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.

*            *            *

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?

Transformational professional learning: What, why, how and what now?

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Below is the text of a piece I wrote late last year for the Independent Education magazine on transformational professional learning (Issue 1, Vol 50, 2020, pp.32-33).

I am sharing it here because now, more than ever, teachers and school leaders are changing our practice. This global crisis–and our experiences of emergency teaching, rethinking schooling, distance learning, pandemic pedagogy, redesigning or cancelling assessments, isolation, sickness, empathy and community–is changing what we do and how we do it. We are revisiting the basics such as ‘Maslow before Bloom’, explored here in our independent report on Thinking About Pedagogy in an Unfolding Pandemic (Doucet et al., 2020).

Ways in which professional learning is happening during this pandemic include:

  • Job-embedded ‘learning as we go’, trying, iterating and refining practice as we go.
  • Colleagues helping colleagues with planning, learning technologies, remote pedagogy, feedback strategies and ways of assessing.
  • Webinars offered by professional learning providers.
  • Schools, where possible, providing one-on-one, online, or telephone support from IT, either internally or from outside experts.
  • Social media platforms in which teachers, school and system leaders, and education organisations around the world are sharing resources, processes and learnings as they address education needs in this uncertain time.

Many may emerge from our current situation having also changed what we believe about teaching, learning, assessing and the purpose of school. As I note in the article, however:

“Teachers and school leaders won’t change practice unless they believe the outcomes for those in their care will be better.”

Are some of the things we are now implementing better for our students? Are we desperate to get back to our old ‘normal’, or are the things we are learning now enhancing equity, improving practice and helping us to make better decisions for students?

As I say in this previous blog post, in considering our ‘next normal’ we can ask ourselves the following questions.

  • What is it that we’ve desperately missed that we want to bring back in to schooling and education?
  • What is it that’s been removed that we don’t want to return to?

________________________________________

In 2019 my book—Transformational Professional Learning: Making a Difference in Schools—was published. The book weaves together what research literature says about professional learning, what my doctoral study found about professional learning, and the insights my own personal and professional experiences have provided about professional learning. This approach reflects my belief that we get the best outcomes in education when we consider research alongside context, lived experience and professional judgement. Education is, after all, a complex human endeavour, and the answer to the question ‘What works?’ is often ‘It depends’. As my co-editors and I suggest in Flip the System Australia: What Matters in Education, a better question might be: ‘What matters?’ or ‘What should matter?’ (Netolicky et al., 2019).

Professional learning matters because it is a key way for us to make education better, but the way we define, implement, engage in, and seek to determine the effectiveness of professional learning also matters.

In this article I outline the what, why, and how of transformational professional learning for teachers and school leaders. What is it? Why care about it? How do we do it?

What is transformational professional learning?

Many professional learning providers offer certified hours of professional learning. But—just as our students haven’t necessarily learned because we’ve taught something—attending a professional development course or event  does not automatically mean that meaningful learning has occurred. In fact, my doctoral research found that professional learning for educators is highly individualised. Those experiences that shape our beliefs and practices can be professional and personal, formal and informal, in and out of educational contexts, and singular and collaborative (Netolicky, 2016a, 2016b).

Transformational professional learning—learning that makes a difference in and for schools—as I define it, is “learning that shifts beliefs, and thereby behaviours, of professionals. It is tied to an individual’s personal and professional identity” (Netolicky, 2020, p.18).

My framing of transformational professional learning draws on the work of Professor Ellie Drago-Severson and Dr Jessica Blum-DeStefano (2018) who describe transformational learning as that which actively changes how a person knows through shifts in cognition, emotion, and capacity. This learning influences our ways of knowing as well as what we know. My definition also resonates with the work of Associate Professor Nicole Mockler (2013) who argues that teachers’ professional learning is deeply tied to who we are, not just what we do or how we do it.

Transformational professional learning acknowledges the complexity and humanity of teaching. Learning that transforms what we do needs to also shape who we think we are as teachers, and what we believe is in the best interests of our students. Teachers and school leaders won’t change practice unless they believe the outcomes for those in their care will be better.

Why transformational professional learning?

