Questioning the purpose and function of schools and systems is an ongoing pressure point for me and is founded in my Foucauldian inspired adolescent exploration of governmentality. The dichotomy of rigid curriculum and testing versus the emerging essential employability skills of collaboration, flexible thinking and empathy challenge the systems and approaches we are comfortable and familiar with in schools.
In the past I have been fortunate as a teacher to embrace different approaches, taking risks and challenging the status quo with freedom. When I was first afforded the responsibility of establishing a learning environment for young adolescents with learning disabilities, I didn’t hesitate to approach the challenge with a fresh perspective not bound by previous experiences (I had none) nor templates (there wasn’t one in the school). This granted, with the incredible support of the school leadership, the opportunity to create learning that was personalised and authentic for the young people and staff, and not contrived or bound by curriculum or structures. This meant that in my first year, students utilised a range of technologies and had dynamic learning experiences including, but not limited to; blogging, passion projects, Identity Days, international collaborative projects, thematic units, authentic work placements and personalised reporting based on skill development and growth against individual learning goals. Not the traditional industrial model of education that is the state of affairs in similar settings, but a modern and responsive learning environment.
Since that time I have been fortunate/challenged to move into a range of leadership roles across the school with responsibility for a spectrum of key areas. This year has seen my responsibilities include oversight of whole school curriculum.
It may be reasonable to suppose that the greater the perceived power in regards to a leadership role, the more influence you would impart on the innovation of curriculum design. Furthermore, that approaches modelled would evolve and amplify with the expansion of innovative approaches and perspectives. Unfortunately, this does not occur organically and just like every young person, each adult is on a personal learning journey with their own prior knowledge, preconceptions and experiences that either curb or drive their openness to new approaches and willingness to take risks and challenge their own conventions.
I am continually reminded that my own zealous approaches to learning new educational approaches and my areas of foci are not necessarily shared by others. This is not to say that many are not equally if not more devoted to the exploration of their educational priorities, it just means that our approaches are informed by different influences. This is by no means a negative, it just relies on greater self-awareness on my behalf when I approach the leadership of curriculum design, trying to ensure a shared purpose and understanding.
Over the past two days, I facilitated the screening of the educational documentary “Most Likely to Succeed”. The film is a commentary on reimagining the American Education system with a particular focus on one model, San Diego school, High Tech High. Whole staff participated along with a handful of middle school students and were provoked by virtue of the film to consider what sort of learning environment is most likely to “succeed” in the 21st century.
It became apparent from the reflections shared that some had previously grappled with many of the ideas and provocations in the documentary whilst for others, the ideas were unfamiliar and even confronting. Most staff felt inspired and invigorated by the possibilities and models presented in the film, however, for a few, it left them feeling overwhelmed and disheartened. The challenge moving forward is how to foster the inspiration to develop different approaches to our current curriculum design and ensure staff who were overwhelmed are nurtured and supported to feel empowered.
The critical takeaway in regards to my current role from the models presented in the film is to have teachers see themselves as powerful designers of learning, not hampered by ticking content boxes, but instead supported to facilitate deep and meaningful learning opportunities with students.
If you haven’t seen the film, I highly recommend it. See below for the trailer and this review by Vander Ark is a fair synopsis.
This past Friday my school along with 16 others who belong to a partnership in the southern region of Adelaide, came together for a conference organised by school leaders. The conference was a great day of learning and connecting, kicked off with an entertaining opening keynote from Dan Haesler weaving stories throughout powerful messages of mindset and student voice. The day culminated with a student panel involving 8 students from four of the schools involved, 4 senior secondary students and 4 upper primary students.
— Wirreanda Secondary (@WirreandaSS) June 3, 2016
It was wonderful to have student voice shared, which is too often void in education conferences. It was also a challenging experience for these 8 young people to step out of their comfort zone in front of 540 adults, which I am sure many adults would be reticent to do themselves. (Mind you, I think Dominic (REC) was revelling in the opportunity to have an audience, quite the performer!)
