It was media theorist Marshall McLuhan who famously said we look at the present through a rearview mirror. This is what I am doing at the moment as I reflect on the last 498 posts on bluyonder. There have been some posts that were well-received, others critiqued and many that have been ignored. The blog was never
going to be a lone catalyst for educational transformation but it joins the thousands of educational blogs around the world creating a critical mass for change.
In all the bluyonder musings, the biggest challenge seems to be ‘why is it so difficult for teachers to change?’ For the most part we are stuck in the liminal space between the vast experience of the past and the unimaginable possibilities for doing the valuable work of schooling differently. This isn’t the responsibility of the teaching profession alone (although the profession needs to drive the agenda) – it is one that society shares. Teachers need the support of the local school communities. These communities need the support of coherent education policies that reflect an understanding of the challenges in providing a first class contemporary schooling experience.
Unfortunately what I continue to see is a vicious cycle where teachers don’t trust the administration when improvement is advocated, where governments want students to be creative and innovative but continue to support high stakes testing and where parents want more engaging learning experiences without schools daring to be innovative in teacher practice and school design. All these come together in the perfect storm alongside publication of international test rankings and federal and state elections. If we want contemporary practice, innovative solutions, continuous improvement and the like as the norm for all schools, some things have to change. A good start would be for communities to talk up the work of their schools. This requires a stronger and deeper engagement than currently exists.
However the most important change we need is to turn the schooling model on its head. Most schooling is still defined and designed around “the Curriculum” and the delivery of this curriculum through the timetable construct. It is not the curriculum that should shape the learning and teaching but the students themselves. In other words the kids are the curriculum. The question of why it so difficult to start with the child rather than the curriculum isn’t new thinking (John Dewey) but it seems we have become increasingly fearful of failure as compliant servants of an industrial system (Ken Robinson). Yet failure is at the heart of learning, teaching and ultimately improvement (Dylan Wiliam) and it is this that keeps me fixed on the bluyonder while occasionally pausing to see where we’ve come through the rearview mirror.
In 2013, a 7.2 magnitude earthquake devastated the island province of Bohol in the Philippines, killing hundreds and flattening communities. It was the worst earthquake to hit the Philippines in 23 years.
Recently, a group of our teachers and students travelled to Bohol as part of an immersion program aimed at putting the principles of Catholic social justice into action.
Our group had the opportunity to work alongside local school communities on identified projects, some of which included repairing damaged infrastructure and providing professional development for local teachers. This had been 3 years in the planning and a wonderful example of cross-cultural collaboration.
For those who don’t know me, I’m rather tall (over 2 metres) so when we arrived in the Philippines, everyone greeted me as the ‘giant’. I had my photo taken on many occasions that often felt at times like Gulliver’s Travels!
During our time in Bohol, we worked with teachers who by any standards have very little by way of resources but give so much of themselves and their time to ensure all students have access to quality schooling. Their commitment to education and belief in its transformative effects is extraordinary. Nothing is taken for granted here. There are no demands for more funding or debates over class sizes. Schooling is an investment in the individual as well as the community.
It isn’t an over-statement to say that we learned much more from them than they did from us. It brings into light just how fortunate we are here and how the opportunities we are afforded can never be taken for granted.
We often stress that education’s focus should be on the whole person: body, mind, spirit, character and imagination. This was certainly a wholistic learning experience for us and one in which I saw myself as a pygmy in the land of giants.
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.