About Dr Deborah M. Netolicky

School Leader | Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) | Coach | Speaker | Author | Podcaster (The Edu Salon)

Culture: Who do we want to be, together?

Source: @spalla67 on pixabay

I have talked with staff this week about together creating the conditions for all of us to grow as a community of learners, through fostering an environment of high support and high challenge. Our staff have been preparing for the return of students and coming together to work through the idea of organisational culture, including hearing from students about their experiences of and insights into our school culture.

We have been wondering: Who are we now, and who do we want to be and become?

Peter Drucker famously said that “Culture eats Strategy for breakfast”, implying that strategy falls flat without a positive culture that empowers and supports the people in an organisation to enact the strategy. While most would agree that culture is important in organisations, it is one of those fluid, nebulous, and slippery terms that evades clear definition. Richard Perrin defines organisational culture as “the sum of values and rituals which serve as ‘glue’ to integrate members of the organisation.” The metaphor of glue is central; culture binds individuals together as a collective. Culture is about those things we share, consciously and unconsciously. When I think about culture, those things we share, or aim to share, include:

  • Purpose – Our shared why.
  • Values – What underpins our beliefs and actions.
  • Stories and symbols – What we say about ourselves, to ourselves and to others.
  • Relationships – How and who we are with each other.
  • Behaviours – How we do things around here.
  • Language – How we talk around here.

Herb Kelleher famously said that “culture is what people do when no one is looking.” We perform culture through our presence and our actions, seen and unseen, accepted and challenged. As Lieutenant-General David Morrison’s oft-cited message goes: “The standard we walk past is the standard we accept.” We become enculturated through our immersion in a culture and our observations of how a place and its people present, interact, and operate. As a new principal to a school this year, I am at the outset of my own journey of enculturation; of absorbing, being influenced by, and being initiated into, an existing culture.

In their work on culture this week, our staff were guided by organisational psychologist Hayley Lokan, from ISC Consulting, who described culture and both intangible and palpable. She shared Robert Kreitner and Angelo Kinicki’s definition of culture as “the set of shared, taken-for-granted implicit assumptions that a group holds and that determines how it perceives, thinks about, and reacts to its various environments”. Hayley likened culture to an iceberg and challenged us to look beyond the visible aspects of culture to interrogate our deep-seated assumptions. It reminded me of one of the findings from my PhD study: that in order to change our behaviour we often need to change our beliefs. In order to shift culture we need to challenge our norms, and our accepted attitudes, beliefs, and behaviours. Story, symbols, rituals, and traditions are important markers of and continuers of culture, but we need to be honest about those things that we allow to continue that are not aligned with our moral purpose or current community. Context, as always, is Queen, and our communities and their needs change over time.

This week’s staff workshops and student panel on culture revealed insights into the school. Staff described the school’s culture as supportive, caring, welcoming, inclusive, kind, collaborative, friendly, aspirant, dedicated, proud, respectful, hard working, and with a mixture of tradition and trailblazing dynamism. Students in a panel discussion described the culture as safe, caring, close-knit, empowering, inclusive, and one in which students feel encouraged to be their best while being supported during times of difficulty. In exploratory discussions about the future of our culture, staff began to wonder about how we might elevate wellbeing, agency, and celebration of the diversity of the individual, to strengthen what is great about our culture and to grow with our community.

If we can build and maintain a culture of trust in which there is openness, honest and gracious feedback, diverse voices, varied aspirations, and a commitment to lifting each other up, we can all learn, lead, be well, and be in community with one another. We will continue to ask ourselves, our students and our wider community:

  • What about our culture do we want to keep?
  • What about our culture might we like to change or develop?
  • What are our next steps to move forward with intentionality?

Challenge and change in 2023: What if you fly?

Source: @cocoparisienne via Pixabay

During primary school, my children learned loosely about growth mindset. At times, they came home with mantras such as “I can’t do it … yet”, “I can reach my goals”, and “If it doesn’t challenge you, it won’t change you.” Over the last couple of years, challenge and change have been thrust upon us in spades. ‘Change fatigue’ has taken on a whole new layer of meaning. The Collins Dictionary 2022 word of the year was permacrisis, meaning an extended period of instability and insecurity. This state of ongoing uncertainty is reflected in our exhaustion and concerns about global crises and individual stresses, and the erosion of our individual and collective appetite and energy for facing challenge.

As we enter 2023, concerns about the economy, war, and the climate continue to intensify. The 2022 Mission Australia Youth Survey of 18,800 Australians aged 15-19 found that our young people are concerned about the environment, equity, discrimination, and mental health, and that their personal challenges included academic stress, school workload, anxiety, depression, and relationships. Societies, industries, workplaces, families, and individuals have needed to adapt and re-imagine at a rapid pace. Workplaces, such as Deloitte, are developing increasingly flexible ways of working that allow employees autonomy and choice.

