A Culture of Thinking for Teachers

Shortly after leaving high school as a student, I was bantering with some friends about our teachers and someone remarked about Stan, a gnarly old poetry teacher. The comment was that Stan had “really taught them how to think”. As I considered a career in education, I reflected that it would be pretty cool to be remembered for teaching someone “how to think”.

Fast-forward about ten years into my teaching career, I attended a conference on the Australian Gold Coast, with keynotes from David Perkins, Ron Ritchhart, and Mark Church. As they addressed the assembled crowd about visible thinking and teaching for understanding, I felt goose bumps. I felt like I had found my people. Since that moment I have immersed myself in Project Zero and I even lived in the US for a year to study at Harvard. Project Zero is globally renowned for research in thinking, understanding, and creativity. I now instruct in Project Zero online courses and collaborate with various Project Zero researchers. Project Zero research has influenced my work and identity in profound ways. Central to all of this has been Ron Ritchhart’s research into thinking and I have recently completed a Churchill Fellowship studying his Cultures of Thinking approach/framework.

Three core ideas are the foundation of Ron’s work:

  • Schools must be about developing students’ thinking dispositions
  • We need to make students’ thinking visible
  • Classroom culture plays a crucial role in supporting and shaping learning.

Ron argues that a quality education is one where students are engaged and active thinkers, able to communicate, innovate, collaborate, and problem-solve. These ‘dispositions’ describe our patterns of interaction with the world. Dispositions are part of our individual character. They cannot be directly taught or tested; only enculturated. He envisages schooling as an enculturative process that cultivates dispositions of thinking. Lev Vygotsy (1979) stated, “Children grow into the intellectual life of those around them”. This perfectly encapsulates the concept of enculturation. It is how we internalise the ideas and the beliefs that we frequently interact with.

Learning happens when students connect with ideas, when they ask questions, and create meaning with our guidance and support. A culture of thinking sends a message to students that thinking is valued and infused in the fabric of the classroom. Ritchhart argues that we must work to change the messages being sent by timetables, exams, university entrance requirements, 50-minute periods, and parental expectations, to “…enculturate students into a new story of learning where thinking is valued, visible, and actively promoted as part of the ongoing, day-to-day experience of all group members” (Ritchhart, 2016).

Ron identifies eight cultural forces that represent the tools or levers for transforming school and classroom culture. Classroom culture sends messages about what learning is and how it happens. Understanding this process and how teachers might more directly influence it, as well as having the language to talk about classroom culture, helps to demystifying teaching. Awareness of the presence of the cultural forces in any group context helps educators take a more active role in shaping culture.

My Fellowship focused on teachers, school leaders, and researchers who have an excellent understanding of the Cultures of Thinking approach and who have been utilising it for some time. My interest was not so much in understanding and explaining the approach/framework, but in exploring the leadership of difficult pedagogical change in schools. What works, what does not work, and what does effective leadership for complex school pedagogical change look like?

Leading complex pedagogical change in schools requires patience for the slow and messy nature of the work; respectful and trusting relationships with people; listening with curiosity and authenticity; and respect for context and history. My key takeaway is that paying close attention to the design of the learning culture for teachers might be the most important step we can take to build a culture of thinking for our students. If we want a culture of thinking for students, then we need a culture of thinking for teachers. When teachers are involved in active discussion, problem-solving, learning from colleagues, questioning practices, trying things and reflecting, then student learning improves. Developing a community in which rich discussions about teaching, learning, and thinking are a fundamental part of teachers’ ongoing experience provides the foundation for nurturing students’ thinking and learning.

Teachers are driven by their instincts, beliefs, and mindsets. The only way that we can understand what teachers do is to understand their beliefs and values. Most professional development is about giving teachers new ideas to implement. However, giving teachers new ideas without first understanding their beliefs and mindsets is a waste of time.

It is not about applying a formula; it is about engaging in a conversation.

The following sections summarise some of the takeaways from my Churchill Fellowship – each supported by a relevant quote from an interviewee – how the Cultures of Thinking approach changes teaching and schools, how to lead this sort of change in schools, how hesitant teachers can be supported, what the biggest mistakes are, the hidden ingredients of success, and some key takeaways.

What does a Cultures of Thinking approach look like?

When teachers adopt a culture of thinking, they become more attentive to thinking and more precise in the way that they think. They become better listeners, and this leads to them becoming more responsive and flexible in how they teach. The language they use about teaching and learning changes, and the physical classroom environment displays what students are thinking about. Elise Heil (Principal of Sacred Heart School in Washington DC) captures the shift teachers make from delivering content to facilitating thinking through a less controlling approach:

“It’s the shift from teacher as giver of information to teacher as facilitator. Teachers now listen more than they speak. It’s made teaching more interesting and more enjoyable. Teachers don’t feel like they constantly have to perform. They don’t have to plan every minute detail. Teachers are more relaxed and happier. We have to unlearn the desire for control.”

When Cultures of Thinking becomes a part of a whole-school approach, we see the power of shared language and common terminology. Student-teacher relationships change and there is a transformation in student agency, which leads to a more positive tone within the school. Teachers’ perspectives on their role change; they become students of their students. There is public documentation and open sharing of student learning on classroom walls, and student thinking moves into hallways and other places. There is a notable decrease in stress. People become calmer and happier; best described as a “culture of kindness”. Kristen Kullberg (Making and Design Initiatives Coordinator at Washington International School) reinforces that this is not another PD fad; it is a fundamental mindset shift within a school, about transferring agency to students:

“This is not a boxed curriculum. This isn’t another PD fad. You can’t mask authentic thinking, you can only invite it into the light. It shifted the agency from top-down to student.”

Leading the change in schools

My real interest was in how to lead this sort of change in schools. Every single school context is widely different. Leaders should step back, observe the culture and listen. It is slow work, needing patience. The most common response from interviewees was that “It takes time.” Leaders should start small and not play into the quick fix. It is an ongoing drip-feed which creates a ripple effect. Build trust and slowly build circles of influence. The entry point for where people are at is different, go into the zone of proximal development, build capacity, and introduce a common language. Use teacher champions; recognise that teachers are experts and professionals who want to develop their practice. It is about asking the right questions. Be comfortable with the fact that not everyone will join you. Jim Reese (Director of the Professional Development Collaborative, Washington International School) reinforces the importance of being flexible, earning trust, and providing various ways for teachers to participate:

“You have to be flexible with participation. You have got to do a lot of forgiving of teachers in terms of their busy lives. Cultivate trust, build relationships. Once they dip their toe in the water, hold them accountable. Build up a stable of really good practitioners. Give people different options for how they participate.”

For classrooms to be cultures of thinking for students, school must be cultures of thinking for teachers. Build teacher leaders, involve them in planning, and provide ongoing opportunities to get into each other’s classrooms. Bring it back to the teachers and have them lead the charge. Play to intrinsic motivation, go slowly, see the bigger picture, and make it fun. Get it in your mission and budget. You are investing in a culture of thinking. Institutionalise it, make part of the DNA of the school. Carole Geneix (Director of Teaching and Learning, Washington International School) sees it as a process of empowerment and unveiling talent, noting that providing teachers with choices assists:

“You have to empower all the people around you. See talent as opportunities. Offer options. It doesn’t appeal to everyone. Choice is really important.”

Supporting hesitant teachers

It is crucial to meet hesitant or resistant teachers where they are. We can do this by showing non-judgemental interest in their practice and “listening them into clarity”. Instead of trying to give them the answer, try to help them find the answer themselves by asking lots of questions. Where do they feel that little niggling feeling? What question are they asking that this might be the answer to? What do they want their learners to be like? Give them agency and get them to share their practice in order to help you understand. Look for the toughest critics and build relationships by showing genuine passion for their art. This approach cannot be forced, so cast the net towards the ones who are interested. Make it an invitation, an open circle. Joel Bevans (Vice Principal, Canadian International School, Singapore) emphasises the importance of building strong relational connections, listening, persisting, and staying positive:

“Listen. Put the coaching hat on. Coaching conversations are really important. How do you listen and give a little nudge? It comes down to relationships. You can’t have these coaching conversations unless you really know who they are. It is a slow burner process. Keep on trying and keep on smiling.”

Biggest mistakes

The biggest mistake that leaders tend to make when attempting to develop this culture is to give up if it does not work the first time. It is an ongoing investment, a multi-year commitment. It will evolve and develop, it requires patience, and it will take time. It is not a panacea or a quick fix. It is not a one-off; you are not going to get it the first time. It is sensible to pick just one idea and focus on it until it becomes a habit. Lauren Childs (Clinical Faculty, Oakland University, Michigan) notes that we are not talking about implementation, we are talking about a cultural mind-shift:

“This is not just a program. Program implementation is so ingrained. It is a cultural shift not the implementation of a program.

