Key concepts for leading professional learning

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

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

HOLONOMY

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

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

HOLDING ENVIRONMENT

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

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

MEANINGFUL COLLABORATION

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

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

SEMANTIC SPACE

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

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

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

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

The talk is the work.

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breaking bias

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

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

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

Source: @PIRO4D on pixabay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Starting the school year in 2022

source: unsplash @jrkorpa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2021 Year in Review

Source: Pixabay @Bildschirmaffe

In many ways 2021 has gone by in a flash. Milestones and special moments have come and gone in a maelstrom of work, a firehose of information, and a tumult of pandemic rules and restrictions. As the year winds down, and as I try to do the same, I want to take a moment to reflect on my professional highlights of 2021.

This year my school launched a new strategic plan, and in my role as Head of Teaching and Learning (K-12), I have been engaged in important work bringing that plan to fruition. We have developed our work in what we call ‘learning diversity and inclusion’, including professional learning for and collaboration among staff, adjusting for students with diverse learning needs, developing our shared understanding and practice of differentiation, and improving our reporting on individual learning outcomes. We have continued our focus on effective feedback, assessment, student action on feedback, student goal setting, and student self-reflection and self-regulation, as key ways to develop a learning culture of continual improvement and resilience.

My school aims to support our students to become good people – lifelong learners and leaders of rounded character, able to experience their best success and find their most appropriate pathway through school and beyond school. This year it is wonderful that our Year 12s achieved the best ATAR results in our school’s history, but we know that success is not measured by a number or a test. We will continue to do the work we know matters for the range of students in our care, providing opportunities for agency, voice and accomplishment appropriate to each individual, honouring each person’s story, goals, and gifts.

An exciting challenge has been collating and distilling years of consultation and feedback to inform redesigning the Secondary timetable for 2022 and beyond. In doing so we have made room for a heightened focus on wellbeing and child safety, and for teaching those things that will continue to set our students up for their best future success through our Future Ready programs.

While my role title names ‘teaching’ and ‘learning’, much of my work is immersed in recruiting, inducting, supporting, coaching, mentoring, and developing staff. It is my pleasure to work with staff new to our school, with graduate teachers, with Heads of Department, with cross-school strategic project groups, with middle and aspirant leaders, with classroom teachers, with the Executive team, and with administrative, IT, facilities and support staff. I especially enjoy my one-on-one chats in which I support staff to find learning opportunities relevant to them, position themselves for their next steps, win promotional roles, and make decisions about their futures that best serve them. This year’s launch of our Staff Development Suite, co-designed by a staff steering committee in 2020, allows staff to be supported in ways appropriate and individualised to them. Supporting our staff to thrive and to be their best, in turn supports our students.

A range of initiatives designed to support wellbeing for all staff include: ensuring predictable and well-in-advance calendar dates, timelines and deadlines; morning teas; soup in winter; meditation; seated massage; free flu vaccinations; COVID-19 vaccination leave; some early finishes to accommodate parent-teacher interviews during part of the school day where possible; investment in staff professional learning; support of staff professional goals; leadership development opportunities; a Distance Learning Plan that embeds planning time and realistic expectations of staff and students; supporting staff through life’s hardships; working to make part-time teachers’ timetables as life-friendly as possible; negotiating flexible working arrangements where possible and appropriate; and teacher recognition. I was pleased this year to spend time nominating colleagues for awards, and delighted that they were recognised for the outstanding contribution they make to the lives of the young people in our school and beyond. While teachers constantly navigate professional responsibilities, marking loads, and administration, schools can continue to consider their role in creating cultures of trust and empathy. This of course involves more than tokens of appreciation and needs to be part of a whole-school culture of organisational, collective and individual care and responsibility, in which the school works to support staff, and staff work to support themselves and each other.

I am incredibly grateful to those who nominated me for awards this year. I was thrilled to receive three awards: the 2021 American Educational Research Association Educational Change Emerging Scholar Award, the 2021 Michael Fullan Emerging Scholar in Professional Capital and Community Award, and the 2021 Australian Council of Educational Leaders WA Certificate of Excellence in Educational Leadership.

