Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Are we winning the educational race? (2017 Term 3 Week 5)

I read a fascinating account recently to do with the Singaporean education system. On the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests, the Singapore education system achieves the top results of all surveyed jurisdictions (even better than Finland). By most accounts, the National Institute for Education (NIE), the teacher training college in Singapore, is a world-leading centre for thinking about education. At a recent conference, the Director General of Education reflected about the importance and direction of pedagogy. The video and full transcript can be found here. Mr Wong Siew Hoong said:

The established pedagogies that we have, have worked tremendously well for developing basic competencies. (In the 21st century) developing teamwork, developing much more creative ideas from our students requires different treatment in the classroom.

So for all these very compelling reasons, I am standing in front of you entreating all of us to take a good look at our pedagogical practices in the classroom, and ask ourselves whether we can move forward with much more innovative pedagogy, much more engaging pedagogy, much more productive pedagogy, moving the classroom away from the tradition by which we were all taught once upon a time and which will serve its purpose but will need to be complemented with new pedagogies and different pedagogies that will meet the needs of this current moment and for the future.

These reflections are interesting ones for us to consider, particularly as we weigh our students' performances in standardised tests. As parents of students in Years 3, 5, 7, and 9 are aware, the 2017 NAPLAN results have arrived. Although these tests are designed and intended to provide feedback regarding individual students, the political reality is that the results are often taken as a proxy for the quality of a school or system. 

Overall, the students’ performances were strong. The average marks for our students were above the State average in each year and each test area (twenty in total)Our students' averages were above the averages of the other NSW independent schools in fifteen out of these twenty test areas. The exceptions were numeracy in Years 3 and 5, spelling in Year 7 and 9; and grammar and punctuation in Year 7, where our results were marginally below. In virtually every year group and test area, the cohorts performed better than the respective preceding Inaburra cohort. 

Over the years I have spoken or written a number of times about the importance of progress, rather than just raw performance. NAPLAN analysis allows us to measure student growth through some of the tests, by comparing individual results against those achieved two years previously. Again, these measures can be averaged against the State averages to provide a broad brush window into overall student progress. The upshot is that our average student growth is good, although there are always anomalous individual results because of the 'snap-shot' nature of the tests.

Many parents will be aware that, from 2017, extra significance has been attached to the Year 9 NAPLAN results. I have written previously on the topic here and I wrote to the parents of Year 9 students last week, reinforcing that the new link between Year 9 NAPLAN and the HSC should not be a cause of concern. By way of information for the general community, around 60% of our Year 9 students have pre-qualified to meet the minimum standard of literacy and numeracy that will be required to receive an HSC in 2020. This compares very positively to the State-wide figures, which show that 32% of students have pre-qualified.

All of which is to say, Inaburra is doing well at equipping our students with the necessary skills in literacy and numeracy. However, I want to reiterate that results in these assessments are not going to be the primary determinants of our children's futures. The education race that focuses on and terminates with NAPLAN results (or PISA results, or HSC results) is fundamentally short-sighted and inadequate. The formation of people, which is the proper purpose of education, continues to be a far broader, deeper and more profound challenge than drilling to develop excellence in test-taking.

Saturday, 5 August 2017

Adolescents, smart phones, and mental health (2017 Term 3 Week 3)

From time to time in my reading I come across a text or piece of research that cuts through. Sometimes it is because of the quality or excellence of the prose, but it is more often because of the content. I read such a piece this week, and it is continuing to trouble me. The essay in question was published in the September 2017 edition of The Atlantic. (I am not sure why the September edition is available in early August, but that is another issue ... boom tish!) The article is Have Smartphones destroyed a generation, and it is written by Jean Twenge, Professor of Psychology at San Diego University. Her area of interest is generational differences.

Twenge makes the case that the current generation of adolescent people are demonstrating abrupt differences with previous generations with reference both to their behaviours and to their emotional states. The article is substantial, and will probably require 15 minutes of reading time, but my strong encouragement to parents of adolescents and those who will be soon is to make the time to read it. I will make this blog post correspondingly short, so as not to take too much of your time.

Her argument is that "The arrival of the smartphone has radically changed every aspect of teenagers’ lives, from the nature of their social interactions to their mental health." Her point is not to indulge in nostalgia for days gone by, but to understand the lived reality of our children.

She observes that, whereas generational studies is usually a case of observing slowly emerging and disappearing patterns and themes, there has been a seismic shift for the current generation of teens. Cutting to the chase, she writes "... the twin rise of the smartphone and social media has caused an earthquake of a magnitude we’ve not seen in a very long time, if ever. There is compelling evidence that the devices we’ve placed in young people’s hands are having profound effects on their lives—and making them seriously unhappy."

Please read her article. Please find another adult to discuss it with. Please think about how best to engage with the issues with your child(ren).

And please, please, please, for the sake of your child and his/her own emotional and mental wellbeing, do whatever can be done to keep their phone out of their bedroom. While this will be easier to accomplish for some than for others, I am absolutely convinced that this is one of the few battles that is absolutely worth having. 

