Episode 4: What the rest of the world is noticing about our most effective teachers Transcript

0:00 Maxine McKew
I’m Maxine McKew and this is Talking Teaching.

0:10 Yasodai Selvakumaran
When I told my parents that I wanted to go into teaching they were thrilled. Naturally there were all these other people that were like you know why don’t you go into law or why don’t you do economics or you know I guess there’s that sort of pressure in terms of I guess a lot of migrant children.0:25 student
Real superheroes are teachers

0:25 colleague
We were really, really honoured to have one of our staff members.

0:29 student
I was really excited to have her as my teacher for this year.

0:32 student
She just like makes the class like really fun

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0:40 Maxine McKew
One of the constants in our discussions on this podcast is the need to celebrate and reward teaching, and it’s heartening to see the expansion of philanthropic and other awards that recognise excellence in the classroom. But it’s probably hard to beat a global teaching prize when the winner is announced by Hugh Jackman and the trophy and cheque for a million dollars is handed over by a Middle Eastern crown prince. Backed by the Varkey Foundation, the 2019 ceremony for Global Teaching Excellence was held recently in Dubai and brought together the top ten teachers from around the world. Among them was an Australian teacher, Yasodai Selvakumaran. Yasodai teaches humanities at Rootie Hill High School in Sydney’s’ western suburbs. Now this is the fourth year that Australia has made the cut for this prestigious prize. Last year maths whiz Eddie Woo competed for the top prize, which suggests that in a highly competitive field, and there were ten thousand nominations, Australia’s most outstanding teachers are certainly being noticed. Well after she returned from an action-packed set of events in Dubai I caught up with Yasodai Selvakumaran. Yasodai, first of all congratulations for the really terrific recognition that has come your way. Now you’re part of a globally connected network of teachers as a result of this and I know your time in Singapore last year, so can you tell us what is it that your overseas counterparts are picking up on about our approach to teaching?

2:10 Yasodai Selvakumaran
Thank you so much Maxine. Yes as a Commonwealth State Teaching Award Fellow from last year with the Schools Plus(?2:16) I had the opportunity to go to Singapore and I actually had the opportunity to go to Norway in January using some of the professional learning grant I’d received as part of that award to go to the International Congress of School Effectiveness and Improvement, and then as a top ten finalist in the Global Teacher Prize I had the opportunity to go to Dubai. So in this last year I’ve definitely had this international immersion and introduction to some fantastic networks in education. And it’s interesting that in all three of those contexts I’ve heard my colleagues overseas you know say that they look to Australia in particular for our approach to critical and creative thinking and innovative approaches to driving our disposition(?2:53) to capabilities and outdoor education, that’s another one that was mentioned by Singapore. It just shows that in Australia we’re really doing some really amazing things and there’s some shifts being recognised by colleagues overseas, and I think that we could be doing more to celebrate those back here at home.

3:07 Maxine McKew
So it’s interesting they’re picking up on our approach to I think what we’re calling now the general capabilities or the complex competencies, that’s another term for them. How do you do that with your students at Rooty Hill?

3:19 Yasodai Selvakumaran
At Rooty Hill I’m part of a much broader team that’s been looking at the work of the Australian Curriculum capabilities for some time now, and we actually have a number of approaches in the way that we do this. We’ve got a whole school learning platform called the Rooty Hill High School Creativity Wheel which really looks at how do we invent strategies like visible learning and thinking routines into our work. And what that looks like as a teacher is we have those visible in a (?3:42) classroom that’s various strategies that we link to particular dispositions of creativity, and it’s just been developed in partnership with Dr Bill Lucas at the University of Winchester who the school has worked with for some time. And as a history teacher and a humanities teacher in my classroom I really focus on really being able to get students to grapple with various problems and enquiry-based learning in history and how they can use different approaches to visualise, to empathise and to connect and justify where their ideas and responses are coming from. But it’s definitely been a huge amount of work by a very collaborative team here for some time now that has made up a school that people want to visit. We host a number of school visits every year and there’s been a lot of interest in this work in particular.

4:24 Maxine McKew
How do you balance if you’re like disciplinary knowledge with the approach you’re describing?

