Education Gurus

It’s easy to make your own guru memes with Canva.

Knowledge and advice for schools and about education often seem to exist in a world of commodification and memeification. There is plenty of disagreement and debate in education, and plenty of competition on bookshelves and in conference programs. Educators and academics position themselves as brands via bios, photographs, and certification badges. As an educator and a researcher I have those whose work I follow closely; academics, for instance, whose presence affects me when I meet them because their reputation and body of work precede them.

In education, we have perceived gurus. These are people who have become ubiquitous in education circles, at education conferences, and in education literature. Teachers and school leaders scramble to get tickets to their sessions and to get photographic evidence of having met them. Their words are tweeted out in soundbites ad infinitum (or is that ad nauseum?), and made into internet memes. Sometimes these individuals partner with publishers or education corporates, and so the visibility and reach of their work grows. They become the scholars or experts most cited in staff rooms, at professional learning water coolers, and in job interviews when asked how research informs practice. 

Sometimes, these gurus are teachers or principals who have gained a large following on social media and subsequently a monolithic profile. Often, they are academics who have built up bodies of work over many years, becoming more and more well-known along the way, and eventually being perceived as celebrities or gurus. Yesterday I had the pleasure of learning from Dylan Wiliam, firstly at a day long seminar, and then at my school. At one point the seminar organisers apologised for running out of Wiliam’s books, acknowledging the desire of delegates to have the book signed.
Marten Koomen has traced networks of influencers in Australian education organisations. In his new paper ‘School leadership and the cult of the guru: the neo-Taylorism of Hattie’, Scott Eacott challenges the rise of the edu guru, those academics whose work is ubiquitous and influential to the point of being uncritically accepted and canonised. Eacott pushes back against the ‘what works’ mentality in education, in which educators are sold ‘what works’ and encouraged to slavishly apply it to their own contexts. Jon Andrews, too, questions the unquestioning way in which the loudest and most prominent voices become the accepted voices. Meta-analysis and meta-meta-analysis, often translated into league tables of ‘what works’ in education, have been the subject of criticism. George Lilley and Gary Jones have both questioned meta-analysis on their blogs. I’ve written about cautions surrounding the use of meta-analysis in education, especially when it drives clickbait headlines and a silver-bullet mentality of having the answers without having to ask any questions. Yesterday Wiliam made his oft-repeated points: that everything works somewhere, nothing works everywhere, and context matters. A guru cannot provide easy answers in education, as education is too complex and contextual for that.

taken at AERA last year

Much of this conversation around the rise of the edu guru has surrounded John Hattie, although he is by no means the only globally renowned education expert likely to make conference delegates weak at the knees. I was personally uncomfortable when he was beamed in via video link to last year’s ACEL conference and began to give an ‘I have a dream’ speech about education. As an English and Literature teacher I understand the power of rhetoric and analogy to persuade and inspire, but appropriating the legacy and words of Dr Martin Luther King Junior seemed a way to gospelise a personal brand of education reform.

I don’t think that education experts, no matter how influential they become, should encourage the uncritical acceptance of their ideas as dogma, or present themselves as the bringers of the One True Thing To Rule All Things of and for education. As Dylan Wiliam, channelling Ben Goldacre, repeatedly said yesterday, “I think you’ll find it’s a little more complicated than that.”

I wonder how perceived gurus feel about being guru-ised by the education masses. In part the famous and the infamous in education are so because of their actions: accepting more and more speaking gigs, performing the game of publishing and promoting their work. Most, I would guess, do this for the same reason someone like me speaks and publishes. To contribute to education narratives and change those narratives, hopefully for the better. To be of service to the profession and the field. To explore and wrestle with ideas, trying to find ways to make sense of the complexity of education in order to improve the learning of students and the lives of teachers and school leaders.

