Flip the System Australia – Panel Presentation

Geography and time have been obstacles that Deborah Netolicky, Cam Paterson and I have had to overcome in the creation of Flip the System Australia. Given that 1000’s of miles and different time zones separate us, coordinating the assembly has been challenging at times, but worth every minute. We are merely the editors, but it has been our privilege to receive, read and include in the book the contributions of a wide variety of people involved in Australian education and a few who take interest from afar.

As Cameron and Deborah have already written, the three of us met for the first time in the same place on Wednesday this week. We were afforded the opportunity to speak at a national leadership conference about the Flip the System movement and discuss key themes from the book. For my part I spoke about challenges of ‘leading’ in education (at any level), given the climate of seemingly relentless reform, a political rhetoric that is largely deficit in its description of our efforts, and considerable social change which impacts the fabric of our schools and communities.

What follows are some of the key questions I posed to the audience, as well as some observations and reflections on the chapters and vignettes on the topic.


How do you like your leaders and their leadership? Predictable, reliable, doing things you could do yourself which fill you with a sense of security and familiarity? Perhaps you prefer someone that challenges you to think deeply and critically about your work, supports you when needed and makes a decision you might struggle to comprehend, but grow to fully appreciate with time? This might be tough to answer because those who introduce the act of leadership into our professional lives have to perform multiple identities due to internal and external requirements. This may mean that we experience approaches and activity that make the objectives of leading, and our associated relationships with power complicated. Hyper accountability, school competition and performance measures bring with them a retinue of demands which can, for some schools, guide or constrain progress towards organisational goals.  

Keddie (2016) and Heffernan (2016, 2018) both note that schools with some degree of self-governance, still experience constrained autonomy, the consequence of accountability protocols which require them to comply with department or national statutes. Leading any kind of professional practice in schools, it seems, is largely defined for us. It is regulated by a pervasive array of standards and regulations that orbit schools. Leadership, and therefore many institutional functions, are ultimately measureable and comparable. This may satisfy some who value uniformity or the strict attendance to expectation. However, to others, being able to perform ‘standards’ seem less to do with professional agency and more to do with centralised compliance.

Evidence, data and scientific measurement have made the surveillance of leadership and elements of school activity ever more visible. Under such scrutiny and with increasingly tighter capital and resource pressures, there is a sense that we must have instructional warranties or airtight strategy to validate our educational thinking and extract any risk that return on investment will not be realised. In such demanding times, it is no wonder that the profession is becoming sceptical and frankly judicious about what to believe, who to believe, who to be led by, or in fact, is demanding leadership of a different type and kind.

Celebrities of education who pack conference halls and shower us dopamine-inducing narratives about moral purpose or teaching precision, are playing their parts in sculpting a reform agenda that see us becoming stuck between a sense of hope (but with little substance behind the words), or mere technicians. The alacrity with which these high profile individuals peddle their select few studies or fields of evidence (or a complete lack thereof), is becoming tiringly familiar. It can conjure a sense of mistrust or that education requires ‘outside-in’ solutions. 

We are minded of how susceptible education has been to the influence of those who would foist upon us reform and models of leadership to facilitate such reforms. Duncan Waite, writing in 2016 notes:

We must be ever alert to charlatans and those others who would attempt to turn our love and longing for human fulfilment into taking up their reforms. We must expose the charlatans and demagogues, profit mongers and the rest. We must scrutinize even the most popular of reformers, for the herd is easily swayed by celebrity and by the ‘research says’ academics, the ‘brain-based,’ ‘what works’ and ‘best practices’ purveyors of reform. Locally produced, thoughtful responses to immediate educational problems and situations, while not sexy, slick and seductive, are likely to be the best, most appropriate educational reforms we can find. We must rise to the challenge. It is our responsibility as teachers and as educators.”

Flip the System Australia shows us that there is leadership in Australian education that overcomes unreasonable and unjust structures, remoteness and isolation, threadbare resourcing, boutique and deprofessionalising fads and predictably sanitised solutions to deep and complex problems. The testimonies reveal that there is resistance, that school communities (and most importantly teachers) are being led in ways that deliberately endow them with the capacity to research, think, plan and act that and elevate professional status. These largely unrecorded ordinary folk (who we know to be only a sample and snapshot), shine a spotlight on how to harness the knowledge and skills of internal expertise, prioritise trust and autonomy to allow teachers to make improvements in teaching and learning and support communities. This is something more than merely requiring us to be technically proficient and materially efficient.

You will read about important work undertaken at the coalface to forge trusting school cultures that value rigorous professional learning, robust professional and disciplinary knowledge and skills, give school success a wider and more encompassing definition, and operate respectful and democratic places of work. Rebecca Cody powerfully attests the challenges and opportunities of ‘riding two wild horses’, desiring to thrive as a school whilst satisfying compliance and accountabilities. Paul Browning shares his thoughts on practices and approaches that leaders can focus on in order to create workplaces that are characterised by trust that can lead to effective collegial work and relations. Sue Bradbeer addresses some challenges she has experienced as a woman leading in a rural setting, and Ray Trotter depicts the journey his small Victorian school has taken to transform the essence of learning for their students in the face of socio-economic impediments.

