Schools are for living
Ms Julie Boyd
New South Wales, Australia
Last night I had an hour-long conversation with my new Japanese daughter-in-law. Nothing particularly unusual about that now - but the way it happened would have been impossible when I started teaching. My daughter has very little English language but is learning fast. I am the same with Japanese. Using VOIP technology and a miniscule video camera, we can see each others' faces when we speak and the facial recognition is facilitating much faster learning for both of us.
My son is widely travelled and speaks six languages these days, while my new daughter has never been outside Japan, so she is delighting in my house and supermarket tours. Introducing her to everything from Tim Tams to my dog (her ‘fur brother', as she refers to him). I love the photos and videos of their adventures that she emails me from her camera. I tend to rely heavily on my electronic voice translator to help me learn dialects and have numerous language programs and conversations downloaded onto the miniscule iPod that sits beside me. This has something like a thousand times the space and speed of my first computer, which was unbelievably expensive and represented a huge breakthrough in technology at the time.
Our conversations are fairly protracted affairs, as we both need to think carefully about our new language words.
As a result of this experience, I was able to simultaneously provide online support to a Florida-based friend, whose multiple sclerosis makes typing difficult, so she has installed voice recognition software. This enables her to talk and respond to my typed concerns about her circumstances and she is able to feel loved and supported, despite the enormous geographic and physical barriers.
I had spent that morning coaching a number of colleagues in their endeavours to learn about trade options on the US and Australian stock markets, and the afternoon assisting in the planning of a ‘dying disgracefully' party for a cancer sufferer with little time to live. I also managed to fill some orders for my books, which came in yesterday; teach the local bank staff how to do an international financial transfer that works; talk to the teenager from next-door about his career plans (his only goal so far is to make lots of money!) and have a coaching session with a superintendent colleague who has major challenges with some staff. Not a lot of this was learned from my time at school!
Earlier I'd had a conversation with a young friend who is in the middle of her second teaching round, located at a school where I commenced my teaching career. I had ended up there after deciding that marine biology was not for me - despite my degree - and that I wanted to be a teacher. My young friend was highly amused, and both of us were rather disturbed to find that she had met up with a colleague who told her proudly that he was still using a lesson plan I'd shared with him all those years ago. Her comment ‘You had better handwriting back then!' before exclaiming, ‘What is he thinking? Doesn't he realise the world has changed since I was born!'
My life is not unusual by any way, shape or form, I don't believe, and it's certainly much quieter these days. However, it occurred to me that these events highlight several issues that I had hoped would be resolved in education, at least in my lifetime.
My thirty years in teaching, and many things educational, have been complemented by considerable travel. This and a variety of stints in a deliberately orchestrated broad range of careers, constantly gives me cause to reflect on what we mean by curriculum and what the purpose of schooling is now.
Schools these days are not just about readin', writin' and ‘really silly statements' Facilitating the learning of students to enable them to lead healthy, fulfilling and contributing lives, while optimising their potential in a contemporary world, is an enormous challenge. The embarrassing bleating of the Australian Federal Education Minister, Brendan Nelson, to ‘bring back the 3 Rs' is simplistic in the extreme. However, it does beg the question of what on earth we are doing in schools these days. It also highlights one of the dilemmas for educators that I had always hoped would always be resolved.
Literacy is not just about reading and writing but is also about basic, everyday and advanced multiple literacies (adapted from Phillip Gammage's work) in the true intent of the word. Learning to live goes way beyond this. I'm currently developing a framework for ‘Wealth Literacy', which takes the concept of wellness into fresh waters.
In one miniscule sense, Brendan Nelson is right. May I not be struck down by lightning for saying so! Yes, kids do need to be able to read, write, spell and add up. The problem is that's not all they need. The Minister does not go far enough, and is trying to drag us down a path that has not worked in other western countries, and seems to be such a blinkered view that it stifles the efforts of teachers to educate, rather than simply provide a skill set. The broad range of literacies, learning styles, modes of learning and what we know about learning and human beings is a century (literally) from what was known when I began my teaching career. The systemic problems, empire building, bureaucracy and political point-scoring remains to thwart the efforts of the brilliant teachers who do their very best to put young people at the forefront of any argument.
I fully acknowledge that there are fantastic teachers doing amazing work with students across Australia. I see some wonderful programs in place. However, the fragmented systemic approach to these is frustrating for both students and teachers. I also have a deep appreciation of the efforts made by teachers, schools and staff to address issues that become frustrated by the interference (as opposed to intervention) of others.
