Monday, 27 April 2015

Reconceptualising 'screen-time' (2015 Term 2 Week 2)

The idea of 'screen-time' has entered the popular lexicon as a way of speaking about the cumulative time that we spend looking at screens. However, summing up this amount of time obscures the fact that there are vast differences in the range of things that we are doing when we are looking at screens. Watching TV, playing a game, browsing the internet, completing an essay, working on a spreadsheet, editing video, writing computer code, watching videos of cats on Youtube, and all the rest of the things that can be done on a screen, are vastly different activities. They engage our brains in different ways and they require different amounts of effort.

Recently I have been thinking about the ways that we engage with technology in 'screen-time', wondering whether there is some way to conceptualise the different sorts of activities that we do.

One of the best-known frameworks for thinking about thinking and learning is Bloom's taxonomy. (A taxonomy is a framework for classifying, grouping or organising things.) In its popular form, Bloom's taxonomy distinguishes between the sorts of thinking processes that take place in learning. The lower-order forms of thinking are foundational for the higher-order tasks; educators ought to aim to ensure that students are engaged in the higher-order processes as well as the more basic activities.

The attraction of Bloom's taxonomy is that it provides a simple way to conceptualise the processes of thinking that we utilise. The taxonomy also serves as a prompt to push educators to reflect on the sorts of learning activities that we require of students. It is self-evidently inadequate to remain at the lower levels of thinking.

What might a taxonomy of the use of Information and Communication Technology, or screen-time, look like? What are the lower-order activities? What are the basic and foundational processes, and what are the higher-order ones? I wonder if the following taxonomy might be fruitful for us to consider our screen-time:

Higher order  Creation
Lower order   Entertainment

What might an audit of your child's screen-time reveal? (What might an audit of our own usage reveal?) Obviously we do well to keep an eye on the total quantum of sedentary time with screens; face to face social interaction, physical movement, reading and other such activities must not be squashed out. However, a taxonomy such as suggested above might provide a more nuanced way to consider screen-time and even provide a rationale to redirect our children towards the higher-order activities.

For example, there are some games played by students that involve little more than swiping left, right, up and down; these serve to do little more than vacuum up time. There are others, such as Minecraft, that can be wonderful exercises in creativity. Of course, they may also be a colossal waste of time. Perhaps the best way forward when monitoring our children's screen-time is to look a little closer at what exactly they are doing, ask them to explain it to you, and discuss the relative merits of the activity with you.

At Inaburra, where we are seeking to utilise ICT as a tool for student learning, this sort of taxonomy can also prove helpful in pushing us to design higher-order tasks and activities for the students. There is lots more thinking to be done on this topic!

Monday, 20 April 2015

Are independent schools value for money? (2015 Term 2 Week 1)

Welcome back to school for Term 2! I trust that you and your families enjoyed the break and that you are ready for the term ahead.

Last week a number of media outlets reported on a study drawing on data from the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children which apparently concluded that "Sending children to private or public school makes no difference to their educational development because the things that matter — such as birth weight, parent education and the time mothers spend with their children — have already been set in stone." The headlines attached to these reports used language like No benefit in private schools. These stories were also picked up in last night's 60 Minutes story, which was entirely unabashed in driving a public vs private agenda.

Naturally enough, this grabbed my attention; not only do I lead an independent school, but I also pay independent school fees as a parent. If there is no benefit in doing so, I need to know about it!

However, as is often the case, a bit of digging beyond the headlines reveals that the research is significantly more nuanced; the sub-editors' imperative of grabbing attention over-reaches (and sometime misrepresents) the more restrained and responsible research that has taken place. Unfortunately, as the study was published in the Labour Economics journal, which is not available to the general public, most of us do not have access to this more nuanced work.

The first thing to note is that the data used in the study only referred to the NAPLAN results for children who are involved in the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children. Whilst it is valuable information, as I have written before, NAPLAN provides a very narrow set of data; most parents are interested in a far broader range of issues to do with the learning and growth of their children. For what it is worth, the NAPLAN data indicates that, in both performance and growth, Inaburra students are doing well; you can check this assertion on the MySchool website.

