Whose interests are being served?

I was inspired yesterday to write my first blog for 2016 after I had listened to the Radio NZ interview with Gregor Fountain and Stuart Middleton

I have found that I have not only been reflecting on this interview but also on many inspiring educationalists whom I had the pleasure of engaging with in 2015.  And so as my thinking developed and I attempted to pull together the many threads I kept coming back to a powerful phrase that really resonated for me in 2015.  I heard this at a CORE Education Breakfast and Workshop with the wonderful Karen Spencer.

Whose interests are being served?

The interview began with Noelle McCarthy asking if Education has achieved the system shift that Hekia Parata called for in March 2013.  Gregor Fountain suggested that because fundamental issues have not been addressed, it has made it difficult for system change.  Throughout the interview some of the issues were identified as being:

  • An education system not meeting the needs of Māori, Pasifika, boys, special needs
  • Student disengagement
  • How to build collaboration between schools in a competitive environment?
  • Preparing High Schools for the generations of ‘Digital natives’
  • Use of technology as an effective teaching and learning tool
  • Access to technology
  • Richer schools being full, poorer schools empty, often side by side; government committed to parent choice; lack of understanding of decile system

NZ may have an excellent education system for some, but all have the right to an equitable education, and as Michael Fullan identifies there is a moral imperative to serve every student.  “We’ve got to do what’s in the best interests of young people, and at the moment we are not  for perhaps 40% of the New Zealand young people we are not acting in the best interests” said Stuart Middleton.  The transformation of our Education system, especially in our Secondary Schools where it appears to have become ‘stuck’, needs to start again with what our young people need.  What do we need to do in Education to ensure that good learning is taking place?  What does good learning look like?  What is holding us back?  It constantly amazes me that we encourage our learners to be critical thinkers, to challenge assumptions, to question, and yet we so often will readily accept and maintain the status quo.  This morning as I was still contemplating the interview and how I was going to write my thoughts down I came across this tweets from #edshift2016:

Big Q
isolation

uncomfortable

student panel

gasoline

permission

This concept of ‘permission’ is an interesting one.  Recently my motto has been to ask for forgiveness rather than seek permission.  That may sound irresponsible and perhaps unprofessional even, however I have felt secure in knowing that at the heart of everything I was doing I had the interests of my learners, and my team, at the core of my decision making.  I also believe that in New Zealand we have an awesome curriculum that does indeed give us permission!  The vision, values, and principles, the effective pedagogies, the rich learning areas – all build a framework that empowers our schools.  And we now also have an ERO report challenging schools to review their practices and look for solutions within school communities.

Excerpt from ERO 2015 Well-being Report:

Secondary students would benefit from their school leaders and teachers:

  • involving students in reviewing and making decisions about the quality of their school experiences
  • reviewing their curriculum using The New Zealand Curriculum, in particular the key competencies and the health and physical education learning area, and senior secondary guidelines
  • reviewing their NCEA assessment programme
  • connecting learning areas with sport, culture and leadership opportunities
  • deliberately mapping and reviewing the opportunities for students to explore wellbeing issues, and develop and use key competencies and leadership skills
  • engaging parents, family and whānau in decisions that affect the wellbeing of their young people
  • finding solutions within the school community
  • reviewing the effectiveness of actions by looking for patterns and trends.

It did not take long before the interview began to explore the importance of relationships in exploration.  I am a part of Gregor Fountain’s school community, my son has just completed Year 9 at Paraparaumu College, and so I know that when Gregor talks about a commitment to investing in relationships, he ‘walks the talk’.  “Building up those genuine relationships and showing that you are a school about those, can be very powerful within a community” said Gregor Fountain.  One of the ways that Gregor achieves this is by meeting with all year 8 students and their families.  It is also evident through his strong relationships with contributing primary schools and the wider community.  Gregor challenges schools to consider how they could better utilise their resources and explore “Ways that our families could see schools as a place for all of them not just for their kids” by opening up facilities beyond ‘school hours’ and to the wider community.  Tamaki College and the Manaiakalani Trust have been an excellent example of this.  Throughout their digital journey they have worked with whānau to strengthen student learning; part of this has been providing parent training in the use of digital devices and tools.

Gregor identifies a need to focus on relationships of care and connectedness; for teachers to focus on making genuine connections with students.  Paraparaumu College is a part of the Kia Eke Panuku Initiative, which has a strong focus on shifting teacher practice around engaging Māori students in particular, again with a focus on the relationship that exists between students and teachers.  “If we can get teachers to be less didactic and if we can have students make more decisions about their own learning… these things can have a big impact on student achievement” said Gregor Fountain.  Later in the interview when talking about improving boys engagement and achievement he said,  “It is about relationship… most of all having a teacher that genuinely believes in them and will work with them, and be interested in what they’re doing and will make those connections with them.”  

I believe it is then about making connections to the learning.  How many teachers complete a ‘Know your Learner’ survey at the start of the year, file it away, and then congratulate themselves on having some knowledge of the  learners in front of them?  Teachers need to be very deliberate in their actions if they are going to form genuine connections with their learners, and then also consider how those connections can enhance the teaching and learning programme.  How can they promote learner agency and provide opportunities for what, how and when individuals learn?

I came across this gem of a blog by Amy McCauley and my wish was for all teachers to embrace this teaching practice at the start of the 2016 teaching year.  Sadly, from experience, I know that it will not be the case in many Secondary School classes as teachers rush head long into delivering predetermined content, in predetermined contexts without even knowing who is in front of them.  All this with an assumption that our learners know our expectations of them, and have the tools that they need to be good learners.

 

Amy – “Thinking about the start of the year, I’m not thinking about what “topics” we will delve into – that can take a seat for now. Relationships are at the forefront of my mind. How can we build, grow and nurture trusting relationships in our learning common to really get the year off to a successful start? Our “planning” will not be made of long-term plans with activities thought of weeks in advance. We need to work on getting to know each other & begin building trust, respect and boundaries. Boundaries around what everyone needs to be successful in a collaborative space. Boundaries around expectations – what do we expect from our learners, what do our learners expect from us (their learning advisors) and what do they expect and need from each other? “

I have recently written about my and my colleagues own experiences of the power of strong learning relationships, and knowing our learners, and also in giving them choice about context, in improving engagement and achievement (Improving engagement and achievement for Year 11 Māori and Pasifika students – Set: Research Information for Teachers).  We began our inquiry believing that the context was going to be the most significant factor in improving engagement and achievement; and while this was a factor, the student voice soon started to tell us that it was the elements of care and connectedness in the learning environment that really supported good learning to take place.  Strong partnerships between teachers, learners and whānau were also a contributing factor.

During the interview the question was asked “How do we build collaboration between schools in a competitive environment?”  Stuart suggested that “Competition is what schools do to themselves.  If we want to be collaborative we will collaborate.”  And certainly there are examples of clusters of schools throughout NZ who do collaborate, and the government introduction of Community of Schools is another example of collaboration in Education.  There was quite a bit of discussion around this issue, but it got me to thinking about the collaboration versus competition within schools and in particular Secondary Schools with regard to Learning Areas.  Transformation of our system and provision of authentic and meaningful learning opportunities, I believe will only occur when we no longer insist on operating in these subject silos.  When we can understand that ICT, literacy, and numeracy do not operate in isolation in the real world and therefore neither should they in students learning of these skills. The NZC says “All learning should make use of the natural connections that exist between learning areas and that link learning areas to the values and key competencies”. In my experience learning in one curriculum area is strengthened when it is integrated with learning in another curriculum area.  Our learners need to be given the opportunity to nurture and develop skills in areas that they are passionate about, and provide evidence of their learning in a variety of ways.

Another discussion point in the interview was that of measuring a ‘good school’.  Stuart suggested that we measure schools on positive outcomes – positive outcomes in terms of where students go next.  For some this will be tertiary education, but not all.  Gregor spoke about how NCEA league tables tend to dominate these discussions, certainly in the media.  While not dismissing academic success, he suggested that a richer indicator would be to gather stories of students who have left and where they are in 2-3 yrs time  – are they good parents, have they made good connections in their community, are they contributing to society and the economy?  

I believe that schools need to commit equally to delivering a dispositional curriculum as they do an academic curriculum – this means making the ‘front end’ of the NZC explicit in our teaching and learning programmes.  Derek McCormack wrote in the NZ Herald “In some cases, an academically excellent student will be passed over if an employer thinks they don’t have the “C-skills” – communication, creativity, curiosity, collaboration, co-operation and caring within a sense of community.”  This reinforces the need to provide students with opportunities to develop these skills and dispositions.

Towards the end of the interview Noelle inquired about the ‘future generations of digital natives’ and the readiness of our Education system.  Given that we keep talking about the 21st Century as if it hasn’t arrived yet, our Education system is far from ready!  And in fact we are not talking about ‘future generations of digital natives’ as Noelle would suggest, but our 2016 Year 9 cohort – these 12-13 year olds are our first truly digital natives to hit our secondary schools and we need to catch up and keep up.

If we are going to achieve this system shift, this transformation in education, we need to allow all members of our communities to be a part of the journey.  The conversations need to be inclusive of teachers and learners, and administrators, and parents and whānau, to build a culture of trust, to understand WHY? to ensure that at all times we are asking ‘Whose interests are being served?’

 

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