Archive for the ‘Catholic schooling’ Category

Making maths meaningful

Why is it that so many students struggle with numeracy?  Is it coincidence that Asian countries out perform the rest of the world when it comes to maths?  Do we as teachers perpetuate the view that maths is intrinsically difficult?

Seven years ago, the National Numeracy Review recommended greater emphasis in the early years be given to ‘providing students with frequent exposure to higher-level mathematical problems.’  It went on to state that it should be in a context that is relevant to the learner. I still hear adults say that learning algebra or long division was a complete waste of time.

Central to deconstructing the myth of Mathematics is about contextualising the learning.  How can teachers make mathematics relevant to each learner and therefore more engaging and challenging?

Professor Peter Sullivan from Monash University says we have a fundamental problem with teaching Mathematics and we need to think differently about the way we teach maths in primary and secondary.

As a result of the Review, we introduced three system initiatives which invest in the professional learning and competency of teachers supported by leaders. Our approach has always been that improving teacher understanding and learning improves student understanding and learning.

We are forSt Clare's Catholic Collegetunate to have partnered with Professor Sullivan on the EM4 (English Mathematics Stage 4) program.  It began last year as ‘first wave’ teaching in English and Mathematics in secondary schools.   It is about creating opportunities for students to enhance and extend their skills and knowledge.  These strategies all rely on data and professional learning to inform good practice. For me, these should be evident across all key learning areas not only English and Mathematics.  However, without a solid foundation in literacy and numeracy, we cannot build upon a student’s learning.

EM4’s premise is to get students to think creatively about problem solving by posing questions that they don’t know how to do.  Professor Sullivan makes the point that we have taught maths by telling students what to do and then getting them to practice what they are told.  However, in this model, students create the maths not the teachers.

It’s a move away from the one approach fits all in favour of the many paths to the top of the mountain. According to the data being collected by Professor Sullivan, student-driven learning is leading to a deeper understanding of Mathematics.

I have been amazed when visiting these classrooms by the rich mathematical discussions between students.  Very different from my experiences of school maths.  Many of the teachers I speak to acknowledge that these strategies have led to a shift in practice and a new way of seeing their role in supporting rather than driving learning.

This “open to learning” approach by both the teacher and the student is the powerful engine driving a very different schooling experience . What is not made explicit, but is at the core of this approach is the shift of responsibility for the learning. For the teacher it is recognising that the curriculum requirements but then engaging in designing learning experience for each student. For the student it shifts the focus from one right answer to the process of how they arrived at that answer. Ultimately they both take responsibility for their learning.

The great art of companionship

Spanish SistersFor the past year, we have been fortunate to have two Spanish sisters working in the agile learning space at St Monica’s Primary, North Parramatta.  It’s been a great cross-cultural experience for all involved.  They say the children are helping to correct their English!

In Spain, Sr Maria and Sr Teresa were the principals of two progressive K-12 Catholic schools in Barcelona.  Their congregation is dedicated to the education of children in Spain and abroad. Youth unemployment in Spain is among the highest in Europe – a staggering 54.9%.  The Sisters recognise that they have to educate their students to be global citizens.  Many of their students will need to move to other European countries or further abroad to obtain meaningful work.  Such is the reality of life in Spain today.

What impressed me was that every single teacher is proficient in using technology.  As a congregation of 9 schools and a university, they developed a model eight years ago whereby every school has a small technology team that coordinates learning for teachers either online or face to face.  As teachers become ‘expert’, they share their expertise within and across schools.   The Sisters accept that students will always know more about technology but to ask a student for help shows a “humbleness that teachers are also in a continual process of learning.”

As school leaders, they see their role as primarily helping others to flourish.  They believe that knowing your staff well leads to building greater levels of trust and transparency.  Sr Teresa says that teachers need to feel at home just as much as students when they come to school.   Teachers not only model collaboration but they model what is to be a learner.  The question they ask themselves continually is ‘how can we do this better?”  They are not afraid to look outside their communities or country for inspiration or ideas.  They’ve had educators from Finland and Reggio Emilia visit their schools to share ideas and practice.

Their mission (like Sir Ken Robinson) is to make schools places where creativity flourishes.  They admitted that not every child can change everything but some children can change somethings for the better.  Their staff see this as a great achievement and testament to the value of education in modern society.

In Spain they work across K-12 because it enables them to have a deep understanding of their students and the learning environment. In a week, each school leader in their system spends approximately 20 hours teaching across primary and secondary.  After school, teachers and leaders meet to plan and learn together.  It is a continuous cycle of learning and improvement.

They have been very impressed with the standard of education here and the support of our state and federal government.  The Spanish government has cut education funding, which is never the solution.  Despite this,  teaching is a popular vocation for young people.  They see good teachers as Spain’s great hope.

