Leadership lessons from school principals

source: pixabay.com by @ThinkTanks

Part of my role in overseeing professional learning at my school is building a variety of ways to develop the capacities of leaders. Our termly leadership forum, a new initiative this year, provides a place and space for all of our leaders – from coaches and pastoral leaders, to heads of faculty, senior leadership, and the Executive team. We meet each term for an evening of wine, cheese, provocation, and connection. In Term 1 I ran a session with the Director of Strategy on thinking about leadership in terms of research, organisation, team, and self. In Term 2 we welcomed Professor Dylan Wiliam to our forum.

This term we welcomed a panel of three independent school principals to present to our school’s leaders. These three panellists represented more than three decades of principalship between them. They had some clear messages about leadership for leaders at all levels, including the following.

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Embrace opportunities

The panel encouraged everyone to embrace and pursue available opportunities, to take on challenges and pursue work and service that energise, inspire, and motivate us, and that align with our framework of personal beliefs and values. For me this is about aiming to do good work, without a clear vision of where this might take me.

Be yourself

All three principals said something that resonates with my own philosophy: in order to lead effectively, we need to be authentic. That is, rather than trying to perform the identity we think others are hoping for, each of us can be ourselves. Being ourselves means knowing ourselves. To be authentic leaders, we each need a clear sense of our own core values and beliefs, and a willingness to be transparent in our thinking.

Back yourself

The stories of these three principals showed that we need to be ‘in it to win it’; that is, to put our hat in the ring even when we might not be the obvious choice for a leadership position. Backing ourselves means having the courage and confidence to put our hands up to take on responsibility, and having the self-awareness to know what we bring (and don’t bring) to the work and leading we do. Part of this also means to be unafraid to challenge others or to call out injustice, and to have the capacity to be decisive even when faced with challenging issues.

Receive and give encouragement

All three principals had at some point received a ‘shoulder tap’ where a colleague or more senior leader had suggested they apply for a leadership position they had not considered. I have also had these experiences where someone has recognised for me an opportunity that I didn’t recognise for myself. These are moments that can help us to reimagine of what we are capable, and where our paths might take us. I am grateful to those who have taken the time or opportunity to challenge me on the limitations I have sometimes set for myself.

We can each listen to advice from others and be open to opportunities we may not have considered for ourselves. Each of us can also find opportunities to recognise, acknowledge, and encourage those around us; to let others know when we see leadership potential in them; and to pull others up with us, championing their work and helping them and others to see their possibilities.

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The panel also had plenty to say about being a principal. Principalship is leadership as service that can have very real impacts on those in the role. As the results of the Australian Principal Health and Wellbeing survey show, 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. Our panel discussed their own self-care strategies and the ways in which they look after themselves as they navigate what is complex, unrelenting, ethically-challenging, and often isolated work.

Our panel also noted that ‘principal’ is a leadership position that can be reached via a range of pathways. This encouragement comes at a time when Australia has a shortage of those aspiring to principalship, with a looming shortage as the majority of Australian principals reach or near retirement age.

The message from our panel was that being a principal is doable. Their stories brought a human side to the role and one panellist noted that the principalship is not a special place for an elite few but something to which many can aspire, and in which many can find success. The caveat here was that aspirant principals needed to be those with a strong values framework who is clearly aligned with the core values and mission of the school they are leading, and an ability to make decisions under pressure.

The lessons from this panel of principals are relevant for those aspiring to leadership and those already leading. Whether we have a leadership title, or are seeking opportunities to positively influence the world around us, we can be authentic and true to ourselves. We can be motivated by what energises us and by our desire to make a difference in the world. We can be courageous in our action and communication, make deliberate ethical decisions, and enact well-considered actions that are based on a solid foundation of self-awareness, self-efficacy, and self-belief.

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What does it mean to be a leader?

leadership according to the internet

One thing that drives me mad in my social media feeds are the images that accompany articles on leadership. Infographics about leaders often feature male suited figures. An Google image search for ‘leader’ results in swarms of male figures in front of a group or standing atop a mountain. This presents a very limited notion of what a leader is or to what leaders should aspire. The men photographed or illustrated for these images of leadership tend to be white and photogenic, and wearing suits or capes. Leader as man. Leader as hero. Leader as at the apex. Leader as forging ahead.

