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.

Guest Learner at St Catherine’s, Cambridge

Today we headed to Cambridge for our first school visit in England.  We arrive at Parkside Academy, which is a federation academy meaning they run more than one school.  In this case there are two secondary colleges and a Sixth Form college.  They are also about to have another school join their federation.  Federations begin when a successful school takes over the running of a less successful school.  At Parkside their reason for doing this is a feeling of obligation to help out the failing school and also the economies of scale which come with having two schools. This concerns me deeply when the government are no longer responsible for a school but this obligation falls to neighbouring schools.  If governments are no longer responsible for ensuring good quality education for everyone it sends a message that they don’t believe education should be a priority. Don’t get me wrong, Parkside appear to be doing a great job, but governments shouldn’t rely on this as a means to ‘fixing’ failing schools.

A short walk from the main campus of Parkside is their 6th form college (Years 12 & 13 or similar to VCE).  It offers the International Baccalaureate, an internationally renowned programme which encourages students to ask questions, develop their own identity, respect and communicate with others and learn how to learn. I am interested in how a programme like this fits into the rigid English inspection system. Ofsted, the office which carries out regular inspections on schools in England, is often presumed  to be looking for good test results or value added education. Here the focus is on creative learners who learn more than just facts and they believe this fits with the expectation of Ofsted.  It is interesting that some schools see Ofsted in relation to test results, where others look to the more holistic elements of education.

Our afternoon visit is one I have been looking forward to.  A look inside the hallowed halls of Cambridge University.  It really is like another world, not because of the fancy paintings on the walls or the beautifully manicured lawns but because of how few people get the opportunity to be part of the inner workings of Cambridge.  With only 400 students at St Catherine’s, from approximately 9000 undergraduates at the 31 colleges, you can see to get a University of Cambridge degree is a rather privileged affair.

Some of the features of the college include shortened terms where they attend for 3 x 8 week blocks.  It is expected throughout this time to be completely dedicated to college life and schooling.  Trips home for the weekend are discouraged during term time and you are expected to take part in the healthy competition between colleges.  A feature of the Cambridge system is the 1:1 mentor [programme where students spend an hour a week with their mentor teacher receiving guidance.

PicMonkey Collage

But we weren’t actually there to learn about St Catherine’s but rather to attend a seminar on career policy by St Catherine’s Professor, Tony Watts. He spoke of his study into the development of careers guidance in 14 countries and concluded that no one does it very well.  Across the world there is a lack of education based around identity formation, occupational identify, industry connections, funding and curriculum focus.  He looks to Germany as a model most with their dual system, strong career advice, relationships with unions and the respected ideal of vocational learning.

As I leave St Catherine’s, making sure not to stand on the grass (it is only allowed by fellows and frowned upon by commoners!) I realise on the inside, St Catherine’s has many similarities to any university as they look to answer questions and learn what they can.


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.