Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Prizes, acknowledgements and awards at school (2015 Term 4 Week 9)

Why do we give prizes at the Presentation Events? Actually, the question is broader than that. Why do we give prizes at all?

The fundamental rationale for awarding prizes at an event such as our Graduation Assembly or Presentation Events is to celebrate achievement. As a school that is unabashed about our pursuit of excellence in education, these gatherings are a wonderful opportunity for us to acknowledge, affirm and rejoice in the efforts and achievements of our young people.

It never fails to surprise me that these celebrations somehow become occasions of distress or disgruntlement in the community. Often this is because a particular prize gets awarded to one student and not another. Sometimes it has to do with the perceived emphasis that we give to one sort of achievement over another. This criticism comes from all directions; some believe that we over-emphasise academic achievement, others that we under-emphasise it by placing too much focus on sport or music, and others that we should focus more on effort and diligence. It is not easy to meet everyone's expectations; in addition, no parent is entirely disinterested when making this sort of critique.

My reflection is that we do celebrate achievement in a very wide range of areas. There are prizes for academic achievement and co-curricular achievement. We acknowledge application and effort. We affirm character and leadership and contributions to the community through service and commitment. The various performances on stage and the videos on screen attempt to capture some of the variety of school life.

The receipt of a prize for excellence or achievement, whether it is for Year 10 Science or Year 3 Academic Achievement, does not make a statement about the capacity, the future trajectory, or the value of a student; conversely, the non-receipt of an award does not mean these things either. An award for achievement or excellence is not a label, or a definition, or a designation of the 'haves' and 'have nots'. It is an acknowledgment of performance in a particular context and time frame. 

We are hoping to cultivate a growth mindset in our students, so that they understand that their basic qualities such as intelligence and talent, are not fixed but malleable through effort and application. This is why we make awards for Diligence and Improvement in a range of contexts. The more powerful opportunity to cultivate a growth mindset will not come from anything that I say from the front, but from the conversations that parents will have with their children in the course of daily life. Helping your child to reframe and reflect on their disappointments is an invaluable service that only you can offer to your child.

The Presentation Events are not the only occasion during the course of a school year when students receive encouragement, feedback and affirmation. Positive feedback comes through a wide range of formal and informal channels. I know from direct observation just how committed our staff are to affirming our students' efforts and achievements. 

I also make the observation that our positive culture will be strengthened as we decentralise the expectation that only the high-profile and formal affirmations count. As Principal, I simply do not have enough time in the day to directly affirm every worthwhile achievement in the school community, even if I somehow managed to become aware of them all. Nor is there room for them all in the newsletters or the assemblies or the social media.

I also want to make a more pointed comment about a disturbing tendency in our culture. Our young people need to learn not to be self-centred. The tendency for many young people (and more than a few adults), upon hearing that someone else has won a prize, is to ask 'What about me?' It is a natural response, but it is one that they need to learn to move past. Not everything is about them. It is a beautiful character trait to be able to rejoice in the success of others. I believe our young people and our community will be well-served if their habitual response to the success of others is encouragement, affirmation and celebration.

A related comment is to observe that none of the matters associated with end-of-year prizes and awards has high stakes attached to it. The future of our children will not be significantly shaped by whether or not they got one prize or another - or even if they go through their entire schooling without receiving a prize. The prizes are not meaningless, but they are not ultimately things that really matter in life. You can serve your children well by helping them to see this perspective.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Educating Global Citizens (2015 Term 4 Week 7)

Each year, during my final morning tea with the student leadership team, I ask them about the highlights of their time at Inaburra; the Global Education program receives resounding affirmation time after time. This program, which takes place at the end of Year 10, is a key element in our quest to shape life-long learners who are engaged and aware global citizens, by giving them an experience of service-learning and horizon-broadening.

The 2015 Global Education program is underway at the moment. This year we are running five programs:

Greater Sydney
Mon 16/11-Wed 25/11
9 students will get involved with a number of charity and welfare organisations within the Sydney region including Samaritan’s Purse, the Westmead Children’s Hospital, Rough Edges, Caroline Chisholm School and Conservation Volunteers Australia. In week 8 they will stay at the Sydney Harbour YHA and travel from there to their destinations.

Remote Australia
Mon 16/11-Wed 25/11
31 students will travel to Broken Hill (on a very long train ride!) where they will partner with the Bush Church Aid Society, working with the local indigenous communities in a number of practical ways. They will enjoy visits to a number of significant local landmarks and return home via Dubbo.

Embedded image permalink

South East Asia
Sat 14/11-Thurs 26/11
38 students will travel through Cambodia and Vietnam, visiting a range of historical and cultural sites. The program also incorporates visits to schools for underprivileged children and Asia Hope Orphanage. There is a very active Twitter account associated with this trip with lots of photos and videos; you do not need to be on Twitter to access this page.

Embedded image permalink
Sun 15/11-Tues 24/11
12 students will help conserve Australia’s environment and heritage, partnering with Conservation Volunteers in the Tasman Peninsula. They will be based in Port Arthur, working on the Salt River Coal Mine site, as well as visiting Coles Bay on the Freycinet Peninsula, and Maria Island.

Yasawa Islands
Sat 14/11-Mon 23/11
17 students travel to the remote Yasawa Islands in the north-west of Fiji where they will partner with the Australia Pacific Youth Foundation to help local communities. They will be involved in building projects, teaching in local schools as well as marine conservation projects sponsored by the Fijian government.

These experiences, of such tremendous value to the students, are enabled through extraordinary efforts of staff. It is no small responsibility to look after a large group of adolescents in these contexts. In order to take part in these camps, the seventeen teachers involved have had to complete their normal school-based responsibilities in a compressed amount of time, including marking, report-writing and lesson-preparation. In addition, the families of the staff members are scrambling to cover their absence. My particular thanks are due to Mr Watson, whose efforts to coordinate and organise the Global Education program have been superlative.

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

The imminent building project (2015 Term 4 Week 6)

Within the month we expect to commence the school's next major building project. This project has been flagged in our 2013-2015 Strategic Plan; we have used the last three years to explore possibilities, assess needs and opportunities and consider the range of issues associated with this project. Now, we are about to commence!

Throughout 2015 I have hosted 26 events for parents - whether breakfasts, lunches or suppers - to tell the story of the school, to explain the nature of the changing educational landscape, and to outline the plans for this building. (I suspect that this hospitality, provided by our canteen, has had an effect on my waistline!) Through these events I have spoken with 222 individuals from 147 of our school families; we have received pledges and donations of around $120K towards the cost of the building through the School's Building Fund. My family, and the families of the Board of Directors, have all made contributions to this project, believing it to be the next step in the life of the school. I am deeply appreciative of the support that has been shown towards this project, whether through verbal affirmation or financial commitment.

The building plans were presented at the Presentation Events at the end of last year and there has been a display of the plans in the Performing Arts Centre throughout 2015.

By way of a brief primer to parents who may not be aware of our plans, we will be constructing a building on the site of the main staff carpark, stretching from the current Year 2 classrooms down to the Senior School. In order to increase the total amount of carparking on site, we are engaging in signficant excavation to create two levels of carparking in the base of the building, one of which is accessed off Bowra Close and one of which is accessed through the main school gate. On top of these carparking levels, the ground floor will contain a new Independent Learning Centre, administrative and meeting spaces and a base for the Learning Enrichment Team. The top level, which is the second storey when viewed from inside the school, will be given over to learning spaces for students in Years 5 and 6.

Associated with the building are a number of other elements, including new learning spaces on top of the English rooms in the Senior School, a roof over the Science courtyard, covered walkways around the school and substantial landscaping in the Junior School playground. The removal of our 'temporary' demountable classrooms will open up significantly more playground space for the Junior School. We will also be removing the 'maze', terracing and levelling the existing playground and providing better access around the site.

At this point we expect to start construction at the beginning of the summer holidays and we expect the building to be in use by the start of 2017. The landscaping in the Junior School should be done by the middle of 2017.

There will be significant inconvenience to the life of the school associated with the construction process. As the site is in the middle of the school, there will be noise, dirt, dust and disruption to movement at various times and stages of the construction. We will obviously manage these challenges to the best of our ability and we are confident that the community is sufficiently resilient to be able to cope with the short-term pain for the sake of the school's long-term benefit.

If you would like to find out more about the project, you are welcome to come to one of the functions that I am hosting; the links are on the e-news letter or you can contact Mr Dom Valastro at the school. You are also warmly invited to make a (tax-deductible) financial contribution to the project at the link provided above.

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Camping in Belanglo State Forest (2015 Term 4 Week 5)

Many members of the School community will be aware that our Year 9 students had a camp last week. Camps are usually the object of substantial anticipation for students, although this year most of the speculation hinged on the fact that the camp would take place in the Belanglo State Forest. Recent headlines have raised the students' awareness of the forest and its history and their apprehensions about camp may have been amplified by their research into Belanglo. Obviously, we didn't choose our camp location for reasons associated with the newspaper headlines. Rather, over the last few years we have reviewed the camping and outdoor education programs offered by the school and we saw the need for a challenging Year 9 expedition-style camp.

The camps in Years 5, 7, and 8 are site-based camps. Our provider for these camps is Anglican Youthworks; we have had a longstanding and significant partnership with them.The Year 5 camp, which lasts three days, takes place at the Youthworks Port Hacking campsite called RathaneThis camp includes a wide range of outdoor activities, including archery, canoeing, sailing and water activities, but the students are accommodated in cabins and the facilities are extensive and comfortable. 