While there is a sense that we are emerging from three years of pandemic-related restrictions and after-effects, wellbeing, inclusion, and agency are areas for continued development. Many of us have found ourselves reconsidering what is important. Some have turned to travel, adventure and personal change, while others have turned to stability, certainty, and returning to home base. Many of us have rethought how we spend our time, including what we do with the time we have and who we spend it with. This includes time with self, family, and work, with the ‘great resignation’ and ‘quiet quitting’ trends showing a paradigm shift in how people are choosing to live their lives. I have always done work that provides me with a sense of purpose, gets me out of bed in the morning, aligns with my values, and makes a contribution to others. Finding meaning and fulfilment are now more important than ever, for our communities and society, as well as for our own individual wellbeing.

When change is all around, and forced upon us, it can be difficult to open up rather than turn inward, to move forward rather than coast along or retreat. I’ve just finished reading Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus. At one stage in the novel, set in the 1960s, the main character Elizabeth Zott challenges others to act with courage to design their own futures based on their aspirations and talents, rather than on what they or others might expect of them. The character, who is unapologetically herself despite the constant judgement of others, encourages us to embrace change and move forward without allowing limiting beliefs to hinder us.

“Courage is the root of change – and change is what we’re chemically designed to do. So when you wake up tomorrow, make this pledge. No more holding yourself back. No more subscribing to others’ opinions of what you can and cannot achieve. … Design your own future.”

Lessons in Chemistry

While denial about obstacles and Pollyannaism are unhelpful, in 2023 our task is to find the courage and energy to continue to challenge ourselves, each other, and our organisations to move forward in directions that result in positive outcomes for all. We need to continue to balance competing needs, and navigate tensions such as providing stability while also working towards context-embedded innovation, and supporting wellbeing while maintaining high expectations and forward momentum. We need to co-design the future.

Courage and change do not need to be loud and fast. While we may need to be bold in our intent, it is consistent, incremental nudges and small regular steps that allow us to move forward. The following poem by Australian poet Erin Hanson encourages us to question our concerns about failure, and to take the leap into those opportunities that may result in growth and success.

“There is freedom waiting for you,
On the breezes of the sky,
And you ask ‘What if I fall?’
Oh but my darling,
What if you fly?”

Erin Hanson

A useful starting point for what leaps we might take is to ask ourselves is: What do we want to have achieved by this time next year (or in five years or thirty years)? And if we were to fast forward to this time next year, what will it look like if we’ve been successful?

When I wrote my book, Transformational Professional Learning, I put a message on my bathroom mirror that read: “If you wait until you’re ready, you’ll wait forever. Start now.” Starting now is better than waiting for the ‘perfect time’, even if starting now means doing so slowly, quietly, cautiously, gently, and with close attention to those around us.

It’s 2023. Let’s start!

Threads of 2022: Wellbeing, inclusion and agency

Source: Mick Haupt via unsplash.com

2022 has been a year in which we have immersed ourselves in deep reflection on the realities of the present, and pushed ourselves to think radically and realistically about the possibilities of the future.

The realities have been largely distressing: pandemics, war, climate events, economic instability, rising inflation, financial stress, skills shortages, and threats to democracy. Concerns about climate change, geopolitical turbulence, and health, abound. Technologies are providing risk and opportunity. Some professions are in crisis, while some industries are reinventing ways of working and pioneering hybrid alternatives.

In 2022, schools dealt with huge amounts of staff absence, largely from Covid-19, as well as significant profession-wide teacher shortages, and increasing student and staff wellbeing concerns. We have also seen young people and school staff rise to meet challenges, and hope-full conversations, research, and practice interventions at local, national and global levels.

The wellbeing of students remains paramount, with schools implementing multi-layered approaches to equipping students to lead fulfilling and flourishing lives. Many schools have been busy reviewing or introducing strengthened wellbeing programs, as well as bolstering human resources to support students’ physical, emotional, and relational wellbeing. Initiatives that focus on service to others are being integrated with work that focuses on knowledge of and care for self.

The wellbeing of staff, too, remains a top priority for schools. The ‘great resignation’ and ‘quiet quitting’ trends of the last couple of years have employees in all sectors asking themselves why they are doing the work they do, and what their alternatives might be. With teacher shortages and crises of teacher recruitment and retention, the workload and workforce conditions of teachers have been under the spotlight. At an education policy level, well-meaning but insufficient solutions have been tabled, such as reviewing initial teacher education (again), paying some teachers more, and providing pre-made teaching resources and lesson plans in an attempt to ‘unburden’ teachers of some of their work.