Huberman (1989, 1993) wrote about why policy (and its translation on the ground) should not reduce teachers and school leaders to mere technocrats, defining the precise parameters of thinking and practice. While this might have the appeal of creating a secure relationship between practice and outcome, he argued that this does little to project a positive and affirming image of teaching or leadership as a career-long project, one that has status, agency and a valuable public identity. Equally, he goes on, we must not be compelled to become martyrs or missionaries. The aims and objectives of flipping the system (as a global movement) should propel efforts to reclaim a place at the table of policymaking by teachers and leaders. It seeks action in order to achieve plurality of agency and leadership that opposes and resists the rise of quick, populist solutions, anti-intellectualism, unnecessary compliance and mistrust of teachers as unthinking and uncritical folk.

What is needed and wanted for teachers and their work in schools is a combination of circumstance and aspiration. Suggesting that there is a clear scientific or evidence-based approach that can overcome Australia’s vast geographic separations, considerable inequality and conflicting system stances on the purpose of education, is troubling. That is not to say that evidence cannot tell us useful things. Creating a sense of how we can move to overcome these burdens, achieve purposeful outcomes for students and create the conditions to support effective teacher working, requires consensus. The book notes a desire for coalition and networked knowledge sharing to achieve these things, but also solidarity with solidity, a commitment to overcome political and ideological motivations that hinder progress. Clarity and coherence sit at the core of this. When we are divided on key matters, it can create opportunities for constructive debate, but debate must lead somewhere. Scott Eacott summarises the intention aptly in his chapter contribution to the book;

“As a profession, to think relationally … means that our actions can be justified and defended on the basis of an explicitly articulated vision for education. Through clarity and coherence educators can establish the narrative to which they are held accountable… For too long in Australia (as with elsewhere), educators have allowed others to set the agenda. The time is now to articulate an alternate vision for educating and through coherent actions lead the narrative of schooling.”

In the end, leadership is essential to education. However, top-down approaches have limited effect when accountability is wielded as the way by which to get the profession to cohere. Our leaders and teachers have strong ideas and evidence about what is locally needed and what ‘might’ work at scale. Some of these ideas may prove to be inconvenient truths for policymakers, but those closest to the action speak truth to power. We hope this book provides a helpful contribution to ongoing educational thinking and action.


Heffernan, A. (2016). The Emperor’s perfect map: Leadership by numbers. The Australian Educational Researcher, 43(3), 377-391.

Heffernan, A. (2018). The Principal and School Improvement. Springer.

Huberman, M. (1989). The professional life cycle of teachers. Teachers’ College Record, v91(1), 31-80.

Huberman, M. (1993). The lives of teachers. London: Cassell.

Keddie, A. (2016). School autonomy as ‘the way of the future’: Issues of equity, public purpose and moral leadership. Educational Management Administration and Leadership, v44 (5), p713-727.

Waite, D. (2015). Of Charlatans, Sorcerers, Alchemists, Demagogues, Profit-Mongers, Tyrants and Kings: Educational Reform and the Death by a Thousand Cuts. Urban Review: Issues and Ideas in Public Education, v48 n1 p123-148 Mar 2016

In Search of Perspectives: Contemplations and Provocations

I have just completed my 20th year of teaching. I have found the work exhilarating, uplifting and fulfilling at times as well as frustrating, disappointing and isolating on occasion. Recently I have reflected on how these vacillating emotions and experiences are the product of where I have worked, the regimes I have worked under, of my own doing and partially as a consequence of forces beyond the control of schools through the exertions and interference of politics.

Teaching in different settings has afforded me unique intellectual and professional challenges. I feel I have continually benefitted from meeting, working with and learning from people of varying experience, differing outlooks on the purpose of education and diverse attitudes to teaching methodology. I have always sought the perspectives of others on a range of matters and used them in combination with research to make better decisions. Perspectives have also helped me to make sense of the complex intersection of personal investment and collective agency in teaching.

I have extended this search for perspective online and try to locate those who offer me insight and new ways to think about existing ideas and things I wish to understand better, such as education reform as business strategy, the growing concern around technological surveillance in schooling and the reconfiguration of teacher identity, professionalism and wellbeing in the face of altering power discourses. I have found such people and been encouraged by their intelligent and courageous tussles with their truths or interests. I want to share some of these people’s contemplations and provocations they offered in 2017 and hope you find them as interesting as I do.

Tomaz Lasic rarely blogs, but when he does, it is worth every minute of your time. In So You Want To Teach? he thoughtfully and thoroughly explores what someone who is thinking about teaching as a career might want to consider. Teaching is hard work and requires us to be at our most human, not merely operating in a metronomic fashion, striving for precision when it’s almost impossible to homogenise the heterogeneous – students, and schools. Tomaz nudged me (and probably anyone who read the piece) to remember that questions of utility and purpose of education are as important as the preoccupation with content and method. We have a responsibility to think critically and constructively about both, and do both. This isn’t an easy project but is something we need to be prepared to do. The dialogue and decisions about what could be, needs to be led by and owned by the profession rather than influenced by those who commentate from a distance and wilfully construct visions of the future which might cause apprehension on one hand or premature and blind acceptance of what might teleport us there with expediency.

