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What The Revolution Looks Like, Elsewhere

Today I was talking with my great friend and school redesigner Antonia Rudenstine about the slow pace of the educational revolution in America.  How even among large school districts and folks who have a lot of policy muscle, the vision is still pretty small, pretty conventional, pretty much about teacher-centered instruction, using test scores to show improvement, and blaming kids when the adults fail.  So 1990s.

Why so slow here? Despite our greater connectivity, we still seem outposty and marginally-statused; some of our best reformers are a little insular, like they’re just getting it.  We may be brave and visionary, and speak in many voices, but are we well connected enough to each other to make a coherent movement?

In Victoria, Australia they are doing it a different way.  The Minster of Education, in conjunction with some visionary leaders has been working strategicially and systematically, for the past five years to bring “Ultranet” learning to all of its 1200 schools, or over half a million students students.  (Monika, that’s digital equity!  Every student at every school, all the time, and teaching and learning organized around the digital environment.) They just introduced the model and you can read how Darrell Fraser is getting ready for their big roll out in just a few days.

What is Ultranet?  “Ultranet is an intuitive, student-centered electronic learning environment that supports high quality learning and teaching, connect students, teachers, and parents and enables efficient knowledge tranfser.  The Ultranet will fundamentally change Victorian government school education.” (That’s just what the Australian government is saying.)  The first step of the transformation is for teachers and students to create personal digital learning portfolios, and then to begin to collaborate with other students across Victoria. In May 2010 they piloted the Ultranet with 600 schools, and will bring it to all 1200 by mid-September.

The Victoria Department has also strategically moved away from teacher-centered models of education, highlighting schools where students and teachers are collaborating with each other around curriculum design, assessment, and school culture.  (Check out the video embedded in the link.)   At one school (Galvin Park Secondary College, a 7-12 school), adults talk about kids being in charge of their own learning, and acculturating teachers to release control to students.  Teachers speak openly about being “unable to go back into an old straight-laced, teacher-centered learning environment.”  An American colleague who works closely with them figures that Victoria is about two-and-a-half generations ahead of any school district or system in the U.S.

"It IS invigorating.."

I know what’s going on there because a couple of years ago I got to attend the Department’s “Big Day Out” in Melbourne, a yearly professional development meeting in which over a thousand school leaders come together to talk about how to transform what’s going on in their schools.  I’ve also heard a little about the evolution of the Department’s thinking from Darrell Fraser and his colleague Judy Petch for a couple of years.

It can be done. Why are we so insular?  Why do we have to bravely do it all by ourselves, on the margins, as if no one else is?

Check out what’s happening at Galvin Park Secondary College, where teachers and students 7-12 get together everyday and co-create curriculum, relationships, school culture.

What do we have to learn from the Australians about moving to scale with big ideas?


About Kirsten Olson

I'm writer and educational activist. I work in public, charter, private, unschools. I'm here for the learning revolution.


14 thoughts on “What The Revolution Looks Like, Elsewhere

  1. we don’t. not any more. because we’re gathering here. and we’re going to change that.

    can’t wait to look into all your links Kirsten.. but now i’m headed to our junto session.

    Posted by monika hardy | July 19, 2010, 4:54 pm
  2. Hey Monika, The unconference was fantastic. Thanks for Junto. We should all talk about what we take away?


    Posted by Kirsten Olson | July 20, 2010, 7:55 am
  3. This is in my email inbox this morning, from Pearson.

    This is what we’re doing, by comparison, in the US? OH GOD

    “Take the first steps to revitalizing your school culture with Who Took My Chalk?™. This 2-day training helps schools and educators embrace change and set a path for successful team implementation of a 21st century instructional environment with proven strategies and activities. Join us this fall in Seattle or Tucson.”

    Posted by Kirsten Olson | July 20, 2010, 8:04 am
    • And guess how much Pearson wants before it will give it back.

      A friend pointed out to me today that our division ultimately paid for the vendor rep at our last professional development session to pick on me for not paying close enough attention to the vendor’s slides. My strategic compliance button must have been jammed.


      Posted by Chad Sansing | July 20, 2010, 10:01 pm
  4. Hey Kirsten,

    We actually had the chance to work with 120 Victorian teachers for six months last year both face to face and virtually to help support the curricular changes around Australia’s 1-1 rollout. The vision is definitely interesting and progressive when it comes to technology, but I can tell you from that firsthand experience that they are still struggling with the whole “world as a classroom” concept. The fear was that Ultranet would be too restrictive to really lead to that bigger transformation, though I can’t say for sure if that’s the case. But as you suggest, just the equity aspect of the project is worth noting, and they have made some steps in the right direction at least when it comes to curriculum.

