“What works in Singapore, works because we are Singaporean.”
– Brett quoting a Singaporean Principal he worked under
Disclosure: My attendance at Education Nation (#EduNationAu) was through a media pass provided by the conference organisers.
As you read this, I would like you to consider what you believe the purpose and goal of the education system should be. I will openly admit that I am a conference junky. I have written previously about my love of conferences and being in the same room as those on the same page as yourself, however, I had forgotten how tiring, both mentally and physically, they are. I am sitting in my hotel room using my phone to hotspot so I can write this, with Pink Floyd playing, still buzzing from conversations I have had, connections I have made and people from my online professional learning network (PLN) that I have known for some time, but never met in person.
I am going to structure my Education Nation series of review articles slightly differently to review articles from previous conferences. Ordinarily, I would write the review of each session, weaving general feedback on the conference event as a whole throughout, as it fit the session. For this set of articles, I want to focus on the speaker and their message; and instead, will keep those overview reflections to a specific article, which will be the final article in the series, to act as a conclusion piece. If you have managed to miss the pre-Education Nation articles that I wrote, you can find those in a consolidated list of the articles for this event by clicking here.
As I wrote in a previous article, I had the opportunity, unlike most attendees, to move between the conference streams. My first session was a part of the Rethinking Reform stream and was Brett Salakas (@Mrsalakas) speaking under the title PISA Pipe Dreams. Brett opened by asking people to share what they were learning, questions, critiques and ideas via Twitter using the conference hashtag, #EduNationAu, which many people did. Brett then continued by telling us what he was not.
This was followed by a brief historical overview of PISA and its purpose, which he summarised as being a way of helping governments monitor education system achievements and the impacts of education. By giving all of the students, who are the same age, the same test, it sounds like it should be a good way of tracking trends and variances between countries. Yet, Brett says, it is actually that which makes it rather murky. Students sit a two-hour written test which covers scientific literacy, mathematics, reading and financial literacy.
What this means is that the state of our education system in comparison to other countries is based on a test which takes place once every three years, and allows students roughly thirty minutes for each of the four sections, which then packages the data up in neat statistical bundles which are then able to be misused and misrepresented in the media, creating a sense of fear and concern, and a backlash, against the state of the education system in Australia.
These headlines create this sense of worry about the state of our education system, the quality of our teachers and the worry about how we will remedy the situation. Often, it is easy to look to the leaders of the PISA results and ask the question “what are they doing? Let’s do that” and attempt to translate education policies and practices directly into the Australian context, without thinking through a range of issues that arise in doing so.
Brett then made the quote that I have included at the top of the article, which points out that we need to take into account the cultural context of what is happening and why it is working. Brett related that when he taught in Singapore the entire education system was streamed by ability groupings into the top, middle, and bottom third of academic results and students were taught and trained to perform to a high standard. Then he made a comment, told us about a standard practice which blew my mind and which would never happen here in Australia.
“My Year One ESL class in Singapore finished at nine pm on a Monday night.”
Stop and think about what that means for a moment.
Year One students, most of whom will be either six or seven years old, lining up waiting for their teacher to arrive, beginning class and then not finishing until a time when I would like to be in bed. Presumably, there is going to be a period of travel time before those children arrive at home, and then actually get to bed and then fall asleep. That practice would cause uproar and outrage if suggested here in Australia. We need to find a solution that works here, for us, in our context.
Brett continued by pointing out a few facts about PISA, which he made quite clear were all confirmable on the PISA website. He reminded us that this fear-mongering and panic is based upon, essentially, a thirty-minute test (for each subject area PISA concerns itself with) and that there are a number of factors in play that are not typically talked about. He spoke about research by Alma Harris (@AlmaHarris1) that indicated many Nordic countries exclude migrants and refugees from the PISA testing and that some research shows many Asian countries prepare their students for PISA in a period of time immediately beforehand, in an effort to boost their results.
