukraine Forever' tartan using the colours of the Scottish and Ukrainian flags as a gesture of support the war-torn Ukraine. Apparently, it was a real team effort leading up to the production of this tartan. The idea came from their online community and everyone in the company was involved in the creation, from seamstresses to the delivery team.

It is amazing the opportunities that can arise when people work together.

On a frosty November morning, back in 2020, I joined the “International Blether” with Dr. Simon Breakspear of the Gonski Institute in Australia. Simon was invited by Education Scotland to share his thinking about leading through the complexity of that first year of Covid, and how to make the most of the opportunities that came with that uncertainty. Like the new tartan, Simon emphasised the need to spot those new opportunities. He challenged those listening to capture, cleanse and weave those opportunities into our established practice.


The pandemic was both furnace and tsunami. It applied heat and pressure to established practices, stress testing them for weaknesses. And didn’t we all see systems that just could not stand up to that new pressure. Covid also acted like a giant wave – disrupting the ways we worked as it crashed down on us, but also revealing new complexities and insight as the initial impact ebbed again. We were all thrown around by the impact, but we flexed and made small changes to how we worked. I’ve spent the last year encouraging staff not to let all that learning be forgotten.

The use of Teams to share work across Faculties leads to much more effective moderation and is a blessing for any Faculty leader trying to pull cover together during absences.Recording quick expositions, as was common due to the need for anytime, anywhere learning, now saves classroom teachers from having to repeat themselves, freeing up time for more targeted support instead.Using voice notes for feedback avoids the need for teachers to write screeds on student work, and also allows the student to re-listen as they redraft, making the effort far more worthwhile.

While it has been tempting to return to ‘normal’ due to the stresses of the last two years, some changes are definitely worth hanging on to.


As schools now return to something much more akin to our old ‘normal’, have you and your team snapped back to the old, established ways of working or did you take time to make deliberate decisions about how you wanted to move forward, learning from the innovations of those turbulent Covid times? Whether it is lengthy paper trails or poor communication, think about all those frustrations that have impacted on your team’s ability to deliver. This is your chance to unpick from the complex systems any aspects that are no longer fit for purpose. I’ve been lucky to visit many schools over the last 9 months and it has struck me that in some, those new modes are still battling with old practices. In some schools, online parents’ nights (although challenging at times) were incredibly successful, allowing for additional dates to be added, tighter control of time slots, and greater flexibility for parents – in those schools, these might be preferred to the old in-school setup.


The hardest part of all of this perhaps, is seamlessly bringing the new practice in alongside old systems to create a whole new way of working. Having unpicked that which no longer works for you, this is a chance to create systems that allow you to build on the successes of the past whilst enabling greater improvement, weaving innovations into the fabric of your team.

Right now, I’m working on how we make better use of data in our schools. I certainly don’t want to ask teachers to create more data (goodness knows we have an abundance of high quality data in our schools already), but I have to ask if we are using all that data effectively. I hope that small changes and simple innovations can help us share that data around the school more easily, using digital tools to synthesise and analyse different sources and generate reports to help build clearer pictures of our learners, our classes, and our schools. In essence, weaving the data that has always been generated with a new process to tell an enriched story.

Like a new tartan, your weave of old and new will in itself tell a story of your team. The old ways, customs and traditions rooting you in your locale, while the new ways celebrating your ability to, not only survive, but thrive under the pressure, heat and crashing power of the Covid crisis.

A Squash and A Squeeze⤴

from @ andrewjmclaughlin

Originally posted on Education Scotland's PLL blog

For those of you who don’t have young children influencing your professional reading, then the term “A Squash and a Squeeze” will cause little pause for thought. For EY colleagues and parents, Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler’s first collaborative effort is an exquisite distillation of the importance of perspective.

''Wise old man, won't you help me, please? My house is a squash and squeeze.'' What can you do if your house is too small? The wise old man knows: bring in a flappy, scratchy, noisy crowd of farmyard animals. When you push them all out again, you'll be amazed at how big your house feels! – so reads the synopsis.

The idea of perspective is key in leadership. I know that there are some days when I look at my diary and see countless school visits and meetings, and wonder when I’ll have time to “get work done”. Luckily, that feeling is short-lived, because I have learned to remind myself – conversations with colleagues are the most important part of my job.

Perspective is at the heart of Education Scotland’s Leading a Specific Change Project PLA, where participants are asked to engage with Fink’s Change Frames to support reflection and professional dialogue with colleagues to help establish why the change is needed and what it will entail for all involved. Fink asks us to interrogate the ‘change’ from Purpose, Passion, Political, Structural, Cultural, Learning and Leadership viewpoints before establishing an action plan for the change project.

