5 anchors for leading in a time of crisis

image source: krystyna-rawicz.blogspot.com

At times of volatility, catastrophe and trauma, we often feel like ships in a stormy sea, searching for something to hold tight to, a way to steady ourselves. Here are five anchors to steady and guide school leadership in this time of pandemic-induced global emergency.

  1. Vision and values

In simpler times—when we could leave our homes for any reason at all, congregate in groups of any size, travel far and wide, and find any grocery on any shelf of any supermarket—school leaders thought a lot about vision. Schools have always sought to develop commonality of vision and purpose, while school staff have sought to align with their school contexts in terms of their own beliefs, identities and the purpose that propels them in their work.

Shared vision remains more important than ever, and school leadership in a time of crisis means holding strong to values, principles and vision, as anchors to our decision making.

  1. Navigating tensions

Leading during a pandemic has brought to the forefront of my thinking one of the findings of my PhD: that leadership involves a tightrope-walk between priorities. Leaders constantly navigate tensions: the collective and the individual, accountability and autonomy, the bottom line and the greater good.

Leaders simultaneously make decisions with a view of the dance floor as well as from the balcony, (or, if you like, from both the trenches and the war room). They must consider a range of impacts (individual, organisation, wellbeing, learning, service provision, performance, staffing, financial implications, management of resources, sustainability of business) while keeping all of their individual people in mind. To make effective decisions, they must know the intricacies and idiosyncrasies of their contexts, but also best practice occurring elsewhere and the best available evidence of what is likely to work.

In a time of crisis, leaders must act swiftly and with foresight, but also with careful consideration of options, consequences and side effects of actions taken. They must communicate with clarity and purpose, but also with empathy and humanity.

And in a crisis, perfection is the enemy of progress. As Dr Michael Ryan, Executive Director of WHO, recently explained in regards to emergency response:

“You need to act quickly … Be fast, have no regrets. You must be the first mover. … If you need to be right before you move, you will never win. … Speed trumps perfection. … Everyone is afraid of the consequence of error, but the greatest error is not to move. The greatest error is to be paralysed by the fear of failure.”

Leaders must act quickly, and yet know that they may make mistakes and have to evolve and adapt as advice and conditions change.

  1. Safety before learning

In our independent report Thinking about Pedagogy in an Unfolding Pandemic, my co-authors and I say that now is a time for ‘Maslow before Bloom’. What we mean, of course, is that a time of global crisis, grief, trauma and instability is a time to put health, safety and wellbeing first; before curriculum, pedagogy and assessment. At this time more than ever, we must consider humans before outcomes, students before results, wellbeing before learning.

Learning is, of course, important. Our jobs as school leaders, teachers and educators, are to ensure the very best learning outcomes for our students, within the parameters of the unusual emergency circumstances in which we presently find ourselves. But learning (and especially assessment) should not be prioritised above basic human needs.

As time goes on during this pandemic, all those in our communities will be touched by the social, emotional, physical, mental, financial and human impacts of COVID-19. We need to pull back on notions of accountability and focus our efforts on compassion and togetherness. We need to continue to know our people, check in with them even at a distance, and interrogate how we can best support them through this time. It’s also important for leaders to fit our own proverbial oxygen masks so that we can continue to help and serve those in our communities.

  1. Trusting and supporting teachers

Trust throughout the educational system, and of teachers, is key to ensure a collective approach on all fronts to best serve our school communities during this crisis. Rather than a top-down one-size-fits all approach to education, teachers can and should be trusted to lead.

There are challenges. Time and support are needed to help teachers develop the appropriate competencies and confidence to pivot to, and thrive in, distance learning models. Yet, the nature of a global pandemic is such that the pace of change is brisk and biting. There is little lead-in time and so decision making happens quickly, on the best advice of the day, which can change at any time. Just look at the pace of government announcements. It nonetheless remains important that teachers feel trusted and supported to make the best decisions for the students in their contexts.

In a time of crisis, we need to pare education back to its essentials. Doing less and expecting less goes against the grain of our normal ways of operating, especially in a our profession, in which teachers often measure themselves by how much they provide.

