About Dr Deborah M. Netolicky

I am an Australian educator and PhD with 20 years of experience in teaching and school leadership in Australia and England. I am the author of 'Transformational Professional Learning: Making a Difference in Schools' and co-Editor of 'Flip the System Australia: What Matters in Education'. My 'the édu flâneuse' blog narrates my thinking around education, coaching, professional learning, writing, research, travel, and identity. Photographs are usually mine.

Keynote: Key coaching concepts from the perspective of a pracademic

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

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

Here is my slide deck.

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Leading the use of research in schools

drummers

source: pixabay.com @skeeze

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book cover design for ‘Transformational Professional Learning’

Netolicky BOOK COVER

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

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

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

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

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

Education is not broken. Teachers do not need fixing.

abandoned chairs

source: @MichaelGaida on pixabay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sharing research in schools through a Research Report

‘The research says’ is often an empty statement used as a basis for an argument for a particular education reform, approach or product. I encourage teachers to ask: What research? Whose interests are served by this claim? Where did the studied intervention work? For whom? Under what conditions? How many participants were in the study? From what school contexts? How were data generated? What were the ethical considerations and how were these dealt with? How relevant is this to our context?

Dylan Wiliam has recently noted in a TES article that:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How to study (for English)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Success indicators of a professional learning model

source: pixabay @djoanis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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