Reflections on teaching and school leadership during Term 1 2022

source: Sprudge

Term 1 2022 may have occurred at and for about the same time as it usually does in Australia, but it felt like an especially long for educators.                 

In Western Australia, with more restrictions in place than some other states, signature experiences of Term 1 included the following.

  • Mask-wearing for school staff, and for students in Years 3 and up.
  • Classrooms with air purifiers, CO2 monitors and open windows.
  • Schools taking on the role of contact tracing and communication.
  • Restrictions to gatherings at schools, resulting in parent information, parent teacher interviews, assemblies, and activities being held online, outdoors, or in small groups.
  • The latest iterations of remote and hybrid learning as students and teachers were absent from school due to isolation and illness.
  • Teacher absences and shortages.
  • Teachers classed as potential ‘critical workers’.
  • The hard border into WA softening.
  • The acting federal Education Minister making remarks about “dud teachers” “dragging the chain” and “not delivering the learning gains our children need”.

The administrative requirements of Covid-19 directions for schools, combined with restrictions on getting together in person, meant that educators’ experiences of the term were largely transactional, operational, and cumulatively exhausting. School leaders and teachers worked to keep school communities safe, informed, and with a sense of calm normalcy. We put one foot in front of the other, complied with requirements, and ensured that learning and pastoral care continued for students. But we missed some of those things that buoy us in our work: relationality, community, and connection.

At my school we employed as many relief staff as we could to take the pressure off our teachers. We offered opportunities for staff to work flexibly or from home when we could. We scaled back and reimagined meetings, doing these differently or not at all, according to their purpose and our community’s needs. We carefully considered administrative requirements and evaluated the effectiveness, efficiency, and flexibility of assessment tasks and feedback practices. We interrogated the reasons for our ways of doing things, generated alternate ways to achieve our aims, and questioned whether the aims themselves needed to be rethought or relinquished. What was important during this time? What could we do differently? What could be let go?

We found small ways to connect with one another. There were no whole-staff meetings or morning teas, but we met in smaller groups (on balconies, in the quadrangle, in well-ventilated spaces). We held some free coffee Fridays where drinks at the coffee van were paid for by the school, facilitating incidental outdoors conversations between colleagues, as well as offering a gesture of thanks to our hard working staff. We thanked individuals for specific contributions. I called most teachers who were home isolating or ill, to check in and see how they were. We introduced a Staff Appreciation Award so that staff could recognise colleagues for their support.

While it was tempting to hold off on all but the most essential work, we knew that engaging with our professional selves, professional goals, and core purpose was key to staying connected and uplifted. We held our annual goal setting meetings and booked into professional learning experiences. We provided opportunities for staff to collaborate in small groups and teams to have energising, productive conversations around practice, with each other and with external experts. As well as teaching our students, it was pockets of meaningful collaboration that sparked moments of professional delight. Working together with colleagues and engaging in robust dialogue, thoughtful reflection, and collaborative planning, provided a lightness, an energy, and a reminder about our shared moral purpose: educating each student in our school community.

None of this is perfect, but we are doing our absolute best. We remain committed to the learning, care, safety, and success of our students.

Someone asked me recently what I have been proud of, and the first thing that came to mind was: showing up. The challenge for those in schools is to maintain enough wellbeing, community, connection, kindness and belonging, to sustain us through what will continue to be a challenging year. During this break between terms, I hope that educators around the country are filling their empty cups by finding time to regenerate and to connect with themselves and with their families and friends.

Key concepts for leading professional learning

A recent report purports to dispel myths about professional learning, including the apparent ‘commonly held’ beliefs that ‘professional learning is a waste of time and money’ and that ‘districts should implement research-based PL programs with no modifications’. These claims run counter to much literature around professional learning which argues that effective professional learning is a lever for improving student learning and achievement by improving teaching, and that context is crucial for any education model (and that therefore any model should be tailor fit to context).

This week I presented to a group of school leaders about leading professional learning. Part of my preparation for the presentation took me back to the roots of my work in this space, and those concepts I have come across that have stuck with me, become part of my thinking, and continue to anchor my work. I explain some of these below, in addition to others I discussed on the day, such as trust, context, teacher expertise, and teacher agency, self-determination and self-efficacy.

HOLONOMY

Holonomy is an ecological concept that has captured my attention for years, drawing together the individual and the larger system. Art Costa and Bob Garmston (2015) base their conception of holonomy on Arthur Koestler’s work around the word ‘holon’ as something which operates simultaneously as a part and a whole. Holonomy encapsulates the simultaneity that each person is both an independent individual and an interdependent part of the larger system, at once self-regulating, responsive to the organisation, and able to influence those around them.

This speaks to me of what we must consider when leading professional learning: balancing the needs of the individual and the needs of the organisation or system.

HOLDING ENVIRONMENT

Introduced to me through the outstanding work of Ellie Drago-Severson on leading adult learning, is the notion of the ‘holding environment’. With its roots in Donald Winnicott’s psychology concept, this is an environment of psychological safety in which members of the community or organisation feel ‘held’ in a culture of high care and high challenge.

Ellie was the first to really challenge me to consider how we honour where each adult learner is at, differentiate learning for adults in schools, and take an invitational, growth-focused approach to professional learning.

MEANINGFUL COLLABORATION

In Chapter 4 of Transformational Professional Learning, I explore that 1) collaboration does not happen by calling a group of people a ‘team’, or by organising for a group of people to be in a room together; and 2) feeling good working with colleagues is not professionally learning. Politeness, compliance, avoidance, and silence may make for an easy, harmonious-feeling meeting, but do not result in rigorous collective work that moves individual, team and organisation forward.

