The Ceaseless Offer of Possibility

David Berliner (2002) notes that educational research and social science is often considered ‘too soft, squishy, unreliable and imprecise to rely on as a basis for practice’ when contrasted with the ‘hard’ sciences such as physics, chemistry and geology.

Perhaps this is because in education, we do our ‘science’ under conditions that physical scientists could consider intolerable. We contend with local complexities of socio-economic and cultural circumstance that can limit generalisations and theory building. As such, our ability to understand, predict and control phenomena we study is tough, much to the frustration of those who employ considerable effort to design out methodological inconsistencies or compromising influences. Surely deciding what is important to test, prove or challenge needs to occur first, followed by selecting the instruments and means to enable this. The question of what is important is a social decision that comes before scientific theory.

Consider for a moment the myriad ways in which humans in educational settings are embedded in interconnected and changing networks of social interaction. The people in these networks have considerable influence over each other every time they interact by virtue of what we individually and collectively face; illness, a messy divorce, inclement weather, community tragedy, new school leadership, funding cuts, political instability, domestic trauma etc. Compared to engineering bridge designs or splitting an atom, the science of understanding, helping improve or change an individual, class or school is hard because our contexts cannot be fully controlled.

Knowing the challenges complex human interactions pose to scientific study and research, why might it be that politicians and the sections of the profession are seemingly enticed by evidence-based practices and interventions? Perhaps we could consider them a bridge across the chasm that divides theory and practice, with the messiness of life and relationships in the ravine? Perhaps in the eyes of some, what education is meant to be has suffered a slow and steady erosion for too long. They cannot stand idle and observe wave after wave of fads, directionless leadership and a lack of vision. Seeing education as rudderless, misinformed and a waste of money is enough to rile anyone.

Riep (2016) reminds us that because of a relentless agenda of performance and improvement, education falls victim to being commodified and cloaked in crisis-tendency headlines which usher in ‘evidence’ and specialists as the elixirs of educations woes. This can leave us open to external forces who can reconfigure the concept of education as a common good or constitutionalised as a human right. These forces can also threaten the precious capacity we have for asking new questions about schooling and learning, the ability to challenge dominant orthodoxies through research and speak to policy from the vantage point of experience. We see far too often our work bureaucratically reduced to narrowly defined system inputs, outputs and interventions; inappropriate funding models, inspections, loosely regulated professional standards, testing upon testing … To those with influence, these may seem a perceptibly secure array of approaches and measures. Does the profession view things this way?

The ability to acquire knowledge, learn from practice and experience and share what we are discovering about education seems to have become rendered as something to be bought and sold, something Polanyi (2001) describes as a ‘fictitious commodity’. Jessop (2007) goes on to suggest that in such a ‘crisis-climate’, politicians, prominent educational figureheads, consultants and the like can frame education, particularly knowledge, as ‘artificially scarce’. Despite this, what we have learnt about the educative process is a triumph and testament to all who have contributed to a substantial body of work. We still have to deal with bogus ideas, fads, poor science and a weakly regulated business environment. What we also have however, is a thriving educational research and social science community who, rather than solely working, re-working and experimenting on existing ideas, are prepared to ask new questions and open up the potential to offering unthought-of solutions to emerging complexities.

Not a Poor Relation – The Value of Theory

For as long as I can remember, I have loved books and loved reading. One of the joys of growing up where I did (not too far from Hay-on-Wye) was frequent visits to the acclaimed epicentre of the second-hand book store trade.

Whether it was in a tiny Tudor shop neatly tucked away down a cobbled lane or in a cavernous converted warehouse, I could be found parked at a table or sat in an old dusty armchair flicking my way through books. I had my favourites; old copies of Wisden’s Cricketer Almanac, classic works of geographical or geological literature and foundational works and musings of educational pioneers when I became a teacher.

What I have discovered as I have meandered my way through my career, is the value of reading educational literature, especially theory. I have also noticed how hard it has become. There are so many complexities, pressures and politics associated with it. Time to access, read, digest, reflect and make-sense of research and literature can be an obstacle. Intersecting this are the espousals of individuals, groups, committee’s, organisations and even politicians about what the profession should or shouldn’t be thinking, doing and not doing, reading and not reading. Canon this, canon that, ‘must read’ this or you’re a (insert belief group here), be research informed, substantiate or evidence that…

It is encouraging then to see so many teachers publishing and blogging about practice and sharing their work, tips and research. We are the better for it. However, it seems to me that there is a greater prevalence of practice and the technical aspects of curriculum and pedagogy, over-and-above theory, which I would suggest is of equal value. There seems to be a fixation on the tangible, the measurable, the calculable, the secure and testable and the practically applicable. However, theory can help us investigate our hunches, instincts and tacit knowledge which sculpts our practice. It can suggest practice possibilities. The distinction between ‘theorists’ and ‘practitioners’ seems unsound, unworkable and epistemologically untenable and becomes codified in our ongoing debates. I find the reflections of Brookfield (1995) of interest when considering the value and worth of reading literature on theory (in an expediency-hungry environment). He suggests that:

