Talking Heads community of practice - 1999 on

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It all began with an oft recounted phone call from Downing Street.

No 10: "The prime minister is going to be announcing a college of leadership for schools"
me: "Erm, good?"
No 10: "it will take quite a while to build and we wondered if you might be able to 'do something virtual in the meantime' - we know that you know how"
me: "I'll put a team on it and get back to you with a detailed proposition in a couple of weeks"
No 10: I don't think you understand, the PM speaks on Thursday and we need details in the press pack for Wednesday evening" (this was all around mid morning Tuesday!!)
me: "OK, you'll have something tomorrow then..."

...we didn't sleep again for a while! And our "something virtual in the meantime" became a thriving community of practice and of purpose for 21,000 headteachers underpinned by an on-line course and community - mandatory for those aspiring to be headteachers - one of the very first big, effective professional communities built on mutuality and collegiality rather than on a top-down delivery (at that point of course we had a whole string of successful on-line communities behind us) .

The pilot project was established specifically to reduce isolation amongst new headteachers, to promote the sharing of good practice, and to offer emotional and professional support. The first cohort consisted of approximately 1,200 English headteachers, who had been appointed to their first post in 1999. Participating headteachers were given a laptop, were visited in their schools by trainers and shown how to access Talking Heads via the web. That pilot ran in 2000, and the Blair government - wonderfully committed to Education Education Education had only been elected in 1997. It grew to include all 21,000 serving heads with a Scottish and Welsh version too (here is a brief video of my contribution to the launch of the Welsh community). Perhaps today we would want a government commited to Learning Learning Learning!

When very early on I presented the project to a national conference of Headteachers I got quite a prickly initial reception: "But that is what a professional associaltion is for" etc. Just 9 months later at another national Heads' event the reaction was differently prickly: "why can't we all be in the community now! Why just 1,200". That felt like remarkable progress! It was.

In time the "college of leadership" that Downing Street spoke of was completed and Talking Heads duly handed over to them.

This is a short, incomplete, summary of what we did, and of what we learned from the experience. There are some thoughts here from 2001 on governments' problems in procuring large projects - we always seemed to circumvent these problems, but they remain an impediment to rapid progress everywhere...

Some papers:

a really thorough overview of the project, written for the government (as a pdf). It covers everything from the types of sub communities, models of participation, methods and evidence base, ways of winning hearts & minds, use of media, and much much more. This paper is really a pivotal reference for anyone - even more than a decade later - trying to research and / or to build on-line communities. Any PhD about on-line communities that doesn't include this in its lit review should be ashamed!.

and a short version of that paper - not really a summary but just a shorter version

programmes report on the development of online components in the programmes for two courses: the National Qualification for Headship (NPQH), and the Certificate of School Business Management for school bursars - all about that aspect of the project.

Welcome CD
At the start of membership of the community, or of registration on the NPQH course, participants got a CD-ROM (remember them!) to guide them and it is here, in full.

and looking back (I'll add more here from time to time...):

we learned so much - here is a little of that anecdotally - the plural of anecdote is not data, as they say, so read the papers for details.

the Dept of Education back then were very nervous about a potential aggregated voice for all heads - it took some very brave and insightful civil servants to see the opportunities on offer and to back the project beyond its initial pilot. Education Minister Charles Clarke saw the value and spent a lot of time in the community, when he was invited in, asking about future policy thoughts and seeking the collective wisdom of the community. The internal expertise of a massive community of practice, properly facilitated and supported, is usually way better than any top-down courses that might be run for them.

there was a proper comedy moment when the national ICT body BECTA insisted that even though heads were to be given laptops the laptops must have "full" keyboards - which meant a numeric keypad, page up and page down keys - I remeber it was somewhere around a 113 key keyboard!. No laptops matched that imposed specification so we had to ship an (expensive!) extension USB keyboard with every laptop which in practice were of course never used ("what's this for?"!). Even back then national policy was unable to keep up with the pace of change of technology.

we were often surprised by the community - we would watch the conversations (by a form of discourse analysis) and when phrases were repeated a lot we would arrange a headteacher to lead and facilitate a fixed term conversation around the topic (a bit as #ukedchat does today in Twitter). In one example, we noted the work Bullying occuring a lot, so set up a conversation only to find it filled with debate about headteachers being bullied themselves! Not what we were expecting, not anticipated by policy, but hugely important to be aware of.

it really mattered that headteachers knew who was in, and not in, their community and in the debates. No journalists, parents, ministers, civil servants.. in fact only headteachers, or in NPQH aspiring headteachers. Guests (like ministers) were invited in to finite events for a finite time. That proper sense of me / we / see was key to open and honest engagement.

Just as nowadays many teachers say that Twitter is the best CPD they get, so back then the heads saw the wisdom of crowds in their own private community as hugely supportive. The authentic voice of others was really helpful, and welcome and you hear in this short video.

last edited by prof stephen heppell on Friday, June 12, 2015 9:05 AM