Part One: introducing the Australian Curriculum, and associated problems
Over the next few months I plan to write a series of articles pointing out some of them endemic problems in Australia’s schools, and hopefully some ideas to rectify, or at least manage these. My intention is not to come across as pining for the ‘good old days’, but rather to assist in the conversation to open ideas which could perhaps lead to a change of policy on national, state, institutional and local levels.
One of the great disappointments in the last couple of years has been the roll-out of the Australian Curriculum. This could have been a greatly unifying force for schools and communities, but squabbling at the level of state governments and some frankly bizarre interpretations of its intent at local level have left teachers scratching their heads. Add to that puzzlingly different commitment to its implementation by various jurisdictions, and one can only wonder how seriously anyone is, apart from the Federal government, about making this work. And there are problems in the curriculum, too, some of which are simply too big to be fixed.
‘State of Origin’ education has long been a issue between various state education departments in Australia. For example, neither New South Wales nor Queensland could be seen to adopt policies and practices that the other had implemented, even if they were successful. In an extraordinary admission that other states might have an answer, and breaking with this tradition, the Queensland government made two decisions during Premier Bligh’s term in office (2007-2012). First was the decision to introduce a 13th year to Queensland schooling, thus aligning with the other states and territories. The second decision was to move Yr 7 from primary to secondary school (an action WA is also taking) to better align grade levels with the Australian Curriculum. The introduction of a 13th year was a no-brainer (the Qld government had abolished Prep in 1953, apparently as a cost-saving practice). Its placement before Yr 1 was curious, however, as Qld already had 7 primary years. Some years later (2010) came the announcement that Yr 7 would move to secondary school. This caused quite some angst in the community, and many school have been left wondering how they might accommodate all these extra students. Other schools are concerned about staffing levels, support and their ability to provide certain ‘extras’ when they lose their Yr 7 cohort. If the government had provided a ‘big picture’ plan of what was coming, many problems might have been avoided, as everybody would understand better what was happening and why it was going to happen. Unfortunately, governments rarely seem to work that way.
It is incorrect to think that State of Origin education has disappeared. The name chosen for “the year before Year One” (don’t you love that?) in the Australian Curriculum is ‘Foundation’. Why choose that when no Australian jurisdiction was using it? Somewhere around the end of 2010, the name for this year changed from ‘K’ (as in K-10) to ‘Foundation’, apparently because no state was prepared to change their name for the year before Year 1.
Support for the implementation of the curriculum components has been haphazard at best. In some jurisdictions (Catholic Education Office Toowoomba is a good example) education officers were appointed to assist teachers in exploring the first published sections of the new curriculum, conducting audits of their current content, and preparing units of work using the Australian curriculum. Other jurisdictions provided no departmental or regional support at all, leaving it up to Principals to ensure their staff was compliant with governmental expectations. Now a couple of years into implementation, it seems a hierarchy of learning areas is apparent. Less support (of course if there was no support to begin with it’s difficult to have less without being actually obstructionist) is forthcoming for Geography, and teachers expect less again for the Arts and Languages as those curricula become available. I would ask all departments, jurisdictions and institutions, “Why is there so little support?” Assuming the government’s intention is for the Australian curriculum to work, teachers need to be supported in implementing it well. Despite what some outside of schools might think, teachers spend countless hours on preparation – they are professional people who want to do the best they can for their students. A new curriculum is a big deal. It’s not just a case of reading from a new book.
Many primary schools use composite or mixed age classes. There are a number of reasons for doing this, but the most common is that the number of students enrolled doesn’t make for a full class in a particular cohort. For instance, a small school might be allocated 5 teachers according to the enrolment. Obviously, there can’t be a single class for each grade level, so some mixing of classes will occur. (Separate to that is the argument that sorting children by age group might not be the best way to organise a school anyway, when one keeps in mind that all children are different and develop at different rates.) But teachers are now being told that even in mixed age classes, separate courses of study must be taught to the children. That means in a composite Yr 4/5 class, the teacher is required to plan, deliver and assess two entirely different courses of study for the students. Guess what is expected in a small rural school with Yrs 3 to 6 all in one class?
There’s almost a fundamentalist fervour about this. One would think the sky might fall down if the teacher prepared just the one science unit for all the children in a mixed age class. This insistence on discrete learning programs in mixed age groups is unsustainable, and will result in hastened teacher burnout. It simply doesn’t make sense unless (1) you are not the teacher, or (2) you are a stickler for rules and regulations and refuse to see or even explore a compromise.
Similarly, primary teachers have planned integrated units of work for many years. These allow classes to become truly immersed in the work they are doing. The mathematics class ties in with what is happening in science, and in English students read material and prepare reports. The whole thing works together, and students can see that their learning is broad. Unfortunately, the curriculum fundamentalists insist that each subject is taught separately, and with clearly defined hours per week which must be met. The result is a bunch of disassociated lessons; confusing and ultimately unsatisfying for everyone.
Classroom teachers, you see, no matter how enthusiastic or brilliant they are, are at the beck and call of politicians and bureaucrats. As the late Rita Pierson said in her TED talk in May this year, “We listen to policy that doesn’t make sense, and we teach anyway, because that’s what we do.”
Some years ago when my wife and I were moving through the process of getting a diagnosis of our son’s condition, we were told by one paediatrician, “His behaviour could well be considered normal in another society.” I was so taken aback at the time that I didn’t give the obvious response, “Yes, but he has to manage in this one.”
Recently I have been thinking about the behaviour we expect of the students in our care. We teach them to behave appropriately for the situations they find themselves in. Or are we simply demanding compliance and conformity?
From a teacher’s point of view, it would always be much easier if all children were “well behaved”, and we have all wished at some time that the whole class would be as good as one particular child. Clearly, that’s wanting conformity. We would work towards all children behaving the same way, so as to make our own life a little easier. As teachers, we can justify that by saying that we would get through so much more of the curriculum if everyone behaved well, and were predictable.
How boring would life be? By saying that I’m not wishing severe disruptive behaviours on any teacher or class; but everyone the same? How could one’s students learn from one another?
In my role as Deputy Principal, I have over the past couple of years had a bit to do with N and his mother. When he first came here two years ago as a 5-year-old in Prep he displayed an explosive temper which he took out on other children and sometimes his teacher. In turn, she learned to read N well, and I would be contacted before a situation arose to take N for a walk and a chat. Believe me, we walked for kilometres that year, and had odd conversations where I was doing my pseudo-psychologist thing, and N would be asking all manner of questions: “Why are those kids there? He kicked that ball hard, hey? What are they doing? That smells good, hey?” and on and on it would go.
Late that year, after lengthy discussion and heartache by his parents, N was medicated. Miracle result? Of course not. Still a problem sometimes, but not so extreme, and not so often.
So, has N learned to socialise better, or have we achieved medicated acquiescence?
Ultimately, I think it’s probably a bit of both, and that the medication has allowed him to socialise better. He certainly gets into trouble less frequently, and when he does, it’s not as serious as previously. One problem N has now, though, is that his new teacher (he had the same teacher in prep and Yr 1 – at her request) doesn’t understand where he has come from. Her expectations probably need to be modified a little, to let him learn to behave, rather than demanding perfection from him.
It’s probably a truism, and something of kick in the pants for schools, that those children who succeed best in a school are those who learn quickly to be compliant. Most schools are not happy places for those who walk to a different beat. And that’s something we have to get better at accommodating.
Many teachers use brainstorming to kick off a new unit. I know it’s also used by groups of students to make group work more effective, and sometimes staff meetings employ the technique. OptiMinds and Tournament of Minds competitions require students to be good brainstormers when they take part in their spontaneous challenges. So here’s an excellent video showing how to do it properly.
As part of my school’s move to 1-to-1 computing, we polled the students from Yr 6 to Yr 12 about their technology use at home and at school.
The final question asked them to suggest other aspects of technology which could be of use to them. The Wordle here is a summary of their answers. No surprises in guessing the most popular response!
The current IWB newsletter alerted me to PhotoPeach, an online slideshow creator.
From entering the site to creating and viewing my first slideshow took all of maybe 5 minutes. This was extremely simple and intuitive. I can see real classroom application for PhotoPeach.
Now, I know that this type of slideshow is linear, and may not be the most creative way to display information, but there is definitely a place for this in the classroom teacher’s armoury of ICT bits and pieces.
Storytelling, excursion reviews, art collections, etc, etc.
My first experiment is a collection of photos from our first day at Shanghai Expo last August.
You can see it here: http://photopeach.com/album/9ou6vo
As I said, 5 minutes from sign-up to production. Imagine what could be with some real time, effort and thought!
Last week, Tony Brandenburg from ACCE invited me to join a forum in Melbourne as part of the TTF project.
Below is the piece my Principal asked me to prepare for the College newsletter explaining my participation…
Last Friday I had the opportunity to travel to Melbourne to attend a forum of education professionals discussing professional standards for Graduate Teachers. The project is called ‘Teaching Teachers for the Future’, and is funded by the Federal Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations through the ICT Innovation Fund.
The project specifically targets systematic change in the Information and Communication Technology in Education proficiency of graduate teachers across Australia.
On Friday, our task was to work on the first of three components to the project: build explicit ICTE dimensions to elaborate the Graduate Teacher Standards of the National Professional Standards for Teachers. The forum was conducted by the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership, in collaboration with the Australian Council for Computers in Education, from whom my invitation had come.
The particular group in which I worked had educators from primary, secondary and tertiary sectors, from New South Wales, the ACT, Victoria and Queensland. I was the only member of my group not from a metropolitan setting.
These new National Professional Standards for Teachers, which will sit hand-in-glove with the Australian Curriculum, have three domains (professional knowledge, professional practice and professional engagement), and are written for teachers at four stages of their careers (graduates, proficient teachers, highly accomplished teachers, and leaders). In all, there are 35 focus areas for the 7 standards.
On Friday, we worked on the Graduate Teacher standards, drafting and editing elaborations to further explain the various focus points, and then including exemplars of how each might be done, all from an ICT perspective. It was an extremely busy day, and I believe we provided some valuable information for the facilitators to use. The process is ongoing, as all who attended the focus group are now part of an online community to continue the work. My understanding is that a final draft of elaborations and exemplars is to be published during the last quarter of the year.
Read more about the Standards here: http://www.aitsl.edu.au/