What do activism and power look like?

Title slide for our AARE 2018 symposium

I have been thinking about a question from the audience during the AARE symposium I chaired and presented in yesterday. The symposium abstract (below) outlined the notion of flipping the education system as a thread connecting the five papers presented.

The education system, in Australia and around the world, has governments and policymakers at its apex, making decisions disconnected from those at the nadir: teachers and students. Schools in this system are highly bureaucratic institutional settings, and teachers are increasingly undervalued, constrained and de-professionalised. The individuals and groups that wield influence on education policy and practice operate bureaucratically are physically removed from schools. They construct narrow measures of the success of schooling, and these impact on teacher agency. This education policy environment was evident in the recent Gonski 2.0 report with its focus on PISA, NAPLAN, and rhetoric of ‘cruising schools’ failing generations of Australians. A focus on numbers and rankings contribute to the disconnect between bureaucracy and the profession, and to the tension between education’s vision for equity and the realities of competition, marketisation and a culture of performativity.

This symposium shares perspectives around the notion of ‘flipping’ the education system in ways that embrace human aspects of education, wrestle with the criticality of the task of schooling at the margins, and engage with multiple voices in education, especially those often side-lined in education discourse and education policy. This collection of diverse papers together makes a compelling case for change in education policy and practice by tackling: elevating the professional identities and voices of teachers and school leaders; teachers’ perceptions of commercialisation in Australian schools; discourses that silence Indigenous voices in education; authentic engagement between teachers and Indigenous families and communities; and empowering educators to reclaim narratives of schooling.

During the symposium’s question time, an audience member suggested that if we were going to really ‘flip the system’ in education that there would need to be some sort of (Foucauldian) rupture, a traumatic breaking apart of the system in order to rebuild it. He told us that as presenters we were (too) measured and polite in our arguments, something he didn’t see as necessarily able to flip a system. Where was the rupturing, the eruption, the kapow of revolution?

I have wondered before about activism and the forms it takes. Who can be an activist? Is it only those with secure, late-career jobs? Can the early career teacher or researcher really challenge the system in which they work when that can put them at risk of unemployment or further precarity and uncertainty? Does an activist have to look, act and speak a certain way? Can an activist use the apparatuses of power in order to undermine that power, or does she need different tools?

donning the FEAS power dressing blazer

I also wonder what power looks like. This week at the AARE conference, I took part in the Feminist Educators Against Sexism (FEAS) power dressing project, which you can read more about here. Above are two photos a colleague took of me while I was wearing the FEAS symbolic power dressing blazer. In the first, I am laughing as I prepare for the photo, and in the second I am attempting a ‘power pose’. I like the first photo better. I love the symbolism and the gallery of images of the FEAS power dressing project, which show the range of ways women can appear powerful. What I am questioning here is my own discomfort with performing power in a way that might not be authentic. I wish I had worn my favourite red lipstick and laughed at the camera (although I did manage a sardonic raised eyebrow). Power doesn’t have to be a Rosie the Riveter bicep curl or a ferocious snarl. It doesn’t have to be loud, enraged or serious. It can be quiet, comfortable or joyful. Powerful women can and do smile, and enjoy the way they dress and the way they look, as well as their contributions to work and life.

my FEAS power dressing photo (credit: Linda Knight)

In the Flip the (education) System movement—explored in a variety of ways in yesterday’s symposium and in our new book Flip the System Australia: What Matters in Education—we believe that teaching, leading, researching and writing are political acts. In education, we are all activists. But activism does not have to be violent or deafening. Many of the arguments in the book and in yesterday’s symposium are measured and polite, as our audience member pointed out. Our intention is that a greater range of voices be invited to and heard at the decision making tables of bureaucracy and policymaking in education. In order to be invited in, we need to engage with system level decision makers in considered and convincing ways. We can do that with words and research, not just with placards and protests.

Our book chapters provide examples of resistance that is logical and beautifully articulated. In their chapter, Greg Thompson, David Rutkowski and Sam Sellar argue that international large scale assessments like PISA should not be dismissed. They have a place in the education landscape, but that teachers can be part of engaging with them in order to inform education systems. “Who,” the authors ask, “has better vantage point from which to shape the public debate about quality education than the educators who are constantly striving to deliver it in our schools?” (p. 62).

In her chapter, Rebecca Cody invites school leaders to abandon binary thinking that leads to schools embracing either performative accountabilities, or principles of holistic education. She argues that school leaders can and should ride both these ‘wild horses’ simultaneously.

Melitta Hogarth calls for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to “be more vocal and ‘stand on toes’”, to “unite in our concerns for our children’s futures, demanding a position at the table” (p. 113), but acknowledges the difficulties and complexities inherent in such a call.

