Institute of Total Education
Teaching and Leading from the Heart and Soul


The inclusive power of community

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Yesterday I attended the funeral of a young man who drowned at a surf beach two weeks ago. He had been a student at the school where I was principal for over 30 years and I had known him all his life. He was in his late 20s. He was in the prime of life, he had a beautiful fiancée with whom he was sharing his life. He had a stimulating and fulfilling career and a loving family and many friends who couldn’t believe he was no longer with them. As I sat there in the sadness, sharing the celebration of his life, speaker after speaker spoke of the importance of community.

Community and the importance of relationships was one of the key things this young man had learned from his involvement in school and the community that supported it and which physically surrounded the school property. This sense of belonging, of knowing who you neighbours were and of sharing their lives and supporting each other was something he just picked up from his family, his friends, his teachers and the whole virtuous circle of the human scale education that he had experienced.

His employer and work partner spoke with great eloquence of the gentleness of this young man, his sense of community, his respect for others and the valuing of individuals and relationships that he had picked up from the culture of his formative years, and the tremendous contribution this made to the development of this business into something more than a business. His mother, his friends and his fiancée all echoed these sentiments. I couldn’t be more proud or humbled.


Richard Waters 12/3/2015

What does it take to be emotionally ready to learn?

Thursday, October 31, 2013

I was interested to read recently how brain research is telling us that we need to be emotionally ready before we are able to learn. This fits with my experience over many years of trying to help students to learn new skills or knowledge.

Learning anything new requires a belief that it will be possible, before a young person can take the first step. As Professor John Hattie, from Melbourne University, said in the article I was reading, “To choose not to learn something can be seen as rationally prudent, while choosing to learn can be risky – and taking the risky choice depends on high levels of confidence.”

So students who are reluctant learners are not just being recalcitrant. This is where the intuition and experience of the teacher comes in – creating the emotional climate where the student feels confident to take that first, risky step of learning something new. This is as much about a relationship of trust as it is about knowledge.

A colleague of mine, who is a wonderful tutor, always used to say the important thing was to take students back to the point where they felt confident in their knowledge. Then you could move forward a step at a time from the known to the unknown like stepping on stones to cross a creek.

Education for a Good Life?

Thursday, October 31, 2013

I recently read an interview with social researcher, Hugh Mackay, who was reflecting on the fact that, although Australia had done relatively well weathering the Global Financial Crisis, we still felt anxious and confused. He put this down to the distraction of materialism.

He referred to the idea that we are social creatures, and that building strong communities by treating others with kindness and respect is the goal on which we should focus.

It occurred to me that the only way we can build these communities is by showing our children how. The Good Life, that we all want, is still based on treating other people they way we would like to be treated. We need to make this central to the education of our children.

For parents, it is about how we treat our partners, the people with whom we work and the people we deal with through our work. For teachers, it is about how we relate to our students, our colleagues, school leaders and parents.

Teaching children how to treat others with kindness and respect doesn’t have to be a special subject, it is built into how we interact every day and it is just as important as the academic curriculum.

As someone once said to me, “Education is about what is left after everything we have learned has been forgotten”.

Children do not learn well where there is tension

Monday, June 17, 2013

There is a myth in Australian schooling that students learn better when they are under pressure. My experience, as a teacher and school leader, is that if you can create a relaxed, friendly but respectful atmosphere in the classroom, children will learn more easily.

Research on brain functioning indicates that, as we learn, we make connections between the synapses of the brain and that this occurs best in situations of low stress. Undue pressure causes the brain to freeze up and this makes it harder to absorb information or make new connections.

In Grade 4, we had Mr Woodberry. He was a tall, lanky type who was warm and friendly. He was consistent and very seldom raised his voice although he did wield the strap in those days of corporal punishment. Everyone learned and progressed.

Miss Styles, in Grade 6, however, created an atmosphere of fear and trepidation. She would shout and lose her patience frequently. As a result, the students would freeze up, particularly those having difficulty, and many students slipped back in their grades in the space of a year.

