Education: Does the future look bright?

Source: @Riki32 pixabay

In education, we often look to the future, while also being told our schools are stuck in the past.

While there are innovative learning spaces in many schools, classrooms may look similar to the onlooker over time—often with a version of desks, chairs, writable and projectable surfaces, and students of the same age learning in the same space—but the learning and teaching that goes on is not the one-size-fits-all chalk-and-talk of old. There is, of course, an important place for teacher knowledge and for explicit instruction. A classroom observer might not see, looking in, what students are doing, and what platforms they are using to learn. They might not see, unless they speak to the students, that the content is being accessed via a ranges of modes and supports such as video instruction, collaborative online spaces, cloud documents, assistive and adaptive technologies, multimodal resources, tiered tasks, student choice, and self-paced learning modules. They are unlikely to see the depth of the teacher’s knowledge of the diverse learning, social and emotional needs of each learner, and the ways in which the teacher is generating a range of data on student learning, and subtly adjusting environment, content, and learning process and product, in order to support the success of each child. They may not observe the layers of student goal-setting, self-reflection, and action on ongoing feedback.

While schools may have moved further in their practice than some commentators would argue, schools exist within the current instability and volatility of the world, along with the rapidly changing nature of work. At a time of systemic exhaustion and tidal uncertainty, it is sometimes challenging to find hope, optimism, and a sense of excitement about the future. The global geopolitical economic outlook is distressing, and plagued by rising inequality, conflict, widening polarisation, pandemics, climate crises, constraints on national resources, and a gender gap predicted to take another 132 years to close.

Organisations around the world are describing future trajectories that blend hazard with opportunity. The CSIRO (Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation), for example, recently identified seven megatrends:

  • A volatile changing climate with economic and social costs.
  • An increased focus on cleaner and greener energy sources.
  • A ‘burning platform’ of escalating health challenges including an ageing population and growing burden of chronic and infectious diseases, and psychological distress.
  • Geopolitical tensions and uncertainty.
  • Growing economic digitisation of work and the economy.
  • An explosion in the use of artificial intelligence (AI).
  • A strong consumer and citizen push for the need for public trust in governments and governance.

The World Economic Forum has reported that the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated pre-existing inequalities, with gender, socio-economic status, location and ethnicity influencing students’ access to education.

What are educators, schools, and the education system to do, to ensure that students are being prepared for their futures in such times?

The WEF report identifies areas for opportunity in education, including:

  • Alternative and additional ways of assessing and tracking student learning.
  • Learning integrated with employers and industry.
  • Flexible credentialling and development of skills wallets or passports.
  • Harnessing sophisticated technologies for learning such as AI and other computer-assisted-instruction systems.
  • Investment in teachers’ learning and time.

Schools are experimenting with many of these things, such as alternative ways to record evidence of student learning, and to track, monitor and build portfolios and ‘learner profiles’ of student success. Content is being offered in increasingly innovative and flexible ways, including microcredentialing and courses focused on wellbeing, social justice, service, character, and learner capabilities, as well as traditional knowledges. As an example, this term in some of the Future Ready courses at my school, Year 6s are designing solutions to a health and wellbeing issue based on immersion in United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 3, Year 7s are designing a future school, Year 8s are writing a ‘Close the Gap’ campaign pledge, Year 9s are engaging in a global gamified sustainability challenge, and Year 10s are completing a self-chosen microcredential as well as a choice between earning their Provide First Aid certification or pitching their ‘side hustle’ business idea in an entrepreneurship course.

Student voices, as well as teacher, parent and community voices, are key as we think about shaping education. Schools are trialling approaches that serve the needs of their communities, such as flexible and alternate timetable arrangements, flexible working arrangements for staff, flexible learning options for students, hybrid teaching and learning environments, flexible pathways through and beyond school, and delivery of courses across schools and organisations.

One of the OECD’s ‘four scenarios for future schooling’ envisions schools as learning hubs that strengthen personalised learning pathways as part of an ecosystem of networked education spaces, with strong partnerships with external institutions, such as museums, libraries, residential centres, and technological hubs. As someone who has worked in independent schools for over 20 years, I see our responsibility as to cultivate a collaborative and networked education world, sharing with one another, and with educators more broadly, the work and innovation in which we engage. Platforms like my blog, books and podcast are attempts to share and collaborate with others in the education space. While the marketing firehose and facilities arms race can position schools as competitors, we will build a better education system if we see one another as partners and networked collaborators. We are better together, for the future of our students and the planet. We can enact the kinds of opportunities, relationships, and voice we would like to see in the world for our students, who are the people who will positively influence the future world.

