"For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate observer, it's an immense pleasure to take up residence in multiplicity, in whatever is seething, moving, evanescent and infinite: you're not at home, but you feel at home everywhere, you're at the centre of everything yet you remain hidden from everybody." Baudelaire
For more than 20 years—across independent schools in Perth, Melbourne, and London—I have led teaching, learning, staff development, staff wellbeing, and change management that is strategically aligned and based in context, research, and innovation. My research interests include professional learning, professional identity, school leadership, and leading change.
I am currently Head of Teaching and Learning (K-12) at an independent school with 1800 students, Honorary Research Associate at Murdoch University, Chair of the Board of a local public school, and member of national and international advisory committees.
I am author of the book ‘Transformational professional learning: Making a difference in schools’, Editor of 'Future Alternatives for Educational Leadership: Diversity, Inclusion, Equity and Democracy', and co-Editor of 'Flip the System Australia: What matters in education'.
Awards include the 2021 AERA Educational Change SIG Emerging Scholar Award, the 2021 Michael Fullan Emerging Scholar Award, the 2021 ACEL WA Certificate of Excellence in Educational Leadership, the 2018 ACEL WA Research in Educational Leadership and Management Award 2018, and the 2026 ACEL ‘New Voice’ In Educational Leadership Research Scholarship.
My 'the édu flâneuse' blog narrates my thinking around education, leadership, professional learning, writing, and research.
Photographs are mine except where a source is acknowledged.
In 2021, I chose ‘excelsior’ as one word to help nudge incremental progress through the pandemic we all hoped might be a memory rather than a reality by 2022.
As I reflect on the past couple of years, it has been my networks, collaborations and connections with others that have buoyed and energised me. This includes checking in on friends and finding ways to regularly connect with my family. It involves collaborating with staff at my school, and working with educators from around the globe, often through co-writing or co-presenting. While some collaborations have resulted in products and achievements, conversations are often a reward in themselves.
I want to deepen my focus on being connected, and so my word for 2022 is CONNECTION.
A getaway has been a perfect way to start the year connecting with family, and I have begun to use a meditation app at night to connect with self. In the last week, I have connected with national and global colleagues during the ICSEI (International Congress for School Effectiveness and Improvement) congress, including by being part of two symposia:
‘Educational Leadership Policy and Practice for Diversity and Equity’ with Christine Grice, Claire Golledge, Santiago Rincón-Gallardo and Beatriz Pont. This symposium drew from the work of Future Alternatives for Educational Leadership, specifically the Foreword (Pont) and Chapters 2 (Grice), 3 (Netolicky & Golledge) and 14 (Rincón-Gallardo). It explored new conceptions of sustainable educational leadership through the metaphors of wayfinding, salvaging and social movement. Common threads included the leading as practice, care, learning, wellbeing and hope, as well as tensions between education systems and the realities of schools. Beatriz noted in her discussion that we need to shape and define the future of education as a collective. Video below.
‘Pracademia: Exploring the possibilities, power and politics of boundary-spanners straddling the worlds of practice and scholarship’ with Trista Hollweck, Paul Campbell, John Mynott, Michaela Zimmatore, Steven Kolber, Keith Heggart and Scott Eacott. In this symposium we explored the tensions and possibilities of the concept of pracademia, ideas and research published in a Special Issue of the Journal of Professional Capital and Community (guest edited by Hollweck, Netolicky & Campbell). A video can be found here.
While there is much to miss about in-person conferences, and challenges to online versions (like presenting at 4am or in a busy household), virtual opportunities continue to provide ways to support and connect with one another.
In thinking about channeling connection, I have additionally decided to finally launch the podcast I have been thinking about for two years: The Edu Salon. I am excited about sharing rich conversations with inspiring educators, and contributing to the networked hive mind of the global education community. We are better when we connect with and learn alongside one another, and engage in talking about (and then doing) what matters.
In many ways 2021 has gone by in a flash. Milestones and special moments have come and gone in a maelstrom of work, a firehose of information, and a tumult of pandemic rules and restrictions. As the year winds down, and as I try to do the same, I want to take a moment to reflect on my professional highlights of 2021.
This year my school launched a new strategic plan, and in my role as Head of Teaching and Learning (K-12), I have been engaged in important work bringing that plan to fruition. We have developed our work in what we call ‘learning diversity and inclusion’, including professional learning for and collaboration among staff, adjusting for students with diverse learning needs, developing our shared understanding and practice of differentiation, and improving our reporting on individual learning outcomes. We have continued our focus on effective feedback, assessment, student action on feedback, student goal setting, and student self-reflection and self-regulation, as key ways to develop a learning culture of continual improvement and resilience.
My school aims to support our students to become good people – lifelong learners and leaders of rounded character, able to experience their best success and find their most appropriate pathway through school and beyond school. This year it is wonderful that our Year 12s achieved the best ATAR results in our school’s history, but we know that success is not measured by a number or a test. We will continue to do the work we know matters for the range of students in our care, providing opportunities for agency, voice and accomplishment appropriate to each individual, honouring each person’s story, goals, and gifts.
