The SVA Education Dialogue Dinner

On Monday evening I attended the Social Ventures Australia Education Dialogue Dinner. They bring together:

150 senior national education leaders – representing all states and territories, all sectors, and national agencies and organisations – to focus our collective efforts on enabling and supporting great teaching in all schools through a culture of evidence-informed practice.  Such a collective focus is necessary to arrest the decline in the educational performance of Australian students and the widening gap in performance between the most and least advantaged young Australians.

I was keen to attend, though I did have a couple of reservations about the premise:

I do want to see ‘collective efforts focusing on enabling and supporting great teaching’ and the ‘widening gap between the most and least advantaged young Australians’ addressed.

However, while a ‘culture of evidence-informed practice’ seems a worthy goal, I can’t help wondering who decides what evidence is? The definition of good evidence in the field of education seems to be quite contested with some types of evidence privileged over others.

I’m also not certain that there truly is a ‘decline in the educational performance of Australian students’. The evidence for this is based on performance in PISA, TIMMs and NAPLAN. As Radhika Gorur & Margaret Wu explain in the video below, those data sources can be misleading and a ‘more nuanced understanding would point to quite different policy actions’ (Full paper here). Of course this feeds back into my questions around how we decide which evidence will inform our practice.

Nonetheless, It was extremely interesting to hear representatives from different sectors share their thoughts about how to achieve these goals.

Back in 2013 the federal education minister, Christopher Pyne, said in a Lateline interview

“The OECD says that we are a high equity nation in terms of our students… I don’t believe there is an equity problem in Australia.”

In spite of what Minister Pyne believes, the evidence of a huge equity gap is compelling, and not in dispute at all. Therefore, it was heartening to hear so many speakers from business, government, think tanks, academia and education systems acknowledge that equity is indeed a significant problem.

Over dinner we heard from a number of speakers.

Ian Narev, CEO of the Commonwealth Bank of Australia shared his perspective:

as citizens of the economy we must care about equity in the education system.

The Thatcherite notion that we’re citizens of an economy rankled slightly, but aside from that, I liked what he had to say.

He talked about renewed calls for focusing on ‘basics’ and said that from his point of view, basics include not only the traditional 3Rs, but also financial literacy, some technological literacy (though not necessarily coding) and

being a good human being is a basic foundational skill.

He described the kind of human beings he thinks we need to raise, emphasising qualities like acceptance and inclusiveness.

We heard from The Hon. Adrian Piccoli, Minister for Education, NSW.  Minister Piccoli spoke about the need for education policy and practice to be evidence-based. He provided examples of how his government has used evidence to reform education in NSW:  providing principals with more decision making autonomy; focusing on quality teaching through the Great Teaching Inspired Learning reform; and reforming  Initial Teacher Education through means such as the legislation of minimum entry standards.

He wondered aloud why, when there is so much evidence to support these reforms, every other state and territory is not doing the same thing. I meanwhile, wondered privately if it’s because the evidence itself is contestable or if it just comes down to money.

Over his time as minister, Piccoli has shown a great willingness to inform himself about education in Australia. He doesn’t just surround himself with advisors. He attends conferences, visits schools, talks with teachers and principals and has a far better sense of some of the challenges we face than many of his predecessors.

He spoke about the inequity of our system in NSW, and gave the example of Walgett Public School in one of Australia’s least advantaged communities.  Walgett is an inland school in a sweltering climate. Piccoli told us it has air conditioners that rattle so loudly they can’t be used in lesson times, they drown out the voices.

Much has been written about the problems at Walgett that create so many barriers for learning, so I won’t go into them here. What impressed me was the minister’s willingness to state publicly that a school in a system he is responsible for is in dire need of better resourcing. He challenged anyone to visit a disadvantaged school and then say money doesn’t make a difference.

The two keynotes were followed by a panel discussion. I admit to drifting in and out of this a little, possibly because not only was I participating in an active backchannel on Twitter,  Summer Howarth and Bruce Burnett, sitting on either side of me kept topping up my wine glass. It was great to see Summer again. She was the organiser of the EduChange conference I blogged about here. It was also a pleasure to meet Bruce, along with Jo Lampert. Bruce and Jo are behind the very promising National Exceptional Teachers for Disadvantaged Schools initiative, and we had featured an interview with them on the Teachers Education Review podcast the weekend before.