Reflections on teaching and school leadership during Term 1 2022

source: Sprudge

Term 1 2022 may have occurred at and for about the same time as it usually does in Australia, but it felt like an especially long for educators.                 

In Western Australia, with more restrictions in place than some other states, signature experiences of Term 1 included the following.

  • Mask-wearing for school staff, and for students in Years 3 and up.
  • Classrooms with air purifiers, CO2 monitors and open windows.
  • Schools taking on the role of contact tracing and communication.
  • Restrictions to gatherings at schools, resulting in parent information, parent teacher interviews, assemblies, and activities being held online, outdoors, or in small groups.
  • The latest iterations of remote and hybrid learning as students and teachers were absent from school due to isolation and illness.
  • Teacher absences and shortages.
  • Teachers classed as potential ‘critical workers’.
  • The hard border into WA softening.
  • The acting federal Education Minister making remarks about “dud teachers” “dragging the chain” and “not delivering the learning gains our children need”.

The administrative requirements of Covid-19 directions for schools, combined with restrictions on getting together in person, meant that educators’ experiences of the term were largely transactional, operational, and cumulatively exhausting. School leaders and teachers worked to keep school communities safe, informed, and with a sense of calm normalcy. We put one foot in front of the other, complied with requirements, and ensured that learning and pastoral care continued for students. But we missed some of those things that buoy us in our work: relationality, community, and connection.

At my school we employed as many relief staff as we could to take the pressure off our teachers. We offered opportunities for staff to work flexibly or from home when we could. We scaled back and reimagined meetings, doing these differently or not at all, according to their purpose and our community’s needs. We carefully considered administrative requirements and evaluated the effectiveness, efficiency, and flexibility of assessment tasks and feedback practices. We interrogated the reasons for our ways of doing things, generated alternate ways to achieve our aims, and questioned whether the aims themselves needed to be rethought or relinquished. What was important during this time? What could we do differently? What could be let go?

We found small ways to connect with one another. There were no whole-staff meetings or morning teas, but we met in smaller groups (on balconies, in the quadrangle, in well-ventilated spaces). We held some free coffee Fridays where drinks at the coffee van were paid for by the school, facilitating incidental outdoors conversations between colleagues, as well as offering a gesture of thanks to our hard working staff. We thanked individuals for specific contributions. I called most teachers who were home isolating or ill, to check in and see how they were. We introduced a Staff Appreciation Award so that staff could recognise colleagues for their support.

While it was tempting to hold off on all but the most essential work, we knew that engaging with our professional selves, professional goals, and core purpose was key to staying connected and uplifted. We held our annual goal setting meetings and booked into professional learning experiences. We provided opportunities for staff to collaborate in small groups and teams to have energising, productive conversations around practice, with each other and with external experts. As well as teaching our students, it was pockets of meaningful collaboration that sparked moments of professional delight. Working together with colleagues and engaging in robust dialogue, thoughtful reflection, and collaborative planning, provided a lightness, an energy, and a reminder about our shared moral purpose: educating each student in our school community.

None of this is perfect, but we are doing our absolute best. We remain committed to the learning, care, safety, and success of our students.

Someone asked me recently what I have been proud of, and the first thing that came to mind was: showing up. The challenge for those in schools is to maintain enough wellbeing, community, connection, kindness and belonging, to sustain us through what will continue to be a challenging year. During this break between terms, I hope that educators around the country are filling their empty cups by finding time to regenerate and to connect with themselves and with their families and friends.

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

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

That was then

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

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

Teachers’ being and becoming

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

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

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

The more things change, the more they stay the same

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is now

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

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

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

2021 Year in Review

Source: Pixabay @Bildschirmaffe

In many ways 2021 has gone by in a flash. Milestones and special moments have come and gone in a maelstrom of work, a firehose of information, and a tumult of pandemic rules and restrictions. As the year winds down, and as I try to do the same, I want to take a moment to reflect on my professional highlights of 2021.

This year my school launched a new strategic plan, and in my role as Head of Teaching and Learning (K-12), I have been engaged in important work bringing that plan to fruition. We have developed our work in what we call ‘learning diversity and inclusion’, including professional learning for and collaboration among staff, adjusting for students with diverse learning needs, developing our shared understanding and practice of differentiation, and improving our reporting on individual learning outcomes. We have continued our focus on effective feedback, assessment, student action on feedback, student goal setting, and student self-reflection and self-regulation, as key ways to develop a learning culture of continual improvement and resilience.

My school aims to support our students to become good people – lifelong learners and leaders of rounded character, able to experience their best success and find their most appropriate pathway through school and beyond school. This year it is wonderful that our Year 12s achieved the best ATAR results in our school’s history, but we know that success is not measured by a number or a test. We will continue to do the work we know matters for the range of students in our care, providing opportunities for agency, voice and accomplishment appropriate to each individual, honouring each person’s story, goals, and gifts.