The issues mentioned below are a very brief attempt to outline some issues of ongoing concern and add to the continuing dialogue around an integral approach to education.
The Australian Federal Education Minister is right because there is often a tendency to polarise and ‘pendulumise' anything that happens in education. When the pendulum swings, there is an unfortunate proclivity to throw the baby out with the bathwater or discard all previous advances in order to implement the latest, often imported, model! As a result we see millions upon millions of dollars in funding being poured, literally down the drain, as educators are forced to lurch between polarities. We hear arguments about ‘whole language or phonics' as an example. Sorry guys, we need both! Instead of this polarisation, we would be much better served seeing everything as a continuum. Instead of concrete, representational or abstract concepts in maths, we need the lot. Imagine how differently we would deal with major elements of curriculum, such as the concepts, knowledge, skills, attitudes and usage (or aware use, tacit use and reflective use), brain-based and sensory learning, individual and collaborative learning, if we encompassed the continuums of issues, rather than retaining this commitment to polarity.
The constant admonishments of the greying/balding/blonde be-suited television news presenters, that ‘we need a new program in schools to deal with (‘insert society's latest challenges'; I imagine terrorism is next) is always a wonderful societal cop-out. Schools have been society's ‘kicking boy' for as long as I can remember and will probably remain so. When I first began teaching, the cry was ‘schools need to teach kids to swim'; then there was ‘bike education', and so on. Lately, it's been ‘Schools need to teach young people not to kill themselves on our roads'. Again, however, there is a point. There is always at least a glimmer of truth in criticism.
There is superfluous and indefensible content in our curricula, still, that is time-filling and unnecessary. The ‘grumpy old women' on television may consider it necessary for children to learn to be bored. I just don't believe school is the place for them to learn that particular skill. However, when asked why (insert ‘societies latest challenge' again) can't be taught in schools, I always politely ask the proponent what they would like taken out of the current curriculum to make room.
The issue of what content we need schools to deal with is huge now - a point our esteemed Education Minister appears to miss. When schools first started, their purpose was indeed to teach kids to read and write. Now, we are expected, as educators, to prepare young people to live in a society that many of us are struggling to comprehend, so fast is the speed of change. While I hate to acknowledge it, our ageing teacher population means that many of us are dreaming of slowing down, as speed of living for our children just keeps accelerating. With this in mind, however, I cannot believe that I have recently been in schools where there are still arguments about whether an additional hour of maths or English is necessary - with little time being devoted to the relevance of the content.
If schools are to remain relevant in a rapidly changing world, it behoves all educators, parents, and administrators to escalate the dialogue about what attitudes, skills and knowledge young people do need these days.
The following is an extremely brief summary of issues I have been discussing with educators for more than two decades. They were brought into focus by the conversations at the beginning of this paper. We are trying to make inroads into education but the constraints of ‘the system', whatever that is, and external forces, as well as internal issues (such as our profession's expertise at passive resistance), make it difficult to progress beyond the rhetoric.
Curriculum content inclusions
1. Changing world, language, culture, barrier-breaching, acceptance and tolerance.
2. Changing work, self-promotion, paid and unpaid work, multiple streams of income.
3. Self/other support, financial, emotional, spiritual, physical.
4. Resiliency/prevention strength, survival, support, contribution to others, society and the planet.
5. Learning, moving from information - knowledge - wisdom, continuous personal and professional improvement.
6. Systems thinking and systemic action.
7. Expanded learning environments.
8. School-work-higher learning.
9. Technology and its myriad challenges.
10. Useful assessments.
Professional maturity is not often a topic of conversation in educational circles. It is possible to have been teaching for three decades and still be operating at a very low level of maturity, in much the same way that it's possible for a 60-year-old to be as mature as a teenager. We need teachers who have a broad perspective on society. This is not intended as a criticism, rather as an observation. I do believe, after all these years, that it is very difficult to teach what we have not experienced. When I see the Supernanny who has never had children of her own, drop in on a family for a day, berate the parents and trot out her one child management strategy (‘the naughty step'), I am prone to scream at the television. When I see a former colleague who took a redundancy package, used the proceeds to open a restaurant that went bankrupt because he didn't know what he was doing, now teaching ‘business skills' to kids, I tear my hair out. That's not to say you can't teach at all if you haven't experienced, but you do have a very different perspective and often come across as naive or patronising.