I enjoyed presenting to national and international audiences this year (online thanks to the pandemic and travel restrictions) including:

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

  • A Special Issue of the Journal of Professional Capital and Community ‘Pracademia: Exploring the possibilities, power and politics of boundary-spanners straddling the worlds of practice and scholarship’, which I co-edited with Trista Hollweck and Paul Campbell. Its six papers include our paper Defining and exploring pracademia: Identity, community, and engagement.
  • The edited book Future Alternatives for Educational Leadership: Diversity, Inclusion, Equity, and Democracy. Written mainly during 2020, but released this year, it is edited by me and includes 15 outstanding chapter contributions from 25 authors from the UK, USA, South America, Canada, Europe, Australia, and the Middle East: Asmaa Al-Fadala, Cecilia Azorín, Carol Campbell, Christine Corso, Karen Edge, Michael Fullan, Claire Golledge, Christine Grice Suraiya Hameed, Andy Hargreaves, Alma Harris, Michelle Jones, Annie Kidder, Jodie Miller, Richard Paquin Morel, Liliana Mularczyk, me, Viviennne Porritt, Santiago Rincón-Gallardo, Eugenie Samier, Marnee Shay, Dennis Shirley, James Spillane, Eloise Tan, and Pat Thomson, with a Foreword by Beatriz Pont. In my view, this is an incredibly important and forward-thinking book by some of the world’s best education thinkers, researchers and practitioners.

In the introduction to Future Alternatives for Educational Leadership, penned in January this year, I wrote:

It was late in January 2020 that I invited authors to contribute to a book exploring what leadership in education needs now and into the future. … Bringing this book’s authors together in that moment was about considering educational leadership in a time of climate crises, grave global humanitarian need, political unrest, displacement of peoples, and inequities affecting the education, safety, and success of young people around the world. On 30 January, the World Health Organization declared a public health emergency. … Between March, when authors conceptualised their abstracts, and later months when they wrote their chapters, much changed for individuals, for schools, for universities, and for the world. …

As I write this Introduction in January 2021, more than two million people have reportedly died from COVID-19 as second and third waves of infections continue around the world. Violent pro-Trump rioters have stormed the US Capitol in Washington DC, numerous countries are in lockdown, hospitals around the world are overwhelmed, and schools in 17 countries are closed to all but essential workers as remote learning is again enacted for millions of students. History may or may not show the COVID-19 pandemic as a watershed event in socioeconomic and educational change. At the moment of writing this book, however, the opportunity to reconsider and reimagine the future of education and educational leadership seems imperative. The need for all of us to work for diversity, inclusion, equity, and democracy is more urgent than ever.

I wondered, as I sent the book to production, if COVID-19 would be a barely-relevant memory by the time the book was published. As it turns out, the pandemic continues to transform the way we live, lead and learn, with connectedness and meaning keeping us all going during these unusual times. The need for all of us to work for diversity, inclusion, equity, and democracy is indeed more urgent than ever. As we enter 2022, I will continue to be buoyed in professional spaces by collaboration with others, and the feeling of working together for a common, moral purpose.

Preparing students for their future

source: @Jordan_Singh ipixabay.com

We absolutely need innovation in education, but does schooling need evolution or a revolution? There are those who advocate for small steps towards improving schools and systems, and those who call for dissolution of current systems and the birth of an almost unrecognisable education system. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we have become keenly aware of the social, relational, and economic roles that schools play in communities. We have seen the possibilities of remote learning and working, and also been reminded of the benefits of being humans in a space together. The optimal approach seems to one of hybridity and flexibility of when, where and how we learn, that harnesses technologies for clear and collaborative purposes.

Recently, UNESCO released its Reimagining our futures together: a new social contract for education report. The current context it describes is reminiscent of what I outline in the introduction to Future Alternatives for Educational Leadership: a planet in peril, democracy under threat, technologies presenting possibilities and problems, and a citizenry engaging in advocacy and activism.

The report calls for less teacher-driven teaching, less individual ranking and sorting of students, and less compartmentalising of curriculum. It argues for curriculum that is ecological, intercultural and interdisciplinary, and pedagogy focused on student agency and collaboration, rather than competition.

“Reimagining the future together calls for pedagogies that foster cooperation and solidarity. How we learn must be determined by why and what we learn. A foundational commitment to teaching and advancing human rights means that we must respect the rights of the learner. We must create occasions for people to learn from one another and value one another across all lines of difference whether of gender, religion, race, sexual identity, social class, disability, nationality, etc. Respecting the dignity of people means teaching them to think for themselves, not what or how to think. This means creating opportunities for students to discover their own sense of purpose and to determine what will be a flourishing life for them. At the same time, we collectively need to build a world where such lives can be realized and this means collaborating to build capacities to improve the world.” p.50

Schools are exploring these ideas in their own contexts, including flexible learning for students, student voice and choice in their learning, a range of learning pathways, and the building of learner portfolios, profiles and passports.

