School Improvement and Governance Network



"I touch the future. I teach" Christa McAuliffe

Here we briefly look at the evolving role of educators in relation to ten areas of educational change and improvement. How education departments, principals and teachers are tackling these ten challenges obviously affects the quality of teaching which, in turn, obviously propels student performance.

1. Teachers as leaders

Leadership is about setting directions, influencing thinking and practice and helping to develop a community of teacher learners and leaders. It also includes building stronger partnerships with stakeholders and how educators may best support parents and students to be school leaders and leaders of learning.

There is a broad view that leadership is dispersed within schools, not only confined to formal leadership positions. Fundamental to this is promotion of a teachers-as-leaders agenda, built around new leadership frameworks. As Neil Cranston notes, for teacher leadership at all levels within schools to really take off,

The next iteration of the ‘teachers-as-leaders’ debate must break new ground. It must be conceptualised around leadership frameworks that promote a rethinking of teachers’ work.

Teachers as system leaders

This means understanding teachers as system leaders. System leaders are all educators, principals and others who:

  • Work with peers on a whole school strategy or in a cluster of primary and secondary schools (P-12 schooling) or a network
  • Build strong research-practice links and professional networks
  • Build partnerships with kindergartens and colleges/universities
  • Develop good practice in school-family-community partnerships
  • Lead work toward a school as a community hub and resource
  • Strive to deeply understand the community context of a school
  • Work closely with external agencies such as health services
  • Lead partnerships to understand and protect ecosystems (e.g., schools involved in replanting areas and promoting biodiversity).

It also involves principals and teachers who seek to influence systemwide educational policy through involvement in organisations such as the AEU, VASSP, VPA and VICCSO. Such leaders lead within their own schools and communities and in the systems beyond. Notwithstanding adequate time and resources for system leadership, two key questions thus arise:

  • What are the capabilities needed by system leaders?
  • How do we develop and support system leadership?

2. Teacher participation in school governance

To build teacher leadership, teachers need time to meet, plan and discuss issues with each other and with other stakeholders, including parents, through school council sub-committees, teams and forums. Principals, teachers, parents and community members develop this kind of collaborative learning community via:

  • Local decision-making
  • School community dialogue
  • Genuine strategic planning
  • Stronger family-school partnerships
  • Well-functioning teams
  • In a word, through good governance.

Governance concerns the distribution of power in decision-making at all levels of an education system, from the departmental to the regional, school and community levels. Governance can be neglected as an area of pivotal importance for teachers' work and leadership. It is still common for school councils to be referred to in terms of their parent members.

Principals and teacher leaders are influential advocates of involving the school community in local decision-making and thus building with parents and students a powerful alliance for improving learning outcomes. As Professor Brian Caldwell puts it:

"It is time for the community to adopt the language of radical dissent; agitate for significant, systematic and sustained change; and above all, become more fully engaged in the governance of public education".

3. Management

What is evident is the increasing range and complexity of management knowledge and skills required by principals and teachers. School managers need to be:

  • Skilful managers of multiple changes, including broader, more systemic change
  • Able to anticipate and respond to new initiatives, challenges and opportunities
  • Able to prepare for the professional development needs of a learning community.

All of which can mean working harder and longer around a range of management and administrative tasks, which can be at the expense of a singular and sustained focus on the all-important task of managing educational change and improvement.

Cliches abound which can confuse things, too - cliches such as 'schools are over-managed and under-led'. While it is true that micro-management can get in the way of good leadership, such cliches may also imply that management is inferior to leadership.

Yet high-quality management - the capacity to develop and follow through with strategic and implementation plans, program work and enable change and systemic change in particular - is obviously so central to high-quality education and schooling. When it’s less effective than it could be, or needs to be, we all pay a price.

4. What is pedagogy?

There are various frameworks for pedagogy and, as yet, no broad agreement as to which adds the most value. As well, the term ‘pedagogy' for some can narrowly and erroneously mean “teaching without the bigger picture”, as Professor Robin Alexander puts it. But as Alexander also notes, this "wider context matters no less than what goes on in classrooms” (2008: 4).

Pedagogy is importantly about developing the very best teaching practice. But teaching as a practical act and pedagogy are not the same. Teaching practice is both pivotal and a subset of pedagogy. To further develop Alexander's important argument, pedagogy includes the practice of teaching and the:

  • Educational values (including conflicts between ideals and actual practice)
  • Visions of what education is for and how society may be
  • Educational and developmental ideas, philosophies and theories
  • Education and development throughout a person's life (including the pivotal role of parents and families) together with the extent to which learning is personalised
  • Educational and developmental research and evidence - local, national and international
  • Educational governance and policies
  • Professional autonomy versus micro-management of educators
  • Models and organisation of education (e.g., P-12 schooling and work systems)
  • Curriculum content and frameworks
  • Information and communication technologies and tools
  • Building designs and facilities
  • Social, cultural, linguistic, community and family contexts of education and schooling
  • That inform, shape and explain the practice of teaching and, through this, significantly affect the nature of students' learning experiences and the outcomes achieved.

