We bid a fond farewell to Leslie Loble as Deputy Secretary in the department in this special episode recorded before Leslie's retirement in July. In conversation with Kelly Stephens, Director of Strategic Education Reform and Policy, Leslie reflects on some highlights and key learnings from 20 years driving education policy reform in New South Wales. Leslie also reflects on some key lessons education could take from responses to COVID-19, and her hopes for the future of education in Australia.
The views expressed in Edspressos are those of the interviewees and do not necessarily represent the views of the NSW Department of Education.
Episode 14: Back to the Future: Leslie Loble reflects on a forward-thinking career
Welcome to the New South Wales Department of Education's Edspresso Series. These short podcasts are part of the work of the Education for a Changing World initiative and explore the types of skills and knowledge that students might need in a rapidly changing and AI augmented future. Join us as we speak to a range of experts about how emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence are likely to change the world around us, and what this might mean for education.
This episode features a conversation between Kelly Stephens, Director of Strategic Education Reform and Policy at the department, and the now-retired Deputy Secretary, Leslie Loble.
This interview was conducted virtually due to Covid-19.
In her final week at the department, we asked Leslie to reflect on her distinguished career, of some twenty years in New South Wales education, and her vision and hopes for the future of education in Australia.
I'm just going to begin by acknowledging that we are meeting on different Aboriginal lands and pay respects to Aboriginal leaders past and present.
Hello, I'm Kelly Stephens, Director of Strategic Education Reform and Policy at the New South Wales Department of Education. I've had the pleasure of working with our guest today, Leslie Loble, in various roles for over fifteen years. Leslie, you've been a long-standing Deputy Secretary at the Department of Education. Perhaps you could start by telling us how you came to work for the Department in the first place.
Kelly, firstly it's great to be joining you - fifteen years - it's always a little scary when one hears lengths of time. I want to join you also in acknowledging we meet on traditional lands. In my case, I'm on the land of the Yuin people - beautiful land it is - and pay my respects to elder's past and present.
I came to Australia after a substantial career in the United States because my husband is Australian, and he was offered an incredible opportunity to set up Australia's first dedicated government office focused on climate change. I had always worked in various roles in national policy in the United States, culminating for five years working with Bill Clinton and his administration. And I wasn't exactly sure what I would do when I came to Australia. A friend told me about a job opening up at the Department of Education. And I thought, okay, well, that'll be interesting. I was counselled by many people here that working within government is incredibly important. And so I took the opportunity expecting only to be, frankly, involved for a few years, and find myself more than two decades later, having been very, very glad that I took that role, had incredible opportunities, working in a field and an area that is so essential.
Thank you. It was just over a year ago that we interviewed you for the very first Edspresso podcast and a lot has happened in the past twelve months including catastrophic fires across New South Wales and the global Covid-19 pandemic. What lasting impact do you think these events will have on education in New South Wales?
I suppose that there's been so many lessons that we can take away from Covid because it's so intense. It's not over yet and it's such a concentrated period of time. So that it calls upon us as individuals, communities, institutions, to do extraordinary things in a short period of time. So I suppose quite a few takeaways for me. Firstly, that we can live through a great deal of uncertainty and change and demonstrate that we have amazing resilience and can respond quite nimbly to rapidly changing circumstances. I think we also learned through this that personal engagement, personal touch, personal experience, and community matters so much more to us than we might have realised. That as individuals, we certainly can't conquer this alone but also that we came to value so much about what was very personal.
We certainly learned that technology is essential, and that it can be a tremendous enabler and give us significant opportunities. I think we certainly didn't learn that equity is an issue, but we learned it in a different way. It was revealed to us in particularly sharp relief. So it wasn't a new revelation at all for education. But there it was, immediately apparent, and we needed to act.
And I suppose the other thing that I've taken away from it is that the positive certainly outweighs the negative. These are very concerning times. We still don't know a lot about this disease. We still don't have a vaccine. But I think what has come through so clearly is that the optimism and positivity that we will come out the other side of this has been very sustaining and an important lesson for us.
I'd agree with that. I think anecdotally I've observed amazing positivity amongst young people and students at school, who navigated, I think, the transition to learning from home, many of them with remarkable aplomb. But obviously, as you point out, the equity issues emerged in that context, particularly strongly. What do you think these events might have suggested about the role of education and what it needs to deliver for the students in our schools now and into the future?
