Steven Kolber

Distorted reports keep coming. This one will make you livid

What should we be talking about when we talk about teachers? Teachers’ pay, working conditions and the looming teacher shortage. 

What are media talking about instead? A commonly suggested ‘solution’ to address concerns about standards in teaching: pre-prepared lessons, or, as the Grattan Institute describes them in a recent report, ‘high quality teaching materials’. 

The Grattan Institute, a thinktank, notes in its summary of the report that: “of 2,243 teachers and school leaders across Australia, … only 15 per cent of teachers have access to a common bank of high-quality curriculum materials for all their classes.”

In a departure from any claims to objectivity, the report paints a picture of teachers “being left to fend for themselves, creating lessons from scratch and scouring the internet and social media for teaching materials”.

This is yet another example of a large scale survey conducted by those with only a tangential relationship to the profession. It ignores the views of many teachers and offers a ready-made solution – one likely to become another costly and wasted expense for taxpayers. It also fails to note such approaches have been tried in some jurisdictions in Australia – with limited success, for example, the Curriculum-to-Classroom program in Queensland was found to be deficient. The surest outcome of such an approach would be a new revenue stream for specifically chosen edu-businesses as they rush to be selected as the provider of choice.   

There are already a range of paid options for teachers to access similar resources through sites like Twinkl, Teachers Pay Teachers, TES and others. Admittedly, these are paid resources; we argue it is unreasonable for teachers to pay for any curriculum resources out-of-pocket. However, even a ‘free’ version seems misguided because it does not pay attention to the work – and the expertise – that is central to teachers’ practice. And this practice includes the careful design and development of learning materials. This is not something that can be outsourced. 

As we say, the assumption and positioning of highly trained and university-qualified teachers, many of whom have trained for 4 or more years, as vulnerable and ‘fending for themselves’ is odd.

Planning lessons, finding, curating and developing resources is central to the work of teachers. Many teachers take great delight in carefully crafting lessons that leverage students’ interests; education is not, and never has been a one-size-fits-all model and any claim otherwise is undermining teachers, leaders and education support staff around Australia.

Teachers delivering content via a pre-prepared script or lesson might seem easier and simpler, but it remains difficult to see who benefits from a lifeless and unthinking teacher delivering someone else’s content. The key to teaching – and learning – lies in the human relationships between teachers and students. Those human relationships allow for careful contextualisation and design. It is that which drives teachers to search for just the right YouTube clip – the one that will appeal to that particular Year 9 Science class – not a sense of ‘fending for themselves’. Whereas teachers are responsible for their school students, families and communities, creators of ‘teacher-proof’ lesson banks are accountable to their corporate employers. As Lucinda McKnight reflects, ‘who would we rather have designing learning experiences for our own children?’. 

Our new book, Empowering Teachers and Democratising Schooling: Perspectives from Australia has taken the focus of empowering teachers and outlines alternative, human-centric ways that teachers can be trusted and empowered to make decisions about their work, with the shared goal of democratising approaches to education. By combining theory, academic thinking and teachers’ best practice examples, the book provides a range of suggestions on many of the key challenges facing Australian education. For example, George Lilley outlines the way that teachers have been sidelined in favour of a rigorous adherence to educational research.Alex Wharton’s chapter   imagines what an education system might look and function like if teachers were respected across all facets of their domain. 

Polly Dunning’s chapter articulates the range of pressures placed upon teachers – and the effects this has on children. Not surprisingly, the nature of lesson planning is not mentioned, but rather the rise of administrivia and additional expectations placed upon teachers without additional time or funding provided. 

As with many things in education, the best solutions require humans to be empowered to find their own solutions.   Education is filled with complex, ‘wicked’ problems, where solutions can take time, and require contextual nuance. ‘Solutions’ such as those suggested by The Grattan Institute ultimately misunderstand the work of the teacher as technocratic and therefore something that can be standardised. Until we appreciate the complexity of what it means for teachers to teach, we will continue to be presented with claims of ‘teacher-proof’ policies and materials that ignore the diversity of the students, whilst disenfranchising the teaching profession. 

If we are aiming to recruit and retain teachers, poorly thought out solutions such as providing teachers with pre-prepared teaching materials, as suggested by the Grattan Institute, is not the answer. This will do little to reduce workload, and it will also further damage the reputation of the teaching profession by limiting the expertise of teachers. These outcomes will do little to encourage people to become or remain teachers.  

Instead, we must look towards long term solutions that recognise the expertise of the profession. Trust, empowerment and listening to the voices of the profession is key. 

Keith Heggart is an early career researcher with a focus on learning and instructional design, educational technology and civics and citizenship education. He is a former high school teacher, having worked as a school leader in Australia and overseas, in government and non-government sectors.

Steven Kolber is a teacher at a Victorian public school, the founder of #edureading founder, secretary of Teachers Across Borders Australia and a proud member of @AEUvictoria. #aussieED Global Teacher Prize top 50 Finalist

Tom Mahoney is a teacher and educator of secondary VCE Mathematics and Psychology students, currently completing a PhD in Educational Philosophy part time through Deakin University. His research explores the influence of dominant educational ideologies on teacher subjectivity. You can keep up to date with Tom’s work via his fortnightly newsletter, The Interruption, via Substack. Tom is on Twitter @tommahoneyedu  

How to bridge the teacher and academic divide online

The Problem & the Proposal 

One of the most widely accepted facts in education is that teachers and academics often do not mix.  This hurts teachers engagement with research and its application in the classrooms. Social media, and Twitter especially, holds the potential to bring together teachers, academics, and others within shared spaces to develop collaborative approaches to research and to actively engage with it. Important within this is the idea of a pracademic: a person capable of working between and within the teaching profession and the world of research. As such individuals seem to hold the key to narrowing this gap. 

