These articles were published during August and september 2013. readers are welcome to copy and use providing they acknowledge the author and the fact they were published in “The Suns’ newspapers in Darwin
SUN 7 – 12
MUCH MORE TO EDUCATION THAN DATA
Within schools it sometimes happens that scheduled meetings have to be cancelled. Staff are advised they should use the time for inputting and recording of student data. The first call on teachers’ programmed release from face-to-face teaching, is the use of non-contact time for recording purposes.
Data is important. Student progress should be regularly recorded in order to confirm student outcomes and assist teachers in revising and forward planning their units of work.
In recent years, there has been a lot more focus on data and formalised recording at system level than was the case in the past. However, in past times, good records were maintained within the vast majority of schools. It is a misnomer to suggest that nothing happened before national testing was introduced
Tests were developed and applied at school level. These days the emphasis is increasingly upon nationalised testing regimes . Results are used in part for comparison of schools within and between States and Territories.
National tests, standardised as they are, fail to recognise the individual and specific backgrounds of students in schools and their catchment areas. While databases have been prepared which examine the socio-economic factors within school communities, these are quite general and don’t take account of specific differences between people. Cultural differences, occupation, income, family educational background, housing affordability and geographic location impact on schools within their communities.
One of the deleterious effects for schools forever being under the testing and assessment magnifying glass, is that the human side of development can be overlooked. Years ago a group of educators visited a gas bottle refilling business. The guide suggested children were like gas bottles. Empty cylinders were refilled, then sold. Similarly, children started school as “empty vessels” were filled up with knowledge on the way through and graduated from school “full” of understanding, ready to contribute to society.
This was a sad comparison. Children are complex individuals. Their development towards adulthood includes social, emotional and moral/spiritual needs along with literacy, numeracy and other academic outcomes. Over-focus on academic testing and data can detract from these wider developmental needs. The world needs articulate people who are confident communicators, intuitive thinkers and careful decision makers. Academics are part of education but by no means the whole of what should be offered.
What is and what should be
Educators talk about the need for holistic education. However, with funding attaching so critically to educational outcomes which are only academic, the priority naturally turns to literacy and numeracy. The key and often only focus of educators’ meetings is that of literacy and numeracy teaching, strategies and data.
Schools are achieving, but success often goes unacknowledged. Those working within our schools often feel deflated, becoming convinced they are failing in terms of building students toward desirable outcomes.
Education should not be laissez-faire. Neither should it be so data focused, concentrated within one narrow domain, as to overlook the importance of holistic development. Teachers, parents and community should be working in partnership with students, to prepare them for a fulsome entry into life’s world. Education for the whole of life goes well beyond narrow, academic, data confirmed outcomes .
ACCOUNTABILITY – AN ALL CONSUMING ADDICTION
Teachers and school based educators are being overwhelmed by administrative demands and expectations. Most of these relate obliquely to prime teaching and learning functions. Teachers have to meet compliance and accountability requirements that are about justification and navel gazing. Many of these standards are imposed by national authorities. State and Territory Governments and their departments must agree to these accountabilities, or lose funding. This impacts on the measurement of both program success and teacher performance.
Leaders should know their staff
It should be relatively easy for school leaders to gauge the effectiveness of teachers and staff members. Yet these days, their judgement is deemed insufficient. School principals are required to go through a quite exhaustive process of performance managing staff, to confirm their levels of competence and proficiency against benchmark statements. Part of this requires school leaders to conduct formal ‘walk throughs’ and teacher observation. Follow up meetings, supported by documentation, must take place.
My priority as a school leader was to ‘know’ my staff and appreciate their efforts. We had an informal and comfortable, yet honest and shared professional relationship. I worked on understanding and appreciating staff strengths and challenges in an effective, non-confronting manner. To me, conversation was important. Commending teachers’ strengths and advising them on ways and means to progress areas of need was included in our discussions.
I also asked teachers and staff members for feedback in terms of things being done well and tasks I might do differently and better. No-one has an absolute understanding of the ‘right’ way. Everyone can and should build on strengths and improve areas of operational challenge. These days my approach, being long on conversation and short on formality, would be deemed totally inadequate. I would be called into question for being too informal and not focussing sufficiently on more ‘modern’ approaches to measuring staff performance. It would be necessary to produce written verification and detailed mapping of staff development.
In January 2010, the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) was created. The Institute has developed processes and procedures that measure competencies for teachers and principals. The yardstick it has designed includes quite long, detailed documents covering standards, expectations, performance parameters and accreditation requirements. Some of these documents run to many pages.
These ‘Bibles’ leave little unsaid. Every aspect of need for teachers and school leaders is canvassed. Teachers seeking Highly Accomplished status for instance, have a 118 page manual to digest.
