Education Nation | Day Two Session One | Minister Simon Birmingham

Disclosure: My attendance at Education Nation (#EduNationAu) was through a media pass provided by the conference organisers.

When I read that Federal Minister for Education and Training, Simon Birmingham (@birmo@birmo) would be speaking at Education Nation, I was intrigued as to firstly, whether he would actually attend given that there is an ongoing election campaign at the moment, and secondly, what he would actually say. When he arrived, you would not know that he was five weeks into an election campaign, and looked fresh and energetic. Minister Birmingham spoke for approximately twenty minutes and then took questions from the floor for about ten minutes before leaving. Overall, I think he did well to avoid any overt political campaign rhetoric, other than one small comment, which was not in itself particularly inflammatory or accusing of the Opposition, before moving on. He also made some very sensible and thought-provoking comments. I have included here the full recording of his address, with the only editing being the introduction from myself, and a slight adjusting of the audio levels to make them more consistent throughout.

Minister Birmingham began by relating a personal anecdote involving his daughter, Matilda, showing the persistence and enthusiasm of five-year-olds, before relating that he was glad to hear of the discussions that were taking place within Education Nation. He added that as a father, he was confident that he could provide the best for his daughter, but that as the Federal Minister for Education and Training, that his focus to be on ensuring the best for all students across the country.

He then said something which I get the impression was rather unexpected, and which I found quite heartening.

“We have a good [education] system and a lot to be proud of. We need to celebrate our successes more than we do.  In general, we are above OECD averages [on a range of measures] and our system is underpinned by a good basic foundation.”

This was a refreshing message to hear, and to be realistic, it should not have been entirely unexpected; he is in the midst of an election campaign and speaking to a room full of educators, it was unlikely he would give a negative message about education. The measures that he indicated we are above the OECD averages included education funding, literacy, and numeracy results, however, he did acknowledge that there is always room for improvement

Minister Birmingham spoke about the long tail that we have and the falling results of students at the top end of the academic scale and that the challenges of education are largely well-known and understood, which does not make resolving them any easier. Our PISA results, Minister Birmingham commented, have dropped, in both real and relative terms and while they are not the be all, they are an important indicator that does need to be monitored.

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Retrieved from tinyurl.com/jjubjyw on 11 June 2016. Slide Thirty-five.

 

We were then reminded that ten years ago, the iPhone and Netflix did not exist and that Facebook was in its infancy at one year old. We do not know, he continued, what the world will look like in ten years and what the world will look like for our students in the future when they graduate, however, we do know that they will require a richness in varied skills and learning, which sounds rather similar to the now famous Alvin Toffler quote shown below.

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Minister Birmingham said he welcomes the discussions taking place at Education Nation and that his commitment is to make sure that Australia is driven by evidence that is credible and reliable and that appropriately reflects what can best improve student learning outcomes. This, he continued, will be supported by two key goals. The first will be to continue delivering the basics on which all learning now and in the future is based upon, though he didn’t elucidate further as to what, exactly, that meant. The second is to prepare students for the dynamic world they will be entering into as young adults.Minister Birmingham added an additional thought to this. Typically, he told us, the two goals are considered in terms of either/or, however, they should be considered as complimentary goals.

It was here that we heard a modicum of election rhetoric, Minister Birmingham reminded the audience how much funding the Turnbull Government would commit to education, however, and I have respect for this, he also noted that while there were differences between the funding both parties had committed to, under either party, there would be an ongoing increase to education funding. Irrespective of your political stance, it would have been easy for him to make negative comments about the other side, yet he actually paid them a modicum of respect. A politically astute and rather sensible choice.

He continued past this, commenting that funding would continue to be distributed on a needs basis and that they would be working to address the challenges that education faces, specifically reading, writing and science, working to set minimum standards of achievement. This confused me a little, as I thought we already had minimum standards, as laid out as part of NAPLAN, if nowhere else. He spoke about the need to identify clear targets and address reading levels at a young age, to identify and learning difficulties in our children earlier in life.

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Retrieved from tinyurl.com/h7nolqd p.85 on 11 June 2016

There will be fourteen measures put in place to lift STEM rates, including additional training and support for teachers, early years support, and the lifting of ambition for graduating students to encourage more to enter into STEM-based Undergraduate programs, though there was no mention of specific steps to ensure these occur.

His next point, the need to address and fix NAPLAN and the way it is implemented in order to foster richer data that is more quickly and easily accessible to teachers in order to make it useful and usable, was one which I believe surprised a few. NAPLAN, from what I have heard this election campaign, has had little attention in this vein, so it will be interesting to find out more about what that looks like if the Turnbull government are re-elected.

We need to ensure, Minister Birmingham told the audience, that students receive one year of learning for one year of teaching and one way that this will be attained will be an improvement in the quality of initial teacher education (ITE). This is an area that does need to be addressed, as there are significant skills that teachers need that were not included in my own ITE, which I have written about in the past.and which I suspect are not an isolated issue.

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Minister Simon Birmingham speaking to the Rethinking Reform Delegates at Education Nation. 8 June 2016

Debates surround educational policy are typically painted as binary arguments; we hear about public versus private education, or about STEM and coding versus traditional subjects, or about direct instruction versus experiential-based pedagogical practices. Minister Birmingham said that these all sit in a grey zone and that we should, in fact, be looking to give autonomy to our teachers, our schools, and our students to make contextualised and evidence-based decisions for the benefit of our students’ learning outcomes. Which of course brought to the fore the point that not all evidence is equal and that we need to be aware of the prejudices inherent in research, whether from the researcher or the commissioner of the research.

Minister Birmingham closed with an idea that I suspect gained him respect throughout the room. He spoke about what he would do, what issue he would resolve; if he could wave a magic wand and fix any single issue or challenge that faces education. It would not, he said, be within schools that he would look. It would, in fact, be in the home of students, to improve the home lives of students where improvement is needed. Minister Birmingham said that whilst teachers provide the greatest influence on a student’s learning outcomes within a school, outside of the school, it is the home life which provides the biggest influence.

The session was opened up at this point to questions from the floor, which I will not cover in this article but will leave for you to listen to in the audio above.

I thought Minister Birmingham’s comments regarding a desire to address and improve the home life of students interesting. I have heard colleagues from both government and non-government, and from early childhood, primary and secondary, all make remarks about students whose home lives negatively impact their learning outcomes.

Thank you, as always, for reading this far, and I would be interested to hear your thoughts on Minister Birmingham’s address.

Education Nation | Interview with Dr. Kevin Donnelly

Disclosure: My attendance at Education Nation (#EduNationAu) in June is through a media pass provided by the conference organisers.

Education Nation is fast approaching, and this time next week, the final session of the conference will be concluding. One of the most hotly anticipated events of Education Nation is The Great Debate between Dr. David Zyngier (@dzyngier) and Dr. Kevin Donelly (@ESIAuatralia). Last week, I published an article from an interview with Dr. Zyngier, which was widely read. Dr. Zyngier is speaking on the side of public education at The Great Debate, and there are some strong arguments available for him to draw upon. This article will be an exploration of Dr. Donnelly’s responses to a series of questions similar to those presented to Dr. Zyngier. As with the previous interviews, I have included Education Nation Interview with Dr. Kevin Donnelly for the sake of transparency.

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Dr. Donnelly provided a short summary of his stance on the issue of public versus private education. He posits that the claims that private schooling systems, e.g. Catholic and independent schools, are over-funded and cause residualisation of government schools, particularly those with disadvantaged students, is incorrect. He cites the simple fact that non-government schools receive significantly less public funding than government schools. For example, the below graph shows the relative expenditure across the two sectors and highlights the disparate nature of the level of public funding.

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Retrieved from tinyurl.com/jdbben8 on 31 May 2016

Dr. Donelly also decries the claim that private schools only achieve strong learning outcomes comparative to public schools because they take the best students, noting that public schools are not truly open to all. This is a valid point to make as there is a range of public schools, particularly secondary school, which are selective based on academic results, requiring a certain academic ability for enrolment into those schools, often requiring prospective students to sit an entrance exam. Additionally, Dr. Donnelly notes that many public schools are situated in suburbs which are classed as high socio-economic areas (SES) and are therefore unaffordable for many people. Linked to both arguments, Dr. Donnelly notes that the socio-economic status of a student’s family is only ten to eighteen percent of the overall factors influencing learning outcomes.

