Teaching and leading schools in a #posttruth word of #altfacts

General Hux's speech in The Force Awakens (reddit.com)

General Hux’s speech in The Force Awakens (source – reddit.com)

Post-truth: relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief. ~ Oxford Dictionary

To my continued astonishment, we are living in a post-truth world. ‘Post-truth’ was the Oxford Dictionary’s 2016 word of the year. The Trump administration in its first week seemed to impersonate the Star Wars totalitarian First Order when it claimed that it was not lying but providing the public with ‘alternative facts’. Then, gag orders were placed on a number of government agencies, including the Department of Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Health and Human Services. (Hurrah for whoever tweeted rebelliously about inauguration crowds and climate change from the National Parks Service ‘Badlands National Park’ account.) 

For a Western government to blatantly deny reality is at once baffling and terrifying. Hello, propaganda. Hello, the invocation of untruths (sorry, ‘alternative facts’) to smother any unfavourable actuality.

We shouldn’t be surprised. The misuse and abuse of language and facts is something that dystopian and speculative fiction has been warning of for decades, and something that history tells us has the ability to tap into the hive mind and rally societies around a common, often chilling, cause or leader. 

In this post I’ll explore the notion of a post-truth world of alternative facts and empty emotive rhetoric, around two arenas in my own life: teaching English and Literature, and my new role at my school, which encompasses in part engagement with research across the school.

First, to teaching in a post-truth world …

With the school year beginning next week, my Year 12 English team are finalising the texts to be taught and studied this Australian academic year. We’ve been tossing up between two contemporary texts about modern issues like gender, sporting culture and bullying, but every day the news and my social media feed give me a nagging feeling, a tugging at my literary shirt sleeve, a whisper to pause, take stock, listen. And dig out a dystopian classic.

Last year we taught the 12s Fahrenheit 451, a text that portrays books as dangerous threats to government control and societal compliance. This year perhaps we should teach Orwell’s 1984. Its Ministry of Truth, that falsifies historical events, and Newspeak, a language that restricts freedom of thought, are more relevant than ever. In fact, Orwell’s novel has this week rocketed to number 1 on the Amazon best sellers list.

A more recent text also comes to mind. Lionel Shriver’s 2016 The Mandibles, set between 2029 and 2047, is an economic dystopia that imagines the USA’s collapse. In her novel, the bungling US government has little respect for its citizens. First world problems like gluten intolerance disappear as violence and poverty rise. It is Mexico that builds an electrified, computerised, constantly-surveyed fence to keep desperate Americans illegals out.

Of course as a teacher of English and Literature I teach versions of reality and multiplicity of perspectives, but that plurality doesn’t stretch to bald-faced lies for the purposes of propaganda, banning scientists from speaking, or removing language like ‘climate change’ from government policy and websites. Language matters. It shapes thought. It wields power. It’s our job as teachers to elevate our students’ capacities to engage critically with their world. To be sceptical consumers of what they see, hear and read, and to be empowered to use language as an agentic tool.

Next, to school leadership in a world of alternative facts …

I am also coming to terms with how schools might respond to this post-truth world. This is especially relevant to me as I have just begun a new role at my school (new to me and new to the school). It is a senior leadership role that encompasses the use of evidence and research to make informed decisions from the classroom to the boardroom, as well to underpin and frame pedagogy, professional learning, performance review processes and capacity building across the organisation.

In this paper published online on 18 January, Brown and Greany (2017, p.1)—thanks to Gary Jones, whose blog is a great resource in this space, for sharing it—write:

Educational evidence rarely translates into simple, linear changes in practice in the ways that what-works advocates might hope. Instead, … evidence must be combined with practitioner expertise to create new knowledge which improves decision making and enriches practice so that, ultimately, children’s learning is enhanced.

This focus on what Brown and Greany call ‘what matters’ as well as ‘what works’ resonates with me. As Jon Andrews (channelling Marilyn Cochran-Smith) reminds us, teaching is unforgivingly complex. If we schools and educators are to really engage with research, then we need to honour our own contexts and value our own wisdom of practice. Teachers and schools can and should engage with research. I’m grateful that my school is able to create a role like mine in order to elevate evidence and research, execute research initiatives, and further embed scientific thinking and data analytics into the fabric of the school a culture. I’m grateful that there are schools around the world bringing evidence, mindfulness and crticiality to their decision making and pedagogy.

