Tuesday, 6 September 2016

Scattered thoughts and shallow work (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 4)

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.

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

The pursuit of excellence - false idol or legitimate goal? (2016 Term 3 Week 4)

I have been thinking a lot recently about the pursuit of excellence. Like motherhood and apple pie, it is hard to imagine a bad word about excellence. Surely we want our children to experience excellent education, we want them to achieve excellent standards and we want them to aspire to excellence in whatever tasks to which they may turn their hands. I can't think of a school that wouldn't affirm excellence in principle, and that wouldn't consider the pursuit of excellence a legitimate drive. However, like most aspects of life, it is no bad thing to examine some of our implicit assumptions and see whether they stand up to scrutiny.

Our School Mission statement says that Inaburra School exists to be a Christ-centred learning community, pursuing excellence in education, with every individual known and loved (emphasis added). At first glance, the merit of this mission seems self-evident. After all, who would want to pursue mediocrity in education? Who would want to attend an undistinguished school or to achieve unremarkable standards?

From time to time I have been known to exhort students to do the very best they can do. However, even that innocuous encouragement raises questions. The reality is that our resources are limited. The effort required to achieve excellence in one context limits the effort available to achieve excellence in another. On a very simple level, to give one's very best to Music would require a limitation of the time available to Maths. To give everything to one's career would leave very little to one's family. To do one's very best in one field must involve limiting one's capacity in another. Life entails trade-offs; we can't do it all.

Therefore, it follows that we all apportion our time and efforts according to our priorities. We make decisions about what is most important to us and act accordingly. Universal excellence, for an individual or an organisation, is a myth. Rather than excellence in all things, we would do well to prioritise our efforts around the things that matter most.

A second, and related, point about the pursuit of excellence is that it can be a false god. The Biblical language of idolatry is helpful for us here; idolatry involves treating something that is not God as though it is. Sometimes we can elevate excellence as though it could guarantee us security and significance, as though it can give our lives and efforts meaning, as though it can provide us with our hearts desire, be that success or popularity or wealth or happiness. Therefore, we make sacrifices, put other things aside, and make achieving excellence our top priority.

As is always the case, idolatry comes back to bite us. A focus on excellence can so easily become a drive to perfectionism, an inability to cope with failure and an unrealistic expectation about the nature of life. I recently read a frightening article about the impact of this drive in some American schools; some of the same pressures have been noted in the Australian context. We see these pressures also at our school. It is a heavy burden to believe that your worth is determined by the quality of your achievements.

However, lest the above comments lead you to think that I am not an advocate for excellence - or that I am an advocate for mediocrity - I do think that there are good reasons to pursue excellence. For me, these reasons arise from a Christian worldview.

One impetus to excellence understands excellence as a thankful response. We recognise the many good gifts that we receive from God, such as life, health, safety. Through no achievement of our own we have born into opportunities that are provided to us, whether by virtue of the point in time and space that we inhabit, or by virtue of the innate abilities and talents with which we have been endowed. In response to these gifts, we show our thankfulness by making the most of that which has been given. In this view, the pursuit of excellence is a moral obligation that is incumbent on us.

Another impetus to excellence understands excellence as an expression of love to others. From a Christian point of view, love for God is expressed through our loving service of our neighbour. As Martin Luther expressed it, the shoe-maker glorifies God by making excellent shoes, which are a blessing to those who will wear them. So too the doctor's excellence is a blessing to those who are sick, the musician's excellence is a blessing to those who listen, the teacher's excellence is a blessing to her students, and the student's excellence is a blessing both in the present to those around him and in the future to those whom he will serve. 

All of which is to say: excellence can be a great means of service, but it is a terrible master. The quality of our lives is measured less by what we do and where we do it, and more by how we do it and why we do it.


Monday, 8 August 2016

HSC Major Projects (2016 Term 3 Week 3)

One often hears the idea expressed that young people have short attention spans; it is suggested that the digital culture in which they are immersed, combined with a youthful tendency to distraction and a failure to appreciate the importance of sustained work, lead them to become flibbertigibbets who skate from one thing to another without delving deeply into anything.

Like most such generalisations, there are bound to be aspects of truth in the observation. Our capacity for endeavour and persistence does develop with age and there are habits of mind that take time to engrain in our characters. Part of the school experience needs to be exposure to and experience of sustained effort in connection with authentic tasks; students who experience the pleasure of the rigour of learning will understand how to return to and embrace hard work. Our observation is that the experience of preparing a 'major work' is one such experience for our Year 12 students.

