TES book review of ‘Transformational Professional Learning’

This week, the Times Educational Supplement published a review of my book by Clare Sealy. Clare is a prominent voice in education in the UK. After years as a primary school principal she is now Head of Curriculum and Standards for the States of Guernsey. She has a wealth of experience in school and system leadership in education. We agree about the importance of a knowledge-rich curriculum and of understanding cognitive load for learning and revision.

I thank Clare for taking the time to read my book and write a review. As the book’s author, I have reflected on some of her opinions about the book, which she describes as “useful but flawed”. I share these responses below.

False promises

Clare argues that by including the term ‘transformational’ in the book’s title—Transformational Professional Learning: Making a Difference in Schools—I was ‘setting myself up for a fall’.

“Surely, thinks the reader,” she writes, “if I read this, I will experience a deep – nay, transformational – shift in my understanding. The earth will move, the scales will fall from my eyes, my cup will runneth over. Inevitably then, with the bar set so high, this book disappoints.”

The term ‘transformational’ in the title is defined in Chapter 1 as a way to describe a particular view of professional learning: one concerned with those experiences and processes that have an impact on what teachers and school leaders think, believe, feel, and do. I deliberately spend some time discussing and defining the term transformational professional learning. I differentiate the term ‘transformative’ (associated with Jack Mezirow’s transformative learning theory) from ‘transformational’ as it is used in professional learning literature in order to be as clear as I can about the framework for the book’s discussion.

It wasn’t my intention to promise readers that they will be transformed through their reading of the book, and this isn’t something I promise. I do say that the book makes the case for professional learning that positively shapes teacher practices that improve student learning. If, however, a reader feels that their cup has runneth over through their reading of the book, that’s a lovely bonus.

The optimist

Clare points out that I am “slightly more optimistic than the research” I cite. I can probably be described as a critical optimist or an optimistic skeptic. My optimism helps to sustain me through the often negative press the teaching profession gets, and propels me in the work and advocacy I do. My cautiousness and skepticism helps me to challenge claims, consider alternatives, and make careful decisions.

Underwhelming conclusion

Clare finds my conclusion ‘underwhelming’.

My conclusion that ‘it depends’ and ‘context matters’ may be underwhelming, but as a practising educator, I prefer this to overreaching promises of ‘what works’.

Today, Daniel Willingham tweeted the following:

DTW

“It depends.” This is the reality of much education research and is reflected in the conclusion where I write:

“As in other education fields, the answer to the question ‘What works?’ is often ‘It depends’. However, accepting the complexities and nuances of professional learning does not preclude us from knowing what is likely to be effective, and in what kinds of professional learning schools would benefit from investing” (p.131).

As I say in the book, there is no one-size-fits-all model for individual or organisational professional learning, although I hope that my book points educators in profitable directions likely to be advantageous for students, teachers, and school leaders.

Clare adds that, “the truth, however unpalatable, is preferable to false promises.” That is, as I understand it, it’s better to acknowledge the unsexy reality of what we do and don’t know about what works in professional learning, than to conjure up deliciously simple checklists that overpromise, underdeliver, and don’t take nuance into account.

My book deliberately rallies against the oversimplification of education problems and solutions. It puts trust back into the hands of those working in schools, who know their students, staff, and communities. It is those working in schools who are best positioned to put research evidence to work by applying it with professional judgement and knowledge of their context.

Issues with coaching

While I spend Chapter 5 defining and discussing mentoring, instructional coaching, peer coaching and cognitive coaching, Clare comments that she would have liked to see more discussion around the difference between instruction coaching, mentoring and self-directed coaching. She is particularly interested in a more detailed examination of instructional coaching. (For those interested, there are plenty of resources on Jim Knight’s Instructional Coaching Group website.)

Coaching is indeed a slippery term. What we mean when we talk about coaching needs specificity and shared understanding. In my view, instructional coaching, peer coaching, cognitive coaching, GROWTH coaching, executive coaching, mentoring, and consulting all have a purpose and a place in the professional learning landscape. We need to fit the tool to the individual, the context, and the purpose.

I agree with Clare’s comment that novice teachers need modelling and scaffolding, while experienced teachers learn better from opportunities to reflect on their extensive experience. In Chapter 8, I describe the varying needs of teachers at different career stages and explain how my school differentiated staff development in order to meet the diverse needs, aspirations, and career stages of staff. This model included mentoring or instructional coaching for early career teachers and coaching or collaborative approaches for more experienced teachers, on a case-by-case basis.

