You may be forgiven for not fully comprehending the professional uncertainty and emotional turmoil experienced by school leaders and teachers when situated on the precipice of school closure because of falling enrolments. You would have to experience it to truly know it. But imagine if you have been a member of that school’s leadership or teaching team for ten years or more where threat of closure has been a perpetually sobering occurrence. What would that feel like? How would that affect the way you teach and lead? How would it affect the way others learn? This case study tells of such a story. It is a story that needs to be told with theoretical acumen and descriptive finesse to show how any school faced with similar dire circumstances can learn from the “Lazarus School Rising” case study. The story increases awareness of the power of partnerships, the competitiveness of the educational marketplace and the need to unlearn and learn afresh schooling practices towards a market “savvy” form of schooling ideology, purpose and practice.
In this case study, the school leadership and governing council welcomed a university and a neighbouring school strategic partnership proposal to become a STEAM school. The proposal came just before the “midnight hour” of voting for closure approached. A new STEAM school vision and mission was welcomed, engendering support from high political places. For Lazarus Secondary School, the hope of finding a competitive edge in a “survival of the fittest” schooling marketplace (Connell, 2015) became a living reality. Their decision tells a story of how and why leaders and teaching staff were prepared to embrace their new STEAM approach. This case study describes how a more hopeful future was achieved through university-led activism with key school and community actors, agitating for a curriculum that fostered school sustainability, turnaround and reinvigoration.
Holding on to institutionalised ways of “doing” schooling year after year meant that this school (which we rename as “Lazarus”, a well-known New Testament biblical story of a well-loved and respected man rising from the grave) was unable to find a competitive edge to attract new student enrolments. During the 1970s and 1980s the school catered for 800 students but over a ten-year period it had become residualised by school market competition, catering for only 120 enrolments in 2016 of which 40 were students in the Disability Unit. Year after year Lazarus was positioned on the brink of closure, only kept alive by a slim majority of school parents voting to keep the school going. According to the principal, in November 2016, facing another closure vote, amidst “negative local media” press and “toxic social media” and a multi-million-dollar education department plan to relocate the students to a nearby school, the school’s end looked imminent.
In a “reimagining” process, described as “an exploration of community tactics driven by a social justice mandate” through action research, a proposal was provided to the principal to repurpose the school with a focus on STEAM.
A single bounded case study involved an initial phase of action research (Kemmis, 2006; Kemmis & Taggart, 1988, 2005; Carr & Kemmis, 1983) to support a residualised school from impending closure. This was then followed by eight semi-structured teacher and leader interviews hermeneutically analysed, constituting a two-phase project with a theoretical lens of social science theory using Meighan’s sociological component theory. The component theory approach was first developed by Meighan (1981) and has since been used to articulate ideologies within multi-cultural contexts (May, 1992), Christian education (Giles, 1995) curriculum development (Brown 1988) and the de-schooling movement (Meighan & Siraj-Blatchford, 2003). The theoretical perspective of Meighan’s sociological component theory underscores the use of the two methodologies briefly described below. The component theories approach provides a direct link between one’s philosophy, with its implicit assumptions, and the explicit principles and practices that are associated with that philosophy (Giles 1995; Knight 1989). Ideologies considered as shared understandings when framed using component theories can assist in the fleshing out of a new expression of education elicited across interviews. Our major question was; “What is the ideological nature of STEAM schooling as seen from the principal and teachers’ perspective?” A second was “How are the leaders and teachers engaging with their new ideological approach to schooling?”
The mixed methods nature of this study involves a two part research project using a theoretical lens of social science theory overlaying the sequential research approach. These overlaying research approaches comprised Part 1—the action research enterprise to invoke a new and sustainable STEAM school identity and purpose, followed by Part 2—interviews with the teacher and leader participants about how they understood and experienced the unfolding STEAM agenda brought into being by the action research. Part 2 allowed us to give voice to diverse perspectives to better advocate for marginalised participants and better understand a phenomenon and process that is changing as a result of being researched. According to Cresswell and Cresswell (2017), little scholarly work has been done on this method with little guidance on how to use the transformative vision to guide the methods. Of note, the findings in the first action research phase became the focus in the second semi-structured interviews phase.
