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:

Week 1 of Distance Learning

video conference

photo: Getty Images

We are in a time of rapid education reform. Australian schools have in recent weeks been planning for and beginning to enact distance learning. I reflected on Tuesday after Day 1 of my school’s move to distance learning, and over the last few days I’ve reflected further as I’ve led, taught and listened to the responses of students, teachers and parents from across the school.

Below are my Week 1 takeaways.

Less is more

This week, our teachers have been working incredibly hard. They have been putting in extremely long hours to make this ‘pivot’ work. They have been preparing content and front loading teaching before the school day begins, as our Distance Learning Plan notes that the day’s work needs to be to students by 8.30am on the morning of a particular lesson, so students can plan their work for the day. Teachers are responding to individual emails, messages and requests from students and parents. What they have achieved individually and collectively is nothing less than extraordinary, and the gratitude from the school community for their hard work has been resounding. However, teacher workload in a distance learning model is an issue we need to consider. ‘Less’ is better for teachers.

Students have been engaging positively and openly with the distance learning model, but some have felt inundated with communication and set work over these first days. The pace of learning from home can be slower than learning that happens at school, the delivery different, and the need for disciplined student work habits greater. Some students have been feeling overwhelmed. ‘Less’ is better for students.

As we continue to evolve in our distance learning provision, we need to think carefully about the desired learning outcomes, what is really important, and what is possible and desirable in the current climate of global crisis. We need to be realistic about the hours teachers have in the school day to provide teaching materials, learning opportunities and feedback; and the ways that learning happens in a home environment, when many students are learning independently and with less support than they have in the school classroom.

One thing we are considering is what a lesson’s worth of work might look like. A lesson at school includes transition time between lessons, roll call and packing up, as well as probably some teacher-directed instruction and some student working time. How might we use this to guide what we provide and expect of students, giving students time between lessons to stand, move, be active, do chores and catch up with each other in non-classroom spaces and ways.

‘Less is more’ will become even more important as teachers increasingly work from home, with all the complexities of family environments.

Let’s make sure that students, parents and teachers are all able to be human beings at this time, not human doings. Teaching material shouldn’t be about keeping students busy, or glued to their screens, but about continuing their education, wellbeing and connectedness in these uncertain circumstances.

Testing and tracking

Similarly, we need to consider the purpose of assessment and feedback, and how these can best work in a distance learning environment. We can think about this from the point of view of what is possible for teachers to enact, and what is useful for student learning.

How might we use our professional judgement to rethink, redesign or reschedule assessments? How might we use technologies to give meaningful feedback? Video conferencing, OneNote, and online rubrics through platforms such as Schoolbox and SEQTA, are some tools that teachers can use to  provide online, continuous feedback.

At my school, we are not taking lesson-by-lesson attendance, but we are tracking student engagement in learning by asking students to ‘like’ posts in Teams, seeing who joins class or small group video meetings, student work in OneNote class notebooks, and checking in on students who don’t appear to be engaging.

Humanising distance learning

In this time of physical distance, our students and staff are keen for a sense of connectedness. We’re finding that video and audio are humanising distance learning for our students. This includes live video and audio meetings with groups of students, pre-recorded screen casts, and PowerPoints with audio or video.

Seeing teachers’ and peers’ faces and hearing their voices can help to bridge the isolation we all feel, and bring some of the connectivity and relationality missing when we are teaching and learning remotely.

Distance Learning: Day 1

with my Madonna headset about to run a live video meeting with Year 12 Literature

In recent days, the Australian Prime Minister indicated that schools in Australia will remain open. On Sunday 22 March his announcement was as follows.

“Schools will remain open through to the end of the current school terms to support students whose parents choose to send their children to school. Victoria’s school break will commence on Tuesday 24 March 2020.

If parents choose to keep their children home from school, parents must be responsible for the conduct of the children and to ensure they adhere to the social distancing arrangements in place.

Schools will be encouraged to provide access to online and distance learning.”

This statement seems to suggest that Australian teachers are expected to provide face-to-face teaching to those students at school, and also online and distance learning for those students staying at home. It is not a workable solution to ask teachers to provide, simultaneously, both in-school and distance learning models. The only viable option that came to my mind was to provide one model–a distance learning model–with which all students can engage at home or at school.

Then yesterday the commission that governs my school and a range of others made a decision: to urge parents to keep children at home, if they can, from today, and to transition to a distance learning model over the next few days. As a result, today my Western Australian school launched (a transition to) our Distance Learning Plan.

So, how did it go?

Here are my end-of-day reflections.

As this is not a government-directed school closure, staff are continuing to work from school, which remains open for staff and for those students whose parents need them to be at school. Continuing to work from school means that staff have access to resources, the school network, the IT department, a Microsoft remote learning expert we currently have on campus to help staff with just-in-time professional learning, and one another. Helping each other through this first day has been a real bonus in terms of morale and collaboration.

A small percentage of students turned up to school and were supervised by staff on a roster as they engaged in the distance learning model. This allowed most staff to enact distance learning in empty classrooms or their offices. Students on site expressed that the feeling of a near-empty school was ‘weird’ but that it was also calm and positive. Students at school were taken out for some physical activity and were able to space out at break times. Reduced numbers of students meant that physical distancing could be practised according to the government’s guidelines.

