Teacher expertise, voice and action

On Monday night I participated in my first ever TeachMeet, held online and hosted by Steven Kolber. I used my 8 minute speaking slot to explore something I’m wondering about: to what extent is the COVID-19 pandemic strengthening or diminishing the teaching profession?

The video is here on YouTube, and I speak at the 1.33 mark. Below, I explore this wondering and its tangents.

*            *            *

Governments have tightened their control over citizens and over teachers and schools during the COVID-19 pandemic. Schools have been acted upon by new rules and a barrage of offers by technology companies for increased tracking, monitoring and surveillance.

The catch cry ‘We’re all in this together’ has been ubiquitous during this pandemic, but we are all experiencing the current reality in different ways. Those who are disadvantaged are more disadvantaged and at greater health, economic and educational risk during this time.

I am a teacher of over 20 years and a school leader, researcher, editor and author. The ripples of COVID-19 have brought into sharp focus just how important the work of teachers, school leaders and schools is, to individuals and to a functioning society.

I’ve never been prouder of my profession than this year when we have locally, nationally and globally addressed challenges unlike those I’ve seen during my career. It has been messy and uncomfortable at times, shining a spotlight on existing inequities and gaps, but teachers and school leaders around the world have worked tirelessly to do their best for their students and communities in constantly evolving circumstances and amid a swirling maelstrom of human complexities.

Expertise

Teachers are credible, professional experts. Teachers know what and how to teach. They are specialists in curriculum, in pedagogy and in their own students. During distance learning they may have been operating without the usual non-verbal cues they get in classrooms, and having to learn and experiment with new modalities, technologies and tools. During this period of upheaval and transformation, they remained experts in how to teach, generate evidence of student learning and provide constructive, often individualised, feedback.

There was a brief moment during the pandemic when teacher expertise was heralded and recognised  by the masses. Teachers were—momentarily—hailed as heroes and front line workers. The #teachersrock hashtag did the rounds on social media. The celebration of teachers was short lived, however, and we were soon back to hearing the tropes of schools failing students, teachers and parents at odds with one another, and teachers failing to live up to the expectations or the media and society at large.

In Australia, our Prime Minister said that the distance learning being provided by teachers was ‘child minding not teaching’. The Federal Minister for Education ordered all independent schools to ensure that they returned to face to face teaching. In my state, the Western Australian Premier said at a press conference that private school parents should ask for a reduction in fees if schools remained on distance learning plans when the state government had said that returning to schools was safe. A Western Australian principal was stood down after urging parents to keep children home because she was worried that the school would not be able to ensure hygiene and distancing requirements. She has been reinstated but it was reported that she had been ‘reminded of the limits of her authority’.

For the teaching profession, this public erosion of respect for teacher expertise is especially frustrating.

Voice

As I have written, particularly in Flip the System Australia, there is an absence of teacher voice in much formulation of policy, on advisory boards, and on media panels. Experts often speak for or about teachers. Sometimes, teachers are consulted, but rarely are teachers invited to the decision making or policy making table. Increasingly, teachers are invited onto media panels.

Teachers and school leaders operate in an environment of performance, constantly judged against—as co-presenter Ruth Smith said during the TeachMeet—by what can be measured rather than against what we might value. During this COVID-19 pandemic, the educational environment of performativity within which teachers and school leaders operate has shifted to alternate indicators of performance.

Parents and teachers continue to be pitted against each other, as adversaries rather than allies. Schools are judged on their social media posts about online learning, hygiene measures, virtual community events or wellbeing initiatives, rather than on standardised test scores. During periods of distance learning teachers were performing their work in front of parents and families, via screens that projected teaching into homes. Our normal measures of performance may have been disrupted, but education has remained a space of performance to be judged and commented on by others.

Voice is about value. Being heard. Having a say. Being an efficacious agent able to act and influence.

There are challenges to any call for teacher voice. There is the busy reality of the lives of teachers and school leaders. Time, vulnerability (risk to self) and ethics (risk to students) are all obstacles to teacher voice. We are representatives of our schools and have limitations to the extent to which we can be the public voice of our profession. We work with children and their families, entrusted to our care. Their stories are not ours to tell and our first mandate is to keep children safe. Our service is first and foremost to the students in our schools.

