Kathryn Holmes

How children’s aspirations change as they grow up: latest research

Two research findings from our University of Newcastle large-scale longitudinal study of the career aspirations of Australian children attracted a lot of media coverage recently. The first was that Australian children begin to form career aspirations from a very young age and the second that children have similar aspirations whether they are from low or high economic status families.

These findings are inspiring some rethinking around career education in Australian schools and how things might change to help children realise their aspirations.

But there is another aspect of our findings that has not yet been given the media spotlight, and it may be just as significant. It is the way children’s aspirations change over time.

Of course some change is to be expected, but as we unpack what is happening we can see patterns emerging and believe schools, teachers, parents and university recruiters should be paying much closer attention to what is happening.

What we found

In Year 3, children aspired most to having a career as Arts professionals (musician, artist, writer and so on), followed by School Teachers, Veterinarians, Architects, and Science professionals. These were the top five occupations where a university education was involved.

The next most popular careers were Engineering Professionals, Medical Professionals, Social and Welfare Professionals, Legal Professionals and Registered Nurses/Midwives.

However we found that interest in some occupations – arts, architecture and veterinary science – declines in the later years of schooling, while interest in others – engineering, nursing, and social and welfare work – grows.

Interest in teaching, medicine, legal and science careers is more stable across the school years.

In some occupational categories, interest appears to rise or fall towards the very end of high school. For example, students are less likely to aspire to be a vet or artist as they mature, but more likely to aspire to architecture, engineering, medicine, social work or law. Furthermore, significant interest in these careers is often expressed as early as Year 7, sometimes Year 5. In other careers, such as teaching and science, student interest is more consistent across year levels.

Why do children change their aspirations?

The data we have collected gives us a clearer view of how and when aspirations change. This evidence provides fertile ground for any policy maker or program developer involved in career education.

The variations we found across year levels might relate to ongoing assessment by students of their abilities and achievement levels as they age or, indeed, to a more realistic understanding of what is involved in certain careers.

However it is possible these patterns indicate a range of quite specific influences, such as: how a teacher communicates expectations of a child (whether they will continue on to university); or a family’s understanding of how paying for university education works (believing it costs too much and they can’t afford it); or even an understanding that university study is involved in the pathway to a certain career or belief that the pathway is possible.

The process of forming aspirations can have a profound influence on the life prospects of a child. Our ongoing research is looking closely at what is happening here, with the aim of informing teachers, higher education providers, and policy makers.


Jenny Gore is Professor of Education at the University of Newcastle. Her research interests have consistently focussed on the quality of teaching and learning, teacher socialisation, alternative pedagogy, power relations in teaching, reform in teacher education and pedagogical reform. She has been involved in and/or managed several large research grants, with research income over $5.9 million. Jenny was a member of the research team that generated the concept of Productive Pedagogy and, with Associate Professor James Ladwig, was co-author of the NSW model of pedagogy known as Quality Teaching. Professor Gore was Dean of Education and Head of the School of Education at the University of Newcastle (2008-2013) and and has held positions as President of the NSW Teacher Education Council, Executive member of the Australian Council of Deans of Education, Research Training Coordinator for the Australian Association for Research in Education, and Associate Editor of Teaching and Teacher Education. Jenny’s major books include The Struggle for Pedagogies: Critical and feminist discourses as regimes of truth and Feminisms and Critical Pedagogy (edited with Carmen Luke). Her current research programs focus on understanding student aspirations for greater equity and investigating teacher professional development through Quality Teaching Rounds.

So who wants to teach these days? (Be surprised)

The quality of teachers is a growing focus of educational reform around the world, with new policies attempting to ensure that only the ‘best and brightest’ are selected for the teaching profession. In Australia the push is evident in government policy that is increasingly imposing regulations, at both national and state and territory levels, on who enters teacher education programs. If Finland requires that all teachers have a master’s degree and South Korea only accepts applicants from the top 5% of the high school academic cohort, then Australia needs to lift its requirements for entry to teaching, so the logic goes.

But underpinning these developments is the assumption that prospective teachers lack the desired ‘best and brightest’ academic and personal qualities. (If the ‘best and brightest’ already aspired to be teachers why would you need policies to attract them?) So we decided to look more closely at who, among school students, is interested in teaching and why teaching appeals to them.

We discovered that interest in teaching is widespread among school students in Australia, though exactly who wants to teach – and the reasons students expressed for wanting to teach – might be surprising to many. But most surprising of all is that Australia is not doing enough to capitalise on the interest of our would-be teachers.