An exciting challenge has been collating and distilling years of consultation and feedback to inform redesigning the Secondary timetable for 2022 and beyond. In doing so we have made room for a heightened focus on wellbeing and child safety, and for teaching those things that will continue to set our students up for their best future success through our Future Ready programs.
While my role title names ‘teaching’ and ‘learning’, much of my work is immersed in recruiting, inducting, supporting, coaching, mentoring, and developing staff. It is my pleasure to work with staff new to our school, with graduate teachers, with Heads of Department, with cross-school strategic project groups, with middle and aspirant leaders, with classroom teachers, with the Executive team, and with administrative, IT, facilities and support staff. I especially enjoy my one-on-one chats in which I support staff to find learning opportunities relevant to them, position themselves for their next steps, win promotional roles, and make decisions about their futures that best serve them. This year’s launch of our Staff Development Suite, co-designed by a staff steering committee in 2020, allows staff to be supported in ways appropriate and individualised to them. Supporting our staff to thrive and to be their best, in turn supports our students.
A range of initiatives designed to support wellbeing for all staff include: ensuring predictable and well-in-advance calendar dates, timelines and deadlines; morning teas; soup in winter; meditation; seated massage; free flu vaccinations; COVID-19 vaccination leave; some early finishes to accommodate parent-teacher interviews during part of the school day where possible; investment in staff professional learning; support of staff professional goals; leadership development opportunities; a Distance Learning Plan that embeds planning time and realistic expectations of staff and students; supporting staff through life’s hardships; working to make part-time teachers’ timetables as life-friendly as possible; negotiating flexible working arrangements where possible and appropriate; and teacher recognition. I was pleased this year to spend time nominating colleagues for awards, and delighted that they were recognised for the outstanding contribution they make to the lives of the young people in our school and beyond. While teachers constantlynavigate professional responsibilities, marking loads, and administration, schools can continue to consider their role in creating cultures of trust and empathy. This of course involves more than tokens of appreciation and needs to be part of a whole-school culture of organisational, collective and individual care and responsibility, in which the school works to support staff, and staff work to support themselves and each other.
I am incredibly grateful to those who nominated me for awards this year. I was thrilled to receive three awards: the 2021 American Educational Research Association Educational Change Emerging Scholar Award, the 2021 Michael Fullan Emerging Scholar in Professional Capital and Community Award, and the 2021 Australian Council of Educational Leaders WA Certificate of Excellence in Educational Leadership.
I enjoyed presenting to national and international audiences this year (online thanks to the pandemic and travel restrictions) including:
On whether we need pracademics – as part of an Educational Leadership Special Interest Group panel at the Australian Association of Education Research conference, with Fiona Longmuir, Scott Eacott, Virginia Moller and Dorothy Andrews.
A Special Issue of the Journal of Professional Capital and Community ‘Pracademia: Exploring the possibilities, power and politics of boundary-spanners straddling the worlds of practice and scholarship’, which I co-edited with Trista Hollweck and Paul Campbell. Its six papers include our paper Defining and exploring pracademia: Identity, community, and engagement.
The edited book Future Alternatives for Educational Leadership: Diversity, Inclusion, Equity, and Democracy. Written mainly during 2020, but released this year, it is edited by me and includes 15 outstanding chapter contributions from 25 authors from the UK, USA, South America, Canada, Europe, Australia, and the Middle East: Asmaa Al-Fadala, Cecilia Azorín, Carol Campbell, Christine Corso, Karen Edge, Michael Fullan, Claire Golledge, Christine Grice Suraiya Hameed, Andy Hargreaves, Alma Harris, Michelle Jones, Annie Kidder, Jodie Miller, Richard Paquin Morel, Liliana Mularczyk, me, Viviennne Porritt, Santiago Rincón-Gallardo, Eugenie Samier, Marnee Shay, Dennis Shirley, James Spillane, Eloise Tan, and Pat Thomson, with a Foreword by Beatriz Pont. In my view, this is an incredibly important and forward-thinking book by some of the world’s best education thinkers, researchers and practitioners.
In the introduction to Future Alternatives for Educational Leadership, penned in January this year, I wrote:
It was late in January 2020 that I invited authors to contribute to a book exploring what leadership in education needs now and into the future. … Bringing this book’s authors together in that moment was about considering educational leadership in a time of climate crises, grave global humanitarian need, political unrest, displacement of peoples, and inequities affecting the education, safety, and success of young people around the world. On 30 January, the World Health Organization declared a public health emergency. … Between March, when authors conceptualised their abstracts, and later months when they wrote their chapters, much changed for individuals, for schools, for universities, and for the world. …
As I write this Introduction in January 2021, more than two million people have reportedly died from COVID-19 as second and third waves of infections continue around the world. Violent pro-Trump rioters have stormed the US Capitol in Washington DC, numerous countries are in lockdown, hospitals around the world are overwhelmed, and schools in 17 countries are closed to all but essential workers as remote learning is again enacted for millions of students. History may or may not show the COVID-19 pandemic as a watershed event in socioeconomic and educational change. At the moment of writing this book, however, the opportunity to reconsider and reimagine the future of education and educational leadership seems imperative. The need for all of us to work for diversity, inclusion, equity, and democracy is more urgent than ever.