Hidden ingredients

Ron recommended that I ask a question about the hidden ingredients of leading this work. This question elicited two key ingredients, the secret sauce if you like. These two keys are: being truly intellectually curious, and making people feel seen and heard. Nathalie Ryan (Senior Educator, Department of Gallery and Studio Learning, National Gallery of Art) beautifully captures the essence of this as she describes the role of education as a civic effort which goes beyond passing tests:

“Have a genuine desire to listen and learn, to see your role as not the authority. Be truly curious about your learners, really care. Desire to listen and connect in an authentic way. See education as truly part of a civic effort. It is beyond passing a test; it’s about creating humans; it is more lifelong. When someone sees you as a human, that is really empowering as learner.”

Best takeaways

Jessica Ross (Senior Practitioner Specialist, Project Zero) spoke about keeping the focus on thinking and learning as the main game in schools as opposed to everything else that can crowd the agenda:

“It is about cognition and thinking and learning. Schools can lose sight of this. There is always more to do – healthcare, physical care. But cognition, thinking and learning is what we should be expert in.’

Brian Cook (Social Studies Department Head, Dana Hall School, Boston) used the helpful metaphor of nurturing an eco-system rather than following a script:

“It is about nurturing an eco-system rather than sticking to a script. It takes time and it is messy and that is part of the process. You have to be OK with making mistakes. That is OK when the senior administration is on-board.” 

Tina Blythe (Project Director, Project Zero and Senior Manager Special Projects) spoke about trusting colleagues and valuing relationship because it is only in relationship to others that we can see our own biases:

“Trust your learners. Trust your colleagues. Value relationship. It all comes down to relationship. It is only in relationship with others that I can really hear another perspective. It’s almost impossible for me to see my own biases. Others can help me see them. That is why we set up groups.”

Elise Heil (Principal of Sacred Heart School in Washington DC) emphasised the importance of modelling from leaders and prioritising adult learning:

“As a school leader, I’m most proud that I can use these routines myself with parents. Being able to model and facilitate is crucial. If this is something that the school leadership values, then they have to use the routines. They can’t just tell others to use them. If you are doing systemic large-scale change, you have to be focused on the adult learners first, not the children.”

Conclusion

It turns out that that we can’t teach people to think after all, but we can enculturate the dispositions which enable thinking. Educators who succeed in developing a culture of thinking value the process of learning over the product of learning; they seek deeper learning rather than just the acquisition of knowledge. Leadership of this pedagogical approach requires patience, and valuing, respecting, and trusting people. Leadership matters immensely and models that this is not “flavour of the month”, it is who we are, and it is what we are about. It requires an invitational approach. An invitation is extraordinarily powerful. Invite people into change instead of telling them what they need to change.

 

References

Ritchhart, R., 2015. Creating Cultures of Thinking: The 8 forces we must master to truly transform our classrooms. San Francisco, CA, Jossey-Bass.

Vygotsky, L., 1978. Mind in Society. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press.

Who is going to teach the kids?

“A cold sweat shivered on my skin. This is it, I thought. This isn’t teaching. I’m not a teacher anymore… There’s something sinister happening to this profession that I loved. And it breaks my heart. We don’t trust our teachers anymore.”

In her book Teacher, Australian author Gabbie Stroud beautifully encapsulates what is happening by stealth to the teaching profession around the world. She continues, 

Good teaching …comes from teachers who know their students, who build relationships, who meet learners at their point of need and who recognise that there’s nothing standard about the journey of learning. We cannot forget the art of teaching – without it, schools become factories, students become products and teachers: nothing more than machinery.”

There have been profound changes in the work and workload of teachers. School education is becoming a much more bureaucratized system, asking more of teachers and getting less in return. The current workload is unsustainable and the pandemic is exacerbating teachers’ feelings of being silenced. A lack of respect, staffing challenges, low pay, high workload, conflicting demands and now the pandemic, have conspired to generate a perfect storm. 30% of Australia’s teachers are over 50. Education applications have plummeted by 20%. 48% of teachers are thinking of leaving the profession. Teacher workloads are “massive” and “unrealistic” (even though 87% of teachers still find teaching rewarding).

Schools now need to be run as if every teacher has one foot out the door. During remote learning, both teachers and students discovered a new sense of autonomy. Few lamented the loss of restrictive practices like early start times or only being able to eat or move when bells ring. Workers now have a sense of mobility they have never had before. In the United States over 3 million people per month are walking away from their jobs and the same is occurring in Europe. These competitive labour market conditions and the ‘war for talent’ amplify the necessity for educational leaders to adopt innovative strategies to dynamically recruit and retain excellent teachers. We must rethink the entire way we staff and manage schools.

