Opt-in interest groups for teacher professional learning

Source: pixabay.com by @rawpixel

I wrote earlier this year about the individualised professional learning pathways model that my school is trialing this year. Teachers and leaders are now able to have more voice and choice in the internal process of professional learning in which they engage. Where before staff were allocated a school-based development process (such as coaching) based on their place in a three-to-four year cycle, we have in 2018 opened up a range of new options and each staff member negotiates with their line manager the one most appropriate to their career stage, interest and development needs.

One of these options is what we are terming ‘Professional Learning Groups’. These groups have been opted into by staff from PK to 12, from various faculties, and in a variety of roles including teachers, leaders and staff from libraries or co-curricular arenas. This year, of our 140-odd teaching staff, 40 chose to be involved in one of these groups, so each group includes about ten people. The following groups were on offer.

  • Teaching best practice
      • Members of this group have a particular interest in teasing out classroom teaching. From evidence-based methods to transfer to ensuring that they are able to ‘reach’ all students in their classes, they have come with a desire to focus on their core business as teachers: teaching!
  • Pedagogies of learning spaces
      • This group is made up of a range of teachers and leaders working in various learning spaces across the school, some of which are newly refurbished and some of which are well-established. There has so far been vibrant discussion and sharing of the practices, challenges, and benefits of co-teaching and teaching in open or flexible spaces.
  • ICT for teaching and learning
      • Members of this group have a range of expertise and needs surrounding the use of technologies for teaching and learning. They have so far been very interested in one another’s expertise and also in the targets each person is setting for themselves, and challenges each is facing. They have been able to offer one another advice.
  • Post-graduate study
      • My idea for this group came about when I was doing my PhD. Working in a school while moonlighting as a post-graduate student can be incredibly isolating as you rush from work to study. There are often few people with whom teachers and leaders can discuss their study, especially when it involves self-directed research. This group is as much about solidarity, support, recognition and acknowledgement of those engaged in further study as it is about research methods or dissertation writing.

As the recent Gonski 2.0 report surfaced, teachers would like time to talk about and collaborate around teaching. Groups like these can provide this opportunity. While from the outset I had a loose idea of what these groups would do—such engage in scholarly literature, reflect and workshop problems of practice together, share practice, visit one another’s classrooms, collaborate in online spaces—I am facilitating them in a way that allows the group’s interests and needs to lead the way the group operates. This means employing structures for collaboration and coaching-style language, but in a way that is open to the groups operating in ways that are unexpected or taking directions that are surprising. These are not groups at which I am the expert at the helm or the instructor filling colleagues with my knowledge. They are groups of expert practitioners whose value is in the rich expertise around the table, and the potential of professional conversation and collaboration about our daily work.

Each person has come to each group with a particular intention, and we fleshed these out in our first meetings. The opt-in nature of the groups has meant that staff have generally arrived with enthusiasm for being involved; they have chosen this pathway for themselves. As my leadership role is PK-12, and in a previous role I coached classroom teachers across the school around their classroom practice, I get to see the potential symbiosis between disparate areas of the school (like the co-teaching in Year 3 and in Year 11 Physics, literacy approaches from PK-12, common strategies for behaviour management and developing classroom culture or addressing students with particular learning needs), but many staff do not have the opportunity to see the connections between themselves and others in the organisation. How might a Year 12 Design and Technology teacher know that their design thinking process mirrors that of the Pre-Primary classroom? The luxury of spending time with colleagues who share similar interests and challenges cannot be underestimated, especially in the environment of a PK-12 school where so often we can be siloed in our year level or faculty teams. So far there seem real benefits to those from vastly different areas of the school workshopping similar challenges and goals, ones they may not have known they shared with colleagues until coming together.

Teachers and school leaders need professional learning opportunities that are at once self-chosen and self-directed, but also collaborative and supported. Often internal expertise goes unrecognised and untapped in schools. Looking outside and borrowing others’ practice has its benefits, but schools can and should consider the expertise of those within their own walls, rather than looking tirelessly to external ‘experts’. Teachers are experts in their own classrooms. School leaders are experts in their own school contexts. They deserve to be recognised as such, and to be given time and permission to deeply and collectively engage in the core aspects of their work.

Professional learning and collaboration: Where have they Gonski and where are we going?

