Innovation in schools

Today I’m home from a thought-provoking day of professional learning workshops: Jan Owen on building the education ecosystem and Peter Hutton on creating an adaptive culture for school transformation.

An ecosystem is a complex community of interconnected organisms in which each part, no matter how seemingly small, has an active, agentic part to play in the community. There are constant interdependent relationships and influences. The notion of an ecosystem of education resonates with Bob Garmston and Bruce Wellman’s third Adaptive Schools underlying principle of what they call ‘nonlinear dynamical’ systems: that tiny events create major disturbances. This principle reflects the way change often happens. The little things we change or do can have unexpected, chaotic, incremental effects that are difficult to quantify or not immediately noticeable.

As we consider the education ecosystem, to what extent is innovation needed in education?

Certainly, there is a case often made for the need for radical change in education and schooling. Often the future of work is cited, the jobs not yet invented, automation and artificial intelligence disrupting industry. Jan Owen today spoke of globalisation, the flexible economy, job clusters, the need for meaning and purpose in work, diversity, equity, enterprise skills, micro-credentialing and the need for ongoing workplace learning. The Gonski 2.0 report talks about individualised learning, tracking student data, increased emphasis on teaching General Capabilities, and community partnerships as ways to address ‘declining performance’ and improve apparently ‘cruising schools’.

Skills and capabilities are increasingly the focus of futures-focused thinking in education. But knowledge remains crucial. Chief Scientist Alan Finkel said in his speech to the 2018 Australian Science Teachers Association Annual Conference:

“I have had many, many meetings with employers, in my role as Chief Scientist and as Deputy Chair of Innovation and Science Australia; and 6 before that, as Chancellor of Monash University and President of the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering; and before that, as the CEO of a publicly listed company. In all my meetings with people actually hiring graduates, no-one has ever said to me: ‘gosh, we don’t have enough people who know how to collaborate.’ No, what they say to me is: ‘we don’t have enough specialists in software engineering. We can’t find graduates who are fluent in maths. We have meetings where three quarters of the people in the room can’t critique a set of numbers without pulling out a calculator and slowing us down. They were asking for T-shapes, and getting flat lines – but the flat line wasn’t lifted up and anchored by that all-important vertical pillar.”

We need people with specialist knowledge as well as transferrable skills. As I say to my students: we need to know stuff and also be able to do stuff.

French artists around 1900 depict the future of school. Source: publicdomainreview.org

Those commenting on the need for innovation in education often shown slides of classrooms that have students sitting at desks in rows. The argument is made that we have an industrial-age factory model of schooling in which inflexible schools manufacture homogenised experiences for students with little regard for difference, readiness, prior learning, and the idiosyncrasies of the individual.

And yet.

My research into and practical experience of schools and education is that today’s schools and classrooms are not factory-esque machines focused on creating compliant workers and unthinking drones. Audrey Watters wrote in 2015 about the invented history of the factory model of schooling, which she argues is used to justify the need for an ‘upgrade’.

To accuse schools and teachers of rigidly and unimaginatively churning students through regimented, authoritarian, one-size-fits-one education, is to do teachers, schools and school leaders a great disservice.

As I wrote recently: education is not broken and teachers do not need fixing. Education is not operating in the deep deficit that is sometimes the subject of media headlines, reports or popular rhetoric. Teachers deeply know their students. They use a range of data to adjust planning, teaching and assessment to address their students’ needs. They are experts in their fields who know their content and how to teach it. They use a range of resources and technologies to deepen content knowledge and skills, and to allow individualisation and accessibility of learning. They give a range of meaningful feedback. They build productive relationships with students, parents, one another and those in the wider community. Our teachers are working hard every day to empower students and develop their capabilities, relationships and citizenship as well as their knowledge and skills.

Yes, we can consider how to better structure schools and build in further agility. Yes, we can develop the ways in which we harness technologies to do education better. Yes, we can all work to improve our policies, processes and practices, to serve our students and communities more effectively. Yes, we can challenge the measures of success in education and the ways in which students, teachers, school leaders and schools are judged in terms of their positive impact. We can resist external pressures and consider what really matters. We can imagine and enact better ways of doing things. We can consider relevance, authenticity, values, purpose, agency, identity. We can respectfully challenge one another and those leading education systems. We can advocate for our students, families, communities, teachers and school leaders, their learning, their voice, their wellbeing.