  • Theory lets us name our practice: by exploring the ideas behind, and depictions of other people’s practice, we can contrast, connect with or think through our own experience;
  • Theory breaks the cycle of familiarity: by reading and thinking about activity and theories that have emerged from beyond our own context, it can be helpful inasmuch as gaining insight into what features of work are locally-specific and which are generic
  • Theory can be a substitute for absent colleagues: if we are unable to connect and work with colleagues in person, shared literature can create a conversation about work or ideas from a distance;
  • Theory prevents groupthink and improves conversation with colleagues: working with educational literature can function as a provocative feature of work that can shake-up comfortably settled frameworks and ideological homogeneity. It is only useful, I would suggest though, if it leads to more thinking that results in action;
  • Theory locates our practice in a social context: we can agonize over effectiveness, appropriateness and meaning in our work. Literature around theory can help us untangle pedagogical puzzles and the politically sculpted nuances within the system we work.

Perhaps where theory comes undone in a relentlessly busy profession, is that it can seem too abstracted, obscure and a sizeable distance from practice. However, it’s worth shouldn’t be underestimated. It is unlikely to manifest itself as a cool infographic, make it into a top 10 ‘books all teachers should read’ poll, be the topic of a teachmeet two or seven minute talk or have a school write about how theory underpins it’s philosophy and practices? Or will it? If we value the thinking about how and why we do what we do and are keen to understand the complexities of our work, engaging with and talking about theory is important.

So how can we engage with educational theory when we are busy and are bombarded with ‘what works’ etc. where the thinking seems to have been done for us? Perhaps instigate or join a reading group? Get involved in a research project? Lobby your school or professional associations for some journal access. This seems to be happening in places across the profession and this is encouraging. For me it comes back to what Gilbert Ryle (1945, 1949) calls the distinction between ‘know-how’ (what teachers do) and ‘know-that’ (teachers being able to explicate what they do). Theory can help us articulate this and robustly engage with ideas and concepts from which practice has emerged.

 

 

 

Opportunity Knocks – Again, and Again, and Again

Last week educational globetrotter and purveyor of all things ‘evidence-based’, Visible Learning, tweeted ‘What is John Hattie working on at the moment?” Before they informed us it was Visible Learning for Parents, my first thought was $kerching$. While some may welcome the umpteenth variation of Visible something-or-other, I am skeptical of this addition to the arsenal of products and wanted to share a few thoughts.

The greasy pig that is the secure relationship between intervention and outcome has been a focus of Hattie and Visible Learning’s output for nearly ten years. It seems that across the globe individuals, schools and professional organizations have hailed Hattie’s meta-analysis as an important step forward in making educational decision-making more evidence-based. It also satisfies those who love a list and rank order (updated 2016). It is understandable that in the quest for certainty in an inherently complex and uncertain place like a school, this work would be welcome.

Hattie is no doubt aware that much has been written about how family involvement with a child’s schooling can affect achievement. That said, a myriad of complexities and nuances prevent the evidence from being reliable enough to anchor down definitive interventions that lead to improvements in achievement. He should ‘know the impact’ I hear you say! Well, is this Hattie’s angle? To fill this lacuna?

The influence of Hattie’s meta-analysis and encompassing rhetoric can be seen in many places, from bookshelves to unit plans, classrooms to conferences, national toolkits to policy. There are products and strap-lines abound to reinforce the brand. We see him commentate on television about school improvement trials which give him access to families and communities’ hearts and minds. He can be seen spanning organizations with significant professional clout to manage up to policy and down to the standards that drive teacher practice. Writing for Pearson, he has reminded us of the Politics of Distraction, those things which ‘don’t work’ and suggests where our efforts and thinking should be channeled. He has also proclaimed in evangelical form that he has a dream for educators to be, wait for it, ‘change agents’. So that’s d = 1.57 right, the ‘collective teacher efficacy’ super factor? He and his work also benefit from an extended partnership between ACEL/Corwin/Visible Learning.

What interests me is the work that has been done to shine a spotlight on the short-comings of using meta-analysis and effect sizes to validate all manner of commercial and educational activity and supposed policy legitimacy. For example, back in 2011 Snook et al wrote a critique of Visible Learning. Of particular note were their concluding concerns. After picking apart the methodological inconsistencies, the authors noted that politicians may use his work to justify policies which he (Hattie) does not endorse and his research does not sanction”. They go on to state that “the quantitative research on ‘school effects’ might be presented in isolation from their historical, cultural and social contexts, and their interaction with home and community backgrounds”.

This final point is of interest when we consider the forthcoming publication of Visible Learning for Parents. What might the book be geared towards? Parents understanding of, and endorsement of school efforts to execute and inculcate strategically selected interventions to improve achievement? Perhaps we may see further brand-strengthening through the introduction of an armada of products and services. There will be a book of course, but what about ($kerching$) an online portal, app or school-home support software to connect schools with parents and families. Perhaps ($kerching$) PD will follow, of course through accredited providers. I dare say the initiative will do the rounds at ($kerching$) conferences the world over, exhorting the vital role parents/families play in the educative process, nailing the critical support of the home situation.

