As educators know, extraordinary opportunities for learning come from those often unpredictable and unscripted teachable moments.  Those moments that are not ‘text-book’ and yet provide students with valuable occasions for critical thinking, reflection and deeper learning.

On Friday, our government missed a teachable moment when the Prime Minister rejected appeals for the resettlement of Rohingya refugees stranded at sea in South East Asia.

The aim of government policy is ultimately designed to improve the lives of citizens whether it be access to universal healthcare or quality education. Our politicians are elected community leaders. They are also teachers – reflecting our values, sense of identity and hopes for the future.

This generation of Australian students will be key to solving future challenges including how we aid and assist those fleeing war and persecution.

I’m not sure what values were imparted or what lessons our students learned from Friday’s response but I am reminded of the second stanza of our National Anthem:

For those who’ve come across the seas
We’ve boundless plains to share;
With courage let us all combine
To Advance Australia Fair.

With refugee week coming up in June, perhaps the word for our politicians here is – courage.Delaney College Granville

There are government and Catholic schools across western Sydney who have welcomed children from around the world (many from war-torn nations) into its classrooms and communities.  These students are all contributing to a more inclusive and diverse society.

These students have stories of courage to share – and something to teach our politicians.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Following the journey

It is always good to listen to students and staff talk enthusiastically about their individual and collective learning. Last week I visited St Oliver’s Primary, Harris Park and saw first hand how their data walls are working and how it has helped sharpen their professional focus and thinking.

While many schools adopt a holistic approach to capturing and measuring data on student achievement, St Oliver’s has narrowed the focus to two key areas: reading and vocabulary.  Principal Anthony McElhone explained they could have just as easily measured spelling or structure but this gives them a precise focus on what they see as the critical areas for their students’ growth.

Data walls capture the process and progress of student learning and the effectiveness of teacher practice. It becomes a shared learning journey for every member of the learning community.  This was illustrated when I visited an elementary school in Canada.

Every inch of the parish hall was being used as a living data wall.  As you walk around the hall, you can follow the growth of each and every student.  The data is transparent –  teachers share accountability for student learning while students accept responsibility for their own learning path.  What is so impressive is when parents visit the school and effectively cut out the ‘middleman’ by listening to their own child explain, track and describe their learning. They know where they are at, where they need to go and how they will get there.

It is visible learning in action.

The prophetic Steve Jobs said: It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.

What happens when we replace ‘smart people’ with ‘teachers’ is the recognition that we are still hiring teachers and largely telling them what to do.  Unfortunately, this is the reality of the current industrial landscape – one that has prevailed since the early 20th century.  As Richard Elmore said, maintaining a low-skill teaching profession was a way of paying teachers less and maintaining compliance.  The thing about compliance is that it kills creativity.

Over the decades, employers and unions have vigorously defended this structure even down to how many hours teachers should spend face to face. Building a highly professional workforce is as Jobs said hiring teachers to tell us how they work best.  It is about giving teachers permission to create the most optimal learning environments and opportunities for their students.  As Ken Robinson reflects in his latest book Creative Schools, it is based on the fundamental belief: ‘the value of the individual, the right to self-determination.’

We have spent much of the last century working on the assumption that external accountability will drive internal accountability.  It’s the cart pulling the horse, which has not only been counter-productive to school improvement but detrimental to improving student learning.

Giving teachers greater flexibisurprisedgirllity by allowing them to use their professional judgment day in and day out, is the first step to building a highly competent workforce.  Michael Fullan et al has shown that individual responsibility for one’s own learning and that of every student in the school leads to a shared internal accountability.  This sense of collective responsibility for improving student learning drives the work and feeds into a bigger loop of external accountability. This way, the horse pulls the cart.

If the best way to improve learning outcomes is to raise student motivation, expectations and engagement, then doesn’t it make sense to take the same approach when it comes to teachers’ work?

 

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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).

 

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