School Improvement Episode 25: Developing student character and leadership capabilities

From Teacher magazine, I'm Rebecca Vukovic and you're listening to an episode in our School Improvement series.

My guests today are Allan Shaw, Principal and CEO of The Knox School in Melbourne's eastern suburbs, and Ben Righetti, The Knox School's Character and Leadership Programs: Lead Consultant and WELS Founder and Director.

They join me today to discuss the Character and Leadership Model implemented at The Knox School between 2017 and 2020. It represents the most significant change in how the school develops student character and leadership capabilities in the history of the school. One of the key aims of the project is to foster the development of young people of character who will be ethical citizens and community leaders. It also involved a major redesign of camps, excursions, outdoor education and community-based learning at each year level, from Year 6 to Year 11. The school has documented its journey, what they learned and the implications of their findings in a report titled Character and Leadership Model: Student Character and Leadership Development through Purpose-Designed, Experiential, Community-Based Learning and Projects.

In this episode we discuss the what motivated them to initiate the project, some of its features, and how they've had to adapt it this year in the midst of the COVID-19 lockdowns, when all camps, excursions and community activities have been either cancelled or postponed. Let's jump in.

Rebecca Vukovic: Allan Shaw and Ben Righetti, thanks for joining Teacher magazine.

Ben Righetti: Pleasure Rebecca, great to be with you.

Allan Shaw: Yes, Rebecca. Thank you for having us.

RV: So Allan, to begin, could you tell me a bit about the context of your school?

AS: The Knox School has an unusual context actually because it's one of the few, completely non-denominational, independent schools in Melbourne. So we are an ELC [Early Learning Centre] to Year 12 co-educational day school that is completely independent, no religious affiliations of that kind at all. So we have about 700 students in eastern suburbs of Melbourne. One of the interesting things about this school is because we have no affiliation with any religious denomination, we have to be very explicit about who we are and what we stand for and so we have published explicit, core values of the school, like many schools do, but we actually hang on ours very tightly, and indeed we have a whole stack of behaviours and attitudes associated with those values, which are published and which all members of the community are expected to uphold. So, in that sense it's quite a bit different to many other independent schools.

RV: Yeah fantastic. And Allan, in the report you wrote, ‘The Knox School, like all schools around Australia, must respond to the 21st Century education challenge: how do we enable students to develop the values, character and capabilities they will need to be ethical, healthy and successful citizens in the global world?' And I'm wondering, was this the motivation for embarking on this journey in the first place?

AS: Partly Rebecca, but not completely. I've been in school education a long, long time now and I used to actually be an Art teacher and Design and Technology teacher and one of the things I always wondered was why some of the students in my classes were the ones most whinged about by other teachers as being disengaged. And so I've always been interested in what motivates students, how they learn, and what engages them. So, we now know that we can teach students how to pass tests – and we do that, up to a point, because their Year 12 exit outcomes are very important – because that positions them for success beyond school. But also we know that that doesn't necessarily teach them how to be active contributors as adults in the broader world post-further study. And so those so-called 21 Century skills are actually the skills of being a really good human being and being able to operate in the world of work and adult life, where you need a whole range of intra- and interpersonal skills, as distinct from your knowledge base and intellectual skills. So we've always been interested in my career, I've always been interested, and this school is therefore now interested in developing both of those kinds of pathways.

RV: And that leads well into my next question for Ben. Let's talk now about the Character and Leadership Model and what it is exactly. Because I understand the Character and Leadership Model involved a major redesign of camps, excursions, outdoor education and community-based learning at each year level, from Year 6 to Year 11. But let's drill down a little further. Could you explain what it is exactly?

BR: Yeah absolutely Rebecca. I guess following on from Allan … back in 2016 and 2017 the school and Allan went through a strategic review process and one of the key outcomes for that was to really look at a journey of character development for the students through the school and trying to be more explicit and sequential about that. So that was really the starting point for developing this model and how it would apply in the school. I guess when we looked at character development and the kind of capabilities, the 21st Century capabilities and characteristics that Allan spoke about, and assessed the existing programs against that back in 2017, I guess they weren't really living up to what we wanted to. They weren't explicitly developing, in many cases, those kind of characteristics and capabilities. So we really had to rethink and redesign those and purpose design new character-focused and capability-focused initiatives in each year level for each student.