The affective labour created by the cacophony of futurist rhetoric propelled by spurious and worrisome data and slick wordsmithery, can throw us into confusion about what to do next, when to do it and with what resources. While the effect will likely vary from person-to-person and school-to-school, the sense of needing to measure up and be prepared seems hard to avoid, especially when those with influence call us to care more and do more to meet educational horizons with verve and excitement rather than proceeding with caution. Two pieces that really resonated with me about this were Benjamin Doxtdator’s skilful tackling of the popular futurist trope of educating our children for ‘jobs that don’t exist yet’ and the tale of 60 years of construction beyond schooling and it’s gradual infiltration into our sphere by those who stand to profit from uncertainty. In the same way Naomi Barnes offered us 20 Thoughts on Automating Education. This short and powerful piece steps us through the converging worlds of monetising uncertainty, the seductive narrative built around the future skills market, technological disintermediation of schooling and how democratic participation in decisions about what education can be for are under threat from automation and AI.

With all these scenario’s playing out, there is a considerable amount for teachers to process when we broach the issue of burgeoning change, workload and accountability and the effect on our mental health. What passes as acceptable and reasonable, and who speaks into the decisions about how to address it (locally and systemically) is something we should feel obligated to prioritise. We have to contend with the competing priorities of policy after policy and the work that accrues as a result. Teachers care a great deal about their work and we are very effective at taking care of what we care about or compelled to care about, except perhaps ourselves. Mark Johnson provided an important reminder of why taking a slow and steady approach to work can bring repair and balance in this honest and touching account.

On a similar note Tom Rogers offered his heart-rending story about the battle with his mental health when blogging for the TES. In it we could feel the visceral outpouring of accumulated anxiety, guilt and pressure which had silently eroded his confidence and self-care. Consequently Tom initiated a beautiful and powerful professional service to many by crowd-sourcing Twitter support and counselling for those suffering in their own way. Hundreds of people generously volunteered their time and experience in this move to connect people who might ordinarily feel apprehensive or unable to share their troubles with others with those who would seek to show solidarity and care. You can see the start of it here. This gave me a sense of optimism that teachers and school leaders stand side-by-side for each other irrespective of how far or near they are geographically, institutionally and ideologically.

Finally, Sherri Spelic reminded me that teachers have tremendous agency waiting to happen. Despite feeling like we are at the nadir of the system, buried under a policy scrapheap, Sherri urges us to remember, in her beautiful and resonant “Letting Go Of Schooling To Think About Education”, that we are close to the action unlike those who tighten the clasp of precision-seeking policy that reduces our professionalism to merely the calculable and accountable. This blog was neatly timed with the exciting arrival of Flip the System UK: A Teachers Manifesto. In here we find echoes of Sherri’s sentiments that there are powerful voices to be heard and stories to be shared about how to do education differently to place the emphasis on making good educational decisions in the hands of those with direct experience.

Perspectives and accounts of experience are a rich source of information about what education is, feels like, can be and should be. The articulation of them is a barometer of trust in that when matched with a serious intent to listen, pay attention, engage and not judge them, we value people and can enrich dialogue about how to make teaching fulfilling, learning worthwhile and the purpose ethical and equitable.

Autonomy – A Sorry Second?

At a recent educational event I sat as a practicing teacher and school leader with a panel of academics who have written about and studied autonomy extensively. They have worked with schools and teachers to better understand autonomy as an educational phenomena and a political instrument. My argument was that autonomy is constrained and is offered with conditions. What we really want is agency, what we get is autonomy.

Teachers inherently like to be trusted, to be viewed and treated as professionals and feel that they are making decisions about practice which are in the best interests of students. Teachers I would argue also like to have a say in how they explore and hone their practice and sculpt their thinking to attend to their own ongoing development. At every level, I wonder to what extent this is being fostered? Why might autonomy be problematic?

Autonomy doesn’t merely exist because a minister or school leader says it does or because they extol the views of a prominent commentator on matters of schooling. At the point of encounter, autonomy becomes susceptible to multiple influences, many of which are tough to manage. Autonomy also doesn’t exist because we might want a stealthy intermarriage between espousing trust in teachers while expecting them to meet standards; i.e. “we want you to feel trusted and feel you have choices, but trust us, this is what we are told works. So we can PD you in these methods which work. You can choose between them.” In an era of hyper-accountability and the intensification of uncertainty, autonomy, it could be argued, has been wielded as a rhetorical device to suggest freedom of choice, freedom to practice as we see fit ideologically, and freedom to control education to meet the ends and aims of those who ultimately govern us.

I would argue that autonomy is largely ‘defined’, both theoretically and practically at system level, then ‘constrained’ at the local level to meet demands. This means that it is hard to generalise what autonomy is and it appears flawed at the point of conception of purpose if outcomes are pre-determined. I say this as autonomy feels more akin to reduction of thinking and rejection of educational possibilities, whereas agency proposes new avenues for thinking, reflection and examination of our role in the education of young people. Agency seems more-and-more necessary in our work as momentum builds to conspicuously market particular methods or ways of thinking.

