This week I got to learn about rockets and it wasn’t via a NASA podcast but sitting down with a group of Year 7 students reflecting on their learning.  It was as John Hattie states a demonstration of the teacher becoming the learner and the learners becoming the teacher.

What I found impressive (apart from their inherent curiosity), was the recognition that their learning was enhanced through the the ability to problem-solve in teams, communicate their ideas and use technology.  While these students won’t graduate until 2021, they know that their success will be largely dependent on these skills. Although they admitted to the content being challenging (I’m told this is taught in Year 12 maths), each of the students admitted to enjoying the challenge enough that they were willing to work on the project during the school holidays!

Most telling was the sentiment expressed by one student who said being in control of their learning was a big shift from primary school where he had been ‘spoon-fed’.  That statement in itself illustrates the vast gap that exists between pre-school, primary and high school in how we view individual learners, how we teach them and how we successfully monitor progress.

To paraphrase Yong Zhao, to get our students to Mars, we need to put away the spoons and build the equivalent of an educational bottle rocket (that is launched at a trajectory of 45 degrees – yes I did learn something!).

Funding a bold vision

It’s often said that the devil is in the detail but this election seems to be long on rhetoric and short on innovation.  We won’t become an innovative nation by looking in the rear view mirror.  Everyone recognises the need for innovation, for doing things differently including education but we lack clear examples and the drivers to deliver something different and better for the future.

How do we build, as a nation, innovation?  Why aren’t we seeing greater engagement and dialogue across industry, sectors and the unions?  Money counts but it is wasted when artificial and short-term accountability measures are rolled out under the banner of educational reform and innovation.

What is lacking is innovative thinking from our politicians and policy-makers; thinking outside the box rather than merely ticking the boxes. Funding-linked reform is doing things we’ve always done and getting the same results.  Where are the visionaries who can see beyond election cycles to creating an innovative learning nation?

I’ve yet to hear any political party talk about the early years of learning either in terms of social, economic or even health outcomes.  Let’s build innovation from the bottom up – let’s start with the early years of learning. PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) found that benefits to the GDP for children receiving a quality early education program would be up to $10.3 billion cumulative to 2050, and the benefits to GDP of increased participation of vulnerable children would be $13.3 billion cumulative to 2050.

Our Prime Minister said it himself, the big shift around innovation is a cultural one.  We need to be creating environments that stimulate not stifle innovation and that means governments working collaboratively with educators, unions and industry.

Inquiry and evidence-based policy underpins innovation not aspiration. It’s time to fund a bold vision not banal policy.

 

 

Stemming the tide

Recently the Conversation Hour featured some of the world’s greatest scientific minds sharing their personal stories.  It is worth a listen especially Professor Ian Frazer’s reflections of how studying German at high school changed his career path from wanting to become an astrophysicist to studying medicine. Ian Frazer ended up inventing the technology used in the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) vaccine.

The reason for mentioning Professor Frazer is because in part, his story demonstrates how non-mainstream subjects (e.g German) complement learning and contribute to a holistic education.  The current push by governments around the world towards a STEM-driven educational agenda and the creation of STEM-focussed schools seems to be short-sighted.  It reflects a popular view that innovation is not only central to future economic growth but that it is largely driven by advances in science and technology.  The danger is that we run the risk of reducing education to a training capacity.

With the rapid development of quantum computing and its potential to power artificial intelligence we are entering uncharted territory. Even today’s complicated programming and coding will increasingly be done by machines that can learn. It is simplistic to assume that current programming and coding skills will remain the same into the future. Before the agrarian revolution the prime skill set was agricultural expertise. The industrial revolution changed that. As the knowledge age expands the same will happen to current skill sets.  The ability to use technology critically and creatively (i.e. soft skills) will be more vital than hard skills.

Universities are having a similar debate over the utility of educating students for the short-term job market when we live in such a rapidly changing world. Kate Carnell, former chief executive of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry told the Universities Australia conference in March that we had more to gain by focussing on the skills needed in existing jobs rather than focussing on future jobs.  According to Ms Carnell, ‘innovation is as much about people and process as STEM invention’.

We have always known that a good education is the balance of soft and hard skills; non-academic and academic paths; science and the humanities. Innovation will be defined by how well we teach all students to apply critical and creative thinking across all disciplines.

According to folklore, Albert Einstein failed his college entrance exam, Walt Disney was told he lacked creativity and Bill Gates dropped out of school. While it didn’t stop them achieving in their respective fields, I am left wondering why we eschew failure in education.

My younger brother told me recently that he felt like he had ‘failed’ at school – a belief he has carried for more than 30 years! The prevailing view in education that failure is a negative experience does so much damage to kids’ confidence.  Sir Ken Robinson says this is because we have created school systems were mistakes are the worst things you can make and children are afraid of failing.

Failure is the cancer of good learning and teaching. This reductionist approach defines learning as a set of numerical or letter grades that can be manipulated, often misused and generally misunderstood.  The high stakes test of the Higher School Certificate – the gold standard of learning – is even more misunderstood in its practical application. It is not a description of the achievement of a student across 13 years. Rather it is a ranking process derived by adding together internal assessments and exam marks, then running them through a ‘black box’.  The public perception is that anything above 60 is good, between 50-60 and you’re OK. Anything below 50 and you’ve failed school.

Sir Edmund Hillary

We need to be very careful about how assessment is understood and used because of the tendency to equate it with test scores. A better way to talk about student achievement is to concentrate on performance.  In sporting competitions, points are awarded for technical skill but they are also balanced against points for non-technical skills. The question is what would we include as the sum total of performance in education?