Tension doesn’t just come from teachers, it permeates a school created by the school leadership, pressure from government and expectations of the local community. We should be creating schools where the atmosphere allows the students to learn and to optimise their achievement.

Why the Teacher-Student Relationship is central

Monday, June 17, 2013

It was good to see the Premier focus on Teacher Quality in his recent press release on “Great Teachers = Great Results”. However, Great Teachers are not just those with the best academic qualifications because the most effective teachers are those that build positive relationships with their students.

Children need to feel that they are cared for and are not just physically safe at school but feel emotionally secure and this comes more than anything else from the kind of person their teacher is. A teacher’s character, perhaps an old-fashioned word, is as important as well as their intellect and their instructional skills. A teacher is more a mentor than a manager and they need to be able to establish an atmosphere in their classroom where children feel they belong and are valued.

What works towards the brain opening up and establishing neural pathways is as much emotional security as intellectual stimulus. What shuts down children’s thinking is fear and insecurity and feeling like they are not cared for.

We need to be concerned about children’s learning but an over-emphasis on results is a bit like all the hype and expectation placed on our athletes at the London Olympics, it can be counter productive. Raising the pressure and the stakes doesn’t always translate in to better performance.

Let us look to Asia but not to copy the Chinese system

Monday, November 12, 2012

One of my strongest memories of my HSC external exam experience in Victoria was that the first rule of exams was don’t copy your neighbor’s work. So while admiring China’s success in becoming a leader in educational test scores, it doesn’t mean we should blindly copy the essentials of their education system. That’s because it is not what Australia or our children need.

Notwithstanding the Australian Government’s White paper on ‘Australia in the Asian Century’, we should be circumspect about adopting the key elements of the Chinese education system. Engaging with Asia should be about sharing our strengths in education and other areas. It should be about being open to learning about different systems and values from our own. It should be about being open to opportunities for Australia to share its understandings and creativity with others.

Some of the key elements of the Chinese system as recently reported include: a culture of success, hard work, long hours and rigorous regional and national testing (twice a year). To achieve this, teachers are penalized and demoted if their student test scores are not ‘good’. This approach fits within the current Global Education Reform Movement (or GERM) which has been criticized for narrowing the curriculum, being too test focused and punishing rather than trusting and supporting teachers as professionals.

The current century is also the conceptual age and one requiring as one author has put it “a whole new mind” driven by creativity, intrinsic motivation, co-operation, community and open-ended thinking. This kind of thinking will not be achieved by regimentation, over-testing, punishment, standardization and narrow casting the curriculum. So let’s avoid uncritically copying our neighbors, but really engage with the countries of Asia and see what we can learn and what we can share.

How do we get our best to want to be teachers?

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

There was more news coverage recently about the problem of how to attract the brightest and best into the teaching profession. It is an important issue because the main driver of school improvement is the quality of teaching.

One of the main suggestions is to have a higher minimum standard for entry into university courses in education. Currently, the entry OP score for teaching courses can be below OP 15 because it is based on the number of places available versus the number of students applying for entry. A quick look at the QTAC website for last year’s cut-offs for education courses will confirm this. It doesn’t mean just because you haven’t done brilliantly in Year 12 that you won’t make a good teacher but it is a concern.

Another idea is to have face to face interviews as part of the selection process to assess candidates suitability for the challenging nature of the classroom where an ability to relate to young people really is a prerequisite for surviving and thriving as teacher. It could be like the auditions used for entry into music and drama courses. This would be labor-intensive and there are all kinds of ethical hurdles about how to rank candidates, but the idea has merit.

The main issue though is our community’s attitudes towards the teaching profession. In Finland, teaching is ranked with law and medicine as an important and vital occupation that deserves high status and respect, so high achieving and talented young people see it as worthy of their aspiration. We are some distance from this situation in Australia. Teachers hold the future of our country in their hands and most teachers are dedicated and work very hard in school and after hours to see that their students achieve their potential. That is surely worthy of respect.

Managing Behaviour or Self Discipline?