We should not be surprised if teachers are escaping from an education system that is milking them to serve a purpose that is not aligned with the reasons that they entered the profession to start with. Perhaps we are talking less about ‘burn-out’ and more about ‘moral injury’ – when people see that the systems they are in are not designed to properly support the people they are meant to serve.

Reprioritising the work of teachers so that their focus is on actual teaching is critical to the success of schools and this is a crucial conversation for education leaders. The less meaningful and frustrating elements of teaching must be actively cleaned off the plate by targeting anything that reduces workload.

  • Cancel meetings if they can be done by email instead. Many schools have moved information dissemination to asynchronous bulletins and recordings. When digital summaries are shared with teachers, it makes face to face conversations more effective (and staff happier). 
  • Can the requirements of the marking policy be reduced while still meeting its aims? Kat Howard writes about how whole class feedback is now an established feature in some school feedback policies, and is a way of approaching feedback with the time/value cost mantra in mind.
  • Lighten teachers’ lesson planning load by making sure teachers have shared, high-quality common instructional resources across subjects and/or year levels. Natasha Mercer uses a shared Google drive of lessons and has brought in Edrolo and Atomi as resources for flipped learning or as a backup tool if students or teachers are on extended sick leave.
  • Arrange for non-teaching staff to cover extra-curricular and yard-duty responsibilities.
  • Trial innovative timetable models. There are plenty of examples of systems which have less face-to-face teaching time and higher performance. In Finland, students start school days later and finish earlier. They usually have 3-4 x 75-minute classes with 15-20 minute breaks to digest learning, use muscles, stretch legs, get fresh air and let out the “wiggles.”

If you have leadership responsibility in 2022, it is hard to overstate the depth of the disruption we are facing. We are witnessing the end of the “command and control” structures that have dominated management since the Industrial Revolution. Teachers should be treated like adult professionals who can manage their own lives and time. This system cannot come at a cost to students; but if we don’t figure out how to do it, the cost may be the teaching profession as we know it. Fundamental transformation of the entire one-size-fits-all schooling model is needed to build a more potent and fulfilled profession – one in which educators are empowered as design thinkers. If we want people in classrooms teaching kids, let’s press the pedal on creative possibilities, pull the reins back on the crushing bureaucracy, and trust and support teachers to be the outstanding professionals that they are.

New Metrics for Success

Are our students learning to thrive? Are they getting what they need? As global uneasiness mounts about the way schools and universities quantify the educational achievements of young people, it is increasingly clear that the school system is too narrowly fixated on test results as a measure of student achievement. Every day, students deal with a misalignment over what is most important to them, what creates memories, and what they look forward to. An article in Melbourne’s Age explaining the New Metrics for Success project recently asserted, “The distinctive 20th-century version of schooling – with its age-based year levels, standardized testing, exams and timetables organised around short classes in subject areas – is past its use by date.”

The Covid pandemic has turbocharged conversations about the kinds of skills students will need in the future. In Australia, universities are recognizing the unfairness of the current system and turning to alternative measures such as academic transcripts, microcredentials and entrance interviews. Discussing alternatives to traditional examination measurements, Sandra Milligan the Director and Enterprise Professor, Assessment Research Center, University of Melbourne says, “Being able to learn on your own without coaching from a teacher, being able to learn collaboratively with others, being able to communicate in various ways – Covid has brought home the fact that these kinds of skills are really, really important.

new metrics

Milligan’s New Metrics for Success project is a collaborative research partnership between The University of Melbourne and 40 ‘first-mover’ schools to create assessment tools, influence the development of policy and accelerate change. In this partnership, leading educators are working with academic experts to reimagine schooling in Australia. With the support of The University of Melbourne, innovative Australian school leaders have established a broad network of institutions that are influencing the wider educational system by sharing evidence of their transformative practices. Their strength is being bolstered by the academic rigor of the university and their validated assessment tools. Leon Furze at Monivae College explains, “Following the University of Melbourne Assessment Research Centre approach for co-designing trusted assessments and credentials, the New Metrics participants are creating assessment frameworks for a range of competencies and capabilities beyond the traditional scope of education.” Moving beyond traditional classroom knowledge and skills, the New Metrics partnership is developing tools to assess eight key areas:

  • Connectedness
  • Ethics
  • Learner Agency
  • Communication
  • Character
  • Citizenship
  • Quality Thinking
  • Collaboration

The project is about developing an assessment framework that can be adapted to context and content, and it is the opposite of the standardized testing that has been the norm for the past century. New Metrics participants are enjoying disrupting current practices, and the opportunity to influence policymakers and bureaucrats. It isn’t just about new metrics for learning outcomes, but about new metrics that will shape how we think about school. Kim Bence at Wesley College believes that a new and innovative metric for success will shift the paradigm of education while preparing young people for the next generational challenges. She asserts, “Amid global instability and the emerging importance of digital fluency, the next generation of leaders needs the right frameworks and support structures to feel empowered to make a difference. Developing learner agency and amplifying our young people’s ‘lived experiences’ through re-imaging how we teach them, how they learn, and how we assess is more critical now than ever.”

