Flipping the system – Where are we now?

Recently I had the pleasure of collaborating with interstate colleagues Cameron Paterson and Jon Andrews in a webinar for the Australian Curriculum Studies Association (ACSA), in which we explored the notion of flipping the education system.

‘Flip the System’ is part of a movement, as Cameron would say, and of a series of books, including the following.

  • Flip the System: Changing Education from the Ground Up (Evers & Kneyber, 2016);
  • Flip the System: Förändra Skolan från Grunden (Kornhall, Evers, & Kneyber, 2017);
  • Flip the System UK: A Teachers’ Manifesto, (Rycroft-Smith & Dutaut, 2018);
  • Our book Flip the System Australia: What Matters in Education (Netolicky, Andrews, & Paterson, 2019); and most recently
  • Flip the System US: How Teachers Can Transform Education and Save Democracy (Soskil, 2021).

The books deal with issues around teacher agency, voice and professionalism; and democratising education and addressing inequity.

During the ACSA webinar in February, we editors of the Australian book reflected on how our thinking around flipping the system has changed or stayed the same in the last couple of years, especially in light of recent contextual factors such as the global COVID-19 pandemic and the NSW Gallop Inquiry into the work of teachers and principals and how it has changed since 2004.

In my ‘presentation’ piece during the webinar (from minutes 34-43), I reflected on the neoliberal education agenda to which we were responding as we worked on the Australian book in 2017 and 2018. We were writing and editing the book amidst the rise of the idea of ‘teacher quality’ and (often dubious, quantitative and punitive) ways of attempting to measure that nebulous ‘quality’. The education discourse was rife with talk and policy around school effectiveness, improvement, standards, accountabilities, surveillance, competition, and standardised testing. Teachers were teaching and school leaders were leading amidst a culture of audit and measurement, a distrust of teachers and schools, and an obsession with ‘what works’ (usually without any nuance around what might work where, for whom, and under what conditions). Simplistic, seductive ‘silver bullet’ solutions and hierarchical league tables (of teaching strategies or of schools or school systems) were all the rage in education. My chapter in the book was on teacher identity and teacher voice. It argued for elevating the professional identities and voices of teachers and school leaders in educational research, practice, and policymaking.

Fast forward to 2021, and the pandemic is disrupting education along with lives, families, societies, economies, and industries. Citizens have submitted to increasing government control. From policymaking to educating, we’ve been building the plane while flying it. Sometimes governments and education leaders have got it right, and sometimes not. Some challenges have arisen in education and some issues have come into sharper relief.

There are also opportunities emerging, such as strengthened global networks of educators working and learning together. Since we edited Flip the System Australia some ideas are becoming more prominent in education, as well as in other fields: identity, wellbeing integrated with learning, and belonging.

Some ideas around the essence of flipping the education system remain the same. We should continue to focus on what matters over what works, on the greater good over individual good, on strengthening teacher voice and agency, and on democracy and equity. We should continue to engage with education as a human endeavour.

You can view my slides above and watch the video via this link.

Opt-in interest groups for teacher professional learning

Source: pixabay.com by @rawpixel

I wrote earlier this year about the individualised professional learning pathways model that my school is trialing this year. Teachers and leaders are now able to have more voice and choice in the internal process of professional learning in which they engage. Where before staff were allocated a school-based development process (such as coaching) based on their place in a three-to-four year cycle, we have in 2018 opened up a range of new options and each staff member negotiates with their line manager the one most appropriate to their career stage, interest and development needs.

One of these options is what we are terming ‘Professional Learning Groups’. These groups have been opted into by staff from PK to 12, from various faculties, and in a variety of roles including teachers, leaders and staff from libraries or co-curricular arenas. This year, of our 140-odd teaching staff, 40 chose to be involved in one of these groups, so each group includes about ten people. The following groups were on offer.

  • Teaching best practice
      • Members of this group have a particular interest in teasing out classroom teaching. From evidence-based methods to transfer to ensuring that they are able to ‘reach’ all students in their classes, they have come with a desire to focus on their core business as teachers: teaching!
  • Pedagogies of learning spaces
      • This group is made up of a range of teachers and leaders working in various learning spaces across the school, some of which are newly refurbished and some of which are well-established. There has so far been vibrant discussion and sharing of the practices, challenges, and benefits of co-teaching and teaching in open or flexible spaces.
  • ICT for teaching and learning
      • Members of this group have a range of expertise and needs surrounding the use of technologies for teaching and learning. They have so far been very interested in one another’s expertise and also in the targets each person is setting for themselves, and challenges each is facing. They have been able to offer one another advice.
  • Post-graduate study
      • My idea for this group came about when I was doing my PhD. Working in a school while moonlighting as a post-graduate student can be incredibly isolating as you rush from work to study. There are often few people with whom teachers and leaders can discuss their study, especially when it involves self-directed research. This group is as much about solidarity, support, recognition and acknowledgement of those engaged in further study as it is about research methods or dissertation writing.

As the recent Gonski 2.0 report surfaced, teachers would like time to talk about and collaborate around teaching. Groups like these can provide this opportunity. While from the outset I had a loose idea of what these groups would do—such engage in scholarly literature, reflect and workshop problems of practice together, share practice, visit one another’s classrooms, collaborate in online spaces—I am facilitating them in a way that allows the group’s interests and needs to lead the way the group operates. This means employing structures for collaboration and coaching-style language, but in a way that is open to the groups operating in ways that are unexpected or taking directions that are surprising. These are not groups at which I am the expert at the helm or the instructor filling colleagues with my knowledge. They are groups of expert practitioners whose value is in the rich expertise around the table, and the potential of professional conversation and collaboration about our daily work.

Each person has come to each group with a particular intention, and we fleshed these out in our first meetings. The opt-in nature of the groups has meant that staff have generally arrived with enthusiasm for being involved; they have chosen this pathway for themselves. As my leadership role is PK-12, and in a previous role I coached classroom teachers across the school around their classroom practice, I get to see the potential symbiosis between disparate areas of the school (like the co-teaching in Year 3 and in Year 11 Physics, literacy approaches from PK-12, common strategies for behaviour management and developing classroom culture or addressing students with particular learning needs), but many staff do not have the opportunity to see the connections between themselves and others in the organisation. How might a Year 12 Design and Technology teacher know that their design thinking process mirrors that of the Pre-Primary classroom? The luxury of spending time with colleagues who share similar interests and challenges cannot be underestimated, especially in the environment of a PK-12 school where so often we can be siloed in our year level or faculty teams. So far there seem real benefits to those from vastly different areas of the school workshopping similar challenges and goals, ones they may not have known they shared with colleagues until coming together.

Teachers and school leaders need professional learning opportunities that are at once self-chosen and self-directed, but also collaborative and supported. Often internal expertise goes unrecognised and untapped in schools. Looking outside and borrowing others’ practice has its benefits, but schools can and should consider the expertise of those within their own walls, rather than looking tirelessly to external ‘experts’. Teachers are experts in their own classrooms. School leaders are experts in their own school contexts. They deserve to be recognised as such, and to be given time and permission to deeply and collectively engage in the core aspects of their work.