Challenging our own paradigms?

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One of the great positives emerging from the mySchool website has been the discussion which has been generated.

With a range of people via Twitter, in meetings, and wherever; there has been plenty of talk happening. Lots of the talk, from people outside of teaching, is supportive of the website. Some well written pieces have appeared, in the mainstream press, from respected writers who can’t all necessarily be part of the misguided fringe of parents and others who seek to know more about the measures which form part of school performance evaluation.

Rather than feeling under siege, educators should feel empowered to enter fully into the debate.  In so doing, however, the rules of debate need to be accepted and the possibility of an opposite argument gaining the ascendancy be acknowledged.

On a few separate occasions last week when I met with people from a range of community based organisations, they expressed incredulity at the outrage being expressed.  We hear about Metherell, yet fail to focus on the fact that we are talking about 20 years ago. Think about it. The thermal paper fax machine was the ‘must have’ for a modern office. It was a year before George Bush Senior invaded Iraq the first time. I was publishing a school newsletter on a Mac with no hard drive and a 1.44mb disk as a backup. Bob Hawke was still Prime Minister.

The list could go on and on.  Couple this with the massive shifts we have collectively made in what we believe about the extent of fundamentalism in the world, which is willing to promote prevalence of culture and/or religion as the primary goal. Then, remember the huge shifts in a world where the internet provides the capacity for a ‘dichotomy of connectedness’ and the potential for the asking of key questions like: ‘what do we all need to commonly agree upon if we want humanity to continue?”

I don’t recall that we thought about China, or anticipated the current potential make up of the World Cup Finals back in Terry Metherell’s day.

Maybe it is time for us to really reflect on our paradigms.

Does the ‘common wisdom’ of the 70’s, which was so vehemently guarded at the start of the 90’s by a cohort of baby boomers now nearing retirement, actually stack up against the intent, from millions of users, to see what they could see on the mySchool site.

Funnily enough, though, the sky is still up there and, for people like me who work directly with the schools involved, we know that we will continue to look for ways that we can do the best to identify capacity, develop capabilities and then, demonstrate competencies, in a plethora of ways, across an open horizon of possibility.

Much of the rhetoric around the ‘moral core’ of the argument has promoted a view that we, as the educational professionals, must assert out faith in our practice and expect that people without the esoteric knowledge of the educational professional defer to our opinion.

Our best way forward is through moving from tweaking what is: ‘school planning’; to having significant dialogue at all levels about ‘planning school.’

We could, if we chose to, use this opportunity to really engage with the simple questions about “planning school.”  What is it? Who is it for? What happens there? Why? etc etc. Up until now we’ve tended to accept the parameters of ‘school’ and look for incremental gains.  Imagine if we could leverage a fundamental community paradigm shift by encouraging and participating robustly in the debates.  Wouldn’t that be a good thing?

There are, after all, basically 3 key influencers for being able to be a great and engaged learner:
·        Genetics
·        Attitude
·        Affective teaching

A school should be about providing an attitudinal context and common value platform which quietly believes that it’s OK to want to have more opportunities than the past: life’s like that.

Change is a constant within all of nature: some cyclical, some cataclysmic.

So, let’s look back at an oft quoted piec:

Mount Druitt High School

On 8 January 1997, the Telegraph published the headline, “The class we failed” concerning was the Year 12 class at Mount Druitt High School in outer Western Sydney in which no student scored a Tertiary Entrance Rank (TER) above 50 (the top mark is 100). Although the article made clear that the newspaper believed that the state had failed the students, many accused the Telegraph of branding the students themselves as failures and showing a full year photo identifying students.

The story led to a renewed focus on the quality of public schools in Western Sydney and precipitated several reviews of schooling in the area.[5] But for many, the headline highlighted problems with interpreting Higher School Certificate results and the accompanying TER.[6]

The students successfully sued the newspaper in the Supreme Court for defamation. The Telegraph subsequently apologised and settled for damages out of court.[7] The published apology stated:

“In that story The Daily Telegraph suggested, among other things, that the students in the class of 1996 failed their HSC. This is wrong and The Daily Telegraph withdraws any such suggestion. The Daily Telegraph also withdraws any suggestion that those students acted without discipline or commitment in their HSC studies. The students in the HSC class of 1996 successfully completed their HSC and contrary to the suggestions in the original article many of those students performed very well scoring high marks in the HSC. The Daily Telegraph apologises to each student in the class of 1996 at Mt Druitt. It also apologises to their parents and friends for all the hurt, harm and suffering it has caused them.[7]”

Later, criticising defamation laws, News Limited CEO John Hartigan said that

“The words in the story pointed to deep-seated problems within the education system, but a barrister convinced the jury that, regardless of the words before him, what we really meant to say was that the entire class was too stupid to pass the HSC.”[8]

We are now in the second decade of the 21st century. Even the oldest students in our schools hadn’t been born when Terry Metherell was so disliked, and where the scaremongering and phantoms of nepotism generated about local selection were laid.  Twenty years on.

Wow, I still had dark hair then, and pre-schoolers.

Don’t buy into both issues for the price of one.

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Whatever we might think about the possibility of media outlets or other purveyors of the ‘public interest’  creating league tables of school performance by harvesting data which will become available on the MySchool website, we need to think a little more carefully about whether we can afford not to have the continuous data available which has allowed schools to really make an observable difference for children and young adults.

Schools have become very used to using the data available from testing to plan teaching, and to best target resources. We are especially interested in ‘growth’ between years, as this provides tangible evidence of our ability to make a difference and: this is what most of us hope to do.

Back in 2005 I wrote an Education Week message to Principals.  I hope you might have the time for a read. You’ll get to see some of the things which I believe, and, while some of the priorities around issues have changed the beliefs still remain. A brief excerpt follows:

Part of the richness also came from spending time deliberately focusing on the good that we do, and the good that we can do.  I know that you will all, this week in particular, be trying to showcase the good that your school does, in the best way possible: the demonstration of the joy that children have taken in their learning. We can never forget the look on the face of a child who displays work to a close adult who cares, and who obviously looks like they are comfortable relating to the teacher: as a professional educator and, also, as a significant caring adult within the same child’s life.  The desired outcome is, after all, similarly shared. Most of us want our schools to be places where children are happy, where teachers care and, where children learn.

It has always struck me that the most powerful predictor to a child’s school “success” is not so much socio-economic status as the attitude toward learning which forms part of the child’s family culture. The attitude toward learning and, in particular toward the local school’s ability to provide learning leaves a child at the point of contact with formal school in the best state of preparation possible: they want to be there and they want to know how to find out stuff ! There are, of course, always links between this and those who have seen the positive benefit of an attitude like this.  We should not, however, continue to use this as our only “rule of thumb” or we will continue to lose sight of our primary asset: the strength of our diversity and the ability of the people in our schools to do magnificent, inclusive work.

More recently, in this blog, I wrote about the concept of tight loose tight, and also of our need to move from School Planning to Planning School.  We can only do both of these things if we have access to the means to measure our improvement.  And, I agree, test data, is not the totality at all and fails to measure so much else which is massively important.  As an indicator, however, it can’t be ignored. It allows us to match a mark to a face and a child, and work with all of the significant people in the child’s life to collaboratively plan school which provides the best options possible, for them.

It allows us to challenge the belief that the child’s environment and background means that we can’t make much of a difference for them.  It allows us to show that we can empower children through creating schools as places where they can give voice to their curiosity and be led, in partnership with their parents, parent or significant others on planning how to satisfy that curiosity, to demonstrate the outcomes of the process and then to point to clear evidence of their growth.

And yes, if there is little growth, we certainly ask questions.  All of us, as we trawl through our schooling memories can recall teachers and that they were different.  Do we imagine that has suddenly changed?

It s the quantification that also allows us, though, to see where there has actually been little difference being made at all, and the questions which might follow this are relevant and reasonable.

Whatever we might think about the worth of people, who aim to create comparitive tables, it seems to me that disrupting our once a year snapshot in time which lets us know just how well all the hard work we put in has paid off is cutting off our nose to spite our faces.

If you have the chance and time, have a look at the message which is now ‘soo 2005!’

Begging the same question

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I read today that the Australian Medical Association(AMA) has decided to questionwithdraw its support for a system whereby doctors trained overseas, or overseas citizens who train in Australia, need to spend 10 years in rural and regional locations before being able to practise in major metro centres.

Amongst  the inevitable hue and cry which will ensue following the ‘going live’ of the MySchool website next week, there will no doubt also be questions around the vexed issue of attracting and retaining a whole range of services to hard to staff locations: including teachers and other educators.

Traditionally, we have always looked at ideas which either suggest greater financial reward, or systemic routing through a process of progression toward a final transfer reward to somewhere else.  By and large, differential pay has never flown far, and I’m sure that the average punter won’t really be surprised to discover that certain places which most people seem to have heard of, but no-one you know has actually been to, are traditionally hard to staff.

Now, amongst other things which put me further down the rungs on the league table of life, economics and accounting are not my strong suit.  I have often wondered, however, whether it would be possible to use a similar classification system to the existing NSW Transfer Points system, and declare a range of differential tax rebate zones for salary earners throughout the country.  That is, if you work in location X, you may pay a different rate of tax on your taxable income than if you live in location Y.

State governments should like it, as it would mean that the Federal government was then carrying a big can, in the form of lost tax revenue, but, as we have seen: this is a Federal government willing to fund education as a major priority.  Other ‘incentives’ don’t seem to have had the bite that they might have, maybe this may be another way to go?

Banging the same drum

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blogWith the 2010 school year about to start, I thought I’d dust off some concepts and ideas from past years and put them together to focus some thinking on what proactive schools might be doing in the next little while.  It only takes some reading from Twitter posts and elsewhere to see that the operating environment continues to evolve at an exponentially growing rate.  This article, for example, posted by @Darcy1968 provides a good look at the changing parent clients, and the continued trends in technology and its impact on pedagogy once again underscore the imperatives.


This simple reversal of words provides us with a very different paradigm to begin the new year.  Yes, there are the givens, the systemic limitations, resourcing deficits and external accountability pressures.  There is still, however, the constant possibility for people to adjust their mental models and to embrace the possibilities of the future, rather than stare wistfully at the rear view mirror.


And, maybe we can borrow from some management theory in looking at the way we organise for curriculum delivery.

Leadership is best informed by a big picture view, along with the ability to zoom between close and longer fields. We live in a world where curious dichotomies exist between close local communities and the longer distributed social networks and internet communities. It is this context which shows, in stark relief, a need to employ a construct which is ‘tight, loose, tight. That is: we need to be tight around our expectations, what we see as important, what we want to be the outcome of what we do. We also need to be tight around the expectation that we be able to measure our success, our growth, our level of frustration: our performance. Then, like some chocolates, it is the bit in the middle that creates the excitement. It is the bit which empowers, which says: ‘Within this framework of clarity around expectation and evaluation, you have permission to make this happen in ways which suit your context, and which are undertaken to provide the best ‘lift’ possible’. – From ‘Doing what’s BEST

Yes, we must be tight around expectations and limit setting.  Despite seeking to encourage excitement at the thought of setting off for new places, we need to ensure that everybody feels safe doing so, and that they have some sense of why it is that we are going and what we hope we might find there.

We need also to be tight around the ability we have to demonstrate clear outcomes: our accountability environment and our moral purpose demand no less.

It is the place in the middle which creates exciting possibilities in pedagogy and also in student learning. Styles and preferences, harnessing of gifts and talents, working from areas of personal interest, integrating aspects of social media and connectedness: tapping into the marvellous talent and capability of the 21st Century learner. Give them permission to amaze us!


And, as a possible organiser, have a think about this view of a 3 ring circus.  There will be times when the concentration is in 1 or 2 rings only.  We should ensure, however, that the core values always manifest themselves, and that each of the 3 rings is explored at some stage, with an absolute imperative to ensure that we do not neglect those things which enable us as humans to re-create body, mind and soul.


I have these slides together in a powerpoint presentation which I’m happy to share. If you’d like a copy, just click here

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