As movements such as Flip the System gain momentum, I believe we are impelled to consider our agency if we want to rearticulate what it means to be trusted while taking full responsibility for our actions as a contribution to other people’s education as well as our own. As Naomi Barnes notes in her reflections on Biesta and Tedder’s (2006) exploration of how agency could be possible, agency doesn’t come from nowhere, it is “something we volunteer”, it builds on the past (experience and professional narrative) and is acted on in the present as we notice patterns of what is making a difference in both our practice and consequently student outcomes.

If teacher agency is something that we wish to see schools build, that doesn’t artificially extent trust but does expect us to take responsibility for our growth and improve outcomes for students, there is some reflection to be had and some questions to ask:

  • What risk is there in striving for agency over-and-above constrained autonomy?
  • Who is defining autonomy?
  • On whose terms is autonomy being articulated?
  • Whose rhetoric, research or evidence is being situated within the promise of autonomy? Has this been democratically decided on?
  • How is autonomy being used to meet standards or goals?
  • Is autonomy funnelling and narrowing practice and thinking to a few prescriptions or ‘choices’?
  • Is there an opportunity to resist? What are the cultural and organisational consequences?

Agency is not something that one can have, “like a property, capacity or competence … it is something people do” (Biesta, Priestley and Robinson (2015). How will we know what could work best if we reject ideas or educational possibilities under the umbrella of autonomy, which can do the thinking for us beforehand? I do not mean that we should eject all evidence or become mavericks, but there is much to be said for asking expansive questions about what else can be done and how else we can grow. This is why Jessie Strommel’s tweet really has me thinking … and perhaps you also. If agency promises us possibilities, why settle for autonomy? Of course, we have to get on with ‘doing the work of education’, but at what cost to new thinking and the chance to develop agency?


Back From The Future: The Optimism Trap

“Optimism can become a trap when it encourages investment in promises about the benefits of education that cannot be realized for all.” (Sellar, 2016)

To all intents and purposes, the implicit and orthodox model of educational ideas is unavoidably optimistic. In fact, the future seems to be the basis for educational thought. We look ahead, plan ahead and are propelled by a desire for progress. We seem to have an insatiable appetite for signals that reassure us that progress is occurring. We seem to want the future and we want it to be better. This is all very optimistic.

What I wonder is how teachers come to perceive the future. In an educational context, how is it that we develop an attitude towards an unknown prospective event? Our work is heartfelt, requires significant energy, thinking and criticality and so we like to know that all we do has purpose. However, do we pause to consider who is influencing the purpose? Who or what is driving our endeavours, and to what end? Are our voices, ideas and professional experiences heard and playing an integral role in shaping educational futures, irrespective of external forces? To feel critically engaged in educational directions is to feel some sense of agency. To feel we are contributing to a contrived future is disempowering, despite being surrounded by the rhetoric of optimism and solutions. The professionalization agenda feels like it is becoming a brand, pushed along by brands promising confidence and security.

Propelled by the language of positive psychology, optimism has become alluring, marketable and a playground where corporates, philanthropists and technologies are cashing in. Simultaneously, alarming statistics are circulated at governmental level, across journalism and around conference circuits causing broad concern and paranoia that our education systems are little more than ‘an old hope’s bitter echo’ (Berlant, 2016: 414) and we require complete rupture to fashion a new horizon. This call-to-arms sets in motion an assault on the profession from beyond the schools and classrooms where education is taking place for supposed mediocrity and poor performance. The door creaks open for the market to flood in. Yet as Charlotte Pezaro points out, so much of the system (policies, practices, standards and processes) has been constructed to channel our intentions and efforts to a reduced range of research, evidence and practices which are marketed as the best hopes for an educational recovery. The division between the reality of educators and the claims of politicians or solution vendors does little to elevate teacher agency, engender professional trust and encourage criticality when it comes to teacher’s decisions about practices or educational tools and strategies.

Feeling optimistic about the future can be problematic when we realise that those calling the shots are steering at distance and we have partial or full reliance on limited or uncritically accepted resources or ideas for improvement. Teaching impels us to engage at ethical levels, and it is hard to accept that some are compelled to fabricate who they are and what they do to contribute to someone else’s vision of the future we do not believe in. Worse still, is that we may continue to persuade students and ourselves of the continued existence of a possible future we don’t believe in or that is unobtainable. Sustaining this set of beliefs can feel like a personal disavowal and lead to an acknowledgement of our own duplicity and complicity.

This brings me back to Sellar’s quote: “Optimism can become a trap when it encourages investment in promises about the benefits of education that cannot be realized for all.”

Within this statement I would suggest ‘investment’ (focusing the attention) and ‘all’ should be the focus of our meditations. I am not suggesting that educational thought is nebulous and educators are negligent in their intentions, I am suggesting that a whole industry seems to have been allowed to evolve around the concept of optimism and services us with so many choices that it is tough to not be ‘in on it’. They may claim to avert us from bleak futures by equipping students and teachers with what they need to navigate uncertainty, but ‘all’ are certainly not reached.

I am left wondering how education might escape the optimism trap. Pessimism offers an inherently unpromising alternative. This is why I wonder if educational thought is stuck. Its limit can be found at the beginning, gazing to the future. Equally, looking backwards doesn’t necessarily take us forwards. Are we at an impasse that is being exploited to advance an ideology, a wider national agenda, policy, commodity or experiment that promises us certainty when there is little consensus about what we are being saved from or what certainty is?

