I’ve been thinking for some time about what to write about for my 300th blog post. I wanted to make it about something close to my heart, something that tapped in to a long standing passion.
One area that I have been passionate about for a long time is my commitment to free and inclusive public school education in Australia. As an alumnus of the public education system I want to use this blog post to outline the main benefits I see in public schooling, and champion the teachers and students that work and learn together in these high quality institutions.
Ethics, values, and public schools
To say that public schools are lacking in values due to their secular nature is an abhorrent slur on the sector. However education commentators such as Kevin Donnelly will readily tell anyone that will listen that the lack of religion in public schools is a left-wing agenda designed to deny Australia’s heritage of Christian values.
My experience in public schools flies in the face of such assertions. In all schools I have worked and studied in there have been student-staff groups that meet to discuss or practice religion at lunchtimes and study breaks, and many schools continue to offer scripture sessions. I freely admit that my personal preference is for scripture to be taken out of school settings, but I respect the decision of school communities to offer the service where parents and/or students have expressed a desire for it to be in place.
For those like me that would rather see discussion of ethics and values occur in a broader context than the religious one, public schools promote this freedom. All schools will choose certain words or phrases to guide their students in fruitful directions – in my primary school the school crest offered ‘Honour and Service’ as a creed to focus the development of student values, and my high school offered ‘Loyalty, Sincerity, Generosity’, words that continue to frame my personal values in adult life.
In addition to these pithy creeds, public schools all offer codes of conduct, mission statements, and other means of imparting values to their students. And although the adequacy (and currency) of the National Values Education Framework is contestable, the ‘Nine Values for Australian Schooling‘ are in place as a shared set of values for all schools in Australia.
Of course, all school sectors utilise similar means of organising school life around shared values and I am not trying to claim here that public schools do it any better! I simply hope to speak against the myth that public schools are a ‘wild west’ of value-free behaviour and anti-establishment attitudes.
Public schools and diversity
One of the biggest things I think public schools have going for them is their remit to provide free education, and to provide it for all.
I realise this claim does not always translate into a level playing field at the school level. The operation of specialist schools and the efforts of families to move into the catchment areas of ‘more desirable’ public schools cannot be ignored. I am not so naive that I think all public schools are operating with equal resources – they are impacted significantly by factors such as the sociocultural background of their communities and geographic remoteness.
By and large, however, the public school sector is authentically committed to diversity. Not just diversity in terms of ethnicity, but also in terms of culture, sexuality and class.
You will not find a student that is gay being asked to leave a public school because they are not living ‘as God intended’.
You will not find a student that is poor turned away from a public school because they cannot pay the fees.
I struggle to understand how parents who send their children to private schools do not see that they are effectively paying to ‘opt out’ of diverse communities. I have fought long and hard with some of my close friends about this … at work however, I tend to invoke the ‘do not discuss politics at the dinner table’ rule. I will happily make my personal view known here, however: I think that propping up a system where richer families pay to quarantine their children from learning alongside others that are less like them, or less well resourced, is a blight on our nation.
Resources in public schools
One reason I have often heard cited for sending children to private schools is that they will ‘have more opportunities’ there.
And this may be true in some cases – your average local public school might not have an orchestra, or a swimming pool, or an annual school play (then again, they very well might – have you asked?).
But if they don’t have these things when you enrol, is this really the end of the world?
If your school doesn’t offer violin lessons, might it not teach your child resourcefulness to go and find somewhere that offers after-school classes?
If your school debating team doesn’t win many trophies, might this not teach them how to focus on personal bests and celebrate teamwork?
If your school doesn’t have a drama club, might your child not help to start one? Or maybe even you could lend a hand?
The attitude that the school must provide every opportunity imaginable to students strikes me as an arrangement where parents over-rely on a single institution to provide learning opportunities for their children. I much prefer an arrangement that is grounded in community efforts rather than provision of an exhaustive suite of culturally elite services to a ‘clientele’.
The notion that opportunity only exists where it can be bought is the myth I seek to bust here. If the (perhaps not-so-glossy?) brochure for your local public school doesn’t advertise a chess club, that doesn’t mean they don’t have one, or that they can’t start one.
Public schooling and future success
For those who assume that paying fees to a private school is a way of buying a student a ticket to future success, think again.
Barbara Preston from the University of Canberra recently discussed the findings of a number of studies that showed ‘State school kids do better at uni‘. This topic was also dealt with in a follow up piece by Jennifer Chesters from University of Canberra, who presented further data to demonstrate that ‘Private schooling has little long term pay-off‘.
Of course, the issue of future success has many other faces and is a more complex picture than that painted by test results and future earnings. One thing to keep in mind is that formal assessment and reporting can only ever show us part of the picture when it comes to learning and student outcomes. On the other hand, kids from public schools can face discrimination in the workplace when employers perceive a lack of social capital as a reason for passing over applicants from public schools (disregarding merit). My glasses aren’t so rose-coloured that I’ve never noticed the “old boys/old girls” phenomenon in play!
