Monday, 17 October 2016

The great school funding debate ... again (2016 Term 4 Week 2)

Once again the topic of school funding is back on the agenda. The clamor in the public arena is off and running on the same old, well-worn lines. Comments from the Federal Education minister in the lead up to a meeting with the State Education ministers fanned the flames of public postulation, culminating with an article in the SMH that named Inaburra School (among others) as being 'over-funded'. It is always exciting to be in the paper, but I had mixed feelings about this one! The topic of school funding seems set to continue for the next little while and, given that it is a topic that excites lots of heat and not much light, I make the following comments to assist you in understanding the issues. 

1. The Gonski reforms are a complex set of interacting recommendations, not a simple proposal to cut government funding for private schools

You can imagine how bizarre it must be for David Gonski, one of Australia's most eminent business identities and the head of the Gillard government's Review of Funding for Schools panel, to find the phrase I give a gonski now part of the public lexicon and which is most stridently taken up by the education unions. As Matthew Knott perceptively recognises,"David Gonski's review into school funding is fast becoming like Tolstoy's War and Peace or Joyce's Ulysses. A hefty text that's often referenced but rarely read." Knott's article in last weekend's SMH is a really helpful corrective that points past the sloganeering. He makes the point that the Gonski review argues that all schools continue to receive taxpayer funding. The fact that the greatest need is in the public sector means that most of the increase in funding would be directed towards that sector.

2. No school is over-funded, in the sense of receiving more than they are supposed to 

Funding entitlements are determined by the Australian Education Act which was passed by the Australian Parliament in 2013, and independent schools like Inaburra are funded exactly in accordance with this legislation. The discrepancies that are being labelled 'overfunding' stem from the need to transition from the old funding model to the new one. When a new funding model is introduced, there will always be schools that are found to be above or below their new entitlement; and that good public policy demands transition arrangements to ensure that school communities funded above their new entitlement have time to adjust to changed conditions.

3. School funding in Australia needs reform, but it will be tricky to manage

There is no getting around the fact that school funding in Australia is a mess. For various historical, political and structural reasons, there is lack of transparency, lack of equity and lack of accountability associated with the public funding of schools. Reform is needed but we don't have a blank slate upon which we could design an education system from first principles. It is unrealistic and non-commercial in the extreme to imagine that the egg can be unscrambled. The independent school sector in NSW provides or supports employment for more than 53 000 people. The direct contribution of the sector is more than the accommodation industry in NSW, more than the air travel industry, and more than the automotive repair and maintenance industry. Perhaps even more signficantly, 35% of Australian school students attend non-government schools. Politics is the art of the possible; so many people are directly or indirectly connected to the non-government school sectors that it is hard to see how a radical reformation of school funding is possible. 

There is lots that still remains to be said, including the connection between funding and improved outcomes, the relationship between government-owned schools and community group-owned schools, the expectation that all students should receive public support in resourcing their education, and so on. However, time and attention are limited. I apologise if all of the above is yawn-inducing or of no interest to you. In all likelihood, you won't have read all the way through to the end if that is the case. I must confess that this stuff doesn't make my heart beat any faster. Nonetheless, since a new funding model will be developed in the months ahead, these are matters worth watching. There appears little doubt that any changes to the existing funding model will have an impact on Inaburra since we are currently funded exactly in accordance with the model. I will keep the community informed.

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

Scattered thoughts and shallow work (2016 Term 3 Week 7)

I have a confession to make. I am having great difficulty focussing. The challenge is particularly acute as I face tasks that require deep sustained thought and reflection. Much of what I do as Principal can be done without this sort of thinking; opening car doors at kiss and drop, handing out birthday cards, responding to emails from various stakeholders, and even responding to the occasional crisis, are all possible in the normal flow of a day. However, there are other tasks which either require extended and focussed thought, or that are much better accomplished with deep thinking. Writing a regular blog for the school community is one such task. So too is drafting a speech for our upcoming graduation. The list could go on. I am struggling to focus on these tasks.

This challenge is not unique to me. At the start of term, a colleague recommended that I read Deep Work: Rules for focussed success in a distracted world by Cal Newport. It is a book written in response to the observation that distraction is more and more the norm in our world.

Newport's thesis is simple. The capacity to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task is becoming increasingly rare. Our society is so filled with compelling distractions and we are so accustomed to (the illusion of) multi-tasking that we are losing the ability to do deep work, which by its nature is of a higher quality and is produced more efficiently.

He is not the first person to raise questions about the dark side of our hyper-connected patterns of life and work, but he presents a cogent and thoughtful plan to help us to ensure that we don't lose this capacity. 

I had thought to try to summarise the book for this blog, but the irony of simplifying a thoughtful and challenging read to a few bullet points for the sake of easy reading was not lost on me!

Instead, let me reiterate one of his themes; namely, the capacity for deep, focussed cognitively demanding work is developed, not innate. We can have patterns of life and work that feed our distractibility, or that build our ability to focus. If I find myself unable to focus, I need to make decisions and take actions to build my ability to concentrate, in the same way that if I find myself flabby, I need to make decisions and take actions to build my physical fitness.

It is not the case that the capacity to focus is the only cognitive capacity that we need. It is not the case that depth is always better than breadth. However, it is inarguable that the capacity for deep work is becoming rarer and, I suspect, more valuable.