Amongst many of the prompts and questions from both Dan and the audience, the student panel responded to, what their favourite day at school would be like and aspects they value in their teachers and how they feel about school.
Overwhelmingly, the message from our students endorsed that they were empowered when teachers fostered their passions, whether that be drama, music or leadership. That the best teachers saw something in them, that they didn’t necessarily see in themselves. That teachers who challenged them and respected their opinions and contributions are the ones they value, along with those who include them to design their own learning.
Additionally, these students used terms like “home”, “comfortable” and “belong” and phrases such as “where I can be me” when referring to their schools. Multiple warm fuzzies in the crowd.
feels like home
means family & history
is a comfortable place
is a place of motivation
is a place where I can be me#panapart
— Melissa Mulholland (@MelissaMulh) June 3, 2016
What a great job we have all done, patting ourselves on the back in the audience, warm hearts, big smiles, looking at proof that our efforts have resulted with young people on a stage, confirming how we impact their lives in incredibly positive ways. And what an amazing bunch of young people they are.
But let’s get real….these were 8 SELECTED students out of a possible 4000 in our schools.
Easy to be swept up with this wonderful student panel, but important to remember that not every student feels connected to school #panapart
— Rhoni McFarlane (@rhonimcfarlane) June 3, 2016
This student panel is fantastic, but not all students can articulate what they need/want/feel. Important to ask those students too #Panapart
— rebecca hepworth (@bechep2) June 3, 2016
It is not like as school leaders we are going to put 8 disengaged kids on stage who could potentially say “school is shit for me and I wish I didn’t have to go”. Or could we? If we are going to “get real” about impacting on young people, if we are going to face what is truly NOT working in our systems, then shouldn’t we be hearing the voices of those who are the most disaffected?
So I throw a challenge to my colleagues, to my school, to myself. Let us give voice to those who do not get a chance to be heard. Let us hear from students who don’t feel like “home” at school, who cannot identify even one adult that they can confide in. Let us shake up the next student panel and take a risk. If we continuously hear the good stuff, then we are blindly moving forward without the feedback that can make the most significant difference.
Check out the Storify from the day.
I have not previously attended a conference stream dedicated to leadership, in fact, most of my professional learning, in regards to leadership, has occurred through reading and actual practice (with the exception of a few sessions with Prof David Giles -Flinders Uni). I believe that investing time into intentional leadership development is critical. Being a good teacher does not equate to being a good leader, and the greater the responsibilities gained, the more there is to juggle, the greater the necessity for, vision, philosophy and strategy applied to leadership rather than just being hardworking, approachable and reliable (which can only get you so far).
There were a few critical “aha” moments during my Future Schools the first emerged during the presentation by Darren Cox, Principal St Phillip’s Christian College. Darren spoke passionately about his approach to leadership and that we must have the same belief in our staff as we do in our students, this MUST be your starting point. How often do we “write off” certain staff members in our school, waiting for them to retire or move on, placing them in groups with each other because “they’re not going to do it anyway”, labelling them a “lost cause”? I think this is even more evident in South Australia with the removal of tenure, but it makes it even MORE crucial that we don’t default to this attitude. Dylan Wiliams would refer to it as the “love the one you’re with” approach. If we perceive every staff member as valuable, that they can grow, that they can contribute in powerful and meaningful ways to the culture and learning in a school, won’t this be a more powerful foundation for change?
— Rhoni McFarlane (@rhonimcfarlane) March 3, 2016
Further on from this, Darren passionately spoke about developing culture. Whether you can identify what your current culture is, developing this shared cultural identity and then as he referred, making each other accountable for this culture. I am not particularly fond of the word accountable, because I see it as a top-down approach. I would like to think that the development of a truly shared culture would mean each individual would feel a sense of responsibility and furthermore, hold each other responsible.
— Rhoni McFarlane (@rhonimcfarlane) March 3, 2016
I always love a good sports analogy, and with a HPE background, Darren did not disappoint. His examples reminded me of basketball teams I have been a part of and the “reputation” each group had. Whether it be that we were aggressive defensively or offensively, owning that reputation meant that we could pull others up if they didn’t dive on the ball, or take a shot. It wasn’t taken personally, because we had created that reputation together, we owned it.