Action

The COVID-19 pandemic has increased teacher collaboration within schools and between schools, systems and countries. Teachers and school leaders have become more agentic decision makers in their own contexts, tasked more than ever with finding productive solutions to the challenges in their own schools. Grassroots teacher professional collaboration, job-embedded learning-as-we-go and anywhere-anytime professional resources have emerged as silver linings to the COVID crisis.

In schools, teachers can be consulted on decisions. Meaningful and honest feedback from all stakeholders can be used to inform decision making. Even better is ground-up change in which teachers collaborate around strategic and improvement goals.

Beyond schools, teachers can be offered seats on panels, advisory committees and at policy tables. Teachers can share their voices on social media, blogs, podcasts, and in books and research studies.

As Adam Brooks said at our Flip the System Australia Perth launch, as teachers and school leaders, ‘We are the system’. And as Reni Eddo-Lodge says, quoting Terry Pratchett in her book Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, ‘There’s no justice. Just us.’ Teachers and school leaders are the system, it’s ‘us’ that can change that system from the inside. We need to be the change we want to see.

We can ask ourselves:

  • When are we choosing to speak?
  • Whose voices are we amplifying, elevating and seeking out?
  • What productive, positive action could we take?

Education disrupted by COVID-19 and the role of education leaders

Yesterday I had the pleasure of contributing to the WISE (World Innovation Summit for Education) – Salzburg Global ‘Education Disrupted, Education Reimagined’ virtual convening.  With about 250 people on the Zoom call, and more than 2000 registered attendees from around the world, this was a rich, robust and international event.

The first day’s sessions can be found on this YouTube video. The panel in which I was involved—’The role of education leaders in times of crisis’, with Greg Moncada, Xueqin Jiang and moderator Simon Breakspear—begins at 1 hour 36 minutes and runs for about 45 minutes, but the whole two days is worth a listen.

It’s much more interesting to listen to the conversation via the YouTube link, but the points I discussed during the panel are captured briefly below.

The disruption of COVID-19 and physical school closures are prompting us to ask ourselves the following questions.

  • What is the purpose of schooling?
  • What is the role of teachers?
  • How could or should we measure learning and educational success?

These questions prompt us to consider how we might do things differently during this time, and how we might reimagine schooling beyond our current pandemic reality.

My advice to school leaders at this time is to:

  • Consider Maslow before Bloom. That is, put safety, health and wellbeing before formal education, curriculum, pedagogy and especially assessment. Be compassionate and kind. Start with humanity. Understand that those in your community are likely to have complex circumstances of which you may be unaware. For more see the independent report Thinking About Pedagogy in an Unfolding Pandemic.
  • Put community, connectedness, intimacy and relationships at the forefront of decisions and practices.
  • Respond to your own context. Look to other nations and other schools. Look to research and advice, but ultimately trust yourselves–school leaders and teachers in your school–to know your own context. Generate data and feedback from your school community so that you understand the lived experiences of those in your care and can respond. Be agile and iterative. One size fits one. We need to think fast and slow at the same time, with simultaneous decisiveness, intentionality, and willingness to adapt to our community’s needs and to changing circumstances.

In considering our ‘next normal’ we can ask ourselves the following questions.

  • What is it that we’ve desperately missed that we want to bring back in to schooling and education (e.g. connectedness, relationships)?
  • What is it that’s been removed that we don’t want to return to (e.g. standardised testing and accountability measures)?

Finally, the current scenario has provided a fiery crucible for teacher agency and innovation. The teachers on the ground in our school systems around the world are the education system, and they are currently reshaping and flipping the system from the ground up, at pace, on the fly, and with professional expertise, integrity and heart.

Distance Learning 2.0: Adjusting our approach

My Australian school implemented our Distance Learning Plan on 24 March. While we had been planning for a pivot to distance learning, and we had a transition period, the change happened rapidly and required incredible agility, innovation and ingenuity from our teachers and leaders. No matter how well-intentioned and well-informed our plan was, we know we can always work to be better.

