Category Archives: Education

Landscapes for learning

The first time I genuinely experienced the power of using the outdoors for learning was on a visit to The Coombes School  in Berkshire, UK.  The school grounds have been developed over 40 years to become what the school now describes as “a living resource for all curriculum areas” and the “largest classroom”. It is a magical place, creating wonder, respect for the environment, space for play and quiet reflection while learning.  Images of the school accompanied by brief commentary by school leaders give a reasonable idea of the school’s approach.

The Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education uses the outdoors as, what is termed, the “third educator.” Reggio Children, the Domus Academy Research Centre published research into the role of the learning environment over 15 years ago now the collection of writings edited by Ceppi (1998) Children, Spaces, Relations: metaproject for an environment for young children.  This work has been influential in the shaping of thinking about, not only early childhood but also, learning in the school years.

A school should be a place that “senses” what is happening outside – from the weather to seasonal changes, from the time of day to the rhythms of the town…

Many of our students engage with virtual worlds through gaming both for social and  educational purposes. Research into the impact of gaming indicates the positive effects of moderate gaming. Schools that emphasise and value the connection with, and learning in and about the landscape around us, provide an important balance for students.

 

Changing Places

I am about to begin the final term at the NSW school where I have been Principal for eleven years. In January I take up the role of Principal at another school in Victoria. 

I am changing places.

Leaving so much brings some personal sadness: leaving a city I have grown to love; leaving my house that is filled with light and warmth; leaving friends made; and of course the family life I have lived here in this place. 

I described to one of my daughters the feeling, as I put the last of my (adult) children on the train to Melbourne, as an unravelling  . “Think of it as a transfer, ” she replied practically. “A transfer , yes.”

For a Principal, such a “transfer” brings leadership challenges.

Ownership

Principals may develop a proprietorial attitude toward their schools, making it difficult for them to accept the inevitability of  a successor – who will do things in their own way. I have grown to love the school and have invested so much of myself in it. As I prepare to leave it I am conscious of a certain vulnerability. As leaders we listen, we dream, we talk, we create and we build visions for our schools and relationships with students, staff and their families.  It is a little painful to contemplate the changes that will be wrought under new leadership. W B Yeats’ lines express this vulnerability well: 

I have spread my dreams under your feet; Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

Of course it is foolish to dwell on this. New leadership should bring change, just as our leadership did in our own time! The challenge for leaders is to remain positive about leaving and the prospect of change ahead. Change creates uncertainty for everyone in the school and if we really care for our communities we show leadership in managing the transition as carefully as we are able.
Relevance

I know of a school where the retiring Principal, sensing keenly a diminution of influence as their final day approached, “resigned” from the leadership team and withdrew to the office to tidy up the files. Perhaps an extreme example, but a sense of feeling redundant to planning and decision making seems to be a common experience.  From this perspective we show leadership by remaining committed, offering advice and supporting staff, particularly the leadership team, as they put in place the arrangements for a new school year in which we will not be present. We should lighten the touch, but not let go.

Looking forward

When leaving is about moving onto leadership of another school there are further considerations.  There is no bigger bore than the person who makes constant reference to their past school, except perhaps the one who cannot stop talking about their next! 

There is a time for everything. So I am making the most of enjoying every last day at “my” school and hope that I am providing the presence and support that the school requires for the smoothest of transitions. Quietly I am preparing for my next place, mindful of the huge pair of shoes I have to fill.

Reflection on education

I began my teaching career in a multicultural inner suburban high school in Melbourne. My motivation was to share my passion for English language studies with my students and to provide them with engaging and challenging learning experiences. I understood that education provides the foundation for life by enabling access to further study and employment. Education also develops mature individuals; their ways of appreciating others and understanding the self. I learned that the development of intercultural understanding is essential to the creation of a harmonious society to which individuals from different backgrounds can contribute. My educational philosophy has grown from there, founded on the belief that schools should be committed to nurturing the whole person: to exercising both the mind and body and to caring for the social, emotional and spiritual well-being of each individual as they become mature citizens.

The challenges facing education in Australia today are not unique to our country. Schools play a crucial role in preparing students for life in a world that is changing so rapidly that we cannot accurately predict the skills and knowledge they will require in the future. Educational programs must excite students’ curiosity, foster inquiry, creativity, problem solving and thinking skills. The link between the quality of teaching and student achievement is well understood and the school should be a community of learners – teachers and students alike – focused upon excellence in learning.

The quality of teaching must be a high priority in our schools. This involves building a culture of professional learning where teachers are committed to working on improvement in their own practice both individually and collectively. This involves professional review, goal setting, action research, collaboration in learning and peer review. Moreover, as technology and social change increasingly effect the delivery of education, teachers must be prepared to innovate in the way in which learning is organized and student academic progress monitored and supported. Traditional models of classroom delivery are now but one option for the organization of student learning.

Student engagement in learning is essential to success yet research indicates significant levels of disengagement in Australian students. Formal learning experiences will be authentic, have purpose and meaning, and allow student agency. Informal learning experiences should be acknowledged and provided for in school programs.

The high levels of anxiety and depression experienced by young people pose a significant challenge for Australian educators. We talk to students about our rapidly changing, uncertain and conflicted world but we must give them personal skills and strategies for understanding and coping with complexity and uncertainty. This enables personal growth. A cohesive school community is one in which care is demonstrated, in which the actions of its members reflect the values of the school, in which significant rituals are observed and achievements are celebrated. Schools should enable all students to enjoy success in their individual achievements and to be equipped for life as mature, responsible and caring members of our world.