In a post-truth world, how do we balance a respect for truth, evidence and reason, with an honouring of plurality, multiplicity and praxis? How might we use literature or research as vehicles for respecting perspectives, while exploring challenges and possibilities?

On the emotional, human dimension of teaching

A world map for World Teachers’ Day (photo by me)

On today, World Teachers’ Day*, I‘m going to reflect on my experience of teachers as a school student. I’ve written about what research indicates about ‘good teaching’, but this post shares my personal story of the teachers I remember, and how they shaped me as a teacher.

Growing up, but especially during high school, I didn’t want to be a teacher. I think partly this was because of my dislike for those in authority who saw their role as to uphold what I saw as petty rules. While on the one hand I was a geek who diligently completed my school work and strove for academic success, I did not want to fit into norms set by others. I skipped some classes. I didn’t see the point in wearing the school uniform, unless it was to shackle me to conformity as part of a homogenous group. One year in high school I called the State Education Department and checked their rules on wearing uniform, and then asked that they contact my school to explain that uniform was not legally enforceable. It turned out that the only enforceable guideline at the time was that students in government schools be neat and tidy in appearance. (Yes, I was that student.)

In Year 8, my English teacher insisted that I rewrite a creative story entitled ‘Stop, thief!’ Although I had worked hard and long to craft the story, she told me that a thief should not be good looking with a “chiseled jaw,” and that I was to rewrite him as ugly with a hooked nose and hunched back if I wanted to pass. This felt to me to be an unjust response, one that not only supported what I considered to be an unrealistic and one-dimensional stereotype, but one which failed to acknowledge my effort and deliberate authorial decisions. I wanted my villain to be good looking!

In Year 10, after approaching a teacher to transfer into his higher Mathematics class, I did not pursue the subject change after he told me he wouldn’t speak to me unless I tucked my shirt in.

These experiences contributed to my view of the identity of ‘teacher’ as authority figure and stickler for petty rules, an identity I had no desire to emulate.

After deciding eventually, and almost accidentally, to pursue teaching as a profession, my “I don’t want to be a teacher” sentiment morphed into “I never want to be a teacher like that but I do want to be this kind of teacher.”  As a teacher I am often an advocator for looser rules (such as encouraging mobile technology in class, rather than banning mobile devices) and am guilty of ignoring those rules which I think are there for control and assertion of authority, rather than for learning and developing students into self-regulating, autonomous, responsible, thinking individuals.

At school I connected with teachers who I thought cared about me and my learning, who gave me some scope to try alternative methods and pathways of learning, and who did unexpected things: the Literature teacher who helped the class read a difficult novel by providing coffee and breakfast while we listened to the audio book; the Mathematics teacher who differentiated to allow her students to feel success; the English teacher who would surprise the class by wearing elements of costume while enacting scenes from texts. 

I try to emulate these things in my own teaching, thinking of little ways to surprise and inspire. I began one lesson while standing on a chair, conducting with a pair of drumsticks I had confiscated. I take students to the river or the high street to write. I surprised a very serious class of International Baccalaureate Diploma students, with whom I had been doing difficult laborious text analysis work, by providing them with textas, pencils, reams of paper, and chocolate biscuits (Arnott’s Tim Tams and Mint Slices for my Australian readers). At the end of all our hard work trying to understand 800-plus page Anna Karenina, they were to spend a couple of hours creating a visual representation of the novel. The result was a thoughtful and inspired creation, a train driven by Tolstoy, in which each carriage visually represented a key moment in the novel, with a lit candle at the front of the train and a burnt-out candle at its end, representing Anna’s journey.

A later experience, as a postgraduate student in a class during my Graduate Diploma of Education, supported and developed these earlier experiences of the emotional dimension of being a student and of the impact of teachers and classrooms on student confidence. There I was, in a class of mature age Graduate Diploma of Education students. I was the youngest, at 20 years old, and the oldest among us was 62. We were asked to share our memories of the best and then the worst teacher we had ever had. What I noticed as my fellow students, themselves almost-teachers, responded to this question, was the emotions they seemed to experience as they recalled their memories of teachers who either inspired and encouraged them, or who made them feel small, exposed, and uncared about. I was reminded of the famous quotation, attributed to a number of people including Carl Buehner and Maya Angelou: “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

It occurred to me during that Grad. Dip. Ed. class that the impact of a teacher, and their behaviour, on a student, each student, can be powerful and lifelong. That what for the teacher may be a throwaway line on a bad day, may for the student be a criticism which cuts deep and lasts a lifetime. It reminded me of the vulnerability of students and the turbulence of finding a sense of self throughout childhood and adolescence. This led me to continually reflect upon the effect I am having on students, my building of relationships, and my self-monitoring of things which may be seen by students as hurtful.

