Teacher research

Set up for today’s presentation via Zoom

Today I had the pleasure of being the opening speaker, via Zoom from Perth, at the King’s Institute Research Symposium at The King’s School in Parramatta. In this blog I outline some of the thoughts I shared.

The pracademic

Those working in schools doing post-graduate study or action research, might be considered a pracademics. The word ‘pracademic’ is used to describe those in their field who simultaneously straddle the dual worlds of practice and scholarship, industry work and research. In education, these are the boundary-spanners who operate as the bridge between the worlds of education research and that of classroom and school. We bring a research lens to our work in schools, and we bring lived experience to our writing and research.

Pracademics have a crucial role to play in connecting the dots between scholarly and practical domains in ways that empower those working in schools to meaningfully engage with research and to contribute outwards to narratives about education. This is about speaking out as well as bringing in.

As I reflect on my own pracademia, I realise that since completing my PhD in 2016, while continuing to work full time in a school, I have produced:

  • 8 peer-reviewed papers in academic journals;
  • 6 academic book chapters;
  • 1 co-edited book – Flip the System Australia: What Matters in Education;
  • 1 monograph – Transformational Professional Learning: Making a Difference in Schools; and
  • blog posts and opinion pieces.

I have spoken regularly at conferences in Australia and overseas, on podcasts and in radio interviews. I also peer review papers for academic journals and write academic book reviews.

As someone who is employed in a school, this is a kind of moonlighting that occurs in volunteered time. These certainly aren’t things I would encourage all teachers to do, but engaging in or with research does meaningfully inform my practice in my school. My overlapping double roles inform one another. The hybridity of the pracademic provides credibility within the school environment, a  perspective that understands the realities of schools. Those of us engaging in research in our schools bring important contextual, relational and practical knowledge to research.

Teacher research is important

We are operating in an education world in which evidence-based practice is promoted and sometimes expected, and in which the field of medicine is seen as a benchmark against which education should measure itself. Schools, school leaders, and teachers are increasingly expected to be research literate, to be informed by research and evidence in our decisions and practices.

We are often presented with arguments that begin with sweeping and unsubstantiated statements like ‘the research says’. ‘Evidence-informed’, ‘research-based’ and ‘data driven’ are buzzwords. They appear in education reports, blogs, media, academic papers, speeches by consultants, books, in school staff rooms and in discussions on social media.

Teacher research and involvement with research is important, especially because so often education research knowledge remains separated from teaching practitioner knowledge. Much education scholarship is written in the structure and language of the academe. Often it resides behind a paywall (at USD$40 per article) or an expensive price tag (at upwards of $200 per book), making it inaccessible for many who work in schools.  Meanwhile, consultants and corporations promote often oversimplified, diluted or misleading solutions to education problems, while claiming that their solutions are based in research. However, as those of use working in schools know, context matters a lot. And the answer to ‘what works?’ is often ‘it depends’.

Teacher research helps us to:

  • make better decisions for our own contexts;
  • include student voice in school change;
  • listen to the voice and experiences of teachers;
  • engage teacher autonomy and agency; and
  • measure the impact of any changes we are making, setting our own success criteria, rather than relying on external metrics.

Teacher research seeks to understand and improve. It does not aim to provide prescriptions, mechanistic approaches, recipes, checklists or league tables. It is about engaging thoughtfully, critically and systematically with evidence, research, our own contexts and our own professional judgement.

Teachers engaging in research and research methodologies means we are applying these to our own contexts, and are also better placed to assess the relevance of other research and evidence we come across. We can make more meaningful sense of the research upon which advice and claims are based. It helps us to be careful of accepting simplified answers at face value. It gives us confidence in our own professional judgement and strengthens our willingness to interrogate claims of ‘the research says’.

Teacher research leads to better outcomes for students

Research cannot and should not tell teachers what to do, but research and other evidence has value in schools and can point us in directions worth pursuing. We improve our schools and our teaching when we integrate professional expertise with evidence and research. It is through practitioner research that we can marry the complex, human work of teaching with a critical, scientific mindset.

Teacher research can help those of us working in schools to make the best decisions for those in our classrooms and communities. It can help teachers and schools decide what is likely to be the best way to invest time and resources.

Practitioner research is an iterative, active, ongoing process that can hone our professional judgments and help to put us in a better position to bring about improved student learning and achievement, as well as other positive school-based results. It requires an ongoing, collaborative commitment to learning, understanding, critically examining what we think we know about what might work in schools to bring about the best outcomes for our students. That is ultimately what we are all here for.