I wondered about the rise to gurudom and the moral obligation of the academic celebrity figure last year when at AERA I saw a panel in which four educational heavy hitters—Andy Hargreaves, Michael Fullan, Linda Darling-Hammond and Diane Ravitch—all advocating for the moral imperative of educational research and practice. They spoke of lifetime journeys of work intended to make the world a better and more just place. I wondered at the time about how much an early career academic can be brave and resistant in their work, as they try to build a career via the performative pressures of the academe. Can only the guru, free from institutional performativities and the financial pressures often associated with early career academia, say what they really want to say and do the work and writing they really want to do?

I don’t think experts in education are dangerous. We need expertise and people willing to commit their lives and work to making sense of and making better the world of education and learning. But in a world where teachers and school leaders are busy racing on the mouse wheels of their own performative pressures, we need to figure out ways to support and facilitate sceptical and critical engagement with research. Even those who are highly influential and highly admired need to have their work engaged with closely and critically. The danger comes when experts become so guru-fied that the words they use become part of an unthinking professional vernacular, used by educators who haven’t looked behind the curtain or beneath the book cover.

Is formative assessment overvalued?

Call me late to the party, but last night I was surprised to see this tweet from Alfie Kohn stating that formative assessment is overvalued. I agree with his latter comment that data to see if students are improving, or have improved, are worthless until we’ve asked ‘improved at what?’, but I don’t understand the connection between the two parts of the tweet. My hunch is that my understanding of formative assessment in practice is different to Kohn’s. In this post I’ll explain my own take on formative assessment.

(Disclaimer – I understand that a tweet is limited in its 140 character form. I’m using my understanding of the tweet as a jumping off point for this post.)

From the seminal 1998 paper of Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam, ‘Inside the black box’, to subsequent work by these authors, and others, formative assessment as an evidence-based, rigorous feedback process is well-established.

Feedback can be defined as information provided by an agent regarding aspects of performance or understanding (Hattie & Timperley, 2007). Wiliam (2016) notes that anyone (teacher, learner, peer, parent) can be an agent of feedback, and that the most powerful agent of feedback is likely to be the student who takes responsibility for their own learning.

The purpose of feedback, according to Hattie and Timperley (2007) is to reduce the discrepancy between current and desired understanding. Information is used by students or teachers for improvement in an interactive dialogue between teacher and learners so that learners can become more expert and more responsible in guiding and furthering their own learning (Black & Wiliam, 2010). The interactivity, and the activity, are important. Teachers use feedback to make adjustments to planning and instruction. Students become active, empowered agents of their own learning as they self-assess, receive feedback, and act on it. Formative assessment is based in a belief that every learner can improve.

Feedback can have a significant positive influence on student learning and achievement (Stiggins & DuFour, 2009; Wiliam, 2011a, 2011b, 2016), but it is linked to emotions, relationships and environment; it can be accepted, modified, or rejected; and it can have positive or negative effects on performance (see Kluger & DeNisi, 1996).

Formative assessment involves feedback that is continuous; specific to goal, standards and task; descriptive rather than numerical or via grades; occuring within a learning context; and acted on by the learner (such as through self-assessment, re-doing the task, or outlining next steps).

It is information and interpretations from assessments, not numbers or grades, that matter (Hattie & Timperley, 2007). Numerical marks and grades operate as judgements, not aids to learning, and so students ignore comments where a mark is provided (Black, 2014; Black et al., 2004). Alfie Kohn argues against grades in this 2011 paper. Ruth Butler (1987, 1988) found that grades had no effect on achievement. Written comments based on the task, on the other hand, resulted in high levels of task involvement. Comments should identify what has been done well and what still needs improvement, and give guidance on how to make that improvement (Black et al., 2004; Wiliam, 2011b).

Feedback should not involve judgement of the person, positively or negatively. Butler’s research (1987, 1988) found that written praise had no effect on achievement, and Costa and Garmston (2003) note that learning cannot occur if a person feels threatened. While receiving feedback can be emotional, it should be designed to evoke cognition over emotion.

At a grass-roots level, teachers such as Starr Sackstein (2015, 2017) and Mark Barnes (2013, 2015) have been advocating for teachers to ‘throw out grades’, focusing instead on feedback practices such as conferencing, peer assessment, and self-assessment.

