Education is not broken. Teachers do not need fixing.

abandoned chairs

source: @MichaelGaida on pixabay

This week, New South Wales MP Mark Latham, of the Australian One Nation party, discussed the One Nation NSW education policy. The policy uses language like “embarrassing” to describe Australia’s performance on PISA testing, as well as constructing teachers as “substandard” and “underperforming”, arguing that many should be reported and “removed”. It states that “what gets measures [sic] gets done”. It advocates for introducing performance-based pay for teachers, based on measuring teacher performance; “for example, testing a class at the beginning and end of the year and assessing the improvement (or regression) in results over the 10-month period.” Of course, measuring so-called teacher effectiveness is notoriously unreliable and a teacher’s influence on the students in their care is multifaceted. Check out the Twitter hashtag #OurWorkCannotBeMeasured through which teachers describe student progress or teacher work that cannot be quantified through an oversimplified performance measure.

On Thursday, as a result of an article I wrote for The Conversation back in 2016 on performance pay for teachers, I was invited to comment on ABC New South Wales radio about Mr Latham’s proposal. The interview is online here, at about the 2 hour and 7 minute mark. I explained during the interview that performance pay for teachers has no evidence for improving student achievement. Rather, merit-based pay is damaging. It creates toxic cultures of fear, isolation and competition. It leads to reduced collegiality and collaboration, less innovation, exacerbated wellbeing issues and the dehumanisation of teachers and students to data points.

During the interview I was asked, “What will fix all these problems we have in our education system?” My response was that “while there are issues, part of the problem is this notion that the education system needs fixing, that the system is broken, that schools and teachers are failing and we need to fix them. We have excellent teachers doing incredible work in our schools. Part of what is going to help the system is trusting teachers to do their jobs and providing trust, support, resourcing and time, instead of punishments, rewards and accusations.”

The experience of this brief radio interview—squeezed into the school day in between lessons and meetings in the last week of Term 2—led me to reflect on themes in my upcoming book. Titled Transformational professional learning: Making a difference in schools, it includes chapters on collaboration, mentoring, coaching, self-directed learning, professional standards and leadership for professional learning.

When people ask me what my book is about I say, “professional learning for teachers and school leaders” (usually followed by a tongue-in-cheek “it’s a real page-turner”). It is about that, but it is also about significantly more.

My book is about trusting and supporting the profession through meaningful opportunities to grow. It is about why, how and on what education stakeholders can best spend time, money and resources, for positive outcomes. It is about treating those working in schools as professionals who are experts in their work but who can always improve, not because they are deficient, but because their work is complex and entangled with identities, relationships, society and humanity. It is about policy that takes the long view rather than aiming for quick wins, and about leadership that empowers rather than inspects or punishes.

It is about nurturing collaboration and collegiality, over surveillance and isolation. It is about those things that systems and organisations can do to develop the capacity of those within the system. It is about how to build productive organisational cultures that simultaneously value, honour and sustain each individual and the group as a whole. It is about meaningfully considering workload and wellbeing, so that teachers and school leaders can best serve their students and communities without sacrificing themselves, burning out or taking shortcuts to stay afloat. These themes are relevant to other organisations and systems, too, not just to education.

When I reflect on my upcoming book, one of its central messages is this:

Education is not broken. Teachers do not need fixing. There is outstanding work going on every day in schools around Australia and the world. We should focus on trusting and empowering the teaching profession.

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Sharing research in schools through a Research Report

‘The research says’ is often an empty statement used as a basis for an argument for a particular education reform, approach or product. I encourage teachers to ask: What research? Whose interests are served by this claim? 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? How relevant is this to our context?

Dylan Wiliam has recently noted in a TES article that:

“classrooms are just too complicated for research ever to tell teachers what to do. Teachers need to know about research, to be sure, so that they can make smarter decisions about where to invest their time, but teachers, and school leaders need to become critical consumers of research – using research evidence where it is available and relevant, but also recognising that there are many things teachers need to make decisions about where there is no research evidence, and also realising that sometimes the research that is available may not be applicable in a particular context…. Evidence is important, of course, but what is more important is that we need to build teacher expertise and professionalism so that teachers can make better judgments about when, and how, to use research.”