So while I often take an intellectual approach to teaching, looking to evidence, research and impacts, I think we also need to remember and recognise the deeply emotional, human experience of being both student and teacher. Happy World Teachers’ Day!

* World Teachers’ Day is held internationally on 5 October, but as this usually falls in the Australian school holidays, Australia celebrates it on the last Friday of October.

Is teaching an art?

close-up of Monet's Nymphea at the Musée de l'Orangerie

close-up of Monet’s Nymphea at the Musée de l’Orangerie

How can we appreciate an artist’s work or know an artist’s worth?

We can see the genius of Frida Kahlo in one of her paintings, get a flavour of her life at La Casa Azul in Mexico City, or understand her dramatic story arc through a comprehensive exhibition of art she produced throughout her life. We can marvel equally at one of Monet’s early Impressionist works as at the spectacular exhibition of his Nymphea in the naturally-lit oval rooms of the Musée de l’Orangerie. One of Salvador Dalí’s paintings can give us insight into his skill, style and artistic significance, but a visit to his Teatre-Museu in Figueres allows us to more deeply know his life, work and mad genius.

Richard Olsen tweeted in the #educoachOC chat this week that he considered teaching an art, and that he thought that when being appraised, teachers’ teaching should be looked at as a body of work, rather than as individual pieces. You can see Richard’s tweets, which got me thinking, in the screenshot below. His view is consistent with those who warn against the compartmentalisation and atomisation of teaching into disparate, de-contextualised bits.

There are also, however, those who advocate for clear maps and standards of teaching in order to develop shared understandings of what good teaching might look, sound and feel like. My own school uses the Danielson Framework for Teaching as a tool for developing our shared language of teaching and the precision of our reflections on and planning for teaching and learning. These reflections are also based on lesson data snapshots of practice, which provide the basis for Cognitive Coaching conversations. Our approach seems to fit into Richard’s notion of “critiquing specific pieces”, rather than looking at a body of work. Yet fine-grained lesson data and consequent reflections allow teachers to drill down into aspects of their teaching practice, while acknowledging that one lesson is only ever a moment in time, a snapshot of practice, a through-the-keyhole-peek into their teaching as a whole.

Many, including Robert Marzano, describe teaching as an art and a science. The notion of blending art and science, creativity and systematisation, resonates with me. It was the approach I took to my PhD research, one that I outline in this paper in Narrative Inquiry. I have blogged about viewing research as sculpture, as art-esque conversation, about teaching Art, and about textiles as political metaphor for academic writing and identity.

Elliot Eisner’s body of work explores education as artistry and connoisseurship. Eisner advocates for the arts as a frame for re-imagining education as innovative, artistic practice, rather than as a cookie-cutter or assembly-line one. Conceptualising teaching as an art, or arts, or artistic, assumes a complexity, a non-linearness, a rich tangled web of intangibles and un-pin-downables.

Is teaching art or science? Or both? Is it inappropriate to look at a single work, a close-up of the brushstrokes or the marks made by the sculptor’s tool? Should we only talk about teaching in terms of bodies of work, portfolios of evidence, the whole and not the parts? Can Michelangelo’s David be separated from his Pietà, the Sistine Chapel ceiling and his unfinished ‘slaves’? Can or should meaning be sought in a singular laboured-over artwork, or in a dusty pile of experimental sketches found in the attic? Or should we only assess or seek meaning in a body of work accumulated over time?

How might a teacher’s performance be appraised? How can the whole, as well as the parts be considered? Of what use is the performance of teaching for observations by management, versus relaxed one-on-one discussions with students or an experimental lesson tried for the first time? And of what use are the ‘individual works’ such as unit plans, student work examples, lesson data and external test results? Data from particular lessons can provide a tangible, depersonalised third point for professional conversations, just as a particular work of art can be representative of an artist’s work. An exhibition from a particular period of an artist’s work can give a broader picture of their work during that time. A posthumous exhibition of their life’s work can provide the broad narrative of how their work has evolved. These are all different but meaningful lenses for appreciation and critique; each is a useful way of viewing the work and worth of the artist or teacher.