Students showed their adaptability as they began learning from home. As well as following their teacher’s instructions and their parents’ guidance, some students took their learning into their own hands, showing initiative and collaboration. For example, a group of primary students started their own live video meeting in order to work through their spelling activities. Students used the functions of Teams and OneNote to answer each other’s questions. Some of my Year 12s told me that they had been much more productive at home than they normally are at school. Parents sent in photos of their children engaged in at-home learning.

Teachers launched into our Distance Learning Plan, communicating with students and parents, setting the work for the day, creating content, rethinking assessments and checking in with students through Microsoft Teams. Even though we have been planning for this, a sudden pivot to distance learning meant teachers confronting change head on and being ok with the risk of ‘getting it wrong’. It meant troubleshooting technology. It meant finding ways to humanise the distance learning experience. It meant colleagues helping each other, students helping each other, and students and colleagues helping one another, in a variety of in-person and online ways.

One teacher told me that moving to purely distance learning was like becoming a parent:

“You’re never really ready until it happens, and then you figure it out as you go along.”

I have previously blogged some considerations for planning for distance learning and my message to our teachers this morning was this:

“We haven’t done this before and will be learning as we go, but my tips are:

  • Do your best with what you know and can do. This isn’t like ‘normal’ school and it isn’t going to mirror ‘teaching as usual’. Students will struggle with technology and motivation, as might we!
  • Keep it simple. Start with the learning intentions and find efficiencies. Not every lesson needs to be video, live, technology-based or amazing.
  • Trust your professional judgement. You know yourselves, your subject and your students. Do what works.
  • Be kind to yourself and others. This is distance learning during a global pandemic. It is continuing our students’ education while in the midst of a major health, societal and economic crisis. There will be a multiplicity of very real challenges for students, teachers and parents during this time. Reach out for help if you need it.”

I am grateful to be part of: a school and system acting with the health, safety and wellbeing of its community in mind; a staff who are working incredibly hard and with acrobatic agility and positivity in a constantly changing professional environment; and a community of students and families who are engaging with these changing circumstances in optimistic and open ways.

Thank you to all those educators around the country and the world sharing their resources and experiences. The education hive mind is alive and well. We’re in this together and we’re better together. Stay safe.

COVID-19 forces educational and societal reform

cyclone-2102397_1280

The last couple of weeks have been hectic around the world and the pace of change at all levels has been rapid and relentless. In Australian schools, leadership teams and teachers have been preparing for distance learning. Parents have been making decisions about whether or not to send their children to school. Worry in households and panic in shopping centres have reached climactic levels. School leaders are doing their best to remain calm and methodical while preparing their schools for what seems like imminent closure in the near future.

It is surreal to watch corporate and education reform happen at such a rapid rate. We are reforming the workplace and rethinking how we go about our work. We are reimagining how we interact and collaborate. We are reframing education and redesigning schooling on the fly.

Those who have been calling for the abolition of standardised tests and the rethinking of university entrance are seeing education systems transform before their eyes. The COVID-19 pandemic has meant the cancelling of standardised tests (GCSEs and A-Levels in the UK; NAPLAN in Australia so far) and the consequent abolishing of league tables derived from these tests. Those who have been calling for the end of traditional schooling are seeing the swift move to remote learning and the upskilling of teachers in learning technologies and online platforms.

Australian teachers and school leaders, whose jobs are already incredibly complex, are supporting increasingly anxious students and parents. They are communicating work to students who are not coming to school. They are preparing for a move to teaching remotely. They are considering how learning might look different, authentic and meaningful when done from home. They are considering issues of equity and access for their communities. They are worrying about their own children, parents, families, livelihood, groceries.

Educators are collaborating within schools, they are collaborating with other schools. They are sharing their distance learning plans and teaching resources, because as a profession and as a society, we are better together.

We are one society, one humanity. All of our jobs and job descriptions are now in flux. What does our workplace, our clientele, our society need now, at this moment in time? Grounded flight attendants stocking supermarket shelves? Military personnel assisting surgical-mask-producing and toilet-paper-manufacturing facilities? Consultants training teachers to use online technologies? Office staff filling bottles with hand sanitiser and disinfecting workplace surfaces? All of us rearranging furniture and staying at a distance from one another?

We are needed in new ways, and there is an almost wartime redeployment of labour and a need for banding together as whole workplaces, as a whole society and as a whole world.

This is a time for us all to think about what leadership means, regardless of title or position. We can reach out (from a physical distance) to others and support one another as best we can, even though isolation feels like it goes against our biology. We can consider carefully where we get our information, and how we respond to that information. We can all lead by example, by clear communication with one another, and by clarity of purpose and cohesiveness of action.

During the current crisis, Canadians began a ‘caremongering not scaremongering’ campaign. This week is Kindness Week, a week to think about how we move beyond fear and individualism to compassion and courage. Australia has not yet seen the full force of COVID-19 and its real, human ramifications. There is no more important time to be kind to ourselves and each other than right now. We are in a time of adaptation and evolution, by necessity. When we come out the other side, society, work and education may be reformed for good.

Planning for distance learning in the event of school closure – COVID-19

Source: @bzak on pixabay

School closures have yet to happen in my Australian city of Perth, but in my role as Head of Teaching and Learning at a K-12 school with over 1700 students, I have been involved in planning for what we will do in the event of a closure due to COVID-19.

This article by Tomas Pueyo shows why social distancing is so important for flattening the curve of how quickly a virus like COVID-19 can move through a community. School closures are part of the social distancing manoeuvre.

In this post I share some of my thinking around what schools might consider in the face of a school closure, in the hope that it contributes to the global conversation or is helpful to others.

