Every Student Podcast: Cameron Paterson
Author and educator Cameron Paterson stops by the Every Student Podcast to discuss flipping the system.
Author and educator Cameron Paterson stops by the Every Student Podcast to discuss flipping the system.
Hi, I'm Mark Scott, Secretary of the NSW Department of Education and welcome to Every Student, the podcast where I get to introduce you to some of our great leaders in education. Today I am in conversation with Cameron Paterson. Cameron is the head of teaching and learning at the Shore School on Sydney's lower North Shore. He's a course instructor for Harvard's Project Zero and he's the co-editor of a book that has come out called Flip the System Australia: What Matters in Education. On the back of the book it says; "'What matters?' or 'What should matter?' in education", and they are the matters that we are going to discuss with you today Cameron. Tell us how you ended up in education.
Thank you for the invitation to be here Mark. I fell into teaching by accident, I was midway through a master's degree in history at Sydney University and working in a pub at Sydney at the time. A job advertisement appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald for a one year contract, somebody was on leave at Canberra Grammar School. I accepted that and with no teacher training whatsoever many, many years ago I was appointed as a history teacher in Canberra. It was only meant to be a one year break for me before returning to Sydney to carry on with my postgraduate work. But I absolutely loved it surprisingly loved it. My intent had always been to be either a diplomat or a journalist and I had this vague notion that somehow moving to Canberra would make that easier for me. But I fell into teaching by accident and I absolutely love it; I think I've got the best job in the world.
Let's go to the book Flip the System, you've produced the book, Flip the System Australia, but before the Australian book, people have been exploring this idea before you.
That's right. The first Flip the System book came out in the Netherlands in 2015, it was produced by a couple of Dutch educators. Jelmer Evers was my connection, I've met him a couple of times at overseas conferences. He was a teacher basically just decided to put his money where his mouth is in a sense that he was having some of these discussions with his students and he is constantly encouraging his students to go out and make a difference in the world and he thought 'well I should be actually modelling by example'. So he produced the first Flip the System book and that was followed last year by Flip the System UK, the three of us that produced the Australian book actually have a chapter in the UK version. There is a Swedish version which is in Swedish so I haven't read it. We were the third or fourth I guess volume, Flip the System Australia. And the fifth volume, Flip the System US is currently in production. It's actually being designed to be released around the time of the next US election in the hopes that it will influence discussion around education policy going forwards in the US.
If you look at this book there are some well-known international names reflecting on the Australian experience; names like Andy Hargreaves and Pasi Sahlberg, Yasodai Selvakumaran - well known to listeners of this podcast - is there as well. What does it mean to 'flip the system'? What does that phrase mean?
Look, Jelmer came up with the idea and he talks about the triangular pyramid, a model of the system - I often equate it as a history teacher to the feudal pyramid that we used to teach in Year 7 or Year 8, used to talk about. But his system is a triangle with politicians and bureaucrats at the top and all the way down the bottom are the teachers which he describes as the 'grunt workers in the system'. His idea was to initiate conversations about how potentially that framework could be flipped. Putting teachers more in the driver's seat and reducing the power and influence at times of politicians, those directly outside the classroom. That was his aim, I often say that there are perhaps three keys around the Flip the System theme and that is the first would possibly be the idea of agency; how do we improve teacher agency? By that I mean how do we enable teachers to take more control of the decisions that influence them every day? I also use the word professionalism. It is easy to see how medicine or dentistry is regarded as a profession. We talk about the legal profession but then we get confused about the professionalism of teachers. To what extent are we a profession, I know Richard Elmore a professor from the US has described teachers as 'a profession without a practice', so the influence of research in that becomes really interesting. Finally, another keyword is democratic or democracy. To what extent do we regard what happens in the classroom as democratic and to what extent can we enable it to become more democratic?
Let's go back to Elmore. What does he mean by 'a profession without a practice'?
My take on that is that if you can go into any particular classroom he often says there is more variance in the teaching and learning that occurs within a school than between schools. You go into any particular series of classrooms in schools you are going to see a great variety in teaching practice. He would argue that we are confused about what practice actually is and it's almost as though anything goes. Every teacher because they're so closely personally connected to their professional practice is able to justify what they're doing on a particular day and a particular subject with a particular age range. And he says that despite our best efforts around the world in terms of creating standards and so forth that we're still confused and can't agree exactly what our best practice is.
So just reconcile that thought to me, because hearing that and as a bureaucrat - you know part of the pyramid - I suppose an argument for me would be systems should be clearer in the expectations for teachers, clearer in articulating what pedagogies works, what evidence suggests will bring about an improvement in teaching and learning outcomes. And that the kind of scene Elmore is describing is calls for in a sense more rigidity in the system rather than less rigidity in the system.
