SUNS 43 and 44

These columns were published in the Darwin/Palmerson/ Litchfield Suns in May 2014

Readers are welcome to quote and use, but I would appreciate acknowledgement of the Suns Newspapers.


Reporting on student progress for the first semester of the year is just around the corner. For most schools, this will be the first written report for 2014. It has been traditional for schools to offer parents written reports at the end of each semester, in June and December. Most schoolsv report orally through parent teacher interviews toward the end of terms one and three.

Change over time

In the 1970’s and into the early 80’s, reports for primary school children were standardised and handwritten. They were issued twice each year. Parent teacher interviews either did not form part of the reporting process or were in their infancy. The report was a 4 page A5 size document. The front page identified the school student and grade. Pages 2 and 3 gave students ratings in each subject and had space for a two line comment. Work habits, behaviour and deportment were allowed a small but important space for comment. Ratings were scaled from very, very good (VVG) to fail (F). The report provided for a general handwritten comment from both teacher and principal. Carbon paper was used. Parents received the original. The duplicate copy was placed in the student’s school record folder.

Since those early days, reporting processes have changed. Changes happened as schools endeavoured to recognise and report to parents on current educational curriculum and reporting methods. As priorities change, so do reporting formats. Schools develop their own reporting documentation, but are required to report on key areas determined by the department.

Computer generation

Handwritten reports are a thing of the past. Computer generated reports have their upsides and downsides. Preparing the twice yearly reports for printing and distribution should be easy. However, technical glitches that invariably occur can make the exercise quite nightmarish. These can range from system overload (with teachers trying to access software programs for input at the same time) to template issues. One of the most common template glitches is that data, once entered, cannot be edited or changed. High levels of concentration are necessary and document preparation is often a fatiguing process.

Reporting priorities

A very high priority is placed on reporting by the Education Department. Reports issued at the end of each semester take many weeks to prepare and finalise. The process is very time consuming.

The reporting focus is on academic outcomes, with achievement being the main area targeted. They are often wordy, but according to many parents lacking in substance. Reports are often criticised for use of jargon and ‘eduspeak’ which make it hard for parents to interpret what is being said. The inclusion of comments relating to student effort, attitude, conduct and character development is held to be less important than once was the case. That is unfortunate because there is much more to the development of young people than academics.


Students used to be held accountable for their attitude and effort toward schooling. That gave teachers the confidence to report on these attributes, for they knew parents would talk with children about changing to improve when outcomes needed to be lifted. That appears to have changed. If students are struggling or do not succeed, teachers are placed under a microscope of scrutiny. They have to justify why students might be achieving less than their best. Naturally that causes teachers and school leadership groups to think very carefully about report wording. There is probably a sub-conscious concern that in years to come, they may be sued for poor student outcomes. In America, litigation by former students against teachers and schools because of their (students) poor outcomes is taking place. That raises concerns for teachers about the Australian and even Territory future in this regard.

The most effective reporting can be that which focusses on conversation and understanding between students, parents and staff. Nothing is better than a partnership where responsibilities are shared, appreciation exists and positive outcomes are enjoyed. Reporting times should be anticipated positively rather than with apprehension.


Responsibility for children and young people is vested in both parents and schools. We need to do our very best to ensure they are protected from those who would prey upon them. It is all too easy for our youth to have their innocence violated by those who seek to take advantage of them.

Australia-wide Royal Commissions and inquiries confirm that the abuse of young people has happened over decades. Testimony offered at these hearings confirms that hundreds, possibly thousands of people have grown from damaged childhoods to become adults conflicted by personal and psychological issues. Many never heal. However, this sad abuse continues into our times and will probably feed commissions and inquiries when today’s children reach adulthood. Pornography is possibly top of the list when it comes to modern day invasions upon young people. Hardly a week passes without the revelation of some on-line pornographic ring being broken after police survelliance.

Parents, teachers and those responsible for the well- being of children are constantly urged to be on guard and protective of the young. A raft of processes have been put in place to try and counteract what seems to be the growing trend of sins against young people, by those without moral scruples. Anyone working with children in the NT is required to hold an ochre card, renewable every two years, confirming them as fit and proper persons to work with young people under 18 years of age. Volunteers who support young people have to hold a volunteers card, also renewable biannually. Cards are issued only after police checks confirm the good character of card applicants.