At my school, we have redesigned the secondary timetable for 2022 in order to align with our strategic priorities around learning and wellbeing, and also to make room and protect time for those things we know are important, but perhaps not mandated or measured. This includes a focus on health and wellbeing. It also includes the launch of Future Ready programs for students in Years 6-10, designed to support students in their development as lifelong autonomous learners and active compassionate citizens. Our Future Ready programs are underpinned by the Australian General Capabilities and Cross-curriculum Priorities, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, and our school’s research-informed Learner Attributes.

In education we often talk about a focus on differentiation, personalisation, and agency. What I am finding most liberating as I work with staff to plan our Future Ready programs for their 2022 launch, is that these operate outside of the mandated curriculum and are not assessed or reported on in traditional ways. As a result, we can wholeheartedly focus on designing learning that supports students to follow their passions, initiate learning projects, design learning processes, and engage in solutions to authentic problems. We are free to focus on learning intentions, the role of the student in their learning, and student engagement and agency. We are embedding meaningful micro-credentials and life skills. We are considering the role of technologies for teaching, but more importantly for student learning, communication, collaboration, and creation. We are designing programs around what students need, who they are, who they want to become, and the skills and capabilities that will serve them throughout their lives. More than that, we are creating space for students to explore and experience success, curiosity, joy, and their desire to make the world a better place.

Our new timetable structure and Future Ready programs are not a revolution. They are a small, exciting, context-embedded step forward that allows us to serve our students’ multiple needs – to be simultaneously successful within the current schooling system, healthy flourishing people, and confident contributing citizens, ignited in their moral purpose, and well-prepared for lives of living, learning and leading.

Learning and wellbeing: Two sides of the same coin

Source: @jplenio on pixabay

The crux of the purpose of any educational institution is helping our students to achieve their absolute best, to achieve their individual goals via appropriate pathways, and to be and become their best, healthiest and most fulfilled selves who contribute positively to the world.

One aspect of this is that schools aim to support students to be self-efficacious, empowered lifelong learners who have a nuanced toolkit of knowledge, skills and capabilities. What are the attributes of lifelong learners? In its Education 2030 report, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), notes the importance of student agency, personalised learning environments, physical health, mental wellbeing, and a solid foundation in literacy, numeracy, digital literacy and data literacy. The UK’s Effective Lifelong Learning Inventory comments that effective learners are those who are self-aware, resilient, curious to make sense of their worlds, know that learning is learnable, and able to learn both with others and independently. The University of Melbourne’s 2020 Future-proofing students report identifies capabilities for learning that include communication, collaboration, imagination, ethical behaviour, economic literacy, persistence, and the capacity to use feedback. The World Economic Forum’s 2015 New Vision for Education defines core competencies for today’s learners and future workers as including collaboration, communication, creativity, critical thinking, persistence, curiosity and adaptability.

So, schools need to support students to understand and hone discipline, organisation, attention to detail, independent work habits, self-awareness, communication, collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, the capacity to reflect, goal setting, persistence in the face of challenges, and how to productively act on feedback. Add to this citizenship, global competencies and cultural competence. Yet content knowledge, transferrable skills, competencies and capabilities are on their own not sufficient to prepare students to succeed in a future which is likely to be uncertain and complex. As Head of Teaching and Learning at my K-12 school, I am constantly considering not only what and how students and teachers learn, but also the optimal conditions for that learning—made up of environment, relationships, culture, values and wellbeing. (A focus on student wellbeing includes teacher wellbeing which, as Harding et al. found, is associated with student wellbeing and the quality of the teacher-student relationship.)

Wellbeing is about purpose, belonging, sense of self and hope, as well as physical wellness and feelings of happiness, joy, hope and satisfaction. It is physical, emotional, social, cognitive and spiritual. It is the feeling of living well, and of living a life of positive contribution. Martin Seligman’s PERMA theory of wellbeing outlines those things that allow each of us to live well: (P) Positive emotions, (E) Engagement in a task, (R) Relationships, (M) Meaning, and (A) Accomplishments.