I wondered, as I sent the book to production, if COVID-19 would be a barely-relevant memory by the time the book was published. As it turns out, the pandemic continues to transform the way we live, lead and learn, with connectedness and meaning keeping us all going during these unusual times. The need for all of us to work for diversity, inclusion, equity, and democracy is indeed more urgent than ever. As we enter 2022, I will continue to be buoyed in professional spaces by collaboration with others, and the feeling of working together for a common, moral purpose.
Today I was part of an Educational Leadership Special Interest Group panel at the Australian Association of Education Research (AARE) 2021 conference, entitled, ‘Do we need pracademics?’ Fiona Longmuir was the moderator, and guest panellists were Scott Eacott, Virginia Moller, Dorothy Andrews and me.
The panel addressed questions such as:
Do we need pracademics?
Is labelling people ‘pracademics’ divisive and reductive, or full of productive possibility?
Do we care about pracademia?
To what extent might pracademia develop or dilute the rigour of scholarship and practice?
What role might pracademia play in the field of educational leadership specifically?
There was general agreement that the terms ‘pracademia’ and ‘pracademic’ require definitional clarity, and that a conversation about pracademia is worth having and worth continuing.
Scott challenged the motivations of those who might self-identify as pracademics, and suggested a focus on the inclusion of voices.
I explored the work I have done with Trista Hollweck and Paul Campbell (Hollweck et al., 2021, as our most thorough example) in defining and exploring the space of pracademia and the notion of an individual as a pracademic. For me, pracademia is about doing good work and about valuable networks and constructive collaboration between educators across and between education spaces.
Virginia described her role as ambiguous, complex and frowned upon, and explained that she was trying the identity of ‘pracademic’ on for size, to see if it fits. This notion of identity work, outsider-ness, and the nature of pracademic community is something I have heard from others who feel that their boundary spanning work is not valued or acknowledged in their professional contexts.
Dorothy challenged us to consider we needed to ‘just get over it’, and—as David Gurr suggested in the chat bar—do good work regardless of in what sphere someone works or what professional label is attached to them.
I asked the question about whether our systems and structures might be reimagined to allow for the valuing of work in multiple spaces.
Virginia and Scott discussed the notion of co-design between those in the academe and those in practice spaces. I mentioned the gap that Trista, Paul and I have noted around the need for policy to be explored more fully in the space of pracademia.
As in the other pracademia-focused conference panels and symposia of which I have been a part, the discussion was rich, energising, and resulted in calls from panellists and the audience for further exploration.
I will leave you with an excerpt from the final paragraph of our paper for the Journal of Professional Capacity and Community Special Issue (‘Pracademia: Exploring the possibilities, power and politics of boundary-spanners straddling the worlds of practice and scholarship’) we co-edited, that is mostly available via EarlyCite:
“The pandemic showed the possibilities of what collaboration between and working across multiple spaces in a field can accomplish. The concept of pracademia, and of working as a pracademic across and between spaces, suggests that we may be able to reimagine boundaries, fields, and roles in education and in other fields. For the work of pracademia to be sustainable, the space between practice and academia needs to be valued in terms of legitimacy, credibility, and even paid work. … Embracing the concept of pracademia may go some way to dissolving traditional dualisms of spaces that educators operate within, and increasingly across. It may be part of liquefying boundaries, so that rather than boundary spanning or boundary crossing, educators move back and forth along the Möbius-strip-style continuum comprising the multiplicities of research, practice, and policy. It may be engaging in multiple modes, spaces, and communities that open up learning, knowledge exchange, and mobilization of ideas and practices. It may be structural affordances from schools, universities, and policy bodies such as time, resources, avenues for recognition, and institutional support. For we authors, exploring and embedding ourselves in the identities and communities of pracademia is about making a positive difference in education; advocating for empowerment beyond the often-rigid structures, expectations and silos; and encouraging a valuing of alternate networks, contributions, and influences.” (Hollweck, Netolicky, & Campbell, 2021)
We absolutely need innovation in education, but does schooling need evolution or a revolution? There are those who advocate for small steps towards improving schools and systems, and those who call for dissolution of current systems and the birth of an almost unrecognisable education system. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we have become keenly aware of the social, relational, and economic roles that schools play in communities. We have seen the possibilities of remote learning and working, and also been reminded of the benefits of being humans in a space together. The optimal approach seems to one of hybridity and flexibility of when, where and how we learn, that harnesses technologies for clear and collaborative purposes.
Recently, UNESCO released its Reimagining our futures together: a new social contract for education report. The current context it describes is reminiscent of what I outline in the introduction to Future Alternatives for Educational Leadership: a planet in peril, democracy under threat, technologies presenting possibilities and problems, and a citizenry engaging in advocacy and activism.
The report calls for less teacher-driven teaching, less individual ranking and sorting of students, and less compartmentalising of curriculum. It argues for curriculum that is ecological, intercultural and interdisciplinary, and pedagogy focused on student agency and collaboration, rather than competition.
