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You may have seen some media coverage earlier this week about early years learning and how children as young as two could benefit from structured play based learning as part of a pre to post school continuum. I’m not talking about putting two year olds in traditional classroom settings, sitting silently at desks listening to the teacher talk (that’s not our idea of quality schooling anyway). I’m talking about authentic play based learning experiences for toddlers that include age-appropriate activities like singing, dancing and even learning to play an instrument or language.

It’s about rethinking the entire pre to post school structure, to create a more aligned and coherent schooling framework.

Last week, business leader Catherine Livingstone called for a ‘philosophical change’ in the way we think about education, noting that the traditional separation between schooling and work is no longer relevant for today’s world. Increasing numbers of educators believe the traditional model of schooling is no longer meeting the needs of students today, which echo Livingstone’s observation. Business and industry leaders are constantly telling us that students do not have the skills they need, and youth unemployment has hit a 15 year high, with one in five people aged 15-24 unemployed. There is also a talent mismatch with 18 of the world’s major economies experiencing talent shortages.

We can no longer ignore the growing gap between formal schooling and success in the 21st century. We need to make a fundamental change in education. Moving away from artificial constructs like preschool, primary, secondary and post-school is a start, as these are artefacts of an age long gone.

These distinctions result in short term and narrow funding decisions directed towards separate parts of the system, instead of the whole. The Federal government decision to only guarantee funding for early childhood for the next two years, and only for four year olds, is an example of this type of constrained thinking.

Federal governing structures for education are disjointed: early childhood is within the Social Services portfolio, whereas schools and post school are within Education and Training. It’s the same story in NSW, with early childhood, schooling and TAFE all in different departments. This results in policy and funding decisions that treat early childhood, school and post-school as discrete units. Instead, we need to think about how all aspects of the sector work together to gain greater continuity in learning and teaching frameworks.

We’re a few days away from the Federal Budget – we need aligned policy and funding decisions that address the holistic, long term needs when it comes to education.

Making circles

Stephen Heppell wrote recently that schools of the future must be “places in which difficult, exciting, challenging, engaging, complex learning happens, rather than being where uniform education is delivered.”
In Tokyo, there is a kindergarten that has been designed as a place for exciting, difficult and engaging play (learning).  Its circular design literally places students at the centre.
In Asian cultures, the circle is a powerful symbol.  It represents unity and perfection.  In contrast, the square/rectangle has sharp corners representing laws and regulations.  Is this the reason why we still build schools as rectangles seeing them as places of regulations and uniform learning instead of seeing perfection in complexity, chaos and creativity?
The kindergarten is one of the best I have seen because the principal and architect dared to think outside the square.  I wonder what our schools symbolise?  Are they spaces for passivity or play; spaces for listening or living?

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.

Jane Caro wrote this week that “Chile, unlike Australia, is heading in the right direction” with its bill before parliament to ban public funding of for profit private schools along with free primary and secondary schooling.

I can understand why Chile’s President wants to adopt a new educational funding policy. Chile’s existing system was instituted under a dictatorship, hence why for profit schools are publicly funded. Australia on the other hand does not fund for profit schools.

Educational funding has to be based on equity across all school sectors not just one. In other words, needs based and sector-blind. Any argument about funding should focus on students not on sectors. If we venture down the public vs private debate as Caro has done, we divert our attention away from what really matters – improving learning for all students in all schools.

If Australia is to head in the right direction, perhaps it’s time to work collaboratively (all sectors) to use the funding to improve the quality of teaching in all schools. If Caro wants to focus on non-government funding, perhaps she can lobby the Federal Government to honour their end of the deal (last two years of Gonski funding).

 

Stanford University in the US is working with Pearson to operationalise an assessment for beginning teachers as part of a national strategy to introduce a single method for assessment.

Nathan Estel, Director, Educator Relations at the Evaluation Systems group of Pearson says the work has provided a clearer picture of how universities are preparing graduates for work in schools.