Rather, collaboration occurs when there is a clear shared purpose, collective accountability, collaborative norms, a focus on data to inform, and protocols for collaborative ways of working. Taking the time to create the conditions for skillful collaboration, to structure and nurture intentional collaborative practices, and to develop people’s skills in graceful disagreement and productive conflict, facilitates meaningful collaborative opportunities that develop teachers and positively impact students.

SEMANTIC SPACE

The importance of language is explored by Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey (2001), and Bob Garmston and Bruce Wellman (2016). The notion of semantic space—‘how we talk around here’—is outlined by Stephen Kemmis and Hannu Heikkinen (2012), and Rachel Lofthouse and Elaine Hall (2014).

Talk defines and drives emotions, relationships, belonging and action. Talk is a terrific barometer of professional culture, allowing us insights into beliefs, values and behaviours. We can ask: What are the staff water cooler conversations like at our school? How do we collectively talk about our work and practice? What questions do we ask? What contributions do we make? What shared language, and ways of speaking and listening, do we use? How do we talk around here?

In a recent episode of my podcast, The Edu Salon, Adam Voigt says: “The language that the leaders of a culture use, shapes the kids that grow in it, and they leave speaking that way as a result. If you’re looking to transform culture you can’t do it without changing words.”

I have this year written on my office whiteboard something I remember Rachel Lofthouse saying at a conference in 2017:

The talk is the work.

We need to value, focus on, create space for, and put effort, intentionality, time, and learning, into the talk in our schools.

References

Costa, A. L., & Garmston, R. J. (2006). Cognitive coaching: A foundation for Renaissance schools (2nd ed.). Heatherton, Australia: Hawker Brownlow Education.

Drago-Severson, E. (2004). Becoming adult learners: Principles and practices for effective development. Teachers College Press.

Garmston, R. J., & Wellman, B. M. (2016). The adaptive school: A sourcebook for developing collaborative groups. Rowman & Littlefield.

Kegan, R., & Lahey, L. L. (2001). How the way we talk can change the way we work: Seven languages for transformation. John Wiley & Sons.

Kemmis, S., & Heikkinen, H. L. (2012). Future perspectives: Peer-group mentoring and international practices for teacher development. In Peer-group mentoring for teacher development (pp. 160-186). Routledge.

Lofthouse, R., & Hall, E. (2014). Developing practices in teachers’ professional dialogue in England: Using coaching dimensions as an epistemic tool. Professional Development in Education, 40(5), 758-778.

Netolicky, D. M. (2019). Transformational professional learning: Making a difference in schools. Routledge.

Evidence-based practice for sustainable school change

Graphic representation of my keynote presentation, drawn live by Pat Grant

Yesterday I presented the final keynote at the Association of Independent Schools NSW Evidence Institute’s two-day Education Research Symposium: Wrong way go back: A wayfinding approach to evidence-based practice for sustainable school change.

The keynote was based in the current context in which schools are operating; one of relentless global uncertainty, disruption, and disunity. Teachers and school leaders are tasked with working towards change within schools that is meaningful, sustainable, and best serves the current and future needs of our students and communities. So I sought to draw theory and practice together to articulate how I approach school change that sticks, energises, engages critically with evidence, brings the community along, and improves education for the betterment of students.

My keynote explored the metaphor of wayfinding—a purposeful, directive process of determining and adjusting our route between an origin and a destination—as a framework for guiding evidence-based educators. This metaphor is one co-author Claire Golledge and I explored in our recent chapter ‘Wayfinding: Navigating multiple identities for sustainable school leadership’, in the book Future Alternatives for Educational Leadership: Diversity, Inclusion, Equity, and Democracy. While anchoring ourselves in where we are and what previous research can tell us gives us a starting point for our work in schools, change that is meaningful and sustainable needs to also engage in futures thinking and wayfinding practices so that we might navigate the complexities and tensions of the current education landscape.

This presentation provided insights into what it means to be an evidence-informed educator and the definitions, possibilities, and pitfalls of evidence-based practice in education. I recommended Gary Jones’ excellent, sense-making book Evidence-based school leadership and management: A practical guide. I explored how a wayfinding approach to evidence-based practice can allow educators to act with a balance of systematisation and responsiveness, drawing together research and evidence with practice, futures thinking, and deep knowledge of context.

It was wonderful to be part of a line-up of speakers including Christine Grice, Mark Rickinson, Connie Cirkony, Jenny Donovan, Mary Ryan, Pasi Sahlberg, Jim Tognolini and Amy Graham.

My slides are below.

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.

Teacher expertise, voice and action

On Monday night I participated in my first ever TeachMeet, held online and hosted by Steven Kolber. I used my 8 minute speaking slot to explore something I’m wondering about: to what extent is the COVID-19 pandemic strengthening or diminishing the teaching profession?

The video is here on YouTube, and I speak at the 1.33 mark. Below, I explore this wondering and its tangents.

*            *            *

Governments have tightened their control over citizens and over teachers and schools during the COVID-19 pandemic. Schools have been acted upon by new rules and a barrage of offers by technology companies for increased tracking, monitoring and surveillance.

The catch cry ‘We’re all in this together’ has been ubiquitous during this pandemic, but we are all experiencing the current reality in different ways. Those who are disadvantaged are more disadvantaged and at greater health, economic and educational risk during this time.

I am a teacher of over 20 years and a school leader, researcher, editor and author. The ripples of COVID-19 have brought into sharp focus just how important the work of teachers, school leaders and schools is, to individuals and to a functioning society.

