New beginnings

I always love the opportunities new beginnings offer you and this week my new beginning was starting at a new school. Usually a time of trepidation and nerves I found myself full of excitement and a sense of feeling like I was truly at home. Instead of the agenda for the first day being full of protocols, check boxes, lists of things to do and timetables, my first two days was spent at the school conference, two days focused on learning and teaching, pedagogy and the teacher as a researcher.

From the first few minutes my head was spinning with thoughts, reflections and questions.  The perfect beginning in my mind as I am provoked by those around me and challenged in my thinking, setting the scene for the year ahead both as a teacher and an inquirer.

The conference was made up of a series of presentations such as those which looked at theory, philosophy of learning, the educational environment and assessment. We also heard from different teachers as they shared their own research and past inquiries with students. The most confronting activity for me was when we listed different types of assessment and categorised them according to the learning theory area they aligned with, behaviourist, constructivist or cultural historical. It was interesting to see how I use learning theory to drive my teaching but this had not crossed to assessment.

Our morning back at school after the conference started with a visit to the National Gallery Victoria where we had an opportunity to look through the Emily Floyd Exhibition and meet the Melbourne based artist who uses education and knowledge as themes in her work. Using this as a chance to create our own provocations as educators we stepped through the exhibitions and analysed some of the pieces. It provided a unique opportunity to have another lens with which to view our educational lives and put ourselves in the shoes of learners as well as using it as inspiration for our professional work.

Emily Floyd Exhibition

After two days away with my peers I was able to get a real sense of belonging and by the time we headed back into school on Friday I felt part of a team that was passionate and inspired, ready to challenge each other as professionals to provide authentic and rich learning experiences for students.

 

Startup Weekend Education Melbourne

Last weekend saw the first Startup Weekend Education in Melbourne and I was lucky enough to be one of the organisers.  Startup Weekends are typically a grassroot movement to empower entrepreneurs….. although ours was a little different.  Education Startup Weekends are typically aimed at entrepreneurs to work with educators to develop ideas for education….. but ours was a little different.

With my fellow organisers, Kynan Robinson and Hamish Curry we had attended similar events in the past but had felt there was another level to these weekends.  We aimed to bring more rigor to the event and ensure it was about learning from the process.  To do this we enlisted the help of Marina Paronetto, who helped us to connect with the startup world.  The concept of the weekend was to bring developers and designers from the startup world together with inspired educators to solve some of the big issues in education.  Participants were invited to pitch their educational problems in one minute and teams were formed to work on solving the problem over the rest of the weekend.  The emphasis was on problems rather than ideas as the last thing education needs is another solution that overlooks the problem.

Early on the Saturday morning teams came together to define their problem.  They spoke to educators, researched their area and spent the first day finding patterns in their problem to help them ideate.  We really wanted to focus on this part of the process for teams and encouraged them to find out as much as possible before jumping into building ideas as so often we see the problem being lost in the solutions. Once they had defined the problem, teams worked on coming up with different ideas before choosing one to prototype.

Our amazing coaches arrived to support teams and things started to get busy.  By Saturday night teams were starting to validate their ideas in the market using surveys and asking for feedback from their networks. By Sunday morning teams were out and about on the streets gathering feedback and iterating their initial ideas to create a solution to pitch at the final presentation. Some teams had prototyped websites and others had set up social media accounts.

Regardless of what was pitched at the final on Sunday we wanted the process to be the winner of the weekend.  After I attended my first Eduhack event I was really excited by what I could learn from the startup methodology and it was evident that I could use this process to make change in education.  I also realised how much the startup community could learn from actually talking to an educator and hearing about what it is really like in education.  This was a big part of the weekend where people got to learn from each other by working together. It was also the reason we took the competition out of the weekend, which allowed teams to be more collaborative and work together to solve problems.

As you can imagine after a weekend of early mornings, late nights and head hurting thinking everyone was exhausted by Sunday night but the accomplishments of the weekend made every minute worthwhile.  It was very humbling to think we had these 30 odd designers, developers and educators learning from each other to solve real problems in education. Although there were some amazing ideas and projects to come out of the weekend more so it was the learning from each other in an intense process of design that was the highlight.

Like any intense event like this I have spent the week in a state of loss as I said goodbye to people I met over the weekend. Dare I say, I can’t wait for the next one. Sometime in the future….

 

#beerpedagogy and a new culture

On the weekend I attended the #beerpedagogy tweet up.  I always look forward to a #beerpedagogy event, and no not because of the beer!  You may be wondering what on earth #beerpedagogy is and it is probably just as you think.  A group of people who get together every now and then at a great craft beer location in Melbourne and talk pedagogy.  And we talk a lot of it!  I am lucky enough to attend a lot of educational meet ups in Melbourne and enjoy them all but #beerpedagogy is different to the others.  There are many robust conversations as we agree and disagree on the best way to solve all of the world’s education problems and have discussions on what the problems are. And we are pretty honest with each other as we probe and question our thoughts, learning from each other and being challenged as well.

The conversations are so good that often days and weeks afterwards I continue to grapple with them in my mind.  The one that is sticking in my mind from Friday’s #beerpedagogy was around autonomy and choice in education.  At one point I was questioned on my contradictions of educational philosophies where on one hand I want equity, centralised systems and an end to marketisation of education but on the other I cherish the opportunities autonomy gives me to focus on pedagogy based around inquiry, student centred approaches and the use of ICT in my classroom.  At the time I was quick to reply that I would trade it all if it meant that every child in Australia had the same opportunity for education. One where who your parents are, where you live and how much money you have is irrelevant in learning.

So the last couple of days have been spent reflecting on that.  I have been curious as to why we need to decide.  What is it that makes me think we can’t have both.  I think if anything it shows me that we are not yet in the same place when it comes to how we think students learn, what skills are important for students to learn and how best to do that. And the reason I felt I needed to choose is because the way I think our students should be learning is not yet the norm.  It reminds me of a quote I heard on the radio recently.  I have no idea what they were talking about and why it was important but I felt it worthy of writing down. “By treating it as normal it became a new culture.” So today that I have decided that I am not going to choose. I can still push for equity and maybe if I start treating inquiry, student driven learning as normal that together with a few of my #beerpedagogy mates it will become a new culture.

 

Oktoberfest

Image: ‘PUB FLAHERTY‘ Found on flickrcc.net

Why our schools are NOT failing your children

This morning I read this article by recent graduate Johanna O’Farrell in The Age.  Of course any article which opens with “Why your schools are failing your children: a teacher tells” piqued my interest.  I have always advocated for teachers telling their stories in our media rather than politicians but this one had my heart rate rising as she spoke of schools tossing aside “any sort of rigour, routine or repetition when it comes to classroom learning.”

I am truly concerned of Johanna’s experiences in schools where she believes that the strategy is that students “will simply learn to read and write by osmosis” and that rote learning should be a valid part of learning.

If we want our schools to factories of students who can travel a conveyer belt learning times tables through hours of chanting and memorising the laws of the English Language then maybe she has a point.  But I couldn’t imagine why we would want students to know facts in isolation and that a “blackboard and chalk, a pen and paper, a few good books and some learned teachers will suffice.” Isn’t an education of experiences which connect ideas, is in context with the real world and develop skills of self directed life long learning a more holistic approach?  Sure, we can rote learn many things if we believe the learning journey ends with our VCE results.

I am saddened that Johanna doesn’t have the knowledge to explain why students expression in English is wrong, not because she was denied learning about the laws of the English language but because she was not exposed to experience of curiosity, self directed learning and how to take control of her own learning.

Maybe this is a message that we need to be more articulate in what we are doing in schools.  I too believe that technology is not a silver bullet and have questioned the use of “genius hours” or “inquiry learning days.”  But I do believe that inquiry learning and technology should be embedded into our classrooms and become as normal as pen and paper learning and chalk and talk was in the past. We need to talk about why we do what we do.  It is more than engagement.  It is embedding real experiences and constructing knowledge through context, introducing conflicting ideas, connecting those experiences and developing their own understandings.

Maybe the more we talk about the why, the less misconception will be there about the relevance of education and demonstrate how schools are helping our students to succeed.

We hold the answers

This week I have been sent a newspaper article and a blog post, both of which resonated strongly with me and probably shows me that people know me well.

The first came as a tweet “@medg56 RT @Kenjaneth13: A 10 year old who sees the world as it is and envisions the way it should be tinyurl.com/la2l644 .. A young @melcashen….” To be honest I wish I was like this when I was 10 but my interest in politics has only come over the last couple of years.

Please take the time to read the post and even leave a comment.  After reading it I noticed I had tears streaming down my face.  Like Maggie, I have an interest in politics. An interest that started through the frustration of not being able to make a difference in education.  I decided I needed to know more about policy to understand what was happening in our education system so am completing my Master of Education Policy International.  I am hopeful that the more I understand, the more voice I will have to fight for education and the more people (politicians) will listen. Like Maggie I have the same why questions.

Maggie is obviously a special young lady who sees the world not only as it is but as it should be. This is the stuff we dream of teaching but instead there is a focus on tests rather than “potential, creativity and kindness.”

Another article was sent to me today by a colleague and definitely rings true. Last week saw the Education Columnist at the Daily Telegraph, Maralyn Parker, use the opportunity of her last day to share some advice with her readers.  Advice I also advocate.

Everything about your profession is politicised. Your classrooms, the facilities and resources available to you, the number and type of students you teach, what you teach, how you are taught to be teachers, what you are paid, the level of support given to you – all of these things are governed by highly politicised processes.” Her advice to this – be political.  And she is right!

We need to talk about politics, we need to talk to politicians.  We need to understand what is happening and ask questions.  We need to be educating our communities about what is happening.  No longer can we think we can’t make a difference.  It is time to make a difference, whether it is taking Maralyn’s advice and joining a union or a professional organisation, responding to discussion paper or even understanding what is happening through reading white papers such as the recent Victorian Government Action Paper. Talk about it at lunch time, in staff meetings and online. We hold the answers.

2615548443_9d1ea02dacImage: ‘In My Place

I agree with Maralyn that we are at such a pivotal time in Australian Education.  Our new Education Minister is set to make a lot of changes to national curriculum, autonomy in schools and privatising HECS debts as a start. Now more than ever we need to focus on politics. Education depends on it.

And I don’t think it is fair to leave it to Maggie to ask the tough questions.

Aspirations

At today’s visit is to Quintin Kynaston Academy, located just around the corner from Abbey Road Studios, it was wonderful to have students greeting and talking to us as we signed in at the school.  Students sharing their school and being proud of their learning environment is always an exciting way to see a school.  These students were very eager to talk and chat as they showed us around the school.

After the tour we had the opportunity to see some specific areas of the school such as the young carers group.  This group of KS3 & 4 students are carers of parents with mental illnesses who meet weekly to talk about strategies, share frustrations and develop awareness across the school. The self referred group has 8 students today and they are open and articulate about why they are there.  It was lovely to see students who are forgotten by a system such as this getting support not only from their school but their peers too.

I also had an opportunity to see the Aspire unit at the school. This unit is similar to a Pupil Referral Unit but sits within the school.  Students are referred to a PRU if they are excluded or unable to attend mainstream school where they can receive a more tailored and personalised program and some of the students here are referrals such as these from outside schools but can also come from within the school.  What makes this unique is the fact that the referral unit is attached to the school and classes are taught by mainstream teachers.  In Aspire students work in small numbers with teachers and support staff towards 5 GCSEs with two optional subject areas such as construction, hospitality or art.

I could see they were very passionate about offering opportunities for students but I find I am second guessing the school’s motives.  Is it really the students they have in mind when developing these programs or is it about the money. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to appear to be putting down schools and teachers and I don’t for a minute think that teachers are thinking money but that it the effect the policy in this country has.

PicMonkey Collage

Our second visit for the day cements my thinking about the pressures on schools with the push towards marketisation of education and academy schools. At our visit to the Jack Petchey Academy they explain they were one of the original new labor academies set up in 2006 to replace the failing Kingsland School with new buildings.

The idea of closing a school and starting a new one in exactly the same location to improve education intrigues me. I wonder how many of the students who attended the school before the closure of Kingsland school are still enrolled at the school.  I know that as a Labour Academy they would be able to select 10% of the students based on the specialisation of Health, Care and Medical Science as to change the socio economic standing of the school.  It would be interesting to see how long the school was closed for, where the students went in the meantime and how many of the original students returned to the school when it reopened.

PicMonkey Collage

This visit certainly got the conversation going in our group.  Many were upset with the amount of testing that was done.  And it seemed they were very proud of testing their students every three weeks and completing ‘Mocksteds’ whereas to many of us that is not what education is about.  The school seemed to be very strict and rules were enforced tightly. I have always had a belief of education being a better method than adding rule after rule. It appeared here that there were a lot of rules enforcing what they believe students needed for their work life but I would question whether they are learning or  just becoming compliant.

The fact that the sponsor could decide on some rules within the school worried me. It was mentioned that Jack Petchey is a great sponsor and although he is interested in the school he does not enforce them to do anything, except for the rule about no chewing gum.  So although in this instance Jack Petchey doesn’t make the rules the system is set up that it is possible for sponsors to decide on the values, rules and the way the school is run.

A common theme of the academies we visited was their use of language to describe functions within the school.  On speaking to the deputy at Petchey I asked about using principal instead of head teacher.  She said she felt it sounded better and more “businessy.”  It is interesting that they found it was a good thing to be using business speak in their school.  They also used words like line manager, deploy and secure, demonstrating the changing face of schools.

Once again there is no blaming the school for this but this is the repercussion of the system in place.  In listening to the school they are passionate about offering the best possible opportunities for students but they are surrounded by a system which promotes competition and testing.

When the sun shines through…..

In today’s school visit I had a chance to teach 24 eleven year olds from Niels Steensens.  It was a lovely experience and I had a chance to work with the students for around 90 minutes.  After looking at some images of Australia and thinking about the different perspectives the students had an opportunity to ask questions.  Although this was quite reciprocal as the three of us in the room asked as many questions of them. It was clear fairly quickly that students in Denmark are different to those in Australia.  The respect from the teacher was one of mutuality.  Not once did she make a decision without asking the students if it was OK first.  And I felt silly when I asked her if it was OK to take the student’s photos.  She turned directly to them and and repeated my question. I felt ashamed that I hadn’t considered their voice to begin with.

2013-09-17 20.03.26

 

Our conversations turned to different rules schools have in Australia and they were shocked to hear that in schools we had to wear uniforms, could be suspended from school and each class had a set of rules, which were strictly adhered to.  It became clear that students here had a huge respect for what their teachers asked of them, which I believe comes from the teachers also having such respect for them.  It was  an expectation that they were responsible for their own learning and that all of the students felt it was important to go to school.

Our afternoon visit was to Gammel Hellerup Gymnasium where we were mesmerised by some of learning spaces. Gammel Hellerup is the former school of the famous Danish architect, Bjarke Ingels, who has recently returned to design the sports hall and field.  Ingels’ designs aim to make the best use of space and even the curved top of the sports hall is utilised as seating in the outside area.   The new football field will form part of a drama and arts centre, where the roof will become the seating for the sports field.  Take a look at the plans here.

Gammel Hellerup

During our chat with teachers from Gammel Hellerup it is clear they have had to deal with lots of changes over the last few years. The 2005 reforms which saw more autonomy for head teachers and a new financial structure has meant the leadership teams have had to deal with new and unexpected issues. I am intrigued how autonomy and choice of schools affects students in Denmark where the welfare state ensures everyone is treated equally.  In Australia I expect the push for more autonomy and school choice because of the traditionally more dog eat dog environment we have but for Denmark it seems to be more traditional for them to prioritise equality.  Maybe that’s for a later blog post!

New Education Adventure

This post is part of a series reflecting on my international study tour to Copenhagen, Berlin and London.

Today I sit at another airport as I write this post.  The last time I did this was May last year as I waited for my flight to Rwanda, which would in turn be the catalyst for many changes in the last 12 months. The first being a new job and a move to Melbourne.  It was Rwanda that really opened my eyes to education being bigger than just my primary classroom.  Don’t get me wrong,  I understood the process education took but to make change in education I knew I needed to understand it well.  From the first years to the years beyond secondary school.  It certainly prompted my move into higher education and I have truly loved the experience (as much as I miss the classroom) and have learnt so much in the past 12 months, all of which no doubt I will use when back teaching in a school.

The second decision, made after my Rwandan trip, was to head back to uni to get my Masters and it is this course which brings me to the airport today.  The International Study Tour is the second subject in my Master of Educational Policy (International).  I really enjoyed learning about China, India, England and Finland in my first subject, Comparative Studies and look forward to seeing first hand how policy effects education in Copenhagen, Berlin and London.

It is hard to know what to expect from schools in these countries, well except England where I taught for 4 years, and that is one of the real joys of learning!  I have over the years visited many classrooms but this trip will be a little different as I have always had my teacher hat on, looking at what I can take back to my classroom.  Tomorrow I will have my policy hat on, looking at how the policy effects education, schools and classrooms.

Part of my assessment is to write a reflective journal on my visits so I look forward to blogging over the next three weeks and sharing my experiences. But for now I have a plane to catch!

Mixed Messages

I have been reading about this initiative on the WISE website about lifting the public image of education in Chile.  They are working on changing the perception of education in the public and increasing the image. It has got me thinking about the messages we send out, often without thinking, which impact on the public image.

I remember asking my students in an inquiry unit, “How do I learn best” about what learning looks like.  I was really surprised by their answers.  I thought they would talk about working with friends, real life experiences, hands on learning etc.    Instead they talked of silence, sitting with one child per table and wait for it….worksheets!  Needless to say I was taken back by these responses but I could understand where these messages come from.

Growing up I was told I was great at Maths because I had good recall of my times tables. When people talked about Maths it always related to if I knew the times tables.  Of course I thought that was what was most important about Maths.  Being a good reader was determined by how long the book I was reading was.  “Wow, that’s a big book.  You must be a good reader.”

All around us we see underlying messages of what is important.  The new National Plan for School Improvement, an initiative by the Australian Government, uses an A+ in their logo. This sends the message that improving schools, and in fact learning, is all about getting an A+. Even if there is more to the plan, the message is clear.

In NSW, the ‘Teachers Make a Difference,” videos are meant to lift the perceptions of teachers in the public eye.  Although the videos are great at showing how teachers are more than someone who stands at the front of the classroom there are other messages.  The “First Day of School,” video shows the teacher meeting a student on their way into the school, both on their first day.  So instead of showing how wonderful teachers are at building relationships with students, the message becomes that teachers arrive at school at 9 am as the students are walking in.  I know this doesn’t happen but I have lost count of the times I have been told it must be great to have a job when you only work 9-3.

Maybe the greater message of how teachers change lives or that our government cares about education is more important but we shouldn’t overlook the underlying messages and how they effect how we think of teaching and education.

So there’s a new Bill?

Tonight my twitter feed is flowing fast as the Australian Political leadership contest is played out in front of our eyes. Lost in those feeds is the news that the Australian Education Bill 2013 was passed in the senate.  What this means in the political future, it seems no one can predict, but it shouldn’t make it any less important.

I don’t pretend to understand politics and in fact my knowledge of how a bill is passed comes from visiting Parliament House with my students. But I do know education.  And I think it is really important to read through the Education Bill, to have some understanding of the direction our Government is heading in regards to education, because the objects of this Act will effect educators and the students we teach.

You may be easily mistaken after the hype from the media to think that this Bill is just about Gonski but it is more than that.  Don’t get me wrong I think the most positive aspect to come from this Bill is a more equitable approach to school funding and a more fair and effective system.

There are other postive aspects to the Bill as it  talks often about about individual students and meeting student needs. Both good things to be talking about. But on the other hand “high quality” and “equitable” are spoken of in terms of where we sit in the education league tables and that we are in the top 5 performing countries by the year 2025.  And most alarming to me is that “Data collected on schools and school students will:

(a) be of a higher quality; and
(b) contain more detail; and
(c) be more consistent; and
(d) be more available to the public;
than data currently collected on schools and school students.”

Sounds like more NAPLAN to me.

Another thing to consider is the Bill also implements the National Plan for School Improvement.  Once again there are many aspects of this plan which I am happy to see.  A look into vocational education, strengthening of community relationships, more support for graduate teachers, varied admission to university courses, more training for leaders. But the use of words such as ‘best and brightest’, ‘lift results’ and ‘left behind’ worry me greatly.

And there is more that scares me; a rigid curriculum, literacy and numeracy tests before teachers can graduate, data about school performance, more information in my school website, teachers receiving a review.  There is a lot of policy being ‘done to teachers and students.’

So please take the time to read these documents, talk about them in your staff room and think about our future of education.