Teacher voice to flip the education system: ACEL 2018 panel presentation

Here I write a blog version of the panel presentation speech I gave at the Australian Council of Educational Leaders national conference. The three Editors—myself, Cameron Paterson and Jon Andrews—each spoke during our panel on a different theme from the Flip the System movement (you can read more about Cameron’s panel presentation on democracy in education here, and Jon’s on education leadership here, on their blogs). My contribution to our panel explored one aspect of our upcoming edited book Flip the System Australia: What Matters in Education: teacher voice.

The absence of teacher voice in education policy and practice

We three Editors are current teachers and school leaders in Australian schools with more than 60 years of experience between us. We are thrilled to have co-edited a book on flipping the education system. Part of what brought us together is our shared belief in the profession of which we are a part, and its expertise.

Yet, teachers are mostly absent in the formulation of policy, on advisory boards, and on media panels. Mostly, ‘experts’ are wheeled in to speak for or about teachers and school leaders. An example is this week’s conference, during which there are 30 concurrent sessions on offer, in three time slots, despite there being around 130 abstracts submitted by Australian educators keen to present on their practice and to learn from one another’s experience. Non-practitioners or ex-practitioners of course have something to offer, but their dominance in conference programs at the expense of practitioner presentations diminishes teacher and school leader voice, and the value of the profession.

Sometimes, practitioners are consulted, such as in the recent Gonski 2.0 review and the recent review of teacher registration, but rarely are teachers invited to the decision making table. The media is particularly unhelpful, often presenting polarising or critical views of the teaching profession. Rarely, a teacher is invited along. For instance, on Monday’s upcoming Q&A television program, Maths teacher Eddie Woo (who is being marketed as an ‘internet sensation’) has been invited onto the panel as a teacher representative. Perhaps a shift towards listening to teachers is afoot, but it would be nice if the teachers consulted were of the ‘ordinary’ as well as the ‘celebrity’ variety.

Flipping whose voices are sought and heard in education

Flipping the system is in part about amplifying, elevating, and valuing the voices of those actually working in schools. We believe that the power to transform education is within it, not outside it.

Yesterday, Dan Tehan addressed the ACEL national conference and said that everyone went to school so everyone has an opinion on education. He has never received so much advice or so many opinions as in the last month since he became the Australian Education Minister. We would argue that the opinions of those at the whiteboard and in classrooms around our country are expert opinions that should be sought out, and listened to. Our teachers are experts in their subjects, and in teaching and learning, and their opinions about education are informed by their daily work with students and parents. Dylan Wiliam has written that “each teacher has a better idea of what will improve the learning of their students, in their classroom, in the context of what they are teaching them, than anyone else” (2014, p.33). Those working in schools, who prop up the system and are actually responsible for the learning and wellbeing of students in classrooms and schools, have richness of experience and breadth of expertise.

There are some practitioners, including we Editors, who share our thinking via blogs and social media, but we wonder: who is listening? And do those educators sharing their views represent and characterise the system at large and indeed the variability of contexts across Australia’s education landscape?  As Editors, we are aware of our own privilege and limitations.

We have been deliberate about the contributors to the book. It has 27 chapters, 15 of which have authors who are currently teachers or school leaders. We have deliberately structured the book to privilege notions of teacher leadership and democracy. Dr Kevin Lowe, one of our Indigenous authors, pointed out that Aboriginal contributions are often tacked on to the end of books, appearing as an afterthought. He challenged us to think carefully about who we foregrounded. We put the section on teacher voice up front, followed by the section on democratising education.

Below, I briefly describe some examples of chapters from this book that foreground teacher and school leader voice.

Australian teacher and school leader voices

I have written a chapter that draws on the teacher and school leader interviews of my doctoral research around professional identity. It suggests that professional trust is central to building the profession as one which seeks to grow and understand teachers and teaching, as opposed to the often competitive, blame-ridden portrayal. I write in my chapter that “education is not an algorithm but a human endeavour, and one that can be improved through attention to the intricacies of the people operating within the system.”

A chapter from Tomaz Lasic talks about the makerspace in his public school. A chapter from Ben Lewis discusses the program for Indigenous students at his school. Yasodai Selvakumaran shares her experiences of out-of-field teaching. A chapter from principal Rebecca Cody talks about how school leaders have to navigate the dual demands of external accountabilities and the holistic education of their students.