The best and brightest

In policy and mainstream media in Australia the dominant narrative is that current and prospective teachers fail to make the ‘quality’ grade. This, in turn, is seen to contribute to an image problem that deters ‘the best and the brightest’ from seeking careers in teaching.

This narrative has been particularly virulent in the news media whereby universities have been accused, with some basis in fact, of setting poor academic standards for entry into teaching degrees and using teaching to make up shortfalls in enrolments, regardless of the academic achievement levels of applicants. Low academic standards are seen as making teaching a less attractive pathway for ‘high quality’ applicants .The extended logic is that declining ‘attractiveness’ combined with projected workforce shortages will only exacerbate this problem. Hence, addressing the problem of teacher quality is framed not only as a matter of keeping those deemed ‘inappropriate’ out but also finding ways to bring those with the desired credentials in.

In response to these concerns, in 2011, the Australian Government first introduced a national set of standards and procedures for the accreditation of initial teacher education programs, declaring that ‘it is expected that applicants’ levels of personal literacy and numeracy should be broadly equivalent to those of the top 30 per cent of the population’. Providers enrolling students not meeting this requirement had to ‘establish satisfactory additional arrangements’ to make sure they met the standard before graduation.

While entry standards is the primary focus, the former Federal Minister for Education, Christopher Pyne, portrayed teacher education programs as ‘too theoretical’, making for graduates who cannot teach effectively in key areas, especially literacy and numeracy. According to the Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group in 2014, teachers are graduating without the requisite knowledge and skills to be ‘classroom ready’, and this shortfall in quality must be addressed in order to lift student outcomes and arrest a decline in the performance of Australian students in international comparative testing.

Some states and territories have developed their own mechanisms for achieving the necessary academic standards for ‘the best and brightest’. For example, NSW authorities have restricted school leaver entry into teaching degrees to those who graduate with three Band 5s in their Higher School Certificate including English, and, according to accounts in news media, will soon introduce mandatory ‘personality assessments’ to ‘weed out candidates unsuited to teaching before they begin their degrees’. By 2020, the South Australian state government seeks to establish a requirement for all new teachers to hold a master’s qualification.

So is it true? Do we not attract the best and brightest?

Much of the discourse on the poor quality of teachers rests on a thin evidence base. This has been particularly so in relation to current concerns about the admission of high school leavers into teaching with poor academic credentials.

Yes, ATAR ‘cut-offs’ for entry to teaching degrees have declined in recent years. But this fact is not useful when considered in isolation. Other factors that should be considered include: the small percentage of students coming into teaching with a low ATAR (less than 20%); the inadequacy of ATAR as a predictor of student performance at university; ATAR as a norm-referenced rather than criterion-referenced indicator of relative performance (meaning that no matter how high performances are, there will always be a top 10% or bottom 50%, etc.); and, ATAR cut-offs as an indication of supply and demand, rather than quality. For example, enrolments in teacher education in 2014 were 42% greater than 2001 enrolments. Moreover, average yearly increase in enrolments for the period 2002–2009 was 1.9% but for 2010–2014 it was 4.1%. During this latter period there was an intensified national push to widen participation in higher education, including for people from low socioeconomic status backgrounds, many of whom make their foray into higher education through teaching, nursing, and the arts.

In this context and with an increasing number of places available, simplistic accounts of declining ATAR ‘cut-offs’ tell a fraction of a much more complicated story. In terms of our argument, while ATAR ‘cut-off’ data indicate that academic requirements for entry are falling, there is no evidence that the quality of students in the top 30%, for example, is changing from year to year. Arguably, ATAR has been mis-used to strengthen critiques of the quality of entrants to teacher education and teachers in general.

What we did in our study

Our study investigated the career aspirations of 6,492 Australian school students who, at the start of the study, were in Years 3, 5, 7, or 9 at 64 government schools in New South Wales, Australia. In a survey administered annually from 2012 to 2015, participating students were asked to indicate their occupational interests and give reasons for their choices. We collected a total of 10,543 valid surveys.

We wanted to know if substantial numbers of ‘bright’ students (with high academic achievement) are interested in teaching. Of those who are interested, are they among the ‘best’ and do they have the ‘right’ kinds of motivations?

Recent research has demonstrated that children are forming career interests at an early stage of their schooling and that most young children have aspirations for, and can envisage, future careers. Of the participating students, 5,925 nominated at least one occupation in any survey. Our focus in this paper is on the 821 students who, in one or more of the surveys, expressed an interest in teaching.