On the one hand, teaching does become a body of work over time. A life’s work for some. This gestalt includes ever-expanding subject knowledge, evolving pedagogies, relational skills and behaviour management tools. Many of the things teachers do become internalised, less-deliberate moves, part of a way of being. Perhaps a teacher should not be judged by a lesson that they teach or one set of student results, but there is value in each piece of work being reflected upon and closely considered for the understandings it might surface about that teacher’s practice; the details it might reveal; or the points of celebration, critique or change it might incite.

Mapping quality teaching

Sidney Poitier in To Sir, with Love Source: http://www.rockshockpop.com/forums/c

Sidney Poitier in’ To Sir, with Love’. Source: http://www.rockshockpop.com/forums/

This is the third post in a series of posts on quality teaching. You can also read:

Part 1, which explored the terms ‘teacher quality’ and ‘quality teaching’; and,

Part 2, which outlined those things that effective teachers have been found to do.

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If we accept that the quality of what teachers do in their classrooms influences student learning, and that quality teaching has some agreed characteristics, what can teachers, schools and systems do? How does the profession come to a common understanding of what good teaching looks like? Amid teaching debates like ‘traditional vs. progressive’, what is it that teachers should be striving to do?

Some question and warn against the itemising of teaching into a set of prescriptive elements, and many agree that attempting to quantify the complexity of teaching is fraught with difficulty. Many scholars and educators have nonetheless worked to identity what quality teaching looks like and what effective teachers do, trying to capture what teaching encompasses. These authors attempt to detail, describe, interpret, and evaluate the elements of teaching; to find what quality instruction looks like and the conditions necessary for developing the quality of teachers’ instruction.

Many authors suggest that in order to develop their teaching, teachers need a ‘map’ of where to go and how to get there. In his 2004 book Successful school change, Claude Goldenberg reflected on his work with a USA primary school over five years. He noted that the school and teacher change model he and the principal implemented was too abstract and unspecified. He added that “we should have been more nuts-and-bolts oriented, in the sense of specifying more clearly what teachers were to do in various settings, including their classrooms” (p. 173).

In order for teachers to improve, not only do teachers have to want to improve, they must know how to improve and on what aspects they would benefit from focusing their attention. Schools can benefit from frameworks that provide the knowledge base of what good teaching looks like, as well as processes that facilitate the improvement of practice. A map of teaching involves a clear set of agreed standards and a way to think systematically about the complexity of the task. Mapping teaching can be less about identifying quality and proving teacher performance. It can be about empowering teachers to improve, developing a common understanding and shared language of practice.

Examples of attempts to address the need for a framework or map of the intricacies of teacher practice include the Danielson Group’s Framework for Teaching, the Marzano Causal Teacher Evaluation Model, and the Australian Institute of Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) National Professional Standards for Teachers.

The Danielson Framework for Teaching, endorsed by Dylan Wiliam in his 2016 book Leadership for Teacher Learning, has been shown to: identify the most effective teachers and positively correlate their quality with student achievement gains; focus observers’ attention on specific aspects of teaching practice; establish common evidentiary standards for each level of practice; and create a common vocabulary for pursuing a shared vision of effective instruction. Students showed the most academic growth in classrooms with teachers who rated highly on the Framework, and the least academic growth in classrooms with teachers who received the lowest ratings.

Marzano’s model has also been tested in studies and meta-analyses, which report that using the instructional strategies of the model improves student achievement and helps teachers develop themselves professionally.

In evaluating the perceptions of the AITSL Professional Standards, AITSL has found that pre-service teachers were the most enthusiastic about the potential of the use of the Standards in their practice and their students’ learning, school leaders were most engaged in the implementation of the Standards, and non-pre-service teachers were least likely to perceive the Standards as useful in changing their practice or impacting their students. AITSL’s measures have concentrated on educators’ perceptions of their tool.

Frameworks such as Danielson’s, Marzano’s, and AITSL’s may have a place in helping teachers to achieve clear, measurable targets, but schools and systems using these tools need to be considered in their purpose and process of their implementation. My school uses the Danielson Framework (overlaid with the national AITSL Standards) as a third point in conversations, in order to help novice and veteran teachers to reflect on their lessons with specificity. It is a tool, as part of a large toolbox, for developing shared understanding.

