In education: To whom should we listen?

X speakers

Today I had the privilege of being part of the ‘Extreme After Dinner Speakers Club’, a main stage event at the International Congress for School Effectiveness and Improvement, held this year in Marrakech.

This session had me sharing the stage with Michael Fullan, Lee Elliott-Major, Cecilia Azorín, Dean Fink, Pooja Nakamura and Jihad Hajjouji.

Pierre Tulowitzki was the compare, revving up the audience and introducing each speaker. We each entered to a piece of music we had chosen, and we each spoke for 8 minutes on something in education about which we are passionate. There were no audio visual supports, and certainly no PowerPoint slides. It was just each speaker under a single spotlight.

I share my speech below. (You’ll need to imagine the strains of Roxette’s ‘Dangerous’ playing as I entered.)

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Teaching can be a personal, political and dangerous act.

I’m an English and Literature teacher, and an avid reader, so I love metaphors as a tool for making meaning. I often find myself comparing education to the worlds of various texts.

One metaphor that’s resonated with me is that being in education can feel like existing in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, an 1865 novel about a girl who falls down a rabbit hole into a fantasy world with strange creatures and absurd goings on. This metaphor is a playful way to consider education reform and examine to whom we should listen in education.

The novel is set simultaneously in Victorian England and in the imaginary world of Wonderland. The characters in the novel are constrained by the worlds in which they exist. The regimentations of Victorian England reflect the constraints of our current education systems. There are rigid rules of the education game, and inflexible, standardised and often externally imposed, indicators of success against which teachers, school leaders and schools are measured.

In Wonderland there’s a lack of equity, with some characters having huge amounts of power, and others existing without agency. The autocratic Queen of Hearts might be seen as the international culture of testing, accountability and performativity. She’s a force for panic and alarm, imposing a narrow focus of right and wrong. Characters race around anxiously in fear of her.

In our education systems, teachers might be seen as the White Rabbit: rushed, watching the time, constantly in a hurry to meet expectations and ever-increasing workloads. Teachers are mostly absent in the formulation of policy, on advisory boards, and on media panels. Often so-called ‘experts’ speak for or about teachers and schools. Everyone has an opinion on education and on teaching. Teachers themselves are often undermined or deprofessionalised.

School leaders could also be seen as the Rabbit, buckling under deadlines, external pressures and challenges to their wellbeing. Leaders might alternatively be conceptualised as the Cheshire Cat, doing often invisible work and empowering others through just-in-time advice as they shift in and out of the spotlight, constantly code switching and operating in multiple contexts almost simultaneously.

In the novel, the Eaglet says,

“Speak English! . . . I don’t know the meaning of half those long words, and, what’s more, I don’t believe you do either!”

Education buzzwords can become nonsense language devoid of meaning. Academic writing can seem impenetrable to practitioners. Contradictory advice abounds, and those of us working in schools and in research must make sense of multiple competing voices.

To whom should we listen?

As a teacher, school leader, coach and researcher, I feel a lot like Alice, tumbling down the rabbit hole and muddling my way through a foreign landscape. Belonging and not belonging. Betwixt and between. Constantly working to make sense of the education world, to sort through a sea of information, and to make my own voice, and the voice of my profession, heard.

I’ve taught in schools—in Australia and England—for 20 years. I’ve been a school leader for almost as long. In middle leadership positions, I shared the voices of senior leadership down, and the voices of teachers up. Now as a member of a school executive, I eke out the voices of teachers, students and families, in order that we can improve in ways relevant to our context. When I speak and write, I am a voice of my profession.

My voice comes from within the education system, yet as a pracademic, I am bestride both the practitioner world of schools, and the scholarly world of research. Alongside my full-time school day job, I am an adjunct at a university. My dual roles inform one another and give me a perspective quite different from those who advise from the sidelines. I am firmly embedded in what it feels like to be a cog in the school reform wheel. What I do every day in my lessons, meetings, professional conversations, and operational and strategic work, influences how I interpret education research. And the research I read and undertake influences my understanding of my daily work at school. In these ways I operate as a bridge betwixt and between research and practice.