And in terms of the model, I guess the first thing was, just to be clear on the aim of it, what was it trying to do? And it was important that character and values are such personal things, that this journey for students would be personalised and that each year they'd experience this character development journey. And importantly, the part of having a model was that there would be an ongoing character development journey from year-to-year and that would be semi-sequential.

And then in terms of the specific … the model had three main components. I guess I think about these in terms of layers – the core and then the first layer and then the second layer. In terms of the core, as I kind of mentioned previously, it's the student and their unique values and character development. Sitting around that is the kind of character and leadership curriculum, or the characteristics and capabilities that we want students to learn, and Allan talked about some of those previously. And then third and finally, the outer layer is the learning model and that's really how the students will develop the characteristics and capabilities explicitly.

I guess I could go into, in terms of the specific detail of each of those components. The core, the student. That each student would work with teachers, to have a co-designed character development journey that was really explicitly focused on self-understanding, on values, and the most important personal and social capabilities. So that's really the core of the model.

And then secondly, the character and leadership curriculum. That's got three key components. First, and we kind of think about these things in three areas – leadership of self, and this is really the development of personal values and fundamental personal capabilities like care, empathy, responsibility, independence, self-management. Then there's leadership of self and this is really the interpersonal and relational capabilities and helping young people develop that. How they work with other people. And then the third component of the curriculum is leadership as service, so this is developing understanding capabilities in service and citizenship, and Allan spoke about that. How these young people will contribute to the world and their community.

And then the final component that I mentioned, the outer part, is the learning model. This is really the how students will learn and develop their character. And this has got three, interconnected parts. It's built on projects, so students being involved in team and individual character development projects that are real world based. And those projects are led by students but co-designed with teacher mentors. There's an explicit learning element for each program, so there's explicit experienced-based learning to explore the specific characteristics and capabilities at each stage of the program, and then as I mentioned previously, there's a really important role for mentoring and coaching. So, each student and each team has a teacher mentor who works with them to mentor them as they work on these major projects and also on their individual journey. We also made sure peer-to-peer learning and student mentoring was also a really key component of the model.

And then the final, overarching part of the model that impacts on everything is the values of the school and the culture of the school. So this is really how the values in the school, the teachers, the structures, and all the programs in the school, help develop and foster a leadership and service culture and the character development of students.

So they're the four elements of the model. And I guess the point of the model was not to have a one-size-fits-all approach, it was the idea that we would have a model that would guide the individual development of particular initiatives at each year level. So obviously the character development journey for Year 6 students who are 11 and 12, is going to be very different to Year 11 students and so we wanted to make sure that this model allowed for a personalised character development journey, and that's really what we did. So that's I guess, an overview of the model and the key components, Rebecca.

RV: And Ben you've painted a really clear picture there for listeners on what the model is but I'm wondering about the research that you used to inform this project. Could you tell me a little more about that?

BR: Yeah, happy to. Research was central, both within the school and then looking more at contemporary and international research. So Allan spoke a bit about the process that happened inside the school to get to here. We also looked at contemporary, international and national research in education, psychology and wellbeing – and that really informed the development of the character curriculum and the learning model. And then the other key thing that we used is, we were really keen and we did this using ongoing action research on the implementation of the model within the school. So every initiative we implemented at each year level was considered an action research project and we learned from that.

In terms of the specific research, in terms of the character curriculum and when we analysed and looked at the international research and evidence around what a character development curriculum should look like, I guess there were three or four key areas. That it should explore personal values and self understanding and you can see that in our model. There should be a focus on personal capabilities such as independence and self-management. It's essential that the model would focus on interpersonal and relational capabilities such as teamwork and collaboration. And then really importantly, and this is also you can see built into the model, there's a capacity for learning about service that young people find in meaning and making a positive difference. So that was kind of the curriculum.

And then in terms of the learning model – learning character is a very personalised thing, so we couldn't use a status quo approach. So when you looked at the research around what are the effective ways for young people to learn personal and social capabilities and character, I guess we found that the program, it should be really experience-centred learning and trying to explore and apply experience-based learning, where it's centred on the direct experience of the student then reflecting on that experience, having hands-on practice and then being able to conceptualise that and apply that to their real life. That any learning model needs to be sequenced and developmental, that's true of all learning. There should be active, hands-on learning and focused on specific capabilities, and making sure we're explicit about what's being developed. So often in character, you'll hear people talk about ‘we role model that' but we wanted to also be explicit about it.

