Preparing students for their future

source: @Jordan_Singh ipixabay.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Evidence-based practice for sustainable school change

Graphic representation of my keynote presentation, drawn live by Pat Grant

Yesterday I presented the final keynote at the Association of Independent Schools NSW Evidence Institute’s two-day Education Research Symposium: Wrong way go back: A wayfinding approach to evidence-based practice for sustainable school change.

The keynote was based in the current context in which schools are operating; one of relentless global uncertainty, disruption, and disunity. Teachers and school leaders are tasked with working towards change within schools that is meaningful, sustainable, and best serves the current and future needs of our students and communities. So I sought to draw theory and practice together to articulate how I approach school change that sticks, energises, engages critically with evidence, brings the community along, and improves education for the betterment of students.

My keynote explored the metaphor of wayfinding—a purposeful, directive process of determining and adjusting our route between an origin and a destination—as a framework for guiding evidence-based educators. This metaphor is one co-author Claire Golledge and I explored in our recent chapter ‘Wayfinding: Navigating multiple identities for sustainable school leadership’, in the book Future Alternatives for Educational Leadership: Diversity, Inclusion, Equity, and Democracy. While anchoring ourselves in where we are and what previous research can tell us gives us a starting point for our work in schools, change that is meaningful and sustainable needs to also engage in futures thinking and wayfinding practices so that we might navigate the complexities and tensions of the current education landscape.

This presentation provided insights into what it means to be an evidence-informed educator and the definitions, possibilities, and pitfalls of evidence-based practice in education. I recommended Gary Jones’ excellent, sense-making book Evidence-based school leadership and management: A practical guide. I explored how a wayfinding approach to evidence-based practice can allow educators to act with a balance of systematisation and responsiveness, drawing together research and evidence with practice, futures thinking, and deep knowledge of context.

It was wonderful to be part of a line-up of speakers including Christine Grice, Mark Rickinson, Connie Cirkony, Jenny Donovan, Mary Ryan, Pasi Sahlberg, Jim Tognolini and Amy Graham.

My slides are below.

Do we need innovation in education?

source: pixabbay @PIRO4D

Rooted in the Latin word novus (meaning ‘new’), innovation has been a catch cry in education and other sectors for decades. But ‘new’ does not equate to ‘better’. Most would argue that to innovate is not to pursue only novelty, but change for added value and improvement. Educational innovation can: improve learning outcomes and the quality of education provision; help enhance equity in the access to and use of education, as well as equality in learning outcomes; improve the effectiveness and efficiency of educational practices and services; and ensure education remains relevant by introducing the changes it needs to adapt to societal needs (OECD, 2016).

Wu and Lin (2019) use the term ‘educational entrepreneurs’ to describe educators who analyse problems, recognise opportunities, and pragmatically create meaningful solutions. Couros (2015) talks about innovators needing to be empathetic, questioning, risk taking, networked, observant, creative, resilient and reflective, qualities we would like to see in our students, teachers and school leaders. Networks are becoming ever-more important in enhancing global education innovation (Azorín et al., 2021).

I explored on this blog, pre-COVID in 2019, whether we needed innovation in schools, and what being innovative might look like: growth-focused, student-centred change from the ground up that challenges accepted and dominant ways of thinking about education. I wrote (Netolicky, 2020) that the pandemic-forced education innovations we were living through in 2020 were not well-planned and deliberate models of best practice, but rather temporary crisis responses. In the introduction to the recently released book Future Alternatives for Educational Leadership (Netolicky, 2021), I describe my perception of the educational experience of 2020, including constant emergency response planning and re-planning, remote teaching, remote leading, online professional learning, exacerbated inequities, and erosion of wellbeing.