Beyond a schools choice to adopt strategies which anchor themselves in meta-analysis, there is the bigger question of how far up the system chain does the acceptance of intervention effectiveness go and how wide does the sphere of influence extend? Simpson (2017) has noted that our preoccupation with ‘what works’ in education has led to an emphasis on developing policy from evidence based on comparing and combining a particular statistical summary of intervention studies: the standardised effect size.” The paper suggests that research areas which lead to the array of effective interventions are susceptible to research design manipulation – they stand out because of methodological choices. It also asserts that policy has fallen victim to metricophilia: “the unjustified faith in numerical quantities as having particularly special status as ‘evidence’ (Smith 2011)”. Dr Gary Jones does a great job of highlighting this and other worries in his blog post about how this paper puts another ‘nail in the coffin’ of Hattie’s Visible Learning. Similarly, Ollie Orange ably dismantles the statistical concerns of Hattie’s meta-analysis.

The seductive rhetoric of Hattie’s work can be found almost everywhere and certainly seems compelling. However, if education is solely about impact and effect size, i.e. one year’s growth for one year’s input, will this book actually add anything of value to the combined community’s pursuit of improvement in young people’s achievement? With questions being asked of the methodological credibility upon which all else gushes forth, shouldn’t we be questioning how much we buy in to it?

Bears, Books and Bye-Bye’s

People in government office are rarely out of the public eye. Love them or loathe them, we don’t seem to be able to ignore their activity. Some serve with dignity, integrity and have the interests of public good in mind. Others don’t exactly cover themselves in glory by getting involved in some kind of drama, questionable activity or surround themselves with a cadre of folk who can woo and sway ministerial influence with persuasive rhetoric and groupthink.

Take for example an elected minister or a secretary for education. What is it we want from them? What is it we look to them for? Leadership? Open dialogue about education? Support and advocacy for teachers, schools and communities? Wait – support and advocacy OF WHAT though? How much confidence can we have in them, and from where does their credibility come from?

I would suggest that credibility comes from having a background in education itself. It also comes with having the capacity to listen without prejudice to the many varied voices and experiences of a diverse profession. Credible leaders also spend time in a variety of communities and schools, not just strategically targeted ones which provide and confirm a narrative which peddles pre-ordained, ideologically-driven policy and practice. Surely credible leaders at the highest levels should muster a sense of what the needs and aspirations of communities actually are rather than assuming what is required.

Take a look at some existing or proposed education ministers globally. What activity do we see them involved in and what do they communicate to us about their perspective on education and plans for it? We see in Betsy Devos in the US, an inability to answer inquiry questions about private financing of party politics, a disregard for public education, a dismissal of the notion of free further education for the disadvantaged and the astonishing admission that firearms may be permissible in some schools due to the threat of bears! Even her peers are speaking out against her lack of suitability and credibility.. We see other ministers such as Nick Gibb adopt a constative position on educational ideas at major summits (i.e. Davos/WEF 2017), opining and proclaiming a book, thinker or field of thought to be the elixir of educational ills because it resonated with them personally. Meanwhile, other perspectives allegedly fall woefully short of substance or credibility.

Again, what do we think education ministers should be? An ear to, voice piece of, or policy conduit for the most generously funded and hand-picked think tanks, researchers, organisations and individuals with a wide sphere of media influence? The spearhead of an idealist or populist love-in at the theory/policy/practice intersection? A visible, active and empathetic consumer and instigator of conversations, research and practice that ask relevant and exploratory questions about educational needs and policy? I’d suggest the latter.

This question reminded me of a sentiment made by outgoing NSW Minister for Education, Adrian Piccoli;

“There is no great trick to it. It’s about listening to every point of view and sticking to facts and evidence. We never make up policy ‘because it sounds like a good idea.’ Everything we do is based on data and advice from experts, particularly teachers and principals.”

Piccoli acknowledges the central role of school leaders and teachers in shaping strategy and decision. Acknowledging us as ‘experts’ is reassuring as we are the ones in schools and classrooms doing the work, observing and reflecting on what is happening and creating evidence of what works in very particular contexts. This, I would suggest was reflected in the outpouring of kind words and affirmations by many across social media once news of his departure became more widely known.

This may leave us wondering many things; how does a minister assemble a group of informed, open-minded and collaborative people to work with and have critical dialogue with? How can they fairly and sincerely represent the views of all communities they serve? How can they guard themselves against only listening to the loudest voices who may be significantly connected to influential forms of media to espouse their beliefs? How can they defend us from alluring and murky fads and fast policy solutions that Band Aid over new and long-standing issues?

