Category Archives: Engagement

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.

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?

Going 1 to 1

The education our students receive at school should prepare them for life by fostering their development across the four domains of the academic, social, emotional and spiritual.

The focus at government level is on academic achievement that is principally defined by the performance of educational systems in standardized tests, while other eminent educators and commentators have contributed their views on many other issues such as the importance of fostering creativity or how best to motivate and engage students.

Regardless of the perspective taken by contributors to contemporary discussion a common theme is one of uncertainty around the kind of future for which we are preparing students. This uncertainty derives from the observable dramatic rate of change that is driven by technological innovation.

We are in the process of implementing the key aspects of our ICT Strategic Plan. Our vision is “to prepare our students for a global and digitally connected world in which technology is essential and ubiquitous.” In order to achieve this we are convinced that students need to have their own devices, such as a tablet or laptop, because they will most certainly need proficiency in digital, visual, informational, and textual literacy along with critical thinking and creative problem solving skills.

Engagement with students matters

The key to the success of our students is engagement – engagement of the students themselves in their learning and broad school life; the engagement of parents and the staff of the school.

When we demonstrate our commitment and co-operation in our work – whatever that is – it is a powerful message to our students that we care.

We are all working with a shared vision and mission: we are preparing our students to become adults equipped in all dimensions – academic, social emotional and spiritual -to make a positive contribution to the world. Some ways in which we support our students in achieving this:
• The quality of our interactions with them
• The environment that we create and share –physical, learning, spiritual
• The resources we bring, introduce and produce
• The quality of teaching and learning

Respectful, caring interactions with students are vital. At school we’ve been taking some advice from a child psychiatrist – in the context of gaining a better understanding of self- harm. He believes that anyone who deals with the students has a responsibility to get to know the person: “self- harm is evidence of failure of relational connection.” In all our interactions – as colleagues working together and with students- we should model and live care, respect. Students need us to take an interest in them and recognise them as individuals. Every student should have five adults they feel they could go to if they needed support.

As teachers we have a professional duty to students. Every child in our classes needs to be known and understood.To use a medical analogy, a doctor treats a patient regardless of the issues and poor habits the patient brings. We cannot renounce our obligation to our students of finding the way into engaging them in their learning; it’s not good enough to say a child is always away/is lazy/not bright and accept under-performance. We must avoid complacency and expect the best from all students, foster the best in them.

My plea is that we all think about the students “in the middle.” Who are the students you know? Is it the high achievers; the students needing support; those who nominate/are picked for special roles? What about all the students in “grey” in the middle? How successfully have we engaged them? Indeed how do we know that all of our students are engaged?

Relationships are vital to engagement. Cornelius-White wrote “in classes with person-centred teachers there is more engagement…and higher achievement outcomes.” He notes that most students who do not wish to come to school or who dislike school do so primarily because they dislike their teacher. His claim is that “to improve teacher-student relationships and reap their benefits, teachers should learn to facilitate the students’ development by demonstrating that they care for the learning of each student as a person. (cited by John Hattie in Visible Learning 2008).

As we prepare for the start of term our students are out there waiting to meet us – in various frames of mind, but certainly with high expectation. At his conference in Boston last July Alan November announced the “First Five Days” project that aims to prompt thinking about how to make the start of the school year the best it can be. I issue the challenge to teachers: what will be your students’ experience not only of the first five days of school, but every day?