On the benefits of collaboration
An interview with Caroline Reed and Reid Smith of Ochre Education
I’ve been looking forward to interviewing Caroline Reed and Reid Smith of Ochre Education for a while now. I remember talking to Caroline last spring about the ways Ochre has already evolved and I was reminded of the glaucoma drug that started producing long and luscious eyelashes on its ageing users. The drug company quickly picked up on this side effect and the drops were repackaged for off-label use in the paramedical beauty industry. Well, it seems that as well as providing teacher-created resources for time-poor teachers, there are other ‘off-label’ opportunities and benefits that have sprung up from this quickly expanding network.
Let’s start with the basics — what is Ochre?
Caroline: We're an independent, not-for-profit organization set up to improve student outcomes and narrow the disadvantage gap here in Australia by ensuring all students have access to a high-quality curriculum. And we do that by working with a community of teachers to develop a knowledge-rich curriculum and a series of instructional resources that support teachers to deliver that curriculum in their classrooms.
How did you realize there was a need? Was it information coming from the environment, or one of the various reports like the one from Grattan? Or was it from personal experience talking to teachers?
Reid: We think it came from a number of different places. Certainly for me, it came from experiences as a student in a rural school, and the experiences of teachers who are working really hard but being asked to teach across a large range of subject areas. I was also seeing students and teachers in those rural areas not necessarily having access to the same opportunities as students and teachers who were in more metro areas.
It also came from my experience working at a regional school, in a sizeable center not too far from metropolitan Melbourne, and some of the difficulties of staffing a school with specialist teachers. This was a challenge even in a well-resourced school that was in a relatively good position, compared to some other schools that were much more regional and remote. I also had the experience of seeing what could be gained by sharing the expertise of teachers from one classroom to the next.
Certainly, my own teaching experience reflects the opportunities that I've had to learn from my colleagues and peers within my school, and realising what would happen if we spread this out more widely. Instead of just having access to the four, five, ten or even 100 teachers in your own school or in your own town, imagine if you had access to that curriculum and teaching expertise across a whole country. We felt that there must be a way of sharing this expertise for the learning and benefit of teachers, but really for the service and learning of the students that are in their care. There was this need to share more broadly and more equitably the experience and expertise that exists in the system.
Caroline: Alongside all of that in relation to the need and the opportunity here in Australia, Oak National Academy in the UK really seemed like a proven model. Seeing the way that they had managed to bring this expertise together in a really quick and immediate way (during COVID lockdowns and remote teaching), we could see how something like Ochre could actually impact teachers' lives, next week and the week after. A lot of education reforms are very long-term and don't offer the opportunity for immediate impact. Oak National managed to do that, working really rapidly to bring those resources together and then make them available to teachers. The scale of the uptake that they've had from teachers in the UK means they have moved from being non-profit to now being part of the Department. It’s an acknowledgement that this is a real gap and that there's enormous value in filling it. We thought that this model, with adaptation of course, could work really well.
I can see some of the needs as being uniquely Australian in terms of how far apart schools are geographically. I just finished working at a small school of 500 students and we actually sent our teachers to other schools to receive mentoring. We would choose a big school and partner with them for the day. So I totally hear what you're saying. Oak did such a great job but our problem and your solution is unique to our context in some ways.
Caroline: Very much so. Think about those small remote or very remote schools in the Northern Territory with a very small teaching team for the whole school, and lots of schools in New South Wales where they've got a teaching principal and one other teacher who need to cover the full curriculum. We were seeing the challenges of being able to provide equitable access for those students, and supporting those teachers who are really doing an amazing job, supporting those communities. We wondered, How could we make that easier? How could we make that equitable for those teachers?
You must be getting feedback from your site statistics on what has been really popular. What kind of content has been most valuable to teachers?
Reid: We know that primary mathematics is an area that we have a significant amount of usage from both students and teachers. We know that in our English units, the narrative units tend to be used a little bit more than perhaps some of the other units that focus on different genres. So all the time we're seeking feedback from teachers because teachers know best, and they know what works in that context. And we're always keen to learn a little bit more about what sorts of adaptations we could make on our end, in conjunction with the teachers that we work with.
Caroline was talking earlier about a knowledge-rich curriculum. Are you finding teachers are using it as a curriculum or more as standalone lessons at the moment?
Reid: We find that there are a number of different use cases. The greatest successes have come from teachers and schools that pick them up as a coherent unit because that's how they were designed to be used by the teachers. Some people are picking up elements as entire units or sequences of units and using them as part of their curriculum, especially when they've had the opportunity to plan the school curriculum ahead of time. When teachers know what units are available, they can take advantage of the careful sequencing, which is something that’s been really helpful for teachers.