The positives

As the author of the reviewed book, I was drawn to the more critical aspects of the review, but there is plenty there that is also positive. Some excerpts include the following.

“Most have some sympathy with Netolicky’s diagnosis of the problem with much that passes for professional learning.”

“Netolicky reminds us that you don’t change a teacher simply by giving them better information. What really changes people is not just informational learning but transformational learning, that is ‘actively changing how a person knows though shifts in cognition, emotion and capacity’.”

“The chapter on collaborative professional learning is perhaps the most useful. It blows away any easy assumptions that if we all just did loads of lesson studies and collaborative learning, then everything would be fine. Since this approach is often peddled as a panacea to top-down approaches, it is good to have a rigorous analysis of what needs to happen for this to be effective.”

“This book gives a useful overview of different approaches to professional development and their relative strengths and weaknesses.”

“Netolicky has done us a service in reading the research and sharing it with us.”

Diary of book production

FULL COVER TransformationalProf Learning

full book cover design

This post is the sequel to my earlier post ‘Diary of writing a book to manuscript completion’, in which I outline the timeline and steps between conceiving of the book, proposing it, writing and editing it. In this post, I illuminate the timeline post submission of the manuscript.

April: On the 1st of April I submit my manuscript to the publisher. After a few weeks the book officially enters ‘production’.

June: I receive the copy edited files and respond to queries. I receive the first proofs of the book and correct them. The copy editor has made some changes that need to be changed back. I pick up a few minor errors I have missed thus far.

July: I receive and check the index. The book cover is released. Booksellers start offering deals on the book.

August: I get word that the final proofed files have been sent to the publisher. The date of release for the book changes online from September to August.

Book launch day arrives! I receive two author copies of the paperback. I’m on my way to the airport so I put a copy in my handbag to look at in transit. I promise myself that I will celebrate later.

A pile of books arrives at the National Coaching in Education Conference, at which I am a keynote speaker. They sell out quickly. I do my first ever book signings.

September: Readers begin to receive their copies and share their first impressions with me. I receive a copy of the hardcover book.

It was interesting to note that the England-printed book and Australia-printed book are slightly different in terms of cover and paper. The English cover has a more muted, thicker, matt cover, and the Australian cover is lighter weight, deeper in colour, and gloss finish.

One thing I am finding puzzling is the online pricing of the book. The publisher has the price of AUD$39.99, and when the book was first released some booksellers had the book on special at $35. Now, however, those same booksellers have now upped the price of the paperback to $55 and $75! The publisher still has the book at the correct original price and as booksellers get the price direct from the publisher, I don’t understand the inconsistency.

Anyhow, there are the steps between submitting the manuscript and receiving the printed book. Good luck to anyone going through their first book writing and production process.

A book doesn’t live and breathe until it has readers, and the best part of this process so far is hearing and reading responses from those all over the world with whom the book is resonating.

hardback

harcover

Book cover design for ‘Transformational Professional Learning’

Netolicky BOOK COVER

My book Transformational Professional Learning: Making a Difference in Schools has a cover design!

For me, the image on the cover speaks to transformation, collaboration, the interaction between the individual and the organisation, the fluidity of identities, the complexity of learning, the non-linearity of growth, and the humanity of education.

It is available for pre-order from the hyperlink above (due for release on 20 September), where you can also read the table of contents and the book’s first reviews.

It is also available for pre-order–in paperback, hard back and eBook versions–from other online booksellers like bookdepository and Amazon.

My editor and I have worked with the publisher to reduce the price of the book from AUD$60 to the more teacher friendly AUD$39.99 (already reduced further by some sites), although some sellers don’t yet have the updated price.

Diary of writing a book to manuscript completion

Today I have submitted my monograph (solo-authored book) manuscript to my publisher. No this is not an April fool’s joke!

Book writing is quite a drawn out process. I’m sure it looks different for each author, but I thought it might be useful for other authors and aspiring book writers to see a timeline to manuscript completion and submission. Below I outline the dates and steps that have gotten me to this moment.

January 2018: My husband and I are chatting on the long drive home from a family holiday, talking about our goals for the year ahead. I say that writing a monograph is something I would love to have a go at in 2018. As we talk I start to formulate the book’s purpose and structure.

When we get home, I paste up a little piece of cardboard on the bathroom mirror. It says: ‘don’t wait until you’re ready; start now’. I start.

I write a book proposal and send it to the publisher (with whom I have a previous relationship as co-editor of Flip the System Australia). The book proposal is sent out to reviewers.

