teacher professional development

Embracing the past: creatively using millennials’ growing interest in ceremonies of commemoration

This week many teachers will be turning their attention to the next event in the school calendar, the commemoration of ANZAC day. Research tells us that over 94% of Australians agree that this is a very important day for commemorating our country and its freedoms.

The current generation of young people, the maligned millennial generation, seems to be embracing memorialisation and commemoration activities, such as ANZAC day celebrations, in increasing numbers. My colleagues and I have noticed a growing interest among young people in ANZAC ceremonies. Many seem enthusiastic about attending and some are even interested in travelling overseas to see battlefields for themselves.

We know that 46%, or nearly half, of Australian households has either one or both parents born overseas, so we wonder why, when we know that most young people seem to particularly abhor the idea of war, would this generation embrace the associated ceremonies of commemoration?

The way schools conceptualise commemoration activities usually involve flying flags, singing songs and the retelling of heroic tales and yet our research tells us students seem to take away much more than this from participating in such events.

Those of us who work in history and drama teacher education are very interested in the increasing attentiveness to wars of the past and the growth in participation in memorialisation and commemoration ceremonies. We are keen to know why it is happening and how we, as teachers of teachers, can approach it in the teaching of history in schools.

Why young people have a desire to remember wars largely unrelated to them and their forebears, perhaps goes to their heightened desire to empathise and connect to their country by participating in national events. The discourse around national events encourages young people to think about participation in citizenship and community as central to what some contrive as an Australian way of life, and contribute to a sense of belonging.

So as teachers and researchers we needed to ask how would remembering the past, particularly world wars, inform the futures of our young people? How could understanding about wars that are perceived by the young as a source of regret rather than of growth, provide students from a host of backgrounds and experiences with new knowledge to navigate uncertain times?

This generation is often depicted as either the scourge of their nation or alternatively its salvation, and it is firmly under the microscope. Our young people are often provoked by the media and told that theirs will be a chaotic and complex future, that the skills they will need to navigate this unwieldy future should be radically rethought if they are to be successful citizens in the post normal future.

Our project

It’s precisely because the modern world is increasingly complex and because we need new ways of thinking about how knowledge is acquired, that led to our interdisciplinary project. Interdisciplinary thinking in our project refers to a coming together of different researchers in particular and related fields of historiography, drama and applied theatre, primary and secondary education to generate new knowledge about complex problems.

In the case of our project, initially our idea was to improve attrition rates in history electives in secondary school and to engage teachers with new and relevant pedagogies. Our project was designed to provide teachers a respite from the current educational climate that mandates teachers spend an increasing amount of time in the classroom on testing, measuring and standardisation rather than legitimising time for creative play in a professional development setting.

We offered teachers from different disciplines an opportunity for a creative collaboration about teaching the history of war that included experiences with performance and dramatic thinking. The result was a richness of intention and perspective that became fertile ground for new knowledge to be seamlessly and creatively co constructed. Passions were ignited or reignited; discipline siloes were disassembled and new confidences with unfamiliar pedagogies embraced.

What we did

The British philosopher Ziauddin Sardar suggested that we think about our imagination as the most important tool for tackling the future, so we took this as our impetus. Using the digital archives of the University of Sydney, Beyond1914 (an extensive, searchable database of biographies and archival information about members of the community involved in World War 1) our early career teachers from low SES and regional schools, met with us and experienced a tour of the carillon in the university grounds, an introduction to the book of remembrance and then spent the afternoon in drama workshops where we used the story of Dr. Elsie Daylell, a wartime medical officer in various medical units, to introduce historical ideas such as commemoration, women in war and new perspectives using primary evidence as an interpretive tool.

We then followed these activities with a panel discussion to analyse the effectiveness of drama and creativity to assist students in thinking about historical concepts and the role of empathy in broadening historical awareness. By taking time to walk in someone else’s shoes and by reimagining real events teachers can help students transform meaning into consequential knowledge. The act of imagining in this case was a very powerful pedagogical tool.

By happy happenstance, my colleague Kate stumbled upon one of the celebrated World War poet Wilfred Owen’s poems the night before we launched our project and it has fittingly become the call to arms for our work and our research into imagination and empathy in teaching history. When we shared this with our teachers their reactions were quite profound and many of them were visibly moved.

“All a poet can do today is warn. That is why the true poets must be truthful”.

Teaching history and teaching students about truth in the Trump era of alternative facts is proving vexed for many teachers. When we teach History we also want students to understand perspectives and by using imagination, empathy and interpretation they can develop their own very personal take on what the truth really might be.

Our findings

One of our initial findings from the professional development day is as superficially simple and as deeply complex as this – teachers need time to play and to be creative when acquiring new knowledge, particularly about historical events.

As researchers and facilitators, we basked in the energy and the creative insights of the teachers who participated in our professional development day, it was a real privilege to be with them.

