I recently read Eva Moskowitz’s autobiography The Education of Eva Moskowitz, which explores her journey to founding Success Academy, one of New York City’s most successful charter networks. In the epilogue, Moskowitz outlines a number of principles that she believes should define education. They make an interesting list. And while I don’t agree with all of them, several have prompted me to pause and reflect, particularly in relation to the current New Zealand schooling context.

Education is for kids by about adults

Student-centred and student-focused are common refrains in education today. Indeed, child-centred is one of The Education Hub’s core values. While it is essential that the needs of our students are at the heart of what we do in education and that all children are supported to learn and grow to their full potential, it is important that we do not marginalise the role, voice or importance of the adults involved in schools, and teaching and learning. Research shows that teachers are the most important in school factor in student learning, and that creating close home-school partnerships where parents and whanau share in the schooling process is critical to supporting and enhancing student learning and engagement.

Principals should be focusing most of their efforts on improving teachers

Research has demonstrated the importance of instructional leadership for improving student learning in schools. Instructional leadership, while variously defined, typically encompasses the active and sustained collaboration between principals and teachers to: develop curriculum and instruction; evaluate and supervise teaching and learning; promote professional learning; and create a positive learning environment.

Despite the importance of principals being instructional leaders in their schools, a recent NZCER study of New Zealand primary and intermediate school principals found that only around a third could schedule enough time for the educational leadership part of their jobs. The increasing administrative nature of principals’ work is limiting the role they can play in supporting the continued improvement and development of their teachers. This is exacerbated in the New Zealand context by the devolved school system, which requires every principal to be responsible for all aspects of the school, without a middle layer to provide support or to oversee and manage particular aspects of the school, such as maintenance and infrastructure.

Content matters

A rich curriculum that brings provides deep learning opportunities and builds students’ knowledge is critical. Numerous research studies have demonstrated the importance of knowledge for supporting learning and the effective application of skills. For example, research on children learning to read has shown that once children can decode (the skill of translating a printed word into a sound) fluently, reading comprehension depends heavily on knowledge. A now famous study by Recht and Leslie (1988) tested “good” and “poor” readers on their comprehension of a passage about baseball. The findings show that the “poor” readers who had prior knowledge of baseball did substantially better than the “good” readers with limited prior knowledge of baseball.

Furthermore, the quality of curriculum materials and teaching resources used in schools matters. A Brookings Institute study found that “the effect sizes for curriculum are larger, more certain, and less expensive than” other reforms. This finding is supported by a recently released ERO report, which conducted research in 40 New Zealand primary schools that had substantially improved the progress of their Year 4 to 8 students. Common across these schools were a rich curriculum, where students were engaged in a wide range of subjects and built their core knowledge across learning areas. Furthermore, leaders in these schools often focused on improving teachers’ content knowledge in conjunction with their pedagogical practice.

Children need to struggle but schools should also be joyful

Powerful learning is often uncomfortable and fraught with difficulty, involving faltering, confusion and frustration. Explicitly telling students that learning can be hard, and instilling in them a growth mindset – the belief that the most productive learners are not more intelligent than others, but more willing to perserve and endure these feelings of being lost or confused – is essential. While at times challenging, it also is essential that learning is fun and that students derive a sense of enjoyment and satisfaction from their learning and achievement. Researchers have consistently found that teachers who build a warm and supportive classroom culture, take an active and genuine interest in their students, incorporate students’ interests and choice into activities, and celebrate success substantially improve students’ learning.

Mosokowitz’s ideas about the importance of the teacher and their ongoing professional learning to the learning of students, the critical role of principals in leading the instructional practices of the school, the centrality of content and knowledge to the learning journey, and the challenge and ultimate excitement and joy that are associated with powerful learning experiences are echoed in much of the research with which The Education Hub is currently engaged. We will be launching the first of our research briefs and practice guides in February 2018, enabling teachers and school leaders to engage with rigorous academic research n forms that relevant and actionable and to see examples of research being applied in practice.