The second note is that the data is only concerned with students in Years 3 and 5. As students move into high school a substantial gap appears (although this observation is based on raw data from the MySchool website, without controlling for socio-economic status or other variables). Other research indicates that, after controlling for students’ socioeconomic background and academic ability, the odds of university participation for independent school students are still twice that of government school students. Recent analysis of data collected for the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia Survey (HILDA) shows that, having entered university, students educated at independent schools are almost three times more likely to graduate.

A third comment is that, while the study in question does not identify a difference in cognitive outcomes, it does identify a difference in non-cognitive outcomes such as social skills, which improved over time for students in non-government schools relative to the government schools.

As a matter of policy, I make a point of not disparaging any of the school education sectors. The preceding comments are intended to act as a corrective to misrepresentations about the data. In each of the three sectors (public, Catholic and independent) there are dedicated and professional teachers. In each sector there are schools doing a wonderful job of caring for children and preparing them for the years ahead. In each sector it is possible to get an excellent education.

In the end, each family will evaluate the wisdom of investing in an independent school education. I am less concerned with the opinions of the usual commentators with a public vs private axe to grind than I am with the experience of Inaburra students and their families. This is one of the reasons that we conduct our tri-ennial K-12 Parent Satisfaction Survey; it is a means of gaining data from Inaburra parents as to whether you are satisfied with your investment in an Inaburra education. I will be writing to parents in the near future with information about the parent satisfaction survey. When the survey is launched in a few weeks time, would you please make a priority of participating? Your input will be an invaluable aspect of our strategic planning process through the course of the year.

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Reflections from the World Educational Leaders Summit - Pasi Sahlberg

Pasi Sahlberg is a Finnish author, educator and scholar who has become well-known through his exposition and analysis of the success of the Finnish education system as measured by the OECD's PISA tests. Prior to 2000, there had been no viable way to gauge the relative merits of national education systems, but the results of the PISA assessments are now used to form league tables that are being used as the foundation for comparison, policy formulation and educational reform. Finland's sustained strong performance in these assessments has led to a great deal of interest in their educational system.

Sahlberg's premise that there are two very different approaches to educational reform evident in national policies at the moment. One, which he terms the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM) is outlined below on the right; this has tended to characterise the USA, the UK and Australia. As defined by Sahlberg, the other is 'The Finnish Way.' (For those with the time and interest, a TEDx talk expounding his ideas can be found here.)

Prior to expounding the Finnish way, Sahlberg does note that the education system exists in a context and that there are myriad 'invisible' factors that contribute to Finland's eminence. Finland can be characterised as a 'successful society', ranking highly in other international comparisons in areas such as innovation, economic competititeness, governance, child health and wellbeing, political empowerment of women, and the state and standing of mothers. All these factors have recursive relationship with a good education system, mutually reinforcing and strengthening one another. 

Most of Sahlberg's reflections on the Finnish way speak to systemic issues and social policies, rather than direct application to individual schools. Nonetheless, it was fascinating hear how Finnish educationalists are continuing to seek further improvement in the education that they are offering to their young people. For example, in their schools it is mandated that there is a 3 to 1 ratio of lessons to break time; that is, for every 45 minutes of class, there is 15 minutes of recess. Another example is the new requirement that each student experience at least one 'extended integrated study period per year'; this initiative seeks to break down the silos of specialised knowledge, advance authentic student-driven learning and make learning more engaging, interesting and real.

Ultimately there were four big messages in Sahlberg's presentations:

  • We must aim for equity as well as excellence. In the graphy below, the flags designate how individual nations/jurisdictions are progressing with reference to these two goals.

  • We should celebrate failure! Since 2011 Finland has held a National Day of Failure on 13 October, which is intended to help a risk-averse culture reframe failure. Failure is an invaluable element in the learning process and it needs to be understood as such.
  • Play is vital. Not just physical movement and activity, but also unstructured self-directed play for its own sake. Longer and longer hours of demanding and focussed learning is counter-productive and unhelpful. This is one of the key points where the distinction between the Finnish way and GERM is most clearly seen; most of the top-scoring jurisdictions in the PISA tests have massively extended school hours and demand for external study.
  • Learning languages is a very good thing, having cognitive benefit, preparing young people to be global citizens, developing empathy and engaging with alternative worldviews.

