Tweeting and blogging: Selfish, self-serving indulgences?

Narcissus by Caravaggio http://totallyhistory.com/narcissus/

This week I’ve been mulling over a post in the TES written by Claire Narayanan in which she argues that teachers’ time is precious and they should quietly get on with their jobs, not spend time writing about it. In encouraging teachers to be ‘do-rus not gurus’ she writes:

In a world where self-promotion has rather shamelessly crept into education, the real heroes are not those who we may follow on Twitter, read about in leadership manuals or hear speak at conferences, but those who are at the chalkface.

These are the teachers who seek no recognition beyond a set of decent GCSE results; a thank-you from their headteacher every now and again and, best of all: “Thanks Sir/Miss, I enjoyed that lesson”.

They haven’t got time to attend every single TeachMeet in their region, read every piece of research written, attend every conference around the country on their subject area or update their blog. Does that mean they don’t care as much as those who do? No chance – they’re too busy marking and planning.

I found this interesting and a little challenging. Of course no-one attends ‘every’ TeachMeet, reads ‘every piece of research written’, or attends ‘every conference around the country’, but the suggestion that ‘real teachers at the chalkface’ are too busy marking and planning to entertain attending professional development, reading research, or blogging, implies that those who do make the time for these activities are perhaps neglecting their teaching jobs. Otherwise, how would they have the time? It also implies that these activities aren’t a valuable use of teachers’ time.

I agree with Claire that we shouldn’t pursue gurus and heroes in education. My PhD reveals the importance of leadership that is deliberately invisible and empowering, rather than visible, focused on the leader, or driven by outward performance. I’ve spoken of the silent work of coaches and leaders. And as a full-time teacher and school leader who also tweets, blogs, and writes peer-reviewed papers and chapters, I know the tricky balance between self care, time with family and friends, and service to the profession and to my students.

I wonder, though, about the implication that those who are on Twitter or presenting at conferences are shameless self-promoters or narcissists seeking heroic guru status. Many of those who tweet and blog, I would argue, do so because they are interested in learning from others, sharing their own perspectives and experiences, and engaging with educators from around the world.

Part of what keeps me blogging is that it helps me think through ideas and get feedback from others. Another part is how useful I find the blogs of other people in helping or challenging my thinking. I also see blogging and academic writing as a service to the profession and a way to reclaim the narrative of education from those normally at its apex. It is why I am involved in the Flip the System series of books, which offer and value the voices of school practitioners—those working at the whiteboard, in the playground, and in the boardroom—that are often ignored in education reform, and yet are crucial voices to drive change in education. As Jelmer Evers and René Kneyber suggested in the first Flip book, teachers and school leaders can be agentic forces in changing education from the ground up by participating in global education conversation.

When I asked Claire on Twitter whether she saw all who tweet, share, blog, and present as shameless self-promoters, she responded, “Not at all. I’m all for sharing and learning. We all get on with the job in the way that suits us.” We seem to agree that different things work for different people. I don’t expect everyone to use their time as I do. There are benefits and costs to choosing to spend evenings, weekends, and holidays on professional activities or presenting at conferences. Last year I paid the price of going too hard for too long without a break.

For me, social media provides an avenue for sharing, learning, and connecting. I can tweet out my thoughts into the nighttime abyss, and somewhere, someone in the world is there to respond. I found this especially useful during the isolation of my PhD. I connected via social media with generous, supportive academics, researchers, and doctoral candidates from around the world who provided crucial advice and moral support.

My understanding of the world is broader for the conversations I have with those around Australia and the world, on social media and at conferences. These conversations and relationships allow me to see outside of my own context and my own perspective. They spill sometimes into productive collaborations that shape my thinking. I wrote here that:

In a world in which we are more connected than ever, we can be buoyed, empowered and supported by our connections…. We can pay forward and give back. We can … share our knowledge, contribute our time to help others on their journeys, listen to others’ stories, and celebrate others’ milestones.