We investigated which kinds of students named teaching, and why, using a range of student background and school-related variables. While careful not to provide an overly celebratory account, we acknowledge cause for cautious optimism about the future of teaching which, we argue, provides critical input into current debates that touch not only the work, but the very character, of teachers.

What we found

Widespread interest in teaching

Of all students who named a specific career interest, 13.9% named teaching, that is, 821 of the 5,925 students who named at least one occupation in any survey. Considering all survey responses in which a specific occupation was named, teaching accounted for 9.8% of all named jobs. Teaching was second in popularity only to careers in sports, and was ahead of other frequently named occupations such as: veterinarian; actor, dancer, and other entertainer; animal attendant and trainer; police; defence force; music professional; life scientist; and, engineering professional.

There were no significant variations in children’s level of interest in teaching when we examined socio-economic status, cultural capital, language backgrounds, school location, school ICSEA, prior achievement, self-perception of relative academic performance, participation in tutoring, and whether or not they had a parent who is a teacher.

Significant effects were found when we considered gender, Indigenous status, and cohort, indicating areas of concentrated interest in teaching. Specifically, the odds of girls naming teaching were nearly five times the odds of boys naming teaching, while Indigenous students were more likely to express interest in teaching than non-Indigenous students. Students in the ‘middle years’ cohort (moving from Year 5 to Year 8 during the study) were less likely to express interest in teaching than students in the younger and older groups. Despite this significant cohort effect, interest in teaching across the age groups was consistently high – between 8 and 13 % of all survey responses for the four age cohorts.

Bright students are interested in teaching

Prior achievement was not a significant predictor of interest in teaching, with students in the top quartile – the ‘brightest’? – being no less or more likely to name teaching as a career interest than students in the lower three quartiles. Indeed, there was slightly more interest among students in the top two NAPLAN quartiles compared with students in the lower quartiles. Moreover, when considering the NAPLAN quartiles from which students expressed interest in teaching, 255 of the 821 students who named teaching, or 31% of this sample, came from the top quartile.

It was similar in the self-rating of the students interested in teaching as a career: 52.4% rated themselves as ‘above’ (39.5%) or ‘well above’ (12.9%) in academic performance.

Not a back-up plan

Given the widespread interest in teaching among students in our sample, we compared three groups of survey responses: surveys in which a student expressed interest in teaching only (that is, teaching but no other occupations); those in which a student expressed interest in teaching among other occupations; and, those in which a student expressed interest in other jobs (not teaching). This analysis was designed to test the possibility that large numbers of students were naming teaching as a secondary or ‘back-up’ choice and that such students might have different characteristics from those who expressed singular interest in teaching.

The analysis showed that the characteristics of students interested in teaching only and those interested in teaching among other jobs varied little in terms of proportions, with the one exception being that Indigenous students named teaching only (8.5%) in higher numbers than those who named teaching in conjunction with other jobs (5.8%).

We also compared the proportion of survey responses in which students named a singular interest in teaching (49%) with the proportion of survey responses from our larger sample in which students expressed singular interest in other popular occupations (Arts professional 56%, Nurse 54%, Veterinarian 54%, Architect 52%, Engineer 52%, Teaching 49%, Law 49%, Science 49%, Medicine 47%, Social/Welfare professional 47%).

We found that students who considered teaching were no more or less likely to name multiple occupational interests than students considering other occupations requiring a university degree, thus providing further evidence against a ‘back-up plan’ as an explanation for the high level of interest in teaching.

In summary, these data challenge the contemporary policy view that teaching is no longer attracting ‘bright’ or academically capable students. Indeed, 31% of those interested in teaching were in the highest achievement quartile. More broadly, we found a high level of interest in teaching that is widespread among students across the range of demographic and educational variables that were investigated.

Teaching appeals for the ‘best’ reasons

When asked why they wanted to teach, students’ explanations were primarily related to: ‘liking’ or ‘loving’ children (18%), the idea of teaching/being a teacher (14%), and/or a particular subject area (6%); a desire to help children to learn (16%); a perception that it would be fun or enjoyable to work as a teacher (12%); and/or, because they consider themselves skilled or otherwise suitable for teaching (8%). In general, altruistic concerns to help children learn and intrinsic motivations based on the attractiveness of teaching as a rewarding job dominated students’ explanations for their interest. These findings indicate that despite negative representations of teachers, school students who were interested in teaching expressed overwhelmingly positive views of the job and confidence in their own suitability.

