Greg Whitby is the only very senior educationalist that I know in NSW who regularly uses social media and blogging to highlight his educational beliefs and values. Greg has blogged, tweeted and generally participated in online discussions for as long as social media has been a concept. He is enthusiastic about technology or rather, how it can be employed to improve the cycle of teaching and learning. I always read his blog.

His recent post, The task of teaching, is not in any way controversial and posits what is contemporary educational orthodoxy in Australia. In fact, I have heard, read and written this kind of thing many times. Teachers, to summarise the post, need to move out of an industrial mindset and accept feedback about their practice as well as offering a solid cycle of assessment and feedback for students using data. Teachers need to innovate and change. They should be reading John Hattie, Andy Hargreaves and Dylan Wiliam. Mr Whitby concludes his post with: “All other professions seize the idea of obtaining data and feedback as critical to improving the work they do so why is it that some wish to see teaching locked into industrial thinking and processes?”

Who would argue with this?

The issue is that the systems these same teachers are employed to teach in are only dabbling with these concepts rather than really reforming the industrial model. Teachers are effectively “locked into industrial thinking and processes” by the nature of legislation, infrastructure, mandated syllabuses and prescribed hours.

My responses to Mr Whitby (although I encourage you to read his post) are below:


Your last sentence is right on the money. We certainly need a wider conversation than what is going on at the moment in journals, policy documents, conferences and social media. Encouraging diversity of opinions seems particularly important. Lots of forums/platforms but largely very few ideas that resound about what is important in the life of a child or school. I am pretty sure it is not testing or assessment. In fact, this is a huge part of the reason our culture struggles to think about learning and teaching positively.

I am not certain of the journal you are talking about; which article? but the obsession with tracking, testing, assessment, spreadsheets and business models that permeate educational leadership probably needs a few challenges to keep us honest. Would it be fair to say that much of this approach has de-motivated students and the teachers for no significant gain? The HSC, certainly the ATAR, assessment and exams regime, needs radical reform if it is to serve our state, nation and the individuals who endure it. Certainly, since the advent of outcomes – based education (and I was certainly part of the cheer squad) Australian educational rankings have plummeted. If we take a step back far enough from it all, what will researchers say in 100 years about schools in the first two decades of the 21st century? That we got it right? I don’t think so.
What would you do about the HSC examinations, ATAR and assessment?

Greg says:

Darcy, thanks for the comments. You asked what I would do about HSC and ATAR…the simple answer is get rid of them. They are an artefact of a world that doesn’t exist anymore and we need to be honest about that. As Dylan Wiliam says we have raised students to be hooked on grades rather than on the feedback to improve learning. Wiliam says assessment is valuable if it is used to adjust teaching and get students back on track.

My response:

Thanks for your reply Greg, there is no other answer other than one you have given. The system must change. The review of the HSC – with STEM in mind – will likely be mere fiddling around the edges and the examinations continue on regardless with the industry – tutoring, textbooks, selective school tests, NAPLAN etc. – that lives off this system, thriving.

Considering that legislation in NSW requires students are awarded A-E grades each semester, on a report that is published and distributed via paper, it is challenging to think that leaders are doing anything other that ‘talking the talk’ when such fundamental reform is needed. It is hard to have ‘bottom-up’ innovation when such core aspects of the daily routine are not being refomed by politicians or senior figures in education but teachers are bidden to work on what is effectively ‘busy work’.

None of the above should be an excuse that prevents innovative practice but the elephants in the rooms are so numerous it is hard not to be trampled.
I am writing a post that posits what needs to be done but have grown a little tired of our edu systems being weighed down by the lack of ability to reform in line with societal change and expectation. More importantly, our lack of imagination when there is so much opportunity to do really stunningly, engaging lessons that are genuinely personalised offering students chances to steer their own vessels far more often.

We also have a great need for traditional thinking that serves our civil society and engages students in authentic endeavour in their daily lives at school. Civics education, building personal resilience, cultural literacy and engaging in the life of a community are still fundamentally important to stop us fracturing along the fault-lines of class, ethnicity, religion and geography. It is, dare I say it, an exciting time to be an educator, especially if we would talk about what really matters and stop running the same old ball up into the same old line, expecting to breakthrough with serious political will from all concerned.

Maybe the students need to refuse to do the HSC anymore as it stands? That’s the only way I can see change happening as everyone at the top of our education and political systems has no vested interest in real change? This is a little too radical for me to consider but what would ensure change happened in a timely manner? Contributing to a consultation process? I don’t think so.