Being an education minister must be a near impossible job with unenviable pressure. It is important for the profession to inform and advise upwards to ministerial level about generative priorities drawn from existing issues and needs rather than react to inheriting policy. Maybe this is occurring to an extent in some countries. Perhaps social media has done this in part, giving people access to high profile officials. Maybe some ministers are listening, but to who, about what and to what end?

The ‘Best’ (who and what exactly)?

Teaching is dizzyingly complex and uncompromisingly pressure-ridden. Teaching is also susceptible to rhetoric and action which promulgates a sense of guilt about not measuring up against expectations and performance of peers and raises personal and public queries over competence. For some, this paralysing guilt can originate from a myriad of sources; excessive work scrutiny, school inspection, lesson observation, appraisal against teaching standards, vigorously peddled ideology and interaction with persons who with sarcasm and pomposity, point out ‘what the research says’, ‘what the evidence is’, and ‘you should be …’. These same people seem to spend an inordinate amount of time in corrective mode, wading in and pointing out the shortcomings or inadequacies of people’s or schools ideas or practices. It all feels so unhealthily competitive and undermining at times.

Who then, in all honesty, could be considered an interlocutor when it comes to identifying who the ‘best’ teachers are and describing and defining what the ‘best’ teachers do, think, read, act like, strive for etc.? Best at what? Best for who? Best to what end? What research or evidence is ‘best’? Have we actually agreed on what ‘best’ is or looks like? I would argue that when ‘best’ is employed to describe or define anything, it can lead to a form of cognitive imprisonment, making us narrowly believe that there is little else needed, sought or researched or we need to change our mind about what we have always believed. The mere utterance of ‘best’ is constraining. As Brookfield (1995) notes, “primarily it serves individuals with a reductionist cast of mind who believe that the dynamics and contradictions of teaching can be reduced to a linear, quantifiable rating system”. He goes on to note that “such epistemologically challenged people sometimes work their way into positions of administrative and legislative power. Believing that learning and teaching are unidimensional, they carve curricula into discrete units and create standardised objectives (and methods) that are meant to be context and culture-proof”.

The idea of ‘best’ can also cause us to ossify into congeries of confusion and self-doubt. I don’t know many teachers who aren’t committed to developing their practice, and that is not to say they aren’t aware of what research and support is out there. They want to smite the crappy jargonistic vernacular, arrest the flow of fads and take a broom to the bureaucracy that coagulates our time and prevents collaboration, progress and developing agency. That said, the many masks and roles we expect our teachers to shift between to be ‘the best’ and showcase the ‘best’ is worrying. Teachers don’t have chromatophores that allow them to quickly blend into and fabricate their ways to meet policy change or shifting school expectations. It’s just not that easy logistically let alone emotionally.

As I mentioned in a previous blog, it seems that professional action is at the forefront of the agenda of education at the moment and professional action needs to be justified and defended. There is a case made by some that nothing should be left to chance. But many commentators are punch-drunk on myth-busting, fad-smashing and having an epiphany about the fact that were led up the garden path and were wrong. They critique the part without addressing the whole. As Ball states (2015), we need to question the ‘necessarian logic’ espoused by policy entrepreneurs, so-called ‘experts’ and those that create the murky swamp that is a business-like or medicalised view of education and ‘what counts’ and ‘what works’.

Teaching shouldn’t be a contest or a pursuit to sort and rank practitioners. Nor should it be a director’s cut with CGI, costumes and clever marketing and promotion trotted out on occasion to extol the views and practice of some and marginalize others. I would argue that when teachers have worked together, thought together and researched together we have ameliorated some pretty big issues and advanced the profession, whereas we have only served to divide and compete with ourselves by creating a sense of ‘the best’.

The River

The warm, gentle evening breeze carved wave-like patterns in the long grass as we trod a path through the meadow. High above birds glided on the last thermals of the day before coming to rest on the branches of the willows that flanked the river. As the light drained away like floodwater an inquisitive face peered up at me. “Daddy, where are they?”

“Just through that gate and down the hill” I replied. Our youngest daughter raised her tiny arms and gestured to me to carry her tired frame. As she nestled into my shoulder she drew a yawn and then whispered to me to hurry up before sleep took her. She was eager to see someone.

We paused some ten metres or so away from two figures sitting motionless on the bank of the river. I turned and stared at the now perked-up four year old I was carrying. The light caught her eyes and just for a moment I saw my father’s playful spirit in them. “We should pounce on them like tiger’s” she said with a grin before asking to be put down on the ground. She placed her little hand in mine and led me slowly and quietly towards her sister and their grandad. Clasping her mouth with both hands she held back giggles to listen closely to the words being spoken which were being carried by the breeze now blowing towards us.

“I taught your father to fish here, you know.” The old man wrapped his arm around our eldest daughter. “He had no patience at all. You are doing far better” he chuckled.

“What else did you teach him grandad? Tell me about when he was a boy please.”

