Category: Education
Teach for the best, not to the test

The despairing commentary of the most recent international maths and science performances by Australian students is as predictable as it is unfortunate.

Despite the commentary, Australia’s education system is not broken.
We’re just talking too much about a race that may not be worth entering.

The reality of the data is that Australia’s test scores in science and maths have essentially remained stagnant for many years, while other ‘competing’ countries have invested heavily on lifting these results.

I’ve been in classrooms overseas and have seen some of these nations that have improved in these international tests.

The difference is that many of these other countries, including Shanghai, which was noted as “outperforming” Australia, focus on rote learning.

You will see rows of desks occupied by 40-60 students, all compliantly gazing at the blackboard, hanging on every word of the teacher.
The difference between us and these countries is not the skill of the teacher, the resources of the school, or the content of their curriculum, but in the respective cultures. There is a difference by a country mile in work ethic and expectations. The really intriguing thing is that teachers in Shanghai are saying that they need to look to Australia because we have a greater values-based education, something they are lusting after.

The real question we should be asking is, “what is an education worth having?” Is it one where we adopt a ‘me too’ philosophy and simply judge ourselves by the results of some standardised testing, or should we think more broadly? Should we think more creatively.

My worry is that the narrative of a failing education system will continue to gain momentum. The implications for teachers and students are alarming.

There will inevitably be a growing temptation among educators to ‘teach to the test’. Teachers will be encouraged to prioritise students’ standardised test results at all costs and the effects will be twofold.
One, we’ll likely rise on the international leader board ranking, causing policymakers and commentators to cheer.

Second, we’ll cripple the creativity of classes, leading to a generation of students who are great at sitting tests, but with no imagination.
If you were to consult the C-suite of Australian businesses regarding what they most value in their employees, I would expect “the ability to perform well in standardised testing’ would not rank among the highest answers.

They would likely say that a candidate’s ability to problem-solve, think laterally, persist in the face of obstacles and work in teams would be valued far more highly.

And this is the disconnect – the education sector is being pushed in one direction, while business is pulling in another. And these latest international rankings and predictable outrage will only reinforce this misdirected status quo.

The reality is that, to prepare students for the needs of a current and future workforce, one where many of the jobs they’ll be performing don’t yet exist, we need to prioritise more than just test results. Students need high levels of creativity, the ability to persist through failure, an innovative mindset and an entrepreneurial spirit.

The challenge for educators is how to find ways in which to help students access and grow their remarkable creative capacity. The encourage them to develop resilience and not see failure as ‘the end’.
At St Paul’s School, we recently ran an Entrepreneurs Club. Students from Years 7-12 (and even some teachers) worked alongside one another to prototype and pitch a business to a panel of investors. One idea was a bin that disintegrates rubbish, improving waste management systems.

Some ideas won’t work, but one or two have already generated investor interest with a view to becoming fully-funded start-ups.
However, how will these students find the time to develop these businesses while also needing to prepare for the pressure of standardised testing? The unhealthy preoccupation with this testing is potentially costing Australia it’s next Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Baxter.

Australian educators, corporates and policymakers need to work hand in hand to help realise a vision for Australian education that isn’t based on comparing ourselves to a set metric. Rather, we must all work together to build an entrepreneurial, innovative and creative capacity into our education system.

Let’s not teach to the test, but focus on what is best – and that is preparing our students to be the real leaders of tomorrow.

Is our education system really failing our kids?

“Australia falls further behind on the international rankings” are the headlines once again. With the release of the 2016 TIMSS scores you could be mistaken for believing that our schools and teachers are mediocre at best. Myth or reality—is our education system doing our kids a disservice?

If you take the time to actually critique the results you will find that Australian students aren’t getting worse. They typically are unchanged:

  • Maths
    • Year 4
      • 2011 score: 516
      • 2015 score: 517
    • Year 8
      • 2011 score: 505
      • 2015 score: 505
  • Science
    • Year 4
      • 2011 score: 516
      • 2015 score: 524
    • Year 8
      • 2011 score: 519
      • 2015 score: 512

The difference is that other countries, and Kazakhstan, the new kid on the block, have improved remarkably. How is that so? What are they doing differently to what is happening in the classrooms here in Australia?

If you were to visit classrooms in Singapore, Shanghai (and I have) you would see rows of desks occupied by 40-60 students, all compliantly gazing at the blackboard, hanging on every word of the teacher. Rote learning is the order of the day.

I am willing to bet you would see the same in Kazakhstan. The difference between us and these countries is not the skill of the teacher, the resources of the school, or the content of their curriculum, but in the respective cultures. There is a difference by a country mile in work ethic and expectations.