Cameron Malcher discusses education podcasts as a vehicle for ‘talking up’, sharing teacher voice and making education debates public. Drawing on his own experience of podcasting, he illuminates the great potential it possesses to engage the profession in debate and empower teachers.

Academic and international voices about voices

If you were to look through the Table of Contents, you would notice that there are not just teacher voices, but a spread of views, including some scholarly voices and some international perspectives. We don’t think teachers should be speaking alone but speaking with the multiplicity of stakeholders within the education space. This morning Andy Hargreaves talked in his keynote about solidarity, which can be within our contexts and districts, but also across nations and systems. Those chapters in the book written by academics or consultants either include teacher voice, advocate for the presence of teacher voice, or are focused on teacher expertise and experience. Lyn Sharrat’s keynote yesterday was a great example of a researcher whose work keeps her firmly connected in with classrooms and teachers in a range of countries and communities.

In their chapter, Australian academics Anna Hogan and Bob Lingard draw on teacher perceptions via a survey around commercialisation in education. They found that teachers were concerned about a loss of teacher professionalism and personal wellbeing in the commercialised school environment. The teachers in their survey warned that increasing engagement with commercial providers must be balanced against concerns that commercialisation can threaten the holistic development of students the democratic purposes of public schooling.

In a chapter on large-scale assessments, Greg Thompson, David Rutkowski and Sam Sellar argue that there is an absence of teacher voice in interpreting PISA results and they call for educators to engage in dialogue around external testing regimes and their use in informing education.

In a chapter on teacher wellbeing in crisis, Andy Hargreaves, Shaneé Washington and Michael O’Connor claim that “there is no student wellbeing without teacher wellbeing” and acknowledge that teachers struggle to collaborate effectively amidst the frenetic rate of reform in education and ever-increasing workloads and accountabilities.

In his chapter, Gert Biesta argues that policy and subsequent accountabilities have led to a transformation of the role of teacher, in which teachers are undermined and often deprofessionalised by the language of policy and practice. He says that “the idea of teaching as an effective intervention runs the risk of turning students into objects to be intervened upon rather than engaging with them as human beings who are trying to figure out who they are and what this world is they are finding themselves in.” He adds that “the biggest irony is that teachers, in an attempt to liberate themselves from micro-management and top-down control, turn to an approach [such as evidence-based practice] that makes their students into micro-manageable objects of control, rather than seeing them as human subjects whose own agency is at stake.”

Carol Campbell, in her chapter, also frames the purpose of education as developing the betterment of humanity, and we conclude the book by drawing attention to the human aspects of education.

A key thread here is that of considering the human beings within our schools, something that sounds obvious but is often lost in the relentless call for data, evidence, and quantitative measures of learning, leadership, and effectiveness.

Teacher voice: The challenges

Our challenges in representing teacher and school leader voice in this book serve as an example of the challenges our profession faces in speaking out and speaking up. These included that:

  • Ours is only one book, one platform, and so only a limited number of perspectives could be included. As soon as we filled the volume with contributions, we felt that we could fill a second volume, too.
  • A number of teachers and school leaders were invited to contribute but were either too busy or felt too vulnerable to do so. There are real risks to teachers and school leaders in sharing their views publically.
  • Sharing our views is unpaid. Asking teachers to write, blog, or present is asking them to take part in unpaid labour, outside of their day jobs, and to become part of the noise out there, with no guarantee of being listened to.
  • As teachers and school leaders, our service is first and foremost to the students in our schools and it can feel like a misuse of time to pontificate about education outside of our classrooms and schools. We would argue, however, that speaking up and speaking out can be a service to students and education more broadly.

One small step

Our book is a microcosm of what we would like to see more of in education, although we regret not including student voice in the book. It is one drop-in-the-ocean attempt to amplify, elevate and value the voices of teachers and school leaders. We hope that in our Australian context it will lead to politicians and policymakers seeking out the views and expertise of those in schools. Flipping the system in this way is about building networks and flattening hierarchies so that we can all work together for the good of the students in our schools.

References

Netolicky, D. M., Andrews, J. & Paterson, C. (Eds.). (2019). Flip the System Australia: What matters in education. Routledge.