Schools have been digging deep into their cultures. They have been moving beyond bolt-on wellbeing initiatives and viewing wellbeing as a solely individual pursuit, to working on the complexities of community, belonging, and meaning, as ways to envisage and address wellbeing. Schools are focusing on clear strategic priorities, combined with cultures in which each person is supported as an individual who valued for who they are while being nestled as part of a connected whole.

Those of us leading in schools have been increasingly considering how we can make our workplaces sites of connection, purpose, wellness, and hope. This might be through considering the administrative burden on teachers and seeing what can be taken away – such as subject report comments, expectations of extensive written feedback on every assessment, and co-curricular expectations. Many schools have attempted to streamline communication through platforms such as Teams in an effort to stem the unmanageable firehose of emails. Parent teacher interviews, information evenings, and other meetings, have often moved online to enhance flexibility and accessibility. Some schools are building meeting times into the school day, rather than holding these after school hours. Schools are implementing responsive learning technologies, automated marking and feedback systems, and collaborative planning technologies. Reducing the number of summative assessments, and increasing student ownership over reflection and feedback on formative tasks, is one way to simultaneously support learning and reduce teacher workload.

As we watch corporate sectors reimagining their workplaces in ways that allow increasing flexibility for workers, the school as workplace is also being reconsidered, albeit more slowly. Some schools and systems have been generous in their leave policies and leave conditions, while others have been unable to do so due to financial constraints. Professional learning budgets are being spent on providing time for meaningful planning and collaboration, and on coaching and mentoring, as well as on opportunities for networking and connecting with those beyond the school gates and local community. While school timetables are notoriously inflexible, schools are considering how to allow staff more flexibility about how and where they work. It isn’t yet usually possible to offer teachers regular ‘working from home’ days. However, within the available parameters many schools are negotiating job-share and attractive part-time arrangements for teachers.

A focus on student and staff wellbeing has been bolstered by a focus on inclusion and agency. Education organisations have been interrogating the inclusivity of their language, physical spaces, policies, and practices. A focus on addressing the diverse needs of learners has led to continued work in differentiation and appropriate adjustments. Many schools are engaged in exciting work on increasingly one-size-fits-one approaches to learning, to success pathways, and to ways of demonstrating achievement. Students and staff are being offered opportunities for meaningful collaboration and a voice in positive change. Personalisation, voice, and choice, are being increasingly woven into the fabric of learning, leading, and working.

As we move towards the end of 2022, and into 2023, wellbeing, inclusion, and agency will continue to be issues with which schools grapple.

Metaphor as a way of considering future alternatives for educational leadership

Last week I had the pleasure of presenting a keynote to the Australian Council for Educational Leaders National Conference in Sydney. The presentation was based, in part, on the edited book Future Alternatives for Educational Leadership.

In exploring what leadership looks like now, and what it might look like next, as the book does, I shared some unusual metaphors for leadership, from educational scholarship, that could help to move our thinking beyond normalised paradigms of leadership as largely male, white, and about the individual. These were:

  • The Cheshire Cat (Netolicky, 2019) representing the deliberately visible-invisible leader who navigates fluidity of role, and intentionally provides others with what they need at any given time.
  • The punk rock principal (Heffernan, 2019) as the leader who sees themselves as part of a band, and who is willing to consider and potentially resist compliances and expectations.
  • Network leadership (Azorín, Harris, & Jones, 2021) in which leading is collective, networked, and a social practice.
  • Leadership as a social movement (Rincón-Gallardo, 2021) in which leaders participate as a learners, craft strategy, forge collective commitment, shape the public narrative, and ignite others to action.
  • Leading as salvaging (Grice, 2021) as a practice of hope and sustainability that involves collecting, saving, selecting, respecting the value of resources, and repurposing or returning to purpose.
  • Wayfinding leadership (Netolicky & Golledge, 2021) in which leaders know and reflect on self, know and respond to their environment, navigate roadblocks, use instruments fit for purpose, and balance tensions by simultaneously applying systematisation and intuition, strategy and empathy.

The theme of the conference was ‘inspiring hope, leading our future’, and my takeaways for the audience were that we benefit from:

  • A focus on leading as a practice for all, rather than the leader as a person or title.
  • Knowing that context is queen, including knowing our people and honoring tradition while engaging in futures thinking.
  • Applying reflexive practice by examining self and evaluating impact.
  • Seeing ourselves, as educators and leaders, as collaborators rather than competitors, working together across stakeholder groups and systems.
  • Redesigning for diversity, equity, and inclusion.
  • Considering sustainable practices, for our schools, our staff, ourselves, and the planet.
  • Creating and feeding the conditions for an ecosystem of high trust, high support, high challenge, and respectful disagreement.
  • Empowering, building the capacity of, meaningfully inviting the voices of, and co-designing with others.

