The Research Files Special: Research Conference highlights 2021

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Jo Earp: Hello, thanks for downloading this podcast from Teacher magazine. I’m Jo Earp.

Rebecca Vukovic: I’m Rebecca Vukovic.

Dominique Russell: And I’m Dominique Russell.

JE: Hello to all our regular listeners, wherever you’re tuning in from, and if you’re new to the Teacher podcast thanks for joining us, it’s really good to have you on board. You’ve got all three members of the editorial team with you here today – you lucky people! It's a special episode of The Research Files, where we’ll be sharing some of our highlights from last month’s ACER Research Conference.

After a pandemic pause in 2020, this year’s conference was totally online. But, as usual, it brought together leading researchers and classroom practitioners for five days of keynotes, presentations, one research showreel (which was a neat take on the traditional poster presentations) and a masterclass. The theme for 2021 was ‘Excellent progress for every student: What will it take?’

Now, there were plenty of highlights, so Rebecca I’m going to come to you for your first pick.

RV: Thanks Jo. Day 1 of the conference kicked off with a keynote address from ACER Chief Executive and renowned assessment expert, Professor Geoff Masters. His keynote was titled ‘How education gets in the way of learning’, and it explored how current education systems and processes could be redesigned to improve teaching and learning for all.

Throughout his presentation, Geoff discussed how these structures and processes, including the organisation and delivery of the curriculum, are largely 20th century inventions. This includes grouping all students by age, delivering all students the same content for the same amount of time, grading performances on this common content, and then, of course, advancing students in unison to the next stage of the curriculum.

In this short clip from his keynote, Geoff is explaining why we should move away from year level expectations, and instead recognise that individuals are at very different points in their learning and will make progress at different rates.

Geoff Masters: It’s a challenge to the status quo. People know the assembly line model of schooling, that’s all they know. Many of them can’t imagine anything different from that. So you’re dealing with, as I say, a challenge to current ways of thinking. It requires a different way of thinking, it requires a paradigm shift. It requires people to think differently about the nature of learning, what it means to learn successfully. Currently, we define what it means to learn successfully in terms of year level expectations – how did you perform against the year level expectations A-E.

But what I’m talking about means thinking about successful learning as progress. If you make progress, then presumably you’re learning successfully. So, learning then becomes associated with progress, it leads to progress, increasingly sophisticated knowledge, deeper levels of understanding, higher levels of skill. It’s a long-term agenda, learning goes on throughout the years of schooling and we need to be thinking of the nature of learning over multiple years of school. We need a map of what learning looks like in an area, not just for a particular grade level or year level, but we need a long-term map of what learning looks like so we can think about the points that students have reached in their learning, think about what we can do next.

JE: So, that idea that Geoff spoke about there, of having a map of what learning looks like in an area, not just in a particular grade or a year level but that long-term map of how learning progresses – that was something a lot of the presenters spoke about throughout the conference, including Professor Dianne Siemon, who gave the Karmel Oration this year; and I’ve chosen a clip from that as my first highlight.

Di started the presentation by saying that we have an alarming situation here in Australia in terms of mathematics and student achievement, highlighting the continued decline in mathematics achievement over the last 20 years or so. She went on to speak about what we can learn from research, so, her own body of research over 20 years and the research of others, about why we can’t just match teaching to a year level curriculum – so, in this particular example, the Year 8 curriculum for all Year 8 students.

Dianne Siemon: We have identified, very early on, in the Middle Years Numeracy Research Project, that there’s a seven- to eight-year range in achievement at each year level. Which, when we did the analysis, could be attributed in very large measure to students’ access to multiplicative thinking. Now that’s an extremely big idea but it incorporates fractions, decimals, rate, ratio, proportional reasoning and so on.

Since then, as I said our original research showed that about 30 per cent of Year 8 students were pre-multiplicative; more recently, that’s up to 55 per cent of Year 8 students do not have access to multiplicative thinking and as a result they experience difficulty with all those aspects of the curriculum that I’ve just mentioned.

This is really alarming, because about 80/85 per cent of the Year 8 curriculum and beyond requires multiplicative thinking and so those students are being denied the opportunity to learn, which of course is fundamental if we want students to make excellent progress.

JE: That was Professor Dianne Siemon giving the Karmel Oration at Research Conference 2021. If you want to read more from Di, we actually caught up with her for a Q&A on evidence-based learning progressions on mathematics. You can head to to read that one, just search for learning progressions, and I’ll also put a direct link to the article in the transcript of this episode.

DR: Having an expert like Di be able to so clearly articulate learning progressions in mathematics is certainly something really, really valuable and I'm sure everyone who was able to listen to her presentation live was able to take something away from it. And, yeah, I’m glad you mention that article because it really is a fantastic resource for those who weren’t able to tune into her presentation.

So, I’d like to take you to my first highlight session now, which is from Day 2 of the conference. It was a session delivered by Dr Emily White from Melbourne University. She was taking attendees through elements of the SWANS and ABLES tools that her and her colleagues have worked on over the past few years now. For listeners who haven’t heard of this before, SWANS stands for Students with Additional Needs and ABLES stands for Ability Based Learning and Education Support. Both are designed to be used with students with disability.

Her session was titled ‘Applying empirical learning progressions for a holistic approach to evidence-based education and she had some really fascinating insights to share. In particular, one part that I wanted to share with you is her discussion about matching assessments with learning progressions.

In her presentation she was sharing how it’s really important that a teacher has access to a valid and reliable matched assessment tool in order to be able to actually locate where a student is at within the levels in a learning progression. She was able to demonstrate this in a really practical way in her presentation on the day, but here’s a short snippet of her explaining how crucial these matched assessments are.

Emily White: We also want to think about matching assessment with them. Because of course just having a learning progression is great, but how do you know where your student belongs in them? If your learning progression comes with a matched assessment that allows us to have a much better idea of where your student will fall within that learning progression, so we are much more accurate with targeting our goals for that student’s learning.

We’re looking for a matched assessment tool that’s been found to be valid and reliable to the cohort of students that you’re looking to work with. And if it’s done so, then it really can be allowed to accurately locate that student within that learning progression and also serve as an indicator that the learning progression itself is empirically derived. Because that assessment tool really should have been derived from whatever trial was used to assess the learning of students with disability, or students without disability for that matter.

RV: It sounds like Dr Emily White provides educators with really practical advice there. I’m sure listeners loved hearing that it is something that can be used to improve learning for every student, regardless of the presence of disability or additional learning needs.

Moving on now though, the next presentation I’d like to share with listeners was a real standout of the entire conference for me. It took place on Day 2 and was titled ‘Exploring excellence in Indigenous education in Queensland secondary schools’. Leading academics, Aboriginal educators and researchers from the University of Queensland, Dr Marnee Shay, Dr Jodie Miller and Dr Suraiya Abdul Hameed shared details of their pilot study, aimed to centre the voices of Indigenous people in conceptualising excellence in Indigenous education.

In this clip, Dr Marnee Shay explains how excellence is defined, and poses critical questions about the lens of the person who is conceptualising it.

Marnee Shay: So, what is excellence and who defines it? Well, we know excellence is a cultural construct and it is sort of what brought us to this space of thinking about what excellence is or could be in Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander education. The factors we know influence how excellence is defined and constructed are issues like race and power, language – so, discourses and meanings around language – and also the lens of the person who’s conceptualising it; so what are their social and cultural, historical, educational experiences etc., that have brought people to the space of defining what excellence is or what excellence could be?

JE: Yeah, absolutely a highlight of the conference for me too, that one. So, one of the things that Indigenous participants in that pilot study that you mentioned spoke about was the importance of building up young people, and that was mirrored in the discussions with Indigenous educators about school leaders as well, so how important it was to have a supportive school leader building them up and giving them opportunities to lead in their own school communities.

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JE: Okay, we’re on my second choice now. This one is from ACER’s Dr Claire Scoular and her presentation on ‘Identifying and Monitoring Progress in Collaboration Skills’. Claire Scoular is a leading general capabilities researcher. She spoke about the challenges of defining and describing complex 21st Century Skills, like collaboration (you know, really sort of picking apart their complexity and the depth), and the work that ACER has been doing in this space for a few years now. The fact that employers aren’t satisfied any more with candidates saying ‘yes, I can collaborate’ but are really wanting evidence of that, that was one of the things that she spoke about.

In the run-up to this clip that I’ve chosen then, Claire showed delegates a breakdown for the skill of Collaboration (from one of the ACER Frameworks). So there are three strands to that: Building Shared Understanding; Collectively Contributing; and the third strand is Regulating. And then, within each of those strands there are several ‘aspects’. For example the first strand of Building Shared Understanding has three aspects, and they are: Communicates with others; Pools resources and information; and Negotiates roles and responsibilities. Now, that discussion of the different aspects across the three strands (and there were 10 in all) and what that might look like at different levels of ability, led to this particular comment.

Claire Scoular: Now, you might be saying ‘Am I expected to do all of this all the time in all of my classes?’ The answer is most definitely ‘no’. As I said before, it’s really not about ... there is an opportune time for introducing collaboration and for actually transforming lessons into collaborative tasks, rather than just doing it in a more traditional way. And there can be added benefits in navigating or transforming some tasks into collaborative ones.

So, it’s about making a judgement there around which tasks could actually be enhanced, and it’s about emphasising these general capabilities rather than just trying to add extra work in. So, by transforming some lessons into collaborative tasks we actually might be providing more opportunity to enhance other general capabilities, like critical thinking and creative thinking, and of course increasing collaboration skills, just by transforming that into a collaborative task.

DR: It’s always great to hear Claire’s insights, and I think her point in that clip there about thinking of general capabilities as something to emphasise, rather than as something that requires additional work in the classroom is such a great point to pick up on and share in this episode, because that’s such a great reminder for teachers and school leaders I think.

So on Day 3 of the conference, I tuned into the session featuring a familiar face at Teacher, Greg Whitby, who is the Executive Director of Schools at the Catholic Education Diocese of Parramatta in New South Wales. In his session, he was joined by his colleagues Maura Manning and Dr Gavin Hays.

Their session was titled: ‘Leading system transformation: A work in progress and it was a bit of a different focus from the other presentations I attended throughout the conference. It was all about a teacher voice project they’d undertaken with staff across their school sector to see how they coped with remote learning last year. And the results showed many of them felt confident and motivated in their capacity to lead. Plenty of them also reported really high levels of self-efficacy, which was pretty interesting to hear about.

So, the main focus of their presentation though was describing to us what they did after they got these results. They wanted to find out how they could maintain these levels of self-efficacy, and confidence and motivation for the long term across the whole education system, and it was fascinating to hear how they went about doing that. In this next clip, though, I wanted to share Greg speaking about the four principles that underpin their system, which I thought was a really great addition and something that might prompt some reflection for our listeners.

Greg Whitby: We needed a pillar on which to base and build this whole model and we settled on these four; and they are not unique to our system, but they are statements that we would use to build out what we’re doing. If we don’t do this, we’re not true to the work we do on behalf of the Bishop of the Diocese of Parramatta, but collectively for the students. And I suppose this is where we talk about efficacy of the work that we’re doing.

So, ‘mission is counter cultural’ – what we’re saying there is that schooling is intensely challenging and opening and liberating and it should not accept necessarily the prevailing norms, it should challenge the culture so that we enrich that culture. ‘Learning is owned by the learner’ – so that’s where the responsibility shifts. Stop disempowering students. Take them and understand them; work with them as we craft this transformation process. ‘Equity is the norm’ – we don’t take it as an addition. Everything that we do we pass through a lens of equity to make sure that those who are in jeopardy are treated equally. And everybody shares in this co-responsibility of ‘leading together’.

JE: That’s all for this episode, thanks for listening. We’ll be back next week with this month’s Teacher Staffroom podcast, where we catch you up on the latest evidence, insight and action. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts from to make sure you get new episodes when they land. And, while you’re there, we’d love it if you could rate and review us.

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