Do I think we should acknowledge and celebrate the quiet daily work of committed teachers? Absolutely. Do I think we should encourage teachers to be mindful of workload, wellbeing, and self care? Yes, yes, yes. Do I think this is mutually exclusive from professional learning, engaging with research, interacting on social media, or writing blogs? No, I do not.

Semantic space: ‘How we talk around here’

I’ve been thinking about talking and talking about talking. Last month I published this piece on my school’s blog about why and how we approach professional conversations as an organisation. The pictured infographic is one I designed to distil our school approach to professional conversations. While deceptively simple, it is the result of a lot of research, practice, and writing, over time. In that blog post, I talk about why we use Cognitive Coaching as a coaching model for developing a collaborative professional learning culture, but also when we might deliberately use consulting, collaborating, or evaluating as ways of talking. Rather than adopting deficit models of conversation aimed to fix or tell teachers, we base our professional conversations on a belief in the capacity of everyone in our community to grow and improve.

At the Australian National Coaching Conference in Melbourne last month, I was immersed in talking about coaching, and talking with coaches. I was delighted to be on a conference panel with Christian van Niewerburgh, Rachel Lofthouse, and Alex Guedes, discussing coaching in education research. One of the points I made was around the use of terminology within a community like the one in the conference room. 400 educators and coaches were all talking about coaching at the conference, but not necessarily with the same understanding of what ‘coaching’ means.

As Scott Millman points out in his blog, many of the conference attendees had what Christian van Niewerburgh calls a ‘coaching way of being’. A conversation with them is a coaching conversation. These individuals actively and intensely listen, paraphrase, pause, and ask thoughtful questions designed more for the benefit of the talker than the listener. These aren’t conversations where the other person is waiting for their turn to say their piece or pushing a personal agenda; they are ones in which the listener serves the talker via thoughtful and deliberate ways of talking and ways of being in conversation.

At the conference, Rachel Lofthouse talked about Kemmis and Heikkenen’s (2012) notion of a semantic space. I enjoyed this way of thinking about an organisation. Semantics is about linguistic meaning; the logic of language. In organisations I imagine a semantic space is about ‘how we talk around here’, the meanings of words, the way communication happens. Lofthouse and Elaine Hall (2014) define semantic space as one of professional dialogue, constituting tone, choice of words, routines of dialogue, and balance of participation in conversation. Semantic space interacts with organisional structures, physical spaces, and relationships.

Harvard academics and developmental psychologists Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey (2001) say that our places of work are places in which certain forms of speech are promoted or encouraged, and places where other ways of talking are discouraged or made impossible. What kinds of talk are promoted in our schools? Which are limited or suppressed?

Can it ever be ‘just’ semantics? No. The words we use, the way we talk, and the way we interpret language are vital to our work, especially in education. Members of high-functioning teams, for instance, respectfully challenge one another in order to find the best ways forward. Something Rachel Lofthouse said in her conference keynote stuck with me: “Don’t talk less and work more. The talk is the work. So talk well, talk productively, talk to learn.” The way we talk can influence the way we think and the way we behave. In any organisation it’s important to figure out and work on ‘how we talk around here’ as well as why we talk, when we talk, what we talk about, and how we want to talk.

References

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. and Heikkinen, H.L.T. (2012). Practice architectures and teacher induction. In: H.L.T. Heikkinen, H. Jokinen, and P. Tynjälä, eds. Peer-group mentoring (PGM): peer group mentoring for teachers’ professional development. London: Routledge, 144–170.

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.

Digital Pedagogy

source: pixabay.com

I have worked in one-to-one schools for most of my 17-and-a-bit year teaching career, and I’ve tended to be an experimenter with and adopter of learning technologies. I’ve been known to use online discussion forums to extend class discussion around English and Literature texts and concepts. I’ve used class blogs, wikis, and backchannels as collaborative learning spaces or expansions of the classroom. I use Twitter, Google Docs, Voxer, and blogging for my own learning and development. I have participated in MOOCs (massive open online courses).