Like Wonderland, which seems confusing to the newcomer Alice, schools and education systems are non-linear ecologies of complexity and interlocking relationships. In schools, we navigate competing demands with the needs of our students and the moral purpose of the greater good. In schools, change happens in ways that researchers and school boards don’t or can’t suppose. The work of schools is not easily quantifiable. In fact, measuring and ranking schools and education systems can diminish the humanity of education. Often what we can measure is not what actually matters.

Wonderland was perhaps Lewis Carroll’s way of pushing back against the regimentations of England at the time, a way of embracing chaos, surprise and wonder. Many teachers and school leaders, too, resist external demands or play the accountability game while working hard to protect and serve their students in ways that embrace their humanity.

Metaphors work because of their recognisability, but as I reflect on the metaphor I’m sharing today, I realise that it’s limited and potentially dangerous. There are so many versions of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland that meaning can get muddied and diluted. More worrying, however, are the biases inherent in metaphor. This metaphor has a Western origin. While the novel has been translated into almost 100 languages, it is a work of English-language fiction. It’s by a white male British author. It’s set in upper-middle-class England. How, I wonder, does this exclude particular views of education? Does it marginalise some from accessing its meaning? Does sharing this metaphor promote a linear, masculine, white and Western view of education, based on hierarchical structures and economic agendas?

So when I think about the question – To whom should we listen? – the answer is manifold.

We should listen to researchers who interrogate what we know about education. We should talk with policymakers who oversee the big picture. We should listen to parents. We should listen to students who are the core of our work and our why. We should certainly listen to teachers.They are experts whose professional experience and judgement should be a key part of education discourse.

In the book Flip the System Australia my co-editors and I worked to include a range of voices. Dr Kevin Lowe, one of our Indigenous authors, pointed out that Aboriginal contributions are often tacked on to the end of books, if they appear at all, as an afterthought. He challenged us to think carefully about not just who we included, but also where we situated particular voices.

We all do need to listen to each other. But this is not enough.

As we consider to whom we should listen in our work in school effectiveness and improvement, we need to carefully interrogate whose voices are being invited and amplified. We need to include those often marginalised by or excluded from the dominant narrative.  We need to embrace diversity rather than homogenisation. We also need to consider the risks to individuals and groups in sharing their views publicly. Often those who are the most vulnerable in our systems feel the least able to speak up and speak out. We need, however, to seek out, and make space at the highest levels, for voices that will move us towards democratic, equitable and inclusive education for all.

ICSEI 2020 SYMPOSIUM – ‘Agency, democracy and humanity: Global perspectives on flipping the education system and empowering teachers’

Flip the System books

On Wednesday 8 January at 11 am, I have the privilege of chairing a symposium at the ICSEI annual congress at the Mogador Palace in Marrakech, featuring the editors of the Flip the System education books: Jelmer Evers and René Kneyber (2015); Lucy Rycroft-Smith and JL Dutaut (2017); myself, Cameron Paterson and Jon Andrews (2018); and Michael Soskil (in preparation). Andy Hargreaves, who has written a chapter for each of the books, will be our discussant.

Our symposium explores what the notion of ‘flipping the education system’ means for each of us in our own contexts: Europe, the UK, Australia and the USA.

We challenge the status quo in which governments and policymakers make decisions disconnected from those at the nadir of the system: teachers and students. Schools in this system are highly bureaucratic institutional settings, and teachers are increasingly undervalued, constrained and de-professionalised. Those that wield influence on education policy and practice construct narrow measures of the success of schooling, and these impact heavily on teacher agency. Large-scale assessment, the use (and misuse) of big data at all levels of schooling, corporate investment, and new models of governance and technological innovation, are pervasive. A focus on numbers and rankings contributes 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 cultures focused on fear and narrow measures of performance.

Our symposium shares global perspectives around the notion of subverting, flattening, democratising and reimagining our education systems in ways that embrace human aspects of education, wrestle with the criticality of the task of schooling, and engage with multiple voices in education, especially those often sidelined in education discourse. The assembled presentations offer powerful insights about political, social and economic forces that influence numerous aspects of education, and also positive alternatives for the future of education.

The throughline or golden thread here is that teachers—their agency, professionalism, expertise and wellbeing—are central to flipping, strengthening and democratising our education systems. We all advocate for a focus on the GOOD in education. The greater good, the common good. Good for all students, everywhere, and good for the teachers who teach them.