A similar camp happens right at the beginning of Year 7. This camp takes place at Deer Park, which is also at the Anglican Youthworks Port Hacking site; this camp has many of the same activities, albeit at an increased level of challenge. Much of the benefit in this camp is mixing up the continuing and new students, helping them get to know their peers and teachers, and ensuring that they start their school experience with some positive memories. In Year 8, Anglican Youthworks continues to be the provider, but we make use of the Waterslea campsite on the Shoalhaven River near Nowra. This camp also increases the level of challenge, with the students sleeping in tents on a camp-out for one night.

For all the success of these site-based camps, it is our judgment that this format does not provide adequate challenge for the Year 9 students. At its best, outdoor education stretches students by providing them with physical challenges, exposing them to situations that go beyond their normal experience, expecting them to learn about themselves and others, and requiring them to persevere in the face of multi-faceted adversity. Therefore, in 2013 we began the search for a provider who would be able to run expedition-based camps for our Year 9 students. We settled on the Outdoor Education Group (OEG), as a leading provider in this sector.

In 2015, we ran our first expedition-style camps with OEG. Based at their property Biloela bordering the Belanglo State Forest, the students were provided with the choice to take on either a three-day camp or a five-day camp. The longer camp entailed a higher level of challenge; about half the students chose this option. Despite the experience of camping in -7 degrees centigrade, the feedback from students was largely positive, with the majority of students from both camps indicating that they would have preferred a longer camp.

Therefore, in 2016 we offered either a four-day camp or a six-day camp, at a slightly less chilly time of year. Again, about half our students chose to take on the more challenging option, which also dovetails with the requirements of the Duke of Edinburgh program. While we are yet to conduct our post-camp survey, it has been fascinating to hear the students begin to reflect on their experience. The full gamut of responses is evident, from those who loved it and would prefer to be in the bush than at school, through to those who saw very little (if anything) positive in the experience. Some students appear to have developed a new appreciation for a full pantry and hot water on tap. Others formed or built connections with peers (and teachers) with whom they do not normally interact.

With this adventure behind them, the focus has already begun to swing towards the Year 10 Global Education program. In a couple of weeks time our Year 10 students will travel to the Yasawa Islands, Cambodia/Vietnam, Broken Hill, Tasmania, or wider Sydney as they embark on a program of service-learning and horizon-broadening.

Over the last couple of years, as I have chatted with Year 12 students towards the end of their time at the school, the experiences that seem to have left the best memories have been the co-curricular ones. Camps and trips provide our young people with formative experiences that enrich their school experience in the long run, even if they don't necessarily love it while it is happening!

Monday, 26 October 2015

New initiative for acceleration and challenge (2015 Term 4 Week 4)

Over the last few years, one of the major priorities for the school has been to ensure that every student achieves rich and deep learning outcomes. A key strategy in achieving this goal has been working with the teachers to differentiate the curriculum to deliver appropriate levels of challenge and support to all students. For most students, this appropriate challenge and support is provided through the professional practice of the classroom teachers. 

Over the last three years the formation of the K-12 Learning Enrichment Team, consisting of staff specialising in both learning support and learning extension, has enabled us to deliver on this priority. The Learning Enrichment Team have developed a common framework, language and processes to help ensure that student needs are recognised and that staff are supported and equipped in their professional practice. I am deeply appreciative to Dr Lye Chan Long and, before her, Mrs Debbie Williams, for their leadership of this team. The team is significantly larger now than it was at its formation and it will be increasing again in 2016 as part of our quest to improve student learning outcomes.

In 2016 we are undertaking a number of initiatives that are specifically directed towards helping high-achieving students to thrive further in their learning. We already have a number of students who are accelerated in one way or another. A number of Junior School students learn with older students in various Key Learning Areas and withdrawal groups continue to provide additional challenge. From time to time consideration will also be given to grade-skipping students as a way of ensuring that they do experience the appropriate level of challenge; any actions of this sort are informed by the data and particular circumstances of individual students. 

Acceleration also takes place in the Senior School, most notably seen in individual students moving to complete elements of their HSC earlier than is the normal pattern. This is more appropriate, and easier accomplished, in some subjects rather than others. Over the last three years individual students have accelerated through the Software Design and Development course, achieving excellent results. Likewise a Year 10 student has just achieved the top results in the Year 11 Music 2 course and a Year 9 student has just topped the Year 11 Mathematics and Mathematics Extension courses. We will continue to identify opportunities for individual students to accelerate, based on their ability, their interest and the opportunities.

However, In 2016 we are introducing two new options to accelerate a group of students through their pattern of study. First, we are commencing an accelerated course in Studies of Religion, whereby students in Year 11 who are doing either Extension English or Extension Maths, will be able to accelerate through the 1-Unit Studies of Religion course in one year. This will enable them to experience an HSC exam while still in Year 11, 'bank' one unit and thereby reduce their overall study load in both Year 11 and Year 12. This pattern of study has been attractive to a number of our most able students and we are confident that it will help them to achieve strong results.

