Saturday, 22 April 2017

Science labs in primary/elementary schools?

Science is an exciting subject but sometimes a little daunting for the generalist classroom primary/elementary school teachers.  In Australia some primary schools are dedicating a classroom to being a science lab.  This enables the teachers to have access to more resources.

Is this an effective use of learning space?  What do others think?  Is it widespread in the USA?

May the force be with you!


Monday, 10 April 2017

Compulsory testing for first year entrants to formal schooling

Some time ago I penned a post opposing this.  I am thrilled today to read that the following groups have come out in serious opposition to this Australian Federal Government trial of compulsory phonics testing:

  • 20 academics for four Western Australian universities;
  • The Australian Government Primary Principals Association; and
  • The deputy Executive Director of the Association of Independent Schools of Western Australia.

(Source:  Hiatt Bethany, "Academics reject test on phonics", The West Australian, 11 April, 2017, p14)

I gave my reasons in my previous post and which was a copy of a protest email to Simon Birmingham the Federal Minister for Education.  I received a reply largely explaining what I already knew.

As a Principal I would know that my teachers of these new school entrants would be diagnosing the children's English language skills when they entered school and on the basis of this diagnosis set the plans for moving the children forward.  Some new entrants will have comprehensive English language skills others will not.  Teachers know what to do, although one has to think that the Federal government has minimal confidence in the professional skills of Australia's teachers.

May the Force be with you!


Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Decided to reopen this blog as missing it already

Back again.  Can't help myself.  I say again that I just loved being a career school educator especially my time as a Principal.

Watch this space.

May the Force be with you!


Friday, 31 March 2017

Hope I have been helpful?

Just a farewell post as I am giving up this blog.  I am hanging on to my love of having been a school Principal, but in my now very senior years I have decided to let go.  One starts to become out of date and it is a task to keep up to date when you are no longer on the inside.  Not sad about this but just being realistic.

More time to play my guitar, fish and literally smell the roses.

I am lucky to be healthy and mobile and to have my mental faculties intact.  I say again I loved being a school principal and wish all my Principal colleagues out there all the best for the future.  Go for it.
Don't die wondering.  If you are careful nothing good or bad is likely to happen for you.

May the Force be with you!


Monday, 27 March 2017

Emergency: a student in trouble

How unsettling it was to have a mother and father relate to me the learning troubles of their year 3 boy in a Western Australian (WA) government primary school.  This occurred at a function we were attending.

This youngster has several learning issues such that each one is not sufficient on its own to diagnose that this is his key problem.  Hidden in there are autism, an inability to express in writing what he knows and major difficulty in learning to read.  He is to all intents a great little boy who is placed in a normal stream classroom.  He creates a major challenge for the teacher who has 27 others in her class. He has a special chair called a 'wobbly' so that he can accommodate his need to be in some sort of regular motion.  In short he can't sit still for long.  Apparently although I have not had time to check this there is an Education Department regulation that states he cannot be assessed for significant one on one Aide time until he is 8.  This means another 6 months of struggle.

In 2016 he had a teacher who was, according to the mother, managing his learning successfully.  His case was also being overseen by a Deputy Principal of the school.  Things were going reasonably well even though he almost certainly would have been better off with significant one on one Aide time.

In 2017 he has a new teacher and the mentor Deputy has left the school.  His new teacher is struggling to manage his situation and according to Mum has begun to brand him as naughty.  She makes him sit on a normal chair as punishment for his perceived naughtiness this removing the prop of his 'wobbly'.  The mother reported to me that from her inquiry his new teacher had not read the handover notes from the previous year, although I only have her word for this.  I know her and she is a pretty with it person.  Somehow no-one seems in 2017 to be managing his case as was the previous Deputy Principal.

The mother reported to me that her son is in a real flap because of the looming NAPLAN tests (...compulsory legislated testing of students in years 3, 7 and 9 in maths, literacy, science).  These tests are done right across all Australian primary and secondary schools and schools are judged to some extent on how well they are doing based on the NAPLAN results.  There is much concern out there on the air waves that these tests are like the tail wagging the dog for school Principals. Politicians are in a tizz about the results as they see Australian students slipping down the international comparison tables in literacy skills, maths and science.  It's a league tables' mentality.

