We spoke with Peter van Noorden, formerly of Oxford University Press, who was recently recognised for his service to the sector at the Educational Publishing Awards of Australia as 2020’s Mike Horsley Award recipient. Peter shared with us how he determines success in a learning resource, how he sees COVID-19 impacting the sector long-term, and what projects are keeping him going at the moment.
Congratulations on being selected as the second Mike Horsley Award recipient. Did you ever work with Professor Mike Horsley? What are your memories of him?
I worked with Mike on the APA Education Committee for many years. He was larger than life and bowled you over with his relentless positivity. He was so passionate about how educational resources could best deliver meaningful pedagogical principles and was working with the efficacy of our resources long before the term was formulated. To be given an award named in his honour is a real privilege.
You started out as a teacher (as many educational publishers and authors do.) Why did you make the shift to publishing?
All I ever wanted to be was an educator; and I have been lucky enough to be able to carve out a career in education – first as a teacher and then as a developer of learning materials.
Right from day one I have had a passion for student engagement. Teaching and learning are much easier and fulfilling if the students are engaged in what they are doing. The biggest compliment I ever received from a student was from a boy who said “Mr Van – that was almost interesting.” Developing engaging educational materials became my passion, and I wrote my first textbook, Living Geography, for Heinemann (now part of Pearson) in just my third year of teaching. In my ten years as a teacher I wrote six Geography and History textbooks, so a progression into educational publishing was natural for me.
How do you measure success in a resource?
For me, a successful educational resource is one where the student is looking at page 73 when they have been asked to go to page 24 – because they are engaged to do so. Really great educational resources like Science Quest (Jacaranda), Maths Plus (OUP) and PM Benchmark (Cengage) also give students confidence through a clear set of steps to follow that help them progress. These resources are still popular after more than 20 years in the market.
What was the sector like when you started making educational products? What were you focusing on when developing your first resources? How did that change over the years?
When I wrote my first textbook in the mid-eighties, colour was just being introduced as a factor to engage students. My complete focus was on student engagement, so my first Geography text had new chapters such as Stereotypes and Endangered Species – not the topics that were traditionally studied in Geography. Engagement has always been the key principle for me in developing new resources, as learning doesn’t begin until a student is engaged to learn. Over the years I’ve learned more about learning pedagogy and better ways to help students progress and gain confidence in what they are doing. I have been very lucky to work with some of the very best researchers, publishers and teachers in this regard. I have been privileged to attend educational conferences all over the world and work with many international publishers. I think Australia has the most sophisticated and engaging educational materials anywhere in the world.
Looking at the impact of COVID-19 on the educational sector, do you see educational publishers having changed forever? If so, in what ways?
COVID-19 has really thrust Educational publishing into the limelight. The value of really great resources is that they assist independent learning. Students have had less access to teachers over the last six months, so learning resources have needed to step up to the plate and provide clear learning paths for students. We know that in each year of school, the most advanced 10 per cent are about five to six years ahead of the least advanced 10 per cent, so educational resources need to find a way to help all students progress. I think ability progression is now the new Everest for governments, schools and educational publishers to conquer for independent learning to make some giant strides forward. The New South Wales Government are making some big moves in this direction.
What have you been working on since finishing up at OUP?
I found out pretty early that my true passion is in developing engaging and meaningful educational resources. Since leaving OUP in 2018 I have been studying educational magazines like How it Works, All About History and National Geographic. Magazines have to instantly call out to the reader to pick them up. I used many of the principles of engagement in magazines to write the new Good Humanities series with Matilda Education with two fabulous classroom practitioners. During COVID-19 lockdown over the last 6 months, I decided to sit down and write a new Science text based on ability progression. I’ve just finished the year 7 text and I’m starting on the year 8 text now. When I’ve perfected it, I’ll see if there is an educational publisher interested in developing it for the market.
What qualities do you see in people who work in educational publishing? Is it a career path you encourage others to walk down?
There are so many pathways for many different talents in educational publishing and so many great people to learn from. There are creative pathways such as writing and design to deliver the most engaging texts. Marketing, editing and software development need technical competence and flair to ensure a connection with the audience. Publishing and sales offer opportunities to connect in person with teachers and lecturers and work with them to develop solutions. Management pathways at many levels give the opportunity to foster the careers of others and develop teamwork and clarity of vision. I have been blessed to work with and learn from so many talented people in my career in educational publishing. The best advice I ever received was from my wonderful boss at Wiley – Peter Donoughue – who said, “Hire the best people and get the hell out of their way!”
We’ve been working on a booklet (soon to be released) that showcases the value of educational publishing in Australia. Given your experience, can you pinpoint the value of Australia’s educational publishing industry?
Educational publishing brings together experts to work with educators to develop engaging material for all students, written specifically for the curriculum and pitched directly at the audience.
Looking back on your career, do you have a highlight?
There were highlights every day I went to work. In the beginning it was all about developing engaging resources that students and teachers would love to use. In my latter years as a manager it was all about encouraging excellence and giving others room to experiment and progress. Now I’m back to resource development and learning all I can about ability progression. I am up early every morning working on new ideas and as passionate as ever to make a difference in student engagement and progress.
In September 2019, the educational publishing community awarded the first Mike Horsley Award in memory of the man who established the EPAAs and inspired so many. The inaugural recipient is Queensland-based author, publisher and teacher, Peter Stannard of Firefly Education who we hear from below.
Read Peter’s reflections on the progression of his career and some highlights, and also the thoughts of those in his team, showing the family man and leader behind all the great literacy and education work he has been involved with for forty-odd years.
About Professor Mike Horsley
I first met Mike briefly in 2006 and then again at an Educational Publishing Awards ceremony in 2007 where we had a long conversation about why I should be actively involved in the APA. He was very keen to get home-grown Australian publishing companies involved in the APA. I then suggested that I come up to Noosa to chat with him since it’s only a 45 minute drive from the Firefly office. We spent a very fruitful couple of hours talking about teaching, schools and educational publishing beside the Noosa River at Noosaville where he lived. We had a number of these get-togethers on the river and during these times I got to understand his drive and passion to help kids learn.
Teaching and writing
After graduating in 1967, I became a science teacher at Noosa District State High School. Three years later I was appointed Head of Department (Science) at Aspley High School in Brisbane. During this time I submitted a manuscript for a series of science activity books to Macmillan Education. A week later I was signed up and then started the serious work of perfecting the manuscripts.
I worked as a Head of Department in two other schools over the next eighteen years, as well as writing and, at the start of 1989, I finally hung up my teaching hat to became a full-time writer.
The inspiration for my writing came from my style of teaching. I always believed that students need to be totally and actively involved in any lesson. They need to discuss, ask questions, clarify any uncertainties and be active in the classroom. The manuscripts of my science books reflected that style.
Over 43 years Macmillan Australia published more than 60 titles written by my co-author, Ken Williamson, and me. Notable titles include Exploring Science, Science Now, Science Alive, many editions of ScienceWorld and Secondary Science. In 1998 Ken and I received an award from Macmillan for 1 million copies sold.
In 1988 my partner Ann and I and teaching colleague Lesley Englert established Firefly Productions, where we self-published school musicals.
Soon after, I recognised an opportunity to publish educational resources. In 1992 Firefly Education (initially Firefly Press) was born with the publication of literacy companion workbooks written by Lesley for a number of my science series.
Using my experience in the classroom, I wanted to publish materials that were different from those on the market. My vision was to publish educational materials that encouraged students to make connections between what they learned in class and their everyday lives. At the same time the resources needed to support busy teachers and be easy to use in the classroom. By creating resources that combined these principles, I hoped to foster a love of learning in Australian classrooms.
In the following years, I worked with several authors (who were also practising teachers) to publish resources such as Letters and Sounds, Jigsaw Maths and the well-known Sound Waves and iMaths series. Each of these series focused on the principles and pedagogical approach which originated in my classroom teaching experience.
The Firefly Team
Firefly Education has gone from strength to strength, publishing award-winning books and innovative online resources including Sound Waves, iMaths, Writing Time, Think Mentals, and the digital programs Think Mentals Digital Classroom and English Stars. These products were developed totally in our Buderim offices. Our talented team of writers, editors, designers, programmers, animators and artists collaborate closely to produce world-class educational resources. Then the dedicated marketing team and sales consultants offer our products to Australia and the world.
Our world of publishing has changed over the nearly 30 years we have been in operation. In the early days we published student workbooks and teacher resources. Ten years later we established our online presence, and now we have our own bespoke digital products fully developed in-house.
I feel very privileged to work with such talented people at Firefly. When other people of my age pull the pin on their careers, I feel excited about going to work and sharing the team’s progress in the development of products.
Peter Stannard: Beyond educational publishing
written by the Firefly team
Peter’s impressive teaching career and contribution to the educational publishing industry is just a small part of what makes him the man he is. Peter’s magnetic enthusiasm for learning is evident in many aspects of his personal life. Here’s just a few insights into what shapes Peter Stannard.
Peter’s enthusiasm for education comes from a simple joy in helping children reach their full potential. So, it may come as no surprise that Peter and Ann are proud foster-parents. Over a period of 21 years, they welcomed four underprivileged teenagers into their lives. Now, alongside their three biological children, these family ties are as strong as ever.