My PhD study found that the Danielson Framework for Teaching, when used as part of a non-judgmental model of teacher growth, helps to develop teachers’ precision of reflection around teaching practice and a common language for talking about teaching and what it can look like. At my school, teachers who develop familiarity with the Framework and its descriptors find that while teaching they mentally aim for the descriptors of ‘Distinguished’ teaching; knowledge of the Framework shapes their decisions and their classroom practices.

As much of the world grapples with how to wrestle the octopus of ‘teaching’ into a small, rigid glass jar of pithy statements or political one-liners, we need to be wary of atomising teaching into disparate parts, but we can be equally open to tools that might help us deepen our professional understandings and practices. We can focus on dialogue, interrogation of practice, reflection, collaboration and growth, and on researching and critically appraising the frameworks and measures available to us.

What do ‘quality teachers’ do?

Jaime Escalante in 'Stand and Deliver'. Source: http://remezcla.com/film/edward-james-olmos-on-stand-and-delivers-25th-anniversary-and-the-release-of-filly-brown/

Jaime Escalante in ‘Stand and Deliver’. Source: http://remezcla.com/film/

This is Part 2 in a series of posts on ‘teacher quality’ and ‘quality teaching’. You can also read Part 1 and Part 3

In response to my last post, I’ve received a lot of comments from those who bristle at the use of the term ‘teacher quality’ to label teachers and demean the profession; it is, however, a term used profusely in research and policy literatures. I’ve used the term here as shorthand for ‘teachers whose practice positively influences student learning.’

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As the quality of teachers’ teaching is generally agreed to be an important school-based influencer of student achievement, researchers have attempted to identify aspects of teaching as demonstrating evidence of positive effect on student achievement.

In reviewing literature for my PhD, I found five elements that emerged as agreed elements of what ‘quality teachers’ do. I have cited some of the references that mention each aspect, although there are larger webs of literature for each of the five threads explained below.

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1) Quality teachers purposefully design learning opportunities

Teachers have excellent knowledge of their content, pedagogies, their students, and how their students learn. They apply this knowledge to planning programmes, lessons, student groupings and assessments with clear, transparent performance targets. The purposeful designing of learning opportunities is articulated in references such as Bransford and Darling-Hammond’s Preparing teachers for a changing world: What teachers should learn and be able to do, Shulman’s (2004) essay ‘Communities of learners and communities of teachers’, and Linda Darling-Hammond’s seminal The right to learn: A blueprint for creating schools that work.

2) Quality teachers diagnose student progress to inform both teaching and learning

Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe (in their 2007 Schooling by Design) wrote that teachers facilitate the setting of challenging goals and high standards, designing the work so that learners believe in their own capacity for success, and adjusting plans in light of unexpected or inappropriate results. Jim Rose in his 2006 Independent review of the teaching of early reading noted that high quality teaching should inform realistic and ambitious target-setting.

3) Quality teachers fight for their students’ learning

A couple of references point to the importance of advocacy in teaching. In 1986, Philip Jackson argued that effective teachers fight for what they believe about teaching and learning, acting independently to advocate for their students. Wasley, Hampel and Clark (1997) spent three years observing and interviewing six students in five USA schools for their book Kids and school reform. They found that good teachers believe that each of their students can learn; and have the skills and capacity to engage in debate on behalf of their students’ learning.

4) Quality teachers personalise learning for students

Teachers balance the needs of the learner, the knowledge and skills students need to acquire (what they teach and why), assessment and feedback, and embeddedness in community. They select appropriate classroom design, instructional strategies, and subject matter to help each student learn, with a diversity of teaching methods including: reciprocal teaching, direct instruction, problem solving methods, explanation, elaboration, modelling, plans to direct task performance, sequencing, drill repetition, optimising peer learning, providing strategy cues, domain-specific processing, clear instructional goals, setting challenging goals and teaching students self-verbalisation and meta cognitive strategies. They respond with immediacy and a sensitivity to the here-and-now, showing flexibility by valuing freedom of thought and movement in the classroom. The emphasis on sensitivity towards, and individualisation of approaches for, students, is evident in Bransford and Darling-Hammond’s Preparing teachers for a changing world: What teachers should learn and be able to do and Philip Jackson’s The practice of teaching.