The future

What needs to done? Lots. What can be practically done which would free schools, principals and teachers to innovate and go some way towards removing the ‘industrial mindset’ Mr Whitby mentions?

flickr photo shared by NASA Goddard Photo and Video under a Creative Commons ( BY ) license

If you look at the combined documents that comprise educational guidelines, rules and syllabuses in NSW it would take some time to read them all. Practically, one can say that working on material for semester reports and preparing students for the HSC becomes a major focus for schools, teachers and students. How can we change that focus to create conditions that promote life-long learning and a more educated, happier populace?

Some this happens already of course but here are some thoughts (that need many more words and explanation than this brief blog post permits) that I would value your commentary on.

  1. Abolish the HSC and A-E semester reports and replace with assessment products from students housed at their own, ongoing website (folios) established on commencement in kindergarten. These can be assessed by teachers and have the benefit of being a record of student achievement that could be shared – as appropriate – with a variety of audiences including teachers, parents, schools, employers and universities. This is a more appropriate system for student reflection, feedback and data to be employed in an authentic manner.
  2. Personalise learning from kindergarten by privileging student choice and self-direction. Students should be be guided to pursue personal interests and be taught to ‘learn how to learn’ with a focus on becoming genuinely independent learners. It is essential that students are able to use powerful tools to pursue learning cooperatively in our highly connected world and are motivated to pursue their own learning. This should culminate in students being able to reflect on their own development, changing interests and learning.
  3. Personalising learning using data needs to start with the personal. Students need to be able to manage their health, wellbeing and resilience to deal successfully with the challenges of life. Mindfulness is currently in vogue (and has been for thousands of years in various guises) but should be explicitly taught from commencement of school. Having the opportunity to analyse personal genetic data – from an appropriate age – would currently be a controversial idea with privacy challenges – but is increasingly an obvious area that will become more of a focus in realistically managing our lives and wellbeing. Personalising learning needs to be useful and starting with self makes sense.
  4. Learning about the rights and responsibilities of the individual in a civil society must be more of a focus. Civics, citizenship and participating in a a democratic needs to be given more practical relevance from the earliest years. This includes philosophy, ethics, democracy, community participation and digital citizenship. Sustainability and our shared environment is important and students need to participate as citizen scientists to make their learning authentic.
  5. Educational models that integrate knowledge must be developed using technology to share with teachers and students. Teachers need to model learning, guiding students to appropriate learning materials and opportunities. A MOOC, like Big History, is a small example of what is possible with an integrated, holistic philosophy of learning where students learn about epistemology and interrogating how we know information to be worthwhile and relevant. Teachers should be able to support student learning using online courses and materials.

Stephen Downes’ recent presentation is really worth your time. I think it pertinent for all teachers and educational leaders. Downes concludes:

It is no longer enough to tell students what they need to know and how to learn about it, faculty must be part of this active learning process. In a rapidly changing environment, both teacher and student work and learn at the same time, and the role of the teacher is to be the role model for our students.

This is not a role we have always excelled at. Certainly our politicians, business leaders, and other officials have not excelled as role models. We, the teachers, must hold ourselves to much higher standards in the hope that they, eventually, will learn.

Greg Whitby, to his credit, has been modelling learning in a connected world way before it was fashionable in educational circles. The challenges of institutional change will require more than just the research of successful people within our institutions but a will to make significant changes, many of them more political than educational, if teachers are to be given an environment by the state that assists them to do the important task of teaching and provides contemporary ways of being for our young.

flickr photo shared by William M Ferriter under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC ) license

Why not establish a school that trials and models new ways of learning that takes a more organic, interdisciplinary approach to how we learn and interact and share what is learnt across our systems? What do you think?

Featured image: flickr photo by {Flixelpix} David https://flickr.com/photos/flixel/5650606090 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC) license



    • Victoria

    • 8 years ago

    Hi Darcy,

    I love the idea of digital folios from kindergarten as this gives a real record of achievement and learning for each student. The beauty of this type of system is that formative assessemnt is very easy to complete and the students see a purpose to all activities completed because there is a record of achievement for an authentic audience. I currently use the seesaw application with my year 7 English class and the ease of marking, breadth of work and contact with parents has made a huge improvement to the seriousness with which students approach class work. It also enables better assessemnt of students if/ when they happen to be absent for an assessemnt task and if their work from home ‘radically improves’ ipon that which had been completed in class. Again this is o my dabbling at the edges but it has certainly made by assessemnt and reporting is students more accurate and authentic than merely applying an A-E grade.

