Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. Leonardo da Vinci said that and he was by all accounts quite sophisticated.

While arguably the most influential job on the planet, the role of a teacher is viewed by many as relatively simple – plan, teach, assess, repeat. And I would not disagree. Everything I did in my role as a classroom teacher would fall into one of these three categories. But if only it was that simple. Planning, teaching and assessing are all very complex activities undertaken in a complex system that is influenced by far too many factors to list here, most of which are beyond the influence of teachers.

Complex systems like schools are filled with hundreds of moving parts, and scores of players of varied expertise and independence that run all these different parts within an ever-changing political, economic, and societal environment. The result: constant adaptations in design and action (Cuban, 2010).

I believe that the primary responsibility of school leaders is to help teachers navigate this complexity in order to make the biggest positive difference they can to the students in their classes.

I was particularly aware of this responsibility in my first school leadership role. My goal was to make the complex simple but the thought that I might actually be making the simple complex was nagging away at me. This was a very opportune time for a colleague to introduce me to a summary of Ernest Boyer’s ‘The Basic School.’

‘The Basic School’ is built upon the premise that the most essential ingredient of a successful school is best described by the word ‘connections.’

An effective school connects people to create community. An effective school connects the curriculum, to achieve coherence. An effective school connects classrooms and resources, to enrich the learning climate. And an effective school connects learning to life, to build character. These four priorities – community, curriculum coherence, climate and character – are the building blocks for the Basic School (Boyer, 1995).

These Four Priorities continue to help me build a framework within which to organize ideas. Any idea that can be considered to relate to developing the school as a community, a curriculum with coherence, a climate for learning or a commitment to character is worth pursuing.

Once an idea is identified as worth pursuing in terms of the Four Priorities, the answers to the Three Focusing Questions of Adaptive Schools® establish whether or not the idea should be acted upon:

  1. Who are we?
  2. Why are we doing this?
  3. Why are we doing this, this way?

At the beginning of this school year, I facilitated a focusing activity grounded in the Four Priorities and a protocol developed by Ira M Levin. The idea was to imagine that in the year 2020, our school was recognized as the best international school in the world. We divided each other into four groups and each group assigned itself a Priority. Each group then identified what would be happening in our school in 2020 that led to us winning the award in relation to their Priority. We then reviewed what we identified, established what we already had in place and what we needed to work on.

A common approach to character education was identified as an area that we needed to work on. An idea was to adopt the language of Character Counts.

This idea was certainly worth pursuing as it related to our commitment to character. We are an American school. Character Counts originates from the US and the terms of our accreditation do not require us to implement any particular programme or philosophy. Character Counts therefore does not contradict who we are as a school. We were considering Character Counts as it provides a common language to develop character. That was the first two questions answered positively. Then we needed to think about why we should adopt Character Counts and not the countless other character development programmes and philosophies available to us. We decided upon Character Counts as last year’s Grade Five class worked with it and promoted it throughout the school as part of a service learning project. Those students and their teacher were still with us and therefore it was decided that we should build on their expertise.

The Four Priorities of The Basic School and the Three Focusing Questions of Adaptive Schools® provided the framework to make this decision. Not all decisions will be this straightforward but this framework allows teachers to focus on the complexities of challenges and opportunities within a simplified decision making process.

Ultimately, this framework also allows teachers to ask school leaders why we are doing something or contemplating doing something. If there is a need to do something or change something, school leaders need to be able to clearly articulate that need. Once that need is established, attention then must turn to whether current practices are meeting that need effectively. If current practices are meeting that need effectively, a change in practice is not necessary. If current practices are not meeting that need effectively, then we need to stop doing what we are doing and forget about it or find an alternative that connects to who we are as a school and at least one of the Four Priorities.

Schools must be adaptive. It is my hope that this decision making process will ensure that schools are adaptive while protecting teachers from unnecessary adaptations in design and actions that add complexity to the already complex task of meeting the needs of our students. 

Basic School