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 within 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!


Sunday, 5 March 2017

The 2017 School Year

Now that the Australian 2017 school year is well underway I wonder how my principal colleagues out there are getting on.

I'm too old now to get back into the game but I do miss it.  School Principal is one of the best jobs in the world.  Through principal leadership one sees the school grow and develop into a community concerned with staff and student wellbeing.  One sees it produce outstanding learning achievements in the student body.  One meets ex students who are still proud of the school community of which they were once a part.

Enjoy it my colleagues.

May the Force be with you!


Friday, 24 February 2017

New South Wales gets tough on high school graduation

I note that NSW is going to require demonstration of the ability to compose effective writing before they will issue the school graduation certificate.  Good on them as I predict that it will help these students in the big wide world beyond school.  One serious rider is consideration for those with complex language learning difficulties like dyslexia.

This toughening up will also affect science, mathematics and ancient history.  A bout of rigour has broken out.  Are we seeing one of those all too regular full circle manoeuvres from the NSW Ed Dept?  I hope the change innovators have thought it through and will implement it using a change process that teachers can identify with.  Over my years as an educator I have witnessed so much waste of resources fiscal and human in ill-conceived educational change.

May the Force be with you!


Sunday, 5 February 2017

Principal : educational leader

With Aussie schools now settling into routine you my colleague Principals are busy : an understatement.

If you lead a very large school, especially a secondary school or a K-12 school your administrative duties are legion.  I'm sure you have suitably delegated so that you have time each week to focus on the teaching and student learning programs and on the wellbeing of your staff and students.  Another vital weekly focus is to be on top of communications with the parents and/or guardians of your students. Even though you may have the good fortune to have a Curriculum Coordinator and Heads of Subject Departments, in the final analysis the buck stops with you if the students are not learning.

If you are Principal of a large primary school you will have deputies to help with the administrative load and to assist with curriculum co-ordination.  To have this latter role makes a Deputy's job really worthwhile.

You may be a Principal of a medium sized primary school or a small primary school where you also have some teaching to do.  These roles are some of the hardest in the Principal game.  Members of your staff team can rise to the occasion and provide leadership support in their particular areas of expertise.  Your admin clerical staff are vital for you to keep things running smoothly.

In very large complex schools it is easy for the Principal to become too far removed from the teaching and learning programs.  The most effective Principals in this situation know how to strike a balance such that they are successful delegators with an expectation that those to whom roles are delegated are clear on what is required and accept the responsibility to perform.  These Principals develop effective reporting back channels so that they are aware of how well each delegated person is performing, but they are not tempted to be too hands on and interfere with the role that has been delegated.

I am now a retired Principal and Superintendent of Schools and have time to reflect on this matter of delegation.  I say modestly that others have judged my roles as Principal and Superintendent to be pretty successful, but I know several areas where I could have done better and conserved energy to focus in a balanced way across my role.  I had a constant internal battle to not be too hands on and at times I failed in this respect.

There are three very small books that you might find helpful.  Don't be put off that they were published in the 1980s as they are still relevant if you find delegation difficult.   These works are:

  • Blanchard K & Johnson S, The One Minute Manager, Harper Collins, 1983.
  • Blanchard K & Lorber R, Putting The One Minute Manager to Work, Willow Books, 1984.
  • Blanchard K, Oncken Jr W & Burrows H, The One Minute Manager Meets the Monkey, Fontana Collins, 1990.

A reasonably fast reader would bowl them over in a night.

May there Force be with you.


Sunday, 29 January 2017

Compulsory testing for year 1 students

Email to Simon Birmingham Minister of Education
(Sent on 30/01/2017)

Minister I feel it important to establish my bona fides to say what I feel I need to:

I am a retired school principal of a K-12 school and concluded my career with 12 years as a Superintendent of Schools.  My career with the Eduction Department of WA and beyond covered some 40 years.  I have taught both at primary and secondary school levels. I am a Fellow of the Australian Council of Educational Leaders.