Now we have a chance to break for school (stay-at-home) holidays to rest and rejuvenate before Term 2 begins in two weeks’ time. With almost three weeks of distance teaching and at-home learning under our belt, now is also an opportunity to take stock, reflect, refine and improve our model.

Like all Australian schools, we are unsure how long our distance learning model will need to run. Whatever adjustments we make need to be sustainable for a potentially long term. The model needs to keep not only teaching and learning in mind, but also physical, mental and emotional wellbeing. During a pandemic, we must consider Maslow (health, safety and wellbeing) before Bloom (curriculum, pedagogy and assessment). We need to keep equity in mind and ensure that no student is disadvantaged.

At the end of those first few weeks of distance learning, we generated data through a survey, asking what was working well, what we could do differently, and what was interesting about our original model. About 500 student responses, 500 parent responses and 100 staff responses gave us plenty of scope to understand the experiences of various stakeholders and to see patterns in the data.

While the experiences of students, parents and teachers were varied, the following takeaways were reflected in the survey responses:

  • ROUTINE. Students are finding ways to create organisation, structure and routine. For example, students appreciate using their normal timetable as a guide, but also knowing the work for the day and the week in advance so that they can plan accordingly and be flexible and autonomous in their work.
  • PEDAGOGY. Students and parents overwhelmingly love lessons that involved live video meetings. These develop a sense of learning with others and enhanced feelings of connectedness between students and their teacher and classmates. These facilitate the relational and social aspects of the classroom, and provide important opportunities for students to ask questions and clarify instructions. Students appreciate pre-recorded instructional videos such as PowerPoint videos and screencasts.
  • COMMUNICATION. Communication in a distance learning model can be overwhelming. Clarity and consistency is key. Students and parents request that teachers and the school to carefully consider how much is communicated via consistent platforms and timelines.
  • WORKLOAD. While some students enjoy the autonomy and flexibility that comes with distance learning, many feel an intensification of workload that threatens to overwhelm them. Teachers, too, are coming to terms with finding efficiencies within a distance learning model; setting professional boundaries around time and availability; and giving themselves permission to pare back expectations of students and of themselves to ensure that work set is realistic, and that feedback to students is consistent but achievable. Teachers are finding new ways of tracking student engagement in and understanding of learning.
  • WELLBEING. Students and teachers would benefit from reduced screen time and increased break time. Students are grieving for their connections with friends and teachers, and their hopes for what this year of school would be (especially our Year 12 students).
  • GRATITUDE. Many parents express gratitude for the school’s approach and for the work of the teachers. Many teachers have been impressed by the level of student resilience and engagement. Teachers are thankful for the generosity of their colleagues and amazed at the exponential rate of professional learning during this time.

The array of feedback we have generated resonates with student experiences outlined by the Sydney Morning Herald and New York Times, summarised here by Anne Knock. We are using our contextual data–as well as the best advice about what is likely to work, such as this resource from AITSL, this resource from Evidence for Learning, and this collection of  resources from the Chartered College of Teaching–to adapt and adjust our Distance Learning Plan. Our aim is that our Distance Learning Plan 2.0 continues learning while also encouraging students to maintain relationships and be physically active.

Specifically, we are refining:

  • COMMUNICATION, especially of learning outlines to students in ways that allow them to plan ahead and stay organised in their approach to learning.
  • SHAPE OF THE SCHOOL DAY, including start and finish times, reduced lesson times, time for organisation, and increased break times.
  • PEDAGOGY, including effective use of live video meetings and other distance pedagogies for teaching, collaboration and connectedness.
  • ASSESSMENT, reporting and continuous feedback in a distance learning model.
  • DIFFERENTIATION between approaches for different year levels and different subjects. Our Year 12s are a particular focus, as are students with specific learning or pastoral needs.

Our students remain at the centre of what we do, but teaching from a distance with students learning at home means that we are having to find alternate ways of teaching, learning, connecting and engaging as a community. There is no one-size-fits-all distance learning model. Responding to feedback from our context helps us to continue to adapt in order to best serve our community during changing circumstances.

__________________________________________

Previous blog posts on distance learning:

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.

COVID-19 forces educational and societal reform

cyclone-2102397_1280

The last couple of weeks have been hectic around the world and the pace of change at all levels has been rapid and relentless. In Australian schools, leadership teams and teachers have been preparing for distance learning. Parents have been making decisions about whether or not to send their children to school. Worry in households and panic in shopping centres have reached climactic levels. School leaders are doing their best to remain calm and methodical while preparing their schools for what seems like imminent closure in the near future.

It is surreal to watch corporate and education reform happen at such a rapid rate. We are reforming the workplace and rethinking how we go about our work. We are reimagining how we interact and collaborate. We are reframing education and redesigning schooling on the fly.

Those who have been calling for the abolition of standardised tests and the rethinking of university entrance are seeing education systems transform before their eyes. The COVID-19 pandemic has meant the cancelling of standardised tests (GCSEs and A-Levels in the UK; NAPLAN in Australia so far) and the consequent abolishing of league tables derived from these tests. Those who have been calling for the end of traditional schooling are seeing the swift move to remote learning and the upskilling of teachers in learning technologies and online platforms.

Australian teachers and school leaders, whose jobs are already incredibly complex, are supporting increasingly anxious students and parents. They are communicating work to students who are not coming to school. They are preparing for a move to teaching remotely. They are considering how learning might look different, authentic and meaningful when done from home. They are considering issues of equity and access for their communities. They are worrying about their own children, parents, families, livelihood, groceries.

Educators are collaborating within schools, they are collaborating with other schools. They are sharing their distance learning plans and teaching resources, because as a profession and as a society, we are better together.

We are one society, one humanity. All of our jobs and job descriptions are now in flux. What does our workplace, our clientele, our society need now, at this moment in time? Grounded flight attendants stocking supermarket shelves? Military personnel assisting surgical-mask-producing and toilet-paper-manufacturing facilities? Consultants training teachers to use online technologies? Office staff filling bottles with hand sanitiser and disinfecting workplace surfaces? All of us rearranging furniture and staying at a distance from one another?

We are needed in new ways, and there is an almost wartime redeployment of labour and a need for banding together as whole workplaces, as a whole society and as a whole world.

This is a time for us all to think about what leadership means, regardless of title or position. We can reach out (from a physical distance) to others and support one another as best we can, even though isolation feels like it goes against our biology. We can consider carefully where we get our information, and how we respond to that information. We can all lead by example, by clear communication with one another, and by clarity of purpose and cohesiveness of action.

During the current crisis, Canadians began a ‘caremongering not scaremongering’ campaign. This week is Kindness Week, a week to think about how we move beyond fear and individualism to compassion and courage. Australia has not yet seen the full force of COVID-19 and its real, human ramifications. There is no more important time to be kind to ourselves and each other than right now. We are in a time of adaptation and evolution, by necessity. When we come out the other side, society, work and education may be reformed for good.

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.

In education: To whom should we listen?

X speakers

Today I had the privilege of being part of the ‘Extreme After Dinner Speakers Club’, a main stage event at the International Congress for School Effectiveness and Improvement, held this year in Marrakech.

This session had me sharing the stage with Michael Fullan, Lee Elliott-Major, Cecilia Azorín, Dean Fink, Pooja Nakamura and Jihad Hajjouji.

Pierre Tulowitzki was the compare, revving up the audience and introducing each speaker. We each entered to a piece of music we had chosen, and we each spoke for 8 minutes on something in education about which we are passionate. There were no audio visual supports, and certainly no PowerPoint slides. It was just each speaker under a single spotlight.

I share my speech below. (You’ll need to imagine the strains of Roxette’s ‘Dangerous’ playing as I entered.)

______________________________________

Teaching can be a personal, political and dangerous act.

I’m an English and Literature teacher, and an avid reader, so I love metaphors as a tool for making meaning. I often find myself comparing education to the worlds of various texts.

One metaphor that’s resonated with me is that being in education can feel like existing in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, an 1865 novel about a girl who falls down a rabbit hole into a fantasy world with strange creatures and absurd goings on. This metaphor is a playful way to consider education reform and examine to whom we should listen in education.

The novel is set simultaneously in Victorian England and in the imaginary world of Wonderland. The characters in the novel are constrained by the worlds in which they exist. The regimentations of Victorian England reflect the constraints of our current education systems. There are rigid rules of the education game, and inflexible, standardised and often externally imposed, indicators of success against which teachers, school leaders and schools are measured.

In Wonderland there’s a lack of equity, with some characters having huge amounts of power, and others existing without agency. The autocratic Queen of Hearts might be seen as the international culture of testing, accountability and performativity. She’s a force for panic and alarm, imposing a narrow focus of right and wrong. Characters race around anxiously in fear of her.

In our education systems, teachers might be seen as the White Rabbit: rushed, watching the time, constantly in a hurry to meet expectations and ever-increasing workloads. Teachers are mostly absent in the formulation of policy, on advisory boards, and on media panels. Often so-called ‘experts’ speak for or about teachers and schools. Everyone has an opinion on education and on teaching. Teachers themselves are often undermined or deprofessionalised.

School leaders could also be seen as the Rabbit, buckling under deadlines, external pressures and challenges to their wellbeing. Leaders might alternatively be conceptualised as the Cheshire Cat, doing often invisible work and empowering others through just-in-time advice as they shift in and out of the spotlight, constantly code switching and operating in multiple contexts almost simultaneously.

In the novel, the Eaglet says,

“Speak English! . . . I don’t know the meaning of half those long words, and, what’s more, I don’t believe you do either!”

Education buzzwords can become nonsense language devoid of meaning. Academic writing can seem impenetrable to practitioners. Contradictory advice abounds, and those of us working in schools and in research must make sense of multiple competing voices.

To whom should we listen?

As a teacher, school leader, coach and researcher, I feel a lot like Alice, tumbling down the rabbit hole and muddling my way through a foreign landscape. Belonging and not belonging. Betwixt and between. Constantly working to make sense of the education world, to sort through a sea of information, and to make my own voice, and the voice of my profession, heard.

I’ve taught in schools—in Australia and England—for 20 years. I’ve been a school leader for almost as long. In middle leadership positions, I shared the voices of senior leadership down, and the voices of teachers up. Now as a member of a school executive, I eke out the voices of teachers, students and families, in order that we can improve in ways relevant to our context. When I speak and write, I am a voice of my profession.

My voice comes from within the education system, yet as a pracademic, I am bestride both the practitioner world of schools, and the scholarly world of research. Alongside my full-time school day job, I am an adjunct at a university. My dual roles inform one another and give me a perspective quite different from those who advise from the sidelines. I am firmly embedded in what it feels like to be a cog in the school reform wheel. What I do every day in my lessons, meetings, professional conversations, and operational and strategic work, influences how I interpret education research. And the research I read and undertake influences my understanding of my daily work at school. In these ways I operate as a bridge betwixt and between research and practice.

Like Wonderland, which seems confusing to the newcomer Alice, schools and education systems are non-linear ecologies of complexity and interlocking relationships. In schools, we navigate competing demands with the needs of our students and the moral purpose of the greater good. In schools, change happens in ways that researchers and school boards don’t or can’t suppose. The work of schools is not easily quantifiable. In fact, measuring and ranking schools and education systems can diminish the humanity of education. Often what we can measure is not what actually matters.

Wonderland was perhaps Lewis Carroll’s way of pushing back against the regimentations of England at the time, a way of embracing chaos, surprise and wonder. Many teachers and school leaders, too, resist external demands or play the accountability game while working hard to protect and serve their students in ways that embrace their humanity.

Metaphors work because of their recognisability, but as I reflect on the metaphor I’m sharing today, I realise that it’s limited and potentially dangerous. There are so many versions of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland that meaning can get muddied and diluted. More worrying, however, are the biases inherent in metaphor. This metaphor has a Western origin. While the novel has been translated into almost 100 languages, it is a work of English-language fiction. It’s by a white male British author. It’s set in upper-middle-class England. How, I wonder, does this exclude particular views of education? Does it marginalise some from accessing its meaning? Does sharing this metaphor promote a linear, masculine, white and Western view of education, based on hierarchical structures and economic agendas?

So when I think about the question – To whom should we listen? – the answer is manifold.

We should listen to researchers who interrogate what we know about education. We should talk with policymakers who oversee the big picture. We should listen to parents. We should listen to students who are the core of our work and our why. We should certainly listen to teachers.They are experts whose professional experience and judgement should be a key part of education discourse.

In the book Flip the System Australia my co-editors and I worked to include a range of voices. Dr Kevin Lowe, one of our Indigenous authors, pointed out that Aboriginal contributions are often tacked on to the end of books, if they appear at all, as an afterthought. He challenged us to think carefully about not just who we included, but also where we situated particular voices.

We all do need to listen to each other. But this is not enough.

As we consider to whom we should listen in our work in school effectiveness and improvement, we need to carefully interrogate whose voices are being invited and amplified. We need to include those often marginalised by or excluded from the dominant narrative.  We need to embrace diversity rather than homogenisation. We also need to consider the risks to individuals and groups in sharing their views publicly. Often those who are the most vulnerable in our systems feel the least able to speak up and speak out. We need, however, to seek out, and make space at the highest levels, for voices that will move us towards democratic, equitable and inclusive education for all.

Keynote: Key coaching concepts from the perspective of a pracademic

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

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

Here is my slide deck.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Flip the System Australia: Launching the book

credit: Daniel Grant

At the Perth Flip the System Australia book launch, the audience contributed their ideas about the book’s sub-title ‘What matters [most] in education?’

Since its release, our Flip the System Australia: What Matters in Education book has been the subject of online book clubs via Twitter and Adobe Connect. Some have blogged about the book. See this review by Darcy Moore and this blog post by Kay Oddone. The online reviews on goodreads and amazon call the book “timely”, “urgent”, “superb” and “life-changingly good”. On Twitter it has been called a “must-read”.

The book is having quite the spectacular and protracted entry into the education reading world. Part of the reason is because ‘Flip the System’ is more than a series of edited books on education. It is a movement and a way of actively engaging with and within the education system.

Before its publication, in October 2018, the three editors (myself, Jon Andrews and Cameron Paterson) presented at the ACEL conference in Melbourne on what it means to flip the system in education, and what our Australian book contributes to this global movement.

On the day of its publication, in December 2018, I chaired a symposium at the AARE conference at the University of Sydney titled ‘Education research that engages with multiple voices: Flipping the Australian education system’. Presenters included chapter authors Kevin Lowe, Melitta Hogarth, Bob Lingard, Greg Thompson and Scott Eacott.

In March 2019, co-editor Cameron Paterson hosted a TeachMeet in Sydney on flipping the education system in Australia. Presenters included Yasodai Selvakumaran, Kevin Lowe, Carla Gagliano, Scott Eacott, Mark Liddell and Corinne Campbell. Jelmer Evers, one of the editors of the original Flip the System book, Flip the System: Changing Education from the Ground Up, Skyped in to speak to the Sydney audience. You can listen to the presentations from the night on this TER podcast episode.

In April 2019 we partnered with Fogarty Foundation’s EDfutures and the Innovation Unit for a Perth book event at The Platform Space. EDfutures’ Rebecca Loftus was the MC. As a co-editor, I introduced the series of Flip the System books and outlined our Australian Flip the System book in particular. Then each of the Perth authors–myself, Keren Caple, Tomaz Lasic and Ben Lewis–each explained our contributing chapter and our take on flipping the education system.

The panel was followed by a robust, energising, and at times emotional, discussion with the audience, who included teachers, school leaders, sector leaders, researchers, parents and students. This discussion revealed many of the challenges of the current system, but also the passion and appetite for positive action. It celebrated the great work already going on in our schools, the wonderful partnerships already in play within the education system, the excellent teaching in our classrooms, meaningful partnerships between schools and parents, possibilities for meaningful change, and ways to share the important voices and work of students, teachers and school leaders.

One comment that resonated with those in the room was Adam Brooks‘ argument that we (those in schools) are the education system. Therefore, we need to be active agents of the system reality we want to see.

We can and should nudge the system from the inside out. We can and should celebrate and elevate the good work being done in our schools and the voices and stories of those doing it. We can and should advocate for what is best for our students and our school communities. We can and should agitate for the inviting of all stakeholders–including students, teachers school leaders, and parents–into education discussions and to education decision-making tables.

As we editors write in the conclusion of the book:

Flipping the system is about flattening the system, while more tightly interconnecting the members of that system. We argue for a system in which multiple education voices and stakeholders can dialogue constructively, respectfully and representatively. Democratising the system means liquefying top-down power structures and fostering trust and collaboration. It means that those from within and across the education system work together for the good of the students and families being served by the system. This is ultimately a book about the human aspects of education, so often forgotten in our data-obsessed world of numbers and metrics. Flipping the system means focusing on lived experiences, nuances, contexts, and the humanity of education. It means trusting and listening closely to the people within the system. It means co-constructing a system—of distributed, webbed, non-hierarchical and productive networks—from the ground up and the middle out. (pp.245-246).

Below are some photographs of the Perth book launch. Photo credit to Daniel Grant.

Meanwhile, keep an eye out for news of a Brisbane Flip the System Australia event coming soon.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Flip the System Australia: Book club questions

Steven Kolber and others on Twitter have been discussing the possibility of a Twitter book club around the recently published (and excellent!) education book Flip the System Australia: What matters in education. Based in the unique Australian context, this book situates Australian education policy, research and practice within the international education narrative. It argues that professionals within schools should be supported, empowered and welcomed into policy discourse, not dictated to by top-down bureaucracy. It advocates for a flipping, flattening and democratising of the education system, in Australia and around the world. It brings together the voices of teachers, school leaders and scholars in order to offer diverse perspectives, important challenges and hopeful alternatives to the current education system.

As one of the editors, and author of Chapter 1, below  I share a first pass at some possible questions for readers, based around the sections of the book. My co-editors and the book’s various authors may have additional or alternative ideas.

Foreword and Introduction

  • What do you understand the editors to mean by the term ‘flip the system’? How is this relevant to education? Does the phrase connect with you, or would you describe it in a different way?
  • Why do you think this book might be important? What might Australia have to offer the education world?
  • What do you hope to get out of reading the book?

Part I: Teacher identity, voice and autonomy

  • How do the authors in this section focus on what matters, rather than what works? What does matter in education?
  • What comments do the authors make about commercialisation in education? Do these resonate with your own experience?
  • Why and where might teachers voices be shared? Do you think this is important and even possible? Why / why not?

Part II: Collaborative expertise

  • What kinds of collaboration do the authors present as effective and beneficial? Why is collaborative expertise something worth investing in and pursuing?
  • What warnings do the authors offer around collaboration in education? What differentiates good, productive collaboration from toxic or ineffective collaboration?
  • What is the role of wellbeing in collaboration between teachers, school leaders, schools and education systems?

Part III: Social justice

  • To what systemic inequities do the authors refer? Which of these reflect your own experience?
  • What is the role of voices and stories, versus policies and systems, in democratising education and addressing inequity? In what arenas could and should equity in education be addressed?
  • What are teachers, schools and systems already doing? What could they stop doing and what could they start doing to address social justice issues in education?

Part IV: Professional learning

  • What is the role of professional learning in a flipped education system? Why is it important?
  • How do the authors describe effective professional learning? How does this sit with your own experience of professional learning for educators?
  • What seem to be the necessary conditions for professional learning to be effective and make a difference? What points made by the authors should be considered by school and system leaders?

Part V: Leadership

  • What are the tensions and complex demands of school leadership, as described by the authors?
  • What do the authors of this section suggest as ways to effectively lead in schools and education systems? On what should leaders focus? What should they do and what should they avoid doing?
  • Do the authors in this section agree, or are there conflicting accounts of what is important in school leadership? What does this reveal about the complexities of leadership in education?

Conclusion

  • This is a book that shares diverse perspectives from a range of authors from a multiplicity of contexts. What threads and themes did you notice as you read the book? What draws the book’s contributions together? What differences did you notice?
  • What quote stuck with you from one of the chapters? Whose chapter stood out to you, spoke to you, or surprised you?
  • What is your overall response to the book? How are you left feeling?
  • What do you now understand the phrase ‘flip the system’ to mean? How might you flip the system in your own education context?