One of the disappointing aspects of Australian education policies of recent years has been the way that we have followed the lead of the USA and the UK in a number of areas, such as the introduction of high-stakes tests (ie NAPLAN), focussed on homogenisation of curriculum (ie the National Curriculum) and allowed PISA results to reframe our estimation of what makes for good educational outcomes for our children. Recognising that the Finnish way cannot simply be transplanted into a foreign context, I am firmly of the opinion that we ought be looking more to the Finnish way than to the GERM!

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Reflections from the World Educational Leaders Summit - Sugata Mitra

Sugata Mitra, a polymath who is presently Professor of Educational Technology at Newcastle University, gained a level of public awareness through a TED talk in 2007 where he described an experiment that is popularly known as "The Hole in the Wall". In this experiment, a computer was placed in a kiosk in a wall in a slum in Delhi and children were allowed to use it freely. The experiment tested a hypothesis that children could learn using computers without any formal training.

In 2013, Mitra pitched a scaling of this idea in another TED talk titled Build a School in the Cloud, which resulted in him winning the $1M TED prize. This funding is being used to establish facilities to replicate the Hole in the Wall experiment in customised facilities around the world in a range of contexts.

Rather than just beng an exercise in dumping hardware into schools and hoping that learning outcomes improve (as was the case with much of the Rudd government's Digital Education Revolution), Mitra was drawing on an area of knowledge in Mathematics and Physics called self-organising systems, which is found in complexity theory and chaos theory. The experiment attempted to create an environment in which learning was made possible. Mitra's hypothesis was that, left to themselves, children will learn to operate computers and the internet to learn. 

The story of the experiments was fascinating. Random groups of disadvantaged children were placed unsupervised and undirected in twenty two locations, equipped with a shared computer, and tested in computer literacy on a monthly basis for nine months. In this time they reached the level of computer literacy of an office secretary in the West. Although games were initially the focus of the children's interest, this reduced over time. When a crowd was present, conversation turned towards school and home and, after four months, the children started to bring school work to the computers.

As the studies have progressed, Mitra and his team have identified parameters that assist the learning to happen. The presence of a friendly mediator (not instructor) was beneficial. A ratio of one computer to four students seems to work the best. When students were one to one with a computer, they tended to get distracted and do their own thing. A shared device brought with it a measure of responsibility to be on-task. Big screens are far better than small screens. Lots of (student-generated) noise seemed to help the learning take place. Interestingly, the high-ability students preferred not to work in groups, unless the work was clearly challenging and difficult; if the tasks did not extend them, they preferred to work alone. Fluid grouping was the norm; students default to forming their own groups, but the groups were not fixed.

There were a few key takeaways for me from this session. The first is that students are not inherently reluctant to learn. The second is that a key role of educators is to create an environment in which learning can happen, rather than to feel obligated to make learning happen. The third was that shared ICT devices require a different level of collaboration to the typical 1-1 learnng. 

We are not at a point that we can declare the teacher redundant. However, we certainly should be thinking as to what the teacher's role ought to be, given the capacity for learning that is inherent in young people, and the extent of knowledge that is available to them online.

Monday, 13 April 2015

Reflections from the World Educational Leaders Summit - Yong Zhao


One of the more animated and entertaining speakers at the Summit was Yong Zhao. His address ranged from Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer to Kim Kardashian and most topics in-between. His presentation picked up on a number of themes from his 2012 book World Class Learners: Educating Creative and Entrepeneurial Students, which I am now reading.

His driving question was 'What are the education outcomes that matter?' From the starting premise that schools find their reason for existence in cultivating qualities and skills that will help students to succeed in life, he argued that the fixation in many educational jurisdictions on standardised test scores and grades is illogical, unhelpful and fundamentally flawed. Instead, we should try to count what really counts.

Are we more interested in the homogenisation or the diversification of young people?
Are we more interested in the cognitive or the non-cognitive?
Are we more interested in the short-term or the long-term?
Are we more interested in the measurable or the unmeasurable?

I am cautious not to accept binary opposites that get presented with great rhetorical flourish, but Zhao made a strong case that, with reference to these tensions, the pursuit of one has an opportunity cost for the other. While we would like to do both/and rather than either/or, it is not always possible. Resources are limited. Time spent drilling and practising multiple choice tests is time that cannot also be spent engaging in richer and deeper learning activities.