“Reimagining the future together calls for pedagogies that foster cooperation and solidarity. How we learn must be determined by why and what we learn. A foundational commitment to teaching and advancing human rights means that we must respect the rights of the learner. We must create occasions for people to learn from one another and value one another across all lines of difference whether of gender, religion, race, sexual identity, social class, disability, nationality, etc. Respecting the dignity of people means teaching them to think for themselves, not what or how to think. This means creating opportunities for students to discover their own sense of purpose and to determine what will be a flourishing life for them. At the same time, we collectively need to build a world where such lives can be realized and this means collaborating to build capacities to improve the world.” p.50
Schools are exploring these ideas in their own contexts, including flexible learning for students, student voice and choice in their learning, a range of learning pathways, and the building of learner portfolios, profiles and passports.
At my school, we have redesigned the secondary timetable for 2022 in order to align with our strategic priorities around learning and wellbeing, and also to make room and protect time for those things we know are important, but perhaps not mandated or measured. This includes a focus on health and wellbeing. It also includes the launch of Future Ready programs for students in Years 6-10, designed to support students in their development as lifelong autonomous learners and active compassionate citizens. Our Future Ready programs are underpinned by the Australian General Capabilities and Cross-curriculum Priorities, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, and our school’s research-informed Learner Attributes.
In education we often talk about a focus on differentiation, personalisation, and agency. What I am finding most liberating as I work with staff to plan our Future Ready programs for their 2022 launch, is that these operate outside of the mandated curriculum and are not assessed or reported on in traditional ways. As a result, we can wholeheartedly focus on designing learning that supports students to follow their passions, initiate learning projects, design learning processes, and engage in solutions to authentic problems. We are free to focus on learning intentions, the role of the student in their learning, and student engagement and agency. We are embedding meaningful micro-credentials and life skills. We are considering the role of technologies for teaching, but more importantly for student learning, communication, collaboration, and creation. We are designing programs around what students need, who they are, who they want to become, and the skills and capabilities that will serve them throughout their lives. More than that, we are creating space for students to explore and experience success, curiosity, joy, and their desire to make the world a better place.
Our new timetable structure and Future Ready programs are not a revolution. They are a small, exciting, context-embedded step forward that allows us to serve our students’ multiple needs – to be simultaneously successful within the current schooling system, healthy flourishing people, and confident contributing citizens, ignited in their moral purpose, and well-prepared for lives of living, learning and leading.
Yesterday I presented the final keynote at the Association of Independent Schools NSW Evidence Institute’s two-day Education Research Symposium: Wrong way go back: A wayfinding approach to evidence-based practice for sustainable school change.
The keynote was based in the current context in which schools are operating; one of relentless global uncertainty, disruption, and disunity. Teachers and school leaders are tasked with working towards change within schools that is meaningful, sustainable, and best serves the current and future needs of our students and communities. So I sought to draw theory and practice together to articulate how I approach school change that sticks, energises, engages critically with evidence, brings the community along, and improves education for the betterment of students.
My keynote explored the metaphor of wayfinding—a purposeful, directive process of determining and adjusting our route between an origin and a destination—as a framework for guiding evidence-based educators. This metaphor is one co-author Claire Golledge and I explored in our recent chapter ‘Wayfinding: Navigating multiple identities for sustainable school leadership’, in the book Future Alternatives for Educational Leadership: Diversity, Inclusion, Equity, and Democracy. While anchoring ourselves in where we are and what previous research can tell us gives us a starting point for our work in schools, change that is meaningful and sustainable needs to also engage in futures thinking and wayfinding practices so that we might navigate the complexities and tensions of the current education landscape.
This presentation provided insights into what it means to be an evidence-informed educator and the definitions, possibilities, and pitfalls of evidence-based practice in education. I recommended Gary Jones’ excellent, sense-making book Evidence-based school leadership and management: A practical guide. I explored how a wayfinding approach to evidence-based practice can allow educators to act with a balance of systematisation and responsiveness, drawing together research and evidence with practice, futures thinking, and deep knowledge of context.
It was wonderful to be part of a line-up of speakers including Christine Grice, Mark Rickinson, Connie Cirkony, Jenny Donovan, Mary Ryan, Pasi Sahlberg, Jim Tognolini and Amy Graham.
Rooted in the Latin word novus (meaning ‘new’), innovation has been a catch cry in education and other sectors for decades. But ‘new’ does not equate to ‘better’. Most would argue that to innovate is not to pursue only novelty, but change for added value and improvement. Educational innovation can: improve learning outcomes and the quality of education provision; help enhance equity in the access to and use of education, as well as equality in learning outcomes; improve the effectiveness and efficiency of educational practices and services; and ensure education remains relevant by introducing the changes it needs to adapt to societal needs (OECD, 2016).
Wu and Lin (2019) use the term ‘educational entrepreneurs’ to describe educators who analyse problems, recognise opportunities, and pragmatically create meaningful solutions. Couros (2015) talks about innovators needing to be empathetic, questioning, risk taking, networked, observant, creative, resilient and reflective, qualities we would like to see in our students, teachers and school leaders. Networks are becoming ever-more important in enhancing global education innovation (Azorín et al., 2021).