I’ve recently been considering digital pedagogy from more of an organisation and systems level, as I look into how to refine my school’s use of technologies as tools for learning and teaching. As I begin a search of what research literature might offer us in this realm (please, if you have a seminal paper or reference here – pass it my way!) I have a couple of reflections. One is that, as technology moves quickly and research moves slowly (from data generation to publication), research on digital pedagogy needs to be treated with caution. Research around technology is emergent and fast changing; by the time it is published, it may be well out of date.

My other initial reflection is that there seems to be a discrepancy between the use of digital technologies promoted by enthusiastic teachers, conferences, and technology companies, and the discussion about education technologies in academic research. The former often promotes the possibilities of technologies for learning as future-building and positive. The latter tends to reveal a more cautious or critical approach to what digital technologies can offer teaching and learning.

It’s not surprising that tech giants promote themselves to schools, but there are some worrying reports that tech corporates, such as Edmodo and Google, use schools and students to collect and track big data. Corporate agendas are something we might consider when thinking about how technologies infiltrate or colonise our schools.

Neil Selwyn (in his 2016 book Education and Technology: Key Issues and Debates) points to the limitations of digital technologies, arguing that there is a lack of genuine diversity in the educational opportunities provided by educational technologies, but rather more of the same. He notes that “any ‘individualisation’ or ‘personalisation’ involves fitting individuals around preconfigured outcomes and expectations rather than offering genuinely bespoke education. … an individual is not actively self-determining but conforming to the requirements and expectations of a mass system” (p.161).

I share Selwyn’s cautiousness around technology in schools when it is seen as a shiny new thing or an end in itself. I am more comforabtle when digital pedagogy is about choosing the tool fit for the purpose, aligned with learning objectives. Technology is part of the teacher and learner’s arsenal, not the end point in themselves.

Additionally, while digital pedagogies are often viewed with much hope for their possibilities, the realities seem to be more disappointing. Marte Blikstad-Balas and Chris Davies (in their recent Oxford Review of Education paper ‘Assessing the educational value of one-to-one devices: Have we been asking the right questions?’) show that one-to-one devices are often positioned as having benefits to pedagogical change, development of future skills, and efficiencies and cost savings. (Interestingly, at my school the photocopying bill did not decrease with the move to one-to-one devices.) In looking at three schools (two in the UK and one in Norway), Blikstad-Balas and Davies found some benefits of one-to-one devices, but these tended to be focused on convenience, instrumental use, and functionality, rather than pedagogy. The three schools studied raised concerns including ad hoc teacher enthusiasm and uptake of one-to-one-devices, and teacher scepticism around implementation of digital technologies as part of pedagogy. Students reported feeling either pressured to use devices they didn’t want to use, for purposes they didn’t see as valuable, being distracted from their learning by one-to-one devices, and finding one-to-one devices unreliable. Year 11 and 12 students reported using their one-on-one devices for whatever they wanted (such as social media and online gaming), which was often not what the teacher was instructing. These findings are a sober reminder to schools about the realities of implementing educational technologies.

The educational world is saturated with information and promotions of various digital technologies. The 2016 Horizon Report for Higher Education, for instance, identifies a number of future trends and technologies predicted to influence education. Those working in education institutions need a way to make sense of the digital noise. Selwyn’s 2016 book Is technology good for education? provides useful questions to ask ourselves when considering digital pedagogy (p.24):

  • What is actually new here?
  • What are the unintended consequences or second-order effects?
  • What are the potential gains? What are the potential losses?
  • What underlying values and agendas are implicit?
  • In whose interests does this work? Who benefits in what ways?
  • What are the social problems that digital technology is being presented as a solution to?
  • How responsive to a ‘digital fix’ are these problems likely to be?

