I try to keep my blog pretty light and enjoyable, and I hope that this post is the same. However, by light and enjoyable, I do not mean uninformed. Many of my blog posts are informed by or directly drawn from my doctoral research, and also are based upon almost 20 years as an educator and a librarian working in a range of different settings.
This post, however does not focus on strategies or solutions, or on what I have discovered through my research. This post is me thinking aloud, and wondering if perhaps I am on the wrong track altogether.
Over the last few days I have been able to catch up on the first two episodes of Revolution School. Screened on our national broadcast channel, the ABC, the synopsis explains:
At a time when we are falling behind in the international education rankings, REVOLUTION SCHOOL tells the story of Kambrya College, a typical outer suburban high school in Melbourne. Kambrya struggles, but led by Principal Michael Muscat, it raises standards by applying cutting edge research developed by Professor John Hattie at the University of Melbourne’s Graduate School of Education.
Change is challenging and confronting for students and teachers alike, however by applying simple low cost ideas in the classroom Kambrya undergoes a dramatic transformation. Ultimately this is a lesson for all schools in Australia, identifying what they can do to improve standards at this critical time.
After watching the first two episodes, I am left with a deep admiration for the teachers of this school. I know (from experience) that these teachers are representative of almost all teachers working hard each day to support students in reaching their potential, in any way that they can. Teaching is hard work, and from the snapshots we see in this program, it is clear that sometimes, students (and parents) sometimes make it even harder. I think teachers are paid a reasonable wage. It’s not amazing, but it’s not terrible either. However, anyone who has worked with kids knows that it is draining – even on a good day – and no one would put themselves through the stress, physical, emotional and mental demands of a regular school day for the pay packet alone. It takes dedication, and a genuine concern for students and the community to do what these teachers in Revolution School and thousands of others do day after day, week after week.
Revolution School is largely a vehicle for demonstrating the research of Professor John Hattie. His work is somewhat controversial, however it is undeniably extensive. In a nutshell, the corpus of his research is a huge study called Visible Learning, where he synthesized over 800 meta-analyses, in order to identify what had the most impact on student learning. You can read all about this, and his other work on his website.
The second episode also focuses on the work of literacy consultant, Diane Snowball, as she introduces them to different strategies to improve the literacy of the students. One of these strategies is independent reading, where the students are given the opportunity to read silently for ten minutes at the beginning of a lesson (I am not sure if this is just the English lesson, or every lesson – I hope the latter, but think the former). The teachers are thrilled when students rapidly engage with this technique, and the absorption on their faces as they read tells the story. I did wonder why the books had to be taken from the library and placed in the classroom – surely borrowing from the library would assist in the management of the scheme, and connect students positive experiences of reading to the source of their joy – the library? However, it was terrific to see this happen.
The point of this post though is to share my uneasiness and confusion about the style of education the show has so far displayed. Please understand, this is not a critique – I am genuinely interested in what others feel. What I mean about the style of teaching is the amount of shots (almost all classroom shots) where the teacher is at the front of the classroom, either setting a task, writing on the board, or conducting a whole class activity. If you read my blog regularly, you know that I am studying personal learning networks for teachers’ professional learning, and this flows into what I believe about how we should be engaging our students, also. I cannot remember seeing any students collaborating, any class where students were working on a range of different tasks, or a great deal of creative inclusion of technology. I don’t see any construction material, any drawing, any sketchnoting. Nor do I see students working to solve authentic problems rather, or having class discussions or small group meetings. Some technology is used by the teachers to record lessons, Khan Academy style, and this is great, but a lot of what I see is what I would have seen back when I was in high school almost 25 years ago.
I realise that the show is not sharing everything that happens in every classroom. I am sure that the students access technology, and that some creative, connected learning is going on. I also know that when behaviour is an issue, it can be difficult to move beyond rigid, traditional chalk and talk. It is clear that for some of these students, the basics of literacy and numeracy are key, and for some, traditional teaching may be the best way to address these essential learnings. However, even in the extension classroom, the students were filmed merely completing what seemed to be a basic facts type drill. These kids are apparently bright, eager learners, who were bored in primary school – and although they are able to study at a faster pace, what and how they are studying does not seem very inspiring.
My quandry is that I know there is a lot of great stuff happening out there in schools. I see it every day, shared to my personal learning network by connected educators, who are pushing the boundaries of curriculum and are taking what they have and running with it. I know that there are pockets of amazing success stories, and places that don’t let the fear of change and the limits placed on them by budget, tradition and policy drag them down. However, the popular perception of what happens in schools will not change unless we share these stories too. Revolution School is (I am sure) doing amazing things to raise the awareness of the general public about just how hard teachers work, and just how dedicated they are to bringing about change. However it is only sharing one interpretation of revolution- it’s not a negative interpretation, but it does seem to be a fairly traditional one.
So if you are doing amazing, revolutionary things in your classroom or school, share!! Blog, Tweet and Facebook it! Spread the word about what you are doing, why you are doing it, and most importantly, how you are doing it. I am passionate in the belief that we need to rethink education on a major scale. If Australia’s test scores demonstrate that we are ‘failing’ why keep doing what we’ve always done (albeit in more targeted ways). Why not try some really different techniques? Or (do I dare say this?) perhaps consider that the tests no longer capture what we want for our students. I deeply believe in literacy and numeracy. I deeply believe that every student should be able to read and comprehend well, be numerate to the level that they want and need to interact successfully in society, and have the skills to take whatever knowledge they learn and apply it in a range of contexts. However, I also deeply believe that never before have we had the sum of almost all human knowledge at the tips of our fingers, or residing in our very pockets, and that this MUST change the way we think about learning, and therefore teaching.
So thank you Revolution School (AKA Kambrya College) for sharing the great work you are doing. Thank you to all teachers and school staff for the great work you do. But please – let’s all take stock and see how we can not only meet students’ needs today, but also for tomorrow. A future that will look nothing like what we had in the past.