These chapters reflect the point made by Nicole Mockler and Susan Groundwater-Smith in their new book, Questioning the language of improvement and reform in education: Reclaiming language, in which they suggest that it might not be fruitful to argue against concepts such as quality, standards and improvement, but that we can resist and reclaim the way these are used in education. We can focus on growth, collaboration, and professionalism, for instance, rather than using accountabilities as a stick with which to beat teachers and schools.

So, I have reflected on our audience member’s question about the need for a rupture in the system, in order to flip it, liquefy it, and democratise it. We speakers and writers are hyper aware that we are using the structures and language of the powerful in order to speak into this space. Book chapters written in fairly formal English and referencing academic texts could be seen to perpetuate the very system we are attempting to challenge. But we can work to change the system from the inside out.

Foucault, who was mentioned by our questioner, noted that there are occasional radical ruptures, but that more often there are smaller forces or moments of resistance. Those of us within the system can agitate in ways that are dramatic and fierce, but also be in ways that are eloquent and subtle. Revolution and power can come in the form of micro rebellions and the snowballing of a collective voice that is revolutionary in its strength in numbers, in its logic, and in its unwavering persistence to nudge the system towards positive change.

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Teacher voice to flip the education system: ACEL 2018 panel presentation

Here I write a blog version of the panel presentation speech I gave at the Australian Council of Educational Leaders national conference. The three Editors—myself, Cameron Paterson and Jon Andrews—each spoke during our panel on a different theme from the Flip the System movement (you can read more about Cameron’s panel presentation on democracy in education here, and Jon’s on education leadership here, on their blogs). My contribution to our panel explored one aspect of our upcoming edited book Flip the System Australia: What Matters in Education: teacher voice.

The absence of teacher voice in education policy and practice

We three Editors are current teachers and school leaders in Australian schools with more than 60 years of experience between us. We are thrilled to have co-edited a book on flipping the education system. Part of what brought us together is our shared belief in the profession of which we are a part, and its expertise.

Yet, teachers are mostly absent in the formulation of policy, on advisory boards, and on media panels. Mostly, ‘experts’ are wheeled in to speak for or about teachers and school leaders. An example is this week’s conference, during which there are 30 concurrent sessions on offer, in three time slots, despite there being around 130 abstracts submitted by Australian educators keen to present on their practice and to learn from one another’s experience. Non-practitioners or ex-practitioners of course have something to offer, but their dominance in conference programs at the expense of practitioner presentations diminishes teacher and school leader voice, and the value of the profession.

Sometimes, practitioners are consulted, such as in the recent Gonski 2.0 review and the recent review of teacher registration, but rarely are teachers invited to the decision making table. The media is particularly unhelpful, often presenting polarising or critical views of the teaching profession. Rarely, a teacher is invited along. For instance, on Monday’s upcoming Q&A television program, Maths teacher Eddie Woo (who is being marketed as an ‘internet sensation’) has been invited onto the panel as a teacher representative. Perhaps a shift towards listening to teachers is afoot, but it would be nice if the teachers consulted were of the ‘ordinary’ as well as the ‘celebrity’ variety.

Flipping whose voices are sought and heard in education

Flipping the system is in part about amplifying, elevating, and valuing the voices of those actually working in schools. We believe that the power to transform education is within it, not outside it.

Yesterday, Dan Tehan addressed the ACEL national conference and said that everyone went to school so everyone has an opinion on education. He has never received so much advice or so many opinions as in the last month since he became the Australian Education Minister. We would argue that the opinions of those at the whiteboard and in classrooms around our country are expert opinions that should be sought out, and listened to. Our teachers are experts in their subjects, and in teaching and learning, and their opinions about education are informed by their daily work with students and parents. Dylan Wiliam has written that “each teacher has a better idea of what will improve the learning of their students, in their classroom, in the context of what they are teaching them, than anyone else” (2014, p.33). Those working in schools, who prop up the system and are actually responsible for the learning and wellbeing of students in classrooms and schools, have richness of experience and breadth of expertise.

There are some practitioners, including we Editors, who share our thinking via blogs and social media, but we wonder: who is listening? And do those educators sharing their views represent and characterise the system at large and indeed the variability of contexts across Australia’s education landscape?  As Editors, we are aware of our own privilege and limitations.

We have been deliberate about the contributors to the book. It has 27 chapters, 15 of which have authors who are currently teachers or school leaders. We have deliberately structured the book to privilege notions of teacher leadership and democracy. Dr Kevin Lowe, one of our Indigenous authors, pointed out that Aboriginal contributions are often tacked on to the end of books, appearing as an afterthought. He challenged us to think carefully about who we foregrounded. We put the section on teacher voice up front, followed by the section on democratising education.

Below, I briefly describe some examples of chapters from this book that foreground teacher and school leader voice.