I agree that teachers and school leaders need to become critical consumers of research. A number of us additionally participate in research degrees. While research can inform our decision making in classrooms and schools, the teaching profession is a profession of experts, who should be trusted to serve their students and respected for their expertise. Teachers can and should engage with research.

There are a number of ways via which schools can engage in research. I have written on this blog and in my upcoming book about what I call the ‘Research Report’ at my school. I introduced this Report in 2017 as one approach to developing a research culture in a school. It is a document that I regularly publish to the whole staff. This involves everyone—including administration and operations—in our core purpose of education. It illuminates current debates, incites corridor discussion about teaching, and provides bite-size, user-friendly resources for busy teachers and school leaders. I love getting bailed up by a member of the administration team, finance department, executive or teaching staff for a discussion about one of the references from the Report.

The Report is not a place for only long reads or complex academic papers, although these are included when relevant. Often, the research I share is easily accessible via links, and sometimes via podcasts and videos. The report is not a panacea or an echo chamber; I include controversial and sometimes conflicting resources to spark thinking and encourage dialogue.

My Research Report is one small attempt–among a suite of protocols, practices and collaborative structures–to engage staff with research findings, and with systematic and scientific ways of thinking. It is a cogitation and conversation starter, intended to develop a rich and robust professional culture.

While I began in 2017 with two reports per term, I found that this was too much for staff, so now each term I populate one Report that includes three Report sections with around three resources each. Foci are based around strategic priorities and/or current issues. For instance, to align with NAIDOC week, this term’s report included a section on intercultural understanding. I use PowerPoint to collate these together and publish ‘teaser’ quotes for each resource.

I have had some people ask me what these Research Reports look like, so below I have included an example slide deck with snippets of previous Reports. Let me know if it’s of use, or if your school does something similar.

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How to study (for English)

This post explores studying for exams, and the recent approach that I took with my classes to develop their knowledge and skills in studying.

Before the recent Semester 1 examination period, I talked through exam revision with my Year 11 Literature and Year 12 English classes. I pointed out that artfully arranging their notes around them, or reading over or highlighting material, doesn’t work to ensure that they are able to retrieve knowledge on the day of the exam, or to hone the skills needed for the exam. I explained and explicitly taught research-based study strategies such as spaced practice, interleaving practice, retrieval practice and dual coding.

I shared links to study skills resources with students, including the following.

  • Carl Hendrick’s excellent introductory blog post on study skills. He points out that “retrieval practice, spacing and interleaving are some of the most productive ways of revising material but how many students are familiar with this? I think there is often a tendency to focus too much on what teachers are doing and less on what students are doing.”
  • Megan Sumeracki’s post on dual coding. She says, “dual coding is the process of combining verbal materials with visual materials. There are many ways to visually represent material, such as with infographics, timelines, cartoon strips, diagrams, and graphic organisers. When you have the same information in two formats – words and visuals – it gives you two ways of remembering the information later on. Combining these visuals with words is an effective way to study.”
  • Oliver Caviglioli’s video on dual coding.
  • Joe Kirby’s post on knowledge organisers. He notes that “knowledge organisers are brilliant for revision. In the past, I hugely underestimated the sheer volume of retrieval practice required for pupils to master all their subject knowledge in long-term memory. Specifying the exact knowledge is just a starting point. Sequencing it, explaining it, checking it, quizzing on it, practicing combining it, testing it, and revising it for years are vital if pupils are to remember it for years to come.”

Spending time during our revision week on explicitly teaching and supporting students in their use of study skills resulted in: clear study plans over a period of time (not cramming!), clear individual goals and actions to prepare for the exam, and increasingly productive use of students’ study time.

A flurry of palm cards appeared in class as students embraced retro technologies for revision notes. Some students commented that their normal study habits have been unsuccessful. A number reflected that they were previously often unable to recall content in an exam, and that maybe it was ineffective studying (and the performance or appearance of studying without actually doing the mental work) that was the reason.