In Part 1, action research was used in the beginning months of the study, prior to the community school closure vote. This type of research was described by Carr and Kemmis (1983) as “making the probing character of strategic action problematic” and “reconstructing past action on the basis of observation and future action in the light of reflection” with the problem “resolved by a living dialectic of action and reflection” (p. 160).
In Part 2 of the study, semi structured leader and teacher interviews were undertaken using hermeneutic methodology as outlined below by Paterson and Higgs.
In practice this involves repeatedly and cyclically moving between the parts or aspects of the phenomenon and the whole, with the objective of gaining a growing understanding of the phenomenon. (Paterson & Higgs, 2005, p. 345)
Gadamer (1975, 1981) described this process as an ongoing hermeneutic circle of interpretation, manifesting in a continual movement of seeking understanding by the researchers derived from the whole (entire data sets), to the part (individual interview data sets and their component meanings), and then back to the whole. This meant in practice that we involved ourselves in a “to-ing” and “fro-ing” of the interview data, seeking themed meanings from the individual interview data sets and their components of meaning, and then returning to the whole data sets to configure whole of study meanings.
Semi-structured interviews provide the opportunity to gather data from participants through both open and closed questions. The intention was to gain in-depth understandings of how the new STEAM educational ideology of the school was being understood and wrestled with by staff. Semi-structured interviews allow for dialogue around observations made by the participants and the researchers, the exploration of patterns within the participants’ responses, as well as the opportunity to “member check” the transcripts. Each participant was individually interviewed, for a period of 45–60 minutes using a digital recorder.
Part 3 provides an analysis and discussion of the data emanating from the action research and the leader and teacher interviews. These activities took place after the school voted to stay open, and worked to becoming a new STEAM school.
The interviews were recorded as conversations. Prompts elicited the interview subjects’ stories of reform, with occasional interviewer guidance toward key subject areas. The conversations were initially analysed through narrative analysis. This analysis focused on how the teachers identified as teachers across their careers, and within the context of school reform. How these teachers were disposed to particular pedagogical and curriculum approaches was also a key consideration. The open interview process was channelled toward the teachers’ dispositions to STEAM and organisational change. The interview subjects’ stories were distilled and developed into a precis outlining the key lines of dialogue, and the key themes. One of these key themes concerning how the new STEAM ideological schooling agenda was made sense of and engaged with by the teachers and leaders is reported on in depth in Part 2 of this paper.
The thematic analysis followed a thematised life history approach. This approach places the subject within their broader life history, their employment history leading to the interview subjects’ current circumstances. The analysis is sociological and phenomenological in that it is concerned with the construction of the interview subjects’ interests and concerns as well as the question of agency within the described structural relations of the school and education system. Palmer (1998) has described this as a fleshing out process of “authoring” or “scripting” our way, and dynamically managing the presenting paradoxes.
School leadership and teaching can be wearing day in, day out, if a school is losing enrolments and, as a consequence, facing impending closure. Many schools have been closed after years facing negative social and mainstream media exposure that impact enrolments. Schools close after losing out to new school competition in the region. With metropolitan schools situated on valuable land that can be sold for real estate development, a school closure deal can mean a cash bonanza for the state. Lazarus school, which is situated on major arterial roads, with excellent public transport access and growing real estate developments nearby, could find itself in such a perilous situation. Lazarus school has a community drama centre, a well-regarded special education unit and basketball programme, and extensive grounds and convenient geographical positioning near a large university. It also had a school activist parent group fighting to keep the school going.
Through the research team’s regional educational networks we learnt that historical primary feeder schools were in some cases not advertising to parents the possibility of enrolling their children at “Lazarus”. The school was considered to be close to “closure” or mistakenly, closure was considered
STEAM schools are known internationally as a form of schooling that recognises what may be lost in preoccupations with STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) agendas (Australian Government, 2015). According to Taylor (2016), STEAM is an educational approach to learning that uses science, technology, engineering, the arts and mathematics as access points for guiding student inquiry, dialogue, and critical thinking. Taylor (2016), citing other research in the area (Clark, 2014; Stoelinga, Silk, Reddy & Rahman, 2015), argues that early research studies on ground-breaking STEAM curricula in the US demonstrated that learning activities integrating science, technology and the arts successfully engage minority and disadvantaged students, resulting in improved literacy and numeracy competencies. From ongoing research in STEAM schools, Taylor argued STEAM education can enrich and expand the scope of STEM education. It can empower teachers to engage in school-based curriculum development and involve teachers in developing a humanistic vision of 21st century education and their role as professionals as well as providing a creative design space for teachers in different learning areas to collaborate in developing integrated curricula.
