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.