Professor Stephen Dinham has been a strong and vocal advocate for greater equality in Australian education. He wrote an excellent piece in the Melbourne Age recently on how the ineffective quick fixes to improve teaching would actually lead to greater inequity and decline in educational performance.
These simplistic approaches ignore decades of research on what makes teachers and teaching effective. According to Professor Dinham:
Australia is becoming a less equitable society both generally and in respect of education and as has been demonstrated, inequality in society is actually worse for everyone.
Our collective failure to address the inequality that exists within our education system is a national shame and as Dinham warns if the profession remains ‘silent and passive’, we will only have ourselves to blame for what ‘might eventuate’.
It’s a national shame that we cannot address the inequality within our own education system. But then I began thinking about the inequality that exists for our marginalised. There are more than a thousand children living in offshore immigration detention centres.
Former UN secretary general Kofi Annan said education is the foundation on which freedom, democracy and sustainable human development rests. Australia offers all of this yet we fail to close the gap for our most vulnerable – the indigenous, the poor and the marginalised.
Picking up the paper to read headlines such as ‘Selective schools ‘the most socially exclusive’ in NSW‘ distract from the critical work of closing the gap. We become polarised by the private v public debates and discussions on whether selective schools are the most socially exclusive.
A commitment to a quality education is a commitment to all students regardless of race, circumstance or background. Closing the gap requires us to address the issues with open eyes and hearts.
Tony Bryant with Silverton PS students.
I had a chance to catch up recently with Tony Bryant, principal of Silverton Primary School in Victoria. If you’ve been reading bluyonder for a while you’ll know that I’ve visited Silverton PS over several years. I believe Tony is one of this country’s most innovative school leaders and as he would tell you, their overnight success story has only taken twenty years of relentless focus.
The first thing you notice when you walk through the doors is that change is happening constantly. This isn’t change for change sake but change as a result of continuous improvement, feedback and reflection. There is an obvious passion for learning both at student and teacher level. The teachers I spoke to tell you that it is an absolute pleasure to come to work each day; to be a part of a collaborative and committed team of professional educators. This cannot be sustained without strong leadership. Silverton is a partnership between Tony, his staff and their students.
John Hattie talks about visible learning and teaching and that is exactly what is happening at Silverton. Students take ownership of their learning, they set their own goals and articulate their learning so by the end of the term they can plot where they need to go next. This does not happen without a high level of trust and respect.
Stephen Heppell always makes the point that when students are engaged in their learning we see how ambitious they can be. What we sometimes forget is the central role, indeed the responsibility of teachers and of course leaders, to make sure that students are engaged because engagement is an imperative for academic achievement.
Despite the entrenched educational practices and mindsets of a century and more, Tony and his team have turned learning and teaching on its head. It hasn’t been achieved with bucket loads of money but with a belief in students’ ability, a passion for learning and regular evaluation. Silverton PS isn’t the only school where this is happening and happening well but to see the theory in practice and to see students becoming their own teachers is after all this time still pretty awesome.
I am often asked about what technologies and devices will be like in the near future. Given the innovation, the rate of change, and the exponential power of new technologies, not to mention the cost, this question is understandable. Up unto the last two to three years it was all about “picking the winner” in an ever increasing market of devices and operating systems. Remember the VHS versus Beta race and the cost of getting it wrong. More recently the PC versus Mac was fought out almost like a religious war each side with its own zealots eager to purchase the next big thing and thus strive for market dominance. All this at exponential cost to the market in the relentless search for the most sophisticated device.
The rise of open source and the invention of the App has certainly reshaped the technologies world. The focus has shifted from the device to the software The devices are quickly becoming agnostic as programming has become what I call “democratised” as users develop their own Apps to make the devices do what they want them to do, not what the original programmers necessarily intended them to do. We have thus seen a shift from the device controlling the learning to the learner controlling the device,. The device is now just an idea, they invite the user to be creative, inventive, and innovative. They become a powerful personalised tool at service not in control of the user.
What we do know about the future for technology is that quantum computing with be more powerful, faster cheaper and provide more storage. Wireless will become more ubiquitous and pervasive. Devices will be smaller more embedded in and on our person and into the built environment. Skills once considered essential to living in a modern society like driving a car, organising you personal life or for employment will be replaced by new skill requirements.
I don’t know what the next must have device will be but I wish I did because the profits in getting it right are enormous. The way I like to think about this is that the future will see the emergence of a post device era. This is the age of the algorithm where the high priests will not be the privileged few who understand the sacred mysteries and mathematical intricacies but the kids who understand that programming is a core skill.