End of an era

farewell gifts.jpg

a selection of farewell gifts

Friday was my last day at my current school.

I still remember a friend messaging me in August of 2008 about the position while I was travelling through the Balkans. I wrote my job application in an internet café in Sarajevo. The Bosnian keyboard made it a bit tricky! After a few phone interviews from my apartment in London I was offered the job. I arrived back in my Australian hometown of Perth in December of 2008, after seven years away in Melbourne and London, not yet having seen or met anyone from the school. I met the principal on 22 December 2008 and began in January 2009.

In my 11 years of service to the school, I taught English and Literature to hundreds of students. In particular, I took about 250 Year 12 students through their English course. I held three leadership positions, worked for two principals and two line managers, had ten sick days, started and completed my PhD, co-edited a book and wrote a book. I also had my two children in that time; so far, it is the only place their mum has ever worked.

I am proud of and excited by the work I have done at the school, much of which I have written about on this blog. Examples include:

I leave a place where I have felt a sense of belonging, an alignment of moral purpose, a deep connection to people.

This was a week of public and private farewells, of reminiscing, of gifts and messages given and received from students, parents and colleagues. Cards, emails, notes, chocolates, wine, jewellery, books, flowers, plants, and … a lab coat. I was told that I worked in the shadows and as the glue to connect and positively influence strategy, individuals, teams and practice. That I was a voice of respectful challenge and healthy skepticism. One colleague said I was an ‘institution’ at the school. Others shared reflections on my contribution to the people and the place.

It was a week of high emotion, especially because it coincided with Year 12 Valedictory celebrations (and also World Teachers’ Day celebrations in Australia). My last day was the Year 12s’ last day. My last event at the school was their Valedictory dinner, which ended with a standing ovation for the College Captain’s moving speech.

My advocacy for teacher voice and agency emerges partly from my daily experience of the care and expertise of those with whom I work. I worked alongside colleagues and leaders who have had a significant influence on me professionally and personally. I know that I have made a difference in the lives of many students. I’ve been a valued part of an exceptional team, a part of something special. The ‘me’ leaving is certainly different to the ‘me’ who arrived.

Finishing up at a school community is such an odd feeling, especially as I am now on long service leave until the end of the year. It’s great to have a break between leaving this position and starting my next one, but my identity is so caught up in work—in being a productive professional who makes a difference in my school—that stepping away from that for a couple of months feels strange and even difficult. Still, this is a problem I am willing to work through! I have plenty to occupy my time: training at the gym, walks along the coast, leisurely coffees, reading fiction, and travel. I also have some conference preparation as I am looking forward to presenting four times at ICSEI 2020 in January, in three symposia and one main stage event.

The thing about endings is that they coincide with beginnings. I’m excited about this break and, beyond it, the new community, new role and new contributions to follow.

Innovation in schools

Today I’m home from a thought-provoking day of professional learning workshops: Jan Owen on building the education ecosystem and Peter Hutton on creating an adaptive culture for school transformation.

An ecosystem is a complex community of interconnected organisms in which each part, no matter how seemingly small, has an active, agentic part to play in the community. There are constant interdependent relationships and influences. The notion of an ecosystem of education resonates with Bob Garmston and Bruce Wellman’s third Adaptive Schools underlying principle of what they call ‘nonlinear dynamical’ systems: that tiny events create major disturbances. This principle reflects the way change often happens. The little things we change or do can have unexpected, chaotic, incremental effects that are difficult to quantify or not immediately noticeable.

As we consider the education ecosystem, to what extent is innovation needed in education?

Certainly, there is a case often made for the need for radical change in education and schooling. Often the future of work is cited, the jobs not yet invented, automation and artificial intelligence disrupting industry. Jan Owen today spoke of globalisation, the flexible economy, job clusters, the need for meaning and purpose in work, diversity, equity, enterprise skills, micro-credentialing and the need for ongoing workplace learning. The Gonski 2.0 report talks about individualised learning, tracking student data, increased emphasis on teaching General Capabilities, and community partnerships as ways to address ‘declining performance’ and improve apparently ‘cruising schools’.

Skills and capabilities are increasingly the focus of futures-focused thinking in education. But knowledge remains crucial. Chief Scientist Alan Finkel said in his speech to the 2018 Australian Science Teachers Association Annual Conference:

“I have had many, many meetings with employers, in my role as Chief Scientist and as Deputy Chair of Innovation and Science Australia; and 6 before that, as Chancellor of Monash University and President of the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering; and before that, as the CEO of a publicly listed company. In all my meetings with people actually hiring graduates, no-one has ever said to me: ‘gosh, we don’t have enough people who know how to collaborate.’ No, what they say to me is: ‘we don’t have enough specialists in software engineering. We can’t find graduates who are fluent in maths. We have meetings where three quarters of the people in the room can’t critique a set of numbers without pulling out a calculator and slowing us down. They were asking for T-shapes, and getting flat lines – but the flat line wasn’t lifted up and anchored by that all-important vertical pillar.”

