Thursday, 10 July 2014

Is education Broken?

Is Education Broken?

Every day something extraordinary happens across Victoria that makes the  migration of Shearwaters, the arrival or little penguins, the passing of humpback whales, the flight of cockatoos, the herds of wilder beast across the plains of Africa look, well, relatively insignificant:
580,000 people aged under 18 put their feet on the floor from their beds
Most of them get on mostly the right bus.
Most of them arrive at one of
Primary 1,127
Primary–Secondary 77
Secondary 239
Special 79
Language 4
Total 1,526
To be taught mostly age and ability-right content
By one of
Primary 19,023.7
Secondary 15,702.1
Special/P–12/ Lang/Other 5,909.4
Total 40,635.2
Teachers or Principals

Is education broken?

There are reform/development movements everywhere, in the third world, in the ‘tiger’ economies of Asia, in the UK, USA and every state of Australia.

Politicians (and others) search for ‘silver bullet’ solutions – the neat simple solution that will ‘fix’ education –

sack all the bad teachers;
get back to basics;
give school principals the power to hire and fire;
bring back the strap (or some other simplistic version of ‘discipline’);
 fine the bad parents (or cane them, as one principal I worked for once suggested);
reduce class sizes;
Increase class sizes
pay teachers much more;
close down all the private schools;
close down all the government schools;
raise academic standards and
test students more often,
bring in a voucher system,
make school days and terms longer;
Get rid of counsellors
Introduce chaplains
the list goes on and on….

For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong.

Most of the solutions focus on what is going to be ‘done’ to students as they progress through the ‘system’.

It is a very ‘industrial’ model. As they also note, this works fine for lumps of steel and plastic and wood. But we are dealing with human beings, and, what’s more, human beings in an extraordinary fertile and rapid phase of their maturation.

For some of these students who pass through our schools (whether public or private, faith-based or secular), the fit is good; the experiences seem made to measure for them; they are happy most of the time, engaged with the learning, interested in the activities and ideas that they encounter, and they move seamlessly into post school roles and a productive maturity. But how many?

The results of a 2007 survey (with similar results in 2010) of over 80 000 students from a wide range of schools in Indiana in the USA, revealed that about two-thirds of students say that they are bored in class every day (fewer that 2% say that they are never bored).

It might not seem startling to learn that kids don't like school or that they are bored without their computer games and smartphones and freedom to surf the ‘net. But the underlying reasons for the boredom are troubling; they included:
• lack of interaction with teachers
• material in the curriculum of no interest to them
• little value in the work they were asked to do
• little interactive activity, group work or class discussion
• few adults ever listened to them; no-one took them seriously
• 25% felt that no adult in their school cared about them at all, and
• despite most of them intending to attend college, few did any significant homework.

One response, of course, is to find a scapegoat, such as parents, the internet, the government, or indeed the young people themselves. Of course, the latter is not new, in 400 BC we have Plato quoting:
The young people of today think of nothing but themselves. They have no reverence for parents or old age. They are impatient of all restraint...

However, a scapegoat may be useful for a shock jock on the radio, or a political sloganeer, but it does not fix the problem. As I said earlier, there are no simple and neat solutions to this problem – at least none that work.

The reality is, whilst we are stuck with schools and schooling as our method of education, the problem has to be addressed one student at a time, one class at a time, one school at a time.

Every time a single student is drawn into engagement by good teaching and curriculum, a gain is made. HL Mencken  captures some of the flavour:
The best teacher is not the one who knows most but the one who is most capable of reducing knowledge to that simple compound of the obvious and wonderful.”
And Plato (again):
“Do not train a child to learn by force or harshness; but direct them to it by what amuses their minds, so that you may be better able to discover with accuracy the peculiar bent of the genius of each.”

Do we know what works? I think that we do, if we are prepared to the lessons of quality research. This means, however, that we have to blank out the slogans of the politicians, shock jocks and teacher unions, and the strongly expressed opinions of parents and others who base their beliefs on the experiences of a small number of students.

What are some examples of this quality research? One (and there are others) is John Hattie, a New Zealander now working in Melbourne. In a mammoth tome (Visible Learning) he summarises the work of over 800 meta-analyses, based on over 52 000 separate studies.

The results are grouped under 6 headings: student, home, school, curriculum, and teaching. For each of these he reports a synthesis of the meta-analyses, indicating which aspects have the most effect on student learning and achievement.

There are some surprising findings, together with ones that good teachers have always (perhaps instinctively) known.

Hattie averages the effects of practices and innovations, and then places them into two categories: those that have a larger effect than the average and those that have a smaller effect than the average, arguing that we should put our efforts into promoting the former rather than the latter.

In the 110 relevant categories, there are 51 that score ‘above average’ and 63 that score ‘below average’.

In the top ten of the ‘effective’ category we are not surprised to find the following: formative evaluation, orderly classrooms, teacher clarity, feedback and teacher-student relationships.

Surprisingly, however, smaller class sizes, ability streaming, homework, single sex classes, teacher training and teacher subject knowledge are all firmly located in the ‘below-average’ category – in fact the last two are placed 12th and 13th from the bottom of the entire list. Food for thought, indeed.

I think the key lies in two areas; one is what John Hattie means by the term feedback, and the other is Ken Robinson’s suggestion that we should dispense with the ‘industrial production’ mindset that unconsciously dominates our thinking about schooling, and replace it with an horticultural one.

To start with Robinson: students are more like plants than lumps of plastic and wood; they need individual nurturing; they are living, growing, developing organisms.

John Hattie gives a somewhat more practical slant on the issue in his discussion of feedback: the most powerful kind is not what the teacher feeds back to the student about where they are and what they need to do to improve (not elephant stamps!), but in what the student feeds back to the teacher about their learning.

In Hattie’s words “When teachers see learning through the eyes of the student” then they can modify/change/improve the classroom experiences to ensure students can progress.

Note that the word ‘student’ is singular. Again, in Hattie’s words “teachers need to be aware of what each and every student is thinking and knowing” if they are to be effective. Quite a challenge!

How do teachers gain such feedback from their students?

Good teachers are doing it all the time –

They are constantly scanning the room looking for signs of engagement or disengagement, they are moving around the room when students are working, smiling and chatting, they are listening, answering questions, reading the work that students hand in, keeping aware of special circumstances information that they receive about each student, remembering who was absent yesterday and before that, wondering about how to ‘get through’ to Jimmy and Jacinta, how to encourage Freda and Ferdy to actually express their ideas in writing,…..

It’s not hard to recognise this sort of teaching, but those who are most keenly aware of it are not the teacher, or the inspector of teachers, or the Principal of the school, or the writers of opinionated columns in The Age or the Herald Sun or the ministers or shadow ministers for education, but…the students.

Why then, are we so reluctant to listen to them about their learning? The AEU has even been reported as being opposed to using surveys of student perceptions of their learning as a tool in the evaluation of teaching.

It takes some courage to receive this kind of feedback as a teacher from students.

All the above, of course, requires teachers who believe that their job is worth doing, teachers who believe that all the children that they teach are worth taking time and effort over, teachers who can admit when the make mistakes and change, teachers who can be patient, teachers with persistence and endurance.

This paper was presented to Gippsland Community Leadership Program participants in June 2014 at Bairnsdale. It was originally penned by Dr Sydney G Boydell and I have appropriated it for the presentation as noted. Dr Syd is one of my inspirational mentors.