Second, we are also beginning a long-term commitment to accelerating students through the Maths syllabus. Early in 2016 we will identify a class of high-achieving Year 7 Maths students and accelerate them through both Year 7 and Year 8 maths. This will place them a whole year 'ahead of schedule', enabling them to do their HSC Mathematics while in Year 11. It is our expectation that accelerating a class in this way will be our ongoing practice. 

It is important to note that this pattern of acceleration does not disadvantage other students. It will still be possible for students to do their maths study at the normal rate and to achieve excellent results. 

Acceleration is not necessarily the best path for all students and it is not a necessary path either to validate ability or to achieve excellent results. In the significant majority of cases, appropriate challenge in learning is available to students through extension and enrichment opportunities. However, having reviewed the curriculum and the constraints within which we operate, it appears that these two significant new whole-class acceleration initiatives are a good way forward to build our culture of academic excellence.

Monday, 19 October 2015

Evidence regarding independent school education (2015 Term 1 Week 3)

Claims ought to be backed with evidence. As the maxim has it, "In God we trust; everyone else brings data." As a fee-paying parent, as well as the principal of an independent school, I want to know what evidence there is that my family's investment in our children's education will bring a value-add for them. While it is not difficult to point to experiences and tell anecdotes and make observations that support our decision to choose independent education, I was very interested to come across a summary of some publically-available and robust data on the matter.

Much of what follows in the infographic and subsequent comments has been drawn together by the Association of the Heads of Independent Schools Australia, which is a national peak body for schools like Inaburra.

The four key academic strengths of independent schools are excellence, gain, equity and ethos. It is very interesting to note that Australian research has found that academic environment is the most statistically significant factor explaining the ‘value adding’ of independent schools. Codes of behaviour, homework regimes and the high expectations of teachers of all their students are important elements of a school ethos and help create strong learning communities with good academic outcomes.

The features underlying these academic strengths are outlined in the infographic. These factors align the features of independent school education such as pastoral care and co-curricular activities with the quality of teaching and the positive, demonstrable commitment of parents to the importance of education.

All of the above to combine to provide academic opportunity for our children.

It may be that the evidence surveyed above is not new to you. It may not be particularly important to you, being outweighed by the daily experience of your children at school, the anecdotes of their opportunities and activities and the myriad other factors that constitute the Inaburra education. However, I hope that you are reassured that your investment in your child's education has a sound evidentiary basis.

Monday, 12 October 2015

Bullying and Inaburra (2015 Term 4 Week 2)

One of the main concerns of parents with reference to their children has to do with bullying. No-one wants their child to experience bullying. However, bullying is more common than any of us would like. A recent editorial in the Sydney Morning Herald discussed the findings of a survey of students in eighty Australian schools. According to the article, the Australian Child Wellbeing Project found that one in five students in years 4 and 6 are bullied at least once a week. The bullying comes in multiple forms 
"from dirty looks to being threatened or humiliated. Bullied children are often subjected to physical violence or have their belongings stolen. They can be excluded from a social group and gossiped about or targeted online through social media." 
How do these findings compare to the experience of Inaburra? Overall, we have reason to believe that bullying is less prevalent in our school than in many others. For example, in our recent parent satisfaction survey, 88% of parents agreed with the statement Inaburra provides a caring and safe environment for students. This represented a 4% improvement since the last survey in 2012 and it is 6% higher than the benchmark for similar schools.

In the same survey, parents indicated their understanding about the extent of bullying at the school; the results are outlined in the slide below.

A number of observations can be made about this slide. First, there is an error in transcription in the bullet points in the top right hand section - but only close readers will have noted it! Second, our experience roughly parallels that of the similar schools at which we are benchmarked. Third, the results represent an improvement since the 2012 survey. In fact, in every result to do with bullying, parents affirmed the school's trajectory and progress. For example, 82% of parents agreed with the statement The School has a very clear policy with regard to bullying and 81% agreed with the statement The School works towards an environment where bullying is not tolerated.
We are still waiting for the results of the Year 6 and Year 12 surveys for 2015, but the 2014 student results are broadly aligned with the parent responses outlined above. It is worth noting that far fewer of  Year 6 Inaburra students in 2014 thought that bullying is a serious problem than the students of benchmark schools (2% compared to 8%).
We should not be surprised that young people treat one another badly on occasion. When they do so, they are mirroring the behaviour of people throughout the world in which they live. Bullying happens in the workplace, in the home, on the sporting field and between nations. The ongoing reality of bullying resonates with the Christian account of humanity, which understands each one of us to have the capacity for, and inclination towards, doing wrong. When we take one thousand young people and place them in close community with one another during the fraught and tumultuous years of childhood and adolescence, it ought not surprise us when some of them do the wrong thing towards others.
Schools are far more sensitive to bullying now than they have been in the past. It is inarguable that some behaviours and practices that were previously regarded as being usual or tolerable, are no longer acceptable. I heard a story about a school during the 90s at which older students compelled the new Year 7 students to walk through a brimming urinal on their first day of school as an 'initiation' to high school. If it was to happen now, such an incident would be likely to lead to summary termination of enrolment.
However, it is not the case that all negative peer interactions constitute bullying and it is not the case that our young people ought never to encounter a negative peer interaction. Life requires the navigation of relationships, power, connectedness and all of the elements that are part of the human social world. This happens in the spheres of learning, work, leisure, and family, and it will continue to be our children's experience in adulthood as well as childhood. 
Viewed in this way, a negative peer interaction is a learning opportunity. If your child is not invited to a social event, you have the chance to help reframe the disappointment. How will our children learn to deal with 'missing out', unless they do miss out. Not being invited to a party is a similar experience, on a smaller scale, to not being offered a job interview or not being selected for a team or not succeeding in any highly valued pursuit. We learn and grow through the negative events; thankfully the negative events that are characteristic of most childhoods have lower stakes than those of adulthood.
This is not to dismiss or ignore bullying. Inaburra is continuing to work hard to be a safe environment for our students and we are unrelenting in our expectation that our young people will learn to do their relationships well. You can find some information and resources about bullying here, including the paths of communication for reporting bullying. However, my encouragement to parents is threefold: 