We need people with specialist knowledge as well as transferrable skills. As I say to my students: we need to know stuff and also be able to do stuff.

French artists around 1900 depict the future of school. Source: publicdomainreview.org

Those commenting on the need for innovation in education often shown slides of classrooms that have students sitting at desks in rows. The argument is made that we have an industrial-age factory model of schooling in which inflexible schools manufacture homogenised experiences for students with little regard for difference, readiness, prior learning, and the idiosyncrasies of the individual.

And yet.

My research into and practical experience of schools and education is that today’s schools and classrooms are not factory-esque machines focused on creating compliant workers and unthinking drones. Audrey Watters wrote in 2015 about the invented history of the factory model of schooling, which she argues is used to justify the need for an ‘upgrade’.

To accuse schools and teachers of rigidly and unimaginatively churning students through regimented, authoritarian, one-size-fits-one education, is to do teachers, schools and school leaders a great disservice.

As I wrote recently: education is not broken and teachers do not need fixing. Education is not operating in the deep deficit that is sometimes the subject of media headlines, reports or popular rhetoric. Teachers deeply know their students. They use a range of data to adjust planning, teaching and assessment to address their students’ needs. They are experts in their fields who know their content and how to teach it. They use a range of resources and technologies to deepen content knowledge and skills, and to allow individualisation and accessibility of learning. They give a range of meaningful feedback. They build productive relationships with students, parents, one another and those in the wider community. Our teachers are working hard every day to empower students and develop their capabilities, relationships and citizenship as well as their knowledge and skills.

Yes, we can consider how to better structure schools and build in further agility. Yes, we can develop the ways in which we harness technologies to do education better. Yes, we can all work to improve our policies, processes and practices, to serve our students and communities more effectively. Yes, we can challenge the measures of success in education and the ways in which students, teachers, school leaders and schools are judged in terms of their positive impact. We can resist external pressures and consider what really matters. We can imagine and enact better ways of doing things. We can consider relevance, authenticity, values, purpose, agency, identity. We can respectfully challenge one another and those leading education systems. We can advocate for our students, families, communities, teachers and school leaders, their learning, their voice, their wellbeing.

Flip the System Australia argues for equity and democracy, and for the elevation and amplification of those in schools and classrooms: students, teachers, school leaders. As Adam Brooks said at the Perth launch of the book: We (teachers and school and system leaders) are the system. We can drive change from the ground up, as the original Flip the System book argues. Peter Hutton today challenged those educators present to “do what you can do now.” “Do what you’re allowed to do,” he said, “and then do a little bit more.”

For me, innovation in education is about interrogating where voice, power and agency reside. It is worth asking: who has power and influence? Who has control of measures, expectations, systems, norms and processes? Who has autonomy, voice and ownership? And what can we each do, now, that is productive and meaningful for our students?

Diary of book production

FULL COVER TransformationalProf Learning

full book cover design

This post is the sequel to my earlier post ‘Diary of writing a book to manuscript completion’, in which I outline the timeline and steps between conceiving of the book, proposing it, writing and editing it. In this post, I illuminate the timeline post submission of the manuscript.

April: On the 1st of April I submit my manuscript to the publisher. After a few weeks the book officially enters ‘production’.

June: I receive the copy edited files and respond to queries. I receive the first proofs of the book and correct them. The copy editor has made some changes that need to be changed back. I pick up a few minor errors I have missed thus far.

July: I receive and check the index. The book cover is released. Booksellers start offering deals on the book.

August: I get word that the final proofed files have been sent to the publisher. The date of release for the book changes online from September to August.

Book launch day arrives! I receive two author copies of the paperback. I’m on my way to the airport so I put a copy in my handbag to look at in transit. I promise myself that I will celebrate later.

A pile of books arrives at the National Coaching in Education Conference, at which I am a keynote speaker. They sell out quickly. I do my first ever book signings.

September: Readers begin to receive their copies and share their first impressions with me. I receive a copy of the hardcover book.

It was interesting to note that the England-printed book and Australia-printed book are slightly different in terms of cover and paper. The English cover has a more muted, thicker, matt cover, and the Australian cover is lighter weight, deeper in colour, and gloss finish.

