Educators: Hold the line on voice, autonomy, and trust

Can we hold the line in the face of challenging circumstances?

This week I was thrilled to welcome Professor Pasi Sahlberg to my Western Australian school to talk to our leaders—from coaches and team leaders to Heads of Faculty, senior leadership and the Executive—about school leadership and what high performing education systems do. Pasi’s list covers things about which many of us leading in schools, and researching and writing about education, are concerned: collaboration, learning and wellbeing, trust-based responsibility, continuous improvement, and equity. They are also guiding principles for teachers in classrooms, who use what Pasi calls ‘small data’ every day. In my PhD, which was based around effective school change and transformational professional learning, these were also themes that emerged; in particular, my research surfaced trust, professional collaboration, and continuous improvement through a range of educator-centred experiences.

I am reminded of the chapter I have co-authored in the upcoming Flip the System UK: A Teachers’ Manifesto book. In it, Jon Andrews, Cameron Paterson, and I, cite Sahlberg’s concept of the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM) and its destructive influence on teacher voice, power, and agency. We argue for a re-professionalising and re-humanising of teaching and education.

I am reminded, too, of my speech to the Australian Council for Educational Leaders conference last year about trusting and supporting teachers. In his new book, FinnishED Leadership: Four big, inexpensive ideas to transform education, Sahlberg supports the autonomy of teachers and schools. He writes:

Strengthen collective autonomy of schools by giving teachers more independence from bureaucracy and simultaneously investing in teamwork in your school. This enhances social capital that is proved to be a critical aspect of building trust within education and enhancing student learning. (p.43)

He notes that the Finnish government spends 30 times more funds on the professional learning and development of educators than on accountability procedures, such as tests and surveys.

We live in a time of compliance and performativity. Australian schools are like tin cans being crushed from the outside-in by a focus on the results external testing (NAPLAN, HSC, WACE, VCE, PIRLS, TIMMS, PISA, the upcoming Phonics Check) and on publicly published league tables and competition-based publications such as the myschool website.

When Pasi spoke to leaders at my school, robust discussion ensued. He challenged us to ask what is within our control, what it is that we can change, what we would do if we could enact our dream for the best way of serving our students, starting tomorrow. He challenged us to question the systemic and regulatory parameters within which we operate, and to hold the line on those things we know will make a difference to our students.

Sahlberg’s work is supported by that of others, such as Michael Fullan’s on the wrong drivers for education reform, and Fullan’s work with Andy Hargreaves on professional capital in their book, Professional Capital: Transforming teaching in every school, and in the Journal of Professional Capital and Community. The Flip the System movement, too, beginning with Jelmer Evers and René Kneyber’s book Flip the System, brings together and champions the voices of teachers, academics and education experts in order to reclaim the space of education discourse for those working within schools.

So, what can we do in our own contexts? How might we reshape the narrative of education, or advocate for the following?

Less testing

More collaboration

Less accountability

More equity

Less competition

More trust

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Why I’m going to researchED Melbourne #rEdMel

Research evidence is essential to the task of improving outcomes for young people, but research will never be able to tell teachers what to do, because the contexts in which teachers work are so variable. What research can do is identify which directions are likely to be the most profitable avenues for teachers to explore. ~ Dylan Wiliam, Leadership for Teacher Learning, 2016

Why would a Western Australian fly to Melbourne for a one day conference? Here’s why researchED is drawing me to the East this May: cognitive conflict and robust discussion around educational matters.

In drawing together academics and education practitioners working in schools, researchED conferences are less about transmission of information and more about provocations and conversations. researchED’s tagline is ‘working out what works’, and those that gather at its events around the globe are interested in working out what works in education, for the benefit of the world’s children. The website tells us researchED’s mission:

researchED is a grass-roots, teacher-led organisation aimed at improving research literacy in the educational communities, dismantling myths in education, getting the best research where it is needed most, and providing a platform for educators, academics, and all other parties to meet and discuss what does and doesn’t work in the great project of raising our children.

Whether individuals come from Australia, Europe or the USA (all locations where researchED events have been held) they share the goal of bridging the gap between research and classroom practice.

As Dylan Wiliam points out, research cannot tell teachers and schools what to do, but it can inform the decisions educators make, and help them follow trails most likely to be beneficial for their students. Tom Bennett, the founder and director of researchED, says that researchED’s mission is to “to make teachers research-literate and pseudo-science proof.” That is, teachers need to be critical consumers, curators and questioners of information and of evidence.

Gary Jones, who is coming from the UK to present at and attend researchED Melbourne, has written an excellent guide to evidence-based decision making in schools. He points out a number of popular ideas in education that are not backed by evidence and reminds educators of the need to be conscientious, judicious and explicit in their use of evidence to make decisions and shape practices.

I’ve made my view clear that teachers can and should be researchers. Taking research into account, enacting practitioner-research practices, and engaging with scholarly literatures, is important in an educational world focused increasingly on accountability, performativity and rapid change. Sometimes, the best thing for a teacher or school to do is to press ‘pause’ and ask some critical questions of the evidence they are accepting or the practices in which they are engaging.

As a teacher and school leader who has recently completed a PhD, I can see the benefits of research thinking to the school environment. It means applying carefully considered and thoughtfully designed methodologies to decision making and innovation. It means trusting in teachers to be a core part of school reforms. Research becomes, not an add-on, but a way of being which is embodied and enacted by educators as they go about their important work.

researchED is part of a global movement to give teachers voice and agency in their work, their schools and their systems, while ensuring that school leadership and classroom practice is informed by research and evidence. Conversation between academics, researchers, leaders, policy makers and teachers can help all involved in education to best serve the students at the heart of our education systems. A wonderful publishing example of this kind of movement is Jelmer Evers and René Kneyber’s book Flip the System, which brings together the voices of teachers, academics and education experts in order to reclaim the space of education discourse for those working as cogs in the neoliberal machine.

So I’ll see you at researchED Melbourne. There will be interesting research and practice shared. There will be classroom perspectives and scholary ones. There will be graceful disagreement. I’m looking forward to presenting among the diverse voices, and learning from them.

(Here is my post on last year’s researchED conference in Sydney, at which I also presented.)

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