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Opening the new facilities (2017 Term 3 Week 1)

One of the perennial dangers in talking a lot is that you end up repeating yourself. It is a particular challenge for me as Principal to remember what I have said, and to which people. My family have commented that my dinner-table conversation can bear too close a resemblance to assembly speeches and blog posts! Nonetheless, some ideas bear repeating because they are so important, and sometimes that which was said to one group needs to be reiterated for others. For this reason, the remainder of this blog post will consist of the speech that I made at the formal opening of our new facilities last Friday, which was a very significant event in the life of the school. My thanks to those who were able to join us; it was a memorable occasion.

Welcome. I am delighted that you have been able to join us for this ceremonial opening of our new facilities.

As I begin I would like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land upon which this event is taking place – the Dharawal people of the Eora nation – and pay my respects to their elders – past, present and future.

I also want to thank those people who have contributed to our event today, particularly Mr Andrew Coote, the Head of the Junior School, who has led the organization of our event, and the staff and students whose musical gifts we have already enjoyed so far. I am delighted that our main music performance today has been composed by two people who are present: our school captain Grace Easton and the composer who we commissioned to create a piece for our ceremony today, Rowen Fox.

If we were to rank all the elements that combine to make a school, buildings would not be at the top of the list. A school is about people, and about relationships, before it is about buildings and facilities. As a Christian school, we believe that people – made in the image of God – have inestimable value. The reality is that you can put a price tag on buildings – quite a big price tag, as it turns out!

Having said that, school facilities are immensely significant. They have symbolic value, in that they demonstrate priorities and those things that matter in a school. They have emotional value, in that they are the theatres in which the dramas of growing up are acted out. They have functional value, in that they enable teaching and learning, interaction and play, the ups and downs of daily life. They contribute to the culture of the school – segmented or connected, open or closed, welcoming or forbidding, neglected or cherished.
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School facilities are a legacy from one school generation to the next. In this, our 35th year, Inaburra School has been blessed by those buildings and facilities bequeathed to us by those who have gone before. I am delighted that some of those are able to be with us today. In turn, these facilities being opened today will remain as a legacy to those who will come after us.

We have gained a lot through this project. We have a lot more generally usable space, greatly added to our carparking capacity, improved the access paths for movement around the school and provided more covered breakout space for students.

However, the extra facilities that we are gaining are noteworthy not just because they are new and because they are extra, but also because they are different. Upstairs we have one classroom with more than 100 students and five teachers. On the ground floor we have a learning commons equipped with a variety of furnishings that are a world away from traditional school desks and chairs. We have a principal’s office designed like a fishbowl. We have a playground that moves in the opposite direction to current trends to sanitise, smooth and insulate the play experience.

Why have we done things differently?

Our young people need an education that will be fit for purpose. That is to say, one that will equip them for the unpredictable and complex world into which they are growing. In this new world, the soft skills and capabilities will be of primary importance – we express these things in our Inaburra Learner Profile.
The buildings don’t produce these capabilities, but they do provide an environment that encourages them. Our new facilities enable student agency in choosing their study environment. Our new rooms enable teachers to utilize a wider range of strategies in teaching and learning. Our new playground provides context to develop the resilience to cope with bumps and scrapes, the creativity of play in a varied environment, and the responsibility to know how best to exercise freedom and opportunities.
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Our hope is that these new facilities will help us, in partnership with our families, to shape life-long learners who can face their future with confidence. However, recognising the importance of academic achievement, and the importance of 21st century skills, I also want to underline the importance of character. That’s why we chose the Bible reading that was just read for us – the reading which will be on the plaque. It also happens to be the one passage of the Bible that contains the three words of our school motto – faith, knowledge and love.

It is a passage that speaks of the importance of character – Make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. (2 Peter 1:6-7) In the Christian understanding of the world, who we are matters more than what we can do. The good life is ultimately found and lived in the imitation of Christ, who grants to us forgiveness for the past, grace for the present and hope for the future.

From its inception, our school has steadfastly trusted in God and his goodness as the foundation upon which we have built. Therefore, it is entirely appropriate now for us to pray. 

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Meeting Carol Dweck (2017 Term 2 Week 8)

Last week at the Edutech conference, I had the opportunity to meet and to interview Professor Carol Dweck, the Lewis and Virginia Eaton Professor of Psychology at Stanford University. Whereas most professors of psychology are known only within the academic context, Professor Dweck has become known around the world for her research that first reached the public sphere through the best-selling text Mindset. 

Her core thesis, which is unpacked here, is that we have underlying beliefs regarding our intelligence and abilities. The fixed mindset holds that these capacities are largely predetermined; either you have it or you don't. The growth mindset sees our intelligence and abilities as malleable and able to be improved. The second of these mindsets is correlated with a willingness to embrace challenge, a thirst for new learning, and any other number of positive outcomes. 

I have written about the growth mindset previously, and we have worked hard to embed the growth mindset thinking across the school. In addition to training the staff to model and to encourage the growth mindset, students are explicitly taught about the growth mindset in the Year 7 Learning Foundations course.

It was a great honour to meet Professor Dweck and have the chance to interview her. In the course of our discussions, there were three nuances to her work that emerged that I found fascinating.

