PLSM13: DNA, ribosomes and epigenetics of professional learning

In my last post, I spoke of the need for supportive professional learning environments to allow the DNA of initial teacher education to be expressed. To extend the metaphor, these PLN environments need the ribosomes of PL events like #PLSM13 to allow the code of pedagogical creativity to burst out as well as the ability for the hybrid PLN system to continue learning (epigenetics). Apologies in advance for any errors in genetic concepts but the memory of my Biol101 from 1985 is fading fast and I am using it as a metaphor, OK?

First, lets talk about the ribosome of PL that is Project Learning Swap Meet, or  #PLSM13.  As I sat there watching Bianca and Lee Hewes conduct a very credible, practical and most enjoyable professional learning day, I thought to myself how far we have come in the game of professional learning for teachers. The event was on a Saturday in a room at the very cool PHM provided by the wonderful Peter Mahoney attended by teachers from all sectors and levels and was driven by innovations in project learning that had been achieved in classrooms by teachers. How very different to the compulsory PD days that I was forced to attend 20 years ago as a primary school teacher!

The pedagogy of the swapmeet was superb with the relaxed conversational style employed by the Hewes encouraging teachers to explore ideas and ask questions. The middle, speed-dating sessions created a real buzz that fed into the project design and gallery sessions in the afternoon. How very clever of the designers to put the sharing session in the afternoon when people at orthodox conferences try to sneak out of yet another boring keynote! As a result, I felt as a participant that I better understood both the theory and practice of project learning after this great day!

My final metaphorical play is a provocation about epigenetics, which describes the ability of a system to learn throughout the lifespan. The unconference movement is the bold and oh so needed new kid on the block in teacher professional learning. My provocation is where to next after the initial fervour of TeachMeets and SwapMeets began to become a little old. How will this hybrid PL network evolve to cater for the differential ability of the teachers who attend (acknowledged at the #plsm13 through the wearing of stickers to denote familiarity with project learning)?  It’s exciting not knowing the answer and realizing that it is in the hands of the teachers at long last!

The DNA for successful teaching needs a supportive environment

The DNA for successful teaching is embedded in the AITSL graduate standards that define the outcomes for every teacher education course in Australia. The AITSL program accreditation that is occurring across Australia for teacher education programs will create a greater consistency across these DNA chains. This means that graduate teachers should have the genetic predisposition to become a proficient, a highly accomplished and even lead teacher. However, these genes for successful teaching need a supportive professional learning environment so that the DNA can be expressed to their full value.

It may be problematic for the reader to accept our assumption that all teacher education programs can be enhanced to the required level but there is also a larger assumption that we need to deal with. That is the assumption that every graduate teacher will be working in an environment that is supportive to their professional development. Attrition rates of between 40% and 50% in the first five years, depending on the source, suggest that this may not be the case. A further complication to this assumption is that a majority of our graduate teachers will not be offered a full-time classroom position in their first year. Instead, the reality of the first few years for them will be day-to-day relief teachers and sporadic block placements. This is obviously not an ideal socialization into the profession of teaching and is a very different situation to the one experienced by those currently making the decisions in schools..

The design requirements for a supportive professional learning environment are altered significantly if we strip away the assumption of the early career teacher who is settled in a permanent position in one school. These itinerant graduates need a tribe of virtual mentors who will support them on social media (Twitter) and realtime networks (Teachmeet). The newly minted teacher will have to learn when they are needed as well as when they need in these networks that only exist because of the reciprocity of the exchanges. Their professional learning will be need to be organic, socially charged and designed by them and for them. This is vastly different to the batch processing in-service currently and amazingly still in vogue in our schools.


My #Collective13 memory

@7Mrsjames helping our group decide on a plan of action

@7Mrsjames helping our group decide on a plan of action

The image at the top of this post is a good summary of what I thought was a good outcome of #collective13. A teacher, @7MrsJames, leading a group of teachers from all sectors in a design thinking activity. So what you might say! Well to me it seemed like we were moving closer to the AITSL dream of teachers leading the profession through the establishment of useful protocols likes the design thinking exercise we did yesterday. Working with protocols is the modus operandus for practising teachers. Other experts, like researchers, dreamers, thinkers, entrepreneurs, design coaches and, shock, even teacher educators, can be brought into the process where needed but it begins and ends with teachers solving problems with each other. The focus is on learners and pedagogy, taking risks and informed action in a collective manner. What’s not to like about that?



















Different Dialects of Design Research

I originally encountered Design research as Design-Based Research (DBR) exemplified by this paper: The Design-Based Research Collective. (2003). Design-Based Research: An Emerging Paradigm for Educational Inquiry. Educational Researcher, 32(1), 5-8. I noticed that researchers that I knew were using DBR as a proxy for what I thought was action learning or action research. It seemed that funding agencies were more likely to reward proposals that used a methodology that sounded a little more scientific. Indeed DBR is definitely a child of educational psychology as it tries to retain the theory-testing and empirical measurement of its forebear whilst allowing for flexibility of method in response to the complexity of the classroom. Despite this flexibility,  DBR is still in search of the truth in the form of a model for successful educational intervention in the area of chosen focus.

