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.
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
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?
Annually Year 12 students, their parents and schools eagerly await the release of final examination results. As a school principal I am always proud of their achievements: I am proud of the students who achieve academic excellence and attain results at the highest levels; and I am equally proud of the many students who reach their goals or attain results beyond their expectations. The quality of students’ results has a significant bearing on the places in tertiary education offered them.
Each year the NSW Board of Studies identifies ‘Distinguished Achievers’. These are students who achieve a Band 6, that is, a mark of 90 or more out of 100 in a 2 unit course or a mark of 45 or more out of 50 in an Extension course. Then each December a ranking or a “league table” of school performance in Year 12 is published in the press based upon the proportion of students obtaining a Band 6 in the HSC. This ranking is based upon information about the highest performing students only. As a measure of overall school performance even if we consider end-of-school examinations only, it has significant limitations. Most obviously where a school offers more than one matriculation programme this ranking does not give the complete picture even of the highest achieving students in the state as it only draws upon the NSW HSC results and not the results of IB Diploma students.
The publication of the league table of results is of limited value in measuring the success of a school. It measures success only by elite achievement when in fact a good school is concerned with the achievement of all students. The focus on media rankings begs the question how we measure educational success. Surely we should be concerned with how well all of our students have performed. The success of a school should not be measured only by the highest marks attained by the most able students. League tables of school results based on the highest achievers present a simplistic picture of the successes of schools and do not take account of the context of a school or its students.
A readily available measure of student performance in Year 12 is student distribution in ranks for the Australian Tertiary Admission Ranks /UAC rank. This is a more relevant quantitative measure than that used to create the media rankings because it gives an indication of access available to university places. The higher the ATAR, the broader the range of options for tertiary study that are available to a student. This measure reflects the achievements of students regardless of their chosen course of study (ie HSC or IB) and it more fully reflects the academic achievement of students across the subjects that they undertake in their final years at school. Ultimately though, the ranking attained for admission to tertiary study matters only insofar as it qualifies a student for entry to her preferred tertiary course. So a further measure of the success of year 12 students is the extent to which they were offered their highest personal preferences for tertiary courses.
Other quantitative data on student readiness for entering adult life is not easily obtained. For all students we should want that they have developed the skills and personal attributes – as well as the examination results – which together prepare them for further study and work and enable them to contribute thoughtfully and constructively to society. Students should take from their schooling more than their Year 12 results – attributes developed through leadership roles, team- based activities like sport or performing arts, community service and opportunities for values formation and spiritual development.