You may have seen recently that the Tasmanian Government has proposed lowering the starting age of schooling (from 2021) to four and a half years as well as opening up the possibility for parents to enrol students as young as 3 and a half (from 2020). Predictably this announcement has divided community opinion with a range of concerns raised from toileting to formal learning.
While we don’t have much detail yet on what this will look like, the rationale is certainly an honest attempt at providing access to quality early learning especially for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. In Australia, as in other western countries, the range of options for parents is limited, often costly and ranges from day-care to ‘Einstein’ academies. The idea is to give all students a solid start rather than playing progressive catch up each school year. I applaud that.
Last year my comments on extending the early learning years sparked debate because we think that sending a 3 and a half year old to ‘school’ is about inflicting the current (rigid, one size fits all) experience of schooling on them. Unfortunately this limits the discussion around what possibilities exist for those important early years.
Lowering the school age challenges us to look beyond the here and now. Life-long learning is not a short-term endeavour, it has to be viewed as long-term. This means schooling has to operate along a continuum in which play-based learning is at one end and inquiry based learning is at the other. The continuum of schooling requires a rethink at every level from the nature of the curriculum and pedagogy to the built environment.
We also need to rethink the minimum qualifications and salaries of early childhood teachers. At present, you do not have to be a trained teacher to work in an early learning setting. Formal qualifications are needed.
Teacher Tim Walker wrote a great piece in the Atlantic last year on what the rest of us can learn from Finland’s approach to the early years of learning. No surprise that ‘joy’ is emphasised in the country’s pre-primary curriculum as well as the declaration that play is actually an efficient way of learning for children.
This leaves us to ask an obvious question – why doesn’t play-based learning and joy extend beyond the early years?
There is a goldmine of educational treasure on the Internet if you have the time to dig for it. One of the great discoveries recently has been Dylan Wiliam’s reflections on learning and assessment. Wiliam began his career as a teacher and moved into academic research. He is probably best known for his insightful analysis with Paul Black on classroom assessment titled Inside the Black Box. As one colleague said recently, Dylan Wiliam has a gift of making the very complex, very simple – there’s absolutely no BS.
According to Wiliam what needs to be clear to all teachers is that students need to be clear about where they are going and how they will get support to move from point A in the learning trajectory to point B. Wiliam admits the purpose of schooling is not to get things right otherwise what’s the point of coming every day. The purpose is being able to achieve things you couldn’t do before. He says school is about the struggle, not about being right.
Wiliam recounts seeing a poster in a teacher’s classroom which basically said if you’re stuck, then it was worth coming to school today. The point being that if students aren’t getting stuck, they’re not learning. The danger zone is that teachers either recognise this too late or are unable to implement strategies that successfully scaffold learning for the 20 or 30 students in a class.
There is consonance between Wiliam’s thinking and one of our country’s most respected educational leaders, Professor Patrick Griffin. In his keynote delivered last year, Patrick spoke about the need to find the area of learning where every child is between what they can do and what they can’t do. This is Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development (ZPD) and as Patrick explained, we need to better ascertain the precise point at which student learning begins to break down in order to intervene through peer/teacher or mentor support.
Regardless of age or year group, this kind of social learning intervention should move every student in the classroom to the next level and the next. Patrick believes that we have the technology to be able to plot the ZPD across teachers and schools to see the impact of every teacher on student learning.
Every learner has a zone of proximal development and getting stuck is a good thing if we can intervene at the right time and with the right level of support. If we are not reminding ourselves and our students of this every day, then we have misunderstood the purpose of learning.
Last week, Minister for Education Adrian Piccoli announced major reforms to the Higher School Certificate (HSC) in response to what the Minister says was parental, community and industry feedback on literacy and numeracy standards and the preparedness of students to enter a 21st century workforce.
This will be the first time in almost two decades the HSC will face an overhaul in what is a committed effort to address declining literacy and numeracy standards as well as responding to a demand for digital skills.
Having spent the past 40 years (including 13 at school) in education, these reforms sound like the age old rhetoric of trying to improve education by improving the test. The reality is the HSC is a relic of the last century. It was designed in the late 1950s and rolled out in the 1960s when the world of education work was very different. Since the late eighties, successive governments have used school credentials as a means of somehow improving schooling.
What we desperately need is some divergent thinking because reform is not needed at the end of schooling but the beginning of it. Why are we not investing resources into establishing a solid literacy, numeracy and socio-emotional foundation in the early years? We only need to look at what is happening in Finland and their focus on student happiness or Asia where education systems are looking beyond high stakes testing.
This requires a fundamental shift of focus on education policy and the foundations on which these policies rest. Every initiative recently announced by the minister has been tried before with words like rigour, standards and improvement becoming the norm. Where is the new thinking? Where is the innovative and relevant practice? And where is the creativity that builds and sustains a genuinely realistic understanding that today’s world is not yesterday revisited. Nostalgia makes us feel good but it ultimately kills innovation.
If our politicians are serious about ensuring students are well-prepared for the new world of work, we first need to ensure the locus of innovative practice and entrepreneurial outlook is found in each and every school. It might be externally supported but is has to be locally driven. This means trusting the profession to make those judgements for its learning community.
The HSC reforms really are a missed opportunity to bring some coherence to educational policy and radically rethink how we assess the spectrum of students’ learning and skills.
Is there anyone bold enough to relinquish such educational relics?
From 2018, every teacher working in NSW schools will have to understand and apply the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers to their work. The Standards go towards helping to clarify and articulate what good learning and teaching looks like; what is consistently expected of all teachers and what it takes to become an exceptional teacher.
Like other sectors, the Standards are designed to enhance the profession both internally and externally. While we can’t ignore the Standards, I wonder if they have been developed on an industrial set of assumptions? When we negotiate with teacher unions, we always start from the same premise of linking salary to years of service. Whenever we talk about professional competency, we assume all teachers are the same at the same year of experience, just as we once assumed all learners were.
If there is evidence suggesting the personal qualities of teachers are extremely important and no two teachers are alike, then where does that take us? What are the new assumptions and what would be at stake?
Schools and teachers are operating not only in a new age but in a new world order in which entrepreneurs and philanthropists are venturing into the business of schooling. Look no further than inventor of SpaceX, PayPal, and Tesla Motors, Elon Musk who has set up an alternative school for his children after describing his own schooling experience as uninspiring and basically obsolete. Then there is Sal Khan, founder of Khan Academy who has no formal teaching qualifications but created free online access to educational content. Khan has just opened a physical lab school to ‘pioneer new models of learning’. Note that ‘teaching’ is missing from its vision statement. The new assumption at least for Khan is that teachers will play a supporting role now not a leading one.
In this new world where disintermediation is disrupting just about everything, are we moving towards an uber teaching profession? The real question is not whether Musk and Khan can deliver more relevant models of schooling and higher levels of student achievement but whether we can still assume a teacher is a teacher.
The task of teaching is multi-faceted, complex and never neatly contained. It continues long after the bells ring and the lessons finish. Most teachers work long into the night marking assessments, providing feedback and planning lessons. However, as we shift towards more evidence-based approaches, the goal is to become more effective to ensure we deliver value because working harder may not be working smarter.
The task of teaching cannot be reduced to simply producing effective and engaging lessons; it requires teachers to evaluate the impact of those lessons on each learner. To be able to use ask questions and use feedback wisely to move all learners forward wherever they are on the learning continuum. If not, then how else do we track student or teacher progress? We cannot take learning on face value.
It is astounding that many continue to view the use of feedback and data as a burden for teachers or worse, as an unnecessary task of teaching. The use of feedback, questioning and data is not a diversion from the work of teaching – it is integral to it. Second, there will always be those who are afraid of change and this strengthens the argument that we need to continually invest in the capacity and learning of teachers. The goal is to ensure all teachers are able to evaluate where students are, give constructive feedback and provide the necessary support and structures to improve learning outcomes.
There are and will always be a minority of voices that are anti-intellectual as observed recently in a journal decrying the use of data. All other professions seize the idea of obtaining data and feedback as critical to improving the work they do so why is it that some wish to see teaching locked into industrial thinking and processes?
Andy Hargreaves in his book Teaching in the Knowledge Society commented that ‘teaching is not a place for shrinking violets, for the overly sensitive….it’s a place for grown-ups, requiring grown up norms of how to work together.’
Grown up norms of how we work together as professionals includes grown up discussions of how we improve and extend the practice of teaching in today’s world.
Michael Fullan has said that good practice often shapes theory not the converse. A theoretical understanding is necessary but theories don’t always translate into effective classroom practice. Theories don’t provide teachers with the ‘how to’ and although most teachers recognise the need to continually reflect on their practice in order to improve, there is an assumption that they know what needs to be changed. Too many teachers don’t know what they don’t know; this was highlighted recently in Revolution School on ABC TV.
Not all teachers are created equal and this is partly because not all teacher education programs are equal. One of the criticisms especially in the US and UK is that there is a heavy focus on theory and not enough of practice. We would have a cadre of academics preparing beginning teachers for classrooms who have not been in classrooms for years if not decades. As John Hattie aptly points out, none of our institutions have ever had to prove their impact. Ironic considering that these institutions send teachers into classrooms where they are now expected to continually evaluate their impact as teachers.
We are moving now from seeing teachers as practitioners to seeing teachers as clinicians. This is not to suggest that the relationship between teacher and student is clinical. Rather, the relationship between a teacher and their practice needs to be. According to Hattie, clinical teaching is the ability of every teacher to “diagnose, intervene and evaluate.” It is similar to how world-class athletes improve technique and performance and why Shanghai teachers are assigned mentors throughout their teaching careers.
The simplistic assumption that a “teacher is a teacher….” with the same skill sets and capabilities flies in the face of reality. Even suggesting this will raise the ire of many and be viewed as trendy teacher bashing. The end result must be ensuring each child in each school has the best teacher. We need to build the capacity of all teachers by focusing more on skills than theory. Expertise has to be learned through practice.
Revolution School ABC TV
Revolution School is a four part documentary series that began on ABC TV recently. It captures the turn-around journey of a Victorian high school ranked in the lowest 10% of the state. In a sea of navel gazing and feel-good solutions to improving schooling, it is refreshing to see honesty and shared responsibility on the table.
What has stood out each week is the use of theory and research to inform good practice. Kambrya College didn’t look in the rear view mirror for solutions that could be repackaged and rolled out nor did they try and emulate competitors who drive educational change through a mix of externally imposed accountabilities and fear. And they didn’t expect to be rescued by superman.
Educational change had to come from within and from applying the research in relation to improving learning outcomes for all students. The approach was based on Hattie’s mantra: know thy impact on student learning.
Kambrya’s journey is uplifting and should be applauded and admired but there are thousands of schools around Australia in the same boat. We’d like to see all of them take the same approach but as we have seen change is easy to suggest but much harder to implement and sustain.
With a federal election less than a month away, education has been the platform for both parties. Rather than promising big bucks to fix the problem, a better solution would be a commitment from politicians to make the Kambrya experience the norm for all struggling schools.
This requires an end to the shameless finger pointing and blame game but rather encourage schools to become critics of their own practice by being honest and open and sharing and collaborating so that we are all on a proper learning journey.
As Professor John Hattie said the fact 1 in 5 children are failing to complete high school is the “biggest crime in Australia”. It’s time we focussed on what counts otherwise we will continue to count the cost.