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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”.

Parents value more than test scores

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Ben Jensen, Director of the Grattan Institute, reported last week that his research had shown that the publication of NAPLAN results on the Commonwealth’s My School Website had not led to parents changing schools for their kids or increased competition between schools. So what has all the fuss been about? Why is so much of taxpayer’s money being wasted on these projects of dubious educational value?

This is a damning admission for the great “Testing, Scoring and Comparing” regime established by governments around the world in the last few years. Teachers and other educators have been arguing that this approach is not what was going to improve education and they have been proved right.

Jensen’s research also showed that parents valued a lot more about their schools than the outcomes of narrow cast tests like NAPLAN. They value things like “school culture and discipline, religious affiliation, reputation, the state of buildings and school grounds, and visible classroom characteristics such as class size” (Grattan Institute Report).

So apparently competition is not that relevant a value in education. In that case, let’s do away with the paraphernalia of competition between schools, and focus on co-operation and collaboration between and within schools and concentrate on providing the best education we can for the children and the communities we serve.

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.

Parents need to make a conscious choice about their children's education

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

I was thinking the other day, I wonder how many parents actually make a conscious choice in the schooling of their children. It is one of the most important decisions we can make, given the impact education can have on our children’s future.

It is easy just to do what the neighbours are doing or say, “Well this was good enough for me, why not for my children?”  The question to be asking is, “What kind of education does my child need in the world that they are living in now?” And more importantly, “What kind of education does my child need for the world they will be living in when they become young adults?”

The world of the future will require creativity, adaptability, flexible thinking, self-confidence, the ability to collaborate, a capacity for empathy and a strong sense of values. As society changes and the economy morphs into a knowledge economy and the rest of the world increasingly interacts with our society, these qualities will allow the young adults of the future to adapt, to make a living, to build positive relationships and also to contribute in a positive way to their community.

Is the education you have chosen for your child going to give him or her the knowledge and experience to make their way in this world? Will your child look back on the choice you made for their education and say, “Thank You”?

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.

Should we be focussing less on competitive sport and more on health?

Thursday, August 02, 2012

With the Olympics in full swing and our attention riveted on our elite athletes in London, it was disturbing to hear former marathon runner Rob de Castella on the ABC radio recently talking about how unfit Australian kids are becoming. He was talking about the unprecedented obesity rates and how some kids don’t know how to run, jump or even skip!

A lot of it is put down to children becoming fast food consuming, computer addicted, couch potatoes. However, maybe we should also be looking at our fairly narrow view of health being driven by the myth of Australia as a nation of sporting legends.

In schools, the focus is often on periodic carnivals in athletics and swimming and the emphasis on being the best, fastest, strongest and the way the winners are applauded, lauded and awarded. It is no wonder, a lot of kids conclude that sport is not for them and even the winners leave school never to pick up a racquet or a bat again.

Maybe it is time for a focus on health rather than sport. It should be about physical education classes where all students and teachers spend 15-30 minutes every day in enjoyable physical activity accessible by everyone.

Health is also about a nutritional diet and learning about how to make tasty meals that are good for you rather than having to buy it ready-made. It is about learning how to refresh your mind with quietness and how to de-stress with recreation in the fresh air away from computer games and Google and Facebook and videos.

If schools could focus more on health and less on competitive sport we might just be able to win the battle for our children’s physical well being

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