This compulsory testing idea will never work.  Effective teachers already take the little ones in and in two to three weeks by normal diagnostic processes work out the level of each child in basic mathematical and word knowledge.  From there in classes grouped heterogeneously by general ability you will find the teachers teaching to three groups for word knowledge and reading and often applying this also to mathematics.  Let me call the group with the least word knowledge the Leopards, the middle group the Jaguars and the group with the most knowledge the Panthers.  These effective teachers recognise that each child is at a stage of intellectual and social development based on all the factors that have affected there daily lives so far.  In a school district that I administered there were many low socio economic areas and the schools servicing these knew that the year 1 students were likely to lack a lot of word knowledge compared to students from higher socio economic areas. There were a lot of Leopards in the schools servicing the low socio economic areas.  These Leopards should never be treated as if they are behind and need too catch up.  They need to be taught at least in the english language and mathematics areas based on the principle of mastering the knowledge and processes needed for the new learning to come, the next step as it were. Many Leopards will take longer to move through the english language and mathematics syllabuses moving at a pace based on the mastery I have described. As they move through the junior primary years some of the work they will be doing in english language skills and mathematics will be at a year level below what their age grade suggests in relation to the year levels of the Australian National Curriculum.  They are not behind and should never be regarded as such.  Every piece of successful mastery is to be hailed as a giant step forward.  This is the reality on the ground.  Some Leopards may respond quickly and soon be at the required curriculum year level for their grade.  It’s not about students catching up. It is about basing new learning on the mastered building blocks needed for that new learning to have any chance of succeeding.

The problem for this mastery principle is that teachers naturally feel a pressure to have as many of their charges at the curriculum year levels normal for their grade.  NAPLAN requirements haven’t helped although I must say that as a Principal I would have been okay with NAPLAN.  Over the years Leopards have been moved on to new learning without the mastering the basic building blocks for the new learning to come.  We thus see secondary school students with poor literacy and numeracy skills.

To make the mastery principle work strong and innovative school Principals are needed to bring the parents and the politicians along with this process.  Such Principals will arrange in-service sessions for their teachers whereby the teachers are given time to discuss the prescribed syllabus outcomes for english language skills and mathematics and come to some agreement about what would indicate mastery of this or that learning outcome.  It appears to be a laborious process but it isn’t.  I’ve done it with teachers and in two days of intensive application they have worked their way through the prescribed syllabus learning outcomes for english language and mathematics agreeing on the meaning of each outcome and what would signify mastery of it.  When they go off to their classrooms they are on the same page. To make this work in a large primary school all the teachers of say the three year 4 classes group together for the discussion.  In smaller schools the groupings are the teachers of the junior primary years, of the middle primary years and of the senior primary years.  In general this could be deemed a standards setting in-service.  Another plus is that in such group discussions teachers learn a lot from one another about the learning experiences that work for students.

I plead with you to withdraw from the compulsory testing decision and let the Principals and their teachers do what they are trained to do.  If the process is right the results will take care of themselves as every good sporting coach knows.  Australia will move speedily up the international rankings if that is what you want.

I add this rider.  For a time phonics, which is the basis of word knowledge and spelling, fell into disrepute, but my reading suggests it is back and well.  Teachers are using it along with whole word recognition procedures.  Phonics will bite throughout the schools and Australia’s world rankings in english language skills will lift.  I do worry a little that contemporary young teachers who have grown up with the sound bites of modern communication may be a bit weak in sentence and paragraph construction.  If this is true this is easily remedied through more effective teacher training in our universities.  Rigour needs to be the catchword as the trainee teachers present their papers and assignments.  I have  proven on the ground that you can teach secondary students a simple process on how to write a good essay.

Minister, the compulsory testing idea will not achieve what you desire.  I know you are acting with the best of intentions to ensure our children can read, write and calculate but compulsory testing of the little ones is not the way.  I say with the greatest of respect that your decision could also be interpreted by hard working effective teachers and Principals as an insult to their professionalism.

There is lot more I could say especially about the pivotal role of the Principal and the movement to make government schools ‘independent’.

I will be disappointed Minister if your minders don’t let you actually read this email.

Bruce Lyons (BEd, BA, MEd: FACEL)

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

First Principalship

Oh boy what a feeling.  I'm the Principal and I need to develop a team to make it all happen for the students.  Its a bit daunting.

For what it is worth keep a cool considered head.  If you want to make changes to your school size up the current situation and consult widely with your staff members.  Teaching is a busy hands on job that does not benefit if the teachers become embroiled in too much and too rapid change. For a new Principal to sweep in and make many changes early in that Principalship is a recipe for disaster, unless you have inherited a school that is in a very sad way as far as school effectiveness is concerned.

A surfeit of enthusiasm from you can become misplaced if too intense.  Nonetheless expect a high level of enthusiasm across the staff team.

Convince your staff that teaching is a true profession and teach them what this means.

Look at your students and recognise that they enter your gate each day being who and what they are based on all the in-school and out-of-school experiences in their daily lives.  Be patient and analytical with students who struggle to manage school.  Find out what ails them and show them the joys and relevance of taking the current learning opportunities.  Let them know that they are respected in your school even loved and as part of this you are diagnosing the problem and seeking solutions.

The wellbeing of students, staff and parents is paramount in an effective school.  Measure it regularly and make adjustments if things get out of whack.

Good luck with your first principalship.

May the Force be with you!