In 2014, Peter and Ann travelled to Bali and went on a botany tour in Ubud run by a young local woman named Dewi. Peter quickly formed a connection with Dewi, sharing her passion for science and plants. Over the next few days this friendship flourished as Peter and Ann enjoyed hearing about the local land and customs, and Dewi and partner Dhika enjoyed receiving business advice. These conversations sparked an informal
True to their nature, Peter and Ann didn’t take this mentorship lightly, enlisting the talent of Firefly Education employees to enhance Dewi’s business. It culminated in a company-wide business development trip to Bali where over 40 Firefly Education staff were able to exchange skills and expertise with Dewi and her team.
A generous leader
Peter has cultivated a truly positive and enriching environment for staff at Firefly Education. When you visit the head office, it’s immediately apparent that it’s a family-owned business. In fact, it’s not unusual to see a grandchild pop in on the school holidays. Peter has gone above and beyond to create an inclusive and collaborative environment at Firefly. There are daily morning teas, family fun days, AGM team-building adventures and the staff were even invited to Peter’s surprise very big ‘0’ birthday party!
‘I’ve been fortunate enough to work at Firefly for seven years with Peter and Annie at the helm. Our company culture is absolutely led from the top. Peter’s teaching insight, capacity for new ideas and his generosity in mentoring has made, and continues to make, the culture at Firefly Education truly innovative, creative and fun.’ – Carlee Driscoll, General Manager, Firefly Education
‘Having known Peter and Ann for more years than I can remember, I was lucky to observe the early years of Peter’s enormous talent and enthusiasm for his teaching evolve into the publishing company that is the “Firefly family” today. His everyday actions continue as an example of leadership, generosity and compassion to family, friends and colleagues.’ – Lee Lemon, Business Development Officer, Firefly Education
A very deserving recipient for the inaugural Mike Horsley Award. Congratulations Peter! Thanks for all the work you have done on the Schools and Educational Publishing Committee of the Australian Publishers Association as well.
Mizz De Zoysa-Lewis is the Managing Director of Insight Publications – an independent educational publisher that specialises in resources for teaching English. Although traditionally focused on the Victorian market, the company recently launched its first dedicated resource for the Western Australian market. We spoke to De Zoysa-Lewis about the impetus for this interstate expansion and the values and goals that drive this small dynamic company.
“Insight Publications was founded by my mother-in-law and her partner many years ago. They were passionate about education and empowering young people across Australia and the globe. Initially a cottage industry operation, the business has grown significantly, especially over the last several years.”
De Zoysa-Lewis has been with Insight Publications for 16 years, having started working there when she was going through law school. “I loved what they did from the beginning. Seeing editors working on manuscripts and the marketing team reaching teachers in schools ignited a new passion for me.”
On completing her studies, De Zoysa-Lewis left Insight to work at a top-tier law firm for six months. But she found the experience unsatisfying: “My heart was back with Insight,” she says, and she soon returned to a full-time position with the company.
The change of career wasn’t without its challenges. “Even back then, publishing was not an easy industry to be in. It’s super competitive for Australian independent publishers and that hasn’t changed; however, I like that we all have a vision to empower educators.”
Relationship-building is a key aspect of the company’s day-to-day and one of the drivers behind its interstate expansion. “We have consolidated on so many years of experience. Our schools trust us to create the best possible English resources for their students. We have focused on building that trust in Victorian schools and recently we saw an opportunity to go across the Nullabor.”
The move was also inspired by the fact that De Zoysa-Lewis became aware of a spike in sales of Insight titles in WA. Although the books didn’t address all the curriculum requirements of WA English, it was clear that teachers found considerable value in them. “We saw there was a need for more tailored resources of this kind, so we wanted to act on that,” she says.
The team took time to thoroughly research and understand the WA curriculum. Year 12 English: Western Australia took two years to produce, from the initial idea to the release of the book. “We ran some focus groups and talked to educators as they’re the ones who stand in front of classrooms every day to teach the course,” says De Zoysa-Lewis. “Our titles are about serving the needs of students and educators and we wanted to tick the boxes for both of those audiences. That’s when things become highly accessible and engaging.”
The news that the company was creating a new, dedicated WA resource generated considerable excitement and anticipation among teachers. “They wanted us to get the book out as soon as possible! And that’s a nice kind of pressure to have.”
De Zoysa-Lewis says that the way in which the company created this resource demonstrates one of the best things about independent publishing in the educational space. “I say to my team that we are a bit like a speedboat. We can be really agile and change direction very quickly. So we were able to go ahead and develop this English title for the Year 12 Western Australian ATAR English course. We have now launched the book – we had a great launch event attended by many supportive WA teachers – and the reception has been overwhelming.”
Independent educational publishers in Australia are in a unique position, De Zoysa-Lewis says, because of the way in which their smaller size and greater flexibility allows them to service more schools, as well as provide resources to under resourced areas. “We’re a small team and yet our books are used in so many Victorian secondary schools. I’m proud to say we’re doing a great job. We’re successful enough to be able to grow and expand and that’s a great position to be in.”
Student-centered learning and empowering students to drive their own learning are concepts with popular currency. But De Zoysa-Lewis notes that the company has focused on such approaches from the time of its founding by her mother-in-law, and continues to do so. “I’m the daughter of a refugee, and when I came here at the age of seven, I had the privilege of knowing a lot of English. But so many students come to Australia and they’re struggling. Empowering students is something I think about all the time. Educational publishers share a role in helping students to develop those all-important language skills. Without that ability to communicate clearly, to write clearly and to express your thoughts, everything is so much harder.”
Over the years De Zoysa-Lewis has observed the increasing professionalisation of the educational publishing industry. She attributes this development in part to the pressure teachers are under to ensure their students are performing. “There’s improved transparency around what is taught and around student and school results, and that contributes to the pressure on teachers.”
One of the consequences of this is a growing emphasis on relationship-building between teachers and publishers. De Zoysa-Lewis says, “Obviously we can only help students by constantly engaging with the educators who are in front of students every day. It’s the only way we can know exactly what we can do to help teachers and students to achieve the best possible outcomes.”
Following their entry into the Western Australian market, Insight is excited about continuing to draw on its strengths as an independent Australian educational publisher to develop resources by cultivating meaningful relationships with educators and students across the country.
**Images courtesy of Insight Publications. Photos taken at the launch of Year 12 English: Western Australia.
1. Mizz De Zoysa-Lewis – Managing Director, Insight Publications.
2. Adam Kealley, Trish Dowsett, Martin Guest and Maria White – Authors of Year 12 English: Western Australia text book.
3. Melanie Napthine and Robert Beardwood – Publishers at Insight Publications.
Director of Higher Education at Oxford University Press Australia and New Zealand, Heather Fawcett, was earlier this year awarded a prestigious George Robertson Award by the Australian Publishers Association. Heather tells us about her experiences, why she’s motivated to stay in the education publishing sector, and why she welcomes change.
I’m thrilled to be a recipient of a George Robertson Award, and very touched by the generous response of colleagues to this recognition.
I came to publishing after a short teaching career; my first publishing job was a Brisbane based primary sales role, the key product being large reading schemes that were typically a whole school purchase.
I moved into the tertiary sector in a Sydney sales based job and eventually found my way back to Melbourne where I was hired by OUP in 1993. The role, Academic Sales Manager, was my first management job, and I really loved the mix of my own territory and people management. Since then I have had at least a dozen different job titles at OUP across sales, marketing, publishing and management in Higher Ed, Academic, Trade, ELT, Dictionaries and Schools.
I’m somewhat reluctant to offer career advice, so please accept these thoughts in the spirit of reflection. In my experience, career advancement is supported by engagement with commercial imperatives and with the objectives of the organisation, a preparedness to take opportunities as they come along, and a genuine interest in customers. Opportunities abound when an organisation is in a growth phase, so by contributing to the growth of a business the chances of career growth are increased. If you happen to have young children while advancing a career, a supportive partner and awesome parents are a great asset; also know that if you do happen to work the odd long day, travel for work or miss the occasional event at their school, they will probably still turn out okay.
We hear much about the demands of managing and coping with change in the workplace and in our operating environments. Most changes at work are for the better; believe me – email and Yammer are a whole lot better than handwritten memos in triplicate and faxes, sending digital files to print is better than film, and it is good that we are not allowed to smoke at our desks! Anyway, there’s little point wishing that we could go back to the way things were when our customers have changed.
Throughout my career in education publishing I have been sustained and motivated by the knowledge that what we do is worthwhile work. It is a privilege to work with authors who are motivated by a genuine commitment to excellence in teaching and learning; they are experts in their field and could undoubtedly spend their time and effort on more financially lucrative pursuits however they chose to put their energy into developing resources to support teaching and learning at scale.
As publishers we play an important role in the delivery of good quality materials (print or digital); a great textbook is not simply about knowledge transfer, it is about developing proper understanding of a subject at the appropriate levels for all learners. The expertise that my colleagues hold, and continue to develop, in pedagogy, content delivery and design in response to the needs of educators and students makes coming to work meaningful
What else has kept me in educational publishing, and at OUP in particular, is the genuine commitment of colleagues to great outcomes for students of all ages. I can honestly say that I love coming to work because of the people I work with and the worthwhile work that we do.
I hope that many of you reading this find educational publishing such a satisfying career that you will eventually join me in addition to my colleagues, Florence Chin, Debra James, Richard Harms, Heather Robinson and others in the 30 year club.
Many thanks to Heather Fawcett from Oxford University Press for sharing her words.