So here lies the challenge for our own journey of creating culture at my school, which has already begun. How do we share a responsibility for our culture, so we can hold each other responsible in a way that builds culture and doesn’t bust it!
This week I attended the Future Schools Conference in Sydney with two colleagues from my school. The value in taking teams to conferences, is in the conversations and perspectives you gain. This one was no different and Melissa Mulholland and Alison Buse were wonderful co-learners.
Whilst we had opportunities to explore a scope of ideas and takeaways from the range of presentations over the two days, it was the on the third day during our time spent reflecting and challenging each other to identify key immediate actions, short-term (semester actions) and longer term (within the year) was where the true value lay for me.
Previously when travelling interstate, the pressure to reduce costs often means that there is a rush to the door to catch a flight home, evident by the numbers who attended the final keynotes in each conference stream.
— Rhoni McFarlane (@rhonimcfarlane) March 4, 2016
When booking our accommodation and travel, I was unaware that a significant event (MARDI GRAS) was on in Sydney and the flights reflected this significant event. Resulting in being cheaper to stay the extra night and fly home the following day. This turned out to be a valuable turn of events.
After checking-out from our hotel, we headed down to The Rocks at Sydney and found an amazing cafe The Fine Food Store (with WIFI). Over a delicious brunch we discussed and identified the various valuable learnings from the conference and planned for “what next”.
As two young leaders in my school, Mel and Alison demonstrated such a commitment to their own development and the improvement of our learning community. It reminded me how fortunate I am to be surrounded by passionate, enthusiastic, committed educators. It also reinforced how crucial it is to tap into people’s passions, talents and skills.
So for my first takeaway from Future Schools 2016 ……. if you can, plan to include immediate time to reflect, review and plan actions together after attending a conference. Absolute bonus if it’s interstate, and you’re on Sydney Harbour, the sun is shining and it’s 28 degrees.
Each year that I teach pre-service teachers as part of their undergraduate teaching degree at Flinders University, I am both inspired and filled with hope and pained by some of their confessions.
The final assessment piece for the course I teach requires students to evaluate the teaching they observed in their placement schools, remark on their conversations with staff and mentors and reflect upon their own teaching experiences. I believe this is the most beneficial of all the assessments required of our students as I am of the belief that the most valuable skill we can develop to transform our practice is the ability to discuss and reflect upon our own teaching and that of others and develop intentions based on this as to how to improve.
For each reflection I read, I am encouraged by the aspirations of these young people to continue to grow and it is encouraging to read about so many learning environments instilling the importance of a growth mindset in both students and teachers.
Amongst the wonderful inspiring reflections are also moments of disappointment. Over a semester, I get to know these students quite well, their honesty and enthusiasm for learning and their thirst for any guidance from teachers and mentors is heartening. However, when I read that “mentor” teachers tell their pre-service teachers that their lessons and courses cannot be differentiated, or is too hard to adjust for students, a little part of me aches.
I have no delusion that each and every one of these student teachers will have a practicum experience with perfect expertise (no such thing) but still, without fail, each year I read a few statements that make me want to scratch my eyes out.
Throughout our course I remind them that that ultimately they will develop their own beliefs, their own values and should surround themselves with people that will support and encourage them to achieve these. I can only hope that “too hard” doesn’t stick and that they see the inherent value in the things that will ultimately impact on their students growth.
Oh and P.S EVERY course, at ANY year level can be differentiated. Just like EVERY child and how they experience learning is personal and different. Differentiation is not about providing individual programs, it is about knowing your students needs and responding and planning to meet them.
In my teens I was fortunate to travel half way around the world as part of a team on two representative basketball trips. These trips involved a month of training and playing games in the US and Asia. At the conclusion of our basketball commitments we spent a week in a tropical holiday destination. On the first trip we spent a week in Penang, Malaysia. It wasn’t my first trip to Asia, but it was definitely my first with a group of teenagers! Whilst we were touring and playing we had limited opportunities to shop or explore the places we visited, so we were determined to make up for it in the last week.
