These columns were published in the Suns Newspapers (Darwin, Palmerston and Litchfield) in January and February 2014. Please feel free to use but acknowledgement of the Suns newspapers would be appreciated.
SUNS 25 – 28 COLUMNS
These columns were published in the Darwin/Palmerston/Litchfield ‘Suns’ on a weekly basis in January and February 2014. Readers are welcome to use them but I would ask you acknowledge the publishers, Suns Newspapers.
COLUMN 25 THE SCHOOL YEAR DAWNS
The school holiday period has all but passed. Students are preparing themselves for the 2014 school year. Those who have graduated from primary school will be moving to the middle years (junior secondary) educational phase. Middle school graduates begin the final stage of formal schooling, going to year 10 in the senior secondary area. Finally, many of those who have completed year twelve will move to higher level training or study.
Moving up the grades, through the years and transitioning from one level of education to the next, is a process enabling students to build on what has gone before. ‘Building’ from one year to the next is important and happens if students have a positive approach to work and learning tasks. While support from parents, caregivers, teachers and support staff is important, self help is critical.
There are several key myths that need to be dispelled. While only loosely coupled, they can individually and collectively inflect upon the success of schooling.
The first is a belief, too commonly held, that the early years of education are not particularly important. If little children don’t do well, it doesn’t really matter. They can catch up later, when they are older and more inclined towards school. That is not true and generally doesn’t happen. Critically important concept development, leading toward competency in literacy and numeracy are part of early learning. If those concepts are not covered with children during their formative years, they may begin a journey down Struggle Street which many never leave. Concepts and attitudes are part of early learning and cannot be overlooked.
A second myth is that of children feeling their learning is for others. They go to school for the benefit of their parents and teachers. If they don’t put effort into their studies and perform minimally, that somehow is an outcome impacting on others, not themselves. Impressing on students the need to take ownership of their learning as being for their benefit is important and necessary if they are to gain full educational benefit.
At times schools and teachers are criticised by those adhering to another myth. They believe all students are inclined learners, wanting to do their best. Shortfalls in learning outcomes therefore are not their fault but due to poor teaching. That is not true. In the same way as one can lead a horse to water but not make it drink, learning opportunities can be offered but declined. Deliberate disinclination toward learning is sadly, a fact of life. What students fail to accomplish in schooling terms can be due to their personal commitment. Support from parents and teachers is important but cannot supplant non-compliant attitudes manifest by children and students.
An unfortunate myth is one held by some Territorians (and particularly newcomers to the Territory) that our system, because of its smallness and distance from the rest of Australia, is somehow inferior. In my opinion, that is not the case. New arrivals coming with this predisposition can set their children challenging educational hurdles because of parental antagonism toward our territory schools. Giving schools a chance and connecting with them through school council membership or volunteer involvement is a better option, largely because it gives people a chance to understand and contribute. If parents have negative attitudes toward our educational system, this will influence their student children.
Simple Success Messages
One of the dangers we face with education is unduly complicating its message. We become so focussed on process and structure that education’s true purpose and function becomes distorted. There is also a danger that education will shift from those it ought to benefit (our students) and focus instead on providers. It becomes a vehicle to promote career opportunity rather than providing for the needs of our younger generation.
To focus on child (and student) development should always be the prime educational purpose. Awareness of traits children need to succeed should always be a major focus.
We would do well to reflect on traits identified by Hiliary Wince in her book “Backbone: How to Build the Character Your Child Needs to Succeed” (Endeavour Press). Wince urges parents and teachers to encourage the following characteristics within children.
Ability to love and appreciate life.
I hope the educational year ahead is one leading to satisfaction, fulfilment and joy for parents, teachers and students.
LOOKING, LISTENING AND SPEAKING – OVERLOOKED LITERACY SKILLS
Looking, listening and speaking are often neglected literacy skills. While educationists, to some extent recognise and rue literacy loss among students, many do not place a high priority on these three literacy elements.
For the past several years and especially since NAPLAN became a major item on the annual education agenda, we have been told of the need for students to reinvent themselves in literacy terms. The focus is on reading and writing. How sad it is that the prime communications skills of looking, listening and speaking are not sufficiently a part of this recognition.