Some of the academic writing I’ve been doing around leadership, in the form of journal articles and book chapters, has me revisiting my thinking around leadership. I’ve written before about challenging traditional notions of what a leader is and what they do. I wonder how my own approach and journey might play a part in offering alternative narratives of leadership. How does my story allow others to imagine a leader who may not be out in front, or on top, or male, or in a suit, or wearing a cape? How might leaders or aspirant leaders give themselves permission to lead differently, or to aspire to images of leadership that are different: softer, more collaborative, less visible, more joyful?

This isn’t about being a woman or a man, but about everyone being able to access a continuum of ways of being and leading. Or perhaps it isn’t a continuum but a web of possibilities, connected but divergent.

I have always lived the educational cliché – doing my very best, striving for high achievement, immersing myself in lifelong learning. Many of the leaders in my PhD study said the same: not only had they drunk the Kool-Aid of education, but they also felt its essence down to their bones. Leading, teaching, and learning aren’t add-ons or aspirations, but ways of being based on deeply held beliefs.

I have been a school leader since my first principal took a chance on me by promoting me to a Head of Faculty position in my second year of teaching. I was 22 years of age. I was tasked with leading teachers who had been teaching for more years than I had been living. My approach then, similarly to my approach now, was around building trust and relationships as the foundation stones of leadership. As Bryk and Schneider (2002) assert, relational trust is the connective tissue that binds together individuals with the common mission of advancing the education and welfare of students.

Now, my leadership style is based in an understanding of leadership literature, valuing of relationships, belief in the capacities of those I lead, and willingness to listen equally to enthusiastic perspectives and dissenting voices. My PhD and current role mean that I am a practitioner committed to I research-informed and data-rich practice. I also, however, place great value in practitioner experience, the wisdom of professional practice, and the capacity of those with whom I work, to grow, improve, and serve their students and communities.

My approach to school and cultural change is ‘go slow to go fast’. Deliberate, collaborative change coaxes buy-in and ownership from stakeholders. It involves creating a shared need, designing a shared vision, and then energising, mobilising, and building the capacities and motivations of others to propel change. This kind of leadership isn’t about me, but about how to fire holonomy (Costa & Garmston, 2015): the nuanced interactions between ‘me’ and ‘we’, individual and organisation, cog and machine. As Andy Hargreaves and Michael Fullan (2012) point out, the group is more powerful than the individual in school and system change.

The reason that I continue to blog, to edit and contribute to books, to act as a peer reviewer for journal articles, to engage at conferences and online, is because I want to be part of shaping narratives of education and leadership. It is my hope that through sharing my voice I can be part of offering alternatives and providing solutions.

I have had two children along the way, and have navigated my way through the decision-making that comes with finding ways to be a good parent, a good spouse, and to do work that I think makes a difference in the world. As a leader I am mindful of the example I set for others in the decisions I make around work, family, and wellbeing.

As a leader, I don’t aspire to embody the hero, perform the all-knowing problem-fixer, or forge ahead with innovation at a rate of knots. I aim to be my authentic self and work to empower and elevate others in what Andy Hargreaves, Alan Boyle, and Alma Harris (2014) call ‘uplifting leadership’. Sometimes leading means holding the line or being calm in the eye of a storm. It often means giving others what they need based simultaneously on a balcony view of the macro picture, and an intimate understanding of the individual.

References

Bryk, A., & Schneider, B. (2002). Trust in schools: A core resource for improvement. Russell Sage Foundation.

Costa, A. L., & Garmston, R. J. (2015). Cognitive Coaching: Developing self-directed leaders and learners. Hawker Brownlow Education.

Hargreaves, A., Boyle, A., & Harris, A. (2014). Uplifting leadership: How organisations, teams, and communities raise performance. John Wiley & Sons.

Hargreaves, A., & Fullan, M. (2012). Professional capital: Transforming teaching in every school. Teachers College Press.

Blogging: 3 years on

Perth to NYC, 2014: A blog begins

This week theeduflaneuse.com turns 3. I began this blog on the 23rd of August 2014 with a post about a travelling fellowship upon which I was about to embark. It was to be a way for me to think through my experiences and record these as they happened.

In October 2014 I spent one week in and around New York City, visiting school leaders, researchers, professional development providers and educational experts, in order to gain insights to inform, refine, and shape the implementation of the  coaching-for-professional-growth model I was developing at my school.