There is another dimension to this: the very best teaching practices are most likely to evolve in tandem with the values, vision and goals; links to robust evidence and research; smart curriculum frameworks; ICT use; and school policies, plans and partnerships - in short, the shared pedagogy - of a school's leaders, staff, parents, students and community. This extends to the critical role of families, learners, businesses and communities as co-educators and co-designers of schooling.

With students spending only 14 percent or so of their time at school (Bransford et al., 1999), learning experiences at home, in the community and during leisure time, posing learning activities and challenges to be solved (Marsick & Watkins, 2001), mean that formal education will continue as a central site but also as one site of learning among many, and that there is likely to be an exponential increase in forms of informal learning, expanding pedagogy to include students' membership of multiple 24/7/365 learning communities. Pedagogy has never been more important. As Wyn writes:

"Young people take what they need from a wide variety of sources, of which formal education is only one element. Formal education is only one part of young people’s learning repertoire, and if it remains in its current form, it may become increasingly marginal to learning and ossify as a credentialling mechanism for university, further education and employment" (2009: 35).

Although the school, family and community are the three “overlapping spheres of influence” which affect student learning and development (Epstein, 1995), many education systems have become singularly obsessed with classroom practice, with top-down prescription and micro-management undermining teachers’ professional autonomy and judgment and marginalising pedagogy. The effect is to:

  • Prevent pedagogical continuity and coherence across these three learning arenas
  • Place stress-creating pressure on teachers to achieve within the confines of the classroom what really can only be tackled through partnerships across all three spheres
  • Make it impossible to develop truly personalised learning for every student (personalisation is the essence of contemporary pedagogy) and thus thwart significant improvements in learning outcomes for all students and frustrate any attempt to reduce the achievement gap.

With attention to both effective classroom practice and the bigger picture of pedagogy, it is this 'both-and' that means that teaching is not reducible to a technical skill but has a broader, deeper intellectual foundation, which is not always clear let alone detailed in some analyses. Treating teaching merely or mainly as a technical skill minus the broader framework of pedagogy may serve to:

  • Erase a vision of education and schooling which reaches beyond targets in the 3Rs
  • Overshadow critical ‘why’ questions by technical ‘how to’ and 'what works' questions (both sets of questions are obviously important and together they are a potent combination) 
  • Marginalise teachers' professional autonomy and innovation in favour of ‘standards’.

5. New technologies

Educators are among the foremost leaders of the use of new technologies. But this requires support and time out for proper PD if all educators are to engage productively with technology. Evidence also suggests that many technologies can both free up teachers for more creative work and make their work more complex and intense. It is double-edged.

Many teachers are obviously at the forefront of understanding how students are changing (and also are becoming change agents) through their use of ICT - how they think, learn, find, play, make judgments, interact with others and become engaged in the life of their families, schools, communities and societies.

As well, given that young people are inundated by enormous amounts of data that they must access, manage, integrate, and evaluate, more needs to be known about educators' good practice in supporting students to separate deeper learning and knowledge from superficial fact-gathering.

Many teachers are also leading the development of school technology plans that reflect the ideas of a whole school community and unite teachers, parents and students. Such plans may include:

  • Our school’s vision and goals for ICT
  • How we are building the links between learning, content and ICT
  • ICT in the context of family and community partnerships
  • Infrastructure, support and PD
  • Action plan by year
  • Roles and responsibilities
  • Budget and funding strategies
  • Evaluation and review.

6. Curriculum challenges

Centrally mandated curricula can reduce duplication, remove unnecessary differences, make subject results comparable across Australia and result in greater consistency and higher standards. It can also make it more difficult for educators to be responsive to: (a) local educational challenges and (b) the needs of students of diverse backgrounds. The jury is still out as to the optimum mix of centralised and decentralised curricula. As Mick Waters puts it:

“One of the big challenges [is] to design the curriculum so that you get a local curriculum within national parameters” (2007).

Informed by the creative work of many educators with experience in P-12 schools and middle years work in clusters of schools, a key challenge is a coherent P-12 curriculum. As Bill Stringer puts it:

“Two cultures dominate schooling: a primary culture and a secondary culture. Both have sound ideas about the ways for thinking about curriculum and learning in their schools but, when placed together, they make nonsense of the learning continuum with which each of their students is involved.”

Research in Victoria supports the idea of a unified P-12 approach to curricula, with teams of teachers planning and integrating the curriculum from a P-12 perspective. Initiated by the Country Education Project and sponsored by the Department, the main findings of this research project (2007) are:

  • A more unified P-12 approach to teaching, learning, and curricula is needed, but this would take a significant policy and operational shift
  • The research literature and the experience of many schools suggest that this shift can significantly improve learning outcomes for all students.