COVID-19 did not reveal schools to be obsolete factories of irrelevant content, but hubs of community, engagement, relationships, values and care (AERA Educational Change Special Interest Group, 2021). We discovered that remote learning and online professional development have benefits and possibilities, but also pitfalls. We appreciated that schools are vital places of learning, belonging, support, friendship and safety for students, and for families. We learned what we already knew – that teachers are committed experts who work to serve their students no matter what the circumstances, and that teaching is a complex, nuanced practice of great value for reasons beyond academic achievement. Now, still mid-pandemic, after a period of necessitated innovation by educators around the globe, I continue to feel that we do not need innovation for innovation’s sake, but that we do need to constantly evolve, reflect, iterate, and respond to socio-economic local and global developments.

The pandemic silver linings in education include: a focus on flexibility in the how and when of learning, teaching and work; an acceleration in the meaningful and creative use of digital technologies; a reconsideration around what engagement, relevance and agency mean in teaching and learning; and an expansion of accepted learning pathways. Early offers to university and flexible university admissions processes have lifted the focus from university entrance examinations, opening up new ways for students to demonstrate suitability and gain entry. This allows schools to move further in the direction of inclusive, exciting and varied senior secondary and post-school pathways for students.

I agree with Zhao and Watterston’s (2021) argument for an educative focus on lifelong learning, student autonomy, self-regulation, happiness, wellbeing, opportunity, and contribution to humanity. I’m not convinced, however, about their suggestion that school subjects such as history and physics disappear, or that direct instruction be ‘cast away’. I feel now, more than ever, that what we need in education is to do our core business as well as we can. That means educating students, developing them as lifelong learners, helping them to be well people of curiosity, character, knowledge, skill, resilience, and adaptability who know who they are, who they want to be, and how to develop themselves and collaborate with others to address real problems.

The conditions need to be right for a mindset and culture of productive and collaborative innovation with students at its heart. The capacity for organisational innovation is influenced by leadership through values, structures, strategies, policies and practices, and by the collective culture of attitudes and behaviours (Amabile & Pratt, 2016). Those working in schools benefit from being helped to imagine possible futures and guided in choosing a preferred option (Jónsdóttir & Macdonald, 2019). Innovation that finds solutions to complex and previously unforeseen problems requires diverse, multidisciplinary teams with members who are resilient, capable of complex analysis, able to embrace others’ perspectives, and who trust one another (Kresta, 2021). It also requires well-considered and robust evaluation to guide future innovations and avoid being stuck at the level of well-intended but isolated pioneering efforts (OECD, 2016).

If we focus on the human, on learning, wellbeing and inclusion, we have a foundation stone on which to make decisions for the best interests of our students and the people within our school communities. If we build cultures of trust, psychological safety, high challenge and high support, we create the conditions for school-based innovation that is student-centred and context-respecting. If we apply consultative, systematic, evidence-informed and futures-looking processes of improvement, we have ways to move forward in productive, value-adding directions. If innovations—big and small—are to lead to the compelling education vision they seek to realise, school and system leaders need to approach any desired improvement with a balance of systematisation and responsiveness, with a deep knowledge of context and cultural readiness, and with clear and ongoing communication and feedback.

As one of my children’s teachers once told me, education is about doing good, not looking good. Innovation in this sense is not about seeking newness, difference, radicalness or shiny edu-confections. We should always be working towards better serving our students, better preparing them for the changing and uncertain world, with the knowledge, skills, capabilities and character they need to find their best success, be their best selves, and contribute positively to their world. If innovation is constant, context-embedded iteration towards the best outcomes for students, then it should be our natural way of operating in schools.