If you've lived through difficult situations you have a different view on resiliency. If you've operated a (successful!) small business you understand that the theory of economics usually doesn't work in practice. If your children live in a single parent home, they need an opposite gender role model. If you've survived a near death experience you understand what's really important (and, believe me, rubrics and algebra aren't!) Again, I understand there are steps being taken to attract people into teaching from ‘other professions' but I wonder if this is more a response to impending teacher shortages than an acknowledgement of what these people can bring.
Personally I'd like to see a ban put on people going straight from school to university (possibly still living at home) and back to school. Let's aim to recruit people who have a bit of experience under their belts and can handle teenagers more effectively.
What teachers need today include:
- breadth and depth of a repertoire of strategies;
- capacity to match strategies/learning environments/curriculum/assessment;
- sophistication of own teaching frameworks;
- interest in/commitment to learning;
- understanding of own field and how it integrates with others;
- appropriate (age, developmental, type) use of technology;
- simultaneous technology /educational curriculum; and,
- self-preservation/wellness; and,
- personal/professional framework of education.
The role of schools
For more than 20 years, I've been running workshops on ‘teachers as facilitators of learning'. While I still believe that to be true, we need to expand the definition somewhat. In the early years of schooling kids need to work in small groups, pairs, and by themselves in order to learn to collaborate. They move from being dependent to independent. Early childhood teachers understand that. Their brain development will simply not let them move through the next stage in development of independence to interdependence until they are further up the primary school ladder and into middle school. Middle years teachers need to manage not only curriculum but egos, hormones and multiple other factors in order to achieve this. Facetiously, I would suggest all middle school teachers should be equipped with qualifications in a martial art as a useful management tool! Students at this level need space, support and encouragement to experience as many (productive and socially acceptable) learning opportunities as they can. I have long believed that middle schools would be better located either on remote mountain tops (although I guess there are precedents where this is not a good idea!) or in the community, with the students spending 50% or more of their time outside school with mentors. The role of their teachers would be to monitor their activities, their work ethics, their situational learning and to make modifications and suggestions, support and interventions as required and to process their learning. Not to provide them with content.
Then we come to senior high school and undergraduate qualifications. In my ideal world, senior high schools would be scrapped! From year 10 on, kids would either be employed or in the process of becoming employable. Studying to become a maths professor, or a ballerina, or an artist is becoming employable, as is studying to become a plumber. Learning to appreciate the global interdependence of medical research is as crucial as being able to install anti-virus software. Right now we have students coming out of high school and university who are not employable because they have no experience and are untested in the workplace, although there are some positive moves with various ‘streams' appearing in the Victorian education system to include the new (but apparently still limiting) VCAL (Victorian Certificate of Applied Learning). A case in point is the young woman practising to be a teacher in the earlier conversation. Case in point number two, 90% of her fellow graduates. Case in point number 3, the hundreds of kids now engaged in the plethora of forensic science courses at our universities (while the number of jobs hasn't increased at all) as a direct result of TV. Case in point number 4, a young woman I spoke with this morning who, at 21, has qualified as a financial adviser but who can't get a job. When she asked me why I simply told her- ‘I know you're a great kid but there's absolutely no way I'd trust you with a million dollar portfolio right now either, sorry'.
At the risk of sounding like a divorce counsellor, if we were to focus for a while on just what is best for the kids, rather than what is needed by universities and politicians, I wonder how different our conversations would be.
New challenges exist, not only the creation of curriculum for learning, but also the creation of curriculum to be delivered in a number of different ways, to accommodate multiple learning styles, intelligences, and levels of developmental appropriateness, across a variety of learning environments and formats. Further, with the plethora of information available (and growing) on the internet, discernment and selection of curriculum for effective learning is a new and challenging skill for teachers to learn.
We need a real curriculum that enables kids to flourish because of all of us, rather than in spite of some of us.
Ms Julie Boyd's career encompasses a broad range of professional roles. In addition to her time as a teacher (K-university), educational psychologist, principal, administrator, curriculum adviser and international consultant, she is also experienced as Managing Director, Entrepreneur of the Year, Australian Businesswomen's Hall of Fame inductee, educator, publisher, author, and stock market trader, among many other roles. Julie is currently integrating her many years of learning, teaching, health challenges and experience across multiple fields, to develop a new framework for life development called Wealth Literacy. Julie's current passion is this evolution of her prior work with anti-stress, resiliency, leadership and teaching/learning/curriculum consultancy. It is based on the concept of wealth as wellness in all of its senses - personal, professional and financial and is the culmination of knowledge gained through her own education and commitment to continuous learning, and her many years of learning, practice, experience and wisdom.
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