Last week I worked with around 200 teachers from MLC school in Sydney, helping them design a new philosophy of learning, and identify the key areas of professional enquiry, that would transform both their practice, and their student’s experiences. It was an exhausting, yet exhilarating, day. That’s a lot of people’s ideas to try to marshall but exhilarating to see professionals being allowed to be passionate, and innovative, about the business of teaching and learning. The reason why they’re re-thinking everything they do, is that their inspirational principal, Denise Scala, knows that we can’t incrementally tinker with what we do in our classrooms – to use her phrase we need ‘bold, fearless, action’ if we’re to ensure that school is relevant to kids in the coming years. Everything else in their lives is changing radically – the global economy, the environment, technology – so why not school?
I presented some ideas to them which, essentially, argued that top-down, government led-initiatives will never bring the much-needed transformation in our schools, not least since they run up against school cultures, which are far more powerful. You can’t transform pedagogy, unless you create the right kind of learning culture within a school – and that doesn’t come down from departmental decree, it grows from countless conversations like the ones we had this week, at MLC. These teachers were talking ‘what if?’ and ‘why can’t we?’ – and it was thrilling just to be part of it. They were talking about how we need to bring parents into the conversations about learning; how we need to design learning programmes with students, not for them; how we need to open up classrooms, so that school becomes a learning commons, not an enclosure, and a basecamp, not the destination, for learning. We talked about how we needed to get out more, and learn from the best schools; how we needed to plan, and evaluate, collaboratively. And the enthusiasm meters hit ’11’ when I invited them to become professional enquirers – to shape the future of the school’s transformation by planning their own programmes of research. The media portrayal of disinterested, cynical teachers could not have been further from the mark. Their ideas covered a large acreage of wall space, and we saw social learning at its best.
Today, I picked up The Australian national newspaper, and read two pieces on how to improve student outcomes, and reflected back on my day at MLC. The first was a tub-thumping article from the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, defending her government’s educational achievements. Somewhat mischieviously, The Australian immediately followed it with a damning response from Kevin Donnelly, Director of the Education Standards Institute.
Ms Gillard argued that her government’s record on education since 2007 has been impressive: ‘We have nearly doubled funding for Australian schools compared with the (previous) Howard Government….When we came to office in 2007 education reform had been neglected for a decade. We started a major reform journey in education about lifting standards for every child in every school’.
This is the kind of thing political leaders say, and write, without recourse to anything as human as doubt. Sadly, for Ms Gillard, the evidence tells a different story: a cursory glance at PISA scores since 2000 would show that Australian kids scored better before 2007, and the subsequent significant injection of cash. I’m no fan of PISA as an indicator of either educational competitiveness or student’s performance, but it’s frankly silly to link investment to attainment. Some countries do better on PISA, despite spending significantly less on education, than others. Australia, for instance, during the period 2000-2006 was one such example. And to claim that you are lifting standards ‘for every child in every school’ is to invite ridicule, which Mr Donnelly duly provides, by pointing out that the educational gap between the richest and poorest kids has never been greater than it is right now.
Another key push of the Gillard government has been the national literacy and numeracy strategy. A report published this week has provided more bad news for the premier. As the Sydney Morning Herald reports despite major investment there has been virtually no change in literacy and numeracy standards in the four years of NAPLAN measurements. Coming from the UK (where most of Australia’s Literacy and Numeracy Strategy seem to have been plagiarised), I’m not surprised. We’ve seen the same picture emerge there: despite massive government funding through top down strategies, improvements in reading, writing and maths, are negligible. Like Peter Drucker said, culture eats strategy for breakfast.
So, aside from inviting ridicule, what should politicians do to raise standards?
Personally, I’m convinced that the next country to rocket up the global performance indicator tables will preface their strategy for raising standards with the following ministerial speech:
‘Listen, we recognise that we politicians haven’t a clue what to do about improving student outcomes. The only time we visit schools is when we have a policy to push, and we never see what really goes on in the classroom when the cameras have stopped filming. And we know that when we say ‘evidence-based policy making’ what we really mean is ‘policy-based evidence making’ – rubbishing expert reports that don’t align with our political beliefs, and carefully selecting evidence that will support moves to recreate the schooling that we had as kids, because, well, it worked for us, didn’t it?’
‘So, in the absence of any strategy, other than talking tough, and throwing money at problems, we’re leaving it to the profession. That’s right, we’re de-politicizing teaching. We’ll still be responsible for some things, of course, since washing our hands completely would never get us elected. But we’re setting up a National Schools Institute and we’ll leave them alone – so long as results don’t get any worse, and hopefully get better. We realise that this might require trust, instead of accountability, but making teachers more and more accountable hasn’t provided much of a return on our investment, so what’s the worst that can happen?’
‘However, if we’re giving individual teachers the repsonsibility for transforming what goes on in classrooms (because we know that a lot of what we asked teachers to do has been disengaging our kids for decades) we’re going to need to stop classrooms from being enclosed, private spaces. Teachers will have to share what works, work alongside other teachers (and soon to-be teachers) and parents, so that best practices get scaled-up and worst practices get exposed. Teachers will have to be their own researchers into emerging approaches and innovations (including all that stuff with social media and computers) and will have a responsibility for staying up to date, like the medical profession do. Of course that means they’ll have to teach a bit less,but with all of the government apparatus we’re dismantling, we can easily afford that.’
OK, I know that I might have to wait a very long time to hear such a speech from a politician but, having seen and heard what happens when you take the shackles off teachers, and allow their passion for doing things differently take flight, I really do believe that de-politicisng schooling and de-privatising teaching are they only strategies that will really revolutionise education.