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.

Key concepts for leading professional learning

A recent report purports to dispel myths about professional learning, including the apparent ‘commonly held’ beliefs that ‘professional learning is a waste of time and money’ and that ‘districts should implement research-based PL programs with no modifications’. These claims run counter to much literature around professional learning which argues that effective professional learning is a lever for improving student learning and achievement by improving teaching, and that context is crucial for any education model (and that therefore any model should be tailor fit to context).

This week I presented to a group of school leaders about leading professional learning. Part of my preparation for the presentation took me back to the roots of my work in this space, and those concepts I have come across that have stuck with me, become part of my thinking, and continue to anchor my work. I explain some of these below, in addition to others I discussed on the day, such as trust, context, teacher expertise, and teacher agency, self-determination and self-efficacy.

HOLONOMY

Holonomy is an ecological concept that has captured my attention for years, drawing together the individual and the larger system. Art Costa and Bob Garmston (2015) base their conception of holonomy on Arthur Koestler’s work around the word ‘holon’ as something which operates simultaneously as a part and a whole. Holonomy encapsulates the simultaneity that each person is both an independent individual and an interdependent part of the larger system, at once self-regulating, responsive to the organisation, and able to influence those around them.

This speaks to me of what we must consider when leading professional learning: balancing the needs of the individual and the needs of the organisation or system.

HOLDING ENVIRONMENT

Introduced to me through the outstanding work of Ellie Drago-Severson on leading adult learning, is the notion of the ‘holding environment’. With its roots in Donald Winnicott’s psychology concept, this is an environment of psychological safety in which members of the community or organisation feel ‘held’ in a culture of high care and high challenge.

Ellie was the first to really challenge me to consider how we honour where each adult learner is at, differentiate learning for adults in schools, and take an invitational, growth-focused approach to professional learning.

MEANINGFUL COLLABORATION

In Chapter 4 of Transformational Professional Learning, I explore that 1) collaboration does not happen by calling a group of people a ‘team’, or by organising for a group of people to be in a room together; and 2) feeling good working with colleagues is not professionally learning. Politeness, compliance, avoidance, and silence may make for an easy, harmonious-feeling meeting, but do not result in rigorous collective work that moves individual, team and organisation forward.

Rather, collaboration occurs when there is a clear shared purpose, collective accountability, collaborative norms, a focus on data to inform, and protocols for collaborative ways of working. Taking the time to create the conditions for skillful collaboration, to structure and nurture intentional collaborative practices, and to develop people’s skills in graceful disagreement and productive conflict, facilitates meaningful collaborative opportunities that develop teachers and positively impact students.

SEMANTIC SPACE

The importance of language is explored by Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey (2001), and Bob Garmston and Bruce Wellman (2016). The notion of semantic space—‘how we talk around here’—is outlined by Stephen Kemmis and Hannu Heikkinen (2012), and Rachel Lofthouse and Elaine Hall (2014).

Talk defines and drives emotions, relationships, belonging and action. Talk is a terrific barometer of professional culture, allowing us insights into beliefs, values and behaviours. We can ask: What are the staff water cooler conversations like at our school? How do we collectively talk about our work and practice? What questions do we ask? What contributions do we make? What shared language, and ways of speaking and listening, do we use? How do we talk around here?

In a recent episode of my podcast, The Edu Salon, Adam Voigt says: “The language that the leaders of a culture use, shapes the kids that grow in it, and they leave speaking that way as a result. If you’re looking to transform culture you can’t do it without changing words.”

I have this year written on my office whiteboard something I remember Rachel Lofthouse saying at a conference in 2017:

The talk is the work.

We need to value, focus on, create space for, and put effort, intentionality, time, and learning, into the talk in our schools.

References

Costa, A. L., & Garmston, R. J. (2006). Cognitive coaching: A foundation for Renaissance schools (2nd ed.). Heatherton, Australia: Hawker Brownlow Education.

Drago-Severson, E. (2004). Becoming adult learners: Principles and practices for effective development. Teachers College Press.

Garmston, R. J., & Wellman, B. M. (2016). The adaptive school: A sourcebook for developing collaborative groups. Rowman & Littlefield.

Kegan, R., & Lahey, L. L. (2001). How the way we talk can change the way we work: Seven languages for transformation. John Wiley & Sons.

Kemmis, S., & Heikkinen, H. L. (2012). Future perspectives: Peer-group mentoring and international practices for teacher development. In Peer-group mentoring for teacher development (pp. 160-186). Routledge.

Lofthouse, R., & Hall, E. (2014). Developing practices in teachers’ professional dialogue in England: Using coaching dimensions as an epistemic tool. Professional Development in Education, 40(5), 758-778.

Netolicky, D. M. (2019). Transformational professional learning: Making a difference in schools. Routledge.