A core belief of my presentation, and of the conference, was the importance of humanity at the centre of our work as teachers and school leaders.

My slide deck is below.

Education: Does the future look bright?

Source: @Riki32 pixabay

In education, we often look to the future, while also being told our schools are stuck in the past.

While there are innovative learning spaces in many schools, classrooms may look similar to the onlooker over time—often with a version of desks, chairs, writable and projectable surfaces, and students of the same age learning in the same space—but the learning and teaching that goes on is not the one-size-fits-all chalk-and-talk of old. There is, of course, an important place for teacher knowledge and for explicit instruction. A classroom observer might not see, looking in, what students are doing, and what platforms they are using to learn. They might not see, unless they speak to the students, that the content is being accessed via a ranges of modes and supports such as video instruction, collaborative online spaces, cloud documents, assistive and adaptive technologies, multimodal resources, tiered tasks, student choice, and self-paced learning modules. They are unlikely to see the depth of the teacher’s knowledge of the diverse learning, social and emotional needs of each learner, and the ways in which the teacher is generating a range of data on student learning, and subtly adjusting environment, content, and learning process and product, in order to support the success of each child. They may not observe the layers of student goal-setting, self-reflection, and action on ongoing feedback.

While schools may have moved further in their practice than some commentators would argue, schools exist within the current instability and volatility of the world, along with the rapidly changing nature of work. At a time of systemic exhaustion and tidal uncertainty, it is sometimes challenging to find hope, optimism, and a sense of excitement about the future. The global geopolitical economic outlook is distressing, and plagued by rising inequality, conflict, widening polarisation, pandemics, climate crises, constraints on national resources, and a gender gap predicted to take another 132 years to close.

Organisations around the world are describing future trajectories that blend hazard with opportunity. The CSIRO (Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation), for example, recently identified seven megatrends:

  • A volatile changing climate with economic and social costs.
  • An increased focus on cleaner and greener energy sources.
  • A ‘burning platform’ of escalating health challenges including an ageing population and growing burden of chronic and infectious diseases, and psychological distress.
  • Geopolitical tensions and uncertainty.
  • Growing economic digitisation of work and the economy.
  • An explosion in the use of artificial intelligence (AI).
  • A strong consumer and citizen push for the need for public trust in governments and governance.

The World Economic Forum has reported that the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated pre-existing inequalities, with gender, socio-economic status, location and ethnicity influencing students’ access to education.

What are educators, schools, and the education system to do, to ensure that students are being prepared for their futures in such times?

The WEF report identifies areas for opportunity in education, including:

  • Alternative and additional ways of assessing and tracking student learning.
  • Learning integrated with employers and industry.
  • Flexible credentialling and development of skills wallets or passports.
  • Harnessing sophisticated technologies for learning such as AI and other computer-assisted-instruction systems.
  • Investment in teachers’ learning and time.

Schools are experimenting with many of these things, such as alternative ways to record evidence of student learning, and to track, monitor and build portfolios and ‘learner profiles’ of student success. Content is being offered in increasingly innovative and flexible ways, including microcredentialing and courses focused on wellbeing, social justice, service, character, and learner capabilities, as well as traditional knowledges. As an example, this term in some of the Future Ready courses at my school, Year 6s are designing solutions to a health and wellbeing issue based on immersion in United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 3, Year 7s are designing a future school, Year 8s are writing a ‘Close the Gap’ campaign pledge, Year 9s are engaging in a global gamified sustainability challenge, and Year 10s are completing a self-chosen microcredential as well as a choice between earning their Provide First Aid certification or pitching their ‘side hustle’ business idea in an entrepreneurship course.

Student voices, as well as teacher, parent and community voices, are key as we think about shaping education. Schools are trialling approaches that serve the needs of their communities, such as flexible and alternate timetable arrangements, flexible working arrangements for staff, flexible learning options for students, hybrid teaching and learning environments, flexible pathways through and beyond school, and delivery of courses across schools and organisations.

One of the OECD’s ‘four scenarios for future schooling’ envisions schools as learning hubs that strengthen personalised learning pathways as part of an ecosystem of networked education spaces, with strong partnerships with external institutions, such as museums, libraries, residential centres, and technological hubs. As someone who has worked in independent schools for over 20 years, I see our responsibility as to cultivate a collaborative and networked education world, sharing with one another, and with educators more broadly, the work and innovation in which we engage. Platforms like my blog, books and podcast are attempts to share and collaborate with others in the education space. While the marketing firehose and facilities arms race can position schools as competitors, we will build a better education system if we see one another as partners and networked collaborators. We are better together, for the future of our students and the planet. We can enact the kinds of opportunities, relationships, and voice we would like to see in the world for our students, who are the people who will positively influence the future world.