As the shadows grew longer the two moved closer together, cuddling as the temperature dropped and the stars began to adorn the darkening sky. All we could make out was laughter and gesturing as stories were recounted. Soon my father stood up and placed our eldest daughter on his back. They trudged away from the river just as I felt our youngest’s hand lose grip with mine. She raced through the grass and leapt, true to her word, like a tiger. Two became three, hand joining hand.

I turned and walked back through the meadow, content that moments like this were utterly unforgettable and would in time become cherished memories.

My daughters, please understand …

Sadly daddy’s father never became your grandparent. He passed when Daddy was seventeen. Despite the futility of imagining memories such as these and picturing him in your lives had he lived longer, I still feel the collision of gratitude at being your dad on one hand and a sense of grief that he is not here to share in your lives. You occasionally ask me about him. While I am happy to share stories of his life with you, I wish I didn’t have to refer to him in the past tense.

I want you to know that your grandfather was an accomplished engineer, a man who fully understood and appreciated the essence of precision in his work. He also loved his family dearly and knew much about the unpredictable course of life. As a teacher, daddy is forever wrestling with the imprecise and uncertain, but he is grateful for having learnt from grandad to accept and work through opportunity and adversity and understands that attempts to fully control life eventually controls us, our relationships and processes. I look at you and remind myself not to be impatient to see you grow up, but to be attentive right now and prepared to vacillate with change as it presents itself. Daddy knows that he has been hostage to grandad’s memory, but rather than erode it in order to heal, he is committed to depositing lessons and stories about him with you in order to help you understand part of where we come from.

Does the Shoe Fit?

 

“Oh, I think I’ve landed

In a world I hadn’t seen

When I’m feeling ordinary

When I don’t know what I mean”

 (Coldplay – Head Full of Dreams)

Cleaning out a classroom or office at the end of a year is nothing out of the ordinary. Feeling nervous about opening something that was given to you more than a year earlier is.

In 2015 I was given the exciting and equally terrifying opportunity to be Acting Principal for a term while ours was on a sabbatical. I remember feeling stunned and honoured to be asked if I wanted to undertake the task, but soon felt the corporeal response in me as the gravity of what was involved sank in. What I can say with every degree of confidence is that the stint ‘in the chair’ had a huge impact on me emotionally and aspirationally.

I remember trying to conceive what it might be like, predict what might happen and envision who and what I would have to become in order to act with reason, integrity and trustworthy leadership. I figured I couldn’t entirely be myself. I had to acknowledge the unique personal and situational factors that would shape my experience. I was taking up the post in my current school and so many things about the place were familiar to me – people, places, routines and general processes. Would that be an advantage? I am a consultative and collaborative school leader and value the experience, thinking and contributions of others. Could I continue to be that person but not interfere with other people’s business knowing ultimate responsibility for the school lay with me? I am reflective and proceed with work in a considered fashion. How would I cope if I needed to make snap decisions or take decisive action? I wrestled with these in the lead-up to the experience, during it and in my reflections since.

I had some coaching to prepare me for the opportunity. I was made aware of any significant meetings, pending decisions, matters of business, looming deadlines and I had constructed a sense of what it could be like from observing our Headmaster at work, through literature I had read and from speaking with others in comparable positions. I was very grateful for this. The reality was significantly more complex and challenging than I anticipated. I learnt a lot about myself. With new responsibilities and with new tasks I quickly discovered what I could do and what I struggled with, how I had to work with others differently, how I would have to communicate differently and how I would need think in new strategic and whole-school ways. It was learning, albeit at a very steep gradient.

A few weeks into the role, a mysterious and pretty looking box was left on my temporary desk. I remember studying it for some time wondering what on earth it could be. It wasn’t my birthday. I hadn’t done anything to warrant a gift. Had we had school visitors who wanted to leave behind a token of appreciation? I don’t tend to enjoy surprises, so cautiously lifted the latch which sealed the box. Like a curious kid I slowly opened the lid and sat perplexed at what greeted me. On the top, partially obscuring the items beneath it was a card.

fullsizerender

I sat trying to digest the sentiments expressed inside the card. A colleague who I rarely have anything to do with had taken the time and effort to craft some very touching words about how they had faith in me, they were behind me and I was appreciated by the community. Beneath the card were a number of trinkets (click on the image to see more closely), emblematic of how my colleague perceived the pressures of Principalship.