Safe Schools Mantra

Schools focus as fully as possible on practising the ‘safe schools’ mantra. At the beginning of each school semester, principals are required to update staff on issues pertaining to mandatory reporting. Staff sign a document agreeing to the requirement that they keep a close eye on children, reporting anything which may be untoward. The Safe Schools NT websites over-arching operational statement states in part, ‘It is an absolute priority to ensure that our schools are safe…”. Website content includes an abundance of material to assist school staff in providing for this outcome.

The Department of Education works conjointly with the Department of Children and Families (DCAF) to provide the safest possible environments.


There are a number of drawbacks to Education and DCAF’S partnership.
* There can be a time lapse between reporting to DCAF and action being taken.
* While privacy must be respected, school principals often never hear of case outcomes.
* Processes are often hindered by the enormous caseloads carried by DCAF staff.
* The quite rapid turnover of staff within DCAF can result in the passing of cases to incoming staff, necessitating a revisit to the facts and resulting in time delays.
* There is a perception that everything for children is fine as long as they are fed and clothed. In fact reporting is often for other matters relating to the welfare
and care of young people.

Defining what needs to be reported can be problematic. Part of that comes about because teachers and staff may each see situations differently. Workplace pressures involve staff with so much busy work, they have limited time to be aware of students on a wider front. School staff with concerns should discuss those with their principal. My practice was to take those concerns ‘as mine’ and own the reporting process. That ensured my awareness of those issues felt by staff members.

A ‘Must Do’

Protecting our young people is of paramount importance. It involves parents, schools, agencies and the community. Neglect when it comes to matters of care, upbringing and safety can place children in harms way and subject them to soul-destroying damage.


These columns were published in the Darwin/Palmerson/ Litchfield Suns in April and May 2014

Readers are welcome to quote and use, but I would appreciate acknowledgement of the Suns Newspapers.


Preservice teacher education is one of the most important training programs shared by the Charles Darwin University (CDU) and Northern Territory Schools. Preparing our next generation of teachers in the Territory, began during Darwin Community College (DCC) days. As tertiary education in the NT evolved, the DCC became the Northern Territory University (NTU) and later re-named the Charles Darwin University (CDU).

This year our university celebrated 25 years of tertiary education in the NT. During that time, there has been significant growth and change in work undertaken by all faculties, including that of managing education. Some of these changes have been forced by economic stringencies (faculty mergers) while others are the product of educational research and enhanced practice.

For the whole of its tertiary life, the university (and before that the DCC) has been instrumental in the training and development of our future teachers. Thousands of teachers attracted to our university from the Territory, interstate and overseas, have graduated with many going on to be among our very finest Territory and Australian educators. Some have returned to the university as lecturers attached to the School of Education.

Teacher education courses have changed over time, to comply with CDU training standards set by governing bodies. Undergraduate courses, once three year programs have now been upgraded. Teaching candidates are required to complete four years of training, graduating with Bachelor level degrees. (For students holding other degrees, a one year full time Graduate Diploma of Teaching course is available.)

Teaching Schools

Ten years ago the preservice teacher training model was altered, to more closely link the university with schools in which teachers would work on graduation. This teaching schools model formalised the training partnership and enabled closer links between Charles Darwin University and Northern Territory schools. Earlier pre-service and training models did not sufficiently link schools to the university and vice-versa.

During their training programs, teachers spend increasing periods of time in schools. Their initial school placement is an icebreaking experience built largely around observation and limited teaching. Each successive practice increases teaching opportunities, reaching a point of where the entire teaching program is the responsibility of the training teacher.

There is a strong link between CDU’s School of Education and Teaching Schools. Practice teachers are assigned a class and a mentor teacher. Each school has a designated Professional Learning Leader (PLL) who coordinates the practice round. Most schools accept a number of preservice teachers for each practice period. A role filled by the PLL is that of coordinating the whole school training program. This includes arranging weekly professional development sessions for all practice teachers. Within schools, preservice and mentor teachers share important and mutually beneficial collaboration.