I’ve never been prouder of my profession than this year when we have locally, nationally and globally addressed challenges unlike those I’ve seen during my career. It has been messy and uncomfortable at times, shining a spotlight on existing inequities and gaps, but teachers and school leaders around the world have worked tirelessly to do their best for their students and communities in constantly evolving circumstances and amid a swirling maelstrom of human complexities.

Expertise

Teachers are credible, professional experts. Teachers know what and how to teach. They are specialists in curriculum, in pedagogy and in their own students. During distance learning they may have been operating without the usual non-verbal cues they get in classrooms, and having to learn and experiment with new modalities, technologies and tools. During this period of upheaval and transformation, they remained experts in how to teach, generate evidence of student learning and provide constructive, often individualised, feedback.

There was a brief moment during the pandemic when teacher expertise was heralded and recognised  by the masses. Teachers were—momentarily—hailed as heroes and front line workers. The #teachersrock hashtag did the rounds on social media. The celebration of teachers was short lived, however, and we were soon back to hearing the tropes of schools failing students, teachers and parents at odds with one another, and teachers failing to live up to the expectations or the media and society at large.

In Australia, our Prime Minister said that the distance learning being provided by teachers was ‘child minding not teaching’. The Federal Minister for Education ordered all independent schools to ensure that they returned to face to face teaching. In my state, the Western Australian Premier said at a press conference that private school parents should ask for a reduction in fees if schools remained on distance learning plans when the state government had said that returning to schools was safe. A Western Australian principal was stood down after urging parents to keep children home because she was worried that the school would not be able to ensure hygiene and distancing requirements. She has been reinstated but it was reported that she had been ‘reminded of the limits of her authority’.

For the teaching profession, this public erosion of respect for teacher expertise is especially frustrating.

Voice

As I have written, particularly in Flip the System Australia, there is an absence of teacher voice in much formulation of policy, on advisory boards, and on media panels. Experts often speak for or about teachers. Sometimes, teachers are consulted, but rarely are teachers invited to the decision making or policy making table. Increasingly, teachers are invited onto media panels.

Teachers and school leaders operate in an environment of performance, constantly judged against—as co-presenter Ruth Smith said during the TeachMeet—by what can be measured rather than against what we might value. During this COVID-19 pandemic, the educational environment of performativity within which teachers and school leaders operate has shifted to alternate indicators of performance.

Parents and teachers continue to be pitted against each other, as adversaries rather than allies. Schools are judged on their social media posts about online learning, hygiene measures, virtual community events or wellbeing initiatives, rather than on standardised test scores. During periods of distance learning teachers were performing their work in front of parents and families, via screens that projected teaching into homes. Our normal measures of performance may have been disrupted, but education has remained a space of performance to be judged and commented on by others.

Voice is about value. Being heard. Having a say. Being an efficacious agent able to act and influence.

There are challenges to any call for teacher voice. There is the busy reality of the lives of teachers and school leaders. Time, vulnerability (risk to self) and ethics (risk to students) are all obstacles to teacher voice. We are representatives of our schools and have limitations to the extent to which we can be the public voice of our profession. We work with children and their families, entrusted to our care. Their stories are not ours to tell and our first mandate is to keep children safe. Our service is first and foremost to the students in our schools.

Action

The COVID-19 pandemic has increased teacher collaboration within schools and between schools, systems and countries. Teachers and school leaders have become more agentic decision makers in their own contexts, tasked more than ever with finding productive solutions to the challenges in their own schools. Grassroots teacher professional collaboration, job-embedded learning-as-we-go and anywhere-anytime professional resources have emerged as silver linings to the COVID crisis.

In schools, teachers can be consulted on decisions. Meaningful and honest feedback from all stakeholders can be used to inform decision making. Even better is ground-up change in which teachers collaborate around strategic and improvement goals.

Beyond schools, teachers can be offered seats on panels, advisory committees and at policy tables. Teachers can share their voices on social media, blogs, podcasts, and in books and research studies.

As Adam Brooks said at our Flip the System Australia Perth launch, as teachers and school leaders, ‘We are the system’. And as Reni Eddo-Lodge says, quoting Terry Pratchett in her book Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, ‘There’s no justice. Just us.’ Teachers and school leaders are the system, it’s ‘us’ that can change that system from the inside. We need to be the change we want to see.

We can ask ourselves:

  • When are we choosing to speak?
  • Whose voices are we amplifying, elevating and seeking out?
  • What productive, positive action could we take?

Transformational professional learning: What, why, how and what now?

ie_magazine_1_2020-1_page_2-e1587548290345.jpg

Below is the text of a piece I wrote late last year for the Independent Education magazine on transformational professional learning (Issue 1, Vol 50, 2020, pp.32-33).

I am sharing it here because now, more than ever, teachers and school leaders are changing our practice. This global crisis–and our experiences of emergency teaching, rethinking schooling, distance learning, pandemic pedagogy, redesigning or cancelling assessments, isolation, sickness, empathy and community–is changing what we do and how we do it. We are revisiting the basics such as ‘Maslow before Bloom’, explored here in our independent report on Thinking About Pedagogy in an Unfolding Pandemic (Doucet et al., 2020).

Ways in which professional learning is happening during this pandemic include:

  • Job-embedded ‘learning as we go’, trying, iterating and refining practice as we go.
  • Colleagues helping colleagues with planning, learning technologies, remote pedagogy, feedback strategies and ways of assessing.
  • Webinars offered by professional learning providers.
  • Schools, where possible, providing one-on-one, online, or telephone support from IT, either internally or from outside experts.
  • Social media platforms in which teachers, school and system leaders, and education organisations around the world are sharing resources, processes and learnings as they address education needs in this uncertain time.

