A level playing field

There are calls for fundamental changes to be made to the funding and regulation of Vocational and Educational Training (VET) in Australia.  In today’s Sydney Morning Herald, the Federal Education Minister said he wants to boost the status of VET  so ‘students don’t feel they have to go to university to have a good career.’

It reflects the need to radically rethink VET in a knowledge age and the importance of sectors working together to ensure a consistent approach and coherent framework for providing students with optimal opportunities.

It’s interesting that the new Education Minister calls VET the ‘forgotten’ education sector.  The established view is that VET is somehow less rigorous than an academic pathway to learning.  VET is a balance between the demands of work and study as well as integrating theory with practice.  Students learn the work by doing the work. VET actually provides for a level of personalised and independent learning not always evident in traditional subjects.

We have seen VET as the alternative to an academic pathway and while there are multiple pathways to learning (made more evident by technology), there is still one external credential (Higher School Certificate (HSC) in NSW).  This has been the gateway into university and for many, the path to a more rewarding and successful working life.

The view that university is the only option can’t be sustained in a knowledge age.  It is something the new Federal Minister wants to challenge.  It needs to be challenged at  policy level as well as at university and school sector level.

The vocational choices of students should be influenced by passion not process.  The challenge for schools is how we can, as Yong Zhao says entirely personalise not nationally or globally standardise education.  We need to level the playing field by allowing students the opportunity to draw from diverse areas of knowledge and skills.  It means allowing students to map their own curriculum based on individual interests and passions.

South Korea has effectively de-skilled a generation because of a cultural drive for students to be university educated.  While graduates compete for limited jobs, there is a growing gap for trades that have to be filled by overseas workers.

The knowledge age has created an even greater need for a level playing field in education.

Edward de Bono describes the current model of schooling like a pyramid where the bottom 80% are taught so that the top 20% can go onto university.  His view is that traditional subjects and universities may have very little to do with real life.  Interestingly, he asks why there are no exams in schools in ‘practical thinking’ and ‘value creation’?

de Bono argues that every student be taught what he calls ‘life skills’ such as critical thinking etc. The more academically inclined students take additional subjects that prepare them for university while the more practical and entrepreneurial minded students take additional subjects preparing them for work.

de Bono says this would be ‘the equivalent to teaching everyone to walk and then giving special coaching to those who showed an ability to run.  This is different from the current system of coaching everyone to run and then neglecting those who are not good at running.’ 

Not every student wants to be a runner nor should they be.  The biggest hurdle for schools and learners is the way
in which assessment is currently mandated and reported.  Meaning, we are still preparing all students to run the marathon by sitting the HSC.

As Professor Patrick Griffin from the University of Melbourne said recently, we will never get away from comparative measures (how good is my child compared to their class, state etc) but the focus has to be on where students are going (year after year) not on where they have been.

The most effective forms of assessments are those that support learning and inform teaching not control learning and narrow the curriculum.  Until we get on with the task of re-thinking assessment based on personalising the learning, we continue to neglect those who don’t want to be runners.





Collaborative competition

We live in societies where the culture of competition exists everywhere and it is no more evident than in education. Schooling has become big business and learning is competitive.  At an international level, we rank education systems and encourage them to ‘beat the best’.  At a local level, there is a growing demand for coaching and tutoring clinics.

Competition is not a 21st century skill.  Collaboration is.  So how long do we allow ourselves and others to define schooling as a ‘race to the top’; as a means of separating winners from losers; where measurable achievement is the most valid measure of a student’s work and their worth?

Black and Wiliam reflected that the practice of assessment had as its primary purpose competition rather than personal improvement.  This was highlighted recently by former federal Labor leader Mark Latham when he called the decision to replace exams with tasks at selective high school, Hurlstone Agricultural as ‘crazy and a soft-approach’.  This view still dominates public opinion and it plays a significant part in undermining confidence in teachers.  It also diminishes the value of collaboration in the process of learning.

The competitive nature of schooling only ever guarantees success for some not success for all.  Successful change today has to as Michael Fullan says come about through ‘collaborative competition’.  Notice that collaboration comes before competition.

Michael describes this as the ‘moral version’ of the Olympics where doing your best isn’t about surpassing others but spurring others to do their best. When teachers learn, students learn and when school communities learn, systems learn and so on.  It is the flywheel in motion.

Samsung has captured the spirit of collaborative competition with their latest ad campaign – We are greater than I. 



I have just returned from two days at the third annual Leadership for School Improvement Colloquium.  The passion and pride for Catholic education is always evident at these gatherings; it reinforces the importance of taking time to reflect collectively on the how and the why.

I have to say however I left feeling a little flat and disappointed in the scope of thinking and models presented. There was nothing new, no stretch and certainly no innovative thinking or practice.  Unfortunately this seems to be consistent with most large education conferences.