The panellists were Chris Roberts, non-executive Director, Res Med; Tony Cook , Associate Secretary – Schools and Youth, Australian Government Department of Education and Training; Maurie Mulheron, President, NSW Teachers Federation; and Sir Kevan Collins, Chief Executive, Education Endowment Foundation.

As Shani Hartley noted on the backchannel, all the speakers and panellists were men. However John Bush, Associate Director, SVA quickly pointed out that two senior women had dropped out of the panel in the days leading up to it.

Photo Credit: @Johnqgoh - Twitter

Panel of Men – Photo Credit: @Johnqgoh – Twitter

Tony Cook spoke about the achievements of the Federal Government’s reforms, including the national curriculum and the MySchool website. Both of these examples caused a few eyebrows to be raised in the room, as many in education see the MySchool website, created under the former Gillard Government, as a damaging Federal initiative. The national curriculum is not without it’s critics either, having been reviewed before it was fully implemented, resulting in a number of very controversial changes.

Chris Roberts  framed education in economic terms. He referred to it as one of  Australia’s biggest exports, and talked about growth, flexibility, employees and customers. He said that from a business perspective, we need to be developing in students the skills to innovate, problem solve and think about issues broadly.

Sir Kevan Collins began speaking about his belief that the solutions to education’s challenges already exist in the system. Our challenge is to identify, verify and distribute them. He asked us to consider how we determine what is good evidence and went on to suggest that we need to take a scientific approach stating,

‘there are not enough medical style randomised trials in education research’.

At this point one of my table mates almost choked on dessert, considering the ethical implications of RCTs in education, and my twitter backchannel erupted in a frenzy. (Well, it was more a slight disturbance in the feed where a few small voices suddenly sighed and then things went on as usual)


Dessert – It was delicious

I know little of research methodology, but I’m connected with a wonderful network of experts who patiently explain things and share articles with me. A few months ago, a useful paper was published in Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education called “The medicalisation of current educational research and its effects on education policy and school reforms”. If you’re not sure why such choking and frenzied tweeting occured at this point, then the paper might be worth a read.

If you don’t have time, this video provides an overview.

For me, the highlight of the evening was listening to Maurie Mulheron. He speaks gently and reasonably about issues, but makes strong, important points.

He began provocatively, claiming talking about quality teachers is offensive. We never talk about doctor quality, and during a financial crisis there is never discussion of the quality of economists. He asked that instead, we talk about quality teaching. I agree with him. Language frames the way we think about things. There is a subtle, but important message embedded in the choices we make. I blogged about it here.

Maurie made powerful points about research and reform:

  •  teaching is one of the most demanding, complex professions. Teachers need to be at the table in reform discussion.
  • our children have been guinea pigs for education reform from outside the profession that has never been evaluated. Only 10% of education reforms across the 34 member countries of the OECD have ever been evaluated.
  • the Gonski funding review is the most important social reform in 49 years, with 329 pages of evidence. If we don’t start every conversation with Gonski, then we’re missing the most serious evidence.

His contributions were  met with rousing applause from many places in the room.

The SVA Education Dialogue Dinner was an interesting and entertaining evening, I enjoyed being presented with such different perspectives on school reform and the opportunity to discuss them with people from a range of sectors in such a relaxed setting. The following day, even more dialogue occurred with a range of panels and speakers which I hope to blog about at some point.

I’m very grateful to John Bush and Social Ventures Australia for allowing me to be a part of it.


Rethinking Primary School Homework – ResearchED Sydney

Two years ago, my school began a process of rethinking primary school homework to develop a model aligned with research evidence. A year-long stakeholder consultation brought to the surface very strongly held views about the value and purpose of homework, some of which were surprising and shone a light onto the real impact of homework in the lives of modern Australian families within our catchment area.  Through the process of consultation a polarised community was able to find common ground and an agreed set of principles to guide the development of the new model for primary school homework.

