Peter van Noorden : 2020 Mike Horsley Award recipient

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.

The Senior Management Team at OUP, including APA President Lee Walker on the right. I followed the advice of my mentor, Peter Donoughue, in working with this talented group of managers – “Hire the best people and get the hell out of their way!”

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.

Meeting with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in his office following the launch of the Australian National Dictionary at Parliament House in Canberra in 2016.

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