References

  • AERA Educational Change Special Interest Group, 2021. Lead the Change Series Q&A with Deborah Netolicky. Lead the Change Series, 116, 1-8.
  • Amabile, T. M., & Pratt, M. G. (2016). The dynamic componential model of creativity and innovation in organizations: Making progress, making meaning. Research in organisational behaviour36, 157-183.
  • Azorín, C., Harris, A., & Jones, M. (2021). Distributed leadership and networking: Exploring the evidence base. In D. M Netolicky (Ed.) Future Alternatives for Educational Leadership. Routledge.
  • Couros, G. (2015). The innovator’s mindset. San Diego, CA: Dave Burgess Consulting.
  • Jónsdóttir, S. R., & Macdonald, M. A. (2019). The feasibility of innovation and entrepreneurial education in middle schools. Journal of Small Business and Enterprise Development.
  • Kresta, S. M. (2021). Teaching innovation in an age of disruption. The Canadian Journal of Chemical Engineering.
  • Netolicky, D. M. (2020). School leadership during a pandemic: navigating tensions. Journal of Professional Capital and Community.
  • Netolicky, D. M. (2021). Introduction: What’s now and what’s next in educational leadership. In D. M Netolicky (Ed.) Future Alternatives for Educational Leadership (pp. 1-10). Routledge.
  • OECD (2016), Innovating Education and Educating for Innovation: The Power of Digital Technologies and Skills. OECD Publishing.
  • Wu, S., & Lin, C. Y. Y. (2019). Educational innovation, educational entrepreneurs and ecosystem. In Innovation and Entrepreneurship in an Educational Ecosystem (pp. 43-53). Springer, Singapore.
  • Zhao, Y., & Watterston, J. (2021). The changes we need: Education post COVID-19. Journal of Educational Change22(1), 3-12.

Differentiation: Teacher responsiveness meets student agency

Balls, Marbles, Round, Alone, Different, Diversity
Source: @SplitShire pixabay

There are some words educators use that can mean little to parents and students, and there are education buzzwords that are ubiquitous but mean different things to different people. Differentiation is one pervasive and important term that school communities would benefit from teasing out beyond its basic definition to a shared understanding of what it means and what it looks like in practice.

Differentiation is a deceptively simple concept that embodies layers of complexity when implemented effectively. Rooted in the word difference, differentiation is about inclusion and equity of access to learning for all students. It is about student engagement, learning and achievement, based in the assumption that all students deserve opportunities for learning challenge, support, growth and success.

Carol Ann Tomlinson (2008) calls differentiated instruction ‘student-aware teaching’ that empowers students as autonomous learners. Kylie Bice (2017) describes differentiation as “the art of each teacher knowing their students well in order to ensure learning gain for every child.” Tomlinson (2017) defines differentiation as giving students “multiple options for taking in information, making sense of ideas, and expressing what they learn. In other words, a differentiated classroom provides different avenues to acquiring content, to processing or making sense of ideas, and to developing products so that each student can learn effectively.”

Differentiation is not a specific strategy, but a set of understandings and practices that come together to address the diverse needs of learners. Differentiating means considering when and how it is appropriate to adjust content, process, product and learning environment. It is context dependent and student dependent. While there are key underlying principles and best practices, schools will have their own frameworks, policies, programs and practices for differentiating and for ‘how we understand and do differentiation around here’.

Quality differentiation requires teachers to know their students and students to increasingly know themselves as learners.

For teachers, this means systematically, thoughtfully planning curriculum delivery and assessment based on best practice and the best available evidence. It means continually generating and responding to data that includes standardised, individualised, formative and summative information about student learning, achievement and even wellbeing. It means setting appropriately high expectations for each child and regularly checking on their knowledge and understanding. Differentiated teaching is adaptive and flexible enough to respond to the needs of the child, class and cohort. Teachers develop and refine their suite of differentiation beliefs and strategies over time. These strategies span planning, programming, resourcing, classroom practice, use of data to inform teaching and learning, intervention, support, enrichment, extension, feedback and assessment.

Tomlinson (2017) argues that a differentiated classroom follows a rhythmic, organic sequence of whole-class instruction, review, and sharing, followed by individual or small-group exploration, extension and production. She (2008) describes teaching strategies that embrace flexibility such as small-group instruction, reading partners, text at varied reading levels, personalised rubrics, mini-workshops, product and task options with common learning goals, varied homework assignments, intentional student groupings and ongoing assessment. Bice (2017) outlines a range of differentiation foci for teachers such as pre-assessment, data to ability-group students, writing differentiated success criteria, flexible grouping, building content knowledge, increasing students’ ability to work in­dependently and designing marking rubrics.

