What is a 21st Century teacher?

Sydney Ideas: What is a teacher in the 21st century
and what does a 21st century teacher need to know?

An evening lecture with Professor Ian Menter,

Vice-President, British Educational Research Association
Emeritus Professor of Teacher Education, University of Oxford

These are my reflections. Any mistakes in quotation, interpretation or basic logic are mine.

Should teachers be researchers? Should there be stronger relationships between researchers and teachers? Who should instigate and maintain the relationship? Who makes the decisions about practice? A teacher in the 21st century is bombarded with a range of views from those founded in deep research through to the superficial “quick fixes” sold to teachers that have little ongoing impact on their students’ learning. Even when the research is deep and ongoing, there are contradictions and debates such that a practitioner who is keen to apply research findings to their practice may only ever be standing on shifting plates of academic discourse.

Research and researchers are often seen as ‘the other’ in the education world by classroom teachers, sometimes even outside of the education world itself. The daily experience of a researcher (or consultant, or even non-teaching school executive) being often so very different from that of a classroom teacher, there is at the very least a perception of a gap in understanding of the core purpose and function of a teacher.

Sometimes, unless teachers take a step into a postgraduate degree or high-level professional learning experience conducted by a tertiary institution, teachers may go through their entire career only ever being the passive receiver of filtered research-based advice from a lone visitor to the school or perhaps by stealth through a charismatic presenter who has done the research themselves.

It is rare that classroom teachers initiate, conduct, endorse and publish the research on which teaching practice is assessed by the wider community. The general feeling – based on the many discussions I have had with colleagues on this topic both in Australia and overseas – is that time is of the essence, and often our best intentions are pushed aside by immediate demands of our contexts.

And so it was that the relationship between teachers and research was explored by Professor Ian Menter, visiting the University of Sydney as part of the Sydney Ideas lecture series. Seeding his lecture with historical precedents of prominent – and mostly female – educators of the previous 150 years certainly appealed to someone who is a passionate History teacher. It served as a solid reminder that despite the rapid and rabid arguments over everything from global education inititatives through to micro-level interventions in a precise moment of a learner’s life, we have been debating the merits of almost every facet of education for a very long time.

It’s impossible for me to condense his message into a few dot points, but I did want to focus on one or two particular aspects of his talk.

The first is his assertion that there are four paradigms of teaching:

The paradigms of teaching by Ian Menter

The paradigms of teaching by Ian Menter

These terms or perspectives are formed through a research lens, suggesting those attributes that will assist a teacher in harnessing research to inform practice. I would like to have seen more exploration of the practical implications of this, and worked examples of this in practice. On the surface, these attributes align somewhat with the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers. Thinking practically, there is no sense of impact in these attributes – they end once the teacher can demonstrate the capacity to do things rather than going the extra step and executing the reflection/inquiry/transformative understandings into practice.

As mentioned above, I’m sure a deeper exploration of these paradigms would have brought these ideas to the fore. Though from a learner’s point of view, it might seem as if a teacher could be wholly transformative on paper, in their own mind and within the staffroom, but never actually affect changes to curriculum and pedagogy.

This is where Professor Menter’s conclusions come into play. He had two which he stressed at the end of his talk:

  1. That teachers should be research literate (not necessarily researchers in an academic sense i.e. requiring a research degree or majority focus on research on/about practice)
  2. That teachers need the time and space to engage with these modes of thinking, research and adaptive practice

Teachers are the praxis of research (theory and evidence) and practice. They are the ones that affect the learning lives of students. I agree wholeheartedly that teachers should be research literate, but only so as to have the best impact we can as appropriate for our context. These contexts shifts day to day and sometimes minute to minute. The teaching day is very rarely neat and orderly. Students and teachers alike walk into a room carrying with them their immediate concerns, motivations, ambitions and attitudes and this may be in complete contrast to the lesson plan. Should we, as some researchers would have us do, ignore that and push on with the most effective strategies as dictated by The Research? Or is it more important for the teacher to be aware of, to be able to, to be adaptable in deploying a new mixture of approach(es) that suit the situation in front of them? This is not something that can be taught through reading papers and attending lectures. It is something borne out of human interactions and the building of experiences.

Research only touches students through the voice, thought and action of practitioners. So whilst a 21st century teacher should indeed be aware of the most relevant research (often via a third party translation), it is just as important for teachers to have the time to learn about and learn to apply, in context, what it is that The Research indicates might work. It is therefore the responsibility for the researchers to communicate in a way that makes sense to teachers, as much as it is the responsibility of teachers to try and absorb the conclusions of The Research for the best learning outcomes of their students. Therefore, I would also argue that part of research literacy is the ability for teachers to reject research that is not conclusive, or out of date, or simply not relevant.

