Teach, Learn, Live Podcast: Noella McKenzie

Cartoon image of Tim and Noella - text reads: Noella McKenzie: Associate Adjunct Professor and Education Consultant

Tim Bullard: [00:00:04] Hi, I’m Tim Bullard, and I’m the Secretary of the Department for Education, Children and Young People in Tasmania. I think Tasmania might just be the best place in the world to teach, learn and live. In this series I ask some fantastic guests some big questions about how we can support learners to succeed not only in today’s world, but in tomorrow’s as well. We’ll talk about the role of education in our communities and how we learn to lay the foundations for connected, resilient, creative and curious lives. And if we’re lucky, we’ll hear a bit about our guests own learning journeys as well. 

Speaker1: [00:00:42] Teach Learn Live Tasmania 

Tim Bullard: [00:00:47] We’re coming to you from Lutruwita Tasmania, so I’d like to begin by acknowledging the Tasmanian Aboriginal people who’ve been caring for and educating their children and young people here for tens of thousands of years. I pay my respects to elders past and present and to all the Aboriginal community members who work in our child and family centres, libraries and schools, and our supporting teams. And of course, I acknowledge our Aboriginal learners right across Tasmania and Australia who will be the strong community members and leaders of tomorrow. 

Tim Bullard: [00:01:23] We know that literacy is essential to improving educational outcomes for all students and a really important foundation for individual success. That’s why improving literacy and numeracy outcomes is one of the four goals in the Department for Education, Children and Young People’s strategic plan, where we seek to support and inspire all learners to succeed in learning life and work. 

Tim Bullard: [00:01:46] I’m really excited that over the next four episodes, we’re going to be joined by Dr. Noella Mackenzie, associate professor and educational consultant, and we’re going to have the opportunity to explore some of the key themes around literacy and why it is so important for success throughout life. Noella is an adjunct associate professor in literacy at Charles Sturt University and an independent educational consultant. She’s also a senior fellow with the Australian Literacy Educators Association. Noella’s research has particularly focused on the teaching and learning of writing. And in particular, the relationship between drawing, talking and writing. Noella’s research is informed by her ongoing work with classroom teachers. Welcome, Noella. 

Noella: [00:02:35] Thank you. Thank you for having me. 

 Tim Bullard: [00:02:38] I’d like to start today’s conversation talking about literacy. So it’s a term that is in really common use. And you often hear people talking about lifting literacy outcomes or doing better in literacy. But for the person in the street, what does being literate really mean in today’s world? 

Noella: [00:02:57] That’s actually a really interesting question. And in preparing for today, I spoke to my 95 year old mother about what it would have meant in her day. And she was very quick to say, oh, it meant that you could read and write, well enough to get a job, to sign the forms that she needed to sign, read a form. I guess she was thinking at a very practical level. But I think in the community, many of us still see literacy as the ability to read and write, to hold down a job, to manage at school. But if we look at the more up to date definitions, particularly the one that comes from UNESCO, which I think is a really useful one for us to refer to. Literacy is described as the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate and compute, using printed and written and visual materials associated with varying contexts. So you can see that that’s more complex than the notion of reading and writing. Although reading and writing and the ability to speak and to understand central. So it’s interesting, too, that in a lot of the literature we don’t actually use the word literacy anymore. 

Noella: [00:04:20] We use the term literacies. And that term has been around for a very long time. In fact, Garth Boomer talked about it, I think, back in 1983. And he said that we needed to be thinking about literacies in today’s world. And so you’ll hear and you’ll read about multimodal literacies. Which means literacies that involves more than just print or more than the spoken word. It might have visual literacy. It might have text based literacies. You will also hear about digital literacies because none of us can cope without digital technology in today’s world. You hear about critical literacy, the ability to be critical about what we read and hear. You’ll hear about media literacy, being savvy with what is presented in the media. You’ll also hear about gaining literacy. So there are multiple literacies that if we want to deep down, we can talk about. But the bottom line is, I think most people still see the ability to read, the ability to write and the ability to speak clearly and to understand are critical. 