  • First, be realistic about the fact that your child will have negative interactions with others. Sometimes they will be blameless, sometimes they will not, and often it will be grey. However, as the parent of a young person, you should be confident that there will be bad days and tears and distress. It will happen!
  • Second, understand that your role as parent is not just to protect but to prepare. Our goal as parents is to prepare our children to be able to make their way in the world without our protective oversight. Therefore, when a bad day comes, ask yourself how this might be made into a learning experience.
  • Third, trust us and work with us. Our goal is to work in partnership with you in the interests of your child. The school is not the enemy. (Nor, I would add, is the other student the enemy.) We have a much better chance of achieving positive long-term outcomes for your children if we are able to work together.

Monday, 14 September 2015

The power of social and emotional skills (2015 Term 3 Week 10)

Educating for cognitive skills is not enough. Literacy and numeracy are not enough. High performance in test scores are not enough. Teamwork, creativity, ethics, resilience, curiousity and time-management are just some of the other skills that young people need to develop in their education. 

According to Andreas SchleicherSpecial Advisor on Education Policy at the OECD,
Common sense tells us that social and emotional skills -- such as perseverance, self-control or agreeableness -- help individuals have more fulfilling lives. People who persevere and work hard are more likely to succeed in a highly dynamic and skill-driven labour market. Those who work hard are more likely to follow healthier lifestyles and remain fit. Individuals who are capable of coping with their emotions and adapting to change are more likely to cope with job loss, family disintegration or crime. And of course, social and emotional skills matter because they help develop and enforce cognitive skills. Children with self-control, for example, are more likely to finish reading a book, to complete a difficult maths problem or to follow through a science project.
I find Schleicher's case compelling. It is this thinking that lies behind our development of the Inaburra Learner Profile; the non-cognitive capabilities of our children are just as vital as their literacy and numeracy. These capabilities will determine the kinds of educational, social, economic, health and wellbeing outcomes our children can expect to experience in the decades to come.

The challenge for educators and parents is to work out how these characteristics, capabilities and 'soft' skills can be cultivated. Good schools have always wanted to achieve these outcomes, but it has not been easy to measure or assess a student's progress or a school's effectiveness. In addition, there has been a shortage of research to indicate that the various programs, interventions and approaches utilised by schools have much effect. All of which is to say, we have tended to put this matter in the too-hard basket, compared to the classic cognitive outcomes which are more easily measured and researched.

However, a recent publication from the OECD provides some hope for progress on this front, indicating that, in educational jurisdictions around the world, research is suggesting that these social and emotional skills are both measurable and malleable. Schools can make a difference and they can measure that difference.

There is increasing interest in NSW independent schools on this topic. The Association of Independent Schools NSW (AISNSW) recently published a summary of the OECD paper that provides a relatively accessible window into the key messages. with our Learner Profile, Inaburra is on the leading edge in exploring this topic.

Earlier this year Inaburra was successful in applying for a grant through AISNSW to participate in a three year trial of the Mission Skills Assessment (MSA). This assessment seeks to measure students' ability and progress in the character skills of teamwork, creativity, ethics, resilience, curiousity and time-management. The trial, which will focus on students in Years 6, 7 and 8, will include participating in a small network of other independent schools in NSW as we seek to cultivate and to evaluate these crucial skills. You will hear more about the MSA in the years to come!

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Why bother with uniforms? (2015 Term 3 Week 9)

It is inevitable that at some point of the year, I will be approached about the school uniform; the variation lies in who is approaching and what they want. Sometimes it is a student representation, who are looking for a modification, new element, relaxation of expectations or just more mufti days. Sometimes it is parents who want to let me know how smart the students look, or how slovenly the students look, or how the uniform is too hot or too cold or too ... Sometimes it is teachers who want me to know either that they are tired of being the only ones to maintain standards, or that they think we are focussing too much on the externals and we should relax.