This previous blog post outlines some of my own practices around summative assessments, as well as a term I spent teaching Year 10 English without any marks or grades. I have recently developed my summative assessment feedback practices to ensure that students engage with their work more deeply before it is assessed, and then again once I have written comments, but before receiving their mark. In my classroom, formative assessment practices are a constant. They include myself and my students constantly engaging with their work, curriculum standards, syllabus points, rubrics, clear criteria for success, and setting of specific targets. These practices are entwined within a relational classroom environment of trust and challenge. Anecdotally, some of the best a-ha moments for my students come when they assess their own work against clear criteria, and come to their own realisations about how to improve. Over time, self-assessment becomes part of expected and lived practice for students in my classroom. This is not to say that I am a formative assessment expert; building formative opportunities takes ongoing teacher reflection, deliberate planning, and careful constant reading of the students.

Perhaps I have been embedding formative feedback practices into my teaching for so long that it seems obvious, but my thought on first seeing Kohn’s tweet was: of course we cannot look at data that might indicate improvement of learning without asking ‘improvement at what?’ Specific goals, standards, and comments on how and on what to improve, are part and parcel of the suite of practices of formative assessment.

Is formative assessment overvalued? I don’t think so. It is a fundamental way to improve learning, and also to build the capacity of the learner themselves.

References

Barnes, M. (2013) Role reversal: Achieving uncommonly excellent results in the student-centred classroom. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Barnes, M. (2015). Assessment 3.0: Throw Out Your Grade Book and Inspire Learning. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Black, P. J. (2014). Assessment and the aims of the curriculum: An explorer’s journey. Prospects, 44, 487-501.

Black, P., Harrison, C., Lee, C., Marshall, B., & Wiliam, D. (2004). Working inside the black box: Assessment for learning in the classroom. Phi Delta Kappan, 86(1), 8-21.

Black, P. J., & Wiliam, D. (1998). Inside the Black Box: Raising standards through classroom assessment. Phi Delta Kappan, 80, 139-48.

Black, P. J., & Wiliam, D. (2010). A pleasant surprise. Phi Delta Kappan, 92(1), 47.

Butler, R. (1987). Task-involving and ego-involving properties of evaluation: Effects of different feedback conditions on motivational perceptions, interest, and performance. Journal of educational psychology79(4), 474-482.

Butler, R. (1988). Enhancing and undermining intrinsic motivation: The effects of task‐involving and ego‐involving evaluation on interest and performance. British journal of educational psychology, 58(1), 1-14.

Costa, A. L., & Garmston, R. J. (2003). Cognitive coaching in retrospect: Why it persists.

Hattie, J., & Timperley, H. (2007). The power of feedback. Review of Educational Research 77(1), 81-112.

Kluger, A. N., & DeNisi, A. (1996). The effects of feedback interventions on performance: A historical review, a meta-analysis, and a preliminary feedback intervention theory.

Kohn, A. (2011). The case against grades. Educational Leadership, 69(3), 28-33.

Sackstein, S. (2015). Hacking assessment: 10 ways to go gradeless in a traditional grade school. Cleveland, OH: Hack Learning.

Sackstein, S. (2017). Peer Feedback in the classroom: Empowering students to be experts. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Stiggins, R., & DuFour, R. (2009). Maximizing the power of formative assessments. Phi Delta Kappan, 90(9), 640-644.

Wiliam, D. (2011a). Embedded Formative Assessment. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.

Wiliam, D. (2011b) What is assessment for learning? Studies in Educational Evaluation37(1), 3-14.

Wiliam, D. (2016). Leadership for teacher learning: Creating a culture where all teachers improve so that all students succeed. Moorabbin, Australia: Hawker Brownlow Education.

Reflecting on the school leader

The bad leader is he who the people despise; the good leader is he who the people praise; the great leader is he who the people say, “We did it ourselves”. ~ Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline

Part of my PhD literature review encompassed what makes effective school leadership, and effective leadership of change or reform in schools. If you don’t fancy savouring all 300 odd pages of my dissertation, the summary of my literature search determined that effective school leaders:

  • Develop shared vision;
  • Have high expectations and clear accountabilities;
  • Develop an environment of trust;
  • Empower others and allow them autonomy, space, and support to lead;
  • Solve complex problems;
  • Engage with the wider community; act as storyteller and sense-maker; and
  • Balance instructional and transformational leadership.

