Tag Archives: education

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.


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?

Gonski and beyond – improving Australian education

The move by the Federal Government to cut tertiary funding to fund the recommendations of the Gonski report is a short-sighted approach to education funding in Australia. The education system needs adequate funding from early childhood through to university. Our children should commence their educational journey with the guarantee that at every stage through which they pass – pre-school, primary, secondary, vocational and university – the education they receive is of a high standard. This is an educational journey that should continue throughout their lives with opportunities for further education as mature learners as well. It does not make sense to compromise the quality of one part of the education system by cutting its funds in order to give to another.

The measures announced by the Federal government do not result in additional funding for quality education in Australia. The contribution that education makes to the wellbeing of individual citizens, our economy and Australian society as a whole is widely acknowledged and proper resourcing across all phases of education is needed. According to OECD data the proportion of national wealth spent on educational institutions in Australia in 2008 was below the OECD average. Expenditure for all levels in Australia as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product expenditure is below the average and lower than a variety of countries including Korea and New Zealand.

The level of funding of education is not the sole or necessarily the most significant factor in determining the standard of education. A challenge to this premise is presented in the most recent Policy Brief of the Melbourne institute. Proper resourcing of education in schools is but one strand of the complex fabric that is a high standard education. Discussion of educational achievement in Australia demands a more complex response.

The impact of the quality of teaching on student achievement is significant. How can we ensure that teaching practice is of a high standard; that the curriculum guiding what happens in schools across the nation is not simply standardised, but enables the development of essential lifelong attributes such as analytical thinking and problem solving skills, creativity, the ability to work collaboratively – and independently.

Cuts in State Governments’ funding to the TAFE sector have already had a significant impact on the vocational educational sector. Cuts in federal government funding to universities will mean that universities will need to decide which courses, subjects and student services they can no longer afford to offer. Small, specialised courses may disappear, subject offerings in courses will be reduced resulting in a narrower range of electives available. Student services such as counselling, study skills and language support are also likely targets for cuts.

The Prime Minister argues that universities have a vested interest in increased funding of schools so that students are better prepared for university entry. It seems illogical to privilege one level of education at the expense of the other.

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?

Curiosity, confidence & compassion

Recently I was returning to Sydney by plane. In the three seats in front of me sat a young girl, her little brother and father. Across the aisle from them sat the mother. The boy looked to be about three years old and looked quite sweet – until he opened his mouth. He leant forward and looked over to his mother and said “Why are you sitting over there? You’re a loser mummy!”
His father said nothing.

What troubled me about this incident – apart from the fact that a child so young would take this attitude to his own mother – was the language of division and opposition that he so readily used. This perspective of the world, shaped by the idea that there are winners and losers and that the losers are to be jeered at, troubles me greatly; that there are sides to be taken and there is strength in numbers. A single instance such as this is disturbing on its own but it is not isolated and it is a broader social problem. I am one of many in our community concerned by the tenor of public discourse, such as the language of our politicians or prominent figures in the media, or the language used via social media.

Schools are often burdened, sometimes unreasonably, with the expectation that they can and should be educating students about all manner of subjects that sit outside the core academic curriculum, the latest example being childhood obesity. Nevertheless, it is right that school leaders and teachers reflect on how students’ perspectives are shaped by their experience of school. What kind of school is our school?

As we began the school year, our staff took time to think about what it is not only to be a Christian school, but specifically and uniquely, to be a Uniting Church School. The Rev Alistair Macrae, then President of the Assembly of the Uniting Church in Australia, posed the question: “Is there a DNA which belongs to the Uniting Church in Australia which … is evident across the breadth of the life and work of this church?” And if so, would that “DNA” that be apparent in the life of a Uniting Church School. He suggested four key points: being inclusive, engaged in reconciliation; working for justice and peace through experiences that expose students to the call “to serve the least, the lost, the lonely and the little.”; having a multicultural perspective – seeing the world and appreciating difference; and expanding the horizons of students through international partnerships. Alistair Macrae expressed his wish that through education, which he defined as “the purposeful activity of love”, children develop three values: curiosity, confidence and compassion.

My hope is that all schools, whether secular or faith based, work to foster these values: curiosity – the love of learning; confidence – learning to accept and love ourselves; and compassion – the love of others.

Measuring success at school – the final year

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.