Australian teacher and school leader voices

I have written a chapter that draws on the teacher and school leader interviews of my doctoral research around professional identity. It suggests that professional trust is central to building the profession as one which seeks to grow and understand teachers and teaching, as opposed to the often competitive, blame-ridden portrayal. I write in my chapter that “education is not an algorithm but a human endeavour, and one that can be improved through attention to the intricacies of the people operating within the system.”

A chapter from Tomaz Lasic talks about the makerspace in his public school. A chapter from Ben Lewis discusses the program for Indigenous students at his school. Yasodai Selvakumaran shares her experiences of out-of-field teaching. A chapter from principal Rebecca Cody talks about how school leaders have to navigate the dual demands of external accountabilities and the holistic education of their students.

Cameron Malcher discusses education podcasts as a vehicle for ‘talking up’, sharing teacher voice and making education debates public. Drawing on his own experience of podcasting, he illuminates the great potential it possesses to engage the profession in debate and empower teachers.

Academic and international voices about voices

If you were to look through the Table of Contents, you would notice that there are not just teacher voices, but a spread of views, including some scholarly voices and some international perspectives. We don’t think teachers should be speaking alone but speaking with the multiplicity of stakeholders within the education space. This morning Andy Hargreaves talked in his keynote about solidarity, which can be within our contexts and districts, but also across nations and systems. Those chapters in the book written by academics or consultants either include teacher voice, advocate for the presence of teacher voice, or are focused on teacher expertise and experience. Lyn Sharrat’s keynote yesterday was a great example of a researcher whose work keeps her firmly connected in with classrooms and teachers in a range of countries and communities.

In their chapter, Australian academics Anna Hogan and Bob Lingard draw on teacher perceptions via a survey around commercialisation in education. They found that teachers were concerned about a loss of teacher professionalism and personal wellbeing in the commercialised school environment. The teachers in their survey warned that increasing engagement with commercial providers must be balanced against concerns that commercialisation can threaten the holistic development of students the democratic purposes of public schooling.

In a chapter on large-scale assessments, Greg Thompson, David Rutkowski and Sam Sellar argue that there is an absence of teacher voice in interpreting PISA results and they call for educators to engage in dialogue around external testing regimes and their use in informing education.

In a chapter on teacher wellbeing in crisis, Andy Hargreaves, Shaneé Washington and Michael O’Connor claim that “there is no student wellbeing without teacher wellbeing” and acknowledge that teachers struggle to collaborate effectively amidst the frenetic rate of reform in education and ever-increasing workloads and accountabilities.

In his chapter, Gert Biesta argues that policy and subsequent accountabilities have led to a transformation of the role of teacher, in which teachers are undermined and often deprofessionalised by the language of policy and practice. He says that “the idea of teaching as an effective intervention runs the risk of turning students into objects to be intervened upon rather than engaging with them as human beings who are trying to figure out who they are and what this world is they are finding themselves in.” He adds that “the biggest irony is that teachers, in an attempt to liberate themselves from micro-management and top-down control, turn to an approach [such as evidence-based practice] that makes their students into micro-manageable objects of control, rather than seeing them as human subjects whose own agency is at stake.”

Carol Campbell, in her chapter, also frames the purpose of education as developing the betterment of humanity, and we conclude the book by drawing attention to the human aspects of education.

A key thread here is that of considering the human beings within our schools, something that sounds obvious but is often lost in the relentless call for data, evidence, and quantitative measures of learning, leadership, and effectiveness.

Teacher voice: The challenges

Our challenges in representing teacher and school leader voice in this book serve as an example of the challenges our profession faces in speaking out and speaking up. These included that:

  • Ours is only one book, one platform, and so only a limited number of perspectives could be included. As soon as we filled the volume with contributions, we felt that we could fill a second volume, too.
  • A number of teachers and school leaders were invited to contribute but were either too busy or felt too vulnerable to do so. There are real risks to teachers and school leaders in sharing their views publically.
  • Sharing our views is unpaid. Asking teachers to write, blog, or present is asking them to take part in unpaid labour, outside of their day jobs, and to become part of the noise out there, with no guarantee of being listened to.
  • As teachers and school leaders, our service is first and foremost to the students in our schools and it can feel like a misuse of time to pontificate about education outside of our classrooms and schools. We would argue, however, that speaking up and speaking out can be a service to students and education more broadly.

One small step

Our book is a microcosm of what we would like to see more of in education, although we regret not including student voice in the book. It is one drop-in-the-ocean attempt to amplify, elevate and value the voices of teachers and school leaders. We hope that in our Australian context it will lead to politicians and policymakers seeking out the views and expertise of those in schools. Flipping the system in this way is about building networks and flattening hierarchies so that we can all work together for the good of the students in our schools.

References

Netolicky, D. M., Andrews, J. & Paterson, C. (Eds.). (2019). Flip the System Australia: What matters in education. Routledge.