The Edu Salon podcast: 6 months since its launch

There are close to 3 million podcasts and 140 million podcast episodes in existence, with 440,000 education podcasts alone. It was into this landscape of a firehose of content and a cacophony of voices that I launched my podcast, The Edu Salon, at the beginning of 2022.

Why start a podcast, especially in such a saturated market? As a listener, I enjoy the long form nature of podcasts as an intimate speaking and listening medium. There is an authenticity to the unscripted spoken word that allows for free-ranging storytelling and immersion in topics. For me, launching a podcast was about providing a space, or holding the space, for meaningful connection and rich conversation around education. It was about sharing important voices and diverse perspectives, with a focus on education as a service to humanity, democracy, equity, and community. I have a long and exciting list of potential guests.

While there is an overwhelming amount of podcasts and podcast content out there, according to Listen Notes almost 100,000 podcasts officially ‘died’ in 2021. Some statistics indicate that about 75% of existing podcasts have ‘podfaded’, and are no longer publishing new episodes. Podcast experts say that of new podcasts, half don’t make it past Episode 7. Apparently a further 50% of that 50% don’t make it to Episode 14, and only 20% of podcasts make it beyond one year.

The Edu Salon has today published its 14th episode. Episodes are 40-45 minutes long, released fortnightly on a Sunday morning (Australian time) and each features a wide-ranging conversation with a guest from around the world. Guests so far hail from Australia, Ireland/Spain, the USA, Canada, England, Mexico and Scotland/Hong Kong. They range from professors and researchers to teachers, school leaders, advisors, and consultants.

Episodes to date are as follows.

My podcast set up is low-tech. I have a portable microphone and a decent set of headphones. I subscribe to a platform that allows me to record interviews with guests remotely. And I use the basic features of free audio-editing software to get episodes ready for release.

Conversations are unscripted, although I share with guests the final five questions I will ask, the first of which is fast becoming my favourite: What is something unexpected that many people might not know about you? I have discovered some fascinating things about people. Hosting these conversations reminds me a little of conducting the narrative interviews for my PhD. It isn’t often in our busy lives that we are deeply listened to by someone seeking to understand more about us and our thinking. Guests often comment that they appreciate the opportunity to talk and enjoy the conversation. One remarked that it was ‘like therapy’. As the host, I am energised and nourished by the opportunity to spend time in deep dive conversations with great minds and inspiring practitioners in the education space. I am incredibly grateful to my guests for their time, knowledge, and generosity in sharing their expertise and experience.

While The Edu Salon is focused on the field of education, I get fantastic feedback from listeners in a range of industries who tell me that the content (around topics such as leadership, learning, collaboration, diversity, equity, and culture) is transferrable to work and life outside of education.

The Edu Salon is hosted on Soundcloud, and is also available through Apple PodcastsSpotifyAmazon MusicGoogle Podcasts and Audible. You can join the conversation on Twitter and Instagram @theedusalon.

Reflecting on NAIDOC Week 2022

close up of painting by Rhoda Tjitayi

I was thrilled this week to hang in my home an artwork from APY Art Centre Collective artist Rhoda Tjitayi, whose grandfather was from Nyapari and grandmother from Makiri, Tjala Ngura. Rhoda is a resident of the Pukatja community in the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands in South Australia. Her magnificent paintings depict her grandmother’s story, the ancestral creation story Piltati Tjukurpa. I was taught to paint when I was six years old, and my first degree in Fine Art, but this is the first painting I have purchased. It is an incredibly powerful piece, which now helps me to remember my own grandmother.

In Australia we are privileged to be home to one of the oldest continuous cultures on earth, with incredible connections to country, community and story. This week is NAIDOC (National Aboriginal and Islanders Day Observance Committee) Week in Australia, a week in which Australians celebrate the history, culture, and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. This year’s theme—‘Get Up! Stand Up! Show Up!’—reverberates with the protest beginnings of NAIDOC Week, and calls to non-Indigenous Australians to engage with First Nations people and communities, and to move beyond acknowledgement, bystanding, and lip service, to action.

This NAIDOC Week I have been reflecting on the wonderful opportunities I have had to collaborate with and learn from inspiring First Nations educators. The following chapters in books I have edited continue to reverberate for me and influence my work and thinking.

episode artwork – The Edu Salon podcast

This year, I’ve also had the pleasure of speaking with Dr Marnee Shay on The Edu Salon podcast in this episode. During our conversation, Marnee reflected on this year’s theme for National Reconciliation week (‘Be Brave. Make Change’), saying,

“Our people haven’t had the luxury of being brave; our people have been surviving and navigating a whole range of things that are unjust, unfair, and through no fault of our own … We don’t need to be brave any more, we just need to do it.”

