What have you learned this year?

Another year has passed us by. Well, no, not really. That suggests we were standing at a metaphorical bus stop, passively watching time flow from future to present to past. Of course we do more than that, don’t we? We climb aboard and never get off. Whether we like it or not, we are always connected to events as they are to us.

But how do we ensure that we don’t live the life of a medieval blacksmith, for whom the years did indeed pass by with little change? For whom events in a far off country have little impact? For whom central authority has little to do with how he chooses to be a blacksmith?  For whom village life proceeds more closely aligned to changes in weather than changes in bums on royal seats?

The answer, in part, is to learn and to act on that learning. Whether we are offered opportunities to expand or change or enhance our current experience, or whether we make opportunities ourselves, learning has, does and will always form a core element of our ability to engage meaningfully with each other and with the world.

This year I have learned much.

With my day job I have dived deeply into the world of education policy, support of my fellow teachers (particularly in the area of accreditation in NSW), professional development and much more. I have met teachers from (almost literally) all corners of NSW and the ACT and deepened my understanding of the truly kaleidoscopic nature of teaching and learning, even within a “standardised” educational jurisdiction like NSW.

With my attempt to build an edtech startup I have learned the value of going beyond “building empathy for customers” to developing true and meaningful connections with people who you are trying to help (and if you aren’t actually trying to help someone, don’t pretend that you are). That people are motivated by significantly different aims at different times and you need to be clear about that within yourself. And much more.

In my personal life I have learned that there is nothing more important than those close to you. I knew this already, but there is little shame in relearning the most important lessons in life. I learned that there really is no limit to what one can learn about family and friends, there is always more and always worth learning. That time can be the most precious thing one can give and that is usually enough, unlike so many other contexts.

Learning only really happens if we change as a result of it. Some are incremental and almost imperceptible. Some are massive and physically, emotionally or mentally devastating or inspiring. Many times I have relied on others to remind me of what I have learned, or indeed to learn something from a moment. This is the final key to learning for me this year: it has not happened in a bubble. I cannot learn without others. I cannot grow without others. No one truly achieves anything on their own, for I don’t pave the roads or keep parks clean or heal people or write laws.

We are each part of a vast, thriving ecosystem of learning.

So what have you learned this year?

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Teaching: the profession that creates all others

Well it’s been a while.

This week I had the pleasure of attending the Australian College of Educators national conference (#ACE2016NC). I also had the honour of facilitating the “early career” teacher stream with Cameron Paterson (@cpaterso).

The conference covered many topics, including: research into initial teacher education, policy trends and shifts in education, the future of work & its impact in education, the early years and importance of investment in them, and more. The most compelling for me were, of course, those directly related to the working and learning lives of teachers and students in schools.

A stark reminder was given to us by Dr Diane Mayer, incoming Dean of Education at the University of Sydney, that 30-50% of teaching graduates leave the profession in the first 5 years. Economists should shudder at this. Parents should lament this on behalf of their children. Teachers know this – and see wave after wave of potentially amazing teacher burn out at a rate never seen before, or never get a decent shot in the first place.

So how do we best support teachers in the first years of their degree? One way amongst others is to listen to them. That’s why Cam and I tried to draw out of our colleagues (both early, mid and later career) their aims, their challenges and their strategies for not only their own practice but how we can support the profession as a whole.

As always, we were more powerful as a whole than simply the sum of our parts. Advice was free flowing, support was positive and humble, hierarchies were flattened. It really is wonderful to see educators who usually work in vastly different contexts connect and share over a common bond.

Following the ACE conference, I attended and presented at the Australian Catholic University’s Ready, Steady, Teach pre-service teacher day, talking about being work ready in the non-government sector in NSW. Naturally (and probably thanks to being immersed in national conversations at ACE) the discussion went very broad very fast, to their potential experience in other states and territories as well as other countries. It’s amazing how keen Australians can be about travelling and working overseas – not something that comes naturally to people from all nations.

Again, I was attempting to inspire some spark (or fan the flame if already present) of passion for teaching. The unfortunate reality is that teaching and teachers are bombarded every minute with sometimes well-meaning but often deeply ignorant views about what we do and how we do it. As a profession we need to push back when we can, citing the expertise we have, the wealth of evidence available to support us (and not just that chosen by some), and the fact that teaching is a thing in itself, with elements of art and science and performance and psychology and so much else.

My final source of inspiration for the week was the History Teachers’ Association of Australia national conference (#HTAA16), of which I was only able to attend a small slice. After ducking in to work to get a few things done, I was able to attend in time to catch a talk by two articulate, passionate and reflective teachers from Loreto Kirribilli who were describing how and why they used Guided Inquiry to engage students in History. In a world where faddish approaches to teaching and learning are rife, these teachers demonstrated the power of when teachers are the ones in the driving seat, not a detached commercial or even academic entity.

I hope my presentation on Twitter, TeachMeet and Tariq Ali spurred some deep thinking on how we engage ourselves and our students in History. I really just told a few stories of things I’ve tried (and failed and succeeded with) and gave people time and space to explore, test and discuss with colleagues. Too many conferences don’t actually have time to confer.

Teaching is indeed central to the creation of other professions. In a time where students will have multiple careers in multiple industries, and in a time of automation and rapid globalisation of work, having a strong leader of learning during our formative years has never been more important. The sage on the stage may be dead, but we still have a critical role to play.

It’s been a great week for my learning – I hope you’ve had one too!

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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.

Posted in Future, Teaching and Learning, Teaching profession | 4 Comments

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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