And the other key element that you can see reflected in our model is that it should apply authentic real world project-based learning as the primary kind of learning model. So that's a summary of how key research really informed the development of the model, the curriculum but also the learning model, and also how we used ongoing action research. We implemented new programs as pilots in a step-by-step method and really learned from those and applied those to the new initiatives. So research was absolutely central and ongoing learning continues to guide the model.

RV: So we've covered why you did it and what it is, so let's talk now about the how. So how was this new model implemented across the school and for each year level?

BR: As you mentioned previously, I guess it meant, this was a three-year journey so over a three-year journey, implementing a new character development initiative from Year 6 up to Year 11. I guess, in terms of the how, there's two parts to this – the implementation approach. So obviously it was a big change process in the school, so before we did anything, key people in the school community sat around and we talked about: what are the key principles that should guide this? And when we talked about it, we wanted to make sure there was a real partnership approach between the school leadership, between students and teachers, in developing the new initiatives at each year level. So that would really improve the understanding and also the awareness about the program. That we wanted to, as I mentioned previously, take a staged, step-by-step approach to implementing the new initiatives and we wanted to pilot new initiatives. So we just started by piloting new initiatives in two different parts of the school. We piloted a whole new program in Year 9 in the middle school, and a completely new program in Year 6 in the junior school. And we made sure that each of the new initiatives were unique and tailored to the particular curriculum and structure of the year level, but they directly applied and focused on the key elements of the character curriculum and applied the learning model that I mentioned.

And then the other key principle that guided us was that we wanted to really think about how we use time and resources allocated to camps and excursions and outdoor ed and community activities much more effectively and efficiently. So they were the key principles. And so that meant that over a three-year journey, we implemented a new initiative from Year 6 to Year 11 and they were very different.

Let's look at the Year 6 leadership inquiry. So essentially in Year 6, what this meant is we implemented a completely new, full-year leadership inquiry-based approach, which had a term-by-term structure and that was fully integrated into the Year 6 curriculum and the weekly Year 6 timetable. In terms of the detail or the ‘what' of the Year 6 character curriculum. As I said, each term had a specific focus on key personal and social character capabilities, so in Term 1 we focused on: what is leadership?, and leadership of self and with others. In Term 2, we focused on care and service in leadership. In Term 3, the inquiry focus was on creativity and collaboration in leadership; and Term 4 was a culminating experience and particularly focused on power in leadership and in teams.

And in terms of the how or what that meant in terms of specific learning activities for the Year 6s, I might just focus in on the Term 2 inquiry, which was focused on care and service in leadership. So I guess there were three key elements: key projects, explicit learning and teacher mentoring. So in terms of the key project, students worked on a care and service project in small teams with senior citizens at a local retirement village really close to the school. The students attended the retirement village regularly through the term and ran social and recreational activities and interviewed residents, developing a relationship and they produced a memoir – so that was their key project.

In terms of explicit learning, students participated through Term 2 in active and hands-on activities, both at school and in the community, to practice and explore different aspects of care – to really put it into practice and to drill down, what did care look like and feel like and what were the different dimensions? There was a weekly class workshop built into the curriculum, which focused on care and where the students worked on their care and service projects with the senior citizens. Those weekly sessions also involved reflective tasks with the students and also direct teacher mentoring on the projects. We also, in terms of the explicit learning, students also had home learning tasks that focused on care in the home setting. And then finally, the other key element was the teacher mentoring which was really important. So teachers worked side-by-side with the students, teams of students and individual students, as they developed the care and service project with senior citizens and also the teachers mentored students on the development of understanding of their care. Each student had a care goal.

And then more broadly, we really looked at the culture in the junior school. So students took on far more responsibility and new roles within the junior school as role models and running more initiatives and serving their school community. So that really gives you a picture about what it looked like from a conceptual basis, the implementation approach and then what it looked like for Year 6. Obviously the programs at different year levels looked very different.

RV: Ben I have some more questions about that Year 6 year level because I want to talk about some of the results now. The report includes case studies from those two year levels, Year 6 and Year 9. So let's start with those Year 6s in the junior school. What did you find? Or could you share any anecdotes from the staff or students?