Greene (1999) and Robinson (2011), cited in Hogan and Down (2016), acknowledge how STEAM agendas in schools can also enable young people to flourish when they are given the opportunity to use their imagination and creativity through the arts and vice-versa. According to Hogan and Down (2016), STEAM approaches to learning advance the view that students don’t have to choose between the arts and sciences—they can do both. They also make a societal argument of need for the inter-disciplinary approach to teaching and learning that a STEAM agenda in schools can evoke:
The big questions confronting society today provide important insights into the integrated nature of the world. Solutions to complex social, economic and political problems are not simple, linear or one-dimensional. Nor can answers be found in any one discipline, for instance economics. (Hogan & Down, 2016, p. 51)
Science, technology, engineering and math – the STEM subjects – alone will not lead to the kind of breathtaking innovation the 21st century demands. Innovation happens when convergent thinkers, who march straight ahead towards their goal, combine forces with divergent thinkers – those who professionally wander, who are comfortable being uncomfortable, and who look for what is real. (p. 1)
Arts educators Bucheli, Goldberg and Philips (1991) extended these STEAM learning advantages by indicating how participation in the arts is integral to the development of cognitive skills such as listening, thinking, problem solving and decision making. But they go further than this in their assessment of the advantages.
The arts can nurture a sense of belonging, or community; they can foster a sense of being apart, or of being an individual. By acknowledging the role of the arts in our lives and in education, we acknowledge what makes individuals whole. (p. 25)
An acknowledgement of what the arts can offer to learning and job futures aligns with a 2016 report from the Foundation for Young Australians (FYA) which argues that young people will be hardest hit by diminishing work opportunities in the future work economy across many traditional vocational work areas, heightening the need for new interdisciplinary and inquiry-based pedagogies in schools as a consequence: “In order to promote 21st century skills development, the OECD has recommended that educational institutions introduce a wider mix of pedagogies including cross-curricular content and team teaching and greater use of inquiry and project-based learning”. (FYA, 2016, p. 20).
What is needed, according to the FYA, are new schooling practices that better prepare young people with the necessary entrepreneurial capabilities, involving interdisciplinary learning and relational fluidities (soft skills) to flexibly adapt to the presenting and future work changes necessitated by the continuing onset of automation, digitalisation and globalisation. Schools nurturing collaborative entrepreneurial skills are posited as a defining feature of need for the future work economy. STEAM approaches can deliver on this futures-oriented need. As a consequence, a STEAM proposal vision statement and scoping plan highlighting learning and engagement advantages within an entrepreneurial futures-oriented stance was provided to the principal to consider.
Facing down the abyss of school closure can mean many things to teachers and leaders. For some, it can mean saying goodbye to a place of work, farewelling cherished colleagues, feelings of teaching and leadership failure, or entering into a chasm of uncertainty about job futures plagued with professional doubt. For others, it may signal the need for change and be welcomed as such. But in this case study, these feelings are repositioned into a school that will not close, buoyed by a 10-million-dollar investment from the Department of Education to continue and grow as a STEAM entity. It also means that what was once known as familiar teaching and learning practices are no more. The “world” has changed overnight and this change introduces different lived experiences from stakeholders exposed to the change. We now turn to these interview renditions as they presented as key themes from the Lazarus teachers and leaders.
For the principal, the STEAM intervention and new schooling ideology was presented as a genuine expression of partnered support. This new approach could make a valuable contribution to offering needed educational options in the region:
From our perspective as researchers, this form of researcher action was an expression of societal care. University educational leadership staff who care about public schooling understand that the purposes of public schools are more than ensuring social mobility for young people, but also about offering an education that fosters social cohesion, a more robust democracy and a fairer society (Berman, 2014; Reid, 2012, 2010, 2003).
This form of care takes university researchers away from working in a research partnership motivated solely by “getting a dollar”, or to increase a researcher’s status or job prospects, a hallmark of neoliberal universities (Connell, 2013), but rather represents a form of altruistic enterprise to work with socially just intent in offering support. It speaks of relational leadership as a form of authentic care, much needed in increasingly fragmented communities across Australia (MacKay, 2018).