Many students felt empowered that they now knew what to do. Previously they had the will, but perhaps not the strategy or skill to make their time spent studying productive. I encouraged them to spend time doing things that were most likely to make a difference.

Students weren’t all working on the same thing, but each was able to articulate to me what they were doing to prepare for the exam, and why. Each realised the importance of memorised knowledge, something they often neglect when preparing for an English exam (“It’s fine! I’ll just go in and write words about stuff.”). They tell me these lessons on studying also influenced their preparation for other exams.

Below I share some example slides from my revision lessons, to give an idea of the kinds of things I covered.

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Success indicators of a professional learning model

source: pixabay @djoanis

For many years, my school has been developing and fine-tuning our internal professional learning processes based on a foundation of trust in our staff and a belief that school and staff can support one another to grow together in ways that are meaningful and have profound positive impacts on individuals and community.

In 2018 we launched a choice-based set of pathways for staff professional learning, moving away from a linear, chronological cycle of mandated processes for staff development. Rather than being assigned, these pathways, differentiated for teachers and leaders at various levels (and outlined in this previous post), are decided through negotiation between each staff member and their line manager, as part of the annual reflection, goal setting and development conversation. These school-based options provide a flexible suite of alternatives that honour where our staff are at in their career journeys, and provide meaningful and research-supported ways for them to develop as teachers and leaders.

The process of setting goals, planning related actions and choosing an internal organisation-embedded professional learning pathway, is done in a cascading fashion from the beginning of each year. The school executive set the school goals and actions; then leaders set their own team and self goals, actions and pathways; then teachers set their own development goals and negotiate a pathway. In this way, individual goals are aligned within the framework of school strategic direction and priorities. The process also includes a reflection against the AITSL professional standards for teachers or principals, as appropriate to person and role.

I have been reflecting lately on measures of success of this model. How might we know that our approach to internal professional learning is having a positive impact? As part of the model’s implementation, we generate ongoing honest feedback from staff in order to refine the model each year, including via focus groups and anonymous surveys. For instance, in the annual staff survey, the pathway options, especially the Professional Learning Groups, were rated highly by staff. Additionally, our staff satisfaction with professional learning is above the national benchmark.

Lately I have been interested to see some unexpected measures of the success of this model come to light.

Firstly, in this second year of implementation, staff have been owning and advocating for their negotiated pathway. For instance, some staff were told that due to logistics, numbers or staff leave arrangements, their chosen option would not be viable. In these cases, staff have fought hard to maintain their choice, including planning alternate timelines and strategies for the pathway to be completed. They have been arguing the reasons for their choice, why it is meaningful to them, and how they can make it work in robust ways. We have had some people negotiating to be coached or mentored by particular staff with clear reasons as to why this is a meaningful partnership, and outlining the rigorous work they completed ahead of the pathways’ official start date. So not only have staff chosen options about which they are passionate, but they have begun the work of their chosen option ahead of time because of their belief in the value of its contribution to their professional growth.

Secondly, staff have been opting in to extra options on top of the required single choice. A number of staff have chosen to participate, for instance, in a Professional Learning Group on top of another process. This shows the value staff see in these collaborative groups that bring staff from across the school together to share thinking and practice around common interests and strategic priorities.

A number of staff are involved in the model as both participant themselves, and as a key actor in the learning of others. The model is leaking out to be owned and run by a range of staff who are acting as mentors, coaches and leaders of initiatives. This year I still oversee the Professional Learning Groups but am no longer running all of them; other staff are leading in their areas of interest, expertise and strategic priority. They are doing a wonderful job of breathing their own individual approaches to these groups, which are almost all oversubscribed.

Another measure of success of the overarching process is the explicit and reflective connection I am now seeing between applications for external professional learning and a person’s goals. The goal setting that happens at the beginning of the year has ongoing knock-on effects, including influencing the intentionality of staff professional development. Staff are clear about how their professional learning builds upon school strategy, team goals and their own personal goals, and they are active in seeking relevant professional learning opportunities.

