Crowding the curriculum

Some interesting articles in the weekend papers calling for the teaching of martial arts and alcohol education in schools to address the issues of bullying and binge-drinking.

It seems that whenever there is a need to change behaviours or address attitudes we look to the curriculum.  Is this the role of a curriculum?  Is it the responsibility of schools?

If the role of schools is to promote the growth of students and their learning – to teach students them how to be critical thinkers and responsible citizens, then shouldn’t this naturally lead to a change in behaviours?

I think the calls to introduce things like for example, alcohol education, while important social issues, only muddy the waters.  As John Hattie has said debate seems to be fixated on the test-outcome-based questions rather than an intelligent debate about what is worth ‘preserving in our society, and what is worth knowing in order to live the desired ‘good life’.

In an era of information and curriculum overload, it is important for the profession to discern which knowledge is significant and timely.  Just-in-time learning (learning that is relevant to students’ lives) must be given priority over the just-in-case learning which can so easily crowd the learning.

As Michael Fullan says we must be relentless focussed on the things that actually make a difference.  This means continually reminding ourselves of what’s really important in the work of the school.  Martial arts and alcohol education may be helpful but is it essential?

Education Minister Adrian Piccoli made an excellent point in relation to alcohol education, which is parents also have an important role in educating their children.  Pauline Lysaght, Associate Director Early Start at the University of Wollongong believes that while teachers are influential in reinforcing behaviours within the school context, the responsibility for establishing a knowledge base and encouraging behaviours rests with parents.

When there are vigorous calls to continually pare down the curriculum (similar to Singapore’s approach), why do we waste valuable time proposing ways of over-loading it?

 

What we value

I’ve been reflecting this week on the terrible events in Paris and of course, at the Lindt Cafe in Sydney before Christmas.  It was incredible to see footage of more than three million people of different political and religious persuasions marching in Paris in defense of the cultural values which they treasure.

By Olivier Ortelpa from Paris, France (#jesuischarlie) via Wikimedia Commons

By Olivier Ortelpa from Paris, France (#jesuischarlie) via Wikimedia Commons

All schools, and systems of schools are ultimately an expression of the values of the society in which they exist. While these values may be expressed differently, at their heart is a deep desire for freedom of thought, tolerance of ideas and respect for human dignity.

Values permeate our educational narrative – they inform learning and teaching.  We teach because we want our students to value knowledge, to cultivate independent and critical thought and to favour careful deliberation.  We want students to seek self-improvement and be responsible, compassionate global citizens.  We want students to be informed about society, committed to the common good.

It is important at this time to reflect upon how we express these values in our learning communities; how these values are imbued in the daily life of schools. I don’t believe we can assume the values in our school are understood and learned through some sort of osmosis.  We need to be be proactive, explicit and deliberate.

I suggest we could start by asking questions about how we approach the process of learning and teaching. Some simple ideas might be: are the pedagogies we are utilising engaging all learners? How do we demonstrate tolerance of ideas in our learning spaces?  How is respect shown on playgrounds?  Do all students and parents have the opportunity to express their ideas freely?  Do we rely on unchallenged assumptions or evidence when making decisions?

There are many questions which may be worth reflecting on as a whole school community and the answers we come up with could be well worth sharing.

When I was in primary school, our motto was compassion, justice and a love of learning.  It is still a powerful reminder of the role of education in democratic and civil societies.  Education is essentially humanising and may be the best defense we have against the scourge of terrorism.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Innovation as the norm

I made the following observation on New Year’s Day.

I think if we are going to do better we desperately need teachers to be prepared to challenge not only what they teach but how effectively they teach.

It is easy to understand this entrenched conservatism. There is a perception of mistrust about the work of teaching and government policy reinforces this view. Policies which seek to mandate what is taught and how it is taught distract the profession from professional competency and capability.

I believe the wider community see teaching as a “soft” option profession and often resist change in teacher practice as some experimentation which has to be resisted at all costs.  Why?  Because it is not what school was “like for me”.

This may be a generalisation but there are some real truths here. How do we turn this around? How do we encourage innovative practice and build community trust in the profession and amongst policy makers?

Last week I came across an article in the Washington Post from Pasi Sahlberg author of “Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland?” Although the book was published in 2011, Sahlberg’s comments make great sense to me.

Sahlberg argues that an education reform agenda cannot be solved with short term policy quick fixes. He quotes the global fascination with Canada, South Korea, Singapore and Finland as models which will provide the “silver bullet” to improve teacher learning and teaching. What these countries take out of the Finnish and other approaches however is a narrow view.  Namely that improving schools means better teachers. Therefore we need to attract the “best of the brightest”. In doing so, Sahlberg insists that this misses the point.