The role of the Empowered Learning project team, of which I am one small part, currently rolling out 40,000 devices across the City of Edinburgh, is very much to lead change. For some of our schools, the arrival of these new devices is an update to their current setup rather than an entirely new way to work, for others it marks the first step on a transformative journey. For everyone though, it represents change. And we all know how scary change can be. During our early deployments, I have been acutely aware that we have been asking some colleagues to take a leap of faith, whilst others are asked to undertake significant administrative and logistical tasks to get these devices into the hands of our young people. And we have been doing this in a year that has already been squashed and squeezed by an array of pressures affecting school communities, from Covid absences and exam changes to national recruitment droughts and hikes in the cost of living.

It has been vital then to ensure that our key contacts, our staff and our school communities understand the benefits of this project so that they can weather the short-term pain as we get it off the ground. Following the oft quoted suggestion of Simon Sinek, we have sought to “Start with Why”. We have collaborated with partners and brought together various networks of colleagues to discuss the aims of the project, and we have communicated home our ambition. That ambition, that the tools and training being made available to staff, students and parents/carers will create space for greater workflow efficiency, greater equity of opportunity, more effective interventions and support, and more creativity and enjoyment in the learning process for all.

In short, to take a little bit of the squash and the squeeze out of education.

3 Leadership Lessons from the Arctic⤴

from @ andrewjmclaughlin

Originally posted on Education Scotland PLL blog.

It might not be everyone’s idea of relaxing, but my February breaks pre-Covid were spent leading charity treks in Arctic Finland. 3 days of walking on frozen rivers and lakes, winding through forests, and sleeping under the stars (and frequently, the Aurora Borealis). At the start of the week, a bunch of strangers would climb aboard a flight to Rovaniemi, excited and nervous in equal measure, with great hopes for both the journey and the funds being raised for their chosen cause. At the end of the week, the beginnings of a team would emerge, new friendships being formed as they battled through blizzards and temperatures as low as -35°C.

Whilst these treks have always been great fun, they have acted as a microcosm in which to hone my leadership style.

In the week leading up to the treks, we had a small advanced team in Finland mapping a trail, navigating obstacles, observing potential hazards, preparing the way for these novice adventurers so that their experience was challenging but enjoyable. Often, due to the weather, all we could offer was Type 2 fun and challenge far outweighed the enjoyment at the time. Early in my career, this was how I viewed leadership – leading from the front, tackling challenges head-on, hopefully making it easy for others to follow me.

The day before the treks, we would complete two very important tasks. The first, a kit-check, to make sure all the trekkers had the right equipment and had listened to our advice on kit ‘admin’ (sorting dry bags into ‘spare clothes’, ‘extra rations’, ‘sleeping kit’ etc). This gave us a chance to have a quick 1-on-1 chat with every member of the party and soothe any anxieties. The 2nd task was an introduction to snowshoeing. Often, the ice was hard packed and snow shoes were not needed, but in fresh snow, the use of snow shoes was essential – saving effort, time and energy and ultimately making completion of the trek far more likely. But snow shoes take some getting used to, so a chance for the trekkers to don a pair and acclimatise was essential. When we seek to build Teacher skills in schools, giving your team a chance to air their concerns and questions ,and a chance to try things before adopting new systems, is key if we want staff to come onboard.

The format of the treks was straightforward. Wake early, eat breakfast, strap into our pulk harnesses and then walk pulling our sled full of kit until the sun had disappeared. Stop for camp, sit around the fire having a good chat, then sleep. Every day the trek would be led by two staff, one at the front and one at the back. The ultimate leader: the one at the back. They set the pace, watched each trekker for signs of injury, fatigue or disengagement, offered encouragement (and sometimes took some of the weight from the struggling trekker’s sled). The one at the front was simply there to show the way (and stop eager beavers from ‘running ahead’ too far and getting into potential issues). 

As a team leader in school: 
  • Are you too busy leading the way to sit back and observe? 
  • Who are you giving the chance to take the lead and show the way?

Takeaways from the frozen north:

  1. Leadership is not always about bashing ahead with ideas. Sometimes you need to let your team members go first, then observe, coach and support them to success.
  2. Don't scrimp on the kit check and practice walks. Talking to your team will help you establish competencies and support needs. And remember that, despite general feelings, classroom observations should not be tests to see how brilliant a teacher is (they already passed a ‘crit’ at university).
  3. Take the stress out of the situation, use these opportunities to kick-start coaching conversations about the support your team members need after a hard slog, nothing beats sitting down together for a social chat (campfire ideal but optional). Building those bonds and sharing those stories of success and failure mean when the weather closes in, your team will pull each other through, and they’ll help you too.