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.

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Studying in California (2017 Term 1 Week 2)

Over the last twelve months I have been undertaking some further study through the University of Sydney Business School. During the summer break my cohort of students participated in a module titled Finding Opportunity in Disruptive Technology, which was based in California. As has been the case with each of the modules so far, I found the learning to be engrossing, stimulating and challenging on a range of fronts. 

One key point that was driven home constantly is the extent to which digital technology has disrupted and will continue to disrupt the world as we know it. On one level this is an unremarkable observation, as we are all experiencing this disruption in some ways and have done for years. Online banking, shopping, and research are all entirely normal to us. Many of us have an experience of work that is significantly different to previous generations of worker in similar fields; for example, staff did not have email in my first school, but it is now woven into the fabric of daily life.

However, some time in Silicon Valley has forced me to realise the extent of further disruption that is underway. I have written before about the magnitude of the revolution, but it was exciting, daunting and a little frightening to see it actually happening. I could cite a number of examples that struck me during our time in California, but I will limit myself to two.

First, it seems increasingly apparent that the transport industry will be reshaped through autonomous vehicles by the time our Junior School students graduate high school, whether it is through the efforts of Google, Uber, Tesla or a Chinese rival. On site visits around Silicon Valley, the Google autonomous cars (under the badging Waymo) were highly visible, and we saw the technology being deployed for Uber's self-driving vehicles. What place will remain for truck drivers, delivery vans, taxis (or Uber drivers) or even owning your own car? What need for carparks in urban centres or garages in suburban homes or drivers' licenses at all? Kiss and drop may well take place on Billa Road without parents in attendance!

Disruption is also being experienced in the publishing industry. For decades, publishers of academic textbooks have owned metaphoric rivers of gold, whereby every year another cohort of students would have to purchase textbooks. With the advent of the internet, they no longer have a stranglehold on content. In addition, online platforms facilitate second-hand sales, textbook rental, and piracy of content. For good or for ill, students expect access to material that is interactive, mobile and that seamlessly integrates multiple modes, in the same way that their social media does.

I could go on with an exhausting list of all the industries and aspects of life that are being disrupted, but it is not necessary. We all get it! The question for me, both as a school principal and as a parent is 'How do we prepare our young ones to thrive in the brave new world?' The conservative parent may wonder 'What jobs will be safe?' The entrepreneurial parent may ask 'What opportunities will emerge?' Either way, our concern is to play our part in equipping our children for their future.

As I met and observed dozens of people from all over the world, drawn to Silicon Valley and its digitally disruptive ecosystem, I was struck by what I would call 'agency'. These are people who are not passively floating in the flow of change, but are actively seeking and seizing opportunities to learn, to grow, to influence and to play a part in shaping the world around them. What influences and experiences shape a young person to be like this? How do we cultivate student agency?

At Inaburra, this is exactly the question that we are asking. As flagged in our Strategic Directions 2016-2018 document, one of our priority areas is:

To develop student agency in their learning, as expressed in the Inaburra Learner Profile. Students are active participants in their learning, not passive recipients. The ILP describes the non-cognitive capabilities that will enable young people to thrive as life-long learners. Inaburra will increasingly incorporate these capabilities as key learning outcomes, along with the BOSTES curriculum outcomes. 

As the year unfolds, this will be a theme to which we will continue to return and which will spark initiatives both large and small. The design and layout of the new Learning Commons is intended to provide scope for student agency, as students make decisions about when and how to apply themselves to their learning. The experience of reflecting on data - reports, results and Effort Point Average (EPA) - and setting goals for the semester, which is done by all Senior School students in the first few weeks of the semester, is intended to encourage student agency. Providing opportunity and choice, whether in outdoor education, learning tasks or sport, establishes a context for students to make decisions, take responsibilities and live with the outcomes. We are trying to create a culture wherein agency can grow. It will be needed!

Thursday, 2 February 2017

Setting the starting note (2017 Term 1 Week 1)

There is a strange parallel between singing 'Happy Birthday to you' and the school year. Setting the right starting note is crucial. While it is possible to drag the harmony back to something vaguely pleasing as the song/year is underway, it is so much easier if you start on the right note. In speaking to the students of both the Senior School and Junior School on the first day this year, I urged them to do three things: respect the space; respect the learning; and respect one another. It seems to me that these three commitments hold the key to a successful year for all of us.

Respecting the space is vital for us this year. Respect is not just a matter of maintaining and caring for our facilities, although this is certainly a starting point. It also extends to recognising the purpose of the various spaces around the school, and using them appropriately. Some spaces are for noisy, boisterous play, some are for quiet focused study, some are for sitting, and some are for transit. We respect the space when we use it for its purpose. Under the constraints of this phase of our building project, where Junior School playground space and access routes around the school are reduced, we respect the space by recognising how it needs to be used in the life of the community.