He notes three particular fallacies in this understanding:

  1. We continue to assume that teachers work independently from each other but in reality teaching is a team effort in the end results are most often team efforts.
  2. The focus on improving the quality of education is the teacher ignores the research that says while there are often characteristics in improving quality, the most important is effective school leadership and it matters as much as teacher quality.
  3. You can improve schooling by getting rid of poor performing teachers and employing only great ones. This is problematic for two reasons; firstly clarity around “great teaching” and secondly, it takes 5 – 10 years of systematic practice to “effective” in any reliable way.

This leads Sahlberg to the view that “we must reconsider how we think about teaching as a profession and what is the role of the school in our society.” He offers three insights which I urge you to explore in more detail:

  1. Focus more on teacher education, less on teaching and learning in schools
  2. The toxic use of accountability is in many ways inaccurate and unfair
  3. Teachers should have more autonomy in planning their work, freedom to run their lessons the way that leads to the best results and the authority to influence the assessment of outcome of their work. Schools must be trusted in these by areas of their profession.

In citing Sahlberg’s work here I’m not trying to simplify a complex issue. However, his observation about teacher autonomy is critical to easing the conservatism I mentioned at the start. We need teachers as collaborators who share practice, try new things, are open to evaluating their effectiveness and are committed to continually improving their practice.

Just as importantly, we need school leaders who build a culture of trust, respect and participation in the life of the whole school and are learners as much as leaders. As innovation leads to improvement, share it and shout about it – that way society will come to expect educational innovation as the norm.

Where to from here?

As another year comes to a close it reminds me of the mechanical process of schooling. Our schools are placed in “mothballs” for six weeks and then the system fires up again in late January.  I wonder if the school year could be significantly different from the last?

It’s heartening to hear AITSL Chair, Professor John Hattie say recently that we are already having an incredible impact on student learning; the best is in Australia all around us.

We have never had better trained teachers, funding, buildings and access to technologies.  The majority of parents have high degrees of trust in their local school to deliver quality outcomes.  However, the challenge for the profession is  ‘where to next?’

As I’ve said throughout 2014, it’s a question that can only really be answered by those doing the work.  When I talk to beginning and experienced teachers, I see people who have great passion; who are not resistant to change (provided they have the structures and support).

Supporting and engaging our teachers more deeply in evaluating and improving their practice is the path that will lead us to the next stage.  It doesn’t happen by accident.  It’s a daily commitment to improving the learning outcomes of each child and an ongoing investment in the professional learning of every teacher. While the work isn’t always easy, the results are always worth the effort.

Since the best is here all around us, let’s share it, learn from it and answer the ‘where to next’ by raising the standards and status of the entire profession.

As always, thanks for reading and contributing to the blog – your comments shape my professional thinking.   A safe and Merry Christmas.

 

Last week, I was delighted to visit the Kindergarten learning space at St Bernadette’s Primary, Lalor Park. It is one of the joys of my work as Executive Director to see talented teachers engaged with vivacious young learners. St Bernadette’s have an excellent practice of asking all students to write to the Principal Liz Devlin regularly, and she writes back! Reading and writing are, as you would expect, highly valued and the teachers use every opportunity for the students to learn in a purposeful way. Little did I know the amount of effort and preparation that went into my visit.

Kindergarten teachers, Mabel-Lynn Buenaventura and Brooke Peterson, used my visit as a literacy activity for their students. I was ‘bowled over’ by the depth of understanding and ability for these children to imagine and write their stories. I asked the Mabel-Lynn and Brooke to reflect on their practice (the bolding is mine):

The children had been waiting all year long for ‘Mr Whippy’ aka Mr Whitby to come to visit our budding Kindergarten authors (Yes that was a lesson in itself hearing all the correct sounds in his surname and clapping out Whitby into two syllables; then making rhyming nonsense words).

Domenic wrote an imaginative illustrated story book (see video) in Term 2 titled, Mr Whippy and the Big Spider. It was a well thought out, sequential story with a good introduction, an interesting plot and a happy ending.

When he had written the story he gave it to our Principal to read and of course that’s how Greg came to visit the school, so that the children could see the main character in real life and invite him to be the ‘audience and the star’.

Greg totally engaged with the reading of the story and the class-prepared ‘Big Book’ (yes all about him and his 7,000 pairs of socks) and a ‘handwritten by every child’ description of the ‘big man’ (tall of course!).

Writing and reading in our learning space is non-negotiable and starts from day one. Creative thinking and spontaneity is encouraged from the beginning and every attempt to ‘scribble on a page’ is celebrated as writing. Imaginative play and drawing is often a catalyst to writing in the early months and every attempt is celebrated.