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Predators, victim blaming and risk management (2016 Term 3 Week 5)

I imagine that most parents were aware last week of a story, prominent in the media, about a file-sharing site that was seeking and publishing nude selfies from young women and girls. It's an horrific story, evoking a range of emotions including anger, bemusement and sadness. It appears to be another example of the new possibilities created by digital technology being twisted by the old realities of human nature. I am conflicted in my responses.

First, it must be said that the behaviour of the men and boys involved with this file sharing is reprehensible and revolting. They have acted as predators, demonstrating a chilling lack of empathy for fellow human beings. Whether they obtained images through stalking unknowing subjects, whether they shared images that had been entrusted to them, or whether they had distributed images without thought for the impact on the other person, their actions are to be condemned.

As the leader of a school community, I want to think that we are shaping young men who will do better than that. I hope that our young men are learning to become people who understand that it is wrong to use other people for your own selfish ends. I hope that, through their daily interaction with the girls of the school community, they are learning to appreciate other people as people, not as objects. I hope that they are developing the wisdom and the courage to recognise evil and to stand against it. Time will tell.

Second, it must also be said that victim-blaming is also wrong, and there has been a fair bit of it on display. The mindset that looks at a victim of any ugly situation, mired in despair and pain, and pronounces a judgement along the lines of 'You deserve it!' is itself ugly. It suggests a lack of empathy, a disposition to self-righteous moralism, and a preference to stand at a distance rather than to align side by side with those who are hurting. 

I would also suggest that victim-blaming is sub-Christian; Christians are called not to judge, and also to follow the example of the one whose compassion led him to reach out to the outcasts and condemned. When something goes wrong, we don't rejoice in the situation, proclaiming 'I told you so!' or 'You deserve it.' We respond by crying with them, standing by them, loving them and supporting them. We ought not to blame them, because in these complex situations there are always multiple factors of causation.

Third, however, while insisting that our boys must learn to be trustworthy and respectful, and insisting that our response to victims will always be characterised by sensitivity, gentleness and respect, we must also see that there are ways our girls can reduce the risk of being caught up in situations like this. I make this comment not as judgment on what has happened, but with a view to avoiding what might happen. Taking a revealing selfie, or allowing another to take a nude image, increases the risk that something may go wrong.

I take it that, as parents, we educate our children about risky behaviour. We tell them that being in a car with a drunk driver increases the risk of something going wrong. We tell them that swimming outside the flags increases the risk of something going wrong. We tell them that not using suncream increases the risk of something going wrong. We should also tell them that the existence of nude images of themselves increases the risk of something going wrong. 

It is not always easy to articulate this distinction between risk-management and victim-blaming. I recently read this article by Mia Freedman, which I thought made the key points well; I commend it to you.

It is no easy thing to grow up in our brave new world. But, as parents with wider experiences of people and a more developed capacity to evaluate risk, we need to help our children acquire the wisdom that is so desperately needed.

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

The pursuit of excellence - false idol or legitimate goal? (2016 Term 3 Week 4)

I have been thinking a lot recently about the pursuit of excellence. Like motherhood and apple pie, it is hard to imagine a bad word about excellence. Surely we want our children to experience excellent education, we want them to achieve excellent standards and we want them to aspire to excellence in whatever tasks to which they may turn their hands. I can't think of a school that wouldn't affirm excellence in principle, and that wouldn't consider the pursuit of excellence a legitimate drive. However, like most aspects of life, it is no bad thing to examine some of our implicit assumptions and see whether they stand up to scrutiny.

Our School Mission statement says that Inaburra School exists to be a Christ-centred learning community, pursuing excellence in education, with every individual known and loved (emphasis added). At first glance, the merit of this mission seems self-evident. After all, who would want to pursue mediocrity in education? Who would want to attend an undistinguished school or to achieve unremarkable standards?

From time to time I have been known to exhort students to do the very best they can do. However, even that innocuous encouragement raises questions. The reality is that our resources are limited. The effort required to achieve excellence in one context limits the effort available to achieve excellence in another. On a very simple level, to give one's very best to Music would require a limitation of the time available to Maths. To give everything to one's career would leave very little to one's family. To do one's very best in one field must involve limiting one's capacity in another. Life entails trade-offs; we can't do it all.

Therefore, it follows that we all apportion our time and efforts according to our priorities. We make decisions about what is most important to us and act accordingly. Universal excellence, for an individual or an organisation, is a myth. Rather than excellence in all things, we would do well to prioritise our efforts around the things that matter most.

A second, and related, point about the pursuit of excellence is that it can be a false god. The Biblical language of idolatry is helpful for us here; idolatry involves treating something that is not God as though it is. Sometimes we can elevate excellence as though it could guarantee us security and significance, as though it can give our lives and efforts meaning, as though it can provide us with our hearts desire, be that success or popularity or wealth or happiness. Therefore, we make sacrifices, put other things aside, and make achieving excellence our top priority.

As is always the case, idolatry comes back to bite us. A focus on excellence can so easily become a drive to perfectionism, an inability to cope with failure and an unrealistic expectation about the nature of life. I recently read a frightening article about the impact of this drive in some American schools; some of the same pressures have been noted in the Australian context. We see these pressures also at our school. It is a heavy burden to believe that your worth is determined by the quality of your achievements.