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The real question we should be asking is, “what is an education worth having?” Is it one where we adopt a ‘me too’ philosophy and simply judge ourselves by the results of some standardised testing, or should we think more broadly? Should we think more creatively?

The preamble of the 2008 Melbourne Declaration for Education (our nation’s educational philosophy) says,

“As a nation Australia values the central role of education in building a democratic, equitable and just society—a society that is prosperous, cohesive and cultural diverse, and value Australia’s indigenous cultures as a key part of the nation’s history, present and future.”

Who can argue against that? Why wouldn’t we want that for our children and our society? This philosophy has already been agreed, but we seem to be set on being in the top 5 as measured by mathematics and science, because, as someone tells us, these are the skills our children need for the future.

Is this the truth? There is no question that to be able to become an independent functioning member of society a person needs to be able to read, write and add up. But the recent New Work Order report published by the Foundation for Young Australians says that demand for digital skills are up 212%, critical thinking 158% and creativity 65%.

I would boldly suggest that a continued push to improve our standings on the global stage in mathematics and science will be to the detriment of the more relevant skills such as critical thinking, creativity, innovation and entrepreneurialism. Our nation will not remain “prosperous, cohesive and culturally diverse” if we narrow our education system and teaching in the classroom in an endeavour to win a race that actually isn’t worth entering.

There is no doubt we should be transforming our education system, but not in the way commentators are suggesting. We should be transforming it to focus on nurturing and developing the skills the next generation need in order for them to create their own employment futures.

That, is an education worth having.

A political platform to restore our education system

The media is once again filled with the gloomy news of our failing Australian education system. The natural conclusion people reach is that teachers and schools are failing our kids. However, I would assert that teachers today have a far better understanding of teaching and learning and are working harder than ever before. So what is going on?

My proposition is that we are seeing a gradual decline of our western society, a ‘degeneration’, as Niall Ferguson author of the best seller of the same name, asserts; a degeneration of the foundational institutions that make, or made our society great.

I believe that our nation is lacking a clear vision. We have allowed the premise that, ‘our quality of living will see continual improvement if we strive for ongoing economic growth’ to be our key political priority for far too long. This is the philosophy that is failing us now.

If I were interested in a political career, this would be my political platform.

Set a clear vision for our nation: “to be a nation of innovators.”

All successful organisations, and countries for that matter, have a clear vision. Singapore set a clear vision two decades ago—just look at that nation now. Australia should capitalise on its strengths. We are more creative than most. We have the capacity to be the world’s leading innovators.

Underpin the vision with three clear values: family, equality, and education.

Each of these three values are interlinked. Strong families mean better relationships, with in turn produces a better value system and a more equal society, which in turn leads to better educational results. All three working together produce more satisfying and fulfilling lives.

Our nation has become more and more unequal. From the CEOs who earn millions in bonuses, to the inequity in salaries between the sexes, all of which are just plain wrong.

We need to make our nation more equal. There is plenty of evidence to show that the more equal a society is the stronger it is. Think Finland, or the ACT for that matter, which is remarkably equal compared to all the States and would be near the top of the education league tables if it were a country.

Make policies support the values and the attainment of the vision. Policies to narrow the gap between the rich and the poor and the sexes, and policies to strengthen the family unit. Encourage parents to choose who stays home to do the vital job of raising children during their formative years by ensuring equality of wages.

The pricing of housing also needs tackling within this value. Why does Australia have the third highest house price to income ratio in the world? Why is it that we think to be someone we have to accumulate material wealth? We have allowed greed to sell us a happiness myth.

Third, the path to a civil, peaceful, and successful society is through education. Education needs to be valued more highly that it is now. There needs to be equity of access, equity of resources and opportunities, and a greater respect for the hard work of teachers.

We need to forget the competition to be in the top five as measured by PISA and forge our own identity. To be a nation of innovators our children need to read, write, and add up, but they also need to be able to work together, foster their creativity, find a passion, develop resilience, and design solutions to the problems our world faces. The education of a child is a partnership between the family and the school, not solely the responsibility of our schools.

Why is it that we can’t achieve all this? Perhaps our political system is letting us down.

Who is responsible for our children’s learning?

With the latest PISA results out, the media is once again bemoaning the falling standards of our Australian education system.

“Half of Australia’s high school students have flunked the minimum international standard in maths, reading or science…” and yet, “Australian schools are better resourced than most industrialised countries” (Bita, The Australian, Thursday 11 February 2016).

What’s going on? Our country is slipping further and further behind.

The natural response is to blame someone. Interest groups point the finger at our schools and teachers. Others blame a lack of government funding or not fully supporting Gonksi.