Many may emerge from our current situation having also changed what we believe about teaching, learning, assessing and the purpose of school. As I note in the article, however:

“Teachers and school leaders won’t change practice unless they believe the outcomes for those in their care will be better.”

Are some of the things we are now implementing better for our students? Are we desperate to get back to our old ‘normal’, or are the things we are learning now enhancing equity, improving practice and helping us to make better decisions for students?

As I say in this previous blog post, in considering our ‘next normal’ we can ask ourselves the following questions.

  • What is it that we’ve desperately missed that we want to bring back in to schooling and education?
  • What is it that’s been removed that we don’t want to return to?

________________________________________

In 2019 my book—Transformational Professional Learning: Making a Difference in Schools—was published. The book weaves together what research literature says about professional learning, what my doctoral study found about professional learning, and the insights my own personal and professional experiences have provided about professional learning. This approach reflects my belief that we get the best outcomes in education when we consider research alongside context, lived experience and professional judgement. Education is, after all, a complex human endeavour, and the answer to the question ‘What works?’ is often ‘It depends’. As my co-editors and I suggest in Flip the System Australia: What Matters in Education, a better question might be: ‘What matters?’ or ‘What should matter?’ (Netolicky et al., 2019).

Professional learning matters because it is a key way for us to make education better, but the way we define, implement, engage in, and seek to determine the effectiveness of professional learning also matters.

In this article I outline the what, why, and how of transformational professional learning for teachers and school leaders. What is it? Why care about it? How do we do it?

What is transformational professional learning?

Many professional learning providers offer certified hours of professional learning. But—just as our students haven’t necessarily learned because we’ve taught something—attending a professional development course or event  does not automatically mean that meaningful learning has occurred. In fact, my doctoral research found that professional learning for educators is highly individualised. Those experiences that shape our beliefs and practices can be professional and personal, formal and informal, in and out of educational contexts, and singular and collaborative (Netolicky, 2016a, 2016b).

Transformational professional learning—learning that makes a difference in and for schools—as I define it, is “learning that shifts beliefs, and thereby behaviours, of professionals. It is tied to an individual’s personal and professional identity” (Netolicky, 2020, p.18).

My framing of transformational professional learning draws on the work of Professor Ellie Drago-Severson and Dr Jessica Blum-DeStefano (2018) who describe transformational learning as that which actively changes how a person knows through shifts in cognition, emotion, and capacity. This learning influences our ways of knowing as well as what we know. My definition also resonates with the work of Associate Professor Nicole Mockler (2013) who argues that teachers’ professional learning is deeply tied to who we are, not just what we do or how we do it.

Transformational professional learning acknowledges the complexity and humanity of teaching. Learning that transforms what we do needs to also shape who we think we are as teachers, and what we believe is in the best interests of our students. Teachers and school leaders won’t change practice unless they believe the outcomes for those in their care will be better.

Why transformational professional learning?

It is important that we in education care about and work towards incorporating transformational professional learning in the practice of systems, schools and individuals.

Part of the argument for a focus on professional learning is that teacher professional learning is positively correlated to improvement in student learning and achievement. Teachers learning and improving their knowledge and skills, it is argued, reaps dividends for students in those teachers’ classrooms.

Teachers are additionally required to undertake professional learning as part of their work. In Australia the minimum figure is twenty hours per year. Teachers are required to reflect on and be assessed against professional standards. In Australia, the sixth of seven standards is to ‘engage in professional learning.’

Wellbeing is also a consideration for professional learning. We need to ask the question: Is the professional learning undertaken adding to workloads, or empowering teachers and school leaders to be valued, autonomous professionals? Processes such as coaching and effective collaboration have the potential to enhance and support the wellbeing of teachers and school leaders.

So not only is professional learning a way to improve student outcomes, it is also a professional requirement and a potential tool for wellbeing.

How do we ‘do’ transformational professional learning?

As I say on the Teachers’ Education Review podcast in an interview with Cameron Malcher (2019), knowing what might work best in professional learning helps us to make better decisions. Being informed about what research suggests is most likely to be effective in shaping teacher beliefs and practices, can constructively influence what kinds of professional learning we invest in, and how we go about implementing those for positive results for students, teachers, schools and systems.

The best professional learning—that is, learning most likely to be transformational—comprises a balance of high support and high challenge. It is targeted and ongoing. It is differentiated for context, sector, circumstance and the individual.

In schools and systems, effective professional learning interventions are underpinned by shared vision and are implemented slowly, initially using volunteers, applying judicious measures of success and generating honest feedback from stakeholders to inform, iterate and refine the model for its specific context.

Those professional learning forms backed by research and practice include:

  • professional learning communities;
  • observation and reflection processes, such as lesson study and instructional rounds;
  • post-graduate study;
  • mentoring; and
  • coaching.

Daily collaboration between teachers within and between schools also fits the brief of collaborative, targeted, ongoing learning, as do long-term relationships between schools and consultants or academics.

Professional learning is one-size-fits-one, so not all transformational professional learning is collaborative or ongoing. Attending a course or conference can also provide an ‘a-ha’ moment for a teacher. Deeply positive or negative professional experiences can change our beliefs and behaviours. Personal experiences, too, such as becoming a parent or travelling, can shape professional identities and shift the ways in which we interact with students and their families.

As is the case for our students, enjoying ourselves or having a nice time does not equal learning. We can feel engaged and energised without learning occurring. We can be in a room with colleagues without effective collaboration actually happening. One thing I have learned as a school leader is to seek out dissenting views and seek to understand them. We need to be okay with discomfort and with respectful, robust disagreement if we are to transform our beliefs and practices for the benefit of our students and communities.

What now?