The view from my desk of the After School Study program in the new Learning Commons

Likewise, respecting the learning applies on a number of levels. This commitment from the students will lead them to apply themselves to the tasks before them, recognising that the work is not intended just to keep them busy and out of mischief, but that it is meaningful. Respect for learning also engenders a sense of humility; we do not yet know everything and there is learning to be done. Hopefully this respect will also encourage them not to seek ways to evade or find shortcuts around their work.

Finally, respect for one another needs to undergird our community. As a Christian school, believing that each person is made in the image of God and therefore inherently worthy of respect, Inaburra students and staff treat one another well. Ideally, this will look like support for one another, consideration of one another, encouragement of one another and kindness to one another.

There is nothing revolutionary, innovative or earth-shattering about these themes. They are basic building blocks for our shared experience. However, my hope and prayer is that starting with these basics will enable us to have another wonderful year at Inaburra.

Monday, 17 October 2016

The great school funding debate ... again (2016 Term 4 Week 2)

Once again the topic of school funding is back on the agenda. The clamor in the public arena is off and running on the same old, well-worn lines. Comments from the Federal Education minister in the lead up to a meeting with the State Education ministers fanned the flames of public postulation, culminating with an article in the SMH that named Inaburra School (among others) as being 'over-funded'. It is always exciting to be in the paper, but I had mixed feelings about this one! The topic of school funding seems set to continue for the next little while and, given that it is a topic that excites lots of heat and not much light, I make the following comments to assist you in understanding the issues. 

1. The Gonski reforms are a complex set of interacting recommendations, not a simple proposal to cut government funding for private schools

You can imagine how bizarre it must be for David Gonski, one of Australia's most eminent business identities and the head of the Gillard government's Review of Funding for Schools panel, to find the phrase I give a gonski now part of the public lexicon and which is most stridently taken up by the education unions. As Matthew Knott perceptively recognises,"David Gonski's review into school funding is fast becoming like Tolstoy's War and Peace or Joyce's Ulysses. A hefty text that's often referenced but rarely read." Knott's article in last weekend's SMH is a really helpful corrective that points past the sloganeering. He makes the point that the Gonski review argues that all schools continue to receive taxpayer funding. The fact that the greatest need is in the public sector means that most of the increase in funding would be directed towards that sector.

2. No school is over-funded, in the sense of receiving more than they are supposed to 

Funding entitlements are determined by the Australian Education Act which was passed by the Australian Parliament in 2013, and independent schools like Inaburra are funded exactly in accordance with this legislation. The discrepancies that are being labelled 'overfunding' stem from the need to transition from the old funding model to the new one. When a new funding model is introduced, there will always be schools that are found to be above or below their new entitlement; and that good public policy demands transition arrangements to ensure that school communities funded above their new entitlement have time to adjust to changed conditions.

3. School funding in Australia needs reform, but it will be tricky to manage

There is no getting around the fact that school funding in Australia is a mess. For various historical, political and structural reasons, there is lack of transparency, lack of equity and lack of accountability associated with the public funding of schools. Reform is needed but we don't have a blank slate upon which we could design an education system from first principles. It is unrealistic and non-commercial in the extreme to imagine that the egg can be unscrambled. The independent school sector in NSW provides or supports employment for more than 53 000 people. The direct contribution of the sector is more than the accommodation industry in NSW, more than the air travel industry, and more than the automotive repair and maintenance industry. Perhaps even more signficantly, 35% of Australian school students attend non-government schools. Politics is the art of the possible; so many people are directly or indirectly connected to the non-government school sectors that it is hard to see how a radical reformation of school funding is possible. 

There is lots that still remains to be said, including the connection between funding and improved outcomes, the relationship between government-owned schools and community group-owned schools, the expectation that all students should receive public support in resourcing their education, and so on. However, time and attention are limited. I apologise if all of the above is yawn-inducing or of no interest to you. In all likelihood, you won't have read all the way through to the end if that is the case. I must confess that this stuff doesn't make my heart beat any faster. Nonetheless, since a new funding model will be developed in the months ahead, these are matters worth watching. There appears little doubt that any changes to the existing funding model will have an impact on Inaburra since we are currently funded exactly in accordance with the model. I will keep the community informed.