My message to teachers remains similar to my advice on Day 1 of distance learning at my school:

  • Do your best with what you know and can do. This isn’t like ‘normal’ school and it isn’t going to mirror ‘teaching as usual’. It’s teaching during a pandemic while juggling working from home and schooling our own children; while the parents of the children we are remotely teaching are working from home and possibly dealing with financial hardship, health challenges and family complexities we cannot imagine. Students, too, will be going through a multitude of challenges, many of which we will not know about as we lead and teach at a distance.
  • Keep it simple. Start with the learning intentions, pare back to essentials, rethink ways to gather evidence of student learning, find efficiencies and set professional boundaries and routines.  Less is more.
  • Trust your professional judgement. Teachers know themselves and their students. Do what works. Be ok with less. Be ok with easing back on expectations of yourself, students and parents.
  • Be kind to yourself and others. This is distance learning during a global pandemic. It is continuing our students’ education while in the midst of a major health, societal and economic crisis. There will be a multiplicity of very real challenges for students, teachers and parents during this time. Maslow before Bloom!
  1. Community

Schools are more than places where learning happens. The closure of schools around the world has highlighted the ways in which schools help to address inequities, and how schools act as spaces of safety, nourishment, connectedness and support for many. Everyone—students, teachers and parents—is missing ‘school’ and all that  it provides (much more, it turns out, than classroom lessons and assemblies). Video conferencing can provide some semblance of person-to-person check-ins, but there is nothing like being in a room with a class and gauging their responses with the rich data that being there together provides.

For many students, families and teachers, the loss of onsite schooling is felt deeply. We know, though, that we are staying at home to keep ourselves, those we love, and those whon are  vulnerable, safe. It needs to be done and so schooling must innovate.

However, enthusiasm for opportunities for education reform must not overtake the current conversation. Yes, we are rethinking education. Yes, we can later consider what kind of normal we want to return to, and what we are happy to leave behind. Yes, we can be deliberate about continuing some of the current crisis innovation into our future realities. Life, work, school, pedagogy, assessment and university entrance may never be the same again. But we must consider connectedness and community.

While crises can lead to individualistic thinking in which every person is looking out for themselves, we will best survive this by considering the ways in which we can continue to knit together as families, school communities and a global community.

Supporting one another, connecting in new ways and building a sense of solidarity and ‘we’re in this together’ is what will get us through (to use a Game of Thrones reference) The Long Night. So let’s be in this, together, with generosity of spirit, open communication and empathy.

Week 1 of Distance Learning

video conference

photo: Getty Images

We are in a time of rapid education reform. Australian schools have in recent weeks been planning for and beginning to enact distance learning. I reflected on Tuesday after Day 1 of my school’s move to distance learning, and over the last few days I’ve reflected further as I’ve led, taught and listened to the responses of students, teachers and parents from across the school.

Below are my Week 1 takeaways.

Less is more

This week, our teachers have been working incredibly hard. They have been putting in extremely long hours to make this ‘pivot’ work. They have been preparing content and front loading teaching before the school day begins, as our Distance Learning Plan notes that the day’s work needs to be to students by 8.30am on the morning of a particular lesson, so students can plan their work for the day. Teachers are responding to individual emails, messages and requests from students and parents. What they have achieved individually and collectively is nothing less than extraordinary, and the gratitude from the school community for their hard work has been resounding. However, teacher workload in a distance learning model is an issue we need to consider. ‘Less’ is better for teachers.

Students have been engaging positively and openly with the distance learning model, but some have felt inundated with communication and set work over these first days. The pace of learning from home can be slower than learning that happens at school, the delivery different, and the need for disciplined student work habits greater. Some students have been feeling overwhelmed. ‘Less’ is better for students.

As we continue to evolve in our distance learning provision, we need to think carefully about the desired learning outcomes, what is really important, and what is possible and desirable in the current climate of global crisis. We need to be realistic about the hours teachers have in the school day to provide teaching materials, learning opportunities and feedback; and the ways that learning happens in a home environment, when many students are learning independently and with less support than they have in the school classroom.

One thing we are considering is what a lesson’s worth of work might look like. A lesson at school includes transition time between lessons, roll call and packing up, as well as probably some teacher-directed instruction and some student working time. How might we use this to guide what we provide and expect of students, giving students time between lessons to stand, move, be active, do chores and catch up with each other in non-classroom spaces and ways.