I have noted in previous articles the recent discussions that have appeared in the media regarding teacher quality, and admission to and the quality of, initial teacher education (ITE) programs. Dr. Donnelly’s views on this are somewhat similar to Dr. Zyngier’s views. Dr. Donnelly cites Parsi Sahlberg (@pasi_sahlberg), a Finnish educational researcher who found that although half of the first-year ITE students are drawn from the fifty-one to eighty percent range, rendering the argument that pre-service teachers should be drawn from the academic top thirty percent, invalid. Sahlberg has also commented that “a good step forward would be to admit that the academically best students are not necessarily the best teachers.” Dr. Donnelly also notes a 2012 submission to a Commonwealth inquiry into teacher education by Professor Geoff Masters, who commented that restricting entry to ITE programs to top academic students “…is a blunt approach to improving the selection of teachers and falls well short of international best practice.”

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Findings from Section 2.2.3 of Action Now: Classroom Ready Teachers.

In addition to discussing the prospect of restricting pre-service teachers to those with the top academic results, I asked Dr. Donnelly for his views about a different method of raising the expectations of ITE programs. In Finland, ITE programs are delivered at Masters level, rather than Undergraduate level here in Australia. He explained that research conducted by Andrew Leigh into effective teaching showed that holding a Masters degree does not necessarily equate to being an effective teacher, which seems to be consistent with Pas Sahlberg’s comment mentioned, regarding the fact that there is not a causal link between the academically best teachers and the most effective teachers.

Dr. Donnelly points to Pasi Sahlberg’s findings that a teacher’s commitment and ability to engage and motivate students, along with their communication skills and, of course, subject knowledge are more influential factors in identifying effective teachers. He also points to findings in the Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group report, Action Now: Classroom Ready Teachers, that the level of the degree, Bachelor or Masters, is not particularly important. What is important is the quality of the ITE program and whether trainee teachers have been properly prepared and are ready to begin teaching in a class on their own. I have written previously about my own ITE program, and I would agree that there is scope for improvement

After discussing the subject of ITE, the interview turned to Finland and our relationship and seeming obsession with modelling the Finnish educational model. Dr. Zyngier is critical of this obsession, noting that Finland’s results in PISA and TIMSS have been falling in recent years. Dr. Donnelly is also critical of the way that educationalists jump on the bandwagon of whichever country is generating the best results in international testing, which has moved between Singapore, Sweden, Finland and is currently Shanghai, particularly given that Finland’s results have been falling as shown in the below images from Trends in the Performance of the Top Performers on PISA 2003-Pisa 2012.

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The above image shows that the number of Finnish students performing in the lower levels of PISA mathematics tests has increased significantly. Makes sense, therefore, that the number of Finnish students at the top end has fallen in the same period.

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Dr. Donnelly, after acknowledging Finland’s falling results in recent instances of PISA, notes that translating educational characteristics of other countries can be very difficult due to the variation in contexts. This is an interesting comment, and one I look forward to hearing expanded upon further, particularly, I suspect in the presentation by Lila Mularczyk’ (@LilaMularczyk) on day two of Education Nation, where she is examining trends in international education policy and the translation to the Australian context. Dr. Donnelly reminds us that we can learn from international education systems, however, it needs to be evidence based.

Dr. Donnelly co-chaired the National Curriculum Review alongside Professor Kenneth Wiltshire. Given that the National Curriculum has not been implemented nationally I questioned whether or not a National Curriculum should have even been the goal for Australian education. Dr. Donnelly indicated that greater autonomy and flexibility at the local level, should have been the goal, not a one size fits all curriculum that has been torn apart and rebuilt to suit the needs of some states, and implemented as-is by others. Dr. Donnelly points out that under the Australian Constitution, the government does not have a responsibility for school education. Dr. Donnelly believes that “…we should abide by the fact that we have a federal system where all roads do not lead to Canberra.

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Social media is playing an increasingly important role in the professional learning of teachers around the world. It is free, available at any time and on any range of topics, providing an alternative to the often expensive and/or boring and untargeted professional development sessions that teachers’ typically receive. Dr. Donnelly’s view is that whilst social media has a place, there is no substitute for providing teachers, particularly new-career teachers, with time to learn on the job, receive mentoring, and the time and ability to effectively reflect on and evaluate their own practice.

I asked Dr. Donnelly was his advice to early-career teachers that would help them avoid joining the forty percent of new teachers who are shown to leave the profession within their first five years. His advice was straightforward, yet challenging to implement:

Beware of education fads and do not be drowned in the bureaucratic and the time consuming micromanagement that is being forced on schools. Also, understand that student misbehaviour is on the increase and that a lot of students, especially at the primary school level, are unable to sit still, focus and concentrate for an extended period of time. Most importantly, realise and appreciate that being with young people is a great honour and responsibility, as there is noting more important than teaching – except being a parent.

