Archive for the ‘Leadership’ Category

Connecting leaders

I’m always amazed at the ways in which technology is being used in education to inform practice.   Twitter continues to be a source of great ideas and professional learning particularly for the teaching profession.

For the past two years, I have been using technology (OscarLive) to connect with four school leaders each Monday morning. It is a simple video conference facility. We always have both primary and secondary leaders as the agenda is about leading learning.  The hour conversation has no set agenda – it is an opportunity to share, support and engage in reflective dialogue.

The feedback has been positive.  Leaders appreciate not having to leave their school and it’s been useful for secondaries to gain greater insight and understanding into primary challenges/issues and vice versa. It has become a natural and personal way to work, one which strengthens connections and deepens collaboration.

To spend the first meeting of each week talking about learning and teaching with leaders has been most rewarding for me.  I find it sets me up for the week, I often find I can reference comments made during our online time in meetings I am having during the week

It reiterates that leadership within a system is a shared responsibility, requiring ongoing dialogue and respect for ideas and diversity. It also reinforces the theme that leadership is most effective when it is genuinely collaborative.

Every week I see leaders who are passionate about their work, supportive of the system agenda and committed to sharing best practice to improve student learning outcomes across the board.

The challenge is how do we use the tools available to challenge, to empower and to deepen our own professional learning?

 

Are pigs more intelligent than humans?

I have to thank my esteemed colleague Professor Yong Zhao for the title of this post.  My original title was going to be “when will they ever learn’ but as Yong suggested humans often repeat the same mistakes, pigs, like all animals don’t.

I am referring to the business of large scale school improvement.  There are great examples of whole system improvement but then there are examples such as Newark in the US that make you want to hang your head and cry.

Dale Russakoff writes in depth in the New Yorker about the plan to transform schools in Newark and how it divided an already disempowered community.  Add to the mix a $100 million donation by Facebook head, Mark Zuckerberg, an ambitious mayor, overpaid consultants and you can see where it may have gone wrong, and in a big way.

Had it succeeded, it would have turned a district of high-crime and low-performing schools into a national model but in education nothing happens quickly.

What saddened me aside from the bleak future for these students was that we continue to make the same mistakes based on the same set of assumptions – money can fix the system, change can be imposed top down, consultants know best and the community shouldn’t be involved in the decision-making process.

One person quoted in the article admits the strategy was doomed because it didn’t address the issue of poverty.  Another said that “education reform…comes across as colonial to people who’ve been here for decades.  It’s very missionary, imposed, done to people rather than cooperation with people.”

The point for me is that you can’t look to the past for answers.  Yong Zhao says the same thing – there are many opportunities out there to do something different in education, not to copy but to invent from the ground-up.

This was the recurring theme at last week’s World Business Forum in Sydney.  Michael Porter, Gary Hamel and Randi Zuckerberg were all talking about the need for creative leadership in the 21st century, doing things differently and taking risks.  While there was no representative from education, everyone agreed that it was critical to the success of individuals and economies.

I’ve been lobbying our federal politicians for sometime for a similar forum, bringing together the world’s best educational thinkers and practitioners to Australia.   It would be the beginning of a dialogue, an invitation to create alternatives to the current model of schooling and learn from past mistakes.

 

 

A quality education for all

Professor Stephen Dinham has been a strong and vocal advocate for greater equality in Australian education.  He wrote an excellent piece in the Melbourne Age recently on how the ineffective quick fixes to improve teaching would actually lead to greater inequity and decline in educational performance.

These simplistic approaches ignore decades of research on what makes teachers and teaching effective.  According to Professor Dinham:

Australia is becoming a less equitable society both generally and in respect of education and as has been demonstrated, inequality in society is actually worse for everyone.

Our collective failure to address the inequality that exists within our education system is a national shame and as Dinham warns if the profession remains ‘silent and passive’, we will only have ourselves to blame for what ‘might eventuate’.

It’s a national shame that we cannot address the inequality within our own education system.  But then I began thinking about the inequality that exists for our marginalised.  There are more than a thousand children living in offshore immigration detention centres.feet

Former UN secretary general Kofi Annan said education is the foundation on which freedom, democracy and sustainable human development rests.  Australia offers all of this yet we fail to close the gap for our most vulnerable – the indigenous, the poor and the marginalised.

Picking up the paper to read headlines such as ‘Selective schools ‘the most socially exclusive’ in NSW‘ distract from the critical work of closing the gap.  We become polarised by the private v public debates and discussions on whether selective schools are the most socially exclusive.

A commitment to a quality education is a commitment to all students regardless of race, circumstance or background.  Closing the gap requires us to address the issues with open eyes and hearts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Making time for great teaching

The latest Grattan Institute Report, Making Time for Great Teaching, by Dr Ben Jensen is a must read for educators. In an age of teacher over-load and increasing external accountabilities, Jensen presents the case for removing the distractors so that teachers can spend more time on the things that really matter.  He argues that if schools reduce the number of staff meetings, school assemblies, extra-curricular activities etc then critical time can be devoted to proven school improvement practices. Jensen and his colleagues worked with six schools across the country to enable more time for intensive mentoring, observation of practice, collaboration and school-based research.