This has huge implications for schools. What value is being placed on teaching programming? If computer literacy was about knowing how they worked, computer programming is about doing the work. We’re already seeing a shift especially in the UK and US to train more teachers to code software and in doing so encourage young people to develop these critical skills. This movement has been boosted by access to cost-effective computers like Raspberry Pi, designed to encourage kids to program.
Bill Liao co-founder of CoderDojo explained coding as a language skill -”You need to be a native speaker and for that you have to start young. We start kids at seven.” He believes coding should be a “creative experience – the best coders are like poets, able to express their thoughts thoughts powerfully.”
Is this the new literacy for schools?
The latest Grattan Institute Report, Making Time for Great Teaching, by Dr Ben Jensen is a must read for educators. In an age of teacher over-load and increasing external accountabilities, Jensen presents the case for removing the distractors so that teachers can spend more time on the things that really matter. He argues that if schools reduce the number of staff meetings, school assemblies, extra-curricular activities etc then critical time can be devoted to proven school improvement practices. Jensen and his colleagues worked with six schools across the country to enable more time for intensive mentoring, observation of practice, collaboration and school-based research.
Schools must make difficult but crucial trade-offs in how teachers and school leaders spend their time. We must be explicit that every time we ask teachers to perform extra activities we are decreasing the quality of teaching and learning in schools.
Last week at the National Catholic Education Commission annual meeting in Canberra, my colleagues and I met with a number of Members of Parliament. It was an opportunity to further impress the need for politicians to focus on what is really important in the work of schools. Many priorities and procedures are often assumed to be mandatory when they are mere accretions. Jensen makes the point that
Government regulations restrict schools. Enterprise bargaining agreements restrict changes to work schedules, and duty of care requirements restrain schools that want to free their teachers from child minding to focus on improving teaching.
Ultimately, the responsibility for making time for great teaching lies with individual school communities but the Grattan report shows what is achievable when we focus on what matters most.
I was interested to read the piece written by Verity Firth and Rebecca Huntley in the Guardian last week suggesting that if middle and high income parents sent their children to public schools then it would improve outcomes for all. It stems from Firth and Huntley’s report commissioned by think tank Per Capita titled Who’s afraid of a public school.
While there has been an increase in non-government school enrolments, I don’t think we are seeing the demise of public education. Some of the most innovative practices I have seen, have been in public schools. Yet Firth and Huntley write “if anxious parents take their kids out of the local school, it starts to do worse, forcing more worried families to depart.” Is the argument being made here that declining enrolments automatically equates to a decline in the quality of learning and teaching?
To suggest that Australia’s equity issue will be addressed by middle class and wealthy parents sending their children to public schools is simplistic. Somehow it always comes back to funding. It is so disappointing that media campaigns often have greater influence on public perception than the research.
I always come back to Professor Stephen Dinham’s statement that equity in Australian schools is determined by “each student having quality teachers and quality teaching in schools supported by effective leadership and professional learning.” Equity depends on quality not choice.
The release of the PISA results last year confirm Shanghai’s status as the world’s top ranked education system in Maths, Science and Reading. All credit to Shanghai and its teachers but are the results the key drivers for quality learning and teaching which China seeks to pursue? Probably not.
Ian Johnson in the New Yorker magazine reports on the rise of concerns regarding China’s approach to education and possible alternative models of education. Johnson follows the journey of China’s first Waldorf school in Chengdu. He writes that while Shanghai is widely praised internationally, many Chinese intellectuals see ‘education as among the biggest problems facing the country.’ There is even growing discussion on how to reform China’s public schools as more and more parents look to the West for alternative models of schooling.
Among those quoted in the article, a university student whose recently published book articulates the growing discontent: “In elementary school, they rob us of our independent values; in middle school, they take away our capacity for independent thought; and in university, they take away our dreams and idealism.”
Those who are critical of China’s current education system are concerned that the country won’t be able to compete with an innovative West. Chinese-born academic Yong Zhao admits in his book World Class Learners, “the focus on academic achievement is the continuation of a long Chinese tradition that puts book knowledge above all others.” Education in the age of globalisation needs to deliver much more than ‘book knowledge’.
After reading the article, I’ve concluded that China is no different to any other nation which views education as an investment in its future. As in the West, the traditional model of schooling is being challenged albeit for different reasons and although Shanghai students may be ahead of their Western counterparts in international measures, the moral is that sometimes all that glitters isn’t gold.
Have we over-complicated schooling so much that we can’t see the forest for the trees? In our attempt to make schooling relevant have we discounted something so fundamental to human nature?
Sometimes it takes someone like research professor, Dr Peter Gray to put it into perspective. His exceptional article on children and play is a salutary lesson for us all.