The main differences among students were: girls more frequently referred to ‘liking’ and ‘loving’ children (20% females; 5% males); boys more often declared their interest in a particular school subject (14% males; 5% females); and, Indigenous students more often named their desire to help children learn (19% Indigenous; 15% non-Indigenous) and their affection for a particular teachers (19% Indigenous; 14% non-Indigenous) but less often declared themselves to have the personal skills that made them well suited to the role (5% Indigenous; 8% non-Indigenous) or to love a particular subject (4% Indigenous; 7% non-Indigenous).

How can we use this widespread aspiration to be a teacher?

Our point is not to take a particular position ‘for’ or ‘against’ current policy, nor to suggest we can identify the ‘real’ ‘problem’. Rather, our data provide a counter-narrative about who seeks to teach and selection policies that constitute teachers as the problem.

We question whether current resource-intensive efforts to lift the quality of aspiring teachers are warranted. If a considerable proportion of students interested in teaching come from the top academic quartile (31%), and the majority of students interested in teaching see themselves as ‘above’ or ‘well-above’ average in comparison with their classmates (52%), and many have a high opinion of their academic capacities and broader suitability as conveyed in the reasons given for interest in teaching, there should be plenty of high-achieving applicants to teaching.

Maintaining interest in teaching among school students may present a greater challenge than locking in academic achievement as the key problem, particularly if aspirants are bombarded with rhetoric that lowers esteem for teachers and teaching.

Rather than investing so heavily in the regulation of who can teach, Australian education policy makers might consider ways to capitalise on the widespread interest in and enthusiasm for teaching that appears to exist among school students, including high-achieving students and those in the later years of high school.

Our findings present a counter-narrative to the portrayal of teachers and teacher candidates as unsuitable for the job. As one of the only studies, internationally, of school students’ interest in teaching, this alternative representation of who wants to teach suggests a more hopeful future of teaching being in good hands.


Here is the full text of our paper Who says we are not attracting the best and brightest? Teacher selection and the aspirations of Australian school students



Jenny Gore is a Professor in the School of Education and Director of the Teachers and Teaching Research Centre at the University of Newcastle. In addition to research on student aspirations, she is currently leading a research agenda focused on teacher professional development through Quality Teaching Rounds.





Rosie Joy Barron is a former Research Assistant at the University of Newcastle. She is currently undertaking research higher degree studies at the University of Melbourne. Her research interests include therapeutic education, political theory, and shifting understandings of equity and social justice. 


KATHHolmes copyKathryn Holmes, a former member of the Teachers and Teaching Research Centre at the University of Newcastle, is a Professor of Education at Western Sydney University. With a PhD in Financial Mathematics and a background in mathematics education, her research focuses on the application of technology in education, increasing participation in STEM disciplines, and improving quality, equity, and access in schools and higher education.



Maxwell Smith is a Professor in the School of Education at the University of Newcastle and a founding member of the Teachers and Teaching Research Centre. With expertise in complex quantitative analysis, Max’s research interests extend from child development and pedagogy to measurement and evaluation in education.

Research evidence of issues facing disadvantaged students in higher education

The issues facing disadvantaged students wanting a tertiary education are multi-faceted. Just getting into a course at university can be difficult, then there are many hurdles students will face before they actually complete their degree.

This is why funding of over $1 million was made available by The National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE) during 2014 and 2015 for research projects at Australian universities and other research organisations to investigate aspects of student equity in higher education.

The competitive research grants program was designed to further investigate the impact higher education policy has on marginalised and disadvantaged students and how we could improve participation and success. The NCSEHE publication ‘Informing Policy and Practice’ highlights the outcomes of the first 12 research reports.

Each report addresses different, but related, aspects of higher education student equity. They all bring evidence-based investigation to the consideration of policy and practice. This research highlights the complexity of the issues the researchers are attempting to unravel, and that simple statements arising from analysis need to be carefully considered.

The results confirm that more needs to be done to ensure that capable people are not prevented from accessing and completing higher education.

Higher education confers significant individual benefits in terms of personal development, career opportunities and lifetime learning. Higher education is also the key to the social well-being and economic prosperity of Australia. Providing access to higher levels of education to people from all backgrounds enhances social inclusion and reduces social and economic disadvantage.

In the interests of individuals and for the nation, higher education equity for all capable people must be seen as an objective of the system.

