“Remember that you may be the only adult role model and positive doorway into the future that they have” – Australia

“I was born to teach,” says Joan Dalton.I began teaching in 1966. As an early childhood teacher, I quite naturally used learner-centered pedagogy, developed learner-responsibility for learning, focused on learning-how-to-learn, and play-based learning at a time when most teachers saw teaching as ‘telling.’  I was fascinated by ‘difference,’ both from a learning and cultural perspective, and how one could provide for individual needs and use diversity to value and enrich the learning of all.”

With a career that spans 46 years, Dalton has literally moved all over the field of  education: she has been a teacher, a school leader, senior officer with state and national projects, and professional learning director. She focuses on 21st century learning skills, leading and facilitating adult learning, and collective leadership. Her extremely successful consulting skills are known throughout the globe.

Dalton was instrumental in bringing cooperative learning to Australia in the early 1980’s, and her first book, Adventures in Thinking, was a landmark publication that offered practical ways to foster effective communication and creative and critical thinking through learner collaboration. She has written a range of publications over the years that have made contemporary theory available to classroom teachers through practical strategies and approaches.  

Dalton shares her views on collaboration, technology in the classroom, and why teachers need to love what they do.  

Can you tell us about your career, and what it has taught you about innovation in education?

Quite early in my career, I was a pioneer of ‘open education’ and had visitors from across Victoria and other states of Australia to observe what and how my students were learning. Of course, after 12 months of modeling this, I realized I had learned more than the children, and that skills such as self-responsibility, collaboration, thinking and problem-solving, communication (and so on…) need to be explicitly developed.

I saw learning everywhere in the world, and expected my student learners to explore the same – I never saw learning as happening “inside the classroom box.” Learning has to be real and relevant, 24/7. And it has to make a difference.

Through invitations from schools, Departments of Education across Australia and national organizations, I’ve made major contributions to long-term change efforts, national curriculum documents and the professional learning of adults in ways that make a difference for student learning. I have worked by invitation across more than eleven different countries as a keynote speaker, consultant and learning facilitator, including a long-term role as Director of Professional Learning Services for Developmental Studies Center in the USA.

I believe that good learning is good learning. We need to lead the learning of adults based on the same learning and teaching principles we use with student learners. For the past 10 years, my co-director, David Anderson, and I have modeled this in leading train-the-trainer Art of Facilitation courses for leaders and aspiring leaders across Australia and New Zealand. My recent work in leadership has also involved co-writing the Leadership Capability Framework for the Australian Council for Educational Leaders, with ‘leadership beyond the school and globally’ featured as the most sophisticated dimension.

I am mid-way through writing a new series of books (eBook and print) on Learning Talk, with a focus on skillful communication and professional conversations that move learning forward. (www.leadingadultlearners.com 

What has changed as a result of your efforts?

I am one of many educators who have made a difference to Australian education. Our work has seen learning and teaching practices in Australian schools become more authentic, relevant, learner-centered, and focused on the development of 21st century capabilities and skills. There is an increased awareness of and focus on creative and critical thinking, effective collaboration and skilled communication. We are moving at long last from standardization to personalized learning, and a greater understanding of individual

Leadership in schools now more clearly resonates with what we know about good learning, and professional learning is more focused on adult learning that embeds and sustains changes to practice, thus enabling greater school improvement and transformation.

How can others facing similar challenges implement what you’ve learned through your work?

Three offerings I would make here:

Collaboration is key: the power of collective work and wisdom is greater than any one individual can accomplish on their own. Teamwork and drawing on multiple perspectives are critical to success.

You have to love learning: we need to develop and model the same capabilities and dispositions so desperately important for our students’ futures – open-minded, inquirer,
ongoing learner, flexible, empathic, creative, and so on. Any teacher today who thinks they ‘know it all’ ought not to be teaching.   

Be congruent, and true to your principles and beliefs: In my early days of teaching, I stood out as “different” from the norm. In those days, conformity and compliance were valued rather than diversity. I fought very hard, often with senior school administrators, to have my students’ learning tailored to their needs, rather than all, for example, having to read the same level “class reader.”

I believe you have to be congruent in the way you work with both adult and student learners. Just as inquiry learning is central for young people, adult learners need to inquire into their own practice and undertake authentic action inquiry projects that make a difference for learning. The more we model high quality 21st century pedagogy with adults, the more transfer to student learning will occur.

How have you applied technology in innovative ways to support your work?

Technology has brought the world to learning and learning to the world. It enables 21st century skills development in far more powerful ways than my early days of teaching. I am fortunate enough to have been invited to work in partnership with educators such as Sean Tierney and Travis Smith, who use technology for learning in inspirational ways, both through my national and worldwide Partners in Learning project work. Being part of a team means we each contribute our talents for more powerful learning results.

What is the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome to ensure students are receiving a quality education?

While Australia has policies on diversity and equity, putting these into practice in ways that reduce educational disadvantage is still really difficult. The old notion that governments and communities hang onto where classes are designated largely by age will not serve us for the future – intergenerational and inter-cultural learning is essential, and the wonders of technology make this possible.

We are making some headway with personalized learning, though this is still held back in secondary schools by the ways classes are organized and taught. How can you deeply know and understand student learners when you teach more than 100 students each week, perhaps only for 50 minutes at a time, and in separate subject fields?

What is your country doing right to support education?

Australia is at the forefront of high quality learning and teaching, and the latest National Curriculum documents include the teaching of 21st century capabilities and skills, not just content.


Learn more about Assessment and Teaching of the 21st Century Skills

Sponsored by Cisco, Intel and Microsoft, ATC21S aims to help educators around the world enable students with the skills to succeed.


What is the best opportunity for innovation in education?

Smaller teams of people, communities, and smaller systems working together in partnership and networks, rather than government-controlled bureaucratic Departments of Education holding onto education. Government bureaucracies are by their very nature politically controlled and short term; they are the “last shake of the dinosaur’s tail” – they ask schools and the people within them to “innovate” while at the same time holding on tight to things that make innovation difficult, for example, standardized testing.

We also need to get better at possibility thinking – too many teachers seem content to remain “inside the classroom box” in their thinking. We need to ask “What if?” “Why?” and “Why not?” And we need to go to the higher moral purpose and ask, “Whose needs are being served here?” because we are here to serve young people and their futures, not the past.  

What advice would you give a new teacher (or to anyone wanting to make a difference in education)?

Love what you do – help your students to love learning, to care, and teach them to make a real difference in the world. Remember that you may be the only adult role model and positive doorway into the future that they have.

Build relationships in meaningful ways so students can learn effectively, and collaboratively together as well. You can’t help students learn unless you know and understand them; they won’t learn until they know you care about them as people and
learners. Help them know deeply that they are all smart in different ways.

Work flexibly with student learners to develop in them 21st century skills and capabilities that will enable them to thrive in the future. Relinquish that old mental model of teacher as expert or sole authority, and lead as a coach, mentor, co-learner in partnership with students, sharing control and building learners’ skills to drive their own learning in collaboration with others.

What educational “trend” do you think is helping students? Is there a trend that is getting in the way of learning?

Certainly, Microsoft’s focus on the integrated use of 21st century technologies for more powerful learning puts students in the driver’s seat, enabling personalized learning, and global collaboration.
It offers the potential for them to learn and contribute beyond anything seen before – it’s often teachers that get in the way here because they need to re-think their role. The old “teacher as sole authority and expert” doesn’t work any more. What technology trends make possible is a more powerful focus on 21st Century skills and authentic learning that makes a difference to the learner, to others, to the community and their world – global citizenship in action!

If you could give one educational tool to every child in the world, what would it be? Why?

The freedom to think, and in so doing, the ability to deeply understand and value differences and cultural diversity to enrich learning and living on this planet for all.


Join the Partners in Learning Network and experience global collaboration!

Innovate in the classroom, help your students build the skills they need for the future—such as problem solving, critical thinking, collaboration, and creativity—with Partners in Learning.

You’ll meet other innovative teachers for collaboration opportunities, get access to free teacher resources, and learn about great ways to improve your personal teaching practice using technology.

Embraced by the theme ‘Your Ideas Matter’ the Partners in Learning Network is a community for you, by you, and further amplifies the great work that is being done every day by teachers and schools around the world.  With this idea in mind, we invite you to try out this global online resource and community designed to encourage collaboration and the spread of ideas for the betterment of education worldwide.

The new Partners in Learning Network is the next generation of the global network
serving educators and school leaders in over 115 countries.  To facilitate a truly global community of innovative educators, the site is now available in 36 different languages, thanks to the use of Microsoft Translator Services.

Sign in, create an account and start connecting with thousands of educators worldwide here.  


About Joan Dalton
Director at Hands on Educational Consultancy, Australia

Joan Dalton works as a consultant, staff developer and project development specialist as co-director of Hands on Educational Consultancy.  She is also the founding president of the Australasian Association for Cooperative Education. Joan is an internationally respected teacher and educator, and is acknowledged for her expertise in learning, leadership and facilitation, and her long-term work with schools for transformational change. Joan has spread her expertise in over 10 different countries working as a consultant. Joan’s internationally successful books and videos include:
* Adventures in Thinking (thirteen reprints)
* Becoming Responsible Learners
* Extending Children’s Special Abilities
* I Teach
* All in a School’s Work
* Among Friends: classrooms where caring and learning prevail

Since 2010, Dalton has co-facilitated and designed forums for Microsoft’s National Partners in Learning project in Australia, the Asia-Pacific Forums 2011-2012, and Microsoft’s Worldwide 2011-2012 Innovation in Education Forums.

Birthplace: Melbourne, Australia
Current residence: Maldon, Victoria, Australia
Education and Awards: Early Childhood degree, post-graduate degree in Special Education; Tasmania Award for distinguished services to teaching; Victorian Fellow, Australian Council for Educational Leaders.
Website I check every day: TED.com
Person who inspires me most: Bob Brown, Federal Greens Leader, Australia because Bob is that rare politician who remains a principled, ethical person, true to the cause of
stewardship of the environment. He has made, and continues to make, a significant difference to the Australian environment, and indeed, the world.
Favorite childhood memory: Adventuring by the sea, exploring rock pools and sand for hidden treasures. I still experience that feeling of oneness when in special natural environments, particularly the ocean.
Next travel destination (work or pleasure): Vietnam for pleasure in August, and Greece for work in November.
When was the last time you laughed? Why? Yesterday, when my two nieces were re-living shared memories of their childhood and what they got up to together! They hadn’t seen each other for 20 years as they live in different parts of Australia, so it was a
heartwarming family time, full of laughter and memories revisited.
Favorite book: Hard to choose one as I am a ‘readaholic’! The Poisonwood Bible would be one of my long-term favorites – I love the way it’s told from perspectives of different family members and full of adventure and unknowns in the Congo jungle.
Favorite music: Hard to choose one. The Lark Ascending by Vaughn Williams would be one of my favorites. I also love Vivaldi because it’s so joyful.
Your favorite quote or motto:  I have two: It’s far better to ask for forgiveness than seek permission!  And…when in doubt, make it up!

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4 Responses to “Remember that you may be the only adult role model and positive doorway into the future that they have” – Australia

  1. that is the great work for education

  2. Doug Bergman says:

    Awesome. stories like this inspire me to be a great teacher!

  3. Incredibly good helpful advice, thought provoking. Thank you!

  4. Walid Misli says:

    I really like her! She is inspires me to be more passionate in the Education World. Hope to meet her again.

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