5) Quality teachers provide meaningful and appropriate feedback.

In Schooling by Design, Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe pressed the importance of backwards assessment design, providing ongoing feedback with immediate opportunities to use it, and implementing strategies to develop learner autonomy, thus making self-assessment and self-adjustment a key goal of teaching. The work of Dylan Wiliam and Rick Stiggins promotes formative assessment as a way to frequently check for understanding and to engage students in self-reflective, self-regulated learning.

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The above-mentioned studies suggest that quality teaching requires teachers to have a sound and continually developing knowledge of content and pedagogy. This supports the definition of teacher quality I identified in my last post: ‘knowing what to teach and knowing how to teach’. Quality teaching, according to the above cited works, involves teacher self-reflection, planning of well-structured units and lessons, focusing on higher order thinking, managing the classroom effectively, utilising an arsenal of effective teaching strategies, individualising learning, setting challenging goals for all students, knowing where each student is ‘at,’ facilitating each student’s progress to the next level, and giving effective, targeted, timely feedback.

Anne Freese (in her 1999 paper ‘The role of reflection on pre-service teachers’ development in the context of a professional development school’) describes herself as an educator (albeit in a higher education, rather than a school, context, so perhaps from a potato perspective) and in doing so resonates with the above threads of quality teaching:

I am more like a coach who structures the learning events and co-inquires. . . . I have become more comfortable modelling and making public my thinking about teaching, and risking being vulnerable as I put my own teaching under scrutiny. This is a different role from that of being the `expert’ and the dispenser of knowledge. (p. 908)

Here Freese underscores the teacher’s purposeful designing of learning by structuring what she calls “learning events,” suggesting deliberate design of student-focused learning experiences. She makes her thinking “public” and sees herself as coach and co-inquirer, vulnerable in her collaboration as co-learner with her students. Freese highlights the notion of self-reflection in her comment about having the willingness and capacity to put her “own teaching under scrutiny.” Freese’s description reflects Wiggins and McTighe’s description of those teachers who demonstrate ‘quality’ practice as designers, diagnosers, facilitators, and constructors of learning and learners.

As teachers, schools and systems have conversations around how to improve the learning of students by improving what happens in classrooms, it’s important that we continue to attempt to build a shared understanding of exactly what we mean when we say things like ‘quality teaching’.

Teasing out ‘teacher quality’

This post is the first in a series exploring the popular notion of improving teacher quality in order to improve student learning and achievement.

You can also read Part 2 ‘What do quality teachers do?‘ and Part 3 ‘Mapping teacher quality‘.

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For some time, scholarly literatures have generally agreed that, within the school sphere of influence, the quality of teachers’ teaching is the most influential school-based variable in terms of improving student learning and achievement. (We need to remember, however, that student learning and achievement are influenced primarily by many factors that are hardest for policy makers and schools to influence, such as students’ attitudes and abilities, socioeconomic context, parents’ education and peers.) Now, everywhere we look in education there are institutes and government policies and school websites all hailing the catch cry: ‘teacher quality!’

The term ‘teacher quality’ is in danger of being subsumed in what I call the ‘hashtagification’ of education terminology, in which words like ‘mindset’ and ‘grit’ become ubiquitous platitudes shared in sound bites or 140 character tweets. When we use words in education, we need to read the literature and research about them, tease them out, and come to a shared understanding about what are often dense concepts around the complexity of teaching.

During my PhD I spent time (ok, years) reading up on, among other things, ‘teacher quality’. Its definitions, its features, studies that aimed to measure its impacts. While I can’t distil those years of reading into a blog post, this post is a starting point (for comments, conversations, future posts) as well as a call to others to spend time cogitating over and teasing out the terms we use in edu-spheres.

‘Teacher quality’ is used to denote the quality of teachers’ teaching, in terms of its effectiveness in adding value to student learning. While it is sometimes used in terms of the individual teacher, many scholars argue that teacher quality should be considered in terms of collaborative expertise, rather than the solo hero teacher (so wonderfully written about here by Corinne Campbell). That is, while an individual teacher can have an influence on student learning, a move to improve the quality of teaching (and thereby, student learning) needs to focus on teachers as a collective.