An interesting point was then raised, which I ha not thought about, but which does make sense, which was that although the PISA tests are written in one language, they do need to be translated into a range of languages as required for each country. The very act of translating the questions can have an impact on the complexity of the question, from a cultural point of view, as well as an academic perspective.
The next issue is a phenomenon referred to as the Wild Geese of Korea, or, in Korean, Gireogi appa (literally ‘goose dad’), wherein Korean families are sending the mother and child to a Western country, to receive a Western education, perceived to be of a higher standard than a Korean education, whilst the father remains in Korea, in a small unit.The terminology applied within Korea regarding this is quite complex and structured. However, this phenomenon raises a very important question; what are the Koreans seeing about education in the Western countries, that we are not?
This segued into an amusing clip from the movie 300, the tale of King Leonidas of Spart and his eventual defeat during the Battle of Thermopylae. This clip, however, had the audio in French, with some clever subtitles. My thanks to Kelly Hollis for finding the original link
This clip was the entry point into a discussion about the attributes we actually would like to see developed in our students. Brett related an incident that occurred at his school during an athletics carnival; specifically, the Girls one hundred metre final, which would determine the age champion for that year. Brett spoke about two girls who, for their primary education, had ben the two standout athletes, sharing honours across athletics events each year, and that this would be the decider between them. It was a significant event, with lots of parents attending to watch, as happens at sports carnivals and both girls were taking it quite seriously, the eleven-year-old Olympics, as it were.
Only a short distance into the race, one of the two girls hurt herself, pulling a hamstring. Her rival had the advantage from the start and had pulled ahead and so was not aware of what had happened, however, the other girls all stopped to check and see if she was ok. Eventually, the leading girl realised something was not right and turned around to look. Upon seeing that her rival had stopped, injured, she made a choice. Instead of continuing to take the win and the title of age champion, she went back to her rival, her friend, and did what she could to help and show concern. Brett then made a poignant statement; “every parent there at that moment knew exactly, from what had happened, why they sent their daughter to this school. That choice, that act made it clear.”
The education system in Singapore and the other high-performing countries on PISA tests work in their context as there are specific attributes which are being looked for. We need to decide what attributes we want to see in our children. Conveniently, Brett had an Answergarden for us to indicate the attributes that we feel are important.
We need to stop cherry picking aspects of education systems from countries which obtain high results on PISA testing and have a real conversation about what we, as a nation, want for our students from out education system. The countries which perform, and have performed, highly on those international standardised testing have historically put educational policies in place many years before they have had their purple patch which has focused on enabling their goal for education to be achieved. Correct me if I am wrong, but I do not believe that there has ever been a national conversation in Australia about the purpose and goals of education and how we go about achieving those goals*. Many key attributes that show up on the word cloud above, resilience, collaboration, confidence, are, Brett says, nationally imbued and are seen as typical Aussie characteristics; mateship, innovation, a fair go etc.
“Don’t curse the darkness, be the light”
-Attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt
This quote was Brett’s final message. We need to act as beacons of light and positivity in education to stave off the darkness and the negativity, and connecting with other educators, those who are working to shine the light, is a fantastic way of helping to do that. Brett shared ten (it was actually twelve) educators who he sees as great educators to follow.
My key takeaway from Brett’s session was that we need to have the why and what conversation about education, and work to gain some sort of consensus about education’s goal in order to stop the cycle of ideological-based policies and provide some consistency of expectation and purpose. The over-reliance on PISA as a measure needs to be re-evaluated as well, as this feeds into the media fear-mongering about education and influences, negatively, the education conversation and perception.
What was your key takeaway from Brett’s keynote? What do you believe the purpose and goal of education should be in Australia? Let me know, either by commenting on this article or by tweeting me.
The next article in this Education Nation series will look at the presentation by Professor Geoff Masters (@GMastersACER).
As always, thank you for reading. IF you have missed any articles in this series, please click here.