If we look at other industry sectors we seem a much different approach. Businesses have shelved improvement because in this rapidly changing world of work, lifestyle and technology, they recognise the urgent need to transform themselves into something different.  Business communities across the globe are now responding to the challenge of the ‘Internet of Things‘.  These businesses are turning their backs on the improvement agenda because it’s no longer the challenge today.  I think this shift opens up a whole new perspective especially for education.

There is no better example of this than Apple. Up until 2001, Apple branded itself as a technology company within a manufacturing model (we see ourselves as contemporary schools operating within an industrial model). Steve Jobs and his team saw there was no future in the manufacturing space as it moved offshore.  Rather than improve an outdated model, Jobs announced that Apple was now in the lifestyle business.  This simple decision shifted the goal posts.

A Harvard Business Review article has examined how more businesses are moving away from improving old models to responding to the changing needs of consumers (and employees) within the context of a rapidly changing world.  In addition, real time data has helped to create a whole new paradigm for doing things differently, thinking creatively and responding immediately.

On the flip side, education is still wedded to the improvement model; looking for enhanced solutions to old problems. We operate on the assumption that we can control the variables, link performance to accountability measures and tighten up processes. Where are the innovative solutions?

Improvement is no longer the challenge so let’s use educational conferences and colloquiums to focus on how we change the system not how we fix it. As Sir Ken Robinson says the challenge is not to reform but to transform.




A seismic shift

Despite the increasing democratisation of information arising from access to the internet, the tightly-controlled mainstream media continues to fuel a narrow view of the world professing the need for education to return to the good old days.  Isn’t it bad enough that we have climate change deniers in the face of mounting scientific evidence; but to have educational change deniers, the likes of Kevin Donnelly, being given an unopposed platform is a source of frustration for educators trying to make a difference to student learning.  We are being fed a negative and polarising view of schooling which does nothing to respond to the growing evidence in support of a radical transformation in education.  If the good old days were so good, why, for the last 40 years, have we been spending more and more money on improving a failing system?

Emeritus Professor Patrick Griffin

Thankfully last night reason and rationality won out.  We had our faith restored after listening to Emeritus Professor Patrick Griffin deliver the 2015 Ann D Clark lecture. Patrick has spent four decades deeply immersed in the work of good theory, practice and evidence.  He is a leading educational thinker and believes we have a prime opportunity to do something disruptive when it comes to student assessment at a national level.

The digital reality of today’s world cannot be ignored despite many educational institutions and government resisting disruptive change.  Yet as Patrick told us last night, change must be systemic and seismic if students are to learn the skills needed to transition from factory to office to internet.  The new literates are the ones who will be able to challenge the traditional producers of information (Murdoch, Turner et al). They will have the 21st century skills (4Cs – creativity, communication, collaboration and critical thinker) that are critical to respond successfully to a changing work, social and technological environment.

The tendency has been to focus exclusively on literacy and numeracy to the detriment of the other skills.  The internet has paved the way for new ways of assessing skills like collaborative problem-solving even though more work needs to be done on how we assess creativity.

Patrick has been involved in the assessment of children’s cognitive and social skills while playing online video games. He also cited changes to NAPLAN testing in 2017 with the replacement of the single test to short tests that will be able to match the ability of the student to the difficulty of the task.

The theory behind this derives from the work of Danish mathematician Georg Rasch who developed an algorithm to predict the probability of a student’s ability and success; American educational psychologist Robert Glaser who looked at the increasing stages of development and the stage in which a student stalls in their performance and Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development.

As Patrick explained there are massive changes in technology available for assessing student learning and if we can link it to every child’s zone of proximal development, we have the capability at a classroom level to move every child forward every year.   We really are at a watershed moment in how we assess and teach these 21st century skills but the revolution must come from within.

Patrick encourages all educators to become the new Karl Marx of the 21st century; to become the new literates that embrace disruptive activity.  Unchaining the inherent curiosity of children through increasingly complex tasks can be done by empowering teachers with the resources and strategies to identify where students are in terms of their progressive/proximal development and working with them to move students forward.

Patrick’s work and message is more persuasive than the purveyors of an old paradigm.  It is up to the teaching profession to develop a new narrative and a new framework for interpreting growth in today’s world.  It is up to the profession to educate parents and challenge the deeply regressive narratives around schooling in a knowledge age.

A few weeks back I had the opportunity to present to a group of Singaporean educators via video conferencing.

A decade ago we didn’t have the capabilities to do this so easily. As part of the discussion, I mentioned that social media needed to be part of a teachers’ toolkit in today’s world. Without it, we face irrelevancy because for many of our learners, it is where they live, communicate and learn.  Understanding where they are and what they are doing with the tools helps us to deliver more personalised learning experiences; to deepen the learning.

One of the questions I was asked in the conference was ‘how can teachers make time to use the tools?’ Since we can’t add any more hours to the day we need to demonstrate to teachers how and where the tools fit within a contemporary understanding of learning and teaching.

I understand there will always be an element of fear associated with using new tools.  People burnt books in protest of the printing press.  However, we are in the business of learning and if any profession should embrace social media, I believe it is ours.