Wiliam, D. (2014). Teacher expertise: Why it matters, and how to get more of it. Ten essays on improving teacher quality. Available from: http://www.claimyourcollege.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/Dylan-Wiliam.pdf .

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Teaching boys: Part 2

source: pixabay StockSnap

I have reached an age where not only am I a mother myself, but my high school students seem to see me as, or seek me out as, a motherly figure (a great reminder that I am aging!). In my previous post on teaching boys, I explained my own context and suggested that:

  • Boys need a safe and trusting environment with high support and high challenge;
  • Boys respond to engaging curriculum content; and
  • Boys benefit from regular, tangible feedback.

In this follow up post, I explore a more complex issue in boys’ schooling: gender.

Single sex boys’ schools in particular are often associated with cultures of hypermasculinity that outwardly privilege characteristics of male behaviour such as stoicism, hardness and solidarity (Hickey & Mooney, 2017). Schools and teachers can play a part in what kinds of behaviours and successes are normalised and rewarded within the school environment. Those working in schools can ask themselves questions about how gender is normalised. Are boys encouraged to be alpha competitors or are quieter achievement and ways of being also noticed and rewarded? Is the catchphrase ‘boys will be boys’ or ‘he was just joking’ used to dismiss put-downs of others or the objectification of women? Is strength and success measured by sporting prowess and outward expressions of courage or by a range of possible successes in multiple arenas? What does ‘courage’ mean to the school community? Are multiple ways of ‘being a man’ celebrated and held up as exemplars?

Keddie and Mills (2007)–after the #MeToo movement was launched by Tarana Burke but well before it was popularised by going viral on Twitter in 2017–argued that boys’ education must resist cultures that are misogynistic and homophobic. In this blog post, my point about boys’ education is that our boys need to be exposed to, and accepted in their enacting of, a range of behaviours and ways of being good men. To apply Drago-Severson’s holding environment (discussed in Part 1) to this conversation, boys need to feel ‘held’ by school environments that have a “keen awareness for individual needs and differences, and a willingness to honour and see those in our care for who they are and who they are becoming” (Drago-Severson, 2012, p. 47).

Boys need to be around a range of masculinities and femininities, with both men and women teaching boys and leading in boys’ schools

Schools (and indeed families) need to present boys with multiple examples of and ways to be a boy and a young man; and offer them different ways to express ways of being that are traditionally more masculine, as well as those that might be stereotypically considered more feminine.

A common argument in this space is that boys need male role models, and schools need male teachers. However, the promotion of male teachers serving as role models has been critiqued as obsolete, overly simplistic, and based on 1950s thinking (Moreau & Brownhill, 2017). Moreau and Brownhill worry that the ‘male teachers = role models for boys’ belief sells men/masculinities as a solution to teaching boys, and positions women/femininities as a problem in the teaching of boys. This, they argue, reinforces unhelpful gender binaries by perpetuating the existence of the belief that there are irreducible gender differences.

Lingard and Mills (1998) suggest that expectations around masculinity have influenced boys doing a more limited range of subjects that girls in the post-compulsory years of schooling, as they tend not to study humanities, languages and social sciences in the same numbers as girls. They reject a ‘battle of the sexes’ approach to issues in boys’ education, and argue that more equal gender relations can help alleviate the disadvantages some boys experience through dominant school practices of masculinity. Hickey and Mooney (2017) explore the strategic inclusion of female teachers in all-boys schools in order to nurture gender equity and guard against destructive aspects of masculine cultures. The boys that I teach have a ‘village’ of (female and male) teachers and school leaders around them to create the holding environment necessary for them to thrive and succeed in ways most appropriate to their age, stage, needs, idiosyncrasies, and circumstances.

As a mother of boys and a woman working in a boys’ school, I can see the importance of boys having role models that are both male/masculine and female/feminine. In our home, my husband and I provide our children with different types of role modelling and support. We feel it is important that our boys see me in professional and leadership spaces, in addition to nurturing and emotionally-supportive roles, and baker of their birthday cakes. It is equally important to us that they see my husband as open about his feelings, respectful of the women in his life, and capable of running our household, as well as in more traditional roles like rough-and-tumble-play specialist, sporting enthusiast, and boss. Like any family we have divisions of labour, but we make deliberate decisions about how the choices we make at home set examples for our children, as what they see us doing is likely to influence their own lives, relationships, and approach to parenting.