Tim Bullard: [00:05:34] I think that the element of understanding is one of the standouts for me, because it’s more than processing, for example, text. It’s comprehension. And then at its highest level, it’s the ability to repurpose or reuse that text and information to create new information. And so it is an end to end process. And I think that’s what you’re saying, that just doesn’t start and end at the technical skill of reading or writing. 

Noella: [00:06:05] No. And it’s as I mentioned before, it’s that notion of being critical about what, or savvy about what you do read or hear. Knowing what the message behind the message is. You know, whose interests are being served by the particular document you are reading or the newspaper article or the podcast you’re listening to. 

Tim Bullard: [00:06:30] So reflecting on your career, but also your life experience, I know that you come to literacy with a keen interest, but also a number of different views. I mean, you’re an academic that studied in the space. You’ve had international opportunities to study and work. But you’re also a parent and a grandparent. So when you bring all of that together, how has that influenced your view and interest in literacy as being absolutely crucial and important to people’s productive, healthy and happy lives? 

Noella: [00:07:01] Yes, it’s interesting. I sometimes look back. And I think that I’ve been very blessed to have had the experiences that I’ve had and those experiences have certainly shaped my understanding of teaching and learning. And it also has cemented for me that literacy is about a continuum of learning. It’s not something that we learn certain steps and that takes us to grade three. And then we move into high school. And then we move from high school to tertiary. Suddenly we’re in the big wide world and our literacy learning has stopped. In fact, my experiences have cemented my understanding that it’s a lifelong process and it’s changing the demands of our work lives, the demands of communication. And particularly with digital technology, have changed the way we think, the way we learn. And in my case, I’ve had to reinvent myself in terms of my skillset on each of the trajectories of my career.  

Tim Bullard: what are the key things that need to happen in a person’s development to become literate? 

Noella: [00:16:33] Oh, that’s an interesting question. Motivation is going to be key, but it’s also a demonstration. It’s seeing that literacy is something that is worthwhile. Seeing that people around you who are literate are being successful in doing what it is that they want to do with their lives. So the child who is saying how literacy plays out in the lives beyond school is critical. We can’t let our children think that literacy is a school subject, because it’s not. Literacy is a capability, like numeracy, that allows you to learn in other ways. And it’s, I think our children need to see their mentors, their family members, their siblings, their parents. They need to see how literacy assists their lives. I think, I can tell a little story about a child that I was working with the teacher to help. This little boy was struggling to learn to read, and he was six years of age and he was a farmer’s son. And he turned to the teacher this day and said, it’s just too hard. And anyway, I’m going to be a farmer like my dad, and he doesn’t read and he doesn’t write. Now, the teacher rang me and she said, what do I do here? I know this child’s father has a degree. 

Noella: [00:18:10] He’s a highly educated man. And I said, well, I would ring Dad. I’d have a chat to Dad, because I think Dad’s going to have the solution. So sure enough, she brings the Dad and Dad goes very quiet on the phone. And then he says, well, he said, I come in late, we have dinner, the kids go to bed. Then I hit the computer. That’s when I do the reading, that’s when I do my writing. That’s when I do all my planning and organisation. It’s all on the computer. So he was quite sad that this is what his son had said. So anyway, Dad rings back a couple of days later and he said, I’ve got a plan. The Henty Field Days were coming up. So he took his son out of school. They went to the Henty Field Days together. They collected every single pamphlet about every piece of equipment and new system. All of the things associated with farming. And they took them home. And every night for weeks, Dad and this little boy sat down and worked through the information in the pamphlet and talked about what that would mean about their farm. He also showed his son, even though the information on the computer would have been beyond him, he showed how he used the computer to plan. He demonstrated for his child the real reason that literacy was important to him as a farmer. 

Speaker2: [00:19:43] I think we need to do more of this to share with children. 

Tim Bullard: [00:20:50] I think that that’s such an interesting reflection on two levels. One is that the role in your story that the family plays in not only building a sense of motivation or being motivational in engaging in literacy, but also in showing how it can be used practically. So it’s not just a skill that you acquire with no real end. It’s actually a skill that’s going to enable you to communicate with other people and to take in information, and to process that. So is that where you see the role of families in terms of building a love of literacy, especially in the early years and primary years? 