We were delighted by the myriad of stalls filled with various goods and wares, everything from clothing and footwear to ornaments and jewellery. I cannot remember one item I bought, nor any of my teammates during our sprees, but what I do recall is the cajoling by the vendor to gain our attention and sell their goods. Our favourite vendor catchphrase being “come and get your genuine imitation”!
Which brings me to teaching.
Not that long ago I was set the task of developing an art course for the year, I grimaced and acknowledged “not my strong point” and a colleague responded “but you design really creative art projects”. I replied to the effect of, “its all smoke and mirrors! I am really good at finding something and manipulating it to fit our purposes”.
This is where we reside, in a world of remix, repurpose and redesign! Nothing is truly original, we all gather and gain inspiration from others and the more inspiration we immerse ourselves in the greater our ability to be creative. You only have to spend a short time on the internet to see multiple parodies, memes and remixes for proof or our participatory culture.
“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something.” – Steve Jobs
So we need to consume to be creative and herein lies our responsibility to share what we produce (and give credit) so that others can take what we have made and build upon it.
Part of the hesitation for some is the belief that they are not as creative, skilled or talented as others. The more we acknowledge how much we “steal” and “adapt”, the more confidence others may grow in knowing that the only skill required is a keen prowess for imitation!
Get over yourself! Your ideas are not original, just share and build upon each other #EduTECH
— Rhoni McFarlane (@rhonimcfarlane) June 4, 2014
I spent today at a professional development session on moderation for leaders. Initially I was apprehensive that the day would be focussed on how we measure and rank students against the Australian Curriculum standards, however it became quite apparent early in the session that I was wrong! (Phew)
Instead the objective of the session was to explore how we can encourage collaboration to reflect and question our practice to ultimately improve learning opportunities for students. YAY!
For me PD is golden when I can interact with others passionate about improving practice and learn from their expertise and experiences. No better way to find a group of such people than to attend a session on the last Friday of the holidays on a cold winters day, when it would be rather pleasant to be tucked up under a blanket reading a book and consuming hot beverages instead!
Not to be and definitely no regrets.
It was brilliant to hear from other curriculum leaders and lead teachers as to how they work with colleagues to reflect, critique and move forward in their planning and programming. The questions raised amongst the group included;
- how do we develop a culture of trust required to share practice?
- how do we establish opportunities to reflect and receive feedback without making it personal?
- how can we develop a deeper understanding of the standards to enable teachers to be designers and not deliverers?
“One of the most powerful aspects of collaborative moderation is the dialogue…when you take part in it you see people in a different light…you hear people questioning their own practice, gathering strategies for change, making sense of standards, understanding the curriculum and adjusting their teaching for improved learning” – Alan Luke
I can talk about my practice until the cows come home, I love critical feedback and thrive with people challenging my ideas and practice and have written about this before. I know how valuable this is to my own improvement, but what I am still developing, is my ability to facilitate a collaborative processes for peers to reflect and challenge their own practice and that of others in supportive ways.
Todays session has provided an example of how this could play out with a focus on planning and assessment with the Australian Curriculum. I really look forward to seeing how this can be facilitated this term with the curriculum areas I support.
I recently attended EduTech in Brisbane, Australia’s largest education technology conference with 4 colleagues from my school. It was a great opportunity to join likeminded educators from all over Australia to share and engage in ideas delivered by highly respected professionals and some legends of our time. These speakers are continuing to shape learning in Australian schools and across the globe.
Perusing the programme, I knew exactly who I did and did not want to see. Being connected through twitter, watching TEDtalks regularly, reading educational commentary and blogs means that the names of keynotes and many of the workshop presenters were very familiar to me. This is where I began to wonder, is being too familiar with these ideas and stories and attending these events robbing others who may benefit more from the experience?
