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Damien Morgan – items of interest from the world of education

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Problems in today’s schools

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 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.”


Written by Damien Morgan

July 4, 2013 at 1:27 pm

Brainstorming done right

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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.

Written by Damien Morgan

September 13, 2011 at 10:04 am

Student Wishlist

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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!

Wordle: Student Wishlist

Written by Damien Morgan

March 15, 2011 at 11:17 am

Scott McLeod

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I could well be the last educator with an interest in technology to discover the writing of Scott McLeod, an Associate Professor in the Educational Administration program at Iowa State University. He has a blog at The Huffington Post which is always interesting.

My attention was drawn by a tweet from Steven W Anderson @web20classroom referring to Scott’s article titled ‘If We Were Really Serious About Educational Technology‘.

His personal blog is called Dangerously Irrelevant.

Written by Damien Morgan

November 28, 2010 at 10:37 am

The value of school camps

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Most schools, it seems, have a program of school camps and excursions. These tend to fall into a few main categories: those which are more or less embedded in the curriculum, and those which are more of a holiday, or a day out. At religious schools, there is another category – that of spiritual retreat. Some schools also have ‘leadership’ camps prior to the selection of school captains and leaders.

During the fourth term of this year, I spent 5 days in Canberra with a group of 90+ 11 and 12 year olds, kids in their final years of primary school. This is the third time my school has undertaken a Canberra trip. As we run a multi-age Yr 6 and 7 cluster, it occurs every second year. Prior to the tour, the students have completed a “Discovering Democracy” unit of work which looks at both the development of democracy as a political notion, and how it is used today. In the weeks prior to the tour the children also had a series of guest speakers from the various levels of government: the mayor, the member of State Parliament, and our Federal Member.

While in Canberra the students visited, among other places, Parliament House, Old Parliament House (now the Museum of Australian Democracy), and the Electoral Education Centre. So this trip, as you can see, was firmly based in curriculum matters.

So, is it good value for money, at about $100 a day? Is it worthwhile? And why do some families not allow their children to attend such a camp?

Certainly, they experienced and visited places they could not if in Canberra on holiday with their family – the tour of Government House, the parliamentary education session are just two of those experiences.

As a teacher (and parent of a child who undertook the same tour two years ago) I see huge benefits both educationally and socially for the children. The obvious educational advantage is seeing the places and things they have spoken about in class. Sitting in Parliament House during Question Time is very different from watching on TV or reading about it. Taking part in a wreath-laying ceremony at the Australian War Memorial has a different impact to doing the same at home on ANZAC day. The different type of relationship that is developed by living and travelling with somebody for a week is very different from that developed during a week at school.

I don’t believe that money was an issue for the families that chose not to send their children on camp. While it wasn’t cheap, all families had known for two years that this trip was coming up, and some families had taken the opportunity to pay off the trip over a period of a year or more. Our school office had made a facility available for progressive payments to be made, and this was well-subscribed. One family, which has now had two children not attend, is very well-off financially, but says this sort of trip should happen with older students. I guess it will dawn on them as their children move through secondary school that that is not going to happen. Another family (the mother to be precise) said that if neither parent can accompany their children, then the kids will not go. Unfortunately for them we don’t like that sort of ultimatum, and called their bluff. The boys missed out,  but then they don’t attend sport for the school in neighbouring towns if mum can’t drive them. And that could well be the crux of the problem: parents who are not willing to let go. I sometimes wonder when they will let the children do something alone….

To conclude, a couple of observations:

  1. Use a tour organiser. Life for teachers, especially for the one “in charge” is so much easier when you use a tour organiser. Years ago I did all the leg work in taking kids to Melbourne, and I couldn’t believe how much better it is paying someone to do it for you. For our Canberra tour, we used Educatours of Australia.
  2. Digital photos. Back in the day (yes, I’m old) all the kids would take a camera and spare film, and that would have to do. Then people started taking slides, and a couple of weeks after the trip there would be a (dreadfully dull) slide night. Now EVERYONE has a digital camera and takes a photo of everything. That’s good, I suppose, but the CD all the kids got after the trip had literally thousands of photos on it. Who’s going to look at them all?

Written by Damien Morgan

December 14, 2009 at 5:54 pm