At my school we are working with a purposeful and transparent frame for making decisions about digital technologies and pedagogies. This frame is based around our strategic intents for our students, and our beliefs around learning, good teaching, and the core business of schools. No matter what the latest tech fad or shiny device, any pedagogy needs to start with the purpose of the learning and the design of curriculum. Pedagogy first. Digital if and when appropriate.

Education Gurus

It’s easy to make your own guru memes with Canva.

Knowledge and advice for schools and about education often seem to exist in a world of commodification and memeification. There is plenty of disagreement and debate in education, and plenty of competition on bookshelves and in conference programs. Educators and academics position themselves as brands via bios, photographs, and certification badges. As an educator and a researcher I have those whose work I follow closely; academics, for instance, whose presence affects me when I meet them because their reputation and body of work precede them.

In education, we have perceived gurus. These are people who have become ubiquitous in education circles, at education conferences, and in education literature. Teachers and school leaders scramble to get tickets to their sessions and to get photographic evidence of having met them. Their words are tweeted out in soundbites ad infinitum (or is that ad nauseum?), and made into internet memes. Sometimes these individuals partner with publishers or education corporates, and so the visibility and reach of their work grows. They become the scholars or experts most cited in staff rooms, at professional learning water coolers, and in job interviews when asked how research informs practice. 

Sometimes, these gurus are teachers or principals who have gained a large following on social media and subsequently a monolithic profile. Often, they are academics who have built up bodies of work over many years, becoming more and more well-known along the way, and eventually being perceived as celebrities or gurus. Yesterday I had the pleasure of learning from Dylan Wiliam, firstly at a day long seminar, and then at my school. At one point the seminar organisers apologised for running out of Wiliam’s books, acknowledging the desire of delegates to have the book signed.
Marten Koomen has traced networks of influencers in Australian education organisations. In his new paper ‘School leadership and the cult of the guru: the neo-Taylorism of Hattie’, Scott Eacott challenges the rise of the edu guru, those academics whose work is ubiquitous and influential to the point of being uncritically accepted and canonised. Eacott pushes back against the ‘what works’ mentality in education, in which educators are sold ‘what works’ and encouraged to slavishly apply it to their own contexts. Jon Andrews, too, questions the unquestioning way in which the loudest and most prominent voices become the accepted voices. Meta-analysis and meta-meta-analysis, often translated into league tables of ‘what works’ in education, have been the subject of criticism. George Lilley and Gary Jones have both questioned meta-analysis on their blogs. I’ve written about cautions surrounding the use of meta-analysis in education, especially when it drives clickbait headlines and a silver-bullet mentality of having the answers without having to ask any questions. Yesterday Wiliam made his oft-repeated points: that everything works somewhere, nothing works everywhere, and context matters. A guru cannot provide easy answers in education, as education is too complex and contextual for that.

taken at AERA last year

Much of this conversation around the rise of the edu guru has surrounded John Hattie, although he is by no means the only globally renowned education expert likely to make conference delegates weak at the knees. I was personally uncomfortable when he was beamed in via video link to last year’s ACEL conference and began to give an ‘I have a dream’ speech about education. As an English and Literature teacher I understand the power of rhetoric and analogy to persuade and inspire, but appropriating the legacy and words of Dr Martin Luther King Junior seemed a way to gospelise a personal brand of education reform.

I don’t think that education experts, no matter how influential they become, should encourage the uncritical acceptance of their ideas as dogma, or present themselves as the bringers of the One True Thing To Rule All Things of and for education. As Dylan Wiliam, channelling Ben Goldacre, repeatedly said yesterday, “I think you’ll find it’s a little more complicated than that.”

I wonder how perceived gurus feel about being guru-ised by the education masses. In part the famous and the infamous in education are so because of their actions: accepting more and more speaking gigs, performing the game of publishing and promoting their work. Most, I would guess, do this for the same reason someone like me speaks and publishes. To contribute to education narratives and change those narratives, hopefully for the better. To be of service to the profession and the field. To explore and wrestle with ideas, trying to find ways to make sense of the complexity of education in order to improve the learning of students and the lives of teachers and school leaders.