‘Distance learning’ or ‘remote learning’, rather than ‘online learning’

Effective and meaningful learning can take many forms. Walking through classrooms in any school will reveal that teaching and learning is diverse. Learning environments vary. Technologies are leveraged in a variety of ways. Across the teaching of a course, learning will look different, as teachers move through the explicit instruction of content, facilitating of robust discussion, questioning, one-on-one feedback, small group tutorials and a multitude of other pedagogies.

Learning remotely, or at a distance from school, can also happen in many ways. While technology plays an important part in distance learning, it is not the only tool and it is not always the most appropriate platform for student learning. Learning at a distance from school does not mean being constantly online, staring at a screen for six hours each day.

Consider all stakeholders

In planning for distance learning, we can be clear about:

  • What teachers will (and will not) provide;
  • How students might engage in their learning; and
  • How parents can support their children’s learning during a school closure situation.

Teachers can and should continue to provide appropriate communication, materials, learning activities, teaching resources and feedback to students.

School closure can be an opportunity for students to develop independent work habits as autonomous learners, but prolonged school closures may result in students struggling to maintain motivation and complete set work. This is a good guide for senior students on how to be effective remote learners. Students can also be encouraged to incorporate physical activity and mindfulness into their day.

Parents can help their children to establish a routine, for instance by using the normal school day as a guide. They can help to establish an appropriate space where children can do their learning at home (quiet, comfortable, resources, and without distractions such as smartphones). The age and independence of the child will determine how much checking in or assistance they need with their learning.

Learning tools and strategies that are ‘fit for purpose’

There is no one-size-fits-all in distance learning. There is a great variety of subjects with varying needs. Some are easily translated into online or at-home environments. Others, such as those subjects with a large practical component (e.g. Physical Education, the Arts or Home Economics) or that require specialised equipment (such as Woodwork, Media or Science practicals), are not so easily replicated outside of the physical grounds of the school. Different subjects and age groups require different approaches to distance learning.

Teachers will know their students’ capacities for technologies and are able to design learning experiences that harness those tools with which students are familiar. Teachers should be trusted and empowered to deploy appropriate delivery of content and learning activities, utilising tools that are fit for purpose and relevant to the subject, content and skills being learned, as well as to the age and stage of students.

A blend of synchronous and asynchronous learning

Distance learning can involve a combination of synchronous (live learning in which students learn with the teacher at the same time) and asynchronous (students learning independently at different times). This edublogger post provides a useful outline and ideas for structuring distance learning.

Some schools during closures have been running identical timetables in which students and teachers ‘arrive’ at online spaces for each class, in its regularly scheduled time. This synchronous approach is one way to go, but it may mean students spending large amounts of time at a computer screen, and teachers giving lessons in didactic, one-dimensional ways.

Distance learning doesn’t have to mirror learning as it normally does in school. In fact, trying to replicate the pace and type of work that would be done at school is unrealistic. Trusting teachers to plan appropriate work for their classes allows them to select how students might best use the home environment and available tools to maintain the continuity of learning during a school closure, with realistic expectations.

There are great video conferencing tools such as Zoom and Teams, and effective collaborative spaces in various Learning Management Systems (such as SEQTA, Schoolbox, Canvas and Blackboard). The Office 365 suite offers opportunities for feedback, collaboration and communication, such as through Class OneNote, Teams and Seesaw.

‘Flipping’ the classroom through video content that can be re-watched by students and later used for revision is one option. For younger year groups, spelling words, handwriting books, mathematics games and exercises, physical activity challenges, inquiry projects and learning apps can be communicated home, with recommendations for how the day can be spent, in order for children to continue their learning.

Consider infrastructure and equity

Designing a distance learning plan means thinking through the required hardware, software and training of staff and students. It also means considering equity and access. Schools will vary by the demographic and by existing technology resources and practices.

Do students have their own devices and power supply for home use? Do they have access to paper, stationary, and a printer? Do students and staff have sufficient internet access and bandwidth at home for the planned learning? Are the intended technology tools accessible remotely via a web browser or a Cloud-based app?

Some schools are running trial mornings before the event of a closure to test technologies and systems.

Communication is queen

Proactive, regular communication is key in uncertain times. This goes for government officials as well as for school and system leaders.

It may not be ‘business as usual’, but we can let our students, staff and families know that planning is in hand, and keep them informed with updates about what is happening and how they might be affected.

Consider wellbeing

Social distancing means isolation from others. It may mean being away not only from the relational spaces of schools, but from friends and family, and from places like gyms, cafes and sporting clubs that are a part of normal routine.

School closure can add pressure to parents and workload to teachers. It can lead to students feeling anxious, perhaps especially those who are in their final year of schooling, preparing for examinations.

In these situations, we all do our best with the emotional, cognitive, financial, technological and physical resources available. Hopefully, this is an opportunity to think about teaching and learning a little differently, to see how we might be efficient and innovative by necessity.

We can be kind to ourselves and each other, and support each other with optimism, care and togetherness, even at a distance.

Teachers and school leaders: Being better

We can always be better

As teachers, school leaders and those working in education, we have a moral obligation to the students we serve to commit to continuous improvement. We need to always strive to be better, because no matter how good we are, we can always improve. Not only is teaching so complex that it’s impossible to perfect (as Dylan Wiliam humorously explains in this short video), but with each new class or cohort, there are fresh idiosyncrasies and circumstances to consider that should influence our practice.

