ACER research conference 2012

I attended this conference in Sydney recently.

Its focus this year was School Improvement: What does the research tell us about effective strategies?

Below are my notes on the sessions I attended. PowerPoint presentations of Conference Proceedings can be found here.

I have to admit that I was not inspired by this conference. Nor was I encouraged. I held up a mirror and the ensuing reflection was not one I was happy with. I have had a number of days feeling as if I was a fraud, believing erroneously that I was doing good work in my school. It was a week that ended darkly and began darkly.

I am not quite sure why this conference had such an effect on me. Maybe it was the relentless bar lifting expectations. Maybe it was frustration that we now know what things make a difference to improving teachers’ practice but the elements needed to make this a reality just are not in place, and may never be in the current financial climate. Maybe it was the realisation that the entire system really needed to move in order for my individual changes to have a sustained effect on improving student outcomes. Maybe I began to think that I could realistically only affect the students in my classes, and not even all of them. That the work I was doing with teachers could not maintain effectiveness in the long term without whole school change. That it all just seemed too big a problem?

Anyway, that all sounds more than a weeny depressing, and I so want to retain hope for the future. I look forward to my mojo returning.

1. Geoff Masters- Continual Improvement through evidence based practices

There is a push for school improvement from governments.This push is usually seen in the rhetoric as ‘driving’ improvement.How? Through rewards and sanctions
Why? To improve ‘effort’ by employees..then all will be OK and expected results improvement will be able to be measured using appropriate metrics. The assumption is that teachers are just not working hard enough and that rewards and sanctions will be able to fix this and motivate them to work harder.
A couple of things emerge.
1. How does one measure school improvement?
2. Teachers are working quite hard now. They are at their limits of capacity. They don’t know what it is they don’t know. It is not a matter of motivating them through rewards and sanctions to work harder…it is more about professional learning that will enable them towards instructional practices that have more bang for their buck. See this paper
Whilst researching for this report, Masters found that the research suggested that test-based incentive schemes were not producing benefits in student achievement, in fact they were actually distorted classroom practices such as exaggerated test taking practice, narrowed the curriculum etc.
The results students attained in high stakes testing were not replicated in other testing so were not always a true reflection of what students could make, do, understand and know. The incentive-reward-sanction motivating factor only affected the targeted testing, not long term benefits for students learning.
Additionally, Masters pointed out that these incentive programs have not been successful in other areas such as hospitals, businesses etc Hospitals tended to not accept risky patients so that their death rates did not rise, businesses hid financial records…
Psychology also tells us that people are not motivated by incentive schemes. People are motivated by a complex mix. See this YouTube video for what motivates people, a talk by Dan Pink.
Incentive schemes undervalue capacity building.
There is a need, in addition to the focus on results, to build internal capacity and the well being of systems.
Teachers who aren’t given the tools and knowledge to increase their reach, ther’s not much point.
In other professions such as medicine, they don’t say “you are professionals. You do your own thing, sort it out yourself. Be creative, there’s no silver bullet, you are the experts..go talk to each other”
Evidence based teacher practice is not antithetical to teachers’ professionalism but we have protected our right to ‘use professional judgement’ and spun a belief system that teaching is context dependent to resist change.
So…what do we actually know about highly effective teacher?
What do we know about highly effective school leadership?
What do we know about highly effective system leadership?
And how do we align these three aspects?


1. Have an explicit management agenda that the leadership team has established and is driving
2. Have measurable improvements in student outcomes
3. Timelines for the improvement plan have been set
4. Strong and optimistic belief of all school staff that further improvement as possible

1. priority is given to school wide analysis and discussion of data on student outcomes
2. School has a plan for systematic collection, analysis and use of student data
3. High priority given to building teachers’ and leaders’ data literacy skills

1. school ethos is built around high expectations and commitment to academic excellence
2. Happy, optimistic feel to the school
3. Interruptions to teaching time is minimal

1. school applies its resources in a deliberate way to meet learning needs
2. Staff deployed in ways that make best use of available expertise

1. shared commitment to understand what effective teaching looks like
2. Levels of pedagogical content knowledge high and expert discipline knowledge
3. Teachers and leaders take a personal and collective responsibility for improved student learning
4. School leaders place a high priority on on going PL for all staff
5. Teachers plan, deliver and review effectiveness of lessons in collaborative ways

1. clearly documented curriculum
2. A plan that makes explicit what and when teachers should teach and what students should learn
3. Attention to vertical alignment across the years of school

1. leaders promote differentiated teaching
2. School recognises that some students require significant adjustment
3. Regular data gathered about where each student is at

1. School leaders have accepted personal responsibility for promoting improvements in teaching
2. Leaders have well-known positions on what they want to see in classrooms
3. All are committed to identifying and providing feedback to improve teaching practices does a school start?