In his paper ‘The right drivers for whole-system success’ Michael Fullan draws together learning and wellbeing and argues for their seamless integration. The OECD Education 2030 report identities learner wellbeing as key to today’s students being successful in their futures. Learning and wellbeing are reflected in two of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals: Goal 3 (Good health and wellbeing), and Goal 4 (Quality education). Their integration comes into even sharper focus when we see the diminishing wellbeing among our students. The 2020 Headspace Youth Mental Health survey of over 4000 Australian young people revealed that in 2020 34% reported high or very high levels of psychological distress. The 2020 Mission Australia Youth Survey captured responses from over 25000 young Australians between the ages of 15 and 19. 42.6% felt stressed either all of the time or most of the time. Respondents identified their biggest personal concerns as coping with stress (42.5%), mental health (33.9%), body image (33%), and school or study problems (32.4%). COVID-19 was also much-mentioned as causing a raft of concerns including those around education, isolation, financial distress and mental health. Schools are addressing issues of student mental and physical health with intentional structures, supports, resources and programs.

If COVID-19 and remote learning have taught us anything, it is the relational, social and community value of schools and classrooms. As Michael Fullan and Mary Jean Gallagher explain in their 2020 book The Devil is in the Details, powerful learning is interconnected with wellness, resilience, and connection to the world. ‘Being well’ contributes not only to physical, mental, and emotional health, but also to learning, success and fulfilment. And learning well contributes to success and to feelings of curiosity, excitement, purpose, and satisfaction. Although we often talk about our children’s learning and wellbeing separately, they are two sides of the same coin.

Change in schools: A complex process and a long runway

image from ELG21 on pixabay

While it’s important not to change for change’s sake, schools are parts of and microcosms of society and the wider world. As such they are always acted upon by evolving environments, and are themselves in a state of flux as they adapt to shifting circumstances, communities and education thinking. Change as part of adaptation, and as part of a school’s work to always improve outcomes for students, is inevitable.

“Without a sufficiently strong foundation, the redirection collapses at some point, forcing you to go back and rebuild. Think of it as an investment, an important investment, in creating a better future.” John Kotter, Leading Change, 1996

John Kotter’s well-known 1996 model of change management reveals the complexity of managing or implementing change in an organisation. The model includes eight steps: establish a sense of urgency about the need to achieve change; create a guiding coalition (a group with energy and influence in the organisation to lead the change); develop a vision and strategy for the change; communicate the change vision (tell people, in every possible way and at every opportunity, about the why, what and how of the changes); involve people in the change effort and encourage them to think about the changes and how to achieve them rather than why they do not like the changes and how to stop them; generate short-term wins and recognise the positive work being done to achieve the change; consolidate gains and produce more change, creating momentum; and anchor new approaches in the culture.

Any change needs to emerge out of an identified need, followed by a thorough process of how best to address that need within the context of the particular school. Whenever undertaking a review and redesign process in a school, I often think at the beginning that I have left more than enough time—sometimes even too much time—but a long runway to any change or adjustment always turns out being the best way to go.

My view of the process of considering, designing and implementing change involves a number of stages, outlined below.

Laying the groundwork

Laying the groundwork for change means setting the scene by establishing the need for the change, understanding the context of the change and stakeholder views, and figuring out what the change should look like, how it will work, and what impacts and side effects it is likely to produce. In this stage, leaders work to:

  • Understand the problem. What isn’t working optimally? What are the vision and needs of the organisation and its members? How can these better be met?
  • Ground the work in context and culture. How is this change grounded in the vision and purpose of the organisation? How does it honour tradition and history?
  • Use a variety of consultation processes to generate feedback and understanding of stakeholder views. Conflicting viewpoints, ideas and requests are likely to arise, but themes will arise that can help to inform the change.
  • Ideate (generate ideas), including a wish list of changes and multiple possible solutions.
  • Prototype and test possible models of what the change could look like. This is where the problems are discovered and ironed out, and where it the difference between an idealised perfect and what is actually possible comes into view. It’s important to go back to the why—the underlying purpose and aims—when making decisions to ensure that the change is aligned with the organisation’s core purpose, strategic direction and idiosyncratic context.
  • Continue iteration and consultation at sticky stages of the plan, when it begins to become apparent what can and can’t be done with the resources available and parameters within which the change needs to occur.

