What matters in education: Reflecting on Flip the System Australia in 2022

I was invited to speak today as part of the Future Schools webinar series. In particular, I was asked to engage with the notion of flipping the education system, based in my work in co-editing the 2019 book Flip the System Australia: What Matters in Education.

That was then

Even though today’s conversation was for a group interested in future schools and the future of schooling, thinking about it required me to reflect back to 2018, when much of the work of the Flip the System Australia book was being done. Back then, my co-editors—Jon Andrews and Cameron Paterson—and I were experiencing the then- educational environment of measurement and surveillance. This included a distrust of schools and teachers, heightened accountabilities according to quantifiable measurables in education, policy rhetoric about educational quality assurance and effectiveness, competitive comparisons of performance in high stakes standardised tests, and a push for teachers to do ‘what works’ according to simplified and dehumanised lists of apparent best practice (although, as Dylan Wiliam says, everything works somewhere, and nothing works everywhere).

Our book built upon the Flip the System books that came before ours (from the Netherlands, Sweden, and the UK) and sought to value and promote a diverse range of voices in education talking about what matters (or what should matter), over what works. We argued for the humanising of educational narratives, the democratising of educational policy and practice, and the development of deep and sustained trust in the teaching profession.

Teachers’ being and becoming

My Flip the System Australia chapter argues for elevating the professional identities and voices of teachers and school leaders in educational research, practice, and policymaking. In the chapter, I explore the quantifying and performative measuring of teacher work as limiting the complexities of that work and reducing teacher identities to a limited range of options. I define identity in my book Transformational Professional Learning as “the situated, ongoing process through which we make sense of ourselves, to ourselves and others” (p.19). It is a constant, context-embedded process of being and becoming, with professional identities inextricably linked to personal identities; we are our whole selves at work, and our lives influence our teaching.

Teaching as a performance disconnected from identity and purpose is unsustainable. Teachers need to feel that their identities are aligned with the purpose of the profession, with shared school values, and with their daily work. Rather than being required to fit themselves to a school, teachers need to feel that they truly belong in a school community in which they share a common moral purpose and are valued for their individual selves, including their gifts and imperfections.

Embracing authenticity and embedding inclusive practices are becoming increasingly important in schools. More than that, as Jelmer Evers wrote in the Foreword to our Australian book, a shared professional identity can transcend borders and nationalities, and can form the basis of reinventing democracy and our schools.

The more things change, the more they stay the same

A focus on the humanity and the positive contribution of education to the lives of all young people remains the core purpose of education. In Flip the System Australia, Carol Campbell describes the purpose of education as “the betterment of humanity” (p.81). In my chapter, I say that “education is not an algorithm but a human endeavour” (p.16). The betterment and care of each child, and thereby the betterment of humanity, includes supporting children to be their best, most agentic and self-determining selves, able to make positive contributions to their communities and to the world.

In Australia, the 2019 Alice Springs Education Declaration, and before it the 2008 Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians, expressed two key goals:

  • Goal 1: The Australian education system promotes excellence and equity; and
  • Goal 2: All young Australians become: confident and creative individuals; successful lifelong learners; and active and informed members of the community.

Yet Australia remains far from an education system that promotes, for all young Australians, excellence and equity. Pasi Sahlberg, who wrote a chapter in Flip the System Australia about equitable education in Australia, recently co-authored with Adrian Piccoli an article for the Guardian, arguing for needs-based school funding and pointing out that in Australia the socio-economic segregation between schools and has widened the achievement gap between affluent and poorer children.

Melitta Hogarth’s Flip the System Australia chapter reveals the contradictory nature of policies and practices that appear to be unbiased, but that perpetuate conservative, colonial values, and the silencing of Indigenous voices in education. She argues for Indigenous representation at every level of education leadership and decision making in Australia. Kevin Lowe in his chapter argues for collaborative, productive engagement between schools and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. There remains ongoing disadvantage for Indigenous Australian children, in terms of education, social and health outcomes. Systemic inequities have been exacerbated by the pandemic and compounded by Western-centric curriculum and biased measures of educational success.

In Chapter 11 of Flip the System Australia, Andy Hargreaves, Shaneé Washington and Michael O’Connor shared findings on teacher wellbeing that now read as a prelude to the intensification of workload and the impacts of the pandemic that have followed. They commented that “teachers feel they are losing control over their professional decisions, … they are being asked to carry the mounting social problems of the world on their own shoulders, and, in the midst of all these things, they feel constrained and compromised by competencies and assessments they do not always believe in” (p.101). Their chapter asserts that there is no student wellbeing without teacher wellbeing. Since that chapter was written, wellbeing has escalated, making its way up the education agenda. Educators have been reminded of something we have always known that now needs our careful attention and action: that wellbeing is inseparably joined with learning and achievement.

This is now

Flipping the system is about flattening and democratising education. Three years on from the publication of Flip the System Australia, the world is facing unremitting and overlapping crises. We only need to turn on the news to see that our planet and democracy remain in peril. In education, governments are enacting fast policy (with teachers and school leaders often hearing about each new policy twist and turn during a press conference), with schools then quickly implementing the changing guidelines and protocols.

Although there are frightening data around teacher and school leader burnout and retention challenges, teachers and school leaders remain incredibly committed to serving their communities, through the most difficult of circumstances. There has been the need for, and therefore the rise of, school and teacher autonomy during the pandemic, as educators have made context-embedded decisions about what their students and communities need, and how to best work to meet these needs.

Schools have been revealed as places of connectedness, relationality, socialisation, and community, as well as learning. The last couple of years have led schools to develop innovative uses of educational technologies, flexible post-secondary pathways for students, and generous networks of educators collaborating together across countries and sectors to share, support and grow alongside one another. Effective leading has been shown to be an authentic practice of care and hope. Those working in schools have been literally changing education from the ground up, which was the catch cry of the original Flip the System book by Jelmer Evers and René Kneyber.

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