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Why the best teachers actually learn from their students

Why the best teachers actually learn from their students

episode 7

How one school showed Australia why it pays to be open to learning from the most unexpected situations.

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Show notes

How one school showed Australia why it pays to be open to learning from the most unexpected situations. With Michael Muscat and Grace Wong.

Episode transcript

MICHAEL MUSCAT: Teachers and principals need to have a learning mindset, because we’re in an ever changing environment. It’s a continuous process. I mean, it’s not just the students who go to school to learn. Teachers and school leaders are all part of the learning process.

ALI MOORE: From the University of Melbourne, this is Expert Hack, a show about the changing world of work and how industry experts are finding clever solutions to tricky problems. I’m Ali Moore.

Today, why the best teachers actually learn from their students and why it pays to be open to learn from even the most unexpected situations.

Maxine McKew speaks with two teachers, Michael Muscat and Grace Wong, who were part of the landmark documentary series Revolution School, which screened on the ABC in 2016. Maxine began by asking Michael about the experience of having TV cameras in classroom.

MICHAEL MUSCAT: Look, it was a lot of fun.  And it was exhilarating and challenging all at the same time, because we really felt that we had the spotlight on us every day for 12 months to a very high degree you know?

MAXINE MCKEW: And it was going out to a national audience.

MICHAEL MUSCAT: Yes. (LAUGHS) So there was a little bit of living on tenterhooks for the whole year. But look, it tended to bring the best out of people and the best out of the organisation.

MAXINE MCKEW: Grace, what did you feel? Because, I would have thought cameras on a group of teenagers who are going through a lot of emotional turbulence in their life anyway, what was that like? What was the effect on them?

GRACE WONG: I can still remember a few of my students. They were like, looking into the camera and saying “mum I’m on the TV I’m on TV!” But after a while they get used to what happened with the cameras and stuff. So they were like, yeah, back to normal classes, normal classroom.

MAXINE MCKEW: And Michael, what feedback did you get?

MICHAEL MUSCAT: We got a tremendous amount of positive feedback from all quarters, you know across the nation. People made the effort to contact the school and say thank you and well done and thank you for being so brave. And we were brave. For finally getting to show the Australian community how challenging and how complex the work of teachers really is.

MAXINE MCKEW: Because as we know, teachers often don’t get the respect and they don’t have the status that I think they deserve. But what we saw in that series was the lengths to which so many teachers would go to hang in there with students who, in some cases, were goofing off or were really not with the program.

MICHAEL MUSCAT: Yeah very true. That is very true. I’m sure of all schools in the nation where teachers just stretch to the Nth degree and really put a great deal of care into their work and invest a lot of themselves into their work.

MAXINE MCKEW: Grace, how did teachers feel about the series and about the filming?

GRACE WONG: I think they feel like it’s their story as they watch it because that’s what happened in our lives. Teachers’ lives like every day. Like challenging students, trying to keep students on track, to motivate them and be passionate about what you’re teaching every day. Yeah, I think that’s a really good series in the transparency of showing the world, or Australia, what teachers should be.

MAXINE MCKEW: I’m wondering if you got any feedback to the effect of “Wow, I really, I really didn’t quite realise just how hard teachers work.” You know, you’re not clocking off at 3:30.

GRACE WONG: No, definitely not clocking off at 3:30 because, the lesson plans that we need to put in. And if you can remember, like, the videos I made over the Revolution School series, those are like, you know, after work, after work. Yeah.

MAXINE MCKEW: Let me go to a couple of the, I suppose a couple of the things that were explored throughout the series and one, of course Michael, was the very strong relationship between Kambrya College and the Melbourne Graduate School of Education. And that happens in a number of ways through the network of schools but also through the Master of Teaching graduates, many of whom have been recruited by Kambrya. So just talk to us about that.

MICHAEL MUSCAT: It’s been one of my frustrations right through my teaching career that the quality of teacher education has not been up to standard. And I have been so impressed with the work that’s being done by the Melbourne Graduate School of Education now in preparing teachers to hit the ground running when they start on their careers. I think that the intensity of the program and the high expectations and the amount of time they’re spending in school with hands on training –

MAXINE MCKEW: Is that the critical thing?

MICHAEL MUSCAT: Oh, absolutely, absolutely.


MICHAEL MUSCAT: And look at Gracie, you know, is a prime example. And it was very intense.

GRACE WONG: Yes, it was.

MICHAEL MUSCAT: But you had –  you saw how you could – yes, it is challenging, but there’s plenty of support around you. And that’s provided both by the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, by the staff member who’s employed specifically to be a support person. And of course, by all your colleagues at the school.


MAXINE MCKEW: Michael what has been your experience then with the beginning teachers because we know the data tells us that retention is a real problem. Often we’re putting graduates into schools and within three or five years they’re gone.

MICHAEL MUSCAT: Well look, there’s no doubt that no matter how well prepared you are, your first year of teaching is going to be tough. There’s no way around that because it is exhausting. You’re being tested. Your emotions are being dragged. You’re just being –

MAXINE MCKEW: Your physical energy levels, I imagine?  (LAUGHS)


MICHAEL MUSCAT: The whole thing, five days a week, you know, full on work.