In contrast, the dialect of design research that I am more comfortable with is exemplified by Romme, A. G. L. (2003). Making a Difference: Organization as Design. Organization Science, 14(5), 558-573. doi: 10.1287/orsc.14.5.558.16769. Romme writes of design research as being a third way past the impasse and tired arguments between humanities research and science. Romme’s context is research into organisations but the transfer to education as a learning organisation is easy to make. This version of design research also appeals because of its attention to research problems that need to be solved or examined so it has a political dimension that speaks to the phronesis explicated by Flyvbjerg, B. (2001). Making Social Science Matter. Why social inquiry fails and how it can succeed again. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

The so-what to this somewhat theoretical piece is that design research with its focus on the political element of research problematic and its ethic of serving the professions is an ideal paradigm for a teacher-researcher to enagge with.

The convergence of design

I have been thinking about the idea of design as a meme for education since my honours dissertation, The Best School Day of my Life, that looked at stage 3 kids learning about electricity. Design was relevant here because the kids learnt the scientific concepts through the technological artifacts such as globes, switches, buzzers, wires and motors. The design, make and appraise sequence was an integral part of the primary Science and Technology syllabus at the time.  For me, I understood design to be a learning process where you can make stuff (prototypes), play with them (refine) and then explain how they worked.

Design was also operating at the research design level with this early research project as I constantly redesigned my research study to fit what the kids were doing with all this stuff that I kept bringing to class. The fact that my enlightened supervisors Lynne Schaverien and Mark Cosgrove encouraged my crofter approach to research was a liberating thing for me. My previous writing had all been in sociology where it seemed I was trying to fit the classroom into structuralist categories that I dogmatically believed in. This sociological approach did not fit with what I saw in my own classroom when exciting learning was taking place. Nor did children’s learning fit with the experimental design approaches more suited to laboratories.

The take home message from this post is that design is a convergent idea for a teacher/researcher because it allows you to reconcile your teaching and research goals without forcing that unnatural split that turns so many good teachers away from the idea of doing classroom-based research. The academy needs to present research as a design project, where we can work together on ideas, prototypes and adjust our methods, approaches and analyses in accordance to what we see in the classroom.

Me Totes Talk Twitter Someday #justsayin

(Title appropriated from David Serdaris )

You can blame @benpaddlejones for getting me onto Twitter. I met with an even more usually fired up Ben over a coffee in the city and he shook me out of the academic slumber I was in with his tales of dynamic teacher professional learning occurring in social media. He suggested that I have a look at Twitter and follow some of the tweachers in his network like @edusum and @aliceleung. I also asked Ben what sort of protocols I needed to follow in this new PL environment. By memory his rules were similar to these:

  1. No self-promotion
  2. No promotion of commercial products
  3. Be nice and respond to threads

In other words, ditch my academic persona whilst on Twitter!

Since that fateful day, I have managed to observe most of the rules most of the time and learnt an awful lot from my school-based colleagues. There are some truly brilliant teachers posting on Twitter!

Along the way, I have been learning a new language, one made up of hashtags  and acronyms like MT, RT and my favourite HT- the Hat Tip. The 140 character limit imposes a brevity on Tweets that has led to the creation of hashtag memes such as #justsayin’ #totes and #fail. The language gurus say that you need to be able to think in a new language if you are really going to be fluent in it. So now I sit in meetings adding stage aside twitter hashtags like #fail and #justsayin’  to keep me awake.

All of this leads me to think that creating and using Twitter memes is not analogous to the much-maligned SMS text dialect but something more akin to poetry where the writer is always looking for powerful words placed in the right order that pack the biggest punch #justsayin


Chalk one up to @merrylandseast provocation

Yesterday I received a box of yellow chalk in the mail from @merrylandseast, more specifically from that old stirrer, @johnqgoh. The box had been inspected by the postal officials, the search prompted by the bomb-like appearance of the package or maybe through the suspicious leaking of yellow powder. It was by virtue of the security inspection hole that I discovered I had been sent a box of yellow chalk. So without opening the package, my anxiety-ridden mind began to think of all the reasons why someone would send me a box of yellow chalk:

  1.  The sender was trying to suggest that I needed to go back to the classroom;
  2. The sender was trying to remind me that my school colleagues were already working hard whilst I was idle in my ivory tower;
  3. That I was yellow, or a coward, in the old ocker lingo;
  4. That I was an old analogue teacher with no awareness of digital tools.

As it turned out, I was wrong on all counts. I opened the package to reveal…

Sydney Uni Innovation 2013. Sorry: Instructions for use lost. Handle with care!

