Speech to the Australian College of Educators, Friday 4th March 2016:
(click here for the slides that accompanied my talk).
I am delighted to speak to you about the inspiring time I spent in 2011 studying Learning and Teaching at Harvard Graduate School of Education. I thrived in classes with leading educational thinkers, people we usually only see on a bookshelf, and they significantly influenced the way that I view education.
Responding to an internal Harvard job advertisement I had the added good fortune of being appointed to work in the Harvard teacher education program. I taught a group of interns (prac teachers), and spent one day a week mentoring my interns and their supervising teachers in Boston public schools. I loved working with committed young educators facing confronting issues of poverty and race, whilst all the time feeling like I was on a Hollywood set. The red brick façade of Boston Latin made me pinch myself every time I arrived.
It is impossible to capture what I learned in a year in a quick elevator pitch, but I can say that due to the time spent diving into the nexus between policy, research, and practice, I have significantly shifted the dial from ‘how do I cover the content’ to ‘what sort of learners am I trying to produce’? My three key points this evening are:
- Engaging students with ideas instead of delivering information
- Teacher capacity building, not compliance
- And learning how to organise as a network rather than a hierarchy
I was most strongly influenced by ideas from Project Zero. Project Zero is a research branch connected to the Harvard Graduate School of Education, with a strong research agenda in the arts, the nature of intelligence, understanding, thinking, creativity, cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural thinking, and ethics. PZ researchers are critical of excessive testing and ranking, and advocate a broader view of learning and ethics. It is a message that resonates with me. We still tend to view education as a process of sorting, sifting, and ranking. Even Board inspectors tell our school that we do too much testing and we need to focus more on learning objectives and less on covering content, yet we persist in doing school as it was done to us.
Project Zero stalwart David Perkins asks,
“What’s worth learning?
Most of what we teach beyond basic literacies quickly gets forgotten. Instead of fixating on educating for the known, Perkins says that,
“We need a vision of educating for the unknown, for the kinds of thinking and understanding that foster nimble adaptive insight in a complex world.”
Sounds a bit like Malcom Turnbull doesn’t he? Perkins insists that most of what we teach students in school is a waste of time and that a huge information base may not be the right priority for our times.
Educational settings are often neat, organised, linear, predictable, structured, whereas life is often not. Perkins calls for lifeworthy learning and the development of flexpertise. This matches my own thinking. While teaching Year 12 is often seen as the pinnacle for teachers, when we have Year 9 classes connecting globally, blogging, and producing documentaries, the prospect of covering dot points for Googleable questions in a standardised test has become even less appealing to me than it used to be. Years 7-10 have become the playground. Shovelling a mass of content into students and drilling them to answer HSC-style questions seems rather pointless in today’s fluid, connected world. Doing it the way the teacher wants is not a 21st century skill.
Howard Gardner talks about how today’s kids have less autonomy and are more risk-averse, whilst acknowledging that they are more connected and more tolerant than ever before. He speaks about nudging kids from dependence to enabling, suggesting that it’s all a question of agency. This leads him to conclusions about the value of direct instruction versus constructivism. For him there is no contest and he freely admits that he is rather taken with the concept of constructivism. He encourages us to allow kids to make mistakes and get lost sometimes. He refers to an interesting paper: The Double-Edged Sword of Pedagogy.
I now often ask myself how would I teach if the exam was in 20 years’ time?
Tina Grotzer taught me about the concept of transfer and kindled my interest in project-based learning. PBL is now evident across our school.
- TAS students design and make wind turbines to power LED lighting and water pumps in response to the scenario that a catastrophic climate change disaster has wiped out the country’s energy grid.
- PDHPE run a “Rethink Sugary Drink” project where students investigate the sugar content of common beverages and display posters around the school campus to educate others.
- Our Year 10 film festival has become a rite of passage between Year 10 and the senior years of school. This is a one week collaborative project where 200 students produce 50 short films. Attendance at school is optional while the groups work on their films and the entire week is centred on Greg Whitby’s immortal line, “What would happen if we made learning compulsory and attendance optional?”
Students have reported back to me:
“I learned that the school trusts us to make our own choices.”
“We had a lot of freedom. Nothing felt like we had to do it, more like we wanted to.”
“I wish we could do this every year.”
As we gain confidence, we are branching out to more cross-curricular and global projects.
- My students have produced audio e-books about history for kindergarten kids who live in the remote Northern Territory
- My classes regularly engage in global projects with students in other countries:
- piloting Project Zero’s Out of Eden Learn project
- learning about civil rights and World War II with US schools
- discussing World War One with Turkish students.
Some verbatim quotes from my students:
- We have worked with people worldwide
- We have seen different points of view
- We have seen what other countries think about history
- We have thought about stuff differently
- We have found unseen truths
- We have learned about both sides and views of wars
- We have gone beyond the textbook
- We have made global connections
- We have looked at different perspectives
- We have learned about how we glorify Australian soldiers
- We have learned that we only study history from an Australian point of view
Students’ words. Not mine.