The Glow and the Shadows

Returning to Tokyo in 1874 from self-imposed exile, Japanese artist Kobayashi Kiyochika was met with a dramatically unfamiliar scene. His beloved home, the small traditional fishing village of Edo, had evolved beyond all recognition to the heavily modernised and industrialised Tokyo. The once quiet, ordered and functional community had transformed in character, purpose and size. Dismayed by what he witnessed, Kiyochika took to travelling around the metropolitan region and the vast Bay area observing and reflecting on the changes he was seeing unfold, literally by the day.

Trying to make sense of the scale and speed of modernisation, Kiyochika found that night time captured it best. At a distance he found Tokyo’s increased lambent glow via kerosene or gas lamps or very early electricity grids brought a new world to life. Near water he saw progress reflected as a thing of beauty despite its aggressive and irrepressible nature. However, in the face of such advancement and innovation, Kiyochika lamented times past. His works during this era document the arrival of light, locomotives and bricks. Despite the beauty and clarity of these pictures, they’re haunted — even animated — by a feeling of unease about the future.

Kiyochika presents a sense of disquiet. This is amplified by moody lighting. When people appear in his work, they’re typically depicted in silhouette, disengaged from one another. It’s feels as if they — not we — are the audience to these scenes of transformation, observing a world in flux, from the shadows and with an attitude of vague misgiving.

The sense of Kiyochika’s deep reflection on observation of a world at work, both close-up and at a distance, is something that has resonated with me of late. As I approach twenty years of teaching, I would suggest that now more than ever, educational ideals seems to orientate our gaze either towards the future or behind us towards the past. Some desire a future that resurrects the past, calling out and rejecting ideas or methods that may be considered synthetic or shaky contraband and leave students malnourished of knowledge. Other educators perceive an uncertain future that may present cognitive as well as material, spiritual and economic challenges. As such, they desire the development of dispositions as well as knowledge and are keen to dialogue and explore ideas rather than merely debate and limiting ourselves to the defensible. The stratigraphy of the views and approaches in the education community is truly fascinating.

I wonder if I am noticing it more nowadays because social media has connected educators more closely and openly and we can exchange dialogue with relative ease. One thing I am increasingly fascinated by is what might be termed the ‘essentialising’ of educational ideas, research and products. I know I, like others I have observed, have littered Twitter with stuff like ‘A MUST read’, ‘THIS …’, ‘X should be in the cannon of …’ or ‘what every educator should know about …’. I reflect and wonder why I and others do this? Does essentialising seek to awaken others and bring us any closer to establishing an educational resolution? In becoming more informed about what we do/can do, are we witnessing the privileging of guru-sanctioned and authoritative research? Is it undermining or supporting teachers and their work? Is this right? I am undecided, but it is worth the discussion.

Twenty years on, I still love teaching and feel proud to be a teacher. Like Kiyochika I observe change both close up through my day-to-day work, and at a distance through reading, research and reflection. I still see education as a thing of immense influence for all involved in it. I don’t believe in the sole occupation of a field of thought presiding over educational policy and practice. I worry about political carelessness from those whose work brings them into the sphere of education but whose own career trajectories limit their capacity for deep insight into the human nuances of the educational world.

Like my favourite Kiyochika piece, Looking at Evening Lights, I observe the illumination of change but feel a sense of foreboding. The economic transformation of education towards privatisation, the emergence of policy entrepreneurs and some massive concerns around data cast long shadows. I know that if I am to support purposeful change or help resist questionable influences, I must continue to be critically engaged, not a passive bystander.

Update: Opportunity Knocks Again, And Again, And Again …

A while back educational globetrotter and purveyor of all things ‘evidence-based’, Visible Learning, tweeted ‘What is John Hattie working on at the moment?” They informed us it was Visible Learning for Parents. While some may welcome the umpteenth variation of Visible something-or-other, I was skeptical of this addition to the arsenal of products and wanted to share a few thoughts. Hattie himself kindly left a comment on my blog, clarified the purpose of the book and even offered me a free copy!

It still leaves me pondering … 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.

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 channelled. 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.

It was timely then that Scott Eacott released School leadership and the cult of the guru: the neo-Taylorism of Hattie this week to remind us of the worrying alliances that are forming in Australia and in other settings which are elevating the cult of the guru to worrying heights. Eacott notes in his critique, business practices (inspired by Taylor, 1911) which infiltrated American public education and shifted schooling to “business imperatives and in particular the pursuit of efficiency”. The depths and extents of the brand infiltration is further explored, Eacott explaining:

“Visible learning, as a label is now used in a variety of areas … further building the brand and evidence of the brand of Hattie exploiting an opportunity for maximum advantage. Courtesy of sheer presence, Hattie has become canonised in initial teacher education, graduate programmes, and professional dialogue and debate. His work is now ubiquitous with education in Australia.”

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”.