-Dr. Kevin Donnelly.

When I interviewed Professor Masters early last month, I asked him about John Hattie’s comments regarding teachers as researchers and his sentiment was that it is unreasonable to expect teachers to be both highly trained and effective educators; and highly trained and effective educational researchers. It is reasonable, however, to expect teachers to be informed users of research evidence; evidence which should be a consideration for teachers when engaging in the informal research process of evaluative reflection upon their pedagogical practice.

I asked Dr. Donnelly for his views on Hattie’s comments, and he replied that the relationship between researchers in universities and ACER, and classroom teachers, has been fractured. Dr. Donnelly acknowledges that it has been some time since he has been a classroom teacher and that he would love to see the results of academic researchers in the classroom, attempting to implement the practices they promote in their research. He sees a strong connection between theory and practice and would argue that many teachers are capable of undertaking research, which would provide the benefit of the research being grounded in the realities of a classroom.

Dr. Donnelly presents some interesting arguments, and I very much look forward to hearing him speak in The Great Debate. Remember, you can submit your own questions for The Greate Debate by clicking here. If you have not yet registered for Education Nation then click here to register.

Education Nation | An Interview with Professor Masters

“There are few things as important in schools as providing all students with sound foundations in literacy and numeracy.”
– Professor Geoff Masters. E-Mail correspondence, 2016

Disclosure: My attendance at Education Nation (#EduNationAu) in June is through a media pass provided by the conference organisers.

All interpretations of Professor Masters’ views are my own and any misinterpretation also mine. The Interview with Professor Masters has been included for the sake of transparency.

After I had accepted the invitation to attend Education Nation in order to write a series of review articles about the event, I asked if it would be possible to conduct a series of pre-conference interviews via e-mail with some of the speakers. I was privileged to have been granted an e-mail interview with Professor Geoff Masters AO, the Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) as well as head of ACER’s Centre for Assessment Reform and Innovation.

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Professor Geoff Masters. Retrieved from tinyurl.com/h2czpd6 on 6th March 2016

In developing the questions for Professor Masters, I felt that it would be remiss of me to not take advantage of the opportunity to ask his opinions about statements by Professor John Hattie in April 2015, where Professor Hattie indicated that he felt classroom teachers should leave education researcher to trained researchers. I recall there being quite the uproar on social media as a result of Professor Hattie’s remarks, with a great number of educators commenting that there is no reason they cannot engage with research.

Professor Masters’ view is that it is unreasonable to expect teachers to be both highly trained and effective educators; and highly trained and effective educational researchers. It is reasonable, however, to expect teachers to be informed users of research evidence; evidence which should be a consideration for teachers when engaging in the informal research process of evaluative reflection upon their pedagogical practice.

The title of the article in which Profess Hattie’s statement was published was certainly clickbait and as with most instances of clickbait, upon reading further, the statements were not as provocative as at first glance. Indeed, Professor Masters’ response to this question implies that Hattie’s sentiment that teachers should leave the research to the researchers is reasonable. Indeed, when you read further in the article, where Professor Hattie is reported as also having said “I want to put the emphasis on teachers as evaluators of their impact. Be skilled at that,” I find it difficult to disagree.

I cannot speak to the level of training that other classroom teachers have received in research. Personally, having only received an introduction to educational research through the Honours program I completed as part of my initial teacher education (ITE) (delivered by Dr. Nicole Mockler), I do not feel that I would be able to put together a large-scale strong and rigorous research project on my own, whilst also managing the day-to-day requirements of teaching and evaluating the effectiveness of my practices. That said, I do feel that I have had enough training through the Honours program to enable me to read and utilise the outcomes of research to inform my reflections, or to work with a researcher to conduct more formal research.

Professor Masters further noted that high levels of training and proficiency are required for certain types of research, which dovetails neatly with Professor Hattie’s comment that “[r]esearching is a particular skill. Some of us took years to gain that skill.” I do not have years to invest in mastering the skills to become proficient with rigorous, high-quality formalised research. I would prefer, at this point in my career, to invest that time in developing my pedagogical practice. In that frame of reference, leave the research to the researcher is not, in my opinion, as provocative a sentiment as it first sounds.