4:28 Yasodai Selvakumaran
This is actually something that’s part of our current school plan where I’m co-leading a project with a colleague really looking at how do we develop disciplinary expertise with a focus on Year 10, 11 and 12. Even in junior school we’ve deliberately used the word capabilities in our focus and it’s really looking at well how can we be innovative within our discipline? And in history for example it’s a lot of enquiry based approaches, but really we’re working backwards from the profession and taking on Lee Shulman’s ideas which are applied more to a tertiary context to look at new ways of knowing, doing and being, and I guess has created different types of assessment like students in Year 10 creating like a policy response for example on the topic of terrorism in Year 10 elective history, students doing things like pitching an idea for a museum and really exploring the issues of what is it that makes public history, and what are the stories that are missed out or marginalised and you know how can we propose some of those stories be elevated and why and justifying that. So it’s really looking at the kinds of jobs I guess that students would be going into if they’re interested in these particular fields and trying to embed that as part of our assessment in our daily work.

5:43 Maxine McKew
And what is this doing for student engagement in getting them to apply and grapple with knotty problems on the basis of what they do know?

5:43 Yasodai Selvakumaran
Oh it’s absolutely given students I guess a more real world context to be able to really explore what sorts of jobs they could potentially go into, and sometimes you know students don’t necessarily make the link between why history is an important discipline if they want to work in say foreign policy or media or government, and this is giving them that exposure, and by giving them that real world applicability they’re much more engaged. But it also gives students an opportunity to really think about their own values and their place within the world and sharing that with their peers. And yeah those two particular assessments that I mentioned we’ve been running for a number of years as students have rated them in the feedback we get from them has been one of their most favourite assessment tasks, but also been one that really helps shift their learning.

6:25 Maxine McKew
Yasodai, to come to Dubai, which must have been wonderful on so many levels, I gather you took part in a research workshop with the top fifty finalists from around the world. So tell us about that.

6:37 Yasodai Selvakumaran
Yeah so it was actually part of a leadership summit that the Varkey Foundation funded the top fifty finalists, but also there was another there from previous years that had been finalists who were back presenting research projects that they’d been a part of and they’d made connections through this network that were now called the Varkey Teacher Ambassadors. So the current top fifty from 2019, I guess the audience were listening to what the previous finalists had been doing as a result of their connections through the network and that was just fantastic to see. I’m constantly looking at how we can try and be advocates to bridge research and practice in education. I really enjoy working with pre-service teachers and also contributing to teacher led research at Rooty Hill High School, and yeah for me that was a definite highlight of that leadership summit and being able to get the opportunities that there are to continually grow from here, so I’m seeing this as just the beginning of something that’s really quite exciting.

4:03 Maxine McKew
I’ll bet. Was there much discussion from your peers around the issues of engagement, because as you know in so many of our schools what teachers are grappling with is those students who disengage from learning, perhaps at an early stage, and it’s hard to get them back.

7:45 Yasodai Selvakumaran
Yes, do you mean internationally or here?

7:47 Maxine McKew
Either in Australia or internationally?

7:49 Yasodai Selvakumaran
Actually both in terms of forums and events that I’ve been to. The issue of engagement really at a global level and what I saw in Dubai was about how do we connect all students you know into learning from all different contexts and backgrounds. And the idea really came to that we need to be you know doing more to be able to (?8:08) student’s background and their particular interest, but how do we balance that with I guess technology as a tool and all of these issues that we talk about in Australia as well. But there were some fantastic examples of how people had done that being shared as well throughout the forum.

8:24 Maxine McKew
I want to ask about technology use as well. Was there any consensus or concern among your colleagues about perhaps the traps of too much screen time for young people that had come up?

8:33 Yasodai Selvakumaran
A lot of people talking about how technology was used but making sure as well that there was the idea that we don’t just use technology for the sake of it, and there were definitely concerns about screen time being shared. But in other parts of the world you know they don’t even have access to technology, so that’s I guess in terms of that global context of what we’ve discussed in Dubai there were two very different streams going on. And interestingly, people talking about how in some countries it’s almost like students have missed having computers, but they’ve now got mobile devices in terms of the way the technology has spread and looking at learning through using mobile items and things like that as well.

9:09 Maxine McKew
So look just to finish, I’m just wondering about the things that perhaps set you on your course. I gather that there are teachers in the family and you went to a regional public school in New South Wales to Bathurst is that right?