There is a danger that professional learning is driven by political, corporate or school improvement agendas. Rather than surrendering our professional judgement to those citing league tables, standardised tests or products for sale, we must reclaim professional learning for teachers and school leaders in ways that makes a difference for and with students.

While there is a place for evaluation, we need to focus our efforts on growth, not systems of rewards and punishments that seek to pit teachers and schools against one another. Rhetoric of teachers, schools or education systems ‘failing’, ‘coasting’, ‘flat lining’ and ‘falling behind’, based on oversimplified measures, is unhelpful and harmful. Schools benefit from designing their own measures of the success of professional learning interventions in their own context. Schools can ask: How might we know that conversations are more productive, that teachers are more knowledgeable about teaching strategies, or that the student experience at our school is shifting? Rather than relying on the measures imposed by others, schools can look for indicators of the successes to which they are aspiring, which might be relational, conversational and emotional, rather than numerical or easily quantified.

As I write in Transformational Professional Learning, we teachers and school leaders “are not objects that need professional learning done to us, or incomplete entities requiring development by external forces acting upon us. We are capable professionals who are willing and able to take responsibility for our learning” (2020, p.123). We are not technicians enacting unthinking compliance, but experts looking to grow and develop over time.

In the conclusion, I argue that we need to do the following:

  • Consider identity and humanity, because those in schools are human beings and teaching is complex;
  • Offer voice and choice, differentiating professional learning for staff at different career stages and with different strengths and aspirations;
  • Focus on context, culture, and relationships;
  • Enable collaboration that is rigorous, purposeful, and sometimes uncomfortable;
  • Broaden our definition of professional learning; and
  • Invest time, money, and resources into professional learning.

Professional learning should empower, enrich and sustain our profession, not undermine, stifle or demoralise it. So, let’s focus on building and refining cultures of trust, collaboration, and vibrant professional conversation. Let’s give teachers the space, time and resources to identify and improve their knowledge, skills and understandings. Let’s work towards being and becoming the best educators we can be, by simultaneously pursuing individual goals, organisational goals, and the greater good.

References

Drago-Severson, E., & Blum-DeStefano, J. (2018). Leading change together: Developing educator capacity within schools and systems. Alexandria: ASCD.

Malcher, C. (2019). 2019, 27 October. Teachers’ Education Review [Audio podcast]. ‘TER #141 – Transformational Professional Learning with Deborah Netolicky’ Retrieved from: https://soundcloud.com/ter-podcast/ter-141-transformational .

Mockler, N. (2013). Teacher professional learning in a neoliberal age: Audit, professionalism and identity. Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 38(10), 35-47.

Netolicky, D. M. (2020). Transformational professional learning: Making a difference in schools. Abingdon: Routledge.

Netolicky, D. M. (2016a). Down the rabbit hole: Professional identities, professional learning, and change in one Australian school (Doctoral dissertation, Murdoch University).

Netolicky, D. M. (2016b). Rethinking professional learning for teachers and school leaders. Journal of professional capital and community, 1(4), 270-285.

Netolicky, D. M., Andrews, J., & Paterson, C. (Eds.). (2019). Flip the System Australia: What Matters in Education. Abingdon: Routledge.

Distance Learning: Day 1

with my Madonna headset about to run a live video meeting with Year 12 Literature

In recent days, the Australian Prime Minister indicated that schools in Australia will remain open. On Sunday 22 March his announcement was as follows.

“Schools will remain open through to the end of the current school terms to support students whose parents choose to send their children to school. Victoria’s school break will commence on Tuesday 24 March 2020.

If parents choose to keep their children home from school, parents must be responsible for the conduct of the children and to ensure they adhere to the social distancing arrangements in place.

Schools will be encouraged to provide access to online and distance learning.”

This statement seems to suggest that Australian teachers are expected to provide face-to-face teaching to those students at school, and also online and distance learning for those students staying at home. It is not a workable solution to ask teachers to provide, simultaneously, both in-school and distance learning models. The only viable option that came to my mind was to provide one model–a distance learning model–with which all students can engage at home or at school.

Then yesterday the commission that governs my school and a range of others made a decision: to urge parents to keep children at home, if they can, from today, and to transition to a distance learning model over the next few days. As a result, today my Western Australian school launched (a transition to) our Distance Learning Plan.

So, how did it go?

Here are my end-of-day reflections.

As this is not a government-directed school closure, staff are continuing to work from school, which remains open for staff and for those students whose parents need them to be at school. Continuing to work from school means that staff have access to resources, the school network, the IT department, a Microsoft remote learning expert we currently have on campus to help staff with just-in-time professional learning, and one another. Helping each other through this first day has been a real bonus in terms of morale and collaboration.

A small percentage of students turned up to school and were supervised by staff on a roster as they engaged in the distance learning model. This allowed most staff to enact distance learning in empty classrooms or their offices. Students on site expressed that the feeling of a near-empty school was ‘weird’ but that it was also calm and positive. Students at school were taken out for some physical activity and were able to space out at break times. Reduced numbers of students meant that physical distancing could be practised according to the government’s guidelines.

Students showed their adaptability as they began learning from home. As well as following their teacher’s instructions and their parents’ guidance, some students took their learning into their own hands, showing initiative and collaboration. For example, a group of primary students started their own live video meeting in order to work through their spelling activities. Students used the functions of Teams and OneNote to answer each other’s questions. Some of my Year 12s told me that they had been much more productive at home than they normally are at school. Parents sent in photos of their children engaged in at-home learning.

