Professional learning post-pandemic

Source: Alina Grubnak on unsplash.com

During the pandemic, professional learning, like everything else, needed to adapt. With many borders closed, air travel less available, and people experiencing varying stages of public restrictions and lockdowns around the world, more learning happened at home. Like remote learning for schools and higher education organisations, professional learning courses and conferences pivoted to online formats. Presenters presented from home, and participants participated from home. Education organisations capitalised on cost-effective online options for professional learning.

At my school we looked to the virtual, but also to the local and internal. We engaged consultants in targeted and ongoing work alongside our staff, provided opportunities for staff to present their expertise and practice to one another, and arranged time and forums for staff to engage collaboratively in whole-school strategic priorities. We continued, when and where possible, to provide opportunities for intentional and meaningful face-to-face professional learning and to connect with external experts and organisations.

Virtual professional learning, so ubiquitous in 2020 and 2021, has many benefits. It is better for the planet. Without travel and catering, it has lower carbon and economic costs, and a lower environmental impact. It allows greater equity of access for those who may not be able to afford travel, accommodation, and conference costs.

A 2021 paper in Nature Sustainability by Skiles et al. and a 2022 paper by Yates and colleagues in The Lancet confirm that virtual conferences provide environmental sustainability and participant equity benefits. The virtual format overcomes social, economic, and travel-related barriers for those most likely to be impacted by these. It increases participation and representation of those from institutions and countries with limited resources, women, professionals with a disability, and early career researchers and practitioners. It also provides opportunities for increased accessibility through the use of live captions, live chatbox Q&A, and recording sessions for participants to watch later.

However, virtual professional learning has its downsides. After a couple of years of online learning formats, there is a level of Zoom or virtual professional learning fatigue. Digital access in low income countries continues to be a barrier to participation in virtual conferences. Despite some sessions being recorded, time zones of global conferences often favour those in Europe and America. As someone in Western Australia, rarely have the times of international virtual conferences been friendly. Over the last couple of years, I have been scheduled to present at times such as 1am and 4am. Learning or presenting from home also requires the presenter or participant to manage competing demands, not to mention juggling the use of a stretched wifi network across the household’s multiple devices and technology needs. I have attempted to listen to virtual conference keynotes in my kitchen while cooking dinner and trying to focus on the words of the speaker rather than the sounds of my family.

There is something immersive and nourishing about the in-person conference experience. While I may have been able to attend more conferences virtually than I would have been able to in person over recent years, I have missed being there, in situ, with the sights, sounds and smells of another place. I have missed the time afforded by solo travel to sit with ideas, consider them, and think beyond the transactional busyness of the day-to-day. It is often ‘being away’ that allows the space for clarity and creativity of thought, moving us beyond the narrowness of the here and now, to broader perspectives and possibilities. Mostly, I have missed the human connection, including serendipitous meetings; and corridor, coffee, and dinner conversations with colleagues and presenters.

I have found in my own research (Netolicky, 2016a, 2016b, 2020), that professional learning is highly individualised, context-specific, and that the ways in which we professionally learn are many and varied. Experiences that shape our professional beliefs and practices can be professional and personal, formal and informal, in and out of so-called ‘professional learning’ contexts, solo or collaborative. Effective professional learning can cost a little or a lot. It can happen in person or online. It can take air miles, accommodation budgets, and well-known presenters, or be located on site at work, or in a car while listening to a podcast, or at home via a webinar. Professional learning is a core part of staff belonging and wellbeing. For schools, it should be judicious and simultaneously aligned with the individual’s professional goals and the school’s strategic priorities. It benefits from being ongoing in some way – whether that is a continuing partnership between professional learning provider and school, through a mentoring or coaching relationship, or by a small group of colleagues sharing and developing their learning together after attending a conference or course.

As the world opens back up, and previous models of professional learning become possible once more, Yates et al. challenge us to find new, innovative, and hybrid ways to provide professional learning. They challenge us to focus on planetary health and equity, as well as on effective learning, networking, and collaboration. Organisations can and should continue to consider in what ways they invest in and support the learning of their staff, the kinds of opportunities they provide and promote, their professional learning environmental footprint, and the inclusivity of their offerings and practices.

References

Netolicky, D. M. (2020). Transformational professional learning: Making a difference in schools. Routledge.

