The 4S approach and how it can improve your school
By Iain Sallis

I am in my 20th year of education and I often wonder what this job is all about. I have had many different types of experiences in my six schools, worked under seven head teachers (some good some bad), turned around underperforming schools, worked in a school that was burnt down, and had the privilege to visit and work in outstanding schools. As with all leaders, we remember some of our worst times as well as our more memorable ones.


Schools have different contexts and challenges but I believe the people within them are all very similar. Fads come and go, acronyms are devised and revamped, and teaching ideas continue the repetitive educational merry-go-round. But what actually makes the biggest difference for a school? Is it developing skills or mindset?


Building a culture of improvement

Aspects of managing or leading a school, such as a system-based leadership model, can actually be quite easy, and drive the functionality of the school and its daily practice. The daily drivers of appraisal, action plans, timetables, reports, calendar, teaching classes, premises organisation, information management systems, finance, etc., can somehow get in the way of the bigger picture. People can generally manage if they have the organisational skills to do so. Systems are generally easy to review, adapt and improve, so the school can keep its functionality.


Aspects of this, I believe, are a given, and sometimes schools want recognition for doing the things they should be doing. However, does this build a culture of improvement? No. You certainly need more. Changing and building a learning culture mindset in an institution can be a longer and much more difficult process than, say, changing the admissions pipeline system, or the approach your HR department takes to managing recruitment.


Carol Dweck’s and Guy Claxton’s similar theories of Growth Mindset and Building Learning Power are something that many of us will have some knowledge of. However, only the best schools really develop mindset down to teacher and student level. Getting the international schools community to think in this way is more of a challenge. And, in my experience, too much of the research in schools is aimed at students and it needs to be more adult-focused.


Implementing a whole-school learning culture

So, what is a learning culture for all stakeholders? What questions need to be asked to take the school to the next level? What do your guiding statements say? And does your own leadership philosophy support it?


In most international schools, you come across similar language and statements that guide the school’s core values. In these schools, matching learning philosophy to ensure a smooth fit should actually be relatively easy. If it isn't, then you may need to revisit the statements. But do people have the correct mindset to reach those goals? There are times when our own philosophy does not meet the needs of the school or the community. This creates strain and tension and often leads to students learning suffering as a result. This is why staff choose certain schools and not others, and vice versa.


Developing your leadership philosophy

As a leader, have you got your own leadership philosophy and does it match that of your school?

Over the years, I have built my own personal leadership philosophy that supports that question.


Philosophy can be taught or emulated from other educationalists. In my case, it has been gathered from previous experiences, helping me to develop a clear picture of what, I believe, education and learning should be. My time as an advanced skills teacher gave me the chance to reflect on what outstanding learning should be and how this supports young people in their learning journey. I have used my philosophy to adapt and change the schools or departments I have led for the benefit of the children, staff or parent. In essence, I have experimented at a smaller level, seen the difference, and since, adapted to a larger, school-wide model. The 4S philosophy is one that, I believe, makes the biggest difference to school improvement.  


The 4S philosophy

What are the 4Ss? They are:

  1. Self-reflection: Do we ask the questions that enable us to reflect? Do we have reflective thinkers?

  2. Self-improvement: Do people want to be better and improve? Can they do it themselves?

  3. Student focus: Is everything we do related to students and learning? If not, why not?

  4. Sustainability: Is this a fad or will it be there when I am gone? What is the lasting impact?


Within our schools, we can relate these to our community:

Are we self-reflective? Are we honest about ourselves? Can we recognise our strengths? Can we respond to feedback?

Are we self-improving? Do we want to improve? Do we know how to improve? What is improvement?

Are we student-focused? Do all the above have the students at the centre of the decision?

Is our learning culture sustainable? Will the improvement make a sustained difference to the learners? Will this make a long-term difference? Can we each take this change on our lifelong learning journey?


If you were to gather evidence of the 4Ss, I would suggest asking: can you see it, hear it and feel it? Just walking around the school and talking to people, watching how people act and behave could be an indicator. Other evidence would be action plans that have systems and language to support the 4S approach; looking at staff feedback conversations after a learning visit, or simply visiting a staff CPD session with reflection activities at its core.


Creating a self-reflective, self-improving community that is sustainable and student-focused is no easy task and takes time. However, it forms the heart of the culture and philosophy of our school. Ensuring we try to develop this type of mindset among the staff, parents and students will support the school with its evolution and improvement. We all know that no school is perfect; reviewing practices and policies are important, but our own human behaviour is the factor that makes the biggest difference.


Five tips to support a self-improving mindset within your school

1. What is your philosophy?  Think about this question in depth, including where it has come from. Is it ok to acquire philosophies from other successful leaders along your own learning journey? Of course, but make sure it’s your own adaptation. Ensure it meets your context, because that is what all good leaders do. More importantly, you must believe in it. Also ensure your philosophy is tried and tested. My personal philosophy has been tested through classrooms, departments and schools. It has gained outcomes over the years with the students, staff and parents getting better as a result. Stick with it and be strong by it, and ensure that you practise what you preach. People you meet on your learning journey may inspire you to adapt your philosophy or make you think about how it might change. My philosophy is slightly different to what it was in the UK – my international experience has positively influenced my philosophy.

2. Communicate it.  A self-improving mindset has to feature in your everyday language at all levels of school communication. It has taken me some time to embed this in plans, policies and daily communication to parents and staff. Create posters and link it to catchy terms; it’s a sales pitch after all and you need to get people to buy in. Attach it to whole-school paperwork and policies. Display this in offices and staff rooms where people meet. Refer to it when you are talking with staff after a classroom visit. Communicate it in staff meetings with reference to the 4S model along with a graphic that people can relate to and recall. This enables people to continually think about the 4S model to improve personal performance.

3. Create systems to support it.  If you want people to be more reflective, then you need to create systems to support this. We focus on classroom visits that are called ‘reflection opportunities’. Staff may have an observer in the room with the main purpose to support a self-reflection approach. The old word of ‘appraisal’ has gone and been replaced with the term ‘staff reflection’. Observations are called ‘visits’ and there is more regular self-reflection time for staff, including time at staff meetings and staff CPD. Our new learning policy asks students to reflect on their learning struggles, and, when we run parent training, parents are also made to reflect about their impact on the learning cycle.

4. Reflection is learnt.  I believe there are some people who have inbuilt and early learnt reflection systems that allow them to reflect accurately and move themselves forward independently. In my experience, these tend to be your good and outstanding teachers. They need small amounts of input to improve their practice because they can self-improve, make it last and generally make a difference to the students. However, weaker staff have a problem with this; some reflect but with poor accuracy and some find it difficult to reflect in the first place. If this is the case, do something about it. These staff members need to be supported through the process in detail and this is done by creating more opportunities for reflection.

5. Change your language, and make time.  All classroom visitors are coached. This enables them to ensure they use the correct language when speaking to staff, which, in turn, enables staff to think deeper, and to reflect and improve better. However, if your school has a ‘feedback and go’ approach, or you just tell staff their EBI (‘even better if’) and WWW (‘what went well’), this won’t work. We spend between 30 and 60 minutes with staff asking questions that enable them to reflect, improve and make a difference over time. Many schools observe to ensure they tick box for reporting purposes, or to meet the demands of boards or owners. However, less is more, and time with people is valuable. So, make it happen!

Be careful to ensure your SLT team has the same philosophy. If not, with all the other demands a school can bring, this can and does cause clashes.

Iain Sallis is Campus Principal of Tenby Schools Penang, Malaysia. You can connect with him on LinkedIn

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