*In the time since I published this article, I have been reminded of the 2008 Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians, which I had forgotten about. Whilst it does provide a potential launchpad for a national conversation about the purposes and goals of education, it was not, in itself, a national conversation, given that it came out of a meeting of politicians.
Disclosure: My attendance at Education Nation (#EduNationAu) in June is through a media pass provided by the conference organisers.
Education Nation is fast approaching, and this time next week, the final session of the conference will be concluding. One of the most hotly anticipated events of Education Nation is The Great Debate between Dr. David Zyngier (@dzyngier) and Dr. Kevin Donelly (@ESIAuatralia). Last week, I published an article from an interview with Dr. Zyngier, which was widely read. Dr. Zyngier is speaking on the side of public education at The Great Debate, and there are some strong arguments available for him to draw upon. This article will be an exploration of Dr. Donnelly’s responses to a series of questions similar to those presented to Dr. Zyngier. As with the previous interviews,
Dr. Donnelly provided a short summary of his stance on the issue of public versus private education. He posits that the claims that private schooling systems, e.g. Catholic and independent schools, are over-funded and cause residualisation of government schools, particularly those with disadvantaged students, is incorrect. He cites the simple fact that non-government schools receive significantly less public funding than government schools. For example, the below graph shows the relative expenditure across the two sectors and highlights the disparate nature of the level of public funding.
Dr. Donelly also decries the claim that private schools only achieve strong learning outcomes comparative to public schools because they take the best students, noting that public schools are not truly open to all. This is a valid point to make as there is a range of public schools, particularly secondary school, which are selective based on academic results, requiring a certain academic ability for enrolment into those schools, often requiring prospective students to sit an entrance exam. Additionally, Dr. Donnelly notes that many public schools are situated in suburbs which are classed as high socio-economic areas (SES) and are therefore unaffordable for many people. Linked to both arguments, Dr. Donnelly notes that the socio-economic status of a student’s family is only ten to eighteen percent of the overall factors influencing learning outcomes.
I have noted in previous articles in this series the recent discussions that have appeared in the media regarding teacher quality, and admission to and the quality of, initial teacher education (ITE) programs. Dr. Donnelly’s views on this are somewhat similar to Dr. Zyngier’s views. Dr. Donnelly cites Parsi Sahlberg (@pasi_sahlberg), a Finnish educational researcher who found that although half of the first-year ITE students are drawn from the fifty-one to eighty percent range, rendering the argument that pre-service teachers should be drawn from the academic top thirty percent, invalid. Sahlberg has also commented that “a good step forward would be to admit that the academically best students are not necessarily the best teachers.” Dr. Donnelly also notes a 2012 submission to a Commonwealth inquiry into teacher education by Professor Geoff Masters, who commented that restricting entry to ITE programs to top academic students “…is a blunt approach to improving the selection of teachers and falls well short of international best practice.”
In addition to discussing the prospect of restricting pre-service teachers to those with the top academic results, I asked Dr. Donnelly for his views about a different method of raising the expectations of ITE programs. In Finland, ITE programs are delivered at Masters level, rather than Undergraduate level here in Australia. He explained that research conducted by Andrew Leigh into effective teaching showed that holding a Masters degree does not necessarily equate to being an effective teacher, which seems to be consistent with Pas Sahlberg’s comment mentioned, regarding the fact that there is not a causal link between the academically best teachers and the most effective teachers.
Dr. Donnelly points to Pasi Sahlberg’s findings that a teacher’s commitment and ability to engage and motivate students, along with their communication skills and, of course, subject knowledge are more influential factors in identifying effective teachers. He also points to findings in the Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group report, Action Now: Classroom Ready Teachers, that the level of the degree, Bachelor or Masters, is not particularly important. What is important is the quality of the ITE program and whether trainee teachers have been properly prepared and are ready to begin teaching in a class on their own. I have written previously about my own ITE program, and I would agree that there is scope for improvement
After discussing the subject of ITE, the interview turned to Finland and our relationship and seeming obsession with modelling the Finnish educational model. Dr. Zyngier is critical of this obsession, noting that Finland’s results in PISA and TIMSS have been falling in recent years. Dr. Donnelly is also critical of the way that educationalists jump on the bandwagon of whichever country is generating the best results in international testing, which has moved between Singapore, Sweden, Finland and is currently Shanghai, particularly given that Finland’s results have been falling as shown in the below images from Trends in the Performance of the Top Performers on PISA 2003-Pisa 2012.
