Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Are we winning the educational race? (2017 Term 3 Week 5)

I read a fascinating account recently to do with the Singaporean education system. On the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests, the Singapore education system achieves the top results of all surveyed jurisdictions (even better than Finland). By most accounts, the National Institute for Education (NIE), the teacher training college in Singapore, is a world-leading centre for thinking about education. At a recent conference, the Director General of Education reflected about the importance and direction of pedagogy. The video and full transcript can be found here. Mr Wong Siew Hoong said:

The established pedagogies that we have, have worked tremendously well for developing basic competencies. (In the 21st century) developing teamwork, developing much more creative ideas from our students requires different treatment in the classroom.

So for all these very compelling reasons, I am standing in front of you entreating all of us to take a good look at our pedagogical practices in the classroom, and ask ourselves whether we can move forward with much more innovative pedagogy, much more engaging pedagogy, much more productive pedagogy, moving the classroom away from the tradition by which we were all taught once upon a time and which will serve its purpose but will need to be complemented with new pedagogies and different pedagogies that will meet the needs of this current moment and for the future.

These reflections are interesting ones for us to consider, particularly as we weigh our students' performances in standardised tests. As parents of students in Years 3, 5, 7, and 9 are aware, the 2017 NAPLAN results have arrived. Although these tests are designed and intended to provide feedback regarding individual students, the political reality is that the results are often taken as a proxy for the quality of a school or system. 

Overall, the students’ performances were strong. The average marks for our students were above the State average in each year and each test area (twenty in total)Our students' averages were above the averages of the other NSW independent schools in fifteen out of these twenty test areas. The exceptions were numeracy in Years 3 and 5, spelling in Year 7 and 9; and grammar and punctuation in Year 7, where our results were marginally below. In virtually every year group and test area, the cohorts performed better than the respective preceding Inaburra cohort. 

Over the years I have spoken or written a number of times about the importance of progress, rather than just raw performance. NAPLAN analysis allows us to measure student growth through some of the tests, by comparing individual results against those achieved two years previously. Again, these measures can be averaged against the State averages to provide a broad brush window into overall student progress. The upshot is that our average student growth is good, although there are always anomalous individual results because of the 'snap-shot' nature of the tests.

Many parents will be aware that, from 2017, extra significance has been attached to the Year 9 NAPLAN results. I have written previously on the topic here and I wrote to the parents of Year 9 students last week, reinforcing that the new link between Year 9 NAPLAN and the HSC should not be a cause of concern. By way of information for the general community, around 60% of our Year 9 students have pre-qualified to meet the minimum standard of literacy and numeracy that will be required to receive an HSC in 2020. This compares very positively to the State-wide figures, which show that 32% of students have pre-qualified.

All of which is to say, Inaburra is doing well at equipping our students with the necessary skills in literacy and numeracy. However, I want to reiterate that results in these assessments are not going to be the primary determinants of our children's futures. The education race that focuses on and terminates with NAPLAN results (or PISA results, or HSC results) is fundamentally short-sighted and inadequate. The formation of people, which is the proper purpose of education, continues to be a far broader, deeper and more profound challenge than drilling to develop excellence in test-taking.

Saturday, 5 August 2017

Adolescents, smart phones, and mental health (2017 Term 3 Week 3)

From time to time in my reading I come across a text or piece of research that cuts through. Sometimes it is because of the quality or excellence of the prose, but it is more often because of the content. I read such a piece this week, and it is continuing to trouble me. The essay in question was published in the September 2017 edition of The Atlantic. (I am not sure why the September edition is available in early August, but that is another issue ... boom tish!) The article is Have Smartphones destroyed a generation, and it is written by Jean Twenge, Professor of Psychology at San Diego University. Her area of interest is generational differences.

Twenge makes the case that the current generation of adolescent people are demonstrating abrupt differences with previous generations with reference both to their behaviours and to their emotional states. The article is substantial, and will probably require 15 minutes of reading time, but my strong encouragement to parents of adolescents and those who will be soon is to make the time to read it. I will make this blog post correspondingly short, so as not to take too much of your time.

Her argument is that "The arrival of the smartphone has radically changed every aspect of teenagers’ lives, from the nature of their social interactions to their mental health." Her point is not to indulge in nostalgia for days gone by, but to understand the lived reality of our children.

She observes that, whereas generational studies is usually a case of observing slowly emerging and disappearing patterns and themes, there has been a seismic shift for the current generation of teens. Cutting to the chase, she writes "... the twin rise of the smartphone and social media has caused an earthquake of a magnitude we’ve not seen in a very long time, if ever. There is compelling evidence that the devices we’ve placed in young people’s hands are having profound effects on their lives—and making them seriously unhappy."