We know, from our research, that the policy framework needed to achieve the required change for disadvantaged people will not result from a single policy decision or funding program. It is complex and challenging and needs a wide-ranging response.

There are 12 research reports available. They include research across the various equity groups:-

Resilience/Thriving in Post-Secondary Students with Disabilities: An Exploratory Study
by Dr Rahul Ganguly, Dr Charlotte Bronwlow, Dr Jan Du Preez and Dr Coralie Graham (University of Southern Queensland)

Educational outcomes of young Indigenous Australians
by Stephane Mahuteau, Tom Karmel, Kostas Mavromaras and Rong Zhu (National Institute of Labour Studies at Flinders University)

Are low SES students disadvantaged in the university application process?
by Dr Buly Cardak (La Trobe University), Dr Mark Bowden and Mr John Bahtsevanoglou (Swinburne University of Technology)

Choosing university: The impact of schools and schooling
by Jenny Gore, Kathryn Holmes, Max Smith, Andrew Lyell, Hywel Ellis and Leanne Fray (University of Newcastle)

Do individual background characteristics influence tertiary completion rates?
by Patrick Lim, National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER)

Completing university in a growing sector: is equity an issue?
by Dr Daniel Edwards and Dr Julie McMillan (ACER)

Exploring the experience of being first in family at university
by Associate Professor Sharron King (University of South Australia), Dr Ann Luzeckyj (Flinders University), Associate Professor Ben McCann (University of Adelaide) and Ms Charmaine Graham (University of South Australia)

Secondary School Graduate Preferences for Bachelor Degrees and Institutions
by Trevor Gale (Deakin University), Stephen Parker, Tebeje Molla, Kim Findlay, with Tim Sealey

Best practice bridging: facilitating Indigenous participation through regional dual-sector universities
by Bronwyn Fredericks ( CQUniversity) et al

University access and achievement of people from out-of-home care backgrounds
by Andrew Harvey, Patricia McNamara, Lisa Andrewartha, Michael Luckman (La Trobe University)

Understanding Evaluation for Equity Programs: A guide to effective program evaluation
by Dr Ryan Naylor, Melbourne Centre for the Study of Higher Education (University of Melbourne)

Equity groups and predictors of academic success in higher education
by Jill Scevak, Erica Southgate, Mark Rubin, Suzanne Macqueen, Heather Douglas, Paul Williams (University of Newcastle)


Sue_Trinidad_Retouched_2 copy


Professor Sue Trinidad – Prior to becoming the Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education’s Director, Sue was Deputy Pro-Vice Chancellor and Dean of Teaching and Learning in the Faculty of Humanities at Curtin during 2007-2012. In these roles she provided academic leadership for the five schools and led the Higher Education Equity Participation Program for a large faculty which had many LSES, Indigenous and regional students. Sue is an established scholar in the areas of higher education pedagogy and change management, the use of technology and student learning. Her research covers higher education and leadership, including the use of technology for regional, rural and remote areas to provide equity access to all students regardless of their geographical location. Sue has also been involved in consultancies, research projects and grants both in Australia and internationally, including Australian Research Council and Office for Learning and Teaching funded research. She currently sits as an advisor to the Western Australian Minister of Education on the Regional and Remote Advisory Council (RREAC).  Her teaching, learning and research have been acknowledged by a number of awards including the 2001 Life Membership Award for the Educational Computing Association of Western Australia for her work with teachers, two best research paper awards in 2004 and 2006,  the Vice-Chancellor’s Award for Excellence and Innovation in Higher Education in 2010; a Citation for Outstanding Contributions to Student Learning 2014; and the PTCWA Outstanding Professional Service Award 2014.

What good school leaders do: getting it right takes time

The role of the principal today is challenging and complex. Schools face constant change, not only in curricula and technology for example, but also as they get more power to make local decisions over things such as finances and staffing. A principal has to negotiate all of this and deal with increasing public scrutiny through the publication and comparison of high stakes test results.

I decided to look more closely at what principals do as they attempt to balance the activities needed for implementation of ‘big picture’ visions with the daily tasks that require more immediate attention. My study helps provide an insight into the qualities that help principals be effective at leading and sustaining change in their schools.

What good school leaders do

There have been lots of research studies undertaken and many papers written about what makes a good school principal. I discovered there is a broad agreement on what makes an effective school leader. I have reduced the list down to five major qualities.