Teachers launched into our Distance Learning Plan, communicating with students and parents, setting the work for the day, creating content, rethinking assessments and checking in with students through Microsoft Teams. Even though we have been planning for this, a sudden pivot to distance learning meant teachers confronting change head on and being ok with the risk of ‘getting it wrong’. It meant troubleshooting technology. It meant finding ways to humanise the distance learning experience. It meant colleagues helping each other, students helping each other, and students and colleagues helping one another, in a variety of in-person and online ways.

One teacher told me that moving to purely distance learning was like becoming a parent:

“You’re never really ready until it happens, and then you figure it out as you go along.”

I have previously blogged some considerations for planning for distance learning and my message to our teachers this morning was this:

“We haven’t done this before and will be learning as we go, but my tips are:

  • Do your best with what you know and can do. This isn’t like ‘normal’ school and it isn’t going to mirror ‘teaching as usual’. Students will struggle with technology and motivation, as might we!
  • Keep it simple. Start with the learning intentions and find efficiencies. Not every lesson needs to be video, live, technology-based or amazing.
  • Trust your professional judgement. You know yourselves, your subject and your students. Do what works.
  • Be kind to yourself and others. This is distance learning during a global pandemic. It is continuing our students’ education while in the midst of a major health, societal and economic crisis. There will be a multiplicity of very real challenges for students, teachers and parents during this time. Reach out for help if you need it.”

I am grateful to be part of: a school and system acting with the health, safety and wellbeing of its community in mind; a staff who are working incredibly hard and with acrobatic agility and positivity in a constantly changing professional environment; and a community of students and families who are engaging with these changing circumstances in optimistic and open ways.

Thank you to all those educators around the country and the world sharing their resources and experiences. The education hive mind is alive and well. We’re in this together and we’re better together. Stay safe.

COVID-19 forces educational and societal reform

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The last couple of weeks have been hectic around the world and the pace of change at all levels has been rapid and relentless. In Australian schools, leadership teams and teachers have been preparing for distance learning. Parents have been making decisions about whether or not to send their children to school. Worry in households and panic in shopping centres have reached climactic levels. School leaders are doing their best to remain calm and methodical while preparing their schools for what seems like imminent closure in the near future.

It is surreal to watch corporate and education reform happen at such a rapid rate. We are reforming the workplace and rethinking how we go about our work. We are reimagining how we interact and collaborate. We are reframing education and redesigning schooling on the fly.

Those who have been calling for the abolition of standardised tests and the rethinking of university entrance are seeing education systems transform before their eyes. The COVID-19 pandemic has meant the cancelling of standardised tests (GCSEs and A-Levels in the UK; NAPLAN in Australia so far) and the consequent abolishing of league tables derived from these tests. Those who have been calling for the end of traditional schooling are seeing the swift move to remote learning and the upskilling of teachers in learning technologies and online platforms.

Australian teachers and school leaders, whose jobs are already incredibly complex, are supporting increasingly anxious students and parents. They are communicating work to students who are not coming to school. They are preparing for a move to teaching remotely. They are considering how learning might look different, authentic and meaningful when done from home. They are considering issues of equity and access for their communities. They are worrying about their own children, parents, families, livelihood, groceries.

Educators are collaborating within schools, they are collaborating with other schools. They are sharing their distance learning plans and teaching resources, because as a profession and as a society, we are better together.

We are one society, one humanity. All of our jobs and job descriptions are now in flux. What does our workplace, our clientele, our society need now, at this moment in time? Grounded flight attendants stocking supermarket shelves? Military personnel assisting surgical-mask-producing and toilet-paper-manufacturing facilities? Consultants training teachers to use online technologies? Office staff filling bottles with hand sanitiser and disinfecting workplace surfaces? All of us rearranging furniture and staying at a distance from one another?

We are needed in new ways, and there is an almost wartime redeployment of labour and a need for banding together as whole workplaces, as a whole society and as a whole world.

This is a time for us all to think about what leadership means, regardless of title or position. We can reach out (from a physical distance) to others and support one another as best we can, even though isolation feels like it goes against our biology. We can consider carefully where we get our information, and how we respond to that information. We can all lead by example, by clear communication with one another, and by clarity of purpose and cohesiveness of action.

During the current crisis, Canadians began a ‘caremongering not scaremongering’ campaign. This week is Kindness Week, a week to think about how we move beyond fear and individualism to compassion and courage. Australia has not yet seen the full force of COVID-19 and its real, human ramifications. There is no more important time to be kind to ourselves and each other than right now. We are in a time of adaptation and evolution, by necessity. When we come out the other side, society, work and education may be reformed for good.

Planning for distance learning in the event of school closure – COVID-19

Source: @bzak on pixabay

School closures have yet to happen in my Australian city of Perth, but in my role as Head of Teaching and Learning at a K-12 school with over 1700 students, I have been involved in planning for what we will do in the event of a closure due to COVID-19.

This article by Tomas Pueyo shows why social distancing is so important for flattening the curve of how quickly a virus like COVID-19 can move through a community. School closures are part of the social distancing manoeuvre.

In this post I share some of my thinking around what schools might consider in the face of a school closure, in the hope that it contributes to the global conversation or is helpful to others.

‘Distance learning’ or ‘remote learning’, rather than ‘online learning’

Effective and meaningful learning can take many forms. Walking through classrooms in any school will reveal that teaching and learning is diverse. Learning environments vary. Technologies are leveraged in a variety of ways. Across the teaching of a course, learning will look different, as teachers move through the explicit instruction of content, facilitating of robust discussion, questioning, one-on-one feedback, small group tutorials and a multitude of other pedagogies.

Learning remotely, or at a distance from school, can also happen in many ways. While technology plays an important part in distance learning, it is not the only tool and it is not always the most appropriate platform for student learning. Learning at a distance from school does not mean being constantly online, staring at a screen for six hours each day.

