Teach, Learn, Live Podcast: Rufus Black

Image of Rufus Black, Vice Chancellor, University of Tasmania for the Teach, Learn, Live Podcast

Tim Bullard: [00:00:02]

Welcome to the Teach, Learn, Live podcast, I’m your host, Tim Bullard, Secretary of the Department of Education in Tasmania.

Tim Bullard: [00:00:10]

Through this podcast, we’re going to shed some light on how we are connecting students and young people to succeed every day in our classrooms. We’ve got teachers working hard to inspire our learners. 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.

Tim Bullard: [00:00:42]

Today, my guest is Rufus Black, Vice-Chancellor and President of the University of Tasmania. Rufus has extensive experience in both universities, government and the private sector. Most recently, he was master of Melbourne University’s Ormond College and an Enterprise Professor in the Department of Management and Marketing in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Melbourne. His private sector experience includes nine years as a partner at McKinsey and Company, serving clients in Australia and Asia and as a Director for national law firm Corrs Chambers Westgarth. Rufus has also worked extensively for government at federal and state levels. He holds degrees in law, politics, economics, ethics and theology from the University of Melbourne and Oxford University, where he studied as a Rhodes Scholar. Welcome, Rufus.

Rufus Black: [00:01:29]

Great to be here, Tim.

Tim Bullard: [00:01:30]

So for those listeners who don’t know, you have a very long list of accomplishments, including multiple degrees, being a Rhodes scholar, extensive work in private industry and advising government on matters of national security and a number of educational and social experiences. But when you were at school, what did you think you were going to be doing?

Rufus Black: [00:01:49]

At school I genuinely didn’t know. Towards the end of school, I thought I wanted to be a lawyer and I thought I want to be a lawyer to fight good fights. My dad was a lawyer and in his chambers there was a picture, a renaissance picture of a guy on a white horse going into battle. And that was the image of what law was certainly about for him. And he fought some really good fights. He represented the Wilderness Society in the Franklin Dams case various things like that. So I thought it was all about fighting a good fight. So by the end of school, that’s what I wanted to do.

Tim Bullard: [00:02:19]

And how did that work out?

Rufus Black: [00:02:20]

It didn’t work out so well. So I discovered the world of the law was really that if you were really lucky, could be what it was about. And for some it is. But I got interested in all sorts of other ways in which you can kind of make change and contribute that were less adversarial, that were less based on finding on making change through conflict. And in the end, also making change by fighting other people’s fights. I got much more interested in the front end of how you make change.

Tim Bullard: [00:02:48]

Never fails to surprise me the correlation between my experience and that of my guests. And again, as you probably know, I was a lawyer and I went into it with exactly the same view of the world that I was going to make a visible difference. It’s interesting that we’ve both settled on education as the most positive way to do that.

Rufus Black: [00:03:07]

And that, for me, is particularly powerful. Because school was not an altogether easy experience for me. I’m dyslexic and education, things that kind of really engages me around the whole education space is its own need to continue to evolve to enable more people, more pathways with a greater diversity of kind of capabilities and backgrounds, actually to have the kind of transformative experience education can be. Because I know that’s not necessarily easy.

Tim Bullard: [00:03:35]

So a really good segway, obviously, in this Teach Learn Live podcast, we are talking about quality teaching and quality teachers. So who stood out for you in your education as someone that really made a difference and why?

Rufus Black: [00:03:47]

Yeah, so I was really lucky. When I look back, there are a series of teachers who I quite literally wouldn’t be here without them. And it really starts with an art teacher who appreciated that I was a good art student, but that I actually had a whole bunch of the other elements of what academic performance was like. He was the first person courageous enough to say, you don’t do something about this, you’re not going to finish school and call it to everybody’s attention. And he was great because he said, even though you may not be able to spell or write very well, you can think really well, you’re incredibly creative. You got to believe in all those things and figure out how we tackle the rest. And this, of course, before, you know, Australia before dyslexia was ever regularly diagnosed or understood or anything else. And then there were a series of kind of fantastic teachers who always believed in what I was capable of doing. And we’re not ever going to let the fact that I struggle with some of the mechanics to get in the way. And I had a brilliant and across the breadth of things, I had a brilliant maths teacher who as well. I barely passed maths in year, I think I got an honorary 50 per cent so I could complete the year 10,

Tim Bullard: [00:04:57]

A golden handshake

Rufus Black: [00:04:58]

Golden handshake. Anyway, I still because I still aspired to go to university, I still wanted to do maths. And there was a maths teacher called David Shepherd. I debated a lot and I was really good at it. And so quite a lot of teachers knew I could think. And David said, I’ll teach you maths, put him in my class and I will turn this around. And David put a huge amount of time and thought into how to teach someone who thought like me maths. And I got 80 per cent for year 11 maths, thanks to David. And David went on to be an outstanding school principal, Ballarat in Clarendon and a wonderful educator of teachers himself. And in life’s nice circles, when I ran a university college, his kids ended up in my college. So sometimes you get to pay it back and David is one of those people.

