Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Life-long learning (2016 Term 1 Week 5)

Over the last couple of weeks I have been thinking a lot about 'life-long learning'. In part this has been driven by my experience of commencing study for an Executive MBA, which is the reason that I have been absent from school (and from blogging) for the last fortnight. Returning to the role of a student has been challenging, not least because I have grown very comfortable in my role as an authority and expert in my usual context! 

The preamble to the Inaburra Learner Profile says: Standing upon our Christian foundation and in partnership with our families, Inaburra seeks to shape life-long learners ... It sounds good, but what is a life-long learner? (Note: it certainly doesn't mean a 'life-long student'.)

I think that the life-long learner is the person who is able to integrate and utilise their knowledge and skills from formal learning, non-formal learning (sport, music, co-curricular etc) and informal learning (general life experiences) in order to take on challenges and obstacles.This person learns through applying their existing knowledge and skills to new situations; in doing so, they expand their capacity.

In the OECD publication The Nature of Learning: Using Research to Inspire Practice, life-long learning is described in terms of adaptive expertise - which is the ability to transfer knowledge and skills flexibly and creatively from one context to another. We routinely see students struggle to do this in a maths class; they may have thoroughly learned a concept in one topic but fail to see its applicability to another topic. A similar situation emerges with essay writing, where the skills developed in crafting paragraphs in English are not in evidence in short-answer questions in Economics or History.

It may seem simple, but transference of knowledge and skills does not happen automatically. I was reminded of this last week. The cohort of twenty highly-qualified, experienced and senior managers who are taking on the EMBA had spent a day at Randwick Barracks, learning about leadership from the Army. Among other things we had learned about a range of models for managing decision-making, planning and communicating and we had some experience of utilising those models. However, in a highly-pressured scenario from the world of public relations the following day, not one of us thought to apply the learning we had just experienced. 

We were a little embarrassed when this was pointed out to us in the debrief!

As I reflected on the experience, I think that the main obstacle to us transferring our new learning was that we didn't make or take the time to reflect on the challenge before us. We just rushed to get the task done and we used our habituated 'tools' to do so. Taking the time to ask 'What is it exactly that we need to do?' and 'What are the possible ways that I can do this?' would have transformed our efforts.

One of the things that I am taking away from the last fortnight of learning is the importance of reflection. I think that the activity-oriented busyness of life actually prevents me from being the life-long learner that I want to be. This is not an argument for laziness; reflection is hard work, requiring discipline and focus. It is far easier just to keep charging on. I want to build the habit of considered reflection into my practice.

The learning continues ...

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

What future for the ATAR? (2016 Term 1 Week 2)

Over the last week there has been a lot of commentary in the mainstream media about the Australian Tertiary Admissions Rank (ATAR) and its merits or otherwise as the primary means of determining students' access to tertiary study. Following the revelation that many NSW students are admitted to university despite receiving ATARs below the published cut-off points, a number of prominent voices in the tertiary sector spoke out about their frustrations with the ATAR, including a number of university vice-chancellors calling for it to be scrapped.

The reality is that the University Admissions Centre (UAC) and the individual universities are struggling with the need to have an objective and merit-based system, but also to provide leeway for individual circumstances and nuances. The heart of the challenge is to navigate a way forward that is neither too rigid nor too subjective

However, the challenge has been compounded in recent years by a number of factors. First, the scrapping of capped numbers in university courses by the Federal Government in 2012 provided an incentive for universities to expand their enrolments and, consequently, their government funding. This factor drives universities to enrol more students, with a possible consequence of the lowering of expected entry standards.

Second, high ATAR cut-offs have become a marketing tool for universities, providing an aura of prestige for courses that appear to be hard to enter. This factor drives universities to publish ATAR cut-offs that may not correspond to reality.

Third, the universities want to secure the most able and suitable students. They are increasingly realising that the ATAR is not a strong predictor of success in tertiary study. The ATAR does not reveal some of the more powerful and important aspects of a student's potential and suitability. This factor is leading the universities to seek more information about students through interviews, portfolios, references and other sources.

All of which is to say, over the last few years we have been watching the ATAR system begin to break down. More and more of our Inaburra students are being offered early entry to universities. More and more of them are seeking and receiving bonus points for various reasons. More and more are finding that the apparently firm cut-off scores yield as one leans against them.

What does the future hold for the university admissions process? I expect that the ATAR will remain, but it will be more and more supplemented by other admissions processes, becoming more akin to the USA college admissions system. This change will be more expensive and time-consuming for the universities and it would bring a different sort of pressure on students to acquire the kind of resume that would open doors: volunteering; co-curricular activities; student leadership roles; community engagement etc. Such a shift will bring its own challenges, but that is a topic for another day.

What does it all mean for our current students? Not a lot has really changed. Our aim of shaping life-long learners remains. We place priority on students owning their learning and taking responsibility for their actions. We encourage them to achieve mastery through persistence, to embrace challenge and to overcome adversity. We want them to focus on learning, rather than on gaming the system. And we continue to think that the good life will be measured in more profound ways than the ATAR and by more significant assessors than university admissions processes.

I love the thought that we could do better than use a four digit number as the defining characteristic of an individual at the end of thirteen years of school. We all know that our young people are more than that.