The fellowship finished in October 2014, but I kept blogging. Now this blog has more than 200 posts and is read in more than 110 countries. It has become, for me, about much more than a record or recount. It is a place where I think out loud. Where I learn. Where I share experiences, in order to develop my own ideas, connect with others who might choose to engage with me here, and contribute to others’ thinking and work. The notion of contribution is one influenced by what I get from the blogs of others. During my PhD I found reassurance and solidarity in the blogs of PhD candidates. I found generous advice in the blogs of professors and post-docs. I broaden my understandings by reading the blogs of educators who openly articulate their own workings and wonderings. Others’ blogs challenge my thinking, engage me in conversations, reduce feelings of isolation, and break me away from silos of thought that limit me to my own context. As I have written previously, blogging is a way into personal evolution and community transformation on a global scale. These reflections aren’t so different to those I had after one year of blogging, although their scope is now larger.

I began this blog with the concept of ‘édu flânerie’, of being a flâneuse of the education world. I based this on Baudelaire’s flâneur, the (in the 19th century, male) Parisian stroller. Yet as Sainte-Beuve noted, to flâne is not to do nothing, but to casually and keenly experience and observe. In a world of ever-increasing accountabilities and busy-ness, this blog gives my flâneuse the permission to slow down, to notice, to wander, and to contemplate.

I am fully aware that the notion of flânerie is one that indicates privilege. Being able to read, write, and immerse oneself in thought, is a first-world luxury. I am grateful for the opportunity to blog here, to toss out into the void my often unfinished musings, and to receive responses, whether here, on social media, at conferences, or in conversation. Blogging reveals diverse perspectives, sparks global conversations, and initiates relationships. It is these things, as well as the slightly addictive feeling that comes with carving out time and space to sit, think, and write, that act as the propulsive forces for theeduflaneuse.com. Roll on Year 4.

Technology, 21st century skills, and education

As Jon Andrews points out, the education world seems obsessed about framing our thinking around what the future holds, and guestimations of its possibilities. The term ‘21st century skills’ is a symptom of our future-obsession, as schools and governments scramble to prepare their students for … duhm duhm daaaahhhhmmm … The Future. In the late 20th century those words were a way of saying educators were futures thinking, but almost 20 years into the 21st century, I wonder about the usefulness of the phrase. How about just talking about the knowledge, skills, and capabilities students need now and into the future? Does ’21st century skills’ mean anything or is it a meaningless phrase interpreted in different ways by different people? When will we start talking about 22nd century skills?

In my recent reading and thinking about technology in education, talk of 21st century skills is ubiquitous. As Higgins (2014) notes, however, there is no consensus or clear definition of what it means, or what these skills entail. On the one hand, there is a sense of global urgency around the integration of technology in schools, and on the other there is challenge and resistance to technology integration and the contestability of 21st century skills (Hunter, 2015).

Higgins (2014) points out that discussion of 21st century skills is driven by a focus on the economic imperative for productivity and preparing students for the future world of work. In his review of literature around 21st century skills, he finds that the central tenant of what is considered a 21st century education is critical thinking, especially because digital worlds mean that information is increasingly available and questionable in its nature. Other skills that abound in global discussions around the skills required for being successful in the current century include creativity, innovation, communication, collaboration, problem solving, risk assessment, research and information fluency, and digital citizenship (Higgins, 2014). The US Committee on Defining Deeper Learning and 21st Century Skills defined deeper learning as knowledge that can be transferred or applied into new situations (Pellegrino & Hilton, 2013), mirroring Wiggins and McTighe’s (2005, 2011) focus on transfer as the key focus of learning.

Fullan (2013a) is critical of the 21st century learning skills agenda, calling it a vaguely defined skill set with too much focus on standards and assessment and not enough on pedagogy, and with little integration of student use of technologies. For Fullan (2013b), deep learning goals are what he refers to as the 6 Cs:

  • Character education: honesty, self-regulation and responsibility; perseverance; empathy for contributing to the safety and benefit of others; self-confidence, personal health and wellbeing; career and life skills.
  • Citizenship: global knowledge, sensitivity to and respect for other cultures, active involvement in addressing issues of human and environmental sustainability.
  • Communication: effective oral, written, and digital communication; listening skills.
  • Critical thinking and problem solving: thinking critically to design and manage projects, solve problems, and make effective decisions using a variety of digital tools and resources.
  • Collaboration: working in teams; learning from and contributing to the learning of others; social networking skills; empathy in working with diverse others.
  • Creativity and imagination: economic and social entrepreneurialism; considering and pursuing novel ideas; leadership for action.

