The speed of things

According to Yong Zhao one of the biggest flaws of PISA is that it “directs the world’s attention to the past instead of pointing to the future.”  Yet education systems and policy makers rely on international assessments such as PISA to gauge student performance in maths, science and reading.

In World Class Learners, Zhao admits that based on data comparisons, countries performing extremely well on international tests such as China and Taiwan tend to score lower in perceived entrepreneurial capabilities.  The good news is that Australia scores relatively high when it comes to entrepreneurship.

Harvard Business Review had an interesting article last week on the fastest moving digital economies.  The authors developed an index to gauge how countries compare in terms of their readiness for the digital economy.  Looking at performance over five years (2008-2013), they assigned 50 countries into four trajectories: Stand Out, Stall Out, Break Out and Watch Out.

Australia currently sits in the ‘Stall Out’ quadrant – having achieved a high level of evolution but losing momentum and at risk of falling behind. Singapore, Hong Kong, Ireland, Israel, Estonia, the US and New Zealand are among the countries in the Stand Out quadrant.  These are countries who continue to invest in world-class digital infrastructure, encourage entrepreneurship and have governments which support and encourage growth of the digital ecosystem.

The authors’ advice for countries like ours is to invest in innovation, look globally for new markets and find ways of attracting ‘talented young immigrants’ to revive innovation quickly.

If as Zhao says schools must transform into global enterprises capable of educating globally competent entrepreneurs, then we need new measures that look forward – beyond traditional boundaries.

I wonder whether we need to be looking at schooling in the same way countries assess readiness for the digital economy?  Do we need a Digital Education Index based on key drivers?  For example, when schools deliver a curriculum (especially electives) are they aligning them with “Stand-Out” or the delivery of traditional subjects aligned with “Stall Out”?

Digital is no longer about hardware or software.  It isn’t about the number of computers or iPads in classrooms.  When we talk about digital education it encompasses the mindsets, policies, users, trends and infrastructure that support this dynamic and ever-evolving ecosystem.  An ecosystem that our learners are a part of and will inevitably shape based on their needs and ever-changing expectations.

The authors of the HBR article predict that the “next billion consumers to come online will be making their digital decisions on a mobile device – very different from the practices of the first billion.”

How will schooling be different from last year or even last week so we don’t end up in “Stall Out”?











The words ‘evidence-based’ are at the centre of the ongoing push to improve student learning and school improvement. This is a welcome focus and helps put the evaluation of both the learning and teaching in the centre of the work schools and systems do. We need to consider what this evidence base is and the robustness of the evidence.

Over January, I was watching the Australian Open Tennis. Several of the top players have new technology embedded in their racquets. A computer, in the handle of the racquet, captures the entire match in real time, every shot, speed, angle of returns, response times and so on. At the end of each match the player and his or her team sit down and analyse the data in order to improve the player’s performance. You can only imagine the size of the data and the power it brings to the process. Using big data is not new. What is new, however, are the ways we can collect and aggregate the data in real time.

My daughter gave me a Fitbit for Christmas. From what I gather I wasn’t alone in receiving this gift. Everywhere I go I see people with Fitbit bracelets collecting all sorts of data about the wearer’s physical activity during the day and sleep patterns at night. This capability is very quickly revolutionising the medical field, the health and fitness business and our lifestyles.

The collection of personal data  is not confined to physical data: the New Yorker article ‘We Know How You Feel’ explores how computers are now able to accurately read our emotions. Many companies are now starting to use this information to target advertising based on our emotional reactions and will likely see the advent of the “emotion economy”. Think about the applications of ‘emotional data’ for marketers, business, health providers, even the educational sector.

We are at a point where data and technologies are stretching our thinking on both the nature and use of evidence. What really surprises me is how much incidental discussion and reflection takes place amongst those who use the technology. The ideas and suggestions from other on how the user might use the data and even improve their stats widens the knowledge pool.

By comparison to the above the evidence base for learning and teaching is very thin. Most of the evidence is test based, after the fact analysis. High stakes testing distorts the improvement picture because much of the data is open to misuse and misunderstanding. Assessment tasks are generally used to make judgements about student performance and ignore the critical role of the teacher. Paper-based tests are still the lifeblood of the student assessment process. They are often removed from the actual teaching-learning process which it seeks to evaluate. Even at formal parent-teacher feedback sessions the data sets are limited, and a one-way process from teacher to student.

We need to identify how we collect data on the teaching process. While we are seeing increasing instances of teacher observation, instructional walks and data walls, much of the data collected is not in real time and not always linked to student achievement. Good teachers are already constantly assessing student understanding during class time. The question is, how can we use technology to assist teachers in collecting this data more accurately and effectively? Imagine if we could collect real time information about students’ emotional reactions to the learning and teaching process and use this to inform teachers’ work in real time.