Noella: [00:21:35] Yes, absolutely. I think if we consider literacy and learning, but in terms of the dispositions for learning. We know from research that between the ages of nought and eight, children do the most amazing learning. They’re at their peak in terms of brain development. But it’s not just about cognitive development. It’s about emotional wellbeing. It’s about social competence. It’s about physical and mental health. There’s a whole lot of learning that takes place that’s not what I would say is even literacy or numeracy. And parents are really great teachers. They don’t always realise what good teachers they are. But when you see a young child with a parent, and I must admit, I tend to observe when I’m in cafes and when I’m out and about. And you see the way parents just instinctively do things like, help a child do their buttons up, for example, instead of doing it for them. They very carefully scaffold that process, knowing that it’s important that the child will take over that process in the future. But there are five dispositions for learning that I want to talk about that I think are critical learning within the family. The first is persistence. The second is flexibility and agility. The third is motivation or drive to learn. The fourth is metacognition, which is thinking about thinking and talking about thinking, and the fifth is problem solving and questioning. And these are all dispositions that set a child up for learning in school, but also for life. 

Noella: [00:23:30] So if we tease those out a little bit, that first one that I think is always interesting is curiosity. And this comes from that, you know, wanting to know. Every parent goes through that time where they think ‘I just want the child to stop saying why’. I don’t know why. Well, that’s that natural curiosity that children are born with. And so it’s sometimes the why question comes at the worst time of the day. But we need to sort of put it aside and come back to it when we can deal with it comfortably. Persistence, instead of letting a child give up because something’s a little bit hard. The parent who can help them work through, and it might be building something out of Lego. Persisting until it is completed. Completing the jigsaw puzzle is another example. Don’t give up and wrap it up. If they need a break, let them have a break, but then bring them back and let’s say, let’s finish it. That was actually something I observed in kindergartens and preschools in Finland. They do a lot of playing or board games in the preschool classroom, and the rules are you stop the game, you finish the game. You don’t opt out. And if you win the game, you pick up the game. There are some really important messages there about persistence.  

Noella: [00:24:59] Motivation, providing reasons why something that might be hard work is worthwhile doing. And that can be, you know, there’s a whole lot of different things that can be involved there. It doesn’t have to be school-based learning. But let’s, you know, the motivation to perhaps participate in a fundraising effort in your local town. The motivation to ride that distance on your bike beside Dad, and understanding that that ride is not going to just be good for your legs and be fun, but it’s actually going to raise money for some people who are less fortunate. 

Noella: [00:25:40] So moving on to the metacognition, and this thinking about thinking. Children are actually quite instinctive about what does that mean? And so conversations with children early on about, well, I’m not sure about that, but let’s think about it together and let’s find some information together. And let’s work out what this is all about. Which links to the other one of the other dispositions, which is the problem solving. Let’s work it out. Let’s solve this problem. Oh, I don’t have any milk. I want to make some muffins, how will I solve this problem. Ask the three year old that question, and suddenly you’ve got a three year old who’s sitting up thinking, oh, well, we could go to the shop or we could ask our next-door neighbour for some milk. That’s problem solving. 

Noella: [00:26:33] And it can start very, very early on. And I think many of these dispositions can actually come through play. Play is our underestimated learning opportunity, the learning that’s involved in play, whether it’s self discovery play, or whether it’s structured, collaborative play. But the persistence, the problem solving, the motivation to learn, the flexibility. I think parents are really good at helping children develop those skills, but they don’t always realise how important those skills are. 

Tim Bullard: [00:27:46] What a great reflection. And from my point of view, two things. One, as an employer, aren’t those capabilities exactly the capabilities that, you see in an employee in today’s workplace and that you need. And the second, as a parent, I think the challenge there is not to think you’re not doing the right thing, I think we should celebrate the job of parents, but also say, how can you expand on what you’re doing?  

Tim Bullard: [00:30:23] So we often talk about functional literacy. And that’s a term. And I suppose part of what we’re trying to do in this podcast is to unpack some of these terms that are bandied around. What are we talking about when we’re saying that someone is functionally literate or not functionally literate? 