In the terminology of the BOSTES, 'major works' are those performances and projects that are externally assessed and for which the mark will be a component of the student's examination mark in that subject. Examples of this include: Music; Drama; Visual arts; Industrial Technology - Multimedia; Textiles Technology; Design and Technology; and English Extension 2. In our school context, a number of subjects include a 'major project', where a student works on a particular project throughout the HSC year and for which the project mark contributes to the student's school-based assessment rank. Examples include the English Extension; History Extension and Software Design and Development projects. 

Every year the School hosts a series of three evening events called the HSC Projects Festival at which we celebrate our students' major works and major projects. The first of these events happened on Wednesday 3rd August; the next two are scheduled for Tuesday 23 August and Wednesday 31 August. These events, which are open to all members of the school community, provide an invaluable perspective for students in Years 10 and 11 who are contemplating taking on subjects with a major work or a major project. 

As you peruse the works at this year’s festival you will see the results of sustained effort at authentic tasks. You will witness tremendous creativity, fine-tuned via discussions with teachers and trusted others.  The students deserve the accolades for the time they have devoted to their work and for expertise that they have shown. I commend to you also their teachers for their dedication, in particular for the extensive feedback they have offered.

The works on show represent the ideas about which the students are most passionate, hundreds of hours of productive conversation, trial and error, laughter and tears – and then, an enormous achievement in the form of sustained composition, dramatic or musical performance, an artwork, design portfolio, and so on. In the major works and projects, the final product and the journey of toil are both worthy of our respect and recognition.

Inaburra therefore congratulates each of the students exhibiting works over the course of our festival evenings, and thanks deeply each of the staff members whose privilege it has been to assist these students in realising the ideas with which they began. We also take this opportunity, on behalf of the students, to thank parents and others who have encouraged and listened throughout the process of completing these major works and projects.

I hope that you will be able to make the time to view and read and listen to the wonderful works on display at our festivals. We are immensely proud of our students' efforts, learning and achievements.

Monday, 1 August 2016

The HSC reforms: the substance behind the reporting (2016 Term 3 Week 2)

Last week the NSW Minister for Education announced significant changes to the Higher School Certificate (HSC). The HSC is the credential gained by NSW students after they complete Year 12 and it provides, in large part, the data that is used by the Universities Admission Centre (UAC) to generate students' Australian Tertiary Admissions Rank (ATAR). As such, the reforms are significant. However, as is often the case, the way that these reforms have been reported has obscured some of the most important aspects of the reforms. Thankfully, it is possible to access all the information directly through the BOSTES website.

The main focus of reporting has been on the implementation of a minimum standard of literacy and numeracy for the awarding of the HSC. At this point, students are awarded an HSC if they complete the requisite number of units, regardless of the standard that they achieve. The new policy will require students to demonstrate a minimum standard of literacy and numeracy, in addition to completing their units. This minimum standard can be demonstrated through Year 9 NAPLAN assessment, or through separate online testing in Years 10, 11 or 12. 

While this new policy is noteworthy, it is not likely to be too onerous to most students; to provide some perspective, historical data would suggest that two thirds of our students would have met this minimum standard in Year 9. The first year to be affected by the new policy will be the current Year 8 students. A Year 9 NAPLAN result below a band 8 will act as an early warning system to identify students at risk of not meeting the standard. These students will then have time with their teachers, parents and schools to work to improve their performance, before taking the online literacy and numeracy test. Students who do not demonstrate the standard during schooling will have five years after leaving school to meet the literacy and numeracy standard and receive a HSC.

Image result for NAPLAN

Given that the vast majority of Inaburra students will meet this standard, it seems to me that some of the other reforms are more likely to have an impact on us. For example, the BOSTES decision to cap the number of formal, in-school assessment tasks is to be applauded. As parents of Year 11 and 12 students know, the formal, in-school assessments that constitute 50% of a student's HSC can place significant pressure on students. The reduction of formal assessments seems wise and it should have a positive impact on student wellbeing.

The BOSTES decision to focus less on rote-learning and memorisation for examinations, and more on the application of knowledge and skills, should assist students to engage with deep learning and understanding. Their intention is to provide guidelines to ensure in-school assessment is similarly challenging. This focus is entirely appropriate, as a way of helping the senior years of study to cultivate that capacity to transfer and to apply knowledge which will be of most assistance to our young people in the years ahead.


However, the most significant aspects of the reforms has to do with the review of the HSC syllabuses. BOSTES plan to establish and maintain an ongoing process of syllabus review that should help ensure that the material covered in the courses is current; in some fields, such as information technology and science, the syllabus is woefully dated.

