AEL Volume 39 Issue 3 August 2017
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Fig. 1: Team up for some powerful learning

AEL August 2017; 39 (3):
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Leading curiosity and powerful learning

David Hopkins, Institute of Education, Chair of Leadership at the University of Bolton, Founder the Adventure Learning Schools Charity

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We are at a time in our educational history where there is a dominant culture of top down reform, de-regulation, instrumental approaches to curriculum and pervasive external accountability in most educational systems. As I have argued in Exploding the Myths of School Reform Hopkins (2013), the real challenge is quite the opposite – it is to raise standards into the medium and long term and at the same time enhance the learning skills, the spirit of enquiry or curiosity of our students.

In an earlier article for the Australian Educational Leader (Hopkins, 2015), I outlined an overarching model of leadership together with a set of four inter-dependent strategies (Hopkins, Craig 2015/17). These strategies have been proven effective in responding to the persistent question put to us by the school leaders with whom we work in Australia and elsewhere: What leadership strategies effectively bring people on board and expand their repertoires of professional practice for the long haul?

One of those strategies, ‘Instructional Leadership’ has proven especially effective in making a very real difference to student learning and achievement. The work of Ken Leithwood and colleagues has been particularly important in defining ‘instructional leadership’. Their original definition  (Leithwood, et al. 2004) captures the concept well – ‘the behaviours of teachers as they engage in activities directly affecting the growth of students’.

In Seven Strong Claims about Successful School Leadership (Leithwood, et al. 2007), we offered a more detailed characterisation of the influence of school leaders on student learning. The claims are these:
1 School leadership is second only to classroom instruction as an influence on student learning.
2 Almost all successful leaders draw on the same repertoire of basic leadership practices.
3 It is the enactment of these basic leadership practices – not the practices themselves – that is responsive to the context.
4 School leaders improve pupil learning indirectly through their influence on staff motivation and working conditions.
5 School leadership has a greater influence on schools and pupils when it is widely distributed.
6 Some patterns of leadership distribution are much more effective than others.
7 A small handful of personal ‘traits’ (such as being open minded, flexible, persistent and optimistic) explain a high proportion of the variation in leader effectiveness.

However even these seven claims although well evidenced still remain at a level of exhortation and lack an action perspective. Our recent work on the ACEL sponsored Curiosity and Powerful Learning programme has given us a deeper insight as to how instructional leadership actually works in practice. The rest of the article describes this approach.

For me, the elephant in the room of school improvement, and it has been resident for some time, is the lack of a professional practice that provides a language and a set of behaviours or processes to connect teaching to learning. There are two key problems here: the first is the individualised and atomised nature of teaching as a profession; the second is that teaching is a profession without a practice. These two tendencies intertwine in intricate and resilient ways.

In resolving this tension, it is important to realise that you can maintain all the values and commitments that make you a person, and still give yourself permission to change your practice. Your practice is an instrument for expressing who you are as a professional; it is not who you are. How practice is defined is therefore critical, and Elmore and his colleagues (City, et al. 2009, p. 3) posit something quite specific:

We mean a set of protocols and processes for observing, analysing, discussing and understanding instruction that can be used to improve student learning at scale. The practice works because it creates a common discipline and focus among practitioners with a common purpose and set of problems.

We need to move beyond superficial curriculum change to a more profound understanding of how teacher behaviour connects to learning and, in so doing, build a common language of instructional practice. This is what we have been doing on the Curiosity and Powerful Learning programme, by refining the generic instructional rounds strategy recently popularised by Richard Elmore and his colleagues (City, et al. 2009).

Our approach works iteratively but systematically from descriptive (i.e. non-judgemental) observations of teaching practice in a school or college to the development of ‘theories of action’ that describe the common practice in that setting. A theory of action is a hypothesis or proposition about teaching that connects the actions of teachers with the consequences of their actions—the learning and achievement of their students.

Six important lessons have been learned. They are:
• First, that despite the phase or context of education, the theories of action are in most cases very similar
• Second, this is not a ‘pick and mix’ approach – all the theories of action have to be integrated into the teacher’s professional repertoire if they are to impact in a sustained way on student learning
• Third, and most importantly, all the theories of action are characterised by an approach to teaching that has enquiry at its centre
• Fourth, some of the theories of action relate to the school or college and some to the practice of individual teachers
• Fifth, all of the theories of action have a high level of empirical support in the educational research literature (Hattie 2009)
• Sixth, leadership of implementation at the school and local level is critical.

So to summarise, through the instructional rounds process conducted in a variety of jurisdictions, we developed approach to teaching inductively from the practice of teachers that if consistently applied will enhance not just the achievement, but also the spirit of enquiry and curiosity of their students.

The four Whole School Theories of Action emerging from the instructional rounds process are as follows:
• When schools and teachers set high expectations and develop authentic relationships, then students’ confidence and commitment to education increases and the school’s ethos and culture deepens.
• When teacher directed instruction becomes more enquiry focused, then the level of student achievement and curiosity increases.
• When schools and teachers consistently adopt protocols for teaching, then student behaviour, engagement and learning are enhanced.
• When schools and teachers consistently adopting protocols for learning, then student capacity to learn, skill levels and confidence are enhanced.
The six Theories of Action for Teachers that have emerged from this work are:
• When teachers set learning intentions and use appropriate pace and have a clear and strong narrative about their teaching and curriculum, then students are more secure about their learning, and achievement and understanding is increased.
• When learning tasks are purposeful, clearly defined, differentiated and challenging, then the more powerful, progressive and precise the learning for all students.
• When teachers systematically use higher order questioning, then the level of student understanding is deepened and their achievement is increased.
• When teachers consistently use feedback and data on student actions and performance, then student behaviour becomes more positive and progress accelerates.
• When peer assessment and assessment for learning (AfL) are consistently utilised, then student engagement, learning and achievement accelerates.
• When teachers use cooperative group structures/techniques to mediate between whole class instruction and students carrying out tasks, then the academic performance of the whole class will increase as well as the spirit of collaboration and mutual responsibility.

Because the Theories of Action emerging from the range of instructional rounds we have led in both Australia and elsewhere were so similar, we decided to publish them in an accessible form – hence Curiosity and Powerful Learning (Hopkins, Craig, Knight 2015/17). The handbook has a two page spread devoted to each theory of action, with the left hand page containing a description of the individual theory of action, much as above but with further explication. The right hand page showcases, for the whole school theories of action, an educational artefact that can be used for implementation; for the teacher theories of action however, we have developed a series of protocols at four levels of performance that through peer observation can increase a teacher’s level of professional skill to a point that it impacts reliably and positively on the learning of their students.

Our colleague John Hattie generously encouraged us to use his work to illustrate the likely effect size associated with each of the theories of action (Hattie, 2009). Our argument was that the specifications of practice (supported by the research evidence) related to each Theory of Action, if implemented with precision, would have a significant and sustained impact on student achievement. Over time, principals and teachers accepted this proposition without equivocation as a result of the change in their practice and deepened their view that the possibilities were boundless if the Theories of Action were applied meticulously.

One particular insight is critical here. What was also becoming apparent, was that as a consequence of the Curiosity and Powerful Learning work, there was not only a shift in the culture of teaching and learning in a school, but also a profound impact on the incubation and development of curiosity within students. This is because the Theories of Action have both a meta-cognitive as well as achievement effect. Thus the twin goals of developing learning skills and raising student achievement can be met at the same time, using the same processes.

One of the happy consequences of the work on the Curiosity and Powerful Learning programme is the development of an action framework for school improvement, that has given us the opportunity to develop the following set of theories of action related to the more comprehensive process of school and system improvement (Hopkins, 2013):
1 When schools and systems are driven by moral purpose, then all students are more likely to fulfil their potential.
2 When the focus of policy is on the quality of teaching rather than structural change, then student achievement will increase .
3 When schools and teachers are of high quality, then poverty is no longer such a determinant of educational success.
4 When the focus is on powerful learning, then students will both attain more and develop their cognitive and social skills.
5 When teachers acquire a richer repertoire of pedagogic practice, then students’ learning will deepen.
6 When data is used to monitor, feedback and enhance student performance, then students’ progress will more quickly accelerate.
7 When teachers and schools go deeper in their search for improvement (rather than adopting fads), then the student learning experience also deepens and outcomes improve.
8 When leadership is instructionally focused and widely distributed, then both teachers and students are able to fully capitalise on their capacity to learn and achieve.
9 When teachers and leaders employ more precise strategies for teaching, learning and improvement, then the whole system benefits .
10 When the system as a whole takes student learning seriously, then moral purpose is achieved.

In concluding, it is important to remember that the challenge of system reform has great moral depth to it. Through the exercise of leadership of the type described here, the learning needs of our students and the professional growth of teachers are addressed directly and the role of the school as an agent of social change is enhanced.  


City, EA, Elmore, RF, Fiarman, SE, Teitel, L 2009, Instructional rounds in education: a network approach to improving teaching and learning, Harvard Education Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Hattie, J 2009, Visible learning: a synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement, Routledge, Oxon.
Hopkins, D 2013, Exploding the Myths of School Reform, ACER Press, Camberwell / Open University Press, McGraw Hill Education, Berkshire.
Hopkins, D 2015, Leadership for Powerful Learning, Australian Educational Leader, vol. 37, no. 2, pp. 14-19.
Hopkins, D, Craig, W and Knight O, 2015/17 Curiosity and Powerful Learning, Melbourne: McREL International / Cambridge: Pearson Publishing [available from ACEL].
Hopkins, D, and Craig, W 2015/17 Leadership for Powerful Learning, Melbourne: McREL International / Cambridge: Pearson Publishing [available from ACEL].
Leithwood, K, Seashore Louis, K, Anderson, S, Wahlstrom, K 2004, How leadership influences student learning: a review of research for the learning from leadership project, Wallace Foundation, New York.
Leithwood K, Day C, Sammons P, Hopkins D and Harris A, 2007, Seven Strong Claims about Successful School Leadership, Nottingham: National College for School Leadership.

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