Netolicky, D. M. (2016a). Down the rabbit hole: Professional identities, professional learning, and change in one Australian school (Doctoral dissertation, Murdoch University).

Netolicky, D. M. (2016b). Rethinking professional learning for teachers and school leaders. Journal of professional capital and community, 1(4), 270-285.

Skiles, M., Yang, E., Reshef, O., Muñoz, D. R., Cintron, D., Lind, M. L., Calleja, P. P., Nerenberg, R., Armani, A., Faust, M. K., & Kumar, M. (2022). Conference demographics and footprint changed by virtual platforms. Nature Sustainability5(2), 149-156.

Yates, J., Kadiyala, S., Li, Y., Levy, S., Endashaw, A., Perlick, H., & Wilde, P. (2022). Can virtual events achieve co-benefits for climate, participation, and satisfaction? Comparative evidence from five international Agriculture, Nutrition and Health Academy Week conferences. The Lancet Planetary Health6(2).

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.

What matters in education: Reflecting on Flip the System Australia in 2022

I was invited to speak today as part of the Future Schools webinar series. In particular, I was asked to engage with the notion of flipping the education system, based in my work in co-editing the 2019 book Flip the System Australia: What Matters in Education.

That was then

Even though today’s conversation was for a group interested in future schools and the future of schooling, thinking about it required me to reflect back to 2018, when much of the work of the Flip the System Australia book was being done. Back then, my co-editors—Jon Andrews and Cameron Paterson—and I were experiencing the then- educational environment of measurement and surveillance. This included a distrust of schools and teachers, heightened accountabilities according to quantifiable measurables in education, policy rhetoric about educational quality assurance and effectiveness, competitive comparisons of performance in high stakes standardised tests, and a push for teachers to do ‘what works’ according to simplified and dehumanised lists of apparent best practice (although, as Dylan Wiliam says, everything works somewhere, and nothing works everywhere).

Our book built upon the Flip the System books that came before ours (from the Netherlands, Sweden, and the UK) and sought to value and promote a diverse range of voices in education talking about what matters (or what should matter), over what works. We argued for the humanising of educational narratives, the democratising of educational policy and practice, and the development of deep and sustained trust in the teaching profession.

Teachers’ being and becoming

My Flip the System Australia chapter argues for elevating the professional identities and voices of teachers and school leaders in educational research, practice, and policymaking. In the chapter, I explore the quantifying and performative measuring of teacher work as limiting the complexities of that work and reducing teacher identities to a limited range of options. I define identity in my book Transformational Professional Learning as “the situated, ongoing process through which we make sense of ourselves, to ourselves and others” (p.19). It is a constant, context-embedded process of being and becoming, with professional identities inextricably linked to personal identities; we are our whole selves at work, and our lives influence our teaching.

Teaching as a performance disconnected from identity and purpose is unsustainable. Teachers need to feel that their identities are aligned with the purpose of the profession, with shared school values, and with their daily work. Rather than being required to fit themselves to a school, teachers need to feel that they truly belong in a school community in which they share a common moral purpose and are valued for their individual selves, including their gifts and imperfections.

Embracing authenticity and embedding inclusive practices are becoming increasingly important in schools. More than that, as Jelmer Evers wrote in the Foreword to our Australian book, a shared professional identity can transcend borders and nationalities, and can form the basis of reinventing democracy and our schools.

The more things change, the more they stay the same

A focus on the humanity and the positive contribution of education to the lives of all young people remains the core purpose of education. In Flip the System Australia, Carol Campbell describes the purpose of education as “the betterment of humanity” (p.81). In my chapter, I say that “education is not an algorithm but a human endeavour” (p.16). The betterment and care of each child, and thereby the betterment of humanity, includes supporting children to be their best, most agentic and self-determining selves, able to make positive contributions to their communities and to the world.

In Australia, the 2019 Alice Springs Education Declaration, and before it the 2008 Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians, expressed two key goals:

  • Goal 1: The Australian education system promotes excellence and equity; and
  • Goal 2: All young Australians become: confident and creative individuals; successful lifelong learners; and active and informed members of the community.

Yet Australia remains far from an education system that promotes, for all young Australians, excellence and equity. Pasi Sahlberg, who wrote a chapter in Flip the System Australia about equitable education in Australia, recently co-authored with Adrian Piccoli an article for the Guardian, arguing for needs-based school funding and pointing out that in Australia the socio-economic segregation between schools and has widened the achievement gap between affluent and poorer children.