9:22 Yasodai Selvakumaran
It is right. I did actually go to a private school for a year and three terms as a scholarship student in Year 7 and 8 but then it was quite expensive and I did go back to the public school and that was the system that I was in all throughout primary, and I think for me yeah definitely having teachers in the family but really seeing the role of teachers in a regional town in particular, seeing that they were more than just teachers in our school, it was really about their influence in the community and being role models and that shift really did inspire me. But I was also very passionate about the humanities and history in particular, and I really realised that this definitely informed the way that I teach history, that for me growing up I didn’t actually feel like that we had opportunities to explore my heritage or even you know many stories about particularly like migration as part of Australian history. And it’s something that I strive for in terms of developing my students is that they understand their own place in the world and how their history is part of Australia as well and how we can learn and share from each other and especially in the environment that I work in, like 50% of our students come from a non English speaking background and it makes it very rich to be able to share and understand and be able to live together harmoniously.

10:36 Maxine McKew
Yasodai, I’m sensing there’s a whole book in this that you’ll write some day, but look thank you and for the moment congratulations. You’ve got a crowded year ahead so all the very best.

10:46 Yasodai Selvakumaran 
Thank you so much, it was a pleasure talking to you and thanks for the support in highlighting some of the work that we’re doing at Rooty Hill High School as well

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10:55 Maxine McKew
Well now to the view of someone who has spent a significant part of his career working out how the system can better produce and support purposeful leaders, ones just like Yasodai Selvakumaran. Bruce Armstrong is a principal turned bureaucrat, most recently in the Victorian Department of Education. His strong interest is in how to equip principals with the capabilities needed to lead effective school change, and that saw him appointed in 2009 as the Inaugural Director of The Bastow Institute of Educational Leadership. Bruce Armstrong welcome to Talking Teaching.

11:29 Bruce Armstrong
Thank you for having me Maxine, it’s good to be with you.

11:34 Maxine McKew
Now you’re at an interesting transition point in your long career in education, so I’m keen to get your helicopter view as it were of Australian schooling. What do you think we’re doing well and what are the deficits?

11:47 Bruce Armstrong
I think we’re doing many things well. I think that you know the Australian system is often talked down and we can’t talk universally about an Australian system. When we look to the outcomes in the OECD and the OECD rankings through PISA and PIRLS and TIMS we often compare ourselves poorly against other high performing jurisdictions. But there are many things that are going well across Australia, and there are in every jurisdiction examples of excellence in schools and in teaching practice across our country. I think we’ve been slipping back and the thing that we’re not doing well is on the equity side. Where you were born, who you were born to and what postcode you live in in terms of socioeconomic advantage or disadvantage are strong determinants of schooling outcome in Australia and that is something that we really need to tackle that we’re not doing well, but there are many things both in terms of the Australian curriculum, our pedagogical approaches and our approaches to school improvement jurisdictionally that we’re doing well.

8:25 Bruce Armstrong
So how did the year go? Tell us about that.

8:27 Tegan Bennet Daylight
One of the things that came about in the response to that article is I got a lot of really positive support. But inevitably because the world is as it is, there are a fair few people who said you know you shouldn’t be teaching, this is a disgrace, and so on and so forth. Quite a few people said to me, you clearly hate your students. Just could not be further from the truth. These kids are something different. I grew up in the city in Sydney, I’m used to white kids like me, these are mostly white rural kids or Aboriginal kids, that was what made up most of the cohort. They had entirely different lives to the kind of life I’ve lived. A lot of them were getting up at 5 in the morning to do things with cows you know that I knew nothing about and then coming in. They were...

12:46 Maxine McKew
Bruce, I’ll come to come of those issues and we will explore those, but I want to ask first about if you like the institution that you’ve just come from, from the bureaucracy if you like as a deputy secretary in the Victorian Department. What about our systems and bureaucracies? Are they responding well enough to the needs of leaders in schools?