These are exciting and challenging times in education as we respond to technological innovation, to new knowledge about learning and the brain and to ways to promote student wellbeing and achievement. We do not know what the future of education will look like, save that those who will grasp the future are those that form part of a community of learners; students that engage in a variety of learning experiences and teachers that engage with the best in educational research, are open to exploring new ideas and maintain an abiding commitment to improving the learning for our students.

Effort and the passion for learning

With the sports news in the background of my weekend I caught a radio report of Serena Williams’ victory at the Australian Tennis Open 2015 and a replay of part of her  winning speech . Citing her modest background, Williams reflected on how,  never thinking she would be the winner of 19 championships, “I went on the courts with just a ball and a racquet and a hope.” Many would add to that – and some considerable talent. But what Williams emphasised was perseverance and effort, saying “for all you guys out there that want to do something and want to be the best that you can be and want to do the best that you can do, you just never give up…”

The efforts of successful sports men and women are perhaps commonly noted. But the point is equally relevant to our students in school. When I think about fostering a passion for learning I find myself repeatedly turning to the insights of Carol Dweck, explained in her book Mindset. Over years of research Dweck, a Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, has observed that people with a growth mindset based on a belief that their abilities can be expanded will develop ” the love of challenge, belief in effort, resilience in the face of setbacks, and greater (more creative) success.”

As we started our school year I reflected on the value of encouragement of our students; encouragement to develop a belief in the possibilities of their own learning and by giving them praise for effort. Only when they start to beat their own wings will they fly.

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Challenging the BMX bike syndrome

As the date approaches for the annual NAPLAN testing (National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy), the discussion around the value of national testing, and indeed international testing, is revisited.

That every child should be both literate and numerate is an absolute basic right. National testing has its place in providing a snapshot on a single day of student attainment of these educational basics. NAPLAN results can provide individual teachers and schools with usable and useful information about student learning. The danger with national tests is not the tests themselves but the use to which they may be put by reducing consideration of teaching and learning to the lowest common denominator.

As a beginning English teacher, I wrestled with finding ways to engage my students in the study of English in all of its remarkable forms. At the core of my practice was the desire to foster a love of language and literature, to connect students with big ideas and equip them to interpret and use the language to enrich their own experience. I was often disappointed by the tendency of those who saw the way of connecting students to learning was by looking for the simplest of texts, or designing units of work around issues deemed to be of popular appeal. At that time, BMX bikes were all the rage with teenage boys (as evidenced by 1983 film BMX Bandits) and so I coined the term “the BMX bike syndrome”, for that approach to education that sets its sights on the basics, rather than the rewards of embracing the challenges of learning.

Dr Paul Brock usefully distinguishes between “the basics”, literacy and numeracy, and “the fundamentals”, the full breadth and depth of learning possible in English and Mathematics. He alerts us to the dangers of an over emphasis on national test results:

…the fundamentals continue to be at risk of being seriously diluted by the necessary, but not sufficient, focus on the basics.

As educators, we want our students to be successful learners so that they can leave school equipped for further study and work that enables them to lead fulfilling lives. The basics are essential, but our students’ learning is impoverished when they are engaged in drill and practice that is motivated by undue emphasis on the outcomes of national tests.

Brock, Paul (2011) towards Schooling in the 21st Century: ‘Back to Basics’ or Forward to Fundamentals ACEL Monograph Series

What do you value about schools?

Travelling through the UK several years ago I visited a wide range of schools to learn about the different ways in which they excelled. I saw effective online learning communities that enabled the snowbound girls of the Holt School to continue their learning relatively uninterrupted; I saw the way integration of the playground and the classroom provided a nurturing environment for students challenged by the traditional restrictive classroom and that it is possible to enable improvement in learning outcomes for students from deprived and confronting urban communities by creating a structured learning environment that insists that the street culture has no place within the walls of the school.

In the lead up to the release of final Year 12 results and the inevitable publication of leagues tables of schools some will be asking is our school in the top 100? But, is that really the key question we should be asking? Is the thing we most value about our school its position in a media generated table?

If I were to ask parents, parents, students and teachers to nominate just 5 things that they value about a school our lists might vary but I suggest that they would look something like this:

Let’s start with parents. The 5 things parents value about a school are:
• The breadth of curriculum and activities for your child to choose from
• A good learning environment – a positive learning community
• Good communication between school and home
• Socialising: having friends and peers that your child can do things with
• A sense of community – parents feel welcome

And students? I suggest the 5 things students value about school:
• Teachers who engage students in class and care about their students
• A safe environment where students have access to people they trust if they have a problems
• Good school facilities, playgrounds and learning spaces
• Opportunities to develop and display your talents
• A strong community based on trust; a community that makes you feel that you belong to something bigger

And as a teacher, the 5 things I would nominate that teachers value about school:
• Relationships with students and the privilege of witnessing their intellectual and social development
• Access to resources that can enhance the performance of the job
• Collegial supportive working relationships
• A culture of professional development and learning
• The support of parents and senior staff

What would you put on your list?

Living at school – a new take on boarding

2013 was meant to be the final year for providing boarding at Ravenswood. As the year approached, we took another look at how boarding might be offered into the future of the school. From this evolved the Ravenswood Residential College, which provides accommodation for senior school students in Years 10, 11 and 12.

Ours is a small house, taking up to around 30 students at most as full or weekly boarders. We know that many of our students will go on to university after completing their HSC or IB Diploma at Ravenswood. It is likely, if they are international students or reside in regional NSW, that they will live in a college or share house. We aim to provide our students with experiences that will help make the transition to university as easy as can be. Good study patterns are encouraged and cooperative living habits are fostered.

We used designers experienced in the hospitality industry to redesign (page 25) our house to suit senior students. All common areas, no matter how small, have been creatively utilized for relaxation, and study. Our students are still attending school, but their experience in the residential college will help prepare them for the next stage of their studies once they leave school.