2013 #ACTlearn Engaging Leaders Conference

It all started with a simple tweet:

@gcouros Hi! When are u in Canberra? What will u be doing/presenting? And how can I get in on it?!!!”

I’ve been following Canadian George Couros (Division Principal of Innovative Teaching and Learning) on Twitter for a while now and I am a fan of his blog (http://georgecouros.ca/blog/). So when I heard he was going to be in Canberra to do a workshop, I was pretty determined to go.

Little did I know that the conference was an annual event that consisted mostly of Department staff, Principals and Deputy Principals.

I must admit that I felt very much like a fish out of water when I stepped into the main conference room. I couldn’t find any familiar faces, and I am terrible at ‘mingling’ so being in a room full of ‘big wigs’ who clearly knew each other took me way out of my comfort zone.

Once the first keynote started, I felt much more at ease and was ready to absorb.

For the long version, be warned – it is very long. 

For the short version, scroll down to the very end of this post…

Emma Robinson (Director of the Youth Coalition):

Emma gave a brilliant analogy, comparing the relationship between a school and a student to courtship – a relationship to last for life.

It reinforced the belief I have that the education, skills, opportunities and values students learn through schooling should never end when they graduate. It should stay with the student for life; in everything they do, say and think. It made me think of a saying I came across earlier this year: “Education is what remains long after what is learnt is forgotten”.

Emma also raised the issue of mental illness in youths, stating that 25% of young people suffer from a mental health issue each year.

As a Psychology teacher and currently Acting Head of Student Wellbeing, I was so glad that Emma focused a great deal on mental health because the number of students with debilitating mental illnesses is rapidly increasing. Organisations like AFFIRM (http://affirm.org.au) are trying to raise awareness, reduce stigma and invest in mental health research.

ACT Minister’s Student Congress:

A group of ACT public school students represented the Student Congress and took turns speaking to over 250 educators, including their own Principals and school leaders, about issues that they were passionate about.

Issues brought up included technology, mental illness and poverty. The one that stood out to me was the Yr 9 student who overcame his nerves to speak out about bullying, giving an emotional anecdote about his own experiences being bullied.

I could feel myself choking up as he relived the fear, the anxiety and the despair of being a victim of bullying and his passionate plea to the room of policy makers and school executives to help stop bullying as “everyone is amazing in their own way”.

Diane Joseph (Director-Genera)l:

This was the first time I had ever encountered the Director-General and I really hope it won’t be the last.

Her message was clear: we need to engage SCHOOLS, not just students. She brought up an article from The Australia (http://www.theaustralian.com.au/higher-education/school-culture-king-in-race-for-results/story-e6frgcjx-1226616167755) about how school performance depends on its internal culture rather than the average socioeconomic status of its students. One thing she said that I couldn’t agree with more was how a “positive school culture has a shared belief that we are part of something special and great”. I think the school environment is so important to show this belief. I fortunately work in a school that displays student artworks throughout the entire campus, which screams out “Our students are ridiculously awesome and talented”.  As the Director-General stated: “the value of education to learners is beyond question; the value of education to the learner’s community is beyond price”.

Another highlight of the Director-General’s speech was showing a snippet of the ‘This is Water’ video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CLBp8WpeMSM).  What was NOT shown was the last part of the video, where David Foster Wallace states that “the real value of a real education which has (almost) nothing to do with knowledge and everything to do with simple awareness…”

Michael McQueen

Just when I thought it couldn’t get better, Michael McQueen steps onto the stage.

He was such an engaging speaker (quite fitting for the topic of the conference), and examined five shifts that have changed education: 

  1. Truth is absolute –> Truth is relative: Before Gen Y, there was usually just one way of doing things/thinking in education and it was justified by “because you should”. Today, problematic knowledge is required and there is an acceptance of multiple ‘truths’. Michael spoke about the power of storytelling and narrative to place truth in context for students. I identified most with this statement because the most memorable lessons I had as a student were the ones where my English teacher related our content to her own life experience and shared it with us. It is something that I have made a conscious effort to do myself now as a teacher where possible – but that’s a topic for another blog post in itself!
  2. Life is meant to be hard –> Life is meant to be easy: Older generations were always told that life was meant to be hard, therefore, if one experienced a tough time it was considered normal – that your life is on track. However, today’s pop culture, reality television and the like are suggesting to Gen Y that life should be easy, fair, convenient and exciting. If their goal is not easy, convenient and exciting, Michael suggests that Gen Y will then assume that their goal must have be the wrong goal and/or there is something wrong with them.
  3. Communication is about form –> Communication is about function: Here, Michael uses the following as an example of how far communication has come since the introduction of mobile phones and instant chat: “My smmr hols wr CQOT. B4, we usd 2 go 2 SA 2C my bro, his gf & thr 3 :-@  kids. FWIW, ILSA – its g8. GTG, PAW”
    He talked about how today’s youth suffer from FONK (Fear Of Not Knowing) and FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) which is why they find it torturous to not check their phone every five minutes.
  4. Respect is bestowed –> Respect must to earned: Michael compared to a generation who were told and accepted that “you need to respect your elders”, whereas today, young people only respect adults that have earned their respect
  5. Intrinsic Affirmation –> Extrinsic Affirmation: Michael spoke about the shift from a self-belief in your strengths and abilities to a youth culture who equates their self-confidence with the number of “Likes” on their Facebook photos and comments.