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. 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? Surely we cannot ignore the noise, not necessarily because of its message, but because the noise is becoming a cacophony. As Eacott (2017) concludes,

“Hatties work is everywhere in contemporary Australian school leadership. This is not to say that educators have no opportunity for resistance, but the presence and influence of brand Hattie cannot be ignored. The multiple partnerships and roles held by Hattie the man and the uptake of his work by systems and professional associations have canonised the work in contemporary dialogue and debate to the extent that it is now put forth as the solution to many of the woes of education.”


Squishy and Amorphous: The Curious Business of ‘Relationships’

As squishy and amorphous as ‘colleague relationships’ might seem, it is encouraging that research alerts us to the evidence of student achievement, teacher wellbeing and organisational growth that can be made as a consequence of teachers combining experience with thinking and working together. These though are technical and transactional aspects of teachers work, professional collaborations and duties if you like. Are they relationships though? Aren’t relationships something even more interpersonal? Aren’t relationships the antecedent to collaboration?

Teaching is an intensely personal venture but rarely a solo activity. When we reflect on our own professional formation, it becomes quite clear that our beliefs and practice are the result of multiple interactions that span life-before, and life-during teaching. This can occur as a result of directly interacting with others through chance or manufactured circumstances, or indirectly through studying other people’s work/ideas, perhaps in literature or some other means. As I have noted in a previous post, collaboration can privilege extroverts, but I dare say few of us can deny the benefits of collective effort. The noble ideal that relationships between teachers will flourish by way of collaboration troubles me. As Esther Quintero points out in the excellent and recently published Teaching in Context;

“While there is no single model of collaboration that works better than others across contexts, research suggests that certain features are always desirable. For example, scholars have pointed out that effective collaboration must be regular and ongoing. In addition, collaboration should not be “contrived” – administratively regulated, compulsory, and oriented towards implementing an idea from the top – since this type of cooperation fails to produce the benefits of more spontaneous, voluntary, and open-ended routines and interactions embedded in the daily work lives of teachers.”

It is comforting to read practitioners’ accounts of the emotional-relational features of our work. @lasic beautifully captures the internal turmoil and hope of being a teacher. @debsnet unpacks the many personalities and pressures a school leader has to juggle. These posts remind us that without exception, teachers have to encounter each other for one reason or another, in one way or another. We cannot be forced to like one another, agree with one another or believe in the same things or do things the same way. Some teachers will connect and bond along lines of personality, belief or portfolio of work. Others may experience the pain of fractured or taut relationships because of these same things. Teaching is a deeply personal experience that radiates its impact into almost every dimension of our life.

Some may argue that relationships and personalities need to be suspended in order to perform our roles to maximum efficiency. Are we merely after the professional collaboration of teachers to get a job done – functional, efficient but convivial? It’s just not that easy though. We work as part of a network of people and trust is important to us. It is not easy to come by or earn, but trust is a fundamental attribute of relationships and the lubricant that keeps an organisation moving and supports better working conditions. Where it is absent, there is the potential for conflict, and with it risk on a personal level. It can also cause division, as Hargreaves (2002) notes:

“Teachers typically avoid conflict by establishing norms of politeness and non-interference, or by clustering together only with like-minded colleagues who share their ideas and beliefs.”

Teaching would be boring if we were harmonious in all of our interactions. I think we also need to be cautious if we suggest that dissent and conjecture are features of destructive and toxic relationships. They can actually bring about a closeness among colleagues if we acknowledge and respect alternative perspectives and don’t malign one another by rubbishing personal views that aren’t consistent with our world view or field of thought. The challenge for schools is how to harness and support alternative views of our job without harming productive working relationships between teachers and also managing to do our work as best we can.

Teaching and work relationships don’t have to be all squishy and amorphous. They can have form and substance, rich with trust and respect.

Waller’s Lament was a Call to Action

Willard Waller, a scholar at Pennsylvania State University, conducted some pioneering ethnographic analysis (1932) of schools as micro communities and their problematic relationships with the larger community. While his work did not receive any critical acclaim at the time, Waller did provide some important sociological insights into some of the issues which perplex many education reformers. He was fascinated with organisational structures and their effectiveness in leading improvement. He was keen to understand what impeded quality teaching and learning, how balance could be struck between control and authority and how teachers could be best supported to do their work given the highly emotional nature of the job.

Waller highlighted two dominant emotions emerging from his studies, fear and pride. As Hargreaves (1998) notes, “the fear was that of losing control or losing one’s job and with it the thin veneer of pride in classroom control and academic standards that helped ward off deep seated feelings of inferiority about one’s status in the community and one’s competence among colleagues.” Waller was quick to point out that policy-makers and politicians rarely grasped the fundamental nature of schools as they operated and steered education at a distance and spent little time directly listening with attentiveness and empathy to the range of voices of emotions of those in the job, doing the job.

Because schools (according to Waller, although also true today) are ‘small societies’ run by employees with a strong feeling of vulnerability to pressures, both from within and without, we strive for control, efficiency and demonstrable progress to appeal to onlookers with an array of expectations. He noted that when under constant threat politically, economically and socially, schools assume a garrison mentality and give birth to other potent emotions, most notably guilt.