Marnee points out that organisations and individuals can choose to invest in and engage with Indigenous voices, research, books, people and communities. I can highly recommend the book Indigenous Education in Australia, edited by Marnee and Professor Rhonda Oliver, and its associated podcast.

While it is yet to be released, Tell Me Again, an in-press memoir by Dr Amy Thunig, looks like a must-read for anyone seeking to understand the lived experiences of Indigenous Australians. Amy’s PhD thesis Sovereign Women: Why Academia? also looks to be a crucial piece of research; this piece for IndigenousX provides a taster.

As this year’s NAIDOC theme attests, non-Indigenous Australians need to seek to understand, to learn, to address biases, to engage First Nations businesses, and to invest time in meaningful partnerships with local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledges and communities. Closing the Gap, Reconciliation, and ‘getting up, standing up, and showing up’, encompass complex and important work that needs to move beyond good intentions to prioritised, positive action by all Australians in our various families, workplaces, and communities.

Feedback to maximise student progress and minimise teacher workload

Source: pixabay @Darkmoon_Art

Giving meaningful feedback to students is a key lever for improving student progress, and also a primary draw on teacher time. On the latest episode of my podcast, The Edu Salon, I discuss feedback with Professor Dylan Wiliam, including what feedback is most likely to be effective for student learning, and how feedback practices can address issues of teacher workload. Dylan reminds us that feedback is not to improve the work, but to improve the learner. It should not be a post-mortem dissection of past work, but rather provide understandable information about, and incite action towards, how to improve next time. For feedback to be effective, the student needs to engage with it, reflect on it, seek to understand it, and act on it.

Teachers employ a range of feedback strategies such as: marking and annotating student work; whole-class feedback through markers’ reports unpacking trends and patterns; marking keys showing what correct or good answers include; rubrics that describe what students can do and the next level of achievement; exemplars of student work to illustrate what good responses looks like; and videos of student practical or performed work for students to reflect upon. Teachers work towards provision and processes of feedback that allow students to do the thinking around feedback, rather than merely emotively reacting to a mark. This might be by protecting time for students to process and act on feedback, withholding marks until the student has acted on feedback, or providing opportunities for students to re-do tasks.

This week, I returned the marked mid-year examination to my Year 12 Literature class. This is a deliberately slow and intentional process that takes at least one lesson. First, I explain to students that what I am least interested in is the mark they received, and what I am most interested in is what they can learn in order to make improvements between now and their next exam. Then, the students receive the written reflection proforma, exam paper, and markers’ report (outlining the marking key and the whole-cohort feedback). Then, students reflect in writing about what they learned through their experience of revising, preparing for, and sitting the exam. For instance, was the exam paper what they expected? Were they adequately prepared? Were they familiar with the terminology and concepts of the questions? Did their exam strategy and time management work well, or would these benefit from adjustments? Next, students receive their annotated papers and build on their reflection. What were their strengths? On what could they improve? What could they do and what will they do between now and the next exam?

Once students have reflected as much as possible, shown me their reflection, and we have had a one-on-one conversation about their learnings and planned actions, they receive the rubrics that include their marks, as well as indicating where they went well and less well in addressing the criteria. They then complete their written reflection and upload a summary of what they did well, and what action they will take to improve. In the lessons following (and/or between lessons at other scheduled times), I make time to speak to each individual student about their understanding of the feedback, what they have done well, and how to best invest their time to improve. Students often re-write their least successful response, or set a plan for practising responses to questions and revising content.

Giving feedback, as important as it is, should be manageable for the teacher. In Western Australia, the curriculum authority is moving towards a rule of no more than eight assessments across the year (including examinations) for Year 11 and 12 courses. The move to fewer summative assessments is encouraging teachers to assess less, find alternate ways of gauging student understanding, and teach explicit revision strategies to support students being assessed on multiple topics studied over time, rather than topic by topic as they are taught and learned. (Also listen to the podcast episode for discussion of how to leverage students’ cognitive architecture to make the most of long term and working memory.) A bonus is that teachers and students feel less like they are hurtling from assessment to assessment, and more like time is spent learning, revisiting, and reflecting.

