Feedback to maximise student progress and minimise teacher workload

Source: pixabay @Darkmoon_Art

Giving meaningful feedback to students is a key lever for improving student progress, and also a primary draw on teacher time. On the latest episode of my podcast, The Edu Salon, I discuss feedback with Professor Dylan Wiliam, including what feedback is most likely to be effective for student learning, and how feedback practices can address issues of teacher workload. Dylan reminds us that feedback is not to improve the work, but to improve the learner. It should not be a post-mortem dissection of past work, but rather provide understandable information about, and incite action towards, how to improve next time. For feedback to be effective, the student needs to engage with it, reflect on it, seek to understand it, and act on it.

Teachers employ a range of feedback strategies such as: marking and annotating student work; whole-class feedback through markers’ reports unpacking trends and patterns; marking keys showing what correct or good answers include; rubrics that describe what students can do and the next level of achievement; exemplars of student work to illustrate what good responses looks like; and videos of student practical or performed work for students to reflect upon. Teachers work towards provision and processes of feedback that allow students to do the thinking around feedback, rather than merely emotively reacting to a mark. This might be by protecting time for students to process and act on feedback, withholding marks until the student has acted on feedback, or providing opportunities for students to re-do tasks.

This week, I returned the marked mid-year examination to my Year 12 Literature class. This is a deliberately slow and intentional process that takes at least one lesson. First, I explain to students that what I am least interested in is the mark they received, and what I am most interested in is what they can learn in order to make improvements between now and their next exam. Then, the students receive the written reflection proforma, exam paper, and markers’ report (outlining the marking key and the whole-cohort feedback). Then, students reflect in writing about what they learned through their experience of revising, preparing for, and sitting the exam. For instance, was the exam paper what they expected? Were they adequately prepared? Were they familiar with the terminology and concepts of the questions? Did their exam strategy and time management work well, or would these benefit from adjustments? Next, students receive their annotated papers and build on their reflection. What were their strengths? On what could they improve? What could they do and what will they do between now and the next exam?

Once students have reflected as much as possible, shown me their reflection, and we have had a one-on-one conversation about their learnings and planned actions, they receive the rubrics that include their marks, as well as indicating where they went well and less well in addressing the criteria. They then complete their written reflection and upload a summary of what they did well, and what action they will take to improve. In the lessons following (and/or between lessons at other scheduled times), I make time to speak to each individual student about their understanding of the feedback, what they have done well, and how to best invest their time to improve. Students often re-write their least successful response, or set a plan for practising responses to questions and revising content.

Giving feedback, as important as it is, should be manageable for the teacher. In Western Australia, the curriculum authority is moving towards a rule of no more than eight assessments across the year (including examinations) for Year 11 and 12 courses. The move to fewer summative assessments is encouraging teachers to assess less, find alternate ways of gauging student understanding, and teach explicit revision strategies to support students being assessed on multiple topics studied over time, rather than topic by topic as they are taught and learned. (Also listen to the podcast episode for discussion of how to leverage students’ cognitive architecture to make the most of long term and working memory.) A bonus is that teachers and students feel less like they are hurtling from assessment to assessment, and more like time is spent learning, revisiting, and reflecting.

Fewer assessments for students to complete means fewer assessments to mark, and potentially more time for students to engage with feedback. Spending time on students working to understand feedback is crucial for student progress and also means that all the hard work teachers put into providing feedback is understood and utilised by the learner. In the podcast episode, Dylan discusses his suggestion that teachers do ‘four quarters marking’: about 25% marking in detail, 25% skim marking to inform teaching, 25% teacher-monitored student self-assessment, and 25% peer assessment. (You can read more about this approach in Carl Hendrick and Robin MacPherson’s 2019 book What Does This Look Like in the Classroom?) This is likely to be an approach that challenges traditional practices and expectations of students, parents, teachers, and school leaders. It is, however, a provocation that reminds us to consider how our feedback practices engage the student as self-regulated learner committed to continuous improvement. As Dylan says in the podcast episode: “Good feedback works towards its own redundancy.”