Mirroring growing global educational change movements, the dialogue is accelerating. A recent Australian Learning Lecture paper proposed that:

  • Age 15-19 learners are supported to find a line of sight into work or further study that can lead them to a thriving adulthood and build on their unique interests, capabilities and aspirations.
  • A Learner Profile is designed to provide a trusted, common way of representing the full range of attainments of young people during their transition years across a broad range of domains.
  • Tertiary education providers adopt broader, more transparent entry criteria, design entry pathways and update their admissions processes to better align candidates’ interests, capabilities and aspirations with the educational opportunities on offer, and better reflect evidence about the progress and potential of learners.

In addition, Learning Creates is a new alliance bringing together a range of stakeholders to focus on personalized, passion-based learning as the key to modernizing education and preparing young people for successful futures. There is now an Australian hub for the Mastery Transcript Consortium, an expanding network of schools who are introducing a digital high school transcript for students to have their unique strengths, abilities, interests, and histories nurtured and recognized. Big Picture Learning Australia is transforming education by retiring the traditional ‘appointment learning’ where everyone learns the same things according to a fixed timetable inside the walls of a school.

The Covid pandemic has been a catalyst. The momentum for change is intensifying and it has turned a particular spotlight onto equity issues. Schooling as we know it is set to change irrevocably in multiple ways. The reimagining is underway; the future is personalized. One-size-fits-all no longer fits.

Positive Leadership

When I completed my coaching accreditation with Growth Coaching International, John Campbell gave me a copy of Positive Leadership by Kim Cameron. Now, a few years down the track, I have just completed an online course with Kim Cameron on Practicing Positive Leadership through Michigan Ross.

Producing extraordinarily high performance, generating positively deviant results, and creating remarkable vitality in the workplace are the primary objectives of positive leadership. Positive leadership involves the implementation of positive practices that help individuals and organisations achieve their highest potential, flourish at work, experience elevating energy, and reach levels of effectiveness difficult to attain otherwise.

Positive leadership practices promote a heliotropic effect, helping people to move toward the positive. When positive practices are given greater emphasis than negative practices, individuals and organisations tend to flourish.

Three particularly important activities for promoting a positive climate include fostering compassion, forgiveness, and gratitude among employees in organisations.

At the heart of positive leadership lies the concept of positive energy. Leaders can, and should, be a source of this life-giving or positive energy. Positive energy is probably the single most important attribute of positive leaders.

One way to enhance personal positive energy is through contemplative practices such as meditation and purposeful self-reflection.

Building and nurturing strong interpersonal relationships is another key to fostering and maintaining positive energy. Strong interpersonal relationships are most easily built on a foundation of positive feedback rather than criticism.

Positive energy is a more significant factor in the performance of individuals and organisations than people’s titles, the information they possess, the influence they exert, or their personality attributes.

Remote Work Revolution – Notes

The Covid pandemic caused a worldwide migration to remote work. Suddenly, digital tools became the primary enablers for daily interactions. Remote work has benefits: costs and travel budgets get slashed, and lower gas emissions improve environmental sustainability. Remote work also has challenges: people feel isolated, out of sync, and out of sight, questions emerge about bonding, trusting and alignment, and videoconferences lead to tech exhaustion. A portion of the workforce will now permanently maintain some remote days in their routine long-term. Virtual, distributed, and global work will expand our repertoire, skills, and performance, and make us and our organisations better.

Trust

Teams that have previously established norms for communication or other ways of working together are well primed for remote work. Psychological safety is the key to productive teamwork. Leaders must actively foster an atmosphere that makes everyone feel safe speaking up and asking questions. When leaders share themselves; open up and share autobiographical insights, it helps to cultivate emotional trust.

Productivity

The reality is that most managers have limited power over employee productivity, even when co-located. Remote work increases productivity. The hallmark of remote work is the ability to self-direct and capitalise on the gift of managing your own work processes. Flexibility of scheduling is particularly invaluable for remote workers who have to negotiate the demands of work and family at the same time. The answer to professional isolation is developing cognitive and emotional connection with one another. When those connections are strong, the team is cohesive. When the team is cohesive, it is productive. A cohesive remote team has the capacity to be even more productive than its bricks-and-mortar counterpart. Lean into the inherent flexibility. Encourage autonomy.