I explored on this blog, pre-COVID in 2019, whether we needed innovation in schools, and what being innovative might look like: growth-focused, student-centred change from the ground up that challenges accepted and dominant ways of thinking about education. I wrote (Netolicky, 2020) that the pandemic-forced education innovations we were living through in 2020 were not well-planned and deliberate models of best practice, but rather temporary crisis responses. In the introduction to the recently released book Future Alternatives for Educational Leadership (Netolicky, 2021), I describe my perception of the educational experience of 2020, including constant emergency response planning and re-planning, remote teaching, remote leading, online professional learning, exacerbated inequities, and erosion of wellbeing.
COVID-19 did not reveal schools to be obsolete factories of irrelevant content, but hubs of community, engagement, relationships, values and care (AERA Educational Change Special Interest Group, 2021). We discovered that remote learning and online professional development have benefits and possibilities, but also pitfalls. We appreciated that schools are vital places of learning, belonging, support, friendship and safety for students, and for families. We learned what we already knew – that teachers are committed experts who work to serve their students no matter what the circumstances, and that teaching is a complex, nuanced practice of great value for reasons beyond academic achievement. Now, still mid-pandemic, after a period of necessitated innovation by educators around the globe, I continue to feel that we do not need innovation for innovation’s sake, but that we do need to constantly evolve, reflect, iterate, and respond to socio-economic local and global developments.
The pandemic silver linings in education include: a focus on flexibility in the how and when of learning, teaching and work; an acceleration in the meaningful and creative use of digital technologies; a reconsideration around what engagement, relevance and agency mean in teaching and learning; and an expansion of accepted learning pathways. Early offers to university and flexible university admissions processes have lifted the focus from university entrance examinations, opening up new ways for students to demonstrate suitability and gain entry. This allows schools to move further in the direction of inclusive, exciting and varied senior secondary and post-school pathways for students.
I agree with Zhao and Watterston’s (2021) argument for an educative focus on lifelong learning, student autonomy, self-regulation, happiness, wellbeing, opportunity, and contribution to humanity. I’m not convinced, however, about their suggestion that school subjects such as history and physics disappear, or that direct instruction be ‘cast away’. I feel now, more than ever, that what we need in education is to do our core business as well as we can. That means educating students, developing them as lifelong learners, helping them to be well people of curiosity, character, knowledge, skill, resilience, and adaptability who know who they are, who they want to be, and how to develop themselves and collaborate with others to address real problems.
The conditions need to be right for a mindset and culture of productive and collaborative innovation with students at its heart. The capacity for organisational innovation is influenced by leadership through values, structures, strategies, policies and practices, and by the collective culture of attitudes and behaviours (Amabile & Pratt, 2016). Those working in schools benefit from being helped to imagine possible futures and guided in choosing a preferred option (Jónsdóttir & Macdonald, 2019). Innovation that finds solutions to complex and previously unforeseen problems requires diverse, multidisciplinary teams with members who are resilient, capable of complex analysis, able to embrace others’ perspectives, and who trust one another (Kresta, 2021). It also requires well-considered and robust evaluation to guide future innovations and avoid being stuck at the level of well-intended but isolated pioneering efforts (OECD, 2016).
If we focus on the human, on learning, wellbeing and inclusion, we have a foundation stone on which to make decisions for the best interests of our students and the people within our school communities. If we build cultures of trust, psychological safety, high challenge and high support, we create the conditions for school-based innovation that is student-centred and context-respecting. If we apply consultative, systematic, evidence-informed and futures-looking processes of improvement, we have ways to move forward in productive, value-adding directions. If innovations—big and small—are to lead to the compelling education vision they seek to realise, school and system leaders need to approach any desired improvement with a balance of systematisation and responsiveness, with a deep knowledge of context and cultural readiness, and with clear and ongoing communication and feedback.
As one of my children’s teachers once told me, education is about doing good, not looking good. Innovation in this sense is not about seeking newness, difference, radicalness or shiny edu-confections. We should always be working towards better serving our students, better preparing them for the changing and uncertain world, with the knowledge, skills, capabilities and character they need to find their best success, be their best selves, and contribute positively to their world. If innovation is constant, context-embedded iteration towards the best outcomes for students, then it should be our natural way of operating in schools.
There are some words educators use that can mean little to parents and students, and there are education buzzwords that are ubiquitous but mean different things to different people. Differentiation is one pervasive and important term that school communities would benefit from teasing out beyond its basic definition to a shared understanding of what it means and what it looks like in practice.
Differentiation is a deceptively simple concept that embodies layers of complexity when implemented effectively. Rooted in the word difference, differentiation is about inclusion and equity of access to learning for all students. It is about student engagement, learning and achievement, based in the assumption that all students deserve opportunities for learning challenge, support, growth and success.
Carol Ann Tomlinson (2008) calls differentiated instruction ‘student-aware teaching’ that empowers students as autonomous learners. Kylie Bice (2017) describes differentiation as “the art of each teacher knowing their students well in order to ensure learning gain for every child.” Tomlinson (2017) defines differentiation as giving students “multiple options for taking in information, making sense of ideas, and expressing what they learn. In other words, a differentiated classroom provides different avenues to acquiring content, to processing or making sense of ideas, and to developing products so that each student can learn effectively.”
Differentiation is not a specific strategy, but a set of understandings and practices that come together to address the diverse needs of learners. Differentiating means considering when and how it is appropriate to adjust content, process, product and learning environment. It is context dependent and student dependent. While there are key underlying principles and best practices, schools will have their own frameworks, policies, programs and practices for differentiating and for ‘how we understand and do differentiation around here’.