What I fear though, is that many middle class families are sending their children to private schools with the good intention of providing a ‘better’ education and an advantage when it comes to university entrance. Some parents report taking on second jobs just to pay for private school fees. Such families should be aware that there is no guarantee of getting bang for that buck. If it were me, I’d spend that money on a annual family trip abroad instead.
Why I will never work for a non-government school
In case anyone has gotten the wrong idea, can I pause here to say that I highly value the professionalism of my non-public sector colleagues. In the work I have done for the English Teachers Associations in NSW and Queensland I have had the pleasure of meeting English teachers from all sectors that have one thing in common – a desire to do right by their students and help their respective schools be the best they can be. In both my professional association and my research work, the resources that I create relating to curriculum, pedagogy, assessment and literacy are intended to benefit all teachers, not only those in public schools.
However … I could not ever, for any amount of money, work as a teacher or administrator in a private school.
This is due to the simple fact that I would rather contribute my labour to the public sector, where I believe the values of equity and social justice are most fully realised.
It is also because for every person who has anecdotally told me about the benefits of private school pastoral care programs, there has been another reporting stories of being bullied by their peers and/or forced to conform to hideous rules by their teachers. Anecdotes aren’t representative, and in my line of work, I’ve really heard them all. Sure, some public schools have issues. Let me assure you, so do some private schools!
My point here is: anyone who cares to argue that private schools are better because they can afford the best teachers, keep in mind that I am one of many teachers that are committed to remaining in public schools. If you’ve ever pictured public schools as a wasteland of second-rate teachers, you couldn’t be further from the truth.
Sure, maybe I’m wrong…
Earlier this week I broke my ‘no politics at the dinner table’ rule when colleagues brought up the question of where I would send my own kids. And I respect that one of these folks comes from a devout Catholic family and so will likely send his kid there. I concede that if, like another colleague, I have a child with special needs that cannot be accommodated in a public school then I will have to consider a private school alternative. And when one colleague raised the possibility that the entire school system is already irrevocably broken and that old notions of ‘what works’ may need to be discarded completely … well, that gave me pause for thought. But honestly, I do trust that the system that served me so well will serve my children well too.
Maybe I’m wrong to be loyal to any sector of a system that is so badly failing to innovate and change. Maybe politicians aren’t done propping up the private sector and the slide into a truly two-tier system of schooling is already inevitable.
For now though, I just can’t ignore what I know about the awesome work that happens in public schools, or the sense of responsibility I have to continue improving that system from within.
And for always I will remain proud to be a product of the public school system.
Happy 300th post to me :)
Choose your terms wisely. Alt title: How I am slowly eliminating the term ‘basic skills’ from my classroom
I’m half way through semester 1 and currently reading my students’ assignment 1 work. They had to tell me, with reference to personal experience as well as scholarly theory, what their philosophy is on English teaching and which pedagogical approach they find most relevant in 2014.
In the weeks leading up to the assignment due date I impressed this message upon them:
If you tell me that you advocate a ‘basic skills’ approach to teaching I will fail your paper.
Now, I wouldn’t seriously fail an assignment on the back of such a mistake (though I will ask students who make the mistake to meet with me and explain why they haven’t been in lectures!). But from what I’ve read so far, the scare tactic worked and the message has thankfully sunk in.
So this is how, one cohort at at time, I am slowly doing my bit to erase the misleading, poorly defined, often destructive term ‘basic skills’ from educational discourse.
Why do I bother with this?
I have a personal beef with the term ‘basic skills’ as it is an affront to the work of educators on many levels.
Firstly, there are the negative connotations of the term basic. If these skills are so basic, as in ‘boring’ or ‘unintriguing’, we should not be surprised that students don’t flock to master them. Nor should we expect teachers to employ pedagogies that drill students on them lest we run the risk of boring everyone to death.
Secondly, it belies the complex task of engaging students with learning in areas such as literacy or numeracy. If the job of teaching reading (for example) is so basic, then buddy, how about you come try it?
Thirdly, I find that when most people talk about basic skills, what they really mean to talk about is something like ‘key concepts’.
A prime example was seen today when national education correspondent Justine Ferrari (who should well and truly know the difference between knowledge and skills) wrote an article comparing how “key maths concepts” are taught in Australia compared to Singapore, then tweeted to publicise her article announcing that it was about ‘basic skills’. I would dismiss this as an honest mistake, except that Justine is no rookie and has been writing about education for years.
I tweeted back to let her know my thoughts:
Am I just being pedantic?
No, I don’t think so.
The terms we use to describe ideas MATTER.
As an English teacher, I know this. As a journalist, Justine knows this. But what I want so desperately is for all my students to know this too.
This semester I personally lecture and tutor all 110 students in English Curriculum Studies 1. They all have a sense that there are such things as ‘fundamental concepts’ (which relate to content knowledge) and they all wanted to advocate learning ‘skills that are important for life’. By taking the term basic skills away they were forced to articulate what it was they actually believed in. Was it literacy? If so, they were empowered to use the wealth of available theory on literate practices and multiliteracies. Was it life skills? If so, I directed them to the general capabilities in the Australian Curriculum, where they could find out about and debate the thing closest to ‘skills’ currently underpinning Australian schooling.