We've had feedback from a number of teachers and schools about other ways they have used those sequences of learning. They've replicated the sequencing and structure in other units that they've been developing as a school and used the resources as a model for what a lesson could look like. But there are also use cases where people have said, for example, Well actually, I need a very specific lesson where I want my students to understand some elements of place value. And so they’ve picked up, say, three lessons that were conceived as part of a broader sequence in order to integrate them into their teaching and adapted some elements of that lesson. So they can integrate standalone lessons into their existing teaching and learning sequence.
Can ITE realistically provide the amount of knowledge a teacher needs to be a primary school teacher? It's so broad and teachers have to be a specialist in every single subject from science to history. Is that part of the issue?
Reid: I've taught primary and it's a really tough job. It requires you to have so much content knowledge, particularly as you're trying to develop an ambitious curriculum for primary Mathematics, English, History and Geography — and all of those other areas that we want our students to know about. It's a really tough ask.
We know that there are a number of schools and groups of teachers that use our videos of teachers teaching a lesson to build their own understanding about what it is that they're going to teach or for models of practice. We know that there are some people who watch a 20-minute lesson in double time and say, Oh that's how you explain that, or, That's a really good way to phrase that particular idea. So, there's that element of knowledge and capacity building that is enabled by teachers who are sharing their practice. It’s an opportunity to watch another expert practitioner teach something in an area that maybe you're not quite as sure about, or perhaps you’re just curious about other ways that it could be taught.
It's a way of having access to other classrooms for teachers who are in single-classroom schools or who don't have another subject specialist. We think that’s one reason why the primary mathematics units have had a reasonable amount of take-up by teachers. Sometimes it's an area that primary teachers feel less confident in teaching. Perhaps that support and modeling is something that they really appreciate as they think about how they take some of these concepts to students, particularly with the implementation of the latest version of the Australian Curriculum.
What's the end goal for Ochre?
Caroline: The first aim has to be to develop this comprehensive bank of materials. Teachers want to be able to access a fully developed curriculum, scoped and sequenced across multiple years. But to do that, we have to have the capacity, which is a big job. We think that there are about 8,500 lessons across K—10 to produce. That’s definitely job one, to develop these resources at the level of quality that we know teachers want and need. And then I think it’s about understanding how teachers are using these and bringing that feedback into the way we're developing resources, being responsive as we do that. We also want to make sure that as we develop our resources and support teachers in using them, that we are thinking really hard about the needs in particular of disadvantaged students and the schools who are serving them, so that we can make sure that we are doing everything we can to help to close the large and persistent education disadvantage gap.
Do you think there's a way to go to normalize teachers leaning on existing resources and not looking on it as a deficiency in their practice? A lot of teachers have the attitude that unless you create a resource from the first to the last syllable you're not doing your job. Do you think there's still a bit of that, or is it less so in primary?
Reid: It's an interesting question. I think that the answer is — especially given some of the discussion around the recent Grattan report and some of their suggestions about the development of the shared curriculum — that there is still some way to go. There seems to be a range of views, from teachers who are very open to the idea of using existing resources and adapting them to their particular context, through to those who think shared resources have less value and might prefer to see teachers creating curriculum materials from scratch as an integral part of their job.
One of the great things about the Grattan report and the work of Oak National Academy as a proof of concept, along with some of our experiences so far at Ochre, has been opening and continuing the discussion about the importance of a high-quality curriculum in driving improved outcomes, and the teacher's role in developing curriculum. And to some degree, what constitutes a professional. Is it a hallmark of professionalism that a teacher has autonomy, that on top of all the things they do that they are then expected to write materials from scratch? Is it ‘cheating’ to use existing materials?
We see the resources that we're producing as less like a ready-made meal and a bit more like Hello Fresh. We're providing the experiences and knowledge that exist in somebody else's classroom, that they've built up over a number of years, and we provide the resources that are created using that expertise. And then it's up to that individual teacher to take what we think are the really nutritious components and use them as they see fit. So there's actually nothing wrong with taking things as is, following the recipe, exactly as determined by that initial creating teacher. But if you've got more expertise or there are things that you know as a teacher about the needs of students that are in your class, there's nothing wrong with substituting some of the elements of the lesson for something else.