Hope and persistence

Keddie and Mills (2007) write that a recipe list of ‘how to’s or ‘don’t do’s is not the way to think about boys’ education.

“A ‘tips for teachers’ approach—so apparent in many of the current assortment of ‘boys’ books—will not work. Instead what we have found is that teachers who make a difference for boys do so within a framework that involves long-term persistence and that does not sink into despair over a failure on the part of some boys to change. They remain hopeful that change is possible. Their practices of persistence and hope mean that they seek to broaden the limited options currently open to boys, are concerned with the ways in which boys’ behaviours affect each other and girls, reject deficit models of boys through having high expectations of them, both academically and socially, and acknowledge the ways in which gender is affected by matters of class, race and ethnicity.” (Keddie and Mills, 2007, p.3)

Teaching boys is really about being consistent and persistent, while assuming the best of our boys and supporting them through sometimes bumpy journeys and sometimes questionable choices (especially as their prefrontal cortex—the decision-making part of the brain—is under construction for a long time, continuing to develop into adulthood).

We need to believe in our boys; expect high standards and high achievement (that will look different for each boy and his individual situation); and support them emotionally, academically, and socially. As I said in my last post, we need to approach our boys with the stance that we are seeking to understand them and their world. They need to know that we are in their corner, even and especially when they aren’t at their best, or when they are trying on identities that might expose them to vulnerability or ridicule.

 

References

Drago-Severson, E. (2012). Helping educators grow: Strategies and practices for leadership development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education.

Hickey, C., & Mooney, A. (2018). Challenging the pervasiveness of hypermasculinity and heteronormativity in an all-boys’ school. The Australian Educational Researcher45(2), 237-253.

Keddie, A., & Mills, M. (2007). Teaching boys: Developing classroom practices that work. Allen and Unwin: Sydney.

Lingard, B., & Mills, M. (1998). Introductory essay: issues in boys’ education. Change (Sydney, NSW)1(2), 1.

Moreau, M. P., & Brownhill, S. (2017). Teachers and educational policies: Negotiating discourses of male role modelling. Teaching and Teacher Education67, 370-377.

Teaching boys: Part 1

source: pixabay

Boys’ education, including issues in boys’ achievement in schooling, is a field of its own. Education policy and media narratives since the 1990s have emphasised boys’ underachievement in schooling (Moreau & Brownhill, 2017). Hickey and Mooney (2017) note that there has been a ‘crisis of masculinity’ discourse in education, with media and policy fuelling social and moral panic about ‘failing boys’ and ‘poor boys’ and boys as ‘the new disadvantaged’.

I have taught in all-boys high school classrooms for the last 10 years (having before that taught at girls’ schools and co-ed schools). I am a parent of two primary-school-age sons. I’m married to a man. Even our cat is male.

I often try not to be drawn into conversations about girls’ education and boys’ education because every student comes to school with individual needs, regardless of gender. There are differences within boys and amongst girls. My own two children are examples of the differences between boys. Knowing each child—the ‘whole child’ as we often say in teaching—is about looking beyond generalisations and stereotypes, to the individual.

But there are also differences between genders. Boys’ and girls’ brains develop differently and are impacted on by different hormones, leading to differences in developmental stages, and neurological differences in adulthood.

In this post, and in the follow up post, I do some thinking around what is we need to be mindful of in the education of boys in particular. These are reflections, not an exhaustive recipe list or set of ‘how to’ tick boxes. I offer them with the caveat that each school context, each classroom, each teacher, and each child, is unique, and that my thinking continues to evolve.

Boys need a safe and trusting environment with high support and high challenge

The notion of a holding environment was first introduced by psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott in 1960. It continues to be a central tenant of psychoanalysis and has been adopted in arenas including social work and education. It was initially based in the idea that a mother creates a safe, secure environment in which her child feels physically and emotionally ‘held’. Developmental psychologist and professor of adult learning, Ellie Drago-Severson, has used this concept extensively in her work around schools and school leadership. In educational contexts, a holding environment can be an organisational or classroom environment which offers high support and high challenge in order to foster growth. High expectations are important. In our daily work, teachers of boys need to create a safe, connected environment for our students so that they feel ‘held’, supported, and ready to be challenged to be the best they can be.

