High Performance Schools

It was a thrill to deliver a keynote at the High Performance Schools conference in Sao Paulo, Brazil on April 14th.

The speech summarised much of what is in “Schooling at the Speed of Thought“, but with an emphasis on Effectiveness, Skills, and Software for Learning.

Below are the main points from the presentation:

This presentation will attempt to answer the question of what are the key ingredients of high performance schools from the perspective of:

  • Skills and competencies for the modern world
  • Personalisation and
  • Software

Let’s start by looking at effectiveness

  • Imagine a desert island made of 2.4trn used $1 bills… on fire. This really happens every year…
  • Every year, $2.4trn is spent on Education
  • In some countries, the effectiveness of this spend could be as low as 7% (World Bank)

What a waste!

Courtesy of Mark Treadwell, Schooling 2.0


Let’s agree that most schools are far from high performing, not through lack of trying, but through employing outdated and ineffective organisation models.

We’ve hit the limits of the book based, or factory schooling, paradigm, and its no longer possible to squeeze more than a few percentage points improvement every year.

If I said that you could have 2x your current budget, would you get 2x as good results? Clearly not.

Since the factory school appeared in the industrial revolution, the rest of society has changed dramatically. Schooling will have to change too – just as the age of steam had to give way to the internal combustion engine.

But moving beyond the factory approach – at scale – is really hard. This is because schooling systems are ecosystems – everything is connected to everything else. It’s also hard because you have to change them whilst operating them at the same time – a bit like rebuilding an aeroplane whilst flying it. Because this is hard, it doesn’t follow that we shouldn’t make the necessary changes though. We just have to think carefully about how we’ll do it.

The way other sectors do go through transformative change is through building enterprise architectures. The rest of this presentation explores three parts of Schooling Enterprise Architecture – Outcomes, Information, and Technology.

Schooling Enterprise Architecture

So let’s next look at the outcomes that we want from Schooling.

What skills should schools be developing and why?

The first thing to note is that – according to OECD, citing Levy and Murnane – the skills that are in most demand by employers are not just knowledge work skills.

Its really interesting to note, that the skills and knowledge that are easiest for schools to teach and test are the easiest to automate and outsource.

So, the kinds of skills that are needed for the modern economy are those that prepare learners for change – namely:

  • Creativity
  • Communication & collaboration
  • Problem solving
Levy and Murnane work trends, cited by OECD PISA


That’s not to say that academic knowledge is not required – it’s just not sufficient on its own any more. So many schools now recognise that a “Standards and Competencies Based Curriculum” is a core part of modernising the schooling. Others are offering vocational qualifications. Many more are developing 21st Century Skills and competencies.

So what are 21st Century Skills? Basically, there are four key categories:

Ways of Thinking

  • Creativity and innovation
  • Critical thinking,
  • Problem solving and decision making
  • Learning to learn & metacognition

Ways of Working

  • Versatility
  • Editing and communicating
  • Creativity and Synthesis
  • Collaboration and Orchestration

Tools for working

  • Information literacy
  • ICT literacy

Living in the world

  • Citizenship, global and local

Implementing 21st Century Skills demands a different approach to assessment –

  • Knowledge – “standard” responses to questions
  • Values + attitudes – challenging tasks
  • Skills – creativity, problem solving and collaboration

There are many individual innovative schools across the world delivering 21st century learning. But the question is how do we transition our factory schools into high performance schooling systems – at scale?

First, you need a simple but powerful goal. I would argue that the highest level goal should be “effective learning”. One way to approach this is Problem (or Project) Based Learning. In essence this is about selecting and using the learning methods that will have the greatest learning impact. Originating in Medical Schools, many universities now employ this approach – for example, Maastricht University uses PBL across all its courses to great effect.

Different ways of learning have different degrees of effectiveness


Whilst the theory is fine, for vast majority of schools the dominant learning mode is lecture and the organisational model is factory.

So what can you realistically do to transition to a more effective paradigm?

A key first step it to acknowledge that learning is by definition personal. No one else can learn for you. Thankfully everyone is different – with different strengths, needs and learning styles. To get to effective learning, we have to build learning around the individual, not the other way around.