The first point is that each of us internalises a mixture of the fixed and the growth mindset. Although the paradigm is binary, the reality is that our thinking is mixed. In different domains of knowledge, in different areas of ability, at different times and in different contexts, we may shift between a fixed and a growth mindset. Anyone who has said 'I'm not musical' or 'I don't have a maths brain', is articulating a fixed mindset. It would be more accurate to say 'I have not learned how to sing, yet.' Or 'I find maths particularly challenging.'

The second point that Professor Dweck made is that there are a number of situations that are likely to trigger us back to the fixed mindset. These situations include struggling, especially when others look as though they are coping, and set-backs, when we experience failure despite our efforts. Our temptation with these triggers is to believe 'I haven't got what it takes.' I was particularly struck by her observation that 'stretch' situations can be triggers for us; when outside our comfort zones, we can often feel that we are imposters. Reflecting on the idea of 'triggers', I wonder whether formal school reports can function as triggers to the fixed mindset for our students. 

The third point was the way that our increasing understanding of the neuroplasticity of the brain supports the psychological framework of fixed vs growth mindsets. The brain has the capacity to grow and build capability, which it does through learning through new things. There is a biological basis to the observable experience.

If there was one thing that Professor Dweck said that continued to resonate with me, it was the observation that there is a disjunction between talk and walk for many teachers and parents who profess an allegiance to the growth mindset. Although we may assent to the general proposition, the throwaway comments, our own personal responses to trigger situations, and other elements of day to day interaction, can fuel the fixed mindset in our children.

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Intellectual character development (2017 Term 2 Week 7)

Sometimes, when I consider what tremendous consequences come from little things,  ..I am tempted to think ... that there are no little things.

The quote is from Bruce Barton, as cited in Stephen Covey's Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. His point has to do with character formation. The little things are the things that shape us. 

The same point is made in the difficult-to-attribute proverb that the students at Inaburra have heard from me time and time again: 
We sow a thought and reap an act;
We sow an act and reap a habit;
We sow a habit and reap a character;
We sow a character and reap a destiny

The Bible has the same dynamic in mind in Philippians 4:8, which reads: 
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy - think about such things. 

I read a fascinating book recently by Philip E. Dow, titled Virtuous Minds: Intellectual Character Development. He argues that schools should be equally concerned for both the formation of moral character and the formation of intellectual character. 

The first element seems obvious; as I speak with parents in enrolment interviews, many of them are very clear that the formation of their child's moral character is important to them. We all want our children to be honest, to be trustworthy, to be kind and to be self-disciplined. Schools like Inaburra are unhesitating in affirming our desire to cultivate moral virtue in our students.

However, it was his articulation of the second element that captured my attention. Dow describes intellectual character as "the force of accumulated thinking habits that shape and colour every decision that we make." Rather than life consisting of a series of unconnected isolated moments of decision, most of the choices that we make are not the result of conscious and deliberate reasoning, but mental autopilot. We rely on mental ruts that have been long engrained in us through habits; these become our intellectual character. Dow argues that both the way that we think, and the stuff that we think about, will determine the kind of person that we will become.

He goes on to identify seven intellectual character traits that we need to function in the ever more volatile, unpredictable and changing world. His case is that, far more than any particular knowledge or skills outcomes, these habitual intellectual characteristics are crucial. His list is:

  • courage
  • tenacity
  • carefulness
  • curiousity
  • fair-mindedness
  • honesty
  • humility
There is a challenge here for us as parents and as educators. What are those small thoughts and actions that are shaping the intellectual character of our children? What little decisions are adding up to be cumulatively transformative over time? How do we encourage the virtue and discourage the vice, without just adding more elements to our nagging repertoire? 

Of course, recognising the powerful effect of our role-modelling, we would do well to ask some searching questions of ourselves first! 

I commend Dow's book to you.

Monday, 15 May 2017

The porn epidemic (2017 Term 2 Week 4)

There are some pretty confronting questions that can be asked of a parent. For example: What age do you think your child first did (or first will) encounter pornography? What age do you think your child first sought (or first will seek) pornography? How often do you think your child views pornography? Can you answer them? What would you want the answers to be?

At a principals' network meeting this week, we were asked these questions by James Grady, who has been studying the topic of porn and young people. Grady makes a compelling case that there is a world of difference between pornography as encountered by previous generations, and the experience of young people today - and that the difference presents profound challenges to our children and the adults that they will become.

In contrast to previous generations, through high-speed internet, porn has become free, anonymous, and perpetually available. There are very few limits on a young person's ability to access porn, given the ubiquity of internet-connected screens in a household, and the usual pattern of tech-savvy children and naive parents.

The statistics are sobering. According to the Burnet Institute's submission to the Senate's Committee inquiry into the harm being done to Australian Children through access to pornography on the internet, which can be found as submission 61 on this page, 37% of Australian males between 15 and 29 view pornography daily, and another 44% view weekly. The average age at which these people first intentionally sought pornography was 13. Grady has assembled some other statistics here.

The reality is that the speed by which pornography has become ubiquitous has outstripped our understanding of the effects of pornography on young people. They are living through a giant social/sexual/developmental experiment on their malleable brains, and we don't have a clear understanding of what the effects will be.

However, many outcomes are self-evident, and they are concerning. Our children are learning about sex from pornography - and the education being offered is not one that will equip our young people well for their relationships, now or in the future. 

