This week I’m attending the AHISA (Association of Heads of Independent Schools of Australia) conference, which brings school leaders from around Australia together for a few days of visiting schools, conferencing, and networking. In my daily life, conversing with educators, many of whom I’ve never met, in other spaces and places tends to happen through social media (Twitter, blogging, Voxer). This week, however, via the AHISA conference, I’ve had the pleasure of catching up with those I have met and know well: my first principal and a variety of leaders with whom I have worked in Perth, Melbourne, and London. As someone who has worked in independent schools in Australia and the UK (for over 16 years, except for 6 months at a London comprehensive) this conference visit has been in some ways like watching my career flash before my eyes, as I’ve reconnected with various colleagues I’ve worked with at various times and places across the last decade and a half. It’s a reunion and a catch up with those I’ve worked over the years, a chance to talk with current colleagues about how the conference relates to our current work, and a place to make new connections with school leaders from around the nation.
In the conference sessions, I’ve been following a thread that is important for my own current work: professional learning for teachers and leaders, especially that emerging deliberately out of specific contexts. These sessions are relevant to me and my school because I have led a whole-school, evidence-based strategic intervention: a coaching-for-professional-growth model. This role has involved, since 2012, canvassing research literatures, writing papers, presenting to the school Board each year, and leading teams of teachers to prototype and iterate a context-specific model to support teacher and leader growth. This intervention was top-down (driven by the school’s strategic vision) as well as middle-out and bottom-up (developed by teams of teachers, led by me and overseen by the school Executive). It has meant generating data around the impacts of our work and tracing the influence of the model on teaching, learning, leading, school culture and the organisational language of professional conversation.
At the AHISA conference, the best workshop presentations for me have been those that have outlined how a school or system has applied systematic, research-informed, evidence-generating methodologies, with a clear aim.
Dr Gary Jones (2016) points out that schools can use evidence to make better decisions. He elevates the following from Barends, Rousseau and Briner (2014) as a frame for evidence-informed decision making in education:
- Asking: translating a practical issue or problem into an answerable question;
- Acquiring: systematically searching for and retrieving the evidence;
- Appraising: critically judging the trustworthiness and relevance of the evidence;
- Aggregating: weighing and pulling together the evidence;
- Applying: incorporating the evidence into the decision making process; and
- Assessing: evaluating the outcome of the decision taken.
Evidence might include: published academic research that quantitatively or qualitatively analyses empirical data; data, facts, and figures gathered from the school; specialised professional experience and judgements of relevant practitioners; and values, views, and concerns of relevant stakeholders. Schools can value and consider a range of research, as well as tacit knowledge and the richness of their own context.
As Dylan Wiliam points out in his 2016 book Leadership for Teacher Learning (and elsewhere), research cannot tell teachers and schools what to do, but can inform their decision making and their efforts. We can look to research for likely-to-be-productive avenues in education, rather than for recipes or silver bullet solutions to be unquestioningly followed.
In fact, schools can lead research, not just follow it. They can generate research, not only consume it. School leaders and teachers can be researchers, can apply research thinking, and can be critical questioners of research literature. They can challenge each other, participate in respectful debate, investigate contradictory positions, or consider multiple possibilities. They can pilot, prototype, and iterate new ways of doing things, while collecting data on the progress and impacts of interventions.
It has been great this week to connect with past, current, and future colleagues at the AHISA Leading, Learning, and Caring conference. It has been even more pleasing to see the work of some educators and schools in applying evidence-informed and data-generating design thinking to their complex work. Still, there are those who could more rigorously interrogate their assumptions, practices, and uses of research literature. There are those from whom others would benefit if they contributed their thoughts to edu-dialogues. Many of us would benefit from listening more closely to others. Whether affirming, querying, or dissenting, it is a range of thoughtful voices from multiple perspectives that together can shift the narrative, practice, and evidenced understanding of education.