Episode 3 transcript

Talking Teaching with Maxine McKew, Kerry Elliott and Sophie Murphy

00:00 - Maxine McKew

I'm Maxine McKew, and this is Talking Teaching.

It'd be radically different in that teachers would not just be saying, “I'm a year five teacher, this is a year five class, I'll teach the year five curriculum." But within a year five class, teachers would recognize that students, ah, working at different levels of proficiency and the curriculum would be organised in a way that assisted teachers to think about those different levels of attainment.

Thanks for joining us again, and in this podcast we'll be talking to Dr. Geoff Masters about the big shift that he says Australian educators need to take. To move away from a structure that assumes that most students learn by year or age level, to one that is based on the achievement of certain proficiencies. As head of the Australian Council for Educational Research, Dr. Masters has a pretty good handle on why some of our students are underachieving. We'll hear from Geoff shortly.

First up, we're going to talk about networks. Is your school part of a network? Perhaps in your geographic area? Or maybe you've created a virtual one. There would be few systems or states these days that aren't encouraging networking across schools. It's based on the idea that we're all part of a community of learners. So why not share stories with other professionals about effective practice? Or move out of your comfort zone by visiting a school that has more challenges than your own?

The idea of collaboration is central to the research approach here at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education. So in 2014, MGSE looked at it could do to provide a deeper engagement among teachers and across schools. The call went out to Katherine Henderson, who in a previous life was a regional director of schools for the Victorian Education Department. To cut a long story short, Katherine created UMNOS, the University of Melbourne Network of Schools. It's now recruiting candidates for 2019, and one of the unique features is that it's a network that is open to all. Representatives of public, catholic, independent and special schools come together and get the benefit of expert views from the likes of [John Heedy 00:02:20], [Steve Dinham 00:02:20] and many others. But it's the work that the UMNOS participants do with each other that's really yielding interesting breakthroughs. There were certainly some sensitivities at the start and Katherine, who's with me in the studio, will talk about that. But let's listen first to two teachers who've been part of the program. [Kerry Elliott 00:02:39] recorded these interviews with [Russ ell Deer 00:02:42], principal of Braemore College and [Leanne Guillon 00:02:45], deputy principal of [Carey Grammar 00:02:47].

02:47 - Russell Deer

The UMNOS journey for me was really around picking out what was important, but then also balancing that against other people's journeys, and other ... what-what other- what other schools and other, um, other systems were doing. Because as an independent school, as a middle school senior school structure, a frame of reference is-is not great or not huge. So being able to be there with, you know, primary schools, secondary schools, catholic schools, state schools, was really, was really powerful for us. And gave us a good measure, and a good balance about what other great work was happening. There were connections that we made which would not have happened if we'd not been in the University of Melbourne network.

03:30 - Kerry Elliott

So are there any examples that you could give that highlight that?

03:33 - Russell Deer

We had a focus on looking at spelling to start with. We focused on looking at our- at our growth versus our achievement and identified we could have some improvement in some areas. We implemented an intervention, which we then had some pre and post data against, which we could then talk with and celebrate with our staff, when they could observe that they'd made an impact through an intervention. And I guess that opened the door for the next piece which like, "Oh where-where do we go next?" So then the next piece was, oh, maybe our writing, for example, could improve, or our ability to diagnose reading could improve. So, through the network, you know, we were able to have a conversation with the folks at Dallas Books School, and be able to go along there and take some teaching staff down there. So it was just one person going off there to an external professional learning, it was actually a group of staff going down, being welcomed into a fellow network school and observing and saying what they did.

04:27 -  Kerry Elliott

Russell, what do you think one of the biggest differences the network has made for your school?

04:31 - Russell Deer

The quality of our, corridor conversations is really improved. So the, the way-the way the staff speak, and the way the teaching staff talk to each other about the impact that they've made, the things that they've tried, it's been really refreshing.

04:47 - Kerry Elliott

And Leanne, what about you, what was the driving force for your school in joining the network?

04:52 - Leanne Guillon

The opportunity to work with other schools, particularly across sectors was really appealing.