Hargreaves and Tucker (1991) suggest that teachers experience guilt traps and guilt trips. They differentiate between the two; “Guilt traps are the social and motivational patterns which delineate and determine teacher guilt; patterns which impel and imprison many teachers within emotional states which can be both personally unrewarding and professionally unproductive. Guilt trips are the different strategies that teachers adopt to deal with, deny or repair this guilt. They are ways of coping with or responding to guilt that teachers have developed over the years. Burnout, exit, cynicism, and denial are among these major guilt trips of teaching.”

I would suggest that many teachers experience a sense of guilt that is akin to feeling persecuted. This may eventuate from doing something that is not expected or not permitted by either internal processes or external authorities who exercise accountability demands and bureaucratic controls over us. This sensation looks back at tasks, reflects on failure and holds concern for the future. Action is restricted to rectification and keeps us in a cycle of reaction rather than proactivity. It could be said then that guilt is socially generated, emotionally located and practically consequential. It’s hard to know how to neutralize the very things that can trigger guilt, especially when we consider the four paths that Hargreaves and Tucker (1991) suggest lead to its creation: (i) a teachers commitment to care, (ii) acceptance that education is ultimately open-ended, (iii) the pressures of intensifying accountability and (iv) a persona of perfectionism and wanting to do and be the very best for students.

Education, as Waller indicated 85 years ago, is threatened by many forces which can induce fear, and as Hargreaves and Tucker point out, guilt. Excessive workload, inspection, results publications, concern about schools and systems being left behind adopting the latest research/evidence informed strategies, worrying about dubious international policy-borrowing, uncertainty about articulating a view about an educational philosophy debate could all be examples of things that could worry teachers, but could equally preoccupy them. With such a myriad of potentially worrying and dividing educational activity, I wonder what could be done to ameliorate fear and guilt. What, as Biesta (2017) asks “can release us from the more difficult task of making judgements?” Judgements about philosophy, work prioritisation, communicating successes rather than merely deficits, which research and evidence to embrace.

I wonder about Waller’s commentary about policy-makers existing at a distance from schools and teachers. If that distance can be bridged or closed by healthy, robust and representative interaction with those enacting the enterprise of education, perhaps the issues of guilt and fear can be articulated and addressed. Have we got the right voices speaking into the conversation? Have we got the access we need? Have we got the measure of the impact of emotion involved in teaching in order to better things for everybody?

The Flood (and Unexpected Collaboration)

July 2007 is etched into my memory as one of worst and best times as an educator. On what started as a very pleasant summer day in Worcestershire, I remember walking the school grounds on lunch duty watching the bright blue skies rapidly and eerily being devoured by black clouds. The first spots of rain passed without concern but within minutes, everybody fled for cover as we tried to evade a deluge of ridiculous proportions. Estimates suggested that we experienced in excess of 350mm in a few hours.

Being situated at the foot of a sizable hill, the storm run-off became a raging torrent with rivulets forming everywhere that quickly flooded car parks, inundated demountable classrooms and washed out some corridors. The rate at which the site was filling with water was alarming. The site was deemed unsafe to remain in. Lessons were abandoned and families were notified about closure. The evacuation was generally rapid except for those who needed transport to hard-to-reach outlying villages. A few of us left the school site to find out the state of the nearby town and arterial routes. Unsurprisingly, it was chaos and road closures were occurring everywhere. Technically, we were stranded, an island surrounded by dangerous, fast-moving floodwater.

Over the next few hours, the rain abated, the flash-floodwaters receded and this prompted the arrival of some of the oddest modes of transport I have ever seen at a school to ferry students home. Tractors with trailers ferried some students to nearby farms and villages. Small boats and a canoe picked up a few more. Even an antique amphibious vehicle turned up. Soon the entire student population was safely evacuated and the staff were left to debrief. Phone calls, texts and emails soon streamed in detailing that major routes home for most staff were impassable. Families and loved ones were contacted to let them know we were safe, we were not taking any risks travelling and that we could camp down for the night in school if necessary or stay with a few colleagues who lived in close proximity.

As the night drew in and the remaining staff gathered for well-earned food and drink, it became apparent that we had achieved a great deal that afternoon. Some remarked that it felt that we were on autopilot, everything clicked but we were all explicitly aware of our duty to keep our students  safe, reassure our community and combine our thinking and efforts to deal with the immediate concerns. In 24 hours we learnt a lot about ourselves and each other. We put some otherwise hidden talents, skills and knowledge to use in unique and challenging circumstances. We traded stories with each other that we might not ordinarily have and soon discovered the considerable extents to which we went to collectively improve the schooling experience and outcomes for all students.

I reflect on this time with fondness and use it as a touchstone to remind myself that schools and education in general don’t need to fall for alluring hero narratives which can induce guilt and create a sense of insufficiency. We have all heard the tropes like ‘love the ones you’re with’ or ‘we are better together’, but frankly it’s not that easy when we probably do not have comprehensive awareness of the full array and depth of talents and knowledge our colleagues possess and put to work. This is particularly the case when systems are in place which discretely pit colleagues against each other through credentialing, inspection and the like by way of labelling or grading competence. Collaboration is rarely easy, as Tamm and Lyutt (2004) note, because our ability to do so is contingent on how much we trust each other, our school culture, our ability to follow-through on something we may not wholeheartedly believe in and previous experience.