The same way we do with students: Where are we now? What comes next?
See The Teaching and Learning Framework by Geoff Masters.
This has a set of indicators that schools can use in order to improve in all of the eight domains of highly effective schools listed above.

We already know:

1. The kinds of evidence based school practices that promote improved classroom teaching
2. How to monitor and improve practices to move schools to be highly effective

2. Professor Stephen Dinham ‘Walking the walk: The need for school leaders to embrace teaching as a clinical practice profession’

“I can’t understand why people are afraid of new ideas. I’m afraid of the old ones” (John Cage)

What does it mean to be an evidence based profession?
3 spheres of influence:

1. Pre service education
2. Ongoing PL
3. Informed, committed leadership
Considering pre service education..

* Every review done over the last 30 years has reached the same conclusions and put the same recommendations forward but little has changed
* Programs are overly theoretical and not sufficiently integrated with classroom practice
* It should not be merely about techniques but also big picture thinking about diagnosing learning and prescribing future strategies to improve learning, a clinical approach
In the past, teachers teach the class, teach groups then teach individuals. This needs to be turned on its head.

It is iMportant to break the cycle of teachers teaching as they were taught and having new teachers get drawn into this culture.
There is a need for a data driven, evidence based, student centered approach to student learning.
We need to be able to identify students’ strengths as well as what they are ready to learn.
At Melb Uni, in the M Teach program, pre service teachers have to focus a case study on one particular student, diagnose their learning and then design an monitor an intervention plan. The emphasis on reflection and reflective practice allows teachers the opportunity to change as they go along.
If real change in teachers’ clinical assessment and interventionist capabilities is to occur, school leaders must be informed , supportive and equipped to assist in this processor changing the way teachers engage in their practice.
Leadership OF and FOR teaching.
Instructional leadership is 3-4 times as effective as transformational leadership.
We must pace the individual student at the centre of the school.

3. Professor David Hargreaves – Endgame : A self improving school system

There are three sectors who currently decide and set the agenda for school systems

1. Political policy makers
2. Academics
3. School leaders and their staffs
The first in this list has the majority of the power at the moment and the last has the least.

In order to create a self improving school system, the school leaders and their staffs need to be the ones who set the agenda.
We need to work as communities of schools, not stand-alone schools.
To improve teaching and learning, a continual cycle through practice and theory needs to be maintained so that knowledge and skills of teachers is upgraded in sustained ways…an upwards spiraling effect.
Learn about some theory, put this into practice, reflect on this, revise the theory, put this into practice, compare against the theory etc.
Hargreaves spoke about a ‘theory of case’. Do leaders have a theory of case wrt schools and school systems? Do they know the theories and where they want to take schools based on these theories?
He spoke about how the above mentioned cycling leads to an enriched theory of case.
Teachers learn best from other professionals.
Through the collaborative sharing of resources in a school cluster, what knowledge each school has can be shared amongst all for mutual benefit.
Collectively, these clusters can meet all student needs, all teachers’ PL needs. they can distribute innovation and transfer knowledge.
A deep partnership between schools can be manifested in three key aspects:

1. Professional development( joint practice development- like action research or akin to Japanese lesson study-talent identification, mentoring/coaching, distributed staff integration)
2. Partnership competence
3. Collaborative capital
What is joint practice development? (his key message)

2 or more teachers work together on a particular classroom practice in order to develop that practice. Eg questioning
It is systematic tinkering in a sustained way.
Collaborative capital is about not protecting our knowledge but giving it away. It is about reciprocity.

In a good system-

* There is a conviction that leaders should strive for success of other schools and their students, not just their own
* Schools actively work with, and in, other schools to help them become more successful
* Everybody is committed to realizing the success of all students in all schools
* Teachers are developed to extend their reach..a need to evaluate and challenge teachers in order to achieve this. Disciplined innovators. Creative entrepreneurs. The need for teachers to have innovation skills.