 Whilst I found Michael witty and charming, I felt that there were some pretty big generalisations made. Especially when I thought about the Student Congress and how those students challenge some of the ‘shifts’.

 Michael concluded his presentation with a statement that I think most educators would agree with – that the one thing that hasn’t changed in decades is the role of the teacher.

 Ben Jensen:

This most helpful thing I got of out Ben’s presentation were his suggestions for highly effective reform. That is:

  • Improving learning and teaching is a behavioural (and sometimes cultural) change
  • People will change behaviour when:
    i) They have a clear purpose to believe in
    ii) Role models act visibly and consistently
    iii) They have the skills and capacity for the new behaviour
    iv) Reinforcement systems are consistent
  • Successful reform involves 20% design and 80% implementation
  • All involved must be pointing in the one direction

George Couros

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t having a massive fangirl moment when I stepped into my first workshop and saw George. I respect him so much for his passion and campaign to educate educators all over the world about digital tools and how to use them effectively. He reinforced what I already strongly believe in:

  • the need to create, not just consume content online
  • the power of connecting with others in social media and humanising ourselves in it
  • that learning and sharing are synonymous

He raised many questions (i.e. are we literate if we can consume content but not create/produce it?) whilst captivating the audience with his strong presence. I believe what made us all sit and listen to his every syllable was his own storytelling and narrative as he related each point he made to a personal story he shared with us. As George said, “Always remember we are in the people business… data does not move people; stories do”.

Dr David Henderson

Dr Henderson is one busy man. Teaching 4 classes, he also works at Curtin University and researches the use of the Constructivist-Oriented Learning Environment Survey (COLES) and the Questionnaire on Teacher Interaction (QTI)!

Currently, my school have its own student unit evaluations to give out as feedback for the teachers at the end of each semester. The great thing about COLES is that there is a pre-test where students are surveyed about their actual experience with their teacher AND their ideal/preferred experience. This pre-test is completed early on in the semester and the teacher can then collect the data and target the aspects where there is a large discrepancy between the actual and preferred data. The students then do the same survey again six weeks later and the teacher can then see if any improvements were made. That is, if the new actual data is any closer to the previous preferred data.

I am very keen to trial this out with my students. I think it’s a much more structured and immediate way to improve teaching practice with the support of data.

For more info about David and COLES, check out: http://www.sabbaticals.aitsl.edu.au/sites/www.sabbaticals.aitsl.edu.au/files/field/summary/david_henderson_1_page_summary.pdf

The QTI is a similar tool, but more about comparing the leadership of the teacher from the perspective of the student and the teacher. The survey questions can be found here: www.scimas.sa.edu.au/scimas/files/…/Teacher_Interaction_Survey.doc

It’d be interesting to use this just to see if my idea of myself as a teacher matches with my student’s idea of me!

Panel Discussion:

At the end of the day, there was a panel Q&A session with Yong Zhao, George Couros, Julie Murkins and Lindy Beeley.

The key points from this discussion that I want to highlight are:

  • the best organisations will continuously grow and share their work (George)
  • schools need to acknowledge that there are various pathways to get through school and life (Julie)
  • students are experiencing an existential crisis and our role as educators involve giving these students genuine work to help them discover who they are (Yong)
  • the courage for change and innovation comes from the moral obligation within ourselves and a sense of trust in our colleagues and students – we must ask ourselves: are we bureaucrats with a job to do or an educator with a vision to realise? (Yong)

The more Yong Zhao spoke, the more I wished I could have attended his workshop the next day, but alas, I was sharing this two-day conference with a colleague.

Jane Caro:

The fun did not end there at the Q&A. Rather, it peaked later that night at the conference dinner when the hilarious Jane Caro spoke about her being a ‘bad mother’ for living in the North Shore but sending her daughters to a public school.

She kept us all in stitches with her anecdotes and the amazing story about her daughter who transformed from a ‘bad girl’ in high school to a proactive public school teacher who graduated with First Class Honours and initiated a visit from Jay Z to her school (Canterbury Boys), a trip for all of the school staff and students to be in the audience for the Oprah in Australia episode, AND were also given $1 million worth of computers and laptops.

Jane is clearly a passionate advocate for public education and I love the way she tells it as it is. She mentioned how she despises the term ‘quality teacher’ because it implies that most teachers are not ‘quality’. She questioned why we don’t have terms like ‘quality doctors’ or ‘quality lawyers’. At the end of her speech, she thanked us for our work and our dedication to students. I must admit, it’s nice to hear a ‘thank you for a job well done’ every now and even more so when the person is so genuine about it!

In short, what did I learn from this brilliant conference?

1)    There is no such thing as ‘too much’ student voice

2)    Use the power of storytelling and narrative in our teaching

3)    Actions speak louder than words! Time to walk the walk!!!

4)    We need to focus on building resilience in our students

5)    School should be FUN

6)    Educators need to learn, connect and humanise via digital/social media

7)    George Couros is even more awesome in person than on Twitter (I didn’t think it was possible either…)