I recently revisited an interview between Senator Bernie Sanders and Michael Render (Killer Mike) from January 2016. This obviously pre-dates the election and places Bernie in the midst of his campaign for the Democratic nomination. The issues explored by the two centred on the philosophies of social justice and particularly, as a focus for Bernie, the rights of citizens to have economic freedom. I encourage you to watch the interview if you are at all concerned about the growing equity crisis we are facing in education. It will definitely provide an insight into the path we face ahead, thus the title “The Urgency of Now”.
I was motivated to revisit the interview upon return from an incredible three-week educational tour exploring North America. I will use another post to provide further reflection on this rewarding experience, but first I wanted to draw some connections between some of the striking systemic challenges that the Australian and US systems share.
“We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late…………. This is no time for apathy or complacency…………. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.” – Martin Luther King Jr
“College Readiness” was profoundly embedded in all the schools and systems we visited in the States, and I preface this by saying this is not a reflection upon the incredibly dedicated and passionate educators we connected with, but instead the system that they are part of. This is, of course, a significant driver of the premise that The United States of America is the land of opportunity and that everyone has access to the “American Dream”.
What I found growingly hard to swallow, was the disparity between how this manifests when so many of the places we visited had significant homelessness and obvious mental health issues. It would seem to me that, this American Dream is fit only for those who are already somewhat advantaged. The significant programs and philanthropic works that are working to combat the equity in education is mind-blowing, but it also makes me wonder……for every program that is not public (and that I mean government) funded, does this not just perpetuate the lack of responsibility that governments have for providing equitable education?
Now I must disclose here, that my own school and growingly a number of significant personal professional opportunities have indeed been afforded due to our relationship with an amazing non-profit organisation, but this has only emphasised to me that we are able to access a range of resources and opportunities that all schools should be entitled to.
Whilst Martin Luther King Jr was referring to the Vietnam War when he said: “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today”, it is true of the challenges we currently face in education. So many of the passionate educators in the United States that I met are hamstrung by a system that is centralised on standardised assessment and access to the right college. This is the lens through which they view opportunity and educational innovation. The same threatens our system in Australia with earlier and earlier attempts to formally assess children and monitor schools through the use of arbitrary testing and processes. As educators representing disadvantaged communities in Australia, we cannot let others speak for us, let others make decisions for us, let others perpetuate systems that maintain a complicit and undereducated “lower class”. It is only through the critical work that we do with young people, how we advocate to provide the same opportunities as their wealthy peers, how we speak out and stand up when dogma drives the educational discourse that we will start to shift the divide.
I think Bernie hits the nail on the head when he says: We have the freedom of speech, you can go out on the street and give a speech, that’s your constitutional right…but you know to be truly free you need economic rights as well. You can go out and give a speech but you may not have food in your belly… a roof over your head. If you don’t have any education, are you truly free?”
The past 2 days I attended the SASPA (South Australian Secondary Principals Association) Conference titled “Creativity & Innovation: The New DNA of Schools” and am pleased to say it was a valuable two days spent. The conference was not only supremely well organised and facilitated, but it delivered inspiration, provocation and great examples of practice from some of our South Australian secondary schools. I could write separate posts about the thoroughly entertaining Ben Walden who took us on a whirlwind exploration of leadership through the narrative of Shakespeare’s Henry V, or the examination of data and who controls the field of judgement in our data driven reform agenda by Professor Bob Lingard. Furthermore Elaine Bensted, CE Zoos SA shared her example of how effective change leadership can have a profound effect, plus one of the best purpose statements I have ever seen.
— Jason Loke (@Jason_Loke) August 17, 2017
Again day 2 held similar gems, with the always poignant Professor David Giles, a compelling example of practice from Banksia Park International High School and their adaptation of Covey’s Habits of Highly Effective People in developing culture across their entire school community and a stimulating final keynote from Professor Yong Zhao questioning the side effects of education.
So seems like an amazing learning experience doesn’t it. What more could you ask for than inspiring messages, provocations, and examples of interesting practice?
Well for me, one of the most valuable aspects of learning in collaborative spaces such as conferences, especially those with a healthy twitter backchannel, is the opportunity to discuss, question and challenge the ideas or practice being presented. Through this questioning and examination, new understandings emerge and perspectives are confirmed, strengthened or disrupted. Over the two days, I experienced little discourse challenging or questioning the thoughts and ideas being presented. After day 1, I conceded that perhaps it was due to my lack of engaging in table talk, but instead tweeting and recording thoughts and takeaways online, where I can often explore the contributions of others to deepen the conversation. Plus the fact that one of the workshop options was spent delivering our own story to a room full of peers.