I have given up on satisfying everyone regarding uniforms, but I thought it might be worthwhile outlining my top five reasons why uniforms are a good thing. In no particular order:
  • School uniforms are a great leveller
Most of us are acutely able to register those who have and those who have not. Whether we are comparing homes, cars, holidays, handbags, phones, shoes, pencil cases or lunch boxes, we find ways to evaluate the levels of privilege that different people enjoy. School uniforms take one of these possible comparisons out of play. All Inaburra students of an equivalent stage of schooling wear the same clothes, regardless of the extent of their outside wardrobe. It doesn't prevent the invidious creep of envy or contempt - these are deeply rooted in our hearts - but it removes it from one key aspect of our children's daily lives.
  • School uniforms are a cue to 'work'
At the start of each year, I experience a symbolic setting aside of my summer clothes, in order to put on my work clothes. Away go the flip-flops, shorts and T-shirts, and on goes the suit and tie. I have to admit that it grates; I would prefer to stay in the holiday gear. However, the suit reminds me that I am back on deck, in work mode. The first thing I do when I get home on a Friday night is take off the suit and tie. Changing clothes changes the mode in which I am operating. Donning sports gear has the same effect. So do pyjamas.

School uniform functions the same way for our students.It is a non-verbal symbolic cue that reminds them that they are changing modes. From holiday to study. From leisure to work. From freedom to structure. From lazing to focus. Puttng the school uniform on is one way that our children change gears.

  • School uniforms connect individuals to a community
Uniforms are a public statement and a personal reminder that we belong to something bigger than ourselves. Living in a society and culture that prioritises the individual over the collective, it is no bad thing for young people to learn that they are part of a bigger community. They have obligations to people other than themselves; a theological way of expressing this is interrelationalism. Our identity is formed in the web of relationships that connect us to others; the uniform is a tangible symbol of this connection.

  • School uniforms reduce focus on the externals
Paradoxically, having a uniform actually reduces focus on the external aspects of a person. We live in a society that places great priority on external appearances, where youth and beauty and style are of the highest value. Unfortunately, a consequence is that the quality of a person's character, intellect and heart are devalued in comparison. Not only is the pursuit of external beauty futile, in that the years will take a toll on this aspect of us all, but it is ultimately a shallow measure with no bearing on the good life. 

Our children are faced with a tsunami of cultural influences driving them towards this hyper-valuation of the external. In a small way, a school uniform code tries to create a space where that pressure is held at bay.
  • School uniforms make life simple
Finally, school uniforms make it just that bit easier to get to school on time! I spoke with a friend whose children are educated in an American school where there is no uniform. The amount of angst involved in identifying and assembling outfits on a daily basis occupies literally hours each week, as well as significant cost. Too much choice actually brings anxiety and inhibits our ability to make decisions. By taking choice in this matter out of students' hands, we actually de-stress this aspect of their lives. 

In every school that I know, some students push the boundaries of acceptable uniform standards, whether it is about the top button being done up, the length of the skirt, the socks being pulled up, the amount of make-up, the shirt tucked in, the length, colour and style of hair or the polish of the shoes. There are innumerable little ways that students will test the boundaries. 

Each school needs to work out where, when, with whom and how to hold the line on different matters. We appreciate the support of our parents in holding to our expectations regarding uniforms. 

Monday, 31 August 2015

Key shifts in 21st Century learning (2015 Term 3 Week 8)

What is an education worth having? This is a question that has been exercising the Inaburra staff in recent years. In light of the pace and scope of change in our world, what sort of an education do our young people need. What are the skills, capabilities and character traits that will stand them in good stead in the years to come? In our context, we have developed the Inaburra Learner Profile as our articulation of the outcomes for which we are aiming; it is greatly encouraging to see that educators around the world are asking similar questions and heading in similar directions.

The OECD report from 2012 called The Nature of Learning: Using Research to Inspire Practice describes the key shifts in 21st century learning. Under the far-reaching impact of information and communication technology, all levels and aspects of society are changing.These disruptions have transformed our industrial economies to ones in which "knowledge is the central driving force for economic activity, with innovation critical." A correlation of the importance of knowledge is the importance of learning.

According to the OECD, "the capacity to continuously learn and apply/integrate new knowledge and skills has never been more essential." The kinds of skills that need to be acquired include the capacities to:

  • generate, process and sort complex information
  • think systematically and critically
  • make decisions weighing different forms of evidence
  • ask meaningful questions about different subjects
  • be adaptable and flexible to new information
  • be creative
  • be able to justify and solve real-world problems
  • acquire a deep understanding of complex concepts
  • media literacy
  • teamwork, social and communication skills
With all this in mind, there is a good case to be made for the reinvention of education. The pedagogic model underlying our schools is predicated on preparing young people for life in an industrial economy and that world is passing. The curriculum, built environment and the learning experiences that constitute daily activity need to rethought if our children are to have an education worth having.