Digital Tools

In 2011, Thierry Breton, CEO of global information technology giant Atos, announced that he would ban email. The onslaught of email in people’s inboxes was causing them to work extra hours to respond. “We are producing data on a massive scale that is fast polluting our working environments and also encroaching into our personal lives.” Internal emails are now replaced with social networks, instant messaging systems, and collaborative tools. It is the leader’s job to decide the desired communication culture and then choose the tools to achieve that for a remote workforce. Tech exhaustion happens when we treat work communication activities in the virtual world in the same way that we do in the physical world, yet don’t add the constraints that we do in the latter. Using a mix of available media – synchronous and asynchronous – to match our goals lessens tech exhaustion.

Remote Teams

Prepare for virtual meetings asynchronously by brainstorming in group documents prior to the meeting enabling spontaneous collaboration. Coming to a decision is often much easier than hashing everything out in a co-located office. Deliberately orchestrate daily or frequent meetings and give each person a dedicated time to speak without interruption before handing the virtual baton to the next person.

Leading Virtually

Virtual leadership requires frequent communication with team members. Hearing from the boss helps make the present and future more predictable. Such predictability gives shape to daily work. Remote workers crave predictability.

 

 

Sand Talk – Book Review

Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World

By Tyson Yunkaporta

Text Publishing

2019

Sand Talk is a book about Indigenous thinking and looking at the world in different ways. Throughout the book, Yunkaporta shifts between his academic voice and being a campfire storyteller from moment to moment. He continually presents ways to consider the profound oral traditions and complex Aboriginal ways of thinking, noting that, “Explaining Aboriginal notions of time is an exercise in futility.” The book is full of deep insights and powerful lines. One of my favourites is, “Sometimes it is hard to write in English when you’ve been talking to your great-grandmother on the phone but she is also your niece, and in her language there are no separate words for time and space.” 

Other key ideas that jumped out at me were:

“It is difficult to name the ripples and patterns of global power systems when we are limited by nineteenth-century language around race and colonialism.” 

“Yarning is more than just a story or conversation in Aboriginal culture – it is a structured cultural activity that is recognised even in research circles as a valid and rigorous methodology for knowledge production, inquiry and transmission.” 

“The Aboriginal flag represents a social system in direct opposition to the global order that requires the existence of flags in the first place.”

“The only sustainable way to store data long-term is within relationships.” 

“In our culture not very much of your life is supposed to remain private.” 

Throughout the book, Yunkaporta records his yarns with Aboriginal elders, Indigenous academics and his friends from around the world. He is critical of the tokenistic inclusion of Aboriginal perspectives in schools and at major events, dismissing bush tucker and performances as fragmented nostalgic remnants of the past. 

Sand Talk is paradigm-shifting, deeply moving, philosophical, and thought provoking. It contains a deep respect for Indigenous Knowledge and learning from patterns from the past. For History teachers interested in gaining an insight into the Indigenous worldview, this book is incredible. Prepare to come away with a far more nuanced view of Australia’s complex relationship with the past.

Tell Me Why? – Book Review

Tell Me Why: The Story of My Life and My Music

By Archie Roach

Simon & Schuster

2019

 Tell Me Why is the powerful memoir of a stolen child and the story of musician Archie Roach’s extraordinary journey to become a legendary Australian singer-songwriter. The rather depressing journey through a lost identity ends up providing an identity with real strength.

The first half of the book is harrowing reading as it describes Archie’s street years of drinking in parks and pubs. Drinking consumed years of his life and took a huge  toll. Stints in hospital and prison were followed by a suicide attempt at the end of one bender. He survived a stroke and had half a lung removed due to cancer.

The second half of the book describes Archie’s emergence as the indigenous voice of the Stolen Generations. Shy Archie Roach was always uncomfortable being a spokesperson. “I was reluctant, I think, to put myself out there and have that sort of scrutiny,” he confessed. “It frightened me a bit.” His partner Ruby told him, “It’s not all about you, Archie Roach. How many blackfellas you reckon get to record an album?” The book is also a love story for his Ruby, who died in 2010. 