Well, the argument Flip the System is that you use the word expectations and 'accountabilities' is one that we use a fair bit. Teachers have an enormous growing number of accountabilities placed upon us all the time. And what we are advocating for is more locally produced solutions, more collaboratively produced solutions with teachers involved in the conversations about those expectations and accountabilities, rather than those outside the classroom and outside the school deciding them on our behalf.
Why isn't this the case now? You draw a parallel to other professions, what is it about teaching that has seen teachers perhaps disempowered with the picture you're creating?
It's an interesting one, certainly plenty of evidence of teacher voice being absent in policy and absent in the media. If you think about a conversation that you might turn on to The Project in the evening, when you turn on your news and there is a conversation occurring about education; sometimes very specifically about schools or classroom issues. But very, very rarely will you see an educator involved in those conversations. It's usually people talking about schools rather than people in schools talking about what is going on. It's people talking about teachers. What is left to that I think there is pretty clearly around the world been a steadily eroding decline in respect for teachers on a worldwide basis. There would be all sorts of issues that are leading to that. Part of what we're trying to do with this we talk about it being a book but really we're talking about a global movement. We're trying to emphasise the importance of shining a light on these issues and restoring conversations about respect. It would be wonderful as in one of the chapters it's Bob Lingard in his chapter who refers to the fact that Australian Institute of Teaching and School Leadership in Melbourne currently has no practising classroom teacher on their board. Unions have been arguing against this for years. But I find that extraordinary that in Australia we have allowed ourselves to get to that situation where we have an Australian Institute of Teaching and School Leadership and yet there is no teacher on the board. I think that is ridiculous.
And of course one of the things about education more broadly is because everyone went to school, everyone is an expert on education, so many people have a current ongoing encounter with education through their own experience or the experience of their children. It means that in a sense everyone is an expert in the field I guess.
I would agree with that. Everybody has an opinion and everybody is entitled to have an opinion but that is where we come back to the professionalism of teachers, we need to restore that degree of expectation around the professionalism of people in the classroom and in schools in terms of professional judgement. People have expertise in the classroom an enormous amount of expertise. And one of the issues is that it is so complex that being able to capture that in a snapshot which suits a media grab is extremely difficult.
Talk a bit more about that complexity, I mean if you draw a contrast to medicine - and it is often done - I think most people almost will acknowledge even though they might go on Google to get some information themselves that medicine is highly scientific, highly research-based, there is a great level of skill and expertise. And that the layperson does not expect that they have the level of expertise and insight that a medical expert would have or a scientist would have. Education, the perception would be, that this is a simpler process but you're arguing the complexity of the teaching and learning experience is not adequately respected.
I'm not just talking about content knowledge when we talk about high school teachers. I'm talking about the tacit knowledge of teachers. Teachers experience when he or she knows that a particular moment in period 5 with Year 9 after lunch that if you go and stand in a particular place in the classroom you are going to enable some of your students be more engaged than they otherwise would. It's very difficult for teachers to be able to articulate that and be explicit about that. But in terms of momentary decisions that teachers make in very complicated situations, with often 25 people in the classroom at a time and if you're a high school teacher it could be up to perhaps 150 students over the course of the week. Knowing those personalities knowing how they learn best, knowing how to get the best out of them and work with that variety is not a simple process.
What would good practice look like if the system is flipped and in a sense, the professionalism and the expertise of teachers is more acknowledged and the conversations around educational complexities are in a sense more respectful of the expertise in the classroom? So what's it going to look like? How is it going to be different?
That's a good question I don't know if I have a direct answer to that question. We're very proud of the book and we're proud of the reception of the book but one of the things that I wish we perhaps had been able to address a little bit more clearly is what that might actually look like in classrooms. We do regret - we had lots of conversations about it, but we do regret that there is no student voice in the book. We had some discussions and politically, in the end, we decided that was just too difficult. But we also had a fair number of teachers who declined our invitation to contribute to the book. The reasons for that were very interesting. The reasons were sometimes because they were too busy and you could expect that from teachers. Sometimes it was because they felt that they didn't have something that was worthwhile saying and it brought us fear. Sometimes, more worryingly, it was concern that they would get in trouble for speaking out. Get in trouble from the people in charge of them in their system, their principal or whoever else and so they were hesitant to speak. When we come back to the idea of what best practice might look like I think it is absolutely crucial to have teachers involved in that conversation. I'm answering your question by saying we get to the essence of what best pedagogy looks like in the classroom by having teachers involved in those conversations and having students involved in those conversations on a much wider level than we are at the moment.