Many of these points are reflected in the Australian Professional Standards for Principals, which break school leadership down into the following components:

  • Leading teaching and learning;
  • Developing self and others;
  • Leading improvement, innovation, and change;
  • Leading the management of the school; and
  • Engaging and working with the community.

Both of these lists cross over one another, and each seems simple in its short-list nature (5 dot points! How hard can it be?), but looking closely at many of these aspects of school leadership quickly reveals the complexity of the mandate. On top of that, school leadership teams are under pressure from constant measures of their performance. Leadership itself becomes a quantified, evaluated performance. Meanwhile, on a daily basis leaders constantly code-switch as they move from the classroom, to the boardroom, to the parents’ committee, to the community event, to the performance management conversation, to the staff member or student who needs support.

My PhD study found that school leaders are constantly navigating internal, relational, and organisational identities. These complex and sometimes competing identities affect leaders’ experiences and decision making. The leaders in my study were moving, often deliberately and relentlessly, between leadership modes that were directive and empowering, hero and servant, visible and invisible.

Leading is a constant state of becoming and of identity work. Peter Gronn, in his 2003 book The new work of educational leaders: Changing leadership practice in an era of school reform, reminds us that leaders’ senses of who they are, and who they aspire to be, play a pivotal role in their engagement with their work. Having multiple leadership roles in my current school has meant that it is not only me who has had to shift my self-perceptions or identity enactments, but also my colleagues who have had to see me in new ways across my time at the school. Additionally, I have multiple, competing identities that exist simultaneously with my school identity; as parent, spouse, sibling, daughter, researcher. Boundary spanner and pracademic. Identities like plates precariously spinning atop spidery poles.

While Gronn suggests that individuals rework their perspectives in relation to their contexts, my PhD found that, while context does shape professional identity, individuals also choose their contexts to fit their own identities. My leader participants indicated that they stayed in schools that resonated with their senses of professional self, and left schools in which they did not feel aligned with organisational purpose and action. That is, school contexts shape leaders, and leaders shape their contexts. Leaders can and do choose schools with which they feel an identity fit, and leave schools in which they feel they do not fit.

Wellbeing is a real issue in school leadership, as reflected in the results of the longitudinal Riley study, which has found that Australian principals score lower than the general population on positive measures of wellbeing, quality of life, and mental health; but higher on negative measures such as stress, depression and sleeping trouble. Leaders need formal and informal support, as well as their own strategies for self-care and renewal. It might be that school leadership can be summarised in a series of dot points, but it is contextual, complex, and lonely. It is challenging and rewarding, exhausting and exhilarating.

Flashback Friday: The end of the PhD

The end of the PhD. I remember it well, or so my long line of PhD-finishing blog posts might seem to attest. These include (and this is just a selection) …

The end of a doctorate is a rollercoaster of emotion. One, it turns out, I had largely forgotten. While my blog posts act as bread crumbs back to those experiences, the feelings themselves have faded, softened and blunted over time.

Today, I was reminded.

I still connect with the ‘DocVox’ Voxer (voice-to-voice messaging app) group that helped support me through my PhD. This is a group of mostly doctoral (PhD and EdD) candidates from the USA, plus a couple of us from Australasia. I figure staying in the Voxer group despite having finished the PhD helps me to pay back by continuing to support those who are still on their journey. It was via this group that I was today reminded of the visceral nature of the last bit of the PhD.