I think we have much to learn about evidence of improving teaching and learning from the developments in big data and ways that the data is captured and analysed. The power of the evidence collected lies not in the volume of the data or the power of the device, but in the analysis of the data. Individuals and teams can access the data when, where and how they want and need it. It helps provide real time feedback to the user and encourages collaboration. Ultimately it has the capacity to put evaluation of learning and teaching in the centre of the process, not as outcome at the end of the process.

I’m not sure if there is an education Fitbit, but I’m sure it will be here soon. As the devices get more powerful, more embedded and more connected it won’t be too far into the future. Having this sort of capability for all learners but particularly teachers, will think, be a game changer for our understanding of teaching in a contemporary world. We will see a dramatic shift in collaboration and real time intervention.

It is clear that these developments are unstoppable. I hope the education profession will embrace these new capacities and show how they can and should be used. We can’t afford to let the emotional economy do it for us.

Renew and Adapt

Our system and school leaders gathered last week to reflect on past achievements and to focus on the work ahead.  Over the next two years our system’s strategic focus will be to ‘renew and adapt’.   It is not about changing course or increasing the workload but reflecting on our practice; renewing our skills and passion; and adapting our pedagogies to improve the learning outcomes of each student.

Each year we select a professional learning text. This year’s was chosen because innovation requires teachers who are willing to continually renew and adapt their practice in ways that positively impact on students’ lives and learning.  As Lyn Sharratt says this is the essence of educational innovation.

Lyn Sharatt and Gale Harild’s book Good to Great to Innovate builds on Jim Collins’ good to great analogy by illustrating that purposeful innovation is dependent on a solid foundation of literacy and numeracy.  Schools must become good at the basics before they get great at innovation. As Andy Hargreaves writes in the book’s epilogue: “when the innovations we introduce involve children’s lives, they must be even more disciplined in their implementation.”

The “innovation” discussion is as relevant to schooling as it is to business. An article in the December issue of Harvard Business Review outlines the approach to innovation in business. The authors, Nathan Furr and Jeffrey H. Dyer state that the process of innovation requires “discipline, perseverance and dedicated, effective leadership.”

Furr and Dyer maintain go on:

Innovation is at heart a process of discovery, and so the role of the person leading it is to set other people down a path, not to short-circuit it by jumping to a conclusion at the start.

The process of innovation requires new mindsets in which we continually push boundaries and search for more meaningful and relevant ways of meeting the needs of today’s learners.

In both Good to Great to Innovate and the HBR article, the authors contend that innovation isn’t controlled by the leader.  The role of a leader is to encourage these mindsets, to encourage risk taking, to ask questions and to ensure there is equitable access to resources and partnerships.  The leader’s role is to advocate for ‘the new and different’, to listen and then test assumptions.

I think one of the biggest challenges we face is creating opportunities for innovation to grow. Companies like Google and Atlassian have succeeded at this because leaders and managers see their roles differently – as advocates and “bluyonderers”. It’s the shift from control to collaboration, from being risk-aversive to risk-taking.

There are pockets of innovation happening each day in schools and across systems but as I wrote in a recent blog post – how does it become the norm?  One suggestion is giving large groups of people uninterrupted innovation time.  Think of what happens in project based learning when students have time to sit with a problem, discuss, observe and experiment.

We need to start applying the same principles to teacher innovation. It’s about renewing and adapting.





Crowding the curriculum

Some interesting articles in the weekend papers calling for the teaching of martial arts and alcohol education in schools to address the issues of bullying and binge-drinking.

It seems that whenever there is a need to change behaviours or address attitudes we look to the curriculum.  Is this the role of a curriculum?  Is it the responsibility of schools?

If the role of schools is to promote the growth of students and their learning – to teach students them how to be critical thinkers and responsible citizens, then shouldn’t this naturally lead to a change in behaviours?

I think the calls to introduce things like for example, alcohol education, while important social issues, only muddy the waters.  As John Hattie has said debate seems to be fixated on the test-outcome-based questions rather than an intelligent debate about what is worth ‘preserving in our society, and what is worth knowing in order to live the desired ‘good life’.

In an era of information and curriculum overload, it is important for the profession to discern which knowledge is significant and timely.  Just-in-time learning (learning that is relevant to students’ lives) must be given priority over the just-in-case learning which can so easily crowd the learning.

As Michael Fullan says we must be relentless focussed on the things that actually make a difference.  This means continually reminding ourselves of what’s really important in the work of the school.  Martial arts and alcohol education may be helpful but is it essential?

Education Minister Adrian Piccoli made an excellent point in relation to alcohol education, which is parents also have an important role in educating their children.  Pauline Lysaght, Associate Director Early Start at the University of Wollongong believes that while teachers are influential in reinforcing behaviours within the school context, the responsibility for establishing a knowledge base and encouraging behaviours rests with parents.