Sydney Uni Innovation 2013. Sorry: Instructions for use lost. Handle with care!



Watch out, @johnqgoh, as you would have heard many a time on the rugby paddock: “Don’t start what you can’t finish!”

LOL, chalk one up for a clever provocation!








TeachMeet at the Pub

It’s been a long time since I have been in a pub at 10.30am on a Saturday morning but that’s where you would have found on a cold and wet Saturday in Winter at the Great Northern Hotel in Chatswood, Sydney.
I wasn’t there to get on the punt or have a middy of black to settle the hippy shakes but to be part of a teacher professional learning phenomena called TeachMeet. Twenty teachers turned up on a cold, wet Saturday morning to learn from each other in a convivial atmosphere in the back room of a pub in front of the fire.

TeachMeet is a great example of the professional learning networks that teachers are establishing for themselves using online social media applications such as Twitter. These networks are unfunded and a parallel universe away from the mandatory professional development on pupil-free days that most people associate with teacher professional learning.

So what did we talk about in front of that cozy fire? We heard practical and very precise seven minute or two minute nano presentations from teachers on teacher coaching, new technological tools like Rubistar and cargo bot (), as well as the work of Harvard academic Marshall Ganz. Then TeachMeet segued into TeachEat and we shared a meal and talked about teaching.

We had teachers from government and non-government primary and secondary schools. My presence as an academic was tolerated so long as I listened more than I spoke (quite a novelty for me).

You cannot buy professional learning that is as practical and credible as the kind where interested professionals come to share information voluntarily. The first TeachMeet was organised in Scotland in 2005 and it has migrated through the professional learning networks enabled by Twitter and Facebook.

It is part of a larger movement called unconferences formed in reaction to audiences bored by the traditional keynote and presentation format of conferences.

So TeachMeet constitutes an effort by the profession to take control over their education conferences rather than be dictated to by the corporate big events that are often priced well above the limits of modest teacher salaries.

TeachMeet is also an antidote to the professional development that is often delivered by education systems on pupil free days. To be fair, some of this PD is provided to meet important compliance requirements such as learning Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) or Child Protection training. However, sometimes these mandatory professional development sessions resemble one shot professional learning inoculations that have no follow-up and subsequently little impact on student outcomes.

It is my contention that the voluntary nature of TeachMeet appeals to a profession that is heavily regulated by the audit regimes of the bureaucracy. TeachMeet is a relatively chilled oasis in a working environment where you are very publicly called to account by the results of external exams published on the MySchool website and worn down by the ridiculous number of interpersonal exchanges that happen everyday.

TeachMeet is professional learning for teachers by teachers in convivial surroundings with wonderful colleagues who are making a difference in students’ lives. At a TeachMeet event and, unlike a keynote presentation at a conference, it is possible to interact with these great teachers and find out exactly what strategies they use to achieve their success.

More pertinently for teachers, TeachMeet talks resonate with credibility as these successes have been achieved in real classrooms with real students. In contrast, teachers often come away from keynote presentations wondering how the wonderful idea they just heard would translate into classroom practice.

TeachMeet is part of the small scale incremental change that builds hope and empowers teachers. This incrementalism is effective but not as politically sexy as the “education revolutions” foisted upon the sector by well-intentioned but educationally misguided governments.

I will certainly be there at the next TeachMeet at the pub to find out what some of Sydney’s leading teachers are doing in their classrooms.

10 000 hours to become an expert

During the London Olympics there was discussion in the media emanating from Australia’s relatively poor results relative to the money invested. One article quoted a finding that claimed that athletes need 10 000 hours of expert practice to become a potential champion. Immediately I translated that finding to the teaching profession and my back of envelope calculations revealed that a teacher would not reach their potential until their tenth year of teaching. This accords with research in education that claims that teacher need a good 5-8 years to hit their peak.

Kurt Fearnley on fire


Now I found that all very interesting but the critical thing here is the notion of expert practice. Presumably, the elite swimmer is not allowed to punch out a few mediocre laps every now and then because the coach is right onto them correcting their attitude and action. So, in teaching we need expert coaches to guide our potential champion teachers through the challenging years of pre-service and beginning teaching.

At present our system is a little random in that respect. Sometimes our pre-service teachers get a wonderful mentor on professional experience and sometimes a beginning teacher is inducted into a wonderful professional learning culture like that I see at North Sydney Dem. Changing this system given all of the bureaucratic constraints would probably kill me so instead I need to work around the problem.

Yesterday, I listened to Summer Howarth (@Edusum) as she explained her model for professional learning that could be implemented around political and system challenges. I will let Summer present the details of her model to the world but for now I would like to recognise that teachers will need to develop the solutions to problems that currently prevent us from becoming the profession that we can be. We cannot wait for the bureaucracies to do it for us.