And I also think, ah, some of the parameters around the, uh, network, were interesting. So the compulsory nature of having the principal come along, leaders in teachers and learning being able to access experts of the quality that the University of Melbourne was attracting, was really of interest. And just the opportunity to really focus deeply on student learning and impact was very attractive.

05:21 - Kerry Elliott

How did you go about choosing a particular area of focus?

05:25 - Leanne Guillon

So we landed on high achievers and we were in a group with McKinnon Secondary College, but also with a couple of government primary schools, and also schools, from a very different socio-economic background to ours. So it was really eye opening and it was quite encouraging to discover that some of the struggles were similar.

05:46 - Kerry Elliott

Has there been a standout moment or two from your involvement in the program?

05:50 - Leanne Guillon

So we had all the different schools represented visiting our school.

And then, we went to Melton West Primary School, and for me, especially haven't been, I guess, in a primary school since I was in one, really, myself. And since my daughter was at a government primary school. But definitely to understand from that leadership team their daily struggles. And sometimes in leadership, you know, we get a bit caught up, I guess, in what's difficult in our day, but my goodness, what they were handling, but also the very strong sense of purpose they had around, "If we can get this right, and really impact, ah, and grow our students, then we can actually change their life possibilities". And that moral purpose came through really strongly. And it was a really good perspective for someone from a school like mine.

06:41 - Maxine McKew

The voices of Leann Guillon, deputy principal of Carey Grammar School and Russell Deer, principal of Braemar College. They are both participants in the UMNOS program. And here in the studio is Katherine Henderson, who's been overseeing this program for the last couple of years. Katherine the-they're great ambassadors, aren't they?

06:57 - Katherine Henderson

They are, and-and I suppose what their enthusiasm reflects is the way in which our schools learn to work with each other. L-Like just the other day I had an email from one of our school principals, one of four schools who were in a focus group, and they were an independent school, a special school, a government primary school, and a government secondary school in a very low SES area. And she wrote to me to say, "We're still meeting, my colleagues all visited our school the other day, and invited me to come to their next shared challenging meeting which will be in another school later this year." So those people work together for three years and finished two years ago and it-it's really fabulous for me that they're [crosstalk 00:07:38]

07:35 - Maxine McKew

And they're still networking?

07:38 - Katherine Henderson

They're still networking, yes.

07:41 - Maxine McKew

Let's go back a bit to what, 2014, that's when you-when you started?

07:45 - Katherine Henderson

Yes. Yeah

07:45 - Maxine McKew

And as I say, this is, as far as I know what is unique about this network, is that it brings together schools from right across the sectors, very different schools, did that initially present some sensitivities?

07:58 - Katherine Henderson

I suppose there was a-a question in the room, "What can I possibly learn from that kind of school, you know, we're so different, our students are different, our parents are different. What have we got to learn from each other?" And the other challenge in the start-up of every network group is that it takes time for schools to develop trust and of course, we have very careful protocols around how we're going to behave and what information stays in the room and so on. It takes time to develop trust, and if you don't have that time, you won't ever get to the point where you can have those really quiet challenging conversations where the real learning takes place.

I would have to say that the schools, when they first wondered what they could learn from each other, again, in each group that we've worked with and we've worked with five so far. Over a period of time, people come to me and say that we have more in common than we have difference.

08:54 - Maxine McKew

That must be when you go, ah-ha, something's working. (laughs)

08:57 - Katherine Henderson

(Laughs) That's right, yeah.

08:58 - Maxine McKew

Katherine, central to this, right from the start was the idea that the schools would share data across the network. So that would mean, for instance, a fee-paying private school would share its data with another, say you know, public comprehensive school that might be in a lower SES area.

09:15 - Katherine Henderson

It was two things I wanted to say about that. That first is, what we're interested is not who's got the best performing students. We're interested in what different schools make and teachers make to children's learning. So the data we look at is the learning grow. How much does a child learns in a year. And how much prep should be able to learn in a year. And of course, we would not ask people to share data, if there was any risk to them. And there's risk, huge risk to schools, and schools are very savvy about what to do with [NAPLAN data 00:09:45] or what to do with the data their schools collect. In terms of reputation and public understanding.

So we do not get to the point of sharing data, until we're confident- everyone in the room is confident, that that trust is at a level where they can rely on it. And we have never had that trust broken

10:01 - Maxine McKew

Another important feature, of course, is that the, the participants have to decide an area that they will focus on. Tell us about that.

10:08 - Katherine Henderson

There's huge evidence that if you try to do everything, you achieve very little or nothing. It is better to choose an area to focus on, and, within that area, then you take on and test out the evidence-based teaching strategies or interventions for children's learning. Uh, we start with very intense input from our extraordinarily, um, capable researchers and people whose evidence we rely on, for instance, Professor Hattie or Steve Dinham or Dr. Misty, Adoniou.

And then the schools think carefully about their own context and what's important to them and where their planning is taking them, and having had those conversations within their own school and then with each other, the schools make some decisions about what they'd like to w- work on as a focus, and then they are a bit like professional learning teams within the bigger network structuring, although it's not imposed. It's a network. People make the decisions together. So far, most schools have stuck to a particular focus for the whole three years.

11:10 - Maxine McKew

I know this wasn't new territory for you, albeit, you were doing it in a, in a different area in a university, but has it reinforced in, I suppose, a richer way, the, the whole value of collaboration?

11:22 - Katherine Henderson

Yes. So I was regional director in Victoria, and we had 150 schools built (laughs) into networks of about 20 schools. And that region made amazing progress in terms of students' learning growth. W- what was powerful there, again, was building, uh, a shared approach, getting clarity about what they were working on, and then working together and over time building relationships where schools, for instance, would recruit teachers from other western region schools because they knew those teachers would understand the way in which we worked as instructors, as educators, and as leaders.

11:59 - Maxine McKew

It's important, isn't it, that the leaders of schools come to the program?

12:03 - Katherine Henderson

In [UMNOS 00:12:03] we work with the school leaders. The evidence says that leadership of instruction is critical for h- sustained, whole-school learning and improvement in the way children learn. Obviously, we build our work with school leaders around what's the evidence, what supports the decisions we're making about interventions, and always, throughout the whole three years, we're looking at every level on, well, what's the impact? How do we know that's happening? How do we show that that's happening? How do our students know? What's the evidence for them of their learning? And even, how do our parents and community know?

So that relationship between leadership, drawing on the research, and then constantly being mindful of what impact we're having is core to the three years working UMNOS.

12:47 - Maxine McKew

Well, thanks, Katherine. And more information about next year's UMNOS program will be available shortly. And keep in mind, the Melbourne program is being accessed by schools in other states as well, not just Victoria. This is a network without borders.

Time now for our feature interview with Dr. Geoff Masters. As I said at the top of the podcast, he heads Australia's most prestigious research institute, ACER. But he has an even bigger workload ahead with the recent announcement by the New South Wales government that Dr. Masters is to lead a comprehensive review of the K to 12 curriculum for that state. New South Wales has wasted no time in responding to the call in the second Gonski review for a major shift in methodology and structures.

Dr. Masters' starting point is the worrying statistic that Australia has about 40,000 15-year-olds, young people who, after 10 years of schooling, still don't manage to hit minimum standards in reading and numeracy. To address this, and also to boost performance among our better students, Geoff Masters is suggesting not just incremental change, but something fundamentally different.

Geoff Masters, welcome to Talking Teaching.

14:07 - Geoff Masters

It's a pleasure to be here.

14:09 - Maxine McKew

Geoff, one of the big messages out of the Gonski report is that, really, the old industrial model of delivering, say, a 50-minute lesson to a group of students of the same age is obsolete. Now, I guess we could point to many examples of differentiated teaching in schools that already exist, but it seems to me that what's being suggested in Gonski, based on a lot of the work that you've been doing, is suggesting a different model entirely, one based on the attainment of stage proficiencies. Can you talk to us about that?

14:40 - Geoff Masters

Yes, I think you've summarized that pretty well. The, the m- main recommendation in Gonski, as I understand it, relates to the curriculum and how we think about the curriculum. And, at right at the start of the report, Gonski talks about a new model of schooling. And what he means, by that is a different way of structuring the curriculum so that, instead of having the current direct connection between a student's learning expectations and the year level, we break that nexus and we recognize that students in the same year of school are actually at very different points in their learning, and we try to recognize the points they're at and address their needs.

15:18 - Maxine McKew

Isn't that what expert teachers do right now though?

15:22 - Geoff Masters

Absolutely. Really good teachers, of course, are working hard to do this. But teachers work within external constraints, and one of those external constraints is the Australian curriculum. The Australian curriculum, as I said, specifies this relationship so that the curriculum says that what a student should be learning, um, can be inferred from their year level, which is essentially their age. And the job of teachers is to teach the curriculum that's appropriate for the year level and to assess and grade students on that curriculum. And, and that's a constraint that actually makes it more difficult for teachers to do what m- most of them, perhaps, really want to do, which is to establish where individual students are and to meet them at their points of need.

16:00 - Maxine McKew

So explain how this could be different.

16:03 - Geoff Masters

Well, it would be radically different, um, in that teachers would not just be saying, "I'm a Year 5 teacher. This is a Year 5 class. I'll teach the Year 5 curriculum." Um, a Year 5 teacher, and that could still be people called Year 5 teachers, and there'd be Year 5 classes, but within a Year 5 class, teachers would recognize that students are working at different levels of proficiency or attainment. And the curriculum would be organized in way that assisted teachers to think about those different levels of attainment, to assess students to work out where they are on a progression of increasing proficiency or attainment, and, as I said, to address the learning needs of individual students.

16:40 - Maxine McKew

So what you're saying here to change, to shift, would require a dramatic rewrite of the current curriculum?

16:48 - Geoff Masters

It would be a matter of restructuring the curriculum, in my view, and most of what we have in the curriculum will continue to be there, but it's, uh, it's how it's packaged. One way of thinking about it is, there's a curriculum now that is packaged into year levels. There's a different way of packaging the curriculum, and that is to package it into proficiency levels, levels of increasing competence in an area of learning. So it's, it's a matter of how you structure it, how you package it.

17:12 - Maxine McKew

Now, you've got the very big job of leading a review of the New South Wales curriculum from K to 12. That seems to me, for our biggest educational state, a very big step, because they took a long time to back in behind, as you know, the national curriculum, which is only, what five, six years old?

Yes, uh, what we're doing in New South Wales, um, is having a public conversation, firstly, about, um, what we value and what we think young people should be learning. But, um, the review in New South Wales also has an eye to the Gonski recommendations, and we're thinking about, um, h- how those recommendations could be implemented in schools.

And where do you think you might land? If, if, as you said, the thinking is to have a curriculum that allows teachers to assess on proficiency achieved, where do you think you might land on that and, and what a curriculum looks like?

18:04 - Geoff Masters

Well, I think it's too early to say that. I'm not suggesting in New South Wales, um, I'm going to recommend simply implementing what Gonski has recommended. We're in the process of having a conversation about all of this. But I do think one of the reasons that Gonski was so strong and confident in the recommendations to rethink the way we organize the curriculum is because teachers themselves understand the importance of meeting students' needs, of working out where individual students are up to.

They know that under our current, as you said earlier, industrial model of schooling, we deliver the same curriculum to all students based on their year level, and they know that that seriously misses the mark for some students. That seriously misses the mark for students who are more advanced in their learning and who are not challenged by what, for them, is a pretty, you know, the m- middling expectations of the year level curriculum.

And it seriously misses the mark for many much less advanced students who are not yet ready for the content. They don't have the prerequisite knowledge and skills to be able to engage effectively and learn curriculum that's specified on the basis of their age.

19:13 - Maxine McKew

Now, you have to report, I gather, by the end of 2019 for New South Wales, uh, two questions, I guess. And where are the other states at in their thinking as far as you know? And could I may- put this to you as well? As you know, it took years, really, to get agreement on the existing national curriculum. It seems to me there are a lot of obstacles to move from where we are to something quite different.