Communicating and working towards the change

Once the groundwork is laid, it is time to communicate the change model and implementation plan. This stage includes:

  • Communicating transparently and often about the change. Be clear about how the change is based in feedback from, and in the best interests of, stakeholders. Be clear about what will stay the same. Be clear about the why of the change and the key takeaway messages. Explain what the change entails and what its impacts will be. At this point, the change is happening along the communicated timeline, and everyone in the organisation is now responsible for making the change a success. Leadership—or rather the act of leading—is needed at every level.
  • Sharing plans for staff development and support to ensure that staff are prepared for the change.
  • Inviting opt-in volunteers to be part of positive, productive contribution to the change.
  • Providing energised enthusiasts (or ‘champions of change’) with time, training and support to propel the change forward.

Implementing the change and providing and ongoing support

“Implementation matters. In organisations where change initiatives fail, it is often because of inconsistent or superficial implementation. It is important that we monitor implementation and student progress and be prepared to make mid-course corrections to improvement plans as needed. Communicating regularly is another key ingredient. It is important that we keep everyone informed of goals, progress and next steps.” Michelle Jones and Alma Harris, Leading and Transforming Education Systems, 2020

Day 1 of the change being implemented is not the moment at which the change ends. The first phase of implementation remains an important time to support all in the organisation (in a school this includes parents, students, teachers, leaders, and administration and support staff) and to continue to generate feedback about how things are going. It is important that school leaders continue to:

  • Take time to continue to generate feedback and listen to the experiences of those implementing and experiencing the change.
  • Review progress and assess the impact of the change.
  • Provide support and training.
  • Recognise and celebrate wins and what is working well.
  • Act with kindness, compassion and empathy. Change can be difficult, and any change takes time. Fear, anxiety and resistance are natural responses to the uncertainty that often comes with change, no matter how clearly communicated and well planned. For some people, change will feel like loss, and they will need to be supported to process their feelings and to see what is not changing, and what values, vision and traditions are being upheld and strengthened.

Even when the why of the change is compelling, change management is challenging for those leading the change, for those who are part of enacting the change, and for anyone who the change affects. When enacting a change process, senior and middle leaders need to band together in productive ways grounded in shared vision and purpose. School leaders need plenty of strength, resilience and conviction. They need to be clear on the why, what and how of the change, and to take care of themselves in order to be able to support others.

Change in schools should be part of an evolution that goes from being something new or reimagined, to something embedded as a core part of the organisation: a part of ‘the way we do things around here’ and part of ‘who we are and how we operate in this place’.

Flipping the system – Where are we now?

Recently I had the pleasure of collaborating with interstate colleagues Cameron Paterson and Jon Andrews in a webinar for the Australian Curriculum Studies Association (ACSA), in which we explored the notion of flipping the education system.

‘Flip the System’ is part of a movement, as Cameron would say, and of a series of books, including the following.

  • Flip the System: Changing Education from the Ground Up (Evers & Kneyber, 2016);
  • Flip the System: Förändra Skolan från Grunden (Kornhall, Evers, & Kneyber, 2017);
  • Flip the System UK: A Teachers’ Manifesto, (Rycroft-Smith & Dutaut, 2018);
  • Our book Flip the System Australia: What Matters in Education (Netolicky, Andrews, & Paterson, 2019); and most recently
  • Flip the System US: How Teachers Can Transform Education and Save Democracy (Soskil, 2021).

The books deal with issues around teacher agency, voice and professionalism; and democratising education and addressing inequity.

During the ACSA webinar in February, we editors of the Australian book reflected on how our thinking around flipping the system has changed or stayed the same in the last couple of years, especially in light of recent contextual factors such as the global COVID-19 pandemic and the NSW Gallop Inquiry into the work of teachers and principals and how it has changed since 2004.

In my ‘presentation’ piece during the webinar (from minutes 34-43), I reflected on the neoliberal education agenda to which we were responding as we worked on the Australian book in 2017 and 2018. We were writing and editing the book amidst the rise of the idea of ‘teacher quality’ and (often dubious, quantitative and punitive) ways of attempting to measure that nebulous ‘quality’. The education discourse was rife with talk and policy around school effectiveness, improvement, standards, accountabilities, surveillance, competition, and standardised testing. Teachers were teaching and school leaders were leading amidst a culture of audit and measurement, a distrust of teachers and schools, and an obsession with ‘what works’ (usually without any nuance around what might work where, for whom, and under what conditions). Simplistic, seductive ‘silver bullet’ solutions and hierarchical league tables (of teaching strategies or of schools or school systems) were all the rage in education. My chapter in the book was on teacher identity and teacher voice. It argued for elevating the professional identities and voices of teachers and school leaders in educational research, practice, and policymaking.