How did my colleague’s perceptions match my reality? Here is what I discovered;

  • It can be very lonely at the top. Some things remain at the top, should be at the top and need to be worked through at the top. This isn’t necessarily because of a trust deficit, but more to do with the responsibility of the portfolio of work and accountabilities. I had to become equally comfortable with occupying the public face of the school, interacting with a wide array of people and groups, and at times becoming the background, allowing others to do their work and act with freedom and responsibility.
  • I had to accept that I would be the focus of some conversations, speculation and a new range of behaviours and reactions from the community as I assumed this new position. I do not mean this is an egotistical way, more as an acceptance that it is was matter of fact. My visibility and activity altered and that was noticeable. It left me feeling uneasy in a context with established norms, reputations and relationships. This left me feeling anxious, not to please, be accepted or receive affirmation, but getting a sense of how people would receive me when returning to a role I love, had worked hard at and crafted over time. I had to be treated differently for the term but didn’t want be looked at differently.
  • It takes remarkable courage. We have all encountered the Headteacher/Principal figure whether from our school days, from work or both. They symbolise something significant in the educative experience. Diplomatic or authoritative, visionary or operational, limelight-seeking or quiet, they shape culture and do work that is remarkably challenging and takes courage in many forms. I will not sit in judgement of any Principal/Headteacher. Whatever context the school is in, what I have discovered is that what they face is complex and sometimes invisible. There is much to be admired about them and much to be learnt about courage.
  • It left me feeling vulnerable. The challenges I encountered raised my blood pressure, made me weep, made me laugh, filled me with excitement and fulfilment, prevented me from eating on occasion, struggle to switch off, be deprived of sleep and question my capabilities. I became aware of performing my performativity and this was energy sapping. This might be a reflection of my skill and readiness for heading up a school or it could be simply circumstantial.

The generous and thoughtful gift from my colleague resides on my desk and stands as a reminder that despite my personal preconceptions of the role, others have perceptions of me and Principalship that I cannot control and I have to be comfortable with that. My challenge is dealing with being comfortable with being uncomfortable and the uncertainty of a role of this magnitude. I am not sure whether being the head of a school is my path, but like lifting the latch of the box, I am not completely closed on the possibility one day.

 

 

Gratitude and the Horizon

Another year in school is done (at least in Australia anyway) and so begins a time for myself and many other teachers to have some rest and switch off from work mode for a while. I find it quite hard to switch off immediately although I know I need to. Winding down is gradual. I tend to reflect a fair bit as part of the process, thinking about what was or wasn’t achieved this last year, what I have learnt and what I can be thankful for. I have decided to focus in this piece on my learning and what and who I am grateful for. On Twitter I try to do my bit to share what I am learning,  thinking, researching or reading. I also like to acknowledge the thoughts and generosity of those who do the same by committing to blogging, share their work and draw attention to matters that I feel strongly about.

Normally I am not a ‘list person’, but in this reflection, I am going to share ‘five lists of five’. Why five I m not sure. The lists consist of people, ideas, opportunities and work that I am thankful for in 2016 as they have all challenged my thinking, influenced my blogging, provided me some hope in education, offered support for the work I do in my school and importantly, kept my mind and heart open to possibilities rather than fixed on some educational event horizon or protracted debate where no ground is being made. My work leading teaching, learning, coaching and research in my school keeps me well and truly occupied, but I have been interested in, frustrated by or dumfounded by issues this year such as the ‘quality’ agenda, what does/does not count as research and evidence, the seemingly exponential infiltration of edubusinesses into many aspects of education (products, conferences, technology systems etc.) and the slow-dancing of some sections of the profession with self-appointed ‘experts’ and pseudo celebrity-like eduguru’s peddling their merchandise or ideology.

Before I get started … Disclaimer – I understand that we tend to gravitate towards those we find affinity with, but sometimes even those folk have a deep well of challenges for us, not just confirmation and affirmation. You might get sick of all the links, but it is my attempt to share and connect people and ideas (if you wish to engage them). Let me be clear, this is not intended to be some love-in or me propagating platitudinous guff.

  1. Blogs:

I enjoy reading many people’s ideas, reflections and reviews. Among the hundreds I have read this year, the following five pieces have really made me pause, ask difficult questions and gain some clarity:

  • The Transcendent Educator and the Curious Case of Educational Boards – in which Marten Koomen raises important questions about the murkiness and potential conflict of interests of high profile folk in education sitting in and across multiple professional bodies, think tanks, awarding bodies etc. and who have significant sway in shaping educational discourse and even policy formulation.
  • Do Teachers Care Too Much? is a deeply moving piece by Naomi Barnes in which she broaches the terrifying responsibility of being a teacher; caring about students, advocating for them, never knowing what might happen from one day to the next and the emotional exhaustion that our profession creates in us;
  • Holding Out For a Hattie by Corinne Campbell challenges the ‘hero teacher’ trope, unhelpful binaries and hollow evangelism of eduguru’s who foist the guilt-inducing ‘quality’ agenda on us. Some of their espousals and mantra’s disenfranchise elements of the profession but would have you believe that if you don’t subscribe to the kool aide, you are clearly missing something. We aren’t;
  • What ‘no excuses’ and ‘zero tolerance’ really means by Linda Graham tackles a common discourse (it seems) across edutwitter (and perhaps further afield), in approaches to discipline, behaviour management and the ways in which this is articulated locally through school policies and it’s engagement with families and community around expectations and their philosophical stance;
  • Defining Teacher Professionalism is a powerful recollection of Jean-Louis Dutaut’s College of Teaching address in May this year. He talks about the deprofessionalisation of educators as a result of multiple layers of bureaucracy and calls for a teacher and researcher-led profession that recognises our work, breaks the chain of circling wagons and has us leading the directions of education by ‘flipping the system’ and speaking up into the decisions from the ground-up.