19:34 - Geoff Masters

Yeah, on that last point, ACARA, the, the national curriculum assessment, um, and reporting body, has been working on this idea of learning progressions for a little while now, particularly in the basics of literacy and numeracy. So, in a sense, um, they, uh, are, are working towards the more explicit, construction of learning progressions in the curriculum. They're doing that also for general capabilities. Um, so there's work happening at that level. Other, um, states and territories are at different points, but are look-

Other, states and territories, are at different points, but, uh, looking at what's happening, thinking about how they respond to the Gonski recommendations.

20:10 - Maxine McKew

And the politics of this? (laughs)

20:10 - Geoff Masters

Yes, (laughs), there are always politics involved in, in-

20:12 - Maxine McKew


20:13 - Geoff Masters

Everything. There will be some people who are quite opposed to moving in this direction, I mean, there's a- there's a view sometimes that the best way to lift standards in schools is just so set very high expectations of everybody and to hold everybody to those high expectations. I'm not convinced of that. I think what we need to focus on ensuring that every student makes excellent progress, and, of course, there's a question about what excellent progress mean, but, we need to ensure that every student makes excellent progress, every year.

If we can do that, then we'll see standards improve in our schools, and in my view, one of the keys to ensuring that every student makes excellent progress is making sure that we're providing them with appropriately challenging learning opportunities. Not learning opportunities that are within their comfort zones, um, teaching things they already know, and not learning opportunities that are so far ahead of them that, um, they can't really engage and they don't learn for that reason. So, targeting teaching, providing learning opportunities that are appropriate, challenging, um, that stretch every student, that's the key, I think, to, um, raising standards in our schools.

21:18 - Maxine McKew

Is your starting point that the status quo, then, is no longer sustainable?

21:24 - Geoff Masters

I think we're working with a model of schooling that is not going to serve us particularly well into the 21st Century. Given the changes that are occurring, the sorts of things that we want students to be learning now, um, in on our schools, um, the role that technology will increasingly play, we'll see more personalized approaches, partly through the use of technology, I think. So, we're working with a 20th or maybe 19th Century model of schooling, um, at a time when we really need to be making sure that every student is being challenged and extended, and is learning successfully.

21:57 - Maxine McKew

If we make this shift, will it give us the lift that we want to see, particularly in maths, science, reading?

22:02 - Geoff Masters

Well, nobody can say that with 100% certainty, but, what we do know is that there are students who are not being well served by what's currently happening. I mean, we can't keep doing what we're currently doing and expect things to improve. So I think we do need to make a change, we know from PISA, that each year 40,000 students reach 15 years of age, still not able to read at what the OECD considers to be a minimum standard. 57,000 don't meet the minimum standard in numeracy. These students have been performing below year level expectations throughout their schooling, no doubt. They're been in school for 10 or 11 years, and they're still not meeting the minimum standard.

So, we have a problem at that end, in my view, and um, at the other extreme, I'm often told anecdotes about students who are capable of much more, often by their parents, um, who are not being challenged and extended. And so, I do think there's a good chance that if we make sure that every student is being appropriately challenged and stretched and, and, and ideally making excellent progress every year, there's a really good chance that we can lift levels of performance in our schools.

23:14 - Maxine McKew

Geoff Masters there, and his reference to PISA, by the way, refers to the international tests that are undertaken by a majority of OECD countries, including Australia, and they test conducted every couple of years, amongst students of varying ages.

Now just to finish up today, we've also got an interview with David Baker. He's the principal of Gippsland Grammar, and he's one of the principals that Talking Teaching’s, Sophie Murphy has been working with. And as he told Sophie recently, his school is already pursuing a lot of the ideas that we've just heard from Geoff.

23:50 - David Baker

Well I think the critical thing here is understanding what learning means. I think with the traditional model, and hearing the interview recently with Geoff, um, you need to be clear on what learning means. And traditionally, learning is me- memorizing, and recalling, and, uh, if you look at the traditional model of education, students get promoted up to year level to year level based on what they can, um, recall, and what they've memorized as they go through. So, we apply solo taxonomy, and what I mean by that is that it's a structured overview of the learning outcomes for the students in our classes.

