An Ethical Dilemma

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photo by zeevveez on flickr

People trust recommendations from ‘real people’ more than they trust advertising. Consumer reviews on sites like Amazon are trusted for this reason and it’s why marketers pay people to post positive reviews there. However, in doing so, they erode the usefulness of those sites as the deceptive practice makes us uncertain which information we can believe.

Another strategy marketers use is to recruit ‘ social media influencers’ to promote their products.  These ‘influencers’ have built a reputation with an audience who see them as trustworthy, so their recommendations are of great value.

Over the last 24 months, I’ve been offered money, gifts and VIP access in order to review or raise awareness of various education events and products. When an offer comes in I’m flattered but conflicted. On one hand it’s a huge compliment, and often a great opportunity. On the other hand, I worry about the ethics and the impact on my integrity. I don’t want to be seen as someone whose opinions can be bought. I don’t like ‘cash for comment‘.

When ABC Splash employed me for a couple of months in 2015 to raise awareness of their work on social media, I tried to get around the dilemma by declaring on all my profiles that I was working with ABC Splash to raise awareness of their product. Without that disclaimer, I felt it would be unethical to even retweet something they said.

In addition, instead of providing my own reviews of their product, I provided a space on the TER Podcast for their spokesperson to inform the audience of their latest releases. I also made a somewhat clumsy declaration in each of those episodes that I was receiving payment to raise awareness of their work.

Access to events such as conferences has also raised this ethical dilemma. While there’s no agreement that I provide a positive review of events when I’m issued with a media pass to attend, even so, I wonder if podcasting about them is a form of cash for comment.  I don’t believe I have any entitlement to access and when it’s granted, I’m grateful for the privilege. This makes me less inclined to be publicly critical. It would seem discourteous to accept hospitality and then speak negatively. My reviews therefore focus mainly on the positive aspects, and I feel more circumspect about sharing any criticisms I may have.

Microsoft recently gave me a tour of their office, a Surface 3 and a really interesting overview of how their products can be used for education. There was no demand, but they did express a hope that I would blog about it. I haven’t done so yet, mainly because it was fourth term and I was tired and busy.

I like the product, so my review will be mainly positive, but having accepted a gift, am I turning the trust and good will my readers place in me into a commodity that I trade on? Am I letting that trust be exploited for profitable ends? Where does benefiting end and exploiting begin?

Being transparent about benefits and agendas is an important first step. It saddens me that in 2015 I came across a number of blogs and tweets, and sat through TeachMeet presentations, from people receiving incentives without declaring their interest.  When this occurs, it erodes trust in just the same way as fake reviews on Trip Advisor or Amazon do, and I hate seeing our education networks exploited for personal or commercial gain in that way.

But are those of us who declare the benefits we receive any different? Is declaring enough?  If we are allowing our network influence to be used by companies for marketing, to bring them profit, are we becoming part of the problem? Who is benefiting, who is being exploited, and does it even matter?

I’d welcome your comments on this dilemma, so please make use of the comment section below.

 

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Stop Attacking Independent and Catholic School Teachers

Yesterday I spoke with a teacher who confessed he won’t identify himself as a Catholic school teacher online because of the criticism he believes he will receive. This is a teacher with a lot to offer and who does much to support the professional growth of others. His fears aren’t unfounded. Last year, when a Catholic School teacher took over the reigns of EduTweetOz for a week, some public education activists ripped into her, simply because she worked for a Catholic school.

I’ve seen it numerous times – and activists, you’re not doing the cause any good. Advocating for a better system is one thing, attacking those who work in a different system is quite another. All you do is lose people’s respect. You’ve lost mine. Stop trolling teachers and start talking constructively to the people who can make a difference at a system level..

It’s difficult to find work and we take what we can find. Being at an independent, Catholic or public school doesn’t change the reason we come to work. We all are doing our best to ensure that current and future generations of children are receiving the best quality education we can provide. No teacher should be made to feel ashamed of doing that.

Anyone who’s followed me for a while will know that I’m a vocal advocate for public schools.  I want to see a strong and robust public school system. I believe that all children should have access to an excellent education regardless of their postcode.

There are serious issues facing us. Successive government funding policies and a hostile media have made residualisation a real fear. I don’t like the damage these policies are doing to public schools.

I question the wisdom of a society which encourages groups to segregate along financial, religious and cultural lines. If a school was to separate its students into areas for Christians, Muslims and Jews, for rich and for poor, and wouldn’t let them mix, there would be an outcry.

But blaming and trolling teachers working in independent and Catholic schools for the damage that successive government policies have done to our system is pretty stupid. It’s like holding me responsible for Tony Abbott. I live in this country, I vote, but please don’t blame me for Tony Abbott.

The Future of Learning? It’s here and its happening.

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I’m breaking ranks here, but I’m getting a little tired of hearing visionary speakers telling us that schools need to change, that we’re using a 19th century, factory model of learning, with a narrow curriculum, steered towards conformity and exam success, teaching skills that are only useful within school but not in the real world. I’m tired of hearing that we kill creativity and that we don’t encourage students to find and develop their strengths and passions. I’m tired of these speakers comparing what schools do now, with what schools could be like in the future, and showing a few photographs of lucky schools who’ve had the funding to pay for architects, curvy furniture and writable walls.

I’d like to know where the evidence to support this bleak view of education comes from. Where is the evidence that schools are not already doing this – perhaps not perfectly, but each, in their own way working hard to provide an education that inspires and engages students?

I work in a fairly typical public primary school, with a typical group of teachers, ranging in age,  experience and expertise. Like teachers everywhere, we care about our students, not just exam results. We want our students to love learning, and we want their experience of school to be positive in every way.  We, like teachers everywhere, provide a curriculum that we hope will engage our students and allow each of them to discover passions and develop talents.

Because we care about our students and want to do a good job, my colleagues and I are constantly trying to find better ways of doing things.

Like most  schools, we provide a broad curriculum and a variety of learning experiences. Some of the many programs my school provides include: science and environmental clubs, debating, Tournament of Minds, Maths Olympiad, coding groups, robotic clubs, environmental and gardening clubs, writers workshops, book clubs, a kid created TV news show, a short film festival, student blogging, video conferences, community projects, genius hour, social skills groups, positive psychology classes….

We choose from a range of pedagogical approaches to suit our cohorts, the subject matter and the skills of the teachers.  We use project based learning, game based learning, individualised learning, flipped classrooms, direct instruction and explicit teaching methodologies.

My school is not atypical. Schools everywhere are continually innovating in response to the needs of their students, social and technological changes, new understandings about effective pedagogy and student learning. There is always more to do, and the many edu-visionaries out there play a useful role in  helping us to see what’s possible. But perhaps we could reframe the discussion. Let’s start to acknowledge the impressive work that schools are already doing to inspire and educate students, rather than perpetuating the myth that contemporary schools are backward institutions that haven’t changed since the nineteenth century. Focusing on strengths and achievements is a much more effective way to inspire people to continue striving, than dwelling on failure.

So, the next time you consider how much you and your school have to do before you achieve your ideal of C21 education, and start to feel overwhelmed and frustrated by the constraints that make progress difficult, take a moment to think about how far you’ve come. What are your strengths as a teacher, and what is working well in your school?  Let the rest of us know too, by sharing some of your thoughts in the comments below.

 

Quality Education – No Longer a Right in Australia?

Our federal politicians and their conservative think tanks want us to imagine a society where quality education is no longer a right.

A user pays society where the more you pay, the greater your educational opportunities.  Where wealthy students access a broad curriculum, individualised attention from teachers, smaller class sizes, well maintained and modern classrooms with access to cutting edge technologies, sporting facilities and performing arts spaces.

Children from poorer families could access a no-frills state provided education but with inferior facilities and a narrow curriculum focusing just on the basics.

To avert the risk that  people with the capacity to pay would try to get a free ride from state provided education, a levy would be imposed on higher income earners who choose to access state education. This would discourage all but the most economically disadvantaged from attending state schools.