A P-12 approach takes shape when primary and secondary schools work in clusters and toward a shared pedagogy and seamless curriculum. To do this, teams of teachers use:

  • Throughlines (i.e., the greater in-depth coverage of fewer topics, ideas, understandings and concepts in the curriculum across the early, middle and later years)
  • P-12 spiral learning built around these throughlines (e.g., see the Wisconsin Organising the Social Studies Curriculum)
  • Lynn Erickson's concept-based curriculum tools and concept mapping to support P-12 curriculum planning.

Complexity and specialisation of teaching

What is increasingly clear is the complex nature of teacher’s knowledge and skills - the interplay of pedagogy, technology and curriculum. This expertise is different from, and greater than, the knowledge and skills of a disciplinary or content knowledge expert (e.g., a mathematician), a technology expert (a computer scientist) and a pedagogical expert (an experienced educator).

Any one teacher cannot be expected to be an expert in all specialist sub-fields of pedagogy, technology and curriculum redesign let alone in all three areas. Further, as increasingly teams of teachers incorporate and integrate different kinds of pedagogical, technological and content knowledge, the sheer volume and complexity of knowledge, available in ever-increasing waves, makes a more collaborative workplace an imperative.

The vision implied here for teaching obviously affects school organisation and management. Some schools have been reorganised and rebuilt to foster increased collaboration and coordination of educators' knowledge specialisation. This is clearly becoming more important and significant investments in training and new facilities, for example, are required to propel this shift.

7. Building stronger partnerships

Teachers obviously benefit from working more closely with their colleagues – and with educators outside of their own schools. The increasing complexity and specialisation of teacher’s knowledge and skills (as noted above) also means that educators have to work in ever more collaborative teams to share their pedagogical, technological and content knowledge. Working in more collaborative teams is thus increasingly important. This includes the effective use of support staff in the school workforce.

Decades of research and practice in schools also make it clear that:

  1. Where parents, teachers and students really work together, the gains in student achievement can be significant
  2. The family-school partnership is among the most powerful improvement levers that a school has ready access to.

We now know more about the many ways in which parents support, reinforce and complement the efforts of teachers. A critical challenge for many teachers is to share the best ways, and to have the time, for building much stronger partnerships with parents and community members of diverse backgrounds.

8. K-20 education

A continuum of learning and development from kindergarten through to university and college, or a K-20 system of education, is the next big thing. K-20 education is:

At least one secondary school, a primary school, if not several feeder primary schools, and a university/college along with a kindergarten working together. A K-20 partnership may obviously begin with any combination of these. What matters is that the partners not only ‘work together’ but begin to establish shared goals and use their resources to achieve them. Further, with ‘system’ leadership and governance, K-20 partnership working may culminate in a seamless education system.

Looming as key challenges are how principals and teachers - and all educators - will co-lead this work and how they will be best supported to build unified systems of learning and development. A starting point is to work out what all educators have in common, as the basis for K-20 education, as distinct from the traditional divisions (early childhood, primary, secondary, vocational education and training, technical and further education and adult education) that once so strongly delineated educational provision.

9. Teachers and school performance

School performance obviously does not occur in a vacuum. The same applies to teachers in the classroom. If we put good performers in bad systems, the systems will win every time. For example, the quality of the work of a teacher is linked to broader system factors such as:

  • Access to technology and technical support and state-of-the-art educational facilities
  • Formative assessment to highlight and address students' personalised learning
  • Students' access to excellent health care and out-of-school enrichment opportunities
  • School community autonomy in modifying the curriculum to meet local needs
  • A cluster of primary and secondary schools developing joined-up P-12 schooling
  • Strong support for collegiality, real team teaching and school-wide collaboration
  • Resources and support for professional learning and families as partners in learning.

The absence of any one of these factors may obviously make it more difficult for individual teachers to fully utilise their knowledge and skills in the interests of all students. As well, an old approach to performance management may over-manage individuals and under-manage the systems in which they work.

Only a few countries have introduced performance related pay in their education systems in a major way and the evidence is inconclusive. In the United States, for example, studies reveal no clear cause and effect relationship between performance-related pay and teacher performance.

Further, if an old system of schooling operates at almost maximum efficiency and effectiveness, as Robert Branson argues, the small margin between current levels and 100% efficiency may not be worth the effort. Thus, holding teachers responsible for the failure of a part of a system may both misunderstand the real problem and miss opportunities to significantly improve student outcomes.

A new system (e.g., P-12 schooling) may have much larger effects on outcomes than changes in individual work practices per se. Thus, as is being promoted through innovations in many schools, performance consists of both person and system influences - with broader system factors increasing in importance.

10. Resources and facilities

Although it is difficult to reach firm conclusions about the total impact of built learning environments on student outcomes, there is a growing body of literature that provides evidence of a strong link between school design and student achievement.

New designs should optimise the powerful interplay of both teachers’ strong guided instruction and students’ independent inquiry, discovery and creativity. The best school building designs are the result of what Professor David Clarke calls “an integrative theory of classroom practice and learning”. This avoids old, either-or dichotomies in education such as teacher-centred versus student-centred classrooms and strong guided instruction versus inquiry-based learning.