I was watching Simon Birmingham – the Minister for Education – on the news the other morning. He was talking about a whole whack of new Gonski review findings, and how the government will be supporting those findings, albeit with their own governmental twist in implementation. As I listened to what Simon was saying, I couldn’t help but get increasingly frustrated. Support of those findings it seems, comes with a whole whack of caveats, in typical political style.
Not wanting to ditch their ‘sunk costs’ of implementing decades upon decades of misaligned education policy, the government isn’t looking to make wholesale changes in a big way, all at once. Instead, things will change at the pace the government sets. At this point, my eyes rolled. Increasingly, it seems as if the government doesn’t actually support the findings and the required changes. More so, it appears as if someone smarter than them has said something in a public arena that they are having trouble refuting, so they are going to go along with it – just in their own way.
“A long way away from not having NAPLAN” was a cracker of a quote. He argued that the need was still there to compare students and schools against each other. Funnily, this is one of the things the report mentioned explicitly as an issue. I have written about NAPLAN before, and you can have a read of that here (Evoke Dialogue).
One thing he did highlight in the statement though was the fact that many intelligent students are coasting through school, that aren’t being extended to the best of their ability. I couldn’t agree more with this point. All too often, the smartest kids are not provided the best opportunities for them, and are instead asked to meet the curriculum – and that is it. Bored, unmotivated, disengaged students are then seeking engagement elsewhere. This is the point that some even turn to other sources of engagement: drugs, truancy, and more. So many stories of smart kids falling out of the system often stem from disengagement.
The reverse is also true: students who struggle or languish in the bottom-end of the curve are left behind. The curriculum moves on regardless, and students are sometimes left being unable to read or count, in extreme examples. If only teachers had more time to spend with students of all kinds…
Time for time
Funnily enough, if you ask the teachers, they know exactly what they would need to fill these gaps. It begins with “more time”. Time for personal development for the teachers, to get their heads around new and innovative methods of teaching, to study subjects themselves, and even to simply de-stress from engaging so many minds all day, every day. Also, time for more one-on-one engagement with their students. This seems achievable if class sizes would shrink – in Victoria the average class size in primary schools is 23.4 students (as of 2017). Lowering the number by providing more resources (money, tools, and time) would certainly help to push that number down, student engagement up, and bridge the gap between those who are engaged appropriately, and those who aren’t.
Further to this, year-level progression focus becomes not as important. Categorising children at a particular level when they are being worked with in a more one-to-one centric environment, engaged appropriately on their terms means that categorisation of year 8, 10, or so forth becomes arbitrary.
On of the things that appears quite concerning though is this whole ‘app’ thing. “We’re building an app!” to provide real-time data about students and progression. Ugh.
Apps are not the answer here. Sure; great tools can certainly assist in making life easier in a particular task. That being said, the way they announced this thing was as some form of “turning everything digital simply for the sake of it” exercise. How do they even know that an app is what they need? Wha tests have they performed in this new way of working to know that this tool is going to be the best solution?
Before jumping into building apps, maybe they should work out what they are trying to achieve, and why. And then test, and learn from those tests. Then make some changes, and test again. Once they know what the work actually looks like in this new education revolution, they might be in a position to automate some of the work electronically… but not before!
To pay, or not to pay
Merit-based pay is an interesting concept… and an absolutely terrible idea. We already know that incentives do not work, and distract from the goal. Measures and targets, especially financial ones are detrimental to organisations and customers alike. If you’ve not seen it before, there is a wonderful study that was conducted by a number of universities about what actually motivates us (YouTube). It also tells us the answer here as an alternative to merit-based pay: pay people enough money so that it takes the question of money off the table. No one, in any job anywhere, wants to have to stress over paying their way through their lives, or worry about security in their jobs. And it’s pretty simple to do something about that… pay them enough so that they are free to focus on fundamental purpose – in this case, the education of our children.
I did hear a very interesting thing from a teacher representing the Australian Education Union, the AEU. The represented the point of view that teachers needed to be at the centre of the system. This immediately lead me to ask “What about the students?” Why is it that teachers feel they might need to be at the centre of the system, as opposed to servicing their fundamental purpose in the first place – educating our children…? I know that teachers are best placed to provide everything that a student needs in order to help them achieve a level of desired education. That being said, the system needs to revolve around the needs of the students, with no ifs, ands, or buts. That system should also be ensuring that teachers have absolutely everything they need in order to perform at their best to achieve the ultimate purpose of education of those students.
Of course, this leads us back to schools needing more resources; something that was specifically identified by the review. Time, tools, and money are all things that all schools need in varying degrees. Possibly less money to cashed-up private schools, and more money to poorer and lower socio-economic schools – and these are all swings and roundabouts. The fact right now is that teachers are underrated in what they do with what they are given. This needs to be recognised at all levels, and acted upon. Any good leader will act on their system to make sure they are getting the problems out of the way of achieving purpose. It’s time the leaders recognised this and started enabling and empowering our teachers in a way which removes the need to micromanage finances, time, and tools. More is more.
Forget the gap
How do you define achievement? One might say that once a goal has been reached, or a target met, that you have achieved ‘something’. However; for us thinkers, we know that the journey is the destination. All of us are educated in some way, formal or otherwise, to a particular extent. None of it is the same. That uniqueness, and individual perspective on all of the experiences any of us have been through will be slightly different.
I would argue that becoming the individual that any student will become is the ultimate achievement. Not particular test scores, and not getting to a particular level of status, defined by a piece of paper, ranked by others. Everyone has a place, and every place is in itself different and unique. Trying to build systems that churn out robot-children that all rank the same is the problem. Fine-tuning it, working on bridging the gaps, providing more rules and regulations to control how and what is taught – and learned – is what has always been done. The system is broken because we have lost sight of the purpose of education.
It’s no more evident than Year 11 and 12 studies, which most definitely need a revamp. Universities have already begun to reduce the focus on the ATAR score, and have begun looking at other things like extra-curricular activities and community contributions in addition to skill and score. What makes this student valuable is slowly becoming less number-driven, targeted, and traditionally measurable, and is becoming more conversation-driven.
Who are these students now, and how would they like to grow, and what to become? It’s a wonderful few questions to ask, that should be asked more often.