An exciting challenge has been collating and distilling years of consultation and feedback to inform redesigning the Secondary timetable for 2022 and beyond. In doing so we have made room for a heightened focus on wellbeing and child safety, and for teaching those things that will continue to set our students up for their best future success through our Future Ready programs.

While my role title names ‘teaching’ and ‘learning’, much of my work is immersed in recruiting, inducting, supporting, coaching, mentoring, and developing staff. It is my pleasure to work with staff new to our school, with graduate teachers, with Heads of Department, with cross-school strategic project groups, with middle and aspirant leaders, with classroom teachers, with the Executive team, and with administrative, IT, facilities and support staff. I especially enjoy my one-on-one chats in which I support staff to find learning opportunities relevant to them, position themselves for their next steps, win promotional roles, and make decisions about their futures that best serve them. This year’s launch of our Staff Development Suite, co-designed by a staff steering committee in 2020, allows staff to be supported in ways appropriate and individualised to them. Supporting our staff to thrive and to be their best, in turn supports our students.

A range of initiatives designed to support wellbeing for all staff include: ensuring predictable and well-in-advance calendar dates, timelines and deadlines; morning teas; soup in winter; meditation; seated massage; free flu vaccinations; COVID-19 vaccination leave; some early finishes to accommodate parent-teacher interviews during part of the school day where possible; investment in staff professional learning; support of staff professional goals; leadership development opportunities; a Distance Learning Plan that embeds planning time and realistic expectations of staff and students; supporting staff through life’s hardships; working to make part-time teachers’ timetables as life-friendly as possible; negotiating flexible working arrangements where possible and appropriate; and teacher recognition. I was pleased this year to spend time nominating colleagues for awards, and delighted that they were recognised for the outstanding contribution they make to the lives of the young people in our school and beyond. While teachers constantly navigate professional responsibilities, marking loads, and administration, schools can continue to consider their role in creating cultures of trust and empathy. This of course involves more than tokens of appreciation and needs to be part of a whole-school culture of organisational, collective and individual care and responsibility, in which the school works to support staff, and staff work to support themselves and each other.

I am incredibly grateful to those who nominated me for awards this year. I was thrilled to receive three awards: the 2021 American Educational Research Association Educational Change Emerging Scholar Award, the 2021 Michael Fullan Emerging Scholar in Professional Capital and Community Award, and the 2021 Australian Council of Educational Leaders WA Certificate of Excellence in Educational Leadership.

I enjoyed presenting to national and international audiences this year (online thanks to the pandemic and travel restrictions) including:

I have seen my 2020 article on school leadership in pandemic downloaded 12,000 times, and two big publication collaborations have come to life this year:

  • A Special Issue of the Journal of Professional Capital and Community ‘Pracademia: Exploring the possibilities, power and politics of boundary-spanners straddling the worlds of practice and scholarship’, which I co-edited with Trista Hollweck and Paul Campbell. Its six papers include our paper Defining and exploring pracademia: Identity, community, and engagement.
  • The edited book Future Alternatives for Educational Leadership: Diversity, Inclusion, Equity, and Democracy. Written mainly during 2020, but released this year, it is edited by me and includes 15 outstanding chapter contributions from 25 authors from the UK, USA, South America, Canada, Europe, Australia, and the Middle East: Asmaa Al-Fadala, Cecilia Azorín, Carol Campbell, Christine Corso, Karen Edge, Michael Fullan, Claire Golledge, Christine Grice Suraiya Hameed, Andy Hargreaves, Alma Harris, Michelle Jones, Annie Kidder, Jodie Miller, Richard Paquin Morel, Liliana Mularczyk, me, Viviennne Porritt, Santiago Rincón-Gallardo, Eugenie Samier, Marnee Shay, Dennis Shirley, James Spillane, Eloise Tan, and Pat Thomson, with a Foreword by Beatriz Pont. In my view, this is an incredibly important and forward-thinking book by some of the world’s best education thinkers, researchers and practitioners.

In the introduction to Future Alternatives for Educational Leadership, penned in January this year, I wrote:

It was late in January 2020 that I invited authors to contribute to a book exploring what leadership in education needs now and into the future. … Bringing this book’s authors together in that moment was about considering educational leadership in a time of climate crises, grave global humanitarian need, political unrest, displacement of peoples, and inequities affecting the education, safety, and success of young people around the world. On 30 January, the World Health Organization declared a public health emergency. … Between March, when authors conceptualised their abstracts, and later months when they wrote their chapters, much changed for individuals, for schools, for universities, and for the world. …

As I write this Introduction in January 2021, more than two million people have reportedly died from COVID-19 as second and third waves of infections continue around the world. Violent pro-Trump rioters have stormed the US Capitol in Washington DC, numerous countries are in lockdown, hospitals around the world are overwhelmed, and schools in 17 countries are closed to all but essential workers as remote learning is again enacted for millions of students. History may or may not show the COVID-19 pandemic as a watershed event in socioeconomic and educational change. At the moment of writing this book, however, the opportunity to reconsider and reimagine the future of education and educational leadership seems imperative. The need for all of us to work for diversity, inclusion, equity, and democracy is more urgent than ever.