For students, differentiation means becoming engaged in choices in their learning and understanding themselves as learners, with guidance from their teachers. Personalised learning puts the student at the centre as agentic, active participant in their own learning. As agents of their own learning, students set goals, take responsibility, participate, reflect, influence, and respond to feedback as an opportunity to grow.

My experience as a teacher who focuses on student needs and empowering students as learners results in opportunities to partner with students in their learning and witness their engagement in learning. A current example is in my Year 12 Literature class in which students are beginning work on their final assignment. Through a creation in a form of their choice they will explore and demonstrate what the study of Literature has taught them about themselves and the world. Students are telling me that they are having to monitor the time they are spending on this assignment, as they are so immersed they’re finding it hard to pull away from their flow state to focus on their other courses. Highly personalised learning—a rarity in the standardised world of Year 12 assessments—is resulting in imaginative and thorough engagement with the course material in ways that allow students to drive their learning and for me to work alongside each young person at their point of need.

Differentiating instruction does not mean individualising learning for every child, or students never doing the same thing at the same time. It absolutely does not mean the end of teacher-led instruction. Differentiation is about beginning with an understanding of each learner. It involves balancing whole-class and explicit instruction with opportunities for inquiry, student choice, and support in smaller groups or one-on-one. It is about designing and negotiating formative and summative assessments that allow learners to demonstrate their understanding and skills in ways that are varied but also manageable within a classroom context. Differentiation is part systematisation and part intuition. It requires trusting the expertise of teachers and the capacity of students. At its heart it is a set of practices of equity and inclusion.

References

Bice, K. (2017). Leading differentiation. E-Leading, 6. Australian Council for Educational Leaders, 1-3.

Tomlinson, C. A. (2008). The goals of differentiation. Educational leadership66(3), 26-30.

Tomlinson, C. A. (2017). How to differentiate instruction in academically diverse classrooms. ASCD.

Learning and wellbeing: Two sides of the same coin

Source: @jplenio on pixabay

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another review of Australian initial teacher education

A review of Australian initial teacher education (ITE) has been launched today by Education Minister Alan Tudge (the sixth review since 2014). The Minister tweeted that this review “is the most critical element of our target to return Australia to the top group of education nations globally by 2030”, but with about 300,000 Australian teachers currently teaching in Australian schools, this move looks like a political distraction designed to provide a seemingly simplistic solution to ‘fix’ an apparent education problem in which Australian education is described as ‘falling behind’ with ‘standards slipping’.

The quality of teaching is cited in the Minister’s media release as “the most critical element towards lifting standards” and “the most important in-school factor influencing student achievement”. The important part of this statement is that the quality of teaching is generally accepted as the most important SCHOOL-BASED factor influencing student learning and achievement, but is eclipsed by social, cultural and economic factors outside a school’s control.

What is needed is to provide teachers with trust, support, resourcing, time and professional learning. The Gonski 2.0 report, the Australian Principal Health and Wellbeing Survey, the Gallop Inquiry, and Monash University’s Social Cohesion in Victorian Schools Report, all point to teacher and school leader workload intensification, increasing complexity of roles and the work of schools, erosion of wellbeing, and the need for time for meaningful collaboration, planning, assessment, and monitoring of student progress. The pandemic has revealed that what is needed in our schools and school systems is addressing of systemic inequities, and a considered focus on and investment in wellbeing of students, teachers and school leaders, alongside a focus on learning for all.

While it is a longer and more difficult game to address systemic inequities and the work of the teaching profession (than to form a panel of four people to provide recommendations on teacher training), it is work that needs to be done. If the government wants the ‘best and brightest’ in the teaching profession, then the profession itself needs to be trusted, valued, and attractive to those entering ITE.

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 wellbeing: Time and money

source: @nikkotations at unsplash.com

In 2019 I blogged about the increasing concerns about teacher and school leader wellbeing. I’ve lately been thinking a lot about wellbeing in education. It was brought into stark focus during the pandemic reality of 2020. I wrote in this journal 2020 article in the Journal of Professional Capital and Community that:

At this time more than ever, we must consider humans before outcomes, students before results and wellbeing before learning.