MAXINE MCKEW: And I guess some kids would be trying you on too, wouldn’t they?

MICHAEL MUSCAT: Of course they do. And they’re testing you out and you know you are a work in progress. You are developing. So the great thing about the Graduate School of Education is that it prepares teachers better to be able to cope with those challenges and then give you a way better chance of staying in the profession. So that’s it – but it’s it is tough. Teaching is not is not a gimme, it’s not something you fall back into as a soft option. It is a tough profession, but it can be one of the best.

GRACE WONG: And rewarding.

MAXINE MCKEW: Did all of the supports then help make your first year a bit less daunting than it might have been?

GRACE WONG: Yes. It was a bit less daunting. As you can see, there’s cameras in my classroom during my first year (LAUGHS). It was less daunting in a sense where, like, you know where you stand and you know you have a bank of things that you can use. It’s just that you need to make up your mind which one you want to use and which one you want to be expert in. Yeah. Or you want to refine in your teaching.

MAXINE MCKEW: Michael, you mentioned just a minute ago though that your concern is about the variability of a lot of Australian teacher training. First of all, do you think we are getting to the point though that we are lifting the bar on that?

MICHAEL MUSCAT: I would say yes, finally we are beginning to head in the right direction. It’s been a long time coming. It means that we have a lot of unprepared teachers in the system, unfortunately.

MAXINE MCKEW: That’s a dreadful comment, isn’t it? Because at stake is thousands and thousands of students and their preparedness for – as we’re saying in this series – a very different work world.

MICHAEL MUSCAT: That’s the reality and it is cross-sector. So that’s the challenge we have as principals in schools. To build the capacity of our teachers, always. It’s probably our number one job. Constantly building the capacity of our teachers to become better at their craft.

MAXINE MCKEW: Let’s talk a little bit about different classroom approaches that you try at Kambrya. Because as you know, the Master of Teaching program centres on the application of what’s called clinical intervention practice. What does that look like at Kambrya?

GRACE WONG: For example, we look into research and studies on how to differentiate more effectively in a classroom. As we know, in our classroom of 25, all of the students, they learn differently. We can’t just say, “all right students, take out your textbook and turn to page 41 and do questions one to 10.” You can’t have 100 percent of learning happening in the classroom with just one sort of intervention.

So you might have students who like more hands on. And as you know, kids nowadays they’re like, with ICT (Information and Communications Technology), they’re really good with ICT. And now we have been pushing, you know, watching videos on learning this concept or using numeracy software. Like, they play interactive games as they learn or they like grouping into small groups. So there’s one more knowledgeable to teach to other peers.

So there’s so many things, and interventions, happening in a classroom where we want to, what Mike was saying before, to push great outcomes. Great learning outcomes. Yeah.

MAXINE MCKEW: So the task for you, every day really, is to find the hook that will interest that particular student.


MAXINE MCKEW: And then the set work that will challenge them to go a bit further.

GRACE WONG: Correct. Yeah. And imagine if a teacher has four to five maths classes, you’d need a lot of individual lesson planning for each student. And you need to think, how do I sustain using this strategy over this term? As a third year out teacher, I still struggle with all this individual learning plan and differentiation.

MAXINE MCKEW: But it must be great when you see a student who probably thinks they’re only average and they’re doing a bit better than that. I remember, the teachers that I remember well those ones who thought that I was a bit smarter than I thought I was. Michael, what about you?


MAXINE MCKEW: There’s a debate running at the moment. And this is particularly pertinent to this series about the future of work. And that is that perhaps there are limits now to what content knowledge is pushed in high schools with perhaps there needing to be a greater emphasis on skills development. Michael, where do you fall down on this one?

MICHAEL MUSCAT: Oh, totally agree. You know we are all in the same boat because we don’t exactly know what the future is going to be. The best we can do is to develop young folk who can be independent learners; who can collaborate effectively with others; who’ve got strong reading skills because it underpins so much of learning; who are inter-culturally aware; who are good problem solvers.

I mean, we’re going into an unknown future, because change is so rapid. If we can build those capabilities and skills – You know, knowledge, we’re awash with knowledge. That’s not the problem. We can access that. So they’re the sorts of skills we need to really focus on in our teaching.

MAXINE MCKEW: Linked to that there was, I thought, a fascinating and again very brave segment that was screened in Revolution School. And that was the exercise where a particular teacher was confronted with the amount of teacher talk time she was doing in the classroom. And then over time pulled that back to the point where she was doing more listening, waiting longer for the responses from students. Grace, what about you? How are you conscious about this?

GRACE WONG: You know, I was part of the program with John Hattie and his wife with the teacher talk. I was 80% (ALL LAUGH) so I wasn’t that great too.

MAXINE MCKEW: So how have you adjusted your practice?

GRACE WONG: So what I did is change lesson plans and even just listen to student feedback. Because I asked them for feedback. How can Miss Wong do better in her teaching? Do you think you can learn better in certain ways like working on worksheets? Or, like you know, how do you learn better? So, getting their feedback actually helped me restructure my lesson plan.