Breaking bias

Australia was recently ranked overall 50th in the global gender gap (including 70th in ‘economic participation and opportunity’ and 99th in ‘health and survival’, but equal 1st in ‘educational attainment’). But while gender remains an issue worth discussing, our discussion needs to move beyond ‘women’ and consider complex structures and practices of power and equity. An article in yesterday’s Guardian by Sisonke Msimang argues that white women’s voices and anger are now being presented as central and as relatable, while the voices and stories of “Aboriginal women, women in hijab, women whose skin is far ‘too’ dark, and women who live on the wrong side of town; who can’t go to university and who will never report from parliament or file stories in newsrooms” are ignored. She adds that “Black women have pioneered the landscape of courage. … everywhere you look there are Black women who continue to be punished for loudly wearing their anger.”

As I reflect on the IWD 2022 theme of ‘break the bias’ I continue to consider how to acknowledge my own biases and privileges, and seek to understand the ways in which I help or hinder the project of diversity, inclusion and equity. I know that posting a blog post, photo or hashtag does little to address existing biases and their impacts on groups and individuals. I know that action and advocacy are needed in micro and macro contexts, and that sometimes appropriate action might be to speak less, take up less space, or question my own way of being in the world. I am proud of edited books such as Future Alternatives for Educational Leadership (which features 19 women out of 25 authors) and Flip the System Australia, but know these are imperfect in their attempts to share a diverse range of voices.

The following blog post is on the WomenEd website as part of a suite of worldwide reflections for International Women’s Day 2022.

Source: @PIRO4D on pixabay

Each year, International Women’s Day is surrounded by questions as to why the day is needed. Yet a dig into data from any country shows that gender equity is far from a reality. Recently, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated gender inequities, as this UN policy brief and this UN technical briefattest. There has been an increase in unpaid domestic and caring duties often taken up by women, an increase in gender-based violence, a decline in the availability of reproductive health services, and lack of women’s representation in pandemic planning response.

The 2022 International Women’s Day theme is ‘Break the Bias’. But how do we ‘break’ bias when it’s unconscious, unacknowledged, or invisible? With so much complexity in the social world, accepting stereotypes, tropes, and assumptions about gender can make the world a simpler place with less cognitive load, easier judgments, and faster decision making. But left unchallenged, biases can block, hinder, and harm individuals and groups in society and in organisations.

The education world should look at how bias might be influencing school communities and students’ experiences of learning, living, and being in the world. In schools, sometimes the racial, ethnic, ability, sexuality, and gender diversity of the staff does not match the diversity of the student and parent community. Sometimes there is a lack of diversity in the community, or in the teaching or leadership staff. Conscious and unconscious biases of those overseeing staff recruitment and promotion can influence who is recruited, who is promoted, and who is overlooked. Biases of educators can affect response to student behaviour.

The questions we ask of ourselves and of others can help us to understand our own biases, to challenge the biases of others, and to encourage different ways of being and behaving. In a recent conversation with Jacob Easley II on my podcast, The Edu Salon, he challenged educators to take the time to explore their professional identities, beliefs, and purpose. He suggests that a place to start is with the question of why a person is entering the teaching profession: “Is it really to work with certain types of students, and not others, those who are more like me, and not those who are different from me?” This is something we should all ask ourselves. How do we respond (to a student, parent or colleague) when someone is not ‘like me’?

We can break open, or splinter bias, if we ask good questions. How about: Do we like to teach those students mostly like ourselves? To what social issues do we draw our organisation’s attention? What and who do we ignore or pay little attention to? Who is visible, celebrated, and recognised? Who is ignored or ridiculed? Who do students see ‘out in front’ at assemblies and events? Who do the school community see in middle and senior leadership?

Do we hire mostly people like ourselves, or do we seek to recruit a diverse workforce? To whom (if at all) do we offer flexible work options? While it may seem fair to apply the same decision-making framework for all people, aiming for meritocracy can perpetuate existing advantage. Is it more equitable to consider the varying needs and barriers of individuals, and to seek to tackle those barriers on a needsbasis? What is our approach to a situation with which we are unfamiliar or to someone whose experiences and perspectives are vastly different from our own? Do we engage in uncomfortable conversations? Do we dismiss or seek to understand concerns?

We can ask these questions of ourselves and others. From there, here’s what else I think we can do.

  1. Interrogate our responses. Be ok with not knowing, with learning, discomfort, and respectful challenge. Be willing to listen and to learn. Work to identify biases in ourselves and our organisations, and the barriers and inequities they create.
  2. Anchor ourselves in our values. Be brave enough to know what kind of individual and what kind of organisation we aspire to be. ‘The community won’t accept this without resistance,’ is not a good enough reason to remain stagnant on issues of equity, social justice, diversity, and meaningful inclusion.
  3. Educate and advocate. Stand up. Support. Resist. For example, when someone is critiqued for their cultural dress or accent, speak out. When someone is not being considered for a role or promotion, question why or point to attributes and experience that may have been ignored.
  4. Implement practices and structures that support mitigating bias, such as transparent and consistent recruitment processes with diverse representation across the decision makers, thoughtful leave policies (including flexible and generous parental leave and carer’s leave), options for flexible working where possible, and an organisational culture in which staff are trusted and professional expectations take into account a diversity of life responsibilities.