Relationships are key to boys’ learning. The relationship of each teacher with each boy is key to their readiness and capacity for learning in the classroom. Boys who feel a sense of belonging at school, and who feel supported, cared for, understood, and really ‘seen’ by their teachers, are boys who are ready to learn and to reach their potential. In boys’ education, learning, teaching, and curriculum cannot be de-coupled from relationships, wellbeing, and high levels of pastoral care.

I would add that, in my experience, boys are often more vulnerable than they appear externally, but are sometimes expected not to show, share, or act upon that vulnerability. We need to treat our boys with compassion and an approach that seeks to understand what they are experiencing and how they are feeling, as well as one that helps them find effective strategies for learning and living.

Boys respond to engaging curriculum content

‘Engagement’ is a buzzword in education, one often taken to mean ‘enjoyment’, ‘motivation’, or ‘visible participation’, rather than cognitive engagement in a task. Student engagement in the classroom is emotional, behavioural, and cognitive. This doesn’t mean compliance or constant hand-raising to answer questions; it can be quieter, more subtle, and hard to observe. (Is the child looking out of the window thinking about a maths problem or daydreaming? Are they engaged in learning or are they distracted?)

Yet, while engagement can be hard to see in action, teachers spend a lot of time thinking about it and reflecting on whether it happened. In Australia, English is a compulsory subject to Year 12, so there are students in English classes who don’t have an interest in or aptitude for English, but have to be there anyway. As English teachers, my colleagues and I spend a lot of time thinking about what texts will engage the boys we teach.

Engaging, relevant content can develop boys’ enjoyment, engagement, and curiosity in not only the course material, but also the world around them and their place in it. In English, this includes finding texts that are relevant and interesting, accessible, and thought-provoking. It means constantly mining real-world texts, current events, and topical media and political debates. It also means ensuring that boys encounter texts that challenge their own assumptions and the ways in which power operates in society and in their own lives. For instance, this year my Year 11 Literature class studied The Handmaid’s Tale and the genre of feminist dystopias, and my Year 12 English class often analyses speeches made by politicians as and when they happen.

Boys benefit from regular, tangible feedback

Many boys seem to enjoy competition and quantifiable measures of their success. This is something that the world of video games does so well through points, numbers, badges, rankings, and levels. Through video games, boys can get external and regular rewards for their success, and immediate feedback about where they went wrong, as well as the chance to try again. Getting dressed in the morning at our house is often a race between my husband and our sons, usually as part of an imagined game-type scenario, complete with sports-game-type commentary and good-natured subterfuge.

Feedback to students can have an emotional impact, as well as an influence on learning. Timely and effective feedback that students have the opportunity to respond to, is crucial to improving learning. It also allows teachers to adjust their teaching to most effectively respond to what students know, understand and can do. In classrooms this can be through non-verbals and verbal feedback, either to the class, a group, or an individual. Technologies, such as Kahoot! and Socrative quizzes, online discussion forums, OneNote Class Notebooks, and digital feedback, can add variety and immediacy to the ways in which student receive feedback on their learning. Written comments on assessments are important, as long as students understand them and act upon them.

………

As I wrote this post it became super long, so you can find Part 2 of my thinking around teaching boys in the next post.

References

Drago-Severson, E. (2012). Helping educators grow: Strategies and practices for leadership development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education.

Hickey, C., & Mooney, A. (2018). Challenging the pervasiveness of hypermasculinity and heteronormativity in an all-boys’ school. The Australian Educational Researcher45(2), 237-253.

Moreau, M. P., & Brownhill, S. (2017). Teachers and educational policies: Negotiating discourses of male role modelling. Teaching and Teacher Education67, 370-377.

Teachers and school leaders: Why write?

I challenged myself at the beginning of the year to do less good things in order to do even better things (thank you Dylan Wiliam, for the soundbite inspiration). I work full time as a teacher and senior leader in a school; have a young family, and am myself a human being with relationships, interests, and needs (this last one is something those of us in caring and teaching professions sometimes forget in our commitment to help others).