Fullan (2013a) urges educators to move beyond a superficial homage to 21st century learning skills to developing what it means to actually implement them in practice. Higgins (2014) challenges us to ask: “Do we need a curriculum with less specified knowledge, allowing a greater emphasis on skills, based on the argument that information (and therefore knowledge) is more readily accessible? Or do we need more knowledge, as the basis for developing greater expertise and the ability to make informed and complex judgements, based on a deeper understanding of a topic or field?” (p.571). Certainly there are those who argue that knowledge is now more important than ever, and question a primarily skills-based education (e.g. Hirsch, 2016).

As part of the 21st century skills movement, digital literacy has become a global focus. In the UK, the Communications Act 2003 tasked the media regulator, Ofcom, with promoting and researching media literacy, defined on its website as enabling “people to have the skills, knowledge, and understanding to make full use of the opportunities presented by both traditional and new communications services” and helping “people to manage content and communications, and protect themselves and their families from the potential risks associated with using these services.”

A Commonwealth of Australia (2009) report highlights digital media literacy as a dynamic concept and a necessary condition for a successful digital economy. It says: “Digital media literacy ensures that all Australians are able to enjoy the benefits of the digital economy: it promotes opportunities for social inclusion, creative expression, innovation, collaboration, and employment. … The focus of digital media literacy policy and programs is on the development of three core skill sets:

  • the technical ability to engage at a basic level with a computer and the internet, such as to create documents and emails;
  • the ability to understand and critically evaluate digital media and digital media content; and
  • the ability to create content and communications.”

While the movement to focus education on a contested set of 21st century skills is debated in education circles, governments around the Western world have acknowledged the need for their citizens to be critical, creative, collaborative, interdisciplinary in their thinking, and to be able to leverage technologies. I agree with Fullan that we need to move beyond lip service homages to preparing students for uncertain futures. I also align with Higgins’ suggestion that students need more knowledge as the basis for expertise. Skills don’t exist in a vacuum, and students can only think critically, creatively, divergently, and entrepreneurially, once they have a knowledge base from which to do so. I would like to think, for instance, that a knowledge of literature and history can help our students to become global citizens knowledgeable about past events, multiple perspectives, and dystopian possibilities. And that a knowledge of mathematics and science can lead to creative problem seeking and systematic problem solving.

What do you think? Can we retire ’21st century skills’, and instead talk about what knowledge, understandings, skills, and capabilities, our students need now and into the future?

References

Fullan, M. (2013a). Stratosphere: Integrating technology, pedagogy, and change knowledge. Toronto: Pearson.

Fullan, M. (2013b).  Great to excellent:  Launching the next stage of Ontario’s education agenda.

Higgins, S. (2014). Critical thinking for 21st-century education: A cyber-tooth curriculum? Prospects44(4), 559-574.

Hirsch, E. D. (2016). Why knowledge matters: Rescuing our children from failed educational theories. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Hunter, J. (2015). Technology integration and high possibility classrooms: Building from TPACK. Abingdon, England: Routledge.

Pellegrino, J. W., & Hilton, M. L. (2013). National Research Council. Education for life and work: Developing transferable knowledge and skills in the 21st century. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Wiggins, G. P., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by Design. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Wiggins, G. P., & McTighe, J. (2011). The Understanding by Design guide to creating high-quality units. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Getting my Library on

A library … should be the delivery room for the birth of ideas. ~ Norman Cousins

Part of my current leadership portfolio (which also includes professional learning, research, pedagogy, and digital learning) is line management of the school library. This is a new space for me, but I feel at home there as an English and Literature teacher who has worked closely with libraries and librarians for years, and as a book lover who feels most at home surrounded by books, preferably accompanied by a good coffee. Some of my favourite places to be are libraries and book cafes. In some ways, this puts me at a disadvantage; I am not a distant observer, able to apply dispassionate logic to the library space. I am a romantic and an idealist when it comes to libraries.

my reading nook at home

In a world often obsessed with the new, the shiny, and the technological, in some ways I am drawn to a ‘back to basics’ approach to libraries as communities filled with books and contemplative spaces. I understand, however, that libraries evolve with the world, and that information literacy encompasses digital literacy. I understand that it is highly appropriate for libraries to have noisier collaborative spaces, 3D printers, coding clubs, and makerspaces. I know some libraries are headed up, not by librarians or by teachers, but by technology specialists. I shouldn’t let my inner book nerd limit my thinking around what a library is or might be.

