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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Schools Really Need to Treat Parents as Partners

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Schools and parents have a symbiotic relationship where each depends on the other. Schools need support from parents to succeed in the education of the students in their care but parents could also do with some support from schools given the rapidly changing social environment.

Schools need the help of parents in fundraising, volunteer work with tuck shops, working bees, supervision on excursions and many other areas. Unfortunately, many families find that both parents need to contribute to earning family income and are less available for volunteering and participation.

The support schools need from parents is not just about fundraising and volunteering but also support for what schools are trying to do. Perhaps schools may not have been a place where some parents felt at home, but those parents can really help their children by encouraging them to listen to the teachers, to make an effort in their studies and to be open to all the learning that is available in the school environment.

However, it is not just about academic development but also the values and attitudes that children bring from home that influence a child’s school career and indeed how much the school can assist each child to maximize their potential.

Schools could reciprocate the support they receive from parents by providing input for parents on parenting. There are some great seminars in capital cities by an organization called Generation Next on issues of concern such as bullying, self-harm, youth suicide, drug use and underage drinking? Why not bring one of these to our local area or better still, why not design our own seminar with local doctors, psychologists and counsellors? This could be helpful to parents of all schools in meeting the challenges of a rapidly changing society.

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