This morning a candidate from the US was Voxing about the blind panic they were feeling as they near dissertation submission. As I Voxed a response, I tried to reassure the person that their experience was normal. I recalled how in the last months of my PhD I had brutal insomnia. I clenched my jaw in my sleep despite chomping magnesium before bed to try and calm myself down and slow the mania of my obsessive mind. When I did sleep, I had nightmares, a recurring one of which was that I died and my almost-but-not-yet-finished PhD never saw the light of day, but languished, unexamined and unpublished. As I spoke, tears sprang to my eyes and my voice cracked. Some of that emotion returned in an intense flash. Wow, I thought, I didn’t think I was very affected by my experience. I was reminded as I spoke of the isolation of those moments, ones I didn’t really talk about because despite being surrounded by family, friends and colleagues, it didn’t seem something they would understand.

There are times in the PhD when everyone thinks you must be finished by now but you know you have so far to go, and times when it seems you should feel happy but instead you feel strange and empty. It’s a weird, emotional and quite a lonely time.

*                                    *                                    *

It’s almost 13 months since I was doctored. That moment was a glorious one. I awoke in Washington DC, after attending and presenting at the American Education Research Association (AERA) Conference. I had met a number of my academic heroes, as well as colleagues I knew only through Twitter and those that I met at the conference at sessions or in the epically long queue at Starbucks. I had nailed the presentation about my research and spent an hour in the corridor afterwards fielding questions and discussion. One of these discussions carried over to lunch and an ongoing professional connection. I’d had a great conference and was in edu-nerd heaven. It was the perfect moment for doctoring.

So, the day after AERA closed, I awoke in my Dupont Circle Airbnb apartment and checked my email, to find a ‘Congratulations, Doctor Netolicky’ email confirming the conferment of my PhD. I whooped, I shrieked, I clapped. I cried. I fist pumped. I felt overwhelmed and triumphant.

It was my last day in DC and I floated on rainbow-fairy-floss-cloud-nine as I swanned around the city in the magnificent sunshine. I was on my own, so I took this selfie (below) to remind myself of that elation. The iPhone snap mightn’t look like much to anyone else, but whenever I see it, it catapults me back to that moment of pure joy. Unadulterated I-am-now-Dr-Me exhilaration.

Now I have the luxury of being a pracademic, part school leader-teacher-practitioner, part early-career-scholar-researcher. During the PhD, finishing the doctorate always felt like an ending, but as I look back I can see that it was a beginning. I am now able to luxuriate more serenely in the oasis of academic writing, and to enjoy the gentle challenge of scholarly collaboration and conversation. And to apply my doctoral experience to my daily work.

The emotions fade, but it turns out they’re still there, in memory and in deep in the bowels of the iPhone camera roll.

DC doctor selfie

Running the PISA race

The education culture of performativity is wrapped up in notions of measurement. How do we measure student success, teacher performance, effective school leadership, and successful education policy? How do we know which school systems are successful and why they are successful? How can we tease out and understand causes of performance, such as the influence of social and economic factors, the system, the school, and the teacher? These are perennial education questions, and ones which continue to become more and more important in a globalised world in which countries, schools, and teachers can be compared, and in which there is an ever-increasing weight of accountability.

Standardised testing is a central issue in this neoliberal education context. Individual schools have their own approaches to measurement, such as the one I describe in this blog post. In Australia we have NAPLAN and WACE. There is currently talk of a national Phonics Check in the early years, such as that used in the UK. Internationally we have TIMSS, PIRLS and PISA.

Steven Lewis and Anna Hogan have shown how oversimplified reports of international testing measures can contribute to oversimplified ‘fast policy’. As Marten Koomen points out, systems should respond to international testing measures but these systems are complex. Stewart Riddle and Bob Lingard wrote that looking at a single country’s PISA ranking is useless; rather we need to carefully disaggregate the data and consider social and economic factors, and differences between states, schools and groups.

This week I received in the mail a copy of new book The global education race: Taking the measure of PISA and international testing, by Sam Sellar, Greg Thompson and David Rutkowski. (Full disclosure: I got a complimentary copy.) It is a pocket rocket at about A5 size and 99 pages. In the Foreword, David Berliner and Pasi Sahlberg question the value often ascribed to PISA, noting that PISA tests are linked to the social conditions as well as school systems and that “when the race to the top gets tougher … curriculum narrows and children suffer” (p.ix).