The principal indicated that the Lazarus historical storyline was valued in the university STEAM proposal and the consequent re-visioning of the school. She indicated this when she explained that Lazarus was: “still a secondary school, still keep your arts focus…we’re still small by design.” It was a strategy that never discounted storyline, but rather appreciatively built on the good things the school was proud of. She also recognised the immediate benefits of formalised supportive partnerships with the university and the nearby STEM school, not only for her school, but also for these new partners:
The principal welcomed the university volunteer curriculum redesign support at Lazarus in the Arts and STEM and the collaborative professional formation approach offered by nearby AHS.
According to the principal, many of the teachers could readily see compelling reasons for their renewed sense of purpose. But this renewal meant radical schooling change.
Changing everything you do as a teacher is hard work that needs time and nuanced support. It represents a call to new teacher labour that is not always going to be engaged with by all. The principal demonstrated sensitive relational awareness backed by considerable professional experience and expertise in recognising that this level of change would be a “tricky business” for many of her staff. She understood it meant a mandatory reworking of professional identity in people’s working lives. So, beyond the hard interdisciplinary curriculum work ahead for all of the staff, there was acknowledgement of the many personal changes required in how teachers understood and undertook their new work. Teacher professional identities had been “shaken from their foundations overnight”.
The principal was profoundly aware that the new STEAM agenda was not going to be a “good fit” for some of her staff, but it was going to work for those who were flexible enough to embrace new learning that expressed their willingness to make STEAM work.
For some teachers becoming a STEAM school presented an exciting challenge, for others they felt they were too late in their careers to change. The school leadership were enthusiastic and encouraging of a group of staff with differing levels of engagement with the process.
As can be expected, there was clear recognition across the teacher interviews that this “brave and bold” new STEAM agenda would require considerable changes to teaching practices and how they worked together as a staff. Many of the teachers were not sure what this would mean for them. This uncertainty presented across the interviews.
Most teachers took this as an exciting new learning adventure, others were somewhat scared and losing sleep at night, and a few others (the minority) saw this as their time to depart. Established historical practices were no longer going to “cut it” in this new order. Despite the uncertainty, all of the teachers recognised the need for change and believed STEAM was possibly the best way forward. In other words, the new agenda got the “phenomenological nod” (van Manen, 1990, p. 27) of approval from the vast majority of the teaching staff.
One teacher explained the STEAM agenda as a need for professional reinvention of self which aligned closely with the principal’s reflections and considerations during interview.
This teacher imagined the changing “nature” of the work ahead. Here, professional work change was highlighted within the phrase “provides you with a huge redefinition of what you’re doing and how you’re doing it”. A positive orientation to the ideological change was provided with words like “growth we need”, “re-kick the school” and “an edge given that it will be STEAM-based” and “I would love to be here because it’s a STEAM school”.
Similar positively framed statements presented in the interview account provided by Teacher 3 who also embraced the STEAM ideological shift:
This teacher also provided her reflections about what STEAM could offer young people in terms of developing capabilities for critical thinking and creativity (ACARA, 2016). It was clear to us that he/she had been reading STEAM literature and thinking about ensuing school STEAM planning and professional development discussions.
Another teacher of more traditional disposition displayed pragmatism and frustration in his rendition of the change. Highlighting the immensity of the challenge, he argued if the nearby STEM school had been pursuing change for over ten years and was still trying to work it out, then Lazarus was not a school he wanted to be in. For him, the future at Lazarus presented as a school consumed in change for the next decade. At his career stage, this was seen as too unsettling and confronting in terms of required new learning and new classroom practices. He saw this as his time to leave.
Concerns about the “time” needed to get STEAM in place presented across all of the interviews:
The time needed to turn around the school and to understand what STEAM really meant for a teacher’s practice in this turnaround introduced feelings of fear leading to lack of sleep for some.
On changing classroom teaching practices, there were positives about a STEAM interdisciplinary curriculum pilot recently trialled where teachers gathered around an environmental topic of inquiry and worked together in designing interdisciplinary curriculum within cross-disciplinary teaching arrangements. The collaborative nature of this new way of working was welcomed by most.