Our materials are all downloadable and editable by teachers. You can adjust them however you like, and you can use all of them or none of them or some of them. You might decide that instead of using one ingredient, you're going to try an alternative. You're substituting little things out or you might just use two or three ingredients from the box, but we don't feel that a teacher's professionalism is linked to the fact that they develop lessons from scratch. And in fact, we think a teacher's professionalism sits in their ability to make good judgments about the teaching and learning of the students in their care and feeling free to use those materials in whatever form they see fit.
Caroline: In a profession the size and complexity of the teaching profession here in Australia there is always going to be space for a range of views. Of course, there will be those teachers that have the experience, capacity and motivation to be able to create their own lesson materials in their entirety. But I think what is more telling is that we've had almost 25,000 teachers using our materials. I think you can't go past that. There are a large majority of teachers who want more support. Oak National have done some surveys recently of what UK teachers want, and they say that they want high-quality resources that are adaptable and free or very accessible. When you offer those three things, then you see that those resources are being heavily taken up.
One of our big questions is, How do you make teachers aware that these things exist? Particularly in Australia, we have the particular challenge of multiple sectors, multiple jurisdictions, and teachers are busy. They are very, very busy. Still, even up to 12 months in, people are saying, Oh I didn't realize that you offered this — this is fantastic! I want to make sure that everyone knows about this! It’s a big challenge. One of the Grattan surveys asked why teachers are not using existing shared resources, and a large proportion responded that they don't know these existed. Teachers have to be reassured that resources are high quality, they have to be adaptable, and they have to be free or easily accessible. But most of all they need to know that they are there!
I was at your webinar with Clare Sealy a few weeks ago and it struck me that so many of the practitioners I admire work collaboratively with their teams. It’s not just to cut corners or save time. I’m not sure if this was the intention of Clare’s talk, but it was a clever way of positioning this type of collaborative practice as the way to go. I mean, why wouldn’t you want to extend the expertise of your staff room? There seem to be benefits for the users and the content creators.
Reid: That's right. I think Richard Elmore says the only way to improve teaching and learning is to engage groups of adults in the collaborative process of working on problems of practice. Teams of teachers work together to ask, What does good teaching look like for this particular topic or this particular area or this scheme of work? What does a good curriculum look like? Nobody is the absolute guru, right?
I think about the experiences at the school in which I work when we bring groups of teachers together and we're looking at things like the outcomes from assessment and how much progress students have made. You virtually never have a situation where there's one teacher whose students always make the greatest progress. Every teacher has something that they can add to the discussion, but you only really get that from the opportunity to collaborate. And that's really what Ochre is about: it's teams of teachers who are discussing their practice. The ways in which they, as a team, are going to create lessons are in line with guidance from AERO and other institutions about what good practice looks like. But it's that collaborative effort, the collaborative problem-solving around the areas that makes the difference.
One of the great things about the Ochre experience is that not only do you have these resources that have been created that help support teachers in their work, but you also have the process of collaborating that helps build the competence and capacities of the teachers that are involved in the project. They build up a network of teachers that they can call upon. We know these networks continue to exist beyond the initial engagement with Ochre. For example, there was a Sharing Best Practice conference in Gippsland last year where I saw six of our Ochre teachers having a chat and talking about things that they've been working on and chatting online about, continuing that professional support.
I’ve brought back a lot of things that I've learned as part of my collaboration with other teachers in Ochre to my classroom or to my team. That idea of capacity building within a school, that's just part of the actual creation process, irrespective of what happens with the use of the materials. It's been a really positive thing. And that's probably why we have such a large number of teachers who want to return to creating resources with us. They have their first experience and then they just keep throwing their hat into the ring because it's something that they found to be a really positive and expertise-enriching process.
So how can teachers get involved as content-creators?
Caroline: We’ve had great success so far and our retention of teachers creating lessons with us has been fantastic. But to get to this goal of 8,500 lessons, we need more primary teachers in the short term and eventually secondary teachers too. Teachers can work with us outside their school commitments during term time or if they are really keen they can work with us more intensively over their holidays. We’ve partnered with Teach Well so teachers are paid for their time but also while they receive this professional development and training. We are growing our pool, so we would love teachers of all stages and specialisms to come forward and submit an expression of interest on our website and let us know when they might be available to work with us — even if that’s later in the year. It’s an opportunity to collaborate and work with amazing like-minded teachers — we think it's a pretty awesome thing to be a part of!
I love the 'Hello Fresh' analogy. A bank of quality evidence-based resources is exactly what we need to reduce our workload. I speak from my own experience at creating units of work from scratch when I say that it does help me to feel more connected to the unit; however, my goal is to let this attitude go and enjoy the expertise of others while still being able to adapt to my own students and setting. Thank you Ochre Education!