It was interesting to read the global response against PISA in the Guardian last week. It follows on from Yong Zhao’s recent blog posts outlining the negative impacts of PISA rankings on education systems and education policy.
The open letter from academics called for the 2015 PISA tests to be scrapped. The group expressed their concern at the ‘distorting effect’ PISA is having on educational practice. They claim in short that PISA leads to a focus on narrow outcomes, short-term policy fixes, the commercialisation of educational services and endangers the overall wellbeing of students and teachers.
The letter concludes with constructive ideas that may help to address the challenge of improving schooling for all students. It highlights the need for greater transparency, collaboration and accountability in delivering quality learning and teaching across OECD countries.
The authors assert: “OECD’s narrow focus on standardised testing risks turning learning into drudgery and killing the joy of learning. We are deeply concerned that measuring a great diversity of educational traditions and cultures using a single, narrow, biased yardstick could, in the end, do irreparable harm to our schools and our students.”
It’s difficult to disagree with the concerns raised in the open letter but I think we should be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater here. For me, the benefit of instruments like PISA should be used by effective educators along with broad data sets to help inform improvements in learning and teaching. Standardised tests become problematic when they are hijacked or used for utilitarian purposes, which have little to do with learning and teaching and more to do with political point scoring or sectional interests.
Schools become easy targets when these tests are used as the basis of league tables or quick fix policies and the honest efforts of schools to improve are disrupted or derailed. I agree that PISA in its current form doesn’t do justice to the complexity of schooling in today’s world or the cultural traditions of OECD nations.
I hope the global consternation will lead to deeper and more transparent discussions over how data is used to improve the quality and relevancy of schooling for all.
PS: Yong Zhao will be with us in Parramatta next month to deliver the annual Ann D Clark lecture. His keynote on the need for new paradigms and ways of assessing ‘learning’ is relevant and timely not only for us but for education systems everywhere.
I’ve just finished re-reading Jeff Howe’s 2008 book Crowdsourcing. It struck me as I reached the end of the book that many of today’s digital natives will become tomorrow’s teachers. The question then becomes what impact or influence will digital natives have on shaping the role of teachers and the nature of teaching.
I’ve been reflecting on the role of teachers in today’s world for some time but after reading Howe I wondered if the role of teachers and their work will inevitably change in a decade because the nature of the learner has changed?
Howe asserts that today’s kids who Prensky coined as digital natives will create ‘wholesale changes to the workforce when they enter the labor force.’ Why? Because as Howe writes by the time they reach adulthood they will bring “behaviours and attitudes honed through thousands of hours in front of a computer, constructing their own experience and working collaboratively in various online communities.”
It begs the next question, will the next generation of teachers be all things to all students or will crowdsourcing become the norm? It may be blue-sky thinking for the education community now but the concept of crowdsourcing is becoming increasingly prevalent.
Two years ago, I read an article in the Harvard Business Review on the competition to design the Beijing Olympics’ spectacular Water Cube. It was in fact a structural engineer from Sydney that won the competition through what could be considered as crowdsourcing. The author of the article refers to it as ‘teaming’ – assembling experts from various disciplines to solve a challenge encountered for the first time. It’s a worth a read.
We cannot ignore the growing use and legitimacy of teaming and crowdsourcing. The challenge I see is how we can incorporate these capabilities into the practice of teaching now. Could we respond to student learning needs in a more effective way by bringing diverse experts in to work with teachers temporarily? Would teaming be a better way of utilising casual teachers who could convene quickly to solve challenges not only within one school but across several schools? Would this give teachers greater flexibility to deliver individualised learning?
The future of teaching demands that we do something different and innovative now. The way forward will require us to give greater weight to developments in brain theory, learning theory and evidence-based research. This understanding coupled with the tools to support the work of teachers will hopefully lead to new understanding of teaching and a more flexible, dynamic response to schooling.
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.