We all have influence, and we all have a responsibility to take bias seriously and to engage with its realities and ramifications, even and especially when those biases work in our individual favour. If there is one thing the pandemic has taught me, it’s that we need to work for the greater good over the individual good.

This year’s IWD pose reflects ‘break the bias’.

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

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

That was then

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

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

Teachers’ being and becoming

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

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

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

The more things change, the more they stay the same

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is now

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

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

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

Starting the school year in 2022

source: unsplash @jrkorpa

Here we go again. Another year. In a pandemic.

In Australia the academic year has just begun. We are in the ‘schools are first to open and last to close’ phase of the pandemic, with teachers considered essential workers (essential to keeping children in school and parents in the workforce, as well as to continuing the learning of and supporting the wellbeing of students). Schools have, of course, never been closed in Australia. There have been lockdowns during which schools remained open to the children of essential workers with teachers providing remote learning. There have been, and will continue to be, times when there are a number of students at school and a number at home. 2022 may well test the notion of being ‘open’, with staff shortages due to ill and furloughed staff a real concern for schools. Nonetheless, as they have throughout the pandemic, schools will continue to apply the government directions and do their absolute best.

A return to school after the summer break—even with masks, regular rapid tests of students and staff, open windows, air purifiers and CO2 monitors (for those schools that have received supplies)—brings with it uncertainty and the need for constant decisional responsiveness to changing circumstance. Yesterday on ABC’s The Drum, NSW school Principal Briony Scott talked about schools responding to the constantly changing government instructions as:

“like driving a huge ship liner and saying: turn left now. I can spin the wheel all I want, but you have to bring people’s hearts and minds with you.”

She described how schools encompass extensive communities that are cared for by the school, with students, parents and staff falling along a continuum of needs. That’s also my experience in a school of 1800 students and 300 staff, and their associated families. A school is a slice of society and so reflects wider issues and social complexities, with each individual in a school community bringing their own vulnerabilities, anxieties, family intricacies and idiosyncrasies of personal context.

One thing we have been discussing at my school is what we could alleviate in terms of teacher workload, as part of our approach to supporting teacher wellbeing. While we cannot control potential future staffing shortages and the effect this will have on workloads, what professional expectations and meetings can be rethought as the year unfolds? How might staff best collaborate or share tasks to increase efficiency in curriculum planning and preparation of resources? A 2016 UK report on effective marking practices, well before the pressures of a pandemic, noted that there are many ways to acknowledge students’ work, to value their efforts and achievement, and to celebrate progress. It added that:

“too much feedback can take away responsibility from the pupil, detract from the challenge of a piece of work, and reduce long term retention and resilience-building. … Accepting work that pupils have not checked sufficiently and then providing extensive feedback detracts from pupils’ responsibility for their own learning.”

We have encouraged our teachers to think deeply about how much assessing and correcting of student work they are doing, and what they might be able to let go of if they consider the purpose of learning activities, feedback, and evidence of learning. I have shared resources by Glen Pearsall on fast, effective feedback; by Kat Howard and Daisy Christodoulou on techniques such as whole-class feedback; and Dylan Wiliam’s work on what makes feedback effective, including ensuring students meaningfully act on feedback. I always ask: Who is doing the thinking? The student should be doing the cognitive work, facilitated by the teacher.

I have asked curriculum leaders to ponder the following questions as they begin work with their teams this year:

  • Is there anything your teachers are doing that they can stop doing?
  • Are there ways to be more efficient yet still effective in planning, marking, feedback and assessment? Are all planned assessments necessary?
  • Are there ways that teacher collaboration and technologies might help streamline teacher workload in your team?
  • Are there ways you can help to energise and sustain your team?

As someone who likes to be prepared well in advance (I like a long runway to change), I am challenging myself to be as prepared as I can while also being ok with uncertainty and accepting of what I cannot control. I am reminding myself that while forward planning, informed decisiveness and communication are key in an ongoing crisis, what’s most important is checking in with the people in our community, looking out for and looking after them as best we can in what are likely to continue to be difficult circumstances.

2021 Year in Review

Source: Pixabay @Bildschirmaffe

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 constantly navigate 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:

I have seen my 2020 article on school leadership in pandemic downloaded 12,000 times, and two big publication collaborations have come to life this year:

  • 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.

Who cares about pracademia?

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)

Preparing students for their future

source: @Jordan_Singh ipixabay.com

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.

Evidence-based practice for sustainable school change

Graphic representation of my keynote presentation, drawn live by Pat Grant

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.

My slides are below.