On Monday the Gonski 2.0 review panel report, entitled Through Growth to Achievement Report of the Review to Achieve Educational Excellence in Australian Schools, was released. This was a much-anticipated second report on the Australian education system, written by David Gonski and colleagues. I have many conflicting responses to much of the report and its comments about curriculum, pedagogy, assessment and reporting. I would hazard a guess that many Australian educators feel more aligned with the first Gonski report, which focused on equitable redistribution of ‘needs-based sector-blind’ funding, as opposed to this one with its focus on individualisation of learning, increased measurement, and a ‘what works’ agenda for ‘maximum impact’.

For the purposes of this blog post, however, I will avoid the multiple elephants in the Gonski 2.0 room and focus on aspects of Chapter 3 of the report, and its focus on teacher collaboration and professional learning. Partly, this chapter is relevant to my role, and it felt particularly relevant on Monday when the report was released, because that was a staff professional development day at my school, one which I had organised.

What Gonski 2.0 says about professional learning and collaboration

The Gonski 2.0 report outlines what research literature has been saying for some time: that teachers need to meaningfully collaborate, and that schools need to provide a growth-focused professional learning environment in which teachers can interrogate and improve their practice, based on knowing research and knowing their students. On the theme of professional learning and collaboration, the Gonski 2.0 report singles out as particularly effective modes of collaboration: peer observation and feedback, coaching, mentoring, team teaching and joint research projects. These have all been foci of my school, to which many of my blog posts will attest.

Professional collaboration in action

At my school, Monday was in many ways an embodiment of professional learning married with professional collaboration. Our staff day began with the principal’s address, which referenced the just-released Gonski 2.0 report’s findings. We then embarked upon a day of elevating the voices of staff within our organisation through discussion with, learning from, and collaborating alongside, one another.

A panel presentation shared the voices of four staff from different arenas in the school, in a discussion of how our 2018 strategic priorities are being embedded in various school contexts.

A two-hour block was set aside for TeachMeet style sessions, in which teachers ran practical workshops for each other. Teachers chose the sessions they attended. Topics were based on the AITSL Standards and our core business of teaching and learning. These were practical, practitioner-run sessions that harnessed the internal expertise and generosity of teachers at our school. Topics offered included:

  • Teaching literacy across the school: the big picture and practical strategies
  • Auditory, visual and sensory processing disorders: What they are and what to do as a classroom teacher
  • OneNote Classroom for teaching, learning and collaboration
  • Team teaching and collaborative pedagogies in action
  • Online assessment and feedback
  • Pedagogical frameworks for inquiry and project-based learning across the school
  • A roundtable on Indigenous pathways

Most sessions required collaboration in the planning of these sessions, as they were run by multiple participants from different sub-schools and a variety of faculties. Staff presenting and participating made connections across areas, seeing the similarities in each other’s’ work and recognising one another’s expertise. The feedback from these sessions has been resoundingly positive. The afternoon was then spent collaborating in teams.

This is a snapshot example of the kind of professional collaboration and learning happening in Australian schools and among Australian education communities. My school, like most, has additional collaborative mechanisms. Ours include differentiated professional learning pathways, coaching for professional growth, and professional learning communities focused on using student data to inform teaching practice.

Letting teachers focus on teaching

As the Gonski 2.0 report points out, however, teachers are weighed down by administrivia and tasks additional to their teaching load. The report notes that “submissions to the Review argued that teachers want to focus on teaching” (p.60) and suggests that schools will need to rethink “time use and work practices … where the average teacher is often burdened with administrative tasks and finds little time to develop new teaching skills,” for instance by “considering different and innovative ways to free up teacher time, for example using more paid paraprofessionals and other non-teaching personnel, including trained volunteers, to assist with non-teaching tasks such as lunchtime or assembly supervision or administrative tasks” (p.57).

As teachers are asked to increasingly use data, be aware of research, collaborate, and engage in ongoing professional learning, workload remains an issue. Collaboration and professional learning take time. Professional learning, in particular, often happens in teachers’ own time, and using their own funds. Time and resourcing are important considerations influencing to what extent teachers are able to collaborate and participate in effective professional learning.

Education research and the teaching profession: Barriers and solutions

Beware the great wall of research. Proceed with caution. (Taken in George Town, Penang.)

Tonight’s #aussieED Twitter chat has been advertised as talking about ‘bad research’ and ‘good research’, and also asking ‘where can a good teacher turn?’ for research. The topic of research in education is a popular one. Teachers are encouraged to use evidence-based and research-informed practices. They are encouraged to know what research is worth listening to, what is worth ignoring, and what has been misused or debunked (hello, learning styles and neuromyths like ‘we only use 10% of our brains’ and left/right brain learning). Education researchers seek to disseminate their research to the profession. Some organisations seek to bridge the gap between education research and practice. Yet a gap remains.

What barriers are in the way of the teachers and school leaders accessing research to inform their practice?

  1. Time. Teachers and leaders in schools are busy. So busy that often their wellbeing and mental health suffers. It is extremely difficult, especially in the face of multiple accountabilities, for those working in schools to find the time to trawl through academic journal articles and lengthy books in order to decipher research and ponder its relevance to their daily work.
  2. Access and cost. Most academic journal articles are behind a paywall and many academic books have a hefty price tag often well over $100. I have written for both, and the irony is that credibility in the academy is based on publishing in these kinds of texts, yet these are the least accessible for practitioners.
  3. Misrepresentation. The media often misrepresents education research, publishing catchy or sensationalised headlines and simple messages that ignore the complexities or realities of education research. For example, the Sydney Morning Herald recently reported that flipped learning was ‘a new teaching method’ that might be piloted in Australian schools, despite the fact that Australian educators have been using (or intentionally not using) flipped learning for more than ten years. Meanwhile, education terms like ‘growth mindset’ become ubiquitous and meaningless. That is, everyone uses them without ever having engaged with the original research or the responses that have come since.
  4. Simplification. There are dangers to pushing an evidence-based ‘what works’ agenda. Firstly, as Dylan Wiliam so often says, everything works somewhere and nothing works everywhere. But simple league tables of ‘what works’ in education abound. On the one hand these seem useful summaries of research for time-poor teachers, yet they are tools that can be misused and misunderstood if educators do not draw back the curtain to look behind the summaries to the research on which they are based. Meta-analysis mixes together multiple studies in a way that over-simplifies or misrepresents the research on which it is based. For a longer explication, see my extended discussion of meta-analysis in education.
  5. Commodification. There is money to be made in the big business of education. ‘Research’, ‘evidence’, and ‘data’ have become sloganised and used to promote books, professional learning opportunities and conferences. There is a fine line to walk between providing support to the teaching profession by making research accessible, and the corruption of message and purpose that happens when people seek to make money from it, focusing on sales and branding over the authenticity and credibility of what is on offer.

So, what’s the teaching profession to do? Where can we turn when much research is either inaccessible or so multitudinous that it is impossible for the average professional to wade through and find meaning? When the media and some companies or edu-experts are promoting and selling (often contradictory) silver bullets that are too good to be true?

  1. Provide teachers with the questions to ask about research. Context matters, for instance. Where did the studied intervention work? For whom? Under what conditions? Method matters, too. How many participants were in the study? From what school contexts? Via which methods were data generated? What were the ethical considerations and how were these dealt with? What can the study tell us, and what is it unable to tell us? For instance, randomised control trials (RCTs) minimise bias and are often cited as the gold standard of research, but have their own limitations and are not the most appropriate vehicle to answer every research question. A multiplicity of research approaches gives us diverse ways of understanding education, but we need to interrogate the approaches and arrive at conclusions with caution.
  2. Do post-graduate study. Of course this option is not for everyone, and it shouldn’t be a necessity for teachers, but being a Masters or doctoral candidate does provide library access as well as developing an understanding of a variety of research methods.
  3. Consider creating a research role for school, department, or district. While budget constraints might make this difficult for some schools or education departments, a role of ‘Research Lead’, ‘Head of Research’, or in my case ‘Dean of Research and Pedagogy’, can provide a conduit between a school or system and the world of education research. I have written here about some of the things I have been doing to build a research culture in my school.
  4. Build a professional reading repository for your school, district, or system. This might include subscriptions to practitioner or academic journals (e.g. Australian Educational Researcher, Learning & Instruction, Journal of Educational Change), as well as access to research-based practitioner books or academic books. There are also affordable subscriptions, like those of the Media Centre for Educational Research Australia (MCERA), the imminent researchED Magazine, Australian Educational Leader, and the UK Chartered College of Teaching’s journal Impact.
  5. Engage with blogging and online publications. Part of the reason I blog is to give back and contribute to the education community. I work in a privileged school that has the resources to put me in a role where I get to read, write, research, design professional learning opportunities, work with teachers, and help others to do the same. My blog, along with others such as that of the excellent and always-sense-making Gary Jones, seeks to illuminate and summarise research for a practitioner audience. Blogging also engages an audience of international colleagues whose feedback and challenges help to shape my thinking. Online publications such as the EduResearch Matters blogThe Conversation and the Times Education Supplement are also vehicles used by scholars to make research accessible to education practitioners.
  6. Engage with academics and universities, via professional learning or school-university partnerships in order to bridge the gap between those doing educational research, and those seeking to understand and enact it in practice.

At this time two years ago I was attending the American Educational Research Association conference in Washington DC to present on my PhD research. I have attended three Australian Association of Educational Research conferences. I am a research-immersed practitioner. Alongside my full-time school leadership role (in which I also teach English and Literature), I am a research adjunct at a university. I engage in both research and practice. This road, however, is always a winding and imperfect one. Teachers, school leaders, researchers and education commentators need to work together to understand and enact education research and its implications.

Middle leaders: The forgotten stratum

willow tree, Denmark, Western Australia

School leadership is full of tensions and complexities. As I discovered while reviewing literature for my PhD, middle leadership is the forgotten realm of research in education. There is plenty of research on pre-service teachers (no doubt these participants are easy for those working in universities to recruit), a lot on teachers, and loads on principals. There is much less on those in the middle. The principal, even when not touted as the charismatic hero, is the focus of much school leadership discourse, despite the popularising of distributed leadership and teacher leadership. Of course, the principal of any school is central. They set the tone, lead the vision, directly manage senior leaders, deal confidentially with sensitive issues, and much more. But a school’s leadership culture does not begin and end with the principal. Those in the middle manage up and down, in and out, and are often sandwiched between being advocates of the teams they lead and a cohesive voice of management. They are pressed upon from below and above.

If school vision is to be enacted or school culture is to be shifted, middle leaders who directly lead teams of teachers, are key. These middle voices are often ignored in scholarly literature and in media narratives. This gap was why it was important to me (having been myself a middle leader in schools for many years) to draw on the voices of middle leaders in my doctorate.

In my last post I outlined what my school is trialing for teachers in terms of development options within the organisation (complimentary to, but not to be confused with, professional learning offered within the school and also outside of school through courses and conferences). Below I outline the options we have available to middle leaders. That teacher and middle leaders have similar-but-different options acknowledges their varied needs. Even within the middle leadership stratum, there are a diverse range of needs and experiences, from early-career or new leaders, to very experienced veterans more suited to giving back to the profession. The options this year for our middle leaders are as follows.

  • Coaching with a coach who might be a peer, another leader from the within school, or possibly an external person. Unlike the teachers, who are coached around their teaching practice, leaders are likely to be coached around their leadership.
  • A reflection and feedback process with their line manager (which needs to happen every 3-4 years). For leaders, this occurs around their role description, and may dip into the AITSL Standards for Principals rather than only the Standards for Teachers, as appropriate.
  • Working with an expert teacher who acts as a kind of classroom consultant. This is likely to be most relevant for instructional leaders such as Heads of Faculty.
  • An internally-designed leadership development programfor aspirant or early career leaders; includes leadership profiles, senior and executive school leaders running sessions.
  • professional learning group, bringing staff together from across the school to engage in scholarly literature, reflection, and shared practice.
    • Teaching best practice
    • Pedagogies of learning spaces
    • ICT for teaching and learning
    • Post-graduate study

Additionally, leaders at my school attend coaching training and a once-a-term Leadership Forum (examples from last year include presentations from Dylan Wiliam and Pasi Sahlberg, a panel of local principals, and an internal session on goals and strategy). These initiatives are intended to develop leaders’ knowledge and skills, and also a shared culture of how we approach professional conversation, our own learning and collaboration with one another.

This approach to staff development, one that is bedded in the organisation but also flexible to individual needs, reminds me of a quote from one of my middle leader PhD participants. Theirs is a metaphor that sticks with me as I go about my work in staff development and professional learning.

“I see the vision as more like the trunk of the tree; it’s the main thing that we all sort of hang off, and we do.  But we’re all going to be branches that come out from that trunk, and we do have our own little sub-branches occasionally that we can then look at as well, but we still are connected to that trunk of that tree.”

The notion of a school as a tree is resonant with the concept of holonomy (see Costa and Garmston, Koestler, or other posts on this blog). Deep roots, a strong shared trunk, thick team branches, and spindlier individual branches diverging out in idiosyncratic directions. Individual and school are simultaneously together and apart, different and one, part and whole, connected and separate. It is my hope that in my work I can at once support the growth of individual and school, as well as their complex and symbiotic interrelationship.

Individualising staff performance development

doorway, Oia, 2008

This year at my school we are trialling a different approach to performance development and review processes. Historically, we have had a range of processes and each year staff have been assigned to the process they are ‘up for’ based on a chronological cycle. This has tended to mean that in the first year of employment at the school, staff go through a probation process. The next three years have involved a linear cycle of two years of coaching around teaching practice, followed by a year in which the staff member engages in reflection and performance review with their line manager around their role. And so on. Each year staff also have a reflection and goal-setting conversation with their line manager, which functions as an important check-in for the manager and a key feedback process for the staff member.

These processes aim to engender trust, build capacity, and provide support, while also facilitating a relationship between person and manager around performance, development, and needs. They are founded on a belief that our staff are capable professionals who have the capacity and the will to grow professionally; and an expectation that they will endeavour to improve, no matter how good they already are. Data, research, coaching, collaboration, mentoring, and self-reflection are all tools embedded into these processes.

Yet, despite the best intentions of these processes, and their basis in research, some staff have felt that the school-based development processes have not met their needs, or have not been meaningful. It has had me wondering:

How might school-based performance development be differentiated to meet the needs, aspirations and career stages of staff?

So this year we are trialling a non-linear, more individualised approach to our performance development. Teachers, for instance, will negotiate with their manager a choice from a number of options. Options for teaching staff include:

  • Coaching around practice with a teacher trained as a Cognitive Coach; involves using low-inference data for reflection and capacity building within a confidential and trusting space; leaders can opt to be coached by a peer or other leader
  • Working with an expert teacher who acts as a kind of classroom consultant; might include team teaching and mentoring with specific advice around classroom practice.
  • A reflection and feedback process with their line manager (which needs to happen every 3-4 years)
  • An internally-designed leadership development program for aspirant or early career leaders; includes leadership profiles, school leaders running sessions
  • A professional learning group, bringing staff together from across the school to engage in scholarly literature, reflection, and shared practice.
    • Teaching best practice
    • Pedagogies of learning spaces
    • ICT for teaching and learning
    • Post-graduate study

All staff will continue to complete their yearly reflection and goal setting conversation with their line manager. In order to support this work, all our school leaders, many of whom have previously completed the Cognitive Coaching Foundation course, are undertaking GROWTH Coaching training. This training will help them to guide and enhance the goal setting of the people they manage, and it supports our organisational belief (based in research and knowledge of our own context) that coaching is a powerful vehicle for building individual, collaborative and organisational capacity. We will also continue to provide additional leadership support and development.

The above options do not cover everything that educators do to develop themselves and others. All managers regularly check-in on the performance of their staff; they do not wait until the rigorous formal process rolls around. We have staff who mentor pre-service teachers, contribute to professional associations, present at conferences, write textbooks, or complete post-graduate study. The above school-based options do, however, provide a more flexible suite of alternatives that honour where our staff are at in their career journeys. As always, we will ask for honest feedback from staff as we seek to find ways to serve our students, staff, and the shared purpose of the organisation.

Building a school research culture

source: pixabay.com @ninocare

This year has been my first in a new role, the oddly titled ‘Dean of Research and Pedagogy’. I have a broad portfolio, including such things as pedagogy from PK-12 and overseeing the work of the Library, but two major aspects of the role are:

  • Building a professional learning culture of continual improvement, data generation and analysis. This includes overseeing the professional learning agenda and staff development, overseeing teacher action research projects, supporting our staff doing post-graduate study, leadership development, coaching teachers and leaders, and refining performance and growth processes.
  • Research innovation and support. This is about disseminating and building a body of research that promotes quality pedagogy and teacher improvement, executing evidence-based strategic initiatives, and working to develop a data analytics culture.

I sat down at the beginning of 2017 to map out how I was going to address these aspects of my role. What was the underlying strategy? What were the deliverables? Who were the key stakeholders? At the end of each year, how might I know I had been successful? What evidence of my own influence might I see if I was being successful in nudging the ever-nebulous school culture?

I wrote a two-year strategic plan (a working document that I revisit regularly) and put some measures for myself in place.

What follows is not my plan or those measures, but the kinds of things I have tried this year in my attempt at developing the research culture of the school.

  1. Harnessing internal and external expertise

As I explained in this recent blog post, staff development can include coaching, mentoring, consulting, courses, conferences and regular opportunities for goal setting and performance review. It includes collaborative learning experiences and those that occur over time. It includes harnessing both external and internal expertise.

This year a new initiative related to my role was called the Leadership Forum, a once-per-term cheese-and-wine event dreamt up and co-launched with the Director of Strategy. All of our school leaders, from Coaches and Year Co-ordinators to Heads of Faculty and the Executive, are invited each term to an early evening of cheese, wine, and connecting around leadership. This is an opportunity to connect the strategy of the school with the operational and relational work of our leaders.

The first Forum of the year was run by myself and the Director of Strategy, in which we took leaders through a process of reflecting upon research findings on effective school leadership, and then worked with them to set goals for themselves and their teams, aligned with the strategy of the organisation. For the second forum, we welcomed Professor Dylan Wiliam. For the third we ran a panel of three principals who spoke openly about their journeys of school leadership. And this final term, we welcomed Professor Pasi Sahlberg. This Forum provides one example of a way to engage teachers and leaders in current conversations around education, and with research and researchers.

Bringing experts into the school, and having them speak to our context, meant that their words and points connected more strongly with the people in the room. Also, staff enjoyed the collaborative experience of hearing them speak, together, so conversations have continued well after each presentation finished. Creating these kinds of crucibles of collaboration, and following up with books or articles that build upon the presentations, has been one way to nudge people’s thinking, especially when presenters are provocative or challenging.

  1. Research reports

I have published six of what I call the ‘Research Report’ to staff this year. The report is intended to provide all staff access to current thinking, research, and writing, around education. Across the year the report provides resources (from academic and theoretical, to popular and easily accessible) relevant to our specific school context, including to various sub-schools, faculties, and strategic priorities. The selected readings are a small selection rather than a comprehensive collection. Staff are encouraged to dip in and out according to their personal and professional interests.

I have been interested to note those people who have provided positive feedback about the report; many are non-teaching staff—from the Bursar to the administration staff—who have appreciated being able to immerse themselves in, or dip into, educational thinking, and have this shared in an accessible way. Making research accessible to all democratises the community and empowers everyone to have conversations around education. It has incited many corridor conversations, as well as more formal ones.

  1. Publishing on school platforms

Research is partly about communication and dissemination. In a school environment it is important that research can be made accessible for the community.

This year, on the school blog, I have written about things such as measuring success in education, professional conversations, and digital learning. In these posts I have referenced research in order to model how research can inform the thinking of educators and schools.

I was interviewed for the school podcast around the question, ‘What makes a great teacher?’, and I’ve written for and presented at other forums, in school and nationally.

Communicating in blogs, podcasts, and presentations, allows research to become alive and humanised.

  1. Keeping the staff professional reading library current

I am a card-carrying member of The Book Depository and have ordered plenty of resources for the professional reading library at school, in order to provide staff with the opportunity to engage with current research. At the end of each term, I promote a selection of books by emailing about them and placing them on a red trolley for the end-of-term staff morning tea in the Library.

I remind staff that professional reading can be counted as an informal professional learning activity under our Teacher Registration Board Professional Learning Activities Policy, so they can log it as part of their 20 professional learning hours per year for teacher registration.

  1. Keeping myself current

I could not do this role without keeping myself up to date with research. My adjunct position at a university helps to keep me current (as I have access to research literature behind the pay wall). It also allows me to do thorough literature reviews, such as those I have completed this year on digital learning and school libraries. I now have staff asking me to find current research literature for them to inform the work they are doing.

  1. Collaboration

It should go without saying that none of this happens without collaboration with a web of stakeholders. Relationships are key in this role. There’s no point me being in my office, reading away like the nerd I am, if no one is engaging with me or the work. Much of my day is spent in formal meetings or informal conversations.

One of the indicators of my success is when people seek me out, such as for individual coaching around career or professional development or a staff issue, to work with a team around a problem of practice, to generate data to gauge their impact, or to help with a Masters dissertation or PhD application.

One challenge to anyone in this kind of Research Lead role is the reality of the lives of teachers and school leaders. Educators are busy, pressed on from all angles, constantly rushing to their next class, to mark their next assignment, to jump through the next accountability hoop. Leisurely time and space to sit back and drink from the fire hose of current research literature is a fantasy. In addition, as this Deans for Impact blog post explains, teachers have deeply held sets of cultural and personal beliefs about learning and about how to best serve their students.

Engaging in research, and in discussions and explorations about research, can help teachers to interrogate those beliefs and bring together science, evidence, and systematic thinking with their praxis (wisdom of practice). We should value teachers’ lived experiences of lessons, relationships, students, and bringing content to life through pedagogy. We can also work to incrementally develop school cultures in which research becomes a part of ‘the way we do things around here’.

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.

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.

The Research Lead Down Under

candle at the Emu Plains Market

candle at the Emu Plains Market

Schools, school leaders and teachers are increasingly expected to be research literate, to be informed by evidence in their decisions and practices, and to be assessed against a range of high-stakes measures. In this kind of education world, schools need to be able to make sense of the measures against which they are being assessed, and have the capacity to generate counter-narratives or alternative data to measure those things that are important for them.

As I’ve alluded to, I have this year begun a new role at my school, which encompasses overseeing professional learning, staff development, innovation and pedagogy. But it also encompasses the kinds of work associated with what UK schools call a ‘Research Lead’: developing the research base and systematic methodologies of the organisation; data generation and analytics; executing evidence-based strategic initiatives; overseeing and developing research and innovation frameworks.

As Hargreaves and Fullan (in Professional Capital, 2012) point out, leading evidence-based school practices and change is a complex process. Having a person dedicated to the curation, generation and communication of research supports everyone from the classroom to the boardroom in making better decisions. A role dedicated to raising the profile and practice of research helps a school to remain agile in response to current educational research; evidence-informed and systematic in its methods; proactive in its processes and communications; and keenly focused on its strategic impacts within the wider context of the global education world.

The Research Lead role has been around in UK schools for a few years, and now there are Research Schools. See, for instance, the Wellington Learning and Research Centre and the Huntington Research School.

As the UK’s College of Teaching noted yesterday, teachers need access to evidence, strategies for understanding it, and opportunities to conduct their own research, not to mention the desire to engage with research in the first place. Access is a real issue, and while there are open access journals, the occasional free paper, and popular dissemination sites like The Conversation and the AARE blog, many teachers do not have the library privileges, money or time to access pay walled journals and expensive books. The Research Lead can be a conduit between research and staff at the school.

The role of Research Lead is explained in this Education Development Trust report, by Tom Bennett. The report positions the Research Lead as gatekeeper, consigliere, devil’s advocate, auditor and project manager. Interestingly, the report notes that schools where Research Leads had made the biggest impact were frequently schools where the role was part of the brief of a senior member of the leadership team. It lists authentic buy-in from senior leadership and a ‘place at the table’ of school life as necessary conditions of the role; the Executive needs to support the role and give it authority, autonomy, time (for the Lead to manage projects and for staff to engage with research) and commitment. The autonomy is partly important for projects and getting work done, but also because the Research Lead might have to sometimes take an unpopular position, or suggest a pause during a time of rapid change; they need to be free to do so.

Elsewhere in the world, the American School of Bombay has a Research and Development Centre. In Australia, examples such as the St Stephens Institute in Perth, the Barker Institute in Sydney, the Crowther Centre at Brighton Grammar School in Melbourne, the Centre for Learning, Research and Innovation at Geelong College, and the Centre for Research, Innovation and Future Development at St Paul’s in Brisbane, show how Australian schools are focusing on centralising and developing research. Just last year, my own role and others local to me were created, incorporating ‘research’ in the title. Some of these roles incorporate learning technologies. Others incorporate student academic achievement and staff learning and development. The research focus is based around the strategic vision and learning principles of each school. In Australia, there is often a focus on generation and innovation (finding out what might work in what context) rather than on prescribing ‘what works’. Teachers are seen by many schools as potential researchers.

So the Research Lead, or equivalent, is advisor, instigator, filter, conduit, provocateur, disseminator, critical questioner, sceptic, creator of partnerships, and builder of a professional culture in which rigorously considering evidence, research literature, and how to measure impacts are an accepted part of the way things are done. The Lead is across and through the organisation, an influence and an advocate for systematic thinking through. As Gary Jones’ blog often explores, evidence-based practice is nuanced and rife with challenges. The Research Lead needs to move beyond lip-service to research and hat-tips to evidence-based practice. They need to be aware of their own preferences, biases, blind spots and deficiencies, as well as the research-and-evidence temperature of the organisation, and how to evaluate and generate evidence and research.

I’m looking forward to shaping the Research Lead part of my own role. As a boundary-spanning PhD-universityadjunct-schoolleader-teacher it is something to which I am deeply committed and about which endlessly fascinated. My nerdery will be put to good use!

Rethinking professional learning: an academic paper for JPCC

This week I’m thrilled to see my paper ‘Rethinking professional learning for teachers and school leaders’ published in the Journal of Professional Capital and Community. This journal, whose Editor in Chief is Andy Hargreaves, boasts an Editorial Board including Linda Darling-Hammond, Michael Fullan, Alma Harris, Karen Seashore Louis, Pasi Sahlberg, Helen Timperley and Yong Zhao. My paper appears in Volume 1, Issue 4, alongside a theoretical paper by Dennis Shirley. As an early career researcher, I couldn’t ask for more distinguished company.

Even more pleasing is that the journal is open access during 2016, so free for anyone to download and read. Open access to the paper means that it can be accessed by practitioners who so often don’t get to read and engage with the literature in (often pay walled) academic journals. In fact, it has already been downloaded (at today’s count) 1689 times. Wow. That’s a bunch more times than my PhD thesis.

The paper, which draws from the lived experiences of teachers, middle leaders (often a forgotten group in education literature) and executive leaders in one Australian school, outlines the findings of my PhD around what makes professional learning that transforms beliefs and practices. It discusses my study’s response to the questions:

  1. What is the role of professional learning on identities or growth?; and
  2. What professional learning is transformational?

My PhD found that transformational learning (as defined by Ellie Drago-Severson, 2009, as that which actively shifts cognition, emotion, and capacity) is: collaborative and individual; occurring in life, school, and work; and requiring elements of support and challenge. Not only was it lifelong, but it was life-wide. For these participants, it is life experiences, as well as professional experiences, that influence their professional beliefs and practices. The following is a table, which didn’t make the final cut of the paper, shows the range of features of professional learning found in my study.

tabulated findings around professional learning

tabulated findings around professional learning

This table shows the variety of experiences that educators in my study considered transformational for themselves. These experiences included relationships with family members; role models and anti-models of teaching and leadership; post graduate study; difficult life experiences; becoming a parent; and connecting with others at conferences or via social media. It included heutagogical (self-determined) learning, as I outlined for this blog post for the Heutagogy Community of Practice.

It also included, especially for leaders operating at an executive level, the time and space for silence, reflection and thinking. The research interviews themselves proved to be spaces of learning for some of the school leaders, who saw them as an opportunity to be listened to intently and to think deeply about their learning and leading.

The participants in my study had some important cautions about professional learning and about school interventions. They cautioned that a mandated approach to professional learning, even if differentiated, might not address the needs of all professional learners. They wondered about how to honour the individual teacher and the organisational priorities when leading professional learning in schools.

The paper concludes that, while my study intended to explore the ways in which educators’ experiences of professional learning form and transform their senses of professional identity, it found that it is not just professional learning, but life experiences that shape professional identities and practices. That is, our teacher selves and teacher actions are moulded by critical experiences that tangle with and shape our identities, lives, relationships, and emotions. The best professional learning, as suggested by this study, is highly individualised and knottily enmeshed with educators’ senses of self, of who we are professionally.

Anyone who teaches knows that we cannot separate our teacher selves from our non-teacher selves. As teachers our lives affect our learning and teaching, and our learning and teaching influences our lives. For many teachers, ‘life’ and ‘work’ are well beyond blurred. We are humans who teach and teachers who exist as humans in the world. The leaders in this study tended to describe themselves as either teachers who lead or as leaders who teach; they remained teachers in their identity self-perceptions. See this post for further musings about the notion of teacher identity, that ‘being a teacher’ stays with many of us beyond our years in the classroom.

One suggestion to emerge from this paper is that we would benefit from rethinking what it is that we consider and label as ‘professional learning’. Professional learning is not hours logged on a spreadsheet or entered into an app. It is not necessarily being in a room with other educators at a course or conference that is labelled ‘professional learning’ (although it might be). It is those critical moments across our lives and work that shape the core of who we are, in and out of the classroom and the boardroom. Professional learning can be personal, unexpected, unscheduled, nonlinear, messy, unbounded, and unacknowledged.

Can we redefine ‘professional learning’ in more expansive and flexible ways? How might we acknowledge those hours educators spend blogging, or studying, or tweeting, or visiting schools, or collaborating intensively, or volunteering in the service of others? How can leaders lead the learning of teachers in ways that honour their individual learning trajectories and their own agency? How might we rethink our systems and schools in order to focus, not on hours of what is easily labelled or effortlessly deployed (staff day scattergun PD, anyone?), but on what actually engages us and changes our cognition and our capacities?