I encourage you to take the time to explore the resources that Grady has assembled at his website The Frank Chat. In particular, a page on the website is specifically addressed to parents. For all the awkwardness that is inevitable in conversations between parents and children about pornography, this is one of those areas where our love for our children should compel us to speak with them, and listen to them.

I don't know that we can hold back the tide in this area, but that doesn't mean nothing can be done - or that we ought not try. Why not ask some of the questions above, and listen - really listen - to the answers.

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Support for children and parents with cybersafety (2017 Term 2 Week 2)

We live in an age where cynicism about government is pervasive. Fuelled by media coverage of the messiness of politics, and the apparent inability of governments to solve many of the intractable problems that pressure our daily lives, it is unsurprising that we develop a low-level sense of weariness and disdain towards the public sector more generally. This filter can prevent us from giving credit where credit is due. This week I want to acknowledge the excellent work that the Federal Government has been doing with reference to cybersafety for young people, particularly in providing resources for parents and educators. If the topic of cybersafety for your children is important to you, there is help available!

The Office of the Children's eSafety Commissioner is the Federal Government's principal agency in this space. The Office was formed with a number of briefs: to provide a national lead in the promotion of online safety for children; to handle complaints about serious cyberbullying material and illegal online content; to fill an education role through research, and the curation of resources; and to establish a national online complaints mechanism to support those affected by image-based abuse.

The Office understands that online safety for children is a shared responsibility, in which government, schools, police, social media services, and parents/carers all have vital roles to play. At a recent conference I was greatly encouraged by the ways that government, police and social media services are working together, not least through providing resources and channels to report abusive online behaviours.

The reality is that cyberbullying emerges out of the same murk as any other sort of bullying. Lack of empathy, lack of kindness, and disrespect have always led to bullying behaviours; the online world differs only in it broadens and extends the scope in which this nastiness can take place. 

The Office has established an excellent site called iParent, which has an exhaustive suite of resources, tools and links. I cannot commend it highly enough for families who are concerned about this issue generally, or who may be experiencing something of a crisis. 

Four themes for parents stand out to me in this area, both through the input I have received from the Office and from my experience in schools. First, there is no substitute for communicating and learning with your children regarding the online world. Second, the wider task of building your child's resilience and empathy is invaluable. Third, it is foolish in the extreme not to monitor a child's engagement and use of the online world. Fourth, each family must have explicit rules, expectations and boundaries associated with technology.

It is not easy to be a parent in this day and age. It can be hard work. I humbly suggest that setting aside some time to explore the sites linked above will be a worthwhile investment of a parents' time. As I once heard in a sermon: Raking is easy, but all you get is leaves. Digging is hard, but that is where you get diamonds.

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

The growth of anxiety in young people (2017 Term 1 Week 10)

It is a rare person who never gets anxious. In fact, anxiety is a normal response to stress and it can be helpful. Anxiety can motivate us to get things done, such as meeting deadlines, and it can alert us to a dangerous situation where we may be at risk. There is nothing inherently bad about the experience of anxiety, but I increasingly encounter members of the school community who are becoming anxious about being anxious. It is helpful to be informed about the nature of anxiety and the roles that parents and educators can play in helping the young people in our lives to cope with their experience of anxiety.

The first thing to understand is that there is a difference between being anxious and having an anxiety disorder. This blog focusses more on the normal experience of anxiety than it does on anxiety disorders. 

The nature of life is that we will inevitably encounter stressors that will cause us to become anxious temporarily, usually until the stressful moment or issue passes. At this basic level, anxiety is simply fear. In the lead up to formal assessment tasks, particularly in the senior years of high school, some experience of anxiety is normal. Learning how to manage and to cope with this level of anxiety is a valuable life-skill. At Inaburra, the school counsellors have access to helpful resources and run programs to help students build their personal capacity to cope.

Many of the coping strategies with this level of anxiety are common-sense. Articulating the fear and talking it through with a trusted person can be a helpful way of bringing perspective. Channeling and directing the anxiety into performance and task completion is an excellent habit to build. Structured problem-solving can be a good way to learn to resolve the stressor. Exercise is always of benefit, as are habits of relaxation. There are no shortage of places online where strategies to cope with anxiety can be found, including here and here.

As parents of children and young people experiencing anxiety, there are things that we can do that unwittingly compound the challenges for their child. One of our counsellors recently brought this article to my attention, and I commend it to you. The reality continues to be that the influence of parents, for good and for ill, has a profound formative experience on children.

As previously stated, anxiety is a normal human experience. The Scriptures speak to this reality in the following well-known Bible passage from the fourth chapter of Paul's letter to the Philippians.

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

The knowledge that, as John Calvin put it, 'God's fatherly face is turned towards us in love' is a wonderful antidote to anxiety. If you want to know more about the peace which transcends all understanding, I encourage you to join with billions around the world in gathering to celebrate Easter this year. God bless

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Christianity a public danger? (2017 Term 1 Week 9)

I have been reflecting recently on a significant societal shift that can be seen in our media and in the public discourse of our society. My thinking was crystallised at an event last week by Karl Faase, the guest speaker. His argument was that in Western society, Christianity is being viewed less and less as a generally benign and irrelevant anachronism and more and more as an actual and positive danger. He cited three ways that this reframing can be seen. 

