As I shared in my newsletter, last month my wife and I traveled to Queensland, Australia for my first international professional development engagement. This was all thanks to the generous work of the staff of Kingston Learning College, particularly Ms. Kelley Cowley, who ginned up the idea, and Ms. Leanne Theodos, who believed in Kelley’s eye for great PD.
Situated in the greater Brisbane area, the Kingston Learning College is a re-engagement school for secondary and adult learners. In my own nook of the world, we might call this kind of thing an alternative high school, but what I found when I visited KLC was almost completely different from our offerings. From the leadership team's student data board to the part-time schedule of all the school's teachers to the many paths that the school offers to students, I found KLC to be a remarkable beacon for the promotion of long-term flourishing. In a Western educational system that I worry trends increasingly toward de-soulification, here was a school that exemplified what it means to be a humane institution.
Prior to an email correspondence with Kelley, of course, I had no idea of any of these things. Frankly, when Kelley and I started emailing a year ago, I had little concept of Australia at all, apart from what I had seen in movies or heard mentioned in history books. But that email thread led to the idea of a “teacher in residence” kind of professional development week, and this led to a Skype session with Kelley and Leanne, the school's director, and this led to the following plan for our visit:
Day 1: An all-day coaching and strategy session with the school's administrative team, most of them part-time teachers in addition to their leadership roles. This day centered on the team's top burning questions, which centered on student ownership of learning, measuring the school’s long-term flourishing impact, and raising expectations for students without losing the school's hallmark strength as a caring institution.
Day 2: This was my day to observe the school and its culture. I was able to see a morning download meeting led by Leanne for the staff on duty that day, and I was fortunate to witness and briefly speak at the graduation ceremony planned for that day. At the conclusion of the day, I led a 90-minute “twilight PD” session on student motivation for any interested staff members from the mainstream school that KLC is affiliated with, the Kingston State College.
Day 3: On this day, KLC hosted the “first inaugural” These 6 Things workshop, which included teachers from Kingston Learning College, a Brisbane-area distant education school, and a medical school in Adelaide. (That's right! We enjoyed learning with an open-minded medical doctor who trains other doctors — a first for any workshops I've been a part of.) I found the discussion with this group to be especially rich.
Day 4: On this day, we held an all-day workshop on student motivation, exclusively for the staff of KLC. (It should be noted here that many on the KLC staff were not scheduled to work on this day due to their part-time schedule, but all were graciously willing attend.) What a lovely group this was, and again, the depth of discussion brought to the five key beliefs made all the difference in the learning experience.
Day 5: Finally, this was a day where Kelley arranged for any interested staff to schedule a one-on-one chat with me, and I was fortunate to discuss pop-up debates with Judy, time management and boundary-setting with Diane, student motivation with Loren, and a lovely wrap-up session with Leanne.
All told, I think I took away far more from the time than the colleagues I worked with possibly could have (those takeaways below), but I think for all involved it was a great success.
But Dave, what about your family? Have you abandoned them on the altar of professional success, man?
While I have long dreamed of the chance to visit another country at the invitation of a school, I have held off the idea for the sake of not being away from my family too much. After all, professional development engagements in the USA have kept me busier than I've wanted to be, and more and more I've been having to set boundaries to keep them from overtaking the writing and research that makes this blog what it is.
But this engagement was entirely different because my main motivation in pursuing it was to take my wife on a getaway where she could purely follow her druthers. As some of you know, Crystal's chosen profession is the nurture and education of our children, and the quite difficult part of this work is that it feels as if one is always on. We've always prioritized time away as a couple (for the sake of both us and our children), but it's almost always been the case with these getaways that Crystal's done much of the thinking in arranging them.
And so it was that this past Christmas, I gave Crystal a letter explaining that in June of this year we'd be traveling to a secret locale on a ten-day trip. By that time, I had roughed out all the childcare arrangements (we have four children, and our parents and sisters and brothers were beautifully generous in investing in them during our time away; special thanks to those of them who helped me with even figuring out how to arrange all of that). My stated goal was that she'd get to go on an adventure and not have to work on any details prior to the trip. I told her that I'd be working for five of the ten days, and that this would cover our expenses so that she need not worry about the budgeting.
As Crystal is strongly detail-oriented, I didn't know how she'd take to this “hands off” kind of a mystery trip. As it turned out, she loved it, and she put up with the suspense all the way until we arrived at our final gate in the LAX international terminal, at which point I gave her a travel guide to Australia and let her detail-driven self get lost in the fun of planning her time. On the days I was working, she occupied herself with all manner of fun — surfing and exploring and reading and the like.