The book demystifies the workings of PISA, using the extended metaphor of the ‘race’ as a way to make sense of what PISA is, how it works, how it might be used, and how it shouldn’t be used. The authors make their explanations accessible without ignoring the complexities of standardised international testing on a large scale. The book is at once matter of fact and told with a wry sense of humour (as a reader I’m a sucker for references to Monty Python and 1980s arcade games). The book rails against the commodification of simple solutions to solve complex problems. As I explored satirically in this He-Man inspired post (speaking of 80s references) there are plenty of edu salespeople hoping to profit from the pressures of accountability pressing in on schools and teachers. This book, however, is about helping those on the ground to understand the complexities, inner workings and possibilities of PISA.

What sets Sellar, Thompson and Rutkowski’s book apart from other literature is its ability to engage with complexity in an accessible way; to explain clearly without simplifying; and to avoid binaries and polarising divides while acknowledging differing perspectives. They note, for instance, that PISA has been innovative, carefully developed, and judiciously administered, but that such a big project will undoubtably suffer from technical issues and limitations.  They note that PISA is an assessment of select content areas of one sample on one day, but also argue that transparent standardised tests like PISA can be a useful tool for understanding social systems. They explain validity in understandable ways and show how countries can use PISA data responsibly.

The international examples help the book to be relevant to people in OECD countries around the world. For Australian readers like myself there are some gems, such as that PISA performance has become an end in itself, evidenced by the national target of improving Australia’s PISA ranking by 2025 (articulated in the 2013 Education Act). The authors call this move “astounding”. Their tongues are firmly in their cheeks when they state on page 76 that: “The aim of reversing the trend of declining PISA scores seems to be to improve PISA scores through intensifying those policies that have not worked so far. A bold move.” A bold move, indeed, and one that Simon Birmingham might want to reconsider.

The authors also recognise the desire of policy makers, educators and the media to understand PISA and to glean the most important messages it can tell us. They warn, however, about over-attribution of causality, when correlations become causal claims, pointing to the way the media and policy makers often use PISA to point to particular factors as being the cause of high or declining PISA performance. I’ve written about the dangers of policy moves like performance pay for teachers, and the authors have warnings to offer their readers about the negative effects of pairing standardised testing with punitive accountability regimes, and of governments desperately scrambling to ‘win’ against other countries. Run your own race, they argue.

The global education race presents an important challenge to policy makers and educators alike: to develop informed communities willing and able to engage in discussion of how educational measurement, including system-level measurement tools, can be judiciously used to inform policy and practice. The kind of shift they suggest is a challenge. It will require ministers, media and educators to take a non-divisive, sense-making and collaborative approach of seeking to understand, and of deep, thoughtful engagement with data and with one another.

Engaging the aesthetic

vignettes from home

It is perhaps when our lives are at their most problematic that we are likely to be most receptive to beautiful things. ~ Alain de Botton, The Architecture of Happiness

Aesthetics is concerned with appreciation – of nature, of art, of that which we can experience through our senses. As a philosophy it explores how we perceive and experience beauty. There are studies that have looked at how aspects of aesthetics influence people’s lives. For instance, this one on how the colour of room walls impacts students’ behavior and learning performance in classrooms. Or this one that investigates the impact of hospital aesthetics—such as light, fresh air, nature, colour, sounds, smells and art—on patient wellbeing and recovery.

Like art, which is a culturally-embedded conversation over time, aesthetics is knitted with the fabric of society and culture. Anderson (2014) shows that while harmony and unification have often been seen as important aspects of interior design, this focus can curb individualism and lead to uniformity. She describes the Cult of Beauty of the 1870s and 1880s as “discriminating eclecticism guided by artistic sensibility” (p.345). At this time the homeowner became, according to Edmond de Goncourt, a décorateur or metteur-en-scène; a ‘scene-setter’; an artistic creator of spaces.