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Professor Hattie. Retrieved from tinyurl.com/z4e2ryr on 6th March 2016

During the last four years in various staffrooms and study sessions with my colleague pre-service teachers, I have encountered a variety of opinions regarding the relationship and relevance that research has to classroom teachers. Whilst there are pockets of teachers who see the value in the relationship, by and large, educational research appears to be seen as irrelevant. Professor Masters stated that too often pedagogical practice is shaped by beliefs about what should work in the classroom and beliefs shaped by fads and fashions of the day (Greg Ashman has written about various fads and fashions in education including here, here, here and here). Additionally, I have heard the “it worked when I was in school/first started teaching/we did it this way in the 70s and 80s”  refrain regularly, with its unstated implication that it will still work.

To improve the quality of classroom teaching, and by extension, the learning outcomes for students, Professor Masters asserts that evidence-based pedagogical practices should be implemented; that is, those pedagogies which have been demonstrated through research and experience to be effective in improving students’ learning outcomes and engagement. The relationship between educational research and classroom teaching is one of sharing, with Professor Masters commenting that “[p]rofessions are defined largely by a shared knowledge base. Educational research is playing an essential role in building that knowledge base.”

It is interesting to note that there is a growing community of educators on various forms of social media sharing with their practices, both the successes and the failures, with each other, and it will be interesting to see what role the online Professional Learning Networks play in contributing to educational research in the future, both as a source of information and participants, and as a vehicle for dissemination.

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Retrieved from tinyurl.com/j8vcs2p on 6th May 2016

I asked Professor Masters what his thoughts were on what stood in the way of Australian education and the heights of PISA and TIMMS testing results that seem to be the benchmark by which educational success is judged. I did so with reference to the ITE programs in Finland and the well-publicised reign of Finland at the top of the table in regards to PISA and TIMMS. Professor Masters’ response was relatively simple. High-performing countries, such as Finland and Singapore have raised the status of teachers.

Professor Masters noted that there are a number of high-performing countries who draw their teachers from the upper echelons of secondary education, typically starting with the top thirty percent and some drawing only from the top ten percent, making teaching in those countries, a highly respected and sought after career. This is not the case in Australia, where the required Australian Tertiary Admissions Rank (ATAR) is quite low, as highlighted in this article from May 2015 which indicates that almost a third of all pre-service teachers achieved an ATAR of less than sixty. That demonstrates the low respect held for teaching compared with some of the ATARs listed in this article from January 2014, indicating that a to enter a Bachelor of Health Science/Master of Physiotherapy degree at the University of Western Sydney required an ATAR of 99.95, or the combined law degrees at the University of Sydney and the University of NSW, both with minimum ATARs of 99.70.

The school of thought that simply increasing the minimum required ATAR to enter an ITE program will improve the quality of teachers is not necessarily true. This article from October 2015 indicates that only a small percentage of pre-service teachers enter their ITE immediately upon completion of their secondary education. However, I do not believe that Professor Masters is advocating such a simplistic solution. His comment that “…teaching is a highly respected and sought after career and these countries have succeeded in making teaching attractive to their brightest and best schools leavers…” (emphasis mine) indicates to me that it should be merely one component of the admission process.

Professor Masters observed that in teaching in Australia is trending in the other direction to high-performing countries, becoming less attractive, an opinion I agree with. Personally, I am finding that time I would spend planning and preparing for a lesson is being taken up by mandatory training modules which provide no actual training, or on paperwork which is needed for the sake of bureaucracy. I, like many other teachers around the world, am struggling to balance work and family and am left feeling guilty for not spending time with my family. Perversely, I also find myself feeling guilty for not spending the time I want on marking and writing feedback, or on planning and resourcing a lesson, (often with things from my own home or which we have purchased with our own money).

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One of many memes which can be found on the internet with a similar sentiment. Retrieved from tinyurl.com/hgmax9j on 6th May 2016

The debate about how to improve the attractiveness of teaching as a profession is an old and ongoing one, and I look forward to hearing it discussed during Education Nation. When asked for his view on how the issue could be resolved, Professor Masters pointed out that it would require a series of deliberate policy decisions on a range of issues including teacher salaries, resourcing, and autonomy; as well as the number of admissions into ITE programs. Professor Masters noted that the countries which appear at the top of the international testing results, including Finland, limit the number of pre-service teachers each year. This article indicates that only one in ten applicants is successful in gaining entry into a Finnish ITE program.

There are also come clear benefits to restricting the number of entrants to ITE programs. You are also restricting the number of graduates, thereby helping to prevent what has happened here in Australia, where there is a glut of teachers who are unable to gain permanent employment due to the high number of graduates each year. Professor Masters’ final point was that an important factor in the perception of teaching is the academic rigour of the ITE program itself. I have written previously about my own ITE (part one can be found here), and I do believe that ITE programs, in general, can be improved, and look forward to hearing about that topic at Education Nation.

NAPLAN, which commences next Tuesday for Year Three, Five, Seven and Nine students Australia-wide, is an incredibly high-stakes testing process which has the potential to cause great anxiety and consternation amongst students, parents, teachers and policy-makers, and which invariably receives a great deal of attention in the media. When asked about why he thought NAPLAN moved from being a low-stakes test to what it is now, Professor Masters wrote that it is part of a deliberate strategy to improve performances through incentives.

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These incentives appear to use the carrot and stick method, with some financial rewards for school improvement or, alternatively, the threat of intervention and sanction for poor performance, and yet, the international experience has demonstrated that school behaviour is changed when the stakes attached to tests are increased. This is shown by the annual breaches that occur during the administering NAPLAN tests, including cheating and inappropriate assistance by some teachers, and the way in which many schools prepare their students for NAPLAN, as indicated in this article. Further to this, the public release of NAPLAN allows parents to compare schools and can result in some schools losing students as parents opt to send their child to seemingly ‘better’ schools.

Professor Masters commented that high-quality tests are an important component of education, providing diagnostic data around topics or concepts that require attention, monitoring improvement over time and evaluating the effectiveness and impact of programs and interventions. The widely used Progressive Achievement Test (PAT) is an example of the kind of test that can be an invaluable part of a teacher’s toolkit.

I do agree with Professor Masters about the value of testing. At the beginning of this year, Stage Three students in my school all completed a series of diagnostic tests across reading, spelling, and mathematics. That data was invaluable in identifying those students who need additional assistance in particular areas, and plays a role in developing Individual Education Plans (IEPs) for some students, and also for discussions with parents about the student’s results and progress throughout the year. It will also play an important role in quantifying students’ growth across the year when those tests are re-administered at various points throughout the year.

My final question to Professor Masters was his advice to new teachers as they enter their classrooms pressured to ensure that their students to achieve high NAPLAN results. He responded that “[t]here are few things as important in schools as providing all students with sound foundations in literacy and numeracy.” Professor Masters’ belief that the goal should be to improve our students’ literacy and numeracy levels, and that if we do raise the NAPLAN results, it should be as a result of improved literacy and numeracy levels. The problem, he pointed out, is that NAPLAN scores can be increased in ways that do not lead to better literacy and numeracy levels.

I am grateful to Professor Masters for his time and willingness to engage in the interview process. I very much look forward to hearing him speak at Education Nation, where he is speaking to the title Addressing the five key challenges in school education that matter to you on day one. Professor Masters will also be joining Dennis Yarrington, Dr. Kenneth Wiltshire and Lila Mularczyk for a panel discussion about Student Testing on day two. If you have not yet registered for Education Nation, I would encourage you to do so by clicking here.

As always, my thanks for reading, particularly given the length of this article. Please feel free to contact me with any comments, questions or feedback via the comments section below or on Twitter.

Some meanderings on education

Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.
– Attributed to 
John Dewey

I have sat down to write this particular article on a number of occasions and for various reasons, have ended up not doing so, however, I am determined to write it today and thus am staying back at school, with no, or rather no domestic, distractions. Whilst I checked out of social media, from an educating point of view, for the duration of the Christmas holidays, I was still perusing the various tweets and reading linked articles when they struck my fancy, e-mailing many of them to myself for later use.

I have written previously about Initial Teacher Education (here, here, here, here and here) and there have been some articles that have made for interesting reading around the topic of initial teacher education, as well as teaching in general, that I believe are worth discussing.

Greg Ashman (@greg_ashman) is someone whose style of writing I tend to enjoy reading, and his article The bad ideas that hold teachers back was no different. This particular article discussed, very briefly, the pedagogical practice of differentiation, citing it as seeming “…truthy enough…” but that ultimately, it does not have a solid bank of evidence supporting it. To demonstrate this, Greg included the below graphic:

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Retrieved gregashman.files.wordpress.com/2014/07/pisa-vs-talis-graph2.png on 9th February 2016

It is an impressive looking graph, however, I am not conversant enough in statistical analysis to understand whether what is being represented is actually statistically significant. I understand enough to understand that I am looking at a graph that would appear to demonstrate that the greater the percentage of lower secondary (which I take to mean Years Seven to Nine) teachers who profess to differentiate by providing alternate work either frequently or in almost all lessons correlated to a lower PISA mathematics mean score in the 2012 iteration. Greg provided a link to a pdf file from the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented which he summed up as finding that “…the teachers weren’t doing it right. So it is either something that works if you have particularly talented teachers who can implement it – although this has not been demonstrated – or it is an idea that doesn’t work at all…”

I have mixed feelings regarding the concept of differentiation. I agree that in theory it does sound “…truthy enough…” but that in practice it often seems to result in learning opportunities of a far lower standard than the student needs (or, perhaps, is entitled to) or at the other end of the scale, fails to provide a sufficiently high challenge. I must note that at this point in my career, that I have not had a great range of exposure to how specific teachers differentiate specific skills, concepts or pieces of knowledge, and so I am drawing from a limited well, that being my own experience, which in this area feels like wandering in the dark, to a degree.

The next article I noted was also by Greg, and was titled A guide for new teachers. It contained a number of ideas and thoughts that I feel would be beneficial for new teachers to be aware of, and I think which the pre-service teacher I wrote about last year would have appreciated reading had I come across the article then.

The final article was regarding teacher qualifications, job shortages, and accreditation issues, which I believe I will leave for another time, as those issues are complex enough, and have the potential for a lengthy article in their own right. I am also conscious of the fact that it is now just after five pm and that I still have a number of other things I need to do before I go home.

Creating Lifelong Learners

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.
– Attributed to 
Maya Angelou

In my previous article, I began to write about the classroom ecology and digressed into talking about one of the programs that my teaching partner for this year, Mrs. W, and I have put into place, the classroom economy. In this article, which I am writing on Monday morning, with the sound of a leaf blower out in the playground and cars rushing past on the main road the only accompaniment, I want to talk about instilling a love of learning and ask that you think about how it is that you instill a love of learning in your students. One of the reasons why I teach was the two fantastic teachers I had when I was in Year Five and Year Six at West Tamworth PS. Mr. Davies and Mr. Hawkins were vastly different characters, yet both managed to impress upon me a love of learning.

In Year Five, I had Mr. Davies, short of stature, thinning hair, glasses and a love of challenging us with logic puzzles, including us playing, as a class group, Where in the World is Carmen Sandiago? on the class computer. I have no recollection of any particular skill or knowledge which he imparted to us in that year, however, I do remember feeling privileged, that I had been allowed to leave the class for portions of time to go to the school library and research (which likely meant copy from the encyclopaedia) Ancient Egypt, a topic with which I had discovered a fascination for at some unknown point in time prior.

While I was, most likely, merely copying information from the encyclopaedia, I was doing so with the feeling that I had to do it well, and that I had to collect as much information as I could to justify Mr Davies’ decision to allow me this opportunity. I did not want to disappoint him, which resulted in my typing up many pages of text, systematically copied and painstakingly re-typed and then printed out at school. I distinctly recall being asked by Mr Davies what I had discovered so far about Ancient Egypt and being an excited nine-year-old boy, promptly rattled off a string of facts, much of which I suspect I did not truly understand at that point in time.

Whether Mr Davies choice to allow me such unfettered, and in my memory, relatively unaccountable access to the library during class time was good pedagogy I do not think I could answer due to my own bias about the subject. However, it did instill a sense of excitement with learning, which was sustained and repeated on many occasions that year as I learned more and more, as I elected to do Ancient History throughout my HSC years, and which, even to this day, I still feel when I become consumed within a new topic which interests me, and that love and excitement for learning is something that I would sincerely like to impart to my own students this year.

Achieving this will be difficult, however, I am confident that by being excited or passionate and appropriately animated while I am teaching, that by encouraging my students to take calculated risks, trusting in the supportive environment of our classroom, that my students will take their own steps towards becoming excited about learning.

How do you create excitement in your own students about learning?

Research Skills and the Mekong River

“Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose.” 
– Attributed to Zora Neale Hurston

When I was asked to take on my current role, I was told that I would be responsible for teaching computer skills and research skills, two sets of skills which contain a vast and diverse array of sub-skills. Due to the vagaries of disruptions to school timetables, I am at slightly different points in my program with each class and while I have moved onto the research skills component of my program with two of my Stage Three classes, but will not be able to do the same with my other two Stage Three classes.

The skill of taking high-quality notes is valuable, both for students (at primary, secondary and tertiary levels) and for the everyday person, requires critical thinking, the ability to understand and summarise, and is a critically important skill for any research, whether academic or social in nature. Yet it is, inexplicably, a skill which we do not often explicitly teach to our students. I will be spending the remainder of this term and some of next term filling this gap. I will be spending time teaching students how to summarise and synthesise information into useful notes, how to organise their notes, different strategies and when they might be useful using a variety of pedagogical practices and text types.

All Stage Three teachers are conducting a unit of learning with their class around the Murray-Darling, and as a way of connecting the concepts and skills that I want their/my students to learn with what they are learning in their own classroom, I am going to utilise the Mekong River as a vehicle for learning about, practising and using the various research skills including note-taking, referencing and synthesis and understanding the various concepts including credibility, reliability and validity, which are also important skills for digital literacy.

I am utilising the Mekong River for a few reasons. There are some striking similarities between Australia’s Murray-Darling River and South-East Asia’s Mekong River. Both play or have played a significant role in local trade and lifestyle at differing points along their lengths. Both have been seen as a resource for life, for money, for travel and both river systems are paying the price. Along with that aspect, this is an opportunity to expose my students to a range of Asian cultures and perspectives, a Cross-Curriculum priority under the current National Curriculum which they otherwise would not necessarily have an opportunity experience. As part of this I will be using a range of text-types, including documentaries about various aspects of the Mekong and the cultures along its length, showing the differences and similarities between the Murray-Darling and Mekong Rivers.

Finally, it allows me to connect the skills and concepts with what students are already learning about without subjecting students to hearing the same thing multiple times, both in their teacher’s classroom and then with me, which is not fair on the students, and would create issues for me around classroom management that can be avoided by simply not making those pedagogical choices.

One of the pedagogical choices that I have made regarding this unit of learning is to utilise Twitter as a way for my students to crystallise what they are learning and understanding, by giving them the opportunity to make a Tweet via my Teaching Twitter account @MrEmsClass, and already, some students have taken the opportunity, and have been quite excited by being able, to Tweet about what they have learned, such as Tahlia:

Thank you for reading, and as always I would appreciate hearing people’s thoughts on this topic, particularly anyone who has set out to explicitly teach research skills in the classroom to Stage Three students, or to Stage Two students, whom I hope to begin the topic with in Term Four. If you are interested in what we are learning in the class, feel free to follow my teaching Twitter account, or search the hashtags #PCPS #notetaking or #researchskills

The Light Bulb Moment

“There’s nothing better when something comes and hits you and you think ‘YES’!”
– Attributed to J.K. Rowling

From time to time in life, you experience an epiphany, that moment where the light bulb suddenly turns on and you get it, whatever ‘it’ is. I had this earlier in the week midway through a lesson with around note-taking with some Stage Three students, when I noticed they were struggling with the task that I had asked them to complete. I was attempting to discern where I had let the students down; was the task too difficult, had I not explained things clearly, and I suddenly realised that I had completely failed to model the task for them.

I am not sure how it happened, but upon reflecting back over the last few days of lessons I realised that I had done this a few times and that it was becoming something of a habit. I am working on breaking that habit, and have redone that session with the classes affected, and it has gone much smoother. I am still working on getting the flow smoothed out, as I am not particularly happy with that aspect of the session, but it is a work in progress. I went through the session in question with a Stage Three class this afternoon, and I am reasonably happy with how that went. I think that I have found a balance between talking and doing, and the engagement reflected that, as did their responses at the end of the session as we reflected on the learning.

On that note, I found it interesting how excited they got when I explained that they were going to decide on the top three ideas they had learned that session and post them on my classroom Twitter account. Students discussed what they thought were the three important ideas from the session, and then I asked a student to Tweet that idea out. When the first student hit the Tweet button for the first one, the room erupted into cheers and applause. Will they remember that session? Will they remember the ideas? I hope yes to both, and I will check with them next week when I see them if they remember what we talked about.

Thank you for reading, and if you are using Twitter in the classroom, please follow me using your classroom account, and I will follow back. I would love to make some connections nationally and internationally with other classes as a vehicle for talking about global issues, digital citizenship and other topics.