One thing I am finding puzzling is the online pricing of the book. The publisher has the price of AUD$39.99, and when the book was first released some booksellers had the book on special at $35. Now, however, those same booksellers have now upped the price of the paperback to $55 and $75! The publisher still has the book at the correct original price and as booksellers get the price direct from the publisher, I don’t understand the inconsistency.

Anyhow, there are the steps between submitting the manuscript and receiving the printed book. Good luck to anyone going through their first book writing and production process.

A book doesn’t live and breathe until it has readers, and the best part of this process so far is hearing and reading responses from those all over the world with whom the book is resonating.

hardback

harcover

Keynote: Key coaching concepts from the perspective of a pracademic

Yesterday I presented a keynote to the National Coaching in Education Conference in Sydney.

My presentation explored key concepts that, in my experience, underpin the use of coaching in schools. I drew together insights from my reading, research, practical and personal experience of coaching in schools, with a particular focus on the organisational conditions necessary for coaching, and the effects of coaching on individuals and schools. I interrogated the complex interlocking elements that schools need to balance when working to build a coaching culture, including contexttrust, rapportway of being, differentiation, holonomy and semantic space.

Here is my slide deck.

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Leading the use of research in schools

drummers

source: pixabay.com @skeeze

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Dan Haesler on his podcast Habits of Leadership. You can listen to the 30 minute episode here.

We talked about using research in schools and about the importance of considering our own biases, limitations, assumptions and blind spots. We discussed how we might go about questioning these and being open to changing our minds.

We talked about teachers being extremely busy with their daily work. Teachers cannot be required to do the additional work of reading peer-reviewed scientific papers or sourcing expensive academic books. Some of us choose to do this, but it certainly should not be the expectation. Schools need to think of smart and accessible ways to engage teachers in research. I shared some of the initiatives at my school, such as my termly research report, our leadership forum, encouraging staff professional reading and our research-informed professional learning groups.

We talked about data, which is ubiquitous in schools. All data can tell us something, just like all research can tell us some things and not others. High stakes testing data is one data point worth reflecting on, but it is only one indicator. Teachers need time to collaborate meaningfully around a range of data if ‘data’ is to make a difference to teaching and learning. We talked about the importance of middle leaders and teacher leaders in this work of leading and improving teaching.

Even those types of evidence considered top tier ‘best evidence’ (randomised control trials systematic reviews and quasi-experimental studies) can only show schools what has worked (somewhere, for someone), not what works or what might work. Context remains queen. As I have written on the CEM (Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring) blog, schools need to ask questions of evidence such as: Where did the studied intervention work? For whom? Under what conditions? How many participants were in the study? From what school contexts? How were data generated? What were the ethical considerations and how were these dealt with?

We talked about leadership, including ways of leading that privilege the development of the group, rather than the celebration of the individual. In my view, when leading strategy or change in schools, we need to start with what we value (purpose and values), who we are (mission and identity) and where we want to be (strategic direction). Then we can consider how the best available evidence can help us make the best decisions for our context and community.

The artefacts of a school—such as policies and procedures—should align with the school’s purpose and beliefs. The norms of behaviour—‘how we do things around here’—should follow. It’s no good if the Senior Leadership Team is banging one drum and walking in one direction, if no-one is with them!

Leadership isn’t about a privileged few positional roles at the apex of an organisation. It is about a nourishing ecosystem of leading and learning. In The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge writes that “the bad leader is he who the people despise; the good leader is he who the people praise” but that “the great leader is he who the people say, ‘We did it ourselves.’” For me this reflects that leadership is at its core about:

  • believing in and building the capacity of those in our schools;
  • building cultures of trust where staff are simultaneously supported and challenged;
  • resourcing and supporting meaningful, productive (sometimes uncomfortable) collaboration; and
  • developing consistent, systematic, ethical protocols for evidence use and decision making.

Book cover design for ‘Transformational Professional Learning’

Netolicky BOOK COVER

My book Transformational Professional Learning: Making a Difference in Schools has a cover design!

For me, the image on the cover speaks to transformation, collaboration, the interaction between the individual and the organisation, the fluidity of identities, the complexity of learning, the non-linearity of growth, and the humanity of education.

It is available for pre-order from the hyperlink above (due for release on 20 September), where you can also read the table of contents and the book’s first reviews.

It is also available for pre-order–in paperback, hard back and eBook versions–from other online booksellers like bookdepository and Amazon.

My editor and I have worked with the publisher to reduce the price of the book from AUD$60 to the more teacher friendly AUD$39.99 (already reduced further by some sites), although some sellers don’t yet have the updated price.