Noella: [00:30:38] It’s actually an interesting term. It’s a bit of an old fashioned term. But I think at its most basic level, for an adult, functional literacy would translate to the ability to read and write well enough to work and engage with the community. Whereas for a child, it’s the ability to read and write well enough to engage in learning at school. So, to be functionally illiterate is to not have the literacy skills needed for work, life or school. 

Tim Bullard: [00:31:10] And there’s an interesting sort of, you know, throwaway line that people use, which I think has resonated with me. That you start off learning to read and then you move to reading to learn, for example. And I think that shows, doesn’t it? You’ve got to build the foundation skills to engage in higher-order learning. 

Noella: [00:31:29] Absolutely. That’s why in the Australian curriculum, they’re not called functional, they’re called literacy and numeracy capabilities. And that those are the capabilities that enable the higher-level learning and the higher-level thinking. And I think that’s a nice way of thinking about it as capabilities rather than as functional or not functional, perhaps. Yeah, I think it’s an old fashioned term. 

Tim Bullard: [00:31:58] I think to it brings us back to the start of this conversation where you were reflecting that, you know, age and stage, that you build your literacy over time. And in fact, that lasts your whole life. So to have a cutoff point where you say I’m now functionally literate seems very blunt. In fact, we should be talking about it as a lifelong journey where you continue to gain skills and capabilities. And a reflection on my career is I’ve had to constantly relearn how to communicate, especially in written form. Because I’ve had different audiences and different purposes for that communication. 

Noella: [00:32:47] Absolutely. I can’t agree with you more. And I would actually say that the idea of learning to read and then reading to learn needs to be more flexibly applied too. Because I think our ability to read is stretched every time we move into a new context, a new role, a new topic. And so it’s not quite as black and white as I now know how to read. Can I read this particular document with comprehension? And how do I allow, you know, how do I do that? What sort of information do I need to know in order to be able to read that with understanding? So I think that lifelong notion is critical to our understanding of what it means to be literate. It’s not over when you leave grade three. It’s not over when you leave high school or university. It’s a lifelong process. 

Tim Bullard: [00:33:47] What I like about framing literacy in that way too, is it’s never too late to start. So part of what we do in the department through Libraries Tasmania, is run 26TEN around building capabilities and adult literacy. And, you know, it suggests, don’t worry about your age. It’s never too late to start to build capabilities in literacy wherever you start. 

Noella: [00:34:11] And I think it’s the kind of literacy if we if again, I reflect on my very clever 95 year old mother. In her lifetime, what she has had to adjust to is quite extraordinary. And if I just use two examples, teaching Mum how to email and teaching Mum how to SMS. Now, I know people a lot younger than my mother that have no idea how to SMS using their phone. And yet my mother wanted to learn that literacy skill in order to keep in touch with her great-grandchildren, because that is how they communicate. So I would use that as an example of, you know, we don’t know what technology is around the corner, so therefore we don’t know what extra literacy skills we’re going to need to learn. 

Tim Bullard: [00:35:02] My reflection on SMSing my children is I use too much punctuation apparently. So I, I still do, but I’m told not necessary, Dad. 

Noella: [00:35:15] I know. And my mother has been told the same, but the grandchildren and the children, the great grandchildren have said she uses too many big words. You know, can you tell her that she can use short versions and Mum will never do that. She still writes with a whole sentence and she still spells every word. But that doesn’t matter. She knows how to SMS. 

Tim Bullard: [00:35:38] Your mother and I would go very well SMSing each other I think. 

Tim Bullard: [00:35:43] So just in closing, we have in place a literacy framework in the department, which is framing our approach to literacy, teaching and learning from birth right into adulthood. And as I think you and I have previously discussed, we acknowledge that, you know, it’s a work in progress and something that we want to constantly review and revisit to ensure that we’re doing the best that we can. But I’m interested on your insights into that framework, coming with fresh eyes to it. 