I wondered about the rise to gurudom and the moral obligation of the academic celebrity figure last year when at AERA I saw a panel in which four educational heavy hitters—Andy Hargreaves, Michael Fullan, Linda Darling-Hammond and Diane Ravitch—all advocating for the moral imperative of educational research and practice. They spoke of lifetime journeys of work intended to make the world a better and more just place. I wondered at the time about how much an early career academic can be brave and resistant in their work, as they try to build a career via the performative pressures of the academe. Can only the guru, free from institutional performativities and the financial pressures often associated with early career academia, say what they really want to say and do the work and writing they really want to do?

I don’t think experts in education are dangerous. We need expertise and people willing to commit their lives and work to making sense of and making better the world of education and learning. But in a world where teachers and school leaders are busy racing on the mouse wheels of their own performative pressures, we need to figure out ways to support and facilitate sceptical and critical engagement with research. Even those who are highly influential and highly admired need to have their work engaged with closely and critically. The danger comes when experts become so guru-fied that the words they use become part of an unthinking professional vernacular, used by educators who haven’t looked behind the curtain or beneath the book cover.

Is formative assessment overvalued?

Call me late to the party, but last night I was surprised to see this tweet from Alfie Kohn stating that formative assessment is overvalued. I agree with his latter comment that data to see if students are improving, or have improved, are worthless until we’ve asked ‘improved at what?’, but I don’t understand the connection between the two parts of the tweet. My hunch is that my understanding of formative assessment in practice is different to Kohn’s. In this post I’ll explain my own take on formative assessment.

(Disclaimer – I understand that a tweet is limited in its 140 character form. I’m using my understanding of the tweet as a jumping off point for this post.)

From the seminal 1998 paper of Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam, ‘Inside the black box’, to subsequent work by these authors, and others, formative assessment as an evidence-based, rigorous feedback process is well-established.

Feedback can be defined as information provided by an agent regarding aspects of performance or understanding (Hattie & Timperley, 2007). Wiliam (2016) notes that anyone (teacher, learner, peer, parent) can be an agent of feedback, and that the most powerful agent of feedback is likely to be the student who takes responsibility for their own learning.

The purpose of feedback, according to Hattie and Timperley (2007) is to reduce the discrepancy between current and desired understanding. Information is used by students or teachers for improvement in an interactive dialogue between teacher and learners so that learners can become more expert and more responsible in guiding and furthering their own learning (Black & Wiliam, 2010). The interactivity, and the activity, are important. Teachers use feedback to make adjustments to planning and instruction. Students become active, empowered agents of their own learning as they self-assess, receive feedback, and act on it. Formative assessment is based in a belief that every learner can improve.

Feedback can have a significant positive influence on student learning and achievement (Stiggins & DuFour, 2009; Wiliam, 2011a, 2011b, 2016), but it is linked to emotions, relationships and environment; it can be accepted, modified, or rejected; and it can have positive or negative effects on performance (see Kluger & DeNisi, 1996).

Formative assessment involves feedback that is continuous; specific to goal, standards and task; descriptive rather than numerical or via grades; occuring within a learning context; and acted on by the learner (such as through self-assessment, re-doing the task, or outlining next steps).

It is information and interpretations from assessments, not numbers or grades, that matter (Hattie & Timperley, 2007). Numerical marks and grades operate as judgements, not aids to learning, and so students ignore comments where a mark is provided (Black, 2014; Black et al., 2004). Alfie Kohn argues against grades in this 2011 paper. Ruth Butler (1987, 1988) found that grades had no effect on achievement. Written comments based on the task, on the other hand, resulted in high levels of task involvement. Comments should identify what has been done well and what still needs improvement, and give guidance on how to make that improvement (Black et al., 2004; Wiliam, 2011b).

