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


Are We Ready for the Asian Century?

Thursday, October 03, 2013

So we have a new government in Canberra and it looks like business as usual in the education sector, failing some new policy directions which weren’t canvassed during the election. However, one would expect a continuation of the policy to engage with our northern neighbours as we move deeper into the Asian Century.

In terms of education, the promotion of the learning of Asian languages and extending our knowledge of Asian cultures and histories would seem to be imperative. Some schools are doing well in this area and, with more funding and training, this can be improved further. However, what is not so clear is whether our attitudes towards Asia are changing from fear and xenophobia to acceptance, tolerance and understanding.

As a younger generation travels overseas (beyond Bali) and takes up educational and business opportunities, it is to be hoped that the inevitable cultural contact will promote a mutual respect and understanding that goes beyond the culinary.

It is not unusual for people to be afraid of the unfamiliar but hopefully we can have an open mind to learning from cultures that are often thousands of years older than ours. The opportunities that come from broadening our horizons, and our minds, are enormous and can enrich our lives and those of our children.

Education priorities should come before politics. Where is the leadership?

Monday, March 25, 2013

It is frustrating sitting on the sidelines watching politicians from all parties putting petty point scoring ahead of making progress on education reform. This is particularly the case with the Gonski education reforms which seem to be bogged down by political squabbles rather being discussed on the basis of their merits.

Some state governments, including Queensland and Western Australia (and up to last week Victoria), are now saying they don’t want the reforms and the massive new injection of funds that would benefit all communities, and especially those schools at the lower scale of socio-economic standing.

On the other hand, the Commonwealth Government still have not spelled out the details of the reforms so that it is very hard for groups like the Independent schools and the Catholic system to plan ahead or to say whether or not they support the reforms. Add to this, the various strings that are being attached to the changes such as compulsory School Improvement Plans which could add to the bureaucratic burden principals already face and which distract their attention away from teaching and learning and the social and emotional well being of their students.

Australians are not that impressed with politicians at the best of times, and many people are cynical about the word ‘reform’ when it is linked to government. So, how about our political leaders, both state and federal, put the schoolyard squabbles aside and starting acting like the leaders and statespersons they are supposed to be? 

Are we graduating students who can be contributors to society?

Friday, November 23, 2012

It is that time of the year when our schools say good bye to their Year 12 graduates and it always gets me thinking about the purpose of education.

Some schools call it Speech Night or Awards Night and it often has a focus on the winners of prizes for academic, sporting and artistic achievements. However, it is not just the winners who have completed their schooling and while it is great to recognize talent and hard work it is also worth pondering about the kind of people we are putting out into the community.

Hopefully, if we have done our job properly, we as educators are graduating people who can contribute something to society, who have a level of maturity about them and who are basically good citizens. This does not just mean people who can get a job and vote every three years. A good citizen is one who can build relationships with others in the work place, in the families which they will be creating and with the people they meet in their everyday lives.

This doesn’t just happen. Good citizens are nurtured by their families and it is on this foundation that schools can build. Schools need to make creating good citizens one of their key goals as it is indeed one of our National Goals of Schooling. Schools need to have programs that help develop awareness in students that they are not just pursuing their individual goals but that they are also part of a society that needs their positive input. This could also be described as empathy and the ability to connect with others.

So let’s celebrate with the Year 12 students the end of their schooling but let us also reflect how we can ensure that we are handing over to society young people who can be contributors as well as consumers.

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.

Do you give a Gonski?

Friday, August 31, 2012

Gonski is in the news again with the politicians are fighting it out over who is the most generous party when it comes to school funding. Julia Gillard has said that no school will be disadvantaged by the new system based on the Gonski Report and that in fact all schools will get increased funding. Tony Abbott is trying to match this so his party doesn't lose votes over the issue. An implementation of the Gonski funding reforms would cost around $6.5 billion at current estimates. The way the main parties are talking about it, it could cost a lot more. If no one is going to be disadvantaged, why not leave the system alone?

Education is such an important issue in Australia that it should not be an argument in party political terms. Education should be a bipartisan issue. The parties should stop bickering and put the good of the country ahead of party political advantage. That may be a vain hope but it is what is needed.

Most people agree that all schools should get some base funding and that there should be a supplementation of this on the basis of socio-economic need since that has been established as the main disadvantage in children's education, at least on the academic level. Of course, more money alone won’t improve academic performance.

The main problem with the way the Government plans to implement Gonski seems to be that the they are intent on extracting even more information from schools with such measures as value-adding. These measures will simply distract more attention away from teaching and put it more onto reporting and massaging the figures so schools don’t lose funding. Governments need to get out of the way and let schools do what they do best, which is teach children.

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.

Is Education Reform Just About Money?

Monday, April 16, 2012

“Wealth the key to school success!” the headline shouted in a major education story this week. The story showed that the top performing schools in the national literacy and numeracy (NAPLAN) tests were from the country's wealthiest areas. On the one hand, it is surely no surprise that areas of socioeconomic advantage also have educational advantage. On the other hand, if this evidence is used to make the case to throw more money at low achieving schools in low SES areas it won't necessarily solve the problem.

Even within our own area there are significant differences in NAPLAN performances and in the socioeconomic background of parents in the different schools. I did a quick search of the new ‘Your School’ website on Warwick’s postcode of 4370 and it instantly gave me a list of Warwick schools to compare.

However, even though the concern is apparently about wealth inequalities, the measure used to indicate social inequality, the Index of Community Socio-Educational Advantage (ICSEA) does not include a measure of parent income.

So there are schools with lesser or greater disadvantage in their students’ backgrounds, but what is the best way to address this? Can you really expect schools to reverse all the effects of social disadvantage?

Where governments can make a difference in school performance is to continually work towards enhancing the quality of teachers and placing good teachers in low SES areas. Teachers, at a minimum, need greater emphasis on literacy and numeracy in the pre-service courses. However, teachers also need better training in how to really inspire young people through the impact of their own character and teachers also need input on how to reach out to and engage with parents so they can support their children's learning and growth. Neither of these important aspects are significant parts of current teacher training courses.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T is the essential quality in teacher-student relationships

Friday, March 30, 2012

At a seminar last week I asked a group of teachers about the qualities of the teachers who inspired them when they were at school. Much of what they said involved respect.

Mutual respect is a central part of any good relationship but it is a key to learning. For real learning to occur there has to be a feeling that each of the parties brings a sense of respect to the relationship. The teachers I talked to said that really good teachers showed respect to their students and made them feel they were worthwhile.

Of course respect needs to be reciprocated from the student to the teacher. However, respect is something you earn rather than something you are given automatically. For teachers this works on a number of levels. Learners respect teachers who have a knowledge of their subject and especially if they are obviously fascinated in what they are teaching.

Children also recognise people with character and they respect that in teachers. Qualities like patience, consistency and responsibility are core elements in a good teacher’s character. In their own way, children actually make choices about who they will attend to and who they will ignore and this is largely based on respect.

Unfortunately, respect for teachers is not as high as it could be in the community. The shift of the direction and control of education towards government and politicians and away from educators may have something to do with this. Teaching is an art and the people who know most about it are the professionals, the ones who spend each day in classrooms with young learners. They know what they are talking about.

Parents also have a role to play in modelling respect for teachers and people with knowledge and wisdom in the community. If parents do not indicate through their actions and comments that teachers are worthy of respect why would their children be any different?

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