February-May 2018: My book proposal floats in the review-stage ether. I wait for all of the reviews to come in. Luckily I am readying Flip the System Australia for publication as editor, so my spare time is put to good use.

June 2018: I (finally!) receive the reviews to my book proposal. I amend the proposal in response to reviews and resubmit it to the publisher.

July 2018: Negotiation of and signing of book contract happens. Wahoo! I have a date, a word limit and a mandate.

Let the writing begin.

I stick a word count timeline to my fridge. My kids begin to keep me accountable to it. “Mum, how many words have you written?” “You know you’re meant to have written X thousand by now?” “Can I cross this one off?”

August-December 2018: I write (in between working, parenting, living). I send a few chapters to peers around the world to get some early feedback.

In October I invite someone to write the foreword. They accept.

January 2019: The first draft of the book is complete. Little do I know how much work is still required in order to revise it properly.

I tweet a poll asking how an author knows their book is done.

Tweet Jan 2019

A number of people tell me I need to get some other people to read the whole thing. The whole thing? How can I ask anyone to read the whole thing?

I suck up the courage and ask some experts in the field for feedback and also for endorsements. I am delighted and surprised by people’s generosity.

I also send it out to my editor. I show my husband the introduction and he tells me it needs to be punchier and more interesting.

February 2019: Revising, revising, editing, editing. Repeat. Responding to feedback as it comes in.

March 2019: Proofing, proofing, proofing. Responding to any more feedback.

I take references out of the text to allow more space for my own words, voice and ideas. (I am a chronic over-referencer and need to remind myself: more me, less others! This is my book after all.)

I move the text from one big Word document into separate chapter documents. I finalise reference lists. I finalise the acknowledgements. I write chapter abstracts and complete the art log.

April 2019: On April Fool’s Day I wake up to the foreword in my email inbox. Hoorah! The final piece of the puzzle is here. And it is wonderful. I am super pleased.

I electronically submit my manuscript and ancillary documents to the publisher. This is not a drill.

I feel that weird feeling of wanting to keep tinkering, tinkering, tinkering. But I know that the book is as good as I can make it, in this instant. I wonder: Is done better than perfect? I assure myself that this process (unlike the PhD thesis) involves a copy editor. And that I will stand by my words in the future, even if they only capture my thinking at this moment in time.

While I know it will be exciting to hold the real book when it is eventually printed and released, the publishing reality is that by the time an actual work comes out, the author has often moved on in their thinking. My book is not yet finished, but this is a milestone worth celebrating.

I buy the same special champagne I bought in October 2015 when I submitted my PhD thesis: Billecart-Salmon Brut Rosé. I haven’t opened it yet, but I will find a time to enjoy it, and a few people with whom to share it.

From here there will continue to be about 6 months of checks and communication as the book moves through the publisher’s copy editing and production process. This includes proofing by an independent copy editor, cover design, index writing and printing.

Some time this year I’ll get the actual book in my hands!

Writing: It’s more than words #AcWriMo2018

some of my writing spots

I’ve slowed my blog writing down this year, but I am writing. I am writing other texts. I am trying to use November—also known as Academic Writing Month or #AcWriMo—to move one writing project forwards.

During #AcWriMo writers often set word count goals, and words are—of course!—important. I have been working towards a word count and counting words in incremental amounts. I have a handwritten list and when I get to a word milestone, I put a satisfying line through it. But there is more to writing than words.

Reading

In order to write words, especially in academic writing, I read as I go. Papers, journal articles, freshly published books. This is so that I know the field within which my writing operates, and so that I can situate my work alongside other scholarship and amongst other writers. Writing-while-reading, going back and forth between the two, is slower than ‘just’ writing. Sometimes it is incredibly slow!

Contribution

I need to be careful that I don’t spend too much time reading and summarising the work of others. After all, my text is my contribution to the field. I need to make sure there’s enough me in my writing. What am I contributing? What do I have to say? What are the takeaways for my reader? I need to remember to put this up front. In one of Tara Brabazon’s recent vlogs, she said ‘don’t bury the lead’. My argument and unique contribution need to be front and centre, not buried in the middle or tacked onto the end. This is a challenge for an early career scholar who sometimes clings to the authoritative voices of others rather than foregrounding her own. As my supervisors said to me late in my PhD candidature: more me, less others!

