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.
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.
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.
There’s been discussion recently regarding the increasing demands placed on school leaders and teachers. We live in a world that demands greater accountability, transparency, productivity and performance. Education is not immune.
We also have the research outlining qualities of high achieving/effective schools and the ‘high expectations’ on student and teacher performance. Parents expect their children will achieve quality educational outcomes. Governments and the community expect teachers and schools to consistently deliver those outcomes.
High but realistic expectations are an essential part of the educational narrative in today’s world. As part of a professional learning community, we find that our achievements, including how we deal with the highs and lows of our work, grow out of shared respect and collaborative practices. We expect our colleagues to support, and where appropriate, to challenge us.
This is why it’s critical to cultivate a culture where we take the necessary time to stand back, to re-balance our professional agendas and eliminate unhelpful accretions so we can focus on what really matters for our students, ourselves and our communities.
Externally driven narratives or codes on how we manage ourselves or our school communities de-skills those responsible for the work. Principals and teachers are best placed to decide on what is best for themselves and their learners.
The role of governments, professional bodies and even systems is to support the work of schools not mandate it. We will never learn how to deal with the complexities of schooling in today’s world unless we take the lead.
As Richard Elmore says, we learn the work by doing the work.
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!).
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.