You know I was taught back in Asian countries, so back in Brunei, our teaching style is very different.  Our teacher would talk to us for like the whole time and we’d just write notes. And so on and so on. So, it’s very different – the way I’ve been taught in Brunei. It’s so different with this Australian classroom. At first I was like, whoa, culture shock. (ALL LAUGH) You know? I need to adapt.

MAXINE MCKEW: So what do you seem to be describing as an ideal environment is a school where everyone’s learning.

MICHAEL MUSCAT: Absolutely Maxine. I was thinking, you know, teachers and principals need to have a learning mindset because we’re in an ever-changing environment. The research is continually being updated and improved and new things are coming on board.

And just as a school principal needs to be focussed on ongoing school improvement – you never get there. It’s a continuous process and it keeps you vibrant. It keeps you on your toes and it helps to create that learning community. I mean, it’s not just the students who go to school to learn. Teachers and school leaders are all part of the learning process.

MAXINE MCKEW: Let me just bring this discussion to conclusion though by looking at the question of leadership. Because more and more this is, I think, a very important focus.

Michael, I remember you saying – because you we were at the school for a long time and you saw that journey, and you were a part of it and you led it. But you made an interesting observation to me about the problems of perhaps doing too much. Just explain that. What did you learn?

MICHAEL MUSCAT: You can create institutional confusion and incoherence by trying to do too much and not sticking with things for very long. You know, you might try something for one year and say, oh yeah that was good. And then it’s quietly forgotten about and you jump onto another bandwagon. Doesn’t work. Get down to the basics. Get them done really well. And do them one at a time.

When the opportunity came through the Melbourne Uni network of schools and one of the focus groups was on independent reading which was led by Diane Snowball. And we thought, this is for us. This is what we need. Our students are just not reading enough. And Diane presented some very compelling arguments for a focus on reading.

What we did was, we set up mini libraries in every classroom from years 7 to 9 or was it 10?


MICHAEL MUSCAT: And every English lesson began with it with a period of reading. 10 minutes of silent reading. And during that time there would be individual conferences, reading conferences, with students. We had three trained professionals to conduct these conferences to assess the level of comprehension, to assess the level of enjoyment and whether it was an appropriate read for them.

The first indicator that we had from our librarian was something like a 75% increase in the volume of borrowing. We thought, well, that’s got to be positive. But the great thing is two years on, when the NAPLAN results came out in 2017. The school showed outstanding growth in reading and writing.

GRACE WONG: And even numeracy too.

MICHAEL MUSCAT: And numeracy. So we have bucked the trend.

MAXINE MCKEW: Is that replicable? What you did at Kambrya?

MICHAEL MUSCAT: Absolutely. So is the whole story of the turnaround that’s taken place at Kambrya College. We turned around a very low performing school to one of the higher performing schools in all areas across the state of Victoria.

MAXINE MCKEW: Are we doing enough to build an emerging cohort of effective, proficient leaders do you think?

MICHAEL MUSCAT: The evidence still isn’t there. When leadership positions are advertised, the numbers and the quality of applicants is still not there. And this is – it perplexes me. I don’t really get it. But I’d love to see more of the brightest and the best put up their hands for leadership.

Because leaders can either breathe oxygen into a school and enable and energise a school, or they can do the opposite. They can suck the oxygen out of a place and stifle it. Or they can let it go into cruise mode. I think that the principal plays a pivotal role and it’s so important to get the right people in those positions.

MAXINE MCKEW: Grace, what about you? Would you aspire to be a Principal?

GRACE WONG: Maybe. But, I always want to be a behaviour management leader. You know, I have this passion in connecting with students and helping them to get back on track in their lives. So that’s what I aspire to become.

Well, I really, really agree with what Michael said. Like teachers, we can’t be complacent. If we decide to be complacent, then how do we preach what we teach to our kids? We ask them to learn and to give us good outcomes. But on the other hand, teachers, we are not really learning ourselves. We are not challenging ourselves enough. How can we connect with them and teach them the methods, you know? That suits them the best. Yeah.

MAXINE MCKEW: In line with that I spotted a quote from Lisa Rogers recently. She is the new CEO of AITSL, the Australian Institute of Teaching and School Leadership and she said this, she said “when you send your children to an Australian school, effective teaching should be a certainty not a lottery.”

MICHAEL MUSCAT: We’re heading in the right direction. We’re doing – There’s so many positive things going on, but the reality is we’ve got a way to go. The regions are depleted. Special efforts need to be made to encourage some of the brightest and the best back into the regions to lift the standard of what is going on out there. And across the board, across the system, more work needs to be done. It is, it is a work before us. It is the challenge we face.

ALI MOORE: If you enjoyed this conversation, tune in for next episode in the series. We look at how artists are influencing politics and social change. And what you can learn from artists about how to change people’s opinions.

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Expert Hack is a podcast from the University of Melbourne, where the Melbourne Model is preparing students for the world beyond their degree. Learn more at