The first is that love is being redefined. Recognising that love can and has been defined and manifested in all sorts of ways, and that Christians have often fallen short of their ideals, a Christian understanding of love has included the concept of unconditional commitment to the good of the other person, regardless of whether or not you agree with them. However, it is increasingly common for love to be understood as an uncritical acceptance of the other person and their views. In this framework, anything other than unconditional endorsement is seen to be an action arising from hatred.

The second way that this reframing is taking place is the emergence of the belief that Christianity is damaging to children. Richard Dawkins famously likened forcing religious beliefs onto children to child abuse. The argument suggests that religious ideas, including Christianity, genuinely damage a young person's capacity to think for themselves, to discern truth from error, and to participate meaningfully in a pluralist society. In its more extreme expression - religion poisons everything.

The third catalyst in this reframing is the emergence and growing awareness of the horrific abuse scandals that have taken place in Christian institutions and churches. As the nature and extent of these scandals have emerged, particularly through the Royal Commission, the church's social license - that is, its acceptance and approval in the community - is coming under threat. The church is no longer seen as an agency for good in the community.

Faase's point, which I accept as increasingly true, is that our Western culture is becoming more hostile to Christianity.

What does this all mean for Inaburra School? After all, we are a Christian school, and unashamedly so. Our foundations, our history, our staffing and our vision for education are all Christian. However, as a school with an open enrolment policy, our students and our families are representative of the wider community, being constituted of many faiths and of none. If Faase is right, the Christian faith embodied in the school is likely to become more and more 'on the nose'.

In a hostile culture, courage becomes a more vital virtue. In the Christian worldview, courage is seen both in word and in deed. Courage will be seen in our resolute commitment to, and articulation of, our convictions about the dignity and worth of the individual, the fractured nature of the creation, the fallenness of humanity and the hope offered by God in the Christian gospel. Courage will equally be seen in the way we work to make a real and concrete difference to the daily lives of individuals. In the context of a school, this looks like the humble, painstaking, sacrificial effort to know, love and serve our students. The first flourishing of the Christian faith took place, not when Christianity occupied a seat at the table of power, but as Christians took seriously the commands of their Lord to 'love your neighbour' and, more pointedly, 'love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you'.

One of the values of Inaburra School is that we will commend and cultivate faith in God. This has been an enduring commitment of our school community, in partnership with Menai Baptist Church, since our founding. My hope and prayer is that, whether your stance towards Christianity is positive, neutral, negative or a complex relationship of all three, what you see and experience in this school community might lead you to question the emerging hostility toward Christianity that can be seen around us.

Friday, 17 March 2017

Shaving, peers, and exemplars (2017 Term 1 Week 7)

I imagine that the school community is well and truly aware of the efforts of many of our students in the World's Greatest Shave this year. Yesterday, as thirty-odd Year 12 students had their hair cut or shaved in the Science courtyard and hundreds of others cheered from the balconies, I was immensely proud of our community. As I reflected on the event, there were three things that really stood out.

My first observation is that this particular fundraiser is a really good example of fundraising done well. My reflection has nothing to do with the worthiness of the cause - which is obvious - or the effectiveness of the initiative in raising awareness - which is equally obvious. Rather, there is a natural and obvious connection between the fundraisers' action and the cause to which it is directed. 

Along with all the other side effects, the loss of hair that is experienced by the chemotherapy patient is unwanted. It stands out. It changes their appearance. It draws attention. By voluntarily losing their own hair, the fundraiser expresses solidarity with the sufferer and steps - temporarily and in only a small way - into their shoes. As such, there is a cost to the fundraiser. A gift that costs nothing is worth nothing.

My second observation has to do with the power of a peer group. Social dynamics are a reality in life, for good or for ill. From a Christian point of view, we understand that we have been created for relationships, and relationships are where we truly acquire our identity, purpose and meaning. What this means in practice is that our peer groups play a significant role in shaping us. Over the last few weeks, Team ZNMOOR have shown us the power for good that can be exerted by peers. As a team, our Year 12 students identified and worked towards their goals, encouraged and supported one another, and lifted one another to surpass their expectations. Peer groups can be powerful forces for good.

My third observation is about the importance of the senior year in a school. One of the key ways that we learn to be a human is through role models. Initially and primarily our parents, as we grow we look to a wider group. In a school, the oldest students have a powerful formative influence on the younger students. The camaraderie and mutual support evident among the Year 12 students yesterday showed others how to be there for one another. Likewise, their willingness to work hard in a selfless cause was potentially inspirational to younger students.

All of which is to say, yesterday was a wonderful day and we can justly be very proud of our students. They have done well.

Post-script - at last count Team ZNMOOR have raised over $100K. Donations can still be made.

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Children learning to become adults (2017 Term 1 Week 6)

One of the themes that we need to remember, as both educators and parents, is that we are playing the long game. We are raising children to become adults. As I wrote last week, this is the goal that we need to keep in mind. The experiences that young people have at home and at school are formative; they shape the character and the capacities of the individual. It is a reasonable question for reflection on occasion: how is my parenting shaping my child?