Good bye basic skills!
I know I can’t change the world over night. But I do hope that by banning the term basic skills from my own class that I at least give the 100+ students I teach each semester pause for thought.
My message to them: If you mean literacy or numeracy, then say so. And be ready to explain your definition of such terms.
I’ll end this post by sharing an answer that I gave one student a few weeks ago. She asked: what should we do when people insist on using the term ‘basic skills’? I suggested she might ask such people to list what those basic skills are. I already know from experience that most folks have no such list in mind (which begs the question – if the skills are so basic, why can’t you tell me what they are?). Instead they just have some washed-out notion in their heads that includes spelling and multiplication tables…and that’s about it. I also assured her that most people at dinner parties would be bored by the conversation by that point, so it’ll rarely come up ;)
Parent-teacher interviews are another story. A story for another time perhaps.
I want to post here two excellent images that I have come across to explain the various theories and concepts that can be drawn on in relation to learning and pedagogy.
The first is an image that I found via TeachThought (an excellent website – set aside a good hour to go and browse):
The image originally came from a 2008 post by Andrew Churches on edorigami, which also features diagrams explaining thinking skills, assessment and ‘fluency’. You can check that post out here: http://edorigami.edublogs.org/2008/08/16/21st-century-pedagogy/
The second image I am sharing here is this maaassssssive map of Learning Theory produced by the HoTEL project in the EU:
While all of the links made in the maps above are open to challenge and discussion, I really value them as texts! Both maps do a great job of visualising some of the theoretical complexity that sits behind education practice and decision making. I’ll definitely be sharing them with my pre-service teachers next year.
This semester I modified my unit planning assessment for CLP409 (Secondary English Curriculum Studies 2) based on the outline developed by Bianca Hewes. You can see the 40 fantastic project outlines by her fabulous #EDMT5500 students on her blog.
Bianca developed her ‘Inquire, Create, Share’ model for project-based learning (PBL) units after finding that planning PBL units needed to involve more visible teaching and explicit structure to ensure students learned required knowledge and collaboration skills.
As I see it, this approach is a variation of existing models that suggest units of work be designed around phases of ‘Orientate, Enhance, Synthesise’. These particular verbs are popular in Queensland Schools, and can be found as one of two recommended unit planning frameworks on the QSA website.
The two things that I love about the unit framework that Bianca has developed are:
- It provides a structure for PBL units that takes on the narrative flow I find so natural in teaching – there is a clear beginning, middle and end in these units.
- The shift in verbs used to drive learning activity is important; activities to ‘Orientate, Enhance and Synthesise’ could still be very teacher-centered but ‘Inquire, Create, Share’ and similar verbs deliver an imperative to engage student-centered learning and project sharing.
Following Bianca’s lead I am posting my Assignment Task Sheet here for all to see, and below you will find some of my students’ finished products, reproduced with their permission.
Please notice that I used the same Driving Question as Bianca, ‘How can I create a project for English that will help my students own their learning?’, and that I retained some of the structure of her original project as well. Some things I did a bit differently were: adding an essay writing component where students justified their choices using scholarly and professional literature; requiring students to refer to Australian Curriculum elements rather than ISTE NETS and professional standards; providing models of other assignments.
Of course, I could only provide my class with models of assignments because Bianca’s students had been willing to publicly share their work in the first place. So a big THANK YOU to those fabulous (and generous) #EDMT5500 students, and to the University of Sydney, for making their work available to the world :)
This week a former student of mine posted a link to a piece she had written for the University of Sydney student newspaper, Honi Soit. I read the story (feeling proud, impressed, and agreeing with her the whole time), and quickly asked if she would mind if I reposted the article here as a guest post on my blog.
Lauren checked with Honi, and Honi were fine with it (thanks editors!). Which makes me happy, because I think this story about the systematic exclusion of disadvantaged students from university is an important one to tell. As a ‘first in family’ university student from Sydney’s Southwest, I too have experienced the cultural and financial barriers to university success.
So here, with kind permission from the author, Lauren Pearce, and the original publisher, Honi Soit, is the article…
Christopher Pyne, equity goals, and the p-word
Lauren Pearce thinks those advocating to keep USYD “prestigious” often do little more than lock out the disadvantaged
by Lauren Pearce, published by Honi Soit on October 15, 2013.
I’m going to drop the p-word: prestigious. There’s really nothing wrong with that word. The only real issue is if you keep applying the word to yourself, justly or otherwise. Then you start to look like another p-word: pretentious.
On Thursday, 10 October Tony Abbott emerged in Melbourne to assure reporters the university reforms that Christopher Pyne announced earlier were to be put on a back-burner. These changes would mean a cap on university places as opposed to the “demand-driven system” currently in place and the axing of equity goals that encourage students from low-SES backgrounds to enroll, a move that Pyne stated would ensure quality but which had been criticised by the NTEU as detrimental to students from low-SES backgrounds and regional students.