Educational change and innovation are complex concepts in our contemporary world, says Phil Lewis, Executive Officer of Catholic Secondary Principals Australia (CaSPA), as he discusses the value and importance of practitioner voice.
A significant body of research highlights the importance and value of involving practitioners in research, decision making and new initiatives. Practitioners can triangulate action research by involving the people ‘in touch’ with the lived experience of the action. Their involvement will provide a legitimacy of knowledge in relation to the complexity of teaching and learning. Collaboration with practitioners at all levels must go beyond a tokenistic form of subsidiarity. Authentic collaboration requires integrative thinking and opposable mind approaches.
Students are directly or indirectly affected by all decisions made in a school. Hence, as Russ Quaglia and others would argue, students have practitioner insights into the operation of a school. They are central to the action and can offer valuable information and contribute possible solutions for school leadership. Student voice is also a very practical way of engaging students with several of the general capabilities of the Australian Curriculum.
Helen Timperley and others have demonstrated that teacher voice in their professional learning is vital for relevance and authentic engagement. The ongoing commitment of teachers to their learning has also resinated in the work of the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) and is further evidenced in the Teacher Standards. Context is very important in schools. Therefore, professional learning needs to be tailored to the needs of the teacher and the school. Practitioner voice is paramount if there is going to be a sustainable and purposeful program. Through professional learning teachers can be lifelong learners and engage with general capabilities too.
Systems and governments need to value the voice of principals, who are central to action, are in touch and possess a legitimacy of contextual educational knowledge. It has been heartening that national education organisations like AITSL and the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) genuinely collaborate with national peak principal associations. Principals provide feedback and ideas for initiatives, and valuable agency to introduce change and development.
At system and government levels there has been evidence of policy and practice change that may have benefitted from the inclusion of the practitioner principal voice. In the future it would be a great development for Australian education if the autonomy and practitioner voice of principals was even more valued and trusted well beyond a neoliberal paradigm. Google, Apple, Microsoft and many other contemporary organisations keep improving and developing for a modern world through high levels of trust and investment in staff.
Some may say there has been too much ‘talk down’ to the practitioners (Hansen and Trank) rather than engaging in an equal exchange. As Beech et al. illustrate, talking down is far more likely when practitioners are just visions of our social constructions rather than real people sitting at the same table.
The future of Australian education will be best served by this genuine collaboration of principals and their associations with governments and systems. All three stakeholders need to bring a commitment and resourcing for the collaboration to be highly effective and benefit students.
As with many other matters in education there are a multitude of levels to be engaged with for any lasting change to be affected. Teachers and principals as practitioners need to do their part to facilitate continuous improvement and provide relevance for students in their school’s context.
The practitioner voice is, in my opinion, more powerful and practical since practitioners speak from experience not just the ‘théorie de la journée’.
Arguably teachers and principals have a unique perspective that must continue to be valued in Australian education. They are innovating in classrooms and schools, reflecting on practice through sharing powerful experiences as well as new ways of thinking about education, leading, teaching and learning along with their students. They are actually doing the work.
At a local contextual level, their involvement in educational initiatives is vital. Similarly, at a national and system level, the work and voice of principals needs to be valued to facilitate innovation on a broader scale. Policy and practice initiatives in a vacuum or political whim will not be as powerful as genuine engagement with practitioners at all levels of the education landscape. All stakeholders need to collaborate and commit to worthwhile initiatives that will ultimately benefit our students.