Nathan says many US states are already using the Educative Teacher Performance Assessment (edTPA) as a policy lever to bring about greater cooperation and changes to teacher preparation programs.

It aims to encourage universities to think about new ways of providing ongoing professional learning and support for teachers once they enter the profession.

edTPA is designed around four key competencies:

  1. Content knowledge (computer based assessment)
  2. Differentiation in instruction (portfolio based)
  3. Teaching practice and learning environment
  4. Effective and Reflective Practitioner

A national assessment tool provides insight into future possibilities for the what and how of graduate teacher accreditation in other jurisdictions.  This illustrates how systems and organisations are working collaboratively to provide greater support for teachers especially beginning teachers.

 

 

No teacher is an island

Last week I had another opportunity to visit two Victorian primary schools that for me demonstrate good theory in practice.  Woorana Park and Silverton Primary schools have established themselves as authentic learning communities.  Over many years under good instructional leaders they have evaluated their practice, implemented rigorous feedback mechanisms, listened to student and parent voices and used the learning space and technology to support contemporary pedagogies.

As one of my readers pointed out, ‘open classrooms’ have a very low effect size according to Hattie’s meta-analysis.  This is absolutely true.  Just as no teacher is an island (see Hattie’s comments on direct instruction), there is no one pedagogy (or classroom design) that delivers everything.  As Woorana Park and Silverton Primary have demonstrated, the use of agile learning spaces is just a fraction of the whole to improve student learning outcomes. Learning spaces support good teaching practices but they never act as a substitute for them.

 

 

 

 

 

I don’t believe quality instruction ever left the classroom. Successful teachers have always had a thorough understanding of how students learn and have adopted and adapted pedagogies informed by research, reflection and inquiry.

The essential principles of effective learning provide us with the foundations of appropriate pedagogies but they must be creatively applied in ways which maximise opportunities and respond to demands of today’s world.

However, if you read Kevin Donnelly’s latest opinion piece, traditional teaching is somehow making a comeback. Donnelly claims that the ‘tide has finally turned’ against educational fads such as open classrooms and discovery learning.

Donnelly doesn’t define traditional teaching so I’m assuming he is referring to the type of didactic teaching associated with a traditional model of schooling.

According to John Hattie, direct instruction (which isn’t traditional) is reflected in the way teachers work together ‘to plan and critique a series of lessons, sharing understanding of progression, articulating intentions and success criteria, and attending to the impact of student and teacher learning.’ (Visible Learning for Teachers)

While it’s true that the learning space is never a substitute for quality instruction, agile spaces provide opportunities for teachers to engage in the kind of planning and teacher learning that is most effective in improving student learning.  Many teachers I have spoken to have said the new spaces support collaboration and therefore the process of direct instruction.

Donnelly however cites results from a survey of noise levels in open classrooms in which 50-70% of children said they couldn’t hear their teacher very well.  What Donnelly failed to include in his piece, was that the survey was conducted in four schools only.

When you don’t understand the world in which today’s learners live, it is easy to disparage contemporary approaches to schooling.  In fact, most contemporary approaches are still largely influenced by traditional structures, curricula and mindsets.  We don’t have enough examples yet of great contemporary practice to point to – not because it doesn’t work but it doesn’t yet exist.

These so called educational fads are not designed to replace quality instruction – they are designed to support it.  Agile learning spaces support a range of learning activities. And isn’t discovery at the heart of learning anyway?

Replicating an industrial model of schooling has only led to the gap between schooling and learning growing wider in an online world.  We can’t hark back to the past if we want to change the future. We are challenged to think differently by virtue of the fact we live in age that now values critical thinking, creativity and collaboration.

The OECD recognises the importance of these skills not only for the success of economies but also for individuals participating in a knowledge age. It’s worth noting that PISA will test creativity from 2017.

We have always known that the most effective teaching is evidence-based.  It’s a pity Kevin Donnelly’s arguments still seem to be largely ideologically driven.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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