Roach’s signature song, Took the Children Away, starts with the words, “This story’s right, this story’s true. I would not tell lies to you.” When it was first played live, in Sydney at a Bicentennial protest in 1988, the crowd wept. It could be argued that it was this song that woke white Australia up to the injustices of the Stolen Generations. The mainstreaming of indigenous voices like Archie Roach in popular culture played a central role in the struggle for rights and freedoms. “My songs weren’t calling for revolution; they were calling for recognition and truth, and that itself was an act of defiance. We are here.”

Tell Me Why is an emotional read about family, community, and music, and Archie’s warm and powerful voice threads the story together. All Australian History teachers should read this memoir. It is hard to fully understand the impacts of the Stolen Generations and the indigenous struggle for rights and freedoms without understanding the music and story of Archie Roach. It is a great book written by a great Australian.

The Future of Teaching

What cognitive science is actually telling us is different from the simplistic focus on test scores being promoted by some in recent years.

What works, for what purpose? What is the purpose of school? Research can’t tell us what works until we specify what we are teaching for. Education has multiple objectives. We are not just focused on the near-horizon of grades, test scores, and access to university. We need to lift our eyes beyond that to 20-30 years down the track. What is it that people will need? Pedagogy, curriculum, and assessment should support this. Not just jumping the next hoop.

What effect does a pedagogy that is good at racking up test scores have on the development of curiosity and creativity? No school website boosts about squeezing test scores out of students. Unless we pay specific attention to the cultivation of learning dispositions, they don’t happen by themselves.

There is a polarisation of inquiry, discovery as the opposite of direct instruction and a knowledge-rich curriculum; the image of a battle or a tug-of-war. False oppositions are presented as if they are inevitable. It is not either/or. The way the debate is set up misrepresents the potential of the classroom. We need to take a broader view. The middle ground of teaching is where all of the interesting things are happening. We don’t want to live at the extremes. Polarisations exist more as rhetoric than reality. Most teachers just get on with small-scale innovations that suit the young people in front of them.

The word ‘science’ has been appropriated and it affects policy. The language – ‘evidence-based’, ‘data-driven’, ‘best practice’ – impacts on teachers’ sense of confidence when they are told by authoritative voices that direct instruction is all that works.

Can we trust educational research? It is hard to do; there are nuances and subtleties. What works may hurt and side effects may be toxic. Teachers work with diverse learners every day and they are aware of complexity and multiple goals of education; it is difficult to have hard and fast rules. Teachers are looking for reassurance. They are vulnerable to loud science-backed voices who argue that X works and Y doesn’t.

Our pedagogy has to create a culture where we can play with ideas within a zone of psychological safety. Teachers are mind coaches, like sports coaches. The job of a teacher is to make people want to put in the effort to stretch their brains.

Exploration before explanation. Weave the two together. Think beyond black and white.

Cultures of Thinking in Action

Culture is about the messages and values we internalise. Ron Ritchhart talks about mindsets, principles, and values.

  • Mindsets are a way of seeing something, internalised beliefs.
  • Our principles are our articulated mindsets.
  • Values are evident in the messages we send about what is important in teaching, learning, and what we think is smart.

If we want a culture of thinking for students, then we have to have a culture of thinking for teachers. The way teachers are treated in a school gets mirrored in a classroom. If it is about accountability, strict supervision, and rigid curriculum, then this pressure shifts to the students. As Deb Meier says, “If we don’t fee the teachers, they will eat the children.” When teachers are involved in active discussion, problem-solving, learning from colleagues, questioning practices, trying things and reflecting, then learning goes up for students. Teachers need regular times to meet together to actively engage in conversations, and these should be beyond subject teams. This requires embedded time, driven by teachers, where teachers are active agents in driving the learning. It is about exploring and building on each other’s ideas, meaning-making, asking authentic questions, and wondering. Inquiry should be ongoing and span meetings. It involves dialogue, hypothesising, and living with ambiguity. It is both personal and collective. How do we want to ‘be’ together? Sometimes we gather and prove what we already know. It makes us feel safe and leaves limited room for new insights. Think about really concrete actions. Wouldn’t it be cool if…?

Data is more than test scores and numbers. It can come directly from teacher observation, real student work, and real student interactions.

There is the myth of multi-tasking. The pull of technology is really seductive. 80% of students study with social media on in the background and their performance drops dramatically.

We can’t directly teach dispositions. We need a long-term view. Teaching is often a short-term view. The two master dispositions are curiosity and metacognition.

Learning is a consequence of thinking. The most effective teachers of thinking can answer the question, ‘what kind of thinking?’ They use the language of thinking, they highlight it, and lead with it.