Before the students commence school we have a five week transition to Kindergarten program where we have ‘observed to be informed’; ‘engaged to build relationship’; and ‘played to honour being a child’. We feel we already know the learners when they begin Kindergarten. There are many individual changes and developments in the two months between transition and the start of the school year so our baseline data starts to fill out and become a little richer and juicier.

At the beginning of the school year we ‘hit the ground running’ with our new learners. We always start with the end in mind; taking each student beyond their personal best so that they surprise themselves and their families with a positive growth mindset to propel them into Year 1 as confident, spontaneous and competent readers, writers, mathematicians and thinkers (philosophers even!).

Our Kindergarten love to write to everyone and anyone. The audience and purpose is very important to a five year old and they love the ‘spotlight shining on them on their own stage’ as they reach new milestones in their own learning. Talking and listening is encouraged by all members of the class community (adults and children) and always as a pre-requisite to clear communication. Greg got a taste of our spontaneous learners with a happy dance performed by Jayden; an ‘I love you’ from numerous children; and a ‘you’re a great storyteller’ by another.

There is nothing extraordinary that sets our students apart from any other Kindergarten students; just as there is nothing that sets us apart from other Kindergarten teachers. Our secret to facilitating enthusiastic, empowered and confident five year old learners is that we simply love teaching and building positive relationships with our little learners every minute of every day.

Yes, we get very tired and our work never seems to end; and we are always looking at their most relevant and recent data to create, reinvent, innovate and modify the curriculum for each student – simply because we want every student to be successful in their learning. Success breeds success.

We are two ordinary Kindergarten teachers working with extraordinary minds; the minds of children!

There was great excitement by Greg’s visit to our school. He was the main character in Domenic’s book and was both the audience, the main protagonist and the purpose for the story. He was a real life action hero and he was at our school.

Domenic is already writing a sequel….his words not ours!

Listen to the book below:

The radical centre

On Monday night I had the pleasure of hearing Noel Pearson deliver the annual Bishop Manning lecture.  Pearson is founder of the Cape York Institute for Policy and Leadership.  In discussing the complexities and challenges facing indigenous communities, Pearson explained that he saw himself as a radical centralist – someone committed to left wing objectives through right wing policies.

As Pearson explained, the free market approach assumes that everyone is educated and can therefore make an informed choice.  The paradox is that if you have no education, the market isn’t free.  The problem with the left wing approach is that you get caught in a cycle of more programs, more money, more administration.  One side wants to keep handing out fish, the other the rods.  Pearson’s view is use both to achieve an effective and equitable outcome.

At the centre of schooling is the child but for decades we’ve focussed on either the fish or the fishing rod.  It resonates with Michael Fullan’s theme that educational change will only ever come from the middle. The top (government) cannot be relied on because governments and policies frequently change.  On the other hand, when you give the bottom (schools) too much autonomy, you cannot build systemness.

The middle provides coherence so both school and system grow in tandem.  No-one is left behind.  I believe the teaching profession needs a coalition of central radicals to keep us focussed on the middle.

And that’s what Noel Pearson is attempting to do – build systemness so that no-one is left behind.

 

 

 

 

 

Above all, try something

There is a wonderful quote by Franklin D. Roosevelt in David Price’s new book ‘Open’. Speaking at a commencement address in 1932, Roosevelt said: “The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation.  It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another.  But above all, try something.”

David Price was in Australia last week talking about his new book and the changing world of work, life and learning.  We live in a world that is increasingly transparent and open: open source, open learning, open communities. Price makes the point that we cannot control or contain knowledge so it is no longer powerful. What has become powerful are the social connections arising from the co-creation of knowledge locally and globally.

This is not explicitly about technology but how it is enabling new ways of thinking, working and learning. The focus is very much on people and how we are using the tools to connect and reshape communities in a more collaborative way.

‘Open’ fleshes out this new landscape by providing a lens from the outside in rather than the inside out as so often happens.  The book presents a sharp synthesis of what is happening in today’s world and importantly, how the education sector can learn from those who are successfully weaving the threads of social, open and informal learning into classrooms such as High Tech High in California and School of Communication Arts 2.0 in the UK.  These diverse examples illustrate how being open to new ideas, tools and importantly new ways of learning and teaching are changing the nature of schooling.

Price makes the point that ‘because education has such a deep-seated resistance to change, that what to them (e.g principals of  and ) seems logical appears radical to others.”  Price goes on to say that governments don’t do radical and so the responsibility to be different and “innovative needs to come from schools themselves, and unless innovative new approaches become more disruptive, the reality is that they will fall further behind the pace of change of ‘open’.”

We are living in uncertain times but to echo Roosevelt – schooling today demands bold, persistent experimentation so that schooling becomes truly open, relevant and meaningful well into the future.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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