I’ll be sharing findings of our stakeholder consultation at the  ResearchED conference to be held in Sydney on February 21 including,

  • the perceived value of homework for students, families and teachers
  • the impact of various types of homework on students, families and teachers
  • the misalignment between beliefs about homework effectiveness and what the research actually says  and,
  • the beginnings of our new model of primary school homework.

I have to confess to feeling nervous. I rarely speak in public to audiences beyond my school community and putting our work out there for public scrutiny is a little nerve-racking.

However, I decided that it would be good to get out of my comfort zone and so I agreed to appear. I just hope there’ll be some friendly faces in the crowd.

If you are a friendly face and haven’t secured your ticket to Research Ed yet, there’s still time, just follow this link.

Should Australian primary school teachers be subject specialists?


Yesterday, Adelaide Now published this story, reporting that the Federal Government in Australia is considering making primary school teachers subject specialists.

It’s not the first time the idea has been mooted. I noticed a number of reports throughout 2014 suggesting the same.

The reasoning appears to be that this will be a way of reversing the apparent slump that Australia is experiencing in Mathematics and Science.

There are some compelling reasons to consider the idea:

A number of high performing school systems do have specialist teachers. According to the article, both Finland and Singapore require their primary teachers to have specialisations.

Representatives from the Australian Science Teachers Association and the Australian Association of Mathematics Teachers , quoted in the article, claim their research has shown  the majority of Australian primary teachers feel inadequate to address or teach science, and that they don’t have sufficient knowledge to teach maths well.

However, in spite of this, the idea does not sit comfortably with me.

 A few concerns:

Being a generalist teacher allows us great flexibility in how we deliver the curriculum. We are not restricted by the complex timetabling issues which would be created by requiring specific subjects to be taught by specialists.

I can increase or decrease the time my class spends on subjects like maths on a daily or weekly basis according to their learning needs.

My timetabling flexibility means that I am not forced to teach maths at 2:00pm on a hot Friday afternoon to a class full of tired 8 year olds. I timetable my subjects around what will support learning, not around the availability of specialist teachers.

Teaching the same class for all subjects importantly means that I can take an integrated approach to help students see the connections and relevance of subjects like maths to other areas of the curriculum. For example, when studying measurement in mathematics,  we are able to integrate it with our work in art, geography, science and sport. Students are able to make meaningful use of their mathematical skills, which creates a NEED to learn and a subsequent improvement in engagement. The work becomes relevant.

Some good points

I’m reluctant to completely dismiss the idea. My primary school happens to have a specialist science teacher who teaches science during our 2 hours release from face-to-face teaching time each week . The expert knowledge and passion she brings to this subject is inspiring, and the curriculum she  teaches is a step above what I would be able to offer. You can see her work here.

Our science teacher also works as a mentor. We have more classes than she can cover, so we have generalist teachers employed to teach science to the additional classes. She works closely with those teachers, assisting them to develop and deliver their curriculum.

Her work has inspired countless young students to take an interest in science that I hope will carry through to high school and beyond. I can honestly say that since she joined our team, science at my school has become something we are truly proud of.

But much as I value our science program, I would not like to see specialisation to the extent that our curriculum becomes fragmented, where subjects are only able to be  taught in isolation by separate teachers, instead of in a manner that allows a more holistic, integrated approach.

A better answer

I believe a better answer is to be found in improving our preservice teacher education, and in our ongoing professional learning.

Science and mathematics are not optional add ons. They are part of the core curriculum. It’s unacceptable for primary school teachers to be incapable of teaching either area. IT’S OUR JOB!

I’m not without sympathy for those teachers. If so many are feeling incompetent then I’d have to ask if they are being adequately prepared to teach those subjects in their preservice teacher education? Why are so many teachers apparently entering our system without competency in the very subjects they are being trained to teach?

And if they don’t LIKE teaching those subjects, then I’d have to ask why they became primary school teachers. I repeat: ITS OUR JOB.

To assume that a generalist teacher doesn’t have the ability to teach all those subjects well, simply because they teach across subjects, seems a very impoverished view of our capacity as human beings: to learn and excel in multiple domains.