I recently read a blog post on this topic: Quit Doing These 8 Things for Your Teen This Year if You Want to Raise an Adult. In the post, the writer identifies eight things that we should not be doing for our children as they grow.

  • Waking them up in the morning
  • Making their breakfast and packing their lunch
  • Filling out their paperwork
  • Delivering their forgotten items
  • Allowing their failure to plan to become your emergency
  • Doing all their laundry
  • Emailing and calling their teachers and coaches
  • Meddling in their academics
She unpacks each of these in the blog; it may be worth reading her thoughts if you find the bullet-points above provocative. For what it's worth, I can think of lots of other points that could be added, including:
  • Driving your children everywhere
  • Cooking and clearing up meals for them
Without wanting to endorse everything she suggests, I support the tenor of her post. I can reel off examples of each of these suggestions, from my own household, those of friends, and those of the school community. I remember one mother who was slogging away at her daughter's Mathletics account, because "She is so much more motivated when she is about to win something". Thankfully, this is (I believe) the exception rather than the rule.

Many parents are very happy to see their child experience the natural consequences of their actions. My favourite note from a parent read along the lines of "X did not do his homework last night because he was distracted by playing computer games. Treat him as you will!"

Obviously each family has its own dynamic and needs and parents will make the choices and decisions in these matters that seem best to them. There needs to be an age-appropriate staging around the responsibilities entrusted to students.

However, the point is a valuable one. At some point between infancy and adulthood, our children will need to learn to do these things without us. When and how do you plan to help your children grow into that responsibility?

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

What is the mark of a successful school? (2017 Term 1 Week 5)

The number of possible answers to the question 'What is the mark of a successful school?' is endless. Strong HSC and NAPLAN results? Full enrolments? High parent satisfaction? High student satisfaction? High staff satisfaction? A safe and supportive environment? Smoothly run and professional operations? Respectful students who wear their uniform well and stand up on the train? Sporting success? Strong brand recognition in the community? Financially viable and sustainable? All these features get raised with me at some point. However, while there is validity to all of them, I want to suggest that they are matters of secondary importance. They may be enablers of the larger goal, they may be proxy indicators for the larger goal, they may even be distractions from the larger goal.

The larger goal is the formation of adults who will thrive in ten, twenty, and fifty years time. Schools are about the formation of people. In our context as a Christian school, we understand our efforts to be directed towards the formation of people who are imbued with all the dignity and responsibility that bearing the image of God entails. However, all schools should be operating with the long horizon in view. Schools are essentially about the shaping of people. Therefore, the mark of a successful school will be seen in the ongoing reality of its influence in the lives of its graduates, which will be played out over decades.

The question for us, therefore, is what we should be doing now in order to shape young people. Members of the Inaburra community will be familiar with the Inaburra Learner Profile, which is our articulation of those traits, characteristics and soft-skills that will serve our young people well in the years to come. We don't claim divine inspiration for our Profile, but it is a helpful description of those non-cognitive outcomes for which we are aiming.

I was very pleased last week to read a book by Thomas R. Hoerr, called The Formative Five: Fostering Grit, Empathy, and Other Success Skills Every Student Needs. A principal with 34 years experience in that role, Hoerr identifies his own list of those capabilities for which schools should be aiming. His list includes: empathy, self-control, integrity, embracing diversity, and grit. We could discuss the respective merits of his list versus ours, or that of the International Baccalaureate World Schools, but the point remains the same. Who our children are will be more important than what they know.

Apart from the vaguely suspicious pleasure that comes from reading someone who agrees with you (recognising that we are all prone to confirmation bias), I really appreciated his second chapter, titled "Thinking about tomorrow". In this chapter he identifies six trends that will inform how we need to prepare our children to achieve success in tomorrow's real world. The first three trends have to do with the global context in which our children live, and the second three trends are education specific. While not whole-heartedly agreeing, I found it very stimulating. (I have slightly paraphrased some of the wording below):
  • Prediction 1: The Earth will become more fragile
  • Prediction 2: Technology will touch everything
  • Prediction 3: Diversity will be in our faces
  • Prediction 4: Schools will broaden their understanding of student growth
  • Prediction 5: School choice in various forms will disrupt traditional school models
  • Prediction 6: Technology will change how and what we teach
What world do we imagine will exist when our children are the age we are now?

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

HSC reforms again! (2017 Term 1 Week 4)

This week we saw the traditional flurry of interest in the media that accompanies the news of an educational initiative; in this case, it was the release of the new syllabus documents for the HSC. What we will see over the next couple of days is that the level of public interest and discussion will die away very swiftly, except in the educational community. For us - teachers and students - the impact of these changes is just beginning. In this blog I will reflect briefly on the new requirement for a national minimum standard for literacy and numeracy, and the role of the NAPLAN tests in demonstrating this standard.

There is much to applaud in the aims of the Stronger HSC Standards reforms. I have written previously about the changes when they were announced in the middle of 2016. We are already beginning to move towards implementing some of the changes; in light of the intentions, Year 11 students in 2017 have significantly fewer formal assessment items than has been the case in previous years. This change is intended both to diminish the extended pressure felt by students as they run from task to task, and to ensure that deeper learning is not squeezed out by the demands of formal assessment.

