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


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.

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.

Are Schools the new centres of community?

Friday, October 19, 2012

This week I spoke to Rob Mohloek, the Assistant Minister of Child Protection, at Parliament House about his concerns related the huge numbers of children coming to the notice of the Child Protection authorities; one in four Queensland children over the course of their young lives.

One of his main interests is the need for a more comprehensive approach in the social emotional education of children and the development of their awareness and skills in these areas. There are good programs in some schools and the Queensland Government’s Student Well Being Framework is a good step in the right direction but schools are being left to select and implement their own programs. What’s needed is a comprehensive and integrated program that equips all children and especially those at risk with awareness and skills that give them greater resilience to manage life’s most important challenges.

The other area of need is parent education and the Minister was very interested to hear about the comprehensive approach to this at The School of Total Education in Warwick. There parents are supported in their parenting by attending regular discussion groups and have timely input from experts and guest speakers. There is further individual support through the Centre for Healthy Living.

Many years ago it was the church which provided the most important moral guidance and focus of community life but now only 4% of the population are regular church attenders. By default, Schools have become the centers of community life, and for some children school is the only place they really feel safe. Schools are yet to realize the reality of this profound cultural transformation and the responsibilities that come with it. Neither has government.

It was refreshing to meet such a sincere person as the Assistant Minister with a real concern about the young people in our community who are so important to all our futures.

Will self-management produce real leadership?

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

The Education Minister, John Paul Langbroek, recently announced the 26 schools which will pilot the Queensland Independent Public Schools program.  These schools, “are to have the freedom to directly recruit teachers and to build a team that is able to deliver innovative educational practices, as well as having more autonomy to manage infrastructure and financial resources”.

The issue with this policy is that while the rhetoric supports autonomy, the amount of independence and self-management is limited. Indeed, financial support to help this process is only $50,000 start up and $50,000 annually per school. No doubt there are also expectations on the part of the state government that these autonomous schools will show efficiencies and improvements on various measures.

Autonomy and self-management are positive ideas and if genuinely implemented could give principals and their leadership teams greater ability to respond to the educational needs of their students. However, there can be a problem if they are simply being given more of the responsibility but not much more power or resources.

Self-management does not mean that the principal can do what he or she likes. Principals will have to work with a school council which will be made up of community members, school parents and nominated representatives.

All of this focuses on the role of the principal as a manager when perhaps a more important role is the principal as an educational leader who can ensure that programs in his or her school are really meeting the needs of their students in terms of their academic, physical and even more important their character development.

It is to be hoped that principals will be given sufficient and appropriate training so that they can meet the very challenging requirements of being a self-managing leader.

Should we be focussing less on competitive sport and more on health?

Thursday, August 02, 2012

With the Olympics in full swing and our attention riveted on our elite athletes in London, it was disturbing to hear former marathon runner Rob de Castella on the ABC radio recently talking about how unfit Australian kids are becoming. He was talking about the unprecedented obesity rates and how some kids don’t know how to run, jump or even skip!

A lot of it is put down to children becoming fast food consuming, computer addicted, couch potatoes. However, maybe we should also be looking at our fairly narrow view of health being driven by the myth of Australia as a nation of sporting legends.

In schools, the focus is often on periodic carnivals in athletics and swimming and the emphasis on being the best, fastest, strongest and the way the winners are applauded, lauded and awarded. It is no wonder, a lot of kids conclude that sport is not for them and even the winners leave school never to pick up a racquet or a bat again.

Maybe it is time for a focus on health rather than sport. It should be about physical education classes where all students and teachers spend 15-30 minutes every day in enjoyable physical activity accessible by everyone.

Health is also about a nutritional diet and learning about how to make tasty meals that are good for you rather than having to buy it ready-made. It is about learning how to refresh your mind with quietness and how to de-stress with recreation in the fresh air away from computer games and Google and Facebook and videos.

If schools could focus more on health and less on competitive sport we might just be able to win the battle for our children’s physical well being

Student Well Being is Everyone's Concern

Friday, July 20, 2012

Education Queensland is about to launch its Well Being Framework which all schools will be expected to address. They are doing it in style with a barnstorming tour of the state by psychologist, Michael Carr-Gregg, who is well known in the media for his insights into adolescent health and well being. I am sure this will be valuable but it is important to build local capability to support student well being through our own doctors, psychologists, counsellors and teachers.

There has been growing concern in the community about student well being, especially adolescents, with issues like bullying, anxiety, depression, body image, eating disorders and self harm as well as underage drinking and drug use. Schools see the results of these problems on a daily basis in students inability to engage with learning and many teachers, trained with a purely academic focus, are ill equipped to manage the fall out.

Parental influence is so important in supporting children’s well being but they struggle with other influences like the peer group, the media and the ubiquitous internet. Parents need help with what to expect in adolescent behaviour and to realise the importance of staying involved with the lives of their almost adult children.

Schools for their part need to be places where kids experience a sense of connection and inclusion. The mainstream ethos of competition and adulation of winners must leave a lot of young people feeling like second-class citizens; uninvolved and disconnected.

It is great that Education Queensland is recognising the importance of student well being because it marks a broadening of the aims of education to be more holistic and to focus on the development of students as people and not just scholars. Schools need support from the rest of the community if this more rounded goal of education is to be realised.

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.

Challenging the Productivity Paradigm in Education

Thursday, April 26, 2012

I hear a lot of talk in business and education about paradigms. A paradigm is the current narrative (or story) about how things are in the world or in a particular field such as education. It’s what the American economist J.K. Galbraith called the “conventional wisdom”.

The current story goes like this. Australia survived the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) better than most. However, next time we might not be so lucky. So to maintain a strong economy we need to build our productivity. Productivity means we can produce more goods and services with the same or less workers. To achieve this, we need an education system to train our students with the skills needed for the 21st-century economy. The best way to achieve this is to have national testing of literacy and numeracy skills, to publish the results and highlight the low and high achieving schools. This will motivate schools to ensure students achieve better results, the country’s productivity will improve and give us an international economic advantage.

What’s wrong with this story? Well, unfortunately, it is based on dodgy assumptions, leading to a flaky hypothesis, an inaccurate prognosis and an invalid conclusion.

Productivity and 21st Century skills are all about being innovative, new ways of thinking and creative solutions that can be taken up rapidly throughout the economy. You will not achieve this by narrowing the focus of learning, creating an atmosphere of fear, top-down direction and high stakes comparison of results which are the outcomes of the current system.

So rather than narrow down the curriculum with a view to improving test scores we should be broadening it out. Don’t intimidate students. Build confidence through appropriate challenges, strong relationships and emotional security. Then the creativity will come bubbling out in all sorts of ways and we will get a really happy ending for everyone.

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