Sir Edmund Hillary’s feat on Mt Everest was shaped by learning from past failures. Reflecting on his momentous achievement, Hillary was quoted saying: “I was just an enthusiastic mountaineer of modest abilities who was willing to work quite hard and had the necessary imagination and determination.”

Every student is a potential Edmund Hillary with their own Everest to conquer. Learning must be a celebration of failure, discovery and success.

 

 

 

 

 

Technology promises

Recent declarations in the media by some high school principals that computers are a ‘distraction’ is unhelpful at best and shows personal preference as the default argument in tSt Clare's Catholic HS 227his critical issue.

Attempting to divide technology use into a convenient either/or argument and blaming the machine for poor learning outcomes ignores a simple reality – change and innovation is a fact of life and schools are not immune.

I had the opportunity last week to hear Singapore’s acting education minister speaking at a conference on technology in schooling. Ng Chee Meng believes Singapore’s future success relies on the possibilities technology can bring to learning and teaching. Instead of debating whether to ban computers in schools, Singapore has been asking broader questions about what technology means for education overall and how can teachers respond to the opportunities in classroom settings.

In 2015, the OECD released a report Students, Computers and Learning.  It stated that the real contributions ICT can make to learning and teaching haven’t been fully ‘realised and exploited’ yet but to deliver on the promise that technology holds requires all countries to design…..’ a convincing strategy to build teachers’ capacity’.  Improving the knowledge (pedagogical and pedagogical content) base of teachers as well as their understanding of learners all takes place in the context of a technologically rich world. We can’t hermetically provision teacher learning from technology, yet we can explore ways in which technology extends teacher practice by helping to develop in students the habit and power of deeper thinking and inquiry, personal autonomy and creativity.

Intel Corp says that in 2006 there were 2 billion devices globally; 15 billion in 2015 and in 2020…..200 billion connected devices!  Today’s learners already recognise the promises that technology holds – it’s up to us to deliver on the promise.

I wonder how many times we need to hear the OECD and Grattan Institute tell us that our education system needs to be performing over and above and not under and below international benchmarks!  The link between our declining performance on PISA and teacher quality has been the subject of commentary from educational experts for more than a decade.

Speaking recently in Dubai, OECD’s education chief, Andreas Schleicher warned that without sufficient investment in the teaching profession and a fundamental rethink of the role of teachers in today’s world, we risk slipping further down the international ladder.

It’s not just the economic imperative that we won’t be globally competitive that should compel our profession to change, but the moral imperative of giving every student in every school a world-class education.

One of the problems according to Schleicher is that we continue to see teaching as number of hours spent in front of students as though it’s the only half of the whole when in fact the other critical half is professional learning and teacher collaboration.

I agree wholeheartedly with Schleicher that we must move away from seeing teachers as deliverers of a curriculum to teachers as ‘owners of professional standards.’  This view is evident in Finland where it is widely accepted that educators are ‘the ultimate authorities on education, not bureaucrats…’

The profession has been compliant for too long in the face of imposed educational reforms and mandates dictating the nature of teachers’ work.  Our education system is too valuable to be a political and ideological target for short-sighted policies.  I’m not naive enough to suggest that we are close to partisan politics in Australia but the time for a coherent pre to post schooling framework was a decade ago.

It’s striking that the OECD’s education chief has expressed concerned about the future of our education system. It is even more striking though that our politicians have failed to listen and our profession has failed to take the lead.

 

Leading by doing

Search on Twitter or in a bookstore and you’ll find a plethora of material on the leadership phenomenon.  According to a study cited in Joshua Rothman‘s piece in the New Yorker, Americans spend $14 billion per annum on leadership training seminars.  This is a growth industry on steroids and unfortunately, like regular use of steroids, most of it is deleterious.

I recently came across a tweet by the well known CEO of ‘Lead from Within’, Lolly Daskal on the seven elements of leadership. These leadership traits come from a sound base but they aren’t new. Trait theory has been around for more than a century and is at the forefront of the great man theory of leadership. It basically says that men (not usually women) are either born with the characteristics to be a leader or not.  So if you don’t have these inherent personality traits, then you can’t be a leader.

On the other side, process theory suggests that leadership is something that can be learned.  According to Rothman, the process model acknowledges that ‘being a leader’ is not someone you are, it’s something you do.

Over the past fifty years, new theories have been advanced that have given rise to a kaleidoscope of views on leadership and what makes a good leader. Authors have studied ‘charismatic’ leaders in an attempt to offer the rest of us a blueprint to effective leadership. Most material is really a variation of the same theme.

I am not so sure that you can easily deconstruct or distill leadership into its component parts, which is my issue with the “seven elements of leadership”.  Leadership is never straightforward and yet we are often presented with an idealised view of it. In his piece, Rothman refers to Jeffrey Pfeffer’s book Leadership BS in which Pfeffer argues that the five universal leadership traits commonly espoused are often ignored by real-world leaders.

The argument is that there is a difference between being a leader and doing leadership. Rather than linking leadership to a set of traits, I prefer to think of leadership as the art of leading  in terms of seven norms:

  1. Being open to learning
  2. Willingness to exchange ideas
  3. Being reflective
  4. Building a shared purpose
  5. Enabling shared responsibility
  6. Being outcomes-focused
  7. Celebrating success

It is my experience it’s what people do that attracts followers and perhaps the only way to explain the outliers who have passed as great leaders in history. I recently asked our new school leaders who they admired most.  The usual suspects like Mandela, Martin Luther King and Mother Teresa were named. Not one mentioned a colleague principal, teacher or staff member.

It seems to me that we interact with outstanding leaders every day but we often don’t recognise them.  These people should be our models. As Mark Twain wrote: “Thunder is good, thunder is impressive, but it is lightning that does the work.”  Let’s look for the lightning rods who are doing great work in and for our schools.

 

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