Learning by looking
As children grow into life ‘looking’ is an initial literacy skill. First and foremost, children as babies and young toddlers learn by looking. From that grows an awareness based on listening to parents and siblings. Speech is what happens as very young children begin to verbally copy and respond to circumstances by talking.
Communication skills evolve slowly. Literacy competence does not happen overnight but builds over the years. It never stops developing.
When children arrive at school learning too often focuses far too prematurely on reading and writing. While both reading and writing are important, the continued development of looking, listening and speaking is essential. Early learning leading toward formalised testing (remembering that NAPLAN testing first impacts in year three) with its prime focus on reading and writing makes it easy to overlook listening and speaking needs.
Key needs discounted.
Education at home and school should take prime account of the need for students to be taught the skills of listening and speaking. Sadly, this essential need is too often relegated and accorded only minor importance.
It is critically important that children be taught to listen. Without listening skills being carefully developed, students often fail to pause, think and respond on the basis of having thought through questions being asked. They tend to anticipate responses which can be incorrect because they have not listened with understanding. Another bad habit which develops can be children not hearing questions because they expect their teachers will repeat them a number of times before moving on to the next requirement. A common example is that of teachers repeating mental maths questions or spelling words over and over again. Parents at home and teachers in schools need to recognise how important it is that children learn to listen. For adults to model this as a skill to the younger generation, will help. ‘Do as I do’ is an ideal way of setting the example when it comes to the development of listening skills.
In the same way, it is important that adults model correct speech so children grow up learning by hearing and then copying correctly enunciated vocal patterns. There is nothing more important than young people learning by rote, when it comes to the basic elements of communication. The practice of correct speech and speaking is essential if we are to be clearly understood. It is also important that adults model elements of correct speech to young people, who observe and copy. We ought not overlook the need for speech to be careful and correct.
Eye contact is another neglected attribute. People tend to be very indirect when it comes to eye contact, often looking away from and avoiding their eyes engaging during conversation.
Failure to make eye contact can lead to hesitation and embarrassment between those listening and speaking to each other. That should not be the case. Confidence in communication, both listening and speaking, builds when those engaged in discourse look at each other. I believe the eyes to be the most powerful of all tools supporting conversation between people.
In our modern times, looking, listening and speaking often seem to be the lost arts of communication. They are very important observational, auditory and verbal elements of literacy. Revisitation and reinstatement of these essential skills needs to be part of the educational focus at home and school.
REPORTS DO NOT HAVE ACTION OUTCOMES
Northern Territory Education officially came of age in 1978. At that time responsibility for NT Education passed to the Northern Territory Government. Education was the first function to be managed locally.
Since 1978, educational priorities have grown, changed and developed. Over the years, earnest attempts have been made to shape education to best suit local needs. Those efforts have considered urban, town, rural and remote schools and students.
Efforts to identify educational needs and priorities have given rise to countless reports. The number of reports commissioned and developed since 1978, would fill the shelves of a large bookcase. For the purpose of this column, reports considered have more to do with management process and system direction than with specific curriculum issues.
Some reports have been vital and system shaping. One of the earliest was the Betty Watts and Jim Gallagher Report (written before 1978) which at that time was a bible, shaping Aboriginal Educational development. There were two reports prepared by Mitsuro Shimpo which looked at Indigenous Education and the need for interdepartmental cooperation across the Territory. Both were researched and written in 1978 and 1979. Shimpo travelled the length and breadth of the Territory in researching his reports. His findings were insightful but never implemented.
Many, many reports containing recommendations for Indigenous Education were prepared in the following years. Most are long forgotten and many, like the Shimpo Reports, never saw the light of day. They were commissioned, researched, written, presented, sometimes tabled in the Legislative Assembly, then shelved. Rarely have they been enthusiastically accepted and implemented.
‘Education into the 1980’s’ and ‘Toward the 90’s : Tomorrow’s Future’ were two reports with implications for the whole system. The first, apart from Shimpo, was possibly the most widely consulted of all reports. ‘Education into the 1980’s’ sought opinion from practitioners in many schools and communities. Wider opinion was also canvassed. A green discussion paper evolved to become a white paper firstly in draft then confirmed status. Its validity was in large part due to the wide ranging consultation that took place. People knew what was going on.
Acceptance and change
Over the years since self government there have been a plethora of reports produced on every aspect of Northern Territory Education. Our system has been ‘analysed by dissection’ time and time again. Report recommendations have at best been partially implemented. In many cases nothing has changed. That has been especially the case when cost implications are considered. Change is generally not cheap. Over time, this disregard has coloured the opinions held by Territorians about the purpose, validity and relevance of reports.
Need for Reports
On many occasions, the raising of concerns is responded to by the announcement of a study that will lead to a report on matters under the spotlight. It somehow seems that studies of this nature are considered to be a panacea. Reports produced with suggested solutions are deemed sufficient. Without follow-up action, problems magnified by reports are compounded. School based educators and the community at large become cynical about process, follow up and outcome.
Educational priorities are constantly reflected upon and revisited. One focus point is the regionalisation and centralisation debate. Another has to do about supporting children with special learning needs for both challenged and enriched students. A major area dizzyingly revisited is the staffing formula for schools, with changes that are almost annual. Policies on Bilingual Education, Languages other than English and curriculum priorities have come, gone and in some cases, come again. Major and minor proposals for change mean education seems to be in a stage of constant flux.
Reports can be valuable as documents confirming research and making recommendations about the way forward. However their commissioning is not an end but a means to an end, that being toward system improvement. It is not appropriate for reports to be prepared, if their recommendations are not carefully considered. Reports cost in terms of time and money. Non-implementation shows a lack of respect for the researchers and amounts to a huge waste of human endeavour and financial resources. They need to be validated by follow-up action rather than building skepticism through disregard.
TEACHING SHOULD BE ENJOYABLE
From time to time print and online articles emphasise the importance of workplace satisfaction and happiness. Some even address the need for work places to be fun places. Humour, laughter and light-heartedness are promoted as having tension relieving capacity. Inherent within this is a suggestion that not everything we do will be perfect and errors will be made. We need to have the ability to reflect on our mistakes and learn from them about how to improve and do things more successfully. An element of this ‘sitting back’ is the ability to reflect seriously but also light-heartedly because there is often a funny side to outcomes.
There is a need for those who share workplaces to ‘give and take’. We should welcome the evaluation of our efforts by others and be prepared to offer feedback to them as colleagues. It is important for well-being that people within organisations are able to share with each other. This includes the both receiving and giving of advice and appreciation.
One of the processes that can help in terms of self evaluation is for people to develop a regular self-evaluative précis, reflecting on the things they have done. Reflections could include the following:
* Key elements learned or developed.
* The strengths and positive qualities helping build one’s contribution.
* Things learned from personal efforts including what might be done differently and better
* Future considerations to be taken into account with forward planning.
A strong part of this should be self-appreciation. There are many things teachers do well.
Up against it
One of the most significant educational detractors is the level of criticism heaped on schools and teachers from within the community. Governments in justifying educational policies criticise schools and teachers. System administrators also point the finger at schools when things don’t work out as demanded. Teachers become frazzled and students jaded.
We all need to step back and take a deep breath. Rather than drowning schools under torrents of expectation, those creating agendas need to act more reasonably. ‘Overloading’ of classroom teachers and support staff through curriculum demands is all too frequent. There is only so much that can be accomplished during any given period. Teachers need time to breathe and along with students should have the chance to enjoy teaching and learning. “Take time to smell the roses” applies.
Governments, system administrators and the community need to appreciate teachers and school support staff. The joy of teaching felt by teachers and school based staff can and does quickly sour. It is little wonder that close to 50% of our teachers are gone from their chosen profession well within a decade of their commencement. While poor career advice may contribute to this exodus, by far the greater loss results from teacher disillusionment. The actuality fails to meet career expectations. Those departing often do so because to them, teaching is or has become a thankless occupation.
Interestingly, most who dump on teachers and schools would no more take their place than fly in the air!
For teachers and school support staff, genuine appreciation and thanks is rarely given. While World Teachers Day in October is one day each year, pressures on schools and staff members is constant. There are some minimalist teachers but they are a minority group. The vast majority go the extra mile then some, in their endeavour for students.
Let us appreciate school staff. It would be my hope for 2014 that it be for them a year of joy.