Consider all stakeholders

In planning for distance learning, we can be clear about:

  • What teachers will (and will not) provide;
  • How students might engage in their learning; and
  • How parents can support their children’s learning during a school closure situation.

Teachers can and should continue to provide appropriate communication, materials, learning activities, teaching resources and feedback to students.

School closure can be an opportunity for students to develop independent work habits as autonomous learners, but prolonged school closures may result in students struggling to maintain motivation and complete set work. This is a good guide for senior students on how to be effective remote learners. Students can also be encouraged to incorporate physical activity and mindfulness into their day.

Parents can help their children to establish a routine, for instance by using the normal school day as a guide. They can help to establish an appropriate space where children can do their learning at home (quiet, comfortable, resources, and without distractions such as smartphones). The age and independence of the child will determine how much checking in or assistance they need with their learning.

Learning tools and strategies that are ‘fit for purpose’

There is no one-size-fits-all in distance learning. There is a great variety of subjects with varying needs. Some are easily translated into online or at-home environments. Others, such as those subjects with a large practical component (e.g. Physical Education, the Arts or Home Economics) or that require specialised equipment (such as Woodwork, Media or Science practicals), are not so easily replicated outside of the physical grounds of the school. Different subjects and age groups require different approaches to distance learning.

Teachers will know their students’ capacities for technologies and are able to design learning experiences that harness those tools with which students are familiar. Teachers should be trusted and empowered to deploy appropriate delivery of content and learning activities, utilising tools that are fit for purpose and relevant to the subject, content and skills being learned, as well as to the age and stage of students.

A blend of synchronous and asynchronous learning

Distance learning can involve a combination of synchronous (live learning in which students learn with the teacher at the same time) and asynchronous (students learning independently at different times). This edublogger post provides a useful outline and ideas for structuring distance learning.

Some schools during closures have been running identical timetables in which students and teachers ‘arrive’ at online spaces for each class, in its regularly scheduled time. This synchronous approach is one way to go, but it may mean students spending large amounts of time at a computer screen, and teachers giving lessons in didactic, one-dimensional ways.

Distance learning doesn’t have to mirror learning as it normally does in school. In fact, trying to replicate the pace and type of work that would be done at school is unrealistic. Trusting teachers to plan appropriate work for their classes allows them to select how students might best use the home environment and available tools to maintain the continuity of learning during a school closure, with realistic expectations.

There are great video conferencing tools such as Zoom and Teams, and effective collaborative spaces in various Learning Management Systems (such as SEQTA, Schoolbox, Canvas and Blackboard). The Office 365 suite offers opportunities for feedback, collaboration and communication, such as through Class OneNote, Teams and Seesaw.

‘Flipping’ the classroom through video content that can be re-watched by students and later used for revision is one option. For younger year groups, spelling words, handwriting books, mathematics games and exercises, physical activity challenges, inquiry projects and learning apps can be communicated home, with recommendations for how the day can be spent, in order for children to continue their learning.

Consider infrastructure and equity

Designing a distance learning plan means thinking through the required hardware, software and training of staff and students. It also means considering equity and access. Schools will vary by the demographic and by existing technology resources and practices.

Do students have their own devices and power supply for home use? Do they have access to paper, stationary, and a printer? Do students and staff have sufficient internet access and bandwidth at home for the planned learning? Are the intended technology tools accessible remotely via a web browser or a Cloud-based app?

Some schools are running trial mornings before the event of a closure to test technologies and systems.

Communication is queen

Proactive, regular communication is key in uncertain times. This goes for government officials as well as for school and system leaders.

It may not be ‘business as usual’, but we can let our students, staff and families know that planning is in hand, and keep them informed with updates about what is happening and how they might be affected.

Consider wellbeing

Social distancing means isolation from others. It may mean being away not only from the relational spaces of schools, but from friends and family, and from places like gyms, cafes and sporting clubs that are a part of normal routine.

School closure can add pressure to parents and workload to teachers. It can lead to students feeling anxious, perhaps especially those who are in their final year of schooling, preparing for examinations.

In these situations, we all do our best with the emotional, cognitive, financial, technological and physical resources available. Hopefully, this is an opportunity to think about teaching and learning a little differently, to see how we might be efficient and innovative by necessity.

We can be kind to ourselves and each other, and support each other with optimism, care and togetherness, even at a distance.

What matters in teaching and learning?

Teaching is incredibly complex. Source: FreeCreativeStuff pixabay

In this blog post I explore my thinking around what matters in teaching and learning. It is by no means an exhaustive list, but part of a wider conversation.

The student matters.

Students are our common purpose in teaching and learning; our who and our why; the core of our work. Not just ‘students’ plural, but each and every student (with their idiosyncrasies, circumstances, attitudes, abilities and identities).

The decisions we make from the classroom to the board room in schools should all come back to the student. Ultimately in education, we are in their service.

The teacher matters.

The teacher and their classroom practice can make a difference to student learning and achievement. Within schools, the quality of teachers’ teaching is the most influential school-based variable in terms of improving student learning and achievement. (Although more influential than what is within a school’s sphere of influence are students’ attitudes and abilities, socioeconomic context, parents’ education and peers.)

Knowledge matters.

In Australia, knowledge is central to one of our professional standards: ‘Teachers know content and how to teach it.’ Focusing on preparing students for their future pathways, and on character, skills and capabilities, doesn’t mean ignoring knowledge.

Australian Chief Scientist, Alan Fink, has spoken about teachers as trained experts who have a “fundamental duty to teach students content: concepts, facts and principles.” He adds that specialist knowledge is needed:

“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.’”