    Also of concern is that the new prime minister, Julia Gillard, was the Education Secretary until her “promotion,” and, depressingly, she reached out to the likes of Joel Klein for advice on how to script this revolution. Not something that should make Australians feel good about the shift.

    Obviously, we struggle here for all sorts of reasons, not the least of which is 15,000+ school districts each wanting local rule and, as you suggest, our unwillingness to embrace the complexity of this change. (The fact that “Who Took My Chalk?” is actually trademarked is just too rich.) We have our Galvin Parks here too, and in similar fashion, they represent the exception, not the rule. Those types of learner centered, self-directed environments are still a bit fringy both in Australia and in the US. The require all sorts of stars to align, visionary leaders, a willing constituency, etc., most of which are difficult to find in the same place at the same time. It’s frustrating, especially for those of us who are doing that learning thing in a way that looks little like what’s happening in our kids’ schools.

    At any rate, Australia is definitely worth keeping an eye on. But, as with most of this stuff, I’ll believe it when I see it.

    Posted by Will Richardson | July 20, 2010, 12:46 pm
  5. Thanks for a great post. I’m just finishing my Master of Teaching (Primary) at the University of Western Australia (I also have an MA in philosophy). The unit I enjoyed most this year was Teaching and Learning with New Technologies. See the resources our lecturer gathers here:

    Posted by Simon Kidd | July 20, 2010, 12:59 pm
  6. Hey Will, Well it’s pretty great to have you here commenting, and we want you back.

    I actually agree that the Ultranet is not YET the critical be all and end all, but the important thing is a coherent, bold vision to scale, with some sense of cohesive professionalism from top to bottom. I’ve seen the transformation in Victoria, from the guys in the back of the room with their arms crossed who’ve been principals forever and hope this too shall pass, to now enthusiastically, or a least willingly, learning about how to transform the fundamental relationships of teaching and learning in their buildings. I think that’s powerful. That’s human transformation.

    Darrell Fraser is a powerful learner himself, an enthusiastic and humble visionary, who has step-by-step, obstacle-by-obstacle, funder-by-funder organized the Department around something that looks unlike anything we’ve got in the US. That sense of sticking with a coherent plan, being undaunted and working the problem, is an attitude I think we suffer from a lack of in the big districts in the US. And yes, I know Julia Gillard talks to Joel Klein. Shit. And there’s an election there in August, which means the politics are dicey.

    But are there any comparables in the US? I’d say not. So I’d say let’s be humble ourselves and see what we can learn along with them?

    Posted by Kirsten Olson | July 20, 2010, 4:42 pm
  7. Simon my friend, How wonderful that you are here, and thank you for the bridge to your wiki and to your part of the world.

    Perhaps you might tell us, from closer on the ground, what you think the “vision” is in Australia in terms of using technology to reframe the experience of learning? What did you learn this year? What impact is Victoria having?

    One of the things that impresses me about Australia is the much more professional teacher culture there, in general, in relation to the US–teachers expect to read and talk to each other, work actively on their practice, to learn new skills, and challenge and push each other. I’m afraid we’re still far away from that here, which makes transformations of practice and culture much more slow, atomized, individualized, desperate.

    Tell us more about what you’ve learned and are thinking?

    Posted by Kirsten Olson | July 20, 2010, 5:06 pm
    • Hi Kirsten. Sorry for the delay in replying. I started my final teaching prac on 26 July and was overwhelmed with things relating to that. As it turns out, my school placement didn’t work out for me, so I have withdrawn for the moment and await a meeting with my university supervisors next week.

      To respond to your question, there probably is no single ‘vision’ in Australia. In my own case, apart from the unit on Teaching and Learning with New Technologies, most of my course has been fairly traditional with regard to pedagogy. I’m afraid that I know no more about the situation in Victoria than anyone else.

      My sons go to a public school in a high SES area. The younger one’s classroom has an interactive whiteboard, but not the older one’s classroom. Computers must be shared. This was also my experience in my prac classroom. The private schools are better off, and one that I know of is very forward thinking.

      Two events have made big headlines in the last couple of years. The first of these is the Federal Government’s $16.2 billion Building the Education Revolution initiative, and its related Digital Education Revolution. The other is the launch of the MySchool website, which publishes a league table of schools based on their results in the National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN). Both the NAPLAN tests, and the subsequent league table, have been hugely controversial. The teachers’ union almost boycotted the tests this year.

      My own research into the literature on gifted education revealed some disconcerting attitudes towards the gifted in Australian society in general, and in schools in particular. Unfortunately, this finding has been confirmed by personal experience. As my recent blogpost indicated, this is an ongoing issue here.

      I hope these observations give some indication of trends here.

      Posted by Simon Kidd | August 11, 2010, 12:42 pm
  8. Kirsten and Will (thanks for joining in!), what strikes me about Australia is its willingness to grapple with scaling up a student- and learning-centered model of education. In the United States, I think we operate under several premises ripe for interrogation regarding what can and can’t be scaled, what can and cant be measured, and what can and can’t be called learning or work.

    We need to have conversations around those issues as PLCs, as school communities including students and parents, as divisions and employees, as states, and as a nation. I see evidence of those conversations happening systemically in Australia. I don’t see them happening systemically here. Such conversations would be an essential start to a bold endeavor.

    We need organizations and public figures willing to change conversations on both the fed and teachers’ unions. We’re not even talking about education. We’re talking about employment and logistics. The argument that we need teachers and schools is leaking, yet there is a stifling assumption on both sides that what each side thinks of as good teaching is the best of all possible pedagogies, and that the only details that remain unresolved have to do with pay, hours, and evaluation.

    There is a better conversation about authentic learning, its scalability, and its measurement to be had. No one is muzzling us but us; no one can unmuzzle us but us. Let’s raise a din for learning.

    Best regards,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | July 20, 2010, 9:48 pm
  9. No one is muzzling us, we only muzzle ourselves. This is exactly right.

    In another part of my world we are talking about what American education would look like if we simply did away with all district level management, straight from building to state level. That’s more like the Australian system and what it has meant is that principals act a lot more like superintendents, and teachers take a lot more responsibility for creating the culture of their schools.

    I know that’s not our deal here at the COOP, structural stuff, but I’m just saying, what if we just got rid of all that mid-level management altogether? That would change the professional culture of the building a lot: it’s up to us.

    Posted by Kirsten Olson | July 21, 2010, 3:33 pm
    • Coupled with a Finnish or Dutch attitude toward standards and learning, that would be an improvement for some districts and schools, if we still have schools 😉 I wonder how many divisions or schools feel like they have such autonomy now, and from which code they get their autonomy – local policy or state law?

      Posted by Chad Sansing | July 21, 2010, 3:43 pm
  10. It’s not an answer, but I’ve got a few sources that may shed some light on why this giant system finds it so hard to take on real change. Certainly we know that there are schools with visionary leadership, strong teachers, and a dedicated parent/student base that are serving kids well. But those are the exception.

    Two writers come to mind when I think of why change is so hard in schools. One is Seymour Sarason. The other is Tom Engelhard, whose piece, “American Denial,” in the June 1 issue of “The Nation,” addresses how, as a country, we’ve lost our agency.

    Sarason’s book, “REVISITING: “The Culture of The School and The Problem of Change,” is pretty hefty. I’m not sure he’s an optimist about school reform (yikes!) but he might accurately get at some of the reasons why it is so tough, and why so many attempts fail.

    You’d have to read Sarason’s work yourself to get a firm grip on his views and word choice. One thing I get from him is that schools don’t change because as a society or culture, we really don’t expect them to. Parents, teachers, and other interested parties feel this way. These people think that’s the way it is, and always will be. How powerful is this attitude? And how much of an effect does it have on realizing change? Does society really expect this giant institution to change?

    Sarason talks about how schools have been under pressure to change for a long time and that most efforts come in the form of external mandates, and that most of the external proponents to school change have been “massively insensitive to the culture of schools.” People trying to change schools don’t understand the complexity of school culture and the extent to which routines, relationships, and the way of doing things are heavily ingrained. They also don’t respect the timelines necessary for significant and lasting change. Too many externally-based “silver bullets” have been part of the recipe for change.

    In Tom Engelhardt’s piece, he traces the state of our nation, from times of abundance and our national identity as a superpower when people maintained the belief that their actions made a difference, to times of late where it appears that along the way, we have lost our agency. We lost the ability to feel that our efforts would make a difference. We have become detached from wars, less hopeful about the environmental and economic strength of the world, and so we feel less hopeful about the future. We wonder how our small efforts can make a difference? Please refer to his article, which is written as a commencement address (although never given).

    I think there are enough instances of real change that we know this not to be true. It can’t be, or we’d never evolve as a people and no glimmer of light would ever stay lit. Individuals would never grow or better their lives, or take risks to truly learn about themselves and their world and better those through their efforts. But I do think these national trends are powerful, and that attitudes are powerful obstacles to change. Rick DuFour says, it is easier to change behaviors than attitudes. When I tried to initiate change in my school with veteran teachers, I asked then to change one small behavior. In fact, they were behaving differently while maintaining their old attitudes (at first). Can this be a valid recipe for change? It seems more approachable than taking on heavily ingrained beliefs and lifelong convictions. How do we use what we know about history, the human condition, and the efforts to reform school to do it better this time?

    Posted by Jennifer Groves | July 27, 2010, 12:46 am

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