Firstly principals need to be able to lead the creation of a shared vision for their school. It should have a clear moral purpose and achievable goals. School staff need to feel as though they have had a big say in what that vision is and how it will be achieved.

Secondly, principals should pay attention to the individual people they are working with. Building relationships is important. Not only should principals develop trust between each member and themselves but they should also help build a feeling of trust among staff members in general. Principals should get to know each staff member well enough to be able to help and encourage them with their teaching work.

Thirdly, they should draw on multiple sources of information to solve problems as they arise. This is not just a matter of building a network of people to go to for help or advice but to be open to looking at a wide range of data about the school and its performance. It also means principals need to be flexible enough to change school procedures and arrangements where necessary.

Fourthly principals should have a sustained focus on the core business of schooling, that is, teaching and learning.

Lastly principals need to be able to see beyond the school walls. They should understand and be able to build links with their local community. They should be aware of the political landscape within which the school and community operates.

I decided to look at how the qualities outlined above played out with two principals in two specially selected schools.

The schools were selected in consultation with the regional School Education Development Officer. Selection criteria included stable, motivated and energetic school leadership; stable, dynamic school staff; willingness to devote attention and time; and having an open attitude towards change. The research team worked with the schools from mid-2009 to the end of 2011.

Our study discovered that the principals in both schools showed ample evidence of all of the qualities mentioned above.

However the development of a shared vision proved to be the most interesting of all the components we looked at, so I will give you more details of what happened with this one. (Go to my full paper for details of findings on the other components).

 Getting a shared vision takes time

The principals’ first task in the project was to develop, in consultation with their staff, a suitable long term goal to guide their actions in the medium and short term. This process proved to be a surprisingly difficult task. In the case of the primary school, it took the project steering committee twelve months and ten meetings to arrive at their goal “to build a culture of success based on our vision of the ideal graduate, in order to better aid transition from primary to high school.” The protracted nature of the goal setting process was due in part to the need for the vision to be a shared one. As one of the staff on the committee commented:

“But I think, even the way it is delivered…..it hasn’t been [the principal] saying, right, we are doing this, this and this. It’s been a collaboration. What do you think about this? Let’s have a look at it. Do you want to try it? Go away, have a think, come back, let’s talk about it.”(primary steering committee teacher)

A similarly prolonged process took place in the secondary school as they worked on setting a common long term goal. After nine months and nine meetings of their steering committee they arrived at the goal “to make [this school] the school of choice”, that is, the school that parents want their children to attend after they leave primary school. Interestingly, this goal was suggested by the secondary school principal in the first meeting, however, it took nine more months for agreement to be achieved. Despite what could be seen as wasted time, the principal explained:

“…people tell me it’s a lot to do with my leadership. But it’s a lot to do with my belief that if you have people on board and going in the same path, you’ve got to give them the respect and the opportunity, and allow them to be involved in all the processes and have that openness and transparency, and that’s something I really, I believe I’ve done pretty well…Yes, something I’ve consciously worked at.”(secondary school principal)

As the project progressed the primary and secondary school teachers began to communicate with each other in more significant ways than had previously occurred. They visited each other’s schools and observed lessons, which lead to significant conversations about teaching and learning, specifically in relation to mathematics. As time progressed the teachers in both schools began to talk about shared goals in terms of teaching approaches that could be employed to provide better outcomes for students.

“Getting out to the partner primary schools has been a really positive link… I think it’s been instrumental.” (secondary school principal)

“For me the extra interaction and communication between myself, our school and the high school have been invaluable, absolutely surpassed any expectations I actually had… The communication with the high school and those networks with people that are now working not just down there and up here, but together to improve student learning outcomes.” (Primary school Year 6 teacher)

The benefits of all staff in the primary school working toward a shared goal were also recognised by a parent representative interviewed as part of the project:

“I think the staff are working quite cohesively now over the last couple of years as well, they seem to be communicating a lot better, and they’re on the same page, and they have, you know, common goals and they’re working towards the same direction… and I think that’s good… Earlier on they were a bit sort of working towards different things.”(primary school parent)

The experiences within the two school settings examined in this study exemplify the difficulties involved in developing shared goals, however, the case studies also articulate clearly the benefits of persisting with the process.