Quality differentiation requires teachers to know their students and students to increasingly know themselves as learners.
For teachers, this means systematically, thoughtfully planning curriculum delivery and assessment based on best practice and the best available evidence. It means continually generating and responding to data that includes standardised, individualised, formative and summative information about student learning, achievement and even wellbeing. It means setting appropriately high expectations for each child and regularly checking on their knowledge and understanding. Differentiated teaching is adaptive and flexible enough to respond to the needs of the child, class and cohort. Teachers develop and refine their suite of differentiation beliefs and strategies over time. These strategies span planning, programming, resourcing, classroom practice, use of data to inform teaching and learning, intervention, support, enrichment, extension, feedback and assessment.
Tomlinson (2017) argues that a differentiated classroom follows a rhythmic, organic sequence of whole-class instruction, review, and sharing, followed by individual or small-group exploration, extension and production. She (2008) describes teaching strategies that embrace flexibility such as small-group instruction, reading partners, text at varied reading levels, personalised rubrics, mini-workshops, product and task options with common learning goals, varied homework assignments, intentional student groupings and ongoing assessment. Bice (2017) outlines a range of differentiation foci for teachers such as pre-assessment, data to ability-group students, writing differentiated success criteria, flexible grouping, building content knowledge, increasing students’ ability to work independently and designing marking rubrics.
For students, differentiation means becoming engaged in choices in their learning and understanding themselves as learners, with guidance from their teachers. Personalised learning puts the student at the centre as agentic, active participant in their own learning. As agents of their own learning, students set goals, take responsibility, participate, reflect, influence, and respond to feedback as an opportunity to grow.
My experience as a teacher who focuses on student needs and empowering students as learners results in opportunities to partner with students in their learning and witness their engagement in learning. A current example is in my Year 12 Literature class in which students are beginning work on their final assignment. Through a creation in a form of their choice they will explore and demonstrate what the study of Literature has taught them about themselves and the world. Students are telling me that they are having to monitor the time they are spending on this assignment, as they are so immersed they’re finding it hard to pull away from their flow state to focus on their other courses. Highly personalised learning—a rarity in the standardised world of Year 12 assessments—is resulting in imaginative and thorough engagement with the course material in ways that allow students to drive their learning and for me to work alongside each young person at their point of need.
Differentiating instruction does not mean individualising learning for every child, or students never doing the same thing at the same time. It absolutely does not mean the end of teacher-led instruction. Differentiation is about beginning with an understanding of each learner. It involves balancing whole-class and explicit instruction with opportunities for inquiry, student choice, and support in smaller groups or one-on-one. It is about designing and negotiating formative and summative assessments that allow learners to demonstrate their understanding and skills in ways that are varied but also manageable within a classroom context. Differentiation is part systematisation and part intuition. It requires trusting the expertise of teachers and the capacity of students. At its heart it is a set of practices of equity and inclusion.
Bice, K. (2017). Leading differentiation. E-Leading, 6. Australian Council for Educational Leaders, 1-3.
Tomlinson, C. A. (2008). The goals of differentiation. Educational leadership, 66(3), 26-30.
Tomlinson, C. A. (2017). How to differentiate instruction in academically diverse classrooms. ASCD.
The crux of the purpose of any educational institution is helping our students to achieve their absolute best, to achieve their individual goals via appropriate pathways, and to be and become their best, healthiest and most fulfilled selves who contribute positively to the world.
One aspect of this is that schools aim to support students to be self-efficacious, empowered lifelong learners who have a nuanced toolkit of knowledge, skills and capabilities. What are the attributes of lifelong learners? In its Education 2030 report, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), notes the importance of student agency, personalised learning environments, physical health, mental wellbeing, and a solid foundation in literacy, numeracy, digital literacy and data literacy. The UK’s Effective Lifelong Learning Inventory comments that effective learners are those who are self-aware, resilient, curious to make sense of their worlds, know that learning is learnable, and able to learn both with others and independently. The University of Melbourne’s 2020 Future-proofing students report identifies capabilities for learning that include communication, collaboration, imagination, ethical behaviour, economic literacy, persistence, and the capacity to use feedback. The World Economic Forum’s 2015 New Vision for Education defines core competencies for today’s learners and future workers as including collaboration, communication, creativity, critical thinking, persistence, curiosity and adaptability.
So, schools need to support students to understand and hone discipline, organisation, attention to detail, independent work habits, self-awareness, communication, collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, the capacity to reflect, goal setting, persistence in the face of challenges, and how to productively act on feedback. Add to this citizenship, global competencies and cultural competence. Yet content knowledge, transferrable skills, competencies and capabilities are on their own not sufficient to prepare students to succeed in a future which is likely to be uncertain and complex. As Head of Teaching and Learning at my K-12 school, I am constantly considering not only what and how students and teachers learn, but also the optimal conditions for that learning—made up of environment, relationships, culture, values and wellbeing. (A focus on student wellbeing includes teacher wellbeing which, as Harding et al. found, is associated with student wellbeing and the quality of the teacher-student relationship.)