Inquiry-based thematic projects undertaken by teachers across disciplines within teaching teams had been an ongoing approach pursued by AHS for well over ten years. For the Lazarus staff, this was a totally new way of working and called them into co-designing curriculum and reframing pedagogical work collectively, a radically different working approach from the siloed classroom delivery model that dominated previous teaching practices. There was acknowledgement, however, that this new way of working was needed in a world calling for young people who not only have discipline content knowledges, but who can apply content knowledge to topical issues of concern from different disciplines in collaborative and creative ways.
On the enrolment and marketing front, there was universal agreement that the school needed to quickly establish a market edge in their region to attract new enrolments. This gave the new STEAM agenda a high stakes market feel—increase enrolments or perish!
So, in summary, the interviews indicated how Lazarus school was metaphorically positioned at the “tip of the iceberg”. This was nicely captured by a senior leader when she said:
Dominant neoliberal public policy in Australia continues to coerce principals into maintaining historical schooling design logics and constrained individual schooling purposes for individual social mobility and economic realities, distracting focus from the larger purposes of education and changing work futures (Reid, 2012, 2018). These pressures work to subvert the work of principals and teachers from enabling robust and engaging student learning practices to flourish and chain secondary schooling design to historical and, in some instances, redundant conventional forms (Tyack & Cuban, 1995; Tyack & Tobin 1994), leaving students with fragmentary and disconnected understandings (Bills, Giles, & Rogers, 2017).
With all public secondary schools in Australia situated within a dominant public policy regime that demands compliance, standardisation and having to do more with less (AITSL, 2017; Bills, 2018; Comber & Nixon, 2009; Goff & Sanborn, 2013), the dominant educational rhetoric towards innovation seems seriously compromised and problematic. Principals are grappling with public policy ideology and demands that are filled with mixed messages and de-contextualised prescriptions (Bills, 2018; Bills et al., 2017; Starr 2014) about what constitutes “good” schooling. In the face of dominant economic rationalist ideology, we would argue that the most important resource that leaders have is their ability to understand, analyse, and imagine (Thomson, Gunter & Blackmore, 2014) in order to relationally lead public schools attuned to their local context. These abilities point to the priority of understanding the unique purposes of public education, being attuned to what the education marketplace is calling for, relational sensibilities that promote these purposes and courageous educational leadership that is always sensitive to local context (Bills et al., 2017).
With dominant policy rhetoric emanating from the South Australian Department for Education being, “Children and young people at the centre of everything we do” (DECD 2010, 2014), public school principals are ironically required to practise an authentic and courageous expression of this mantra that questions the system to which this rhetoric belongs and speaks back with a model of practice that is genuinely concerned for socially just, relational and humanistic educational praxis (Bills, 2018; Bills et al. 2017; Bills et al. 2016). For Lazarus school, ongoing compliance to the standards rhetoric of what the “good” school is, and how it should behave, had placed it in an unwinnable market position. It was losing enrolments and facing closure in an educational marketplace resplendent with well-publicised comprehensive academic schools that “sucked” prospective student enrolments away from Lazarus. Luck and good fortune played a part in this successful change agenda.
Lazarus had sufficient political leverage forged through a partnership agreement with two influential entities, the nearby university and AHS, to be seen by the educational bureaucracy as a school worthy of significant funding support for its new STEAM agenda.
Reframing the school’s ideological framework was reflective of how action research, with its ongoing spirals of action and reflection, represents a powerful methodology for enacting institutional and political change when the process is imbued with critical discernment and networked political involvement informing the action steps. The action research recognised the highly influential stakeholder power-groups, and sought these groups through negotiation for a more hopeful future for Lazarus. If the method in this instance had lacked this action reflection interplay, the possibilities of engendering new life at Lazarus would have been missed.
University education faculties can offer critical insights for schools into ways to address falling enrolments and foster organisational change to become market-place competitive. An examination of the social and political networks in play, and the power relationships that can be exploited within these social networks, can help schools see a way through the abyss of impending closure. In other words, by activating political allies through action research, school turnaround can be made possible.