However, lest the above comments lead you to think that I am not an advocate for excellence - or that I am an advocate for mediocrity - I do think that there are good reasons to pursue excellence. For me, these reasons arise from a Christian worldview.

One impetus to excellence understands excellence as a thankful response. We recognise the many good gifts that we receive from God, such as life, health, safety. Through no achievement of our own we have born into opportunities that are provided to us, whether by virtue of the point in time and space that we inhabit, or by virtue of the innate abilities and talents with which we have been endowed. In response to these gifts, we show our thankfulness by making the most of that which has been given. In this view, the pursuit of excellence is a moral obligation that is incumbent on us.

Another impetus to excellence understands excellence as an expression of love to others. From a Christian point of view, love for God is expressed through our loving service of our neighbour. As Martin Luther expressed it, the shoe-maker glorifies God by making excellent shoes, which are a blessing to those who will wear them. So too the doctor's excellence is a blessing to those who are sick, the musician's excellence is a blessing to those who listen, the teacher's excellence is a blessing to her students, and the student's excellence is a blessing both in the present to those around him and in the future to those whom he will serve. 

All of which is to say: excellence can be a great means of service, but it is a terrible master. The quality of our lives is measured less by what we do and where we do it, and more by how we do it and why we do it.

Monday, 8 August 2016

HSC Major Projects (2016 Term 3 Week 3)

One often hears the idea expressed that young people have short attention spans; it is suggested that the digital culture in which they are immersed, combined with a youthful tendency to distraction and a failure to appreciate the importance of sustained work, lead them to become flibbertigibbets who skate from one thing to another without delving deeply into anything.

Like most such generalisations, there are bound to be aspects of truth in the observation. Our capacity for endeavour and persistence does develop with age and there are habits of mind that take time to engrain in our characters. Part of the school experience needs to be exposure to and experience of sustained effort in connection with authentic tasks; students who experience the pleasure of the rigour of learning will understand how to return to and embrace hard work. Our observation is that the experience of preparing a 'major work' is one such experience for our Year 12 students.

In the terminology of the BOSTES, 'major works' are those performances and projects that are externally assessed and for which the mark will be a component of the student's examination mark in that subject. Examples of this include: Music; Drama; Visual arts; Industrial Technology - Multimedia; Textiles Technology; Design and Technology; and English Extension 2. In our school context, a number of subjects include a 'major project', where a student works on a particular project throughout the HSC year and for which the project mark contributes to the student's school-based assessment rank. Examples include the English Extension; History Extension and Software Design and Development projects. 

Every year the School hosts a series of three evening events called the HSC Projects Festival at which we celebrate our students' major works and major projects. The first of these events happened on Wednesday 3rd August; the next two are scheduled for Tuesday 23 August and Wednesday 31 August. These events, which are open to all members of the school community, provide an invaluable perspective for students in Years 10 and 11 who are contemplating taking on subjects with a major work or a major project. 

As you peruse the works at this year’s festival you will see the results of sustained effort at authentic tasks. You will witness tremendous creativity, fine-tuned via discussions with teachers and trusted others.  The students deserve the accolades for the time they have devoted to their work and for expertise that they have shown. I commend to you also their teachers for their dedication, in particular for the extensive feedback they have offered.

The works on show represent the ideas about which the students are most passionate, hundreds of hours of productive conversation, trial and error, laughter and tears – and then, an enormous achievement in the form of sustained composition, dramatic or musical performance, an artwork, design portfolio, and so on. In the major works and projects, the final product and the journey of toil are both worthy of our respect and recognition.

Inaburra therefore congratulates each of the students exhibiting works over the course of our festival evenings, and thanks deeply each of the staff members whose privilege it has been to assist these students in realising the ideas with which they began. We also take this opportunity, on behalf of the students, to thank parents and others who have encouraged and listened throughout the process of completing these major works and projects.

I hope that you will be able to make the time to view and read and listen to the wonderful works on display at our festivals. We are immensely proud of our students' efforts, learning and achievements.

Monday, 1 August 2016

The HSC reforms: the substance behind the reporting (2016 Term 3 Week 2)

Last week the NSW Minister for Education announced significant changes to the Higher School Certificate (HSC). The HSC is the credential gained by NSW students after they complete Year 12 and it provides, in large part, the data that is used by the Universities Admission Centre (UAC) to generate students' Australian Tertiary Admissions Rank (ATAR). As such, the reforms are significant. However, as is often the case, the way that these reforms have been reported has obscured some of the most important aspects of the reforms. Thankfully, it is possible to access all the information directly through the BOSTES website.

The main focus of reporting has been on the implementation of a minimum standard of literacy and numeracy for the awarding of the HSC. At this point, students are awarded an HSC if they complete the requisite number of units, regardless of the standard that they achieve. The new policy will require students to demonstrate a minimum standard of literacy and numeracy, in addition to completing their units. This minimum standard can be demonstrated through Year 9 NAPLAN assessment, or through separate online testing in Years 10, 11 or 12. 