A question of balance
I support accountability but there should be both joy in and relaxation about teaching. Along with compliance expectation, there needs to be trust and appreciation. That is absolutely necessary to develop positive collegiate relations within schools. Teachers also need to be supported in building warmth and humanity into relationships with children they teach. Education is about interaction between people, including students, staff and parents. Also needed are strong links between schools and the Department of Education and Children’s’ Services (DECS). In the overall educational context, adherence to accountability processes must be reasonable, but not all consuming.
SCHOOLS OF EDUCATIONAL THOUGHT
Viewpoints held by educationists influence schools. Systems and governments which influence education, also contribute to the way schools approach educational tasks.
On one hand, there are assertions that our educational system is too soft and less rigorous than ought to be the case. In a recent article “Softies dumb us down” (Sarah Blake NT News August 17), author Sandra Ripley is acknowledged for suggesting that schools and parents are responsible for declining Australian standards. “We tend to worry more about students’ self esteem than how challenged they are in the classroom” she writes in her new book ‘ The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way’. Ripley suggests parents don’t have an expectation of rigour in performance for their children. Schools which go along with this thinking are complicit in accepting mediocre performances as being good enough.
The Australian Government and those in high places believe more needs to be done in terms of building outcomes in key subject areas. This is why so much emphasis is being placed upon national standardised testing. Comparison of results between States and Territories is part of this process. Further, Australian students are often considered to be behind those in other developed countries.
Wrong to brag
It is rather foolish to compare country with country, due to differing circumstances. There is a fallacy about comparison because of variance in socio-cultural and economic circumstances, along with the history of countries being compared. It is worrying that governments use comparisons to establish ‘bragging rights’. “We are better than you because of educational accomplishment” is a sad, selfish and unfortunate yardstick. It also skews what should be an enlightening and positive experience for our students.
A question of balance
A second school of thought is that people should be equipped with skills necessary to prepare them for the whole of life. Limiting focus to literacy, numeracy and related academic domains, does not take the “whole” person into account. Development of personality, the ability to think rationally, confidence in communication and educating people able to confront life’s challenges are educational essentials. Formal academic testing measures competence in “the three r’s ” and little else.
There is a lot more about developing people to fill roles in our world than simply acknowledging competence within narrowly confined academic boundaries. Neither should we be lulled into believing that all educational emphasis must be placed on those at the lower end of the academic spectrum. High level achievers need to be encouraged, not overlooked. Education Standards Institute Director Kevin Donnelly is concerned about “a particularly sharp drop in standards for top students.” (Blake article)
In recognising merit we need to take into account that, while important, development goes beyond academics. Holistic orientation, focus on the whole child, underpins this approach.
Effort begets reward
Educational opportunities offered to students should be challenging but not insurmountable. Effort should always be recognised in a way that ensures children feel good about their learning and achievements. They need to realise their learning is for personal benefit. Some believe that missed opportunity can be made up, but that is a poor attitude. The best learning outcomes are achieved by students who give of their best at all times. Encouraging academic rigour and offering holistic learning opportunities for children is the aim and responsibility of all good schools, aware leaders and caring teachers. All students can achieve academically and be readied to take places of responsibility beyond their formative schooling years. If that happens, the expectations of educators, parents and students themselves will all be fulfilled.
One of my greatest joys in education was to establish Student Representative Councils in Primary Schools.
I discovered children to be deep thinkers and articulate communicators. Children and young people are honest, confident and upright in what they say. In dealing with children I was amazed by their capacity to confront and overcome obstacles. Barriers, problems and impediments to solutions were minimised in their thinking. They thought creatively and aimed at coming up with solutions. Children have a great way of getting around issues, moving from questions to answers. Problems are challenges to be solved.
Conversations with children can be enriching and empowering. I think adults are wrong, as happened in the olden days, to say children should be seen and not heard. A great deal of creativity is muted if that is enforced. Children need to be guided in understanding the rudiments of communication. However, they should not be “dumbed down” by never being heard.
An educational delight was the discovery of benefits that came from working “with” children rather than “about” and “for” children. This is the essence on which Student Representative Councils (SRC’s) are built.
Student Councils add value
My history with Primary School Student Councils embraced three NT urban schools and spanned almost thirty years. I always worked to ensure that the elected group knew itself to be a part of school governance, rather than being in name only. The high point may be the election of student representatives. After that, the council goes flat. Elected students should be treated as important consultants.
Student councils were a great help to me as principal. I welcomed advice offered by children. In an organisation the recognition of all people within, is enriching and beneficial. Schools should be inclusive of students in shaping governance. Part of this needs to be the identification of one or two members of staff who, without usurping the Council agenda, will work supportively with Student Councillors.
Development and Contribution
There is a lot of wisdom and ability in young heads. It needs channelling and directing, but is spontaneous, fresh and imaginative. Children often come up with solutions to problems that confound adults because they see things from a different perspective. During my years as an educator, student councils proved this point time and time again.