BR: Absolutely. It was really important that we captured data and information from students, teachers and parents and community members about the journey that students were going through on these programs and what they learned. So, in terms of the overall picture for Year 6, it was really positive, from almost every perspective in terms of student engagement, outcomes and learning. There was really positive progress. I'll give you a picture of the overall story and then might talk about the journey and the story of one student in Year 6.

So in terms of the overall picture, students were really highly engaged in the program, they rated it as eight out of a possible 10. So they were really engaged and positive about the program. We looked at student learning and all the students across the year level could identify and talk about how they had practiced or learned one of the specific character capabilities and skills that was the focus of the program at each term. And then really interestingly, students really valued it as an experience, so three-quarters of the students when we asked them, said it was definitely the best program or one of the best programs they've ever done at school in the last two years. So that's the overall picture across the year level.

But I guess, when I really think about it, I think about the individual student and their journey. I want to tell you Rebecca, about one student if I can and this student's character development journey. So this student just to give you a bit of background – at the start of the year, it's a whole year inquiry, so at the start of Term 1, this student was really engaged and enthusiastic about the program from the start. She was really thriving and you could see the student thrived in the responsibility, the independence that she had in the program and really was embracing all the activities and the opportunities in Term 1. But it was really interesting, in Term 2 that I mentioned previously when we focused on care and service, this particular student's effort and commitment went to another level. We saw that actually across the year level. So, as I mentioned previously, the main project in Term 2 was for students to work in small teams on a care and service project with senior citizens. This particular student in Year 6, her effort and commitment to this project was really inspiring. She developed really respectful relationships with the two senior citizens and they commented on how kind and respectful and patient the student was. Each time they visited the retirement village and they worked with the students, this student put in a lot of effort to make sure she planned and ran an engaging and interesting recreational activity for the residents and got their feedback on that. And the student really showed incredible patience and care when interviewing the residents for their personal memoir, which was another element of the project. So I guess that shows you, that gives you a bit of background. I guess at the end of the year we asked students to reflect on their journey and I want to just read with you an excerpt from this student's reflection on their journey and what this student got out of it. I quote if I can from the student:

During the program, I've learned that one of my greatest strengths is care and empathy. I've learned to look out for others and to care for them when needed. I will use my leadership skills to teach others what is right and I will use my care and empathy skills to show other people that it's not only about yourself.'

So Rebecca, I guess this is a really powerful and I think important reflection and I guess it shows that the student had developed a deeper level of understanding about her personal strengths in care and empathy, and importantly that the student had learned to be more aware of others and care more for others through the Term 2 journey – and they were specific aims of the program in Term 2. I guess when you look at the final part of that reflection from the student, where the student says, ‘I will use my care and empathy skills to show other people that it not only about yourself.' So I guess that was really powerful because it shows that the student was motivated to continue to use her care and empathy capabilities after the program and to have a positive influence on others. So this is a pretty powerful outcome for a young person.

RV: That's fantastic. You used the word ‘powerful' to describe what that student experienced and that's exactly what came to mind when I was listening to that quote from her. Allan, I'm going to come back to you now. In the report you say that you made many valuable findings throughout the journey of developing and implementing the first phase of this model. You also outlined some of the key implications of your findings for other educators and schools to consider. And this was the really interesting part for me. I was hoping you could share some of these implications with listeners who are perhaps keen to try some of these things in their own school settings?

AS: Look I'd be happy to do that, Rebecca. You've heard the enthusiasm and passion in Ben's voice as he talks through what actually happened for these young people and their teachers. As principal I enjoy seeing that and I also sit back and look at how all this works in the larger scheme of things in the school. So what we've discovered through this process is that you can actually develop character and leadership through this model and through our experiences. You can explicitly foster and accelerate the development of character and leadership capacities in students. The results that we've seen demonstrate significant improvements were achieved for a very high proportion of students in each of the year groups, from Year 6 to 11, that have experienced this material. So we've seen through developing something that is personalised and adaptable, something that is practical and evidence-informed, the CLM model (the Character and Leadership Model) clearly guided what the students should develop and how that would be achieved. And often it's the how in schools that's a bit difficult and Ben's explained how this was working.