I discussed wellbeing in this 2020 contribution for the special edition e-book Education Disrupted, Education Reimagined: Responses from education’s frontline during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond, published by the World Innovation Summit for Education, Salzburg Global Seminar and the Diplomatic Courier. In it, I stated the following.

We need to put safety, health, and wellbeing before formal education, curriculum, pedagogy, and especially assessment. Community, connectedness and relationships need to be at the forefront of education decisions and practices. This is a time to focus first on the humanity in education, from a position of seeking to understand and accommodate for the complex circumstances of those in our communities.

Wellbeing continues to become a hotter and hotter topic in education.

Wellbeing is noted as part of a ‘right driver’ in Michael Fullan’s new paper ‘The right drivers for whole system success’ in which he argues that wellbeing and learning are inextricably integrated into a foundation based on equity, knowledge, engagement and connection to the world. The Association of Independent Schools of NSW has just launched a 12-18 month program on navigating whole school wellbeing. This week the Gallop Inquiry released its findings around the complexity and workload intensification of teaching, and the need for teachers to have more time to plan, collaborate, and monitor student learning. Ask any teacher what they need more of and the answer will be: time!

Yesterday, a UK educator tweeted about the use of school funds to send care packages to staff while they are in lockdown and working from home. A long thread of replies ensued, with a range of responses from ‘school leadership do/should pay for gifts and wellbeing initiatives for staff out of their own pockets’ to ‘this is improper use of school funds’ and ‘staff wellbeing is more than buying treats’. Many tweeters invoked the Nolan Principles, suggesting that buying food or paying for things that might be considered wellbeing initiatives for staff constituted unethical or dishonest use of school funds, or that every dollar or pound spent in a school needs to have a direct impact on student outcomes.

In my view (although it is something most of us do or have done), teachers shouldn’t be expected to buy classroom materials out of their wages, nor should school leaders have to provide staff wellbeing initiatives out of their own salaries. Teaching is a caring profession, but the trope of the hero teacher who sacrifices their own needs, money and health for the good of their students is unhelpful. Educators need to give themselves permission to fit their own oxygen masks first, so that they can serve others. Schools should be able to consider ways in which they can take care of their staff, appropriate to their own budget and context. Looking after staff takes time and money. A school leader’s time spent checking in with a staff member; a thank you card; tea and coffee in the staff room; providing relief cover for a teacher’s lesson so they can collaborate with colleagues, attend a course or address a personal matter; a morning tea; the flu (or coronavirus!) vaccine; investing in professional learning. At what point does spending money on staff and on developing the wider culture of a school, become controversial?

Wellbeing is one of the pillars of my school’s new strategic plan, so we are having robust discussions about how to support the wellbeing of all in our community, and about what being well really means. Our discussions are about culture, feel, belonging, workload, teamness, a sense of purpose and togetherness. Wellbeing and learning are the foundation of my school’s framework for our K-12 learners to explicitly engage with those attributes found to be those of people who continue to learn and engage in meaningful work throughout their lives.

Wellbeing (as well as learning and teaching) is at the heart of our new staff development suite, which is based in Martin Seligman’s PERMA framework, as a way to support staff’s (P) positive emotions, (E) engagement in valuable work, (R) rewarding relationships, (M) meaning in their work, and (A) achievement and feeling of accomplishment. The suite of staff development options is based not on evaluation and surveillance, but on a sense of belonging, authentic connectedness, vibrant professional community, purposeful collaboration, central purpose, and meaningful feedback. It is focused on the voice, choice, ownership and agency of staff. It takes time and investment in people. Professional learning, too, costs money, and is part of improving student outcomes and teacher expertise, but also about wellbeing through valuing and growing staff, and supporting them to reach their goals.

When it comes to staff wellbeing, as I noted in the above recent blog post,

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.