This idea is well worn. Charlotte Danielson explains that “teaching is so hard that it’s never perfect. No matter how good it is, it could always be better.” Dylan Wiliam asserts that “all teachers need to improve their practice—not because they are not good enough, but because they can be even better.”

How we get better

Interestingly, Wiliam also suggests that what we should be getting better at is what we’re already good at, rather than our identified deficiencies. He writes:

“The greatest benefits to students are likely to come from teachers becoming even more expert in their strengths. … when teachers themselves make the decision about what it is that they wish to prioritise for their own professional development, they are more likely to ‘make it work’.”

That is, rather than focusing on deficiencies and finding fault, teachers should be empowered to drive our own improvement and leverage our strengths.

As educators we can improve by engaging in robust processes of self-reflection, goal setting, data generation, data analysis and action. We can use data and the best available evidence to reflect on what we know, and consider how to improve from where we are now, to where we want to be so that we can optimally educate our students.

Staff development processes can support teachers by being efficient, transparent, consistent and based on best practice. Schools can provide psychological safety and cultures of trust that support teachers to be and become the best they can be.

We can also support teachers and school leaders to engage in meaningful collaboration and transformational professional learning as levers for ongoing learning and improvement.

Questions we can each ask ourselves as our 2020 school year kicks off

  • What could be a focus for ‘better’ in my teaching, leadership or education work in 2020?
  • What are some things I could do to move this forward?
  • Who or what could I access for support?
  • What is my first small step towards ‘better’ in this area?

Better together

I opened my presentation to staff this year with the following two artworks: M. C. Escher’s 1953 lithograph Relativity and Piet Mondrian’s 1908 painting The Red Tree.

M.C. Escher’s ‘Relativity’

The version of reality represented in Relativity has the appearance that everyone is going nowhere, round in circles, or in divergent directions. The figures are disconnected from each other. They don’t engage with one another, but rather accept their individual reality and head in their individual direction, on their own path, doing discrete and seemingly unconnected tasks.

There are three different forces of gravity operating in the artwork, and the characters within it exist simultaneously in their different gravitational worlds, without awareness of each other’s different situations. In schools our work can be like this: disconnected and ad hoc, with each of us moving in our own direction according to our own rules, preferences or perceptions of where we could be going and what we could be doing.

Piet Mondrian’s ‘The Red Tree’

In The Red Tree, each branch is going and growing its own way, yet each is connected at the trunk. The trunk may be seen as a metaphor for the shared vision of a school, and the branches as teams and individuals diverging off from, but still connected with, the solid central body of the organisation.

This is what I think we’re aiming for in schools: connection between stakeholders and a shared vision, while honouring individuality and what we each bring and can contribute.

We’re better together, especially when we can simultaneously unite in moral purpose, vision and direction, while allowing each individual to flourish, shine and explore their own path, supported by and integrated with the trunk.

What matters in teaching and learning?

Teaching is incredibly complex. Source: FreeCreativeStuff pixabay

In this blog post I explore my thinking around what matters in teaching and learning. It is by no means an exhaustive list, but part of a wider conversation.

The student matters.

Students are our common purpose in teaching and learning; our who and our why; the core of our work. Not just ‘students’ plural, but each and every student (with their idiosyncrasies, circumstances, attitudes, abilities and identities).

The decisions we make from the classroom to the board room in schools should all come back to the student. Ultimately in education, we are in their service.

The teacher matters.

The teacher and their classroom practice can make a difference to student learning and achievement. Within schools, the quality of teachers’ teaching is the most influential school-based variable in terms of improving student learning and achievement. (Although more influential than what is within a school’s sphere of influence are students’ attitudes and abilities, socioeconomic context, parents’ education and peers.)

Knowledge matters.

In Australia, knowledge is central to one of our professional standards: ‘Teachers know content and how to teach it.’ Focusing on preparing students for their future pathways, and on character, skills and capabilities, doesn’t mean ignoring knowledge.

Australian Chief Scientist, Alan Fink, has spoken about teachers as trained experts who have a “fundamental duty to teach students content: concepts, facts and principles.” He adds that specialist knowledge is needed:

“No-one has ever said to me: ‘gosh, we don’t have enough people who know how to collaborate’. No, what they say to me is: ‘we don’t have enough specialists in software engineering. We can’t find graduates who are fluent in maths. We have meetings where three quarters of the people in the room can’t critique a set of numbers without pulling out a calculator and slowing us down.’”

Cognitive load theory posits that the human working memory cannot process many new elements at any one time, but the human brain can process very large amounts of stored information. What this tells teachers is that we need to help students to bank knowledge in their long term memory, so that they can use their working memory to learn new things or do higher order thinking. For example, knowing things like times tables or phonics with automaticity and fluency leaves room in the working memory to be able to focus on more sophisticated aspects of problems or language.

Dylan Wiliam, in his book Creating the schools our children need: Why what we’re doing now won’t help much (and what we can do instead), points to long-term memory, arguing that:

“what our students need is more to think with. The main purpose of curriculum is to build up the content of long-term memory so that when students are asked to think, they are able to think in more powerful ways.” (2018, p.134)

Critical thinkers need knowledge on which to build, and creators need to know the foundations on which they are innovating.

Pedagogy matters

How we teach also matters. In schools we should be asking ourselves:

  • How do we decide which teaching strategies to deploy?
  • On what evidence do we base our decisions?
  • How do we know what is likely to be in the best interests of the student?

In a previous blog post I outline what research literature indicates about what effective teachers do. They:

  • Purposefully design learning opportunities;
  • Diagnose student progress to inform both teaching and learning;
  • Fight for their students’ learning;
  • Personalise learning for students;  and
  • Provide meaningful and appropriate feedback.