Noella: [00:36:16] Thanks, Tim. It’s an interesting exercise to come in from the outside. So what I’ll do is I will just make a couple of observations. The first thing I think it’s wonderful to see an education framework that does consider lifelong learning. So I think that’s a big positive to see that that’s there in black and white. That it’s recognised that learning continues. And the 26TEN initiative is an example of one end of the spectrum. But I love the other end of the spectrum where you have your kindergarten teachers in your schools. I think that’s an absolute bonus for children and for families. But I also think it’s an opportunity for educators. One of the big transitions in education is the transition from the preschool or kindergarten context into the school context. And that’s removed, or softened, in an amazing way in the way you’ve set those kindergartens up in classrooms, in schools. The trick can be that you can start to push the curriculum down if you’re not careful. So we almost need the preps to learn from what happens that’s fantastic in play-based learning in kindergarten to influence prep. But I’ve seen I’ve met a couple of your teachers that are actually teaching prep/kindergarten that sound so exciting. In fact, there’s one that I’m hoping I’ll get to visit next time I come to Tasmania, because listening to the teacher talk about it just, you know, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. So I think that’s a really exciting innovation and it’s not happening anywhere else in Australia. I think there are opportunities with that initiative too. What I would love to see is kindergarten teachers who move with a group of children into prep, and then a prep teacher who works with kindergarten and takes that group up to prep the next year. And I think we get a lot of learning across those two areas. Early childhood education has a lot to offer in understandings of how children learn that could benefit what happens in primary schools. 

Noella: [00:38:44] I think my second observation, in working with some of the teachers briefly. And I’ve only had brief interactions with them so far. I think in your framework, you have built in the capacity to support that ongoing learning of teachers through your quality teaching approach, and also through the lead literacy coach role. I think that role of the lead literacy coach is quite powerful. Potentially, they’re the guide on the side that have the in-classroom knowledge that is so important for a teacher. I’d like to see more emphasis in professional learning for teachers to develop understandings of research, and the ability to then be able to articulate why they do what they do when they’re talking to parents. And why they can appear a little different to the classroom next door. I think parents understand that all of their children are different. So it’s not a big step to say to them, well, you know, I’ve got twenty-five children and in my classroom and they are all different. And I taught grade three last year and this year’s grade three are quite different to the grade three I taught last year. But I think our teachers need more understanding of the research that backs up the decisions that they’re making. But, saying that, I think your framework provides opportunities for that ongoing professional learning. 

Tim Bullard: [00:40:35] I really appreciate those reflections and I think they absolutely resonate with what we’re trying to achieve. We don’t expect every teacher in every classroom to be an expert in everything. But we do want to build the capacity and capability of those teachers to be really great teachers of literacy. And the, you know, at the shoulder support around the coaching is how we’ve designed that model. I do think too, the evidence base and the understanding of that can’t be understated. I think we see teachers who are absolutely across that and able to really clearly articulate it. We see a cohort of teachers who are doing exactly the right thing but aren’t able to describe why. And then we say teachers that might be replicating practices of the past, which are outdated or have been proved useful or unhelpful. And so across that whole spectrum, I think the support needs to be provided. 

Noella: [00:41:29] Absolutely. And I think we need to understand that primary school teachers are generalists. They’re expected to teach literacy, numeracy, science, IT, PD/ health/PE, history, geography. They’re expected to nurture, they’re expected to motivate. It’s a generalist role that can almost be compared with the general practitioner who’s a doctor. They’ve got to be over the top of so many different things. And I think another strength of your system is that your general practitioners, your classroom teachers, have access to specialist resources. For example, your speech and language professionals. Now, those people are specialists in speech and language, and just like a general practitioner will call in a specialist for advice, but will still be the person who is responsible for the patient, the classroom teacher having access to that kind of expertise when needed to support what they’re doing in the classroom is also a feature of your framework. 

Tim Bullard: [00:42:39] Well, thank you know for your time today. It’s been an absolute pleasure talking to you. And I know for those who have been interested in today’s podcast, we’ve got a number of others coming up on different topics. But for now, thanks very much. 

Noella: [00:42:53] Thanks very much, Tim. 

Tim Bullard: [00:43:03] I hope you enjoyed today’s conversation. Stay up to date with all our latest episodes by subscribing to Teach, Learn, Live through your favourite podcast app. You can also find all our past episodes on the Department for Education, Children and Young People website. 

Tim Bullard: [00:43:19] Do you know an inspiring learner, family, teacher or community we should feature on the show, then please let us know at teachlearnlive@decyp.tas.gov.au.