Fewer assessments for students to complete means fewer assessments to mark, and potentially more time for students to engage with feedback. Spending time on students working to understand feedback is crucial for student progress and also means that all the hard work teachers put into providing feedback is understood and utilised by the learner. In the podcast episode, Dylan discusses his suggestion that teachers do ‘four quarters marking’: about 25% marking in detail, 25% skim marking to inform teaching, 25% teacher-monitored student self-assessment, and 25% peer assessment. (You can read more about this approach in Carl Hendrick and Robin MacPherson’s 2019 book What Does This Look Like in the Classroom?) This is likely to be an approach that challenges traditional practices and expectations of students, parents, teachers, and school leaders. It is, however, a provocation that reminds us to consider how our feedback practices engage the student as self-regulated learner committed to continuous improvement. As Dylan says in the podcast episode: “Good feedback works towards its own redundancy.”

Professional learning post-pandemic

Source: Alina Grubnak on unsplash.com

During the pandemic, professional learning, like everything else, needed to adapt. With many borders closed, air travel less available, and people experiencing varying stages of public restrictions and lockdowns around the world, more learning happened at home. Like remote learning for schools and higher education organisations, professional learning courses and conferences pivoted to online formats. Presenters presented from home, and participants participated from home. Education organisations capitalised on cost-effective online options for professional learning.

At my school we looked to the virtual, but also to the local and internal. We engaged consultants in targeted and ongoing work alongside our staff, provided opportunities for staff to present their expertise and practice to one another, and arranged time and forums for staff to engage collaboratively in whole-school strategic priorities. We continued, when and where possible, to provide opportunities for intentional and meaningful face-to-face professional learning and to connect with external experts and organisations.

Virtual professional learning, so ubiquitous in 2020 and 2021, has many benefits. It is better for the planet. Without travel and catering, it has lower carbon and economic costs, and a lower environmental impact. It allows greater equity of access for those who may not be able to afford travel, accommodation, and conference costs.

A 2021 paper in Nature Sustainability by Skiles et al. and a 2022 paper by Yates and colleagues in The Lancet confirm that virtual conferences provide environmental sustainability and participant equity benefits. The virtual format overcomes social, economic, and travel-related barriers for those most likely to be impacted by these. It increases participation and representation of those from institutions and countries with limited resources, women, professionals with a disability, and early career researchers and practitioners. It also provides opportunities for increased accessibility through the use of live captions, live chatbox Q&A, and recording sessions for participants to watch later.

However, virtual professional learning has its downsides. After a couple of years of online learning formats, there is a level of Zoom or virtual professional learning fatigue. Digital access in low income countries continues to be a barrier to participation in virtual conferences. Despite some sessions being recorded, time zones of global conferences often favour those in Europe and America. As someone in Western Australia, rarely have the times of international virtual conferences been friendly. Over the last couple of years, I have been scheduled to present at times such as 1am and 4am. Learning or presenting from home also requires the presenter or participant to manage competing demands, not to mention juggling the use of a stretched wifi network across the household’s multiple devices and technology needs. I have attempted to listen to virtual conference keynotes in my kitchen while cooking dinner and trying to focus on the words of the speaker rather than the sounds of my family.

There is something immersive and nourishing about the in-person conference experience. While I may have been able to attend more conferences virtually than I would have been able to in person over recent years, I have missed being there, in situ, with the sights, sounds and smells of another place. I have missed the time afforded by solo travel to sit with ideas, consider them, and think beyond the transactional busyness of the day-to-day. It is often ‘being away’ that allows the space for clarity and creativity of thought, moving us beyond the narrowness of the here and now, to broader perspectives and possibilities. Mostly, I have missed the human connection, including serendipitous meetings; and corridor, coffee, and dinner conversations with colleagues and presenters.

I have found in my own research (Netolicky, 2016a, 2016b, 2020), that professional learning is highly individualised, context-specific, and that the ways in which we professionally learn are many and varied. Experiences that shape our professional beliefs and practices can be professional and personal, formal and informal, in and out of so-called ‘professional learning’ contexts, solo or collaborative. Effective professional learning can cost a little or a lot. It can happen in person or online. It can take air miles, accommodation budgets, and well-known presenters, or be located on site at work, or in a car while listening to a podcast, or at home via a webinar. Professional learning is a core part of staff belonging and wellbeing. For schools, it should be judicious and simultaneously aligned with the individual’s professional goals and the school’s strategic priorities. It benefits from being ongoing in some way – whether that is a continuing partnership between professional learning provider and school, through a mentoring or coaching relationship, or by a small group of colleagues sharing and developing their learning together after attending a conference or course.

As the world opens back up, and previous models of professional learning become possible once more, Yates et al. challenge us to find new, innovative, and hybrid ways to provide professional learning. They challenge us to focus on planetary health and equity, as well as on effective learning, networking, and collaboration. Organisations can and should continue to consider in what ways they invest in and support the learning of their staff, the kinds of opportunities they provide and promote, their professional learning environmental footprint, and the inclusivity of their offerings and practices.