In the 19th century, colours and objects were linked to class, social standing and education. Partly as a reaction to mass production of objects and vividly-coloured synthetic fabrics, brightness and shininess were considered garish and distasteful, while subdued secondary or tertiary colours were seen to reveal distinguished taste. With the rare, the exotic and the expensive seen as ‘good taste’, decorating the home was saturated with inflections of societal, cultural and racial superiority.

Aesthetic discourses and disputes continue today. For example, in 2015 the owner of a mansion in Queensland was ordered to undertake an ‘aesthetic overhaul’ after it was found that the architecture was a copy of a unique neighbouring house. This year, a woman was taken to the London high court for painting her Kensington terrace in ‘garish’ candy stripes. People continue to care about the aesthetic experience.

Kyle Chayka challenges us that current aesthetic tropes perpetuate cultural and social divides, describing the ubiquity of reclaimed wood, Edison bulbs, and refurbished industrial lighting (what he calls ‘AirSpace’) as providing ‘familiar, comforting surroundings for a wealthy, mobile elite, who want to feel like they’re visiting somewhere ‘authentic’ while they travel, but who actually just crave more of the same.’ Aesthetics, as it becomes globalised via social media sharing, continues to promote uniformity and entangle with social inequities.

Technology has changed notions of beauty, as well as who can access it. Now, the well-worn patina of an antique rug can be achieved via polypropylene and technology. Found treasures can be upcycled or new leather carefully distressed. A throw on the end of a bed should be artfully flung not neatly folded; it should appear luxurious without seeming to try too hard. Style appears just-so as if by accident.

These days anyone with an Instagram or Pinterest account is an aesthete. The interwebs are full of endless aesthetic noise, constant bombardments of staged and judiciously curated pictures in which the everyday person has become the composer of artistic, filtered images that show snapshots of life. Aesthetics is democratised and commodified in new ways. Influential Instagrammers make money by posting products in carefully cropped snaps. Chompoo Baritone’s photo series shows how real and imperfect details are often omitted in order to create a social media image of beauty.  Lindahl & Öhlund (2013) argue that using images on social media is part of identity marketing and developing a personal brand, and that this is limited and fake, as well as nuanced and expressive. They point to social media aesthetics shaping identities, especially through imitation. As life imitates art, so identity imitates Instagram. Social media allow aesthetics to be accessible across social divides, but also to be manipulated. The aim of uniqueness drowns in a sea of uniformity. There is at once aesthetic individualism and an aesthetic echo chamber of groupthink (or is that groupaesthetics?).

Yes, there are social, cultural, and technological complexities of aesthetics. But in a world in which we are often obsessed by perforance, measurement, fast everything, multi-tasking, and efficiencies, often it’s worth immersing ourselves in the aesthetic of the real, as opposed to the virtual, world. Walking barefoot on grass. Wrapping palms of hands around a warm mug of tea. Watching the sun rise. Listening. Smelling the (actual, paper) pages of a book, feeling them between the pads of fingertips, hearing the swooshing noise they make as they turn. Sinking a vinyl disc onto a record player. Painting. Sewing. Tinkering. Looking and actually seeing. Breathing slow and deep.

bookshelf mis-en-scène

As I’ve been nesting in my new home, I’ve been pulling tactile objects out of boxes and placing them on shelves. Cutting flowers from my garden, drinking coffee to the sunrise song of local birds, letting my eyes wander over vignettes in nooks and corners. And it’s been giving me pretty big doses of contentment, even while I’m aware of the first world nature of my collections – objets d’art from exotic travel locations, international textiles, inherited antiques and collectibles, lots of books. I know these are the accoutrements of a priveleged life, and yet they tell me stories and bring me joy.

Maybe it’s my Fine Art background or my love of the weird and wonderful, but aesthetics have always been important to me. It causes my husband no end of annoyance that the first thing I like to do on moving into a new home is to hang pictures and place ornaments. (We have moved together seven times, not counting house-sitting or being ‘in between’ homes when we’ve moved interstate or overseas). In any home – whether in a tiny rented London apartment full of Argos goods, or an owned home in Australia, big or small – the aesthetic quality of my surroundings have helped to ground me. As well as providing experiences of colour, texture and light, the way we shape our surroundings encapsulates a story about ourselves and can provide a safe or stimulating place for us to burrow, create, or connect.