I am proudly an English teacher, a maths teacher, a science teacher, an art teacher, a music teacher, a history teacher, a geography teacher and health and physical education teacher. My pre-service training at Kuringai College and later University of Technology, Sydney provided an excellent grounding in all of those subject areas. I’ve continued to learn and develop my competencies in those areas and after 20 years am neither lacking in confidence or competence.

To suggest that a specialist is required to do parts of my job because I lack the expertise is insulting.

How Do We Rebuild Trust in Our Schools?

People don’t seem to trust teachers the way they used to. Our community no longer assume  they can rely on the school system and its teachers to provide a quality education for their children.

It’s not helped by headlines like this that appear so frequently in the news.

Screen Shot 2015-01-06 at 7.54.42 pm

From – click image for article.

It’s not helped by school choice policies which generate anxieties,  perpetuating the idea that since there is choice some schools and some systems will be better than others.

It’s not helped by politicians who  talk about the education crisis and getting rid of bad teachers.

It’s not even helped by visionary speakers like Sir Ken Robinson talking about how schools kill creativity and fail to prepare students for modern life.

Educators and those who support us, rail against the injustice of this. We feel angry when we are portrayed in a negative light. We bemoan the fact that our professionalism isn’t recognised and that everyone is an arm-chair expert. We feel it’s unfair. We feel we’re fighting a losing battle, and it’s doubtful we will ever be able to stop politicians and the Murdoch press from publicly denigrating teachers.

But that’s beyond our control. We need to focus on what we have the ability to do.

So how do we rebuild trust?

If we ask that, we’re asking the wrong question, according Philosopher Onora O’Neil in this brilliant  TED talk.

She says,

Calling the task rebuilding trust, I think, also gets things backwards. It suggests that you and I should rebuild trust. Well, we can do that for ourselves. We can rebuild a bit of trustworthiness.We can do it two people together trying to improve trust. But trust, in the end, is distinctive because it’s given by other people.

You can’t rebuild what other people give you. You have to give them the basis for giving you their trust. So you have to, I think, be trustworthy.

Our goal as individual teachers, as schools and systems, needs to be that we are perceived as worthy of trust. And, to be worthy of trust, according to O’Neil, we need to show people three things:

We need to show that we are competent, we are honest and we are reliable.

  1. Be competent. We need to be committed to having the necessary skills required for our job, and we need to keep growing our competency by reflecting critically on  our practice, keeping and engaging in on going professional learning and keeping our skills up to date.
  2. Be honest. It goes without saying that we need to act with integrity at all times, and this includes giving honest feedback. Parents don’t trust us when we gloss over weaknesses in their children’s learning.
  3. Be reliable. If we say we are going to do something, we need to follow through. People need to know that they can depend upon us.

If I was to add to O’Neil’s suggestions, I’d include be ethical and be open.

It’s only as we let people in to our schools, and classrooms that they will start to see we are worthy of trust. If the only information people receive is through the media, or from the mumbled responses of their children when they ask them what they did at school today,“Nothing, Mum”, then how will people see that they can put their trust in us. They can only act on what they know.

Building a School that Thrives


It’s January 1st,  a time to start setting intentions for the coming year. My intention is to build a school that thrives. It’s a long term goal, I know – but how amazing it would be to work in a school where everyone truly thrives.

Thinking about thriving  inspires  us to aim higher and dig deeper.  When teaching my students mathematics, I not only ask, “Are my students learning, and meeting the expected outcomes”, but are they thriving in maths? This means I start wondering how engaged they are, how challenged they are, how connected they feel to the subject, how confident they are to use mathematics.

I also apply that word to my team,  the group of teachers I am responsible for leading and supporting. Are they thriving in their work or are they feeling worn down? Do they have a sense of efficacy and meaning in what they are doing? What conditions are necessary so that my teachers can thrive?

And what about me? Am I thriving in my role. What do I need so that I can thrive? What do I need to do or change to create the right conditions for myself?

And what about you? Are you thriving?

What would it take for everyone in your school to thrive?

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.