Barak Rosenshine’s principles of instruction give one list of teaching strategies likely to be effective:

  • Review previous learning.
  • Provide new material in small steps with student practice after each step.
  • Limit the amount of material students receive at one time.
  • Give clear and detailed instructions and explanations.
  • Ask good questions and check the responses of all students.
  • Provide models, exemplars and worked examples.
  • Guide student practice.
  • Check for student understanding.
  • Help students obtain a high success rate.
  • Provide scaffolds for difficult tasks.
  • Require and monitor independent practice.
  • Provide timely, systematic feedback.
  • Engage students in regular review of their learning and self-assessment.

In my own classroom, I ask myself:

  • Who is doing the thinking in our classrooms?
  • Who is working harder: teacher or student?

These questions are anchors that help me to consider my pedagogy in ways that empower and expect students to be doing the cognitive work.

But knowledge and teaching are not all that matters in teaching and learning. >>>

Relationships matter.

Relationships are also at the heart of learning.

In Australia one of our professional standards states that “Teachers know their students well.” Steve Biddulph says that “boys learn teachers not subjects.” An oft-quoted line, attributed to a number of people such as Carl Buehner and Maya Angelou, resonates with teachers and the student experience of teaching:

“People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

When I threw the question ‘What matters in teaching and learning’ out to Twitter last night, I received more than 70 replies in 24 hours. Many of these tweets centred around relationships (student-teacher, but also staff and families). Cameron Paterson pointed me towards this video of Rita Pierson’s TED talk in which she says “kids don’t learn from people they don’t like” and “seeks first to understand rather than to be understood.” You can read what Twitter had to say in the thread here.

I like to think about the concept, from psychology, of a ‘holding environment’ in which members of the community or organisation feel ‘held’ in a culture of high support and high challenge. How students feel and relate in our school and classroom matters. They need psychological safety.

Identity and belonging matter.

Like relationships, students need a sense of belonging and of being seen for who they are.

We can consider:

  • Who are our learners now, and who do they and we want them to become?
  • To what extent do our students feel and see themselves belonging in our school community?

Context matters.

Research can only tell us what has worked in particular situations. It doesn’t tell us what to do or what might work for our students. Research  can, however, help us to make better decisions about how best to serve our students.

Those teachers within a classroom and leaders within a school know their students and community. Those working with students and families each day are the people best placed to serve them.

Culture matters.

Cultures of trust and empathy are key to schools that are able to support the learning and wellbeing of their students and staff. Those cultures can be academic, pastoral, professional and community cultures.

We can ask:

  • How do we collectively approach teaching, learning and pastoral matters?
  • What are our students’ work habits and attitudes to school and learning?
  • How engaged are our families in student learning?
  • How well do we work together as a staff?

And we can work on culture as a foundation stone of the teaching and learning work we do.

Engagement matters.

Knowledge and skills are central to student learning, but we also want students to be lifelong learners who are curious and driven to learn and to solve problems.

  • How do we enhance student motivation and excitement about learning?
  • How do we facilitate learning that matters to students?

Finally, our moral purpose matters.

I recently heard Michael Fullan saying that it is today’s students who will change the world for the better, partly because of their education, and partly because of the anxiety and alarm they feel about the state of the world, that is propelling them towards being agents of positive change.

In 1947 Martin Luther King Junior wrote that:

“Education must enable one to sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, and the facts from the fiction. The function of education, therefore, is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. But education which stops with efficiency may prove the greatest menace to society. The most dangerous criminal may be the man gifted with reason, but with no morals.”

Teachers and school leaders have a moral obligation to our students. We can consider our own moral purpose, and how we help students to develop character and their own moral compass and purpose.

  • How do we facilitate students as lifelong learners, ethical active citizens and empathetic constructive problem seekers and solvers?
  • How can and do we support students to contribute to a world that’s worth living in?

Asking ‘What matters?’, matters.

In our edited book, Flip the System Australia, my co-editors and I chose the subtitle: What Matters in Education. The book looked beyond a ‘what works’ agenda and asked (and in some ways proposed hopeful possible answers to) questions of what matters, what should matter, and how we can focus our education systems on equity, democracy and inclusion.

Teaching is difficult, complex, human, relational work. So much matters, but if we keep the student at the centre of our thinking, we’re off to a good start.

ICSEI 2020 SYMPOSIUM – ‘Agency, democracy and humanity: Global perspectives on flipping the education system and empowering teachers’

Flip the System books

On Wednesday 8 January at 11 am, I have the privilege of chairing a symposium at the ICSEI annual congress at the Mogador Palace in Marrakech, featuring the editors of the Flip the System education books: Jelmer Evers and René Kneyber (2015); Lucy Rycroft-Smith and JL Dutaut (2017); myself, Cameron Paterson and Jon Andrews (2018); and Michael Soskil (in preparation). Andy Hargreaves, who has written a chapter for each of the books, will be our discussant.

Our symposium explores what the notion of ‘flipping the education system’ means for each of us in our own contexts: Europe, the UK, Australia and the USA.

We challenge the status quo in which governments and policymakers make decisions disconnected from those at the nadir of the system: teachers and students. Schools in this system are highly bureaucratic institutional settings, and teachers are increasingly undervalued, constrained and de-professionalised. Those that wield influence on education policy and practice construct narrow measures of the success of schooling, and these impact heavily on teacher agency. Large-scale assessment, the use (and misuse) of big data at all levels of schooling, corporate investment, and new models of governance and technological innovation, are pervasive. A focus on numbers and rankings contributes to the disconnect between bureaucracy and the profession, and to the tension between education’s vision for equity and the realities of competition, marketisation and cultures focused on fear and narrow measures of performance.