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

Scattered thoughts and shallow work (2016 Term 3 Week 7)

I have a confession to make. I am having great difficulty focussing. The challenge is particularly acute as I face tasks that require deep sustained thought and reflection. Much of what I do as Principal can be done without this sort of thinking; opening car doors at kiss and drop, handing out birthday cards, responding to emails from various stakeholders, and even responding to the occasional crisis, are all possible in the normal flow of a day. However, there are other tasks which either require extended and focussed thought, or that are much better accomplished with deep thinking. Writing a regular blog for the school community is one such task. So too is drafting a speech for our upcoming graduation. The list could go on. I am struggling to focus on these tasks.

This challenge is not unique to me. At the start of term, a colleague recommended that I read Deep Work: Rules for focussed success in a distracted world by Cal Newport. It is a book written in response to the observation that distraction is more and more the norm in our world.

Newport's thesis is simple. The capacity to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task is becoming increasingly rare. Our society is so filled with compelling distractions and we are so accustomed to (the illusion of) multi-tasking that we are losing the ability to do deep work, which by its nature is of a higher quality and is produced more efficiently.

He is not the first person to raise questions about the dark side of our hyper-connected patterns of life and work, but he presents a cogent and thoughtful plan to help us to ensure that we don't lose this capacity. 

I had thought to try to summarise the book for this blog, but the irony of simplifying a thoughtful and challenging read to a few bullet points for the sake of easy reading was not lost on me!

Instead, let me reiterate one of his themes; namely, the capacity for deep, focussed cognitively demanding work is developed, not innate. We can have patterns of life and work that feed our distractibility, or that build our ability to focus. If I find myself unable to focus, I need to make decisions and take actions to build my ability to concentrate, in the same way that if I find myself flabby, I need to make decisions and take actions to build my physical fitness.

It is not the case that the capacity to focus is the only cognitive capacity that we need. It is not the case that depth is always better than breadth. However, it is inarguable that the capacity for deep work is becoming rarer and, I suspect, more valuable.

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Predators, victim blaming and risk management (2016 Term 3 Week 5)

I imagine that most parents were aware last week of a story, prominent in the media, about a file-sharing site that was seeking and publishing nude selfies from young women and girls. It's an horrific story, evoking a range of emotions including anger, bemusement and sadness. It appears to be another example of the new possibilities created by digital technology being twisted by the old realities of human nature. I am conflicted in my responses.

First, it must be said that the behaviour of the men and boys involved with this file sharing is reprehensible and revolting. They have acted as predators, demonstrating a chilling lack of empathy for fellow human beings. Whether they obtained images through stalking unknowing subjects, whether they shared images that had been entrusted to them, or whether they had distributed images without thought for the impact on the other person, their actions are to be condemned.

As the leader of a school community, I want to think that we are shaping young men who will do better than that. I hope that our young men are learning to become people who understand that it is wrong to use other people for your own selfish ends. I hope that, through their daily interaction with the girls of the school community, they are learning to appreciate other people as people, not as objects. I hope that they are developing the wisdom and the courage to recognise evil and to stand against it. Time will tell.

Second, it must also be said that victim-blaming is also wrong, and there has been a fair bit of it on display. The mindset that looks at a victim of any ugly situation, mired in despair and pain, and pronounces a judgement along the lines of 'You deserve it!' is itself ugly. It suggests a lack of empathy, a disposition to self-righteous moralism, and a preference to stand at a distance rather than to align side by side with those who are hurting. 

I would also suggest that victim-blaming is sub-Christian; Christians are called not to judge, and also to follow the example of the one whose compassion led him to reach out to the outcasts and condemned. When something goes wrong, we don't rejoice in the situation, proclaiming 'I told you so!' or 'You deserve it.' We respond by crying with them, standing by them, loving them and supporting them. We ought not to blame them, because in these complex situations there are always multiple factors of causation.

Third, however, while insisting that our boys must learn to be trustworthy and respectful, and insisting that our response to victims will always be characterised by sensitivity, gentleness and respect, we must also see that there are ways our girls can reduce the risk of being caught up in situations like this. I make this comment not as judgment on what has happened, but with a view to avoiding what might happen. Taking a revealing selfie, or allowing another to take a nude image, increases the risk that something may go wrong.

I take it that, as parents, we educate our children about risky behaviour. We tell them that being in a car with a drunk driver increases the risk of something going wrong. We tell them that swimming outside the flags increases the risk of something going wrong. We tell them that not using suncream increases the risk of something going wrong. We should also tell them that the existence of nude images of themselves increases the risk of something going wrong. 

It is not always easy to articulate this distinction between risk-management and victim-blaming. I recently read this article by Mia Freedman, which I thought made the key points well; I commend it to you.

It is no easy thing to grow up in our brave new world. But, as parents with wider experiences of people and a more developed capacity to evaluate risk, we need to help our children acquire the wisdom that is so desperately needed.