In order to support my collaborative work with the school library team, I reached out on social media for advice from those with more knowledge and expertise than me – librarians, especially school librarians, across the world. Many responded generously with suggestions of books, online resources, and social networks of passionate and knowledgeable librarians.

Online resources included: The Library Element blog, the American Association of School Librarians, Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Librarians, the Austin Library, the Canadian International School, Toorak College, Mt Alvernia College, Scotch College, and the School Library Journal.

my pile of beautiful books on libraries

Two of the books I was pointed in the direction of are by library theorist R. David Lankes: The New Librarianship Field Guide (2016) and The Atlas of New Librarianship (2011). It was from these books that I have drafted a kind of mission statement for the Library, for our discussion as a team as we work together on a cohesive vision for our library:

Libraries aim to improve society through facilitating knowledge creation and learning. The power of libraries and librarians is that they are agents of radical positive change that make our communities and our society a better place. While libraries’ mission and values are unchanging, the librarian’s tools are changeable.

The Library is more than the centre of resourcing for the school; it is a welcoming, respectful, vibrant, and intellectually safe place of information, knowledge, conversation, collaboration, creation, and learning. It provides an anchor and a hub for our community in which diverse, global perspectives are sought and considered; reading and learning are championed; ethical, inclusive practices are modelled and supported; and the pleasure found in continuous, lifelong learning is celebrated.

The Library team works collaboratively to build the capacity of staff and students in the key areas of reading, research, knowledge creation, information literacy, and the capabilities required for active citizenship.

I’m looking forward to continuing my thinking in this space, and working with librarians whose work is fundamental to knowledgable, inquiring, and vibrant communities. As Lankes points out in his books, libraries were named after the work of librarians, not the other way around.

Feedback: It’s emotional

it’s emotional (Jeanne Moreau in Elevator to the Gallows)

The red pen is symbolic of marking. It’s viscous crimson ink, staining crisp white pages, is bedded in the history of giving feedback on written work. It stands out from blue or black writing, allowing corrections to be seen. That’s probably why the default colour for Microsoft Word tracked changes is red. It’s bold, noticeable, stark.

The red pen has also been at the centre of controversy. In 2008, 2013, and as recently as 2016, there were international articles arguing that marks made by red pens on student work were threatening and confrontational for students, and that teachers should stop marking with them. In 2010 Rutchick, Slepian, and Ferris found that teachers using red pens to correct essays marked more errors and awarded lower grades than teachers using blue pens. A 2013 study by Dukes and Albanesi was central to renewed furore, arguing that marking with red pens can upset students and lead to weakened teacher-student relationships. Some educators retorted that the whole idea was silly and continued to wield their red pens. Some schools responded with ‘rainbow marking’ policies in which teachers armed themselves with red-free sets of highlighters and pens. Yellow! Pink! Purple! Green! Blue!

This week a student asked me to look over a practice exam response he had done in his own time. I was sitting next to him and asked if he had a pen I could use to give him feedback on it. His immediate response: “Do you want a red one?”

Pat Thomson yesterday published this post about the ‘bleeding thesis’, explaining that doctoral students can feel like the pages are bleeding when they receive red scrawling annotations and red tracked changes on their drafts. I have heard high school students complain similarly about the ‘bleeding pages’ of their marked work. “Oh, my essay looks like it’s bleeding!”

When I was editing my PhD thesis I had a swag of Artline finline pens. My personal favourites were green, purple, and dark pink. When I was in a self-flaggelatory mood, I would use red. It felt like punishment, a dark culling of my words, permission to be ruthless with my writing.

Yesterday a colleague emailed me a draft paper and asked me to ‘scribble on it’, so I annotated it with my reactions, thoughts, and suggestions. Part of their email response to my annotations was “I feel like I am getting your feedback on a Lit essay I’ve handed in, and admit to feeling a certain amount of pride at the ticks and double ticks!” Yes, I ticked those parts of the paper that resonated with me or I felt were important (a hard English teacher habit to break). I know my students scour their marked work, counting the ticks. They often call out “I got a double tick!” And now that I think about it, I annotated my colleague’s draft in green pen.