Our symposium shares global perspectives around the notion of subverting, flattening, democratising and reimagining our education systems in ways that embrace human aspects of education, wrestle with the criticality of the task of schooling, and engage with multiple voices in education, especially those often sidelined in education discourse. The assembled presentations offer powerful insights about political, social and economic forces that influence numerous aspects of education, and also positive alternatives for the future of education.

The throughline or golden thread here is that teachers—their agency, professionalism, expertise and wellbeing—are central to flipping, strengthening and democratising our education systems. We all advocate for a focus on the GOOD in education. The greater good, the common good. Good for all students, everywhere, and good for the teachers who teach them.

The symposium presentations are described below. If you are attending the ICSEI conference, join us for a robust, and ultimately hopeful, discussion!

‘Striving for good education for all: The alternative offered by Flip the System’ – Jelmer Evers and René Kneyber (via video)

As the originators of the Flip the System book series and education movement, Jelmer and René outline the history of Dutch education reform and how they came to the conclusion that the system needs to be flipped using six global guidelines for future action: trust, honour, finding purpose, collaboration, support and time. For teachers, they argue, this is a professionalising process of ‘self-emancipation’. Their books, The Alternative and Flip the System, have had powerful political impact, as well as sparking a global discourse that foregrounds practising teachers as a crucial voice in educational change.

Jelmer and René reflect on the current state of the profession globally in the Global North and South. They explore the continued struggle between democratic professionalism and privatisation, authoritarianism and surveillance capitalism. They make a case for what is needed now. They explore teacher strikes as a starting point for renewed professional collective pride and agency and belief in education as a public good. The teaching profession, they argue, should strive for a global awareness and counterforce striving for good education for all.

‘When we used our teacher voices, no-one listened: The paradox of escaping the system to dismantle the system’ – Lucy Rycroft-Smith (and JL Dutaut)

Lucy will represent herself and JL as editors of Flip the System UK. In this presentation, the authors reflect on the history of the UK’s (failed) education reforms. They outline how powerful voices simplify issues and reduce complexities, while the teacher population suffers the demands of hyper-accountability, at great mental, emotional and physical cost. Lucy and JL summarise the realities of the daily grind for UK teachers, exacerbated by the school quality review and systemic discrimination. In questioning the current landscape of apparent ‘expertise’ in education, the authors ask: Why, only now, do people care what we have to say? How can we leverage these new advantages without succumbing to the same fate?

Lucy and JL’s argument is that we must reject the current paradigm of success: ‘the most students with the highest grades at the lowest financial cost’. Rather, they propose substituting a vision for an education community that values teachers as both humans and professionals, with the common good at its heart.

‘Australian perspectives on flipping the education system from ‘what works’ to ‘what matters: Reclaiming education for and by those within the system’ – Deborah Netolicky, Cameron Paterson (and Jon Andrews)

Cameron and I will be presenting, on behalf of ourselves and Jon, as editors of Flip the System Australia. We explore the current realities of schooling in Australia, including policy, funding and high-stakes standardised testing such as NAPLAN, ATAR and PISA. We challenge the media narratives presented to the Australian public, the rise of celebrity teachers, and the demonising and deprofessionalising of the teaching profession. We rally—in the spirit of the 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart—against the silencing of Indigenous voices in education policy and practice.

While education is a deeply human endeavour, the complex work that teachers do around the world every day is threatened by the political, the commercial and the popular. We advocate for equity, democracy, plurality, collective responsibility and teacher agency. We argue against polarising and one-dimensional narratives of education, and for locally-produced solutions and teacher voices. We believe that the power to transform schools lies within schools. The system should enable teachers to go about the complex work of teaching with professional honour, acknowledgement of professional expertise, and support structures focused on wellbeing and growth.

‘Education as the foundation of healthy democracy: A perspective from the USA’ – Michael Soskil

Michael presents a perspective on flipping the system, based on the upcoming book Flip the System: US. In the USA, partisan political influence, substantial inequity and economic interests prevail. Instead of basing decisions on professional expertise of the teachers who are committed to meeting the needs of unique, individual children, the system defers to lobbyists and politicians who manipulate data to tell narratives that suits their interests. Michael reflects on the health of the USA’s education system and asks if—at this pivotal moment in our history, when democratic norms, personal liberties, respect for intellectualism, and economic opportunity are eroding—public education is supporting democracy, and if our democracy is supporting public education.

Reclaiming the public education system, Michael points out, must begin from the inside out by focusing on strengthening the teaching profession. He points to shining examples of educators leading movements to overcome the deficiencies in our system, providing nuanced and locally relevant solutions to complex education problems. The system, he affirms, should be shaped around teacher expertise.

Postscript: our symposium participants

Teachers and school leaders: well-being or ill-being?

Concern about teacher and school leader wellbeing

Teacher and school leader wellbeing is an increasing issue for education systems around the world. Some commentators call teaching a profession in ‘crisis’ or ‘distress’. Many sources point to the emotional, mental, and physical health of those working in schools as something that needs to be seriously considered.

Some literature suggests that one quarter of those who begin teaching leave the profession in the first five years, often citing mental health, emotional exhaustion, workload, and wellbeing issues as reasons.