4. Patrick Griffin – “Teachers use of data to monitor student learning and curriculum implementation”

Patrick started by lambasting those of us who promote the sharing of practice at meetings.He says we should stop this forthwith.
He says that it promotes a culture of endorsement, that if colleagues take up the activity or strategy then that gives the presenter an authority and a satisfaction …but it doesn’t actually lead to improved learning unless that practice has been critically evaluated for its impact on learning.He urges us to not just accept a good idea – does it change what students can make, do, know and understand?
He would rather see a culture of challenge rather than endorsement..all ideas be challenged. It is not about challenging the person, it is about challenging the idea.
The driving force for any adopted practice or any critique of current practice is : what changes will eventuate in students Learning by what you as teacher are doing?
And how will this be measured?
We all know about the intended curriculum v the implemented curriculum v the achieved curriculum.
We need to build in ways in which we can accurately assess where students are at and move all forward in their learning.
He talked about a project he has been involved in, in which students are tested – not for grading purposes- so that the online system adjusts itself according to how pupils perform. If they get a high result, the system recalibrates and gives them ten harder questions, continuing this process until students are at their readiness to reach level and are actively learning new material. If students do poorly, it recalibrates and gives them ten easier problems until it reaches the same point as mentioned for the more able students. In this way, students’ entry level is established and each receives an individualized improvement pathway that challenges them. It is a way of determining where the Intervention level is.
Griffin said he would prefer the terminology of ‘learning readiness’ instead of ‘learning needs’.
The former he sees as a developmental model but the latter is a deficit model.
in the work he has been doing with schools, the data collected is showing a worrying trend, one also borne out by the PISA data. We are failing our stronger students. The top 25% of students are not improving as they reach secondary school, in some cases they are actually going backwards. We have been very good at improving our weaker students – their learning is improving.
In four classes that he looked at more specifically at the same year level in a school, one teacher could improve both groups, the higher ability students at a faster rate…which he claims is what we should expect from those who are more cognitively capable.
He, sadly, believes that the slogan of ‘Close the Gap’ has done just that. The gap between the highest ability and lowest ability students is coming together..-and it should be widening in a way so that all students improve if we want to improve the learning for all. He would prefer we talk about closing the opportunity gap rather than the achievement gap.
In the other three classes, however, whatever the teachers were doing was not improving the top students and one class had the top students moving backwards. This is being repeated throughout the country. As this data is very new he has not yet explored what strategies are different between these teachers.
Griffin recommends that we follow the mantra of Collaborate, Challenge, Check.
That we hold PL meetings in which the common agenda is: share experiences, review practices and challenges made of these, set new targets, develop resources and strategies, talk about next steps.
in summary:

1. ‘my class’ to ‘our students’
2. Evidence rather than inference
3. Set high expectations for all students
4. Intervene for all students
5. Development, not deficit, models of practice and belief

5. Dr Michele Bruniges – ‘Developing and Implementing an explicit School Improvement Agenda’

The challenge is to improve the quality of education of young people throughout their schooling.It starts with the teacher.
The quality of the system cannot exceed the quality of the teachers within it.
See paper produced by the NSW government – Great Teaching, Inspired Learning
What we know about great teachers:

* Know their subject content
* Understand the learning process deeply
* Use varied and targeted strategies
* Value collaboration
* Know how to use data to intervene and improve learning
* Never stop learning themselves
Michele wanted to make three points (the backbone of the latest NSW government campaign on educational quality):

1. Teaching must be an inquiry based profession with strong school culture of collaborative planning and reflection
2. Teachers need ready access to latest evidence about effective teaching and we need to systematically identify and disseminate this
3. Lesson observation allows teachers to learn from each other and is critical to understanding and improving teacher practice
Interestingly, she also mentioned the tendency we have had to allow teachers to operate separately and to view another’s teaching style as somehow sacred and up to that teacher to decide about.

She also said that the data we collect to inform our next steps with students should not just be test results, it needs to be broader..approaches to learning, engagement etc
She said we can view tests such as NAPLAN as big blips on our radars but that there are many other things on that radar screen.
She also mentioned research that says if teachers have a focus on student learning, coupled with a commitment to ongoing prof learning, the improvement effect on student learning is tripled.
School leaders can assist by:

* Clearly articulating targets
* Focussing on student and teacher learning
* Facilitate feedback to teachers and constant evaluation
She also quoted some data from NZ schools in which the best of intentions can have the opposite effect to what was intended. She described how schools tried to match teaching style to learning style of Maori More concrete learning activities. This in fact denied them the opportunities to partake in higher cognitive learning that, in turn, denied them opportunities to improve and break out of the solely concrete experiences.

What implications does this have for indigenous students?

6. Lynette Virgona – ‘ Teachers are the key : Strategies for Classroom Improvement’

A cognitive iceberg.
Research is clear that students do not learn as much as they could by sitting with their friends.
Moving kids can produce discomfort and a little resentment. But we need to keep the long term goals in mind…quality learning for all.
Lynette talked about how classroom management was essential if teachers wanted to successfully implement practices such as cooperative learning.
She started with talking about the nuts and bolts of things such as managing transitions in a class:

1. Signal the beginning, a cue to start
2. Visual or minimal verbal eg ” OK, Year 9″
3. Active pause, during which teacher scans the class to see what to do next – continue on, start again, consider proximity to those who are not on board
4. When – eg. ‘do not move until the whistle blows’
5. What
6. Who eg. ‘you will be working in pairs’
7. Signal to begin
8. Teacher scans the class in hyper vigilant mode
She then enacted a no hands up activity in which she asked a question, asked for hands up then said to those who raised their hands: thank you.