I wondered, as I sent the book to production, if COVID-19 would be a barely-relevant memory by the time the book was published. As it turns out, the pandemic continues to transform the way we live, lead and learn, with connectedness and meaning keeping us all going during these unusual times. The need for all of us to work for diversity, inclusion, equity, and democracy is indeed more urgent than ever. As we enter 2022, I will continue to be buoyed in professional spaces by collaboration with others, and the feeling of working together for a common, moral purpose.

Do we need innovation in education?

source: pixabbay @PIRO4D

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

Learning and wellbeing: Two sides of the same coin

Source: @jplenio on pixabay

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flipping the system – Where are we now?

Recently I had the pleasure of collaborating with interstate colleagues Cameron Paterson and Jon Andrews in a webinar for the Australian Curriculum Studies Association (ACSA), in which we explored the notion of flipping the education system.

‘Flip the System’ is part of a movement, as Cameron would say, and of a series of books, including the following.

  • Flip the System: Changing Education from the Ground Up (Evers & Kneyber, 2016);
  • Flip the System: Förändra Skolan från Grunden (Kornhall, Evers, & Kneyber, 2017);
  • Flip the System UK: A Teachers’ Manifesto, (Rycroft-Smith & Dutaut, 2018);
  • Our book Flip the System Australia: What Matters in Education (Netolicky, Andrews, & Paterson, 2019); and most recently
  • Flip the System US: How Teachers Can Transform Education and Save Democracy (Soskil, 2021).

The books deal with issues around teacher agency, voice and professionalism; and democratising education and addressing inequity.

During the ACSA webinar in February, we editors of the Australian book reflected on how our thinking around flipping the system has changed or stayed the same in the last couple of years, especially in light of recent contextual factors such as the global COVID-19 pandemic and the NSW Gallop Inquiry into the work of teachers and principals and how it has changed since 2004.

In my ‘presentation’ piece during the webinar (from minutes 34-43), I reflected on the neoliberal education agenda to which we were responding as we worked on the Australian book in 2017 and 2018. We were writing and editing the book amidst the rise of the idea of ‘teacher quality’ and (often dubious, quantitative and punitive) ways of attempting to measure that nebulous ‘quality’. The education discourse was rife with talk and policy around school effectiveness, improvement, standards, accountabilities, surveillance, competition, and standardised testing. Teachers were teaching and school leaders were leading amidst a culture of audit and measurement, a distrust of teachers and schools, and an obsession with ‘what works’ (usually without any nuance around what might work where, for whom, and under what conditions). Simplistic, seductive ‘silver bullet’ solutions and hierarchical league tables (of teaching strategies or of schools or school systems) were all the rage in education. My chapter in the book was on teacher identity and teacher voice. It argued for elevating the professional identities and voices of teachers and school leaders in educational research, practice, and policymaking.

Fast forward to 2021, and the pandemic is disrupting education along with lives, families, societies, economies, and industries. Citizens have submitted to increasing government control. From policymaking to educating, we’ve been building the plane while flying it. Sometimes governments and education leaders have got it right, and sometimes not. Some challenges have arisen in education and some issues have come into sharper relief.

There are also opportunities emerging, such as strengthened global networks of educators working and learning together. Since we edited Flip the System Australia some ideas are becoming more prominent in education, as well as in other fields: identity, wellbeing integrated with learning, and belonging.

Some ideas around the essence of flipping the education system remain the same. We should continue to focus on what matters over what works, on the greater good over individual good, on strengthening teacher voice and agency, and on democracy and equity. We should continue to engage with education as a human endeavour.

You can view my slides above and watch the video via this link.

Staff wellbeing: Time and money

source: @nikkotations at unsplash.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Staff wellbeing is more than free food and fitness classes, although these can be nice to have. Nurturing staff wellbeing might take various forms, such as providing initiatives that support staff health, modelling sustainable work-life behaviours, maintaining predictable timelines, ensuring clear policies and procedures, streamlining communication, considering workload issues, ensuring a range of internal and external support mechanisms are available for staff, recognising staff efforts, celebrating staff achievements, leading with empathy, and making decisions with the needs of staff in mind.

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