Structure

I will also need to examine the structure of my writing. Does the text hold together effectively? Do the headings and sub-headings reflect the logical arc of my argument, and the journey through which I am taking the reader? Are all the bits relevant, and does each section of text have a clear purpose? I have been revising structure as I have gone along, but need to continue to be mindful of it. This means zooming out to a bird’s eye or balcony view from time to time.

Editing

Writing is more than churning out words. I can write a lot of words in a short time, but that doesn’t mean they will be good words. They might be edited out later on, or polished to an unrecognisable version of what they were when they flew from the keyboard. I will need to focus on editing, including printing the document and editing with a pen.

It is during the editing process that I am often taken back to a blog post by Pat Thomson, in which she writes …

It’s 7. 30 pm and Pat is in the lounge room reading. She is examining a thesis but finding it hard to stay awake.

I don’t want to be the writer sending Pat (or my imagined reader) to sleep. In her hypothetical example, Pat is reading a thesis for examination, but my reader will be reading out of choice, not obligation. How do I help them want to read on through my writing? I need for my writing to be enjoyable, accessible, and with effective personal voice. I need to signpost what I am doing and where the text is going, but not in a way that is laboured and mind-numbing. I need to iron out the clunky and clumsy bits. I need to work on flow and flair.

Onwards

So, I am writing this Academic Writing Month. But it’s not as simple as counting words and hitting quantitative targets. I will approach my writing from different angles and for different purposes. I will remain mindful of my end point and protect regular time to visit my manuscript and pay intentional attention to it.

Happy writing!

Teachers and school leaders: Why write?

I challenged myself at the beginning of the year to do less good things in order to do even better things (thank you Dylan Wiliam, for the soundbite inspiration). I work full time as a teacher and senior leader in a school; have a young family, and am myself a human being with relationships, interests, and needs (this last one is something those of us in caring and teaching professions sometimes forget in our commitment to help others).

And I write. On this blog, for academic journals, for education books, for conference presentations. I have also been co-editing a book and a special issue of an academic journal. In order to give back to the machine of academic writing, I also peer review papers for academic journals. All of this is unpaid work and volunteered time, especially as my day job is to serve the students and community of my school. I do have an honorary academic position with a university, but it is just that: honorary. There is no financial reward or professional expectation that I engage in the world of academic publishing.

I’ve been reminded about the writing part of my life this week, as a couple of papers and a chapter have resurfaced from the academic publishing and peer review pipelines through which they have been traveling. Writing for academic journals and books is like that. It comes in peaks and troughs, with pieces disappearing for a time before reappearing to be re-thought, re-written, and re-submitted. There is the original writing of the paper, chapter, or conference abstract—sometimes an immersion or deep dive; sometimes a laborious stop-start process; and sometimes a collaborative dance between authors—followed by the first submission. Then there is the wait for peer reviews, which can take months at a time. By the time the reviewer comments appear, the paper can be looked at with fresh eyes and new energy. Then it’s revise, resubmit, repeat. Once an abstract is accepted it’s time to think about preparing the presentation (ok, maybe not until closer to the conference date); or once a paper is accepted and it goes into production, contracts, queries from copyeditors, and checks from typesetters follow.

So why do I spend time in these writing, co-writing, and revision processes? Why write at all when the job of a teacher or school leader is so busy already?

Here are my three top reasons for engaging in academic writing as a teacher and school leader.

  1. WRITING BEGETS READING

It may seem counter intuitive, but to engage in writing, I need to engage in reading. Each time I write or revise a paper, chapter, or a blog post, I return to research literature in order to check in with the current state of play in education research. So academic writing incites academic reading and engagement with research. It keeps my thinking current and keeps me on top of education debates, knowledge, and research findings.

  1. PEER REVIEW BUILDS MY CAPACITY TO RECEIVE FEEDBACK

The peer review process is usually double blind, which means that the reviewers don’t know who the author is, and the author doesn’t know who the reviewers are. This means that peer review feedback on academic writing is very honest. There is no sugar coating or euphemising of feedback. Reviewers tell you what they think: the good, the bad, and the brutal. They pull no punches.

Receiving peer review feedback has helped me to be a better receiver of feedback in my working life. It means that I have a process for considering critique. In the school environment this might be honest comments submitted to anonymous staff or student surveys, or verbal push back from staff about a change or a professional expectation.

I sit with difficult feedback for a while. I consider it and turn it over, step away from it, and return to it seeking to understand the perspective of the reviewer. I ask myself questions like: What didn’t they understand and why? What could be made clearer or more meaningful? What assumptions might I have made in my writing or decision making that need adjustment in order for the work or intervention to be improved?