References

Anderson, A. (2014). Harmony in the Home: Fashioning the “Model” Artistic Home or Aesthetic House Beautiful through Color and Form. Interiors, 5(3), 341-360.

Caspari, S., Eriksson, K., & Nåden, D. (2011). The importance of aesthetic surroundings: A study interviewing experts within different aesthetic fields. Scandinavian Journal of Caring Sciences, 25(1), 134-142.

Lindahl, G., & Öhlund, M. (2013). Personal branding through imagification in social media: Identity creation and alteration through images (dissertation). Stockholm University.

Yildirim, K., Cagatay, K., & Ayalp, N. (2015). Effect of wall colour on the perception of classrooms. Indoor and Built Environment. Indoor and Built Environment, 24(5), 607-616.

The oasis of writing

Sometimes we need an immersion in a cooling, calming place of our choosing. That might involve turning off our devices, turning away from social media, turning towards what nourishes us. It might be sitting in silence, or playing music loud. It might be the catharsis of working with our hands, or the release of letting them rest. It might be solitude or connection, work or play, stillness or movement, mindful or mindless.

School is currently out in Western Australia, and while I am working, I have been taking time out across the break to bathe in oases of sorts. I’ve been on a brief holiday with my family, pottered around the house, seen friends and indulged in another haven of mine: academic writing.

Those of you who write for a living or are in the throes of a PhD (Oh, the unicorn-dancing-in-a-champagne-waterfall highs! Oh, the despairing bottom-of-the-dark-pit lows!) might roll your eyes or baulk at writing as an oasis. But after a term of working full-time in an exciting but challenging newly-formed role in a school, selling a house, buying a house, moving house, parenting my two lovely children, and trying to maintain relationships with family and friends, I was ready for a break from the relentlessness. From feeling like the mouse on the wheel, full of urgency and repetitive motion. Not only that, but both social media and real life have had their share of challenges lately. Academic writing has been a welcome and nurturing reprieve; simultaneously mental work and a mental break. Academic writing continues to be like my PhD, which I sometimes managed to think of as a holiday from all-the-other-things, or intellectual me-time, although without the weighty pressure or looming examination. Papers and chapters are more bite-size and more varied, and pleasingly always at different stages; just as one becomes difficult, another is coming together or being accepted.

Of course academic writing is not easy or necessarily enjoyable. With it comes challenge, struggle, sometimes brutal feedback. It helps that the acwri I’m doing at the moment is writing I want to do. I’m engaged, interested, motivated, intrigued. I’m learning, growing, pushing at the boundaries of what I know and can do. Academic writing allows me to extend myself in different ways to my school role.

Some of this writing is solo, but I’m also writing papers and chapters collaboratively, something still pretty new to me. Perhaps the collaboration is the coolest part because working with others takes me out of my usual groove, my usual ways of thinking and writing. It gets me engaging with others’ words and these spur my words on. Our words are like gifts from a science fiction world; they shapeshift and take on different lives as they are passed back and forth between authors.

This kind of writing and collaboration is somewhere for a writer to luxuriate. Nestle in. Be cocooned by the writing while at the same time deliciously confronted by it. I brace for feedback but at the same time allow myself to be vulnerable and to be shaped. To read unfamiliar theory, try alternate approaches, or to tinker with new ways of theorising, researching and writing. To have one or more other writers to generate and energise.

It’s cool. It’s fun. It’s a welcome distraction from the daily rush of work during term time and the barrage of angry educators slinging accusations at one another on Twitter (thank goodness for my arguing on EduTwitter bingo card!). This holiday break I’ve worked on a solo-authored journal paper and a collaborative chapter so far. I’ve got one more collaborative chapter to look at over the next few days. I’m looking forward to it. Like a cup of tea at the end of the day after the kids have gone to bed, for my pracademic self, straddling as I do the worlds of school and academia, academic writing can be a moment of ‘aaaaaahhhh’, of indulgence, of me-time.