And I write. On this blog, for academic journals, for education books, for conference presentations. I have also been co-editing a book and a special issue of an academic journal. In order to give back to the machine of academic writing, I also peer review papers for academic journals. All of this is unpaid work and volunteered time, especially as my day job is to serve the students and community of my school. I do have an honorary academic position with a university, but it is just that: honorary. There is no financial reward or professional expectation that I engage in the world of academic publishing.

I’ve been reminded about the writing part of my life this week, as a couple of papers and a chapter have resurfaced from the academic publishing and peer review pipelines through which they have been traveling. Writing for academic journals and books is like that. It comes in peaks and troughs, with pieces disappearing for a time before reappearing to be re-thought, re-written, and re-submitted. There is the original writing of the paper, chapter, or conference abstract—sometimes an immersion or deep dive; sometimes a laborious stop-start process; and sometimes a collaborative dance between authors—followed by the first submission. Then there is the wait for peer reviews, which can take months at a time. By the time the reviewer comments appear, the paper can be looked at with fresh eyes and new energy. Then it’s revise, resubmit, repeat. Once an abstract is accepted it’s time to think about preparing the presentation (ok, maybe not until closer to the conference date); or once a paper is accepted and it goes into production, contracts, queries from copyeditors, and checks from typesetters follow.

So why do I spend time in these writing, co-writing, and revision processes? Why write at all when the job of a teacher or school leader is so busy already?

Here are my three top reasons for engaging in academic writing as a teacher and school leader.

  1. WRITING BEGETS READING

It may seem counter intuitive, but to engage in writing, I need to engage in reading. Each time I write or revise a paper, chapter, or a blog post, I return to research literature in order to check in with the current state of play in education research. So academic writing incites academic reading and engagement with research. It keeps my thinking current and keeps me on top of education debates, knowledge, and research findings.

  1. PEER REVIEW BUILDS MY CAPACITY TO RECEIVE FEEDBACK

The peer review process is usually double blind, which means that the reviewers don’t know who the author is, and the author doesn’t know who the reviewers are. This means that peer review feedback on academic writing is very honest. There is no sugar coating or euphemising of feedback. Reviewers tell you what they think: the good, the bad, and the brutal. They pull no punches.

Receiving peer review feedback has helped me to be a better receiver of feedback in my working life. It means that I have a process for considering critique. In the school environment this might be honest comments submitted to anonymous staff or student surveys, or verbal push back from staff about a change or a professional expectation.

I sit with difficult feedback for a while. I consider it and turn it over, step away from it, and return to it seeking to understand the perspective of the reviewer. I ask myself questions like: What didn’t they understand and why? What could be made clearer or more meaningful? What assumptions might I have made in my writing or decision making that need adjustment in order for the work or intervention to be improved?

Engaging in double blind peer review has meant that I actively seek out critical, candid feedback, and that I can sit with, consider, seek to understand, and then thoughtfully act upon that feedback.

  1. CONTRIBUTING A PRACTISING EDUCATOR VOICE TO EDUCATION NARRATIVES

There is a necessity for, and a credibility that comes from, teachers and school leaders having a voice in education narratives. We are the ones each day in classrooms, with students, communicating with parents, considering the hard and soft data of our practice and making hundreds of decisions per day. Writing about our work, our experiences, our thinking, our expertise, and our wisdom and problems of practice, promotes conversations between educators across contexts and contributes practitioner voices to education narratives, so often dominated by those not actually in the business of teaching.

The upcoming book I’ve co-edited, Flip the System Australia: What Matters in Education, is all about the importance of listening to, and inviting to decision making and policymaking tables, teachers and school leaders. It argues that education systems should not be top-down and driven by political election cycles and vote-grabbing, but by deep engagement with the teaching profession and those who actually work, every day, in schools.

I hope that my writing encourages others working in schools to speak out, and to write about their thinking, experiences, and expertise.

4 years of blogging

I began this blog four years ago, on 23 August 2014. On reflection (thank you, WordPress stats), my five most-read blog posts of the last four years are as follows:

  1. What I now know about the doctorate: Illuminating the PhDarkness (2015)
  2. Can and should teachers be (viewed as) researchers? (2015)
  3. Doing PhD revisions: The last thesis embrace (2016)
  4. The Research Lead Down Under (2017)
  5. Evidence for Learning in Australia (2017)

Over the last four years my blogging has ebbed and flowed. I began writing monthly, increased that to fortnightly and then weekly for some time, and have this year given myself permission to blog more sporadically, in between work, family life and some bigger projects I am undertaking, such as co-editing the imminent Flip the System Australia book. Perhaps that’s why no 2018 posts have made it into my top 5: slower blog productivity.