While this new policy is noteworthy, it is not likely to be too onerous to most students; to provide some perspective, historical data would suggest that two thirds of our students would have met this minimum standard in Year 9. The first year to be affected by the new policy will be the current Year 8 students. A Year 9 NAPLAN result below a band 8 will act as an early warning system to identify students at risk of not meeting the standard. These students will then have time with their teachers, parents and schools to work to improve their performance, before taking the online literacy and numeracy test. Students who do not demonstrate the standard during schooling will have five years after leaving school to meet the literacy and numeracy standard and receive a HSC.

Image result for NAPLAN

Given that the vast majority of Inaburra students will meet this standard, it seems to me that some of the other reforms are more likely to have an impact on us. For example, the BOSTES decision to cap the number of formal, in-school assessment tasks is to be applauded. As parents of Year 11 and 12 students know, the formal, in-school assessments that constitute 50% of a student's HSC can place significant pressure on students. The reduction of formal assessments seems wise and it should have a positive impact on student wellbeing.

The BOSTES decision to focus less on rote-learning and memorisation for examinations, and more on the application of knowledge and skills, should assist students to engage with deep learning and understanding. Their intention is to provide guidelines to ensure in-school assessment is similarly challenging. This focus is entirely appropriate, as a way of helping the senior years of study to cultivate that capacity to transfer and to apply knowledge which will be of most assistance to our young people in the years ahead.

However, the most significant aspects of the reforms has to do with the review of the HSC syllabuses. BOSTES plan to establish and maintain an ongoing process of syllabus review that should help ensure that the material covered in the courses is current; in some fields, such as information technology and science, the syllabus is woefully dated.

The review process is already underway. English, Maths, Science and History courses are all under review at the moment; draft documents have been released and consultations are taking place at workshops and online through the month of August. The intention is that the syllabus documents will be finalised this year, released in 2017 and implemented for Year 11 2018. Inaburra teachers in the relevant fields are engaging with this review process, recognising the importance of ensuring that the syllabus is formed with the input of practitioners. 

It is possible to make some early observations about the new syllabus documents. There is a tension in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), where the desire to increase participation sits uneasily with the desire to raise standards. If there is too much rigour, it may discourage students from taking these courses; if the courses are too accessible, the necessary standards are not achieved. Some new courses are being designed as part of the resolution of this tension. While some of the details are not yet clear, a new Science Extension course will be introduced and the lower-level Senior Science course (which is not offered by Inaburra) will be replaced by a new Investigating Science course. 

Another aspect of the review has to do with redesigning the various Maths courses. In recent years there has been a trend of more and more able students choosing to do General Maths; in part, this appears to be fuelled by a drive for higher marks through taking the less challenging course. However, it may also be motivated by the recognition of the value of the statistics topic, given the ubiquity of statistics in modern everyday life; at present, statistics finds its home in the Mathematics General course. The intention of redesigning the various courses is to reduce the undesired outcome of more able students taking less challenging courses.

My apologies for going into details that may be of little interest to those families whose children will be either unaffected because they will achieve their HSC before these changes are implemented, or for whom these matters seem far away over some distant horizon. However, given that the formal learning of students takes place in the interaction of curriculum, assessment, pedagogy and environment (digital and physical), changes to curriculum and assessment will be of significance to our children's overall educational experience.

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

The School musical and Christian integrity (2016 Term 2 Week 10)

The school musical is one of my annual highlights. At times I find myself referencing a school year by the musical performance: "That was the year we did Hairspray". Co-curricular activities have their place in the school because of the learning opportunities that they provide; a musical opens up unparalleled experiences in working with others to achieve something that is more than the sum of its parts. The musical gives students' gifts the chance to develop and shine, it prompts them to be courageous in performing before others, and it teaches them to appreciate and to celebrate the contributions of others. The shared experience and emotional bonding are powerfully formative in relationships, both between students and between students and staff. I could go on and on about the benefits of staging an annual musical; it is a great learning experience.

Our students' performance of Bring it on: the Musical last week was wonderful. The students who nailed the lead roles, the cast of dancers who filled the stage, the live music from the band, the lighting and set design, the quality of the choreography and all the other aspects of the show made me extraordinarily proud of our students and staff.

However, it is also the case that the musical can be a cause of concern in our community. Most years, questions get raised about the suitability of the particular musical that we choose, about the themes presented in the musical, about particular scenes or lines, and about how the musical aligns with our school's Christian identity. Given the diversity of our school community, it is unsurprising that there is diversity of opinion on these questions.

It may be that some of the concern felt by some members of our community had to do with the themes and content of the material. As a show set in a high school, performed by high school students, it is unsurprising that the content was pitched at an adolescent level. I can imagine that some of the younger children had questions about the meaning of some of the exchanges between characters. I can still remember my mother's awkwardness when I put a few questions to her following my first viewing of Grease as a primary school student. Having since seen it as an adult, I am not surprised about her awkwardness! Thankfully, nearly all of it went over my head at the time. I would be surprised if the bemusement or lack of comprehension associated with adolescent themes outweighed the benefit for the younger students of seeing the performance of Bring it on: the Musical.

