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?
The task of teaching is multi-faceted, complex and never neatly contained. It continues long after the bells ring and the lessons finish. Most teachers work long into the night marking assessments, providing feedback and planning lessons. However, as we shift towards more evidence-based approaches, the goal is to become more effective to ensure we deliver value because working harder may not be working smarter.
The task of teaching cannot be reduced to simply producing effective and engaging lessons; it requires teachers to evaluate the impact of those lessons on each learner. To be able to use ask questions and use feedback wisely to move all learners forward wherever they are on the learning continuum. If not, then how else do we track student or teacher progress? We cannot take learning on face value.
It is astounding that many continue to view the use of feedback and data as a burden for teachers or worse, as an unnecessary task of teaching. The use of feedback, questioning and data is not a diversion from the work of teaching – it is integral to it. Second, there will always be those who are afraid of change and this strengthens the argument that we need to continually invest in the capacity and learning of teachers. The goal is to ensure all teachers are able to evaluate where students are, give constructive feedback and provide the necessary support and structures to improve learning outcomes.
There are and will always be a minority of voices that are anti-intellectual as observed recently in a journal decrying the use of data. All other professions seize the idea of obtaining data and feedback as critical to improving the work they do so why is it that some wish to see teaching locked into industrial thinking and processes?
Andy Hargreaves in his book Teaching in the Knowledge Society commented that ‘teaching is not a place for shrinking violets, for the overly sensitive….it’s a place for grown-ups, requiring grown up norms of how to work together.’
Grown up norms of how we work together as professionals includes grown up discussions of how we improve and extend the practice of teaching in today’s world.
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.
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.
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 this 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.