It is important that we in education care about and work towards incorporating transformational professional learning in the practice of systems, schools and individuals.

Part of the argument for a focus on professional learning is that teacher professional learning is positively correlated to improvement in student learning and achievement. Teachers learning and improving their knowledge and skills, it is argued, reaps dividends for students in those teachers’ classrooms.

Teachers are additionally required to undertake professional learning as part of their work. In Australia the minimum figure is twenty hours per year. Teachers are required to reflect on and be assessed against professional standards. In Australia, the sixth of seven standards is to ‘engage in professional learning.’

Wellbeing is also a consideration for professional learning. We need to ask the question: Is the professional learning undertaken adding to workloads, or empowering teachers and school leaders to be valued, autonomous professionals? Processes such as coaching and effective collaboration have the potential to enhance and support the wellbeing of teachers and school leaders.

So not only is professional learning a way to improve student outcomes, it is also a professional requirement and a potential tool for wellbeing.

How do we ‘do’ transformational professional learning?

As I say on the Teachers’ Education Review podcast in an interview with Cameron Malcher (2019), knowing what might work best in professional learning helps us to make better decisions. Being informed about what research suggests is most likely to be effective in shaping teacher beliefs and practices, can constructively influence what kinds of professional learning we invest in, and how we go about implementing those for positive results for students, teachers, schools and systems.

The best professional learning—that is, learning most likely to be transformational—comprises a balance of high support and high challenge. It is targeted and ongoing. It is differentiated for context, sector, circumstance and the individual.

In schools and systems, effective professional learning interventions are underpinned by shared vision and are implemented slowly, initially using volunteers, applying judicious measures of success and generating honest feedback from stakeholders to inform, iterate and refine the model for its specific context.

Those professional learning forms backed by research and practice include:

  • professional learning communities;
  • observation and reflection processes, such as lesson study and instructional rounds;
  • post-graduate study;
  • mentoring; and
  • coaching.

Daily collaboration between teachers within and between schools also fits the brief of collaborative, targeted, ongoing learning, as do long-term relationships between schools and consultants or academics.

Professional learning is one-size-fits-one, so not all transformational professional learning is collaborative or ongoing. Attending a course or conference can also provide an ‘a-ha’ moment for a teacher. Deeply positive or negative professional experiences can change our beliefs and behaviours. Personal experiences, too, such as becoming a parent or travelling, can shape professional identities and shift the ways in which we interact with students and their families.

As is the case for our students, enjoying ourselves or having a nice time does not equal learning. We can feel engaged and energised without learning occurring. We can be in a room with colleagues without effective collaboration actually happening. One thing I have learned as a school leader is to seek out dissenting views and seek to understand them. We need to be okay with discomfort and with respectful, robust disagreement if we are to transform our beliefs and practices for the benefit of our students and communities.

What now?

There is a danger that professional learning is driven by political, corporate or school improvement agendas. Rather than surrendering our professional judgement to those citing league tables, standardised tests or products for sale, we must reclaim professional learning for teachers and school leaders in ways that makes a difference for and with students.

While there is a place for evaluation, we need to focus our efforts on growth, not systems of rewards and punishments that seek to pit teachers and schools against one another. Rhetoric of teachers, schools or education systems ‘failing’, ‘coasting’, ‘flat lining’ and ‘falling behind’, based on oversimplified measures, is unhelpful and harmful. Schools benefit from designing their own measures of the success of professional learning interventions in their own context. Schools can ask: How might we know that conversations are more productive, that teachers are more knowledgeable about teaching strategies, or that the student experience at our school is shifting? Rather than relying on the measures imposed by others, schools can look for indicators of the successes to which they are aspiring, which might be relational, conversational and emotional, rather than numerical or easily quantified.

As I write in Transformational Professional Learning, we teachers and school leaders “are not objects that need professional learning done to us, or incomplete entities requiring development by external forces acting upon us. We are capable professionals who are willing and able to take responsibility for our learning” (2020, p.123). We are not technicians enacting unthinking compliance, but experts looking to grow and develop over time.

