Human interaction remains the key component of changing education. ~ Eric Sheninger
I have spent the last four days at the Hawker Brownlow Education Conference in Melbourne, an annual conference which brings big name educational thinkers together from around the world to present immersive sessions on educational issues of the moment. What follows is my reflection on the conference experience and the value of the conference model for learning.
I selected my conference sessions based on my particular areas of current interest. While Dylan Wiliam opened the conference by using William Schmidt’s warning against teaching an inflexible curriculum which is ‘a mile wide and an inch thick,’ my recent work in professional learning and effective school change has been an inch wide and a mile deep. The sessions I chose were therefore along this same vein and were intended to take me even deeper.
Many of the speakers’ points resonated with what I already know and affirmed my own thinking and practices. These added some layers of complexity to my existing understandings and acted as springboards for conversations around education.
Dylan Wiliam and Bruce Wellman pointed out that we learn when we are uncomfortable. Wiliam said, ‘we learn more when we’re wrong,’ while Wellman talked about the discomfort that comes with working towards understanding. He pointed out that teams and individuals need to be willing to squirm and grapple with challenging questions. A comfortable team is not a learning team.
Learning communities were a thread which appeared in the sessions I attended. Wellman, co-author of The Adaptive School, discussed how skilful high-performing groups share intellectual and emotional space, which includes being comfortable with pauses in discussion. Silence is not the enemy of learning and collaboration, but an ally.
Wellman pointed out that being in the same room together does not make a group a community of learners. Anthony Muhammad added that a professional learning community is not a collaborative team which meets regularly, but a systemic contextually-embedded paradigm which raises collective knowledge through collective inquiry. Much like the Adaptive School material, which advocates ‘graceful disagreement’ as a norm of effective teams, Muhammad maintains that constructive, professional disagreement is the foundation of innovation.
Muhammad’s work at Levey Middle School reflects that of my own school in that it emerged out of the specific context of that school and where its community and practices were at. While our context is vastly different, we too have built our teacher growth model out of our school’s mission, vision, values, existing work and knowledge of our students, teachers and leaders.
Part of our model is based around how feedback and conversation might be deliberately harnessed in order to build teacher capacity and amplify the learning culture of the school. Wellman says that feedback is ‘in the moment, about the past, to affect the future.’ He points out that advice has very little impact on the advisee, and instead advocates for using clear, shared standards and a focus on learning, within an environment of trust. The focus on learning is about meeting the person where they are. ‘Wherever I meet you in your practice,’ he says, ‘we’re going to grow from there.’ He adds that, ‘We are starving our master teachers of rich conversations; they are hungry to talk about the whys of what they are doing.’
As outlined in Lipton and Wellman’s Learning-Focused Supervision, Wellman sees standards as rallying points for important conversations which set aspirations for goal setting and growth. My Australian school similarly uses Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Teaching as a tool for developing shared understandings about teaching; and for reflection and data-based conversation around teaching practice. Our approach also gels with Wellman’s assertion that feedback should be customised and appropriate for the individual; one size does not fit all. Our model of teacher growth incorporates differentiation in terms of what sort of data teachers collect from their lessons and the ways in which coaches approach each conversation. As with the metaphor of the stage coach, our coaching model is about helping the coachee get to their desired destination.
One of Wellman’s points about data analysis was that, when looking at data, we should focus on analysing reasons for successes, rather than failure. What are the successful students or teachers doing? What knowledge and strategies do they have? How can we develop those in others? (He also has a great strategy for teams looking at student achievement data in which he employs prediction to engage people in their assumptions about what the data might hold, before revealing the data.)
At the end of the conference I met up with Eric Sheninger who had just landed in Melbourne for his first time working with Australian educators, districts and conferences (he will be keynoting at the EduTECH conference in Brisbane next week). I had tweeted a pile of books from the conference two days earlier, including Eric’s, with no idea that he was en route to Melbourne. Ours was an impromptu meeting which arose out of a morning Twitter conversation. We met up and chatted about our work, global educational thinkers, the world of connected educators and DIY professional learning. During our conversation, Eric pointed me towards some great apps which will be useful collaborative tools for my work with student and teacher learners, such as Verso, Tozzl and Padlet.
In addition, my first night in Melbourne had me meeting with some of my Twitter PLN – Greg Curran, Chris Munro and Jo Prestia – to discuss coaching in school settings, research journeys and approaches to school intervention implementation.
Both in and out of the conference I fielded questions about what my PhD is about. This was a great opportunity to hone my ideas about what is most important about my research and communicating that in effective ways.
So there were affirming moments in, and out, of the conference, which added nuanced layers to my thinking. Yet on reflection, I realise that much of what a conference can bring for the delegate are conversations with others, unexpected moments of collaboration, and the space and time to process and reflect. Although I was surprised at the lack of a backchannel at a national conference, by both presenters and delegates, – Where was the Tweetstream? – I found valuable connections with my own colleagues, other educators, presenters and connected educators who weren’t affiliated with the conference but were open to connecting in person.