As I entered my chosen workshop today, I made a deliberate effort to engage others on my table in considering and challenging the ideas being presented by Banksia Park. Not because I was in opposition to their practice (I actually found it extremely interesting and relevant) but because I wanted to engage in dialogue that could drive deeper understanding of the benefits and considerations of their approach. Despite raising questions about rewards/awards and judgements on whether high effort always equates to growth, which normally provokes some discussion, it really didn’t eventuate to any critical examination or conversation. This is no reflection on the quality of the educators on my table, for all I know, they were wondering “who on earth is this irritating human?” wishing I let them be to record their notes and eat their mentos! It was just my attempt to deepen my own experience and understandings.
I not once experienced anyone questioning the rhetoric, challenging ideas or blatantly disagreeing. I find having participants, online or in person, being discordant or making counter arguments, even if I comfortably disagree, facilitates discussion that leads me to deeper understanding and empathy towards the perspectives. Of course, my experience was limited to those I sat with and the tweets I caught throughout the conference, but I can’t help feeling a tiny bit less satisfied.
The concern for me is that we are way too polite and are at risk of conserving a homogenous (word of the day) narrative when we aren’t willing to engage in productive, passionate but respectful dialogue. Even just for the sake of it!
So if you were there, let me know, what was an idea, practice or message that you might question? Or how do you engage others in discourse at conferences to deepen your own learning?
Check out the twitter stream captured on storify here to see for yourself.
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.
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.
“A good leader inspires people to have confidence in the leader, a great leader inspires people to have confidence in themselves”
~ Eleanor Roosevelt
I really revere this approach to leadership where the focus is on developing others not just producing a positive outcome. Working in teams it is essential that everyone is improving and contributing in positive ways and this will only occur if the focus is on developing every element of the team not just isolated members, or yourself.
I have spent a great deal of time and effort trying to ensure that those around me have confidence in my leadership; endeavouring to lead by example, sustain a high work ethic, be reliable and trustworthy, enthusiastic and positive and communicate effectively.
Whilst these are all what I would consider effective leadership qualities, I have to remind myself that my energies should also be spent on inspiring others to see their own value.
I have always found perception an intriguing phenomenon. It probably stems from my studies in social anthropology at Uni but also as I get older, I reflect on how I viewed the world as a young person. We of course construct our own experience through how we interact and perceive the world, without getting too deep the reason I raise this is that just recently, a colleague gave me an enormous compliment and then continued to identify themselves as less adequate. This caught me by surprise, as I in fact hold them in very high esteem. It reminded me immediately of the quote from E.Roosevelt above, and impelled me to remind this particular individual of all the inspiring initiatives they had led and the challenges they had overcome. Sometimes we all need a champion to remind us of our successes. I need to make sure I do it more often.
Every once in a while something happens to disrupt assumptions or short term expectations. This happened recently and good, bad or otherwise it is an important process to go through to reflect and examine that which is most important and valuable in the path we wish to forge.
It is easy at times to follow the road which has been laid ahead, and it is easy when opportunities are available to go with what is expected, but this does not necessarily lead us to where we truly want to be. I have done this before and it is not something I want to repeat again, but instead keep in check that what I do each and every day is meaningful and leading ultimately to the realisation of an important purpose, self-fulfilment and even a legacy, knowing that I have impacted upon the lives of others (hopefully many) for the better.
One of the favourite parts of my job is the opportunity to observe other teachers in full swing in the classroom. I think often when we approach classroom observations we are expecting to highlight deficits of practice and this may lead to judgements not founded in developing others, but instead on comparisons and negativity. Of course it is crucial to identify opportunities to challenge ourselves to always improve, but this post is my opportunity to shine a light on someone who may not typically be spotlighted.
At our school, we have been implementing Feedback for Learning strategies over the past two years and I was delighted to see this practice embedded in a year 9 music lesson by Miss D. I only wish I had recorded it so that others could see how well she applies the strategy of no hands up (mental note for next time).
When I gave feedback to Mel about how well she utilised this strategy, she responded to effect of;
‘Well otherwise, it’s just the same kids answering isn’t it!’