Feedback should not involve judgement of the person, positively or negatively. Butler’s research (1987, 1988) found that written praise had no effect on achievement, and Costa and Garmston (2003) note that learning cannot occur if a person feels threatened. While receiving feedback can be emotional, it should be designed to evoke cognition over emotion.

At a grass-roots level, teachers such as Starr Sackstein (2015, 2017) and Mark Barnes (2013, 2015) have been advocating for teachers to ‘throw out grades’, focusing instead on feedback practices such as conferencing, peer assessment, and self-assessment.

This previous blog post outlines some of my own practices around summative assessments, as well as a term I spent teaching Year 10 English without any marks or grades. I have recently developed my summative assessment feedback practices to ensure that students engage with their work more deeply before it is assessed, and then again once I have written comments, but before receiving their mark. In my classroom, formative assessment practices are a constant. They include myself and my students constantly engaging with their work, curriculum standards, syllabus points, rubrics, clear criteria for success, and setting of specific targets. These practices are entwined within a relational classroom environment of trust and challenge. Anecdotally, some of the best a-ha moments for my students come when they assess their own work against clear criteria, and come to their own realisations about how to improve. Over time, self-assessment becomes part of expected and lived practice for students in my classroom. This is not to say that I am a formative assessment expert; building formative opportunities takes ongoing teacher reflection, deliberate planning, and careful constant reading of the students.

Perhaps I have been embedding formative feedback practices into my teaching for so long that it seems obvious, but my thought on first seeing Kohn’s tweet was: of course we cannot look at data that might indicate improvement of learning without asking ‘improvement at what?’ Specific goals, standards, and comments on how and on what to improve, are part and parcel of the suite of practices of formative assessment.

Is formative assessment overvalued? I don’t think so. It is a fundamental way to improve learning, and also to build the capacity of the learner themselves.

References

Barnes, M. (2013) Role reversal: Achieving uncommonly excellent results in the student-centred classroom. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Barnes, M. (2015). Assessment 3.0: Throw Out Your Grade Book and Inspire Learning. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Black, P. J. (2014). Assessment and the aims of the curriculum: An explorer’s journey. Prospects, 44, 487-501.

Black, P., Harrison, C., Lee, C., Marshall, B., & Wiliam, D. (2004). Working inside the black box: Assessment for learning in the classroom. Phi Delta Kappan, 86(1), 8-21.

Black, P. J., & Wiliam, D. (1998). Inside the Black Box: Raising standards through classroom assessment. Phi Delta Kappan, 80, 139-48.

Black, P. J., & Wiliam, D. (2010). A pleasant surprise. Phi Delta Kappan, 92(1), 47.

Butler, R. (1987). Task-involving and ego-involving properties of evaluation: Effects of different feedback conditions on motivational perceptions, interest, and performance. Journal of educational psychology79(4), 474-482.

Butler, R. (1988). Enhancing and undermining intrinsic motivation: The effects of task‐involving and ego‐involving evaluation on interest and performance. British journal of educational psychology, 58(1), 1-14.

Costa, A. L., & Garmston, R. J. (2003). Cognitive coaching in retrospect: Why it persists.

Hattie, J., & Timperley, H. (2007). The power of feedback. Review of Educational Research 77(1), 81-112.

Kluger, A. N., & DeNisi, A. (1996). The effects of feedback interventions on performance: A historical review, a meta-analysis, and a preliminary feedback intervention theory.

Kohn, A. (2011). The case against grades. Educational Leadership, 69(3), 28-33.

Sackstein, S. (2015). Hacking assessment: 10 ways to go gradeless in a traditional grade school. Cleveland, OH: Hack Learning.

Sackstein, S. (2017). Peer Feedback in the classroom: Empowering students to be experts. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Stiggins, R., & DuFour, R. (2009). Maximizing the power of formative assessments. Phi Delta Kappan, 90(9), 640-644.

Wiliam, D. (2011a). Embedded Formative Assessment. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.