2. Books:

I read profuse amounts for both my role requirements and personal interest. I try to ensure that I keep abreast of as wide and varied array of material as possible so as not to logjam my thinking with too much bias. The following five books have stood out and resonated with me. They all brilliantly articulate their central messages, raise critical questions about issues, players, politics and democracy on the educational landscape. They also offer practical solutions and suggestions for transparency, positive change and a reinvigorated discourse on issues that range from individual teachers to the workforce, students to testing regimes, ethics to philosophy.

3. Papers/Studies:

I try to keep across what my role needs me to be aware of theoretically, practically and necessarily and enable me to learn from engaging with research. The following five papers/studies (sorry if any are paywalled) have deeply challenged me, affirmed the work of my school and created clarity in my thinking about forces that shape education and work of teachers and leaders for better or worse. These works have implications for professional practice at all levels from the classroom to policy levels.

4. Experiences and challenges that I have enjoyed in 2016;

  • Learning from others – there are simply too many to mention, but I have been challenged and caused to reflect on all manner of educational matters by the likes of Danny Brown, Tim O’Brien, Stew Riddle, Andrea Stringer, Tomaz Lasic, Matt Esterman, Mercedes Schneider, Mark Johnson and Donelle Batty to name a few;
  • #educoachOC – it has been a joy this year to co-moderate the monthly chat, designed to pull together educators embedding coaching practices in their respective contexts and sharing reflections, research and ideas. Enormous thanks go to Corinne Campbell, Deb Netolicky and Chris Munro for their support, commitment and hard work;
  • Harvard Project Zero, Shore School Sydney – presenting at, and attending this conference was a treat. Organised by the amazing Cam Paterson, we saw Australian teachers share practice in the areas of cultures of thinking and other aligned Harvard projects;
  • Co-presenting at Education Nation – teaming up with Corinne Campbell allowed us both to explore and present on the topic of coaching in education and teacher agency. Drawing heavily on the work of Biesta, Priestley and Robinson (2015), we were able to challenge the participants with the idea of iterative practice and professional identity formation;
  • Working at my wonderful school – with great leadership, colleagues and a vision and direction that I am proud to be part of.

5. What am I looking forward to in 2017?

  • Blogs: I am really looking forward to more blogging from folk who give me hope, champion causes that matter greatly and really interest me. In particular, the brilliant Natalie Scott, Charlotte Pezaro, Aaron Davies, Nancy Gedge and Whatonomy;
  • An eye on technology: Ben Williamson is doing some stunning work out of the University of Sterling keeping an eye on the pervasive and sometimes uncritical consumption of technology in education. He writes particularly on the influence of powerful mergers of corporations, platforms and products and the impact they have on data and privacy of students and school communities. You can read his blog here;
  • Flip The System: I am excited by the forthcoming Flip The System book focused on the UK and future editions from other countries. I am committed to this movement as a strong supporter of building the conditions for heightening teacher agency, sharing ideas and collaborating on work that make a positive difference for the workforce and students;
  • More watchdog-like activity on corporatising education: the sometimes covert manoeuvres of business and for-profit models of education seem to be rampant around the globe. I look forward to contributions from the likes of Mercedes Schneider, Education International (EI) and Chris Lubienski to keep us across what is being happening, where and by who, and raise our awareness through exposing practices that would see profit prioritised before educational good;
  • Writing another reflection that would suggest a successful and fulfilling year has just passed.

Congratulations for getting this far. Profuse apologies if this came across as an Oscar’s acceptance speech, saccharine-sick and replete with unconnected fragments of my year that looks like some polyvalent mind has been at work. I assure you it has been a challenging but fulfilling year. I fully appreciate that you may not be interested in the same people and work that I am, but I am pleased that there is great diversity and plurality of thought and perspectives here in Australia, and in other folk around the world. I hope 2016 finishes well for you.

PISA Hits Snake Mountain

(Skeletor) “Beast Man, Trap Jaw, Mer-Man, Evil Lyn, get in here now you clots!”

(Evil Lyn) “Yes boss, what is it?”

(Skeletor) “How in Heaven’s name do you explain these PISA figures? We’ve fallen behind Eternia.”

(Trap Jaw) “Ugh dunno boss.”

(Skeletor) “What do you mean you don’t know? How have we performed so badly? What’s wrong with these teachers? I want a full scale Inquiry!”

(Mer-Man) “That wouldn’t do any good boss, it’s proven ineffective.”

(Skeletor) “Hey? What is it with you, can’t you follow direct instruction?”

(Beast Man) “Ah yes, sure. What do you want us to tell the rest of the teaching staff? We’re mandating instructional approaches? Doing more testing? Pile on the guilt with the full arsenal of analyses? Blame specific parts of the realm for underperformance?”