Three key points emerge:
  • First, the Inaburra Learner Profile represents our response to challenges that are being faced by educators around the world, and our response resonates with theirs. We are not out on our own!
  • Second, education must continue to change, if it is to prepare our children for the world into which they will graduate. If their education looks like ours did, we will have failed them.
  • Third, there is no more valuable capability than that of being a life-long learner. We do well to focus on that.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

What do we know about the nature of learning? (2015 Term 3 Week 7)

As a field of professional endeavour, over the last couple of decades education has developed a deeper, broader and more well-established understanding of learning. Through rigorous educational research, through the input of other fields such as positive psychology and neuroscience, and through consideration of the capabilities required in the 21st century, we have a better understanding of learning itself. Our better understanding should also translate into improvements in the ways that we approach teaching and learning.

And so we should! I doubt that any of us would be reassured to know that our doctors were continuing to treat us according to the knowledge of generations gone by. Nor would we want our buildings built according to standards and codes that have been replaced by superior ones.

School education is unique as a professional field, in that everyone has experienced it as a student (for good or ill), most parents have an interest in it (at least with reference to their own children), but for the most part it takes place outside of our sight. It's not that we aren't interested, but the question 'What did you do at school today?' can evoke a wide range of responses from a grunt through to an interminable recount of the minutiae of who played with whom. The reassurances that a parent might seek regarding the quality of the teaching and learning, the solidity of the knowledge-base on which it stands, and the reasons why it happens the way it does, are harder to come by.

From talking with a number of parents about these matters, it is evident to me that some might be interested in a more substantial explanation of what we know about learning and the way that this knowledge shapes our practice. Over the next few weeks in this blog, I hope to provide some of this information.

Image result for OECD nature of learning

I will be engaging with a really helpful publication of the OECD Centre for Educational Research and Innovation. The full report was published in 2010, but the OECD have also published a summary booklet called The Nature of Learning: Using Research to Inspire Practice in 2012, which is much more accessible. This practitioner guide is not a lengthy read, running to about 12 pages, and it is a straightforward read for anyone with an interest in learning. If you have the time, I recommend printing and reading it over a cup of coffee. If you don't, over the next few weeks I plan to provide a very brief summary of the summary! 

As a starting point, the research makes it clear that emotions and motivation are the gatekeepers to learning. Positive emotions about the learning experience and positive motivation to engage in learning, helps students to become more effective and powerful learners. 

The booklet identifies eight elements that motivate students to engage in learning.

  • When they perceive stable links between specific actions and achievement
  • When they feel competent to do what is expected of them
  • When they value the subject and have a clear sense of purpose
  • When they perceive the environment as favourable for learning
  • When they experience positive emotions towards learning activities
  • Students direct their actions away from learning when they experience negative emotions
  • Students are more persistent in learning when they can manage their resources and deal with obstacles effectively
  • Students free up cognitive resources for learning when they are able to influence the intensity, duration and expression of their emotions.

All of which is to say that learning is not a purely rational cognitive process divorced from the hubbub and turmoil of emotion; the head is not independent of the heart! To take just one of these elements for consideration, if a student does not believe that she/he is able to achieve success, there is very little reason to try. A growth mindset, appropriate scaffolding, and the experience of success, all play a role in helping a young person to be motivated in their learning.

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Technology in schools (2015 Term 3 Week 6)

Each term I attend a meeting with many of the principals of other independent schools in NSW. These schools range from low-fee 'young' schools in the outer suburbs of Sydney to regional/rural schools to the 'elite' sandstone schools. It is invariably a very stimulating time to swap ideas, seek advice and share some of the burdens that come with the role. Recently a number of us were discussing the place of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in the learning culture and overall environment of our schools; I was staggered at the diversity of practice that emerged.

In one prestigious school it is an automatic Saturday detention for a phone to be seen on school grounds and no students use mobile technology for their learning up until Year 11. In another, many students are prone to sitting in a circle and not talking at lunchtime, because they are so focussed on their phones. Some schools use tablets as a straight replacement for textbooks, some have a one-to-one program that depends on all students having access to an identical device, and some have gone to a platform-agnostic Bring Your Own Technology (BYOT) program. Some schools have a highly structured and staggered process for the students' use of technology, whereby certain year groups use certain devices.

From our discussions, it was very clear that schools are facing up to the challenges and changes presented by ICT in many very different ways. It was also clear that the three key groups of stakeholders - parents, staff and students - have widely divergent opinions; each of the schools represents a unique context that makes it hard to be dogmatic about 'the best way' to move forward.

Participating in these discussions, I was caused to reflect on the progress that we have made in the last few years with our introduction of BYOT. Over the last few months we have received feedback from our key stakeholders that indicate a very high level of satisfaction with our trajectory and practices to do with ICT.

