Teach, Learn, Live Podcast: Natalie Brown

Illustration of Tim Bullard and Natalie Brown for the Teach Learn Live Podcast

00:00:02 Tim Bullard

Welcome to the teach learn leaf podcast. I’m your host, Tim Bullard, Secretary of the Department of Education in Tasmania. Through this podcast, we’re going to shed some light on how we’re connecting students and young people to succeed every day in our classrooms. We’ve got teachers working hard to inspire our learners.

00:00:21 Tim Bullard

And I see great school leaders making a real difference in many people’s lives. Join me as we get to know more great teachers, curious learners, and inspiring families and communities who teach, learn and live in Tasmania.

00:00:43 Tim Bullard

Today my guest is Professor Natalie Brown, director of the Peter Underwood Centre. Natalie’s academic career began with a PhD in plant science, and she’s held a number of positions at the University of Tasmania across a number of faculties. In her early career as a teacher of Science and Maths, Natalie taught him both the northwest and Hobart regions across years 7 to 12.

00:01:04 Tim Bullard

And she’s been the recipient of a number of teaching awards, culminating in a National Teaching Excellence Award in 2013. Drawing upon her career of working and volunteering in education related roles and as a passionate advocate of learning, Natalie joined the Peter Underwood Centre as director in 2017.

00:01:24 Tim Bullard

Before we start our conversation today, I would like to acknowledge the Tasmanian Aboriginal people who have been caring for and educating their children and young people here on this island for 10s 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, our schools, our libraries and our business units.

00:01:45 Tim Bullard

And I acknowledge our aboriginal learners right across the state who will be the strong community members and leaders of tomorrow. Welcome Natalie.

00:01:54 Natalie Brown

Thank you Tim.

00:01:55 Tim Bullard

So you’ve had a career which has been very based in in University and research, and now you’re heading up the Peter Underwood Centre. What’s motivated you to be in the education space for your career?

00:02:08 Natalie Brown

Well, Tim, I think I was always destined to be a teacher. I think when I was a young child, my dad brought home a really big blackboard that used to be at the old Hutchins School and it was in our garage. And I know that I used to teach my younger sister and other children in the neighbourhood. I don’t know what I taught them, but I can remember being at that blackboard.

00:02:30 Natalie Brown

So perhaps I was always destined to be a teacher and to be in the education space. I think I like working with people. I like being able to see people progress and to reach their goals. And I think even though I’ve done some research and done some other things, that education always draws you back because it’s just so important.

00:02:52 Natalie Brown

And it can transform people’s lives.

00:02:54 Tim Bullard

So you now hold a PhD in plant science? But if we went back to you at school, what would we see?

00:03:01 Natalie Brown

Oh well, I liked school. I pretty much enjoyed most of the subjects that I studied at school. I was reasonably good at my school work, but my teachers would probably say I talked a little bit too much,

00:03:14 Tim Bullard

Mine too.

00:03:15 Natalie Brown

I think that came on my report a few times. But I was interested in in a lot of different things and I was really quite interested in science and that’s why I went to University and did a science degree. But I I, like many people, had a studentship at that stage, so I was going to be a science teacher.

00:03:35 Natalie Brown

And that was something that I was really looking forward to and I did work as a science teacher for eight years. And that was, you know, a really terrific experience. And I think it’s been really helpful. Now that I’ve come back into the Underwood Centre.

00:03:49 Tim Bullard

So speaking of the Underwood Centre, for people that don’t know about the Peter Underwood Centre, what’s it all about?

00:03:55 Natalie Brown

OK, so I think we’re quite unique really because we are a partnership between the University and the Tasmanian Government in conjunction with Government House. And we’ve got one really big aim, which is to improve educational attainment across Tasmania. And we think to do that.

00:04:16 Natalie Brown

We all need to work together. So it’s not something that in an individual person or an individual organisation can actually attend to on on their own. It’s something that requires a great deal of collaboration. So that’s why you know the centre was formed. To really have that that effort across both the University and the whole of government.

00:04:37 Tim Bullard

I recently talked to Ruth Davidson, who you know, is our director of child and student well being. And she she spoke about spheres of influence and I think then what struck me is that schools are absolutely there to improve the education outcomes of our children and young people. But we also need to be partnering with communities and with families and with other organisations. So is that where you see Peter Underwood in that partnership space?

00:05:01 Natalie Brown

Look absolutely. But also sending that message. So being able to reach out to the community to families and spread the message that Education Is everybody’s business and that it’s not just when people get to school that education begins. That it does begin at birth or even before birth. Some people would say so.