However, much of this ignores the most important question: “Who is responsible for someone’s learning?”

Are teachers and schools the ones ultimately responsible for a young person’s learning? Are their parents the ones who are responsible?

My perspective on this was influenced recently by a trip I took to Tanzania and the School of St Jude. That school was established in 2002 by an Australian, Gemma Sisia, with a vision to provide education to the nation’s poorest and brightest students. Each year up to 3000 children fill the streets outside the gates of the school to complete for one of the 60 places offered.

To be given a full scholarship to learn at the School of St Jude is a privilege and the students know it. The quality of the teaching isn’t any better; and the resources aren’t flash. And yet, the School’s results are the third highest in the nation.

Sisia’s approach is to ensure expectations are high. If a student isn’t working hard they are asked to leave and the place is given to someone else. Of the first graduating class every student was offered a place at University.

In Tanzania, schooling isn’t universal. Rather it’s a privilege. Yet in Australia, where schooling for children is a ‘right’, too often it is treated with disdain. We waste the incredible opportunity handed to us.

We aren’t grateful for what we do have. Instead, we seek to criticise the falling standards of academic results by looking for someone to blame.

We blame our teachers, our schools and our government but too often forget that raising children, supporting them to become the people we want them to be, is everyone’s responsibility.

A teacher is there to support learning, not to be fully responsible for it. Education is a partnership between the child, the school and the parent.

Tackling falling standards with more money and criticism of teachers hasn’t arrested the decline. The same story appears in our papers each time the PISA results are published.

We need to have a conversation about our values. We need a compelling vision for our future. We need to rethink what our schools look like and how education is delivered. We need to work together rather than shift the responsibility for what is ultimately our own choices. We need leadership.

The falling standards of our students is a complex problem, it isn’t just the responsibility of our schools.

Are you driven to be the best?

I want to be the very best school leader I can be. Why, because for me being a principal (or a teacher for that matter) is more than a job, it’s a vocation. I don’t go to work to produce something, to sell something, or to manage something. I go to work to make a difference. And that difference is measured in people’s lives.

What I do as a principal, the decisions I make, the school culture I create, the way I lead will make a difference in countless people’s lives. It can make a difference to the earning capacity of a young person; it can make a difference to a person’s sense of self-worth, to their wellbeing, the lives of their families, the lives of their future children and the lives of the communities in which they live. The sense of responsibility is huge; that is why I want to be the best principal I can be.

While I have been a school leader for 17 years I don’t think for a minute that I am the best. I can’t allow myself to think I am great because the moment I do I’ll lose the desire to be better. To be better I know that I have to be reflective, honest with myself, willing to be vulnerable and admit that I could have done something better. I often compare myself with other leaders, listen to what they do, learn from their wisdom and experience. However, one thing I really need as a leader is feedback. Without feedback I cannot truly understand the real impact I am having and how I can improve.

To promote growth feedback is vital. But to be of real value a recipient really needs to want it, be willing to listen to it and ultimately, have the desire to be the very best they can be for the responsibly they carry as an educator is enormous.

The same can be said about teaching. I don’t understand why all teachers aren’t driven by the enormous responsibility they have to very best they can be. Our children, and their children deserve outstanding teaching and outstanding schools.

Do you value and welcome feedback? What motivates you as an educator? Is teaching and school leadership more than just a job? If you are a leader, where do you get your feedback from?

Global Education Summit in Washington DC

I was gobsmacked when in June of this year I received a personal invitation from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Sutton Trust to attend a Summit on 3 and 4 November 2014 to discuss and share effective teacher development strategies. 100 attendees from the US, England, Finland, The Netherlands, Canada, Ireland, Singapore, Hong Kong, New Zealand and Australia descended on the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington DC, where the Beetles have played and Kings, Queens and world leaders have stayed. I was one of four delegates selected to represent Australia. The event was covered by the UK-based, Times Education Supplement.

The purpose of the two days was to share best practices in teacher development, with the hope of identifying the most effective strategies that could then be replicated in schools across the globe, but particularly in schools that serve the socially disadvantaged (a key focus of the Sutton Trust). Delegates had been selected because of their reputations and innovative strategies already implemented in their schools or jurisdictions (when I received my invitation I had to check three times that it wasn’t a hoax!).

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The four Australia delegates

In the preparation leading up to the Summit all delegates were asked to share one of their strategies on an online forum. Half of these were selected to be unpacked further at the Summit.

What an amazing two days it was; what a humbling and privileged opportunity to be in a room of remarkable educators from across the globe. The facilitation was spot on. From the moment the first day commenced to the very end we were worked hard, with the program ensuring that we met and made the maximum number of productive connections possible. We work shopped people’s strategies and built upon ideas in a number of ‘blue sky’ brainstorming sessions.

