PLNs and flipping the system: Advancing teacher voice

This post was inspired by and is a reflective response to some of the issues raised by Dr Deborah Netolicky in her recent blog post: Teacher voice to flip the education system: ACEL 2018 panel presentation. Thank you Dr Netolicky for raising these very important issues! To read more on the topic of flipping the Australian education system, please consult Flip the System Australia: What Matters in Education edited by Jon Andrews, Cameron Paterson and Deborah M. Netolicky.

Dr Netolicky begins her post by reflecting on the absence of teacher voice in the formulation of policy, on advisory boards and on media panels. I couldn’t agree more. Those who are working with students, involved in teaching and learning on an everyday basis, interpreting and implementing the ever-changing policies, curricula and recommendations sent down from above are clearly the best placed to give insight into what education is truly like in 2018. Practitioners can give the most direct insight into what school communities want and need in order to create richer learning and teaching experiences. Yet, as Dr Netolicky points out, at conferences practitioner presenters are often outnumbered by speakers who work outside of the classroom, while the media seems to focus on the ‘famous’ teachers such as Eddie Woo when they look for a teacher representative on panels discussing education. There is much to learn from everyone willing to contribute positively to discussions on education – and the voice of the non-practitioner and the ex-practitioner as well as leading teacher practitioners are welcomed and valued – however, the voice of the regular teacher, the individual embedded within the grind of everyday school life should be given equal opportunity to be heard.

As I read Dr Netolicky’s blog post, I was struck by how many times I identified ways that the PLN might offer teachers voice and agency over their professional learning, through opportunities that perhaps have not  been considered. Below, I have identified sections of her post, and offered my response as to how this type of openly networked platform may give teachers a voice where previously they may have had none.

Flipping the system is in part about amplifying, elevating, and valuing the voices of those actually working in schools. We believe that the power to transform education is within it, not outside it (Netolicky, para. 5, 2018).

The PLN provides teachers with the opportunity to amplify their voice by creating a digital presence which allows their best practice to be promoted and shared with others. My research has found that transformational professional learning opportunities may be experienced through participatory knowledge co-creation which not only enriches the learning experience within the network, but also may elevate the teacher’s professional reputation beyond the immediate ‘education’ context – demonstrated by invitations to present at conferences, to write for publication or offer consultancy for others.

I agree that:

There are some practitioners, including we Editors, who share our thinking via blogs and social media, but we wonder: who is listening? And do those educators sharing their views represent and characterise the system at large and indeed the variability of contexts across Australia’s education landscape?  As Editors, we are aware of our own privilege and limitations (Netolicky, para. 7, 2018).

I believe that helping teachers to understand and experience the value of the PLN, and encouraging them to begin regularly sharing and participating through blogs and other social technologies may lead to a wider representation of teachers, from a wider range of contexts within Australia and indeed beyond. Social technologies require internet access, which is a privilege we do not all have – however as technology evolves issues of access for professionals will hopefully be reduced. Mobile technologies and platforms that require low bandwidth such as Twitter create opportunities for connection even in rural locations, and as the Digital Technologies curriculum and ICT general capability become more deeply embedded, access for all students (and therefore teachers) will (hopefully) become a higher priority.  However…

Sharing our views is unpaid. Asking teachers to write, blog, or present is asking them to take part in unpaid labour, outside of their day jobs, and to become part of the noise out there, with no guarantee of being listened to (Netolicky, para. 23, 2018).

Yes, this challenge that Dr Netolicky rightly points out is very real. Teachers are already time poor, and initiating, maintaining and participating with a PLN requires a time commitment that is currently not acknowledged by the educational system. In fact, in many cases, the very valuable, authentic and personalised learning that teachers gain through their PLN is not recognised even as a source of professional learning for the purposes of accreditation. This is why I believe research such as my own, and those who are working within this area, is vitally significant. The Gonski 2.0 report recommends that systems:

Create a continuously improving profession through the provision of high-quality professional learning for teachers; appropriate to their career stage, development needs and the changes rapidly occurring in society (The Commonwealth Department of Education and Training, 2018, p. xiv).

My current research suggests that the PLN may provide one avenue to achieve this goal. If teacher sharing, participation in online networks and contribution to practitioner led dialogue and development through online publishing is recognised as part of the work of teachers, it may move from an unpaid optional extra to become a pillar of effective practice. Of course, teachers don’t need ‘one more thing’ to be added to their role. Therefore as part of flipping the system, there must be a change in the way teachers’ days are organised – moving away from the current situation (similar to the United States,) which emphasises face-to-face teaching time and minimises paid preparation time towards a model recognised in Korea, Japan and Finland – where teaching time is reduced to allow teachers paid preparation and professional learning time. This reflects the professional and highly skilled nature of their work.

OECD (2018), Teaching hours (indicator). doi: 10.1787/af23ce9b-en (Accessed on 07 October 2018)

The graphic above charts teaching time: the number of hours spent teaching a group or class of students according to the formal policy in the country. Greater hours of face to face teaching time limits the paid preparation time for teachers: the time spent preparing for teaching.

Dr Netolicky also observes that:

professional trust is central to building the profession as one which seeks to grow and understand teachers and teaching, as opposed to the often competitive, blame-ridden portrayal. I write in my chapter that “education is not an algorithm but a human endeavour, and one that can be improved through attention to the intricacies of the people operating within the system (Netolicky, para. 10, 2018)

Developing a PLN is one way that teachers might create and enrich trust within the profession. In my research, participants suggested that their experiences of professional learning through their PLN had helped them to develop self confidence, as others gave feedback and demonstrated appreciation for what they had shared, and  broader perspectives of the teaching profession which led in some cases to enhanced empathy for others. Gaining a window into another practitioner’s practice through interactions in a PLN allows teachers to see what similarities they share with others, and also gives insight into the working conditions and challenges other teachers experience across a wide range of contexts. In a profession where individuals were previously limited to the confined space of their classroom, the PLN offers teachers the chance to connect with and learn from and with others on an unprecedented scale. Trust can develop when the fear of the unknown is removed.

Building upon the theme of trust and exchange, is the comment that:

We don’t think teachers should be speaking alone but speaking with the multiplicity of stakeholders within the education space. This morning Andy Hargreaves talked in his keynote about solidarity, which can be within our contexts and districts, but also across nations and systems. Those chapters in the book written by academics or consultants either include teacher voice, advocate for the presence of teacher voice, or are focused on teacher expertise and experience (Netolicky, para. 13, 2018).

The PLN has low barriers to entry – once internet access is established, the PLN may be developed using platforms and applications chosen from an almost unlimited universe. Tools may be as familiar and ‘easy’ to use as email, Facebook or Pinterest. Developing levels of social network literacy and a growing understanding of networked learning can enable teachers to connect and contribute using a wider range of tools – the PLN is not limited to any particular platform or tool, nor any number of points of access or modes of expression. Teachers can make short sharp contributions via Twitter, take photos of practice and share on Instagram, engage in complex and ongoing conversations via web forums or construct their own webspace via a blogging or website development tool. Voice may be preferenced in podcasts, artistic expressions shared on Tumblr or controversial opinions courted on Mastodon.

The beauty of the PLN is that connections can be with fellow practitioners from the school down the road, or with teachers who work at the opposite end of the globe. Direct contact can be made with researchers, media personalities, authors, content knowledge experts from any field. The older and experienced teacher may trade ideas and practices with the first year teacher, and the prac student may discuss concepts with the executive director of the system. Communication is democratised, and barriers are reduced. Evidence of this: my recent Twitter conversation with researcher Mimi Ito. Ito is a leading figure in the Connected Learning movement, and through my PLN, I engaged with and captured the most current information available on the Connected Learning Framework – an honour and a wonderful learning experience!

Dr Netolicky concludes her blog by saying that:

Our book is a microcosm of what we would like to see more of in education, although we regret not including student voice in the book. It is one drop-in-the-ocean attempt to amplify, elevate and value the voices of teachers and school leaders. We hope that in our Australian context it will lead to politicians and policymakers seeking out the views and expertise of those in schools. Flipping the system in this way is about building networks and flattening hierarchies so that we can all work together for the good of the students in our schools (Netolicky, para. 25, 2018).

My research investigating the PLN is also one drop in the ocean. However the ocean is just a lot of little drops – merging together. So this post is just one more contribution to that ocean. I truly believe that the PLN has tremendous potential to transform and add to the flipping of the education system. It draws together opportunities for teachers to develop and maintain their digital and social network literacy through the initiation and construction of the network, with access to personalised, flexible and up to date professional learning and the capacity to enhance the human side of teaching and learning as it offers solidarity, feedback and support. A PLN gives teachers to opportunity to amplify their learning so that it moves outside of the educational context, and contributes not only to the learning of others but also to high quality conversations of policy and practice. It gives a voice to teachers that may be heard outside of the classroom walls, outside of the school grounds and outside of education systems. Teachers are professionals with expertise that must be valued and recognised, and the PLN is one way that this expertise may shine.

6 thoughts on “PLNs and flipping the system: Advancing teacher voice

  1. Denise Schade says:

    What a practical idea you have proposed, Kay. Teachers do need to be able to put a voice to the practice of classroom teaching. This will increase the valuing of teaching teachers, and give practical understanding of the implications of outting theory into practice.
    I have enjoyed the journey of your PHd.

    1. KayO says:

      Thank you Denise! I’m glad that you feel that this post is quite practical, as I do realise that I am one of the ‘ex-practitioners’ speaking on behalf of those who are in the classroom :). Lovely to hear from you – thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  2. Margaret Simkin says:

    Lots of well presented points here Kay. It’s such a pity that the numbers of educators who use a PLN and grow accordingly through their interactions are encouraged to make this their main course of development. The mentality of force feeding everyone the same PL diet through mandated meetings is something that is becoming harder to stomach.

    1. KayO says:

      The personalisation and flexibility of the PLN is definitely one of it’s strong points. It recognises the professionalism of teachers and allows for differentiated learning such as what we espouse for the classroom. Thank you for sharing your thoughts :).

  3. Jackie Child says:

    Thank you Kay. I can certainly support how effective a Twitter PLN can be. I recently visited Helsinki and was able to visit a school for observation through contacts in my PLN. I have also given feedback of that visit on my blog, which again supports the profile teachers have and the amount of face to face time with students and preparation time!

    1. KayO says:

      Thank you for sharing this wonderful example of how a PLN can lead to powerful real life learning experiences that may have been previously unachievable! It is great to hear the wonderful things you are doing through you PLN. Thanks Jackie :). You are a true leader :).

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