One of the key elements of the reforms is the required minimum standard for literacy and numeracy, particularly the role of the Year 9 NAPLAN tests to 'pre-qualify' to meet those standards. Students who achieve a Band 8 or better in NAPLAN reading, writing and numeracy tests will not be required to sit the online tests in Years 10, 11 and 12. At Inaburra, based on historical data, we would expect somewhere between 50% and 80% of our students to achieve this standard in Year 9.

I make three observations. First, I think that it is entirely appropriate to have a minimum standard of literacy and numeracy associated with gaining an HSC. The credential is of diminished value if it can be gained without a basic level of functional capability in these areas.

Second, the authority has been wise in providing multiple chances for students to demonstrate that they have met this minimum standard. If needed, after the Year 9 NAPLAN pre-qualifier, students will have multiple opportunities across Years 10-12 to sit an online test. In addition, they have up to five years after completing Year 12 to successfully complete the test as well. The multiple opportunities should ensure that the test is not experienced as a high-stakes, one-off, pressure-laden crisis.

Third, I fully expect that a number of Inaburra students will not meet the standard by the time of Year 9 NAPLAN - and that's OK! There are lots of things that they cannot do in Year 9 that they will learn to do by the end of Year 12. This should not be a cause for stress. 

However, as an aside, it may be helpful for Year 9 NAPLAN to be perceived as more significant. Whereas in Years 3, 5 and 7 we often have to downplay NAPLAN so that it doesn't become an inappropriate stressor, we tend to find that by Year 9, the message has gotten through and we need to provide a corrective to encourage them to make more of an effort.

Finally, I want to emphasise one of our core convictions as a school community, which is that the results gained in formal assessments are only one aspect of an education that is fit for purpose. Future success in life for our children will be determined more by their character and their soft skills, than by their results in NAPLAN or the HSC.

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

The race to the bottom of the brain stem (2017 Term 1 Week 3)

I have been thinking a lot recently about how technology hijacks our psychological vulnerabilities. Don't get me wrong - I am an advocate of digital technology on many levels, including the potential that ICT brings to broaden and deepen the learning experience of our children. However, in recent months I have been increasingly concerned about the impact that mobile digital technology - most specifically, the smartphone - is having on our ability to sustain mental focus, to be fully present in the moment, and to engage in deep thought. 

On a number of occasions in the last year I have written about the struggle to maintain focused attention, following reading Cal Newport's Deep Work. This book sensitised me to become more aware of my own tendency towards scattered thought and distraction. At a number of points I have tried to make a deliberate effort to avoid succumbing to the siren call of the buzzing device and flashing screen, and have been surprised, disappointed and perturbed to see my own lack of self-control. 

However, in recent days I have gained new insight into my struggles, through reading about the work of Tristan Harris, former Design Ethicist at Google. His point, as outlined in a profile with The Atlantic is razor-sharp: it is very hard to develop self-control when thousands of the smartest people in the world are on the other side of the screen trying to break down whatever responsibility I can maintain.

I commend the two pieces linked above to you. Each will take about 15 minutes to read, but together they will provide fascinating and disturbing insights into the ways that apps and digital platforms are designed to 'hijack our psychological vulnerabilities'. It is all there: the power of intermittent variable rewards to draw us back; the 'bottomless bowl of soup' that is the newsfeed; the sense of social reciprocity that compels us to quickly respond; the never-ending fear of missing something; and so on. As I read and reflected on these pieces, I recognised my own experience; you are likely to recognise your own.

The reality is that the quest of all the brilliant people at Google, Facebook, and Apple, is to make a better product; frequently, the better product is defined as the one that will engage the consumer more. There are many thousands of brilliant minds working on how best to fixate me on their product - and I have only my own willpower to resist them. Small wonder that I struggle.

From Harris' point of view, there is a moral and ethical imperative for the technology companies to work towards products that enable and promote human flourishing - that make for a better life, rather than a more screen-fixated life. I wish him and his like-minded collaborators all the best with their endeavours.

My more pressing agenda has to do with my sphere of influence: myself; my family; and my school. How is it that we can train ourselves not to be the puppet on a string, jerking and twitching in response to the stimulus that buzzes and flashes? In the articles linked above, Harris suggests a number of steps that we can put into practice, many of which involve customising our screens, alerts and notifications. I commend them to your consideration and implementation. 

The key issue to me is being sensitised to the challenge. I doubt that many of us would know how often we check our phones, or how short the gap is between us finding a moment of spare time and reaching for the phone, or how many minutes per week are spent scrolling through things that really don't matter, or how often we disengage from the people we are actually with for the sake of people loosely linked through the screen. Why not monitor yourself this week? 

Apart from anything else, your discussion of these matters with your children will have more credibility if they can see you taking it seriously for yourself.

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Studying in California (2017 Term 1 Week 2)

Over the last twelve months I have been undertaking some further study through the University of Sydney Business School. During the summer break my cohort of students participated in a module titled Finding Opportunity in Disruptive Technology, which was based in California. As has been the case with each of the modules so far, I found the learning to be engrossing, stimulating and challenging on a range of fronts. 