00:05:25 Natalie Brown

Really setting young people up with the best possible foundation for learning.

00:05:30 Tim Bullard

So the late Governor, The Honourable Peter Underwood, who the centre is named after said education, perhaps more than anything else, is the passport to a better life. So what does that actually mean to you?

00:05:41 Natalie Brown

Well, we know Tim that education has so many benefits both to the individual.

00:05:46 Natalie Brown

To the family and to the broader society and community. So we know that individuals that have a good education, they have better outcomes in terms of employment, different opportunities. But they also have better health outcomes and better well being outcomes.

00:06:06 Natalie Brown

So for the individual there’s very strong evidence that good education sets you up really well for life. And then, of course, for individuals, if they’ve got better life chances and greater opportunities that makes for stronger families, makes for stronger communities. And if we think about Tasmania as a state having a population that’s well educated that can take on skilled jobs that can be entrepreneurial that can come up with new ideas, and that’s really important for the Tasmanian economy, so it has benefits all the way through for both the individual and for the broader community.

00:06:42 Tim Bullard

So how does the Peter Underwood Center contribute to that improvement of education outcomes in Tasmania?

00:06:50 Natalie Brown

So we’ve got a few programs Tim that we run and we’ve also got some partnerships that we work through and and some research projects. So one of the programs that people might be aware of is Children’s University. So that’s a program where we encourage children from 7 to 14 to engage with learning outside of school.

00:07:11 Natalie Brown

The idea is that learning can happen anywhere, and learning can be fun, and children and young people can choose different activities that are all to do with learning and all sort of contribute to broadening those opportunities. The Peter Underwood Centre, who operates Children’s University, validates learning activities.

00:07:31 Natalie Brown

And those learning activities might be sporting activities, might be dance. Might be cultural activities, might be visits to museums or to other really interesting destinations. It might be being involved in Philosophy club or a book club or many many different types of activities where learning happens.

00:07:52 Natalie Brown

And our school coordinators that work with us for children’s University validate and stamp passports, little passports for the children and they collect hours of learning. And so when the children have had 30 hours of learning, then they’re actually eligible to graduate and they can keep accumulating those hours. And as they go through, they get.

00:08:14 Natalie Brown

Different types of certificates from Children’s University. So our graduations are a really great event. Then we have those once a year and usually in in normal years, not unfortunately this year, the children lead a town and gown parade. They dress up in the academic gowns and they have their yellow sashes and they marched behind the Pipe Band and then they have a ceremony where they actually received their their certificates.

00:08:35 Natalie Brown

So it’s a great celebration of Education with their families. This year, unfortunately, we’re not having graduations or we’re not having them for University students either. So schools are going to do their own celebratory event.

00:08:56 Natalie Brown

For for those children an we’ve got some some packs with some some gifts for the children for their their graduation this year.

00:09:04 Tim Bullard

What I think is just so powerful about Children’s University is it demonstrates that learning doesn’t just happen in a classroom, and I also know from stories that you’ve told me is that it actually extends the learning of the whole family at times.

00:09:19 Natalie Brown

Look absolutely and we really encourage whole families to get involved. So we’ve got around 150 learning destinations out in the community around Tasmania, places where families can visit, Children’s University participants can get a stamp, but families can be involved.

00:09:39 Natalie Brown

We also run school holiday programs and we invite families along to those. So we’ve had families learning about how parliament works and visiting Government House and engaging in lots of really interesting activities.

00:09:50 Tim Bullard

And the cap and gown ceremony. Obviously raising awareness of a pathway, a University or a post compulsory education pathway.

00:10:00 Natalie Brown

Look absolutely. I think people need to be able to see those things, so it’s a very visible way of seeing that pathway. And last year we were really excited because we had the first ever University town and gown, and graduation ceremony in Devonport. So we bought that whole University pomp and ceremony if you like, through the streets of Devonport.

00:10:20 Natalie Brown

The town and gown parades in Hobart and in Launceston and Burnie, it’s just amazing to see all the families of the children lining the streets, cheering them on as they go to graduate.

00:10:33 Tim Bullard

So if there’s a parent or carer out there interested in the children’s University, what should they do?

00:10:41 Natalie Brown

Well, we do work through schools so we get a great deal of support from schools and school coordinators. So I would say definitely have a chat to your school principal about, you know, whether Children’s University is available at your school or whether there’s a program that people can join up in the local area.

00:10:58 Tim Bullard

As we move to engage more children and young people in continuing their education to and past year 12, one of the things that has become very clear is needing to actually understand the views, the aspiration’s and the learning styles of those children and young people. And I know that the Peter Underwood centre is very very big on the voice of children and young people across Tasmania. Do you want to talk a bit about that area of interest and focus.

00:11:25 Natalie Brown

Yeah, so we really are very keen on hearing from the children themselves because I think they’re definitely partners, the most important partner I guess, in the education process. So we’ve got a number of programs that we’re currently working on to hear children’s voice.

00:11:45 Natalie Brown

So one we call Tassie Researchers, where we spend some time in a school and this is often in lunch hours and interested children come along. They learn a little bit about what it means to be a researcher. They learn about how you might find out information or how you might get data from from people through Interviews or surveys.

00:12:06 Natalie Brown

And then they conduct their own little research projects and then share their findings back with us. So it’s a way of young people hearing the voices of their peers and reporting them back to us. And it’s important to because those young people help mediate what their peers have said

00:12:26 Natalie Brown

and help us interpret them, so again, it’s through that lens of of another young person. We’ve also got some children’s research advisory groups or CRAGS happening. So where we’ve got projects going on, we do have groups of young people that get together to talk to us about how we’re undertaking that research.

00:12:46 Natalie Brown

Whether the questions makes sense, you know whether we’re targeting the right people, so there are like expert advisory panels. I guess for for what we’re doing.

00:12:56 Tim Bullard

And it’s amazing, isn’t it? The clarity and how eloquent young people are expressing what they need and what they want.

00:13:04 Natalie Brown

Look absolutely and we had a fantastic experience.

00:13:08 Natalie Brown

A couple of weeks ago, where a class of year 11 students from Ulverstone talked to us about a project that they did through another program that that comes from the Underwood Centre, the University Connections program where year 11 and 12 students can do a University unit to get a feel for what University study is about.

00:13:29 Natalie Brown

So this particular unit that the Ulverstone students were doing was called Learning Through Work and unfortunately they couldn’t go to work because of the COVID situation. So they formulated their own work if you like, which was actually a research project to find out what were the experiences of their peers in their school through a learning at home. And it was a fascinating presentation because, not only did they do the research and they got all the data

00:13:54 Natalie Brown

and they worked it through but they had some really interesting findings that they didn’t expect. And then they using sort of a design thinking approach, they then came up with some possible solutions that they’d like to try and as you say team they’ve come up with fantastic ideas an they’ve looked at things in a completely different way00:14:15 Natalie Brown

Than what we would or the teachers would have done. So really great example of how listening to children’s voice is, you know, is so important.

00:14:26 Tim Bullard

So the things that you’ve spoken about, I think people would think were quite unusual for a University to be undertaking. But there is also a more traditional pathway I know in Peter Underwood which is research do you want to talk a bit about some of the research that’s underway or that you’ve undertaken?

00:14:41 Natalie Brown

OK, so I think with our research we’re also a little bit different from perhaps other parts of the University where we really try to do research that’s of interest to our partners. So we work very closely, as you know, Tim with the Department of Education

00:14:56 Natalie Brown

And with schools in the education sector more broadly on things that are actually important to them. So we’ve just recently finished a three year study into the teaching of literacy in Tasmanian schools, and that’s included looking at how graduating teachers are prepared to teach literacy.

00:15:17 Natalie Brown

And that’s in a project where we’ve come out with some really good findings with their collaborating with our partners. We’ve been able to put a number of those recommendations already into practice. So that’s one example. We’ve also been looking at some of the programs that have been offered by the Department of Education, so the teaching internship preparation program, or the TIPP program.

00:15:40 Natalie Brown

Looking to see how that can be improved. And that research has been done in conjunction with evaluation that’s being done within the Department to improve the program and to support teachers that are graduating from University and starting their their teaching careers.

00:15:58 Tim Bullard

And obviously our shared focus and focus with other partners such as that TPA and the AEU and the teacher registration board on teacher quality. So the intern program and also the teaching of literacy in pre service training is so important because we know that quality teaching is what makes the real difference.

00:16:17 Natalie Brown

Absolutely. And One of the things that I’ve been really fortunate to be involved with is the Ministerial Roundtable. And that’s absolutely looking at teaching quality and really practical ways in which we can all work together to support the very best possible teaching in Tasmanian schools and to support teachers to do, you know, a really terrific job with the young people that they’re working with, and I think you know the findings of some of the other research that we did through the learning at home phase has really highlighted what teachers do and the breadth of responsibilities that teachers undertake

00:16:48 Natalie Brown

and schools take on to support not just the young people in their care, but the whole family of those young people and that the teaching it isn’t just what happens in the classroom that there needs to be this very big wrap around support

00:17:13 Natalie Brown

For young people to make sure that they are prepared for learning and that the conditions for learning are there. And I think that was made very evident when we had that move from being in a school to young people being at home and then having to think about all the elements that go into an education and how that could be delivered when the young people were actually at home.

00:17:37 Tim Bullard

I think that’s such a great reflection, and one of the things that we were talking about in the Department the other day was that you don’t actually know what you’ve got until it’s gone. And taking away the bricks and mortar and taking away children and young people coming through our gates every day showed what was being provided.

00:17:56 Tim Bullard

Because you could see what wasn’t when they were no longer coming to us. And I think that that really has provided us with a different way of thinking around how we support students, especially those that are vulnerable and at risk needing to be able to articulate a lot more clearly what our expectation and expertise is in those areas.

00:18:16 Natalie Brown

Look absolutely and obviously, this year’s been really difficult, but there’s been some really good learnings. It’s also, I think, set the conditions for much closer working relationship with families. And so families and caregivers sort of understanding you know what it is the school does and what they can do and how they can support. And also how families and caregivers can actually support that process as well.

00:18:38 Natalie Brown

So you know, I think that’s something that we shouldn’t lose and we should keep keep working on. And the other thing too is there’s there was a lot of cooperation even more than normal between the different sectors of schooling. And I know in in terms of getting, you know, resources and material out for students that we had a

00:19:00 Natalie Brown

great deal of cooperation between government and the independent in the Catholic sectors. We’ve had, you know, sharing of information between different agencies to make sure that no children and families fall through the cracks. So it’s it’s really made things visible, as you say Tim.

00:19:21 Tim Bullard

So right back at the beginning of this interview, you said that learning starts at birth or even at pregnancy, and I know that you’re an adviser to the Basics Tasmania. So do you want to tell me a bit about that?

00:19:42 Natalie Brown

Oh yeah, so again, one of the really terrific projects that the Underwood centre is involved with at the moment is supporting the work of two fantastic colleagues at Margate Primary School, Kate Slater and Marie Thompson, who bought back the Boston Basics from the Hardie Fellowship. And this is a program that’s aimed at babies so providing the very best foundation for learning based on evidence. Things that we know are really important in those early years.

00:20:04 Natalie Brown

Marie and Kate and their team have rebadged that as The Basics. And for Tasmania it’s a really terrific program because there are five simple things that everybody can do with babies and young children to set them off in you know, with the best foundation.

00:20:25 Natalie Brown

The first one is to maximize love and to manage stress. So we can share as much love and security on babies as we can from birth. Really important. But also knowing that you know where there’s tension or where there’s concern, that babies will pick up on that. So you know, really thinking about ways and we know that it’s not always easy bringing a young baby home.

00:20:46 Natalie Brown

And there are often ways that we could support young parents by, you know, just giving mum or dad, you know, a few minutes to go for a walk around the garden and watch the baby. And there’s all sorts of ways that we can as a community, support babies too and families.

00:21:08 Natalie Brown

The second one is talk, sing and point. And you know, when we’re talking bout literacy Tim, Oral language is so important. And you know the way that babies learn is by us talking to them, pointing at things, they love singing. Just because the baby doesn’t answer you back talking using the language is is really critically important.

00:21:23 Tim Bullard

And what we know don’t we is that the word count, the vocabulary that a child has on entering school has a direct impact on literacy outcomes.

00:21:32 Natalie Brown

Yeah, absolutely. So you know, we can’t underestimate the importance of of talking and using words. And you know one of those things we call serve and return. So you know, speaking to a baby and the baby might sort of goo and guard back, and that’s great. And then you know, saying these words, and it’s just critically important.

00:21:53 Natalie Brown

The third one, I’m really interested in team because its count group and compare. So it’s a foundation for mathematical thinking. So you know all of our brains are actually wired for maths and we need to be really proactive I think in encouraging those kind of connections. So you know, we know about counting, comparing using some of the language that sets people up for mathematical thinking.

00:22:15 Natalie Brown

Bigger, smaller, longer, shorter. All of those kinds of things are very important and can be done really early. You know sorting blocks into colours. All of those things are really great for sort of making those connections to prepare children for mathematical learning. The next one is explore through play and movement, so I think there’s a saying that says play is children’s work.

00:22:37 Natalie Brown

And that’s absolutely true. Yeah, children need to play. They need to try things out. They need to be able to explore. They definitely need to move and to find things. So helping that gross motor development and their fine motor development by providing opportunities for young people to actually get out and explore and play.

00:22:59 Tim Bullard

And we can’t underestimate that, can we? Because actually when we look at our data, so  our kindergarten development check data, it is gross motor skills where we’re seeing a steady decline. And I think that’s of concern and I think it probably has a lot to do with technology. But also to maybe risk aversion and lack of time to have children and young people outdoors. But it’s just so it’s so important.

00:23:24 Natalie Brown

Look it absolutely is, and I was actually talking to my own children who are grown up now, about the difference, even when I was young, compared to when they were young and it is a bit of risk aversion, I think Tim you know sort of thinking, oh, I don’t know whether they should go up on that slide, but you know, we really do need to help children explore those kinds of activities. You know, it is really important to do that.

00:23:45 Natalie Brown

And then the fifth one is read and discuss stories. You know, so children love books and and you know storytelling. And all of those things. So again, really important to set some children up for literacy and for learning. So there are five things that parents can do that grandparents can do that neighbours can do that. The community can do, and you know, it’s a really lovely program for communities to sort of, take control and to support families and children to get them off to the best possible start.

00:24:15 Tim Bullard

So one of the themes that we explore through the podcast is why we choose to teach, learn and live in Tasmania. And I’m really interested in your thoughts about why you think Tasmania is a special place and also what do you think The distinctive opportunities of being here on this island, compared to being other places in the world.

00:24:35 Natalie Brown

Oh well, of course I’ve always been a Tasmanian Tim, so you know, we love Tasmania. I am a little bit biased and I have taught you know, and I’ve lived around the state in different places.

00:24:49 Natalie Brown

An everywhere is beautiful and you know one of the great advantages of Tasmania of course is there’s so many different types of places and there’s so many different things to do within such a short space of time. So there’s kind of something for everybody as far as teaching here goes, I think there’s a great deal of opportunity. Because there are a range of different school settings.

00:25:10 Natalie Brown

I think there’s opportunities to take leadership roles or to take on projects. You know from the very start of your teaching career to follow through with, you know interest areas. Yeah, so I think for a teacher starting out, it is a fantastic place to work and you are going to get, you know, a range of experiences. So you know definitely think it’s a very special place.

00:25:30 Natalie Brown

I think also we’ve got a very strong community of educators and I think I talked before about, you know, COVID and everybody working together. But I think that’s true across the board that there’s a really good relationship between different sectors of educators. You know people, you know people in the Department. I know Tim, you go out and visit schools regularly.

00:25:55 Natalie Brown

You know the other members of your leadership team are out there. You know the teachers and even the students know you and you know, I think there’s a great deal of benefit there rather than being, you know, in a school where perhaps you never actually meet anybody that’s responsible for making decisions.

00:26:12 Tim Bullard

And having talked to your Vice Chancellor Rufus Black a couple of weeks ago, his reflection was that we know that cohorts of teachers and communities

00:26:20 Tim Bullard

of teachers do make a real difference, not only to the experience of teaching, but the outcomes that we can achieve. And I think the work that the University and the Department are doing around having graduating cohorts staying together, coming together for their induction and then staying together over the course of their career is really exciting.

00:26:43 Natalie Brown

Look, I think so too and I’m just reflecting from when I worked in teacher education that I know that the the cohorts of students you know people who are in the class, that they’ve stayed in contact with each other, that they share resources that they support each other, particularly at the start. And having that that cohort in that group of trusted peers.

00:27:03 Natalie Brown

To share with is, you know, really powerful and I know that they you know they all do stay in touch with each other and you know, I think that that’s a really good thing as well.

00:27:13 Tim Bullard

Naturally, your enthusiasm and commitment to education in Tasmania is clearly evident. So thank you so much for your time today and sharing your experience.

00:27:22 Natalie Brown

Thanks Tim.

00:27:31 Tim Bullard

I hope that you’ve enjoyed today’s podcast to hear more about those people who teach learn and live in Tasmania. Join us at www.education.tas.gov.au/podcast, or wherever you listen to your podcasts.

Why not subscribe so that you can keep up to date with what we’re doing, or if you have a story about an inspiring teacher or student, email us at teachlearnlive@education.tas.gov.au.