"The current education system is like batter hen farming. We're too focused on the output."
- Peter Ellis
Disclosure: My attendance at FutureSchools 2017 was under a media pass provided by the organisers.
I entered the auditorium within which the Future Leaders stream was taking place to hear about the last five to ten minutes of Shane Spence's talk about video self-modelling. It sounded very intriguing. From the small snippet that I heard, the use of recorded videos modelling behaviour expectations for things like packing up, putting something away was having a significant amount of success in reducing negative behaviour and lost learning time, particularly for students who are diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder. The key point for me in the small segment that I heard was that showing a two minute video six times to a student struggling with some sort of behaviour yielded a far greater return than twelve minutes of any regular intervention.
It was also useful in those schools that had adopted the Positive Behaviour for Learning program as rather than simply showing or reading students a statement about what is expected, they can be shown a video, which can be much more explicit as students can see exactly what is expected in the particular scenario. A specific example he gave was a student struggling to put his tote tray away. The student was shown a video modelling how the tote tray should be put away and after watching it a several times, the student was able to put it away without any issues. I wish that I had caught all of Shane's presentation.
Peter was announced as the final speaker for the afternoon, which indicated that the final speaker per the agenda was not presenting for an unknown reason. Peter was speaking about disrupting the model of education by moving beyond student voice towards student empowerment and he began by telling the audience that "we are one of the most innovative schools in the world...self-labelled of course." Peter indicated that there is always a case for change but that engaging the community in the change process is critical. The current model of school has worked well for the last one hundred years because the career model over the last one hundred years needed the model. However, the career model for students no longer matches the school model which has created the current dissonance between school and careers that our students and industries are currently experiencing.
Peter told the audience that due to declining enrolment numbers and a poor reputation in the local community that his school had been to close. Twice. A new Principal and a new team (Peter did not actually specify which part of the staff he meant by this, but I imagine a combination of formal and informal leadership staff) created a new opportunity for change. Now, an unspecified period of time later, the school has restored its reputation, is growing with a current population of just over 1100 students and is maintaining good results in the Victorian Certificate of Excellence (VCE - the final set of exams in the Victorian K-12 education system). Additionally, there are now students running businesses alongside their studies, and doing well in both.
One of the key changes in the school that has lead to the turn around has been the desire to make school relevant again. This is one of the reasons for the change in decision making processes within the school. Now, the default setting for requests is yes. Unless there is a significant time, monetary cost or potential for a negative impact on others, the answer to requests is, and should be, yes. This is something that I find rather challenging to contemplate. My experience with schools' decision making is heavily typified with bureaucracy; the need for hoops to be jumped through, certain forms filled out in certain ways with particular types of additional information supplied. I can on the one hand see why this needs to be done, in an age where you need to cover your backside from a legal standpoint, however, how many great ideas never even see the light of day because whomever has had the idea knows that the hoop-jumping required to see the idea to fruition is too hard and to confusing to deal with?
The above tweet captured some of the beliefs about educations that Peter not only views as outdated, but that he questions as to why they are still considered normal in any way. The first dot point I can agree with. Teaching is about relationships and I have never understood why not smiling until some arbitrary point in the school year is remotely helpful to your practice. Personally, I do not have a poker face. I was that kid who would smile at inappropriate times out of nervousness, even when being told off for doing something wrong, and would therefore end up in more trouble because I apparently thought it was funny. Actually, I am still that kid, even as an adult. As an early career teacher, I have been given that piece of advice on numerous occasions. I cannot do it, it is not my personality to not smile.
I have to confess to not quite understanding the issue with the fifth dot point. I do not see that comment as an ownership statement, but as a relational statement. In 2016, I was offered a twelve-month contract to teach a Year Five and Six class for three days per week job-share arrangement. In term four, that became full-time as my job-share partner went on maternity leave. I already had a strong relationship with my class but that switch to full-time developed it further. It was the first class that I had taught for a full year, having been employed casually, or in an RFF / non-contact arrangement previously. At the end of the year we had a reflection conversation as a cohort, all of us, myself included, sitting in a circle on the floor.