Please read her article. Please find another adult to discuss it with. Please think about how best to engage with the issues with your child(ren).

And please, please, please, for the sake of your child and his/her own emotional and mental wellbeing, do whatever can be done to keep their phone out of their bedroom. While this will be easier to accomplish for some than for others, I am absolutely convinced that this is one of the few battles that is absolutely worth having. 

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Opening the new facilities (2017 Term 3 Week 1)

One of the perennial dangers in talking a lot is that you end up repeating yourself. It is a particular challenge for me as Principal to remember what I have said, and to which people. My family have commented that my dinner-table conversation can bear too close a resemblance to assembly speeches and blog posts! Nonetheless, some ideas bear repeating because they are so important, and sometimes that which was said to one group needs to be reiterated for others. For this reason, the remainder of this blog post will consist of the speech that I made at the formal opening of our new facilities last Friday, which was a very significant event in the life of the school. My thanks to those who were able to join us; it was a memorable occasion.

Welcome. I am delighted that you have been able to join us for this ceremonial opening of our new facilities.

As I begin I would like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land upon which this event is taking place – the Dharawal people of the Eora nation – and pay my respects to their elders – past, present and future.

I also want to thank those people who have contributed to our event today, particularly Mr Andrew Coote, the Head of the Junior School, who has led the organization of our event, and the staff and students whose musical gifts we have already enjoyed so far. I am delighted that our main music performance today has been composed by two people who are present: our school captain Grace Easton and the composer who we commissioned to create a piece for our ceremony today, Rowen Fox.

If we were to rank all the elements that combine to make a school, buildings would not be at the top of the list. A school is about people, and about relationships, before it is about buildings and facilities. As a Christian school, we believe that people – made in the image of God – have inestimable value. The reality is that you can put a price tag on buildings – quite a big price tag, as it turns out!

Having said that, school facilities are immensely significant. They have symbolic value, in that they demonstrate priorities and those things that matter in a school. They have emotional value, in that they are the theatres in which the dramas of growing up are acted out. They have functional value, in that they enable teaching and learning, interaction and play, the ups and downs of daily life. They contribute to the culture of the school – segmented or connected, open or closed, welcoming or forbidding, neglected or cherished.
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School facilities are a legacy from one school generation to the next. In this, our 35th year, Inaburra School has been blessed by those buildings and facilities bequeathed to us by those who have gone before. I am delighted that some of those are able to be with us today. In turn, these facilities being opened today will remain as a legacy to those who will come after us.

We have gained a lot through this project. We have a lot more generally usable space, greatly added to our carparking capacity, improved the access paths for movement around the school and provided more covered breakout space for students.

However, the extra facilities that we are gaining are noteworthy not just because they are new and because they are extra, but also because they are different. Upstairs we have one classroom with more than 100 students and five teachers. On the ground floor we have a learning commons equipped with a variety of furnishings that are a world away from traditional school desks and chairs. We have a principal’s office designed like a fishbowl. We have a playground that moves in the opposite direction to current trends to sanitise, smooth and insulate the play experience.

Why have we done things differently?

Our young people need an education that will be fit for purpose. That is to say, one that will equip them for the unpredictable and complex world into which they are growing. In this new world, the soft skills and capabilities will be of primary importance – we express these things in our Inaburra Learner Profile.
The buildings don’t produce these capabilities, but they do provide an environment that encourages them. Our new facilities enable student agency in choosing their study environment. Our new rooms enable teachers to utilize a wider range of strategies in teaching and learning. Our new playground provides context to develop the resilience to cope with bumps and scrapes, the creativity of play in a varied environment, and the responsibility to know how best to exercise freedom and opportunities.
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Our hope is that these new facilities will help us, in partnership with our families, to shape life-long learners who can face their future with confidence. However, recognising the importance of academic achievement, and the importance of 21st century skills, I also want to underline the importance of character. That’s why we chose the Bible reading that was just read for us – the reading which will be on the plaque. It also happens to be the one passage of the Bible that contains the three words of our school motto – faith, knowledge and love.

It is a passage that speaks of the importance of character – Make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. (2 Peter 1:6-7) In the Christian understanding of the world, who we are matters more than what we can do. The good life is ultimately found and lived in the imitation of Christ, who grants to us forgiveness for the past, grace for the present and hope for the future.

From its inception, our school has steadfastly trusted in God and his goodness as the foundation upon which we have built. Therefore, it is entirely appropriate now for us to pray. 

