Institute of Total Education
Teaching and Leading from the Heart and Soul

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The inclusive power of community

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Yesterday I attended the funeral of a young man who drowned at a surf beach two weeks ago. He had been a student at the school where I was principal for over 30 years and I had known him all his life. He was in his late 20s. He was in the prime of life, he had a beautiful fiancée with whom he was sharing his life. He had a stimulating and fulfilling career and a loving family and many friends who couldn’t believe he was no longer with them. As I sat there in the sadness, sharing the celebration of his life, speaker after speaker spoke of the importance of community.

Community and the importance of relationships was one of the key things this young man had learned from his involvement in school and the community that supported it and which physically surrounded the school property. This sense of belonging, of knowing who you neighbours were and of sharing their lives and supporting each other was something he just picked up from his family, his friends, his teachers and the whole virtuous circle of the human scale education that he had experienced.

His employer and work partner spoke with great eloquence of the gentleness of this young man, his sense of community, his respect for others and the valuing of individuals and relationships that he had picked up from the culture of his formative years, and the tremendous contribution this made to the development of this business into something more than a business. His mother, his friends and his fiancée all echoed these sentiments. I couldn’t be more proud or humbled.

 

Richard Waters 12/3/2015

What does it take to be emotionally ready to learn?

Thursday, October 31, 2013

I was interested to read recently how brain research is telling us that we need to be emotionally ready before we are able to learn. This fits with my experience over many years of trying to help students to learn new skills or knowledge.

Learning anything new requires a belief that it will be possible, before a young person can take the first step. As Professor John Hattie, from Melbourne University, said in the article I was reading, “To choose not to learn something can be seen as rationally prudent, while choosing to learn can be risky – and taking the risky choice depends on high levels of confidence.”

So students who are reluctant learners are not just being recalcitrant. This is where the intuition and experience of the teacher comes in – creating the emotional climate where the student feels confident to take that first, risky step of learning something new. This is as much about a relationship of trust as it is about knowledge.

A colleague of mine, who is a wonderful tutor, always used to say the important thing was to take students back to the point where they felt confident in their knowledge. Then you could move forward a step at a time from the known to the unknown like stepping on stones to cross a creek.

Education for a Good Life?

Thursday, October 31, 2013

I recently read an interview with social researcher, Hugh Mackay, who was reflecting on the fact that, although Australia had done relatively well weathering the Global Financial Crisis, we still felt anxious and confused. He put this down to the distraction of materialism.

He referred to the idea that we are social creatures, and that building strong communities by treating others with kindness and respect is the goal on which we should focus.

It occurred to me that the only way we can build these communities is by showing our children how. The Good Life, that we all want, is still based on treating other people they way we would like to be treated. We need to make this central to the education of our children.

For parents, it is about how we treat our partners, the people with whom we work and the people we deal with through our work. For teachers, it is about how we relate to our students, our colleagues, school leaders and parents.

Teaching children how to treat others with kindness and respect doesn’t have to be a special subject, it is built into how we interact every day and it is just as important as the academic curriculum.

As someone once said to me, “Education is about what is left after everything we have learned has been forgotten”.

Children do not learn well where there is tension

Monday, June 17, 2013

There is a myth in Australian schooling that students learn better when they are under pressure. My experience, as a teacher and school leader, is that if you can create a relaxed, friendly but respectful atmosphere in the classroom, children will learn more easily.

Research on brain functioning indicates that, as we learn, we make connections between the synapses of the brain and that this occurs best in situations of low stress. Undue pressure causes the brain to freeze up and this makes it harder to absorb information or make new connections.

In Grade 4, we had Mr Woodberry. He was a tall, lanky type who was warm and friendly. He was consistent and very seldom raised his voice although he did wield the strap in those days of corporal punishment. Everyone learned and progressed.

Miss Styles, in Grade 6, however, created an atmosphere of fear and trepidation. She would shout and lose her patience frequently. As a result, the students would freeze up, particularly those having difficulty, and many students slipped back in their grades in the space of a year.

Tension doesn’t just come from teachers, it permeates a school created by the school leadership, pressure from government and expectations of the local community. We should be creating schools where the atmosphere allows the students to learn and to optimise their achievement.