Implications for educational leaders

We found ample evidence that both principals worked actively to pursue the development of a long term goal, inclusive of their staff, albeit encouraged and assisted by the research team in this process. However, in both cases this process took considerable time and required the principals’ patience as the staff worked through various options. Ultimately the process in both schools was successful in arriving at a shared goal; however, the length of the consultation process provides a beneficial lesson for any leaders wishing to make change quickly. Given the pace of educational policy change and the increasing pace of change in society in recent times, this tension between facilitating change in an inclusive manner and imposing top-down measures is likely to continue.

The two principals also made considerable efforts to build constructive and trusting relationships with their staff. In part, the extended time taken during the goal setting process in each school was reflective of the respect that the leaders demonstrated toward their staff. Both leaders demonstrated effective communication styles that encouraged staff to feel invited to participate and provide input, knowing that it would be welcomed and considered in the process.

Despite much of their time being consumed by ‘non-teaching’ activities such as behaviour management and organisational matters, both principals were able to maintain a clear focus on issues related to the improvement of teaching and learning, although this often occurred in a tangential manner. The leaders focussed on enabling their staff to focus on teaching and learning by providing a supportive structure, guided in part by the research team. As a result the teachers became self-motivated agents of change, primarily focussed on improving student learning outcomes.

Although focussed on long term planning over a five year period, this research project examined only the first two years of the reform process. In these two years the school leaders and teachers developed long and short term goals and began the implementation process toward these goals.

Despite the subsequent withdrawal of the research team, there was evidence that the project would lead to sustainable change over a longer time period. Both the primary and the high school principals expressed a desire to continue to build on the gains made throughout the project:

“Getting out to the partner primary schools has been a really positive link, and people are looking at how we can build on that in the future, to maintain it, to continue it” (High school principal).

“Continuation of working with the high school. I’d like to see it not just with maths, but across other areas… So I can see that the stuff that we’ve started is spilling out to… the other schools, so people are wanting to come on board.” (Primary school principal)

There was also evidence that the planning process initiated in conjunction with the research team had become embedded within the schools as an important contributory component necessary for the continuation of the change process.

“I think even, you know, in the future, project or no project, those communication links will be further developed with those teachers and myself and our committee up here, which is only going to mean better outcomes for our students and bridging that transition gap from Year 6 to Year 7, which was definitely a goal for us at this end.”(Primary school Year 6 teacher)

This study has focussed on the process of long term change from the perspective of the school leaders and teachers involved in the process. We have not measured the resulting impact on student achievement, however, there were encouraging signs that the teachers and principals involved placed student learning outcomes at the centre of their reform efforts and were determined to continue the change process:

“We both have the same goal and the same aim i.e. the betterment of our students and their learning and supporting other students, which we’re talking a lot more than what we were… “(Primary school Year 6 teacher)

It appeared that the existence of a clear common purpose between high school and primary school teachers, with a focus on improved student learning outcomes, had energised the reform efforts occurring in each school, lending momentum to the continuation of the collaborative process.

“It would have to be the communication with the high school and those networks with people that are now working not just down there and up here, but together to improve student learning outcomes.” (Primary school Year 6 teacher)

If we are to understand how school leaders can best act to improve student learning then more long term research is needed. This study demonstrates that the pace of authentic school reform can be frustratingly slow and that progress toward long term goals can be sidetracked in response to changing government policies or community concerns.

School leaders must be able maintain a clear focus on long term goals, in order to manage the competing demands, while encouraging their staff to do the same. This is not an easy task.


This blog is based on the paper  The complex task of leading educational change in schools   by Kathryn Holmes, Jennifer Clement and James Albright. It was the most read paper in ‘School Leadership and Management” in 2014 and is included in the Class of 2015 series of articles, available free for all of 2015

Kath Holmes


Dr Kathryn Holmes is a Senior Lecturer in Mathematics Education in the School of Education at the University of Newcastle. She is currently the Co-editor of the international journal ‘Teaching and Teacher Education’. 


What Twitter offers teachers: The evidence

Twitter is a revolutionary new tool for many teachers. They use it to drive their professional development and to connect with other educators.

However not everyone is so enthusiastic, others see Twitter as a tedious waste of time and are not tempted to give it a go. Of course many teachers may also describe face to face professional development sessions as a waste of time.

In order to convince teachers of the possible benefits of using a new technology, such as Twitter, we decided to look for evidence of its qualities. What in particular, does Twitter offer educators? Is it worth getting involved?

We identified 30 leading educators (with an interest in educational technology) who are currently using Twitter and analysed samples of their tweets in order to determine their purpose and the possible benefits of the tweets to their followers.