In turn, school PLL’s and mentors liaise with School of Education lecturers in order to monitor preservice teachers progress and fine tune programs. This leads to periodic course upgrading.

External Students

The School of Education has an excellent reputation for its support of preservice teachers who are studying externally, both within the NT and elsewhere around Australia. The University’s online program, ‘Learnline’ is organised in a way that offers distance students full inclusion and participation in the program. This includes opportunities for trainee teachers to complete practice teaching rounds in their local school districts.

Our university’s contribution to preparing the next generation of teachers spreads far beyond its physical campus. Teaching is a vital profession. Teachers fill an invaluable and irreplaceable role in our community. It is reassuring to know that tomorrow’s teachers are being well prepared for the roles they will fill.

Note: I am a casual employee working with CDU’s School of Education.


There is more to education in our schools than today, tomorrow and the future. Yesterday and times past should be in the frame. While it is essential that we consider the future and where schools and educational direction will head in time to come, we do well to reflect on history. Schools of today have been built upon their past. While relatively young by interstate comparison, it is true to say there are few Northern Territory schools less than twenty years old. That means they are building on history and establishing traditions.

Schools are ‘communities’ and no-where more so than in the Northern Territory. While our population has expanded in the past decade and continues to grow, we are small and somewhat insular by comparison to the states. This means Territorians come to have more personal contact with decision makers than elsewhere in Australia.

Most schools in the Territory pride themselves on the welcome given to parents inquiring about enrolment or enrolling their children. There is however, one piece of information very rarely available; a historical profile of schools available in print form.

History is ignored

When Gary Barnes became the Chief Education Officer (CEO) of Education in the Northern Territory during the Henderson Government era, he noted that there was a paucity of historical information about our system. He told principals at a Nightcliff Middle School meeting there was little to inform him of how education had evolved and developed in the NT. Mr Barnes intimated this could and should be corrected.

Lack of historical information extends to regions and schools. While some schools include historical facts on their websites, they are brief and aimed at potential enrolments.

Incoming staff (principals, teachers and support staff) generally have little idea of the background to schools gaining their services. There are notes left by outgoing principals and some teachers but these have more to do with what has been completed and what needs to be done administratively and educationally. While it is necessary to understand contemporary school matters, including the immediate past, there is little about historical background and setting. Setting future directions without an awareness of the past can be problematic.

Supporting Awareness

There are a number of ways in which school communities can recognise and record their history. The following are a few suggestions:

* Whole school photographs taken annually and showing students and staff displayed for all to see.
* Honour boards commemorating academic and citizenship awardees, school house points results and so on. Board costs are often sponsored by parents or businesses supporting schools.
* School year books, in print or on DVD, with the latter uploaded onto school websites detail history over time.
* Depending on the school (primary or secondary) organise student projects that align with curriculum requirements, to develop historical background. Inclusion of findings might be uploaded onto the web or produced in book form (instance Parap Primary when celebrating its 50th Anniversary).
* Elaboration explaining the significance of memorial tributes, plaques and visible acknowledgements of past contributors to the school.
* The compilation of paper or online files of media stories about the school, its students and staff.


History is important because it recognises people and processes which have contributed to the culture of our system and its schools. Its recognition is essential if the ‘timeline of education’ systemically and locally is to be understood. History also recognises the efforts and contributions of those who, over time, have contributed to Territory Education and Territory Schools. History is rich. If it is ignored rather than being acknowledged and displayed, our system and its schools will be the poorer.


The third and final paper in the trilogy.


Socratic Discussion is a terrific and engaging method of discourse which can embrace everyone connected with a discussion. It is a genuine form of shared dialogue.

Socratic Discussion initially focuses on analysis of thought and meaning conveyed by text or some other ‘genesis’ of discussion. The pivot or focal point is the analysis of messages received by us as individuals. Viewpoints and perceptions are debated and defended. The focus is the opinion (message) not the person (messenger) offering the opinion.

In modern argument the issues are often neglected. The presenter is the focus of response, rather than what was said. This focus (on the presenter) is often negative and can take various forms. It may be gentle chiding, regular teasing or serious deriding and lampooning. The end result can be to discourage people from putting forward their opinions on issues. This leads to ‘dominant’ (as in dominating the agenda) and reticent group participants.