In the K-12 Parent Satisfaction survey conducted by MMG in Term 2, there was a very strong parental affirmation of the place of ICT in the School. 80% of the parents responding agreed with statements such as: I am well-informed about the BYOT program; the BYOT program is assisting my child with his/her learning; and, the BYOT program improves student communication with teachers and with other students. Likewise, in K-4 there was a similarly high affirmation of our approach to ICT.

In a recent staff engagement survey conducted for Inaburra by the Voice Project, there was an extraordinarily strong affirmation of the School's use of technology. 95% of staff indicated that the School makes good use of technology, 97% said that the technology is kept up to date and 88% believed that we have good skills at using our technology. All of these responses are more than 30% above the benchmarks for other independent schools and for industry more generally.

In an external review of our ICT program that was conducted in Term 2 by Dancrai and the Association of Independent Schools, the findings were powerfully positive. The infrastructure was found to be reliable and the support helpful and competent. The professional learning for staff with reference to ICT was effective, technology was regularly incorporated into lessons for sound educational reasons, and the utilisation of Google Apps for Education was well-received by staff and students.

All of which is to say, the data indicates that our community is strongly positive about the ways that ICT is being used in our school. The effort involved to get us to where we are has been significant, with the burden being felt particularly by staff. The disruption of the professional practice of teachers that ICT brings is considerable and challenging. The leadership of our ICT staff has been very much appreciated, as has the willingness of our teachers to wrestle with the possibilities.

When it comes to our utilisation of ICT as a tool for student learning, we seem to be doing pretty well. The journey is not smooth, the progress is not uniform, the missteps and false paths are real, but the alternative - not to engage with the challenges - makes no sense at all, in our preparation of young people for the world that lies ahead.

Monday, 10 August 2015

The dangers of Bonsai parenting (2015 Term 3 Week 5)

It is not difficult to make parents feel guilty; a friend once likened it to shooting fish in a barrel! The guilt trips can come from any number of sources. Previous generations of parents run commentary, our peers may communicate judgment and our children can cut us deeply in their words and actions. In addition, there is never a shortage of research, experts and articles in the popular media or online that point out the issues that we parents need to consider. I came across another one on the weekend!

Being conscious of the dangers of bombarding you with parenting advice, I cast my mind back over the topics that I have covered in this blog this year; I fear I may have contributed to the barrage of parenting advice that overwhelms us. I have written on the need for more sleep, the perils of listening to music while studying, raising children with good body-image, the perils of social media, the need to cultivate resilience in children, and wise parenting with reference to alcohol. I do apologise if this input has weighed you down; it was certainly not the intention! What I hope to achieve is to reflect on issues to do with our children that manifest themselves in the context of the school community.

The article that caught my attention was titled Bonsai parenting: Why so many children end up in therapy; it was prompted by the publication of a new book by Judith Locke. The book is the popular version of her doctoral work, based on research with school counsellors, psychologists, parents and children. Although I have not yet read the book, a number of elements in the article resonated.

According to the article, Locke observes that parents have a legitimate and well-founded desire for their children to be happy. However, this translates to them 'over-parenting' by being too involved in their children's lives, constantly trying to solve their problems and harbouring unrealistic expectations of their potential.

There are subtleties in this issue that need to be considered. As a society we have made great progress in our understanding of, and sensitivity to, mental health issues amongst children and adolescents. It is certainly a good thing that there are specialists who are able to provide support to those who need it and early intervention is helpful in many contexts. 

Quoting from the article, Locke's focus appears to be more directed towards those children who are reared in extremely controlled environments and assiduously cultivated by their parents. There is an over-emphasis on the child's happiness, and an expectation they will excel at life, which can breed anxiety and perfectionism in the child. Locke says a bonsai upbringing stunts children's development, as they never learn how to adapt to different or difficult circumstances. They grow up anxious, overly dependent on others, lack resilience, have poor life skills and can behave badly. "A child who has been given the perfect childhood can't cope with the less than perfect realities of adult life," Locke says. (Emphasis mine).

In my role I see this sort of over-parenting from time to time. One key one is the readiness and vehemence with which some parents can contact the school to advocate for their child, whether it be regarding a mark/grade received, a detention issued, a playground dispute or a sporting or creative arts selection. 

I do not believe that there is never a place for parents to intervene on behalf of their child, but I fear that we get involved too quickly. Our children need to experience disappointment, frustration and difficulty in the small-scale world of childhood, so that they develop the capacity to cope with adult challenges. They need to fight their own battles and climb their own mountains. Parental support is often best expressed through coaching and support, rather than through direct management and intervention.

This article has not been written because of any single incident or issue and it is certainly not intended to heap guilt onto the burdened shoulders of any parent. Rather, it is offered as a stimulus for consideration as we continue to work together to shape young people who will have the capabilities for resilience and resourcefulness that will enable them to thrive in childhood, adolescence and adulthood.