Key concepts for leading professional learning

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

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

HOLONOMY

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

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

HOLDING ENVIRONMENT

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

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

MEANINGFUL COLLABORATION

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

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

SEMANTIC SPACE

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

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

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

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

The talk is the work.

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That was then

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

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

Teachers’ being and becoming

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

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

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

The more things change, the more they stay the same

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

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

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

Yet Australia remains far from an education system that promotes, for all young Australians, excellence and equity.

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

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

This is now

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

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

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

Who cares about pracademia?

Today I was part of an Educational Leadership Special Interest Group panel at the Australian Association of Education Research (AARE) 2021 conference, entitled, ‘Do we need pracademics?’ Fiona Longmuir was the moderator, and guest panellists were Scott Eacott, Virginia Moller, Dorothy Andrews and me.

The panel addressed questions such as:

  • Do we need pracademics?
  • Is labelling people ‘pracademics’ divisive and reductive, or full of productive possibility?
  • Do we care about pracademia?
  • To what extent might pracademia develop or dilute the rigour of scholarship and practice?
  • What role might pracademia play in the field of educational leadership specifically?

There was general agreement that the terms ‘pracademia’ and ‘pracademic’ require definitional clarity, and that a conversation about pracademia is worth having and worth continuing.

Scott challenged the motivations of those who might self-identify as pracademics, and suggested a focus on the inclusion of voices.

I explored the work I have done with Trista Hollweck and Paul Campbell (Hollweck et al., 2021, as our most thorough example) in defining and exploring the space of pracademia and the notion of an individual as a pracademic. For me, pracademia is about doing good work and about valuable networks and constructive collaboration between educators across and between education spaces.

Virginia described her role as ambiguous, complex and frowned upon, and explained that she was trying the identity of ‘pracademic’ on for size, to see if it fits. This notion of identity work, outsider-ness, and the nature of pracademic community is something I have heard from others who feel that their boundary spanning work is not valued or acknowledged in their professional contexts.

Dorothy challenged us to consider we needed to ‘just get over it’, and—as David Gurr suggested in the chat bar—do good work regardless of in what sphere someone works or what professional label is attached to them.

I asked the question about whether our systems and structures might be reimagined to allow for the valuing of work in multiple spaces.

Virginia and Scott discussed the notion of co-design between those in the academe and those in practice spaces. I mentioned the gap that Trista, Paul and I have noted around the need for policy to be explored more fully in the space of pracademia.

As in the other pracademia-focused conference panels and symposia of which I have been a part, the discussion was rich, energising, and resulted in calls from panellists and the audience for further exploration.

I will leave you with an excerpt from the final paragraph of our paper for the Journal of Professional Capacity and Community Special Issue (‘Pracademia: Exploring the possibilities, power and politics of boundary-spanners straddling the worlds of practice and scholarship’) we co-edited, that is mostly available via EarlyCite:

“The pandemic showed the possibilities of what collaboration between and working across multiple spaces in a field can accomplish. The concept of pracademia, and of working as a pracademic across and between spaces, suggests that we may be able to reimagine boundaries, fields, and roles in education and in other fields. For the work of pracademia to be sustainable, the space between practice and academia needs to be valued in terms of legitimacy, credibility, and even paid work. … Embracing the concept of pracademia may go some way to dissolving traditional dualisms of spaces that educators operate within, and increasingly across. It may be part of liquefying boundaries, so that rather than boundary spanning or boundary crossing, educators move back and forth along the Möbius-strip-style  continuum  comprising  the  multiplicities  of  research, practice, and policy. It may be engaging in multiple modes, spaces, and communities that open up learning, knowledge exchange, and mobilization of ideas and practices. It may be structural affordances from schools, universities, and policy bodies such as time, resources, avenues for recognition, and institutional support. For we authors, exploring and embedding ourselves in the identities and communities of pracademia is about making a positive difference in education; advocating for empowerment beyond the often-rigid structures, expectations and silos; and encouraging a valuing of alternate networks, contributions, and influences.” (Hollweck, Netolicky, & Campbell, 2021)

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.