13:06 Bruce Armstrong
I’ve had a very privileged career having been a teacher and principal and then moved into the bureaucracy working at a regional level and then working in the central office, and the thing that I would say is that there are good people well intentioned focused on improving outcomes for learners at every level of the system. I think that that would probably be true in every jurisdiction in Australia, it’s certainly my personal experience. I think that one of the challenges for central bureaucracies is to be attuned to the professionals that teach and support that teaching. Our educational support staff, our teachers and our school leaders too really privilege the (?13:43) of practice to understand the contingent nature of teaching and the expertise that’s required and to see that as a site of learning for policy development. Naturally central bureaucracies are geared towards supporting Ministers and Government and all the nuances of working in that interface between a department and the political realm, but the place of learning is the place of practice, and having a very strong student-centred focus in all of the endeavours around policy.

14:19 Maxine McKew
What are the tendency though for the participants in whatever area they’re in, whether in schools or in the bureaucracy, for those to distrust each other or be suspicious of each other... misunderstand each other?

14:29 Bruce Armstrong
Yeah it’s interesting. My experience is that you tend to blame a level above you, so when you’re a teacher it’s the principal or the school leadership team; principals complain about the region or the centre, and we talk about departments as if we’re not all part of one department. The workforce in schools belongs to the Department, it is part of the Department. Regional workforce is a part of the Department. Centrally located corporate staff are part of the Department. I think it’s creating a learning system... how are we learning from and with each other at every level of the system so that there are powerful feedback loops, and having a very, very strong service and learning orientation at any level that’s outside of the classroom because that’s what the whole endeavour is to support. The professionals that are teaching our young people, our children and young people in early childhood settings, in kindergartens, in primary schools and secondary schools and TAFES, our focus needs to be on what do we need to help them do their work very well?

15:27 Maxine McKew
So from you experience in Victoria are we getting better at that?

15:30 Bruce Armstrong
I think we’re getting much better at it, and it requires a stance of listening and building trust through relationships. There is mistrust I think of bureaucracies, and part of that is due to the lurches in policy across the electoral cycle that creates mistrust and disinterest and disengagement from the profession. Governments change, as Ministers change sometimes too as they want to put their stamps on things.

15:55 McKew
I suppose that’s something we can learn from other jurisdictions. Singapore has often cited a very different governance model I know, but it does produce much greater policy continuity doesn’t it?

16:06 Bruce Armstrong
Yeah I think that this is where this issue around policy and this interaction with evidence is really important. Can we get kind of bilateral agreement around the things that sit at the core of the endeavour around what helps a school improve; how to invest in leadership; how to invest in the professional learning of teachers; how to help teachers draw upon evidence and gauge the impact on learner outcomes for the children that they’re teaching? So I think that’s part of what breeds this mistrust. So when ... in Victoria you asked the question about how we’re doing, well it takes time to re-establish those relationships, to re-establish trust and that starts with listening, it starts with recognising that there’s relational dimension to change and improvement. It’s not just about policy, it’s about a set of things that you need to do to garner people’s will to walk with you on a journey of improvement.

16:59 Maxine McKew
Let’s talk about schools because a lot of your work has been around the key issue of transformation in schools, and I know you often cite the key criteria documented by Harvard Professor Richard Elmore. Now are more of our schools Bruce do you think working to this formula?

17:16 Bruce Armstrong
His proposition was really that there are three things that are required, which is the quality, the intellectual demand of the curriculum if you like, what students are taught, the professional expertise of the teachers who teach it, and the agency of students over their own learning. That interaction between the content, the teacher and the student are absolutely critical to the equation. Or the other trilogy – curriculum, pedagogy and assessment and how it comes together to create environments of powerful learning for children and young people in the settings in which they’re learning creating a community of learners. So I think we’re on the right track, we’re focused on the right things in Victoria around improving the pedagogical enactment of the Victorian curriculum being supported in its implementation, and increasingly through the release of the document amplifier – how do we amplify student voice, agency and leadership at every stage of schooling so that students feel that they have some control over what they’re learning and how they’re learning it?

18:21 Maxine McKew
My sense is that in fact there is as you say a good understanding of what needs to be done. But typically what goes wrong do you think Bruce? Is it would you say a well intentioned start where perhaps it’s driven just by the sole leader in the school, the principal? What happens when things go wrong?