Socratic dialogue encourages speakers to bring their own authority (through knowledge) to debate. All opinions on the subject are sought and welcomed. The aim is to develop ‘issues focussed shared participation’.

Reflection (how do we explain what we know) is a part of the socratic process. Linear discussion (sharing through saying and not remaining silent) is an element of socratic dialogue.

Socratic discussion is healthy discussion because it enriches participants. You leave at the end of the period knowing more about the subject than when your entered the session. Participants also develop a respect for the ideas and opinions of others.

Socratic discussion is philosophical and clarifying in nature. We consider what we mean and what we know, from where our information is derived and what evidence we have in making statements.

A key purpose of socratic discussion is to enlarge meaning and enhance understanding. A key outcome is the honing of critical thinking skills, together with appreciation for the viewpoints of others.

In most adult forums of debate, especially parliament, children witness conversational methods that are hardly inspiring. In fact, question time in any parliament is a period during which a very poor exhibition of consideration and manners is on display. That is reinforced by the fact that it is generally question time which is shown on television. A very poor impression of how debate should be conducted is apparent.

Socratic discussion is an excellent, dialogue and discussion supporting tool. The method is a ‘model’ of dialogue which gently dissuades from the use of unacceptable strategies. Facilitation, with leaders leading from within and modelling procedure, enhances the socratic process.

(Outcomes toward which discussion is directed)

* Socratic discussion focuses on analysis of thought and meaning conveyed by shared text and discussion of issues that arise.

* Messages conveyed are discussed with pros and cons being part of that discussion.

* Viewpoints and perceptions are debated and defended. People holding viewpoints are allowed to change their minds if persuaded by a counter-proposition.

* The focus of discussion is the OPINION not the person offering the opinion.

* In modern argument, issues are often neglected, with the presenter being the focus. This focus, often negative, can take various forms. It may be chiding, teasing, lampooning or bald and derogatory character assassination. With the advent of Facebook, twitter and other social media, personal attack can be quite hurtful, scarifying and even soul destroying. The result can be to discourage people from advancing their opinions on issues.

* Socratic discussion encourages speakers to contribute their knowledge and ideas on issues to the conversation. All opinions on the subject under discussion are weighed and valued. Socratic discussion enriches participants. One leaves the conversation knowing more about the subject than prior to the conversation. Participants also develop respect for the ideas and opinions of others.

* Socratic discussion is philosophical and clarifying in nature. Those involved consider what they mean and what they know. They learn about information sources and consider ‘evidence’ when adding their opinion into the discussion.

* A key purpose of discussion is to enlarge meaning and understanding about the subject under discussion. A key outcome is honing of critical thunking skills, together with appreciation of counter-viewpoints and the opinions of others.


* Discussion leaders are facilitators.

* All participants get to lead if the group is sustained over time. As skills and understanding are acquired, participants gain in confidence and are prepared to accept the challenge of facilitating.

* All group members are equal. There are no hierarchical constructs.

* All participants get to speak. All have a right to question the opinions of others. All need to be prepared to justify their beliefs, but no one is ridiculed for holding particular and ‘different’ opinions on issues.

* Listening and considering the opinions of others is obligatory.

* De-briefing takes place at the end of each segment and session.

* Seating arrangements enable participants to sit in a circle facing each other. The facilitator is part of the circle. Standing is discouraged because seating places everyone on the same level and negates individual ‘shortness’ or ‘tallness’.

* Equal opportunity and equity are promoted by the process.

* The quality of ‘consideration’ is developed, including respect for each other and looking to draw others into the conversation.

* Discussion in open-ended. No belief is necessarily right, none necessarily wrong. Commitment to a position and willingness to share, defend and modify stance is a key element of socratic method. Influencing and being influenced by others is part of the group sharing process.

* Confidence is speech and verbal presentation are underpinning aims.

* Participants offer feedback, sharing what they learned with each other. Feedback is sought and must be willingly given. Group members have the right to pass during these personal response sessions if that is a preferred option.


* When facilitating, ensure the following:

1. Children do not put their hands up in order to ask to speak. They wait for a pause in dialogue, and speak.

2. If more than one child begins to speak, encourage a process whereby one withdraws voluntarily, allows the other speaker to input, then enters her/his contribution.