In the conclusion, I argue that we need to do the following:

  • Consider identity and humanity, because those in schools are human beings and teaching is complex;
  • Offer voice and choice, differentiating professional learning for staff at different career stages and with different strengths and aspirations;
  • Focus on context, culture, and relationships;
  • Enable collaboration that is rigorous, purposeful, and sometimes uncomfortable;
  • Broaden our definition of professional learning; and
  • Invest time, money, and resources into professional learning.

Professional learning should empower, enrich and sustain our profession, not undermine, stifle or demoralise it. So, let’s focus on building and refining cultures of trust, collaboration, and vibrant professional conversation. Let’s give teachers the space, time and resources to identify and improve their knowledge, skills and understandings. Let’s work towards being and becoming the best educators we can be, by simultaneously pursuing individual goals, organisational goals, and the greater good.

References

Drago-Severson, E., & Blum-DeStefano, J. (2018). Leading change together: Developing educator capacity within schools and systems. Alexandria: ASCD.

Malcher, C. (2019). 2019, 27 October. Teachers’ Education Review [Audio podcast]. ‘TER #141 – Transformational Professional Learning with Deborah Netolicky’ Retrieved from: https://soundcloud.com/ter-podcast/ter-141-transformational .

Mockler, N. (2013). Teacher professional learning in a neoliberal age: Audit, professionalism and identity. Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 38(10), 35-47.

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

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

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

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

Education disrupted by COVID-19 and the role of education leaders

Yesterday I had the pleasure of contributing to the WISE (World Innovation Summit for Education) – Salzburg Global ‘Education Disrupted, Education Reimagined’ virtual convening.  With about 250 people on the Zoom call, and more than 2000 registered attendees from around the world, this was a rich, robust and international event.

The first day’s sessions can be found on this YouTube video. The panel in which I was involved—’The role of education leaders in times of crisis’, with Greg Moncada, Xueqin Jiang and moderator Simon Breakspear—begins at 1 hour 36 minutes and runs for about 45 minutes, but the whole two days is worth a listen.

It’s much more interesting to listen to the conversation via the YouTube link, but the points I discussed during the panel are captured briefly below.

The disruption of COVID-19 and physical school closures are prompting us to ask ourselves the following questions.

  • What is the purpose of schooling?
  • What is the role of teachers?
  • How could or should we measure learning and educational success?

These questions prompt us to consider how we might do things differently during this time, and how we might reimagine schooling beyond our current pandemic reality.

My advice to school leaders at this time is to:

  • Consider Maslow before Bloom. That is, put safety, health and wellbeing before formal education, curriculum, pedagogy and especially assessment. Be compassionate and kind. Start with humanity. Understand that those in your community are likely to have complex circumstances of which you may be unaware. For more see the independent report Thinking About Pedagogy in an Unfolding Pandemic.
  • Put community, connectedness, intimacy and relationships at the forefront of decisions and practices.
  • Respond to your own context. Look to other nations and other schools. Look to research and advice, but ultimately trust yourselves–school leaders and teachers in your school–to know your own context. Generate data and feedback from your school community so that you understand the lived experiences of those in your care and can respond. Be agile and iterative. One size fits one. We need to think fast and slow at the same time, with simultaneous decisiveness, intentionality, and willingness to adapt to our community’s needs and to changing circumstances.

In considering our ‘next normal’ we can ask ourselves the following questions.

  • What is it that we’ve desperately missed that we want to bring back in to schooling and education (e.g. connectedness, relationships)?
  • What is it that’s been removed that we don’t want to return to (e.g. standardised testing and accountability measures)?

Finally, the current scenario has provided a fiery crucible for teacher agency and innovation. The teachers on the ground in our school systems around the world are the education system, and they are currently reshaping and flipping the system from the ground up, at pace, on the fly, and with professional expertise, integrity and heart.

Distance Learning 2.0: Adjusting our approach

My Australian school implemented our Distance Learning Plan on 24 March. While we had been planning for a pivot to distance learning, and we had a transition period, the change happened rapidly and required incredible agility, innovation and ingenuity from our teachers and leaders. No matter how well-intentioned and well-informed our plan was, we know we can always work to be better.