Relationships and interactions are central. We should rethink the grammar of schooling. This is a personal business, kids have stories. We must value and respect people. Do our students feel like we know them? Teaching is made up of moments. How are we building connection with our students? There is the danger of a single story, and we want more rounded, complete students. We all having unwitting biases.

We must change the role of a teacher and students. When teachers hold all the power, student engagement decreases. We need more student talk and teacher listen, and co-construction of curriculum and assessment. “The way a child learns to make decisions is by making decisions, not following directions.” (Alfie Kohn)

Vale Professor Richard Elmore

Very sadly, Professor Richard Elmore from the Harvard Graduate School of Education passed away earlier this year. His research focused on building capacity for instructional improvement and, more recently, on the relationship between the neuroscience of learning and the design of new learning environments. His innovative HarvardX online course, Leaders of Learning, was taken by over 100,000 people.

A decade ago I found myself in Elmore’s class on ‘Supporting Teachers for Instructional Improvement’. In that class, he encouraged us to think about teaching as a “practice,” a body of knowledge in need of regular collaborative review, in the same way that medical doctors and lawyers see their work. After lamenting that educators fail to achieve collective learning (“watching teams operate in schools is like watching Astroturf grow”), he pioneered instructional rounds, modeled on medical rounds, for educators to identify a problem or practice and gather data from a range of classrooms to draw conclusions.

In class, Elmore argued that most school structures are based on adults’ fear of children running out of control and adults always underestimate the capabilities of children. He taught us that the best indicators of student learning are the tasks that they undertake – task predicts performance. Yet the task that students most frequently undertake in schools is listening to a teacher talk.

 He finished the course arguing that schools are operating on a 19th century bureaucratic model, a compliance-oriented structure, based on:

  • Deficit-based versus asset-based models of student learning.
  • Teacher to student versus student to teacher models of authority.
  • Extrinsic versus intrinsic models of motivation.
  • Fixed versus incremental models of intelligence.
  • Cognitive versus social-emotional models of knowledge.
  • Status versus developmental models of performance.

While Elmore believed that there will always be a place like school for students to interact with teachers, he warned that the school education sector as we know it will soon be obsolete. We are increasingly organizing ourselves around social networks and there is more learning going on in social networks than in formal organisations. Chillingly, he concluded, “There is no future in the organizations you used to work in. Our future is not a future of fixed practices. Our future is a future of dramatic transformations. The more I know about learning, the more problematic I find this institution called school.”

In the last decade, Elmore argued that we needed to rethink the concepts of scale and policy in education. He believed that scaling in education focuses on procedural change and never really gets to the deep change in teachers’ beliefs required for effective school improvement. He saw policy as too focused on standardization without taking into account the wide variety of factors that influence learning. Most recently, Elmore had turned his focus to using the emerging “neuroscience of learning” to transform the design of learning environments. 

In 2012 he declared, “I do not believe in the institutional structure of public schooling any more”, and he described his work as “palliative care for a dying institution.” He was inspired by Sugata Mitra’s student-driven learning in Indian slums and he explored outlier organizations that are unleashing powerful learning, like NuVu, Beijing Academy in China, and Redes de Tutoría in Mexico. “A major lesson we have learned from attainment-driven models of schooling is that it is possible to disable human beings as learners by convincing them that they do not have the capability to manage their own learning.” 

In his last podcast, he argued that there is a growing gap between schooling and learning. Learning is central to our survival as a species, but there is not a powerful connection between learning in schools and learning in our lives. Learning is a biological, evolutionary necessity for survival, as opposed to an institutionalized practice. He described schools as toxic physical environments which run counter to learning. Elmore saw the central function of schooling as custody, the second function of schooling is control, the third is to decide privilege through money, rewards, and merit (he found it bizarre that people committed to equity run the machine whose purpose is to create privilege). Learning is merely what we do when time is left over. He felt that learning is migrating away from schooling as a matter of human survival and he encouraged educators to get involved in non-school learning environments.

Elmore likened current schooling practices to the practice of medicine before germ theory. We are learning an enormous amount about learning from neuroscience but it is having virtually no effect on education. Elmore argued that each individual has a unique developmental path, yet we have created institutions that have purposes that are becoming obsolete. He thinks people are just going to walk away. They have chosen to be in institutions that do not support their aspirations. He concluded the podcast by describing the power of learning through a beginner’s mindset and encouraging educators to always have something in their lives that they are a novice at. He touted the work of Alison Gopnick and Sarah Blakemore and encouraged us to read their work with a beginner’s mind. He also recommended Tom Vanderbilt’s book Beginners as a great read for lifelong learning.

Vale Richard Elmore. You were an intellectual giant and you will be missed.