Archive for the ‘Strategic Focus’ Category

Stemming the tide

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 teach all students to apply critical and creative thinking across all disciplines.

Failure is the cancer of good learning and teaching

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.

 

 

 

 

 

What’s wrong with Aussie schools?

I wonder how many times we need to hear the OECD and Grattan Institute tell us that our education system needs to be performing over and above and not under and below international benchmarks!  The link between our declining performance on PISA and teacher quality has been the subject of commentary from educational experts for more than a decade.

Speaking recently in Dubai, OECD’s education chief, Andreas Schleicher warned that without sufficient investment in the teaching profession and a fundamental rethink of the role of teachers in today’s world, we risk slipping further down the international ladder.

It’s not just the economic imperative that we won’t be globally competitive that should compel our profession to change, but the moral imperative of giving every student in every school a world-class education.

One of the problems according to Schleicher is that we continue to see teaching as number of hours spent in front of students as though it’s the only half of the whole when in fact the other critical half is professional learning and teacher collaboration.

I agree wholeheartedly with Schleicher that we must move away from seeing teachers as deliverers of a curriculum to teachers as ‘owners of professional standards.’  This view is evident in Finland where it is widely accepted that educators are ‘the ultimate authorities on education, not bureaucrats…’

The profession has been compliant for too long in the face of imposed educational reforms and mandates dictating the nature of teachers’ work.  Our education system is too valuable to be a political and ideological target for short-sighted policies.  I’m not naive enough to suggest that we are close to partisan politics in Australia but the time for a coherent pre to post schooling framework was a decade ago.

It’s striking that the OECD’s education chief has expressed concerned about the future of our education system. It is even more striking though that our politicians have failed to listen and our profession has failed to take the lead.

 

Basic skills

West Australian Education Minister Peter Collier suggested last month that parents weren’t putting in the time with their children at home and this was being reflected on school entry testing.

According to Mr Collier, there are increasing numbers of children starting school who lack basic skills such as being able to count, paint and hold a pencil.

The implication is that increased use of technology at home is impacting not only on the development of fine motor skills but also according to a report by Dr Jennifer Buckingham, the capacity to build language through conversation with adults and other children.

It highlights a need for researchers, politicians, parents and educators to re-visit the what, why and how of schooling in today’s world. What does it mean to be school ready in today’s world?  In ten years from now, will it be necessary for young people to know how to hold a pencil?  And what will it mean to be literate in an online world?

If literacy and numeracy are foundational skills (and they are), how are these skills developed in changing home/school environments alongside increasingly adaptive learning technologies?  And at what stage in a child’s development do we begin nurturing new ways of thinking, working, using tools and social responsibility?

If parents are being urged to do more educating at home, then what is needed are clear frameworks (of 21st century skills) for parents and teachers. This needs to clearly articulate the qualities and skills required in today’s world and the ways in which these are developed and assessed in each child.

One of the most common complaints I hear from parents is the lack of communication around what their child is learning in class, how it’s being taught and why it’s necessary.

In the context of a changing world we all need to be asking important questions about basic skills.

 

The fierce urgency of now

160204CEO_011Last week our system welcomed 160 new teachers to the profession. The excitement of these teachers is infectious and after my 40 years in education, I know their work will be transformative in nurturing the heart, mind and spirits of students.

In addressing our new leaders and teachers, I urged them not to be disheartened by the negative commentary in the media, which always typically marks the start of a new school year.

Yes there are many professional challenges but I see the greatest and most urgent as the need to abandon ‘improvement’ and embrace transformation.  While teachers can’t ignore the realities and challenges of schooling in today’s world – we must seize the initiative for change without becoming disheartened.

It was Reverend Martin Luther King Jr who said that ‘tomorrow is today’ and in being confronted with a ‘fierce urgency of now’, there is such a thing in the ‘unfolding conundrum of life and history as being too late‘.