Fast forward to 2021, and the pandemic is disrupting education along with lives, families, societies, economies, and industries. Citizens have submitted to increasing government control. From policymaking to educating, we’ve been building the plane while flying it. Sometimes governments and education leaders have got it right, and sometimes not. Some challenges have arisen in education and some issues have come into sharper relief.

There are also opportunities emerging, such as strengthened global networks of educators working and learning together. Since we edited Flip the System Australia some ideas are becoming more prominent in education, as well as in other fields: identity, wellbeing integrated with learning, and belonging.

Some ideas around the essence of flipping the education system remain the same. We should continue to focus on what matters over what works, on the greater good over individual good, on strengthening teacher voice and agency, and on democracy and equity. We should continue to engage with education as a human endeavour.

You can view my slides above and watch the video via this link.

Staff development and wellbeing

Source: @suju pixabay.com

Wellbeing is an area in schools that is becoming increasingly important, including the wellbeing of staff. Being well, and being an organisation that supports staff to be well, is complex. This is especially true in schools where work comes in intense, relentless waves, and caring for others can deplete staff resources for looking after themselves.

Staff wellbeing is more than free food and fitness classes, although these can be nice to have. Nurturing staff wellbeing might take various forms, such as providing initiatives that support staff health, modelling sustainable work-life behaviours, maintaining predictable timelines, ensuring clear policies and procedures, streamlining communication, considering workload issues, ensuring a range of internal and external support mechanisms are available for staff, recognising staff efforts, celebrating staff achievements, leading with empathy, and making decisions with the needs of staff in mind.

Meaningful work, a sense of community, shared values, and a feeling of ‘fit’, are also important. Investing in staff professional learning, valuing staff by supporting them in pursuing their own goals, and working to develop staff sense of belonging to community, are ways to foster staff wellbeing. We feel buoyed when we feel that through our work we are part of something bigger than ourselves and that we are making a positive difference beyond ourselves. We want to know that what we do matters. And we want to be able to contribute professionally without eroding our own wellbeing or burning out.

Collaborative, vibrant cultures of trust allow staff to flourish. I have often quoted an excerpt from Susan Rosenholtz’s 1991 book Teachers’ workplace: The social organisation of schools. She describes educators in effective schools as “clumped together in a critical mass, like uranium fuel rods in a reactor” (p. 208). I love to imagine a school’s staff as a mass of fuel rods, huddled together and buzzing with an energy that feeds the group, creating fission that results in a chain reaction of positive changes rippling through the organisation.

Somehow, in 2020, in my teaching and learning portfolio at my school, we managed to review and redesign our student school reports, craft a Teaching and Learning Philosophy, and develop Learner Attributes that describe the qualities of lifelong learners that we aim to cultivate in our students. All while working with Executive and Council to finalise the school Strategic Plan. In addition, we managed to develop a refreshed staff development model, which I am thrilled to launch with staff this week as they return for the new academic year.

Importantly, the staff development model has emerged out of collaboration and consultation with staff in all areas of the school, in all sorts of roles (from teaching to administration), from multiple faculties and multiple year levels. The meetings I had last year with groups of staff passionate about the professional growth of themselves and others were always energising and left me filled with excitement for the possibilities. Emerging as it did from people within the school, I am pleased that the resulting model aligns with the best of what research says provides meaningful opportunities for professional learning, and with my own belief that staff development should be focused on growth and support, and on trusting and empowering staff to develop themselves in ways that are meaningful to them.

The staff development model builds on what has existed previously. Key features include:

  • Alignment with school strategy while honouring individual needs.
  • Opportunities for all staff, not only teaching staff. We are and educational organisation committed to the development of all our people, so staff development needs to reflect this.
  • A focus on staff individuality and agency. The COVA principles apply: choice, ownership, voice, and authenticity.
  • A range of development and review processes that include self-reflection against professional standards, goal setting, easy-to-generate feedback from appropriate stakeholders, and intentional, supportive conversation.
  • A suite of options from which staff can choose, with differentiation for career stage, professional interests, and vocational aspirations. These options were developed by a range of staff who know their colleagues and the school culture. I’m eager to see how they are received and taken up.

