Dr Simon Breakspear is a researcher, advisor and speaker on educational leadership, policy and change. He is a Research Fellow at the Gonski Institute at UNSW. Over the last decade his speaking and leadership development work has given him the opportunity to work with over 100,000 educators across 10 countries.
Simon develops frameworks and tools that make evidence-based ideas actionable and easy to understand. His AGILE SCHOOL LEADERSHIP program enables school leadership teams across Australia to effectively implement for impact within their unique educational context. Simon’s innovative approach to teacher professional learning, Teaching Sprints, is used by thousands of educators across the planet to enhance their expertise and engage with relevant research evidence.
Simon is a trusted strategic advisor to educational system leaders in the areas of policy implementation, school leadership development and evidence-informed practice. He serves as an advisor to the NSW Department of Education School Leadership Institute, the Australia Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) and the Ontario Principals’ Council international school leadership program. He is also a Fellow of WISE.
Simon received his BPsych (Hons) from UNSW, his MSc in Comparative and International Education from the University of Oxford and his PhD in Education from the University of Cambridge. He was a Commonwealth Scholar at Oxford and a Gates Scholar at Cambridge. Simon began his work in education as a high school teacher and lives in Sydney with his wife and three young children.
How I work…
Hi I’m Simon Breakspear,
I’m an educational researcher and advisor, who helps leaders and their teams to adopt new evidence-informed ways of thinking and working. I’m a Research Fellow at the UNSW Gonski Institute for Education, and am fortunate to spend most days of the week working with leaders serving in schools and system roles. Through my speaking, advisory and capacity building work, I partner with educators in order to help them to clarify their thinking, apply relevant evidence and effectively implement. I’m flexible in how I work, but relentlessly focused on improving the learning and life outcomes of young people.
Whilst I am based in Sydney, I bring a national and global perspective to my thinking and work. I’ve been fortunate to engage with education systems across over 10 countries and sustain a strong interest in the field of comparative education. I have the deepest understanding and experience of the education policy reforms in Australia and Canada.
In all my work, I’m driven by my personal mission of unlocking human potential through improving education systems. This started when I dropped out of my medical degree at UNSW to became a teacher. Now as a researcher and advisor, I see my key role is to take complicated ideas and turn them into easy-to-understand frameworks and actionable tools that can support busy practitioners to be more impactful. By sharing fresh ideas I try to help leaders get beyond the default ways of leading educational change and create sustainable change that is appropriate for their unique local contexts.
My normal approach is to find a ‘sticky’ problem from the field that I really want to make progress on and then work from research to practice. I scan the research literature and international practice to draw out the ‘best bets.’ I look for insights across academic fields such as psychology, improvement science, cognitive science, behavioural science, organisational change, leadership and more. My team and I then work alongside educators in the field to co-create prototypes of new approaches. After months (or years) of testing and iterating I share what I’ve learned with other educators to enable them to adopt and adapt in a way that is appropriate for their own context. It’s no surprise that I’ve learned that practitioners often have the best ideas.
My work focuses on topics like …
- How might improving the organisational health of schools enable sustainable lifts in outcomes?
- How can educational leaders lead improvement despite complexity, uncertainty and ambiguity?
- What does effective implementation of evidence-based ideas look like in complex, people-filled organisations?
- How can we support educators to enhance their expertise and embrace evidence-informed practice? (See Teaching Sprints)
- How might the science of learning be able to inform how we teach?
- How can we scale up high quality school leadership development across an entire system?
After a decade of working shoulder-to-shoulder with leading practitioners, I’ve learned that educational change is both complex and deeply human. I definitely don’t claim to have all the answers nor any simple silver bullets for creating school systems that we need. I’m learning as quickly as I can from research and practice, and am committed to sharing what I discover along the way. I’ve become convinced that when practitioners on the ground are supported with useful research, frameworks and tools, making meaningful progress is possible. I hope you’ll find some of my ideas and lessons useful to your work.
My Current Projects
My team and I partner with education systems and networks of schools around the world to bring our ideas to life. Some of our major projects include:
Agile School Leadership
Every school we know has a plan to improve organisational and student outcomes. The challenge is how principals and their teams can move from a new plan to creating sustainable impact in schools. After a global scan of approaches to leading improvement (improvement science, agile development, design thinking, implementation science) we generated a clear set of frameworks and tools for school leadership teams to use in order to clarify, implement and check the impact of their improvement efforts. Over 1,000 leaders have now been equipped with our new methods from across Australia. Learn more >
We need to rethink how the learning profession gets to engage in professional learning. Teachers often report that their collaborative professional learning time doesn’t result in shifts in thinking and practice. We worked to generate a new process that would enable educators to:
- Engage with evidence-based ideas from research
- Engage in rich and disciplined dialogue with colleagues
- Deliberately practice new approaches in the classroom
- Make small incremental changes that add up to big shifts over time
We have a global community of practitioners who are using the approach. As our process is open source, we hear from new schools around the world, from small rural schools to high rise high schools, who are learning online and adapting the process to fit within their unique educational context. We’ve had deep engagements with educators across Australia, and in Canada hundreds of schools have engaged through deep partnerships in Alberta (in a 3 year partnership with the Alberta Teachers’ Association), Saskatoon and Manitoba (with MASS). Learn more >
WISE Qatar ALL-IN
In partnership with WISE we have worked to reconsider how school leadership development can be designed across an entire education system. In 2017 I worked with my collaborator Dr Asmaa Alfadala to co-author a global research paper on leadership development approaches. We have since launched a global network of leadership development providers from across the planet with meetings in Doha, New York and Acara. In September 2020 we will host our first extended program with Chief Executives of Leadership development organisations, to be held at the Salzburg Global forum in Austria.
Schools Health Index
School improvement has too often focused on rapidly shifting student outcomes, without paying attention to the organisational conditions that need to be built and sustained in order to create the capacity for long-term improvement.
This is an exciting new project. Stay tuned and let us know if you would like to be the first to test some early prototypes.
Papers & Publications
WISE (World Innovation Summit for Education):
Report on ‘Developing Agile Leaders of Learning: School leadership policy for dynamic times’. View article >
Centre for Strategic Education:
Occasional Paper, ‘Agile Implementation – Learning how adopting an agile mindset can help leaders achieve meaningful progress in student learning. View article >
How does PISA Shape Education Policy, Nov 2014:
Why how we measure learning determines what counts in education. Download PDF >
Talent Magnets, May 2009:
Attracting & Retaining Top Talent. Download PDF >