Well, I suppose it proved once again that education always has been and always will be the single best way to lift, personal, community, economic progress. The learning from home systems had to move very, very quickly to support that. Parents found themselves engaged in their child's learning in in much greater detail, in many cases, than they had been before. That brought a lot of very positive outcomes. A lot of parents getting great insight and appreciation not only for their child and what their child could do, but also for their teachers. I think it really brought home how important teachers and schools are. And a great cry of joy went out when kids were able to get back to school, led by to a great extent the students themselves, who really missed their friends and the social aspect of school. But also by their parents who really have appreciated that teachers have been so essential to their child's learning, and that it's not easy to replicate. It takes real knowledge and skill, as we've always known, but it was revealed in different ways.
On the other hand, we've heard from students coming through Covid, very strong views, that they want us to think about the changes we could make in education. They loved the fact that they had more autonomy. That they had more individuality in how they approach their learning. And in some cases, they got much more personal support. I think these are all really important lessons that we have to take into account as we go forward.
You've spoken before about your amazement, a few years ago I think it was, at how quickly artificial intelligence technologies were developing and your concern about what that meant, or might mean, for education. And since then, we've had more and more AI related headlines in the news: how robots are stealing our jobs, helping to cure cancer or just delivering us our online shopping faster. There's been a lot of conversation about what this means for our society, obviously including education. Drawing on your comment about positivity, do you think education is better placed now to deal with the challenges of AI and to take advantage of its benefits?
So when we started this project, we were really struck by the fact that artificial intelligence, whilst very closely related to more than half a century of technological development and computerisation, was taking a different direction and having a different impact, because of the element of machine learning - in particular the capacity for the technology to, if you will, teach itself. So for example, formerly, we had a working assumption that technology displaces low skill work. And that was a very important framing concept for education, that we needed to lift skills in part, not the only reason, but in part, to not only sustain the economy, but also to help inoculate people against technological displacement. Well, the implementation of AI has shown us that it goes across the board now, and even very highly skilled professions are affected by artificial intelligence. Whether they're in medicine or law, or even technology itself. So for example, we only, two or three years ago in education, thought if we taught kids how to code computers that would be a sufficient skill. But what we found now, is that AI can code itself. The pace is so quick now.
So going back to the question of what does all this mean for education? I suppose it's fair to say that the longer we work on this, the more we come back to the realisation that education fundamentals always have been important, and always will be and in fact may even be more important as the complexity of global challenges increase, and whether that's around technology or other dimensions. So the fundamentals of knowledge skills, thinking, building agency as well as expertise, ensuring that there's creativity brought to problem solving, as well as deep knowledge of crucial building blocks. These have always anchored education and if anything, I think this environment shows us even more how important they are. So the ability to think deeply and to have very strong thinking skills built on fundamentals of things like literacy and numeracy and knowledge are incredibly important. In addition to making sure that we get really strong fundamental knowledge, skills and capabilities, I think what we know from the ubiquity of technology and from the widespread impact of artificial intelligence is that these sorts of capabilities have always been part of education, and they need to be very much available to all students. Every student needs to be able to have those opportunities to have strong foundational knowledge and information and expertise. Every student deserves to have those thinking skills that are going to open up doors of opportunity and creativity. And every student deserves to have that sense of agency and confidence that, in fact, they will be shaping their world.
And then, going back to the discussion we were having about Covid, I think what we also know, is that that human interaction, what makes us human, becomes even more important in this technological age. It's concentrating on that strong foundation, that will allow us in education to ensure that students leave, let's say the thirteen years they've got in schooling, well prepared to then move forward.
Yes, I think I've always been struck by, as you say, Leslie, the fact that not all the twenty-first century skills, are necessarily twenty-first century in and of themselves. It's the level of access that we need for people to have to those, that seems particularly different and new and one of the big challenges. Having said that, and given the importance of critical thinking for all students, I was wondering if you could share some insights into the role that critical thinking has played in your own career and life?