The Gonski 2.0 report (Gonski et al., 2018) names unstable employment patterns, and a heavy and increasingly complex workload, as reasons for attrition in the teaching profession.

A week ago The Guardian published this article on increasing teacher workload, saying that according to one UK teacher wellbeing index, “nearly three-quarters of teachers and 84% of school leaders now describe themselves as ‘stressed’, and more than a third of education professionals have experienced a mental health issue in the past academic year. Almost half (49%) believe their workplace is having a negative impact on their mental health and wellbeing.”

The longitudinal Australian Principal Occupational Health, Safety and Wellbeing Survey of principals and deputy principals reveals worrying trends in school leader wellbeing. The 2018 survey (Riley, 2019) involved 5934 participants. Its findings include the following.

  • 53% of principals worked upwards of 56 hours per week during term with ~24% working upwards of 61-65 hours per week;
  • 40-45% of participants take prescription medication for a diagnosed condition.
  • Principals experience high levels of job demands (1.5 times the general population) emotional demands (1.7 times) and emotional labour (1.7 times) being the highest demands when compared to the general population. This is correlated with higher levels of burnout (1.6 times higher), stress symptoms (1.7 times higher), difficulty sleeping (2.2 times higher), cognitive stress (1.5 times higher), somatic symptoms (1.3 times higher), and, depressive symptoms (1.3 times higher).
  • The two greatest sources of stress for principals and deputies are Sheer Quantity of Work, and Lack of Time to Focus on Teaching and Learning.
  • Principals’ stress is caused largely by increasing Mental Health Issues of Students, Mental Health Issues of Staff, and Teacher Shortages.
  • The prevalence rate for Threats of Violence is 45%, with close to 1 in 2 principals receiving a threat.

In their chapter in Flip the System Australia: What Matters in Education, Andy Hargreaves et al. (2019) acknowledge that teachers struggle to collaborate effectively amidst the frenetic rate of reform in education and ever-increasing workloads and accountabilities. They assert that there is no student wellbeing without teacher wellbeing, so teacher wellbeing is something we need to care about.

Should teachers and school leaders be expected to put the needs of the children in their care ahead of their own health and their own children? Should they be expected to teach social, emotional, and life skills, as well as the curriculum? Should they be scored and performance managed based on limited and limiting accountability measures? Should they be pressured into spending their leisure time working and their own money on resources because it shows that they care and are ‘good teachers’? Should overwork, late night emails, and accessibility during weekends and holidays be normalised?

If wellbeing of staff is an issue in our education system, what can leaders do, and what can we each do for ourselves?

Leadership of staff wellbeing

School leadership is key to staff wellbeing. Just this week, WorkSafe has launched an investigation into one Australian school, its psychosocial environment, and the psychological and physical safety of its staff.

Wellbeing in schools is about more than meditation, yoga, fitness classes, and complimentary employee counselling. These have their place (and I enjoyed workplace yoga for years), but addressing teacher and school leader wellbeing also means seriously considering workload, expectations, and accountabilities.

Those leading systems and schools need to ask: How do our norms and culture contribute to wellbeing or ill-being? What is the work that is really important and that makes a difference? What can we take off teachers’ plates? How do we balance high professional expectations with high levels of support? What does it look like when we treat our staff as human beings with relationships, bodies, and lives?

Schools need to think carefully about teachers’ multiple, competing duties, and make time for meaningful collaboration around student work, student data, curriculum, and pedagogy, as well as time for teachers’ core business: actually teaching (and planning and assessing).

The Gonski 2.0 report suggests that “much greater assistance could be given to reduce their [teachers’] hands-on administrative workload, particularly in schools that are part of a larger system. This assistance includes: exploring reduction and/or simplification in administrative burdens placed on schools and their reporting requirements (including simplification of work health and safety requirements); appointing more dedicated administrative resources to schools; identifying quality external providers to which schools may be able to outsource some administrative responsibilities; and exploring new models for school management including chief operating officers or business managers accountable to the principal” (p.88).

School leaders can make transparent decisions, underpinned by organisational vision and clear principles. We can exercise compassion. We can resist hyper accountabilities, narrow frameworks for assessing teachers, and negative narratives of schooling. We can create our own measures of success for our schools, teachers, and students. We can enable flexible working arrangements, and ensure we listen to and encourage honest feedback from our staff.

We can also consider an approach to professional learning that is about growth. This can include staff voice and choice, and supportive processes such and mentoring and coaching. In this way, leaders can acknowledge the complexity and humanity of teaching and schooling, and facilitating staff autonomy and agency. Staff can feel like trusted, valued professionals and authors of their own learning and development.

Individual wellbeing

wellbeing

some of my wellbeing spaces

Those of us working in education need to give ourselves permission to protect and nourish our own health and relationships. That means time to sleep, to exercise, to enjoy nutritious food, to be silent and still, to be with our families, to spend time with our friends, to attend our children’s events, to breathe. It means prioritising these things even when the work feels crushing or breakneck in ways that seem to squeeze out everything else.

Like many who work in education, I find putting work to the side a challenge, but the old adage applies: we need to fit our own oxygen mask before we can assist others. We need to look after ourselves if we are to effectively serve our staff, students, and school communities. Personal wellbeing is not optional.

When author, prison officer, social justice advocate and education powerhouse Celia Lashlie died in 2015, her family published some of her final words:

“We become complacent about the need to take care of ourselves… always something more to do. Some of this is driven by our desire to save the world, others driven by the desire we have to reach the many goals we have set ourselves – many of them superficial.

