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.
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.
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.
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.