I told them then that they would always be my students. Not because I owned them, but because they were the first class I had taught for a whole year, that we had developed a relationship with each other. I believe it was mutual, when I gathered them together (the now Year Six students anyway) and told them that I would be finishing up at the school that week they were gutted and there were tears. On my final day at school they all came to my room as soon as the bell went and wanted to say good bye, give me one last high five, a card they had made and some of them wanted hugs. Those were my students. Not because I own them, but because we have a relationship built on mutual trust and respect.
I disagree somewhat with some of the other dot points, however, that is the one I passionately disagreed with. Peter posted a list of current rules at his school; the student is in control, yes is the default, a strengths rather than deficit model, a one person policy (respect, first names, access to areas and facilities). Many of these I found myself nodding to, in particular the first name policy. I still do not quite understand why it is seen as respectful for the students to have to refer to Mr Teacher or Mrs Teacher, when we can refer to them Jane and John and I have written about this in the past.
Additionally, all students have access to to a kitchen. What message does it give, began Peter, when you have to wait until Year Twelve to be treated like a human? I do not have a problem with this. I remember wanting to take leftover dinner for lunch the next day at school but was unable to do so as there was nowhere to heat it up. Actually, even in Year Twelve I did not have access to a microwave or hot water. I do know schools who have a Year Twelve room with kitchen facilities, but my alma mater did not.
We were shown some more rules at the school:
Peter pointed out that students will keep learning past their schooling and we as teachers are just a small part of their education. The school therefore has students manage their own individual learning plans. Peter did not go into it, however, I hope that there is some education provided to students around how to develop and manage a learning plan on an ongoing basis. As a further extension to this, they have removed year levels which means that no-one necessarily knows what year another student is in, resulting in there being no stigma over needing or taking longer than the normal six years to complete your secondary education.
He then spoke about something that I am not familiar with, that they used a vertical system to eradicate bullying. I am not familiar with the vertical system and have not been able to find anything on Google, so if anyone could shed light on that, I would appreciate hearing from you.
The above is quite a drastic change for most teachers. One person responded to the photo by saying that if they turned up to an interview and there was a student on the panel that they would turn around and leave as they did not see what a student could have to offer or contribute to the panel and therefore having them there would be tokenistic. I can certainly understand that point of view, however, personally, I am not sure how I feel about it. It does make sense that students have an input into staffing in the school as the students are the ones who deal with the staff on a day to day basis, however, do they have to undergo the same training that staff and community members do in order to be on staff selection panels? Peter did not elucidate on that or in what capacity students are asked to be on the panels, how they choose which staff, or what role they are expected to play.
Peter began to wind down his presentation by talking about the businesses that students are running alongside their studies. He showed a list of some of the businesses they have seen come and go, but I did not manage to get a photo of it. Many of them seemed fairly straightforward, newspapers, journals, radio, coffee stands, however, they did have a snake breeding business in operation at one point, which was apparently quite profitable. Peter also said that where possible, they employ students into various roles such as Grounds keepers, administration, cleaners because they would rather employ a student internally than someone they do not know. He did add that they are demanding as employers and that they have fired students.
I can see the logic in this, giving students real-world experience, however, I cannot wrap my head around how it would work. Is there not a conflict of interest in being paid to do work in a school where you are currently enrolled and being taught? Or is that just my own imagination? I wonder what processes they would have had to go through to gain approval from the Victorian Department of Education for those arrangements.
Peter closed with two points. Firstly, that although they believe the education model is broken, it is not just them doing things similarly to this, there are other schools in the area doing things with their own students and with refugee students that are providing them with not just an education but an indication of what adult life is like. He also commented that we need to get out of students' way and remove barriers to learning, to "...stop saying "you have to do x before you can do y" in order to develop."
His presentation was a fantastically engaging and challenging way to finish FutureSchools 2017 and I am glad that I did come to the session. Jenny Luca, the chairperson for the Future Leaders stream closed the conference by thanking the speakers for their ideas, the delegates for sticking around for the final session and by confirming that FutureSchools will be in Melbourne again in 2018.
Thank you for reading, and if you have missed any of the articles in the FutureSchools 2017 series, you can find them here.