What are we Educating our Students For?

Often, our focus in education seem to be on developing the skills capabilities we want our students to have in the future, when they are adults.

While preparing our students for the future is important, the most important job we have, I believe, is to help our students to thrive and have a meaningful life right now.

I don’t think I understood that until one of my students died of Leukaemia. She was just 7 years old.

What a tragic waste if her only purpose in life was to be prepared for a future she would never have. Those seven years were all she had, and mattered no less than if she’d lived until she was seventy.

It’s easy in the busyness of school to focus on what has to happen next, and where we want our students to be rather than where they are right now.

That’s why I focus on wellbeing.

That’s why I take the time to get to know my students and value them for who they are, not who they might be.

It’s also why I  engage students in authentic real-world projects , where they can make a real difference and contribution to the world they live in.

Education is about more than preparing the citizens of the future. Our students matter now. Let’s help them to thrive and be as much as they can be right now.


Withdrawing federal funding for public schooling would exacerbate two-tiered system

Stewart Riddle, University of Southern Queensland

Fairfax press has reported the federal government’s green paper on reforming the federation has suggested four possible scenarios for school funding:

  1. Give states and territories complete funding responsibility
  2. The federal government to fund independent schools, while states and territories fully fund public schools
  3. Reduce overall federal involvement in schools
  4. The federal government to become the major funder of schools.

Given there is nearly a A$30 billion shortfall in school funding from 2018 in this year’s federal budget, it can be assumed that number 4 is the most unlikely scenario. Given the Coalition’s commitment to small central government, it is most likely they would support divesting in school funding, pushing back onto the states and territories.

The opposition has condemned the proposed changes. The government was quick to rule out means-testing parents who send their children to public schools. Education minister, Christopher Pyne took to Twitter:

However, the question remains: if the federal government withdraws from funding public schools, which is looking increasingly likely, how will the states and territories pick up the slack?

Minister for Education and Training Christopher Pyne has distanced himself from the controversial plan saying it’s up to the states.
AAP/Lukas Coch

A two-tiered school system?

The user-pays mentality should be no surprise, considering that in the past 18 months the government has attempted (unsuccessfully) to introduce a GP co-payment and privatise the university sector by deregulating fees.

I have argued previously that the reform agenda misses one of the most important questions: what kind of society do we want to live in? A two-tiered system of schooling will have devastating effects on our social fabric, widening an already too large and persistent equity gap.

Under a market approach to schooling, poor students will be even worse off. Considering the rising inequality in Australia, this will only further exacerbate the situation.

The 2011 Gonski Review of School Funding was a sector-blind, needs-based and equitable funding model, which had at its heart the promise that

all students have access to a high standard of education regardless of their background or circumstances.

Despite claiming to be on a unity ticket for school funding in the lead-up to the 2013 election, the Coalition government has gone against many of Gonski’s recommendations, including the bulk of Gonski funding.

The focus on whether parents might have to pay more to send their children to public schools is a distraction from the real situation, which is that the government is increasingly seeking to divest in public health and education.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s statement that school funding is a matter for the states and territories belies the broader federalism “reform” agenda that puts market logic at the heart of education, health, welfare and other social services; turning them from public goods to private commodities.

Why we should all fight for public education

A common neoliberal myth supposes that if everyone is working in their own economic, social and political interests, then it will have benefits for others. Trickle-down economics is one example, with another being the argument that having a university degree benefits the degree-holder more than society.

When it comes to schooling, the argument is made that parents should have the choice to send their children to the best school in order to get the best education they can. This has played out in the US with the rise of charter schools, and in the UK with its focus on free schools and academies. Yet, as I have previously described, such moves increase inequity.

The adverse effects of the Swedish free schools system, where the creation of for-profit schools being funded by public money has seen both decreasing educational outcomes and increasing inequality, should provide a cautionary tale for Australia.

Since the New South Wales Public Schools Act 1866, legislation has enshrined compulsory, secular and universal access to public schooling. This is not something that should be taken lightly, nor should it be cast aside with a spurious argument that it is not the responsibility of the federal government.

Providing universal access to high-quality education that is publicly provided is something we are all collectively responsible for.