It’s interesting to see the unexpected ways in which a change like our negotiated professional learning pathways model can influence professional culture, conversation and ‘the way we do things around here’. The COVA—choice, ownership, voice and authenticity—principles have resulted in increased staff engagement in and ownership of their internal professional learning, as well as connecting staff from disparate areas of the school. It reminds me of a participant quote from my PhD about the non-linear, surprising impacts of change: “it’s like oil in water”, fluid, unexpected and marvellous to watch.

 

Post script: I’m excited to be able to share more about this and other experiences in my upcoming book, available for pre-order from the publisher and all good booksellers: Transformational Professional Learning: Making a Difference in Schools.

Flip the System Australia: Launching the book

credit: Daniel Grant

At the Perth Flip the System Australia book launch, the audience contributed their ideas about the book’s sub-title ‘What matters [most] in education?’

Since its release, our Flip the System Australia: What Matters in Education book has been the subject of online book clubs via Twitter and Adobe Connect. Some have blogged about the book. See this review by Darcy Moore and this blog post by Kay Oddone. The online reviews on goodreads and amazon call the book “timely”, “urgent”, “superb” and “life-changingly good”. On Twitter it has been called a “must-read”.

The book is having quite the spectacular and protracted entry into the education reading world. Part of the reason is because ‘Flip the System’ is more than a series of edited books on education. It is a movement and a way of actively engaging with and within the education system.

Before its publication, in October 2018, the three editors (myself, Jon Andrews and Cameron Paterson) presented at the ACEL conference in Melbourne on what it means to flip the system in education, and what our Australian book contributes to this global movement.

On the day of its publication, in December 2018, I chaired a symposium at the AARE conference at the University of Sydney titled ‘Education research that engages with multiple voices: Flipping the Australian education system’. Presenters included chapter authors Kevin Lowe, Melitta Hogarth, Bob Lingard, Greg Thompson and Scott Eacott.

In March 2019, co-editor Cameron Paterson hosted a TeachMeet in Sydney on flipping the education system in Australia. Presenters included Yasodai Selvakumaran, Kevin Lowe, Carla Gagliano, Scott Eacott, Mark Liddell and Corinne Campbell. Jelmer Evers, one of the editors of the original Flip the System book, Flip the System: Changing Education from the Ground Up, Skyped in to speak to the Sydney audience. You can listen to the presentations from the night on this TER podcast episode.

In April 2019 we partnered with Fogarty Foundation’s EDfutures and the Innovation Unit for a Perth book event at The Platform Space. EDfutures’ Rebecca Loftus was the MC. As a co-editor, I introduced the series of Flip the System books and outlined our Australian Flip the System book in particular. Then each of the Perth authors–myself, Keren Caple, Tomaz Lasic and Ben Lewis–each explained our contributing chapter and our take on flipping the education system.

The panel was followed by a robust, energising, and at times emotional, discussion with the audience, who included teachers, school leaders, sector leaders, researchers, parents and students. This discussion revealed many of the challenges of the current system, but also the passion and appetite for positive action. It celebrated the great work already going on in our schools, the wonderful partnerships already in play within the education system, the excellent teaching in our classrooms, meaningful partnerships between schools and parents, possibilities for meaningful change, and ways to share the important voices and work of students, teachers and school leaders.

One comment that resonated with those in the room was Adam Brooks‘ argument that we (those in schools) are the education system. Therefore, we need to be active agents of the system reality we want to see.

We can and should nudge the system from the inside out. We can and should celebrate and elevate the good work being done in our schools and the voices and stories of those doing it. We can and should advocate for what is best for our students and our school communities. We can and should agitate for the inviting of all stakeholders–including students, teachers school leaders, and parents–into education discussions and to education decision-making tables.

As we editors write in the conclusion of the book:

Flipping the system is about flattening the system, while more tightly interconnecting the members of that system. We argue for a system in which multiple education voices and stakeholders can dialogue constructively, respectfully and representatively. Democratising the system means liquefying top-down power structures and fostering trust and collaboration. It means that those from within and across the education system work together for the good of the students and families being served by the system. This is ultimately a book about the human aspects of education, so often forgotten in our data-obsessed world of numbers and metrics. Flipping the system means focusing on lived experiences, nuances, contexts, and the humanity of education. It means trusting and listening closely to the people within the system. It means co-constructing a system—of distributed, webbed, non-hierarchical and productive networks—from the ground up and the middle out. (pp.245-246).