Now we have a chance to break for school (stay-at-home) holidays to rest and rejuvenate before Term 2 begins in two weeks’ time. With almost three weeks of distance teaching and at-home learning under our belt, now is also an opportunity to take stock, reflect, refine and improve our model.

Like all Australian schools, we are unsure how long our distance learning model will need to run. Whatever adjustments we make need to be sustainable for a potentially long term. The model needs to keep not only teaching and learning in mind, but also physical, mental and emotional wellbeing. During a pandemic, we must consider Maslow (health, safety and wellbeing) before Bloom (curriculum, pedagogy and assessment). We need to keep equity in mind and ensure that no student is disadvantaged.

At the end of those first few weeks of distance learning, we generated data through a survey, asking what was working well, what we could do differently, and what was interesting about our original model. About 500 student responses, 500 parent responses and 100 staff responses gave us plenty of scope to understand the experiences of various stakeholders and to see patterns in the data.

While the experiences of students, parents and teachers were varied, the following takeaways were reflected in the survey responses:

  • ROUTINE. Students are finding ways to create organisation, structure and routine. For example, students appreciate using their normal timetable as a guide, but also knowing the work for the day and the week in advance so that they can plan accordingly and be flexible and autonomous in their work.
  • PEDAGOGY. Students and parents overwhelmingly love lessons that involved live video meetings. These develop a sense of learning with others and enhanced feelings of connectedness between students and their teacher and classmates. These facilitate the relational and social aspects of the classroom, and provide important opportunities for students to ask questions and clarify instructions. Students appreciate pre-recorded instructional videos such as PowerPoint videos and screencasts.
  • COMMUNICATION. Communication in a distance learning model can be overwhelming. Clarity and consistency is key. Students and parents request that teachers and the school to carefully consider how much is communicated via consistent platforms and timelines.
  • WORKLOAD. While some students enjoy the autonomy and flexibility that comes with distance learning, many feel an intensification of workload that threatens to overwhelm them. Teachers, too, are coming to terms with finding efficiencies within a distance learning model; setting professional boundaries around time and availability; and giving themselves permission to pare back expectations of students and of themselves to ensure that work set is realistic, and that feedback to students is consistent but achievable. Teachers are finding new ways of tracking student engagement in and understanding of learning.
  • WELLBEING. Students and teachers would benefit from reduced screen time and increased break time. Students are grieving for their connections with friends and teachers, and their hopes for what this year of school would be (especially our Year 12 students).
  • GRATITUDE. Many parents express gratitude for the school’s approach and for the work of the teachers. Many teachers have been impressed by the level of student resilience and engagement. Teachers are thankful for the generosity of their colleagues and amazed at the exponential rate of professional learning during this time.

The array of feedback we have generated resonates with student experiences outlined by the Sydney Morning Herald and New York Times, summarised here by Anne Knock. We are using our contextual data–as well as the best advice about what is likely to work, such as this resource from AITSL, this resource from Evidence for Learning, and this collection of  resources from the Chartered College of Teaching–to adapt and adjust our Distance Learning Plan. Our aim is that our Distance Learning Plan 2.0 continues learning while also encouraging students to maintain relationships and be physically active.

Specifically, we are refining:

  • COMMUNICATION, especially of learning outlines to students in ways that allow them to plan ahead and stay organised in their approach to learning.
  • SHAPE OF THE SCHOOL DAY, including start and finish times, reduced lesson times, time for organisation, and increased break times.
  • PEDAGOGY, including effective use of live video meetings and other distance pedagogies for teaching, collaboration and connectedness.
  • ASSESSMENT, reporting and continuous feedback in a distance learning model.
  • DIFFERENTIATION between approaches for different year levels and different subjects. Our Year 12s are a particular focus, as are students with specific learning or pastoral needs.

Our students remain at the centre of what we do, but teaching from a distance with students learning at home means that we are having to find alternate ways of teaching, learning, connecting and engaging as a community. There is no one-size-fits-all distance learning model. Responding to feedback from our context helps us to continue to adapt in order to best serve our community during changing circumstances.

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Previous blog posts on distance learning: