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.

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”?

Are we graduating students who can be contributors to society?

Friday, November 23, 2012

It is that time of the year when our schools say good bye to their Year 12 graduates and it always gets me thinking about the purpose of education.

Some schools call it Speech Night or Awards Night and it often has a focus on the winners of prizes for academic, sporting and artistic achievements. However, it is not just the winners who have completed their schooling and while it is great to recognize talent and hard work it is also worth pondering about the kind of people we are putting out into the community.

Hopefully, if we have done our job properly, we as educators are graduating people who can contribute something to society, who have a level of maturity about them and who are basically good citizens. This does not just mean people who can get a job and vote every three years. A good citizen is one who can build relationships with others in the work place, in the families which they will be creating and with the people they meet in their everyday lives.

This doesn’t just happen. Good citizens are nurtured by their families and it is on this foundation that schools can build. Schools need to make creating good citizens one of their key goals as it is indeed one of our National Goals of Schooling. Schools need to have programs that help develop awareness in students that they are not just pursuing their individual goals but that they are also part of a society that needs their positive input. This could also be described as empathy and the ability to connect with others.

So let’s celebrate with the Year 12 students the end of their schooling but let us also reflect how we can ensure that we are handing over to society young people who can be contributors as well as consumers.

How do we get our best to want to be teachers?

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

There was more news coverage recently about the problem of how to attract the brightest and best into the teaching profession. It is an important issue because the main driver of school improvement is the quality of teaching.

One of the main suggestions is to have a higher minimum standard for entry into university courses in education. Currently, the entry OP score for teaching courses can be below OP 15 because it is based on the number of places available versus the number of students applying for entry. A quick look at the QTAC website for last year’s cut-offs for education courses will confirm this. It doesn’t mean just because you haven’t done brilliantly in Year 12 that you won’t make a good teacher but it is a concern.

Another idea is to have face to face interviews as part of the selection process to assess candidates suitability for the challenging nature of the classroom where an ability to relate to young people really is a prerequisite for surviving and thriving as teacher. It could be like the auditions used for entry into music and drama courses. This would be labor-intensive and there are all kinds of ethical hurdles about how to rank candidates, but the idea has merit.

The main issue though is our community’s attitudes towards the teaching profession. In Finland, teaching is ranked with law and medicine as an important and vital occupation that deserves high status and respect, so high achieving and talented young people see it as worthy of their aspiration. We are some distance from this situation in Australia. Teachers hold the future of our country in their hands and most teachers are dedicated and work very hard in school and after hours to see that their students achieve their potential. That is surely worthy of respect.

Are Schools the new centres of community?

Friday, October 19, 2012

This week I spoke to Rob Mohloek, the Assistant Minister of Child Protection, at Parliament House about his concerns related the huge numbers of children coming to the notice of the Child Protection authorities; one in four Queensland children over the course of their young lives.

One of his main interests is the need for a more comprehensive approach in the social emotional education of children and the development of their awareness and skills in these areas. There are good programs in some schools and the Queensland Government’s Student Well Being Framework is a good step in the right direction but schools are being left to select and implement their own programs. What’s needed is a comprehensive and integrated program that equips all children and especially those at risk with awareness and skills that give them greater resilience to manage life’s most important challenges.

The other area of need is parent education and the Minister was very interested to hear about the comprehensive approach to this at The School of Total Education in Warwick. There parents are supported in their parenting by attending regular discussion groups and have timely input from experts and guest speakers. There is further individual support through the Centre for Healthy Living.

Many years ago it was the church which provided the most important moral guidance and focus of community life but now only 4% of the population are regular church attenders. By default, Schools have become the centers of community life, and for some children school is the only place they really feel safe. Schools are yet to realize the reality of this profound cultural transformation and the responsibilities that come with it. Neither has government.

It was refreshing to meet such a sincere person as the Assistant Minister with a real concern about the young people in our community who are so important to all our futures.

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.]

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