Below are some photographs of the Perth book launch. Photo credit to Daniel Grant.

Meanwhile, keep an eye out for news of a Brisbane Flip the System Australia event coming soon.

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Pause

Bigurda Trail by Deborah Netolicky

walking alone on the Bigurda Trail last week (Kalbarri, Western Australia)

Last year I worked with a coach. During one of our first conversations, he said, “It sounds like what you need is to pause.”

That sounded right.

“Yes!” I said. “I do pause, though. I often pause, see where I’m at, re-assess, and make a new list for what to do next.”

My coach’s wry smile stopped me. He said, “That’s an active pause, but I think you’re talking about the need for a non-active pause.”

A non-active pause? An actual pause where nothing happens but the act of pausing? I wondered what that looked like. I had spent so long working on habits and systems for efficiency and productivity that I struggled to consider the why and what this kind of pausing.

My coach emailed me the goal of ‘finding pause and energy’ after our conversation. He additionally suggested the following actions.

  1. Take moments through the course of the day to pause and just be present—not think about what’s just happened or anticipate the next step.
  2. Identify and prioritise some opportunities to just ‘be’ with husband and friends—put some energy back into those aspects of life.
  3. Identify what ‘energises’ in work and outside—perhaps identify moments in the past (at various stages) when you felt most energised.

He also sent me Adam Fraser’s framework for finding the ‘third space’ and a link to this youtube clip on ‘the third space’ (the micro transition between one activity or role and the next).

Ok, I thought. I can work on pausing. I immediately changed the mini-blackboard message in my office from ‘start now’ to ‘pause, breathe, be’. It reminded me about finding pauses in my day, but the challenge was actually taking them!

Yoga has always helped me tap into ways to be present. Last year, I began flotation tank floating, which showed me the power of sensory deprivation, of unplugging from sounds, sights and from the feeling that at every moment I should be doing something useful and productive.

Yet while I could schedule gym sessions and floats, I still found it difficult to find small ways each day to tune in to pausing or being present.

At the beginning of this year I talked to a friend whose motto for ordering coffee was to ‘have it there’. That is, when he orders coffee from a café, he takes the time to sit and enjoy it there, before moving on to the next part of his day. I wondered about the impact of ‘have it there’, instead of ‘drink it on the run’, or ‘multi-task to save time’, or ‘have it while driving or engaging with a computer or device’.

I committed this year to eating lunch away from my desk. When I’m feeling under pressure I tend to eat and work, but I decided it was important that I find 15-40 minutes per day to sit, alone or with colleagues, and mindfully eat something. I have broken that commitment twice only so far this year. I told colleagues about my lunch promise, so they have helped to keep me accountable. More than once someone has walked past my office and either invited me to sit with them, or asked, “You’re not eating lunch at your desk, are you?” So I have ended up with a little lunchtime community, as well as a pause in my day.

I have also tried to find a few minutes each day to breathe mindfully. Sometimes I find these minutes at work, sometimes at home, and sometimes just before I go to sleep. On occasion I turn off the music in my car and drive in silence. I go to the gym three times per week and try to find other activity on other days, with varying degrees of success. I have been floating in flotation tanks about every 6 weeks.

Despite my attempts at finding pause, and my focus on light-ness, I finished Term 1 feeling rushed and frantic. Last week I took leave from work, during the school holidays. During the week I tried to focus on slow, deliberate living focused on relationships and experiences, rather than goals and actions.

I read fiction in the sun. I walked. Contemplated. Embraced stillness and movement. I stayed out of social media discussions about education. I didn’t write. I didn’t read for work. I gave myself permission to eat a nutritious breakfast, and to sit and enjoy it. I played board games and had long conversations with my husband and children. I spent time outside, in nature, and alone. I hung out with friends and family. I enjoyed going to the gym and having a leisurely coffee afterwards, looking out over the ocean.