It may also be that some of us as adults were uncomfortable with some of the material, which touched on emerging sexuality, body image and teen culture. My position is that the context is a vehicle through which the wider themes and issues are explored. The fact that this musical takes place in the context of teen culture, with some of the associated themes, tensions and language, does not promote or endorse that culture any more than Oliver promotes childhood crime or The Wizard of Oz endorses witchcraft or Guys and Dolls advocates gangsterism. The musical is really about personal identity, ambition, relationships and the pressures of life; high school cheerleaders are simply the window into these bigger issues.

It may also be that some related concerns stemmed from some of the language in the performance. (For the reference of those who did not see the show, the idiomatic American cultural term 'ass' was used half a dozen times, the word 'bitch' was used once and I think there was an 'Oh my God' as well.) On one level, I don't accept the suggestion that the language was gratuitous; it served a purpose within the narrative. The use of 'ass' was exclusively by the students of Jackson High, which is depicted as a less-privileged school; the language and idiom used functions as a linguistic designate for a particular sub-culture within the play. The only other character to use it was Bridget, who did so for comic effect and for whom it was part of her journey of reinvention through the change of schools. The use of 'bitch' as an insult took place in the context of the relationship breakdown between Campbell and Danielle; this was the great crisis of the narrative and the strength of language emphasised the point.

Having made that initial defense, it is still valid to ask other questions. Could the words of concern have been substituted without substantially changing the play? Of course. Was the language contextually appropriate? Equally, yes. Are these words that I encourage in the context of school? Of course not. Are they 'PG' words, rather than 'G' words? Yes. Is the word 'ass' heard differently in an Australian cultural context to an American one? Yes. Are these words that appear in normal adolescent conversation? Yes. Would it have been better for us to flag the level of language in our marketing of the musical? Yes, and this is a matter to which we will be sensitive in the future. Should we have removed these words from the performance? It seems to me that this is a judgment call on which there will be differences of opinion.

The more profound question for me has to do with whether producing this musical in its entirety undermines the Christian integrity of the school. I don't think so. I do not believe that the only way to honour God in and through the creative arts is to deal with faith-related or explicitly Christian themes. God is honoured both in process and in product. In the context of our musical, I would suggest that we need to consider that God has been honoured in the way that the team have related to and supported one another through the last six months of preparation. God is also honoured through the creative arts as they explore and reflect back to us truths about the messy reality of life, leading us to a deeper understanding of ourselves and God's broken world in which we live. The creative arts should also be a basis for thankfulness, as we appreciate the skills, gifts and opportunities that God bestows. One of our school values declares that we strive for excellence, in thankful response to all that God has provided; there is no reason not to apply this to our thinking about the creative arts. Our thinking about honouring God in the creative arts is broader than our explicit advocacy of the faith.

It may be that the discourse above seems overly or unnecessarily defensive, or that it is irrelevant to you, or that it articulates a position that differs from your own. Hopefully if it was of no value to you, you will have stopped reading prior to this point! As a closing comment, the observation has been made that modern Western society is losing the capacity to maintain good relationships whilst disagreeing with one another. I trust that, as a school community, we will retain this necessary civil capacity. Opposing views need not lead to opposed people. 

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

The Fathering Project (2016 Term 2 Week 7)

I recently became aware of an organisation that is working on a matter of great significance; that is, aiming to inspire and equip fathers and father figures to engage with their kids. The Fathering Project is a not-for-profit charity led by a team of professionals that aims to help fathers realise how important they are in a child's life. This is not to say that mothers are not important. It is to say that, for a whole host of historical, cultural and 'reality of life' reasons, fathers are often less present and active in the lives of their children.

My first response in hearing of this project was to become defensive. One of the costs of the free flow of information in the digital age is that there are more and more reasons to feel inadequate. I am not sure that I need another group of people to remind me of my shortcomings, particularly in an area that cuts as close to the core of my identity as my fatherhood does. However, when the defensiveness rises I think that I need to build a bridge and get over it! Parenting is too important to be brushed aside by my ego's need to protect itself.

The Fathering Project website has a number of really helpful resources, including the option to sign up for tips and reminders to prompt those of us who are fathers to keep focusing on the matters that matter.

One tip that caught my attention made that point that, painting with a broad brush, dads often show their love for their children through providing for them, and by correcting and trying to improve them. These expressions of love are not to be devalued at all, but we do well to recognise that sometimes our children really crave an affirmation of love and affection. 

A really powerful way to express our love for our children is to put it in words, either spoken or written. A text message, email, note or face to face statement may well go some way to filling your child's emotional tank.

The tip reminded me of the concept of the five love languages as articulated by Dr Gary Chapman. His framework suggests that each of us has a default 'love language' in which we express love and by which we understand ourselves to be loved. The five love languages are: words of affirmation; acts of service; receiving gifts; quality time; and physical touch. While not wanting to suggest that this framework stands on a deeply-tested and validated research-base, it rings intuitively true in my own experience and in the relationships of many others that I observe.

I encourage you to take the time to quickly browse the websites above and to ask the question 'How do I express and receive love?' and 'How does my child express and receive love?' In particular, I encourage the dads to ask themselves, 'Am I speaking to my children in a language that they understand?'

It is no small thing to be a father; it is a wonderful blessing to have a father. Among the core blessings of the Christian faith is the confidence to call God 'our Father'; I hope that this is a confidence that you share.