When there are vigorous calls to continually pare down the curriculum (similar to Singapore’s approach), why do we waste valuable time proposing ways of over-loading it?


What we value

I’ve been reflecting this week on the terrible events in Paris and of course, at the Lindt Cafe in Sydney before Christmas.  It was incredible to see footage of more than three million people of different political and religious persuasions marching in Paris in defense of the cultural values which they treasure.

By Olivier Ortelpa from Paris, France (#jesuischarlie) via Wikimedia Commons

By Olivier Ortelpa from Paris, France (#jesuischarlie) via Wikimedia Commons

All schools, and systems of schools are ultimately an expression of the values of the society in which they exist. While these values may be expressed differently, at their heart is a deep desire for freedom of thought, tolerance of ideas and respect for human dignity.

Values permeate our educational narrative – they inform learning and teaching.  We teach because we want our students to value knowledge, to cultivate independent and critical thought and to favour careful deliberation.  We want students to seek self-improvement and be responsible, compassionate global citizens.  We want students to be informed about society, committed to the common good.

It is important at this time to reflect upon how we express these values in our learning communities; how these values are imbued in the daily life of schools. I don’t believe we can assume the values in our school are understood and learned through some sort of osmosis.  We need to be be proactive, explicit and deliberate.

I suggest we could start by asking questions about how we approach the process of learning and teaching. Some simple ideas might be: are the pedagogies we are utilising engaging all learners? How do we demonstrate tolerance of ideas in our learning spaces?  How is respect shown on playgrounds?  Do all students and parents have the opportunity to express their ideas freely?  Do we rely on unchallenged assumptions or evidence when making decisions?

There are many questions which may be worth reflecting on as a whole school community and the answers we come up with could be well worth sharing.

When I was in primary school, our motto was compassion, justice and a love of learning.  It is still a powerful reminder of the role of education in democratic and civil societies.  Education is essentially humanising and may be the best defense we have against the scourge of terrorism.









Innovation as the norm

I made the following observation on New Year’s Day.

I think if we are going to do better we desperately need teachers to be prepared to challenge not only what they teach but how effectively they teach.

It is easy to understand this entrenched conservatism. There is a perception of mistrust about the work of teaching and government policy reinforces this view. Policies which seek to mandate what is taught and how it is taught distract the profession from professional competency and capability.

I believe the wider community see teaching as a “soft” option profession and often resist change in teacher practice as some experimentation which has to be resisted at all costs.  Why?  Because it is not what school was “like for me”.

This may be a generalisation but there are some real truths here. How do we turn this around? How do we encourage innovative practice and build community trust in the profession and amongst policy makers?

Last week I came across an article in the Washington Post from Pasi Sahlberg author of “Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland?” Although the book was published in 2011, Sahlberg’s comments make great sense to me.

Sahlberg argues that an education reform agenda cannot be solved with short term policy quick fixes. He quotes the global fascination with Canada, South Korea, Singapore and Finland as models which will provide the “silver bullet” to improve teacher learning and teaching. What these countries take out of the Finnish and other approaches however is a narrow view.  Namely that improving schools means better teachers. Therefore we need to attract the “best of the brightest”. In doing so, Sahlberg insists that this misses the point.

He notes three particular fallacies in this understanding:

  1. We continue to assume that teachers work independently from each other but in reality teaching is a team effort in the end results are most often team efforts.
  2. The focus on improving the quality of education is the teacher ignores the research that says while there are often characteristics in improving quality, the most important is effective school leadership and it matters as much as teacher quality.
  3. You can improve schooling by getting rid of poor performing teachers and employing only great ones. This is problematic for two reasons; firstly clarity around “great teaching” and secondly, it takes 5 – 10 years of systematic practice to “effective” in any reliable way.

This leads Sahlberg to the view that “we must reconsider how we think about teaching as a profession and what is the role of the school in our society.” He offers three insights which I urge you to explore in more detail:

  1. Focus more on teacher education, less on teaching and learning in schools
  2. The toxic use of accountability is in many ways inaccurate and unfair
  3. Teachers should have more autonomy in planning their work, freedom to run their lessons the way that leads to the best results and the authority to influence the assessment of outcome of their work. Schools must be trusted in these by areas of their profession.

In citing Sahlberg’s work here I’m not trying to simplify a complex issue. However, his observation about teacher autonomy is critical to easing the conservatism I mentioned at the start. We need teachers as collaborators who share practice, try new things, are open to evaluating their effectiveness and are committed to continually improving their practice.

Just as importantly, we need school leaders who build a culture of trust, respect and participation in the life of the whole school and are learners as much as leaders. As innovation leads to improvement, share it and shout about it – that way society will come to expect educational innovation as the norm.


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