All of this requires time. This elusive and essential resource is depressingly absent from the days of the teacher in the 21st century. It is therefore essential that we find ways to give teachers time, as expensive and hard to measure as they may be. This is the only way to harness the growing body of understanding we call The Research.

I hope we can value teachers in the 21st century enough to give them the time, remuneration, trust and public respect to add this dimension to their work.

Here’s the challenge: which school or system will adopt as standard practice a model of professional learning which allows teachers 20% of their “face to face” time (not an extra burden) to be spend face-to-face with researchers, their colleagues or their students and wider school community to pursue truly transformative practice? It will require bravery, innovative thinking and a sustained effort.

Some sparks of examples are out there, but I’d love to hear if it has been more than just a fleeting project, susceptible to the whims of a leader, distraction of other priorities or the instability of funding.

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When did you become a teacher?

Image from page 296 of "The natural history of plants, their forms, growth, reproduction, and distribution;" (1902)

There is quite a bit of talk, research and debate about teacher professional growth. Whether it’s in regards to what types of training a young proto-teacher should undergo, or what induction experience they should have upon entering a school, or how many hours of “learning” (PD) they should have to undergo once they land a job, the discussion often – painfully often – boils down to: how much will it cost?

Let’s explore that for a minute. In Australia, it costs around $40,000 to train a new teacher for the four years of initial teacher education. If 30-50% of teachers leave the workforce in the first 5 years, that is not inherently a bad thing. Do we a) want people continuing to study along a path that is actually not suited to them? and b) want people staying in schools who do not want to be there? Also, universities have only recently become job factories. They are primarily a place of learning. Some people drop out, some go on to do further postgraduate study. The “degree then job” approach (tied to funding arrangements for university places) has both determined a “bums on seats” mindset at universities. What happened to stumbling your way through a few challenging courses and working out what you want to be (at least for now) while you are at uni rather than before you begin?

Aside from this, and all the other studies and articles and debates into teacher professionalism and professional learning, is the simple fact that we start learning how to be a teacher before we sit final high school exams and choose our university options.

We start learning how to be a teacher as soon as we experience teaching itself: As students. For better or worse, almost every teacher I talk to determined their path to teaching primarily on the experience of having a great (or terrible) teacher in their school life or indeed having teachers in the family. Very few people in teaching were inspired by an ordinary or boring school experience. Those people become accountants or lawyers (nothing wrong with them – they just don’t become teachers.)

We mimic and aspire to be teachers based on our own experiences. Or, we seek to create ourselves in an alternate vision if our drive comes from bad experiences. Very few people would choose to go into teaching from a vacuum.

So, if our students and future colleagues are watching us teach and soaking up all our little sayings and approaches and strategies, how are we to make sure that experience is as positive and impactful as possible? This will be different in every school and every classroom. It will depend on school leadership, individual teacher approach and many other factors. It will even depend on post code.

We need to remember that our future colleagues are in our classrooms right now. Becoming a teacher begins before we graduate high school. It is not a solitary experience nor is it something we can do on ourselves effectively. It takes a time-travelling village to raise a teacher.

Perhaps it’s time to meaningfully include students in our teaching. Perhaps it’s time to blur the lines in a systematic way. If only for the reason that before we know it, they’ll be teaching along side us anyway.

When did you become a teacher?


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Let’s celebrate edu-success this year

The first week has passed. Students in awkwardly fitting uniforms and teachers with awkwardly fitting sleep patterns returned to school around Australia. Smiles and nerves and even a bit of learning: the first week is a time to begin building relationships or, at the very least, work out where your classroom is.

There is so much to digest during this week, even if teachers do get some time to plan and meet and get prepared. Timetables, laptops, class lists, new platforms and procedures, Child Protection training and/or CPR and First Aid, team meetings and curriculum mapping… there’s a lot to do even before a child enters the school gates. As we deal with all the operational issues to do with running schools effectively and establishing a sound base from which learning can happen, we can’t forget that teachers do amazing things daily. Some are truly outstanding people.

I’m not saying that an outstanding teacher needs to arrive two hours before the bell and leave 2 hours afterwards. It’s not about time alone. I’m not saying it’s the teacher who coaches three sport teams and volunteers for teacher associations and [insert other possible activities here]. I’m talking about the teacher who commits to do the best they can for their students with the resources they have available. The teacher who cares enough to include students in the process of learning. The teacher who knows enough about their student to tailor the classroom experience as much as possible to the people.