Student Councils provide opportunities for personal development. Included for these young leaders is the chance to develop clarity of speech, quality of diction and public confidence, along with organisational and leadership responsibilities. Student councils work for the benefit of schools and the development of elected members. Promoting confidence, politeness, understanding of authority and social organisation is an important part of school life. The leadership offered by student councillors is self developing and example setting to their peers. The contribution they make most certainly helps to build school tone, harmony and atmosphere.
The leadership students offer brings positive peer benefit. The modelling and leadership offered by student councillors helps build confidence in others. Young people get a real buzz from the guidance of competent peers.
I will continue the story of Primary School Student Councils next week.
STUDENT COUNCILS HELP SCHOOL GOVERNANCE
Student Representative Councils (SRC’s) promote positive energy, best expressed through clear statements of purpose and function. One of the best and clearest statements of SRC mission was developed in 1987 at Karama School by student councillors Mark Clifton and Alex Smith. It was simple and unambiguous yet purposeful and encompassing.
The statement said Student Councils should be responsible for:
Helping make school rules
Answering the phones at recess and lunch time
Helping to run school assemblies
Raising money for charities and school improvements.
Personal Qualities and Example Setting
In drafting their proposition, Mark and Alex, both members of Karama’s SRC wrote “girls and boys who are elected have an important job to do. They must be the best of our students.” The following were seen as essential qualities in youthful leaders:
Honesty and trustworthiness
Friendliness and helpfulness
Good manners and clear speech
A good standard of dress, usually school uniform
Fairness to all
Preparedness to assist younger children
Pride in their school
Willingness to give personal time to SRC duties
Ability to work with other SRC members sensibly and productively.
Honour and Responsibility
Election to a Student Council is exciting. However the title “Student Counsellor” is only the beginning. Development of the group as one having input into the school has to follow.
A critical role is filled by staff members asked by the SRC to be their advisers. It is essential the group be encouraged but not forced beyond their maturity. Children have to grow up and this takes time because experience and understanding is gained incrementally.
I was given significant advice in 1983 by our then Director of Education in the NT, Mr Geoff Spring. Education he said should be student centred and child focussed. He reminded me that at the heart of every school are its students; without them, there would be no school. His advice encouraged me to involve students in participative school governance. It is encouraging to know that in many schools, this model continues to live.
Frog Hopping or Deep Learning
There is a lot of shallowness within education. We go over the top on data that all too often measures superficial outcomes. Testing, measurement and assessment are tools used to hold teachers accountable. When formal accountability and systemic assessment are upheld as having paragon status, too little attention is paid to deep learning priorities and needs.
From time to time the issue of deep learning is discussed, but one wonders whether it is understood.
Depth understanding is an outcome of teaching that penetrates deeply into the waters of learning, instilling concepts, values and those important qualities on which human development is founded. That approach takes time and cannot be confirmed by immediate assessment. Frog hopping is about leaping unthinkingly from one fashionable and highly visible learning initiative to the next. Its focus is following innovations, trends and the latest educational ideas for no other reason than they are new. It is the show business side of education, often promoted by developers and marketers of brand new materials.
Educational focus is too often about gurus who fashion curriculum and shape learning trends. System leaders are encouraged to adopt new trends, because design can be alluring. They want to be seen as ‘in sync’ with the latest trend. Gurus lead and systems follow. Schools, classroom teachers and students are in the vanguard.
Frog hopping, that is blindly following trends, is tantamount to being lead by the nose. There is a need for change and development. However, change for changes sake leads to destabilisation within schools. Shallow, superficial learning ought not to be the norm. We need deep teaching and reflective holistic learning outcomes.
Denying depth learning
Learning should be academically focussed. Students need cognitive development. Curriculum requirements are wide ranging, constantly changing and increasingly demanding in terms of challenges placed on teachers. Teachers confirm they don’t have time to adequately cover the syllabus brief. Teaching strategies that tend to skim the surface rather than encouraging deep learning become normative. There is just no time to explore concepts in depth.
Schools and their staff members are constantly bombarded with mandates requiring countless initiatives to be absorbed into school curriculum. When seen not to be jumping in response to these demands, school leaders and teachers cop heaps including major media shellacking. Shortcomings are laid squarely at the school door and on staff shoulders.
The proliferation of short-term and rapidly offered initiatives, together with the lack of opportunity for deep learning leads me to believe that a great deal of ‘curriculum initiative’ comes about because politicans, academics and others regard schools as experimental and testing fields. Schools become a repository for the trialling of bright ideas. No wonder teachers come to regard themselves and their students as guinea pigs. In the interest of students and a viable educational future, this philosophy must be abandoned and deep learning opportunity reinstated.