Wiliam, D. (2011b) What is assessment for learning? Studies in Educational Evaluation37(1), 3-14.

Wiliam, D. (2016). Leadership for teacher learning: Creating a culture where all teachers improve so that all students succeed. Moorabbin, Australia: Hawker Brownlow Education.

Running the PISA race

The education culture of performativity is wrapped up in notions of measurement. How do we measure student success, teacher performance, effective school leadership, and successful education policy? How do we know which school systems are successful and why they are successful? How can we tease out and understand causes of performance, such as the influence of social and economic factors, the system, the school, and the teacher? These are perennial education questions, and ones which continue to become more and more important in a globalised world in which countries, schools, and teachers can be compared, and in which there is an ever-increasing weight of accountability.

Standardised testing is a central issue in this neoliberal education context. Individual schools have their own approaches to measurement, such as the one I describe in this blog post. In Australia we have NAPLAN and WACE. There is currently talk of a national Phonics Check in the early years, such as that used in the UK. Internationally we have TIMSS, PIRLS and PISA.

Steven Lewis and Anna Hogan have shown how oversimplified reports of international testing measures can contribute to oversimplified ‘fast policy’. As Marten Koomen points out, systems should respond to international testing measures but these systems are complex. Stewart Riddle and Bob Lingard wrote that looking at a single country’s PISA ranking is useless; rather we need to carefully disaggregate the data and consider social and economic factors, and differences between states, schools and groups.

This week I received in the mail a copy of new book The global education race: Taking the measure of PISA and international testing, by Sam Sellar, Greg Thompson and David Rutkowski. (Full disclosure: I got a complimentary copy.) It is a pocket rocket at about A5 size and 99 pages. In the Foreword, David Berliner and Pasi Sahlberg question the value often ascribed to PISA, noting that PISA tests are linked to the social conditions as well as school systems and that “when the race to the top gets tougher … curriculum narrows and children suffer” (p.ix).

The book demystifies the workings of PISA, using the extended metaphor of the ‘race’ as a way to make sense of what PISA is, how it works, how it might be used, and how it shouldn’t be used. The authors make their explanations accessible without ignoring the complexities of standardised international testing on a large scale. The book is at once matter of fact and told with a wry sense of humour (as a reader I’m a sucker for references to Monty Python and 1980s arcade games). The book rails against the commodification of simple solutions to solve complex problems. As I explored satirically in this He-Man inspired post (speaking of 80s references) there are plenty of edu salespeople hoping to profit from the pressures of accountability pressing in on schools and teachers. This book, however, is about helping those on the ground to understand the complexities, inner workings and possibilities of PISA.

What sets Sellar, Thompson and Rutkowski’s book apart from other literature is its ability to engage with complexity in an accessible way; to explain clearly without simplifying; and to avoid binaries and polarising divides while acknowledging differing perspectives. They note, for instance, that PISA has been innovative, carefully developed, and judiciously administered, but that such a big project will undoubtably suffer from technical issues and limitations.  They note that PISA is an assessment of select content areas of one sample on one day, but also argue that transparent standardised tests like PISA can be a useful tool for understanding social systems. They explain validity in understandable ways and show how countries can use PISA data responsibly.

The international examples help the book to be relevant to people in OECD countries around the world. For Australian readers like myself there are some gems, such as that PISA performance has become an end in itself, evidenced by the national target of improving Australia’s PISA ranking by 2025 (articulated in the 2013 Education Act). The authors call this move “astounding”. Their tongues are firmly in their cheeks when they state on page 76 that: “The aim of reversing the trend of declining PISA scores seems to be to improve PISA scores through intensifying those policies that have not worked so far. A bold move.” A bold move, indeed, and one that Simon Birmingham might want to reconsider.