Pausing is difficult but what is even more difficult is prioritising it as important rather than ‘nice to have’. What seems so possible during a holiday is challenging to bring into the busyness of everyday working-parenting-living life.

Where do you, or where could you, find a pause in your day, your week, your month?

Diary of writing a book to manuscript completion

Today I have submitted my monograph (solo-authored book) manuscript to my publisher. No this is not an April fool’s joke!

Book writing is quite a drawn out process. I’m sure it looks different for each author, but I thought it might be useful for other authors and aspiring book writers to see a timeline to manuscript completion and submission. Below I outline the dates and steps that have gotten me to this moment.

January 2018: My husband and I are chatting on the long drive home from a family holiday, talking about our goals for the year ahead. I say that writing a monograph is something I would love to have a go at in 2018. As we talk I start to formulate the book’s purpose and structure.

When we get home, I paste up a little piece of cardboard on the bathroom mirror. It says: ‘don’t wait until you’re ready; start now’. I start.

I write a book proposal and send it to the publisher (with whom I have a previous relationship as co-editor of Flip the System Australia). The book proposal is sent out to reviewers.

February-May 2018: My book proposal floats in the review-stage ether. I wait for all of the reviews to come in. Luckily I am readying Flip the System Australia for publication as editor, so my spare time is put to good use.

June 2018: I (finally!) receive the reviews to my book proposal. I amend the proposal in response to reviews and resubmit it to the publisher.

July 2018: Negotiation of and signing of book contract happens. Wahoo! I have a date, a word limit and a mandate.

Let the writing begin.

I stick a word count timeline to my fridge. My kids begin to keep me accountable to it. “Mum, how many words have you written?” “You know you’re meant to have written X thousand by now?” “Can I cross this one off?”

August-December 2018: I write (in between working, parenting, living). I send a few chapters to peers around the world to get some early feedback.

In October I invite someone to write the foreword. They accept.

January 2019: The first draft of the book is complete. Little do I know how much work is still required in order to revise it properly.

I tweet a poll asking how an author knows their book is done.

Tweet Jan 2019

A number of people tell me I need to get some other people to read the whole thing. The whole thing? How can I ask anyone to read the whole thing?

I suck up the courage and ask some experts in the field for feedback and also for endorsements. I am delighted and surprised by people’s generosity.

I also send it out to my editor. I show my husband the introduction and he tells me it needs to be punchier and more interesting.

February 2019: Revising, revising, editing, editing. Repeat. Responding to feedback as it comes in.

March 2019: Proofing, proofing, proofing. Responding to any more feedback.

I take references out of the text to allow more space for my own words, voice and ideas. (I am a chronic over-referencer and need to remind myself: more me, less others! This is my book after all.)

I move the text from one big Word document into separate chapter documents. I finalise reference lists. I finalise the acknowledgements. I write chapter abstracts and complete the art log.

April 2019: On April Fool’s Day I wake up to the foreword in my email inbox. Hoorah! The final piece of the puzzle is here. And it is wonderful. I am super pleased.

I electronically submit my manuscript and ancillary documents to the publisher. This is not a drill.

I feel that weird feeling of wanting to keep tinkering, tinkering, tinkering. But I know that the book is as good as I can make it, in this instant. I wonder: Is done better than perfect? I assure myself that this process (unlike the PhD thesis) involves a copy editor. And that I will stand by my words in the future, even if they only capture my thinking at this moment in time.

While I know it will be exciting to hold the real book when it is eventually printed and released, the publishing reality is that by the time an actual work comes out, the author has often moved on in their thinking. My book is not yet finished, but this is a milestone worth celebrating.

I buy the same special champagne I bought in October 2015 when I submitted my PhD thesis: Billecart-Salmon Brut Rosé. I haven’t opened it yet, but I will find a time to enjoy it, and a few people with whom to share it.

From here there will continue to be about 6 months of checks and communication as the book moves through the publisher’s copy editing and production process. This includes proofing by an independent copy editor, cover design, index writing and printing.

Some time this year I’ll get the actual book in my hands!