Great Schools

Last week I attended the Better Schools forum. Better Schools is mantra the Federal Government is using for its new campaign to improve the quality of education and equity of education throughout Australia.

Firstly, I have an issue with the title, Better Schools, implying that our schools are in major need of improving. Unfortunately it seems at the moment that our Government lacks the confidence in our education system, a side effect of over analysing data I am sure!  As we continue to pick our education system to pieces and compare it to ‘top tier education countries’ we lose sight of the important role our teachers have and the wonderful job they do.

That aside, the forum has been a great opportunity to ask questions of our Minister of Education, even if it is lacking conviction. (A much better consultation would see Mr Garrett, the Minister for School Education, asking the questions and educators, parents and students answering them) The forum does allow our Government to show their preparedness to act on behalf of all of the stakeholders of education.

The forum was held in Canberra but was shown online and you could submit questions through twitter, email and the website. I had several questions and they certainly weren’t unique. I hope that those involved in Better Schools took this as a sign of the areas we believe needs more clarifying. Many questions stemmed from the Gonski report, while others were focussed to the Parliamentary Secretary for School Education, Jacinta Collins, who spoke about education and disabilities. Mine were more focussed on the lack of teacher empowerment and an over emphasis of assessing learning outcomes such as NAPLAN.

My questions:

  • For many years now educators have been disempowered in teaching.  Does the Government believe it is important to empower teachers to do the job they have been employed to do? To trust educators that they know learning and teaching? To promote innovation in education? Does the Government think it is important to trust teachers and how will they ensure this is supported?
  • How can we have reform of Education without input from those at the coal face? How will the Government use the grass roots teachers to inform policy?
  • What do you personally believe a quality teacher does?
  • The title ‘Better schools’ implies our schools are not very good and need improving.  How will the Government build the respect and image of educators?
  • How will Better Schools support innovation in education in a system which is heavily reliant on compliance?

I had one questions answered, “What does ‘Educational Outcomes’actually mean?” To be honest I already knew the answer. But it was reiterated for me by Mr Garrett who explained outcomes as …. results. How students perform. Yes, how well students have performed in their ATAR, NAPLAN and reports from tests.

You can see the whole Better Schools Forum here or if you would like to see Mr Garrett’s response to my question skip to 48.25

The only problem is that I don’t believe there is a teacher out there who believes this is education. This is not what we work tirelessly and whole heartedly to achieve. Yes, of course it is part of it, don’t get me wrong. But it is so much more.

Educational outcomes are about preparing our students for the future. Building on curiosity and creativity to embed life long learning. Educational outcomes prepare our students to be collaborators, confident and reflective of their actions. It is teaching students to know themselves, be accepting of others and appreciate uniqueness. It is building skills in problem solving, using technology and connecting locally and globally.

Yes, it is what students learn but it is also about so much more.

And so begins a new journey….

It has been a while since my last post and in that time a lot has changed. After 12 years in the primary classroom I have decided on a change from teaching and have started a job at Monash University as an Educational Designer. And so begins a new journey.

Image: ‘reads by the sea‘ Found on flickrcc.net

In my role I work with the Virtual Learning Environment, the project responsible for implementing a set of new learning technologies across the university, the first being Moodle.  There are many aspects to my role but I essentially work with academics supporting them in using learning technologies in learning, share good practice across the university and provide training in learning technologies.

For the past 12 years primary teaching has completely consumed me, especially in the last few years as I grew more and more passionate about empowering students, engaging them with ICT and dreaming of education reform. So why leave I hear you ask. Well there are a few reasons I guess.

  • In the last few months I have come to see myself more as an educator than a primary teacher so working in the tertiary sector will allow me to build a new skill set
  • I want to build change management skills and work collaboratively to bring about change. Unfortunately the lack of career structure in education means I was unable to get these opportunities in primary schools
  • I was tired.  Tired of the ever increasing work load and tired of hitting my head against the same brick wall with the lack of direction of education in Victoria.