One of Zhao's more memorable suggestions was that some educational initiatives should carry a warning about the possible side-effects; for example, "This activity may improve your child's reading ability, but it may also make them hate reading forever."

The commonality of this theme at the conference was all the more striking, given its Singaporean context; Singapore scores extraordinarily highly in the OECD PISA tests, a test-taking culture is deeply entrenched in Singapore's national embrace of meritocracy, and the growth of the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM) in educational jurisdictions. The fact that each of the keynote speakers at this conference highlighted the dangers of a narrow focus on test scores as inimical to the proper focus of education was very significant. 

In our context of our school, the danger of the narrow focus has less to do with PISA scores; it is more likely to be NAPLAN or Band 6 HSC results. In the entirely legitimate interest that the community has in the progress, success or effectiveness of a school, we need information. The great appeal of the simple numbers and league tables is that they are an easily accessed and objective source of data. The great danger of the simple numbers and league tables is that their focus is too narrow; the formation of the character and capacity of young adults cannot be summarised in a few digits.

The Inaburra Learner Profile is our articulation of the educational outcomes that matter; this is what we are seeking to achieve. To slightly modify Zhao's question, my question is 'How do we know if we are successful in achieving it?" 

Reflections from the World Educational Leaders Summit - Stephen Murgatroyd

Another of the speakers at the conference was Stephen Murgatroyd, who focussed on the challenges faced by schools as we encounter the changing world.

His presentation scanned the various dimensions of change that are swirling around us, identifying: demographic change; global economic change; employment change; technological change; environmental change; changes in the nature of personal identity and community; and the list went on.

In responding to this raft of other challenges, he made the following points (among many others!):

  • Don't be seduced by 'the next big thing', whether it is peddled by vendors or scavenged from top-performing PISA jursdictions or simply because it offers a nice neat solution to the tensions and pressures that we face. We need to learn to live with tension and paradox, because the complexity of schools and their operating environments does not allow for silver bullet solutions.
  • Technology is not the answer; pedagogy is the answer. Great teaching and learning (which may be supported or enabled by technology) has to be the focus of schools, in the pursuit of rich and deep learning outcomes for all.
  • The accountability of schools needs to be reframed as public assurance; what do parents/governing bodies/the public need to know in order to know that the school is doing well. The conversation needs to be shifted away from standardized tests (in our context, NAPLAN) or credential scores (in our context, HSC and ATAR) towards the deeper and more significant outcomes for students. It is legitimate to want this assurance, but the focus of our concerns as a community must be more substantial.
  • Systems do not innovate; innovation is grounded in schools, done by teachers and supported by leaders. 
  • Collaboration is the DNA of the innovation economy. The most common and accessible approach to innovation is 'adopt and adapt'. Cross-boundary learning from fields such as health, business, construction, and technology is rich with possibility. We need to make opportunities to learn from other fields, as well as from our colleagues in other schools and other classrooms.
  • The first law of project work - whether a teacher's professional work or a student's learning activity - is to begin with a problem for which you do not know the answer.

Thursday, 9 April 2015

Reflections from the World Educational Leaders Summit - Simon Breakspear

Another of the speakers at the World Educational Leaders Summit was Simon Breakspear; the focus of his keynote address was on Innovation for Better Learning. I really appreciated his approach to this topic, not least because he did not adopt a deficit position, highlighting all that is wrong, inadequate and substandard about education today. Rather, he emphasised the need to honour the past, even as we design for the future. Very many teachers should be celebrated for the complex and demanding work that they are doing. 

Nonetheless, the changing world requires changing education. We must ask "Can we do this better? Are there are better way to shape learning for our students?" I am convinced that such an innovation mindset can be held without condemning or putting down the past; it does not entail 'fixing' something broken. 

Innovation in schools faces particular challenges. Schools are unique contexts with long and (largely) stable organisational histories and culture, diverse stakeholders and particularly high stakes - the present and future lives of young people! Recognising these challenges, Breakspear recommends three key strategies for innovation in schools.

The first is to clarify the desired change. This entails being specific about the preferred and achievable future to which you are moving. It involves having fewer foci, in order to maximise impact. And, crucially, it requires contextualisation; we need to work out how any particular good idea will be enacted in our unique context.