(Skeletor) “Are you kidding me? Let the media do all the hack work building public scrutiny, apply proper pressure through performance related pay, inviting Eternian teachers in to show us how to do the job properly, and if that don’t work, get creative, no excuses!”

(Evil Lyn) “You sure that’s wise boss, you’ll make them feel uniformed and substandard.”

(Skeletor) “Just tell em!”

Later:

(Skeletor) “Beast Man, now the teachers are distracted by the media and the public fallout, start greasing the cogs and get things in place for the next two years. If we play our cards right, we can commission a massive edubusiness to tell us what we already know by making up some test for stuff that doesn’t exist, and the thinktanks can go into overdrive to promulgate research that confirms what politicians want to hear and see happen.”

(Evil Lyn) “Ok boss, so a bit of fast policy? Anything in it for us?”

(Skeletor) “Ah, just some visibility, the chance to dominate the education debate with our cleverly coordinated blogging and PR juggernaut and cut a share in some fait accompli deals and policies. Not much.”

(Evil Lyn) “Sweet. I love for-profit education.”

(Skeletor) “Yep, and we can camouflage deeper issues with quick fixes, silver bullets and tin foil for pomme de terre’s.”

(Evil Lyn) “Ha ha, there’s a book in that, genius boss.”

(Skeletor) “Already done you oaf! We wrote it last year, didn’t you get the memo?”

(Evil Lyn) “You crafty Neo-Marxist!”

Observation-Theory Tensions

My professional practice often has me thinking about the ‘observation-theory’ relationship, particularly in light of post humanism that alerts us to the language we use, and the language we reject. These reflections also bring to mind how Popper used to say ‘observation is always observation in light of theories … conventionalism is a system which is self-contained and defensible’. So on the one hand there is the rightful need for accountability within a system that is self-contained. Then on the other hand there is the justified demand for innovation and creativity that necessarily lie outside these systems. How does the practice of teacher observation reconcile these tensions?

Professional action is at the forefront of the agenda of education at the moment and professional action needs to be justified and defended. There is a case made by some that nothing should be left to chance. But many commentators are punch-drunk on myth-busting, fad-smashing and having an epiphany about the fact that were led up the garden path and were wrong. They critique the part without addressing the whole. As Ball states (2015), we need to question the ‘necessarian logic’ espoused by policy entrepreneurs, so-called ‘experts’ and those that create the murky swamp that is a business-like or medicalised view of education and ‘what counts’ and ‘what works’. It is made all the more problematic when professional associations are prone to mergers and adopt a myopic view of what teaching can and should be visible as, even what education should be.

My professional practice and work with coaching partnerships suggests Australian Professional Standards for Teachers are not able to address these tensions. There are others who feel the same.

What really grabs me is the emphasis placed on the complex business of observing for the purpose of determining the quality of teaching. All Teachers have at some point engaged with some kind of educational theory and educational research on learning. There are bog-standard positions floating around at conferences and across edutwitter about ‘proxies for learning’ and also about the problematic of observing – but this seems to be predicated on naming and noticing desired observable features of lessons as measured by some version of student action or outcome. We then tend to ascribe some performative judgement about effectiveness with a side-dish of feedback and advice about ‘how to actually do it’ – corrective action if you will. Of course, we have our gaze fixed on the learning, but correcting the professional action of teachers.

For me this is problematic and lays bare gaps in the observation-theory relationship. If we are consumed by the essential need to use scientific approaches to teaching and student learning, how then do we control for the invariant element, the students? This might bother those who lean ostensibly on science and evidence to design out inconsistencies or the possible problems with not seeing what was intended. The language we use to describe anything that cannot be qualified or quantified seems to be rejected. Do we really want the privilege of observing colleagues to be reduced to a process of technocratic solutions and one-off judgements over a mosaic of practice over several episodes and dialogue about reflection leading to growth? There is a risk of an unacknowledged shift from ‘input legitimacy’ (values and purposes) to ‘output legitimacy’ (standards and performance) (Ball, 2015) at the expense of professional agency because of the educational ‘impatience’ to get results (Biesta, 2015).

I have a problem with a direct ‘just tell them’ approach to feedback on teaching, especially when it is either discipline or professional knowledge that is the subject in question. Teaching is an object of study that is complex and multi-faceted. Criteria of validity seems insufficient but also pre-ordained, thus stultifying the right of a teacher to research and professionally form iteratively. If observing teaching is about studying the phenomena of learning, then technical control of the process is surely the focus of observation. However, if we lean ostensibly on cognitive science to help us understand and plan for successful predictions of learning, do we have complete certainty? I am not uncertain.

So there might be an empiricist relation between the language of observation and theoretical language of practice, but there needs to be a reflexive relation between the two in order to explore the potential of practice. Conventionalism eschews uncertainty, but teaching is not that simple and neither is categorising teachers according to how conventional they are. That is also not right. Professional action operates in the domain of the variable not the eternal. That’s because we are working with people, not inanimate objects which can be manipulated to suit a desired outcome.