Wiliam, D. (2014). Teacher expertise: Why it matters, and how to get more of it. Ten essays on improving teacher quality. Available from: http://www.claimyourcollege.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/Dylan-Wiliam.pdf .

The ‘Flip the System Australia’ book is in production

Flip the System

This week the book manuscript for Flip the System Australia: What matters in education, has moved from the editorial team to the production team at Routledge. It is ‘in press’, which means that the full manuscript will be copy-edited, typeset and a cover designed. You can check out the contents and pre-order it here.

The book is edited by Jon Andrews, Cameron Paterson and I. It includes a collection of 27 chapters by a range of educators, mostly from Australia but also perspectives from around the world. The contributing teachers, school leaders, educators and scholars are: Jon Andrews, Gert Biesta, Susan Bradbeer, Paul Browning, Carol Campbell, Keren Caple, Kelly Cheung, Flossie S. G. Chua, Rebecca Cody, Benjamin Doxtdator, Scott Eacott, Melissa Fotea, Carla Gagliano, Ryan Gill, Dan Haesler, Gavin Hays, Andy Hargreaves, Adam Hendry, Anna Hogan, Melitta Hogarth, Tomaz Lasic, Ben Lewis, Bob Lingard, Rachel Lofthouse, Kevin Lowe, Cameron Malcher, Chris Munro, Deborah Netolicky (me!), Michael T. O’Connor, Cameron Paterson, David Perkins, David Rutkowski, Pasi Sahlberg, Sam Sellar, Yasodai Selvakumaran, Greg Thompson, Ray Trotter, Shaneé Washington, and Daniel Wilson.

What draws the book’s contributions together is their ‘flip the education system’ theme. The Flip the System movement is not our own. The first book in the series (preceded itself by other publications, which we explain in the book) was Flip the System: Changing education from the ground up, edited by Dutch teachers Jelmer Evers and René Kneyber (2016). The Swedish version, Flip the system: Förändra skolan från grunden, was edited by Per Kornhall, Jelmer Evers and René Kneyber (2017). The UK version, Flip the System UK: A teachers’ manifesto, was edited by teachers Lucy Rycroft-Smith and Jean-Louis Dutaut (2018). Flip the System is a loose kind of series in which the notion of ‘flipping the education system’ evolves as diverse international voices explore what this might look like.

In previous Flip the System books, the editors and authors have called for a reprofessionalising of the teaching profession; an education system in which teachers are empowered to influence the education system, rather than being dictated to by top-down bureaucracy. When I explained this theme to a colleague recently, their response was laughing out loud. Is the idea, of teachers being empowered to shape the education landscape, laughable?

Certainly it is easy to feel disempowered as a teacher in an education system obsessed with measurement and competition. Education appears to be a political football constantly booted around for votes. It is also an increasingly corporatised arena in which companies peddle solutions and generate relentless data.

Can those in schools—teachers and school leaders, and even students—be empowered agents in the system, rather than fodder for the education machine? We think so.

To give an idea of the kinds of material covered by the book, sub-themes of the chapters in Flip the System Australia include:

  • Democratising education and addressing inequity.
  • Resistance to mechanisms or systems driven by performance, dehumanised measurement, increased competition, and constant edu-surveillance.
  • Replacing top-down accountability with support for teachers and teacher-led, inside-out reform.
  • Teacher leadership, autonomy, empowerment, and professionalism.
  • Elevating the voices of those working in schools.
  • Learning and leading for a system that honours those who spend each day in our schools, including teachers, school leaders, students and families.

As Jon, Cam and I have edited this book, we have realised why teacher voices are often absent from education debates. It isn’t just that teachers are not usually invited to decision making tables, or that they are often placed at the bottom of education power structures. There are ethical dimensions to our work which mean that we cannot always share our stories or give the media newsworthy soundbites. Our stories are also those of our students and our communities, and we are responsible for protecting them. Also, teaching is complex and demanding work, and teachers and school leaders are in the service of their students. Where is the time for contributing to the system when we are busily working inside the system?

We three editors each work full time in our schools. We have written our chapters and edited this book in our ‘leisure time’ (note the ironic inverted commas). I was surprised to realise that while we have each met each other (I have met Jon; I have met Cam; they have met one another), at no point have the three of us been in the same physical room together. The magic of Skype, Zoom, Google Docs, Twitter, and Dropbox have meant that we could collaborate from afar, in our own timezones and our own time.

We have done this work, as Flip the System editors and authors have done before us, because we think that this book and these authors have something important to contribute to the conversation on education. We are thrilled to be able to give a platform to teachers, school leaders and education researchers. We are grateful for the generosity of the contributing authors. We know there are voices missing from this book, but we hope the book can be part of a move to diversify the voices to whom others listen around education.

Flip the System Australia is coming. And we can’t wait to hold a print copy in our hands.

You can follow the progress of the book on Twitter via @flipthesystemoz and #FliptheSystemOz.