The authors also recognise the desire of policy makers, educators and the media to understand PISA and to glean the most important messages it can tell us. They warn, however, about over-attribution of causality, when correlations become causal claims, pointing to the way the media and policy makers often use PISA to point to particular factors as being the cause of high or declining PISA performance. I’ve written about the dangers of policy moves like performance pay for teachers, and the authors have warnings to offer their readers about the negative effects of pairing standardised testing with punitive accountability regimes, and of governments desperately scrambling to ‘win’ against other countries. Run your own race, they argue.

The global education race presents an important challenge to policy makers and educators alike: to develop informed communities willing and able to engage in discussion of how educational measurement, including system-level measurement tools, can be judiciously used to inform policy and practice. The kind of shift they suggest is a challenge. It will require ministers, media and educators to take a non-divisive, sense-making and collaborative approach of seeking to understand, and of deep, thoughtful engagement with data and with one another.

The oasis of writing

Sometimes we need an immersion in a cooling, calming place of our choosing. That might involve turning off our devices, turning away from social media, turning towards what nourishes us. It might be sitting in silence, or playing music loud. It might be the catharsis of working with our hands, or the release of letting them rest. It might be solitude or connection, work or play, stillness or movement, mindful or mindless.

School is currently out in Western Australia, and while I am working, I have been taking time out across the break to bathe in oases of sorts. I’ve been on a brief holiday with my family, pottered around the house, seen friends and indulged in another haven of mine: academic writing.

Those of you who write for a living or are in the throes of a PhD (Oh, the unicorn-dancing-in-a-champagne-waterfall highs! Oh, the despairing bottom-of-the-dark-pit lows!) might roll your eyes or baulk at writing as an oasis. But after a term of working full-time in an exciting but challenging newly-formed role in a school, selling a house, buying a house, moving house, parenting my two lovely children, and trying to maintain relationships with family and friends, I was ready for a break from the relentlessness. From feeling like the mouse on the wheel, full of urgency and repetitive motion. Not only that, but both social media and real life have had their share of challenges lately. Academic writing has been a welcome and nurturing reprieve; simultaneously mental work and a mental break. Academic writing continues to be like my PhD, which I sometimes managed to think of as a holiday from all-the-other-things, or intellectual me-time, although without the weighty pressure or looming examination. Papers and chapters are more bite-size and more varied, and pleasingly always at different stages; just as one becomes difficult, another is coming together or being accepted.

Of course academic writing is not easy or necessarily enjoyable. With it comes challenge, struggle, sometimes brutal feedback. It helps that the acwri I’m doing at the moment is writing I want to do. I’m engaged, interested, motivated, intrigued. I’m learning, growing, pushing at the boundaries of what I know and can do. Academic writing allows me to extend myself in different ways to my school role.

Some of this writing is solo, but I’m also writing papers and chapters collaboratively, something still pretty new to me. Perhaps the collaboration is the coolest part because working with others takes me out of my usual groove, my usual ways of thinking and writing. It gets me engaging with others’ words and these spur my words on. Our words are like gifts from a science fiction world; they shapeshift and take on different lives as they are passed back and forth between authors.

This kind of writing and collaboration is somewhere for a writer to luxuriate. Nestle in. Be cocooned by the writing while at the same time deliciously confronted by it. I brace for feedback but at the same time allow myself to be vulnerable and to be shaped. To read unfamiliar theory, try alternate approaches, or to tinker with new ways of theorising, researching and writing. To have one or more other writers to generate and energise.

It’s cool. It’s fun. It’s a welcome distraction from the daily rush of work during term time and the barrage of angry educators slinging accusations at one another on Twitter (thank goodness for my arguing on EduTwitter bingo card!). This holiday break I’ve worked on a solo-authored journal paper and a collaborative chapter so far. I’ve got one more collaborative chapter to look at over the next few days. I’m looking forward to it. Like a cup of tea at the end of the day after the kids have gone to bed, for my pracademic self, straddling as I do the worlds of school and academia, academic writing can be a moment of ‘aaaaaahhhh’, of indulgence, of me-time.