Some argue that collaboration privileges extroverts. I would suggest that schools should honour and respect those who are introverted, quietly do great work but prefer to go about things more in less overt ways. Forcing collaboration can exclude some who could wrongly be perceived to be rowing in the wrong direction or non-committal to the team. This doesn’t mean that they cannot fulfil more widespread positive influence (Kraft and Papay, 2014). They may teach several classes, contribute to extra-curricular offerings and perhaps work with others in less public ways. None of these acts of individual service are insignificant, but they may fly under the radar when compared to the headline grabbing cheerleading of a particular pedagogical approach, improvement edict or pastoral drama. As I witnessed during our brush with Mother Nature in 2007, people can make extraordinary contributions and add significant value in ways that we cannot foresee or even measure. Empathy, selflessness, courage, advocacy, wisdom and a will to learn are of great value to a community alongside expertise that brings about positive outcomes or ‘impact’, it’s just that we may not be able to measure their influence beyond the publication of the latest league tables or internal assessment progress checks. Does this mean they are of any less significance? No, they are part of the enmeshed efforts and thinking required to support schools.

Worthiness – According to Who?

Sunday mornings in the Andrews household start early. The alarm goes off at 5:45am and shortly after 6:15am Miss 7 wakes in order to get ready for a forty-five minute drive to a climbing gym and her weekly lesson. Last week was different however. It was the annual state climbing finals which saw competitors from far-and-wide descend on an unfamiliar venue to battle for limited qualification spaces at the national finals.

On this occasion, Miss 7 was successful in two out of three climbs and finished second in her category. While very gracious about her placing and keen to congratulate the winner, it was obvious to us how disappointed she was with herself. From speaking to her it was evident that Miss 7 was not satisfied with the judgement of others, she wanted to define her own success and sought control and power over the measure someone else foisted on her to qualify her degree of success. In her mind someone else’s application of a category ranking or digit to define accomplishment couldn’t possibly reflect the amount of planning, adaption to controlled conditions and the effort she had employed.

On Wednesday we received an email to confirm that Miss 7 had qualified to be part of the Under 10’s climbing squad to represent the state at the National Finals in Melbourne in May. We were elated for her and couldn’t wait to break the news after school. It would be fair to say we didn’t get the reaction we anticipated. Miss 7 was adamant she wouldn’t compete unless she returned to the competition venue and finished off what she started and left incomplete. Then, only then would she feel that she was worthy of her selection. Feeling very proud of her stance and craftsman like attitude on the matter, we committed to taking her back.

This whole episode has had me reflecting on the many ways in which determinations of success, effectiveness, failure, right or wrong in educational thinking and practice are articulated and sometimes mischaracterised. The swamp of international comparisons translated at national level takes on a vernacular of its own through crisis-tendency finger-pointing at teachers by politicians. National standardised testing and associated online rankings posted annually compound the feeling of education as the perpetual unfulfilled promise. What will the next fast-policy be to remind us of what is purportedly being unattended to? I have heard friends who teach here in Australia and back in the UK talk of their personal concern about employing strategies with ‘strong padlock ratings or long-term intervention impact’ despite knowledge of the contextual inappropriateness. It is one thing to say use of strategies should be informed and discerning, another to consider which voices are casting their shadow over the sense of expectation. Others have expressed worry about being seen to read wider literature, research or blogs that deviate away from a doctrine they have been told is beyond reasonable doubt or evidence.

On this note, I am intrigued by particular groups who espouse the potentiating role of evidencing ‘impact’ in our teaching while only loosely defining it. Look out for #myteachimpact next week. I am concerned that processes such as certification here in Australia for being ‘highly accomplished’ or a ‘lead teacher’ divert efforts towards a subjective array of practices that help achieve accreditation and aims of education that don’t necessarily take account of contextual challenge and variance when we feel pressured to accept what research suggests ‘works’. It may give the appearance of sorting and ranking teachers within a guise of celebrating greatness. What and who is ‘the best’ and who decides? Outpourings like this are unlikely to make me and perhaps others feel heroic about our work when we know there are thousands of others unmotivated by accolades and rewards and who aren’t on social media, who work relentlessly hard, with effect and with tremendous personal responsibility day-in and day-out.

I have recently been immersed in reading Lawrence Stenhouse’s astonishing contribution to educational research. He has provoked me to think hard about the importance of personal and professional judgment. It is something to be treasured and something to be defended. As he points out, remaining open to others people’s ideas and alert to research is important, but perhaps it is we, practicing teachers, who are well/best positioned to know what works and how to channel our efforts to make a difference. For me a key question is how do teachers reach a point of ‘not being told what to do’?

“Good teachers are necessarily autonomous in professional judgement… they do know that ideas and people are not much real use until they are digested to the point where they are subject to the teacher’s own judgement … for teachers are in the position to create good teaching”.

(Stenhouse, 1988)

What I learnt from Miss 7 is that knowledge of my circumstances (whether familiar or not), control over my strategies, regular practice and reflection are key to success. But what I learnt most, is that by taking control over my measures and my craft, I can achieve a sense of worth off my own back and through my own effort. That is reward enough. I think Miss 7 and Stenhouse are on the same page there.