The second is to mobilise the designers of learning; his argument is that educators are more akin to designers than to any other profession. Design is a form of creativty that suggests deliberate planned innovation built on a foundation of researched informed professional opinion. The process of design is one of starting small, prototyping rapidly, seeking feedback and iterating often. Failure is an inherent and essential element in the design process, whether designing vacuum cleaners or lessons.

The third is to amplify successful innovation, so that it spreads and is taken up willingly across the school and beyond. SImply put, if the innovation is simple, reliable and effective, it will be adopted. People will follow the lead of others whom they know and trust, therefore a system will transform at the speed of trust developed between the most innovative and their colleagues.

There is a lot of wisdom in the approach outlined above. As I reflect on the last few years at Inaburra, I can see that a number of our changes and innovations have been most successful where these strategies have been deployed (intentionally or otherwise). I am delighted that Simon Breakspear will be working with Inaburra throughout this year as we engage in strategic planning and in learning design.

Reflections from the World Educational Leaders Summit - Tony Wagner

During the first week of the Easter break, I attended the World Educational Leadership Summit in Singapore. This conference caught my attention both because of the impressive line-up of speakers from around the world who are participating, and also because of the conference focus on the future of education and schools.

In the next couple of posts I plan to reflect on some of the ideas, themes and issues that are emerging from the conference. I find blogging to be a really helpful way for me to process and reflect on my learning and thinking, particularly following times of intense input such as conferences. While these posts will not be disseminated to the Inaburra community as my normal e-newsletters, it may be that these ideas are of interest to staff and parents as we continue to think about the future direction of education in general and our school in particular.

One of the keynote speakers on the first day was Dr Tony Wagner, an Expert in Residence at Harvard's Innovation Lab. Dr Wagner's starting premise is that the nature, rate and extent of change in the world requires a reimagination of schooling. The key outcome for students, or the competitive advantage by which they are able to make their way in life, is no longer 'what they know', but 'what they can do with what they know'. The capacity for creative problem-solving and critical thinking will be of vast importance to our young people. The corollary is that an education that does not cultivate this capacity is inadequate.

So far, so good. This premise is generally accepted and unremarkable. Given the changes in the world around us, it would be bizarre if education did not also need to change. However, Wagner's research as published in Creating Innovators: The making of young people who will change the world reaches the disturbing conclusion that the patterns of learning and teaching that consistently produce problem solvers are essentially contradictory with the patterns of learning and teaching that are currently entrenched in school education.

Pause to consider that. Our patterns of teaching and learning may work against the very outcome for which we are aiming. Scary stuff!

Very briefly, these are the five areas of tension, identified by Wagner, between our usual practices and the practices that cultivate problem-solving, creative and innovative capacity.

  • First, our schooling focuses on individual achievement rather than collaboration.
  • Second, education is largely structured around compartmentalised areas of specialist knowledge, rather than complex multi-disciplinary learning.
  • Third, our schools implicitly value compliance, rather than creativity and divergence.
  • Fourth, the entrenched stigma associated with 'failure' in our schools leads to risk-avoidance. A more valuable approach is to embrace trial and error as the essential means of learning, growth and innovation.
  • Fifth, our default motivation for learning is extrinsic, rather than intrinsic; our students so often work to get good marks, rather than because the work is worth doing or meaningful in its own right.
If Wagner's case can be sustained, there is a big challenge here for us. Wagner makes a case that the skills needed to succeed in the current competitive academic environment of our schools are not the skills needed to thrive in the years to come.

At this point I am not convinced by everything that Wagner presents. Apart from anything else, I get nervous when someone presents me with a simplistic either/or dichotomy, one option of which is evidently bad and the other evidently good. Life is usually more nuanced than that! I suspect that a continuum is a more helpful construct, although even a continuum uses too broad a brush to depict the diversity of teaching and learning practices in schools. 

Nonetheless, much that his case resonates with my convictions and with the journey that we have been on at Inaburra. Our formulation of the Inaburra Learner Profile reflects our thinking about the characteristics, capabilities and capacities that our young people will need. Our challenge is to design an education that brings the Inaburra  Learner Profile to fruition in the lives of our students.