Melitta Hogarth’s Flip the System Australia chapter reveals the contradictory nature of policies and practices that appear to be unbiased, but that perpetuate conservative, colonial values, and the silencing of Indigenous voices in education. She argues for Indigenous representation at every level of education leadership and decision making in Australia. Kevin Lowe in his chapter argues for collaborative, productive engagement between schools and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. There remains ongoing disadvantage for Indigenous Australian children, in terms of education, social and health outcomes. Systemic inequities have been exacerbated by the pandemic and compounded by Western-centric curriculum and biased measures of educational success.

In Chapter 11 of Flip the System Australia, Andy Hargreaves, Shaneé Washington and Michael O’Connor shared findings on teacher wellbeing that now read as a prelude to the intensification of workload and the impacts of the pandemic that have followed. They commented that “teachers feel they are losing control over their professional decisions, … they are being asked to carry the mounting social problems of the world on their own shoulders, and, in the midst of all these things, they feel constrained and compromised by competencies and assessments they do not always believe in” (p.101). Their chapter asserts that there is no student wellbeing without teacher wellbeing. Since that chapter was written, wellbeing has escalated, making its way up the education agenda. Educators have been reminded of something we have always known that now needs our careful attention and action: that wellbeing is inseparably joined with learning and achievement.

This is now

Flipping the system is about flattening and democratising education. Three years on from the publication of Flip the System Australia, the world is facing unremitting and overlapping crises. We only need to turn on the news to see that our planet and democracy remain in peril. In education, governments are enacting fast policy (with teachers and school leaders often hearing about each new policy twist and turn during a press conference), with schools then quickly implementing the changing guidelines and protocols.

Although there are frightening data around teacher and school leader burnout and retention challenges, teachers and school leaders remain incredibly committed to serving their communities, through the most difficult of circumstances. There has been the need for, and therefore the rise of, school and teacher autonomy during the pandemic, as educators have made context-embedded decisions about what their students and communities need, and how to best work to meet these needs.

Schools have been revealed as places of connectedness, relationality, socialisation, and community, as well as learning. The last couple of years have led schools to develop innovative uses of educational technologies, flexible post-secondary pathways for students, and generous networks of educators collaborating together across countries and sectors to share, support and grow alongside one another. Effective leading has been shown to be an authentic practice of care and hope. Those working in schools have been literally changing education from the ground up, which was the catch cry of the original Flip the System book by Jelmer Evers and René Kneyber.

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.

INTERVIEW: Collaboration in schools

Deb WES pic

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

A snippet of the interview appears below.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michael summarised these points in the following slide.

Fullan TPL pic

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

Teachers and school leaders: Being better

We can always be better

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

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

How we get better

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Better together

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

M.C. Escher’s ‘Relativity’

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

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

Piet Mondrian’s ‘The Red Tree’

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

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

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

The ‘Flip the System Australia’ book is in production

Flip the System

This week the book manuscript for Flip the System Australia: What matters in education, has moved from the editorial team to the production team at Routledge. It is ‘in press’, which means that the full manuscript will be copy-edited, typeset and a cover designed. You can check out the contents and pre-order it here.

The book is edited by Jon Andrews, Cameron Paterson and I. It includes a collection of 27 chapters by a range of educators, mostly from Australia but also perspectives from around the world. The contributing teachers, school leaders, educators and scholars are: Jon Andrews, Gert Biesta, Susan Bradbeer, Paul Browning, Carol Campbell, Keren Caple, Kelly Cheung, Flossie S. G. Chua, Rebecca Cody, Benjamin Doxtdator, Scott Eacott, Melissa Fotea, Carla Gagliano, Ryan Gill, Dan Haesler, Gavin Hays, Andy Hargreaves, Adam Hendry, Anna Hogan, Melitta Hogarth, Tomaz Lasic, Ben Lewis, Bob Lingard, Rachel Lofthouse, Kevin Lowe, Cameron Malcher, Chris Munro, Deborah Netolicky (me!), Michael T. O’Connor, Cameron Paterson, David Perkins, David Rutkowski, Pasi Sahlberg, Sam Sellar, Yasodai Selvakumaran, Greg Thompson, Ray Trotter, Shaneé Washington, and Daniel Wilson.