The symposium presentations are described below. If you are attending the ICSEI conference, join us for a robust, and ultimately hopeful, discussion!

‘Striving for good education for all: The alternative offered by Flip the System’ – Jelmer Evers and René Kneyber (via video)

As the originators of the Flip the System book series and education movement, Jelmer and René outline the history of Dutch education reform and how they came to the conclusion that the system needs to be flipped using six global guidelines for future action: trust, honour, finding purpose, collaboration, support and time. For teachers, they argue, this is a professionalising process of ‘self-emancipation’. Their books, The Alternative and Flip the System, have had powerful political impact, as well as sparking a global discourse that foregrounds practising teachers as a crucial voice in educational change.

Jelmer and René reflect on the current state of the profession globally in the Global North and South. They explore the continued struggle between democratic professionalism and privatisation, authoritarianism and surveillance capitalism. They make a case for what is needed now. They explore teacher strikes as a starting point for renewed professional collective pride and agency and belief in education as a public good. The teaching profession, they argue, should strive for a global awareness and counterforce striving for good education for all.

‘When we used our teacher voices, no-one listened: The paradox of escaping the system to dismantle the system’ – Lucy Rycroft-Smith (and JL Dutaut)

Lucy will represent herself and JL as editors of Flip the System UK. In this presentation, the authors reflect on the history of the UK’s (failed) education reforms. They outline how powerful voices simplify issues and reduce complexities, while the teacher population suffers the demands of hyper-accountability, at great mental, emotional and physical cost. Lucy and JL summarise the realities of the daily grind for UK teachers, exacerbated by the school quality review and systemic discrimination. In questioning the current landscape of apparent ‘expertise’ in education, the authors ask: Why, only now, do people care what we have to say? How can we leverage these new advantages without succumbing to the same fate?

Lucy and JL’s argument is that we must reject the current paradigm of success: ‘the most students with the highest grades at the lowest financial cost’. Rather, they propose substituting a vision for an education community that values teachers as both humans and professionals, with the common good at its heart.

‘Australian perspectives on flipping the education system from ‘what works’ to ‘what matters: Reclaiming education for and by those within the system’ – Deborah Netolicky, Cameron Paterson (and Jon Andrews)

Cameron and I will be presenting, on behalf of ourselves and Jon, as editors of Flip the System Australia. We explore the current realities of schooling in Australia, including policy, funding and high-stakes standardised testing such as NAPLAN, ATAR and PISA. We challenge the media narratives presented to the Australian public, the rise of celebrity teachers, and the demonising and deprofessionalising of the teaching profession. We rally—in the spirit of the 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart—against the silencing of Indigenous voices in education policy and practice.

While education is a deeply human endeavour, the complex work that teachers do around the world every day is threatened by the political, the commercial and the popular. We advocate for equity, democracy, plurality, collective responsibility and teacher agency. We argue against polarising and one-dimensional narratives of education, and for locally-produced solutions and teacher voices. We believe that the power to transform schools lies within schools. The system should enable teachers to go about the complex work of teaching with professional honour, acknowledgement of professional expertise, and support structures focused on wellbeing and growth.

‘Education as the foundation of healthy democracy: A perspective from the USA’ – Michael Soskil

Michael presents a perspective on flipping the system, based on the upcoming book Flip the System: US. In the USA, partisan political influence, substantial inequity and economic interests prevail. Instead of basing decisions on professional expertise of the teachers who are committed to meeting the needs of unique, individual children, the system defers to lobbyists and politicians who manipulate data to tell narratives that suits their interests. Michael reflects on the health of the USA’s education system and asks if—at this pivotal moment in our history, when democratic norms, personal liberties, respect for intellectualism, and economic opportunity are eroding—public education is supporting democracy, and if our democracy is supporting public education.

Reclaiming the public education system, Michael points out, must begin from the inside out by focusing on strengthening the teaching profession. He points to shining examples of educators leading movements to overcome the deficiencies in our system, providing nuanced and locally relevant solutions to complex education problems. The system, he affirms, should be shaped around teacher expertise.

Postscript: our symposium participants