Trust, too, is key to the wellbeing of the teaching profession. Schools need to cultivate cultures of trust. Teachers need to be trusted by parents, the media, and government. Trusting teachers to be the professional experts they are allows teachers to focus on their core business of teaching and supporting the students in their care. Looking after staff is key to retaining them within positive cultures of people working together for the good of their community. Nuanced attention to staff wellbeing takes intentionality, thoughtfulness, a framework for decision making, time, and often money.

Distance Learning 3.0: Ready to launch

source: pixabay WikiImages

Today I shared with teaching staff our school Distance Learning Plan 3.0. While Western Australia continues—for now—in a bubble of semi-normality, we are aware, as other places in the country and the world show, that COVID-19 is an illness that can explode in a community at any time, despite the best precautions.

At my school, we enacted distance learning during Term 1 for a period of about three weeks, and then were ‘locked down’ during the two week school holiday break before students began returning to school for Term 2. We generated feedback from our community at that time, which suggested the following for our next round of distance learning.

  • We need to ensure we are differentiating our approach. Distance learning needs to look different for different ages and stages, and for different subjects. As a kindergarten to Year 12 school, students (and their parents!) require varied approaches to distance learning, relevant to developmental age and capacity for autonomy in learning. Older children are more likely to cope with increased opportunities for flexibility and independence; younger children need scaffolds, structures, technologies and resources appropriate to them. Subjects that are more content heavy and theoretical require different approaches to those that are more practical. We need to fit the pedagogical and technological tools to the learning purpose.
  • We need to support student organisation, structure and routine. For example, by setting out for students a clear structure to the day, and a clear plan for the day and week in advance so they can plan accordingly and be flexible and autonomous in their work.
  • We need to provide live video lessons and pastoral video check-ins, for learning and connectedness.
  • We need to provide a range of teaching and learning content, blending modes and approaches.
  • Predictable and streamlined communication works best. The Goldilocks approach is what we are aiming for here: not too little and not too much.
  • Workload needs to be manageable for students and teachers. My understanding from colleagues in Victoria and overseas is that long term lock down–including working, teaching and learning from home–is exhausting for all. Especially in the early years, set work for children needs to be manageable for parents.
  • Wellbeing is essential. Ill-being, trauma, anxiety and inequities have increased in our world during this global pandemic (which was preceded in Australia by a terrifying bushfire season). We need to build in time and encouragement for nutrition, hydration and physical activity, and regular breaks from screens and from the relentlessness of a life in constant lock down.

The main elements of our Distance Learning 3.0 model are the following.

  • Teacher instruction: in short bursts of 15-30 minutes, delivered synchronously (live) and asynchronously (for students to access in their own time).
  • Student collaboration: through virtual and online platforms.
  • Student independent work: in which students manage their own time and work autonomously.
  • Student reflection: in which they are encouraged to use metacognitive strategies, reflect on own learning and set clear targets for improvement.

All of these elements are underpinned by trust in the professional capacity and professional judgement of teachers as experts in curriculum (what they are teaching), pedagogy (how to teach so students learn), and their students.

key elements of our Distance Learning Plan 3.0 – wellbeing is central

Wellbeing is at the centre of our distance learning model. We have deliberately built in a focus on the wellbeing of our students, parents, and teachers by integrating the following.

  • Shortening lesson times and increasing break times during periods of distance learning.
  • Including one Student-Directed Learning Day per week for Years K-10. This day is a ‘non-contact’ day of learning in which students organise their time to complete set work, and teachers prepare, mark and respond to student queries. The day will be cycled through the days of the week, depending on when distance learning begins (e.g. Monday one week, Tuesday the next, and so on).
  • Paring back content to the essentials and rethinking the way students can engage with content.
  • Reconsidering the ways in which students can show their learning, and redesigning or rescheduling assessments where appropriate.
  • Continuing to act with kindness, compassion and empathy.

Our Distance Learning Plan 3.0 is the plan we hope to never have to use, but as I explained in my last post, it’s the plan we would be irresponsible to be without.

Teacher expertise, voice and action

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

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

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

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

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

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

Expertise

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

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

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

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

Voice

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

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

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

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

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

Action

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

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

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

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

We can ask ourselves:

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