What draws the book’s contributions together is their ‘flip the education system’ theme. The Flip the System movement is not our own. The first book in the series (preceded itself by other publications, which we explain in the book) was Flip the System: Changing education from the ground up, edited by Dutch teachers Jelmer Evers and René Kneyber (2016). The Swedish version, Flip the system: Förändra skolan från grunden, was edited by Per Kornhall, Jelmer Evers and René Kneyber (2017). The UK version, Flip the System UK: A teachers’ manifesto, was edited by teachers Lucy Rycroft-Smith and Jean-Louis Dutaut (2018). Flip the System is a loose kind of series in which the notion of ‘flipping the education system’ evolves as diverse international voices explore what this might look like.

In previous Flip the System books, the editors and authors have called for a reprofessionalising of the teaching profession; an education system in which teachers are empowered to influence the education system, rather than being dictated to by top-down bureaucracy. When I explained this theme to a colleague recently, their response was laughing out loud. Is the idea, of teachers being empowered to shape the education landscape, laughable?

Certainly it is easy to feel disempowered as a teacher in an education system obsessed with measurement and competition. Education appears to be a political football constantly booted around for votes. It is also an increasingly corporatised arena in which companies peddle solutions and generate relentless data.

Can those in schools—teachers and school leaders, and even students—be empowered agents in the system, rather than fodder for the education machine? We think so.

To give an idea of the kinds of material covered by the book, sub-themes of the chapters in Flip the System Australia include:

  • Democratising education and addressing inequity.
  • Resistance to mechanisms or systems driven by performance, dehumanised measurement, increased competition, and constant edu-surveillance.
  • Replacing top-down accountability with support for teachers and teacher-led, inside-out reform.
  • Teacher leadership, autonomy, empowerment, and professionalism.
  • Elevating the voices of those working in schools.
  • Learning and leading for a system that honours those who spend each day in our schools, including teachers, school leaders, students and families.

As Jon, Cam and I have edited this book, we have realised why teacher voices are often absent from education debates. It isn’t just that teachers are not usually invited to decision making tables, or that they are often placed at the bottom of education power structures. There are ethical dimensions to our work which mean that we cannot always share our stories or give the media newsworthy soundbites. Our stories are also those of our students and our communities, and we are responsible for protecting them. Also, teaching is complex and demanding work, and teachers and school leaders are in the service of their students. Where is the time for contributing to the system when we are busily working inside the system?

We three editors each work full time in our schools. We have written our chapters and edited this book in our ‘leisure time’ (note the ironic inverted commas). I was surprised to realise that while we have each met each other (I have met Jon; I have met Cam; they have met one another), at no point have the three of us been in the same physical room together. The magic of Skype, Zoom, Google Docs, Twitter, and Dropbox have meant that we could collaborate from afar, in our own timezones and our own time.

We have done this work, as Flip the System editors and authors have done before us, because we think that this book and these authors have something important to contribute to the conversation on education. We are thrilled to be able to give a platform to teachers, school leaders and education researchers. We are grateful for the generosity of the contributing authors. We know there are voices missing from this book, but we hope the book can be part of a move to diversify the voices to whom others listen around education.

Flip the System Australia is coming. And we can’t wait to hold a print copy in our hands.

You can follow the progress of the book on Twitter via @flipthesystemoz and #FliptheSystemOz.

Gonski 2.0: Promoting a deficit view of Australian teachers

eroded wall

source: pixabay @aitoff

There are things I like about the Gonski 2.0 report. I have written, for instance, about the promotion in the report of professional collaboration and learning for teachers and school leaders, and the suggestion that teachers need time to focus on teaching, and school leaders need time to focus on instructional leadership over administration. Education Minister Simon Birmingham has previously said that he hoped Gonski 2.0 would be a unifying basis for a focus on evidence-based classroom practice. There is little detail in the report around evidence-based classroom practice, although there is the recommendation for a “national evidence institute to share best-practice and evidence-based innovations faster and more widely.” I would suggest that the report is not a unifying one around which educators can rally.