Exactly! Succinct and to the point, we know that when we only call on those who raise their hands, we are choosing to only teach to the group of students who are mastering the content.
Another powerful strategy Miss D used and one which I was extremely delighted to see in action after facilitating a whole school session this week on Growth Mindset, was clarity and purpose for students into the reasons why she was testing their understanding and knowledge.
In the lesson I observed, Miss D explained to her class that they were about to complete a test, she also explained that on the test there was a question that she did NOT expect anyone to be able to answer. She explained that this would not contribute to their grade, but instead was a way for her as their teacher to determine if there were any students who already understood this concept and could be challenged further, any who may have some idea which she could work with to embed over the coming weeks and those who had no idea at all yet and that she would be working with over the coming months.
I was not only impressed with how clearly she explained the purpose of having question 12, but I was really interested to see how the students responded. Instead of being daunted by question 12 those students who’d had no prior exposure to the material appeared more confident. They may not have answered the question, but I do believe that when they handed in the test, they would have felt that the focus was on their learning continuum and not a fixed sense of ability.
Thanks Miss D!
I feel one of the toughest things to do in a team is pull someone up for exaggerating or fabricating the truth to make them appear hard working, professional or with greater expertise than may in fact be the case or indeed to cover up the reality they may not understand the expectations whatsoever.
I just read this post by Dan Rockwell where he identifies 10 tactics that produce brilliant solutions. The two that stood out for me were the following;
Ask tough questions. One of the saddest things I’ve seen leaders do is listen to bull crap. Exposing smoke-blowers motivates people to prepare for meetings and discussions.
Terminate drifters and butt kissers. They just take up space and drain vitality from real workers. Spend time with honest hard thinkers.
It actually takes me back to a lecturer I had at University back in the mid 90’s, as a group of students we knew that we could sabotage the entire 2 hour workshop by setting our lecturer off on an unrelated tangent by prompting him with different ethical issues. He loved to talk and we took absolute advantage of this, and rarely ever had to complete our readings because we were never accountable to respond of reflect upon them. Two hours would be over before he had a chance to ask any questions about our required tasks or homework.
The same can happen though when people within a team take up air time sprouting fanciful accounts minimising the opportunity to actually get on with the real work, in an attempt to avoid the tough questions. Especially if they’re allowed to.
So here-in lies the challenge. We work with people, with sensitivities, insecurities and different mindsets including the need to be admired by peers. How do we create an environment where people can be challenged to be honest both with their peers and themselves, by asking tough questions in a supportive environment where it then becomes more acceptable to respond “I have not done that”, “I don’t know how to do that”, “I need help to understand what is expected”.
How do we make it more admirable to admit that we are having difficulty or don’t know what to do, as opposed to affirmed for making stuff up to avoid “being found out”?
For two weeks this month I have had the fortune to work closely with staff and students in a school in a province in the North East of Thailand called Kanthalakwittaya, a co-ed school from years 7-12.
As an English speaking foreigner visiting Thailand, language becomes the greatest barrier. Beyond “hello”, “yes” and “no”, the majority of rural Thai do not speak, read or understand English. Additionally my Thai is limited to……. well nothing! It is no wonder that many who visit Thailand stay in Bangkok or popular tourist destination Phuket, where the influx of English speaking tourists demands the capacity to communicate in a common tongue.
This is however, not where the richness of Thai culture is experienced.
Kanthalakwittaya is a school without the bells and whistles of my own. Students are often amongst 45 peers in a class with concrete floors, broken wooden tables and chairs blackboards and chalk dust. No devices, no screens, no flexible furniture or spaces. Yet their is immense richness in their school community and by this I am not referring to the monetary kind.
Their wealth is in their kindness, their generosity, their overwhelming commitment to help each other and to share everything. Their caring, nurturing approach is evident and was demonstrated in every classroom, every staffroom and every home I entered.
Community is at the heart of Thai culture, in fact their school curriculum identifies it as one of eight “Desirable Characteristics” as “Public-Mindedness”.
Having an authentic Thai experience (and not the white tourist version), allowed me to see how very much my own community is disconnecting from some of the things that matter most. That in our schools, it’s not the bells and whistles that matter most as we all try and get as many “things” as we can, but indeed the opportunities we provide for students to do work that truly matters. Great joy comes from the happiness of others, from being part of family (related or otherwise), from “Public-Mindedness”.