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

There has been a lot of talk in the media about behaviour problems in schools recently. It is true that the poor behaviour of some students can make it impossible for productive learning to take place. All the good work done by teachers, and the students who want to study, can be cancelled out by a few disruptive students who for their own reasons aren’t willing or able to cooperate and comply with basic social expectations of reasonable behaviour.

However, the current focus on ‘behaviour management’ is too narrow to address the problems that relate to poor classroom behaviour. It is about containment rather than education.

Behaviour Management is a lowest common denominator approach which simplifies the complexity of student thinking and acting into a set of clearly defined expectations and consequences for non-compliance. These are made clear to students and teachers and there is a school-based framework for enforcement. This is good as far as it goes, but there is so much more behind a student’s behaviour than a ‘choice’ to behave one way or another in a given situation.

Students come from a context and that context is a family and that’s where they have learned about the boundaries of acceptable behaviour, social norms and how we should regard and treat other people. It is also where children learn how to control their behaviour, what we used to call ‘discipline’. Discipline is basically how to manage your energy. Some parents clearly need training in understanding and modelling discipline too.

All students need guidance from more mature people who have come to an understanding of how our behaviour impacts on others and how to contain and direct our energy to achieve positive goals. This should be a more significant part of teacher training in universities.

The CURE for the Golbal Education Reform Movement (GERM)

Friday, June 22, 2012

It is strange how an idea can gain acceptance and spread all over the world. The Global Education Reform Movement (GERM), which is dominating education policies in the western world at present, is a major example of this. The key elements are: focus on basics, prescribed performance standards, standardised testing, test-based accountability and top-down bureaucratic control of schools. These are also key elements of Australia’s education policy.

One of the main voices against these policies is the Finland Education Director, Pasi Sahlberg, who has characterized this unofficial convergence of education policy as a ‘GERM’ which has ‘infected’ western education systems. The effect of this he says has been the narrowing of curriculum, pre-occupation with data-gathering, an atmosphere of fear among teachers, too much bureaucratic control and a discouragement of innovation and creativity in teaching and learning at a time when it is needed most.

The Finnish solution or ‘CURE’ to ‘GERM’ requires a different mindset to the one currently in vogue in Canberra. Firstly, focus on the whole child and help each student find their own talent. Secondly, encourage innovation and creativity and personalise learning. Thirdly, minimise standardised testing and encourage self-assessment. Fourthly, don’t intimidate schools, teachers and students over test scores. Lastly, resist bureaucratic control and respect the professionalism of teachers who are trained and experienced in how to bring the best out in students and let principals focus on leading for learning rather than data gathering.

It was reassuring to hear this response because, as you may know, I am also in favour of education for the whole child and encouraging innovation and creativity. At some point in the 2000’s, politicians decided they knew best how education could deliver what this country needed. Now it is time for schools to resume control of education for the good of the country and their students.

Intrinsic Motivation is more Sustainable than Extrinsic Motivation

Friday, June 08, 2012

It is the time of year, coming up to end of semester assessments, when motivation can be an issue for senior students. Parents worry, teachers are concerned and students sometimes struggle to put the energy in where it's really needed, in finalizing assignments and preparing for exams.

Really the only person who can motivate the student is himself or herself. Our society is pretty good at providing external motivation such as competition and awards, on the positive side, or fear of failure, threats or anxiety on the negative side. These motivations are outside the person and, although they may work in the short term, they are not a great preparation for the future because they leave the individual dependent on others for their motivation.

The best kind of motivation is that which comes from within. Intrinsic motivation is something under the control of the individual and is more sustainable because of that. If a student can't find a reason within themselves to study, all the pushing and shoving from outside is probably not going to help.

Intrinsic motivation can include factors like enjoyment or finding an interest in the topics being studied. Sometimes you have to get into a topic before it becomes interesting. Finding a sense of challenge with individual tests and assignments is another way, “What could I achieve if I really put my mind into this?”

For parents, the best kind of support they can offer are creature comforts, such as good meals, a quiet place to study and reduced distractions. The other kind of support is inspiration, where a parent can act more like a coach in football team who demonstrates their belief in the ability of the person who is tackling a challenging situation by letting them get on with the job themselves.

Recent Posts