But my blog isn’t about readership. It isn’t even about me. It’s about being part of the global education hive mind in which we—educators and the education world—are better together. We are better because we propel one another, better because we connect with one another, and better because we challenge one another. Blogging is one way to engage in the networked web of knowledge and thinking in education. It is a way to reach out from our familiar daily contexts to find out what’s happening in the rest of the country and the world.

I began this blog for the purpose of documenting one professional trip. I continued blogging because of what it gave me: a space to explore my thinking and to connect with others around topics about which I am passionate and in which I am immersed. I have connected with teachers, educators, parents and scholars from around the world thanks to this blog. These interactions have enriched and influenced my thinking.

My first blog post, about my then-upcoming travelling fellowship to New York, opened with this quote from Andy Hargreaves and Dennis Shirley’s 2009 book The Fourth Way: The Inspiring Future of Educational Change:

It’s time to bring the magic and wonder back into teaching. It’s time to recover the missionary spirit and deep moral purpose of engaging and inspiring all our students. It’s time to put down the spreadsheets and look to each other and elsewhere for how to get beyond the present turning point so we can transform our society and our schools.

This quote still resonates with me four years on (which even then was five years on from when Hargreaves and Shirley’s book was published). It resonates because education continues to become more corporatised and more data obsessed. (Just look at Gonski 2.0’s observation that schools are gaming ATAR data, its recommendation that teachers have more data at their fingertips, and its proposed formative assessment tool to track student growth and progress). Buzzwords abound, thrown around often without a clear understanding of what they mean. ‘The research says’ is often an empty phrase used to justify the twists and turns of education directions. Teacher and school leader workloads continue to increase and student wellbeing is an ongoing concern. Relentless silver bullets, promising answers to education ‘problems’, are fired from think tanks, politicians and the media. The fast cycle of education policy, blame, and distrust presses in on a profession who often feel bruised and marginalised by the system in which they work.

Do educators need to be informed by a range of data and evidence? Yes. Should we to aim to continuously improve our practice and the learning of the students in our care? Yes. But we also need to be present with one another and with our students. To close our emails, step away from our spreadsheets, and look each other in the eye. To notice one another. To connect with the individuals within our communities, and with why we teach. To stop sometimes and celebrate what we’ve achieved or how we’ve grown. To be teachers energised by the difference we are making, not teacher-mice on perpetually-turning wheels of marking, data analysis and evaluation, who are always racing but never arriving.

So, as I look back to my maiden blog post, I think that we still need to remember our moral purpose as educators: education for the good of each individual and for the greater good.

Knowledge is always the new black

Le Penseur; source: pixabay jstarj

In education, 21st century skills, future-focused capabilities, emotional intelligence and ‘soft skills’ are all the rage. The OECD has launched an OECD PISA Global Competence Framework, which will be the basis for the PISA 2018 Global Competence assessment, which seems to indicate that international standardised tests are now intending to measure “the capacity to examine local, global and intercultural issues, to understand and appreciate the perspectives and world views of others, to engage in open, appropriate and effective interactions with people from different cultures, and to act for collective well-being and sustainable development.” In Australia, the Gonski 2.0 report recommends further embedding of and emphasis on the Australia Curriculum General Capabilities—which include critical and creative thinking, ethical and intercultural understanding, and personal and social capability—in order to “equip every child to be a creative, connected and engaged learner in a rapidly changing world.”

While teachers don’t choose between teaching knowledge or teaching skills, there is a continuum along which a teacher might sit in terms of which way they lean in their teaching. While the curriculum provides an anchor, what is favoured when planning and teaching? What comes first in a learning plan: explicit teacher-led instruction or inquiry exploration? What does the assessment task measure and in what ways are students asked to demonstrate their knowledge, understanding and skills? I have written before about my own approach to knowledge and skills in my own English and Literature classrooms.