And who decides what is ‘outstanding’ or ‘standard’ or ‘sub-par’ anyway? Often it is people or protocols that are external to the context. To me, it should be our professional peers who inform those assessments. Despite our differences of opinion on so many issues, like most other professions we should be able to stand together and make clear, critical evaluations of our work. Not for punitive reasons, but in fact the opposite. We should celebrate success in whatever form it takes. If you baulk at the idea of teachers self-evaluating, perhaps first apply the same thinking to doctors, lawyers, real estate agents and financial advisers, all of whom currently do so.

Australian journalist and author Julia Baird (@bairdjulia) wrote in the Age this week about her feeling of delight in her friend’s good fortune – her freudenfreude – when she was announced as Local Hero of the Year in the Australian of the Year awards. In teaching, we are often quick to criticise and point out perceived deficiencies in the system or indeed each other. We can’t afford to do this too much. With young and early-career teachers leaving the profession in the first 5 years in higher numbers, with increasing retirements of baby boomer teachers taking their experience with them, with increasing pressures and demands on teachers with more and more layers and types of accountability, we need to make ourselves delight in each others’ success.

We need to actively support teachers when they make progress with difficult students (who are often ‘difficult’ because of factors out of their control). We need to praise teachers for the hard work they do (which is often seen as ‘part of the job’ by the teacher as the bubble of expectation grows). We need to have conversations with parents and students about their goals and aspirations and give support to teachers in helping to achieve them (Gonski funding comes to mind).

So much of teaching is about empathy and connection. We sometimes forget that although we expect superhuman efforts from our teachers, they don’t wear a cape and it takes a lot less than Kryptonite to seriously harm their self-efficacy.

Most importantly, we need to trust teachers to be professional until they prove they aren’t. In my experience, we will rarely be disappointed.

Let’s have freudenfreude sweep through the profession so that not only do we stop the increasing flow of talented teachers leaving but also so that teachers can stand tall and say: I am a professional and I can help your child achieve their dreams.

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Balance: an impossible goal?

Balance. It was the word I chose to indicate my overarching goal for 2016. Here’s what Google says are two definitions of the noun and verb forms of ‘balance’:

Google definition result for BALANCE.

Google definition result for BALANCE.

So which option to choose? (don’t you love language – pick the meaning you like!) I like the idea of noun no. 2 – that different elements should be equal or in their correct proportions – though in teaching these proportions are often different between schools and even on either side of the same classroom wall. So let’s say I prefer number 2 with a twist. The differences can be so pronounced that you have to unlearn everything you gained at university and learn on the job in a very real and immediate way. Therefore I don’t think the different elements need to be ‘equal’ but certainly in the proportion that is correct to the context.

I worry about the verbs actually. One refers to failure avoidance, the other to compare values of two things. So let’s stick with noun no.2 with a twist.

2016 holds three major changes for me:

  1. my first child
  2. a new job, & one outside of a teaching role
  3. running a new venture as co-founder and Chief Learning Officer for ELLA http://www.ellaapp.co

The first will surely be the most dramatic, rewarding and life-changing. I can’t wait for this little addition to our family. I know it will challenge me in ways I can’t even begin to imagine. Being an uncle to three amazing kids has given me a preview but (as everyone reassures me) this is nothing like the having your own.

The second will allow me to explore and learn about professional learning from a position where I can directly support teachers in achieving their goals. I’ll miss interacting with the amazing minds and personalities of the kids in school but I hope that interacting with the minds and personalities of big people will be just as stimulating.

The third is a whole other dimension of my life experience that will stretch my skills, broaden my understanding of the world beyond education but also allow me the chance to contribute something positive into an education world that is often bombarded from the outside by people who think they know best. It’s very rare that educators are leading the development of new technologies, let alone consulted meaningfully in the design process.

What I will be interested to see is how the balance shifts and changes as the demands of each change (with no. 1 always taking priority if things clash.) I hope to be a good father, a good co-worker and a decent startup founder. I believe I can do all three if I keep focused on what matters.

Some might say that I need to focus on my job. I’ve never NOT focused on my job. But it’s also a job, not my entire life. At times it gets busy and seems to take priority, but it’s always a job and therefore not as important as other things.

Some say I need to give up everything and focus only on the startup. I disagree. What keeps me valuable is that I have a meaningful relationship with other educators. Every step I take away from the daily world of education is one step into irrelevance for the very idea we’re trying to develop.

