Reflections on ACEL 2014: learning, leading, teaching

Effective change is a matter of both will and skill. People have to want to do it, and they have to know how to do it. ~ Levin

Passion & Purpose at ACEL conference Melbourne by @debsnet https://theeduflaneuse.wordpress.com/

2014 ACEL Conference lanyard on the Southbank boardwalk: passion & purpose

I have spent this week in Melbourne at the 2014 Australian Council for Educational Leadership Conference, including presenting a breakout session with colleagues about our school’s story so far: of building a professional growth model, based on our own context, vision and beliefs about learning, teaching and leading.

It was affirming to hear the keynote speakers’ key messages reflect the real work that we are doing at my school. Some of those keynote takeaways, as aligned with my school’s work around professional growth and culture were …

We know that teaching is complex

Noel Pearson highlighted for the over 1000 delegates that effective instruction is at the heart of education.

Charlotte Danielson reminded the audience of over 1000 delegates that “teaching is so hard it can never be perfect” and that the complex, demanding cognitive work of teaching required educators’ ongoing quest to improve teaching practice, in order to improve students’ learning. She joked that, while doctors’ work is complex, they get to see one patient at a time; “I would call that tutoring.”

In his panel response to Charlotte’s keynote, Phillip Heath, Head of Sydney’s Barker College, emphasised the importance of focusing on celebrating the full, highly cerebral, in-the-moment and sacred nature of teaching, rather than on exposing and shaming failures, or ticking boxes.

Our school’s model of professional growth and culture is focused on a default position of meaningful teacher-owned growth.

Building minds, inspiring learners

Charlotte Danielson also reminded the audience about the constructivist nature of learning for students and teachers; that learning is done by the learner in an active intellectual process. Danielson pointed to conversations in which an observer or leader advises a teacher after a classroom observation, and in which the teacher passively endures the feedback. “Who is doing the work?” she asked. The Danielson Framework for Teaching, or as she pointed out, any framework for teaching, is a conduit for teacher learning which allows teachers to do the thinking for themselves.

Tim Flannery encouraged educators to encourage exploring, imagining and being open to organismic change.

John Medina shared his knowledge around increasing the brain’s executive function, the part of the brain (responsible for openness to cognitive and behavioural change) that we are attempting to access in our teachers by applying a Cognitive Coaching approach to professional conversation and reflection.

Richard Gerver talked passionately about the need for developing self-managing people and systems. Our model’s key aim is the development of teacher-driven, teacher-owned self-managing, self-monitoring and self-modifying teachers-as-learners.

Leading with clarity, coherence and collaboration

Richard Gerver highlighted the importance of the clarity and coherence in educational leadership.

Tim Flannery encouraged collective wisdom over individual genius, the harnessing of the informed community rather than the singular expert.

Linda Darling-Hammond reminded us that “teaching is a team sport” and that the greatest achievement gains are from those schools in which educators work together with a coherent approach. Beware ‘popcorn reform’, she said, with which we might innovate our way to edu-failure. What we need is to learn from each other’s successes and failures; teachers, schools, districts and nations.

Both Linda Darling-Hammond and Noel Pearson underlined the importance of backward design: having students’ learning outcomes and futures in mind when designing their education. For Pearson, this future was “giving people the capabilities to choose lives they have reason to value.” In particular, he advocates for Indigenous Australians to realise the potential, talent and creativity which afford them real choice and the mobility to orbit between external worlds and their indigenous homes, cultures, languages, traditions and peoples.

Charlotte Danielson reminded us about distributed leadership; it is not the principal but all teachers who are responsible for leading learning in schools. Leading and learning are about collaborative growth, not punitive measures. “We’re not going to fire our way to Finland,” she said. “We need to learn our way there instead,” by  coming together as communities of teachers which use a common framework as a scaffold to provide common definitions of good teaching, a common language with which to talk about teaching and shared understandings about what good teaching is and how teachers might enact it. This, Danielson says, helps to avoid conversations in which teachers and leaders use the same words but mean different things.

John Hattie challenged educators to “change the narrative” of education by building the profession and taking pride in teachers, rather than in buildings, resources, websites or canteen menus.

Yesterday, when presenting at the conference, my colleague described our school’s continuing journey as an “evolution not a revolution”, an ongoing, organic and iterative process which is based in our own context and the needs of our teachers and staff.

We have been taking the approach of ‘go slow to go fast’, deliberately unfurling a new initiative by allowing it to bubble up out of the school’s strategic vision and then be piloted, driven and owned by teachers. We have been attempting to distribute leadership in a project which is connected by clear, coherent, school-wide organisation-aligned threads of vision and practice.

Safety and challenge for growth

Charlotte Danielson talked about getting the balance right between support and challenge for teachers; schools need to provide an environment of trust in which it is safe to take risks in the spirit of ongoing professional inquiry.

This need for balance – between safety in which teachers feel supported and trusting, and enough discomfort to challenge practice and change thinking and behaviour – has been a cornerstone for us in providing the setting for transformation of classroom teaching, professional conversation and collaborative culture.

Thank you, ACEL for an affirming experience of layered, interlocking ideas.

Champagne at Crown Melbourne by @debsnet https://theeduflaneuse.wordpress.com/

champagne view from Crown Casino, Melbourne