Social Media as ‘third space’

The concept of the pracademic is relevant when one considers the increasing expectations for teachers to be both research-based practitioners and data literate. Pracademics have relevance to improving education systems through their boundary-crossing expertise. But how might we better develop and cultivate these pracademics? Social media has an increasingly important role to play in this instance. As a small example, the number of practising teachers attending the Australian Association for Research in Education National Conference is likely low; this is not uncommon for educational conferences. For many teachers, engaging with research is a distant memory, connected more to their teacher training and university days than their current practice. We feel this requires urgent research attention.

Social Media and Teachers: The #AussieED example

There are many examples of social media mediated groups that support the development of pracademic identity. One example is #AussieED, perhaps the longest running education Twitter chat in the world, but certainly within Australia. This Sunday evening chat brings together educational thought leaders, academic study, and all manner of educational ideas in an intense, hour-long discussion open to all. Whilst not all Sunday chats are necessarily engaged with academic ideas or research on this forum, the openness of #AussieEd and its variety means that it serves as a significant and ever-changing professional learning opportunity for teachers, leading them to learn, as well as moving towards research engagement. 

#edureading

A contrasting approach is the #edureading group, which was started in 2018, by Steven Kolber. This group brings together educators – howsoever they might be defined – from around the world to discuss an academic article once per month. Participants are asked to read an article before the meeting and then post their reflections in the form of three short 3–5-minute responses on the educational video sharing platform FlipGrid. The group then assembles for an audio-based conversation on the ‘Twitter Spaces’ platform, and this discussion culminates in an hour long ‘Twitter Chat’ informed by the previous two fora’s shared ideas. The learning design of this group allows education-interested people from around the world to bring their own context and experience to the virtual table to speak back to educational research. As a result, we’ve established that this group provides a fertile space for pracademic generation and empowerment. 

TeachMeets

TeachMeets, which occur both online and face-to-face, trace their history to 2006 in Edinburgh, where teachers assembled in a pub to deliver short presentations to their peers. This model has continued to develop, drawing on distributed leadership models, it is known as a ‘guerrilla form of professional development’ entirely organised and run by teachers. This model runs counter to the populist and dominant form of professional learning that is increasingly reliant upon the sharing of edu-celebrities and expensive, money-making entrance fees laden with sponsors.    

Each of these three examples can carry differing levels of academic rigour depending on their membership, the topic being discussed and their direct engagement with research. But, if you are not familiar with any of these three forms, each is active and continuing and crucially, completely open to all interested participants. This runs counter to the dominant form of professional learning for teachers and academics, which is large-scale, paid lectures and workshops provided by a select group of experts. 

Our research

Our research, through an autoethnographic case study approach, showcases the way that Steven Kolber, a practicing teacher, and Keith Heggart an Early Career Researcher used these social media fora to develop our own ‘pracademic’ identities. For each of us, these spaces served as a ‘third space’ that was neither academy nor teaching but allowed for new identities and relationships to research to be developed.   

Findings 

We proposed five main features of these democratic fora that separates them from less-focussed, less-academic adjacent social media spaces. These features are rigour and depth which requires that members of these groups engage directly with academic research and discuss these ideas in connection to their personal contexts. Whilst personal experiences are crucial, one key feature is discussion beyond immediate cultural context, this means leveraging the nature of ‘context collapse’ in online spaces and the global possibility of educators coming together. This depth, rigour and discussion beyond one’s immediate cultural context is possible because of the free, accessibility of the tools where these groups are formed. Within these fora knowledge creation both individually and as a collective group is of the utmost importance, not simply reading and responding, but building new knowledge through the combined wisdom of these groups. The lowering of boundaries and the shedding of titles and hierarchies within these groups allows genuine and new forms of collaboration to occur. We feel that when each of these five features are present, that these spaces can effectively develop pracademics, unlocking a range of new potentials for educational improvement. 

Why does this matter? 

This is increasingly important, as recently published research from the Monash Q Project confirms the differing levels of engagement with research, noting especially the differences between teachers and leaders engagement with research within schools. Whilst for education researchers, the engagement with the profession of teaching is also a challenge where the expectations of ‘publish or perish’ and the precarity of many positions provide unique challenges.

Next steps

Though this research is a small-scale, auto ethnographic case study focussed on two educators across the teacher – academic divide, we believe it has real value for new ways of conceiving of professional learning. In addition, we believe the discussion of pracademics and their role for improving education is important and worthy of continued exploration. Whilst the challenge of locating, developing, and collaborating with these pracademics is explored, we believe social media is increasingly important for these processes. 

  • DOI 

https://doi.org/10.1108/JPCC-11-2020-0090

  • Article located on the Journal’s website

Education focused pracademics on twitter: building democratic fora | Emerald Insight

Keith Heggart is an early career researcher with a focus on learning and instructional design, educational technology and civics and citizenship education. He is a former high school teacher, having worked as a school leader in Australia and overseas, in government and non-government sectors.

Steven Kolber is a teacher at a Victorian public school, the founder of #edureading founder, secretary of Teachers Across Borders Australia and a proud member of @AEUvictoria. #aussieED Global Teacher Prize top 50 Finalist