If I’ve learned anything from reading about successful educators as well as successful business people, it’s this: they forge their own paths rather than walking the ones laid out by others.

Balance may be an aspirational goal but it’s something I’ll strive to achieve.

And a few hours sleep.

Have a great week!


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The end of teaching

The Cliffs of Emerald Isle IMAGE: The Cliffs of Emerald Isle by Zach Frailey

Much has been said about the death of content, the apocalypse of knowing, the end of teaching. There is, let’s be honest, a lot of smugness coming from the techerati (myself included) that technology will mean that students begin to reject school completely and forge their own paths in learning. Even whole education systems are starting to adopt online, self-paced learning as a legitimate means of progressing through curriculum stages. Unfortunately, a lot of it is not designed with the user in mind (Assassin’s Creed on XBox One is a lot more appealing than Ed Solution Company X new but clunky learning management system). Even professional learning is mainly delivered in a manner that causes teachers to question their choice of career rather than confirm it.

Students are being bombarded with new initiatives, reforms, opportunities and possibilities. Schools are given new platforms and tools to do what they do faster and more easily (making the roll online – woohoo!). Systems roll out new accountability programs which are clearly built for the robustness of the system, not the productive use of time by the user (often an over worked deputy or principal who really doesn’t have time to sit on the phone working through bugs).

The explosion of technology and its adoption by schools has, for many, spelt the end of a once proud tradition of teaching. It signals a “deprofessionalisation” where teachers are reduced to a body in the room, a glorified babysitter (though not as well paid, per child), while the only sound is the tapping of keyboards and the only light is the glow of screen on face.

I propose instead that teachers actually have the opportunity to lead the conversation about what teaching is and should be, for the first time in a long time. We are generating so much data about what we do and how we do it (often publically through channels like blogs or teachmeets). If we can harness this data to make better decisions within our own context, we’ll rapidly accelerate our ability to adapt to changing needs.

Governments will always seek to tell us what they want us to do. Academics will always release papers to indicate what we should be teaching and how. Parents and other stakeholders will always have strong views on what’s best for their children. Our role as educators should be to contextualise the vast ocean of knowledge and opinion and filter and apply the relevant information for those in our charge. This takes a lot of skill, a lot of nuance and a lot of courage.

Ours is a world where more students than ever will go on to university, but fewer than ever will find their qualification guarantees them a job. It’s a world where there are just as many entrepreneurs globally as there are people who are unemployed. It’s a world where economic butterfly effects from one side of the earth to the other are the norm and almost instantaneous in their impact. (100 years ago, you had a few days or even weeks to prepare for the onset of a recession or depression. Not so today!) But it is also a world of outstanding opportunity for teachers: to shrug off the approaches and structures that we used to need and don a new kit for the needs of the future.

There will always be a need for a leading learner to guide and support an apprentice. Whether 1:1 or 1:1000, the qualities of a great teacher (creativity, empathy, passion, and so very much more) will always be needed by those who learn. We need to recognise this, remunerate this and deeply appreciate it so that we don’t lose it.

The end of teaching? No. We’re just evolving. And we need to do so together.

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Starting up in 2016

It’s been a long while since my last post.

Since late September, I’ve been on leave from my school to avoid burnout and to explore the potential of an idea to help teachers deal with the new pressures and expectations around professional learning.

So I guess it has been a little ironic that I’ve been quite busy in my “break” from school. I’ve probably had more meetings than ever in a similar time frame, travelled to BETT Asia in Singapore, built an app (well, web-based platform) called ELLA, and even managed to get into a startup accelerator to boost how rapidly we can get it into the hands of teachers. I’ve also had the chance to chat to more educators, thinkers and other stakeholders which always leads to my mind expanding over new landscapes of thought.

At BETT Asia, I had wonderful conversations with a range of educators and others from all over the Asia-Pacific region. It was deeply rewarding to be able to take part in a presentation, a panel and a teachmeet, where I met leading global education thinkers as well as my favourite group: teachers.

I learned about how Laos has several thousand primary schools and only 1/3 of them have electricity (certainly puts first world problems like intermittent wifi access in it’s place). I learned about how Russia embraces its history and looks to the future of teaching and learning. I learned how there is amazing potential to shift the futures of young people around the world if only we make a concerted effort to do so.

I learned that teaching may look wildly different in each culture and country and classroom but that it is a core human need to have a supportive apprenticeship-style relationship for learning. It might be rapid or long-term; it might be face-to-face or online; it might blur the lines of who is the learner and who is the ‘teacher’.