Engaging in double blind peer review has meant that I actively seek out critical, candid feedback, and that I can sit with, consider, seek to understand, and then thoughtfully act upon that feedback.

  1. CONTRIBUTING A PRACTISING EDUCATOR VOICE TO EDUCATION NARRATIVES

There is a necessity for, and a credibility that comes from, teachers and school leaders having a voice in education narratives. We are the ones each day in classrooms, with students, communicating with parents, considering the hard and soft data of our practice and making hundreds of decisions per day. Writing about our work, our experiences, our thinking, our expertise, and our wisdom and problems of practice, promotes conversations between educators across contexts and contributes practitioner voices to education narratives, so often dominated by those not actually in the business of teaching.

The upcoming book I’ve co-edited, Flip the System Australia: What Matters in Education, is all about the importance of listening to, and inviting to decision making and policymaking tables, teachers and school leaders. It argues that education systems should not be top-down and driven by political election cycles and vote-grabbing, but by deep engagement with the teaching profession and those who actually work, every day, in schools.

I hope that my writing encourages others working in schools to speak out, and to write about their thinking, experiences, and expertise.

4 years of blogging

I began this blog four years ago, on 23 August 2014. On reflection (thank you, WordPress stats), my five most-read blog posts of the last four years are as follows:

  1. What I now know about the doctorate: Illuminating the PhDarkness (2015)
  2. Can and should teachers be (viewed as) researchers? (2015)
  3. Doing PhD revisions: The last thesis embrace (2016)
  4. The Research Lead Down Under (2017)
  5. Evidence for Learning in Australia (2017)

Over the last four years my blogging has ebbed and flowed. I began writing monthly, increased that to fortnightly and then weekly for some time, and have this year given myself permission to blog more sporadically, in between work, family life and some bigger projects I am undertaking, such as co-editing the imminent Flip the System Australia book. Perhaps that’s why no 2018 posts have made it into my top 5: slower blog productivity.

But my blog isn’t about readership. It isn’t even about me. It’s about being part of the global education hive mind in which we—educators and the education world—are better together. We are better because we propel one another, better because we connect with one another, and better because we challenge one another. Blogging is one way to engage in the networked web of knowledge and thinking in education. It is a way to reach out from our familiar daily contexts to find out what’s happening in the rest of the country and the world.

I began this blog for the purpose of documenting one professional trip. I continued blogging because of what it gave me: a space to explore my thinking and to connect with others around topics about which I am passionate and in which I am immersed. I have connected with teachers, educators, parents and scholars from around the world thanks to this blog. These interactions have enriched and influenced my thinking.

My first blog post, about my then-upcoming travelling fellowship to New York, opened with this quote from Andy Hargreaves and Dennis Shirley’s 2009 book The Fourth Way: The Inspiring Future of Educational Change:

It’s time to bring the magic and wonder back into teaching. It’s time to recover the missionary spirit and deep moral purpose of engaging and inspiring all our students. It’s time to put down the spreadsheets and look to each other and elsewhere for how to get beyond the present turning point so we can transform our society and our schools.

This quote still resonates with me four years on (which even then was five years on from when Hargreaves and Shirley’s book was published). It resonates because education continues to become more corporatised and more data obsessed. (Just look at Gonski 2.0’s observation that schools are gaming ATAR data, its recommendation that teachers have more data at their fingertips, and its proposed formative assessment tool to track student growth and progress). Buzzwords abound, thrown around often without a clear understanding of what they mean. ‘The research says’ is often an empty phrase used to justify the twists and turns of education directions. Teacher and school leader workloads continue to increase and student wellbeing is an ongoing concern. Relentless silver bullets, promising answers to education ‘problems’, are fired from think tanks, politicians and the media. The fast cycle of education policy, blame, and distrust presses in on a profession who often feel bruised and marginalised by the system in which they work.

Do educators need to be informed by a range of data and evidence? Yes. Should we to aim to continuously improve our practice and the learning of the students in our care? Yes. But we also need to be present with one another and with our students. To close our emails, step away from our spreadsheets, and look each other in the eye. To notice one another. To connect with the individuals within our communities, and with why we teach. To stop sometimes and celebrate what we’ve achieved or how we’ve grown. To be teachers energised by the difference we are making, not teacher-mice on perpetually-turning wheels of marking, data analysis and evaluation, who are always racing but never arriving.

So, as I look back to my maiden blog post, I think that we still need to remember our moral purpose as educators: education for the good of each individual and for the greater good.