‘Now, I want you all to turn to the person beside you and talk about this question and I will then ask anyone in the room to answer it’.
She said this gave the culture of ‘not learning is not an option’. No opt out.
In order to make students feel safe to offer a response that might be incorrect, however, she says we need to build rapport and relationships first. There will not be cognitive engagement if kids do not feel safe to make mistakes in front of their peers.
In order to have this cognitive engagement, there needs to be this safe classroom but also a measure of accountability of all students.
Kids read teaching styles pretty well and try to avoid ‘work’ if possible.
Scale: permissive, democratic, authoritative, punitive.
Eg if a teacher’s style is more on the ‘punitive’ side, students will prefer them to lecture so that their cognitive load is not increased. If the style is more towards the permissive end, they like it to be floppy and will engage with busy work.
Lynette talked about teachers moving through the following stages in their careers:
Unconsciously unskilled, consciously unskilled, consciously skilled then unconsciously skilled.
In order to share effective practice, there is a need for teachers at the upper end to be compelled to articulate what made them at the consciously skileld stage.
Her WA program of classroom strategies improvement consists of 4 classroom visits for 20 minutes to observe and record what was seen in the classes. The conference after this focused on what was seen to be working.
She cautioned that observing and providing feedback to teachers can be damaging if done badly.
The conferencing after observation was confidential and not used in an evaluative manner.
Done well, it is a powerful tool for school improvement.
Doing is different from knowing.
She urged us to learn how to open classrooms to professional dialogue and reflection.

7. Ms Valerie Hanson- ‘Innovating a new future for learning : finding our path’

Valerie said that she was more interested in learning than in schooling.She said that there were a number of drivers impacting on organized learning in our current climate:

* Globalization
* Demography
* New technologies
* Financial climate
* Environmental considerations
Technological change is accelerating.

The speed of the uptake is literally exponential.
Medical education is coming on board with reacting to digital realities but schools have not reacted sufficiently quickly.
The world financial climate means there are deep problems with public funding.
The impact of globalization:

* Integrated world markets
* Jobs quickly transferred from one side of the world to the other
* Researchers look across the world for the best
* Higher order skills are at a premium
* Education is globalising, students are mobile, distance/online learning, competition, sometimes collaboration, between providers
* Understanding identity, core values and cultural practices is more important than ever
The impact of demographics:

* Many currently in school will live into their 100s
* In the underdeveloped world, such as India, there is a youth bulge
* In the developed world, we have an aging population, new dependency ratio, workforce crisis
* We need to mean what we say in the rhetoric of lifelong learners
* In the world of the 21st century, a person could have up to 15 different jobs in a lifetime and need breadth and depth in a range of fields
The impact of the environment:

* We are becoming more urban
* We do not know how to deal with this – ecologically illiterate
* Increase in natural disasters
* Concept of ‘leading a good life’. What does this mean now?
Valerie would advocate for a split screen view of the future of learning – if we only look to improve the current system, we may miss the opportunity to transform it in innovative ways. Think about both at the same time – how can we improve the system and how can we transform the system?

Transformation means fundamental shape-shifting changes in:

1. Time
2. Pedagogy
3. Partnerships
4. Place
School could be the mother ship, base which learners return to recalibrate the next steps in their learning journeys.

The school terms are still based on the agricultural society on which they were based. Do they need to continue in this way?
What of the shape of the school day?
She, like Will Richardson, wants to see more inquiry based, project based learning.
She would like to see partnerships formed with others in the community who have interests in learning.
Instead of being suspicious and fearful of the Pearsons and the Microsofts, why not see them as opportunities to do things differently?
For a change model, we need to

* Confront reality
* Awaken possibility
These contribute to a living vision for change which then feeds and helps to define an emergent strategy from change.

We need to rethink about our fundamental goals in teaching and learning.
The evaluator’s and the innovator’s dilemma is to know when it is time to stop trying to improve a system and when it is time to transform it.
As wella s a mindset there is a learning set.
There is a need to consider transformational capacity as well as a plan for improvement.
Factors to consider when differentiating leadership of improvement v leadership of innovation:

* Intense knowledge of your sector and a preparedness to look outward and beyond
* Attitude to data – interpreting indicators of discontinuous change
* Attitude towards research
Leading generic change, managing innovation, developing education practice


1. An inspiring vision for lifelong and engaged learning, with aims beyond personal wealth and economic competitiveness
2. Low barriers of entry for new providers
3. Incentivizing student led curriculum development
4. Greater transparency for learners about the range of opportunities available
5. Coalition building
6. Investment in, and encouragement for, disciplined ‘inovation’ zones


About Linda

I have been involved in secondary mathematics education in Victoria, Australia for over 25 years.
This entry was posted in Pedagogy, Students, Systems, The profession, Vision. Bookmark the permalink.

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