Late last year I slowly became unwell. The stress of the lifestyle I was living, the demands I made of myself, the demands the people made of me and expected to meet became too great and as 2014 closed I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer that had spread to my liver. No treatment, no cure, only palliative care. I’d waited too long to look after myself and my body broke.”

For me, these words were a sober reminder to educators that while we may want to do our utmost to make a positive difference, we should also work hard at looking after ourselves.

 

References

Gonski et al. 2018. Through Growth to Achievement Report of the Review to Achieve Educational Excellence in Australian Schools.

Hargreaves, A., Washington, S., & O’Connor, M. (2019). Flipping their lids: teachers’ well-being in crisis. In D. Netolicky, J. Andrews, & C. Paterson (eds.), Flip the System Australia: What Matters in Education, 93-104. Abingdon: Routledge.

Riley, P. 2019. The Australian Principal Occupational Health, Safety and Wellbeing Survey 2018 Data.

Teacher research

Set up for today’s presentation via Zoom

Today I had the pleasure of being the opening speaker, via Zoom from Perth, at the King’s Institute Research Symposium at The King’s School in Parramatta. In this blog I outline some of the thoughts I shared.

The pracademic

Those working in schools doing post-graduate study or action research, might be considered a pracademics. The word ‘pracademic’ is used to describe those in their field who simultaneously straddle the dual worlds of practice and scholarship, industry work and research. In education, these are the boundary-spanners who operate as the bridge between the worlds of education research and that of classroom and school. We bring a research lens to our work in schools, and we bring lived experience to our writing and research.

Pracademics have a crucial role to play in connecting the dots between scholarly and practical domains in ways that empower those working in schools to meaningfully engage with research and to contribute outwards to narratives about education. This is about speaking out as well as bringing in.

As I reflect on my own pracademia, I realise that since completing my PhD in 2016, while continuing to work full time in a school, I have produced:

  • 8 peer-reviewed papers in academic journals;
  • 6 academic book chapters;
  • 1 co-edited book – Flip the System Australia: What Matters in Education;
  • 1 monograph – Transformational Professional Learning: Making a Difference in Schools; and
  • blog posts and opinion pieces.

I have spoken regularly at conferences in Australia and overseas, on podcasts and in radio interviews. I also peer review papers for academic journals and write academic book reviews.

As someone who is employed in a school, this is a kind of moonlighting that occurs in volunteered time. These certainly aren’t things I would encourage all teachers to do, but engaging in or with research does meaningfully inform my practice in my school. My overlapping double roles inform one another. The hybridity of the pracademic provides credibility within the school environment, a  perspective that understands the realities of schools. Those of us engaging in research in our schools bring important contextual, relational and practical knowledge to research.

Teacher research is important

We are operating in an education world in which evidence-based practice is promoted and sometimes expected, and in which the field of medicine is seen as a benchmark against which education should measure itself. Schools, school leaders, and teachers are increasingly expected to be research literate, to be informed by research and evidence in our decisions and practices.

We are often presented with arguments that begin with sweeping and unsubstantiated statements like ‘the research says’. ‘Evidence-informed’, ‘research-based’ and ‘data driven’ are buzzwords. They appear in education reports, blogs, media, academic papers, speeches by consultants, books, in school staff rooms and in discussions on social media.

Teacher research and involvement with research is important, especially because so often education research knowledge remains separated from teaching practitioner knowledge. Much education scholarship is written in the structure and language of the academe. Often it resides behind a paywall (at USD$40 per article) or an expensive price tag (at upwards of $200 per book), making it inaccessible for many who work in schools.  Meanwhile, consultants and corporations promote often oversimplified, diluted or misleading solutions to education problems, while claiming that their solutions are based in research. However, as those of use working in schools know, context matters a lot. And the answer to ‘what works?’ is often ‘it depends’.

Teacher research helps us to:

  • make better decisions for our own contexts;
  • include student voice in school change;
  • listen to the voice and experiences of teachers;
  • engage teacher autonomy and agency; and
  • measure the impact of any changes we are making, setting our own success criteria, rather than relying on external metrics.

Teacher research seeks to understand and improve. It does not aim to provide prescriptions, mechanistic approaches, recipes, checklists or league tables. It is about engaging thoughtfully, critically and systematically with evidence, research, our own contexts and our own professional judgement.

Teachers engaging in research and research methodologies means we are applying these to our own contexts, and are also better placed to assess the relevance of other research and evidence we come across. We can make more meaningful sense of the research upon which advice and claims are based. It helps us to be careful of accepting simplified answers at face value. It gives us confidence in our own professional judgement and strengthens our willingness to interrogate claims of ‘the research says’.

Teacher research leads to better outcomes for students

Research cannot and should not tell teachers what to do, but research and other evidence has value in schools and can point us in directions worth pursuing. We improve our schools and our teaching when we integrate professional expertise with evidence and research. It is through practitioner research that we can marry the complex, human work of teaching with a critical, scientific mindset.

Teacher research can help those of us working in schools to make the best decisions for those in our classrooms and communities. It can help teachers and schools decide what is likely to be the best way to invest time and resources.

Practitioner research is an iterative, active, ongoing process that can hone our professional judgments and help to put us in a better position to bring about improved student learning and achievement, as well as other positive school-based results. It requires an ongoing, collaborative commitment to learning, understanding, critically examining what we think we know about what might work in schools to bring about the best outcomes for our students. That is ultimately what we are all here for.