In twenty years from now, I don’t want to look back and see education as having been ‘too late’ when the urgency of now is so fierce.  This age presents significant challenges to all who learn and teach in our schools – challenges that primarily centre on the need for change.

Nobel prize winning Chilean poet and educator Gabriela Mistral said that we cannot say tomorrow to a child, when now is the time their bones are formed and minds are developed – when today is their name.

Our students should not have to wait for schooling to change.

 

A new lens

According to a recent Victorian study, many assistant principals aren’t prepared to take on the role of principal because of the associated work stress.

Responding to the survey, Dennis Yarrington, president of the Australian Primary Principals Association (APPA) was quoted saying that many states and territories were already looking at “innovative practices around principal development” to provide the skills and knowledge to be able to cope with increasing workloads.

I am a champion of innovation but what is the rationale for finding more efficient ways of fixing an old model of schooling and its increasing workloads?

As Canadian theorist George Siemens said you can’t expect theories from a largely industrial era to work in a digital one.  The solution is to create new pedagogies, new understandings of knowledge, a new view of learning and I would add new roles for teachers and leaders.

If anything, the study highlights that as a profession we aren’t responding to or adapting quickly enough to the changing nature of today’s world.  If we are still trying to up-skill our teachers and leaders to deal with 20th century challenges and workloads, then we are largely stuck in a time-warp.

I recently read in Time Magazine that the Ford motor company is on a mission to disrupt its own company by transforming itself from a traditional car manufacturer to a ‘mobility’ provider.  Its CEO said they would be looking at new services such as ride-sharing (think Uber); inspired largely by Apple’s transformation twenty years ago from a technology company to a lifestyle one.

Some have referred to the industrial model of schooling as a Ford production line but what we can learn is that the future of schooling depends upon innovation and transformation.  Like Ford, we need to disrupt ourselves because technology has already started disrupting the way students are communicating and learning in a hyper-connected world.  The paradigm must move from learning as remembering to learning as thinking.

Roberto Verganti, Professor of Leadership and Innovation in Milan, wrote a great article on innovation in Harvard Business Review this month. He says in order ‘to find and exploit the opportunities made possible by big changes in technology or society, we need to explicitly question existing assumptions about what is good or valuable and what is not – and then, through reflection, come up with a new lens to examine innovation ideas.”

Unfortunately schooling struggles to look through a new lens and as the brilliant Mark Twain said “you can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Saving language

A decade ago Don Watson wrote the definitive book on management speak called ‘Weasel Words‘. It illustrates the way in which bureaucrats and politicians’ highly crafted messages obfuscate meaning and hide the truth. As Watson wrote “this dead, depleted, verbless jargon is becoming the language of daily life.”

The marketing guru Seth Godin recently asked the question on his blog ‘does vocabulary matter?’  He highlighted Randall Munroe’s concise and clear explanation of how the Saturn V rocket works using only a thousand commonly used words.

As Godin remarked:

It’s not about knowing needlessly fancy words (but it’s often hard to know if the fancy word is needless until after you learn it). Your vocabulary reflects the way you think (and vice versa). It’s tempting to read and write at the eighth-grade level, but there’s a lot more leverage when you are able to use the right word in the right moment.

Professor John Hattie once commented at a conference that ‘metacognition’ was just a fancy way of referring to thinking about learning.  He preferred to use the latter.

Education has fallen into the jargon web, which is ironic because as leaders/teachers we are entrusted to do daily what Randall Munroe has done – simplify the complex not complexify the simple.

The list is in no way exhaustive but here are some ‘weasel words’ proffered by some of my colleagues:

  • anything strategic (e.g focus, pillars, alignment, teaching)
  • building teacher capacity
  • deprivatising teacher practice
  • empowered/self-regulated learners
  • rigorous learning
  • guided thoughtfulness

Of all professions, we have a special responsibility to ensure we don’t take a reductionist approach and to consider whether some of these terms detract from describing the depth and richness of our work.  That work is to bring the world alive by bringing language alive. The goal, as Watson expresses in his book is to save language for future generations.

 

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