Although I will be working in the higher sector of education I will still keep my hands in the honey pot of primary and secondary education.  I plan to continue to attend Teach Meets, conferences, PD and to stay connected with my amazing networks on and offline.  And I plan to talk more about reform in Education, hopefully making some impact on the changes that need to take place. Now I will just add the #highered hashtag to some of my tweets!

But for now to focus on my new role…..

It has been very excited starting a new job and I have enjoyed reflecting on me as a learner.  Don’t get me wrong, I am constantly learning, but it is rare that I am put in a position where I the learning curve is so large.  An environment where I had to use my prior knowledge and make connections with my new knowledge. A place where I was in a state of cognitive dissonance and my head was working in overtime to sort through my new information. It was quite eye opening to reflect on the skills I used to ensure I could ‘survive.’

It was quite invigorating! And in fact it continues to excite me everyday.

So what is it that excites me so much about my new role?

  • I love that I am trusted as a professional to do my job and respected in the knowledge and skills I bring to the position. I am asked what I think and how I can contribute.
  • I love that collaboration is preferred and it is expected that everyone will work together. And that because of this everyone works together so well.
  • I love that the vision is clear and everyone is working towards it.
  • I love that the people in my team use technologies like google docs and calendars to be more efficient and organised
  • I love that wellbeing is important and that you have time to get to know the people you work with over lunch because you actually get lunch!

And now I have a whole heap of new learning to share so hopefully the blog posts with be more frequent.

 

 

 

Future directions

Recently the  Department of Education and Early Childhood (DEECD) outlined its plan for reforming education in Victoria, Australia. The document, which you can read here, describes the vision for future education in Victoria and is open for discussion until September.

The discussion paper, titled New Directions for School Leadership and the Teaching Profession, focuses on three key areas of reform.

  • Building on teacher training and attracting high quality to teachers to the profession.
  • Establish a culture of excellence within the profession
  • Promote leadership and support principals.
Although I was disappointed that the discussion paper had been developed with no discussion from educators, I am pleased to have an opportunity to feedback and reflect on this paper.
Image: ‘During class
On the same night the paper was distributed, fellow educators were already on twitter discussing their thoughts and posing questions from the document.  It was an empowering moment to know that the DEECD wanted our feedback.
Over the last couple of weeks I have developed my feedback to Minister Hall and Dixon. You are free to read it here and offer any feedback. It is certainly not a comprehensive effort and I would have much preferred the opportunity to sit in a group and discuss it.  I hope these opportunities will come.
I now hope others will take the time to share their thoughts on this reform, to be active in making a change in education.

Empowering

This post forms part of the Rwanda Series after attending the Rwanda Education Summit in Musanze from 21st – 26th May 2012.  Read further posts in the series here.

Our final day of the summit is a day of action.  Through our questions, we have been able to pinpoint the areas of action and change, which reflect what we have seen, experienced and discussed.

There are 6 areas of change which were recurring in all of the conversations;

  • Transform curriculum
  • Transform teacher training
  • Transform learning
  • Transform learning environments
  • Transform support
  • Transform assessment

As we form our groups for the culmination of ideas, it is a picture of empowerment as the local principals, parents and young people are the key holders of conversation.  For us who have travelled it is a great opportunity to take a back seat, allowing the people who collectively form education in Rwanda, to take control.

Sarah, a volunteer teacher from New Zealand had opened my eyes to idea of ‘fly in, fly out’ people.   They see many of these in Rwanda. Early on I resigned to the fact that I was a ‘fly in, fly out’ visitor and I was conscious of this when I responded in discussions. As someone who had only been in the country a few days I was well aware of my lack of understanding of the real obstacles that Rwandans face, so I was therefore not qualified to make decisions on their behalf.

Rwanda has shown remarkable strength in how they have shifted culture since the Genocide in 1994. As 800,00 people lost their lives, the rest of the world held back and in the end it was the troops of Kagame’s RPF, which brought an end to the Genocide.  Since then they have stood as one and stepped forward together to create a country of unity. When empowered to create your own solutions it produces an inner strength worth so much more than any gift. As aid agenceies have learnt, you can not continue to give without any ownership as it builds no inner strength or skill. Just as with education, we can not spoon feed students learning. It gives it no meaning or worth. We must own our own learning.

With these thoughts heavy in my mind I am pleased to see the actions being created by the people who will shape them for Rwanda. I sit back and hear Sam, a parent, share his ideas of using teacher training time on pedagogy, focussing on how to teach rather than what to teach.  Barack, the young entrepreneur, shares his ideas of adding school placements to teacher training. It is inspiring to hear and I can’t help wishing I could bottle it!

The  principals who have worked with us will now take these actions back to their schools.  I have confidence that these conversations will be popping up in schools all over Rwanda.  I know as I head back to Australia I will take with me the confidence that with the people I have met, and the message we share, education reform is not only a dream but has a reality about it.  I am thankful for the experiences, conversations and laughter shared with amazing people who prompted me to reflect on my own ideas and find direction in my own thoughts.

Collision of Minds

This post forms part of the Rwanda Series after attending the Rwanda Education Summit in Musanze from 21st – 26th May 2012.  Read further posts in the series here.

We once again become a collective in the beautiful surroundings of the Cathedral where we move into our second and third converstaions. With the more we see and the more we talk about, the more questions come to mind, making it a tough decision on which conversations to join.

  • How do you teach individually in large classes?
  • How do we create a secure environment for students?
  • What needs to be thrown out of our practice to allow change?
  • What would child centred PBL look like in a school in a developing country.
  • Are teachers capable of teaching job creating skills?
  • Do current assessment/exams help or hinder learning?
  • How do we change the priorities of our communities?
  • When we adjust minor things are we just repainting the wall?
  • Do we need a new paradigm?

I start by joining the group looking at PBL and am refreshed at Matthew’s opening statement regarding how limiting a label can be. By labeling Rwanda as a developing country we put limitations on what they can achieve and the size of the steps they can take in reform. I enjoy the opportunity to listen in this group and choose not to offer my ideas, soaking in the conversation.

Today I do move groups, making the most of the open space as I  join the group discussing how to increase community in schools. In this conversation my passion takes over and  I throw in a few questions; What creates a community? Can we force the forming of a community?  Can we make people be part of a community? Unfortunately the conversations are cut short as we are required to move on.

As the last two days have continued I have become more and more frustrated with the structure of the summit.  I was first enticed by the idea of an open summit where the collision of minds would be the focus, not the timing on the an agenda, so stopping in the middle of great conversations has been difficult for me.

As I reflect on how I feel about having these amazing conversations restricted, I try to put myself in the shoes of others at the summit. Many of the delegates are principals who have not experienced this type of open space learning before, and for them working in groups with free flowing conversation is a learning they will take back to their schools and put into practice. This reflection soon morphs into my big question of the day.

Does Rwanda first need to make the same mistakes as other countries in the world before they can really reform Education?

I had heard someone describe Rwandan Education as missing the Industrial Revolution when making a statement of how far behind in education reform they are. This should be an empowering position to be in. If we look at many of the mistakes made in education in the past, standardized testing comes to mind, does this not put Rwanda in a perfect position to reform education?  A place where there is less shift to make, less learning to unlearn.

This also correlates with my reflection on the summit itself.  If the principals involved in the summit were making leaps in the change they were experiencing, why not go all the way? Maybe this just reflects my character – why take small steps when you can get there quicker in leaps and bounds? Yes we make mistakes along the way but we also pick ourselves up quicker too. By taking more risks we can achieve more.

Reform from the classroom

This post forms part of the Rwanda Series after attending the Rwanda Education Summit in Musanze from 21st – 26th May 2012.  Read further posts in the series here.

Set in the beautiful surroundings of the Volcanoes National Park, and walking distance from the main meeting point for the hundreds of tourists who take the trek to visit the Gorillas, Kabwende Primary School educates 1600 students a day. As I wander in and out of the classrooms, listening to kids proudly singing the national anthem and sharing their notebooks, I begin to see some commonalities appearing in the schools in Rwanda.  Teaching seems to be rote based and English is taught even when teachers don’t understand the language themselves.  Learning is generally individual, with limited opportunities for unique thinking.  Students appear fearful to break a smile and remain compliant to the teacher, even with many visitors in the room. When we walk into the room teaching seems to pause as we talk to the students and I wonder what they were learning before we stepped in.