The review process is already underway. English, Maths, Science and History courses are all under review at the moment; draft documents have been released and consultations are taking place at workshops and online through the month of August. The intention is that the syllabus documents will be finalised this year, released in 2017 and implemented for Year 11 2018. Inaburra teachers in the relevant fields are engaging with this review process, recognising the importance of ensuring that the syllabus is formed with the input of practitioners. 

It is possible to make some early observations about the new syllabus documents. There is a tension in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), where the desire to increase participation sits uneasily with the desire to raise standards. If there is too much rigour, it may discourage students from taking these courses; if the courses are too accessible, the necessary standards are not achieved. Some new courses are being designed as part of the resolution of this tension. While some of the details are not yet clear, a new Science Extension course will be introduced and the lower-level Senior Science course (which is not offered by Inaburra) will be replaced by a new Investigating Science course. 

Another aspect of the review has to do with redesigning the various Maths courses. In recent years there has been a trend of more and more able students choosing to do General Maths; in part, this appears to be fuelled by a drive for higher marks through taking the less challenging course. However, it may also be motivated by the recognition of the value of the statistics topic, given the ubiquity of statistics in modern everyday life; at present, statistics finds its home in the Mathematics General course. The intention of redesigning the various courses is to reduce the undesired outcome of more able students taking less challenging courses.

My apologies for going into details that may be of little interest to those families whose children will be either unaffected because they will achieve their HSC before these changes are implemented, or for whom these matters seem far away over some distant horizon. However, given that the formal learning of students takes place in the interaction of curriculum, assessment, pedagogy and environment (digital and physical), changes to curriculum and assessment will be of significance to our children's overall educational experience.

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

The School musical and Christian integrity (2016 Term 2 Week 10)

The school musical is one of my annual highlights. At times I find myself referencing a school year by the musical performance: "That was the year we did Hairspray". Co-curricular activities have their place in the school because of the learning opportunities that they provide; a musical opens up unparalleled experiences in working with others to achieve something that is more than the sum of its parts. The musical gives students' gifts the chance to develop and shine, it prompts them to be courageous in performing before others, and it teaches them to appreciate and to celebrate the contributions of others. The shared experience and emotional bonding are powerfully formative in relationships, both between students and between students and staff. I could go on and on about the benefits of staging an annual musical; it is a great learning experience.

Our students' performance of Bring it on: the Musical last week was wonderful. The students who nailed the lead roles, the cast of dancers who filled the stage, the live music from the band, the lighting and set design, the quality of the choreography and all the other aspects of the show made me extraordinarily proud of our students and staff.


However, it is also the case that the musical can be a cause of concern in our community. Most years questions get raised about the suitability of the particular musical that we choose, about the themes presented in the musical, about particular scenes or lines, and about how the musical aligns with our school's Christian identity. Given the diversity of our school community, it is unsurprising that there is diversity of opinion on these questions.

It may be that some of the concern felt by some members of our community had to do with the themes and content of the material. As a show set in a high school, performed by high school students, it is unsurprising that the content was pitched at an adolescent level. I can imagine that some of the younger children had questions about the meaning of some of the exchanges between characters. I can still remember my mother's awkwardness when I put a few questions to her following my first viewing of Grease as a primary school student. Having since seen it as an adult, I am not surprised about her awkwardness! Thankfully, nearly all of it went over my head at the time. I would be surprised if the bemusement or lack of comprehension associated with adolescent themes outweighed the benefit for the younger students of seeing the performance of Bring it on: the Musical.

It may also be that some of us as adults were uncomfortable with some of the material, which touched on emerging sexuality, body image and teen culture. My position is that the context is a vehicle through which the wider themes and issues are explored. The fact that this musical takes place in the context of teen culture, with some of the associated themes, tensions and language, does not promote or endorse that culture any more than Oliver promotes childhood crime or The Wizard of Oz endorses witchcraft or Guys and Dolls advocates gangsterism. The musical is really about personal identity, ambition, relationships and the pressures of life; high school cheerleaders are simply the window into these bigger issues.