Wellbeing is about purpose, belonging, sense of self and hope, as well as physical wellness and feelings of happiness, joy, hope and satisfaction. It is physical, emotional, social, cognitive and spiritual. It is the feeling of living well, and of living a life of positive contribution. Martin Seligman’s PERMA theory of wellbeing outlines those things that allow each of us to live well: (P) Positive emotions, (E) Engagement in a task, (R) Relationships, (M) Meaning, and (A) Accomplishments.
In his paper ‘The right drivers for whole-system success’ Michael Fullan draws together learning and wellbeing and argues for their seamless integration. The OECD Education 2030 report identities learner wellbeing as key to today’s students being successful in their futures. Learning and wellbeing are reflected in two of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals: Goal 3 (Good health and wellbeing), and Goal 4 (Quality education). Their integration comes into even sharper focus when we see the diminishing wellbeing among our students. The 2020 Headspace Youth Mental Health survey of over 4000 Australian young people revealed that in 2020 34% reported high or very high levels of psychological distress. The 2020 Mission Australia Youth Survey captured responses from over 25000 young Australians between the ages of 15 and 19. 42.6% felt stressed either all of the time or most of the time. Respondents identified their biggest personal concerns as coping with stress (42.5%), mental health (33.9%), body image (33%), and school or study problems (32.4%). COVID-19 was also much-mentioned as causing a raft of concerns including those around education, isolation, financial distress and mental health. Schools are addressing issues of student mental and physical health with intentional structures, supports, resources and programs.
If COVID-19 and remote learning have taught us anything, it is the relational, social and community value of schools and classrooms. As Michael Fullan and Mary Jean Gallagher explain in their 2020 book The Devil is in the Details, powerful learning is interconnected with wellness, resilience, and connection to the world. ‘Being well’ contributes not only to physical, mental, and emotional health, but also to learning, success and fulfilment. And learning well contributes to success and to feelings of curiosity, excitement, purpose, and satisfaction. Although we often talk about our children’s learning and wellbeing separately, they are two sides of the same coin.
While it’s important not to change for change’s sake, schools are parts of and microcosms of society and the wider world. As such they are always acted upon by evolving environments, and are themselves in a state of flux as they adapt to shifting circumstances, communities and education thinking. Change as part of adaptation, and as part of a school’s work to always improve outcomes for students, is inevitable.
“Without a sufficiently strong foundation, the redirection collapses at some point, forcing you to go back and rebuild. Think of it as an investment, an important investment, in creating a better future.” John Kotter, Leading Change, 1996
John Kotter’s well-known 1996 model of change management reveals the complexity of managing or implementing change in an organisation. The model includes eight steps: establish a sense of urgency about the need to achieve change; create a guiding coalition (a group with energy and influence in the organisation to lead the change); develop a vision and strategy for the change; communicate the change vision (tell people, in every possible way and at every opportunity, about the why, what and how of the changes); involve people in the change effort and encourage them to think about the changes and how to achieve them rather than why they do not like the changes and how to stop them; generate short-term wins and recognise the positive work being done to achieve the change; consolidate gains and produce more change, creating momentum; and anchor new approaches in the culture.
Any change needs to emerge out of an identified need, followed by a thorough process of how best to address that need within the context of the particular school. Whenever undertaking a review and redesign process in a school, I often think at the beginning that I have left more than enough time—sometimes even too much time—but a long runway to any change or adjustment always turns out being the best way to go.
My view of the process of considering, designing and implementing change involves a number of stages, outlined below.
Laying the groundwork
Laying the groundwork for change means setting the scene by establishing the need for the change, understanding the context of the change and stakeholder views, and figuring out what the change should look like, how it will work, and what impacts and side effects it is likely to produce. In this stage, leaders work to:
Understand the problem. What isn’t working optimally? What are the vision and needs of the organisation and its members? How can these better be met?
Ground the work in context and culture. How is this change grounded in the vision and purpose of the organisation? How does it honour tradition and history?
Use a variety of consultation processes to generate feedback and understanding of stakeholder views. Conflicting viewpoints, ideas and requests are likely to arise, but themes will arise that can help to inform the change.
Ideate (generate ideas), including a wish list of changes and multiple possible solutions.
Prototype and test possible models of what the change could look like. This is where the problems are discovered and ironed out, and where it the difference between an idealised perfect and what is actually possible comes into view. It’s important to go back to the why—the underlying purpose and aims—when making decisions to ensure that the change is aligned with the organisation’s core purpose, strategic direction and idiosyncratic context.
Continue iteration and consultation at sticky stages of the plan, when it begins to become apparent what can and can’t be done with the resources available and parameters within which the change needs to occur.
Communicating and working towards the change
Once the groundwork is laid, it is time to communicate the change model and implementation plan. This stage includes:
Communicating transparently and often about the change. Be clear about how the change is based in feedback from, and in the best interests of, stakeholders. Be clear about what will stay the same. Be clear about the why of the change and the key takeaway messages. Explain what the change entails and what its impacts will be. At this point, the change is happening along the communicated timeline, and everyone in the organisation is now responsible for making the change a success. Leadership—or rather the act of leading—is needed at every level.
Sharing plans for staff development and support to ensure that staff are prepared for the change.
