KEEP IT SIMPLE AND KEEP IT FOCUSSED

KEEP IT SIMPLE AND KEEP IT FOCUSSED

In this day and age the increasing complexities that fit around education, deny or overlook two vital criteria: ‘simplicity’ and ‘focus’. I believe that we need to keep education simple in terms of message clarity and focused in terms of it honing in on key learning and developmental needs of young people. ‘Keep it simple’ and ‘keep it focused’ need to be absolute priorities.

Too often in these modern times, we can’t see the wood for the trees. Embedded within the Northern Territory Curriculum Framework there are eight key learning principles to which teacher attention is drawn. Those learning principles should underpin everything taught in terms of planning, preparation, teaching then testing, measurement and data analysis leading toward follow-up. What happens, however, is that these key learning strategies and focus principles are set to one side with people being invited to explore, explore and explore further a veritable cybernet forest, like unto all the rainforests of the world rolled into one!

The area, depth and density of resource and support materials is absolutely mind-boggling – there is also a huge amount of reduplication or, at best, a minor alteration from one precept or suggestion to another revealed to educators trawling through this infinite resource selection. The exercise of travelling the resource internet trial in the sky is inordinately time-consuming. Quite often, the journey reveals little more and offers little more than teachers already have in resource compilations that may be more readily and more simplistically available.

A point I sometimes suggest to people is that when they begin to surf the web looking for resources, they record time started and time finished. They will find quite often that an absolute time fortune has been spent in searching for resources. Time committed is goes well beyond the value of what they download. (In terms of downloading, a supplementary issue can be that what is brought onto the hard drive desktop for use is not really understood anyway! This helps to create a sad differential between what a teacher program looks like and how useful and relevant it really is from the viewpoint of statements into teaching translation.)

However, trawl educators do, because imprinted into the mind of every teacher is the absolute imperative that he or she will give of their absolute best, to bring children out the other end of the teaching / learning journey fitted up to satisfy testing criteria set around the data gathering strategies on which systems are built.

I worry that teachers are often frightened that what they do in terms of teaching will not be good enough. It seems they feel the weight of superordinacy, believing people are looking down upon them ready to pounce, criticise and condemn if things are not good enough. They tend to rejoice little and worry a lot about whether they’re contribution is appreciated or otherwise. This means that they become super self-critical and very rarely take time to rejoice and celebrate their teaching successes.

This first point needs urgent correction! I often urge on teachers the fact that they need to rejoice in the good things they are doing, trying my best to convince them that they aredoing good things. Leanyer is the teaching school developing preservice teachers who work with us in our classrooms supported by mentor teachers and a Professional Learning Leader (PLL). A document we have developed and urge our preservice teachers to follow is one suggesting simple evaluation of outcomes taking into account celebrations as well as points for further consideration. I can offer it to anyone contacting me athenry.gray@ntschools.net.

In Australia we have the Melbourne Declaration of Education developed a number of years ago. In the very first part of the declaration is a statement exhorting teachers to be holistic in their approach to teaching and learning processes. While academics are stressed, so, too, are the social, emotional and moral spiritual aspects of development. This declaration follows on earlier statements of principle and intent.

It seems to me that we are then urged to prioritize our attention away from this position and toward the point of recognising far more limited aspects of development as having priority.

In particular, the focus is on literacy and numeracy. In Australia we have what might be termed ‘Four May Days each year’, coinciding with nation-wide testing of children in years three, five, seven and nine in literacy and numeracy. Tests are taken three days with a catch up day being allowed for children and students who have missed out on sitting tests on the days designated. Data comes back to schools, universally evaluating them on the outcomes of these tests. That information goes on to the ACARA managed ‘My Schools’ website, which records for public digestion information relating to outcomes for children in all Australian schools.

From there, media picks up on schools that are well below average to well above average across the spectrum of tests and years. They then produce colourful tables showing schools from very deep pink (well below average) to very deep green (well above average); some newspapers delight or have delighted in talking about “Seas of Red” allowing readers to draw a personal metaphor about what often seems to be the more occasional ‘Oasis of green’.

While the freneticism around online publication of what amounts to an Australian League Table has declined a little from sensationalistic launch, focus most certainly remains firmly fixed on the importance of teaching, strategies and data collection leading toward the annual NAPLAN program.

Four ‘May Days’ each year
With this focus in place, everyone and everything tends toward preparing students to sit the tests each May. Then comes a rather nervous and anxious period of wait, for results to come through in preliminary then final form. As the results are uplifted onto school websites the analysis begins, including evaluation of areas in which children have done well and study of domains needing further work.

The public scrutiny tends to come later. Results are released to parents of children in schools where tests are sat, with data distributed to parents looking at their child or children by comparison to the school, State or Territory, and Australian averages for competency in each area tested.

After completion of the test cycle, people tend to sit back and relax for a while before beginning the ‘girding up’ process toward tests to take place the following year. In Australia, we are now into the business of comparing the progress that children in years nine, seven, and five made compared to their results were not initially sat tests in year three, five, or seven. Again, this comparison embraces schools and systems.