It may also be that some related concerns stemmed from some of the language in the performance. (For the reference of those who did not see the show, the idiomatic American cultural term 'ass' was used half a dozen times, the word 'bitch' was used once and I think there was an 'Oh my God' as well.) On one level, I don't accept the suggestion that the language was gratuitous; it served a purpose within the narrative. The use of 'ass' was exclusively by the students of Jackson High, which is depicted as a less-privileged school; the language and idiom used functions as a linguistic designate for a particular sub-culture within the play. The only other character to use it was Bridget, who did so for comic effect and for whom it was part of her journey of reinvention through the change of schools. The use of 'bitch' as an insult took place in the context of the relationship breakdown between Campbell and Danielle; this was the great crisis of the narrative and the strength of language emphasised the point.

Having made that initial defense, it is still valid to ask other questions. Could the words of concern have been substituted without substantially changing the play? Of course. Was the language contextually appropriate? Equally, yes. Are these words that I encourage in the context of school? Of course not. Are they 'PG' words, rather than 'G' words? Yes. Is the word 'ass' heard differently in an Australian cultural context to an American one? Yes. Are these words that appear in normal adolescent conversation? Yes. Would it have been better for us to flag the level of language in our marketing of the musical? Yes, and this is a matter to which we will be sensitive in the future. Should we have removed these words from the performance? It seems to me that this is a judgment call on which there will be differences of opinion.

The more profound question for me has to do with whether producing this musical in its entirety undermines the Christian integrity of the school. I don't think so. I do not believe that the only way to honour God in and through the creative arts is to deal with faith-related or explicitly Christian themes. God is honoured both in process and in product. In the context of our musical, I would suggest that we need to consider that God has been honoured in the way that the team have related to and supported one another through the last six months of preparation. God is also honoured through the creative arts as they explore and reflect back to us truths about the messy reality of life, leading us to a deeper understanding of ourselves and God's broken world in which we live. The creative arts should also be a basis for thankfulness, as we appreciate the skills, gifts and opportunities that God bestows. One of our school values declares that we strive for excellence, in thankful response to all that God has provided; there is no reason not to apply this to our thinking about the creative arts. Our thinking about honouring God in the creative arts is broader than our explicit advocacy of the faith.

It may be that the discourse above seems overly or unnecessarily defensive, or that it is irrelevant to you, or that it articulates a position that differs from your own. Hopefully if it was of no value to you, you will have stopped reading prior to this point! As a closing comment, the observation has been made that modern Western society is losing the capacity to maintain good relationships whilst disagreeing with one another. I trust that, as a school community, we will retain this necessary civil capacity. Opposing views need not lead to opposed people. 

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

The Fathering Project (2016 Term 2 Week 7)

I recently became aware of an organisation that is working on a matter of great significance; that is, aiming to inspire and equip fathers and father figures to engage with their kids. The Fathering Project is a not-for-profit charity led by a team of professionals that aims to help fathers realise how important they are in a child's life. This is not to say that mothers are not important. It is to say that, for a whole host of historical, cultural and 'reality of life' reasons, fathers are often less present and active in the lives of their children.

My first response in hearing of this project was to become defensive. One of the costs of the free flow of information in the digital age is that there are more and more reasons to feel inadequate. I am not sure that I need another group of people to remind me of my shortcomings, particularly in an area that cuts as close to the core of my identity as my fatherhood does. However, when the defensiveness rises I think that I need to build a bridge and get over it! Parenting is too important to be brushed aside by my ego's need to protect itself.

The Fathering Project website has a number of really helpful resources, including the option to sign up for tips and reminders to prompt those of us who are fathers to keep focusing on the matters that matter.

One tip that caught my attention made that point that, painting with a broad brush, dads often show their love for their children through providing for them, and by correcting and trying to improve them. These expressions of love are not to be devalued at all, but we do well to recognise that sometimes our children really crave an affirmation of love and affection. 

A really powerful way to express our love for our children is to put it in words, either spoken or written. A text message, email, note or face to face statement may well go some way to filling your child's emotional tank.


The tip reminded me of the concept of the five love languages as articulated by Dr Gary Chapman. His framework suggests that each of us has a default 'love language' in which we express love and by which we understand ourselves to be loved. The five love languages are: words of affirmation; acts of service; receiving gifts; quality time; and physical touch. While not wanting to suggest that this framework stands on a deeply-tested and validated research-base, it rings intuitively true in my own experience and in the relationships of many others that I observe.

I encourage you to take the time to quickly browse the websites above and to ask the question 'How do I express and receive love?' and 'How does my child express and receive love?' In particular, I encourage the dads to ask themselves, 'Am I speaking to my children in a language that they understand?'

It is no small thing to be a father; it is a wonderful blessing to have a father. Among the core blessings of the Christian faith is the confidence to call God 'our Father'; I hope that this is a confidence that you share.