Inviting opt-in volunteers to be part of positive, productive contribution to the change.
Providing energised enthusiasts (or ‘champions of change’) with time, training and support to propel the change forward.
Implementing the change and providing and ongoing support
“Implementation matters. In organisations where change initiatives fail, it is often because of inconsistent or superficial implementation. It is important that we monitor implementation and student progress and be prepared to make mid-course corrections to improvement plans as needed. Communicating regularly is another key ingredient. It is important that we keep everyone informed of goals, progress and next steps.” Michelle Jones and Alma Harris, Leading and Transforming Education Systems, 2020
Day 1 of the change being implemented is not the moment at which the change ends. The first phase of implementation remains an important time to support all in the organisation (in a school this includes parents, students, teachers, leaders, and administration and support staff) and to continue to generate feedback about how things are going. It is important that school leaders continue to:
Take time to continue to generate feedback and listen to the experiences of those implementing and experiencing the change.
Review progress and assess the impact of the change.
Provide support and training.
Recognise and celebrate wins and what is working well.
Act with kindness, compassion and empathy. Change can be difficult, and any change takes time. Fear, anxiety and resistance are natural responses to the uncertainty that often comes with change, no matter how clearly communicated and well planned. For some people, change will feel like loss, and they will need to be supported to process their feelings and to see what is not changing, and what values, vision and traditions are being upheld and strengthened.
Even when the why of the change is compelling, change management is challenging for those leading the change, for those who are part of enacting the change, and for anyone who the change affects. When enacting a change process, senior and middle leaders need to band together in productive ways grounded in shared vision and purpose. School leaders need plenty of strength, resilience and conviction. They need to be clear on the why, what and how of the change, and to take care of themselves in order to be able to support others.
Change in schools should be part of an evolution that goes from being something new or reimagined, to something embedded as a core part of the organisation: a part of ‘the way we do things around here’ and part of ‘who we are and how we operate in this place’.
This week is National Reconciliation Week in Australia (27 May-3 June), a week that challenges all Australians to work towards a reconciled relationship between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and non-Indigenous peoples, for a unified, just and equitable Australia for all Australians.
It was only in 1962 that Indigenous Australians were granted the right to vote. And it was only in 1967, via referendum, that Australia’s First Nations peoples were recognised by the government as people. Previous to that, the Australian constitution stated that “in reckoning the numbers of the people of the Commonwealth, or of a State or other part of the Commonwealth, aboriginal natives should not be counted”. In 2008, then- Prime Minister Kevin Rudd issued a formal apology to Indigenous Australians for the Stolen Generations—children of Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent who were removed from their families under parliamentary authority. The 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart calls for the ancient sovereignty of First Nations Australians to be recognised through structural reform including constitutional change and a ‘Voice to Parliament’.
This year’s National Reconciliation Week theme is:
“More than a word. Reconciliation takes action.”
Reflecting on what reconciliation action looks like for me, it’s the macro and micro actions we take.
In my school our actions include a Reconciliation Action Plan working group who meet to consider what Reconciliation can look like in our school, and to plan how to bring our Reconciliation intentions to action. It’s building a meaningful relationship and mutually beneficial partnership of listening, seeking to understand identities and realities, and positive action with a remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community school. It is acknowledging Country in ways that are respectful, embedded and that show awareness of and respect for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, cultures and heritage. For my school, that means acknowledging the Whadjuk people of the Noongar nation as the traditional custodians of the land on which we learn and work, recognising their continuing connection and contribution to land, waters and community, and paying our respects to them, their culture, and to Elders past, present and emerging. It means providing students and staff with opportunities to increase understanding, value and recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures, histories, knowledges and rights. It means celebrating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander days of significance. It means always working to improve the ways in which we and our community engage with the ideas and actions of Reconciliation, and with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
This year in my classroom, engaging with Reconciliation includes studying the poetry of Australian poet Samuel Wagan Watson who encourages his readers to consider the lasting impacts and trauma of Australia’s colonial past, land dispossession, historic and continuing violence towards Indigenous Australians, and the erosion, appropriation and commercialisation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture, language, identity and mythology.
In my academic writing, my actions include citing Indigenous authors and seeking out Indigenous ways of knowing, researching and communicating. In my editing, actions include inviting Indigenous authors to write for books and journal special issues. I can highly recommend engaging with the work of ‘Deadly’ Australian scholars Tracey Bunda, Melitta Hogarth, Marnee Shay and Janet Mooney. In the conclusion of the upcoming edited book Future Alternatives for Educational Leadership, I call for those in educational leadership to openly engage with complex issues and uncomfortable debates, and to make space for the perspectives and knowledge systems of Indigenous and culturally marginalised groups.
During this week’s Q&A program on the ABC, Marnie Omeragic asked:
“It is Reconciliation Week. Is Australia ready to hear its truth? Are we brave enough to learn the atrocities of our past and our present? Deaths in custody, children being removed- it is happening at a faster rate today. The gap is not closing. How will Australia find its heart?”
The panel’s responses can be watched here from the 34-minute mark. The challenge remains for all Australians to consider how our thoughts, language and actions contribute to the aim of a reconciled, just, equitable and unified Australia.