It’s not everyone who gets the opportunity to be part of a ‘start-up’ that grows to employing more than 250 inspiring people located across the country, then stand aside to watch it being led into an exciting new future by a new team of leaders. I feel very privileged that I have had that experience!
This week marks 20 years since the official launch of CORE Education in Christchurch and I’ve been privileged to receive emails from a number of educators who have worked for or with CORE over those years, reminding me of this fact!
A couple of years prior to March, 2003, Nick Billowes and I had been in conversation with Stephen Heppell from Ultralab in the UK, together dreaming of what we could achieve by setting up a ‘sister’ organisation to Ultralab UK here in NZ. We were joined soon after those initial conversations by our colleague, Dr Vince Ham, and these dreams began to take shape as we then worked with the Canterbury Development Corporation to establish what was originally UltralabNZ, then to become CORE Education. Ali Hughes joined us soon after we’d started and became the perfect complement to our spread of skills and background in education.
Reflecting back I came across the proposal we submitted to the CDC and UltralabUK – here are some extracts:
The development of Ultralab NZ will be through the formation of a Trust where the interested parties (Ultralab UK and Canterbury Development Council, CDC) will act as trustees as set out below and will move to set in place a management structure as described to ensure the running of Ultralab NZ conforms to the proposed management plan.
The development of the Lab will take account of the fundamental mission to act regionally to facilitate “learning with, by and through technology and through research opportunities to assist in developing educational pedagogy and practice.
Ultralab NZ will actively develop programmes in professional development (UltraPD), research and development (UltraResearch), resource and programme development in new media (UltraResource), enterprise and innovation development (UltraInnovate) and establish a Fellowship programme that will reach regionally into both education and industry for a wide range of research and development projects (UltraFellowship)
Through collaborative and collegial development of the potential of learners internationally, we will assist in the creation of a wider understanding between and within nations and provide for the needs and desires of all learners to have their learning needs met in individualized and effective ways that engage a desire for life long learning and understanding. The key words that define the operation of the Lab will be “Learning, Technology, and Research”. These will form the litmus test for the development of all programmes within Ultralab NZFrom Proposal submitted to CDC, 17 April, 2002
Reflecting back, this was a pretty lofty ambition, and I would venture to suggest, at that time none of us were entirely sure of just how we would achieve it, but time has demonstrated that, to a fairly large extent, we have done so, and, with the support of a great number of people, managed to drive towards our goals, having a positive impact on teachers, schools and the education system here in NZ along the way.
As I think back to what it was that made this organisation such a joy to work for and with, experiencing lots of successes along the way (along with a few failures :-), there are two things that stand out for me. These weren’t just things that happened accidentally – we identified them as foundational to what we wanted to achieve and how we wanted to achieve it right from the start – as recorded in that early proposal document and others. Those two things are:
1. Being clear about our purpose
It should be no surprise to see this one here – we worked hard on this for over a year, gradually re-shaping and refining what we thought to be important and how we’d articulate this to the world 🙂 What started as a 3-4 page document was eventually whittled down into a simple phrase that stood the test of time for at least the first 15 years of CORE’s existence:
“Pushing the Boundaries of Educational Possibility”
This mission statement focused our minds on our purpose as it encapsulated everything we agreed would be our business moving forward:
- Pushing – we didn’t want to be just another organisation doing what everyone else did. We wanted to become known for being future focused, and for acting in a way that took ourselves and the educators we work with out of their comfort zone, to become used to working in the unfamiliar, and for being risk takers rather than risk averse.
- Boundaries – meant that we had to have a really good grasp of what those boundaries are/were – which is why our emphasis on research-informed practice was so important. Involved understanding the past in order to challenge the future, and being aware of the interconnectedness of the education ecosystem to be understand the impact of actions at one point on another.
- Education – this was our domain. It’s what we understood and were familiar with. It is where our passion lay – for transforming things so that the experience of everyone was ‘fit for purpose’ in our rapidly changing and evolving world. A relentless focus on learning – for teachers and students – lay at the heart of this, not as vessels to be filled, but as fires to be lit!
- Possibilities – we were motivated by wanting to explore the new and emerging horizons for education – leading us to publish the annual ten trends, and to engage in the complex issues of becoming Te Tiriti honouring in the way we worked (and ultimately, how we were structured) and with becoming more inclusive, leading in areas of Universal Design for Learning, and in working alongside numerous cultural and other groups in society.
This mission statement is something of a personal mission for me – which is why, when I stood aside from CORE, I established FutureMakers, which is committed to supporting and promoting a future-focused view of education. I acknowledge, though, that for CORE, the journey is now taking a slightly different tack – championing the goal of equity across all areas of our education system. This, for me, is an exciting development for an organisation led now by those with a passion for this area, and a clear vision for what needs to be achieved.
2. Being intentional about building an inclusive culture
The second thing I believe we managed to get fairly right was an unrelenting focus on developing the internal culture of the organisation. Without the support of a highly skilled and knowledgeable staff who were as passionate as we were about our mission, we knew we wouldn’t succeed.
In those early years in particular we were very focused on ensuring we created a culture where everyone felt they could participate in the decision making, and where they could bring new ideas to the table to be considered. We had regular ‘whole staff meetings’ online, with people from all over NZ, experimenting with all sorts of emerging software to get us there long before we had skype, zoom or Teams to help us.
Our conferences were another key part of this intentionality. The Learning@School and ULearn conferences became places that not only teachers would want to come, but we made sure we could get as many of our staff there as well – not just because we needed their help to run the event, but because it was an opportunity to gather physically together and to experience in person the relationships we tried so hard to establish among our staff, with our schools and with the many businesses that supported a lot of what schools were doing.
We held whole staff ‘retreats’ on a semi-regular basis, and made sure these were times where we could enjoy being the ‘people of CORE’, but where there was a huge emphasis on participating in developing innovative ideas for taking us into the future. We endeavoured to operate a ‘flat’ as possible when it came to leadership and management, providing teams with permission to manage their own projects, and doing what we could to support and develop those who showed a particular flair for leading in areas of innovative thought and action.
For some years, as we grew, we saw very few people leave the organisation to take up roles elsewhere. After time, the experience at CORE became a stepping stone for a number of people, with their future employers recognising the value of the experience they’d had in our organisation. For a while it became commonly said that ‘you never leave CORE, they just stop paying you!”
Of course, 20 years is a pretty long time – half of a working career – and in that time lots has changed. I write here with rose-coloured spectacles, I know, but I’m pretty confident that for so many of those I’ve worked alongside at CORE, the things I’ve written about here would resonate.
The privilege of contributing to the establishment of this wonderful organisation will remain one of the high points of my career. Having stepped aside four years ago to allow a new team of (younger!) leaders to take the organisation forward, I can now only watch with pride as the organisation sets a new course to address the things that are topical and demanding attention as we progress further into the 21st Century. I wish Hana O’Regan and her team all the best as they do so – and wish CORE a very happy 20th birthday!
I’m looking forward to catching up with lots of those old friends (and new) at ULearn23 in Manukau, Tāmaki Makaurau from 4-6 October this year! Why not come and join the celebration.
[This post is dedicated to all of those who have worked for or been connected with CORE over the past 20 years. Your passion, focus and commitment has helped serve teachers, schools, kura and EY centres in inspiring and future-focused ways.]