Flip the System Australia argues for equity and democracy, and for the elevation and amplification of those in schools and classrooms: students, teachers, school leaders. As Adam Brooks said at the Perth launch of the book: We (teachers and school and system leaders) are the system. We can drive change from the ground up, as the original Flip the System book argues. Peter Hutton today challenged those educators present to “do what you can do now.” “Do what you’re allowed to do,” he said, “and then do a little bit more.”

For me, innovation in education is about interrogating where voice, power and agency reside. It is worth asking: who has power and influence? Who has control of measures, expectations, systems, norms and processes? Who has autonomy, voice and ownership? And what can we each do, now, that is productive and meaningful for our students?

Flipping the flippin’ education system

I have been thrilled in the last couple of weeks to be part of the Flip the System publishing movement. Its inception was the original 2016 book, dreamed up and brought to fruition by Dutch teachers Jelmer Evers and René Kneyber: Flip the System: Changing education from the ground up. In it, a number of contributors discuss the purpose of education. They urge schools and teachers to resist complying with the decrees of policymakers or kowtowing to external accountability measures. Rather, they promote trusting the teaching profession to influence the education system from the bottom up and the inside out. You can see Jelmer speak in his TEDX talk about how he and René conceptualised subverting the system to promote teacher agency and collaboration.

Then, on 29 November 2017, a new book—Flip the System UK: A Teachers’ Manifesto, edited by Lucy Rycroft-Smith and Jean-Louis Dutaut—was published. This book applies the notion of flipping the system to a UK context, offering a suite of voices intended to elevate teacher professionalism and empower teachers to effect change from within the education system. In this UK volume is a chapter I have co-written with Australian teachers Jon Andrews and Cameron Paterson, entitled ‘Flipping the system: A perspective from Down Under’. Here, we offer a way of thinking about flipping the system from an Australian perspective. That Flip the System UK sold out its first print run in its first night of publication says something about the magnetism of this movement. Editor Lucy Rycroft-Smith has been tweeting some excellent threads about the book from her @honeypisquared Twitter account. These are wonderful précis of the book’s contents, especially for those of us who have yet to receive our print copies of the book.

What these contributions to the Flip the System books so far show, are the commonalities amongst the global community of teachers. The Netherlands, the UK, Australia, and other countries around the world, are all facing reform agendas driven, not by those in classrooms or schools, but by those appointed to governments or catapulted to guru status, or those who might profit from their own reform recommendations (“Look! Education is in crisis. <Insert oft-wheeled-out-reason-for-education-crisis>. Here, buy my silver bullet / snake oil.“).

It was thrilling to have my first book chapter published in the last couple of weeks (hoorah! with more chapters in the long publishing pipeline). Even more exciting was that Jon Andrews, Cameron Paterson and I also signed our own book contract for a Flip the System Australia book. In it, we, along with an arsenal of incredible authors, will situate the Australian context within the global milieu, standing on the shoulders of Evers, Kneyber, Rycroft-Smith, Dutaut, and the Flip the System contributors thus far. From an Austraian lens, we and our contributing authors will argue for the wisdom of practitioners and the agency of the teaching profession, and for allowing teachers to take the lead as a trusted and meaningful part of global education conversation, policy, and practice.

So, a book chapter, a book contract, and being part of a global movement to re-professionalise, re-empower, and re-claim teaching? I’m flipping excited!

Rethinking professional learning: an academic paper for JPCC

This week I’m thrilled to see my paper ‘Rethinking professional learning for teachers and school leaders’ published in the Journal of Professional Capital and Community. This journal, whose Editor in Chief is Andy Hargreaves, boasts an Editorial Board including Linda Darling-Hammond, Michael Fullan, Alma Harris, Karen Seashore Louis, Pasi Sahlberg, Helen Timperley and Yong Zhao. My paper appears in Volume 1, Issue 4, alongside a theoretical paper by Dennis Shirley. As an early career researcher, I couldn’t ask for more distinguished company.