The above image shows that the number of Finnish students performing in the lower levels of PISA mathematics tests has increased significantly. It makes sense, therefore, that the number of Finnish students at the top end has fallen in the same period.
Dr. Donnelly, after acknowledging Finland’s falling results in recent instances of PISA, notes that translating educational characteristics of other countries can be very difficult due to the variation in contexts. This is an interesting comment, and one I look forward to hearing expanded upon further, particularly, I suspect in the presentation by Lila Mularczyk’ (@LilaMularczyk) on day two of Education Nation, where she is examining trends in international education policy and the translation to the Australian context. Dr. Donnelly reminds us that we can learn from international education systems, however, it needs to be evidence based.
Dr. Donnelly co-chaired the National Curriculum Review alongside Professor Kenneth Wiltshire. Given that the National Curriculum has not been implemented nationally I questioned whether or not a National Curriculum should have even been the goal for Australian education. Dr. Donnelly indicated that greater autonomy and flexibility at the local level, should have been the goal, not a one size fits all curriculum that has been torn apart and rebuilt to suit the needs of some states, and implemented as-is by others. Dr. Donnelly points out that under the Australian Constitution, the government does not have a responsibility for school education. Dr. Donnelly believes that “…we should abide by the fact that we have a federal system where all roads do not lead to Canberra.
Social media is playing an increasingly important role in the professional learning of teachers around the world. It is free, available at any time and on any range of topics, providing an alternative to the often expensive and/or boring and untargeted professional development sessions that teachers’ typically receive. Dr. Donnelly’s view is that whilst social media has a place, there is no substitute for providing teachers, particularly new-career teachers, with time to learn on the job, receive mentoring, and the time and ability to effectively reflect on and evaluate their own practice.
I asked Dr. Donnelly was his advice to early-career teachers that would help them avoid joining the forty percent of new teachers who are shown to leave the profession within their first five years. His advice was straightforward, yet challenging to implement:
Beware of education fads and do not be drowned in the bureaucratic and the time consuming micromanagement that is being forced on schools. Also, understand that student misbehaviour is on the increase and that a lot of students, especially at the primary school level, are unable to sit still, focus and concentrate for an extended period of time. Most importantly, realise and appreciate that being with young people is a great honour and responsibility, as there is noting more important than teaching – except being a parent.
When I interviewed Professor Masters early last month, I asked him about John Hattie’s comments regarding teachers as researchers and his sentiment was that it is unreasonable to expect teachers to be both highly trained and effective educators; and highly trained and effective educational researchers. It is reasonable, however, to expect teachers to be informed users of research evidence; evidence which should be a consideration for teachers when engaging in the informal research process of evaluative reflection upon their pedagogical practice.
I asked Dr. Donnelly for his views on Hattie’s comments, and he replied that the relationship between researchers in universities and ACER, and classroom teachers, has been fractured. Dr. Donnelly acknowledges that it has been some time since he has been a classroom teacher and that he would love to see the results of academic researchers in the classroom, attempting to implement the practices they promote in their research. He sees a strong connection between theory and practice and would argue that many teachers are capable of undertaking research, which would provide the benefit of the research being grounded in the realities of a classroom.
Dr. Donnelly presents some interesting arguments, and I very much look forward to hearing him speak in The Great Debate. Remember, you can submit your own questions for The Greate Debate by clicking here. If you have not yet registered for Education Nation then click here to register.
For the full list of articles in this series, please click here.