Understanding even momentarily and conceptualising the plight or circumstances of others allows us to develop reflective and critical skills of insight and analysis and space to change or alter views because of newfound empathy and emotional agility.

In January, 2018 Senior Australian of the year Graham Farquar described his generation as the luckiest to live on the planet so far. He urged us all to embrace our innate creativity, to struggle for honesty and in doing so, progress as a nation.

The way we can learn from our historical mistakes can be a product of play and creative experiences. An interdisciplinary and creative approach can activate and encourage critical thinking in and about the world and is paramount to understanding and approaching the complexity, the chaos and the challenges of the future for our young people.

We hope to repeat this day again with our teachers here in Sydney and to take our workshop to Cambridge University, Mary Immaculate College, Limerick Ireland and to Singapore later in the year and see what initial teacher education students experience when they engage with this work. Our research and work will continue.

And as for the pundits?
I rarely listen to them. I have a household, classrooms and lecture halls full of millennials – they are our ‘new hope’. The force is strong with them.
(Star Wars references courtesy of my very own Millennial, Ignatius.)


Dr. Alison O’Grady is the Program Director of Combined Degrees: English Curriculum, Pedagogy and Practices 1-3, Creativity and Teacher Artistry and lecturer at the University of Sydney, Sydney School of Education and Social Work. Alison is a former English and Drama teacher. Hers current research looks at history and drama and how these disciplines develop empathy and critical thinking. Alison’s most recent publication is a chapter, with Catherine Smyth, in Playing with possibilities P. O’Connor & C. Rozas Gomez (Eds.) called Finding Neverland: The affordances of play for teachers’ knowledge work.


Does professional development improve teaching?

Most Australian teachers returned to their schools last week, and for many their first day back was a pupil-free day spent doing doing professional development. I am sure most teachers were respectful and attentive to whatever sessions had been organised for them and fellow staff members by their school, but after the long summer holidays it can be a challenge.

I wonder how effective these professional development experiences might be for our teachers? Do we really know? Usually professional development is evaluated on the day and feedback is given, but how reliable or useful might this be? I am especially interested having just read a new paper by Professor Mary M Kennedy from Michigan State University.

So how does teacher professional development work?

Kennedy looked at 28 studies of all types of professional development (PD) programs for teacher learning in the US. Kennedy invites her readers to think about the idea that although there is widespread agreement about the importance of PD, and that PD can foster improvements in teaching, there is little consensus about how PD actually works.

She asks questions such as: What happens in PD? How does it actually foster teacher learning and furthermore how is it expected to change teaching practice? How can education researchers give more attention to developing their ideas about teacher learning alongside what they know about student learning?

Kennedy points out that there is no single overarching theory of teaching or of teacher learning and this is what makes the effects of PD complex. Now more than ever, teachers are enveloped by multiple conflicting messages about what is most important in the classroom, and that if one’s attention is in a particular area, then it may compromise their effectiveness in another. I often hear the lament that the education system is “noisy” and the feeling of being overloaded by education ideas/strategies/practices/content is tangible.

A second feature Kennedy raises has to do with how teachers’ translate new ideas into their own systems of practice. It’s worth remembering that PD is usually conducted outside of the classroom and whatever is said, modelled or shown during a PD session is meant to alter behaviours inside the classroom. It is a tall order when you break it down; the problem of enactment as Kennedy calls it, becomes very real.

Often in education literature, the terms professional development and professional learning are used interchangeably. And so, the term professional development is the activity, the process and experience teachers engage in, in order to develop their professional learning. Certainly from Australian colleagues there appears to be some agreement that professional learning primarily should be school-based and school-managed, and be focused on improving and reflecting on teaching practice. The scholarship of practitioner research embraces many of these ideals.

Critical professional development program design

In the final section of Kennedy’s paper there is a useful discussion of critical PD program design features:

  • There should be some element of content knowledge that has a broader goal of exposing student thinking
  • PD must include opportunities for collective participation – where it’s possible for teachers to discuss the intellectual work they are engaged in
  • It ought to have intensity in relation to time and the amount of information transmitted and especially when the PD program provides strategies or insights
  • Consider using coaches, again it depends on the coach, and the studies reviewed showed that coaches, as might be expected, vary in value
  • Should pay attention to the PD providers, for example, how are they selected, prepared for their work and examine how their efficacy is assessed; and
  • Issues of sustainability are critical in terms of the PD effects, and what does that look like at the end of the program, and then after one, or two years.

Kennedy finishes her review with a call to arms in that we need to ensure that PD promotes real learning for teachers’ rather than merely adding more noise to their working environment. Here, here I say!

I confess, that the Kennedy paper spoke to me at the right time. I was preparing for a PD session with teachers at Parramatta High School on the first day of the new school year. I changed a few of my plans.


*It is important to note in the paper it is PD (professional development) programs that Professor Kennedy is referring to.