‘Less is more’ will become even more important as teachers increasingly work from home, with all the complexities of family environments.

Let’s make sure that students, parents and teachers are all able to be human beings at this time, not human doings. Teaching material shouldn’t be about keeping students busy, or glued to their screens, but about continuing their education, wellbeing and connectedness in these uncertain circumstances.

Testing and tracking

Similarly, we need to consider the purpose of assessment and feedback, and how these can best work in a distance learning environment. We can think about this from the point of view of what is possible for teachers to enact, and what is useful for student learning.

How might we use our professional judgement to rethink, redesign or reschedule assessments? How might we use technologies to give meaningful feedback? Video conferencing, OneNote, and online rubrics through platforms such as Schoolbox and SEQTA, are some tools that teachers can use to  provide online, continuous feedback.

At my school, we are not taking lesson-by-lesson attendance, but we are tracking student engagement in learning by asking students to ‘like’ posts in Teams, seeing who joins class or small group video meetings, student work in OneNote class notebooks, and checking in on students who don’t appear to be engaging.

Humanising distance learning

In this time of physical distance, our students and staff are keen for a sense of connectedness. We’re finding that video and audio are humanising distance learning for our students. This includes live video and audio meetings with groups of students, pre-recorded screen casts, and PowerPoints with audio or video.

Seeing teachers’ and peers’ faces and hearing their voices can help to bridge the isolation we all feel, and bring some of the connectivity and relationality missing when we are teaching and learning remotely.

Distance Learning: Day 1

with my Madonna headset about to run a live video meeting with Year 12 Literature

In recent days, the Australian Prime Minister indicated that schools in Australia will remain open. On Sunday 22 March his announcement was as follows.

“Schools will remain open through to the end of the current school terms to support students whose parents choose to send their children to school. Victoria’s school break will commence on Tuesday 24 March 2020.

If parents choose to keep their children home from school, parents must be responsible for the conduct of the children and to ensure they adhere to the social distancing arrangements in place.

Schools will be encouraged to provide access to online and distance learning.”

This statement seems to suggest that Australian teachers are expected to provide face-to-face teaching to those students at school, and also online and distance learning for those students staying at home. It is not a workable solution to ask teachers to provide, simultaneously, both in-school and distance learning models. The only viable option that came to my mind was to provide one model–a distance learning model–with which all students can engage at home or at school.

Then yesterday the commission that governs my school and a range of others made a decision: to urge parents to keep children at home, if they can, from today, and to transition to a distance learning model over the next few days. As a result, today my Western Australian school launched (a transition to) our Distance Learning Plan.

So, how did it go?

Here are my end-of-day reflections.

As this is not a government-directed school closure, staff are continuing to work from school, which remains open for staff and for those students whose parents need them to be at school. Continuing to work from school means that staff have access to resources, the school network, the IT department, a Microsoft remote learning expert we currently have on campus to help staff with just-in-time professional learning, and one another. Helping each other through this first day has been a real bonus in terms of morale and collaboration.

A small percentage of students turned up to school and were supervised by staff on a roster as they engaged in the distance learning model. This allowed most staff to enact distance learning in empty classrooms or their offices. Students on site expressed that the feeling of a near-empty school was ‘weird’ but that it was also calm and positive. Students at school were taken out for some physical activity and were able to space out at break times. Reduced numbers of students meant that physical distancing could be practised according to the government’s guidelines.

Students showed their adaptability as they began learning from home. As well as following their teacher’s instructions and their parents’ guidance, some students took their learning into their own hands, showing initiative and collaboration. For example, a group of primary students started their own live video meeting in order to work through their spelling activities. Students used the functions of Teams and OneNote to answer each other’s questions. Some of my Year 12s told me that they had been much more productive at home than they normally are at school. Parents sent in photos of their children engaged in at-home learning.

Teachers launched into our Distance Learning Plan, communicating with students and parents, setting the work for the day, creating content, rethinking assessments and checking in with students through Microsoft Teams. Even though we have been planning for this, a sudden pivot to distance learning meant teachers confronting change head on and being ok with the risk of ‘getting it wrong’. It meant troubleshooting technology. It meant finding ways to humanise the distance learning experience. It meant colleagues helping each other, students helping each other, and students and colleagues helping one another, in a variety of in-person and online ways.