Friday, 27 May 2016

NSW Independent Schools rank among the world's best (2016 Term 2 Week 6)

As the Federal election gets into full swing, it is interesting to reflect on the frames through which education is viewed. Time and time again, the discourse around education is that of 'fixing'. As one of my colleagues has noted, it has almost become an accepted fact that Australian schools are failing; consequently, 'fixing' is needed. The performance of Australian students in the PISA test results, which has indicated a 'slide down' the international rankings, is usually the cited grounds for our despair. However, the decline is not uniform; NSW independent schools are performing very well indeed.

Last week some interesting new analysis of the PISA results was released; it provided a more fine-grained exploration of the performance of Australian students. The research by Dr Gary Marks and commissioned by the AISNSW Institute, which can be found here, challenges the perception that Australian schooling is uniformly in decline across the range of jurisdictions and contexts. Rather, it shows that 'a significant part of the Australian education system is getting things right.' 

Students in NSW independent schools are performing at levels that are competitive with Finland and the Asian countries and jurisdictions. As Bill Daniels, the Chairman of the AISNSW Institute said in the media release, 

"This analysis gives parents reason to be confident that choosing an independent school education for their child is a decision that will benefit their child.”

The research seeks to understand these results and the factors that have contributed to it, in particular, exploring the effect of socio-economic privilege. The analysis suggests that a more significant factor than wealth is the educational level of parents and the extent to which education is valued in the household. Committing to the expense of school fees is one tangible expression of valuing education.

However, the analysis also explored school attributes and student learning experiences. Unsurprisingly, it found that individual teachers and schools make a difference: 
Teachers who show an interest in each student’s learning, provide personal support, hold high expectations for all, work with enthusiasm and take pride in their school have better results. Schools add value through the capability and professionalism of teachers, by creating a climate that values academic achievement and sets challenging goals, by providing a safe and ordered environment and by fostering a sense of belonging to a community. These are features of quality schools in all sectors. (emphasis added)
I note that the deterioration in the PISA results (from 2003 to 2012) has coincided with politically-driven 'fixes' for education, such as the National Curriculum, the Digital Education Revolution, NAPLAN, ... and the list goes on. It may just be coincidence that active political interference in education has increased at the same time as educational results have decreased, but the correlation is suggestive.

The teachers and schools described in the quote above don't need politically instigated 'fixing'; they need to be allowed to get on with it.

Monday, 2 May 2016

Thriving through the pressure of life (2016 Term 2 Week 2)

No-one needs to be convinced that modern life is stressful. The pace of life, financial imperatives, the amount of information with which we are bombarded and the myriad other complexities of life in 21st century Australia all contribute to our experience of stress. Adding to all these pressures, and perhaps overarching all of them, is the quest for 'work/life balance' - whatever that is!

On our Staff Development Day at the start of this term, the school invited Dr Adam Fraser to conduct a couple of sessions with our staff, aiming to equip us to manage the challenges and tensions around work/life balance. While Dr Fraser covered a lot of territory, feedback from a number of staff identified his concept of the Third Space as being particularly insightful and helpful.

The Third Space is that moment of transition between one role or task and the next role or task. Dr Fraser's thesis is that managing our transitions has a profound impact on our performance, happiness and balance. Without managing this transition well, not only does any negativity associated with the previous context carry forward and taint the next encounter, but there can be a mismatch between the mindset and attitude needed in the first and second contexts. The following 6 minute video outlines his point.

While the importance of the transitions is self-evident, I have found Fraser's scaffold for structuring that transition most helpful. In this scaffold, we reflect on the positives of the previous encounter, we find some means of rest or relaxation (whether a breathing exercise, walking the dog or sitting under a tree), and we reset, through deciding what 'the best me' needs to bring to the next context.

I commend Dr Fraser's work in this area to you. The links above may provide you with some ways to pursue it further. I am experiencing some benefit from adopting this framework myself and I hope that some of the Inaburra staff are doing likewise. 

My mind is now shifting to the question as to how this framework might have benefit for our students as well. Their stresses and pressures are different to ours, albeit just as profoundly felt, and the world into which they are moving looks likely to be even more pressured and fast-paced. As parents, and as educators, we may do well to help our young people to learn to manage their transitions.

Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Ban technology from schools? (2016 Term 1 Week 11)

Last week the perennial question of the role of technology in education reared its head once again. 

The catalyst this time was the retiring head of Sydney Grammar, who declared that computers in classes are a 'scandalous waste of money'. This interview came shortly after a speech by Andreas Schleicher, the head of the OECD's education unit and generally considered to be the most influential educational bureaucrat in the world, who argued that technology is doing more harm than good in classrooms. A Year 11 student from St Andrew's Cathedral School responded, arguing that technology is a vital aspect of learning for young people today.

Judging by the discussions sparked by these ideas, concerns about technology in the classroom are widespread in the community. I suspect that this concern is an extension and application of the more general concern felt by a generation of parents about the role that technology plays in the life of their children. We are in uncharted waters and we do not know the dangers and risks that lurk out there; no wonder we are nervous.

However, when one reads the stories below the headlines, much of the debate seems misconceived. First, there is frequently a false dichotomy established, as though we need to choose either to have technology or to have more and better teachers. I don't accept that it is one or the other; what about a better teacher who is able to use technology. While opportunity cost is real, it is reductionist to assume a zero-sum game. (As a side-note, that may be the most economic terminology I have used in a sentence since Year 11.)