I asked each what they were most proud of as school leaders.  Both agreed that it was the quality of the relationships with students, with teachers and with parents.  They told me that students in their final year of high school don’t want to leave and when they do, they come back regularly to visit.

This reminds me of Maria Montessori’s wonderful quote that teaching is ‘the great art of companionship’.





Catholic schooling in Australia

Earlier this month I was asked to be a part of a three speaker panel to discuss the topic of Catholic schooling in Australia. The panel was part of the University of Notre Dame’s silver anniversary celebrations in Australia.  This was my contribution on the history and future of Catholic schooling.

Enterprising schools

Harvard Professor, Richard Elmore once asked ‘is it possible that schools can continue to operate in the 19th century while the rest of society moves into the 21st century?’ The simple answer is no – although the adversarial position historically adopted by unions suggests otherwise.

NSW and ACT Catholic employers are currently in the process of discussions with staff and the union on a new enterprise agreement that we believe reflects the need to create contemporary working conditions relevant to a twenty first century model of schooling.  This conversation is not limited to teaching profession, it is happening in most professional organisations around the world.  Federal education minister Christopher Pyne recently said that education is one of the last bastions in the working world where length of service is still rewarded.  Length of service in any profession does not guarantee that you are the best you can be.  It simply means you lasted the distance.

We want all teachers no matter what stage of their career to develop high level skills and knowledge in their work.  I know the majority of teachers want greater control of their working lives.  As John Hattie states ‘schools need to collaborate to build a team working together to solve the dilemmas in learning, to collectively share and critique the nature and quality of evidence that shows our impact on student learning, and to cooperate in planning etc.’

This calls for a new professional maturity that provides teachers with greater autonomy but acknowledges the need for all teachers to adopt a rigorous and intellectual approach to improving teacher practice. In 2018, Australia will have a new national teachers standard administered by AITSL.  This is one of the foundations of the new Catholic schools enterprise agreement. The standards are imminent and non-negotiable.

What is negotiable under a new enterprise agreement is how each local school community structures and shapes learning and teaching.  For more than a century the working lives of teachers have been controlled by bells, timetables and externally imposed agenda. Do we continue to defend an industrial model of schooling in the face of the irrefutable and overwhelming impact of a knowledge age or do we embrace the opportunities for teachers to chart new waters?

Enterprise is defined in the dictionary as a ‘readiness to embark on adventures with boldness and energy.’  Educational expert Yong Zhao believes the time has come for schools to be enterprising, for students to be entrepreneurial and for teachers to be bold in re-shaping the educational agenda.  This is what the new enterprise agreement is about.  It challenges teachers to think about new ways of working together to improve the quality of learning and teaching in schools.

We don’t just want teachers to last the distance, we want them to shape their profession and to continually raise the bar of excellence for themselves, the school communities and most of all, the students they teach.

If twenty first century schools are enterprising schools, then we need a contemporary enterprise agreement which reflects a 21st century teaching profession.












The proposal for an enterprise agreement stems from a recognition that a new century requires new ways of working in schools.  It aims to increase collaboration at a local level by supporting leaders but most of all, it aims to bring alignment in the standards





Enterprising schools need enterprise agreements.  It’s time for educators to be bold and to lead the way with imagination and initiative on how we want to work.



Blue Mountains Fires

We’ve seen some devastating fires in NSW over the past 24 hours especially around Springwood, which is home to two of our schools.  I’ve spoken to the principals of St Thomas Aquinas Primary and St Columba’s College and there only seems to be damage to the perimeter of the schools.  A full assessment is now underway to ascertain the extent.

Sadly, some of our staff and families across our schools have lost their homes.  Catholic Education Diocese of Parramatta has made provision for emergency relief for affected staff and requests should be made through your school leaders.

The Diocese is planning to launch a crisis appeal next week which you might like to make a donation to support families in need. Details will be available next week.

I’d like to take this opportunity to recognise the outstanding work of our schools and office staff yesterday in managing this crisis, particularly our leaders, Sergio Rosato and Phil Stewart, for the care and well-being of their communities.

I’m extremely grateful to the Rural Fire Service and the NSW Police and all the volunteers for their courageous work in protecting our students and staff.

Please keep our staff and families, the wider Mountains community and those affected by the NSW fires in your thoughts and prayers.

‘Connected’ learning

Canadian principal George Couros spent last week sharing his  ‘connected’ learning with our teachers and leaders.  Several school leaders said they felt ‘inspired’ after hearing George talk so passionately about his students, profession and his professional learning.

The workshops with George and our Principals Masterclass may look like ‘stand-alone’ or ‘one-off’ events but they are actually part of a learning continuum that began seven years ago.  The mere fact that our leaders have an opportunity to collectively engage in deep conversations on learning is powerful learning.