Of course, it’s not really the pen that is important. It’s the quality of the feedback that matters. A tick can be meaningless (but nonetheless emotion-inducing) praise, unless there is an understanding of why it’s there. This 1984 study by Semke found that teacher-written corrections do not increase writing accuracy, writing fluency, or general language proficiency, and they may have a negative effect on student attitudes. Dylan Wiliam points out that feedback can help or hinder learning, and that the feedback-giver/feedback-receiver relationship is key to feedback’s effectiveness.

It is neither possible nor desirable to give great quantities of feedback. As an English teacher, I have to constantly navigate the balance between giving meaningful feedback to help students move forward, and balancing my marking workload. Over my career I’ve developed a suite of varied strategies to ensure students are constantly engaging in feedback over their work, without me constantly collecting and correcting workbooks or homework. I’ve found I can give every student some brief, immediate feedback verbally if I check homework in a lesson once students are working. I can set peer and self assessments designed to engage students with the task and the work so that they are empowered to give themselves and each other relevant feedback. I can work with individuals and small tutorial groups to give targeted feedback. I constantly ask myself: Who is doing the mental work? It is the student who needs to be thinking and working to improve; my correcting errors ad nauseum is going to have little impact.

But feedback, written and otherwise, is emotional. Sometimes feedback can feel collaborative and inspiring and propulsive and nurturing (a thank you shout out to my co-authors on various projects, and some generous reviewers!). Sometimes it can feel brutal and visceral and dismissive and unforgiving. Sometimes it’s a warm embrace and sometimes it’s a swift kick in the guts.

The harshest feedback I’ve seen hasn’t been from the ink of a red pen, but from anonymous peer reviewers for academic journals. This Twitter account might give you an idea of the kinds of feedback some academics receive about their work. It cites reviewer comments like, “You have put in a lot of effort answering a question that should have never been asked” and “The biggest problem with this manuscript, which has nearly sucked the will to live out of me, is the terrible writing style.”

We need to be ok with failure, as suggested by this post on self-esteem that a friend shared with me this week, and as I explain in this post, in which I share some harsh verbal feedback from one of my PhD supervisors. As I said in this post, receiving peer reviewed feedback can feel like simultaneously getting a high five and a punch in the face. One thing that doing a PhD, receiving feedback during the journal double-blind peer review process, and being a reviewer myself, have taught me, is that we need to train ourselves (and our students) to be resilient and interested receivers of feedback. By ‘interested’, I mean we need to be curious about what we might learn and open to listening to even that feedback which might hurt at first. If I find that a reviewer or colleague ‘just doesn’t get it’, I need to be able to take that as a sign that I could make my intention clearer.

As marketing consultant Jay Baer would say, when it comes to feedback we need to hug our haters. Or as a colleague of mine says, we learn most when we welcome complaints. It is through seeing our work through the eyes of others, and by being open to criticism, that we can figure out how to push our work forward, improve it incrementally, take it in a new direction, or defend it more vigorously.

What’s the point of technology in education?

source: pixabay.com @Pexels

I’ve always been a bit of a secret techy nerd, thanks, in part, to my dad who was an early adopter of computer technologies. In the 1980s, we had an Amstrad CPC desktop computer, one with a cassette tape deck to play computer programmes. My parents taught me how to write basic computer code using … BASIC (Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code). My mum wrote programmes using BASIC that my brother, sister and I could play. We soon upgraded to an IBM PC and floppy disks. While we also had a full set of Encyclopaedia Britannica, we were at the bleeding edge of 80s technology! We continued to upgrade computers and have access to games. From the 80s I have fond memories of the arcade-style game Gilligan’s Gold, and in the 90s I loved strategic simulation games like Civilization and Jones in the Fast Lane. The Walkman revolutionised and mobilised music listening, and I spent hours of my high school years in my bedroom making mix tapes on a double audio cassette player; timing was everything.

Now for a statement of the ridiculously obvious: The technological landscape has changed dramatically since I was a child. Its physical, virtual, and ethical parameters are very different. I have been considering what our children and students need now in terms of technologies that can aid or augment learning and living, and what kinds of knowledge and nous they require to be effective and empowered negotiators of their current worlds and the multiple identities they act out on real and virtual platforms.