The second step is to work out how learning can be tailored to the individual. The RISC model is a great example of this, where schools move from a time to a performance based system.

In practice, we can take a knowledge-work framework, and build learning experiences around the three key knowledge-work tasks – analysis, synthesis and delivery.

The “home base” concept was developed in Australia and is well documented. Here, a student works from a base where he/she organises learning tasks, then goes to the area where the next learning task can be completed.

The “Home Base” approach


Applying this to a standard classroom block seems daunting, but in reality it is possible to knock down walls and build different kinds of furniture cheaply.

Costs can be offset by re-engineering staffing structures – using this approach can actually increase the number of adults involved in the teaching process, at the same or reduced cost.

The Learning Plaza concept in New Line Learning in Kent, UK, is a great example of this.

Modifying classroom blocks is more practical than knocking them down and starting again.


I would agree that this is complex.  However, managing complexity is something that software does extremely well.

Much of the debate in recent times has been about hardware, but the latest Educause Horizon reports picks out 6 of the most impactful technologies – 5 of which are software!

When you can reach entire populations through mobiles, or turn an entire room into an immersive display, our focus should be on what learning impacts can be achieved through software.

Telescopes enabled us to observe the universe. Computing allowed us to construct models of the universe.


Software for learning is currently undergoing a major transition, not dissimilar to the evolution of astronomy.

  • First generation of learning software, like the telescope, was about representing the world in ever clearer ways.
  • Second generation of learning software will enable learners to construct their own models of the world in increasingly connected ways.

The clear trend is that content is moving from the book paradigm to that of social construct. It’s no longer sufficient to think of ICT as a vehicle for transmitting content into empty minds. Delivering content is important, but the bigger impacts from ICT come from enabling learners to develop their own content, collaboratively – because in the process they learn creativity and problem solving skills.

Learning Software 2.0


In what I call “Learning Software 2.0” there are, in essence, three principles:

1. Learning is a social construct.

2. Creating content is better than consuming content.

Imagine you were given the task of getting a group of students to understand how the heart works and you have to choose between the following three approaches:

  • Method 1. Take an unlabelled diagram of a heart and annotate it to explain how it works.
  • Method 2. Explore a multimedia content.
  • Method 3. In a team, take a real heart in a tray, shoot a video of the heart being dissected, and then narrate an audio track on top of the video. Post the video on a website for peer review.

Clearly the last method would work best because you are engaging all three learning styles, and getting the students to teach something.

3. Use data to personalise learning.

We’re seeing very rapid growth in the use of CRM for managing intelligent interventions. Gestar in Brazil, for example have developed a solution called SRM (Student Relationship Management) that uses data to automatically run workflows using triggers such as poor learning performance, absence, or low reading age.

SRM has the potential also for taking out significant costs from administration – eg multiple schools dealing with lateness and absence can use a centralised SRM system to run the same administrative and escalation routines.

CRM (SRM) can be used to individualise learning experiences at scale through “intelligent interventions” such as addressing lower than expected reading age.


Microsoft’s vision for education is Anytime Anywhere Learning for All, which includes high performing schools. Brazil is has exactly the kind of conditions that can enable this vision to become a reality. So what kind of technical architecture do you need to deliver Anytime Anywhere Learning for all?

The Cloud is making it possible to imagine delivering high quality and personalised learning services to every citizen in the country – in or out of school – so a municipality, state or even country level Cloud based architecture makes sense.

The Anytime Anywhere Learning vision for Brazil is for end users to have access to:

  • Range of learning opportunities
  • More personalised learning services
  • Social network based learning
  • Tools for producing as well as consuming content

The key building blocks are:

  • Learning Management
  • Student Relationship Management – integrated student records and Student Information Systems
  • Decision Support (BI)
  • Communication and Collaboration
Schooling Enterprise Architecture – exploiting the Cloud

The Cloud increasingly means massively available computing at a fraction of the cost of current solutions, as this implementation in New South Wales, Australia, shows.

I look forward to helping Brazil take full advantage of this.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.