Last week, the Centre for Independent Studies released a report by Jennifer Buckingham called ‘School Funding on a Budget’

The report contained 8 recommendations:

1.  Review the federal government funding

2. Abolish the federal department of education

3. Reduce the cost of state and territory bureaucracy

4. Remove mandatory class size maximums and eschew further class size reductions

5. Education bursaries for low-income students to attend non-government schools

6. Charge high-income families to attend government schools

7. Reduce the oversupply of teachers by elevating entry standards to teaching degrees

8. Decentralise teacher employment and make it easier to dismiss ineffective teachers

The report is based on some flawed assumptions.

The first assumption is that we need to reign in spending because we need to reduce our budget deficit. Here’s what the IMF has to say about Australia’s budget deficit.

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source: FactsFightBack.org.au

The report also assumes that higher income families who send their children to public schools are getting a free ride. This ignores the fact that parents are already contributing to their children’s public education not only through our tax, which structured so that those who earn more pay more, but through the voluntary fees that public schools charge.

Buckingham claims education research shows increasing class sizes would have no effect on learning while allowing huge savings on teacher salaries. But again, that claim is not well supported. This paper from David Zyngier at  Monash University  rejects that notion. His literature review of 112 studies showed only 3 that suggested class sizes don’t have an impact on learning.

The Thatcherite view that there is no society seems to have been embraced by the Centre for Independent Studies, the Commission of Audit, and our current federal government. Perhaps they prefer to think of us living in an economy.

Following their recommendations may well save money but, if we look at the social consequences, the benefits don’t add up.

Saving money on education will leave us all poorer.

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Teaching Quality or Teacher Quality – Framing the debate around education.

Just think about the difference between these two terms:

Teaching Quality

Teacher Quality.

The simple change, from a verb to a noun,  brings with it a massive shift in the way we think about the education system and the work of teachers.

Teaching Quality directs our attention to what teachers DO.  A few years ago in  NSW, we adopted the Quality Teaching Framework, a model of pedagogy which we used to guide our professional development. It included evaluation tools that allowed us to reflect on our practice, identify areas that we were doing and identify those areas in which we could become more effective. It was a tool for learning, that enabled all teachers to develop their practice and improve their teaching quality. The idea of Teaching Quality brings with it the notion that teaching can be learned and can be improved.  It also brings with it the idea of investing in and building a culture of ongoing professional learning.

Teacher Quality directs our attention to who teachers ARE. There is an ongoing debate around this idea in Australia at the moment. Should only our highest achieving high school graduates be allowed to study teaching, or should everyone be given access to a teacher education course?  Does success at school predetermine Teacher Quality?  Read this article in today’s Sydney Morning Herald for a taste of the debate. The term Teacher Quality  focuses us on the TYPE of people who become teachers rather than on investing in their ongoing professional growth.

I find the use of the term Teacher Quality extremely problematic when used to frame debate around education.  Too frequently it is used in a  way that, intentionally or not, denigrates the profession. As I wrote in my post The Problem with the Teacher Quality Debate,  often it puts the entire responsibility for an education system on to the shoulders of its individual teachers and other issues, such as equity, school management, funding, provision of access to professional learning and provision of adequate time to prepare lessons can be conveniently ignored.

A cynic might even believe that conservative governments and commentators,  who are eager to reduce rather than increase public spending,  deliberately use this language to avoid responsibility for dealing with the difficult and complex nature of an education system. The  solution is appealingly easy: recruit a better, higher quality type of person into teaching,  so that we have Quality Teachers and the education system will become one of the world’s best.  When the system doesn’t work, instead of dealing with complexity, we can just blame those other teachers, the one’s who aren’t of quality.

How to Change Minds – Narrative and the Art of Persuasion

The longer I work in education the more I understand what a political football it is. Almost everyone in the community is somehow invested in the education, whether simply because their tax dollars help to fund it, or because they or their family members are directly involved in it as students, teachers, support staff, policy makers or in other roles. It’s one of the five major social institutions.

With so many people invested, either directly or indirectly, its no surprise that there are strong and opposing views about education, with everyone thinking that their position is the right one.