So, it clearly defines for the students, and for the teachers, where they are at, in terms of their learning, uh, from a pre-structural stage, which means they know virtually nothing, to a uni-structural, multi-structural stage which is very, I guess, surface level understanding, where they're defining, drawing, combining things. Right through to a relational and then, ultimately an extended abstract stage, and you know, students will know they're at the extended abstract stage when they can argue about things, create things, compose things, um, hypothesize and  generalize.

So, it is very much a language that we use, and the language and the verbs that we're using describe where they are in that learning continuum, and that also is a language that helps us to differentiate from individual students in the classroom.

25:08 - Sophie Murphy

David, the Gonski report talks about targeted teaching, is this what you're already doing?

25:12 - David Baker

We're getting closer to it. Targeted teaching is very, very difficult, and schools are very complex places with a lot of moving parts, and actually getting to each individual student is, is something that can be very difficult to achieve, and you're always fighting against the systems and the structures that the school has to operate in. So, from our point of view, the way that we can be more targeted and more personalised with the learning is, once again, having that common language, and making sure that then everyone's on the same page, with where students are, with regards to their learning.

So, the approach that we're talking, the students can identify whether they're surface, or whether they're deep, and then, there'll be variation within the class of where students are with particular concepts and particular understanding. So, this is an opportunity for them to all be able to identify where they are, but most importantly where they need to get to next. And the teacher becomes more of an architect of learning, or a designer of learning, because they're actually looking at finding steps in the learning process, so the student can identify where they are, but also how can I get to the next stage and go deeper with my learning.

26:13 - Sophie Murphy

David, what about consistency across the school? How are you achieving that?

26:17 - David Baker

One of the most challenging things in schools is the diversity in teaching you'll see, and in the way that teachers teach. And we really want to push our teachers and our students and the entire school culture away from this just, in particular for the seniors being content driven. So, you must know this, you must under- you must remember this, more to a, a stage where we're going to go through some activities that will help you to think about, and creating thinking opportunities for students, so they can move from a very surface understanding to begin with, but then through thinking routines and other thinking opportunities developing a deeper understanding over a period of time.

26:20 - Sophie Murphy

What has been the most noticeable changes within your school context?

26:56 - David Baker

What we're seeing is that the conversations are now about genuine learning, so, the teachers are really shifting their understanding about what it is they're trying to achieve in their classrooms. The students are now engaging more in conversations about genuine learning as well. What does genuine learning mean? Quite often you'll find senior students saying "how do I get myself into the green zone, how do I go deeper with that?", and, they can actually help facilitate that themselves, by looking at the [inaudible 00:27:22] verbs and understanding that moving from being able to identify and label and describe something, towards hypothesizing about something or comparing something sends them much deeper with their thinking.

So, the conversations have changed, the understanding of what good teaching and learning is has shifted, but most importantly, when people are observing each other now, and when I go and observe classes, we have clarity about what we're looking for-

27:47 - Sophie Murphy


27:48 - David Baker

And we have consistency with what we're looking for. And we're able to identify that, you know, the number one thing we're looking for in our classes is intentionality, so, does a teacher have clear intentionality about what the students will understand from that class. So the learning intention is very important, and that's taken teachers a long time to understand what that is, and how that is important. So, just shifting them from "I know I have to have learning intention because the principal's asked me", to "I can see how the learning intention influences the learning of the students in my class, and I can link my learning intention to very clear success criteria that outline where the students will move from surface through to deep". The solo taxonomy is then embedded into their success criteria, and that then guides the differentiation that's occurring in their classes.

28:35 - Sophie Murphy

David, thanks for joining us on talking teaching.

28:38 - David Baker

Thank you.

29:39 - Eddie Woo

That's Talking Teaching for this month. Thanks for the feedback we're getting and the suggestions that are coming about stories and teachers we should be talking to. Don't worry, we're keeping a list. We'll be back early next month, Talking Teaching is produced by myself, Maxine McKew, Sophie Murphy, and Kerry Elliott, and is recorded and mixed by Gavin Nebauer, at the Horwood recording studios at the University of Melbourne.

Bye for now.

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