While there are politics involved (What should students know? Who decides? What knowledge is privileged? What knowledges are marginalised or excluded?), it should be obvious to state that knowledge is crucial in education. Knowing stuff is absolutely fundamental for teachers and for students. Teachers know their stuff and are both subject knowledge experts, and experts in teaching and learning. Students need to learn, apply, revisit and revise the stuff. The discipline-specific stuff might be facts, formulae, terminology, texts, concepts, processes, and strategies.

During last week’s CONASTA conference (the Australian Science Teachers’ Association annual conference) Minister for Education Simon Birmingham said in an interview “we know that students will get the best possible opportunity if the teacher in front of them is skilled in and passionate about the scientific subject that they’re teaching. Australian students deserve to have the skilled physicists teaching physics, skilled chemists teaching chemistry, skilled biologists teaching biology and mathematicians teaching maths.”

Australia’s Chief Scientist Alan Finkel addressed the conference. In his speech on raising 21st century citizens he noted that “in 2018, there is still a fundamental duty to teach students content: concepts, facts and principles. Taught by teachers trained as experts in that content, with all the status and resources and professional development that we would demand in any other expert occupation.” He added: “I have had many, many meetings with employers, in my role as Chief Scientist and as Deputy Chair of Innovation and Science Australia; and six before that, as Chancellor of Monash University and President of the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering; and before that, as the CEO of a publicly listed company. In all my meetings with people actually hiring graduates, no-one has ever said to me: ‘gosh, we don’t have enough people who know how to collaborate’.’ No, what they say to me is: ‘we don’t have enough specialists in software engineering. We can’t find graduates who are fluent in maths. We have meetings where three quarters of the people in the room can’t critique a set of numbers without pulling out a calculator and slowing us down.’” This alludes to cognitive load theory; we need plenty of knowledge in our long-term memory so that when we come to thinking, creating, or collaborating, we are able to use our short-term memories to do thinking, solving or creating.

In his new book, Creating the schools our children need: Why what we’re doing now won’t help much (and what we can do instead), Dylan Wiliam notes that skills are discipline-specific, rather than transferable. He challenges whether some so-called skills are skills at all. He writes that “the big mistake we have made in the United States, and indeed in many other countries, is to assume that if we want students to think, then our curriculum should give students lots of practice in thinking. This is a mistake because what our students need is more to think with. The main purpose of curriculum is to build up the content of long-term memory so that when students are asked to think, they are able to think in more powerful ways” (p.134). He adds that “the only way to make humans more capable in their thinking is to expand the store of things that they have to think with—in other words, to have more knowledge in long-term memory” (p.155).

An example of discipline-specific knowledge as inextricable from critical thinking, creativity, collaboration and communication is the PhD. A major criteria of a PhD is to make an original contribution to knowledge. This means thinking critically to design appropriate research questions; synthesising and analysing literature; designing and applying a systematic research method; drawing together results and findings; and discussing what it is that these contribute to the body of knowledge that currently exists. There is both critical thinking and creativity in this process. It is impossible to argue for an original contribution to knowledge if you do not yet know the existing knowledge base. In the PhD there is collaboration and communication with participants and supervisors; and the all-important communication with the reader. There is a lot of knowledge at work here: knowledge of the field of research, knowledge of your own research and how it fits into and adds to the field, knowledge of the appropriate language to use for various audiences and modes of communication.

A more mundane example might be cake-baking. This week, I baked and iced a bowling ball cake at the request of my son, for his bowling alley party. The task actually took plenty of knowledge, applied from previous baking successes and failures, and also from my Fine Art background. I had to plan how to make a spherical cake that had structural integrity. It needed to hold together, stand on a cake board, and be transported to the venue intact. I worked to marble and polish the buttercream icing so it looked shiny, as well as to make the holes in the ball.

We often don’t know what we don’t know, and downplaying knowledge leaves us wide open to the Dunning-Kruger effect in which we overestimate our capacities. If we are critical thinkers, we need content about which to think, and theory on which to build. If we are creators, we need to know what has come before in order to know that what we are creating is inventive and not a rehash of what has already been done. If we are innovating, we need to fully understand the problem. We need to know rules before we can bend them, and we need to know content before we can tinker with it or move beyond it.

Australian singer-songwriter Peter Allen sang that “everything old is new again.” No matter the education flavour of the month—grit, growth mindset, STEM, coding, virtual reality, flexible seating, mindfulness—knowledge should always be in vogue.

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.