In Australia we have had a huge debate about the education funding model for schools. All around the western world there seems to be debates about school reform and about teacher quality. We take our positions and we seek to persuade others, seizing what ever evidence we can that will prove our point. We love to use data and quote research that proves beyond doubt that our view of education is correct. We sometimes  feel like tearing out our hair in frustration that those who oppose us ignore the evidence in front of them and seem to dig even further into their position. Different sides accuse each other of cherry picking the research to support their own bias, and each will produce credible data to support their opposing points of views.

These sorts of debates around education reform have been going on for years, and I’m yet to see too many people shift from their original position. But still we try to convince each other.

It’s not working, and it’s not likely to work.

Albert Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results.  So perhaps, we need to consider a different approach.

Last year I came across some interesting articles about the backfire effect. A research project at The University of Michigan showed that when people have beliefs and then are presented with evidence to convince them their original beliefs  are incorrect, they become even more entrenched in their position. Arguing with evidence backfires, hence the name.

It’s related to confirmation bias, which I am guilty of myself. As soon as I come across evidence that my position is correct, I find it credible, whereas I will pick apart any evidence that suggests I am wrong.

So what really convinces people?

When I reflect on what convinces me to at least consider another position on an issue that I feel strongly about, the first thing that comes to mind is credibility.

If the person expressing the alternative view is a person whom I trust, and respect or see as credible in their field, I am more inclined to consider their point of view. I was, for example, very skeptical about the use of BYOD in public schools due to the equity concerns that it immediately raises.  However, I have come across enough public school educators with a heart for social justice who are open to the idea of BYOD, that I’ve found myself shifting my position and being able to examine it with less bias.

Narratives also help change my mind. I don’t care how much data you showed me to ‘prove’ that smaller class sizes don’t make any difference in the quality of a child’s education. However, if you were to tell me a story of how a teacher of a large class, let’s say of 40 kindergarteners, was able to be more effective than the teacher of a class of 20, then I’d start to open my mind again. (So far no one has been able to share a story like that, and despite how people like to quote Hattie’s research into the effect size of class sizes, I remain firm in the belief that in Kindergarten, 20 is plenty.)

My message to you is this. When you read research and articles that you don’t agree with, take a step back and see if you can avoid the natural tendency to reject it outright. And when trying to convince others, be kind to yourself and perhaps find a different approach. Rather than trying to convince the strongly opposed using data, save that for people who are genuinely interested and perhaps sitting on the fence. Build your professional reputation and become someone who is credible and worth listening to, and find those opportunities to tell stories. We don’t often remember sets of data, but narratives we can relate to.  Stories resonate and stay with us for a long time.

Why I’ll Stop Work on Tuesday

The New South Wales Teachers Federation has called a stop work meeting for teachers in NSW tomorrow morning and I’ll be attending.

We’re not meeting to protest or make demands. The meeting is part of the industrial process required to agree on a new salaries award for teachers. Minimal supervision has been authorised in schools so that they remain open and parents do not have to make arrangements for their children. The action is not endorsed by the Department of Education and Communities, and our pay will be docked accordingly.

The new award proposal contains many significant changes including standards based salary progression and a new salary level for teachers accredited at the Highly Accomplished level. It also includes changes to the Teacher Efficiency Process which is the process used to manage underperforming teachers – either resulting in improved performance, or in dismissal.

Of  concern to many teachers is the proposed reclassification of principals (page 5 of this document). Principal positions in small schools could be reclassified to ‘Associate Principals’ which would mean instead of working independently, the principal of a nearby larger school would take over many of the administration and management roles. The award also allows for the amalgamation of small schools with larger schools without the need for community consultation. Many teachers and principals working in smaller schools and regional areas fear that this could spell the end for small schools.

The award is complex, with many long term ramifications not just for teacher salaries and career paths, but also for the future provision of public education.

This meeting will allow New South Wales Teachers Federation members to find out the details and implications of the award proposal, debate and vote on whether or not to accept it. It’s part of the democratic process which underpins the running of the union and one which I value.

As someone who cares about and advocates for the public education system, I believe it is important to understand and engage with these issues, and to contribute to the voting process that will help determine its future.  My working conditions and student learning conditions are going to be decided upon tomorrow. I don’t want to let others make those choices for me, which is why I’ll be attending. I want to have a say in the decisions that determine my not only my professional future but also the future of public education in NSW.