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.