But why bother with digital technologies? Why not stick to traditional technologies (pen, paper, the overhead projector!)? In part, our local and global context requires it. The world feels a sense of urgency around predicting our students’ future and busily preparing them for it. Being tech savvy has become an economic imperative.

In Australia, technologies and technology education are an ever-increasing focus. The 2008 Melbourne Declaration of Educational Goals for Young Australians states that “when students leave school they will be confident, creative, and productive users of technologies” (p.8) and that “practical knowledge and skills development in areas such as ICT and design and technology are central to Australia’s skilled economy and will provide crucial pathways to post-school success” (p.12).

As part of the 21st century skills movement, digital literacy has become a global focus. A Commonwealth of Australia (2009) report highlights digital media literacy as a dynamic concept and a necessary condition for a successful digital economy. It says: “Digital media literacy ensures that all Australians are able to enjoy the benefits of the digital economy: it promotes opportunities for social inclusion, creative expression, innovation, collaboration, and employment. … The focus of digital media literacy policy and programs is on the development of three core skill sets:

  • the technical ability to engage at a basic level with a computer and the internet, such as to create documents and emails;
  • the ability to understand and critically evaluate digital media and digital media content; and
  • the ability to create content and communications.”

In 2013 the Australian Curriculum, Assessment, and Reporting Authority (ACARA) published the seven General Capabilities in the Australian Curriculum, including the ICT Capability that “involves students learning to make the most of digital technologies available to them, adapting to new ways of doing things as technologies evolve and limiting the risks to themselves and others in a digital environment (p.49).

In 2014, the Australian Government released the Industry Innovation and Competitiveness Agenda that aims to strengthen Australia’s competitiveness. One of the major announcements at this time was the proposal to focus on science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and innovation in schools, and the introduction of the Coding Across the Curriculum Program.

In 2015 ACARA released The Australian Curriculum: Technologies, which aims to develop the knowledge, understanding, and skills to ensure that, individually and collaboratively, students:

  • investigate, design, plan, manage, create, and evaluate solutions;
  • are creative, innovative, and enterprising when using traditional, contemporary, and emerging technologies, and understand how technologies have developed over time;
  • make informed and ethical decisions about the role, impact, and use of technologies in the economy, environment, and society for a sustainable future;
  • engage confidently with and responsibly select and manipulate appropriate technologies − materials, data, systems, components, tools, and equipment − when designing and creating solutions; and
  • critique, analyse, and evaluate problems, needs, or opportunities to identify and create solutions.

ACARA (2016) has since declared STEM education a national priority, describing STEM as closely linked to Australia’s productivity and economic wellbeing, central to a well-rounded education, and contributing to a diverse and capable STEM workforce pipeline.

The introduction of OLNA as an online literacy and numeracy assessment, and NAPLAN moving to computer-based assessment from 2018 (on an opt-in basis), means that students from Year 3 need to be able to be proficient keyboard and computer users in order to effectively demonstrate national literacy and numeracy requirements.

So how are educators to engage in all of this? Fullan (2013) urges us to move beyond a superficial homage to 21st century learning skills to developing what it means to actually implement them in practice. Higgins (2014) challenges us to ask: “Do we need a curriculum with less specified knowledge, allowing a greater emphasis on skills, based on the argument that information (and therefore knowledge) is more readily accessible? Or do we need more knowledge, as the basis for developing greater expertise and the ability to make informed and complex judgements, based on a deeper understanding of a topic or field?” (p.571).

The launch of a new communication and learning management platform at my school and my involvement in a couple of strategic projects have had me thinking about digital pedagogy and how to choose digital tools for learning. In a sea of fast moving technologies and faster moving policy, perhaps we can anchor ourselves with the building blocks of teaching and learning: good curriculum and assessment design, well-considered pedagogy, and knowledge of our students. Then we can make decisions around technology based on what it is we want them to know and be able to do.

 

References

Fullan, M. (2013a). Stratosphere: Integrating technology, pedagogy, and change knowledge. Toronto: Pearson.

Higgins, S. (2014). Critical thinking for 21st-century education: A cyber-tooth curriculum? Prospects44(4), 559-574.