Sitting amongst a sea of educators in anticipation of the first keynote, Sugatra Mitra, it was not hard to be excited. I had seen his TEDtalk, read many of the articles and responses to the Hole in the Wall Project, I had even read and tweeted Edna Sackson’s (@whatedsaid) recent post about his visit to her classroom. Needless to say I had a fairly good understanding of Sugatra’s message. Then I sat and listened to stories I had already heard, ideas I already believed and opportunities I believe children deserve. It was difficult to tweet anything to contribute to the dialog that I hadn’t already discussed. It was a challenge to discuss with my peers, ideas that I had not already processed and I thought, how very privileged and spoilt I am! Three years ago, this keynote would have been incredibly inspiring, motivating and uplifting, but yet I felt a smidgen of disappointment. Being connected to an amazingly rich and diverse PLN online has led to an abundance of information and sharing that many of my peers currently do not access.
Why should I continue to have these opportunities at the expense of others? Why shouldn’t the likes of “me three years ago” be given the opportunity to be inspired instead?
Whilst sharing a taxi with Dan Haesler on our way to the airport, I asked Dan, whether he thought it is a waste for the already converted to be attending these events. We briefly discussed the obvious benefits and the challenges we face getting the “unconverted” to make the most of the events and how the financial investment is also a consideration. In the short ride we really didn’t come to any solid conclusion, but to suggest that it would be preferable to take a mixture of “newbies” and “converts”. So part of my responsibility having my school invest in such liberties, is to ensure that I make sure my experience at the conference develops into something more than just a “takeaway” and perhaps open the door for others to access these ideas.
Education leaders such as George Couros and Stephen Harris are always seeking ideas and examples from beyond the education arena to develop and strengthen learning and leadership in schools. I think there are many lessons to be learnt from corporations as they continually reflect upon what contributed to their success or their failure.
I am not suggesting in any means that schools should fashion themselves entirely on a business model – our core business is kids, not making a profit, but I do think the more that business looks at building success on the basis of developing relationships and connection, the more we can learn from their change journeys.
This morning I read this article by Alexa Clay – “5 Tips for Growing Changemaking Communities in Your Company“. Clay puts forth the importance of building an entourage which she describes as;
“people who bring you energy and ‘get it’ Your entourage is what gets you through the darker times and plays a much needed role in keeping you going when things appear stuck”
Clay says the following in which I have added the alternative (schools) or (classrooms) substitute:
And corporations (schools) aren’t merely collections of individuals. Corporations (schools) are communities. Behind every business (school) is an environment where people are looking to find connection, fulfillment, and identity. And yet, within and across cubicles (classrooms), it can be so hard to connect on a human level. So how do we bust through? How do we generate communities to really unleash game-changing innovation within big corporations (schools)? And how do we grow our entourages into truly powerful networks of change.
For each of the 5 tips Clay suggests to move towards developing changemaking communities I have included a ‘school’ alternative.
1. Visualise your relationships
Company model: …. go beyond the usual suspects and think about organizations or communities you might never engage with …Map out these actors and understand their competencies and points of leverage within the system. Then spot areas where a shared agenda could emerge.
School model: there may be people in your school that have a passion or interest in what you’re trying to achieve. Don’t assume it will always be the same people who put their hand up for everything, develop opportunities for support staff, parents, families, ex students and others to be involved in what you’re trying to achieve.
2. Find your counterparts
Company model: …make sure that you connect with like-minded intrapreneurs within these organizations. Systemic collaborations require an enterprising spirit to be ignited and sustained. So find the right allies in other organizations that you can rely and depend on to accelerate these types of initiatives. You’ll save time and energy by working with others who share the same mindset as you.
School model: Connect with people who share your passions both in and beyond (local or global) your school. Develop a network of educators on the same journey and share and build from each other. Utilise #twitter , google+ or other ways to connect and share and forge the development of your community.
3. Practice code-switching
Company model: Be able to shift how you communicate, depending on your audience–know the right language to use depending on your stakeholder. Part of building community has to do with knowing how to translate your prerogative into the language of others.