Even more pleasing is that the journal is open access during 2016, so free for anyone to download and read. Open access to the paper means that it can be accessed by practitioners who so often don’t get to read and engage with the literature in (often pay walled) academic journals. In fact, it has already been downloaded (at today’s count) 1689 times. Wow. That’s a bunch more times than my PhD thesis.

The paper, which draws from the lived experiences of teachers, middle leaders (often a forgotten group in education literature) and executive leaders in one Australian school, outlines the findings of my PhD around what makes professional learning that transforms beliefs and practices. It discusses my study’s response to the questions:

  1. What is the role of professional learning on identities or growth?; and
  2. What professional learning is transformational?

My PhD found that transformational learning (as defined by Ellie Drago-Severson, 2009, as that which actively shifts cognition, emotion, and capacity) is: collaborative and individual; occurring in life, school, and work; and requiring elements of support and challenge. Not only was it lifelong, but it was life-wide. For these participants, it is life experiences, as well as professional experiences, that influence their professional beliefs and practices. The following is a table, which didn’t make the final cut of the paper, shows the range of features of professional learning found in my study.

tabulated findings around professional learning

tabulated findings around professional learning

This table shows the variety of experiences that educators in my study considered transformational for themselves. These experiences included relationships with family members; role models and anti-models of teaching and leadership; post graduate study; difficult life experiences; becoming a parent; and connecting with others at conferences or via social media. It included heutagogical (self-determined) learning, as I outlined for this blog post for the Heutagogy Community of Practice.

It also included, especially for leaders operating at an executive level, the time and space for silence, reflection and thinking. The research interviews themselves proved to be spaces of learning for some of the school leaders, who saw them as an opportunity to be listened to intently and to think deeply about their learning and leading.

The participants in my study had some important cautions about professional learning and about school interventions. They cautioned that a mandated approach to professional learning, even if differentiated, might not address the needs of all professional learners. They wondered about how to honour the individual teacher and the organisational priorities when leading professional learning in schools.

The paper concludes that, while my study intended to explore the ways in which educators’ experiences of professional learning form and transform their senses of professional identity, it found that it is not just professional learning, but life experiences that shape professional identities and practices. That is, our teacher selves and teacher actions are moulded by critical experiences that tangle with and shape our identities, lives, relationships, and emotions. The best professional learning, as suggested by this study, is highly individualised and knottily enmeshed with educators’ senses of self, of who we are professionally.

Anyone who teaches knows that we cannot separate our teacher selves from our non-teacher selves. As teachers our lives affect our learning and teaching, and our learning and teaching influences our lives. For many teachers, ‘life’ and ‘work’ are well beyond blurred. We are humans who teach and teachers who exist as humans in the world. The leaders in this study tended to describe themselves as either teachers who lead or as leaders who teach; they remained teachers in their identity self-perceptions. See this post for further musings about the notion of teacher identity, that ‘being a teacher’ stays with many of us beyond our years in the classroom.

One suggestion to emerge from this paper is that we would benefit from rethinking what it is that we consider and label as ‘professional learning’. Professional learning is not hours logged on a spreadsheet or entered into an app. It is not necessarily being in a room with other educators at a course or conference that is labelled ‘professional learning’ (although it might be). It is those critical moments across our lives and work that shape the core of who we are, in and out of the classroom and the boardroom. Professional learning can be personal, unexpected, unscheduled, nonlinear, messy, unbounded, and unacknowledged.

Can we redefine ‘professional learning’ in more expansive and flexible ways? How might we acknowledge those hours educators spend blogging, or studying, or tweeting, or visiting schools, or collaborating intensively, or volunteering in the service of others? How can leaders lead the learning of teachers in ways that honour their individual learning trajectories and their own agency? How might we rethink our systems and schools in order to focus, not on hours of what is easily labelled or effortlessly deployed (staff day scattergun PD, anyone?), but on what actually engages us and changes our cognition and our capacities?