“…flipping the system is about changing education from the ground up by allowing teachers to take the lead as a trusted and meaningful part of global education conversations.”
Flip The System Australia: What Matters in Education edited by Deborah M. Netolicky, Jon Andrews and Cameron Paterson situates Australian education policy, research and practice within the context of the international conversation. It argues that professionals within schools should be supported, empowered and welcomed into policy discourse rather than being sidelined by top-down bureaucracy. The editors and contributors advocate convincingly for flipping, flattening and democratising the education system.
The chapter co-written by Greg Thompson, David Rutkowski and Sam Sellar skilfully illuminates the mysteries of large-scale assessments, like PISA, and how international rankings dominate newspaper headlines and the thinking of ministers for education around the world. Importantly, they make the practical point that ‘test-developers and psychometricians…often have very little first-hand experience’ of how this data is practically used in schools, classrooms, communities and education systems. The authors suggest that educators should have a larger ‘role in testing and improving the validity of inferences in their contexts’ to challenge the narrative of failure that has become dominant in the media.
“Education policy should not be determined by those with commercial for-profit interests.” p. 28
Benjamin Doxtdator, in his chapter ‘Education beyond risk’, analyses the ‘what works pill’ where educators become ‘evidence-based’ practitioners like doctors. He describes how this movement – ‘with its roots in cognitive psychology’ and ‘powerful corporate allies’ – increasingly pushes the notion that ‘evidence-based’ platforms can deliver content and ‘data extraction’ will measure student and system progress. He makes it clear that politicians are attracted to both the ‘reliable scientist’ and the ‘rebel start-up’ in an effort to ‘make education risk-free through evidence-based interventions’. He names Robert Marzano, John Hattie and Michael Fullan as influential figures offering to ameliorate ‘risk’ if governments (and practitioners) are willing to ‘follow the direction provided by the research’. One of the only sentences in the book to make me laugh aloud rather than wryly smiling was a comment in relation to dubious scalable corporate models of education:
“Pearson ‘isn’t generally known for unleashing a world of wonders, and schools that are designed to be ‘scalable’ often do so at the cost of students and families.”
The Bridge International Academies, to which the preceding sentence refers, are supported by Pearson in African countries and are certainly nothing for educators to smile about.
There is a wealth of real-life teacher experience in this book. Many of these stories I know about already from following these educators on Twitter, from edu-conferences or having seen what they discuss in person. Cameron Paterson and Keen Caple examine ‘Schools for the future’ through case studies. Dan Haesler and Melissa Fotea discuss engaging students in alternative education settings. Tomaz Lasic relates his experience of working with students to create a makerspace; Cameron Malcher explores podcasting; and, Kelly Cheung writes about education and ‘working class girls’. Teachers will instinctively appreciate the authenticity of these voices.
Pasi Sahlberg, the internationally renowned Finnish educator, has relocated to Australia and writes with astounding clarity in his chapter, ‘Equitable education in Australia: empowering schools to lead the way’. I talked with Pasi, via Twitter, about the deep understanding he exhibits after such a short time in this country:
If you read one chapter…
The superb chapter by Gert Biesta was the most important for me as I had previously been unaware of this Dutch educator’s work. Trawling through his tweetstream revealed quality thinking in his insightful presentations and writing on education. His chapter in this book, ‘Flipping the system, but in which direction?’ asks some ‘uncomfortable’ questions. He knows that teachers are not a homogenous group:
‘There are teachers who believe in control and there are teachers who believe in freedom. There are teachers who teach their subject and there are those who teach children. There are teachers who have secular worldview. There are teachers who have the space to act, and there are teachers who don’t have this space. There are teachers who want to flip the system and there are teachers who are happy with things as they are.’
Most significantly, and this is truly important:
‘…how teachers are is to a significant degree also the result of the systems they work in and the systems that educated them as teachers and, before that, as pupils.’
This has always given cause to reflect on how hard it is to imagine too much being changed, anything much being bucked or genuinely reformed by ambitious educators who have made their way to the top of systems that suited their needs and have given them opportunity. There is a comfortable status quo on display at summits, conferences and in edu-circles. Most have risen through the ranks on the back of outcomes-based education (and the subsequent measurement of these outcomes). I very much agree with Biesta’s belief that in education:
‘…with the introduction of the word ‘outcomes’ that something started to go wrong.’
Biesta notes the ‘unprecedented rise of micro-management of schools’ and the ‘global education management industry’ but doubts that the solution is ‘automatically solved’ by giving education ‘back to teachers’. He acknowledges that much of the measurement in education has been due to legitimate concerns about inequality and providing a quality education for all but sees these good intentions have had a raft of unintended consequences. He is not alone in noticing how a ‘social justice argument’ ended up ‘in the hands of statisticians and technocrats and became a completely different discourse…’. Educators in senior positions have been complicit and one should understand that these were ‘good intentions with problematic consequences’.
Biesta ruminates on parent, teacher and ‘pupil power’. Ultimately, he correctly concludes that no one group ‘can or should lay claim to education’. His chapter is subtitled, ‘Reclaiming education as a public concern’ and sagely posits that our system works best when:
…parents, pupils and teachers are committed to keeping education oriented towards peaceful, sustainable and democratic ways of living-together-in-plurality…
I suggest ‘politicians’ and ‘educrats’ need to be reminded much more than the other players Biesta lists that ‘education as a public concern’ is what we must value to maintain and extend our civil society.
I recommend you take a look at Professor Biesta’s website.
‘Flip the System’ has developed into a series but more importantly, it has become a movement advocating teacher agency and enabling diverse groups of educators to participate in the wider discourse of education. Flip the System: Changing education from the ground up, edited by Dutch teachers Jelmer Evers and René Kneyber was released in 2016 and a Swedish version followed. Flip the System UK: A teachers’ manifesto was published last year. Many would see these voices as an emerging, if not yet formidable, counter to the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM) that has infected our systems in recent decades.
This important book, Flip The System Australia: What Matters in Education, about flattening and democratising of the education system in Australia and around the world, will have a wide audience as it successfully argues that professionals within schools should be supported, empowered and welcomed into policy discourse, not dictated to by top-down bureaucracy. As such, it is easy to highly recommend it for the audience of ‘teachers, would-be teachers, student teachers, veteran teachers, ex-teachers, the teachers of pre-service teachers, school leaders, professors, policymakers, politicians, researchers, education consultants, community partners and media pundits’ that the editors envisaged.