This supports Veronica Boix Mansilla’s work on global competence. Educating for global citizenship has become a pressing need and it is vitally important for us to engage with people who are very different from ourselves in order to become aware of the diversity of how people think, to help us discern our own cultural assumptions, and to learn how to work across cultures.
What do you call someone who speaks two languages?
What do you call someone who speaks one language?
It’s an old joke that’s no longer funny.
Now I’m going to shift gears and make some comments about adult learning in schools.
We have largely moved on from the carwash model of professional development, spray and pray, where you blast it out en masse and hope that some of it sticks. Our professional learning culture is now centred on coaching, mentoring, collaborative inquiry, and instructional rounds, with educators identifying and working to solve their own problems of practice and have their thinking challenged by helpful colleagues – professional growth and capacity building, not compliance – lateral accountability, rather than vertical accountability. We are all gradually becoming better question-askers and better listeners.
For a school to truly learn, norms of autonomy and professional isolation have to be challenged and teaching must become infused with a genuinely collegial, collaborative ethos, where teachers regularly engage in meaningful dialogue with colleagues about improving their practice. Cultural change at Shore has come about due to unwavering support from the Headmaster for the professional growth of staff, the strong relational trust amongst the teaching staff, the students and parent body, and an open willingness to experiment and fail forward to find what works best in our context.
We now have fewer staff development days and guest speakers expected to entertain us. Instead we have spread the time on Monday mornings with students arriving late in time for period 2. This ‘Team Learning Time’ is an opportunity for sustained, collaborative adult learning, with opportunities to innovate, plan high quality pedagogy, distribute leadership, and reflect. Each subject department co-constructs plans for the use of the time.
We have discovered the value of discussion protocols to guide professional conversations. Protocols enable educators to deeply examine student work and teacher tasks, and address problems of practice. They create a team learning structure which enhances clarity, safety, equity, and reflection.
We are gradually learning to outgrow the boxes we have created. We are currently wondering whether cross-curricular teams might operate more effectively than subject-specific teams, whether Heads of Department are the best people to lead adult learning, and how we can bring more students into the conversations we are having about their learning? Students now attend our Heads of Department meetings, they are increasingly involved in the review of programs, pedagogy, and assessments, and students participate alongside the teachers on our staff development days. Letting students in to secret teacher business allows for interesting insights. One commented to me:
“It has given me more faith in my teachers because I could see that everyone there was really interested, not just there because they had to be there.”
While increased agency is at the core of these changes, none of this has occurred without the readily apparent tensions of a shifting culture. I entered this career because I love teaching kids, but increasingly I am finding that my role is to teach adults. I am often too impatient, not a good trait for someone in my role. I need to be resilient and I usually am, but there have been very painful moments and lost friendships during the journey.
In class at Harvard, Richard Elmore noted that,
“The future of schools lies in networks rather than hierarchies, in lateral rather than vertical organisations. Most of the work gets done in networks, not hierarchies. The education system will essentially functionally be replaced by a series of networks. Networks cannot be managed the same way that hierarchies are managed. Social networking is a different way of organising.”
Education is moving from a narrow pipeline metaphor to an incredibly diverse web of outside networks. Knowledge is becoming inextricable from the network that enables it. When Matt Esterman and I wrote about Teacher-Led Conferences for Learning Forward, we contrasted traditional “spider” organisations which have a rigid hierarchy and top-down leadership, and revolutionary “starfish” organisations which depend on the power of peer to peer relationships. Agile, network-like structures are the key to succeeding in the face of today’s fast-moving, volatile environment and helping us move on from the linearity of education’s outdated practices and processes. What sort of design will be needed to turn schools into enhanced networks that can mobilise more quickly and effectively to bring new learning to light and action?
I am lucky to work in an environment where we can push some boundaries. Next week we host Project Zero Sydney, focusing on the opportunities and challenges facing educators in the Digital Age.
Three of the questions that we are exploring at next week’s conference are:
- How do we educate for the unknown?
- How do we shift teaching practices from a model of knowledge transmission to one of developing certain dispositions that transcend subject areas and other boundaries?
And, in our fast-paced world,
- How do we slow the learning down and focus on depth, not breadth?
In my final class with Richard Elmore, he warned that while there will always be a place like school for students to interact with teachers, the school education sector as we know it will soon be obsolete and our future is a future of dramatic transformations.
Last year I heard Richard Ford present a passionate, eloquent, deeply considered speech at this event in which he outlined how ACE might not just survive, but thrive into the future. There was talk about getting his speech published online for all members to read. It never was.
How is ACE becoming more transparent and creating structures that encourage many levels of participation? What role will teacher (or even student) voice play in the future of this organisation? How could ACE transition from being Australia’s peak association for educators to becoming Australia’s most powerful network of educators?
What it means to be educated, and the role schools play in this, is rapidly changing.
My sincere hope is that the Australian College of Educators is up for the challenge of playing a key role in helping us become more agile and adaptable in the face of these shifts.