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Meeting Carol Dweck (2017 Term 2 Week 8)

Last week at the Edutech conference, I had the opportunity to meet and to interview Professor Carol Dweck, the Lewis and Virginia Eaton Professor of Psychology at Stanford University. Whereas most professors of psychology are known only within the academic context, Professor Dweck has become known around the world for her research that first reached the public sphere through the best-selling text Mindset. 

Her core thesis, which is unpacked here, is that we have underlying beliefs regarding our intelligence and abilities. The fixed mindset holds that these capacities are largely predetermined; either you have it or you don't. The growth mindset sees our intelligence and abilities as malleable and able to be improved. The second of these mindsets is correlated with a willingness to embrace challenge, a thirst for new learning, and any other number of positive outcomes. 

I have written about the growth mindset previously, and we have worked hard to embed the growth mindset thinking across the school. In addition to training the staff to model and to encourage the growth mindset, students are explicitly taught about the growth mindset in the Year 7 Learning Foundations course.

It was a great honour to meet Professor Dweck and have the chance to interview her. In the course of our discussions, there were three nuances to her work that emerged that I found fascinating.

The first point is that each of us internalises a mixture of the fixed and the growth mindset. Although the paradigm is binary, the reality is that our thinking is mixed. In different domains of knowledge, in different areas of ability, at different times and in different contexts, we may shift between a fixed and a growth mindset. Anyone who has said 'I'm not musical' or 'I don't have a maths brain', is articulating a fixed mindset. It would be more accurate to say 'I have not learned how to sing, yet.' Or 'I find maths particularly challenging.'

The second point that Professor Dweck made is that there are a number of situations that are likely to trigger us back to the fixed mindset. These situations include struggling, especially when others look as though they are coping, and set-backs, when we experience failure despite our efforts. Our temptation with these triggers is to believe 'I haven't got what it takes.' I was particularly struck by her observation that 'stretch' situations can be triggers for us; when outside our comfort zones, we can often feel that we are imposters. Reflecting on the idea of 'triggers', I wonder whether formal school reports can function as triggers to the fixed mindset for our students. 

The third point was the way that our increasing understanding of the neuroplasticity of the brain supports the psychological framework of fixed vs growth mindsets. The brain has the capacity to grow and build capability, which it does through learning through new things. There is a biological basis to the observable experience.

If there was one thing that Professor Dweck said that continued to resonate with me, it was the observation that there is a disjunction between talk and walk for many teachers and parents who profess an allegiance to the growth mindset. Although we may assent to the general proposition, the throwaway comments, our own personal responses to trigger situations, and other elements of day to day interaction, can fuel the fixed mindset in our children.

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Intellectual character development (2017 Term 2 Week 7)

Sometimes, when I consider what tremendous consequences come from little things,  ..I am tempted to think ... that there are no little things.

The quote is from Bruce Barton, as cited in Stephen Covey's Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. His point has to do with character formation. The little things are the things that shape us. 

The same point is made in the difficult-to-attribute proverb that the students at Inaburra have heard from me time and time again: 
We sow a thought and reap an act;
We sow an act and reap a habit;
We sow a habit and reap a character;
We sow a character and reap a destiny

The Bible has the same dynamic in mind in Philippians 4:8, which reads: 
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy - think about such things. 

I read a fascinating book recently by Philip E. Dow, titled Virtuous Minds: Intellectual Character Development. He argues that schools should be equally concerned for both the formation of moral character and the formation of intellectual character. 

The first element seems obvious; as I speak with parents in enrolment interviews, many of them are very clear that the formation of their child's moral character is important to them. We all want our children to be honest, to be trustworthy, to be kind and to be self-disciplined. Schools like Inaburra are unhesitating in affirming our desire to cultivate moral virtue in our students.

However, it was his articulation of the second element that captured my attention. Dow describes intellectual character as "the force of accumulated thinking habits that shape and colour every decision that we make." Rather than life consisting of a series of unconnected isolated moments of decision, most of the choices that we make are not the result of conscious and deliberate reasoning, but mental autopilot. We rely on mental ruts that have been long engrained in us through habits; these become our intellectual character. Dow argues that both the way that we think, and the stuff that we think about, will determine the kind of person that we will become.

He goes on to identify seven intellectual character traits that we need to function in the ever more volatile, unpredictable and changing world. His case is that, far more than any particular knowledge or skills outcomes, these habitual intellectual characteristics are crucial. His list is:

  • courage
  • tenacity
  • carefulness
  • curiousity
  • fair-mindedness
  • honesty
  • humility
There is a challenge here for us as parents and as educators. What are those small thoughts and actions that are shaping the intellectual character of our children? What little decisions are adding up to be cumulatively transformative over time? How do we encourage the virtue and discourage the vice, without just adding more elements to our nagging repertoire? 

Of course, recognising the powerful effect of our role-modelling, we would do well to ask some searching questions of ourselves first! 

I commend Dow's book to you.

Monday, 15 May 2017

The porn epidemic (2017 Term 2 Week 4)

There are some pretty confronting questions that can be asked of a parent. For example: What age do you think your child first did (or first will) encounter pornography? What age do you think your child first sought (or first will seek) pornography? How often do you think your child views pornography? Can you answer them? What would you want the answers to be?

At a principals' network meeting this week, we were asked these questions by James Grady, who has been studying the topic of porn and young people. Grady makes a compelling case that there is a world of difference between pornography as encountered by previous generations, and the experience of young people today - and that the difference presents profound challenges to our children and the adults that they will become.

In contrast to previous generations, through high-speed internet, porn has become free, anonymous, and perpetually available. There are very few limits on a young person's ability to access porn, given the ubiquity of internet-connected screens in a household, and the usual pattern of tech-savvy children and naive parents.

The statistics are sobering. According to the Burnet Institute's submission to the Senate's Committee inquiry into the harm being done to Australian Children through access to pornography on the internet, which can be found as submission 61 on this page, 37% of Australian males between 15 and 29 view pornography daily, and another 44% view weekly. The average age at which these people first intentionally sought pornography was 13. Grady has assembled some other statistics here.

The reality is that the speed by which pornography has become ubiquitous has outstripped our understanding of the effects of pornography on young people. They are living through a giant social/sexual/developmental experiment on their malleable brains, and we don't have a clear understanding of what the effects will be.

However, many outcomes are self-evident, and they are concerning. Our children are learning about sex from pornography - and the education being offered is not one that will equip our young people well for their relationships, now or in the future. 

I encourage you to take the time to explore the resources that Grady has assembled at his website The Frank Chat. In particular, a page on the website is specifically addressed to parents. For all the awkwardness that is inevitable in conversations between parents and children about pornography, this is one of those areas where our love for our children should compel us to speak with them, and listen to them.

I don't know that we can hold back the tide in this area, but that doesn't mean nothing can be done - or that we ought not try. Why not ask some of the questions above, and listen - really listen - to the answers.

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Support for children and parents with cybersafety (2017 Term 2 Week 2)

We live in an age where cynicism about government is pervasive. Fuelled by media coverage of the messiness of politics, and the apparent inability of governments to solve many of the intractable problems that pressure our daily lives, it is unsurprising that we develop a low-level sense of weariness and disdain towards the public sector more generally. This filter can prevent us from giving credit where credit is due. This week I want to acknowledge the excellent work that the Federal Government has been doing with reference to cybersafety for young people, particularly in providing resources for parents and educators. If the topic of cybersafety for your children is important to you, there is help available!

The Office of the Children's eSafety Commissioner is the Federal Government's principal agency in this space. The Office was formed with a number of briefs: to provide a national lead in the promotion of online safety for children; to handle complaints about serious cyberbullying material and illegal online content; to fill an education role through research, and the curation of resources; and to establish a national online complaints mechanism to support those affected by image-based abuse.

The Office understands that online safety for children is a shared responsibility, in which government, schools, police, social media services, and parents/carers all have vital roles to play. At a recent conference I was greatly encouraged by the ways that government, police and social media services are working together, not least through providing resources and channels to report abusive online behaviours.

The reality is that cyberbullying emerges out of the same murk as any other sort of bullying. Lack of empathy, lack of kindness, and disrespect have always led to bullying behaviours; the online world differs only in it broadens and extends the scope in which this nastiness can take place. 

The Office has established an excellent site called iParent, which has an exhaustive suite of resources, tools and links. I cannot commend it highly enough for families who are concerned about this issue generally, or who may be experiencing something of a crisis. 

Four themes for parents stand out to me in this area, both through the input I have received from the Office and from my experience in schools. First, there is no substitute for communicating and learning with your children regarding the online world. Second, the wider task of building your child's resilience and empathy is invaluable. Third, it is foolish in the extreme not to monitor a child's engagement and use of the online world. Fourth, each family must have explicit rules, expectations and boundaries associated with technology.

It is not easy to be a parent in this day and age. It can be hard work. I humbly suggest that setting aside some time to explore the sites linked above will be a worthwhile investment of a parents' time. As I once heard in a sermon: Raking is easy, but all you get is leaves. Digging is hard, but that is where you get diamonds.