As the senior students meet outside for a game with the visitors I take the opportunity to step into a classroom and take a seat at the back. The teacher of this Primary 4 class immediately stands out as unique.  I find myself in a Maths class where she is teaching students about dividing decimals.  She models lovely English and not once do I see her standing at the front of the class.  At one point a girl shares her learning with the rest of the class receiving feedback from not only the teacher but the students as she goes.

As the students get back to the task at hand they are working in groups to solve problems.  After finishing they swap their work and give feedback to the group next to them.  The teacher constantly gives feedback to students and keeps the learning moving, regardless of the visitors in the class.

As the students continue their tasks she comes to ask me how I found her classroom.  This teacher is surprised that her classroom has many similarities to classes in Australia.  “I do the same teaching as you do? Is this true? Your students work in groups too?” Her planning demonstrates to me that she is a reflective teacher who knows her content and students well.

I have seen a few teachers like her in the schools I have visited and begin to wonder how Rwanda could create opportunities for these teachers to share their ideas, learn from others like them and change teaching from the coal face.

To take the teachers like this from each school and support them with leadership skills, give them opportunities to share their practice and have conversation with other like minded teachers, could start the reform of education from the classroom.

 

Education: Use By DD/MM/YY

This post forms part of the Rwanda Series after attending the Rwanda Education Summit in Musanze from 21st – 26th May 2012.  Read further posts in the series here.

After our first two visits to schools we head back to the cathedral to form our questions and discuss what we have observed.  It doesn’t take long for the board to fill with questions.  As the first 6 are chosen they are quickly replaced by more, which will shape the discussions tomorrow.

Our first discussion questions are;

  • If you could change one thing in Education what would it be?
  • How can we increase the number of females in school?
  • How do you address the total lack of resources?
  • How do we build a bridge to a real career?
  • How do we create a physical learning environment?

All good questions that could be put on the table of any staffroom, in any school, in any country!

As the questions are stuck to the wall, people choose the discussions they wish to be part of, with the freedom to move from their group and join another discussion at any time. Interestingly we all stay put, the conversations flowing and ideas bouncing.

I join the careers discussion and we start to build a conversation around many different ideas, creating more questions than answers.

  • How do we engage students in real world learning?
  • How can we build passions into learning?
  • Could project based learning work in Rwandan schools?
  • Should there be a career subject?
  • Is the curriculum too limited with no variety?
  • How could guided choices support students?
But we did come away with some statements
  • Children need to be confident collaborators in order to prepare themselves for careers.
  • Creativity and innovation should be part of the curriculum
  • We need to use the community connections in schools
  • Using business projects (Eg; Collaborative groups to own a chicken and use to make as much money as possible
  • Career Education should start with identifying likes/dislikes and strengths/weaknesses
  • By understanding ourselves we can identify realistic goals.

We were also able to sum up some of the major obstacles, which we felt were important to identify before we could move forward.

  • Students dreams and aspirations are not realistic and based around society expectations.
  • Students dreams and aspirations are directed by their parents and the needs of the family.
  • Students do not have the skills to think for themselves.

It wasn’t until the next morning that the biggest obstacle of all came through. One of the participants shared a question, which had been playing on her mind for some time.

“One child spends 12 years in Education while another spends this time working in the field with his family.  After 12 years they end up in the same field, digging the same patch of dirt. What is the point of education?’

The obstacle here is not unique to Rwanda.  We see it in many of our schools where standardised testing, content based curriculum and compliance education is the norm.  The obstacle is that education is seen as an end product. It is expected that at some point learning ends and we are delivered a piece of paper like some kind of guarantee.

We can not put an end date on education.  Learning is forever.  But to prove this we need to teach life long learning and show our students that education is something more than a piece of paper.  It is dreams, hopes, aspirations and passion with no end date on opportunity.

There continues to be more questions than answers and the one I can’t shake is, ‘How do we create a society where Education is is part of a journey, not an end product?’

Comparisons

This post forms part of the Rwanda Series after attending the Rwanda Education Summit in Musanze from 21st – 26th May 2012.  Read further posts in the series here.

After the beginnings of conversations last night over dinner, the Summit begins in earnest today.  We begin in the Anglican Cathedral of Musanze, where Bishop Mbanda officially opens the summit.  He offers questions for us to ponder as our school visits start; “How can we improve? How can the children be better builders of their lives, their communities, their nation?

As we sit in a large circle in the centre of the imposing cathedral, Stephen Harris, introduces us to the space rules.  For the 40 or so principals in the room it is the first time they have been introduced to the notion of open space learning and he explains the need for this to become a conversation space, where experience and thinking collide.  It requires conversation and questioning, with no bleaking of ideas.

With this in mind we make our way to the first school on our itinerary, Maya 1. The Government school was opened by the chuch in 1939 and the original buildings still house the 364 students, of which only 46 are girls. Although renovated in 1996, the damage from an earthquake means that some classes need to shift to one side of the room during rain.

As we walk into the first classroom 50 students sitting at long stools beam at us, ready to share their work, they proudly show us their notebooks.  Some of the older students are learning about the human skeleton and their books are filled with labelled pictures of the skeleton. Unfortunately the English of their teachers is also limited and they have not yet connected their words to their own bodies.

The principal tells us of the generous donation of English textbooks that are now stored in one of the building as the teachers have little english and limited knowledge to use them.  The teachers give their all but the obstacles are so large there is only so much they can do.

Outside, the community is gathering to see what all the brouhaha is about, 100 people all arriving at the school in several buses has definitely created some interest.  Alice is saddened by the young girl with her baby sibling on her back.  One of the many issues taking away the childhoods of these innocent children well before they should.  It is a thought we will take back to our discussion later today.

Before the reflection of what I have seen settles in it is off to our next school, Kogogo Secondary school, which sits on a picturesque hill overlooking Lake Burera.  National test scores determine entry to this Secondary School, where both boys and girls board.

My first stop is into the computer science  class where I take a seat and learn about CPU, internal and external memory.  The teacher is mesmorising.  His English is fantastic and you can see his use of repetition to ensure students are learning.  Given, it continues to be teaching and learning based on rote but as I look around, the students are listening, wanting to learn.  And there is not a computer in sight.

Next it is off to a a Swahili class, where the kids try to teach me some new words.  Although not a national language, these students are looking at moving into the banking industry and it will be a great help to their career. It isn’t long before Swahili is left behind for English as the students take the opportunity to practise conversing in the language.

I am shown around by a few students, proudly sharing with me their boarding rooms, kitchen and sports areas.  I hear of the ambitions of students around me, favourite subjects and of course the boring ones.  Richard wants to head to university to be an education minister to bring free and fair eduction to all.  Isaac wishes to travel the world and has many questions about the places I have been.  Daniel moves the chat to football and favourite teams and they start to chant Man U in response to my following Liverpool.  Laughter fills the air.

As we head back to the cathedral for our first discussions I try to put my two visits in perspective.  I can’t help but compare it to Australia and am quickly beginning to feel that we have a lot to learn from the resilient educators in Rwanda. They accept change in the face of adversity, remain positive and offer these students opportunities beyond what I expected.

Darius, a student at the Kigali Institute of Education sums up my feelings as we return to the cathedral for our first discussions;

“Despite poverty, teachers teach with courage and students are motivated.”

Mzungu, Mzungu

This post forms part of the Rwanda Series after attending the Rwanda Education Summit in Musanze from 21st – 26th May 2012.  Read further posts in the series here.

This afternoon we take the scenic 2 hour drive to Musanze, the home of the Gorillas and Volcanoes National Park.  It is a beautiful drive and we laugh at ourselves, leaping at windows to capture the journey on our cameras, only wielding blurry photos of close up trees.

The trip is somewhat of a contrast to what I have seen in the city of Kigali.  The road is lined with people walking, women carrying their loads on their heads, children running along the car waving at us, calling ‘Mzungu,’ the African name for white people.

I finally get to see the countryside and recognise the dotted buildings of the plane as small houses.   The hills are carved with banana plants and crops.  You can see the after effects of the rainy season as road gangs work to repair the damage from landslides.

The official opening of the summit is at the hotel where most people are staying.  As we gather, I begin to recognise the wide range of people who will be part of the summit.  The collision of minds is beginning and anticipation fills the room. I begin to get to know the extraordinary people around me.  Next to me, Nate tells stories of life as a human tracker and how it has led him to Rwanda.  Kau the young and enthusiastic entrepreneur tells of his trip on the local bus to Musanze, whilst sharing his new love of Twitter.  John, who had only heard about the summit a few hours prior shares his stories of life in Uganda and the contrast to his new job at the Film Institute in Kigali.

I begin to wander the room to talk to others. I find that over the last few days I am drawn to Alice whenever she is in the room.  As the founder of the Pader Girls’ Academy she takes in young mothers who have been raped by the rebel soldiers in Uganda.  Education for these girls is paramount to her and I am inspired by her holistic approach to schooling and the charity she has founded, Gifts for War Brides. She radiates hope and future.

As dinner is served we hear from Stephen Harris the director of SCIL, Sydney’s Centre for Innovative Learning.  And then the dancing begins.  A local group of Rwandan dancers and drummers entertain us. Emily, Education Director of a Kenyan IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) Camp School, whose love for the arts and drama emanates from her, can’t contain her enjoyment. Even the quiet Educational Activist, Basti, from Germany joins in for a dance, as do I (Well I try!)

As we slowly peel away for a couple of quiet beers to reflect with our newfound friends we are optimistic of the time to come.  With this many passionate, inspirational dreamers in a room how can we go wrong?

Hope

This post forms part of the Rwanda Series after attending the Rwanda Education Summit in Musanze from 21st – 26th May 2012.  Read further posts in the series here.

Between requests of pass the sugar and ordering for omelettes over breakfast, Chris, a Ugandan lecturer, floats a comment; “No one thinks of the children.  There is nothing in it for them.” His comment sits in silence as we ponder what he has said. No one replies.

This is the recurring theme of the Rwandan Education Summit where a collision of minds is starting to take shape and education is never far from our lips. As I look around me I am instantly inspired by the people sharing the table with me; Alice the founder of Gifts for war Brides foundation, Basti an Educational Activist from Germany, Emily a volunteer in Kenya whose passion for the arts oozes out of every conversation, Kau, from the Flippen Group in India.  The list could go on.

Today we have our first visit to a Rwandan school, The Fruits of Hope Academy in Kigali.  As we wind our way through the dirt streets of Kigali and after a short walk we arrive at the primary school.  I am not sure what to expect and try to keep an open mind, although this does not stop me from being surprised.

We are greeted by Fred, the founder of the school, who talks about the values based education they aim to provide.  An education where unity and uniqueness are most important.

As we walk into the Primary Four classroom, students are sitting in groups, the teacher using wonderful English to teach complementary angles.  As I start to talk to each group it is clear they each have a role – leader, presenter, recorder.  I see some students taking the lead to show others what to do.  The teacher is walking around talking to each group, giving feedback.  Students are talking about the task at hand and sharing their knowledge with each other.

At the end of the lesson, the teacher walks to me and thanks me for visiting his classroom. I return the thanks for allowing me to see such wonderful teaching. The he looks directly at me and says, “I have something to ask you.  What can I do better? You saw my lesson. How can I improve?”

In a classroom with limited resources, large numbers of students and with little training, this teacher is concerned with improvement? I am surprised.  As I talk with him about connecting learning to students, putting them in the learning and the possibility of using the school building to find complementary angles I feel a little patronizing.  He takes notes and listens intently.

Instantly I have a respect for this teacher who has put aside all of the obstacles around him to ask the tough questions. I begin to think that in Australia we have a lot to learn from Rwandan teachers.

Obstacles are many yet they are not bound by them.  They continue to look forward when it would be so easy to look down. This teacher thinks passionately of the children.  I now have a response for Chris.  There is hope.