At the start of the 2012 school year, we set our collective focus to ‘learning by inquiring’ – how we could engage in the inquiry and knowledge building cycle within schools and across the system.  It builds on the work of Helen Timperley by responding to the emerging needs of ‘our class’ – whether it be school leaders, teachers or learners.  It requires a commitment to engage in continuous learning through collective problem solving and data analysis to improve the learning outcomes for each student.

PMC-98For me, the principals masterclass was a high point in this journey to improve learning and build capacity.  When we started we relied heavily on outside experts but last week we had our own leaders sharing their learning.  Although the context of the school communities may be different, there is a shared vision that transcends physical and virtual borders.

As I listened to the keynotes, three things became clear.   The first is we are beginning to get the language right – we are crafting a new narrative shaped by the best of what we know when it comes to improving learning and teaching.  The second is we are developing greater precision around the work by getting rid of the ‘noise in the background’.  We are focusing on the things that make a difference – the high effect strategies to drive change where it counts most.  Thirdly after listening to our school leaders, we are now seeing tangible evidence of building teacher capacity and its impact on student engagement and learning.  It’s starting to make a difference.

All of this leads into new areas for discussion and new ways of working but we are doing this together.  In the past we’ve “intellectualised” the process of improvement but ignored the implementation process.   Competing narratives haven’t led to sustainable change – the discussion was broad and shallow.  Yet what I saw and heard last week was a significant shift at the point of delivery – system leaders working with school leaders working with teachers – everyone as George said ‘elbows deep in learning.’

If there is one thing that resonated with me when listening to George it was the importance of modelling the what, how and why of what we do.  It challenges us to lead in the way we ask our leaders to, teach in the way we ask our teachers to and learn in the way we ask our students to.

A learner’s voice

I have often asked my colleagues to write guest blogs as a way of sharing expertise from those at the coalface. In reality, those at the heart of schooling are our students.

CCSP - kidsIn May, we hosted the Council of Catholic School Parents’ Conference.  The theme was iConnect and the weekend was in part an opportunity to assuage the fears of parents by allowing students to showcase the technology being used in many of our classrooms. It was a case of students teaching the adults – a wonderful thing to see.

Among the senior students at CCSP was Lois from Loyola Senior High at Mt Druitt.  I asked Lois if she would write a guest blog on how technology has helped enrich her learning.  Lois jumped at the opportunity to share her reflections on the use of technology:

As students we are actively engaging and learning with technology to enhance and support our learning. Educational tools, such as the iPad (which many schools have rolled out an implementation program for) are not only simple to use but the availability of apps helps us learn and enables us to present our work in a variety of ways.

Of course, “What apps are there really out there that can truly be deemed educational?” and “How is it really benefiting the learning of students?” are questions that deserve an answer. There is never a clear, concise answer or a right or wrong answer. However, as a student who has firsthand experience with growing up in an education system that focuses strongly on technology and uses iPads in the classroom, I would like to share from my perspective as a young learner about educational apps for learning and the real benefit technology has on students.

Many have heard of iMovie, Garageband, Popplet, Pages, Creative Book Builder etc where students have created work based on Challenge Based Learning projects and present their findings through a chosen option such as mind maps, short film clips, songs and possibly even their very own iBook creation. The highlight about learning with the iPad is that it potentially allows every student to express their learning as they like it best. An auditory learner can effectively showcase their learning by creating songs and clips just the same as a visual learner can through creating mind maps and iBooks.

With technology expanding and growing, I see the role of a teacher in a technology rich world as someone who is able to use technology wherever and whenever appropriate and applicable. A number of educators I have come across have not only supported our use of technology in learning but also took the initiative to create their own resources for their classes that students can access on their iPad.

As a senior high school student, an app I recently came across called ‘Prelim Legal’ was designed by a senior high school teacher which involved videos packed with straightforward, uncomplicated material along with annotated pictures to make it much easier for any student to grasp the content and understand it easily. Filled with hours of videos including mp3 audio with clear explanations, the syllabus can effectively be taught and be accessed at any time, not restricting learning to only take place in the classroom.

Other teachers have created their own iBooks for distribution to students. The content is straight to the point and focuses on what needs to be learnt in the most effective way possible.  This allows students to comprehend the information at their own pace and in their own way as each student absorbs and remembers content differently.

Lessons that involve technology suddenly become more exciting, and students tend to become more engaged. It may be that when we hear ‘technology’ we immediately think of lessons being appealing and stimulating, or it could possibly be that we acknowledge and appreciate when teachers incorporate the use of technology in the classroom. Then again, it may just be that with technology at the touch of our fingertips and all these resources suddenly available to students, we can begin to take charge of our own learning.

I don’t think Lois is an atypical high school student. I meet so many like her. These are students who understand the world in which they live and the tools needed to enable them to learn, communicate and contribute. Are schools good at listening and learning from these voices?


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