“There is no shortage of challenges in school education”, writes Professor Geoff Masters (CEO of the Australian Council for Educational Research – ACER). He continues, to state that “some of the biggest challenges we face can appear frustratingly intractable. Despite reform efforts, regular government reviews and ongoing calls for change, progress in addressing our most significant challenges is often slow and solutions continue to elude us.’ Masters names his top five challenges for Australian schools and, at number one, he cites, ‘Equipping students for the 21st Century, including by increasing reading, mathematical and scientific literacy levels”. I agree.
It was less than two weeks ago that I addressed our whole Senior School over this precise issue. Importantly, Masters mentions “equipping students for the 21st Century, INCLUDING by increasing reading, mathematical and scientific literacy levels”, not at the expense of those important qualities of education. Hooray! At present, we seem to have two competing paradigms of education – one is the traditional literacy, numeracy and other core subjects, with traditional examination-style testing; the other is a rapidly emerging demand to increase the way in which our learners interact with their knowledge, substantially increasing the lateral thinking components of problem identification, progressive problem-solving, collaboration, testing prototypes and up-scaling ideas and expanding repertoires of developing and communicating. For the classroom teacher, it is becoming very difficult to teach to prepare students for traditional learning genres and to integrate more contemporary approaches, because so much of the imposed external assessment is for students to retain as much knowledge as they can, not so much how they use the knowledge in real-world situations. For us to prepare students in this regard, we must replicate much of this approach internally.
As an illustration of this predicament, a proposition was put to some senior high school students in the US – “Would you rather your teacher prepare you to ace the tests and get you into the tertiary study of your choice, or, would you rather your teacher prepare you authentically for real-world skills, capabilities and employment requirements?” The answer may not surprise you – this group chose the former and explained why in this short three minute clip, if you are interested:
It is disheartening to hear students only become interested in learning something if it is going to be in the test. It is a challenge for teachers to work beyond this thinking from students.
In the 1850s, around the time of the surge of the industrial revolution’s influence on a new way of educating students, the major skill taught in order to equip pupils was “to follow instructions”. This usually ensured young people exited the school system and were able to reproduce this in a particular skill, mostly in manufacturing areas. But today that is not enough, and employers, indeed our emerging global society, is demanding much more from our graduates. There is a call from some, including Dr Sugata Mitra, a highly regarded world leader and advocate for equitable access in technology to educate people in all societies, most well-known for his “hole in the wall” project and “school in the cloud” initiative, who has labelled our traditional approach a “ridiculous assessment system in its last stage”. This was after 3,000 tertiary students were being recalled to re-sit examinations in one institution overseas because a few students had tiny film cameras, embedded in their glasses, streaming outside the examination room, where others sent the correct answers back to the students’ smart-watches (and some paid a very hefty price for the benefit, purportedly US$24,000, so as to get into medical school, demonstrating the high stakes involved). The head of one of the UK examination boards (and he is not the first, or the only one) is calling for students to be able to access Google, with time restrictions, to respond to answers on suitably adjusted questions so that assessment becomes more about ‘understanding … rather than keeping all of that knowledge in your head, because that’s not how the modern world works’.
I have no doubt that schools must blend both of these requirements into one organic, naturalistic and seamless approach, and I am optimistic that this will occur over time. But, for now, we must be among the leaders in education in Australia and I believe we are emerging very much in this regard. We have preserved our traditional core NSW BOSTES-accredited curriculum and we are preparing students for these requirements, as SMGS always has, and this will continue to be the case. However, in 2016 we also undertook a commitment to better prepare students for the thinking and application skills being demanded in an emerging-knowledge economy. Our new program in the Senior School, The Academies of Excellence, is designed with a 21st Century approach in mind, so that our students have consistent exposure to some amazing and exciting opportunities that you and I never had at school. In upcoming editions of Aspects we will highlight some of the work planned and already occurring in a number of the academies for you to gain further insight into what we are doing. However, this approach is also being integrated into our Junior School and we will provide some examples of this work too, which includes the use of augmented reality in our Kindergarten/ Year 1 class, for instance.
We also have in place Strategic Focus Groups, which consist of our academic staff leading specialised areas in order to develop ongoing improvement within our whole school. For example, we have a development team leading literacy and numeracy improvement, with particular areas of focus, as well as a team developing areas mentioned in much of this article on innovation in technology and learning. Importantly, it is permeating through our staff body and will increasingly flow on to classroom experiences in a sustainable way. It is an imperative for schools always to look for opportunities to grow the quality of the learning and caring experience for students, particularly given that we are a smaller school – and we are very active in this regard. I am pleased that we have a staff who continue to embrace these needs for our students and are so willing to give additional time out of hours to work diligently on developing our approach. I am grateful to them all for their commitment to SMGS and, most importantly, to our students.
Masters, G.N. (2016). Five challenges in Australian school education. Policy Insights Issue 5. Camberwell, VIC: ACER.
BBC NEWS 10 May, 2016, retrieved at http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-36253769