    I would love BOSTES/ (whichever other edu-body) applies to be brave to tell universities it’s their responsibility to develop entrance determination for their courses rather than relying on the HSC and ATAR. Perhaps then we could develop authentic senior courses which provide students with a real preparation for life begins school whether that’s further study or not.

    One can only hope and work hard to change minds.

    • Andrew FitzSimons

    • 8 years ago

    I broadly endorse the thrust of this discussion. But we somehow need to note/nurture/celebrate the other functions of schooling and schools, the HSC, etc.

    We have become a [for many, ‘the’] most important agent of socialisation and the HSC a rite of passage of great significance. Good learning can and does emerge from almost anywhere on the globe, but kids learning to ‘rub along’, lead, fail, face fear, enjoy, achieve, grow up, socialise, learn ‘grouping’ protocols, etc , etc in a nurturing, regulated space is also a key part of our rationale: though largely under theorised and acknowledged. This sense of belonging to an entity that is democratically engaged, creative, resilient, community embedded and here for the long term, can be an absolutely crucial element in developing and sustaining a sense of wellbeing.

    Dapto HS is doing its utmost to both improve learning outcomes in the ‘old’ paradigm and be an engaging, welcoming of diversity encouraging of serious effort, entity.

    • Paul

    • 8 years ago

    I may well need to return to this but a few ideas occur to me immediately. This idea of the school where learning is based on interest and not diktat is not new. In my early years it was Ivan Illych and, in my father’s, AS Neill and Summerhill. Each generation wants to change but there is so little movement. Teaching is a conservative profession but there are always peole who try something different. I was fortunate to be employed in one such a place early in my career and the impact was electric. I was able to add to that in a small way but never, since those days, has my ability to dictate what was taught and how/why been so great.

    We are all constrained as you say. I have no power over the basic outcomes of my work because my employer and the government lay down what is expected. The public expect it too. We measure what we value as they say. Let’s take that idea and run with it. Why do we love this industrial mindset? Where did it come from. I doubt many have heard of George Psacharopoulos and his founding work with the World Bank starting, if I recall aright, in the mid 1960s ( I was able to find an update of his work – http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/1981/01/1555808/returns-education-updated-international-comparison). Put simply, education is a cost because it produces nothing you can sell. The aim, therefore, is to produce each unit at minimal loss to the state. The class model is exactly that which is why it is so valuable. If we add the modern twist of the edu-business whereby we spend increasing sums buying professional development and buying in tests that just show us going downhill then we have a potent business model that demands we continue as we are. Much like the slimming industry, we continue to believe that we can get better using programmes that we know, ultimately, will fail the vast majority.

    What do we do? Tinker at the edges with new programmes and ideas? Yes, but it won’t solve the problem. Let’s start by tackling the very basic of educational economics that was based of a system of unit cost!

    • Bianca

    • 8 years ago

    I should really read your blog more, and my Facebook feed less, lol. This is great. Heaps to ponder… ha, or stress about (for me, the latter, of course). This edu problem (which, as you know, is one that I’ve been grappling with for a number of years now), has become much more immediate for me in the last couple of week when I discovered that my youngest didn’t make it into my selective high school. It’s really made me begin to question what it is I want out of the high school experience for my children, and given my eldest son’s experience, I know that what I want is for them NOT to go to high school. And there’s the rub. What can I do? I have to work, to earn money, to pay for stuff I’m supposed to need (or want?) and that means I can’t stay home and teach my kids my self, my way, the way that’s right for them.
    As a teacher I have been ‘tinkering around the edges with new programmes and ideas’ as Paul above said, and whilst it has resulted in (what I believe to be) some excellent learning experiences for myself and my students, it’s also almost always been related to some sort of ‘assessment’ that will inevitably be reflected in stupid paper reports. Some days I just want to throw my hands in the air and say ‘I’m out!’ and right now, being stuck in a state of flux regarding what next year holds for me and my sons… well, let’s just say my hands are up.
    Thanks for being brave, and writing this, and I’m sorry I don’t read your blog enough.

    • Jane Hunter

    • 8 years ago

    This is such a BIG conversation and it’s becoming more and more urgent.
    The elephants in the room must be addressed if we are to have a high school system that is fit for purpose in 2016 and into the future. Universities can lead this change by not NOT requiring ATAR entry – it is happening in pockets and there are other pathways but it’s not widespread enough.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *