Education Nation | Day One Session Two | Peter Mader

“We need to find the sweet spot in our teaching.”
– Peter Mader

Disclosure: My attendance at Education Nation (#EduNationAu) was through a media pass provided by the conference organisers.

After morning tea and some time in The Playground, I was scheduled to join The Leader stream to hear Peter Mader (@mader_peter) speak about Strategies for bridging the policy / practice divideI was very much looking forward to this session, as it is a real problem which faces educators everywhere and hearing some strategies for working through the divide that can occur would have been ver valuable.


I say would have been, as Peter, to his credit, was up front at the beginning and said that the abstract from the website for his session is not what his session actually was. This, to be honest, really annoyed me. I had chosen this session, as had everyone else, based on what was written in the abstract. I do not know whether an updated abstract was sent to the organisers and not uploaded, or whether Peter chose not to send an updated abstract, but I felt misled. Despite that, Peter’s session was interesting.

He opened by asking us to discuss in our table groups the question “if you could change any one educational policy  for the benefit of student right now, what would it be?” Peter asked someone from each table to share what they came up with and a range of responses and some common themes heard.

  • The vast number of policies
  • The language of the policies that results in a threatening and negative vibe coming from them, particularly in the accountability stakes
  • The number of policies that are designed to manage risk, or to put it more bluntly, cover the relevant Department of Education in case a student or teacher is injured which has the unintended consequence of discouraging teachers from taking appropriate risks with new pedagogies and which discourage students from taking appropriate risks and learn from them
  • The need to return the focus to learning and open up the tools of teaching and learning that are available (YouTube was given as an example) and the need to remove policies that interfere with learning.
  • Frustration around the current staffing agreement where the filling of a position rotates between merit selection by a panel from the school and direct appointment by the department with little to no say or control about the quality of the person appointed by the relevant Department of Education and the resultant impacts on a school.
  • Frustration over NAPLAN and belief by many educators that it is unreflective of the spirit of the National Curriculum, that the data is misused and misreported.

Peter identified that there seems to be a common theme across these areas, which is a feeling of disconnect between the policy writers and those who are required to operate within the constraints of the policies. He indicated that he wanted to talk about policies of leadership at the macro level that can affect change at the micro level.

His next comment was that having recently spoken to some newly graduated teachers, he found that there was little to no awareness of the importance of professional associations. He is absolutely correct. From my own experience, in my initial teacher education (ITE) program my peers and I had at the time, and largely still do not, no awareness of the professional associations available. I would qualify that by also noting that no professional associations reached out to us by sending representatives to the university to speak to us or via e-mail with the sole exception of the NSW Teachers Federation.

A list of Professional Association Networks found on the AITSL website

Peter continued by remarking that we need to find the sweet spot in teaching despite the discord and the uncertainty across the entire education sector about the perceived purposes and goals of education (there is that concept again). He spoke about there being two narratives around education and that they conflict with each other. Peter spoke about the need to co-design policy ahead of the consultation phase, i.e., if stakeholders are engaged in the development process, the consultation is less likely to throw up red flags. Typically, he indicated, the policy is written and given for review without enough time for genuine analysis and feedback to be provided ahead of the implementation, showing that it is a superficial request, with no actual interest in hearing feedback for improvement.

Peter argued that decision makers and policy writers either need to have an education background, or to have trusted and experienced people around them who have an education background. I have heard arguments on this topic from both sides, however, and it is an interesting subject. Changing tack, Peter then said that to affect change, educators need three things; relevance, reason, and resources.

South Australia, Peter’s home state, is the state with the worst cash balance in the country he told us and so questions about how to fund education were serious and relevant. Politicians, he noted, often talk about the economy vis-a-vis what it should look like and how they will achieve that goal. However, they rarely connect education to the future by talking about what education should look like (purpose and goals  again?) with any real substance, nor do they talk about how they will achieve that goal with any real substance. There is even less talk about to feed into that change and improvement with regards to ITE.

Peter then introduced the first of the narratives that he mentioned earlier, which was the role that media commentary plays in education, yet that it also has no real connection to schools. He posited that the clickbait headlines surrounding things like NAPLAN and PISA results induce a sense of nostalgia in adults, a feeling of back in my day… and a panic that there is a need to return back to basics and drill and skill.  This, for me, was echoing comments and sentiments that Brett Salakas had made in his presentation to the Rethinking Reform delegates earlier in the morning. If our results are falling, then we need to copy what the top countries are doing because it clearly works seems to be the prevailing mindset impressed upon us by the media in its educational commentary.

Peter phrased it as the media and older generations wanting us to subscribe to a better version of the 1960s. He noted that there were some good things in the 1960s, but that we have of course moved on from then and that there were some definite poor practices in the 1960s.

Given I was born in 1983, I will have to take his word for it.

Peter showed a quoted [?] Ball from 2008 who apparently said that “learning is re-rendered as a cost-effective policy outcome and achievement is merely a set of productivity targets.” While the media  give the impression that education is all about NAPLAN and PISA, Malcolm Turnbull has said that “[t]here has never been a more exciting time to be alive than today and there has never been a more exciting time to be an Australian.

Peter then asked us, in our table groups, to discuss what it is that is stopping us from shifting away from the obsession with standardised testing. There were, again, some very interesting ideas that came from the room.IMG_1777

  • Mindsets about education and the purpose, goals and expectations therein from the community and students.
  • Confusion about the new career pathway and how it is no longer a single career trajectory.
  • Politicians who surround themselves with consultants who are not teachers, or who have been out of the classroom for a long period of time.
  • Fear of taking risks during an election cycle.
  • The different types of schools and the misfit of policy and expectation to education realities.
  • The fact that the locus of control is with the politicians as they control the purse-strings.

My next note simply says YouTube: Future of Work which at the time, I must have thought would be enough information to find the video that we either were shown or that was discussed. Unfortunately, there are several videos on YouTube with that phrase in the title. I have reached out to Peter to find out who the speaker in the video was to help me narrow it down and will update this article when he confirms that for me.

Peter rounded out by commenting that learning is for life and accordingly, it should be meaningful, that we need to focus son assessment rather than testing, which are distinctly different from each other and asked us if there was, perhaps, a third option.

I was disappointed that the session was not what it was advertised as being and there was some frustration in the room about that. Speaking with one delegate, he was very disappointed as he had chosen The Leader specifically as it fits with his own Professional Development Plan and the goals of the school he is in at the moment, but that this session, as with many of the others in The Leader were a let down and that he had wasted the school’s money and two days of professional development. Overall, for me personally, whilst I was disappointed that it was not what it was advertised as being, I did find it an interesting, though at times frustrating, session.