I look forward to building on the foundation of this model, and working iteratively with staff to improve it over time based on staff needs and feedback. Tomorrow, staff return and we will feel the buzz of the beginning of another year, grateful to be together (although at a physical distance appropriate for our COVID-19 times) and ready for what lies ahead.

COVID-19 and distance learning: Preparing, not just reacting

I’ve lived through Melbourne winters. They’re cold, wet, and dark, but the great thing about them is all the warm, cosy places to socialise, connect, enjoy the arts, attend festival events, watch and play sports, eat delicious food, and drink a beverage of choice with friends, family, and strangers. Life in lockdown, in the middle of a Melbourne winter, must be incredibly hard for everyone. While the mist still rises off the Yarra in the early morning, and stormy colours swirl in Port Phillip Bay, most of what makes Melbourne winters great is currently cancelled. Adults are working from home. Students are learning from home. Everyone is staying home. Face masks have become part of daily life. I can only imagine what it feels to live a Melburnian’s current reality.

Over in Perth, Western Australia, life is different. We had about four weeks of lockdown, but are now in what our state government calls ‘Phase 4’ of restrictions easing. That means that the only restrictions are the two square metre rule indoors, 50% capacity at major venues, and a ‘hard border’ between the rest of the world and our WA bubble. Businesses are open as long as they have a COVID-19 plan for contact tracing, extra cleaning, and appropriate physical distancing for adults. Many are working back in their corporate offices. Community sport is being played. People are travelling around the state (at four times the size of Texas and twelve times bigger than the UK, that’s plenty of landscape to cover). Schools have full attendance of students and staff, with classes being taught face to face and assemblies and other school events being held in ways that are compliant with government regulations. Students—including those who are 17 and 18 years old like the Year 12s I teach—are considered exempt from the physical distancing rules.

Things feel strangely normal (apart from hand sanitiser at every turn, contactless greetings, half empty stadiums, holding meetings and events in rooms big enough to  allow for physical distancing,  and watching what is happening elsewhere in the world unfold). We know we are incredibly fortunate. We also know that COVID-19 is around for the mid to long term, and the government keeps telling us ‘we can’t be complacent’. The time lag between the virus being transmitted, symptoms, and test results, means that we won’t know the virus is circulating in the community until it may be too late to easily isolate it. After 102 days of no community transmission, New Zealand now has 56 active cases, including 37 from community transmission. A quarantine breach, followed by socialising in our current ‘Phase 4’ conditions, would be enough to send Western Australia back into lockdown and into a reality of anxiety, loneliness, ill-being, and the traumatic human, economic, and social costs of this virus.

As a school leader charged with leading teaching and learning, I know that we need to have a distance learning plan ready in case we need to move to it at short notice. Not being prepared for another bout of distance learning is irresponsible, like living in a tsunami-prone area and not having a tsunami evacuation map. We might not need it. But we might.

Rather than wheeling out our previous plan/s, we have been thinking about how we can do distance learning better, if and when there is a next time. So we have been working on our ‘Distance Learning 3.0’.

We had our original plan, pivoted to when students, apart from children of essential workers, were encouraged to learn from home at a day’s notice. We had Distance Learning 2.0, finalised in the first week of the Term 1 school holidays, only to be put in the file drawer when the government announced that schools would be welcoming back all, most, or some children sooner than originally planned. It was unclear; all students were encouraged but no-one was required to attend school, and parents were told by government officials that no child would be disadvantaged either way. That set of messages necessitated all schools to rewrite their plans at pace, and resulted in our 2.0 Hybrid Learning version, the plan that no school leader wants to unveil and implement because it means—no matter how carefully we try to set manageable parameters—that teachers are likely to have to straddle two modes of teaching for those students at home and those in the classroom.

Now, while we continue with business-as-usual-as-2020-will-allow, we are refining our distance learning model–and the ways in which it serves the learning, care, and wellbeing of our community–as best we can. We are honing our context-specific model for its implementation, which may come sooner, later, or never. Our 3.0 model is based on what we now know about the way distance learning is experienced by our community and by others in the world, as well as from emerging research. More about that in my next post.

I would love to hear from my Victorian colleagues about the realities of how distance teaching and home learning are going, and what your learnings are this time around. We in the west are thinking of you.