One teacher told me that moving to purely distance learning was like becoming a parent:

“You’re never really ready until it happens, and then you figure it out as you go along.”

I have previously blogged some considerations for planning for distance learning and my message to our teachers this morning was this:

“We haven’t done this before and will be learning as we go, but my tips are:

  • Do your best with what you know and can do. This isn’t like ‘normal’ school and it isn’t going to mirror ‘teaching as usual’. Students will struggle with technology and motivation, as might we!
  • Keep it simple. Start with the learning intentions and find efficiencies. Not every lesson needs to be video, live, technology-based or amazing.
  • Trust your professional judgement. You know yourselves, your subject and your students. Do what works.
  • Be kind to yourself and others. This is distance learning during a global pandemic. It is continuing our students’ education while in the midst of a major health, societal and economic crisis. There will be a multiplicity of very real challenges for students, teachers and parents during this time. Reach out for help if you need it.”

I am grateful to be part of: a school and system acting with the health, safety and wellbeing of its community in mind; a staff who are working incredibly hard and with acrobatic agility and positivity in a constantly changing professional environment; and a community of students and families who are engaging with these changing circumstances in optimistic and open ways.

Thank you to all those educators around the country and the world sharing their resources and experiences. The education hive mind is alive and well. We’re in this together and we’re better together. Stay safe.

Planning for distance learning in the event of school closure – COVID-19

Source: @bzak on pixabay

School closures have yet to happen in my Australian city of Perth, but in my role as Head of Teaching and Learning at a K-12 school with over 1700 students, I have been involved in planning for what we will do in the event of a closure due to COVID-19.

This article by Tomas Pueyo shows why social distancing is so important for flattening the curve of how quickly a virus like COVID-19 can move through a community. School closures are part of the social distancing manoeuvre.

In this post I share some of my thinking around what schools might consider in the face of a school closure, in the hope that it contributes to the global conversation or is helpful to others.

‘Distance learning’ or ‘remote learning’, rather than ‘online learning’

Effective and meaningful learning can take many forms. Walking through classrooms in any school will reveal that teaching and learning is diverse. Learning environments vary. Technologies are leveraged in a variety of ways. Across the teaching of a course, learning will look different, as teachers move through the explicit instruction of content, facilitating of robust discussion, questioning, one-on-one feedback, small group tutorials and a multitude of other pedagogies.

Learning remotely, or at a distance from school, can also happen in many ways. While technology plays an important part in distance learning, it is not the only tool and it is not always the most appropriate platform for student learning. Learning at a distance from school does not mean being constantly online, staring at a screen for six hours each day.

Consider all stakeholders

In planning for distance learning, we can be clear about:

  • What teachers will (and will not) provide;
  • How students might engage in their learning; and
  • How parents can support their children’s learning during a school closure situation.

Teachers can and should continue to provide appropriate communication, materials, learning activities, teaching resources and feedback to students.

School closure can be an opportunity for students to develop independent work habits as autonomous learners, but prolonged school closures may result in students struggling to maintain motivation and complete set work. This is a good guide for senior students on how to be effective remote learners. Students can also be encouraged to incorporate physical activity and mindfulness into their day.

Parents can help their children to establish a routine, for instance by using the normal school day as a guide. They can help to establish an appropriate space where children can do their learning at home (quiet, comfortable, resources, and without distractions such as smartphones). The age and independence of the child will determine how much checking in or assistance they need with their learning.

Learning tools and strategies that are ‘fit for purpose’

There is no one-size-fits-all in distance learning. There is a great variety of subjects with varying needs. Some are easily translated into online or at-home environments. Others, such as those subjects with a large practical component (e.g. Physical Education, the Arts or Home Economics) or that require specialised equipment (such as Woodwork, Media or Science practicals), are not so easily replicated outside of the physical grounds of the school. Different subjects and age groups require different approaches to distance learning.

Teachers will know their students’ capacities for technologies and are able to design learning experiences that harness those tools with which students are familiar. Teachers should be trusted and empowered to deploy appropriate delivery of content and learning activities, utilising tools that are fit for purpose and relevant to the subject, content and skills being learned, as well as to the age and stage of students.

A blend of synchronous and asynchronous learning

Distance learning can involve a combination of synchronous (live learning in which students learn with the teacher at the same time) and asynchronous (students learning independently at different times). This edublogger post provides a useful outline and ideas for structuring distance learning.

Some schools during closures have been running identical timetables in which students and teachers ‘arrive’ at online spaces for each class, in its regularly scheduled time. This synchronous approach is one way to go, but it may mean students spending large amounts of time at a computer screen, and teachers giving lessons in didactic, one-dimensional ways.

Distance learning doesn’t have to mirror learning as it normally does in school. In fact, trying to replicate the pace and type of work that would be done at school is unrealistic. Trusting teachers to plan appropriate work for their classes allows them to select how students might best use the home environment and available tools to maintain the continuity of learning during a school closure, with realistic expectations.

There are great video conferencing tools such as Zoom and Teams, and effective collaborative spaces in various Learning Management Systems (such as SEQTA, Schoolbox, Canvas and Blackboard). The Office 365 suite offers opportunities for feedback, collaboration and communication, such as through Class OneNote, Teams and Seesaw.

‘Flipping’ the classroom through video content that can be re-watched by students and later used for revision is one option. For younger year groups, spelling words, handwriting books, mathematics games and exercises, physical activity challenges, inquiry projects and learning apps can be communicated home, with recommendations for how the day can be spent, in order for children to continue their learning.

Consider infrastructure and equity

Designing a distance learning plan means thinking through the required hardware, software and training of staff and students. It also means considering equity and access. Schools will vary by the demographic and by existing technology resources and practices.

Do students have their own devices and power supply for home use? Do they have access to paper, stationary, and a printer? Do students and staff have sufficient internet access and bandwidth at home for the planned learning? Are the intended technology tools accessible remotely via a web browser or a Cloud-based app?

Some schools are running trial mornings before the event of a closure to test technologies and systems.

Communication is queen

Proactive, regular communication is key in uncertain times. This goes for government officials as well as for school and system leaders.

It may not be ‘business as usual’, but we can let our students, staff and families know that planning is in hand, and keep them informed with updates about what is happening and how they might be affected.

Consider wellbeing

Social distancing means isolation from others. It may mean being away not only from the relational spaces of schools, but from friends and family, and from places like gyms, cafes and sporting clubs that are a part of normal routine.

School closure can add pressure to parents and workload to teachers. It can lead to students feeling anxious, perhaps especially those who are in their final year of schooling, preparing for examinations.

In these situations, we all do our best with the emotional, cognitive, financial, technological and physical resources available. Hopefully, this is an opportunity to think about teaching and learning a little differently, to see how we might be efficient and innovative by necessity.

We can be kind to ourselves and each other, and support each other with optimism, care and togetherness, even at a distance.

INTERVIEW: Collaboration in schools

Deb WES pic

I was recently interviewed by Ben Reeves, ahead of the Wisdom in Education Summit to be held in May at Wesley College in Melbourne. At the conference, which aims to explore collaborative practices that enhance student learning, I will be speaking on collaboration that makes transformational professional learning possible. Other speakers include Andy Hargreaves, Summer Howarth, Tracey Ezard and Selena Fisk.

A snippet of the interview appears below.

This is the part where we talked about collaboration that might be transformational, rather than collaboration done as unthinking practice of being together as a group, or as a practice of feeling good rather than really doing good work together.

Ben: What makes collaboration a type of transformative learning, rather than merely a group meeting; or feeling good in a team; or perhaps least desirably, a toxic team environment?

Me: What is often called ‘collaboration’ doesn’t necessarily involve or incite learning, let alone that which is transformational. Putting a group of people in a room together does not mean collaboration is happening. Feeling good, enjoying doing something in a group, or experiencing something fun or memorable together, also doesn’t mean learning, growth or effective practice is happening. Politely agreeing with each other is another way that being in a team or group becomes about compliance and forced harmony, a kind of pretend collegiality where members nod or remain silent, waiting for a meeting to be over or avoiding conflict at all costs.

Our best and most transformational collaborative work comes when a group can engage respectfully in productive conflict with one another, using data analysis and dialogue to find a solution to a shared problem for which they take collective responsibility. High-functioning groups are those who can gracefully and robustly challenge one another within an environment of trust and psychological safety, while adhering to agreed norms of behaviour, using skills of effective collaboration, and employing deliberate collaborative structures.

So often in schools, teachers or leaders get together in meetings, teams or committees. However, these crucibles of apparent collaboration have no guarantee of actually allowing effective collaboration to occur. Sometimes we seem to be meeting because there is a meeting in the calendar, because it’s ‘what we do’, or because we’re expected to meet. How do we make meetings, team work or professional collaboration effective or even transformational? As I indicate in the response above, true collaboration requires skills, norms and intentionality.

In my book Transformational Professional Learning: Making a Difference in Schools I spend a chapter discussing collaborative professional learning and collaboration as a  vehicle for learning. In it, I explore examples such as professional learning communities and lesson study. On his recent trip to Australia, Michael Fullan pointed to the key takeaways from that chapter. In my book I outline them like this:

  • Professional collaboration can benefit students and teachers, but needs to be deliberately designed around research-based principles and practices. Putting educators in a room together is not enough!
  • Professional collaboration should be based on the clear shared purpose of improving outcomes for students, by developing teachers in meaningful and sustained ways.
  • Key to collaborative professional learning are relationships, norms, protocols, processes, and data analysis that allow productive conflict, collective responsibility, and peer accountability. Getting along, enjoying the process, or patting each other on the back, does not equal collaboration.
  • Examples of effective collaborative professional learning modes include professional learning communities, observation and reflection processes (such as instructional rounds and lesson study), moderation marking meetings, less formal peer observation, collaboration over curriculum planning, and interrogation of research literature in journal or book clubs.
  • Within school and between school collaboration should be considered.

Michael summarised these points in the following slide.

Fullan TPL pic

You can read the interview in its entirety on LinkedIn here. In addition to collaboration, Ben asked me about pracademia, praxis, identity and transformation.

Teachers and school leaders: Being better

We can always be better

As teachers, school leaders and those working in education, we have a moral obligation to the students we serve to commit to continuous improvement. We need to always strive to be better, because no matter how good we are, we can always improve. Not only is teaching so complex that it’s impossible to perfect (as Dylan Wiliam humorously explains in this short video), but with each new class or cohort, there are fresh idiosyncrasies and circumstances to consider that should influence our practice.

This idea is well worn. Charlotte Danielson explains that “teaching is so hard that it’s never perfect. No matter how good it is, it could always be better.” Dylan Wiliam asserts that “all teachers need to improve their practice—not because they are not good enough, but because they can be even better.”

How we get better

Interestingly, Wiliam also suggests that what we should be getting better at is what we’re already good at, rather than our identified deficiencies. He writes:

“The greatest benefits to students are likely to come from teachers becoming even more expert in their strengths. … when teachers themselves make the decision about what it is that they wish to prioritise for their own professional development, they are more likely to ‘make it work’.”

That is, rather than focusing on deficiencies and finding fault, teachers should be empowered to drive our own improvement and leverage our strengths.

As educators we can improve by engaging in robust processes of self-reflection, goal setting, data generation, data analysis and action. We can use data and the best available evidence to reflect on what we know, and consider how to improve from where we are now, to where we want to be so that we can optimally educate our students.

Staff development processes can support teachers by being efficient, transparent, consistent and based on best practice. Schools can provide psychological safety and cultures of trust that support teachers to be and become the best they can be.

We can also support teachers and school leaders to engage in meaningful collaboration and transformational professional learning as levers for ongoing learning and improvement.

Questions we can each ask ourselves as our 2020 school year kicks off

  • What could be a focus for ‘better’ in my teaching, leadership or education work in 2020?
  • What are some things I could do to move this forward?
  • Who or what could I access for support?
  • What is my first small step towards ‘better’ in this area?

Better together

I opened my presentation to staff this year with the following two artworks: M. C. Escher’s 1953 lithograph Relativity and Piet Mondrian’s 1908 painting The Red Tree.

M.C. Escher’s ‘Relativity’

The version of reality represented in Relativity has the appearance that everyone is going nowhere, round in circles, or in divergent directions. The figures are disconnected from each other. They don’t engage with one another, but rather accept their individual reality and head in their individual direction, on their own path, doing discrete and seemingly unconnected tasks.

There are three different forces of gravity operating in the artwork, and the characters within it exist simultaneously in their different gravitational worlds, without awareness of each other’s different situations. In schools our work can be like this: disconnected and ad hoc, with each of us moving in our own direction according to our own rules, preferences or perceptions of where we could be going and what we could be doing.

Piet Mondrian’s ‘The Red Tree’

In The Red Tree, each branch is going and growing its own way, yet each is connected at the trunk. The trunk may be seen as a metaphor for the shared vision of a school, and the branches as teams and individuals diverging off from, but still connected with, the solid central body of the organisation.

This is what I think we’re aiming for in schools: connection between stakeholders and a shared vision, while honouring individuality and what we each bring and can contribute.

We’re better together, especially when we can simultaneously unite in moral purpose, vision and direction, while allowing each individual to flourish, shine and explore their own path, supported by and integrated with the trunk.

What matters in teaching and learning?

Teaching is incredibly complex. Source: FreeCreativeStuff pixabay

In this blog post I explore my thinking around what matters in teaching and learning. It is by no means an exhaustive list, but part of a wider conversation.

The student matters.

Students are our common purpose in teaching and learning; our who and our why; the core of our work. Not just ‘students’ plural, but each and every student (with their idiosyncrasies, circumstances, attitudes, abilities and identities).

The decisions we make from the classroom to the board room in schools should all come back to the student. Ultimately in education, we are in their service.

The teacher matters.

The teacher and their classroom practice can make a difference to student learning and achievement. Within schools, the quality of teachers’ teaching is the most influential school-based variable in terms of improving student learning and achievement. (Although more influential than what is within a school’s sphere of influence are students’ attitudes and abilities, socioeconomic context, parents’ education and peers.)

Knowledge matters.

In Australia, knowledge is central to one of our professional standards: ‘Teachers know content and how to teach it.’ Focusing on preparing students for their future pathways, and on character, skills and capabilities, doesn’t mean ignoring knowledge.

Australian Chief Scientist, Alan Fink, has spoken about teachers as trained experts who have a “fundamental duty to teach students content: concepts, facts and principles.” He adds that specialist knowledge is needed:

“No-one has ever said to me: ‘gosh, we don’t have enough people who know how to collaborate’. No, what they say to me is: ‘we don’t have enough specialists in software engineering. We can’t find graduates who are fluent in maths. We have meetings where three quarters of the people in the room can’t critique a set of numbers without pulling out a calculator and slowing us down.’”

Cognitive load theory posits that the human working memory cannot process many new elements at any one time, but the human brain can process very large amounts of stored information. What this tells teachers is that we need to help students to bank knowledge in their long term memory, so that they can use their working memory to learn new things or do higher order thinking. For example, knowing things like times tables or phonics with automaticity and fluency leaves room in the working memory to be able to focus on more sophisticated aspects of problems or language.

Dylan Wiliam, in his book Creating the schools our children need: Why what we’re doing now won’t help much (and what we can do instead), points to long-term memory, arguing that:

“what our students need is more to think with. The main purpose of curriculum is to build up the content of long-term memory so that when students are asked to think, they are able to think in more powerful ways.” (2018, p.134)

Critical thinkers need knowledge on which to build, and creators need to know the foundations on which they are innovating.

Pedagogy matters

How we teach also matters. In schools we should be asking ourselves:

  • How do we decide which teaching strategies to deploy?
  • On what evidence do we base our decisions?
  • How do we know what is likely to be in the best interests of the student?

In a previous blog post I outline what research literature indicates about what effective teachers do. They:

  • Purposefully design learning opportunities;
  • Diagnose student progress to inform both teaching and learning;
  • Fight for their students’ learning;
  • Personalise learning for students;  and
  • Provide meaningful and appropriate feedback.

Barak Rosenshine’s principles of instruction give one list of teaching strategies likely to be effective:

  • Review previous learning.
  • Provide new material in small steps with student practice after each step.
  • Limit the amount of material students receive at one time.
  • Give clear and detailed instructions and explanations.
  • Ask good questions and check the responses of all students.
  • Provide models, exemplars and worked examples.
  • Guide student practice.
  • Check for student understanding.
  • Help students obtain a high success rate.
  • Provide scaffolds for difficult tasks.
  • Require and monitor independent practice.
  • Provide timely, systematic feedback.
  • Engage students in regular review of their learning and self-assessment.

In my own classroom, I ask myself:

  • Who is doing the thinking in our classrooms?
  • Who is working harder: teacher or student?

These questions are anchors that help me to consider my pedagogy in ways that empower and expect students to be doing the cognitive work.

But knowledge and teaching are not all that matters in teaching and learning. >>>

Relationships matter.

Relationships are also at the heart of learning.

In Australia one of our professional standards states that “Teachers know their students well.” Steve Biddulph says that “boys learn teachers not subjects.” An oft-quoted line, attributed to a number of people such as Carl Buehner and Maya Angelou, resonates with teachers and the student experience of teaching:

“People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

When I threw the question ‘What matters in teaching and learning’ out to Twitter last night, I received more than 70 replies in 24 hours. Many of these tweets centred around relationships (student-teacher, but also staff and families). Cameron Paterson pointed me towards this video of Rita Pierson’s TED talk in which she says “kids don’t learn from people they don’t like” and “seeks first to understand rather than to be understood.” You can read what Twitter had to say in the thread here.

I like to think about the concept, from psychology, of a ‘holding environment’ in which members of the community or organisation feel ‘held’ in a culture of high support and high challenge. How students feel and relate in our school and classroom matters. They need psychological safety.

Identity and belonging matter.

Like relationships, students need a sense of belonging and of being seen for who they are.

We can consider:

  • Who are our learners now, and who do they and we want them to become?
  • To what extent do our students feel and see themselves belonging in our school community?

Context matters.

Research can only tell us what has worked in particular situations. It doesn’t tell us what to do or what might work for our students. Research  can, however, help us to make better decisions about how best to serve our students.

Those teachers within a classroom and leaders within a school know their students and community. Those working with students and families each day are the people best placed to serve them.

Culture matters.

Cultures of trust and empathy are key to schools that are able to support the learning and wellbeing of their students and staff. Those cultures can be academic, pastoral, professional and community cultures.

We can ask:

  • How do we collectively approach teaching, learning and pastoral matters?
  • What are our students’ work habits and attitudes to school and learning?
  • How engaged are our families in student learning?
  • How well do we work together as a staff?

And we can work on culture as a foundation stone of the teaching and learning work we do.

Engagement matters.

Knowledge and skills are central to student learning, but we also want students to be lifelong learners who are curious and driven to learn and to solve problems.

  • How do we enhance student motivation and excitement about learning?
  • How do we facilitate learning that matters to students?

Finally, our moral purpose matters.

I recently heard Michael Fullan saying that it is today’s students who will change the world for the better, partly because of their education, and partly because of the anxiety and alarm they feel about the state of the world, that is propelling them towards being agents of positive change.

In 1947 Martin Luther King Junior wrote that:

“Education must enable one to sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, and the facts from the fiction. The function of education, therefore, is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. But education which stops with efficiency may prove the greatest menace to society. The most dangerous criminal may be the man gifted with reason, but with no morals.”

Teachers and school leaders have a moral obligation to our students. We can consider our own moral purpose, and how we help students to develop character and their own moral compass and purpose.

  • How do we facilitate students as lifelong learners, ethical active citizens and empathetic constructive problem seekers and solvers?
  • How can and do we support students to contribute to a world that’s worth living in?

Asking ‘What matters?’, matters.

In our edited book, Flip the System Australia, my co-editors and I chose the subtitle: What Matters in Education. The book looked beyond a ‘what works’ agenda and asked (and in some ways proposed hopeful possible answers to) questions of what matters, what should matter, and how we can focus our education systems on equity, democracy and inclusion.

Teaching is difficult, complex, human, relational work. So much matters, but if we keep the student at the centre of our thinking, we’re off to a good start.