School model: depending on whether you are engaging with your allies, leadership or those whom may be resistant, your communication will need to change. No point going full blown excitement on a peer that is reluctant to change anything at all, save that for your ‘counterparts’
4. Foster a subculture
Company model: …at times, it might feel like the culture you’re trying to create is not reconcilable with the culture of your organisation. Ask yourself what is the delta behind the culture that is and the culture that you are trying to create. And the delta should be fairly small. Most people don’t like massive change.
School model: Change is hard! Start by developing a small culture which you can cultivate and grow eventually infiltrating the rest of the school.
5. De-couple your entourage and your ego
Company model: Communities don’t revolve around one person. Nor should the success of an idea or innovation be dependent on one person. To be successful you need to be able to democratize ownership of your ideas. Beware of isolating yourself with a community of enablers. Get the “scary people” within your organization or from the outside to champion your work. They are key in getting your ideas to scale.
School model: Make sure there are people within your community who are willing to question and challenge ideas (critical friends). Success will be measured not by what you envision on your own, but by what is owned within a vision.
“most game-changing ideas are 10% epiphany and 90% relationships and community building….People don’t just lean in to ideas; they lean in to communities where they can discover purpose and meaning.”
Since Christopher Pyne announced his review to address the National Curriculum, I have fielded questions as to what this means for us (teachers) and what my opinion is of all this palava. Many teachers have taken to Facebook and twitter to express their anger, frustration or concern and I thought I would clarify my thoughts on here.
The review in itself I have no qualm with. I believe we should be in constant review of ourselves as a profession. I would rather regular checkins and adjustments as opposed to a dump and run strategy. Any argument as to the cost of such affairs should turn their gaze at other government spending atrocities first, I think money on education is a good thing.
My concern is regarding the motivation to include the “expertise” of two staunch critics (Professor Wiltshire and Dr Donnelly) to lead the review based on the criticism that not enough western civilisation history is addressed in the curriculum. Pyne assures that both Wiltshire and Donnelly will provide an “impartial” and “balanced” approach. This is where things get ugly.
This is not a review that will establish what is best for kids, this is purely an agenda that is based on the attitude of
‘If it was good enough for me, then it should be good enough for them’
Pyne has no interest in bringing education ‘back to the centre’ he just wants it based on his own ideology. Which by the way has not been influenced by data or research but only by his “expert experience”.
We all have romantic ideas about how school was for us (those of us who enjoyed school perhaps) others for whom school was mundane or worse still have their expectations. I have extremely fond memories of my own learning and I was very successful at school. At the same time, I don’t expect my children go through the same motions that I did, because I believe they need different skills to succeed in the future than I was expected to need when I graduated. Dr Donnelly’s own experiences have led to the following views;
”Multiculturalism is based on the mistaken belief that all cultures are of equal worth and that it is unfair to discriminate and argue that some practices are wrong” – 2011 for ABC
In 2004, he wrote that ”many parents” would consider homosexuality ”abnormal behaviour”, ”the reality is that gays, lesbians and same-sex couples with children are a very small minority and such groups do not represent the mainstream.”
Dr Donnelly is seeking to ensure the National Curriculum reflects “the fact that we are a western, liberal, democratic nation.” He is also a strong advocate for having the Bible taught in state schools.
These are strong personal beliefs from Donnelly and he is entitled to keep his opinion based on his private schooled, white middle class experiences. However, when he is in charge of being impartial in review of a curriculum that will be delivered to a “mainstream” community that include the following;
- under 16% in Catholic education
- only 37% of whose parents identify as Christian
- some of whom will have same sex parents with approximately 33,700 same-sex couples in Australia according to the 2011 census. The number of same-sex couples has risen significantly with a 32% increase since 2006.
- just over 30% of whom in 2011 were born overseas
I suggest he may not be the best person for the job. (See Australian Bureau of Statistics for further proof we are not all white, middle-class, heterosexual, Christian and male.)
So what I implore Mr Pyne and his merry men do, is always look at making schools better than we had it. Schools that prepare our kids for a future, not only dramatically different than the one our own education prepared us for, but one in which will be baldly different from the world we experience today.
For articles on Pyne et al see below.