I met John Tomsett, a Head from the UK. He is using an IT system called IRIS to observe teaching and learning in his school. An unobtrusive camera is set up in a classroom, enabling John to remotely control the device, watch and record the learning. He can then unpack the lesson with the teacher, identify each teachable moment and provide feedback that promotes growth. High levels of trust in his school, created in part by John’s willingness to record and share his own teaching (which he says is pretty ‘crap’), means that teachers have become thirsty for the opportunity to improve.

Barbara Cavanagh from Albany Senior High School in Auckland, New Zealand, has implemented ‘Impact Learning‘, a pedagogy not too dissimilar to project-based learning. Every Wednesday students work on their own self-directed project for the entire day. Students begin by designing their project and then ‘pitch’ it to the teachers for approval. The only stipulation for a project is that it must be of industry standard. Time for this initiative was created by reducing the students’ load from six subjects to five.

Barbara shared some of the work the students have produced. One 16-year-old boy designed a method to help local businesses improve their productivity. Another young man, passionate about fish, discovered that plants watered with fish tank water grow faster and bigger. He has since been offered full scholarships to four universities in NZ and is off to speak at an international conference in Japan (he’s only 17 mind you!). A young girl created a series of five picture books to help children cope with living with mental illness. These short stories were truly amazing, bringing a tear to your eye when you realised what was actually going on in the story: “Emily has five sisters, and they don’t get on,” begins one book. It is not until later in the book that you realise that Emily has schizophrenia. The young lady is now selling her books worldwide; a fellow student has developed a business plan for her. And the final year results? For the six years the program has been running they have been better than any of the other local schools.

Dame Alison Peacock talked about her work on Learning Without Limits, passionate that we desist from labeling, or grading young people so we don’t limit their potential. Every child can, and has the right to learn, no matter their background, disability or school setting.

I have never met another person as passionate about her students than Stacey Quince from the Campbelltown Performing Arts School, who prefers to forego personal comforts and opportunities to ensure that every dollar her school receives from the government goes to her students.

Barbara Ala’alatoa from Sylvia Park Primary in New Zealand has developed a unique program to engage the parent community. The program is a preventative one, aimed at ensuring that every child is given the very best start to their education. “If we don’t get it right in the early years,” Amanda says, “then you’ll be paying for it for the rest of that child’s formal education.” Upon entry each child sits a diagnostic test. A parent liaison staff member then meets with the child’s parents to discuss the results. But they don’t ask the parents to come into the school; they go to the parents, in their homes or to their place of work. The initial meeting can take up to an hour. Parents have said, “I came away from the meeting with tools and ideas of how I can best help my child at home; I feel empowered.” The process happens again when the child is five and a half, six and seven years old.

A local university has been working with Barbara to track the impact, and it is staggering. But the most exciting part is that Barbara is now replicating the program in 10 other schools this year, and a further 44 next year. And if you’re skeptical of the cost, wait for it: Barbara says that for a school of 300 Year 0, 1 and 2 students you only need a 0.5FTE parent liaison (teacher) for it to work!

I listened to Professor Rob Coe speak and had morning tea with Sir Alasdair Macdonald. I met Megan, a young woman who has been given her first headship, a Charter School in LA funded by Bill and Melinda Gates. I Barnett Berry, CEO of the Center for Teaching Quality in the US. I heard from Geraldine Davies who has changed the conversations in her school by sponsoring groups of teachers to do a Masters of Leading Innovation and Change, delivered by St Mary’s University through the weekly PLCs (Professional Learning Communities). We brainstormed using the strategy, “Yes, and…”. We shared, we collaborated and we worked hard. My favourite quote from the two days was,

“teaching is rocket science.”

Of the 100 delegates 12 were asked to run a workshop on the strategy they shared online prior to the Summit. I was stunned to be asked by Sir Alasdair to run a workshop on my research into the practices that generate trust (but perhaps not surprised because almost every delegate recognised the important role that trust plays in any teacher development program).

At the conclusion of the Summit delegates were asked to name the best ‘takeaway’ strategy, tool, or idea they had come across over the two days. Each delegate wrote their favourite strategy on a piece of card and then voted for Summit’s best ‘takeaway’. And the strategy voted as the most profound shared by the 100 educational leaders from the 10 countries: the Trust and Transformational Leadership Rubric!

What an incredibly privileged and humbling experience; I couldn’t let myself sleep that night, still wondering if it had all been a hoax! Thank you to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Sutton Trust.