References

Netolicky, D. M. (2020). Transformational professional learning: Making a difference in schools. Routledge.

Netolicky, D. M. (2016a). Down the rabbit hole: Professional identities, professional learning, and change in one Australian school (Doctoral dissertation, Murdoch University).

Netolicky, D. M. (2016b). Rethinking professional learning for teachers and school leaders. Journal of professional capital and community, 1(4), 270-285.

Skiles, M., Yang, E., Reshef, O., Muñoz, D. R., Cintron, D., Lind, M. L., Calleja, P. P., Nerenberg, R., Armani, A., Faust, M. K., & Kumar, M. (2022). Conference demographics and footprint changed by virtual platforms. Nature Sustainability5(2), 149-156.

Yates, J., Kadiyala, S., Li, Y., Levy, S., Endashaw, A., Perlick, H., & Wilde, P. (2022). Can virtual events achieve co-benefits for climate, participation, and satisfaction? Comparative evidence from five international Agriculture, Nutrition and Health Academy Week conferences. The Lancet Planetary Health6(2).

Reflections on teaching and school leadership during Term 1 2022

source: Sprudge

Term 1 2022 may have occurred at and for about the same time as it usually does in Australia, but it felt like an especially long for educators.                 

In Western Australia, with more restrictions in place than some other states, signature experiences of Term 1 included the following.

  • Mask-wearing for school staff, and for students in Years 3 and up.
  • Classrooms with air purifiers, CO2 monitors and open windows.
  • Schools taking on the role of contact tracing and communication.
  • Restrictions to gatherings at schools, resulting in parent information, parent teacher interviews, assemblies, and activities being held online, outdoors, or in small groups.
  • The latest iterations of remote and hybrid learning as students and teachers were absent from school due to isolation and illness.
  • Teacher absences and shortages.
  • Teachers classed as potential ‘critical workers’.
  • The hard border into WA softening.
  • The acting federal Education Minister making remarks about “dud teachers” “dragging the chain” and “not delivering the learning gains our children need”.

The administrative requirements of Covid-19 directions for schools, combined with restrictions on getting together in person, meant that educators’ experiences of the term were largely transactional, operational, and cumulatively exhausting. School leaders and teachers worked to keep school communities safe, informed, and with a sense of calm normalcy. We put one foot in front of the other, complied with requirements, and ensured that learning and pastoral care continued for students. But we missed some of those things that buoy us in our work: relationality, community, and connection.

At my school we employed as many relief staff as we could to take the pressure off our teachers. We offered opportunities for staff to work flexibly or from home when we could. We scaled back and reimagined meetings, doing these differently or not at all, according to their purpose and our community’s needs. We carefully considered administrative requirements and evaluated the effectiveness, efficiency, and flexibility of assessment tasks and feedback practices. We interrogated the reasons for our ways of doing things, generated alternate ways to achieve our aims, and questioned whether the aims themselves needed to be rethought or relinquished. What was important during this time? What could we do differently? What could be let go?

We found small ways to connect with one another. There were no whole-staff meetings or morning teas, but we met in smaller groups (on balconies, in the quadrangle, in well-ventilated spaces). We held some free coffee Fridays where drinks at the coffee van were paid for by the school, facilitating incidental outdoors conversations between colleagues, as well as offering a gesture of thanks to our hard working staff. We thanked individuals for specific contributions. I called most teachers who were home isolating or ill, to check in and see how they were. We introduced a Staff Appreciation Award so that staff could recognise colleagues for their support.

While it was tempting to hold off on all but the most essential work, we knew that engaging with our professional selves, professional goals, and core purpose was key to staying connected and uplifted. We held our annual goal setting meetings and booked into professional learning experiences. We provided opportunities for staff to collaborate in small groups and teams to have energising, productive conversations around practice, with each other and with external experts. As well as teaching our students, it was pockets of meaningful collaboration that sparked moments of professional delight. Working together with colleagues and engaging in robust dialogue, thoughtful reflection, and collaborative planning, provided a lightness, an energy, and a reminder about our shared moral purpose: educating each student in our school community.

None of this is perfect, but we are doing our absolute best. We remain committed to the learning, care, safety, and success of our students.

Someone asked me recently what I have been proud of, and the first thing that came to mind was: showing up. The challenge for those in schools is to maintain enough wellbeing, community, connection, kindness and belonging, to sustain us through what will continue to be a challenging year. During this break between terms, I hope that educators around the country are filling their empty cups by finding time to regenerate and to connect with themselves and with their families and friends.