Schools must make difficult but crucial trade-offs in how teachers and school leaders spend their time. We must be explicit that every time we ask teachers to perform extra activities we are decreasing the quality of teaching and learning in schools.

Last week at the National Catholic Education Commission annual meeting in Canberra, my colleagues and I met with a number of Members of Parliament. It was an opportunity to further impress the need for politicians to focus on what is really important in the work of schools.  Many priorities and procedures are often assumed to be mandatory when they are mere accretions. Jensen makes the point that

Government regulations restrict schools. Enterprise bargaining agreements restrict changes to work schedules, and duty of care requirements restrain schools that want to free their teachers from child minding to focus on improving teaching.

Ultimately, the responsibility for making time for great teaching lies with individual school communities but the Grattan report shows what is achievable when we focus on what matters most.

The perception of public schools

I was interested to read the piece written by Verity Firth and Rebecca Huntley in the Guardian last week suggesting that if middle and high income parents sent their children to public schools then it would improve outcomes for all.  It stems from Firth and Huntley’s report commissioned by think tank Per Capita titled Who’s afraid of a public school. 

While there has been an increase in non-government school enrolments, I don’t think we are seeing the demise of public education. Some of the most innovative practices I have seen, have been in public schools.   Yet Firth and Huntley write “if anxious parents take their kids out of the local school, it starts to do worse, forcing more worried families to depart.”  Is the argument being made here that declining enrolments automatically equates to a decline in the quality of learning and teaching?  

To suggest that Australia’s equity issue will be addressed by middle class and wealthy parents sending their children to public schools is simplistic.  Somehow it always comes back to funding.  It is so disappointing that media campaigns often have greater influence on public perception than the research. 

I always come back to Professor Stephen Dinham’s statement that equity in Australian schools is determined by “each student having quality teachers and quality teaching in schools supported by effective leadership and professional learning.” Equity depends on quality not choice.  

Innovating workplaces

The slow and steady demise of manufacturing in Australia has sparked interesting debate in recent times over competitiveness in a global economy.   I was interested in the discussion following on from Toyota’s recent announcement and whether workplace arrangements had jeopardised the big car manufacturers presence in Australia.

The need for contemporary practices impacts also on the education sector.  It seems these discussions have always been framed around productivity and performance but I think we are still looking at the problem through the wrong lens.

Daniel Pink proposes an interesting theory of 20th century motivation vs 21st century motivation and the changing nature of work in a knowledge age.  The knowledge economy requires a new mindset and skillset.  Innovation is key and key to innovation is human capital.

I heard Professor Bill Harley from the University of Melbourne talking recently about the need for workplace innovation in Australia.  He said research around the world shows that there are three things that make productive workplaces:

  1. Employees have appropriate skillset (teachers up-skilling and re-skilling)
  2. Approaches that allow people to collaborate and solve problems (de-privatised practice)
  3. Motivated workforce at every level (managing and rewarding performance)

Professor Harley reflected on the fact that a strategic approach to implementing these practices has been absent from Australian workplaces.

The practices that have prevailed in education over the past century are obstructions to innovation. We need to change our practices by changing culture.  The three points Professor Harley refers to demonstrate the shift from industrial to knowledge, from convention to evidence.

Ironically, Toyota is one of the companies recognised for its innovative culture.  There are numerous case studies on what drives Toyota’s success but it comes down to investment in its people (skillset) and organisational capabilities (problem-solving and intrinsic motivators).

Listening to Professor Harley made me think about education in terms of our manufacturing industry.  Only for us, it will be our students not car manufacturers who will walk away in search of something more relevant and rewarding.

A different level of insight

Following on from last week’s blog post on big data, I had the great pleasure of meeting researcher and educator George Siemens recently.  George is the Associate Director, Technology Enhanced Knowledge Research Institute at Athabasca University in Canada.  He was also one of the first people ever to facilitate the use of MOOCs.

George has been immersed in learning and online networks for such a long time that he presents a different level of insight.  He shared some of his insight when I asked him about the opportunities of big data on education.

 

Alive in the Swamp

For the past five years we have been working with our ‘learning partner’ Michael Fullan.  Michael has acted as a system coach/mentor, helping us to sharpen our focus and stay the course.  The benefit of having Michael as our learning partner is that he has a deep understanding of system change but is at arm’s length from the day to day work.  He brings a balanced perspective that  challenges and motivates.  It’s a long road but we are starting to see change where it counts most.

When Michael was here with us a few weeks ago, he shared his latest work ‘Alive in the Swamp: assessing digital innovations in education’, co-written by Katelyn Donnelly on behalf of Nesta and New Schools.  I think it’s one of the first times that I’ve seen technology in the context of system change and not as an acquisition.

As Michael and Katelyn write:

Up to this point, technology has not impact on schools. Billions have been invested with little thought to altering the learning system.  There are also potentially destructive uses of technology on learning; we must be aware of distractions, easy entertainment and personalisation to the point of limiting our exposure to new ideas. We focus not simply on technology itself but on its use.