Tim Bullard: [00:05:51]

Well, that’s an absolutely fantastic story. And it just seems that giving kids aspiration and supporting them to believe is something that is really, really important. And we need to put front and centre of education. Especially in a Tasmanian context, where we know that people often don’t think that they have the skills and capabilities to achieve great things.

Rufus Black: [00:06:13]

Yeah, absolutely. And finding the ways that kids can give expression to things that they’re passionate about and good at. And when I look at kids I went through with who perhaps ended up not being so lucky. A big part is that they weren’t they didn’t find or weren’t given is often the more often the case, the opportunity to demonstrate what they really could do. Or that what they could do wasn’t valued and that wasn’t the basis of building self-confidence or a way forward and at multiple points through school, I was lucky there were such people.

Tim Bullard: [00:06:44]

So you’ve got a really impressive CV and you’ve had some amazing experience. And here you are in Tasmania. How did that come about?

Rufus Black: [00:06:51]

Yeah, well, it’s because I love it here. That’s why I’m here. I love what the place is about. It happened because we came on holiday and my sister had been sea kayak guiding down here. And I came down to do some sea kayaking with her. And I just loved it and said, we’ve got to come back as a family. We came back as a family and went to Bruny Island and just collectively fell in love with it and did the most impulsive thing we’d ever done. Our kids were really little. We just bought a block of land at the end of the week and my wife and I said, we’re just going to make life in Tasmania one way or another. And, you know, it was a long way from where we lived. But after that, every holiday, plenty of long weekends, we got down here. And my wife’s an architect, designed and built a house on Bruny, a shack, and have been connected here ever since. And so then I was looking for what’s the opportunity to come and be part of Tasmania and make some kind of contribution. And when this job came up, it’s a golden opportunity to put my hand up to see if that might work out.

Tim Bullard: [00:07:49]

So you have the opportunity to come in with fresh eyes and absolutely see Tasmania for its potential and also for some of the things that stand in its way. What do you think we need to do to support innovation and improving student outcomes in a Tasmanian context?

Rufus Black: [00:08:07]

A few a number of things to quite striking. The first of those is it starts actually with confidence about Tasmania and being Tasmanian and a belief that we can connect people to the things that make this a really special place, and that that needs to also be part of where we begin. But once we begin there, we recognise there is a seriously entrenched disadvantage in multiple places across the state and it can’t be fixed by any one. You know, schools can’t fix entrenched disadvantage. They can be partners with all of the other parts of the community to fix it, just as in health. And these are all linked problems. You know, you can’t fix the chronic health issues that we’ve got in a way below national averages just with health professionals. So our need for joined up in community work to support communities to make choices, to actually see different outcomes for kids and to see different health outcomes.

Rufus Black: [00:09:01]

None of these things are things that can be done to people. They can only be done with people. It’s a partnership really between the relevant levels of the relevant parts of government, and communities that are ready to go on a journey. And often, I suppose, schools end up at the core of that whole project because they’ve you know, they often have extraordinary principals and remarkable staff who are integral connected to parts of those communities. I think they are catalyst entities in communities. But it is a whole of community project to transform it. And I do worry we organise ourselves still too much at a… We don’t organise enough at a local level. We still organise from the centre. And it’s a challenge the university has, which we’re working on. We organised from the centre out, rather than from communities up.

Tim Bullard: [00:09:49]

I think that’s a really interesting reflection and one that we have been reflecting on in education around how we make partners of parents and communities. True partners rather than just entities that sit out there and are spoken to, not involved in decision making. What do you think makes a really strong partnership in your view?

Rufus Black: [00:10:11]

Yeah, I think it comes from a shared understanding of what that partnership is trying to achieve. And in very concrete terms, partnerships, I think, are built around, you know, what is our vision for our kids in a community? Is it that we will see them all completing education that leads to a job? Or is it that they’ll get a choice that that will be important to them about what they want to do with their life? What’s the concrete thing that we actually want to make happen that in a sense the partnership holds itself accountable to? Are we getting there or not? And if we’re not one of the new and different things we have to do to to get there and also I think some role clarity, you know, partnerships are not just what we want to do, but what are our mutual roles in it, because sometimes I think we end up in education, taking on other people’s roles. And that takes time away from the thing that often we can make the distinctive contribution to, and it can be disempowering. Supporting parents to be parents is actually a really important job. Rather than actually doing things that are parents responsibilities, however much we might think that is a good thing to do in any one moment. Supporting communities to have their healthy roles, I think is a critical part of the task.

Tim Bullard: [00:11:21]

I think we found through initiatives like the child and family centres that building capacity, rather than providing an answer, whilst it takes a long time, has a much bigger benefit in the longer term because that capacity sits in those communities forever more. Whereas we know that when we go in with a fix or a program or initiative, once that’s withdrawn, the communities can often just revert to where they were at the beginning.

Rufus Black: [00:11:47]

And I think the lessons from kind of the failure to tackle inequality successfully all over the world, which are, you know, having extraordinary consequences, even pre-COVID and now COVID is just making it a lot worse. You know, they are living demonstration of the fact that coming in to solve other people’s problems is a failed strategy. But we do know where that those capacity building partnerships, which are longer and slower and often don’t get done because priorities change. We take the money out and we stop building capacity, or we lose faith that it’ll get there. And actually they’re pretty much the only thing that’s got demonstrated long term evidence that it actually shifts outcomes over that over the long run.

Tim Bullard: [00:12:25]

So still on partnerships, the University of Tasmania is a very important partner of the Department of Education. And through the minister’s Workforce Round Table, we’ve been working together on teacher quality. And it strikes me now that we look at how that that Round Table’s working, which I think is effective and efficient, why didn’t we do it before? Because the university’s role in initial teacher ed has an absolute knock-on effect to who we can recruit and then how we develop them. Looking at initial teacher education, what do you think are the main things that have changed or need to change in that space to ensure that we are getting the best quality in teachers that we can?

Rufus Black: [00:13:06]

And that’s a broad question. And an awful lot of what is happening there and obviously going well. But there are a few things I would that, you know, and let’s not talk about the kind of the predictable in a way. I think the building strong cohorts so that teachers feel that they are part of a network of teachers, you know, on the journey that they can call on because, you know, the challenges out there are massive. And I think teachers who are well networked across multiple schools with their peers who are going on the journey sharing where they’re making success. Supporting colleagues who have got challenges. Building that deep professional network is critical because I think one of the things we probably still do is educate individual teachers, whereas actually we have to educate networks of teachers who work together to achieve outcomes. I’m still in a sense, I worry that too often we have a single teacher in a classroom. That’s how we sort of staff it up. But it actually often when we think about the mutual roles of professionals, about we know, you know, in classroom observations, those powerful ways in which we see teacher quality lift. And yet from the get-go, we’re not really training and developing people to be helping one another out there grow all of that. So I do think there are some elements that are important that we bring into it. I also think we’ve still got a lot to do in terms of ensuring that we are really educating for some of the challenges that we see in Tasmanian schools. We know the level of trauma amongst young people in Tasmania is really high. We have components of that. But, you know, effective trauma interventions just changes life courses. Teachers are often the first spot where that’ll be encountered. So I think there are some specifics we need to keep doubling down on as well.

Tim Bullard: [00:14:51]

I think your reflection on team teaching is really an important one. And I absolutely agree with you that traditionally, historically it’s been, had the potential to be an isolating professional role. And one of the advantages that I think Tasmania brings is that people do know each other and there is an opportunity to bring coalitions of practice or collaborative teams together to work together. And certainly in my career, having worked both overseas and here, I think that’s a strategic advantage. Like who do you know and what do they know that can help you to do your job? Provides us with a really unique opportunity.

Rufus Black: [00:15:30]

I agree. And I think that probably plays to the broader that sense and valuing of connectivity to the fact that point of taking the whole community to support a cohort of kids. That connectivity, the other professionals in the community, whether it’s doctors or pharmacists or whoever, whoever it might be. All of that connectivity really is important to.

Tim Bullard: [00:15:51]

Absolutely. And I think, you know, in our child and student wellbeing framework, for the first time, we were able to show that we had a sphere of influence, but then we had areas that we needed to partner. And it’s provided a really good template for us to be thinking about how do we build stronger partnerships with other government agencies, with non-government organisations, with the university to deliver what we need to deliver for students and young people rather than trying to do it all ourselves or not doing it at all. So we’re obviously still in the midst of COVID, and in a Tasmanian context, we’ve been very fortunate for the past few weeks or even for the last few months. But I’m really interested in what you’ve seen in a university context that you’ve had to change or alter to do your business, but also what do you want to keep from that?

Rufus Black: [00:16:36]

So, look, it’s really it has obviously the first big thing, as with schools, was getting education online during lockdown periods and doing that very quickly. What that has really done in a whole range of spaces is got people thinking very consciously about their pedagogy. When you’ve suddenly got to change how you are delivering your teaching, which you may have been doing one way for a long time. It’s led to some fantastic innovation about how people have thought about their how they might be delivering when they are delivering online components. But then I think very excitingly, as people think about getting back onto campus and we’re starting we’re in that process now. You realise the face to face is such precious time. And so, again, rethinking what we do with that really precious face to face time. So we’re not just replicating what we’ve now discovered we can do very well with online and make that really much more powerful educational experience. So that invitation to rethink pedagogy, it’s revolutionised assessment. You know, we can’t do exams very easily, exams are never a very good way of assessing people anyway. So it gave us a chance to say no exams other than where some external agency is requiring it. And therefore, you know, a fantastic rethink of getting assessment that is more pedagogically purposeful. And we won’t be going back on that kind of change at all. So they are big, big changes in the kind of delivery, which is important. But also it’s you know, it’s got us into engaging with schools in new ways even before they arrive. The school’s recommendation scheme, a wonderful opportunity for us to say we’ve been trying to do this for years is think about a broader set of measures for assessing preparedness for university, because we know that’s actually what’s going to make the difference. Terrific engagement, partnership with the department to make that happen. That’s not a change we’d be keen to go back on. So, yeah, it’s changing right along, right along the process. And that’s even before we get to how it’s changing what we might be doing in the professional side.

Tim Bullard: [00:18:29]

So, again, just reflecting back on some of your comments, I think we had really strong feedback from young people around online and pedagogy that need to be a much more deliberate and decisive about what was happening in a lesson. And young people love it. They love to know this is what we’re learning. This is the activities that we’re going to be going through. These are my time to be doing work. This is the online time. And so pulling some of that structure back into a classroom I think provides us with real opportunity. Plus, as you say, using the technology where you can be efficient and effective with it and then thinking about what are you doing face to face?

Rufus Black: [00:19:06]

Yeah, absolutely.

Tim Bullard: [00:19:07]

Just back to the university. So a definite change in direction from my perspective. And for those that don’t know, I’ve worked in a university partner role both in premier and cabinet and education for many, many years. A change in direction under your strategic plan to be a place where we do things for Tasmania and from Tasmania. Can you expand on that?

Rufus Black: [00:19:30]

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, it’s a university, in a sense, is a pretty unique university in that we are the single university for a whole island and an island where education will be critical to its future. And that’s what we’re here for. So the strategic kind of objective is to say in partnership with all of the different parts of Tasmania, that obviously can only do these things in partnership. How do we contribute to Tasmania being what Tasmanians want it to be? How do we contribute to be a place where actually people live the kind of lives they want with the kind of health they want, with the kind of opportunities in education for the kids they want, with the environment that they want. And we know Tasmanians have kind of strong views about the kind of quality of wellbeing that they want from being here. So an important part of our work is to support that vision. And, you know, in the world today, which is not a straightforward world, and now the level of challenges we have on the island are a high. Knowledge and education skills play a critical role in that. And that’s the for Tasmania part.

Rufus Black: [00:20:31]

The from Tasmania part is that Tasmania has is well-positioned to make extraordinary global contributions and in a way, in different ways, it always has. And we, of course, want to help Tasmania make that contribution and Tasmanians to make that contribution, whether it is what we do as the gateway to the Antarctic and Southern Ocean, the extraordinary work we do there. The fact we look up into a unique part of the southern sky and we can see literally see things here that are very hard to see from anywhere else in the world. You know, we are a jurisdiction with extraordinary World Heritage, natural heritage, which needs to be understood, cared for, shared in its wonderful kind of biological heritage with the planet. Remarkable soils and agriculture opportunities to grow things that give us insight into growing food sustainably far, far beyond these shores. And we could go on. But there is a lot of uniqueness here that is globally important and we want to make sure that gets shared and that creates opportunity that sharing and doing that creates opportunities for people here in Tasmania as we do it.

Tim Bullard: [00:21:31]

You talked a bit about the school’s recommendation program, and I was fortunate enough a few weeks ago on my podcast to be interviewing young people from Elizabeth College. And they said, what was the one message I wanted to give to the 12 cohort? And it was that COVID is not their problem. So adults need to be helping to work out and work through how they can be properly rewarded and accredited for the work that they do. And you’ve been really proactive in that space. So do you just want to tell us a bit about that recommendation program and how it works?

Rufus Black: [00:22:02]

Yeah. So what we’ve done with that is it began really with the question of what leads to success in the first year of university. And we’ve done a lot of work on the kind of things that we now understand really build that success. I mean, ATARs that kind of academic achievement level, we’ve done a lot of work on that. It predicts a third of the first year’s performance if you happen to get over 80 and it’s got almost no predictive value below that. What we do know, though, there are a range of other attributes that people have from the way in which they engage with learning to a more broadly described sort of how they are problem-solving, how they good they are collaborating. All of these other qualities, which are really very determinative of how they go. And also we recognise the need not to have false precision. There is not, in the sense, a magic number that tells you whether this person is ready for university or not. But you can get a very good broad description of capability. So putting all of that together in a picture that said in terms of a broad assessment of a student’s capability, we can map on the kind of rubrics that schools should be very familiar with, what that looks like. And then invite students to say what course they would like, where they would like, invite their teachers to assess them. And then we match. Is what there is, the kind of thing they want to do. Is it a match with their preparedness? And in many cases it is. But in those cases it’s not, we actually do see what they’re prepared for and can look down their list of preferences and say you may not be prepared for Bachelor of Science, but you would be prepared for an associate degree so we can get you engaged. Every single person engaged with the scheme, we are able to offer them a pathway because we’ve got a comprehensive picture of what they would actually be capable of.

Rufus Black: [00:23:38]

So it starts with, you know, the underpinning model and that’s been powerful in our place to. It starts with an assumption of capability that we will be able to do. You will be able to do something and we will be able to help you do it. And that it’s actually a very different mindset to an admissions scheme than a will you get over the hurdle, which often ends up a deficit – I’m not good enough to, rather than a premise, you will be good enough to. It’s just a question of what. So it’s had quite a profound impact at the university side as well as, I think, helping kids, which is what it’s all about.

Tim Bullard: [00:24:14]

An interesting correlation, I would think, between your own journey and education, where until there was that assumption of capability, you felt that you weren’t doing too well or you couldn’t achieve.

Rufus Black: [00:24:24]

Yes.

Tim Bullard: [00:24:25]

And now what you’re actually providing to Tasmanian learners.

Rufus Black: [00:24:27]

I can’t tell you how personally satisfying was to get that out there. You know, as because the other thing that I’m really confident of and in fact, we already know by the applicants we’re getting, we’re getting a more diverse set of applicants.

Tim Bullard: [00:24:39]

And I think feedback from from our side Rufus, from college principals is, weow, you know, what a great opportunity for people to have early offers and know that their future is secure.

Rufus Black: [00:24:49] Yeah.

Rufus Black: [00:25:05]

And I must say, you know, sometimes people kind of worry about that. In my own teaching I have at times, you know, pushed the boundaries a bit. And one of the things I once did where I had a group of students who are kind of business students, but I really wanted them to engage in a whole bunch of creative activity. The first year I did it, they didn’t do terrifically well. What I discovered is that worrying about the assessment created anxiety about performance. So the next year I actually gave them all first-class honours before we started. The level of performance they generated was off the charts good. There was no issue at all. When we had taken off the table, the sense in which what they were doing it for was to achieve, to be assessed, what they brought to the table was completely different. Now you can’t do that all over the board, but it was a lovely lived experience that assessment can actually reduce performance rather than actually enable people to demonstrate what they’re capable of. And I’m really interested in the latter.

Tim Bullard: [00:26:03]

It also sets up a false objective, doesn’t it?

Rufus Black: [00:26:06]

It does.

Tim Bullard: [00:26:06]

Which is getting through the exam rather than building my skills and capabilities. And it’s an interesting mirror that we now have on where the future is heading, where our mark in a particular subject is probably next to useless the skills and capabilities, adaptability, resilience, confidence, communication skills that you have, are what you’re going to need.

Rufus Black: [00:26:29]

Correct. And as I said to that group of students back then, the purpose of this course is not to get a mark. It’s actually to grow creativity. And that’s all going to focus on.

Tim Bullard: [00:26:37]

Well Rufus, we’re coming to the end of our time. And I just want to thank you for for being so inspiring and for your great confidence in the future of Tasmania and Tasmanian teachers.

Rufus Black: [00:26:47]

Thank you very much, Tim.

[00:26:57] 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.