Second, there is an underlying assumption that what education really needs is a silver bullet for our problem. These days the problem is usually identified as Australia's slide down the international education rankings, which is itself a problematic assumption. Leaving aside the validity of assuming that the OECD and PISA are best placed to determine the ends and value of education, the broad-brush nature of the testing obscures the reality of student experience. For what it is worth, the independent school sector ranks very positively in the international testing

Back to the point, lots of silver bullets for school education have been tried in the last decade; reducing class sizes, introducing public accountability (the MySchool website), elevating standardised testing (NAPLAN), homogenising the curriculum, and all the latest technological advances (smartboards, laptops, iPads, cloud computing, BYOT). The reality is that, as in all complex adaptive systems, silver bullets don't exist. If we really thought that the mere presence of laptops in the classroom would somehow transform learning, more fool us!

Third, those decrying the use of technology in classrooms tend to point to the worst possible practices, as though that is representative of the issue as a whole. Just because some people do it badly, doesn't mean that it is a futile path. I couldn't agree more that technology in the classroom can be done awfully and absolutely nothing positive can be gained. However, I passionately disagree with the proposition that the use of technology for learning is a waste of time. 

I would like to make two further related points as my contribution to this discussion. 

First, the teacher is the key. The biggest single school-based influence on the learning of a student is the quality of the teaching she or he experiences. The very best thing a school can do for a student is to bring them together with passionate, knowledgeable, professional teachers. Therefore, my goal is to recruit and develop the best teachers possible. I am very confident in the calibre of teachers at Inaburra; our regular parent and student satisfaction surveys indicate that my confidence is shared by the Inaburra community more generally. Nonetheless, we place a very high priority on helping our teachers to develop their professional practice.

Second, teachers are designers of learning. Technology provides them with additional tools to use. Whether it is the ubiquitous access to information, the means to collaborate and co-create, the opportunity to publish world-wide, the availability of real-time feedback, the delivery of content through online video, the use of online adaptive standardised diagnostic tests, learning analytics or any of the other extraordinary capacities that technology enables, a teacher has a more diverse toolkit to design learning if technology is available. The depth and range of this toolkit is expanding at exponential rates, as I have noted before. Consequently, one of our priorities in the development of our teachers is to help them use the tools available to them, including technology, to design world-class teaching and learning for our students.

As many have noted, our responsibility is to shape the future, not to ignore it. Viewing technology as an obstacle, rather than an opportunity, is not in our children's interests.

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Justice and mercy in tension (2016 Term 1 Week 10)

The great ethical quandaries in life come when two good things are in tension. Children encounter the tensions just like the rest of us. If you are asked about a friend's wrongdoing, do you tell the truth, or do you remain silent for the sake of loyalty. If you nick the ball to the wicket-keeper and are given 'Not out', do you walk or not? Is it better to be generous towards others or to save for the future? However, in my experience, the hardest tension to resolve has to do with the relationship between justice and mercy.

These are both good things. Justice demands that good is rewarded and evil punished; mercy recognizes our frailty and fallibility, allowing us not to be treated as we deserve. 

In Christian thinking, both justice and mercy are central. Christians believe that “the judge of all the earth will do what is right” and that this justice will be seen on the judgment day. Our confidence that justice will be done enables us to persevere in the face of both rampant evil and frustratingly banal misdemeanors. Right and wrong matter and God will ensure that it is so. However, at the same time, we desperately want God to be merciful. If he is not, who can stand? None of us can have a clear conscience in the face of God's justice.

Our speakers at the various mission week events touched on the tensions between justice and mercy. We heard the inside story of Andrew Chan, who fell foul of Indonesian justice as one of the Bali Nine and did not receive mercy, being executed last year. We also heard the testimony of Dan Smith, an Australian representative swimmer who dragged himself into a mess of drugs and crime and was shown mercy by the courts.In both cases, we heard their deeper story of the justice and mercy of God.

How then do we think of mercy and justice in the here and now, particularly at a school? 

The reality is that our stance regarding justice and mercy varies, usually depending on our circumstances. Young people frequently have a highly-charged sense of justice and fairness; anyone who has seen students playing handball knows how important fairness is to them. However, young people are also prone to significant blind-spots when it comes to their own culpability. My observation is that parents can also be very quick to demand justice when their child is wronged, but they can also swing to an expectation of mercy when judgment seems imminent. I think we all find ourselves shifting to one side or the other of the justice-mercy dichotomy, whether this reflects personality or worldview or life experience or other factors.

A big part of the challenge is that we also suffer from the limitations of our own knowledge. I am acutely conscious when making the sort of decisions that fall to me, that I am not all-seeing and all-knowing. We make decisions and take actions that hopefully reflect the knowledge that we have, but we never know everything that may be relevant. In particular, we do not know the consequences of our decisions. To exercise justice in a particular circumstance may prove to be the corrective experience of discipline that is needed or it may crush an already faltering spirit. To choose mercy may provide an individual with a tangible and transformative experience of grace or it may embolden transgression by removing the fear of consequences. This uncertainty of outcomes must drive us to humility as we negotiate the tension between justice and mercy.