Cognitive load theory posits that the human working memory cannot process many new elements at any one time, but the human brain can process very large amounts of stored information. What this tells teachers is that we need to help students to bank knowledge in their long term memory, so that they can use their working memory to learn new things or do higher order thinking. For example, knowing things like times tables or phonics with automaticity and fluency leaves room in the working memory to be able to focus on more sophisticated aspects of problems or language.

Dylan Wiliam, in his book Creating the schools our children need: Why what we’re doing now won’t help much (and what we can do instead), points to long-term memory, arguing that:

“what our students need is more to think with. The main purpose of curriculum is to build up the content of long-term memory so that when students are asked to think, they are able to think in more powerful ways.” (2018, p.134)

Critical thinkers need knowledge on which to build, and creators need to know the foundations on which they are innovating.

Pedagogy matters

How we teach also matters. In schools we should be asking ourselves:

  • How do we decide which teaching strategies to deploy?
  • On what evidence do we base our decisions?
  • How do we know what is likely to be in the best interests of the student?

In a previous blog post I outline what research literature indicates about what effective teachers do. They:

  • Purposefully design learning opportunities;
  • Diagnose student progress to inform both teaching and learning;
  • Fight for their students’ learning;
  • Personalise learning for students;  and
  • Provide meaningful and appropriate feedback.

Barak Rosenshine’s principles of instruction give one list of teaching strategies likely to be effective:

  • Review previous learning.
  • Provide new material in small steps with student practice after each step.
  • Limit the amount of material students receive at one time.
  • Give clear and detailed instructions and explanations.
  • Ask good questions and check the responses of all students.
  • Provide models, exemplars and worked examples.
  • Guide student practice.
  • Check for student understanding.
  • Help students obtain a high success rate.
  • Provide scaffolds for difficult tasks.
  • Require and monitor independent practice.
  • Provide timely, systematic feedback.
  • Engage students in regular review of their learning and self-assessment.

In my own classroom, I ask myself:

  • Who is doing the thinking in our classrooms?
  • Who is working harder: teacher or student?

These questions are anchors that help me to consider my pedagogy in ways that empower and expect students to be doing the cognitive work.

But knowledge and teaching are not all that matters in teaching and learning. >>>

Relationships matter.

Relationships are also at the heart of learning.

In Australia one of our professional standards states that “Teachers know their students well.” Steve Biddulph says that “boys learn teachers not subjects.” An oft-quoted line, attributed to a number of people such as Carl Buehner and Maya Angelou, resonates with teachers and the student experience of teaching:

“People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

When I threw the question ‘What matters in teaching and learning’ out to Twitter last night, I received more than 70 replies in 24 hours. Many of these tweets centred around relationships (student-teacher, but also staff and families). Cameron Paterson pointed me towards this video of Rita Pierson’s TED talk in which she says “kids don’t learn from people they don’t like” and “seeks first to understand rather than to be understood.” You can read what Twitter had to say in the thread here.

I like to think about the concept, from psychology, of a ‘holding environment’ in which members of the community or organisation feel ‘held’ in a culture of high support and high challenge. How students feel and relate in our school and classroom matters. They need psychological safety.

Identity and belonging matter.

Like relationships, students need a sense of belonging and of being seen for who they are.

We can consider:

  • Who are our learners now, and who do they and we want them to become?
  • To what extent do our students feel and see themselves belonging in our school community?

Context matters.

Research can only tell us what has worked in particular situations. It doesn’t tell us what to do or what might work for our students. Research  can, however, help us to make better decisions about how best to serve our students.

Those teachers within a classroom and leaders within a school know their students and community. Those working with students and families each day are the people best placed to serve them.

Culture matters.

Cultures of trust and empathy are key to schools that are able to support the learning and wellbeing of their students and staff. Those cultures can be academic, pastoral, professional and community cultures.

We can ask:

  • How do we collectively approach teaching, learning and pastoral matters?
  • What are our students’ work habits and attitudes to school and learning?
  • How engaged are our families in student learning?
  • How well do we work together as a staff?

And we can work on culture as a foundation stone of the teaching and learning work we do.

Engagement matters.

Knowledge and skills are central to student learning, but we also want students to be lifelong learners who are curious and driven to learn and to solve problems.

  • How do we enhance student motivation and excitement about learning?
  • How do we facilitate learning that matters to students?

Finally, our moral purpose matters.

I recently heard Michael Fullan saying that it is today’s students who will change the world for the better, partly because of their education, and partly because of the anxiety and alarm they feel about the state of the world, that is propelling them towards being agents of positive change.

In 1947 Martin Luther King Junior wrote that:

“Education must enable one to sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, and the facts from the fiction. The function of education, therefore, is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. But education which stops with efficiency may prove the greatest menace to society. The most dangerous criminal may be the man gifted with reason, but with no morals.”

Teachers and school leaders have a moral obligation to our students. We can consider our own moral purpose, and how we help students to develop character and their own moral compass and purpose.

  • How do we facilitate students as lifelong learners, ethical active citizens and empathetic constructive problem seekers and solvers?
  • How can and do we support students to contribute to a world that’s worth living in?

Asking ‘What matters?’, matters.

In our edited book, Flip the System Australia, my co-editors and I chose the subtitle: What Matters in Education. The book looked beyond a ‘what works’ agenda and asked (and in some ways proposed hopeful possible answers to) questions of what matters, what should matter, and how we can focus our education systems on equity, democracy and inclusion.

Teaching is difficult, complex, human, relational work. So much matters, but if we keep the student at the centre of our thinking, we’re off to a good start.