We have a growing body of research investigating the impact of social media on teacher education as more and more teachers begin using these channels to deepen their professional learning and practice.  The very nature of social media reflects the way we learn, which isn’t linear but interactive, iterative and complex.

Respected educators like Will Richardson and George Couros have been writing about the relevancy of social media in classrooms for many years. These are powerful tools for connecting educators to students but importantly for connecting educators to other educators around the globe.

My fear in a rapidly changing world is not that technology is changing so rapidly, it’s what will happen to those educators who don’t see social media as relevant to learning. As Alvin Toffler famously said the “illiterate of the 21st century will be those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.” How can we find ways of bringing colleagues not already using social media on the journey – to teach, share, demonstrate and present alternatives?

Educator and poet, Robert John Meehan wrote,”The most valuable resource that all teachers have is each other. Without collaboration our growth is limited to our own perspectives.”

Social media provides a powerful argument for moving beyond the limits of our own perspective.


The Black Box

In 2001, Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam published their seminal article titled Inside the Black Box: raising standards through classroom assessment.  It focuses on formative assessment which according to the authors is at the heart of effective teaching.

The article suggests that the practice of formative assessment has not been front and centre in most classrooms. In fact the link between formative assessment and significant learning gains has been nebulous.

Black and Wiliam note there is a “tendency to emphasise quantity and presentation of work and to neglect its quality in relation to learning” in primary classrooms. There is also a tendency to over-emphasise grading at the expense of giving quality feedback to students about the task and their learning.

Integral to the success of the factory model of schooling has been this prevailing view to compare students and cohorts at the expense of using assessment as evidence of each student’s progress.  Black and Wiliam suggest one way of overcoming this is by creating cultures of success within classrooms supported by a school/system belief that every child can succeed.

Formative assessment becomes a ‘powerful weapon’ as teacher feedback is focussed on the task in the context of the learning target with the aim of continually trying to close the gap.  In this way, assessment forms the work of teachers as they adapt their practice to the needs of the learners.

Research shows that task, target and improvement are critical to improving student learning outcomes.  They must clearly articulated by the teacher and clearly understood by the learner.  Black and Wiliam state that students cannot be expected to ‘believe in the value of changes for their learning before they have experienced the benefits.’

The Grattan Institute’s recent report on Targeted Teaching makes reference to Black and Wiliam’s work and Hattie’s meta-analysis as the bedrock of targeted teaching.  The report identifies what teachers need to measure and evaluate but recognises a lack of time in classrooms and training needs to be addressed.

It is clear that assessment/evidence must be a priority within all schools and across all systems.  To do this, we must consider Grattan’s recommendations to develop a consistent approach to using evidence, a clear set of expectations and a common language so that all teachers can “support their judgments about student learning and determine their teaching decisions.”

Yong Zhao recently wrote that the quality of an education should not be evaluated on a mean set of scores or student performance in a few high-stakes tests but should always be geared toward the growth of each student.

Growing students cannot be done without knowing students.


The autonomy argument

It is well documented that the success of Finland’s education system has been in part due to the autonomy granted to schools. The decision to trust teachers and the communities to make their own policy decisions has lead to increases in student achievement not to mention a rewarding working life for teachers.

Autonomy needs to be understood as a dynamic interplay between internal and external accountability.  Schools set the expectations, measure the impact and make the necessary changes while systems support/resource school communities as part of collective improvement cycle.

‘Autonomy’ in terms of a policy directive at least in Australia stirs up debate at either end of the spectrum.  Can and should governments let go of education all together?  The Reform of the Federation discussion paper on school education is an opportunity for some intelligent debate over where the responsibility for improving student learning must lie.

In the paper by Fullan et al on Professional Capital as Accountabilitythe authors state that the main feature of successful schools was their ability to develop internal accountability by building capacity within the school through collaboration and critical reflection.  This was more important than ‘beefing up external accountability’.

The shift towards greater autonomy at school level is built on a ‘new accountability framework’ (Fullan et al) which relies on five elements: vision and focus, collective capacity and responsibility, leadership development, growth-oriented assessment and system coherence.

Systems improve when schools improve so the focus of systems is to cultivate improvement across all schools. Autonomy isn’t a free for all when it comes to learning.  Autonomy is linked to accountability and achievement.  The more accountability teachers accept for student learning and achievement,  the greater the commitment to building collaborative cultures of continuous improvement.

As Fullan et al suggest external accountability works in tandem with internal accountability therefore ‘policy makers will need to make a major shift from superficial structural solutions to investing in and leveraging internal accountability.’

John Hattie in a recent publication “What works best in Education: the politics of collaborative expertise,”  is even more precise when he says that we need to focus on the variability of teachers within schools not only between schools. This fine grained approach speaks powerfully for the need of each teacher to be responsible for their professional capability not the school, system or government.

The day to day work of improving learning is the accountability of schools.  The day to day work of ensuring all schools are improving is the accountability of systems.  The work of governments is to trust the profession by investing in building ‘the professional capital of all teachers and leaders’.




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