What about the role of data and evidence. Particularly with technological tools now being developed with the movement towards formative assessment. There is an argument that the complexity of student learning we should have far greater insight into that and understanding of that and that's what perhaps technology and data could bring. Do you have a sense of that?
Look I'm no expert in that area so it's something I'd be hesitant to speak long-on. I will say that there is growing resistance to commercial technological takeovers in schools. That we need to be very careful that we're not outsourcing teacher expertise and decision making to global technological companies that might have their own agenda. But in terms of data, in terms of evidence teaching is very much an evidence-informed profession. I think we've run into lots of problems with people trying to argue in fact teaching there is a clear evidence base in terms of what people should be doing. It's almost as though when a pilot walks into a plane and he or she has to follow a particular checklist to start their plane as if a teacher could do the same thing. As I've already indicated, I think it is far more complex than that.
So let's explore that a bit. I think if you look at some of McKinsey's work on how world-class systems got there, they would say that there is evidence about how you lift teaching and learning outcomes and they'd say there are differences in schools in systems but if you have students who are very low levels of literacy and numeracy outcomes you start here. There are things you can do - all interventions are not the same. Should we not have - we are glad pilots have checklists, we're glad the expertise of others who have flown before are informing pilots - is it unreasonable to say to teachers we have a clear view through evidence that pedagogy that works and what doesn't work as effectively and we should be using that evidence?
I completely agree with everything you just said but I think we run into problems when the standards are the driver rather than reinforcing what's happening in the classroom. I think standards are useful in many, many respects but quite often what I'm seeing on a daily basis is many of my colleagues who are slaves to the standards, who won't look outside the standards, who are spending enormous amounts of time preparing evidence to satisfy standards, rather than focusing on the needs of their students. To come back to the McKinsey report I think when you look at the top level of their suggestions they're talking about the importance of collaborative expertise, of networking, of sharing ideas, of building that basis of expertise within the teaching profession, which is what we're talking about as well.
So if you talk to politicians they'll say they put billions of dollars extra into Australian education and this is what the Gonski funding has been all about, more money to schools but implicit in that is a sense that teaching and learning outcomes will rise. How do we provide assurance that that extra investment is going to see improvement in teaching and learning outcomes? Without I suppose politicians and public servants being very prescriptive about the improvements they expect to see.
I think that's the key. I think it is not to be prescriptive about what they expect to see.
But why should educators be let off the hook there because if more money goes into health system there will be a series of improvements that you expect to see; improved mortality rates, earlier discharges from hospital, lower levels of chronic disease in society - these would all be things that we were looking for. Isn't it reasonable that that's a request of the teachers of Australia as well?
I think it is very reasonable, but it all depends on the outcomes that we're defining and if the outcomes are very, very specifically defined as outcomes of specific tests and increasingly the more and more that we rely on standardised tests the more we teach to those tests, so we need to be absolutely certain that the tests are testing what we would like to test. We're recognising the range of dispositions and competencies that people are going to need into the future. And when you talk about outcomes I think what we'd like to see is definition of those outcomes broadening considerably beyond where they currently are.
So, Cameron, the book is out, there will be half a dozen globally, key educators around the world are saying more power, more voice to teachers, to shaping the direction of education reform. What happens now?
We talk about this being a movement and a conversation rather than just a series of books. So what happens now is that we're hoping that we've started a conversation around the importance of giving teachers more voice and the importance of listening to teachers, about ensuring the privileged few don't speak for the marginalised and there is some fantastic sections in the book on Indigenous education in Australia which I commend to you. When you go to university, lecturers and professors talk about academic freedom and I think that's a concept that we're losing in schools, it is steadily being eroded. I like referring to the importance of curriculum disobedience. Professional ethics and honour as a teaching profession is something that we certainly need to be thinking about. The medical profession has a very clear sense of ethics, I think we're confused about ours at times; is it the AITSL standards, is it the Melbourne Declaration. Lines in the book towards the end that has aroused some conversation and public debate has been our line that 'education is a political act' and we don't reconcile from that, we think it's too easy for teachers just to put their heads down and get on with their daily work without thinking about the big picture. We passionately believe that teachers are activists and while the Flip the System movement is a call to resistance we really hope that it is a positive one based around hope and empowerment and respect, networking, the importance of connecting teachers globally across systems and across countries. Very much about building a shared professional identity and involving teachers with research at the same time.
Well, Cameron Paterson you're talking revolution here. You are a mild-mannered revolutionary thanks for your contribution to the book, thanks for the Flip the System challenge and thanks for joining us today on the Every Student Podcast.
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