The author would like to acknowledge and reference the paper from which many of the quotes and positions are drawn and trusts that this snapshot represents Professor Kennedy’s work in a meaningful and fair manner.

Kennedy, M. (2016). How does professional development improve learning? Review of Educational Research, , 86(4), 945-980.


Dr Jane Hunter is an education researcher in the School of Education, Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences at the University of Technology Sydney. She is conducting a series of STEM studies in Australian schools; in this work she leads teachers, school principals, students and communities to better understand and support education change. Jane was a classroom teacher, and she has received national and international teaching awards for outstanding contributions to student learning. She enjoys writing and her research-based presentations at national and international conferences challenge audiences to consider alternate education possibilities. You can follow her on Twitter @janehunter01


How useful are standards in helping teachers’ professional development?

Teachers are forever learning. The complex world of schooling today means that teachers need to keep learning so they can respond to the diverse needs of their student learners. At the same time teachers need to meet the regulations or ‘standards’ imposed on them by the ever-changing political landscape. Often these regulations are designed, in part, to make teachers engage with professional learning.

I decided to look at how important the standards are in supporting teachers with their professional learning. I wanted to unravel if and how teachers’ work is reshaped and reorganized by standardisation. Canadian sociologists Dorothy Smith and Alison Griffith highlight the importance of understanding the influence of the ‘new public management’ on what actually gets done at the ‘front line’ of public service industries, including education. I wanted to explore the ideas proposed by Smith and Griffith that “the managerial ‘boss’ or governing texts” play varying roles in the ‘governing’ of people’s front line work depending on how such texts are ‘activated’.

The conundrum of standards

As we know there is a rise in the use of various national standards – from teacher professional standards to quality standards in early childhood and student achievement standards – as a means of governing teachers’ work. The development and maintenance of these systems of standardization requires massive infusions of both time and money. These investments are justified because they purport to ensure teachers are more efficient, accountable, and effective.

A lot of teachers’ work is shaped by meeting documentation requirements or to ensure students meet prescribed benchmark standards. As many see it, these practices appear to be at odds with the claims that imposing standards improves teacher efficiency and teacher quality.

Governing texts such as national professional standards and a national curriculum can have the unintended effect of constraining opportunities for teachers to learn about their work. This occurs when they are interpreted in ways that encourage coverage of individual standards. However, I believe, when teachers are supported to engage in authentic, contextually appropriate professional learning that is focused on their learning needs in relation to the learning of their students, they can transform their practice.

The problematic

How can we know that a teacher’s learning has transformed their teaching work and how is support for such transformative learning coordinated?

What my study involved

I interviewed 8 teachers, including both primary and secondary teachers from the public, catholic and private sectors. Each teacher had participated in a variety of forms of professional development that previous research has identified as having the capacity to transform practice.

I asked them to talk about a time when they knew they had really learned something about their teaching work. What they had learned? How did they know they had learned? Just tell the story. Then, with guidance, they selected and demonstrated evidence of the learning they had spoken about. Finally, teachers were asked to reflect on the ‘fit’ as they saw it, between the learning they had spoken about and the evidence they had demonstrated.

I used institutional ethnography as a method of inquiry to explore research conversations and demonstrations of evidence, together with a mapping analysis to bring the ‘spaces’ or ‘gaps’ in which teachers learned about their work at the ‘front line’ into view.














(Source: Talbot, 2015 )

What I found

All of the participating teachers were able to turn their energy to engaging with learning about their teaching work as the creation of an ‘everyday utopia’ – alive to the imaginative, sensual and affective possibilities of interactions with their students.

Learning something about their teaching work began for each of the teachers in this study as a response to the learning needs of the students in front of them rather than as a response to the governing texts of recent educational ‘reform’. The learning happened in ‘spaces of possibility’ that existed because of the unique coordination of local social relationships by school-based ‘professional learning architects’ such as the school principal.

The role of the ‘professional learning architect’ in creating the possibilities for such learning to occur has ongoing significance as we move towards the mandatory accreditation of all teachers against national professional standards. The ‘professional learning architects’, especially the principals but also the teacher ‘professional learning architect’, have a clear vision of how all the individuated, differentiated, inquiry-based, externally provided bits of professional learning for the teachers within the school fit into the overall plan of providing learning experiences that meet the needs of the students.

While the ‘professional learning architect’ and some classroom teachers referred to the standards, they were only useful in a peripheral way to most classroom teachers. Their professional learning was more driven by engaging with the needs of their students.




Dr Debra Talbot is a Lecturer in Education and Co-director of Professional Experience at the University of Sydney. She has more than 20 years experience as a classroom teacher, head of department in government and independent sectors, and professional learning consultant. Debra’s research interests are in teacher education, curriculum, pedagogy, and social justice. She continues to work with teachers in schools in these areas. Read more about this study here.