What has made me uncomfortable is the deficit perspective it provides on Australian schools, teachers and leaders. For example, the statement that Australia has “an industrial model of school education that reflects a 20th century aspiration to deliver mass education to all children” seems a stretch. I know ‘industrial model’ is a favourite term from those wanting to push innovation agendas, but anyone in today’s Australian classrooms, from early learning to late high school, knows that they are hardly factories for unthinking worker bees. In fact, the criticism of Australian education as industrial 20th century factories of mass production sits in opposition to the basis of much of the report on economic imperatives and the need to prepare students for the future of work (or perhaps this is what it means to have a 21st century industrial model of education). The focus on data generation, data tracking and accountabilities, if anything, seems to promote education as more machine than human endeavour.

The report’s deficit narrative about education is based on the problem it poses: that Australian education has widespread “declining performance” and “performance slippage” as measured by PISA testing. This is the basis on which the report argues that “Australian education has failed a generation of Australian school children by not enabling them to reach their full learning potential.” Wow. As a number of scholars have argued—such as Sam Sellar, Greg Thompson and David Rutkowski in their excellent book The Global Education Race—while there are things we can learn from PISA, there is much that we cannot, and using PISA to compare education across different countries is often unhelpful and misleading. Singapore is singled out as an exemplar of PISA achievement, despite the fact that its school cultures, curriculum and education practices are at odds with the Gonski 2 report’s suggestions of learning progressions and individualisation of learning.

The report calls many schools “cruising schools” and explains that these are schools that are maintaining average achievement from year to year, but not improving. The rhetoric of ‘cruising schools’ and ‘one year’s growth per year of schooling’ (also prominent in the report) has been used by Professor John Hattie for some time. Yet it constructs schools whose academic achievement remains steady but not improving as somehow coasting along (lazily or incompetently seems to be the implication) without progress, according to NAPLAN data. Apart from the fact that NAPLAN itself has been often called into question as a measure of student learning, the report surmises that “the explanation might be that Australian teachers, schools systems and schools are not equipped to identify and effectively support cruising students and schools to improve.” Here the teachers, schools and entire education system are posited as the reason for schools whose achievement appears steady but not improving, when NAPLAN data is used as the measure of achievement.

The report proposes that Australian education needs to do a number of things that I would argue most Australian educators are already doing: continuously improve our practice and service to our students; set high expectations for students, educators and schools; adjust our teaching for the needs of our students; and—my favourite—“maximise each student’s learning growth each year, rather than simply supporting each student to attain the minimum proficiency for the year level.” That last one is one I am sure many teachers read with a double-take, because I don’t know a teacher or a school who sees their job as to ‘simply support each student to attain the minimum proficiency for the year level.’

Teachers around the country already focus on student data, formative assessment and responding to student needs, something the report promotes as ways forward. Tailored teaching is given a fairly broad definition in the report. It “involves adapting the way the curriculum and learning activities are presented and adjusting pedagogy to the different needs of students based on evidence about the most effective interventions, gained from an understanding of individual students’ starting points and their growth in learning.” The report is hazy on the details of what ‘individualised learning’ and ‘personalised learning’ look like, how personalised it is expecting teaching and learning to be, and how this dovetails with preparing students with the knowledge, skills and understandings they need to be ethical, empowered and contributing citizens.

There are places where the report acknowledges work that has been and is being done in Australian education. It additionally provides Australian case studies of what it considers to be good practice, and direct quotes from submissions it received from various stakeholders, showing that it has listened to Australian educators. It has a whole chapter entitled ‘Creating, supporting and valuing a profession of expert educators’, but seems to base this on the premise that teachers aren’t currently good enough and need to be improved. It is hard to wade through the Gonski 2 recommendations without feeling like ‘supporting and valuing a profession of expert educators’ isn’t really something in which the review panel believes. On reading the Gonski 2 report, it is hard to move past the distrust of the teaching profession underlying its content and the deficit narrative to which it seems to be contributing. Australia is not Singapore, Shanghai or Canada, all education systems held up as exemplars in the report. Of course we can and should improve Australian education. Of course we should have high expectations of students and educators. Of course we should develop our knowledge of effective teaching, learning and leading. Of course we should continue to develop our engagement with research and evidence. But Australian education is not a factory model of mass education production. It is not a calamitous problem to be solved, a bunch of broken individuals to be fixed, or a commercial opportunity ready to be flooded by corporate solutions. Australian teachers, school leaders and schools deserve trust, respect, support and involvement in policymaking.

Individualising staff performance development

doorway, Oia, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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