One of my favourite images of collaborative expertise comes from Susan Rosenholtz in her book Teachers’ workplace: The social organisation of schools. She writes that in learning-enriched settings “an abundant spirit of continuous improvement” seems to “hover school-wide, because no one ever stopped learning to teach,” describing educators in effective schools as “clumped together in a critical mass, like uranium fuel rods in a reactor” (1991, p. 208). That image is a powerful reminder of what we in schools and education might aim for: a critical mass of huddled-together teachers feeding off each other’s energies, knowledge and practices. It’s also why competitive or punitive measures, like performance pay for teachers, are damaging to the profession. Collaboratively improving teacher quality is based on a notion with which most teachers would agree: that no matter how good our teaching is, no matter how well-planned and well-intentioned, we can always improve.

Two definitions of ‘teacher quality’ resonated with me in my reading. Firstly, the Educational Testing Service, in their 2004 publication Where we stand on teacher quality, defines it as: knowing what to teach and knowing how to teach. This definition hones in on the planning, classroom instruction, and assessment aspects of teacher quality, on the professional knowledge and skills upon which teachers can build in their pursuit of improving the quality of their teaching. Secondly, in their best evidence synthesis of international research on ‘teaching for quality,’ Zammit et al. (2007) define teacher quality as consisting of three intersecting factors: sociocultural context; professional knowledge, skills and practices used to meet student needs; and personal, relational and professional attributes. This second definition reminds us that teachers’ experiences are always situated within their professional contexts and entangled with personal and relational experiences. Teaching is not just about knowledge and skills, but about identities, contexts and emotions, too.

Some of those who write about teacher quality focus on the impact of teaching on student achievement and the others consider how we might break down or compartmentalise teaching in order to distil and define what quality teaching is; how it looks, sounds, and feels, and how it might be mapped, measured, or developed. Many grapple with the tensions between the desire to define and measure teaching, and its immeasurable complexity. In my Australian school, we investigated a number of tools that attempted to map what good teaching might look like. We chose to use the Danielson Framework for Teaching as our frame for professional reflection and conversation. Its rubrics help our teachers to drill down into their own practice, and into the AITSL Professional Standards for Teachers, giving them a sense of what those standards can look like at various levels of practice.

Teaching is such a complex phenomenon, it shouldn’t be reduced down to clichéd catch cries devoid of meaning. Despite the problematic nature of defining what teacher quality actually means, much available research shows that what a teacher does in the classroom is a crucial determinant in improving student achievement, and something we should spend some time teasing out in order to understand it in more detail. When we use terms in education—‘teacher quality’, ‘growth mindset’, ‘coaching’, ‘grit’, ‘vision’—let’s ensure that we work hard at figuring out what those mean and where our understandings might be shared, incomplete or requiring further discussion.

The teachable moment: A vignette from Year 12 English

detail from 'Ophelia' by Sir John Everett Millais ~ source: www.tate.org.uk

detail from ‘Ophelia’ by Sir John Everett Millais ~ source: http://www.tate.org.uk

This week was one in which I seized on a teachable moment. I’m not talking here about Robert Havinghurst’s developmental moment, but Frederic Lozo’s notion that a high interest situation can lend itself to discussion of a particular topic. In Unit 4 of Year 12 ATAR English, we’re looking at perspectives, versions of reality, attitudes and values. These are terms with which students are familiar, but concepts that they sometimes struggle to apply effectively to the analysis of texts. We’re exploring how language works to construct viewpoints, and how audiences’ contexts work to make meaning.

As I listened to the radio on the way into work on Monday, I heard the audio of the comments of AFL heavyweights Eddie McGuire, James Brayshaw and Danny Frawley. The radio segment aired last Monday, but it was a blog post by Erin Riley that drew attention to it over the weekend.

Below is the transcript of the controversial Triple M radio segment for the Big Freeze event at the MCG last Monday. In it, the men laugh and joke about drowning female sports journalist Caroline Wilson, before calling her a “black widow” (a North American spider much like the Australian Redback spider that I discuss here). McGuire says he’ll pay $50,000 if she stays under the water, and Frawley says he will “hold her under” the water to make sure she doesn’t come back up.

McGuire: In fact I reckon we should start the campaign for a one-person slide next year. Caroline Wilson. And I’ll put in 10 grand straight away – make it 20. [laughter] And if she stays under, 50. [laughter] What do you reckon guys? Who else is up there? I know you’re in JB?

