What makes a school?

Is it the building or the school’s ethos or it’s Mission Statement? Is it the Curriculum or is it the equipment in the building? What is the thing that really matters…People. People are the best resource for any school in the whole world (or any other organisation for that matter). As George Couros explains People are always your best resource in schools.

And why is that?

Well I think it is simple.

Education is all about relationships. 

Is it the relationship that teachers have with students? Is learning something that happens one way only? Or are both teachers and students learning from and with each other?

It is the relationship between students and students? Do they listen and communicate their thinking so that they can learn from each other?

Is it the relationship between teachers and teachers? Are doors closed to classrooms and do teachers work in isolation? Or is there a true collaborative spirit where teachers are learning from each other to create the best possible learning opportunities for their students?

It’s every relationship in the community. Not simply every relationship in the building, but every relationship connected to a school community.

You see, I firmly believe that education is a social process.

J.Bevans CC created with Typorama
J.Bevans CC
created with Typorama

What does a kindergartner think about this? 

As I was thinking about this blog post I thought I would get my class’s perspective on relationships and learning. I asked them a simple question. How do you learn best? I gave the children 4 options; working together, hands on, writing/worksheets, teacher talking/lecturing… Here is what they thought. I then asked the question What makes you say that? to delve a little deeper into their thinking. The results are below:

J.Bevans CC
How do you learn best?J.Bevans CC
What makes you say that? J.Bevans 2017
What makes you say that? J.Bevans 2017










The results speak volumes. Children in my class are telling me, that even at the age of 5 or 6 years old they are understanding that they learn best when they are collaborating and when they are creating something.

So, if education is social and built upon relationships then surely it is important that we work to support this in schools. How do schools help to build better relationships? I think that there are 4 key areas that schools need to continue to develop for the benefit of student learning.

  • Communication – We need to be clear in our communication with each other. Being transparent with our colleagues and students can only help build trust and understanding with each other.
  • Collaboration – We need to value collaboration. Understanding that working together makes us stronger. Working in a team means we can all have roles that suit us as learners and individuals.
  • Teachers feel valued – We need to celebrate our success in the classroom and share the amazing learning that is taking place. Teaching is complex. Let’s make all teachers feel valued.
  • Empathetic – We need to understand each others feelings and beliefs; their teaching style, their pedagogical approach, their uniqueness.

After all, as Jennifer Abrams, says

if adults can work collectively and more effectively together, student achievement will go up.

So what does it take to create a culture where people are valued?

This past year, I have been working as one of 3 Activator’s of Thinking and Learning (ATL’s) in the Lower School to help create a Culture of Thinking. The eight cultural forces that Ron Ritchart discusses in his book Creating a Culture of Thinking are guiding us in this process.

It is has been a great process and as a school we have made some big steps forward. There is more collaboration between staff members; we have created a pineapple chart to open up the doors to our classrooms. We have been communicating by documenting our learning and there are more collaborative discussions with groups such as COETAIL groups, Jo Boaler Maths Groups and Spelling Inquiry. Thinking routines are being used in classrooms across the school. Our physical environment is now a place for thinking and process not just product.

However, we know we can do more. During our weekly ATL meeting, we discussed our goals for the new academic year. Here they are:

  • Create opportunities for collaboration.  Develop an in-house bank of resources for staff related to Cultures of Thinking.
  • Encourage risk taking and sharing throughout the year.  Develop greater capacity among staff to share.
  • Create Cultures of Thinking connections with the Professional Growth Model learning groups.
  • Reinforce how the Cultural Forces tie into all that we do. (Professional Growth Model, etc.)

Looking at these goals, many of them fall into the categories of collaboration and communication. If we are to be successful in meeting these goals then also teachers need to feel valued and have empathy with one another.

Maybe we need a few more goals to add to our list…

What makes a school?

I would love to hear your opinions.

7 thoughts on “What makes a school?

  1. Hi Joel,
    Your intro really caught my attention. “People are the best resource for any school in the whole world.” So much wisdom in those simple words. Thank you for your very inspiring post. So simple that even 5 and 6 year olds get it. I have also been thinking a lot about how learning communities must be relational communities in order for us to truly grow in all spheres of life. I am interested in learning more about how your school is implementing the principles in Ritchart’s books and how that’s going. Is it hard for some teachers to shift their mindset to be concerned with the benefit of the school community as a whole rather than what they can achieve on their own in their own classroom? I am so intrigued that this is all being led by teachers in the lower school as well and it looks like you all participated in COETAIL together. What an amazing way to start. Thanks for the link to your ATL’s blog and the Project Zero link. I recently read Will Richardson’s white paper entitled,”Ten Principles for Schools of Modern Learning.” He and his colleagues have organized Change School https://change.school/ which is an 8 week course for educators interested in reimagining their school. There are two other like-minded teachers at my school so perhaps we can follow your progress and implement something similar. Thanks for sharing.


    1. Hi Michelle,
      Thanks so much for your comments. Yes, it is challenging for some teachers to think about the whole school rather than their individual classroom. However I think that with a group of like minded educators then anything is possible. We are lucky that we have colleagues who want make this change ( some of these are teachers who have completed COETAIL, others who have not). As a school we are trying to go slowly, not pressuring but supporting and helping colleagues who are interested in taking risks and trying something different. Our new Professional Growth Model will also support this small group collaboration ( or as they are know Collaborative Learning Communities). But we do know that this is just the beginning, we are only 1 year into Creating a Culture of Thinking and we understand it will take a long time for it to become the norm in the school. I would be happy to answer any more questions that you have in the future.
      Thanks for sharing the links to Will Richardson’s Change.School. I had heard of it but not had a chance to delve deeper. Many thanks for pushing me to do this.
      All the best in re-imagining your school.
      Cheers, Joel


  2. Hi Joel
    This post really resonated for me. I was sitting in graduation some weeks back and the grad speaker – a feisty young British Indian woman called Kavya kept saying: ” we have something really special here” .. she used the word HERE a lot which was ironic because our graduating class is so big that it cannot take place at our actual school building but is in a university auditorium half way across Singapore! So when she talked about ‘our school’ and used the word ‘here’ it was clear that she meant the PEOPLE – her peers, teachers, but also parents (who were sitting teary-eyed in the audience too). So I agree – the school is people. But as a Geographer I also think that PLACE is important too. This article (https://www.nap.edu/read/10262/chapter/5#57) on place and connectedness recognises this too. By place it doesn’t just mean location, it means all the layers of collective meaning ‘layered’ onto a place by the communities that are there. I can experience this when I walk around our campus – new only 6 years ago … and the culture we have created here. We have consciously built culture – which includes all the the collaborative and growth mindset approaches you mentioned Joel, but also ‘culture’ community pieces too like our international festival of diversity and dance – Culturama (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vz8sAHnjeVs). Thank you for your post!


    1. Hi Eleanor,
      Thanks so much for stopping by and reading. It is much appreciated.
      I think that you are so right. The place is also huge contributing factor in making a school. A school and it’s culture can not simply be replicated in another place. The place is another layer to a school or organisation. What works or is a norm in a European institution may not work in such a way in another continent.
      I love the look of your Culturama it looks amazing. We just hosted a similar thing for Luxembourg Diversity Day and signed a Diversity Charter. I think International Schools have so much diversity in the teachers, students and parents that this layer is especially thick.
      Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and resources with me.
      All the best,


  3. Hi Joel,
    I am so interested to hear how you progress working towards implementing a Culture of Thinking in your school. I too and heavily committed to thinking routines having devoured everything written on and about Visible Thinking. I was lucky to be part of a small team of Middle School teachers at my school with the online HGSE MTV course, where similar groups in schools across the world fed back to one another each fortnight on their work connected to thinking. This close contact with colleagues and collaboration to change thinking was so transformational and I really believe that there should be time dedicated to this kind of practice in every school every year. As an educator I gain so much from working with other like-minded, but also not so like-minded, souls and this project, connecting with you and other educators is a wonderful addition that i am so grateful to Tricia for starting. Being more open, and in some cases vulnerable when sharing of our own thinking can actually be empowering. I wish more teachers would share their thinking out loud, whether in blogs, on Twitter or at conferences so we can connect, collaborate and grow more authentically. I really look forward to hearing your progress and, of course, reading your next post!


    1. Hi Nicki,
      Thanks for stopping by and commenting. It is much appreciated. I too completed a HGSE MTV course this year. It was so enlightening and I have really enjoyed putting what I learnt with that course, with Ron Ritchart’s workshop at ISL and the Cultures of Thinking Conference at International School of Amsterdam (ISA).
      I think when you said that ” I really believe that there should be time dedicated to this kind of practice in every school every year.” really resonated with me. We have been conference calling International School of Washington ( like ISA who are also a Project Zero school) and they told us that one of the biggest ways that the school has transformed into a Cultures of Thinking School is through these courses being offered at the beginning of the school year, every year. Which means that new staff or staff who need a refresher are immediately onboard and have an understanding about what it means to be such a school. So important!
      I really like when you talk about learning and connecting with other like minded souls. It really is such a powerful way to improve practice. This brilliant video really sums this idea up https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xcmI5SSQLmE And the great thing is this reflection, sharing, connections means better teaching and learning for our students.
      Thanks so much for your thoughts. I am looking forward to connecting with you further through Tricia and her awesome idea.
      All the best,


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: