Wednesday, 5 April 2017

The growth of anxiety in young people (2017 Term 1 Week 10)

It is a rare person who never gets anxious. In fact, anxiety is a normal response to stress and it can be helpful. Anxiety can motivate us to get things done, such as meeting deadlines, and it can alert us to a dangerous situation where we may be at risk. There is nothing inherently bad about the experience of anxiety, but I increasingly encounter members of the school community who are becoming anxious about being anxious. It is helpful to be informed about the nature of anxiety and the roles that parents and educators can play in helping the young people in our lives to cope with their experience of anxiety.

The first thing to understand is that there is a difference between being anxious and having an anxiety disorder. This blog focusses more on the normal experience of anxiety than it does on anxiety disorders. 

The nature of life is that we will inevitably encounter stressors that will cause us to become anxious temporarily, usually until the stressful moment or issue passes. At this basic level, anxiety is simply fear. In the lead up to formal assessment tasks, particularly in the senior years of high school, some experience of anxiety is normal. Learning how to manage and to cope with this level of anxiety is a valuable life-skill. At Inaburra, the school counsellors have access to helpful resources and run programs to help students build their personal capacity to cope.

Many of the coping strategies with this level of anxiety are common-sense. Articulating the fear and talking it through with a trusted person can be a helpful way of bringing perspective. Channeling and directing the anxiety into performance and task completion is an excellent habit to build. Structured problem-solving can be a good way to learn to resolve the stressor. Exercise is always of benefit, as are habits of relaxation. There are no shortage of places online where strategies to cope with anxiety can be found, including here and here.

As parents of children and young people experiencing anxiety, there are things that we can do that unwittingly compound the challenges for their child. One of our counsellors recently brought this article to my attention, and I commend it to you. The reality continues to be that the influence of parents, for good and for ill, has a profound formative experience on children.

As previously stated, anxiety is a normal human experience. The Scriptures speak to this reality in the following well-known Bible passage from the fourth chapter of Paul's letter to the Philippians.

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

The knowledge that, as John Calvin put it, 'God's fatherly face is turned towards us in love' is a wonderful antidote to anxiety. If you want to know more about the peace which transcends all understanding, I encourage you to join with billions around the world in gathering to celebrate Easter this year. God bless

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Christianity a public danger? (2017 Term 1 Week 9)

I have been reflecting recently on a significant societal shift that can be seen in our media and in the public discourse of our society. My thinking was crystallised at an event last week by Karl Faase, the guest speaker. His argument was that in Western society, Christianity is being viewed less and less as a generally benign and irrelevant anachronism and more and more as an actual and positive danger. He cited three ways that this reframing can be seen. 

The first is that love is being redefined. Recognising that love can and has been defined and manifested in all sorts of ways, and that Christians have often fallen short of their ideals, a Christian understanding of love has included the concept of unconditional commitment to the good of the other person, regardless of whether or not you agree with them. However, it is increasingly common for love to be understood as an uncritical acceptance of the other person and their views. In this framework, anything other than unconditional endorsement is seen to be an action arising from hatred.

The second way that this reframing is taking place is the emergence of the belief that Christianity is damaging to children. Richard Dawkins famously likened forcing religious beliefs onto children to child abuse. The argument suggests that religious ideas, including Christianity, genuinely damage a young person's capacity to think for themselves, to discern truth from error, and to participate meaningfully in a pluralist society. In its more extreme expression - religion poisons everything.

The third catalyst in this reframing is the emergence and growing awareness of the horrific abuse scandals that have taken place in Christian institutions and churches. As the nature and extent of these scandals have emerged, particularly through the Royal Commission, the church's social license - that is, its acceptance and approval in the community - is coming under threat. The church is no longer seen as an agency for good in the community.

Faase's point, which I accept as increasingly true, is that our Western culture is becoming more hostile to Christianity.

What does this all mean for Inaburra School? After all, we are a Christian school, and unashamedly so. Our foundations, our history, our staffing and our vision for education are all Christian. However, as a school with an open enrolment policy, our students and our families are representative of the wider community, being constituted of many faiths and of none. If Faase is right, the Christian faith embodied in the school is likely to become more and more 'on the nose'.

In a hostile culture, courage becomes a more vital virtue. In the Christian worldview, courage is seen both in word and in deed. Courage will be seen in our resolute commitment to, and articulation of, our convictions about the dignity and worth of the individual, the fractured nature of the creation, the fallenness of humanity and the hope offered by God in the Christian gospel. Courage will equally be seen in the way we work to make a real and concrete difference to the daily lives of individuals. In the context of a school, this looks like the humble, painstaking, sacrificial effort to know, love and serve our students. The first flourishing of the Christian faith took place, not when Christianity occupied a seat at the table of power, but as Christians took seriously the commands of their Lord to 'love your neighbour' and, more pointedly, 'love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you'.

One of the values of Inaburra School is that we will commend and cultivate faith in God. This has been an enduring commitment of our school community, in partnership with Menai Baptist Church, since our founding. My hope and prayer is that, whether your stance towards Christianity is positive, neutral, negative or a complex relationship of all three, what you see and experience in this school community might lead you to question the emerging hostility toward Christianity that can be seen around us.

Friday, 17 March 2017

Shaving, peers, and exemplars (2017 Term 1 Week 7)

I imagine that the school community is well and truly aware of the efforts of many of our students in the World's Greatest Shave this year. Yesterday, as thirty-odd Year 12 students had their hair cut or shaved in the Science courtyard and hundreds of others cheered from the balconies, I was immensely proud of our community. As I reflected on the event, there were three things that really stood out.

My first observation is that this particular fundraiser is a really good example of fundraising done well. My reflection has nothing to do with the worthiness of the cause - which is obvious - or the effectiveness of the initiative in raising awareness - which is equally obvious. Rather, there is a natural and obvious connection between the fundraisers' action and the cause to which it is directed. 

Along with all the other side effects, the loss of hair that is experienced by the chemotherapy patient is unwanted. It stands out. It changes their appearance. It draws attention. By voluntarily losing their own hair, the fundraiser expresses solidarity with the sufferer and steps - temporarily and in only a small way - into their shoes. As such, there is a cost to the fundraiser. A gift that costs nothing is worth nothing.

My second observation has to do with the power of a peer group. Social dynamics are a reality in life, for good or for ill. From a Christian point of view, we understand that we have been created for relationships, and relationships are where we truly acquire our identity, purpose and meaning. What this means in practice is that our peer groups play a significant role in shaping us. Over the last few weeks, Team ZNMOOR have shown us the power for good that can be exerted by peers. As a team, our Year 12 students identified and worked towards their goals, encouraged and supported one another, and lifted one another to surpass their expectations. Peer groups can be powerful forces for good.

My third observation is about the importance of the senior year in a school. One of the key ways that we learn to be a human is through role models. Initially and primarily our parents, as we grow we look to a wider group. In a school, the oldest students have a powerful formative influence on the younger students. The camaraderie and mutual support evident among the Year 12 students yesterday showed others how to be there for one another. Likewise, their willingness to work hard in a selfless cause was potentially inspirational to younger students.

All of which is to say, yesterday was a wonderful day and we can justly be very proud of our students. They have done well.

Post-script - at last count Team ZNMOOR have raised over $100K. Donations can still be made.

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Children learning to become adults (2017 Term 1 Week 6)

One of the themes that we need to remember, as both educators and parents, is that we are playing the long game. We are raising children to become adults. As I wrote last week, this is the goal that we need to keep in mind. The experiences that young people have at home and at school are formative; they shape the character and the capacities of the individual. It is a reasonable question for reflection on occasion: how is my parenting shaping my child?

I recently read a blog post on this topic: Quit Doing These 8 Things for Your Teen This Year if You Want to Raise an Adult. In the post, the writer identifies eight things that we should not be doing for our children as they grow.

  • Waking them up in the morning
  • Making their breakfast and packing their lunch
  • Filling out their paperwork
  • Delivering their forgotten items
  • Allowing their failure to plan to become your emergency
  • Doing all their laundry
  • Emailing and calling their teachers and coaches
  • Meddling in their academics
She unpacks each of these in the blog; it may be worth reading her thoughts if you find the bullet-points above provocative. For what it's worth, I can think of lots of other points that could be added, including:
  • Driving your children everywhere
  • Cooking and clearing up meals for them
Without wanting to endorse everything she suggests, I support the tenor of her post. I can reel off examples of each of these suggestions, from my own household, those of friends, and those of the school community. I remember one mother who was slogging away at her daughter's Mathletics account, because "She is so much more motivated when she is about to win something". Thankfully, this is (I believe) the exception rather than the rule.

Many parents are very happy to see their child experience the natural consequences of their actions. My favourite note from a parent read along the lines of "X did not do his homework last night because he was distracted by playing computer games. Treat him as you will!"

Obviously each family has its own dynamic and needs and parents will make the choices and decisions in these matters that seem best to them. There needs to be an age-appropriate staging around the responsibilities entrusted to students.

However, the point is a valuable one. At some point between infancy and adulthood, our children will need to learn to do these things without us. When and how do you plan to help your children grow into that responsibility?

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

What is the mark of a successful school? (2017 Term 1 Week 5)

The number of possible answers to the question 'What is the mark of a successful school?' is endless. Strong HSC and NAPLAN results? Full enrolments? High parent satisfaction? High student satisfaction? High staff satisfaction? A safe and supportive environment? Smoothly run and professional operations? Respectful students who wear their uniform well and stand up on the train? Sporting success? Strong brand recognition in the community? Financially viable and sustainable? All these features get raised with me at some point. However, while there is validity to all of them, I want to suggest that they are matters of secondary importance. They may be enablers of the larger goal, they may be proxy indicators for the larger goal, they may even be distractions from the larger goal.

The larger goal is the formation of adults who will thrive in ten, twenty, and fifty years time. Schools are about the formation of people. In our context as a Christian school, we understand our efforts to be directed towards the formation of people who are imbued with all the dignity and responsibility that bearing the image of God entails. However, all schools should be operating with the long horizon in view. Schools are essentially about the shaping of people. Therefore, the mark of a successful school will be seen in the ongoing reality of its influence in the lives of its graduates, which will be played out over decades.

The question for us, therefore, is what we should be doing now in order to shape young people. Members of the Inaburra community will be familiar with the Inaburra Learner Profile, which is our articulation of those traits, characteristics and soft-skills that will serve our young people well in the years to come. We don't claim divine inspiration for our Profile, but it is a helpful description of those non-cognitive outcomes for which we are aiming.

I was very pleased last week to read a book by Thomas R. Hoerr, called The Formative Five: Fostering Grit, Empathy, and Other Success Skills Every Student Needs. A principal with 34 years experience in that role, Hoerr identifies his own list of those capabilities for which schools should be aiming. His list includes: empathy, self-control, integrity, embracing diversity, and grit. We could discuss the respective merits of his list versus ours, or that of the International Baccalaureate World Schools, but the point remains the same. Who our children are will be more important than what they know.

Apart from the vaguely suspicious pleasure that comes from reading someone who agrees with you (recognising that we are all prone to confirmation bias), I really appreciated his second chapter, titled "Thinking about tomorrow". In this chapter he identifies six trends that will inform how we need to prepare our children to achieve success in tomorrow's real world. The first three trends have to do with the global context in which our children live, and the second three trends are education specific. While not whole-heartedly agreeing, I found it very stimulating. (I have slightly paraphrased some of the wording below):
  • Prediction 1: The Earth will become more fragile
  • Prediction 2: Technology will touch everything
  • Prediction 3: Diversity will be in our faces
  • Prediction 4: Schools will broaden their understanding of student growth
  • Prediction 5: School choice in various forms will disrupt traditional school models
  • Prediction 6: Technology will change how and what we teach
What world do we imagine will exist when our children are the age we are now?

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

HSC reforms again! (2017 Term 1 Week 4)

This week we saw the traditional flurry of interest in the media that accompanies the news of an educational initiative; in this case, it was the release of the new syllabus documents for the HSC. What we will see over the next couple of days is that the level of public interest and discussion will die away very swiftly, except in the educational community. For us - teachers and students - the impact of these changes is just beginning. In this blog I will reflect briefly on the new requirement for a national minimum standard for literacy and numeracy, and the role of the NAPLAN tests in demonstrating this standard.

There is much to applaud in the aims of the Stronger HSC Standards reforms. I have written previously about the changes when they were announced in the middle of 2016. We are already beginning to move towards implementing some of the changes; in light of the intentions, Year 11 students in 2017 have significantly fewer formal assessment items than has been the case in previous years. This change is intended both to diminish the extended pressure felt by students as they run from task to task, and to ensure that deeper learning is not squeezed out by the demands of formal assessment.

One of the key elements of the reforms is the required minimum standard for literacy and numeracy, particularly the role of the Year 9 NAPLAN tests to 'pre-qualify' to meet those standards. Students who achieve a Band 8 or better in NAPLAN reading, writing and numeracy tests will not be required to sit the online tests in Years 10, 11 and 12. At Inaburra, based on historical data, we would expect somewhere between 50% and 80% of our students to achieve this standard in Year 9.

I make three observations. First, I think that it is entirely appropriate to have a minimum standard of literacy and numeracy associated with gaining an HSC. The credential is of diminished value if it can be gained without a basic level of functional capability in these areas.

Second, the authority has been wise in providing multiple chances for students to demonstrate that they have met this minimum standard. If needed, after the Year 9 NAPLAN pre-qualifier, students will have multiple opportunities across Years 10-12 to sit an online test. In addition, they have up to five years after completing Year 12 to successfully complete the test as well. The multiple opportunities should ensure that the test is not experienced as a high-stakes, one-off, pressure-laden crisis.

Third, I fully expect that a number of Inaburra students will not meet the standard by the time of Year 9 NAPLAN - and that's OK! There are lots of things that they cannot do in Year 9 that they will learn to do by the end of Year 12. This should not be a cause for stress. 

However, as an aside, it may be helpful for Year 9 NAPLAN to be perceived as more significant. Whereas in Years 3, 5 and 7 we often have to downplay NAPLAN so that it doesn't become an inappropriate stressor, we tend to find that by Year 9, the message has gotten through and we need to provide a corrective to encourage them to make more of an effort.

Finally, I want to emphasise one of our core convictions as a school community, which is that the results gained in formal assessments are only one aspect of an education that is fit for purpose. Future success in life for our children will be determined more by their character and their soft skills, than by their results in NAPLAN or the HSC.

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

The race to the bottom of the brain stem (2017 Term 1 Week 3)

I have been thinking a lot recently about how technology hijacks our psychological vulnerabilities. Don't get me wrong - I am an advocate of digital technology on many levels, including the potential that ICT brings to broaden and deepen the learning experience of our children. However, in recent months I have been increasingly concerned about the impact that mobile digital technology - most specifically, the smartphone - is having on our ability to sustain mental focus, to be fully present in the moment, and to engage in deep thought. 

On a number of occasions in the last year I have written about the struggle to maintain focused attention, following reading Cal Newport's Deep Work. This book sensitised me to become more aware of my own tendency towards scattered thought and distraction. At a number of points I have tried to make a deliberate effort to avoid succumbing to the siren call of the buzzing device and flashing screen, and have been surprised, disappointed and perturbed to see my own lack of self-control. 

However, in recent days I have gained new insight into my struggles, through reading about the work of Tristan Harris, former Design Ethicist at Google. His point, as outlined in a profile with The Atlantic is razor-sharp: it is very hard to develop self-control when thousands of the smartest people in the world are on the other side of the screen trying to break down whatever responsibility I can maintain.

I commend the two pieces linked above to you. Each will take about 15 minutes to read, but together they will provide fascinating and disturbing insights into the ways that apps and digital platforms are designed to 'hijack our psychological vulnerabilities'. It is all there: the power of intermittent variable rewards to draw us back; the 'bottomless bowl of soup' that is the newsfeed; the sense of social reciprocity that compels us to quickly respond; the never-ending fear of missing something; and so on. As I read and reflected on these pieces, I recognised my own experience; you are likely to recognise your own.

The reality is that the quest of all the brilliant people at Google, Facebook, and Apple, is to make a better product; frequently, the better product is defined as the one that will engage the consumer more. There are many thousands of brilliant minds working on how best to fixate me on their product - and I have only my own willpower to resist them. Small wonder that I struggle.

From Harris' point of view, there is a moral and ethical imperative for the technology companies to work towards products that enable and promote human flourishing - that make for a better life, rather than a more screen-fixated life. I wish him and his like-minded collaborators all the best with their endeavours.

My more pressing agenda has to do with my sphere of influence: myself; my family; and my school. How is it that we can train ourselves not to be the puppet on a string, jerking and twitching in response to the stimulus that buzzes and flashes? In the articles linked above, Harris suggests a number of steps that we can put into practice, many of which involve customising our screens, alerts and notifications. I commend them to your consideration and implementation. 

The key issue to me is being sensitised to the challenge. I doubt that many of us would know how often we check our phones, or how short the gap is between us finding a moment of spare time and reaching for the phone, or how many minutes per week are spent scrolling through things that really don't matter, or how often we disengage from the people we are actually with for the sake of people loosely linked through the screen. Why not monitor yourself this week? 

Apart from anything else, your discussion of these matters with your children will have more credibility if they can see you taking it seriously for yourself.