At the same time as I was told about this lad another guest at the function I was attending had heard what was said by the mother.  This guest is a practising teacher in an independent private school and she related to me how her school was in training preparation for the coming NAPLAN tests.  This is part of the reason this testing program is so strongly criticised.  The test items are only now being based on the relatively new Australian National Curriculum : a step in the right direction in me view.  Prior to that they were based on criteria/standards agreed to by the States.  Schools should not have to do special preparation for these tests.  They should proceed as per normal with the students being given every opportunity to achieve the learning outcomes as in the prescribed curriculum.  The tests come along and the students do them without all this build up.  The results can be used to reset the learning directions for those who need this while this who do well just get on with it.

The young lad in question should not be made to do these tests and it is up to the school Principal to stand firm and report to the relevant authorities the few students who he deems should be exempt and for these reasons.  The lad could do the tests but it would require very skilled teachers to make him believe that they are not a big deal and just help the teacher to better assist him.

I advised the parents to go to the school Principal and discuss in a constructive way how someone should replace the previous Deputy mentor to get this boy's learning back on track. That they be given a plan and made to feel confident that the teacher could be advised and assisted how best to manage the lad's learning.  I advised no criticism of the teacher as she is under the pump with this lad.

The really tough one was my advice that they beg the Principal to bring on immediate comprehensive professional assessment for the lad so that he can be assigned significant one on one Aide time.  This would help the lad no end and assist the teacher to cope.  It is urgent and must be made to happen.  This is what being a Principal is all about. As a Principal in the Western Australian government school system at a time when the Central Department edicts reigned supreme across the vast state of WA it was refreshing how much the influence of me as the Principal could massage the Central Office to obtain what my school needed to be effective.  In these more recent times of many government schools being deemed as independent government schools the Principal's power for arguing the case against the stay of assessment for the lad in question should be stronger than in my day.

A small but true anecdote to lighten what is a very serious situation.  A colleague of mine who was Principal of a WA government primary school had requisitioned central Office for a hose but was getting nowhere with his request.  His response was to send in a requisition for an elephant.  He was later my Superintendent and carried out a triennial inspection of my school.  A daunting experience but in his hands a constructive exercise to enhance the effectiveness of my school.

May the Force be with that family and the school professionals.


Thursday, 23 March 2017

Science not sexy as student levels drop

The title of this post is the title of an article by Bethany Hiatt in the West Australian, 23 March, 2017, p18.  Bethany indicates from a National Science Statement released yesterday by the Federal Government "that the number of school students doing science and maths subjects has fallen to its lowest level in decades".

Bethany goes further:  "Participation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects in Australian schools is declining with enrolments in the subjects at the lowest level in 20 years."  She further reminds us of the fall in performance "in school-level scientific literacy and mathematics" relative to other countries and in absolute terms.

It is a dilemma in that applicants for jobs in these fields may not be there in the future.  Maybe the enrolments are down because students don't see the jobs out there.

The only sure way students could be coerced into taking the harder subjects is for states' legislation that schools had to narrow the options for upper school course selection.  With my faith in the ability of today's enlightened teachers of science, technology and mathematics I don't see the problem being one of ineffective teaching or poor curriculum design.  We have a relatively new and exciting Australian National Curriculum which looks pretty good to me from my sampling across subjects.

Bethany cites a former student scientist of the year pleading for the Government to do more to "raise the profile of science."  This ex student now a UWA molecular science researcher cites the high regard the community has for AFL players and says we need to celebrate our scientists accordingly.

The problem I see is that the demands of painstaking scientific research don't paint an enticing picture for science students wanting to go into the field.  I doubt that the fiscal returns would match what a lawyer could expect.  The dead ends of much research can be a major concern that far outweighs the rare eureka moments of a breakthrough.  I recall the pressure on the researcher who found the anti veneme for trapdoor spider bites and how his commitment to the task cost him his marriage.

It is probably beyond enthusiastic and innovative school Principals to find a solution to this issue, but I am sure they will weigh in with their best shot.

May the Force be with you!


Friday, 17 March 2017

More damaging reports about Australian school education

Oh dear, there it is another report showing Australian school students are falling behind in maths and science.  It's a bit worrying but rays of light at the end of the tunnel show another primary school devoting a room to science teaching.  Love this idea as it is too much of a challenge to have science taught in the general middle and upper primary classrooms.  A dedicated room allows the compilation of more resources at the ready as each teacher brings their class to the science room.