This research also illustrated each participant’s ongoing attempt to establish linkages between their repositioned professional identities and educational philosophies that underpinned their ideology in praxis. This rearticulation of their teacher identities occurred in their context as a repurposed STEAM school. Attending sensitively to school organisational storylines as an ideological representation of experiences, perceptions and meanings from the past that influence the present was crucial to the success of the action research STEAM intervention. These different ideologies exist as shared understandings in the form of an organisational philosophy (Schein, 2010). Meighan and Siraj-Blatchford (1997) indicate that ideology is defined as a broad interlocked set of ideas and beliefs about the world held by a group of people that they demonstrate to various audiences in both behaviour and conversation. These systems of belief are usually seen as
Those in positional power must at times display the courage to let go of dominant ideologies of schooling to allow a new storyline trajectory to take shape. In this case study, the Lazarus historical storyline was not ignored in the school’s new ideological framing. In fact, what was valued in the past was held onto in the new framing, an appreciative approach that helped the teachers and the parents see that their new journey built upon what the parent and teacher community valued in the past. In this instance, the teachers were given more hope through the radical “market savvy” school re-visioning. This called the leader into strategic considerations of how to move the school forward along this new trajectory. “While leaders in any organisation hold positional power, they need to strategically consider how they engage with the system’s and the school’s dominant ideology” (Bills et al., 2017, p. 5).
In other words, what presented across the interviews as quite remarkable was the ready acceptance and engagement of the teachers with STEAM, which was fostered by leader and researcher strategic attunement to ensure the best from the past was brought into the new organisational reframing for the future. Organisational storylines are never linear or singular (Giles, 2015). For example, closer inspection of the Lazarus storyline reveals that the emergence of a new STEAM ideology of schooling represented a break from the dominant ideology of doing schooling in South Australia. Lazarus became the first STEAM school in South Australia. When new ideologies of schooling become embodied by leaders, new aspirations and intentions that build upon a school’s storyline can manifest. Therefore, in the context of this research, the leaders and teachers understanding of a new philosophy of STEAM in public education became more important and more challenging than ever before. They were all grappling with this new philosophy across the interviews. The component theory approach used in the analysis of the data enabled the new ideology of education at Lazarus to be seen as an interplay of various component theories.
Significant components of education which were considered hermeneutically from the leader and teacher interviews undertaken in this research. We positioned these components as (1) schooling purposes (2) school structure, (3) school culture, and (4) school pedagogical/curricular components. These components are illustrated in Figure 1, highlighting the key STEAM component moves underway at Lazarus.
For “Lazarus” Secondary School, the hope of finding a competitive edge in a “survival of the fittest” schooling marketplace became a living reality when agents with high stakeholder power and influence were activated through university-led action research with a social entrepreneurial flavour to incite a school community’s embrace of becoming a STEAM school (Weerawardena & Sullivan Mort, 2001). The school leaders and teachers saw reason for radical schooling change and in large part welcomed the school’s new purpose and vision, despite the hard work they acknowledged as needed to reposition their professional selves in their teaching and learning endeavours with young people and with each other.
For school leaders in other schools, a key learning in this case study is to always “see” student learning engagement as a key indicative feature of schooling success or lack thereof. When learning engagement is found to be waning, the parent community starts talking and the extended community “grapevine” eventually hears a negative schooling message that will cause them to “vote with their feet” in terms of future schooling enrolment. To avoid these situations, school leadership must embrace an ongoing culture of research and inquiry (Reid, 2018) with critical stakeholders in tow to help reinvigorate the project of schooling before all is lost.
Organisational change to radically overhaul a school’s modus operandi can seem near impossible unless key actors and relationships are activated to support the change. The motivation can come from several areas; national policy driven mandates (for example, AHS with its STEM agenda), leaders who see the need and who are courageous enough to “put their career on the line” out of care for the learning needs of their community (Bills et. al, 2017) or in the case of Lazarus, schools facing impending closure. Through a relationally attuned action research endeavour, “Lazarus” became the first public education STEAM school in South Australia, promised ten million dollars of government funding to do their regeneration work. Teacher and leader interview accounts of how they made sense of their new ideological STEAM schooling trajectory following a parent vote to stay open indicated a “seeing-ness” of the need for change and an overall willingness to embrace the change. This willingness was due to (1) an acceptance by staff and parents that no change meant certain closure and (2) the strategy behind the STEAM ideological shift valued school success from the past and recognised this in a new schooling form for the future. In all of this, “time” and “timing” is of the essence for renewed professional teacher and student growth at Lazarus.