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.