James Brayshaw: No, yep, Straight in.

Danny Frawley: I’ll be in amongst it Ed.

McGuire: Is Duck there?

Wayne Carey: Yes, I’m here mate.

McGuire: Duck’s in. Danny’s in – already spoken up.

Frawley: Yeah I’m in Ed.

McGuire: I could do an auction here today.

Frawley: I’ll actually jump in and make sure she doesn’t – I’ll hold her under, Ed.

McGuire: I reckon we could charge 10,000 for everyone to stand around the outside and bomb her.

Damien Barrett: I’m on Caro’s side now, Ed. I’m on Caro’s side these days, Ed.

McGuire: She’ll burn you like everyone else, mate. She’s like the black widow. She just sucks you in and gets you and you start talking to her and then bang! She gets you.

Brayshaw: If you ran that auction from down there, I reckon you’d start grabbing some bids out of the seats too. There’d be money piling in everywhere.

McGuire: It’ll be magnificent. I think we should do that next year. It’s all good for footy.

Brayshaw: Bloody oath.

I thought it was an opportunity to tease out key course concepts and text analysis skills with my class of Year 12 boys. Considering this audio as a text would also allow us to talk about the impacts of the language we use about other people, about feminist ideology, and about what might count as acceptable or unacceptable language directed at particular groups, and for whom.

So, I opened Monday’s lesson by playing my class the audio text of this exchange. The questions that led our analysis and discussion were:

  1. What is being valued in this text?
  2. What are the attitudes communicated by the text?
  3. What factors might influence the listener’s response?

The students individually wrote their responses, before we opened it up for a class discussion. Their initial responses ranged from ‘that’s threatening and derogatory’ and ‘they’re being sexist’ to ‘I don’t really see why it’s such a big deal’ and ‘no-one would make a fuss if those comments were about a man’. They pretty much spanned the range of comments being bandied about in new and traditional media. We were able to tease out these comments and explore how each listener’s own context, beliefs, values and attitudes influence their making of meaning. Students were able to challenge each other’s’ views. Some personalised the comments by thinking about women they knew, pointing out that Wilson was someone’s sister or mother or daughter. Most agreed that joking about drowning someone wasn’t “playful banter”. Some talked about the responsibility of those in the public eye to model decent behaviour and respect for other humans. Some questioned whether McGuire was in fact treating Wilson as an equal by saying something he would equally say about a man. Some talked about the text as a reflection of social issues, or of issues within the sporting culture of the AFL. They discussed what was ‘ok’ or ‘not ok’ to say, and why.

I was able to draw this discussion back to teaching points about our key course concept of perspectives. We considered Wilson’s perspective, and listened to her radio comments about the incident. We considered McGuire’s perspective and listened to his first apology (personal side note: yesterday’s first attempt at an apology missed the point so spectacularly that he issued a second apology today). We discussed how texts, and the way we make meaning from texts, reflect values, attitudes and perspectives. I then used this exercise to segue into looking at these concepts in a short story we had read the previous lesson.

The lesson, which emerged partly on the car ride to school, allowed me to seize on a topical news item around people and a context with which my class are familiar. I was able to use this material to present a real-world text example to teach key course concepts. My observation was that students’ responses to the studied short story, in the task that followed, were nuanced and insightful, possibly as a result of this lesson starter. Looking at their work from this lesson, I think they left understanding the terminology more clearly than when they arrived.

I was able to encourage students to reflect on their own assumptions, attitudes and values. For the English course, and for life, they need to be aware of themselves as consumers of information and responders to the language of others. They also need to consider and own the language they use. I do think it is important to be clear about respectful language towards others in our classrooms, but my teacher approach to McGuire et al.’s comments was not to rant from a feminist soapbox. While towards the end of the class discussion, I did briefly share my own response, and model self-reflection about why that was my response, my main techniques were questioning and managing class discussion, thereby drawing out and leveraging students’ own views. 

As a teacher, I think that part of my job is to encourage students be kind, thoughtful human beings willing to call out discrimination and advocate for others, even when it’s uncomfortable to do so. Importantly, the classroom needs to be space where unpopular opinions are heard and explored, not belittled and shut down. The classroom can provide a safe place for robust discussion, thoughtfully-argued disagreement, self-reflection and challenging of viewpoints.