So, no — no family sacrifice on the altar of success here. Quite the opposite, I hope.
My top five educational takeaways from Australia
While there were all kinds of fascinating things about Kingston Learning College specifically and the Australian education system as a whole that I found fascinating, below I'll share the top-level takeaways that I think are most relevant to the work you and I do, no matter where we do it.
1. Long-term flourishing is what we're all after. It's one thing to write it, another to see it be true in schools around the US, but another again to see it in the Kingston Learning College half a planet away.
2. PERMA is the specific shape of long-term flourishing. In one of the workshops where I asked teachers to picture a student who is likely to succeed, the teacher asked, “How are you defining success?” I answered that I'm defining it as long-term flourishing, which largely clumps around Martin Seligman's PERMA framework. (He unpacks this quite readably in Flourish.) What we want is for our students' lives to end up having high instances of Positive emotion, Engagement (in work or hobbies), healthy and supportive Relationships, a sense of Meaning or purpose, and Achievement of some kind. PERMA is such a helpful way of putting flesh on the idea of long-term flourishing.
3. Noncognitive factors are critical to long-term flourishing, and they're best developed in schools when we teach students to master course material. The Kingston Learning College has a True GRIT poster in every room, which uses GRIT as an acrostic for various noncognitive factors like Resilience and Trustworthiness. When I asked Australian educators to list the phrases that come to mind for why some students succeed and others don't, they answered with noncognitive factors. As I've said, this suggests that we know intuitively what we also know empirically: academic achievement isn't all that matters for promoting long-term flourishing.
But the false conclusion that too many educators come to is that this means we ought not to focus our work on academic achievement. Instead, as the common thinking goes, we ought to focus on the development of supposed “skills” that matter in the “real world” and aren't reliant on academic mastery. I've argued that this is where our intuition leads us astray, and that instead the best conditions that schools create for the cultivation of noncognitive factors are the conditions in which students are guided to master challenging academic material in all the disciplines.
My time in Australia only confirmed this strategy more, as it's basically the approach that KLC uses to promote the long-term flourishing outcomes of its students.
4. Pressure on teachers is increasing the world over, not just in the United States. Despite the best efforts of many administrators, educators, and policymakers, it's becoming more overwhelming to be a teacher, not less. The pressure comes from all angles: the increasing mental health needs of students, the fact that our students are the most entertained generation ever, the digital tools that have hijacked much of our time, the use of increasingly complex teacher evaluation rubrics, the proliferation of market-driven and “research-based” edufads, and the demoralizing degree to which bureaucracies and policies tend toward dehumanizing our work.
At KLC, the current pressure point is a sweeping set of curriculum and assessment changes from the Queensland Curriculum and Assessment Authority. From what I can see of these changes, they make a good deal of sense and would represent a dramatic improvement over the state system I teach within, but they are also dramatically increasing the demands on teachers.
5. Teacher time management, student motivation, and classroom management remain career-critical skills. In my conversations with all the colleagues I met in Australia, it was insightful to see how many of our biggest frustrations come back to these headwaters. When these skillsets are lagging in our work, it's almost impossible to think deeply on the profession's more intricate topics. This is why my research, writing, and course development efforts are focused in these areas.
So far, the Student Motivation Course is here, and the Time Management Course is here. The Classroom Management Course is under development right now, and it will feature New Orleans teacher Ms. Lynsay Fabio. (That waitlist is here.)
If you've got the desire, I recommend a June trip to Australia. Since it's winter there, I found air travel and lodging to be quite affordable, and the weather was still lovely compared to the Michigan winters I'm used to. Crystal and I were able to experience just a sliver of the rugged beauty of biologically diverse Queensland, including a precious day snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef's southern tip at Lady Elliot Island.
If you do head to Queensland, make sure to do one thing though: stop by the Kingston Learning College and ask for a tour. You'll be inspired, and by the time it's through I'm sure you'll have had a great time and made some dear friends for life.
Warm thanks to the educators from Kingston Learning College, Kingston State College, the distance education school in Brisbane, and the medical school in Adelaide who shared their time, expertise, and hospitality with me.
Note: If you're outside the US and interested in talking about what a visit to your school might look like someday, feel free to send me an email: it's just my name dave at this website's URL davestuartjr.com.