We've also effectively and differentially implemented the model at each year level by having things that are purpose designed and implementing a new, ongoing community-based aspect and project-based aspect for each of the students so that they're actually out in the real world. As principal I have to look back and note that budgets are finite, so you and the listeners should be aware that the budgets that we all had set aside for these camps and experiences remained the same. So all this was done within the kinds of money that we had been spending in the past. I think one of the key things to come out of this is students as co-designers in their own character learning and in the projects they undertook. It's that co-designing that builds their engagement and interest in real world activities. And so that process allowed students to work in partnership with adults who guided them and so they're working with adults who are mentors but who are not telling them what to do, we're just guiding them. So the engagement of the students really lifts and their sense of ownership and pride when it comes together is much more palpable than it would be if teachers were doing it to them, as is sometimes the case in terms of a camp activity where it's all organised by teachers, we go away, have fun, but we had no ownership of what we actually experienced.

And then having teachers act as character mentors and co-designers with the kids makes a big difference to the relationship between the two groups. The teachers get a lot out of it in terms of watching the students grow and the teachers enjoy structuring the learning so the students move into spaces and explore things and develop. The teachers initially were a bit uncertain about how they'd go with some of this mentoring role but, over time, they saw it unfold and they actually could see the benefit accruing to the kids in terms of how they would grow and develop. So, I think that changed the relationship between the two groups in a sense.

And lastly, well two more things. Having purpose-designed camps and excursions to not only build outdoor education experiential skills but also to quite explicitly build character and leadership capacities, working together, worked really well and therefore we built this cultural and strategic alignment of the activity, all the way through back to the school's values and the school's strategy. And so, from a principal's perspective, I can see coherence in the program vertically from the big picture right down to the detail, and I can see how it fits horizontally across all the range of other school activities that sit within our strategy and culture.

RV: Fantastic, thanks for that Allan. I'd like to ask you about this program in the context of this year because, of course, we all know schools are facing the challenge of navigating the COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdown restrictions. How have you had to adapt your program there at TKS, to ensure that you're still providing opportunities for personal and social development while students are learning remotely?

AS: When we had to shut down all our co-curricular activities – all our camps, excursions, incursions, concerts – you name it, it shut down, and all the students were sent home, we sat and thought for a bit and thought, ‘mmm okay, what are we going to lose out of this?' But actually, what we've found now as we come out of that situation and our kids are back in school is that the very nature of the circumstances themselves and all the work we've been doing around character development and leadership work (some of which Ben has been explaining) has actually assisted us in this COVID situation. So while we sent the children home to do what we called ‘home campus' the development of character and leadership has not been diminished. We've found that the new circumstances of having to build new skills and manage new circumstances themselves for the children and in fact the teachers, where we didn't have any choice about it, has been a demanding but very positive experience for most students. They have grown into much more adaptable and resilient young people and they've developed their skill base and grown in confidence themselves. So, let me explain how we see this occurring.

So when we developed our home campus model we didn't just move our timetable online. We researched good distance learning principles and built a new framework and model of how we would do distance learning. So we carefully structured and refined through several iterations, over the eight or nine weeks that we did this, to support the teaching and learning through physical distance and via digital processes. So we were actually asking the students right from day one to look at the circumstances we're in, acknowledging that the disruption can cause you anxiety, but also it provides you with opportunity. That staff and students had a clear focus of the whole school was wellbeing first. The number one priority was wellbeing and there was lots of check-ins and talk around just how you're feeling and how you're coping. ‘Can we help you with this?' etcetera, etcetera. Because we know then if you can lower anxiety, then learning actually improves.

Our class teachers and homeroom teachers and tutors were all encouraged to spend time building relationships. Distance learning principles tell you that the amount of content you can cover tends to slow down, so we said, ‘Okay, we acknowledge this. Don't try and cover the same amount of material – focus on relationships, cover material as best you can and we'll just worry about how it turns out a bit later'. So these extended opportunities to build relationships that resulted from our notion around student and staff feedback in the earlier versions of the model and drawing on some of the learnings we had from the kinds of activities that Ben talked about that have been occurring over recent years.

We were able to build opportunities for student voice through our home campus model, where we had students organising things for each other via digital means, doing check-ins on each other themselves and we had a lot of student-led activities through our house and tutor sy

How do you explicitly build students’ character and leadership skills in your school setting? Is this integrated into the curriculum? Having listened to this podcast, is there anything you’ve learned from the experience shared by The Knox School?

Allan Shaw says all the new initiatives implemented were done so using the same budget they had set aside for these experiences in the past. Is there any way for you to improve on your existing programs using the same budget you have allocated? How would you go about doing this?