Even more worrying to me in this report is the evidence that poor classroom behaviour is contributing to the dilution of effective learning.  Adding to this worry is the revelation that the poor behaviour is more pronounced in schools servicing low socio-economic areas.  As an ex Superintendent of Schools for an area that contained large pockets of low socio economic communities I recall spates of poor behaviour in the schools but not to a level that we deemed affected the opportunities for the bulk of the students to learn in peaceful and safe environments.

Realistically school educators know that even one seriously disruptive student in a class can upset the learning environment for the other students, not to mention the stress for the teacher. Let me cite a couple of examples.  A middle primary classroom with a disruptive student (Bill) and a graduate teacher who was highly skilled.  She was at her wits end and was advised by a school psychologist to ring a small bell when Bill acted up so that everything could stop and be reset.  Not a practical suggestion in my view and on visiting the school I organised for Bill to be removed from the classroom and a more effective long term solution to be found.  Drastic you say but I could not countenance the rest of the students and that young teacher being subject to the daily stress of the bell caused by Bill's behaviour.  Across the senior high schools in my district several very badly behaved students had emerged and the schools were struggling to get on top of this.  Working with the Department of Community Welfare we found a venue and set up an alternative school location and model where these disruptive students could be helped to calm down and learn.  The aim was to return them to their high school as soon as possible. It worked to a degree but I was never happy sending those students away from their school.

While I supported and even initiated the removal of the disruptive students from the classrooms it was never my ideal solution. However I could not sit by and watch students who wanted to learn be penalised by the behaviour of a few nor could I accept that effective teachers had to daily come to work to be faced with these disruptive youngsters.

Recently on TV there was a series on a Secondary School (Kambrya College) that had set up a separate classroom for disruptive students.  The aim was always to return these students to the normal classes as soon as possible.  It was tough gig for the teacher who bravely took on this class but he succeeded against the odds.

Having written all of the above I wanted to state that I loathe the label 'low socio-economic' that is bandied around far too easily when it is a term that should be quarantined for use by academic sociologists.  It can affect teachers trying their best in schools that service these areas.  Almost without knowing a self fulfilling prophesy pressure can kick in.  This can manifest itself in accepting a lower standard for example of work presentation and even of mastery markers that indicate to the teacher that the student is ready for the next lot of new learning.  This is in no way a denigration of any teacher as it is very demanding working in schools with a large proportion of students, who because of their circumstances, commence formal school with less grounding than more fortunate peers.

I must also express my concern that politicians talk too readily about low socio-economic areas and at times in  respect of formal school learning.

Being retired from the business of principalship and superintendency I have more time to reflect.  I look back and recall in my district servicing many communities where the circumstances were not wealthy, that the children responded so positively to being part of school performances, concerts and the like.  There they were on stage being applauded for their efforts.  Their little faces were filled with joy.  I have also seen other evidence that students with learning difficulties respond well to being involved in performances.  I have come to a view that I would seriously explore, if back as a principal, using the performing arts as a powerful tool in bringing all students, even those prone to misbehaviour, into sync with their school community.  Rather than sending the disrupters off campus to some other opportunity I would love to have challenged myself to keep them on campus and to win them over through the performing arts.  Maybe I'm just getting too altruistic but I don't think so.

As principals we have the power to skew a timetable to give more time to programs that will benefit certain students.  This could be done with performing arts for the disrupters.  It would be great if the whole school benefited from more performing arts experiences so that the disrupters were part of the whole as well as spending extra time on performing arts work.  This does not mean less time for maths, science and English.  Time would have to be spirited away from some other programs, especially for the disrupters.

I could say a lot about the value of an emphasis on personal fitness programs as part of the school's Physical Education.  I have a strong feeling that the disrupters could be brought to value their school community more through this fitness focus.  There is a lot of maths and data management with computers as students keep tabs on their improving fitness levels.  For that matter there is a lot of organisational skilling and maths in setting up performing arts events as I would expect that part of student participation is in organising and running the performances.

In general nothing works better than well prepared teachers serving up exciting learning experiences for their students, however the reality is that there will always be the disrupters.

May the Force be with you!