All of us at Inaburra work with this tension between justice and mercy on a daily basis. It is seen in the way that classes are conducted, supervision of students takes place, staffroom discussions unfold and the overall way that we relate to the students and each other. It is particularly in tension as we engage in the discipline of the students. As the one who is both responsible for the whole system of discipline in the school and the one who ultimately has to adjudicate in the trickier matters, I really appreciate the prayers of the community for my wisdom, as well as for the students and other staff involved. My particular prayer is that, in and through our efforts, God will work for good in the lives of all concerned.

Over the Easter weekend, as I reflected again on the great tension between justice and mercy, I was thankful for the cross of Christ. In the crucifixion of Jesus we see God's resolute opposition to evil in all its forms and his judgement upon it. We also see the mercy of God demonstrated as he who had no sin became sin for us. If you feel the tension between the demands of justice and the need for mercy, it may be that the Christian faith has something for you.

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

The impact of Easter (2016 Term 1 Week 9)

This term is an unusually long one for our school; we would normally expect a ten-week term to start the year, which is certainly long enough. The fatigue in the eyes and faces of Year 7 students and Kindergarten students is particularly noticeable. Having stepped up to a new level of intensity in their school experience, many are at the point now where melt-downs at home are not uncommon. Likewise, our Year 12 students are feeling the pressure mount as they reach the half-way point of their HSC year. The Easter break has come at a great time to provide some physical and emotional replenishment.

In our largely secular society, the traditional religious holy days have been co-opted in the causes of rest and celebration. Christmas marks the beginning of the summer break for many of us, providing the catalyst for us to gather family and friends to over-indulge in food and drink. Easter has really become the landmark long weekend, providing not just a three-day break, but a bonus day as well!

It really is remarkable that, in the Easter holiday, we mark the anniversary of the crucifixion of an obscure figure from the backwaters of the Roman empire nearly 2000 years ago. Actually, the reason it is such a big deal is that we don't just remember the crucifixion on the Friday, but also the resurrection on the Sunday. Rather than writing at length on this subject, I would like to point you to this piece for your thoughtful consideration.

I am a big fan of the Easter break and the rest and refreshment that it can bring, but I also fear that we are selling ourselves short if we settle just for a brief holiday. Our needs are not just physical and emotional, but spiritual as well. Why not make the time on the break to join with billions across the world and throughout time to remember the death and resurrection of Jesus?

Monday, 14 March 2016

#HeForShe in our school (2016 Term 1 Week 8)

An enduring fancy for many school principals is that our assembly speeches are moments of exhilarating transformative power that will shape the hearts and minds of generations; this fancy tends to be a triumph of self-delusion over experience. I don't know that there are any people anywhere in the world who count a school assembly as being among the great turning points of their life. Most of the time my addresses tend to have all the impact of a pebble tossed into the ocean; it is rare for feedback of any kind to come my way. However, following my address at the Senior School assembly last week there has been substantially more traction amongst students and staff than would normally be the case. 

I spoke with the students about the HeForShe campaign for gender equality and applied it, with the use of some online videos, to our context at Inaburra. Given the importance of the topic, and the resonance that it appears to have had with many members of our Senior School, I think that it is worthwhile bringing to the wider school community who were not in that assembly. 

The rest of this post outlines the general shape of my address, including the videos that I used. For those who have the time and interest (which, given that it runs for some 20 minutes, I don't expect to be many), this first link is to a basic video of the assembly speech in its entirety

Today I want to speak to you about a movement started by UN Women called HeForShe. HeForShe is a solidarity movement for gender equality that brings together one half of humanity in support of the other half of humanity for the benefit of all. Gender equality is something that matters deeply. The responsibility for ensuring justice and respect for all people rests with all people. Men ought to stand alongside women in calling for, acting for and ensuring gender equality.

For me, this conviction stands on and grows out of the first chapter of the Bible, where we read that God created men and women alike in his image. As a Christian man I have no grounds for viewing women as anything other than inherently worthy of dignity and respect. I am happy to identify myself as a feminist, if we understand a feminist as a person who agitates for and stands up for equality between men and women. I think that this position is entirely compatible with the Bible.

There are three things I want to speak with you about today wherein I have concerns, not just for us here at Inaburra School, but for the wider society in which we live and the wider world that you will create in the years to come.

The first has to do with domestic violence. My point, along with calling our young men to stand up, speak out and act to prevent domestic violence, is that violent behaviour grows out of contempt in speech and thought. It is our individual and shared responsibility to call out unacceptable behaviour against women in our school and beyond.

The second has to do with the limitations that are placed on girls, their abilities and their futures. (I only used up until the 1:29 mark for this video.) My reflections focus on the fact that these school years are largely determinative for future paths and that we must not allow our young women to be deterred from possibilities because of gender stereotyping, particularly around Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths.

The third has to do with the unpaid work involved in making a household work. There is a fundamental injustice represented in the fact that women still do the vast majority of unpaid work in our community. I encouraged our young women to evaluate the young men around them in light of how willing and able they are to shoulder the burden of housework and I called the young men to step up as a matter of principle.

Obviously, the above is only a skeletal outline of my address, and my address was only one small step towards gender equality in our context. Nonetheless, a journey consists of lots of little steps and I was surprised and encouraged by how meaningful this speech seemed to be to many in our Senior School.