The first thing that people think about when we discuss critical thinking is analytical capacity, the ability to understand more deeply a set of facts or a circumstance that you're facing. And I've had the great privilege of working, in very high levels in two countries, on a range of public policy issues, and certainly that analytical capacity always had to be used. But the more that I've come to understand the dimensions of critical thinking, I think we often overlook the other aspects of it. Aspects like empathy, communication, and reflection. And, if you will, evolution. So critical thinking doesn't operate in a vacuum. It's actually a quite social activity. We bring to the fore so much that idea of analysis and that is a really important piece of it. But critical thinkers are aware of the world. They're reflecting on the world. They're taking lessons from the world. They're taking feedback from the world, from people they're engaged with, from other points of view. And along with that sense of awareness and understanding and even as I said before, empathy, there's that capacity to communicate. And I think also, it's incredibly important and Covid again, brings it home so sharply for us. Great thinkers, from very diverse points of view, have come together to try to solve a mysterious and deadly disease. And it is only through that ability to share what we know and to reflect on the lessons, and then adjust what we know, that progress is being made on this disease. So critical thinking is a whole array of really important skills. It is a constellation of the talents and skills and abilities that we will need going forward.
I think that's fascinating your observation that critical thinking might be best understood as a social activity. I think we often understand it very much as an individual activity, and that it might be an iterative activity as well as a process of analysis that's targeting an answer, if you will. To go back, though, Leslie, you've been involved in education in New South Wales for over twenty years. In that time, obviously, there's been lots of change and reform. What changes would you hope to see in education over the next two decades?
As I finish this particular phase of my career, it obviously makes one quite reflective. And while I've had opportunity to work on just a huge array of education reforms over my time, I just more and more come back to certain core aspects that that underpin them all. Things like high expectations. I look back on what I've been able to do and high expectations widely accessed and applied, I think has been a tremendous motivation and will be to answer your question, even more important. We absolutely must have our sights as high as they can possibly go for students and for all students and to understand that it is our responsibility to make those expectations a reality through the innovative systems and supports, through the teaching and learning in schooling, through every mechanism we possibly can have. We have to turn that high expectation, widely accessed and achieved, into a reality.
That for me is really closely connected to equity. And I have been able to work on many aspects of that. Whether it's from funding through to curriculum reform or teaching standards and the like, and, and also innovative systems, as I mentioned that will help bring new ideas to the fore, faster. And we've done that, quite recently and effectively, through the Catalyst Lab. I think all of these things, for me, have been important all the way through and they'll remain important. And I'd say for the next twenty years, it's these three things. If I were to say what has to frame what we do, we have to do it with an urgency, is to bring those notions of high expectations, equity and innovation into what we're doing. And in particular, as someone who has worked in the background of a system, I think that those of us who support teaching and learning absolutely must make it our responsibility to make the system as responsive as possible to them. And I include parents and students in that as well. And going forward, that's what we really have to do. We have amazing tools at our disposal. And that combination of high expectations and personalisation, equity and innovation is what we have to deliver.
As you wrap up your time at the New South Wales Department of Education, you've spoken about different aspects of your work during that time. Is there any achievement, or any achievements, that you are most proud of?
Look, there’ve been so many aspects. It's very hard, you'll have me on for a very long time. And also, of course, I appreciate what sits behind the question which is an acknowledgement that I've had a leading role. And it's a cliché to say this but believe me, there is not a single leader out there that actually delivers all of this. It is entirely because we are surrounded by people who are creative and often more able than we are. So look, you can't go far past the fair funding arrangements that we call Gonski one and two. May not have achieved everything that we once set out for, but it fundamentally has shifted school funding in Australia onto much fairer ground and anchored on the student and the students’ educational needs. I think I've been fortunate to have established a number of institutions, that embody some of the innovation and discipline, that I think are important for systems. Many years ago, the Centre for Learning Innovation, which introduced new ways for teachers, students, and parents to engage with learning. We created the Centre for Education, Statistics and Evaluation, which endures, and has become tremendously influential in helping us understand what works best and how we can bring the best knowledge of proven approaches.
And now, through the work of Education for a Changing World and the Catalyst Lab, we have the capacity to press forward into the future, more than we have before but again, framed very much by disciplined approaches to that. I said that, you know, any success relies on people. And I think I'm also incredibly proud of the fact that we've gone through many different shapes and sizes, names and configurations. But the core of the work, at least that I've been deeply engaged with, and the core of the people have really remained the same. People do come and go, but our approach of being as open to new ideas and new approaches of supporting our own people to push themselves to deliver more than they thought they could, but also to be rewarded for that. I think those things are things I'm quite proud of too.
Leslie, speaking about people, you've had the pleasure of meeting some very innovative and inspiring leaders throughout your career. Is there any way you could pick out a couple of highlights, and what lessons you learned from them?
You know, one of the motivations for me in any work I've done has been to work for and with people I can learn from and that I respect. I can genuinely say, there's not a single person that I have worked for, over a long period of time, that I have not learned a tremendous amount from and have not deeply respected and enjoyed working with. Even at the very end, it's been a bit more than three years that I've been able to work with Mark Scott, and I have to say that that's been tremendously rewarding. He is impressive in how quick he is to see opportunities, but to couple that with a great understanding of institutions, institutional dynamics and the people within them and how they work. So that it's not just let's grab an opportunity, he's got a great grasp of how to make systems engage with and seize those opportunities. He is an innovator. He demonstrated that across a tremendous part of his own career. And I've been really fortunate that, at the end, when I have been leading this work around the future of education, it's been great to have a partner with Mark and the sort of leadership that he's given to what we've been doing, as well as the wider work of the department.
Thank you. To finish our Edspresso interviews we typically ask our interviewees what advice they'd give to their younger self and whether they would give different advice to a young person today. When we asked you this question before, you said you'd encourage yourself to do more maths and advise today's students to read extensively and widely. To conclude our podcast today, I'll vary the question just slightly. You've had a distinguished career in education leadership in Australia. How different do you think that career would be if you were starting today as Leslie 2.0? Do you have any advice for students who aspire to become leaders themselves one day?
Well, I'd certainly hope Leslie 2.0 would be better than Leslie 1.0. [Laughs] But in any case, you know, I've always had feedback, since I came to Australia, that I'm an optimist. And as a New Yorker with a healthy degree of cynicism, that's just hardwired into you if you're a New Yorker, I found that interesting that I was seen as an optimist, and I've reflected on that quite a bit. I think it actually is true. And this would be the advice I would give my younger self. You’re going to have a long road to travel. They'll be hopefully mostly straight lines, but there's going to be some curves, some twists and turns. Not everything is always going to go to plan. And as we've been talking previously, we can see that the pace of change will mean that, we'll be facing even as individuals, much more change than we would’ve otherwise experienced. But I think the reason that people see me as an optimist is because I see every single one of those as an opportunity, not a problem. And it's such a cliché to say that but every time that something has had to adjust, it's been well, okay, let's think about where that means we need to go. Let's think about what lesson that's taught us, how we might need to adjust, what new information or people we might need to bring in. For me, it's always been a process of continually learning and reflecting and then seeing how you need to refine what you're doing to keep moving forward.
And so I would hope that when we talk about what we want to achieve in education, and what we want every child and student to have when they finish, it is exactly those sorts of qualities which underpin that sense of optimism. That notion that learning is good. Nobody knows everything. Being able to build on a core set of knowledge and skills, but really valuing and welcoming the ability to constantly learn more. The confidence and optimism, the agency to know that you do have the capacity to shape what your next step is or what the direction will be. And I suppose also to hold on to those fundamental values and hopes that you want to always strive for. Even if they may come in different forms or be revealed in different ways. But to know that you always want to keep moving in one direction or at least keep moving towards a direction. Those would be the things that I would hope Leslie 2.0 would discover a lot earlier in her life and I would suggest are aspects and advice that I might give.
I actually found them, very, very helpful reflections Leslie. They make a lot of sense. The optimism of finding the value in the circuitous path as opposed to the straight line, I think it's something that is a good lesson, for pretty much everyone in their life. I think we've come to the point where we can wrap up. So, I'm going to say thank you again. It has actually been really great to talk to you on this occasion, as on so many others. Thank you for your time, for your generous reflections on your career and on education, both past and future. And all the very best for the next chapter. Leslie 3.0, perhaps.
[Laughs] Thanks, Kelly
Thank you for listening to this episode of the Edspresso Series. You can find out more about the Education for a Changing World initiative via the New South Wales Department of Education's website. There you can sign up to our mailing list or you can join our conversation on Twitter @education2040.