Learning is one of our vital and sustainable global resources.

And so, just yesterday I found out that my co-founders and I have been accepted into the Telstra-backed Muru-D startup accelerator program for 2016. Our cloud-based platform, ELLA, will help teachers rapidly apply their learning to see real impact without adding more admin to simply tick boxes (in fact, they’ll do that in less time!)

We need your help to make it something teachers love, not just something teachers feel they have to use.

If you are a teacher, or know a teacher, ask them to go to http://www.ellaapp.co and sign up for early access and like the FaceBook page http://www.facebook.com/appforella

2016 is going to start(up) with a bang!

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We are ready for the future

Back to the future – we’ve lived up to some of our imagination (but nowhere near all.)

So where’s my hoverboard? Personally, that has to be the biggest sadness I’ve felt with the passing of such an auspicious and expectation-laden date as October 21st 2015. The date when Marty McFly raced a flying car into a future filled with self-lacing shoes (that exist) and Jaws 13 (which doesn’t – though we do have Sharknado).

We’ve lived up to some of our own imaginations put forward by Hollywood and we’ve even exceeded some. The speed of innovation seems to be both sluggish and blinding at times, depending on which area of life you cast your eye.

What struck me about this was at the recent Macquarie University Alumni Trendsetter panel. The panel consisted of Dr Brian Croke, Executive Director, Catholic Education Commission NSW, Ms Leanne Gibbs @leannegibbs4C, CEO Community Childcare Co-operative of NSW, and Ms Jane Simmons @JaneSimmons19, Executive Director, Learning and Leadership, NSW Department of Education. The theme focused on trust and leadership in education and was ably facilitated by Dr Norm McCulla.

Each panellist reflected on the varied and varying nature of trust that exists in education and beyond. There were many key insights brought to bear, including the following:

Screen Shot 2015-10-31 at 8.14.46 am Screen Shot 2015-10-31 at 8.15.06 am
Screen Shot 2015-10-31 at 8.15.38 am Screen Shot 2015-10-31 at 8.15.56 am

Dr Brian Croke observed that in the 1970s, pre-service teachers were preparing for an education revolution so that by the end of the 1980s:

  • the HSC (exam) would be no more
  • curriculum would be decentralised
  • learning would be personalised
  • television would mean that students wouldn’t need to go to school

and so on.

This was all met with a sad chuckle from some in the audience. To me, this said two things:

  1. We lament that these things did not occur at the time; and
  2. That perhaps some of this is coming true, just much later than we hoped

I’d argue that there are several reasons to be positive about the changes that have come about with the onset of two dramatic shifts: the democratisation and decentralisation of INFORMATION and the massively increased personal access to TECHNOLOGY.

If we just take Brian’s points above, the HSC exam is actually being rejected or ignored by more and more of our students as a measure of their worth. Universities are offering placements well before the exams to students based on a range of evidence (including co-curricular involvement), the International Baccalaureate is quite popular in many schools across the systems. In addition, the reality that as many as 25% of Australian students are not finishing high school adds to the number of students not engaging with that supposedly all-important milestone.

The final single exam experience is actually not that important to many of our students, despite our obsession with it (and our tendency to design the entire K-12 experience around the HSC exam as it’s natural end point).

Curriculum may be centralised but teachers will always show dexterity in its application in their context. Even the authorities recognise – and in many cases actively promote – the idea that syllabus documents and other curriculum is the raw material from which great teaching and learning happens. Knowledge transmission is not the core purpose of school, especially when we walk around with all the world’s knowledge in our pockets.

This leads us to Dr Croke’s final two points, where I think technology has finally caught up and is now leaning against a wall, taking in lungfuls of breath and working out what to do next.

Whether it is through a laptop or tablet, or a smartphone or even a watch, information isn’t just accessible by anyone with a basic 3G network but it is also able to be created by the people with those devices. In the 1970s, broadcasters had control over the information we viewed and the technology with which we could view it, if we wanted that shift to ‘personalised’ learning. Today, the information is democratised and the technology is personal.

So are we ready now that we have the toolkit for the revolution? Who is ‘we’ anyway? Because I see students already riding the wave of change whilst many of us watch it go past. At what point do we seriously need to act to change curriculum and other structures (physical, mental, philosophical) to reach our students.

They may not have hoverboards or lightsabers, but they do have smartphones, which might just be more powerful.

We are ready for the future.

MQU Trendsetter Panel


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