Public schooling should not be seen as a safety net, providing limited education for those who cannot afford to go to a private school. Instead, it needs to be celebrated as being one of the most important foundations for a healthy democracy.

Access to education provides enormous benefits to individuals and societies – increasing health, prosperity, social cohesion and political awareness – while also reducing welfare dependency, crime and incarceration rates.

If we are serious about our attempts to close the gap in Indigenous education, raise literacy and numeracy levels, reduce social disadvantage and provide a meaningful education for all students in Australia, regardless of where they live, then we must have a strong public education system.

Any attempt to undermine the fabric of public education is an attempt to undermine the fabric of society. As such, it is something that every single one of us should be very concerned about.

The Conversation

Stewart Riddle is Senior Lecturer at University of Southern Queensland.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Should we be listening to the ‘Experts’ in Education?

Yesterday, the Daily Telegraph posted a particularly scathing article about school education in Australia, quoting Australian curriculum reviewers, Professor Ken Wiltshire and Kevin Donnelly, both of whom apparently are ‘dismayed’ by the “progressive new age” fads that are invading our classrooms.

Wiltshire is quoted saying,

It’s a good idea to have self-discovery but kids need to have knowledge…The teacher should be up the front, not up the side. This is the problem”

And Donnelly apparently said,

‘our schools suffered due to the fact that many teachers and administrators got their tertiary education during the “flower power” era. “Kumbaya hits it on the head”

I call it ‘edutainment’ … teachers instead of teaching become guides by the side.

“You don’t need to go back to the 1950s but the pendulum has moved too far towards ‘care, share, grow’.”

There were problems with the article. The fact that 86 teachers in NSW public schools were put on ‘improvement programs’ in 2014 is used as evidence of the poor quality of the profession. What they fail to point out is that this number represents only 0.18% of the 49 000 permanent teachers who were employed by the NSW government in 2014.

Neither Donnelly’s nor Wiltshire’s criticism of modern teaching methods were backed by evidence. Wiltshire provided one decontextualised anecdote, and Donnelly resorted to cheap name calling. Hardly grounds for any reasoned discussion on education.

But what irritates me more than any of that is the way Donnelly and Wiltshire are held up as experts on education, and therefore what they say carries weight.

Wiltshire’s bio can be found here, an Donnelly’s is here. For some perspective, it’s also worth checking out Cameron Malcher’s take down of Donnelly over here.

From what I can see, neither Wiltshire nor Donnelly could be considered authorities in classroom pedagogy. As a former English teacher, Donnelly is more qualified and experienced than Wiltshire in that area, but are either of them expert or knowledgeable enough to be making such damning pronouncements about current teaching practice?

They are expressing opinions, as we all do, but their position lends them a weight and authority that I think is being misused.

So who are the experts in education? Who are the people we should be listening to?

The Duality of Leadership and the Importance of Trust

Jon Andrews wrote a very thought-provoking article last weekend about the tension he faces  between the type of leader he wants to be, and the type he sometimes finds himself being.

I also struggle between being the  leader I want to be and the leader I sometimes have to be.

I want to be a leader who empowers and supports teachers, who listens and consults, who doesn’t impose directions, but builds a collective vision that teachers buy in to and have ownership of. I want to support teachers, help them to develop professionally, pursue their passions and reach their goals.

But sometimes I have to be the leader who tells. Sometimes times I have to say “no” or  make unpopular decisions that people may not understand. Sometimes I have to hold teachers to account and tell them to lift their game. Sometimes I need to impose deadlines or require paperwork that for me is essential but can appear to others as “administrivia”.

Leadership is like that. There are times when I have to make the hard calls. There are times when I get it wrong. There are times when I can’t be open and transparent because I am protecting someone’s privacy or dignity or both.

The only way I can navigate this tension in my workplace is by being  the kind of person people can put their trust in. My integrity and values need to be on display for all to see: my willingness to receive honest feedback, my commitment to the wellbeing of both students and staff, to high quality learning,  to excellence in teaching, to staff development and ongoing professional learning, to building strong, collaborative and respectful relationships.

I can’t demand trust from others, but if I act with consistency, to the point where people feel they are able to trust me, they’re more likely to support me in those times when I’ve had to make a call they don’t much like.

