‘Leading Learning & Teaching’ by Stephen Dinham – a review by me ;)

I am a big reader. I was a big reader as a child, and despite a hiatus of about 10 years where I only read children’s picture books, or books I needed to teach, I am back on track with my read, read, read approach to books. I’m pretty committed these days to what my 15 year old calls ‘teenage books where people fall in and about of love and moan about stuff’, which others refer to a ‘young adult literature’, haha. I have, however, sacrificed a few days in my busy YA-reading schedule for an adulting edu book. Why? Well, I blame Darcy Moore because he recommended Dinham’s book to DPs via email, and my DP then decided to read it, and suggested I do too. I readily agreed, because I love talking edu, as much as I love talking books, so why not talk edu books? Winning!

Dinham’s book is surprisingly easy to read (believe me, I’ve tried to read A LOT of edu books, and most bore me silly because they don’t know how to develop a narrative voice, and completely neglect plot all together!) and it took me less than a week to finish. I promised a number of edu mates that I would write a review of the book, to help them decide if they too should fork out the cash (it’s not cheap – expect to pay over $50 for it) for the book. I was interested in reading the book because it’s about teaching and learning, and leadership – basically my job, even though Dinham never ONCE refers to people in my specific position. I guess I could claim the ‘teacher leader’ title, but that doesn’t really fit since my role is an official role, I’m a Head Teacher of Teaching and Learning – not a principal, not a DP, not a faculty HT, not a teacher… I wonder why he left us out? Maybe my position isn’t common in other states? I know it’s common in NSW, even though it’s sometimes called HT Secondary Studies or the like. Anyway, below is my review of the book, albeit an entirely unplanned review, based purely on what I am taking away from it… all views are my own, and all that.

Firstly, Dinham is mates with Hattie. I mean, they’re colleagues, but from the first chapter it is really evident that they are mates. Why does this matter? Well, Hattie is, how do I put this… contentious? His meta-analysis of edu research, and resultant ‘league table of all things edu amazing’ published in Visible Learning, is quite polarising – some people believe it’s the most important contribution to education research in the last decade, whilst others have shown concern regarding his methodology, and the consequences for his findings. It seems pretty clear that Dinham is in the former camp, as he continually refers to the effect sizes for different teaching strategies throughout the book, be it to celebrate a particular strategy, or pan another. For me, I wasn’t so stoked on this focus on Hattie, which is understandable given my experiences with Project Based Learning (never once referred to explicitly by Dinham, who does refer scathingly to problem-based learning, discovery learning, and enquiry based learning as being ‘fads’, but more to that in a moment). The tone of the first few chapters, with its focus on what works to improve student learning outcomes, and then in the final chapters, is at times quite harsh, and even touching on arrogant, in regards to contemporary approaches to teaching and learning – he clearly wants to encourage what he called ‘forwards to fundamentals’ approach, and a movement away from anything that might be labelled ‘progressive’. He goes to great length to claim he isn’t advocating ‘back to basics’ or a ‘traditionalist’ approach, but the line is fine, and personally there are times when I’m uncomfortable with his tone. Probably one of the most obvious indicators that Dinham is more traditional than not (yes, yes, I know he says we need to move away from false dichotomies, and I agree, but let’s just use it for ease of understanding) is his almost complete neglect of any discussion of digital technologies/ICT… but more to that later too.

OK, to make this quicker (I literally have to get my 15 year old from work in 20 minutes), I’m just going to list the things I’m taking away, one by one, with a very brief comment about each.

Bringing together a range of research on leadership, teaching, and learning – I really liked how Dinham brought together his research, and embedded relevant quotes into his discussion to support/enhance his arguments. The research kind of ‘came alive’ through his contextualising it within the bigger picture of his thesis. I liked that.

Leadership vs. Management – I found his discussion on leadership really interesting, as he included research into leadership as a wider field (not just edu), and then applied it to the context of edu really nicely. I appreciated the differentiating of leadership and management, and could see how understanding this difference will change the behaviour of leaders – especially when applied to the concept of instructional leadership, which I personally found relevant to my position. Oh, and how this was related to mastery was really clever – I loved the definition of ‘adaptive experts’ and truly hope that I can one day be one!

AESOP findings – I have only been teaching for 11 years, so perhaps I missed this report when it was first published. I very much enjoyed reading the chapter based on this report, especially the focus on ‘middle leadership’ which refers to head teachers (heads of department) and the powerful role they play in impacting student learning outcomes. The discussion of the pressures on HTs was honest, and I shared it with my Facebook friends where we discussed the mounting pressures, and stresses on these leaders. It was surprising that many of them had read the findings from AESOP re: what makes a great HT, and made me wonder how much of this book is new material, or old material put under a new banner. Either way, I found the chapter excellent reading.

What does quality teaching look like? – this chapter was excellent, but once again, based on a previously published paper by Dinham, Sawyer and Ayers on exceptional HSC teachers. I got a lot out of this chapter – some affirmation that what I have been doing for years is heading in the right direction, plus some goals to set myself to be an even better teacher.

