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.

How writing is like cake making. #acwri

this week's home-made asymmetrical Aussie Rule football cake

this week’s home-made Aussie Rules football cake

Why cake ? Because joy and deliciousness are nutrients in their own right. ~ Jude Blereau

I make about two cakes a year, one for each of my children’s birthdays. One year ago, baking and decorating my eldest son’s cake prompted a blog post in which I compared making a novelty birthday cake to doing a PhD. This year, baking his double-layer chocolate cake (decorated as an AFL football field) had me thinking: this cake making business is a lot like writing, particularly academic writing.

My boys are 4 and (just) 6, so on my one-cake-per-child’s-birthday / two-cakes-per-year average, I haven’t baked that many cakes. Yet this week’s cake (pictured above), is the first cake that has felt stress-free to make, and first one for which I haven’t made big mistakes in the making. In the past my cake and icing mixes have split and curdled. I have broken cakes trying to get them out of the pan. There have been times when I decorated cakes the day before serving and the colours from the candy bled into the icing. Once, a heavy cake topper figurine sunk into the cake overnight. Earlier this year, I got a knife caught in the beaters while making icing, which resulted in me icing myself and the whole kitchen, including the ceiling. I didn’t feel quite the Nigella-esque image of domestic goddessery when I couldn’t see through my tears and icing-splattered spectacles.

This week there was none of the cake-anxiety drama. Baking and decorating were calm and enjoyable. Much of this was due to the knowledge and skills I have gained over time, as well as processes I have developed for this task. I knew to leave my ingredients out so that they were room temperature when I used them, preventing mixes from splitting. I knew to alternate mixing in dry and wet ingredients. I knew to take the time to cover the whole inside of the pan with carefully-traced-and-cut-and-placed bake paper so that the cake would slide out easily, with a now-practiced flourish, onto a wire rack. I knew to ice the cake while it was partly frozen to prevent crumbs in the icing, and to leave the extra decorations off until the icing was set so that the colours didn’t bleed. I had a familiar routine set out over a few days which made the process manageable. I also knew my materials better, what they could and couldn’t do. My expectations were managed. The cake was a bit lopsided, the icing a bit uneven, the drawn lines a bit skewwhiff. These imperfections were the marks of me as the maker, and I was ok with those idiosyncrasies. They were the ‘voice’ or the ‘me’ in the cake.

And so, from baking and decorating to writing …

My reflections on my journey as a novice baker and decorator remind me of my arc as an academic writer. The brief for each cake (footy! outer space! race track!), or each paper or chapter (this journal! that book! this field! that theory!), is different, requiring planning and consideration at the outset about how to proceed in order to reach a particular end point. Academic writing requires a nuanced understanding of its ingredients, materials and processes. The writer needs to understand, and be able to expertly manipulate, the language of particular disciplines and the language of particular journals. They build a growing knowledge of theories and literatures.

Like the baker, the writer develops a routine, a flow, an individualised writing process that works for them, including how to time their work, how to structure it, how to build layers of meaning, how to perfect and polish it in the final stages. They acquire tools and strategies for their work, things that make the work smoother and produce a better product. Some knowings and doings become internalized over time, with the writer having to think less about them, able to turn their attentions to refining their craft, developing deeper understandings and pushing the scope of their work beyond the limits of its previous iterations. Writers hone their voice, the ‘me’-ness in their writing, while watching out for their writing tics.

Like a cake made for a particular individual and a specific celebration, a piece of writing is often constructed with a particular audience in mind. Peer review of cake at a child’s birthday party is gentler than that in academia, but the party guest’s purpose is to appreciate and thank the host, while the peer reviewer’s purpose is to critically judge and improve the work. Once writing is published, more feedback comes in the forms of citations, downloads, reviews and social media shares. The audiences are different, but for both baking and writing there are accepted norms of feedback from others. A baker might dread the grimaced smiles of guests pretending to enjoy their cake while they leave slices unfinished, just as a writer might fear Reviewer 3’s scathing critique or the deafening silence of an uncited, un-clicked-upon piece, lying unread in physical and online spaces. Peer review is, after all, often like getting a punch in the face and a high five simultaneously.

While I am a sometimes-baker, I am a regular writer. I’m sure that if I baked with the constancy of my writing, it would improve markedly. I write something almost every day, for different purposes or different audiences. One distinction for me between baking and writing (obviously there are many differences!) is that I find I write my way into understanding, into knowing my own thinking and into interrogating my worlds and the writings of others. Writing is inquiry, identity work, illuminator. It is joy and struggle. And while a cake is devoured until only crumbs remain, writing lives on.

Easy as pie? How a PhD, & other complex work, is like a cake

Metaphors have a way of holding the most truth in the least space. ~ Orson Scott Card

Number 3 racetrack cake by @debsnet

Number 3 racetrack cake, with handmade bunting & teeny cars

As an English and Literature teacher, I love a metaphor, especially an extended one. I have spoken about one of my PhD metaphors before: thesis as a stone sculpture. Metaphors even bubbled up unexpectedly in my PhD data as participants searched for meaningful language to explore their identities.

In some ways this post is a response to, or extension of, Anitra Nottingham’s Thesis Whisperer post ‘My thesis is a cupcake, not a dragon.’ In it, she talks about making novelty birthday cakes for her children. She goes on to use the metaphor of cupcake for her Masters thesis and cake for a PhD thesis.

