As we have developed our Stronger Smarter Approach framework, one of the questions we asked ourselves is ‘When does the Stronger Smarter Approach work best?’ At the Institute, we love data. We love to know what our participants find useful about our programs and what they do in their schools after they leave a program. The data we’ve collected over several years has given us a few answers. Here are six things we think need to be in place in a school to ensure the SSA works as well as it can.
1. Stronger Smarter Leadership Program
Firstly, we continue to believe strongly in the power of the Stronger Smarter Leadership Program (SSLP). The fact that the SSLP is a four-day immersion model is extremely important. This gives the time and space away from the busy school environment for deep self-reflection.
In the SSLP, we use provocations. The provocation that is most often mentioned when we talk to alumni is the Ghandi quote ‘be the change you want to see in the world’. We describe this as a ‘mindset shift.’ This is our ‘responsibility for change’ cornerstone.
This ‘mindset shift’ will be different for different participants. For some it will be a recognition of deficit language and shifting thinking to a strength-based approach. For others it may be a change in the way they lead a school. For many, it may be viewing their role differently.
Regardless of the change the school is seeking, we believe that the place to start is with a core group of staff who have this sense of personal ‘responsibility for change.’
2. Whole school support
Leading on from the personal mindset shift, alumni describe how the SSA needs to be a whole school implementation. Principals have told us that they realise they can’t do things on their own and they need to bring all school staff along with them on a transformation journey.
Teachers and support staff have told us that without strong support from school leadership, it is harder to make changes beyond their own classroom. While alumni may make some great contributions to student engagement in their own classrooms, if this is not part of a school-wide response, there is a danger that when students move to the next level and a new teacher, they lose everything that has been built up in terms of relationships and self-belief.
Alumni tell us that the SSA gives them a framework and a language to bring the school community together with a shared vision and that their other programs work better when the school understands the SSA.
3. Strength-based approaches
One of the cornerstones of the SSA is strength-based approaches. This is a flipping of the coin or pointing the compass in a slightly different direction to do things differently in a school.
This might look different in different schools. It might be using the language of Strong and Smart in the classroom or running student engagement programs. It might mean finding that balance between supporting student needs and ensuring high expectations so students believe they can succeed.
The results will always be classrooms where the strengths all students bring are recognised, valued and celebrated, and schools where all students feel they belong.
4. High-Expectations Relationships with the local community
In the SSA, we talk about bringing the three spheres of the personal, school and community together. The SSA will not work in a school unless the community is on board.
At the Institute, we believe in the strength and power of the education profession, and that principals and teachers are best placed to know what is needed for their school.
Likewise, school leaders also need to recognise local approaches and believe in the strength and power of their local school community. For a school leader this involves deep listening to build High-Expectations Relationships.
5. Pedagogical and curriculum strategies
The SSA provides the framework for a learning environment where everyone feels they belong and can learn. However, this alone will not improve academic outcomes for students. The SSA has to work alongside quality pedagogical and curriculum responses which recognise that student engagement and learning is based on making the curriculum relevant and culturally responsive.
While the SSA doesn’t include specific recommendations for pedagogy or curriculum, if the whole school planning and vision is underlain by a strength-based approach, then pedagogical or curriculum will naturally move towards culturally responsive choices. When this is combined with high expectations and positive student identity, it is likely to result in student engagement in the classroom.
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6. Local Approaches
The results of the SSA are always going to be the same: quality learning environments, a safe, friendly and welcoming school, and engaged students. This is writing, or rewriting, a narrative for the school that is about student support, high expectations, and community confidence.
The paths to get there, however, will always depend on the local context. This might be what works best for particular leadership styles, groups of staff, or community contexts, or how far the school has progressed along their reform journey. This is why we have always recognised educators as the ones who need to lead change.
Finally, you might notice that there is something we haven’t included in this list. We haven’t suggested that the SSA works best in a particular style of school, for instance in remote areas or with schools with large numbers of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander students. That is simply because we believe that the SSA works in all schools. While the origins of the SSA are based firmly in Indigenous education, our alumni tell us that it is an approach that works for all students and all schools, whether very remote or metropolitan.