One key point that was driven home constantly is the extent to which digital technology has disrupted and will continue to disrupt the world as we know it. On one level this is an unremarkable observation, as we are all experiencing this disruption in some ways and have done for years. Online banking, shopping, and research are all entirely normal to us. Many of us have an experience of work that is significantly different to previous generations of worker in similar fields; for example, staff did not have email in my first school, but it is now woven into the fabric of daily life.

However, some time in Silicon Valley has forced me to realise the extent of further disruption that is underway. I have written before about the magnitude of the revolution, but it was exciting, daunting and a little frightening to see it actually happening. I could cite a number of examples that struck me during our time in California, but I will limit myself to two.

First, it seems increasingly apparent that the transport industry will be reshaped through autonomous vehicles by the time our Junior School students graduate high school, whether it is through the efforts of Google, Uber, Tesla or a Chinese rival. On site visits around Silicon Valley, the Google autonomous cars (under the badging Waymo) were highly visible, and we saw the technology being deployed for Uber's self-driving vehicles. What place will remain for truck drivers, delivery vans, taxis (or Uber drivers) or even owning your own car? What need for carparks in urban centres or garages in suburban homes or drivers' licenses at all? Kiss and drop may well take place on Billa Road without parents in attendance!

Disruption is also being experienced in the publishing industry. For decades, publishers of academic textbooks have owned metaphoric rivers of gold, whereby every year another cohort of students would have to purchase textbooks. With the advent of the internet, they no longer have a stranglehold on content. In addition, online platforms facilitate second-hand sales, textbook rental, and piracy of content. For good or for ill, students expect access to material that is interactive, mobile and that seamlessly integrates multiple modes, in the same way that their social media does.

I could go on with an exhausting list of all the industries and aspects of life that are being disrupted, but it is not necessary. We all get it! The question for me, both as a school principal and as a parent is 'How do we prepare our young ones to thrive in the brave new world?' The conservative parent may wonder 'What jobs will be safe?' The entrepreneurial parent may ask 'What opportunities will emerge?' Either way, our concern is to play our part in equipping our children for their future.

As I met and observed dozens of people from all over the world, drawn to Silicon Valley and its digitally disruptive ecosystem, I was struck by what I would call 'agency'. These are people who are not passively floating in the flow of change, but are actively seeking and seizing opportunities to learn, to grow, to influence and to play a part in shaping the world around them. What influences and experiences shape a young person to be like this? How do we cultivate student agency?

At Inaburra, this is exactly the question that we are asking. As flagged in our Strategic Directions 2016-2018 document, one of our priority areas is:

To develop student agency in their learning, as expressed in the Inaburra Learner Profile. Students are active participants in their learning, not passive recipients. The ILP describes the non-cognitive capabilities that will enable young people to thrive as life-long learners. Inaburra will increasingly incorporate these capabilities as key learning outcomes, along with the BOSTES curriculum outcomes. 

As the year unfolds, this will be a theme to which we will continue to return and which will spark initiatives both large and small. The design and layout of the new Learning Commons is intended to provide scope for student agency, as students make decisions about when and how to apply themselves to their learning. The experience of reflecting on data - reports, results and Effort Point Average (EPA) - and setting goals for the semester, which is done by all Senior School students in the first few weeks of the semester, is intended to encourage student agency. Providing opportunity and choice, whether in outdoor education, learning tasks or sport, establishes a context for students to make decisions, take responsibilities and live with the outcomes. We are trying to create a culture wherein agency can grow. It will be needed!

Thursday, 2 February 2017

Setting the starting note (2017 Term 1 Week 1)

There is a strange parallel between singing 'Happy Birthday to you' and the school year. Setting the right starting note is crucial. While it is possible to drag the harmony back to something vaguely pleasing as the song/year is underway, it is so much easier if you start on the right note. In speaking to the students of both the Senior School and Junior School on the first day this year, I urged them to do three things: respect the space; respect the learning; and respect one another. It seems to me that these three commitments hold the key to a successful year for all of us.

Respecting the space is vital for us this year. Respect is not just a matter of maintaining and caring for our facilities, although this is certainly a starting point. It also extends to recognising the purpose of the various spaces around the school, and using them appropriately. Some spaces are for noisy, boisterous play, some are for quiet focused study, some are for sitting, and some are for transit. We respect the space when we use it for its purpose. Under the constraints of this phase of our building project, where Junior School playground space and access routes around the school are reduced, we respect the space by recognising how it needs to be used in the life of the community.

The view from my desk of the After School Study program in the new Learning Commons

Likewise, respecting the learning applies on a number of levels. This commitment from the students will lead them to apply themselves to the tasks before them, recognising that the work is not intended just to keep them busy and out of mischief, but that it is meaningful. Respect for learning also engenders a sense of humility; we do not yet know everything and there is learning to be done. Hopefully this respect will also encourage them not to seek ways to evade or find shortcuts around their work.

Finally, respect for one another needs to undergird our community. As a Christian school, believing that each person is made in the image of God and therefore inherently worthy of respect, Inaburra students and staff treat one another well. Ideally, this will look like support for one another, consideration of one another, encouragement of one another and kindness to one another.

There is nothing revolutionary, innovative or earth-shattering about these themes. They are basic building blocks for our shared experience. However, my hope and prayer is that starting with these basics will enable us to have another wonderful year at Inaburra.