I was reminded of Anitra’s post over the weekend as I prepared for my eldest child’s 5th birthday. A novelty birthday cake is a lot like a thesis, I thought, as I pierced the galaxy outer-space solar-system cake with the planets I had hand-painted (cake decorating makes for great phdcrastinating).

the weekend's outer space solar system cake

the weekend’s outer space solar system cake; I am a child of the 80s so Pluto, beautiful dwarf planet, is there

I love to make my children’s birthday cakes from scratch, not that I find it easy or that I have an aptitude for it! I rarely bake; it’s not something I’m great at, and often my baking is asymmetrical and (goofily? lovingly?) imperfect. But I feel like a cake is more than the sum of its ingredients. I am convinced that my children and their guests can taste the love and trying-to-make-it-wonderful effort that goes into a homemade birthday cake.

Tootle cake, the Golden Book train who likes to play in meadows rather than stay on the rails

Tootle cake, the Golden Book train who likes to play in meadows rather than stay on the rails

A thesis, too, is more than the sum of its parts, more than the words on its pages. As I revise the full draft of my thesis, I am reading with the reader in mind (and trying to avoid boring or annoying them – see Pat Thomson’s post from an examiner perspective). I am hoping that examiners and other readers will ‘taste’ the passion, the challenges overcome, the obsessive dedication, and the satisfaction and enjoyment that comes with taking a PhD project to completion.

Both cake and thesis start with a problem. How am I going to embody the essence of this? Both cake and thesis require a balance of systematisation and creativity, recipe-following and individuality. What tools and ingredients will I need? What methodological processes will I follow to ensure a sturdy finished product which stands up? How might I make this original and my own interpretation?

Like a thesis, sometimes a cake doesn’t work at first and the creator needs to start again, or find creative solutions (usually involving using icing as glue or camouflage).

Octonauts cake

Octonauts cake, complete with sunken figurine (note to self: add heavy bits at the last minute)

It might seem trivial to compare the PhD thesis to making a cake (and of course there are many many differences between a thesis and a cake!), but I find that metaphors, in distilling meaning down to its simplest and yet most poetic form, help me to make sense of complex work. Their simplicity helps to keep me going.

The quote at the beginning of this post resonates: a metaphor can hold the most truth in the least space.

What are your metaphors for your complex work?

A PhD metaphor: Thesis as sculpture

I saw the angel in the marble and I carved until I set him free. ~ Michelangelo

Metaphors are something that I engage with when I am trying to make sense of something, and this has certainly been true as I have worked through the stages of my PhD.

I have previously explored the notion of a thesis as a sculpture, a collision of imagination and hard, systematic work. As I move towards the end of the first full draft of my PhD thesis, I have been reshaping this personal metaphor into a more specific vision inspired by the work and words of Italian Renaissance artist Michelangelo, who saw the sculptor as the free-er of sculptures from their stone slumber.

Seeing the Statue of David in the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence was for me an almost spiritual experience. But perhaps even more magical to see and experience were the ‘Slaves’, unfinished figures twisting and writhing inside giant stone blocks. Lining the wide hall of the Galleria dell’Accademia, leading to David, they seem to be the tangible epitome of Michelangelo’s aim: to free existing figures from stone.

The metaphor of the researcher/Michelangelo and thesis/stone-sculpture works for me for a few reasons.

Firstly, like Anitra Nottingham’s metaphor of thesis-as-baking-a-cupcake, producing a thesis takes knowledge, skill, materials and creativity. The artist or researcher must know their materials and their methods. The researcher-sculptor learns, applies and refines their craft and their art. They must learn the basics, practise repeatedly and make many mistakes before their work begins to resemble the skill and originality to which they aspire.

Secondly, like Victoria Graham and Michelle Redman-MacLaren’s metaphor of research as swimming, it is hard and arduous work, requiring patience, persistence, sweat and a focus on doing your own best. Often working alone in his studio, the sculptor carves away at hard, unforgiving stone, systematically testing his tools and techniques against its surface. Some days his body aches. The mental and physical effort of the work keeps him awake at night. He makes excruciatingly slow progress, but sees his vision slowly come into view. Soon, it is no longer a rough cut slab of shapeless stone. The form starts to be revealed, loose but almost recognisable. And in the final stages, the sculptor uses small tools to polish and finely sculpt the finishing details, working obsessively on the most minute aspects.

Stone carving also reflects for me the process of the thesis. The researcher-sculptor begins with a purpose, a question, a vision, a method; but from those beginnings emerges something else. A figure twisting out from stone as a result of the influence of sculptor’s hand, mind, materials and tools. As the researcher-sculptor chips away, the thesis takes shape, influenced by the researcher-sculptor themselves, the pressure and techniques they apply, and the materials, data and methods with which they work.

Perhaps, also, art imitates artist. Seeing the ‘Awakening Slave’ writhing free from his block of marble seems a little like the PhD candidate emerging, through struggle, as a formed researcher from the PhD stone, or perhaps the PhD chrysalis.

There are differences, of course. Michelangelo became a master of his art, whereas the PhD researcher is an apprentice. And a PhD researcher makes mistakes, back tracks, double pikes, and tries again. It is not as though Michelangelo could gouge out a piece of marble, change his mind, and glue it back on, while retaining the integrity of the artwork. The metaphor isn’t perfect, but it allows me to inhabit the internal space of worker, tinkerer and creator, driven by my purpose while sensitive to my materials.

Is your thesis like a sculpture? What is your metaphor for your researcher self?

In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and action. I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to the other eyes as mine see it. ~ Michelangelo

A Google search for 'my thesis is' won't give you inspiration.

A Google search for ‘my thesis is’ won’t give you inspiration.