The emphasis and the ownership of this program, vested in the Australian Government which drives the program is an absolute universal system priority.

This paper is not a forum piece in which further discussion of NAP testing should take place. Rather, I am seeking to show that macro determined programs coming from the Australian Government can and does have the effect of taking us away from a focus that aligns with holistic development and the preparation of children for the whole of life. ‘If literacy and numeracy challenges are satisfied than the educational job is done’, seems to be an underpinning paradigm.

A local focus
At my school, Leanyer, and Darwin’s northern suburbs we most certainly believe in and focus on literacy, numeracy and other key academic areas. However the social, emotional and moral spiritual emphases that should be in place, are taken into firm account. I want to offer a couple of illustrations.

Earlier this year we had the opportunity to welcome into school leadership for 2012 our house captains and vice captains together with our student representative council members who had been elected to office. We had an altogether significant ceremony of induction which took place in the nearby Apostolic Church Hall.

(We were not able to use our own school assembly area because it was being redeveloped under the Building Education Revolution Program, an Australian Government initiative on capital works extension.) At this ceremony elected children were welcomed into school student leadership in a very dignified and formal manner.

I sat and reflected, feeling sad that these sorts of programs are so often undervalued and undersold as being almost meaningless by those whose focus seems to be about more narrowly defined aspects of teaching, strategies and data.

More recently and toward the end of term three we had a brilliant night at our school, attended by well over 1000 people. The focus of the night centered around the Expressive Arts, engaging all our children from preschool to year 6in dancing, singing and playing to reflect ‘Dancing through the ages’. I was ever so proud of our children, my staff and our community and particularly moved by the fact that the whole night, including the MC role was in the hands of children – done by children, with children for children. Not once during the evening did anything remotely related to purist academics come into the frame. (Application of learning and translation toward audience most certainly did.)

Again, I felt sad that in this day and age ‘learning in the hands of students is often dismissive of this type and level of engagement. I wondered how appreciative those in high Australian Government places might be of a program like this – or whether indeed they would see it as being relevant! (It is important to add that on the night our Northern Territory Government Chief Minister and the leader of the Country Liberal Party Opposition were both in attendance and I believe understood and appreciated just how relevant and meaningful these practical manifestations by children and students happen to be.)

The ‘LSRW’ factor
‘Learning in the hands of students’ is often just that! It’s about putting into the hands of children technologically developed gizmos that enable them to communicate ‘by finger’, engaging in everything from games and internet study to the transmission and receipt of messages . . . and so on. The onus and emphasis is more and more on technology and less and less on skills that used to be considered important.

What doesn’t happen when learning is placed ‘into’ the hands of students, is taking into account of the need for children and students to be listeners, speakers, readers, and writers. The ‘LSRW’ factor is missing!

I state this without apology, as reference to the old-fashioned way. Communication skills in a very primary sense of need and confidence building are, these days, sadly muted: The interfacing of people with each other is becoming remote. The sending of texts, e-mails and, more recently, Facebook engagement, Twitter entry and other device-supported communication has taken the place of old-fashioned listening and speaking. Increasingly, reading and writing are also being committed to the technological domain. We have entered the world of the e-book; in some American states handwriting texts are no longer prescribed, with tablets being the new way forward.

I am personally saddened by the fact that education for children seems to be distancing itself from primary communication skills. The ability of people (young and old) to look each other in the eye, speak up with confidence and to listen with uninterrupted cognition is nearing extinction. If young people are to develop skills and confidence in communication then I advocate a return to the era in which these primary communication skills were considered paramount.

I am not for one minute suggesting that there is no place for technology in promoting learning opportunities for children. What has to be avoided is the situation where technological takeover depersonalises both communication and teaching-learning contexts. In schools these days huge amounts of learning originate online, generated through the computer via the Smart board then outreaching to students. Teachers meantime busy themselves in rubric recording of data that offers comment on the perceptions of what children are learning. This is hardly about teaching and learning in a primary context of engagement.

Concluding thought
In our age of modern education, it is of concern that tools which can support teaching and learning are taking over. Resources in cyberspace surely should be no more than just that – resources – to be drawn on carefully and possibly scarcely. We can overdo it on the research and downloads, particularly when so much of what’s out there is essentially reduplicative of what has gone before. The tools we use for data access and to facilitate teaching can be enriching but again should not be replacing that idiom of relationship contact which develops between children and teachers during prime learning time.

Learning in the hands of students should not focus on downloading material to be placed through technological devices, quite literally, into the hands of children. Surely learning in the hands of students should be reminiscent of and carefully reflective about development and preparation of young people for the whole of life. Part of this is a need for them to be in command of support devices with teachers ensuring the ‘human side’ of education does not sell out to technological trappings.

‘Keeping it simple’ and ‘keeping it focused’ has served us well in the past; these precepts should not be discarded in the 21st century.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mr Henry Gray is the immediate past annd now retired Principal of Leanyer School, in Darwin, Northern Territory, Australia. He was Principal of Leanyer School for 20 years (1992-2011) are retired after 42 years in education, nearly 40 as a school principal in WA and the NT.

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