18:38 Bruce Armstrong
I think that it’s multifaceted. Often school communities, teachers, principals, leadership teams can be overwhelmed by the circumstances that they find themselves in, the populations of communities that they’re serving with complex and diverse needs, culturally and linguistically diverse communities, refugee communities, Koori communities. The impacts of socioeconomic disadvantage on communities, rural and regional isolation can play a factor. So I don’t think that it’s one thing, it can be many things. But I think leadership here becomes a pivotal thing, the role of the principal. You won’t find an improving school or a school that’s transforming in the absence of good leadership. Not sole leadership but an enabling leadership, a coaching leadership on its building capacity of other leaders and of teacher leaders and of all teachers and support staff in their school community. So when it’s going well, that’s what it looks like. In its absence it’s often poor or leadership over a period of time, maybe rapid turnover in complex settings where there’s been a churn of leadership, and as a consequence the teaching staff become dispirited and the community becomes alienated or loses confidence in its local school community.

19:50 Maxine McKew
Now you’ve mentioned the issues of rural and regional Australia a couple of times, and of course everything you’ve just described is amplified for that part of Australia isn’t it?

19:59 Bruce Armstrong
Absolutely. I think the issues of regional towns and centres and the impacts of rural, we don’t really have remote in Victoria but we have rural, the issues around attracting staff, attracting leaders into our schools in rural and regional Victoria, and that’s true across Australia as well, that it’s the issue of attraction and retention of capable people into those settings. What are the incentives, what are the drivers to attract people into those communities? How do we leverage technology for virtual learning so that high quality online content and engagement through both synchronous and asynchronous can be used to kind of overcome the tyranny of distance and give students options in their pathways, which I think is one of the critical things for young people in rural and regional centres, they don’t often see the pathways because they don’t have the subject choice.

20:54 Maxine McKew
We’ve been conscious of this for a very long time. What then are the barriers to producing more interesting incentive packages?

21:02 Bruce Armstrong
Yeah, so I think some of it is funding and then thinking out what are the mix of incentives that would be enough to attract and retain people? Back in the day we had housing that was available in our rural and regional centres to provide an incentive for people to go and move. When there was centralised staffing, people would start in the country and move back towards the metropolitan areas. So I think thinking about what are the financial incentives, what are the community-based incentives in terms of lifestyle and choice that need to be promulgated? But there are policy levers in there that I think can be used, and I think it will require a national effort. It’s not something that’s just happening in Victoria, it’s happening across the country the challenges of it, and I’m not sure that we’ve really got to the point where we’re really thinking seriously about how high performing teachers can be used synchronously into classrooms remotely and in rural to provide options. I mean that’s been tinkered with in Victoria... how do we do that well and how do we create and curate high quality online content for students who because of distance are really suffering the disadvantages of subject choice?

22:11 Maxine McKew
Would you go so far as to say we really need a sense of national urgency about this?

22:15 Bruce Armstrong
I do, I think that this is another issue around the equity equation. We need to have a sense of access for everyone to a high quality education as being our superordinate principle to design our policy settings.

22:29 Maxine McKew
The other area that Richard Elmore talks about is changing the relationship of students to learning, and there’s a lot of discussion about this in schools now. What does this look like when it’s happening in a very buzzy, positive way?

22:42 Bruce Armstrong
Well look I think there’s lots of things that are happening in schools where teachers have taken hold of this issue around engagement. What does it mean to engage young people in their learning? And relevance is absolutely key here. I mean this is not a new discussion either, you know this goes right back into you know when Dewey was writing about the child and pedagogy in curriculum. What does a child-seated view look like? How do you engage the learner? And relevance triggers intrinsic motivation to learn and it becomes more critical as children move into early adolescence and mid adolescence and late adolescence in upper primary and early secondary schooling when we see profound levels of disengagement, and I believe that it’s connecting learning to real life issues beyond the school gate engaging them in the ways that they learn natively when they’re on their own outside the gate, but connecting them to authentic problems to get them to learn deeply with others in teams to connect to community to create relevance. I think these are really pivotal things that are happening when you see that buzz in classrooms and school communities.

23:52 Maxine McKew
The other continuing debate of course is around initial teacher training and the issue of higher entry standards. Now we’ve certainly got some of the states moving in this direction, how do we weed out the ill-suited candidate perhaps earlier in the system?