Why the Teacher-Student Relationship is central

Monday, June 17, 2013

It was good to see the Premier focus on Teacher Quality in his recent press release on “Great Teachers = Great Results”. However, Great Teachers are not just those with the best academic qualifications because the most effective teachers are those that build positive relationships with their students.

Children need to feel that they are cared for and are not just physically safe at school but feel emotionally secure and this comes more than anything else from the kind of person their teacher is. A teacher’s character, perhaps an old-fashioned word, is as important as well as their intellect and their instructional skills. A teacher is more a mentor than a manager and they need to be able to establish an atmosphere in their classroom where children feel they belong and are valued.

What works towards the brain opening up and establishing neural pathways is as much emotional security as intellectual stimulus. What shuts down children’s thinking is fear and insecurity and feeling like they are not cared for.

We need to be concerned about children’s learning but an over-emphasis on results is a bit like all the hype and expectation placed on our athletes at the London Olympics, it can be counter productive. Raising the pressure and the stakes doesn’t always translate in to better performance.

Let us look to Asia but not to copy the Chinese system

Monday, November 12, 2012

One of my strongest memories of my HSC external exam experience in Victoria was that the first rule of exams was don’t copy your neighbor’s work. So while admiring China’s success in becoming a leader in educational test scores, it doesn’t mean we should blindly copy the essentials of their education system. That’s because it is not what Australia or our children need.

Notwithstanding the Australian Government’s White paper on ‘Australia in the Asian Century’, we should be circumspect about adopting the key elements of the Chinese education system. Engaging with Asia should be about sharing our strengths in education and other areas. It should be about being open to learning about different systems and values from our own. It should be about being open to opportunities for Australia to share its understandings and creativity with others.

Some of the key elements of the Chinese system as recently reported include: a culture of success, hard work, long hours and rigorous regional and national testing (twice a year). To achieve this, teachers are penalized and demoted if their student test scores are not ‘good’. This approach fits within the current Global Education Reform Movement (or GERM) which has been criticized for narrowing the curriculum, being too test focused and punishing rather than trusting and supporting teachers as professionals.

The current century is also the conceptual age and one requiring as one author has put it “a whole new mind” driven by creativity, intrinsic motivation, co-operation, community and open-ended thinking. This kind of thinking will not be achieved by regimentation, over-testing, punishment, standardization and narrow casting the curriculum. So let’s avoid uncritically copying our neighbors, but really engage with the countries of Asia and see what we can learn and what we can share.

Intrinsic Motivation is more Sustainable than Extrinsic Motivation

Friday, June 08, 2012

It is the time of year, coming up to end of semester assessments, when motivation can be an issue for senior students. Parents worry, teachers are concerned and students sometimes struggle to put the energy in where it's really needed, in finalizing assignments and preparing for exams.

Really the only person who can motivate the student is himself or herself. Our society is pretty good at providing external motivation such as competition and awards, on the positive side, or fear of failure, threats or anxiety on the negative side. These motivations are outside the person and, although they may work in the short term, they are not a great preparation for the future because they leave the individual dependent on others for their motivation.

The best kind of motivation is that which comes from within. Intrinsic motivation is something under the control of the individual and is more sustainable because of that. If a student can't find a reason within themselves to study, all the pushing and shoving from outside is probably not going to help.

Intrinsic motivation can include factors like enjoyment or finding an interest in the topics being studied. Sometimes you have to get into a topic before it becomes interesting. Finding a sense of challenge with individual tests and assignments is another way, “What could I achieve if I really put my mind into this?”

For parents, the best kind of support they can offer are creature comforts, such as good meals, a quiet place to study and reduced distractions. The other kind of support is inspiration, where a parent can act more like a coach in football team who demonstrates their belief in the ability of the person who is tackling a challenging situation by letting them get on with the job themselves.

Is Education Reform Just About Money?

Monday, April 16, 2012

“Wealth the key to school success!” the headline shouted in a major education story this week. The story showed that the top performing schools in the national literacy and numeracy (NAPLAN) tests were from the country's wealthiest areas. On the one hand, it is surely no surprise that areas of socioeconomic advantage also have educational advantage. On the other hand, if this evidence is used to make the case to throw more money at low achieving schools in low SES areas it won't necessarily solve the problem.

Even within our own area there are significant differences in NAPLAN performances and in the socioeconomic background of parents in the different schools. I did a quick search of the new ‘Your School’ website on Warwick’s postcode of 4370 and it instantly gave me a list of Warwick schools to compare.

However, even though the concern is apparently about wealth inequalities, the measure used to indicate social inequality, the Index of Community Socio-Educational Advantage (ICSEA) does not include a measure of parent income.

So there are schools with lesser or greater disadvantage in their students’ backgrounds, but what is the best way to address this? Can you really expect schools to reverse all the effects of social disadvantage?

Where governments can make a difference in school performance is to continually work towards enhancing the quality of teachers and placing good teachers in low SES areas. Teachers, at a minimum, need greater emphasis on literacy and numeracy in the pre-service courses. However, teachers also need better training in how to really inspire young people through the impact of their own character and teachers also need input on how to reach out to and engage with parents so they can support their children's learning and growth. Neither of these important aspects are significant parts of current teacher training courses.

Getting the Balance Right between Academic and Character Development

Friday, March 30, 2012

I was talking to some friends recently who had returned from a couple of years working in New York and they were saying that the pressure on kids in schools there is incredible.

The New York system, set up by lawyer Joel L. Klein, so impressed our Prime Minister that she modelled much of Australia’s current education policy on it. This includes the high stakes NAPLAN testing and the publication of schools results on the My School website.

Because of Queensland’s relatively poor performance on the NAPLAN test, there has been a lot of pressure on teachers. In some schools, certain students are asked to stay home on test day so as not to drag the results down.

The Prime Minister is also concerned about our apparent slip in performance from 4th to 7th place in relation to other OECD countries, especially since some of our Asian trading partners have passed us.

Ironically, Pasi Sahlberg, Director of Education in Finland, which has been at the top of the OECD rankings for many years, is critical of the way Australia uses its NAPLAN tests and My School Website. Speaking on the 7.30 Report on ABC TV last week he commented:

“Anywhere these types of things had been put in place, teachers started to focus more on teaching to the test and curriculum has narrowed…”

Sahlberg said, “We believe that co-operation and networking and sharing are the things and important things to make sure everybody will improve…”

It is important to get the balance right between helping children achieve good literacy and numeracy standards and putting too much pressure on them.

Education is about producing good citizens and helping children gain confidence in their ability to learn. Is high stakes testing really the way to achieve these outcomes?

[A video and transcript of the interview with Pasi Sahlberg can be found on the ABC Lateline website.]

R-E-S-P-E-C-T is the essential quality in teacher-student relationships

Friday, March 30, 2012

At a seminar last week I asked a group of teachers about the qualities of the teachers who inspired them when they were at school. Much of what they said involved respect.

Mutual respect is a central part of any good relationship but it is a key to learning. For real learning to occur there has to be a feeling that each of the parties brings a sense of respect to the relationship. The teachers I talked to said that really good teachers showed respect to their students and made them feel they were worthwhile.

Of course respect needs to be reciprocated from the student to the teacher. However, respect is something you earn rather than something you are given automatically. For teachers this works on a number of levels. Learners respect teachers who have a knowledge of their subject and especially if they are obviously fascinated in what they are teaching.

Children also recognise people with character and they respect that in teachers. Qualities like patience, consistency and responsibility are core elements in a good teacher’s character. In their own way, children actually make choices about who they will attend to and who they will ignore and this is largely based on respect.

Unfortunately, respect for teachers is not as high as it could be in the community. The shift of the direction and control of education towards government and politicians and away from educators may have something to do with this. Teaching is an art and the people who know most about it are the professionals, the ones who spend each day in classrooms with young learners. They know what they are talking about.

Parents also have a role to play in modelling respect for teachers and people with knowledge and wisdom in the community. If parents do not indicate through their actions and comments that teachers are worthy of respect why would their children be any different?

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