Dealing with change and difficult teachers – so many lists of ways of managing change, planning carefully for it, and dealing with ‘blockers’. One thing I find interesting is that despite all of this talk about change, there was limited focus on ‘innovation’ or ‘ICT’ – it’s like everything we’re talking about and doing in relation to developing learners for the contemporary context isn’t that important to Dinham. I might be being a bit harsh, but he was quite vague about *what* types of changes were being introduced by leaders – apart from policy changes, or increased expectations of teacher quality (which in itself is also a little non-specific, but perhaps intentional?). Anyway, I know the types of changes that are being introduced at my school (Dinham might not like them though cos they’re on the Hattie ‘bad list’), so perhaps his intention is that we contextualise these strategies to our own schools… which makes sense.

Dinham likes the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers – I guess he would, given his role in developing them. I too think they have the potential to be good for education, but unfortunately the reality of how they are actually used/viewed within schools isn’t amazing, as identified by Dinham himself – likely because they are not associated with improved teacher pay. I agree with him that a lot more work in this area needs to occur to ensure the Standards have the impact they aim to have.

Action learning is good for teachers, but enquiry learning/problem-based learning is bad for students – I just can’t seem to reconcile this contradiction in the book. There’s a scathing few paragraphs (and later snide sentences) about discovery learning/enquiry learning/problem-based learning/constructivism as teaching methodologies in the book in relation to student learning, but then there’s a chapter celebrating action learning/research and professional learning communities for teachers. Dinham says that teachers should spend time working in teams to identify problems, problem-solve, experiment, collect data, and reflect on their findings (basically the structure of PBL) as a means of effective professional learning. Is it just me, or is this odd? I am all for action research and PLCs – I’ve written about it heaps, and am implementing it at my school, it just rubbed me the wrong way re: it being OK (even encouraged) for teachers, but not OK for students.

No ICT – as in, the one time he refer to ICT as being a possible tool for teacher professional learning, he links to a dead blog – well, one that hasn’t been updated since 2011… pretty much dead in the blogging sense. It’s a real shame because SOOO much learning is happening via ICT – for teachers, and for students. I mean, when it comes to education disruption, and therefore the necessity for leadership in learning and teaching, the introduction of ICT into school has to be consider THE biggest in the last 10 years… and yet it doesn’t rate a mention. There’s lots of discussion about learning relating to behaviour management, and literacy, yet ICT is pretty much invisible. It’s a huge factor – especially in regards to equity, because access to the Internet really opens up students’ opportunities, and has the potential to break down barriers. One of the first things I focused on when I started my job as HT was the use of technology by teachers, as it gave me an ‘in’ into discussion about pedagogy more widely. I’m not sure why it’s missing from this book, but I know I’m not the only one to notice.

Instructional leadership – the biggest take-away from this book for me is that leaders should prioritise teaching and learning above everything else, and when that is the focus, there will be significant improvement for teachers and students – academically, and in terms of wellbeing. I love that sentiment. It’s not easy, but it’s essential. Oh, and I also loved that Dinham said the best leaders ask for forgiveness, rather than permission. So, go to – do great things, take risks, make school awesome. (That last bit is mine, haha, not Dinham’s.)

Overall, I’m glad I read this book, even if just to remind myself that people continue to misunderstand Project Based Learning, and dismiss it as a ‘fad’. I hope my DP managed to read the book also, and I look forward to our conversations about it together next week.




7 thoughts on “‘Leading Learning & Teaching’ by Stephen Dinham – a review by me ;)

  1. I am thinking that this might not be a book for me. Read Fullan and Langworthy’s New Pedagogies paper The Rich Seam, which calls out technology as accelerating learning. Might be worth a read. A useful provocation.

  2. Hi Bianca – great post – I love the way you do the ‘to and fro’ – and ask some tough questions – I have ordered the book – the omission of technology enhanced learning is #puzzling
    Aaron mentions the New Pedagogies paper – love that – all about the findings in the HPC research … oh wait … I can send you a link if you would like it. Enjoy the last days of your holidays.

  3. Hello Bianca,

    Thanks for sharing. You have helped me make the decision to forgo the reading of this book. Any educational book that pays scant attention to IT is a relic. Let’s face it, great learning is facilitated by great teaching – YES! However, in this day and age, technology (as Aaron mentions) is the great accelerator of learning that we have so much more to discover HOW this acceleration can be achieved.

    I think the work of Hattie, Dinham and others are metaphorically like literacy and numeracy – great foundations on which to build. However, we need to be inclusive or broader data sets which measure success (which is more than a great HSC result and high ATAR) by including growth points around critical thinking, collaboration and communication as well as ‘soft skills’ such as empathy, sharing and negotiation. PBL, challenged based learning, inquiry approaches, all facilitate the development and growth of these necessary skills. When ’21st century skills’ data is combined with literacy and numeracy growth, then I am sure, powerful learning conversations will occur. We have to be bold as well as precise around what data will provide the best insights, and we are only at the beginning.

    Just like we need to include data sets broader than literacy, numeracy and the HSC, we also need to include more researchers in the conversations about what great learning looks like. Those researchers can be the teachers in the classroom doing the work – action researchers!

    Good on you for sharing. It certainly got me thinking. Thank you.


  4. I came across this post in my search for a cheaper price for this title than the ACER shop was offering and, like the other posters, I am so glad I did. I am a principal and love the way you summarised your take-aways from this book, contextualising and/or linking to further information around Dinham himself. I still don’t know if I’ll buy it – it is April 2018 now and the lovely Darcy Moore has just tweeted a link to Dinham’s new title which is why I went searching – but you’ve given me plenty of food for thought. Thanks, Bianca.

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