24:09 Bruce Armstrong
This has been a really interesting and public debate and it’s been quite a polarising one hasn’t it this issue of who gets selected into teaching? I’ll take a look with a slightly different frame. I think that if you think about preparing young people to teach, what does that look like, and it requires an end to end system. What does attraction and recruitment look like into pre-service? That is happening in upper high school, probably mid high school when families and carers are having conversations with young people about their pathways, it starts there. Is teaching seen to be a high quality, valuable profession in our culture? And I don’t think it is. I’m not sure that we’ve got a cultural bias towards teachers. I think it’s shifting in the knowledge economy to be a really highly esteemed profession like it is in high performing jurisdictions. You mentioned Singapore before, but you can think of Nordic countries, think of Sweden and Finland where teaching is seen to be a noble profession, an honourable profession, a valued profession, and I think that that’s where you start because that’s on the attraction side, it’s a worthwhile thing to do.

25:23 Maxine McKew
So does that mean much higher entry standards?

25:26 Bruce Armstrong
It has to go directly to your point but then it goes to the issue of suitability. Can you predict suitability is the question through entrance, and I think that we should have a design to have highly able and capable people in our profession. Why wouldn’t we? I mean these are the people who are teaching people for all of the future professions and trades. These are the people that are igniting curiosity and creativity and building in social skills into our future generations which want highly capable people who have the right set of soft skills or emotional intelligence and relational skills combined with the intellectual capacity to grapple with developing content knowledge and understanding how children and young people learn, and how you create the enabling conditions for that to happen. That’s complex, demanding, challenging work that needs to last a career. And so you’ve got this issue around an end to end system is attraction and recruitment. It’s pre-service in universities and that’s been quite fraught around cut-offs around ATAR and so on. It should not be. We should be seeking to get the most able into our profession. You wouldn’t be having this conversation with most other professions – psychology, engineering, architecture, law, medicine to name a few, this doesn’t seem to be a debate because we expect the people will be highly able going into those professions.

26:44 Maxine McKew
Bruce, if you were to move to something like that, would it mean that we were training fewer teachers?

26:49 Bruce Armstrong
Supply becomes an issue as you raise the bar to entry, people then become concerned on the supply side, and it’s often used in kind of a fearful way – don’t go there because you’ll... you know you’ll block supply. I think that you need to face into that and say yes, there could be supply side issues. So then what is the policy mix of incentives around scholarships and attraction for rural and regional candidates for supporting people while they’re going through pre-service education in particular disciplines that might be in short supply? So you need a supply sized strategy, but I don’t think that you should therefore baulk at the issue around the quality of the candidature that are going in and the quality of the graduates that are coming out from pre-service into teaching into graduate teaching. And then we need to mentor and support them because that’s the beginning of their learning in the place of practice that was only in part in the professional experience or practicum within the university setting. So it’s a continuum from recruitment, pre-service and in-service induction mentoring and ongoing learning.

27:55 Maxine McKew
And just on that last point, that’s where it seems to me we’re still pretty hit and miss, the extent to which fresh teachers are supported in a new school environment.

28:05 Bruce Armstrong
Yes, and I think that when we don’t attend to that issue of what does it mean to be inducted into a profession, and we put all the heavy lifting on the university providers, they feel that they’re being beaten up on. Everybody is responsible here and the profession has a responsibility to induct its graduates into its profession. I think that we induct people into sites in schools, I’m not sure that we induct people into profession. What does that look like? Providing time for mentoring, time for the most able teachers in a setting to mentor our graduate teachers and I think that that’s really critical to be taking that seriously. And Victoria’s doing some really important work, and to be taking cohorts of graduates and bringing them together in various ways so that they know that they’re growing into the professional standards, their professional knowledge, their professional practice, their professional ethics, not just what’s the yard duty look like at this particular primary school. Where do I find out about the extras? How does the timetable work? These are all the kind of operational things in a particular context, but there are bigger issues of what it means to become an educational professional.

34:12 Maxine McKew
Bruce it’s always good to talk to you and let me thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on these big issues in education, and all the very best for this next phase of your life.

34:23 Bruce Armstrong
Thank you Maxine, it’s been a pleasure.

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34:27 Maxine McKew
Well that’s it for Talking Teaching this month. This podcast has been produced at the Hallworth Studios of the University of Melbourne. Our sound engineer is Gavin Nebauer who also composed our theme music. Bye for now.