We also examined a sample of tweets from the twitter streams of two popular educational hashtags: #edchat and #edtech, in order to determine what ‘followers’ may gain.

As we are associating Twitter with teacher professional development it should be noted, professional development is most effective when it :-

  • is sustained over a period of time
  • is practical and contextual and directly related to student learning
  • is collaborative and involves the sharing of knowledge and
  • is devolved so that the participants have some element of control and ownership.


There is also a growing body of evidence that points to the effectiveness of professional development which is initiated and controlled personally, in the form of  personal learning networks.

What we found

Twitter is a filter for educational content
The biggest category, 34% of all tweets in the sample, contained links to other educationally focussed websites or blogs. In this sense the users of Twitter are acting as a filter for educational content that is available on the internet.

Twitter facilitates positive, supportive, contact between teachers but not sustained educational conversations
The second highest ranking category was that of a personal reply to another Twitter user (25%). In many cases these replies were personal thanks to another user for a previous tweet which was deemed particularly useful.  Almost invariably tweets in this category were of a positive supportive nature, this support, could potentially be a significant boost for teachers who find themselves isolated either geographically or professionally from their colleagues.

In most cases however the replies did not have an education focus, with only 1% of all tweets in the sample falling into this category.  This finding may indicate the unsuitability of this microblogging medium for fostering sustained educational conversations; as such interactions would generally require more space and time so that developed arguments can be fully explained. 

Educator tweeters are not prone to tweeting inane meaningless comments
Only 9% of the 600 tweets examined consisted of personal comments, unrelated to educational topics. These comments were usually in relation to the user’s location or were descriptive about their activities for the day. This finding is of note, given that an oft-repeated, anecdotal criticism of Twitter is that it consists only of inane, meaningless and somewhat narcissistic personal comments. 

The majority of hashtag posts contain educational links
The use of hashtags within tweets is one way that users can collate posts under common streams of interest. The majority of hashtag posts (70%) contain links to educational websites or blogs. The remaining posts were either links to educational newspaper articles (19%), comments of an educational nature (10%) or in one case, an invitation to join a group of educators in another online.

Hashtags enable access to a wide variety of web-based resources and news without the need to interact with others or to sift through the personal communications between others.
Depending on an individual’s professional learning needs, this flexibility could be an important factor to be highlighted when introducing this medium to educators.

Twitter offers connections with a network of like-minded educators
Any teacher signing up to Twitter and following the leading educators is potentially exposed to a rich, interconnected network of other like-minded educators and is directed to a wide variety of up-to-date and relevant educational material. The collaborative and public nature of the Twitter medium allows for networks of participants to form naturally in response to common interests. Individuals can actively participate by posting their own tweets or can simply follow others to gain links to current educational resources and news

Twitter gives a user total control over the level of interaction and focus
Unlike a stand-alone professional development session, Twitter has the advantage that it can be tapped into on any day at any time, leaving open the possibility that it may lead to learning over a sustained period of time, which can be accessed at the most optimal time for each user. The medium also allows for each participant to focus on the particular educational issues that concern them at the time. In this way the Twitter medium does afford the individual user with total control over the level of interaction and the nature of the learning that occurs as a result.

The key characteristics of effective professional development could be accomplished through the use of Twitter.
Twitter can be used to establish teacher networks and facilitate access to new resources and information. Such online communities of learning could also potentially provide links between pre-service teachers and experienced educators. In this sense, the initial ‘education’ of teachers, could be enriched through participation in multiple online professional learning communities with practitioners in the field, allowing meaningful interactions beyond the traditional practicum.

Twitter is but one mechanism for online collaboration and communication among a growing number of social media sites, however, its current and growing popularity ensures that a critical mass of educators will be available for networking opportunities. These online interactions don’t replace the significance of face to face collaborations and discussions with colleagues, but the findings from this study indicate that they can be a valuable alternate means of professional self-development.

(Further research is needed to evaluate the tangible impact of teacher engagement with social media for professional development. While this study has confirmed the potential of the medium, and while there are plenty of Twitter champions encouraging wider participation, the eventual impact on learning in the classroom is untested.)

Kath HolmesDr Kathryn Holmes is a Senior Lecturer in Mathematics Education in the School of Education at the University of Newcastle. She is currently the Deputy Head of School for Research.

Find the full paper ‘Follow’ Me: Networked Professional Learning for Teachers by Kathryn Holmes, Greg Preston, Kylie Shaw and Rachel Buchanan, University of Newcastle HERE.