I’ll leave you with this TED talk by Onora Oneil on the subject of trust. We often want to demand trust from others, but as O’Neil points out, trust can’t be demanded, it has to be given.

The Impact of My Teachers (and why we need to focus on student wellbeing)

Aaron Davis recently wrote an article about the impact of his teachers, and it started me thinking about the impact my teachers had on me. I’m afraid, my experience was not so positive. My teachers had impact, but not in the way I would have liked.

Back in Year Four, I attended a small public school in New Zealand. Our teacher, Ms M was very strict. At that time, all teachers would use the cane on occasion, but Ms M used it daily. We would keep our heads down, work silently and try not to draw attention. However my attempts to avoid her ire were undermined by a squeaky chair. Whenever I shifted position it would squeak. Any slight shift in balance, such as moving my arm to write, would create a noise.

Mrs M would become infuriated and demand I be silent, but there was little I could do. If I stopped writing, the chair wouldn’t squeak, but not doing school work would also lead to a caning. So, most days I was on the receiving end of either a scolding, a caning or both. To be honest, while I didn’t much like the cane, at least it was over quickly and it only hurt my body. The scolding was worse, it hurt my sense of self.

I was relieved when part way through that year we returned to Australia. Only we didn’t return to Melbourne where my old school was. We moved to Sydney instead.

The fourth grade teacher at my new school, Miss C seemed a little annoyed to have an extra student arrive part way through the year. She provided me a desk and chair, but aside from that made no effort to support my transition to a new school. She was always distant with me and I felt unseen in her class. I felt like I was not really part of the class, just visiting.

Support for transition was sorely needed because the kids at that school didn’t take well to outsiders, especially ones who spoke with a strange New Zealand accent and didn’t know how to play either elastics or 4 square handball. On my first day, some classmates invited me to play with them, but my lack of handball skill quickly revealed itself. They informed me that I couldn’t play with them any more. And somehow, this decision seemed to fly around the grade – I wasn’t welcome anywhere.

Soon after, I became a target of bullying. I was the butt of jokes, humiliated and taunted daily. I was the scapegoat for anything that went wrong. If something was broken, lost or ruined the blame would be placed on me.

I became branded with a sort of untouchable status and spent much of the remainder of that year alone, watching the playground, retreating inwards and occupying myself as best I could by inventing all sorts of fantastical stories.

The bullying became so bad that nowhere outside my home felt safe. As well as at school, I’d cop it walking the streets of my neighbourhood. Kids I didn’t even know would see me coming and throw projectiles, or jeer or block my path and refuse to  let me pass.

I longed for the year to end, so I could be in a new class with a new teacher and the chance to be with different students.

But in Year 5, things continued to go downhill. My teacher, Mr L, would not have been allowed to work with children today. He would fly into rages and seemed to take delight in humiliating his students. The boys were frequently caned, and he had his ways of torturing the girls.

I had a slight speech impediment which caused me to hiss on my ‘s’s. Mr L decided to cure me of this by forcing me to recite poetry in front of the class. Whenever I hissed on an ‘s’ sound, he would publicly humiliate me by chanting  ‘sss sss sss’ Naturally, the kids all took this up, and it spread around the school, so whenever I’d pass by groups of kids I’d hear this ‘sss sss sss’.

Communication had been challenging for me since arriving in Sydney. I didn’t have a broad Australian accent, and speaking led to mockery and accusations of being a snob. I also didn’t understand the local slang. The greeting ‘How ya goin?” confused me. At first I tried telling them where I was going, and that would be met with strange looks, so next I’d try telling them ‘how’ I was going – ‘walking’, ‘riding my bike’, which was obviously not the right answer either.

I had an extensive vocabulary which led to further communication difficulties. I remember arguing with a child in 4th grade and telling her I thought she was being dogmatic. My classmates thought I’d called her a bitch which caused a lot of outrage. There was this other incident where we were mixing up cordial for a class party or something. I tasted it and said we needed more water as it was too concentrated. They could not believe what I’d said, because how could cordial be concentrated, it doesn’t have a brain.. so more jeering:  I was the weird kid.

Looking back, it’s hardly surprising that at some point in Year 5, I became a selective mute  and spent my final two years of primary school unable to speak outside of my home and in almost complete isolation.

I didn’t choose not to speak. I physically wasn’t able. I’d form the words, I’d try to say the words, but no sound would come out. My words were so soft that the only person who could hear them was me.

Mr L became infuriated at this. He’d shout at me and demand I spoke up. I’d take a deep breath and try to shout the  words, but my voice would catch at the back of my throat and all that would emerge was a sort of strangled whisper.

On one occasion, Mr L decided to forcibly fix my speech difficulties. His theory was I needed to open my mouth wider. He grabbed my face in his hand, squeezed my cheeks to force my jaw open and pushed the fingers of his other hand into my mouth, forcing it wide. Then, with his hand still in my mouth, making any speech impossible, demanded that I recite the next line of a poem to the great amusement of my classmates.

Mr L became so angered by my ongoing silence that he complained to my parents. They expressed surprise as I’d never had any difficulty speaking at home. The conclusion drawn by the adults therefore, was that I was silent by choice. It was shyness, a character flaw, I could speak up if I chose.

Things improved in Year 6. My teacher, Mr K took an interest in me, and seemed to value having me in his class. I felt safe when he was in the room.

However the previous two years had already taken their toll. I remained a selective mute,and I also missed a lot of school due to severe stomach pains and listlessness. The doctor couldn’t work out what was wrong with me, but looking back I guess it was a physical manifestation of anxiety

The bullying that began in Year 4 and was cultivated by my teacher in Year 5 continued in Year 6, but by this stage, I’d just accepted that my place in the scheme of things. I didn’t like it, but I couldn’t see a way to change things and I don’t think I questioned it or ever mentioned to Mr K that anything was wrong. I had learned to withdraw so far into myself  that the outside world couldn’t touch me.

In a recent episode of The Teachers Education Review, Dan Haesler provided a great summary of some literature on student wellbeing. He identified 5 conditions that schools should address if they are serious about promoting wellbeing, which he also writes about here,.

1.Schools need to provide a safe environment.

On the podcast, Dan challenges us to consider whether our schools are psychologically safe as well as physically safe. While for the most part my primary school environments were physically safe, there was a lot my teachers could have done to ensure they were psychologically safe. Their failure to do so shaped my perception of myself, of others and my place in the world; and is part of what made me vulnerable to the further traumas that were ahead of me. The impact of their failure remains with me today. We need to take our responsibility to create psychologically safe environments seriously.

2. Connectedness

I did not have a sense of connectedness to school. I felt like an outsider, alienated, and this made me vulnerable. Last year, my TERpodcast colleague Cameron Malcher interviewed Professor Ian Shochet about his research into school connectedness and its impact on adolescent mental health. He showed that even simple acts, such as smiling and greeting a student by name when you pass them, treating them with warmth and letting them know you are happy they are there, makes a significant difference. While my 6th grade teacher, Mr K, could not undo the harm that had already occurred, he provided that sense of connection for me. He made me feel welcome, and took a genuine interest in me. For the first time in two years I had a sense that maybe I could matter, and belong in the world outside my home.

3. Learning Engagement

In primary school, at least, I remained engaged as a learner. I liked to hide from the world and bury myself in school work. It was something I could succeed in.

I wonder how well I would have engaged in learning in the 21st century? As a socially anxious, selective mute who was vulnerable to bullying, the collaborative nature of 21st century learning, with its  emphasis on authentic, public audience would have been difficult for me.  The very thought of being made to work in such a way at that point in my life horrifies me, because I think it would have done further harm. We need to be mindful of vulnerable children as we transform the way we teach in our schools.

4. Social and Emotional Learning

As far as I recall, there were no social or emotional learning programs in my primary school the way there are today. My current school is implementing the Bounce Back program, which teaches the thinking skills to help students become resilient, and hopefully make them less vulnerable to developing mental health issues. If you aren’t running a whole school program to teach these skills, find out more at Kids Matter, the Australian Primary Schools Mental Health Initiative or at Mind Matters which supports secondary schools seeking to improve mental health.

5. A Whole School Approach

On the podcast, Dan speaks passionately about the need for every teacher to take responsibility for student wellbeing, not leaving it up to whichever teacher has that as their role statement. I believe he is right. Every one of us has the ability to make a positive difference in the lives of students, let’s not leave it up to someone else.