3. Without undue intrusion, work to encourage recessive speakers while trying to reduce the impact that dominating speakers can have in group discourse.

4. If necessary and if there is a babble, call ‘time out’ offer praise and advice, then suggest when you call ‘time in’ a particular speaker, followed by another and another (by name).

5. Remind if necessary by calling ‘time out’ that the focus needs to be on the issue not the person speaking. (In time self realisation will cause participants to recognise that fact automatically).

6. As a facilitator call ‘time out’ for coaching purposes as necessary. As the group becomes more engaged in the process, the need for this intervention will become less frequent.

7. When participants are doing things right, it can be useful to call ‘time out’ and offer praise for the modelling.

8. The Facilitator

a. Sets the group in a circle ready for the discussion.
b. Reminds of basic rules including courtesy and politeness.
c. Offers a reading or discourse to stikulate interest.
d. Asks a focus question, repeating it twice.
e. Monitors the conversation and pros and cons that follow.
f. Asks follow up questions if necessary.
g. Allows the conversation to follow a natural course, including variance away from the original question – with a refocus of necessary through a supplementary question or questions.
h. Calls ‘time’ at the end of the discussion period.
i. Sums up the ‘ebb and flow’ of the conversation including the time the groups was involved in dialogue.
j. Invites participants to debrief, with each person in turn (working around the circle clockwise or anti-clockwise) invited to share something learned or something appreciated during the conversation.
k. Concludes by thanking participants and looking forward with them to the next session.


As Socratic Discussion becomes ingrained within a group or class, it is wise for the teacher facilitator to coach students so they can take on facilitating roles. This might be with the whole class, or with a sub-group of class members.


The second of three papers


By James Mousa Year 6 Student, Alawa School June 1993.

Socrates was born in Greece in 459 bc and died in 399 bc. He was a Greek philosopher and teacher. His noble life along with his courageous death makes his page in history stand out most.

Socrates was a teacher who taught greats including Aristotle and Plato. One of his most budding students was Plato who would write down many of Socrates ideas.

When not teaching, Socrates dressed simple and spent his days walking around talking to friends and admirers. he loved to ask simple questions pretending to be ignorant himself so others would freely express their opinions on human behaviour.

He himself thought that humans were not willingly bad and could be taught to be good and happy. This was one of his thoughts, another was the introduction of universal definition which lead to the Socratic method.

Socrates believed that although humans and things come in different shapes, colours and sizes they still have common characteristics by which we identify them: For example, humans have common characteristics by which we recognise them as humans not as cows, camels or ducks. These common characteristics make them universal.

Socrates thought that the correct method by which to find common characteristics of anything would be to start with a group of people who each believe they know the answer to a key item. They would then find each thought differently and their assumptions were inadequate to back up the facts. They would then put their facts together to come up with a general idea about an item. The people then proceeded from less adequate definitions to more adequate definitions. This progressed from the definition of a few examples to a universal definition that applied to all examples.

It appeared that Socrates was brilliant but not all thought the same. He offended many Athenians by his freely spoken opinions. Socrates was accused of neglecting the Gods and putting wrong ideas into peoples heads. This was followed by a death sentence.

He didn’t listen to plans to escape, saying “I must obey the laws”. This was to be the last of the great many words spoken by this great philosopher. He died among his saddened followers after drinking hemlock.

This ended the life of one of the greatest men to live. He was much respected by many. His fate could have been different had people listened to him as he did to so many others.




Socratic discussion focuses on analysis of thought and meaning conveyed by text or information

A Starting Point

The beginning can be analysis of text messages (as interpreted) to us as individuals.
‘What the text conveys’ is the focus.

Viewpoints and perceptions are debated and defended. The focus must be the opinion, not the person offering the opinion.

In modern argument, the issues are often neglected, the presenter rather than his/her message being the focus. This reception, often negative, can take various forms. It may be gentle chiding, regular teasing or serious lampooning and derision. The end result is that of people being discouraged from putting forward their opinions on issues. This leads to ‘dominant’ (as in dominating the agenda) and reticent group participants.

Socratic dialogue encourages speakers to bring their own authority (through knowledge) to debate. All opinions on on the subject are sought and welcommed. Issue focussed shared participation is the aim.

Reflection (how we know what we know) is part of the socratic process. Saying what we have to say (rather than being reluctant and holding back) is part of the dialogue process.

Socratic discussion is enriching. It is a method through which respect for others is built.

A key outcome is the development within participants of critical thinking skills, together with an appreciation for the viewpoints of others.


* Socratic Discussion is ‘issues honest’.

* Socratic Discussion is ‘anti scandal’.

* Socratic Discussion works to open the ‘Johore Windows’ of participants, so they share by giving of their feelings often held back and not revealed.

* Socratic Discussion is ‘sharing’ of information, opinion and belief.

* Socratic Discussion is ‘caring’ of the presenter and about the participants.


A round of Socratic Discussion might follow the outline suggested. Before starting, assure that everyone is sitting in a circle with clear and unobstructed facial views of each other.

Remember the leader is a facilitator and a participation encourager. Before starting, remind the group of listening and discussion procedures. (More about that later)

1. Choose a piece of literature and read it to the group or
Introduce a topic and briefly speak to it.

2. Ask an open-ended focus question. Pause. Ask it again.

3. Make sure Socratic Discussion procedures are followed.

4. Stick to time so you don’t run out.

5. Offer each participant the opportunity to debrief.

Remember: Focus on issues, not personality.
Control time carefully



This is the first of three papers



I first learned of ‘Socratic Discussion’ when attending an Australian Education Union summer school program in Canberra during the 1991/92 school holiday period.

The program was one of a number offered as workshop options for participants. The presenter was Nancy Letts an educator and facilitator from New York USA. I enrolled in the workshop out of curiosity.

The deeper into the workshop participants were immersed, the more convinced i became that this discourse and discussion methodology was one that would work well in classroom contexts. It had worried me for a long time that children tended to be ‘all mouth and no ears’ when it came to speaking and listening. Part of this was manifest by the ‘kill space’ syndrome. If someone was speaking, listeners listened only for a brief pause. That pause was licence to verbally jump into the space, whether the speaker had finished or was merely pausing for breath.

Children, along with adult models, tended to criticise peers for holding viewpoints, rather than appreciating speakers for putting forward particular views on subjects.

Socratic Discussion offered an alternative whereby students could be trained or developed as respectful participants, appreciating peers and considering points of view offered in discussion.

The workshop was one of the very best I have ever attended because it had applicability. During the years since, I have done quite a lot of work around the model.

* It has been applied since 1992 in class contexts and for all year levels from transition to Year Seven ( when the sevens were still in Primary School).

* I ran workshops for students drawn from a number of primary schools who came together weekly at Dripstone Middle School as those ‘enriched’ and needing to here challenged by extension. One student was James Mousa whose commentary about Socrates is reproduced elsewhere.

Part of this was an evening culmination when students presented and modelled Socratic Discussion to their parents, running the evening from start to finish.

* It has ben modelled to teachers who have taken the approach on board in their own practice.

* I have conducted six or seven workshops with groups, outlining the concept and having the groups practice the process. Feedback has always been appreciative and many of those attending have taken the approach on board in their own situations.

How the Socratic Approach helps children

I believe Socratic Discussion is of benefit to children for the following reasons:

* It dissuades from the old fashioned ideal that ‘children should be seen and not heard’ but in a way that encourages structured rather than unthinking and garrulous approach to conversation.

* It helps persuade children that ‘all mouth and no ears’ (over-talking and under-listening) need not be a perception held of them.

* It is a process that balances the skills of speaking and listening in a positive educational manner.

* It is also a process upholding the rights of children to hold and express opinions; it reinforces the value of youthful points of view.

* It highlights the honesty and impediment free factors generally inherent in the speech of young people.

* The value of student voice is reinforced, with children who participate appreciating the fact that worth and value is placed on what they and their peers say.

In a Nutshell

Socratic Discussion is an ISSUES BASED APPROACH to thinking and speaking.

The important element is the process. The issue is a means too understanding that end.

The process is issues focussed not personalities directed: It aims to build not destroy.

Listeninng, thinking and speaking are all key skills appealed to and developed by the process.

Paper two follows