And so the question is how do we assess the impact technology is having on the learning and on system change?  The authors have developed an Index that allows system leaders to ask relevant questions in the areas of pedagogy, technology and system change. It Canoes_on_water_in_swamp_areachallenges system leaders and policy makers to focus on HOW technology is making a difference; how it is supporting ‘collaboration and effective interaction.’

This doesn’t mean that schools investment in technology has somehow been a waste.  On the contrary, we need to ensure the technology works to support good teaching.  What we do know is that technology as a tool in the hands of great teachers has the capacity to be transforming.

If you’re wondering why the ‘swamp’ metaphor, it’s based on the understanding that technology is part of today’s learning ecosystem today; interconnected to pedagogy and system change (with students at the centre) but the waters are still murky.  The framework will hopefully help schools and systems navigate their way through the challenges.

 

A united voice

As the new Federal Minister for Education Christopher Pyne settles into his portfolio, I have been thinking about what changes have been made to the educational landscape over the past six years.  I don’t want to rekindle old debates because many of the Gillard-Rudd policies and initiatives have already been criticised and condemned.  It may be that in time, these will be viewed as genuine attempts to improve the education system.

One of the most important commitments made over the past six years has been toward school funding particularly those with diverse needs.  This signals a shift in policy thinking and a recognition that every school is diverse, learning needs are different and funding should be based on the level of need at each school.

We are told that our new Minister will be focused on practical policies but I wonder whether it’s now time for a collective voice that can inform policy development.  In the past broad policy discussion has often been bogged down by sectional interests but I think we need a coherent voice for the teaching profession as a whole.

feetThis is not to diminish the work of organisations such as the Australian College of Educators (ACE) and the Australian Council for Educational Leaders (ACEL) or representative groups such as primary and secondary principals associations, unions and parent councils but each comes to the table with their own agenda reflecting the concerns of its particular constituency.  In today’s world, shouldn’t there be just one agenda – improving the learning outcomes of every student by ensuring we have effective and skilled teachers in every classroom?

I would like to think that by combining these groups into one alliance or affiliation, we could finally end old debates around public vs private, left vs right, state vs commonwealth in favour of robust discussion and ideas that work towards building a highly professional education system where teacher work is respected, teacher learning is supported and student learning is at the centre of every policy. The alliance would serve in effect as a thought leader and think tank at the service of developing coherent education policy.

Let’s hope by the time the next federal election comes around, we may have a united voice for the profession and importantly, an advocate for all students.

Advice to our new PM

Two weeks ago, Professorial fellow and former Dean of Education, University of Melbourne Professor Brian J. Caldwell delivered our  annual Ann D Clark lecture.  It was timely for two reasons – Professor Caldwell and Jim Spinks’ book ‘The Self-Transforming School‘ is recently published and the book contains advice to our incoming federal government – stay out of education.

While the incoming coalition government has committed to supporting the autonomy of school systems and playing a limited role in school education, we are yet to see what this looks like in reality.  In a piece last month on the role Canberra should play in our schools, the Grattan Institute’s Ben Jensen wrote, “because the commonwealth spends about one-third of all public funds in school education, it will always want something for its investment”.

There is consensus across school sectors, academia and tiers of government that in terms of student achievement on international tests, we haven’t made any significant improvement.  What is more worrying though is the ever widening gap between low and high performing students.

One of the reasons why Caldwell and Spinks are suggesting that the federal government stay out of education is that the ‘control and command strategies’ used in the past haven’t resulted in the desired outcome – ie. sustainable and long term school improvement. Caldwell writes, “tying everything to implementation of a ‘national plan for better schools’ was bizarre, given that school improvement is something that schools must be responsible and accountable for.”

Caldwell argues that there is a strong case for change in Australia.  He proposes that we follow Canada’s lead (which outperforms Australia on international tests of student achievement) where there is no federal government ‘apparatus’ in education.  A Council of Ministers that would determine national policies and priorities would replace a Minister of Education. Wherever possible funding would be directly funneled to schools or at the very least to state and territory governments as well as independent and Catholic school sectors. This model is built on the premise that you locate expertise and resources as close as possible to the learning space. It takes into account the equity and diversity of school needs as well as being open, transparent and accountable to public scrutiny.

Caldwell says that self-transforming schools don’t need two levels of governments competing against one another in order to tell schools what to do.  In Canada there is competition among provinces and almost all innovation comes from individual schools and systems. Leadership is critical in this model because school leaders are empowered to respond to change.  Who better to address the diverse learning needs of a school community than the school itself?  I agree but the challenge is how to go about about increasing school autonomy while ensuring we get the learning and teaching strategies right for every child.  This requires effective instructional leaders leading in every school.  That’s perhaps the biggest challenge of all.

My view is that those who can and must improve schools are schools themselves (supported by forward-thinking systems and governments). However, there will always be a place for intelligent debate and intelligent educational policy that acknowledges the demands of a contemporary and connected world.

Let’s hope that in the next few years, Australia will become a truly ‘learning nation’.

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