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.